by Robert Pope
Denise and I found this little section of beach quite by accident, as it was blocked off from the touristy area by enormous light-colored rock formations. The only way in required a precarious climb over those rocks. When I arrived, I noted perhaps a dozen parties spread out on the beach, observing a modicum of social distancing those on the other side had abandoned. I expected to hear of another outbreak of the virus among those freer souls but felt safe laying my blanket on the sand at the furthest end of the sun worshippers.
Several attendees had brought with them colorful umbrellas, but most spread huge towels or blankets like my own, giving the beach an ambience of suppressed gaiety. I say suppressed because we all seemed to enjoy our own privacy as much as we appreciated the beach. Only a few children dug in the sand with shovels and buckets. What I desired of this brief respite was relief from the tension of my life and of what my wife and I had so recently gone through.
We had contracted the virus, and, in short, I left the hospital alone, leaving Denise behind physically though not emotionally. I had brought a tube apparatus with me, filled with her ashes to add them to the unique sand mixture of our beach, both black and white and gray particles which, studied individually, shined like polished glass.
I spread my blanket and sat cross-legged with the tube thingy in front of me. Best get rid of it now than belabor the business to death. I twisted off the cap and poured the crunchy remains beside my blanket, at which point I noticed an old man watching from an outspread towel. His appearance gave me quite a start, for in his face or head, and all through his body, arms and legs, chest and feet, his skeleton seemed to be emerging from his overly tanned skin. If the hairs of his head were numbered, as the Good Book says, it would not have been a lengthy task to count them.
‘A grim task there, I’m guessing,’ he said in a dry, scratchy voice.
He leaned toward me on one elbow, which gave a particularly unwholesome view of the stringy tendons and muscles that held his shoulder and arm together. He pointed with the long, boney index finger of his other hand at the tube in my hand.
‘Oh, yes,’ I said. ‘Afraid so.’
‘Who was it?’
I hesitated to reveal so much to this stranger but at last sighed and said, ‘Denise, my wife.’
‘And that’s all that’s left of her?’
I nodded somberly.
‘A pretty woman, was she?’
‘At one time,’ I told him. ‘At the end she looked so aged. Not much left, I’m afraid.’
‘Ashes to ashes,’ the old man said.
During this entire process, he watched me closely and concluded our brief discussion with the words, ‘Oh, well, life goes on.’ As this pronouncement hung in the air, he stood slowly, his bones moving like the appendages of some enormous bird, perhaps a great blue heron, and he proceeded to run down to the water with his towel waving behind, a grotesque spectacle which I am sorry to remember.
He ducked and feinted between vacationers, knocking the edge of one sizeable umbrella divided into slices of yellow and green so that it rolled off to one side, uncovering an elderly woman who shrieked at the sudden exposure. A younger woman leaped from the blanket to roll it back in place, so the shade once more fell over the hideous representation of a terrified human being I took either for her mother or some spiney sea creature.
I watched as the old man swam out further than I expected and turned to swim back, arms slapping the sluggish sea. He lumbered back up the beach, sea water pouring off him, dripping onto his own towel as he flung himself face down on it. I shivered a bit, though there was now no chill in the air to speak of, what with a warm sun beating down on us all. I rubbed sunblock on my nose, put on dark glasses, and donned an old fishing hat which always made Denise laugh. At this memory, I heard her laughter as I lay back on my blanket allowing thoughts to roam where they would.
I woke later from a dream in which Denise sat beside me, not on the blanket but on the sand where I had poured her ashes. When I sat up and took off my glasses, great bubbles or blobs of orange light rotated before my eyes. I dug around in my cooler until I found a bottle of spring water and downed several gulps in rapid succession, which had the effect of creating a great lump in my chest that refused to dissipate. My head ached with it as well.
Once more I heard Denise’s laughter beside me, and when I blinked my eyes open, I saw something I could not quite make out at first. Some white creature bobbed before me, and for a moment I imagined several seagulls, or one great one, biting chunks out of my neighbor as they devoured him.
To my relief, this hallucination passed as I identified a corpulent woman in a ridiculous two-piece bathing suit—blue with white polka dots—spreading several huge white towels where the old man had lain. Her flesh shifted as she sat down, great segments of her hips and thighs bulging at the sides. I wanted to look away from the enormous white bosom but found it impossible to do so. It was she laughing, with her brightly painted red lips. ‘I hope you don’t mind my camping here. I noticed you were sleeping and hoped I would not wake you.’
I wondered what the devil made her laugh the way she did, when I checked my bathing suit to find a portion of my private business peeked out the bottom. I reached down and covered myself, mumbling an apology. ‘Oh, don’t think of it. Nothing I haven’t seen before. I bathed my own boys for years, now grown men, but it’s all one to me.’
‘Thank you,’ I muttered, though the heat rushed to my face. There was entirely too much of her to take in at a single glimpse, a confusion of pale skin and rippling flesh turning red under the sun. She had several baskets laid out on her blanket, as well as what I took for an oversized purse, which she asked if I would watch while she took a dip.
‘Enjoy a swim, do you?’ I wondered out loud, somewhat surprised I had said what I did and not what I was thinking, which was more on the order of ‘Great God, how do you manage to keep that body of yours from sinking to the depths.’ I am afraid she heard both what I said and what I meant, for she elaborated that one advantage of being as fat—her word, mind you—as she was, her body floated like a cork. Nowhere else did she feel as much at home as in the water.
I watched her move down the beach rising and falling with each step. I stood to see over the people below, as I wanted to see her move into the surf. I quickly saw that she had told the truth, and with the slightest paddling of her arms, she twirled in the waves like a ballerina, with an expression on her face, if I do not mistake it, of pure bliss. She spun slowly out to sea, until I feared she might drift out so far that she would not be able to get back, but with the same circular movement, like a very slow child’s top, she came back toward the beach and sat in the surf allowing the water to rush over her legs and withdraw.
At some point along the way, I noticed that the children who had been working at the sand with shovel and pail had now buried what appeared to be a younger sister up to the neck, her tiny head protruding above the line of the beach. I have neglected to mention this, but as I watched the progress of my buoyant neighbor, I had spied two young women, not much more than girls, climbing over the rocks until they stood at the pinnacle, both in daring bikini bathing suits, the blonde in red, the brunette in blue. The blonde one held her hand at her forehead, shading her eyes, while the brunette stood with hands on her hips, surveying our beach, her hair lifting in the breeze.
After a moment, they began picking their precarious way down the rock face until they stood on the sand and walked toward the children I have mentioned, laughing at the small head protruding from the sand. This made the little girl who had been buried to her neck begin to cry. Though the surf was sluggish, and the seagulls calls few and distant, I could not hear the child’s sobs at first, yet a purposeful breeze carried the laughter of the girls toward me. Over the next few minutes, however, her sobs became screams of anger and anguish. It was clear to me she now wanted out of the sand, and, perhaps, to get at the two girls.
It was then I noticed two older boys, both in dark shorts that came to their knees, had shown up at the behest of what I had taken for the buried child’s siblings. My first thought was, they have seen the attractive girls and moved toward them with the goal of making their acquaintance. But then I saw that one of them had what appeared like nothing so much as a pistol in the hand that hung at his side. As these boys neared the young women, who I now judged might have been in their middle teens, the one without the pistol began shouting at them. The girls drew back a step or two and fell silent.
As the boys came closer, the girls began running back toward the rocks, and the boy with the pistol took what I assumed might be ‘pot shots’ at both, missing the girls, though not without some danger of ricochet off the rocks. I had an urge to help the girls, but I was in no position to come to their aid against a young man armed with a handgun. I had a great feeling of suspense, as I hoped the boy would not fire his weapon any closer to the girls than he already had. Three shots, I counted, and then he went to one knee, holding the pistol with both hands, whereupon he fired once more.
The brunette in the blue bathing suit suddenly spread her arms wide and went down on her face, from which position she no longer moved. The blonde in the red bikini seemed to have frozen in place, fists pressed into her cheeks, screaming so loudly and in such a piercing voice that all of us on the beach, those of us who had been wrapped in our own solitude and those engaged in a weekend picnic with the family, could not help but hear. Some few men stood and began running toward the boy, for which I emitted an expression of encouragement.
In a moment, three older men swarmed over the boy and held him beneath their hands and knees, pummeling his face with their fists. The other boy had taken to his heels when the men appeared on his flank, running in the direction of the blonde girl, who turned and fled. My assumption now became that the second fellow blamed the blonde for the havoc that had occurred which resulted in the attack on his friend. While surprisingly swift in her attempted escape, the blonde was soon overtaken by the boy who lunged at her feet, bringing her down easily. By this time, I saw that the brunette had stirred, turning onto her back, holding up one hand and crying out like a seagull.
No sooner did the boy have the blonde girl turned over beneath him, knees pressed to her shoulders, than several women, somewhere in their middle age, fell upon them, holding down the boy so the blonde girl could escape. Instead of fleeing, she ran to the side of her girlfriend and went to her knees, her arms around her friend’s neck. The entire beach had become a frenzy of activity, people in bathing suits aiding the men subduing the two boys or crowding around the two girls in their bikinis or digging the screaming child out of the sand.
Amid this activity, I saw the corpulent woman in the surf grab her head and begin screaming, almost as if the melee had spread to her the way a virus might spread from one person to another. I gave up this illusion when I saw what made her cry out as she did. At first, I thought a skeleton had washed onto the beach, brushing up against her, but I realized the old man next to whom I originally laid my blanket, and whose place the corpulent woman had taken, had gone for a final dip in the ocean and returned in a somewhat transformed condition.
When I ran down to their side, it appeared that what had begun had achieved completion: the old man’s flesh had receded to the point that his skeleton emerged. Suddenly, far from dead, he winked at me and snickered, taking her flesh in his hands, burying his face in her ample thigh, laughing in the shrill manner of a hysterical child. I noticed then that I carried the tube in which I had brought my wife’s ashes. Thus, I flung it out into the ocean, mouthing the words for only myself, and Denise, and God to hear, ‘Farewell, my dear, farewell.’
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well two collections of stories, Private Acts and Killers & Others (2020) and a chapbook of flash fiction, Shutterbug. He has also published stories in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.