The sun stretched across the water like a calico, its claws raking across the boardwalk and its fur catching light at every crest. It yawned as the morning rose, opening its mouth wide to reveal a set of delicate teeth. The bulkhead was exposed as the tide shifted.
“Can I help you?”
Alan drew his gaze away from the bay window that stretched along the wall of the lobby. The man that spoke, the concierge, was tanned and tall with dark hair and eyes. He wore a white button-down and linen slacks, both of which were wrinkled. The man reminded Alan of a leather couch he had lived on throughout college.
“I need a room,” Alan said, pushing aside a large vase full of sea shells on the floor to make room for his duffle bag. He noticed that some of the shells were an unnatural pink and blue. He couldn’t imagine finding shells like this on the beach. He wondered about the people who worked at a sea shell factory. “Oceanside, please.”
He noticed that the floor of the lobby was tile except for patches of carpet that all of the wicker furniture sat on. There was a mosaic chandelier in the foyer made of red and blue sea glass and wrought iron. It didn’t match anything in the room. He noticed that too.
“215,” the concierge said, handing over an envelope with two key cards. Alan didn’t need both but put them in his wallet together and made his way upstairs. The elevator was made of startling glass, the kind that looked shattered but was solid. Petite lights surrounded him on all three sides with ambience. The floor numbers showed digital above the door. He watched the lobby’s tiles drop away from his feet as the ceiling grew closer and was glad his room was on the second floor. Any higher and he would have had to take the stairs from fear of free-falling to his death. A bell dinged as the doors opened and Alan walked the rest of the carpeted way to his room in thought.
Did you remember to turn down the heat in the house?
Did you leave the door key under the planter so that Ron could get in?
He fished one of the key cards from his pocket and dipped it into the slot. The light glowed red.
Will the cat tear up the furniture?
He imagined the arms and corners of the arms of his leather couch in shreds. He swiped the card again. Red.
Did you turn the alarm off?
Will the mousetraps catch any mice?
Red again. His hands became sweaty at the thought of having to return to the lobby to get another card.
Will the house crumble in on itself? Will the walls eat their corners?
It turned green after the fourth try and the door finally unlocked. Located in the southeast corned of the hotel, it had two walls of windows. Light greedily streamed in, eating up the dark. Alan squinted.
Why did you come to the beach?
What is the beach? What is sand? Do you like sand?
Under your fingernails? Why is sand so small? How can anything live in sand?
I hope you remembered to turn down the heat in the house.
The room had two beds. Two dressers. One desk with one Ethernet cable. He plugged in his computer and connected his phone to its charger and then tucked himself in between the articulate sheets of the bed. He fell into a shallow sleep with his head on the pillow that said firm and drifted off somewhere cold. Colder than the hotel room. Colder than the beach.
He dreamt of a river, except instead of water its current was made of marbles. He stood on the lawn listening to the crack of glass on glass and as he drew closer, the sound rattled inside of his head like pennies being poured into a jar. He covered his ears with his palms, shielding them from the sound of bones snapping. The river had arms. Its fingers wrapped around his ankles and pulled him from shore. He fought but could not trash the tide. Marbles poured into his mouth, filled up his stomach and lungs. They pushed into his spine, crushed his kneecaps and skull.
The noise from the boardwalk drifted through the window as the dark lifted its paws above the shoreline and beckoned Alan out of his dream and outside. He sat on the balcony watching the people below shift around each other. They reminded him of mice as they scurried around trashcans and the summer kiosks. They bought umbrellas and towels, fries with vinegar and taffy which they chewed roughly and picked from their teeth with their fingernails.
The mice-people passed through each other’s paths. A man ran into a woman. He apologized. She laughed. They separated. The human race was eating itself alive. Cannibalism, but instead of the flesh it was of something on the inside.
Alan ordered room service and watched TV as he waited for it to arrive. When the shows bored him he played Mahjong on his computer and when he couldn’t win, he gave up and laid down again. He awoke to some- one knocking on the door. He tipped the boy and ate his chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream in thought.
How many miles is it to the nearest grocery store?
You’ve never liked the beach.
Never liked anything that was too sweet.
Or anything bitter like lemons.
Cookie dough was neither. Or both.
The phone rang and it was his neighbor Ron. Alan didn’t remember leaving the name of his hotel. Didn’t remember leaving contact information at all. Ron had a wife, Margot, who was very good at snooping. She probably found him using the internet. Triangulated his cell phone. Hired a man to follow him.
“How’s the beach?” Ron asked.
Alan had only experienced the beach from his balcony.
“It’s nice. Busy.” He tapped the back of the phone with his finger.
“Have you come to any conclusions?”
Alan welcomed the image of Ron sitting at his kitchen counter surrounded by knives. He stood from the bed and started pacing the room, the cord of the phone wrapping around his feet.
“No,” he said. “I haven’t really thought about it.”
It, of course, being where he would go next, if he went anywhere besides back home to Bowling Green, Kentucky. He had a list of places taped on the mirror above the desk. He never felt the need to look at himself anyway.
Those were his options. He liked the idea of the southwest and northeast but those were far too complicated to write. So he kept it simple with the hopes that eventually he would get a sign as to where to travel next. Overseas was already crossed off because he was broke and east wasn’t on the list at all because he was already as far east as he could go.
“Well,” Ron sighed over the receiver, “call me when you’ve figured it out. If you want my opinion I’ll give it to you.”
Alan didn’t particularly want Ron’s opinion. Ron turned on the faucet to wash his hands which were sticky from peeling an orange. They both made grunting noises.
“If you want my opinion,” Ron continued as Alan knew he would. “Come home. What you’re doing doesn’t make any sense.”
Alan didn’t know what he was doing. Let alone whether or not it made sense. Last week he had packed a bag and took a train as close to the beach as he could. He hadn’t planned to actually see water, but when it hap- pened he decided he didn’t mind. He brought his work with him but forgot a bathing suit. The only thing he worried about was the cat.
He walked to the grocery store which was approximately two and a half miles north of the hotel. The majority of the walk he spent thinking, therefore he missed the fight outside of the dance club called Seacrets, the woman walking a rabid poodle, and most unfortunately, the beautiful couple who sat at the edge of the boardwalk with their feet dangling above the sand.
You need quarters to do laundry and to play the claw machine at the arcade.
(And a life philosophy that has a greater consistency than a sponge.)
The line at the counter was long despite the fact that it was late and Alan was contemplating leaving when he noticed a man being rung up at the register. He was a man with a wide smile and abnormally large canines. He placed toothpaste on the counter and began to dig in the pockets of his corduroys.
“That’ll be all,” he said as he threw a five down in front of him. “Keep the change.”
Little bells above the door tinkled as he left and Alan was budged forward in line by the woman behind him.
“He doesn’t like it when you stare,” she said, picking dirt out from under a long fingernail. She cracked her gum like a glow stick. “You must not be from around here.”
It was early summer, the time in which the beach was still only a plan for most people. Now the sand was dedicated to the summer-home people and the locals. This man with the large teeth and thin lips was a local, Alan suspected. He shifted his six pack of beer to his right hand and contemplated taking the extra blanket out of his closet at the hotel and having a picnic on the beach. He left the line to grab strawberries and a pre- made refrigerated bologna sandwich. After paying, he put them both in his backpack on top of the beer and made his way towards the hotel to get the blanket before heading back to the beach.
The sand was warm even though the sun was put to sleep by the moon hours ago. Alan waded through the tall grass that littered the dunes. He followed a wooden picket fence that ran parallel to the water until he reached a spot that was concealed by the dark. There was something comfortable about the area. Perhaps it was the hum of light from a mansion nearby that cascaded over the smoothest part of sand, or the birds that ran from the waves as they broke.
Alan unpacked his bag; first he unfolded the hotel blanket that was as fuzzy as lamb’s ear. The strawberries and bologna sandwich came next and finally the beer, but only one for now. The rest he left stacked in his pack.
The ocean is a rolling pin, flattening the sand like dough.
My feet are cookie cutters.
The dark is loud.
He ate the sandwich and the strawberries then drank his beers, one by one. As he lined the empty bottles up in the sand next to his bag with their caps piled atop each other like a pyramid, a voice from above called to someone. A name repeated again and again. Max. MAX. The name grew bigger and closer until it was just behind him and a figure stumbled out of an opening in the picket fence.
“For fuck’s sake. You scared me.” The figure was a woman but Alan couldn’t distinguish much else. She was nothing but a silhouette with the light behind her. Her voice was heavy like lead. She held something in her hand. A rope maybe, coiled in a knot. “Have you seen a dog? He came this way, I think.”
Alan had not seen a dog. He had seen many inanimate objects personified, like the way the grass waved to him like an old friend would, but he had certainly not seen a dog. He shook his head.
“No. No dog.” He became very aware of the way the scene looked. Empty beer bottles, empty plastic strawberry container with nothing but the stems left at the bottom. A rumpled hotel blanket strewn across the sand. He wished he had brought a flashlight or a metal detector. Anything to make him feel less foreign.
“Damn,” the woman said, dropping the leash to the ground and following after. She stretched out her legs and arms, opening her lungs to more air. “I have been looking for him all night. I figured I’d find him down here. This is where I always find him.”
Alan worried that he had scared the dog away with his presence.
“What kind of dog is he?” He didn’t know much about dogs. He knew about seven breeds by heart but they all slobbered and barked and that was enough for him to not like them.
“A Bernese mountain dog,” she moaned, before pulling a loose hair from her mouth.
This was one of the dogs he knew.
“How the hell did you lose that?”
The woman sat quietly in the sand next to his blanket, massaging the bottoms of her feet. Alan couldn’t tell if she was crying but feared sadness least of all of the emotions. He panicked at anger and defeat but could deal with sadness.
They sat in silence, he on the blanket and she next to it, guarded by six empty beer bottles and outlined by light until the light was turned off. It was getting late. The birds were gone. The ocean was letting the sand settle at its bottom. The water captured the moon and stretched it across its back like a calico tangled in a ball of yarn. The summer cat yawned again. The jetty purred.
Something down the beach growled and both Alan and the woman sat up to their knees to see over the grass. A monster bounded towards
There comes a time when all must end.
Silence, like a fire oxygenized, smolders before it explodes.
The woman took off down the beach, leaving the leash behind. Alan grabbed it, the blanket and his empty bag leaving the trash in the sand and chased after her. They both ran towards the dog and the dog ran towards them. And then the dog ran away from them. And then they were all running south along the beach, yells and barks alike piercing the air.
The chase ended when a fourth figure stepped onto the beach and towered above of the dog which halted and sat at the figure’s feet. They both waited for the woman and Alan to catch up.
Alan recognized the man right away as the man from the grocery store. His teeth seemed extraordinarily white and sharp. His jacket was leather and reflected the lights from the boardwalk. They had run several blocks down the beach, through a long stretch of private land and into the public expanse of shops and wooden piers. The tall grass and sand dunes had diminished altogether.
“Oh Christ,” panted the woman, taking the leash from Alan’s hand and putting it onto the dog. “Thanks John. Again. I can’t believe this keeps happening. It’s unbelievable.”
“You’re most welcome, Annette,” the man, John, said. He pressed his tongue against the back of his teeth when he smiled. “Again.”
He nodded at Alan and with that he lumbered away into the crowd that scuttled along the boardwalk. The two and the dog watched him disappear. Annette had to hold onto the leash with both hands as Max tried to follow along. Alan shifted his pack, concerned about the litter he had left behind when he had bolted away from his comfortable nook.
He began to feel homesick, as most travelers eventually do. He looked up at the signs that glowed in heaps of colors. The pink of the cotton candy reminded him of cherry blossoms, the blues of the backlights in the arcade were reminiscent of his childhood Schwinn. The smell of funnel cake, the thunder of feet on the wood, the faint moan of a street performer with an open guitar case in front of him. These things were magnets. He felt the pull in his gut.
“Thanks.” Annett was staring up at him. Standing next to her in light for the first time, he realized he was a good foot taller than her. He could see the sunburn on her shoulders had begun to peel. She had freckles, too, that lined her collarbone like constellations or confetti.
“You’re welcome.” He didn’t know what she was thanking him for but after she was gone he began to feel much lonelier. He sat at the edge of the boardwalk, where the beautiful couple had sat earlier with their legs slack above the sand. When the shop keepers began to close up, Alan went back to the hotel. He decided to wait out the sunset but ended up falling asleep in the chair on the balcony.
The next day the phone rang while he was working.
“Alan?” It was Ron again. The phone cord barely stretched to the desk. Alan sat in the rolling chair in the middle of the room. “I called you this morning.”
Alan had heard the phone ring from his perch on the balcony. In fact, the noise had woken him from a dream of a cat on the beach. In the dream it was winter. Snow had collected on the sand and ice had swollen in his beard. The snot in his nose kept freezing.
“I know,” he said, swiveling his chair. “I was doing some work.”
He didn’t mean to lie to Ron but the truth sounded more like a lie than the actual lie die. It was all very complicated.
“Alan,” Ron breathed heavily. “I’ve got some bad news.”
Bad news is good news wrapped in tabloids and given as a present on your 30th birthday.
“Alan. I can’t find your cat.” There was silence on both ends of the line. “I saw her last night when I locked up but this morning…I looked everywhere.”
“I’ve got to go,” Alan said. “I’m in the middle of something.”
He hung up the phone, swiveled his chair back to his desk, and continued working.
According to a brochure in the hotel lobby, there was a park a few miles inland of the beach. The pictures in the brochure were enough to entice Alan to go. There were willows that draped their tendrils to the ground. They reached to the tulips that sat below like empty water glasses at brunch. The grass, however, looked itchy. He decided to bring the blanket from the
beach along with him. He left it where he had put it last night; folded and full of sand in his pack.
“The gardens are exquisite just after spring,” said the tall man behind the counter in the lobby after Alan had asked for directions. He still wore wrinkled clothing but seemed a bit more tan than before. Alan imagined that there was a script the man had to memorize for the concierge job. He imagined it was long and boring. However, he went to the park even though he believed it wasn’t as eloquent as previously defined.
He was right. The pictures in the brochure were diamonds to the cubic zirconium of the park in reality. Everything was in bloom but it all drooped. The willows seemed more melancholy than usual. The tulips were spilling their water. The grass was flattened in places. Alan imagined this was due to other disappointed visitors who had decided to stay and tough it out by spreading their blankets and lying down.
“The trees aren’t so bad.” The voice called to him from above and to the right. Alan turned his head to a thick evergreen that was planted in between two gloomy willows. It stuck out like a sore thumb. “Up here.”
The voice waved a hand which could easily have been mistaken for a pigeon or squirrel. Alan walked towards the tree. To get to its trunk he had to tangle himself in the willows. They reminded him of beaded cur- tains. Once he climbed inside of the evergreen, he looked up. A young man sat about half way up where the branches grew thinner. His green flannel blended in with the pine needles.
“What are you doing?” Alan asked. The mulch around the tree was new and smelled like ass. “It smells like ass down here.”
“I’m climbing trees,” the young man called out.
When climbing trees is a good idea:
a.) When you’re a child.
b.) When you stumble upon a legless bear.
c.) When the rest of the park is shit.
“Because the rest of the park is shit.”
Alan nodded in agreement. He had the urge to join the man in the tree but quickly decided against it and chose the lowest branch of the tree instead. He didn’t want to smell like mulch all day. He pulled the blanket from his pack and it exploded with sand. He wrapped it around the branch and then straddled it with his back against the trunk. The man above rustled and then they both were still.
An hour later it began to rain. The young man with his green plaid clambered his way down through the needles. The way he slid from branch to branch reminded Alan of Plinko from The Price is Right.
“Gotta run,” the young man said. “I think I left the windows down in my car.”
The park was infinitely more boring once the young man was gone. It was his eyes that Alan was looking vicariously through. Now that he had left to go to his car, Alan was blind and the park was especially saggy. Everything, including the bottoms of Alan’s pants, was wet. He waited for the rain to stop before heading back to the hotel. He went to sleep that night thinking of what kind of poetry willows would write if they could. Sonnets, he concluded. In cursive.
The next day Alan decided that he wanted to go to the beach early and stay there all day. He brought along a towel and another bologna sandwich from the grocery store. Once at the beach, he rented a nice folding chair and large blue umbrella and set up camp midway between the boardwalk and the water. The beach was particularly busy for nine in the morning. Several families had staked their claims of land, ready for the day. Many were letting their sunblock soak in before the sun was at its most powerful. They napped on their towels and let the sand heat up around them.
By two o’clock the sand was sweltering. People ran from the boardwalk straight to the water. The change from hot to cold shocked them and they screamed and kicked water up at each other, soaking their towels and beach hats which they had neglected to throw down in their pain.
Alan, who still didn’t have a bathing suit, remained under the shade of his umbrella, which uncovered his feet to the sunshine as the day went on. Later that night he would have to wet washcloths with cold water and wrap them around his toes, but for now he wasn’t concerned. For now, he watched others ramble around the beach. He liked the idea of having nothing to do but sit facing the ocean.
A group of college students sitting behind him engaged in interesting and loud conversation.
“I’ve been growing my beard out for about a month now.”
“Whose is better?”
“Depends. Jack’s is more robust but yours grows in appealing shapes.”
Alan turned and noticed that, indeed, Jack’s beard was more full-bodied. In fact, Jack’s hair was all over impressive. It started thick at his ankles and continued to the top of his head where it curled into and out of itself. Alan rubbed his hand over where he would grow a mustache if he could grow hair at all. He imagined himself with a beard and grunted at how foolish he would look with a fine head of blonde hair and scrappy, yellow fluff on his face.
“Beards are like clouds. You can make shapes out of them.”
Alan looked up. There were no clouds. He looked around. There were only a few beards on the beach. He decided to go for a walk even though the afternoon had long past. The sun was falling behind the tall hotels to his left and at his right the sky above the water began to vibrate a deep violet through which the stars punctured tiny holes.
Beards and clouds and stars are all alike, Alan decided.
People along the beach were shaking out their towels and stomping out their sand castles. The farther he walked the less familiar his surroundings looked until all of the sudden he saw six green beer bottles lined up in the sand in between two dunes. He turned and walked back, letting the sun plunge the rest of the way down to the west.
The sun is in a constant state of collapse.
It collapses over the oceans, mountains and sand.
It collapses into itself.
Origami paper with a hound’s-tooth pattern of light and shadows.
He left his rented blue umbrella and folding chair in their places and shook the sand and pine needles out of the hotel blanket. He walked barefoot down the boardwalk. His Birkenstocks rubbed his sunburned toes like sandpaper. He slept on top of the sheets in his room and when the burn began to throb, he wet a washcloth and laced it between his toes. When he fell asleep, the washcloth got lost in the fray of sheets and left a wet spot on the bed.
The days following got as lost within time as the washcloth in the sheets. Alan confided in his room. It was there when he woke up and there when he went to bed. It listened to him snore and to the TV when it was on. There was a constant and gentle whir from the air conditioning. The door only opened for room service which he called for every meal. Alan
worked from his computer and refused to answer the phone when it rung. He was certain it was Ron, calling with more unfortunate news. He was probably correct with this assumption.
At night, Alan would sit on the balcony which was surrounded by white iron fencing, over which he hung the extra blanket, and was covered by a matching aluminum awning. The floor felt cruel to his sunburned feet. It was as rough as the bottom of a public pool.
Alan stared at the list he had taped to the mirror.
Close to the Canadian border, a cat stretched out on a train platform.
It mewed at the freights that thundered by and licked its fur with its stucco tongue.