Trout is five and has just yelled "Shark! Shark!" and it was an incident.
And I am wondering if there are laws about what you can say at the beach
like there are in crowded theaters and airports. He looks at me with long
eyelashes and perfect little teeth, tiny legs and arms like coiled springs.
He has a scar on his left nostril, a puncture wound from a dog bite that
glows red in the sun. I picture him putting his head in the Airedale's
mouth, an apprentice lion tamer, but he won't talk about it; "I don't want
to talk about it," he's said more than once on this trip.
"But I really thought there was," he maintains of the shark and nods his
head. His face is long as our afternoon shadows. He can't pronounce an "r"
and I wish they would do something about it. He jumps and stirs up the water
and I send him to his mother, my sister. People continue to glare at me like
he is mine and they hate me. I worry for Trout—for when they stop hating the
parent and simply hate him.
"Mom this beach is bankrupt," he repeats, splashing toward her; he says the
new word incorrectly, but with enthusiasm. I wait for the sand to settle and
the water to clear. He is right. We haven't found a single sand dollar
today. It is low tide and it seems that we could walk to the lighthouse on
I have a pair of paintings—one of which replicates this view of
the Whaleback Light, the other the Governor's mansion—each about the size
of a shoebox lid and dated 1878. This is my favorite location in the world
and I think about the artist painting that day and am pleased by the
continuity of our experience. The lighthouse canvas captures the period of
only six years when there were three towers—the old, the new, and the
cast iron fog signal house—clustered on the jagged ledge like barnacles;
only one remains. I've never seen a photo of the light when it was arranged
like this and believe none to exist. This is an affluent area and someone
would want these landscapes.
Along the shore the beach gives way to rocks marked "Private" with spray
paint and a house on a cliff that reminds me of Newport. It's on 25 acres.
The son of that family committed self-immolation when I was a boy and he was
a man. I watched him from my bedroom window in town. I spent a lot of time
looking out windows during that period of my childhood; it was just
something I did and he was something I was meant to see.
The image returns to me like a knothole bleeds through painted wood. His
long dark hair was slick with gas as he emptied the plastic container over
his head and down his arms and back. And he sat down in the street and went
up like a wicker chair. The fire leaped and licked, billowed ten feet in the
air. The flames were bright and bunched like marigolds. I squinted. In the
center of it I saw his head and chest, his face calm and without horror.
From my window I thought this is hell on earth.
We walked to grade school past the spot on the pavement. It was scorched and
blackened and sprawling, and hung above the tar like fog over water in the
early morning. The bravest among us didn't so much run over it as through
it, screaming. The first day I could smell gasoline. The second day someone
stood in the middle of it. Within a week the father paid the town to repave
I reach into the water past my elbow but it is not a bit of broken razor
clam. It is hard and solid, and curved, wide, as my fingertips
search for the edge beneath the sand. I reach deeper and my t-shirt is wet
at the waist. There is suction as I pull and when it is free I am
off-balance, left with the sensation of missing a step down on the stairs. A
moon snail shell fits my palm like a softball. It is alive and the enormous
foot of the snail pours and spreads from it wet and vaguely obscene, with
the springy consistency of canned pears. It does not retreat into its shell,
it lolls and I have difficulty processing what has happened.
A crowd gathers. Children gawk. People have their phones with them in the
water and they take photos. Some who glared now nod their approval. When the
crowd disperses I tell my sister: "I'm holding Nature. Nature."
I place the snail back in the water and Trout and I guard the location. We
wait for it to burrow. He is excited. His legs churn the water and it is too
cloudy to watch the moon snail disappear beneath the sand.
Russell Dame's fiction has appeared in Subtropics. He completed an MFA at the University of New
Hampshire this past spring.
Read his postcard.
Detail of photo on main page courtesy
of Thiago Fonseca.
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