We followed the birds down the beach like our father had taught us nearly three decades ago. I thought of my father. I thought of his hazel eyes and the familiar timbre of his voice when I found our dog, Wingo, on the cold floor of the garage. “Look at me,” my father said, “don’t cry. Don’t be afraid, all things die, we all do.” Hot tears poured from my eyes as I stood frozen. I was staring at the dog’s tongue, all white and stiff with his eyes wide open. He seemed to be staring ahead into the dark corners of the garage as if at any moment he might leap to his feet and bark at the shadowy footstep of the Great Divide between life and death.
“Come on you, slacker,” said my brother, Peter, reminding me we were here to catch fish. He left potholes in the sand with his every step. The busy bluefish crashed the surface of the ocean with their ugly mouths full of serrated teeth. Water and bait soared above the surface and once in a while a bluefish would take flight in pursuit. The busy clusters of birds working above the fray were so numerous that from a distance there was an ominous grey cloud.
A group of hopefuls had been walking with us, tall poles ready. I didn’t recognize a face among them until I saw our neighbor. We called him the Daytrader because he never left his house until the stock market closed. He was easy enough to recognize, since I’d always known him. The seasons of the sun changed in Amagansett but the Daytrader never seemed to. He lived across the street from us; watched my brother and I learn to ride bikes and waves. I wondered if he would recognize me now. Probably not, I was unrecognizable to myself most times. Chemotherapy left me feeling so paper-thin that I started to wonder if I’ve become invisible. I felt as if I was a shadow living inside a memory.
Some of the surfcasters had decided to turn back, losing hope of the fish ever making range. They were quickly being replaced by optimistic faces from down the broiling beach, coming through waves of heat, rising and shimmering.
“What are you grinning about? Peter asked.
“Oh, nothing,” I lied. I wasn’t ready to hear my big brother’s remarks. The truth was that the grin had appeared on its own. How could I deny a smile born from the great lengths surfcasters would go to chase the MAGIC? Perhaps we weren’t searching for the same kind of magic, who is to say anyone is? I hoped to find the healing kind of magic that would make the brain tumor in my head disappear as if it never existed, even if only for a short while. I would walk to the very end of this island for a chance to feel young again.
Pete was a ways ahead of me and started striding into the frothy remnants of the surf. He yelled over the waves, “There’s a sand bar!”
“I see it!” The schools of fish were simply too far beyond the reach of lures. Other surfcasters seemed to agree, following the birds, murmuring the inaudible things fishermen say – were they prayers? To whom or what, I could not say, nor did I speculate. We were all guilty of this from time to time. It was the wishful thinking of all men who fished the sea.
Pete believed that each cast could be something special. Each cast was a new chance. He stood atop the sandbar dangerously close to where the waves were crashing. He flung his rod in the air like flicking a switch. The whipping of the metal lure made the pole bend with an impossible force. So hard in fact that I feared the monofilament line would snap under the tremendous strain and we would lose the lure altogether. I was content to stand where the water disappeared at my feet, my legs felt like they were the only things keeping me down. I closed my eyes again and heard the voice of the ocean over all others. This moment felt like magic but yet I wondered why I wasn’t sweating? Suddenly, I felt a familiar chill, pouring fear into my heart as the voice inside my head became alarmed.
Are you here, Jim? Is it possible you’re not here at all? Shh, listen; underneath the ocean can you hear the beeping of a monitor? NO? Can you feel the warmth of the sun or taste the salt on your lips?
My mind raced around wildly, panicking. Yes, I thought, I can!
Could be a fever, could be a thirst. Maybe this is just where you’re happiest. You are happy here, aren’t you Jim? Why aren’t you sweating?
“YO, what are you doing?” my brother yelled as he left the ocean, the water draining fast from his shorts, making tracks through the sea foam on his legs.
I was so startled by the sound of his voice that it stole my breath and I found myself scarcely able to murmur a response. “Just resting my eyes a bit Pete, I’m tired, ya know?
“You were doing it again.”
“Talking to yourself,” he said. Then pursing his lips together he exhaled, making the familiar whistling sound that I knew was his sound for oooh boy, crazy! “Come on then, the winds are changing, they’ll be coming in now.”
“Ok,” I replied, before losing my balance and falling on the sand.
“WHOA, JIM, are you ok?” Pete called out, running back until he was standing over me, breathing heavily with his dark shadow beneath him. I could see them, our prints stretched down the shore, our evidence in the sand. The relief and silliness of it all made me curl up and start laughing until there were tears dotting the corners of my eyes.
“Are you OK?”
“Yes, yeah I’m fine. You go… go catch us fish.”
“What, come on…”
“No Pete, I’m too tired, go… really, I’ll sit right here and wait for you.” Reluctantly, he turned and continued the quest down the beach until he was no more than a speck in the distance.
With the light fading he returned, hitching a ride on the back of one of the surfcaster’s trucks. “Right here,” he said tapping the side of the truck. I waved to the driver, friendly enough to return the gesture. Pete hopped off to help me up, boosting me onto the rusty, old flatbed. “You just tap the side again when you guys want me to stop,” said the driver leaning out the window. Sitting on the flatbed, I admired the two bloodied bluefish with marble eyes that Pete caught. The eyes, those dead eyes returned me to thoughts again of Wingo and my father’s voice spoke once more, “Don’t be afraid, all things die…we all do,” in nothing more than a fleeting whisper.
“Nice, eh?” Pete asked.
“I’m glad the fish came in,” I managed to reply before the truck started with a jolt causing my brother to raise a nervous arm to ensure I would not fall off. I looked at him. Behind his hulking shoulders a pale moon was rising. “I’m alright now, Pete. I’m gonna be … ok.”
In the retreating light he managed to nod before seeming to shrink, dropping his head in his hands. The smoldering sun betrayed him, illuminating tears as they fell, filling them up with fire just before they disappeared into the darkness of the flatbed. I wanted to tell him I loved him; that our squabbles as children and differences as adults were nothing more than the insignificant small things in life, but the moment passed.
We sat together with the sounds of the Atlantic and the old pickup as it continued down the island. Our legs dangled, heels skimming over the sand as we had done when we were boys. I felt light and shaky in the waning magic of this place. The truck kicked up sand as it left pronounced tire tracks on the beach. In the middle of these were the remnants of our own. There was no mistaking Pete’s while my footprints were erratic and shallow. The waves of the sea had begun to lick them and the further we drove towards home, the more they seemed to melt and our marks grew even fainter still, until there was nothing. As if we had never been there at all.