The Seabird’s Cry

Written By: Lee Carlson

The morning rain had stopped. Pools of quiet water covered broad swaths of road winding to the town dump. I call it the dump, even though officially it is now a “transfer facility.” It is still a place where rusted pickups and family station wagons haul bags of garbage because they can’t—or won’t—pay to have a service pick up their refuse.

I backed my old SUV into a spot and opened the door, trying to avoid stepping in small piles of milk cartons, paper towels, used diapers and other detritus littering the ground. On the other side of the low concrete wall, oil-streaked yellow bulldozers pushed small mounds of trash into hills of human dross left to rot in the sun, filling nostrils with a sickly sweet odor of decay. Armies of seagulls picked through the offal, piercing the air with their cries.

For me, the dump has always been part of the charm of the Hamptons, a respite from the perfect restaurants, perfect advertising, perfect clothing and perfect lifestyles. It is a place where people still see firsthand the waste they produce: piles of glass bottles, brown hills of discarded cardboard, steel hoppers full of plastic jugs, bins of discarded newspapers, pallets of spent black car batteries, old refrigerators and air conditioners thrown atop one another like war corpses.

A handful of cars were already backed up to the wall. I thought I recognized a familiar car several spots down, but wasn’t certain, and in any event there was nothing I could do about it.

I walked around to open the rear hatch. Then I saw her standing at one end of the unloading area, clutching a small child in her left arm, the child’s legs splayed around her waist. With her right hand she gestured toward the giant yellow front-loaders that scurried from mountains of rubbish to waiting tractor trailers, their giant buckets dripping debris, while high-pitched beeping sounds warned humans to stay away. Her dark hair was pulled back in a bun. She wore no makeup, unusual for her, letting the plain beauty of her face shine through. She wore sandals and tight, short blue shorts, along with a close-fitting sunflower-colored tank top over her slight but curvy feminine frame. Small purplish veins ran like a roadmap down one leg, the only visible result of new motherhood.

My mind went back to a time at the beach three years before. She was standing on the sand, stunningly beautiful, in a bikini that showed off her body. She was watching the small terns and sanderlings running skittishly to and fro at the water’s edge, seemingly looking for something important in between the waves but never finding it. Much like her, I thought.

I had been lying on my towel gazing at her. Suddenly thousands of tiny, shimmering silver fish were tossed up on the beach by a large wave. The writhing piscine mass shone like a precious mantle covering the sand, sparkling in the sun. I had jumped off the towel and started scooping fish back into the sea. I looked up to see her staring at me quizzically.

“What are you doing?” she asked, “They’re just going to die anyway, you can’t save them all.”

I remembered the sense of disconnect; my wanting to save something, her not really caring. Was it her upbringing, I wondered? Her stiff-upper-lip British background? Did we come from different tribes, unable to bridge the gap? Or was she just focused on the superficial, not on the life beneath the surface? She was into clothes, shoes, fashion and fine food; her only charity-related activities were attending glittering Hamptons fund-raising cocktail parties.

Or was it simply the age-old divide between how men and women saw the world? It was moments like that one that had caused us to drift apart. My urges to save helpless sentient beings, her cool acceptance of how things were. Maybe I was the shallow one, I thought. Maybe I was the one lacking charity, judging her too harshly. I had wanted to love her, had started to love her, to care for her deeply, and then it all fell apart. It didn’t matter any more, I thought, bringing my mind back to the present moment.

She looked plainer than I remembered, but then she had always been good at appearances, at putting on just the right amount of makeup, just the right high-heeled boots, just the right faux-fur-trimmed vest. One time she had said, in her lilting English accent at a party where a man had hit on her, “Sometimes I wish I weren’t so boo-tiful.” I almost answered back, without thinking, “why would you wish that? That’s all you have.”

I grabbed a large bag of trash and with a pendulous swinging motion, like a professional wrestler throwing his opponent out of the ring, hurled the heavy burden over the low retaining wall into the maw below.

She had seen me, although she pretended not to. I decided it was foolish to pretend I hadn’t seen her. It felt dishonest. Besides, I thought, how absurd that two people shouldn’t be able to just say hello to each other, to live in the present moment instead of in the past.

I closed the rear hatch and started toward her.

“Hello,” I said.

“Oh, hi,” she responded, finally turning toward me.

“Is this your little one?”

“Yes, he likes to watch the trucks.”

“Little boys are always fascinated by machines; I don’t know why that is.”

Looking at the little boy, I remembered my favorite childhood books: “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel,” “The Little Engine That Could,” and “Are You My Mother?,” where a little bird flits from car to plane to steam shovel, mistaking each in turn for his lost mother.

“Yes, sometimes we come here just to watch,” she said. Her tone had an air of wistfulness, of resignation.

I remembered lying in bed with her one morning, spent and sweaty from making love. “What would you do if you got pregnant?” I asked.

“I’d abort it, of course.” She said, matter-of-factly.

I hadn’t said anything, taken aback by the quickness of her answer, by the casual, off-handed way in which she’d said it. She had told me that she couldn’t see herself being a mother, had no maternal instinct. I thought abortion was the kind of decision people would make together, the kind of decision that would take some serious soul-searching. But perhaps not, perhaps it was the sort of thing one just did and moved on, instead of being mired in a past full of regrets.

She threw me a quick sideways glance, then looked away again. I remembered how quick she had always been to laugh at parties, to use her deepest cockney accent to poke fun at me when I’d gotten too serious. I remembered the morning I’d looked past the laughter and the accent and the beauty and seen her with startling clarity. She’d been telling me about all the different men she’d dated, the two she’d married. I had the air knocked out of me as if punched in the chest. I’d jumped out of bed, hurriedly put on my clothes and left without saying a word.

She’d called me after I’d gotten home. “Is something the matter?”

“No,” I had lied,” I just realized I was late for a story deadline this morning.”

“Oh, ok,” she had said. But I was sure her woman’s intuition had sensed something more.

That had been the beginning of the end. I hadn’t really been surprised to hear that she had started dating a lawyer within days of our breakup, married him shortly thereafter and had a child. She was a chameleon; she changed her stripes to match whatever mate she was with. How sad to not know who you really were, I thought.

“Are you still teaching yoga?” I asked, suddenly feeling awkward, like a voyeur at a bedroom window.

“No, it was too much teaching all those hours with the little one,” She said.

“I’m sorry to hear that; I know you enjoyed it. Well, I have to get going.”

“Yes, nice seeing you,” she said

“Yes, you too.”

I turned and walked to my car. As I pulled out I glanced in my rear-view mirror. She stood, arm outstretched, pointing at a moving machine. She said something to her son, bouncing him on her hip. I looked out the windshield at the blue sky, the white fluffy clouds with grey underbellies that mimicked the plump white seagulls perched on the transfer station roof. New shoots of yellow-green spring grass covered the mounds of the old landfill. A light breeze ruffled a seagull’s grey flight feathers and I drove back the way I had come.