Graveyard of the Atlantic
His wife was a poet who, in cruel and important ways, was becoming
lovelier and more gifted as she aged. She was close to fifty now,
her hair threaded with a tarnished silver that looked warm, unkempt,
in photographs. She was also thin, as whittled down as she'd ever
been, and so argumentative that her friends forgave her, thinking
it must be part of some performance she was putting on for herself.
He knew better. Something deep had taken hold of his Lucy, a grip
which felt relentless even to him. Each morning she set off on
her walk through the neighbor's fields limping with tension. He
followed her progress along the sun-spackled path, watched her
shrink to the size of his thumb, then disappear.
Eaten up with God. That's how she tried to describe it to him,
her eyes loden green in the lamplight of her study. She was being
called into a dialogue; the pressure within was as physical as
a tumor. "There's a fist there," she said. "Almost
an actual groping hand." He sat near her and responded with
soft, half-lidded eyes as she rarely wanted him to make a parade
of his own words.
"We could use the grant money. I've thought about going to
the mountains, someplace like the Sierra Nevada where the altitude
alone is a prayer. But it seems important-I don't know how yet-to
outsmart my beliefs. All of them. So it's the coast, I think.
A cottage near the ocean wouldn't be too Spartan for you, would
it? You'll be able to explore."
He packed a month later for Frisco, North Carolina, a tiny sprawl
south of Nags Head that had neither the glamour nor the isolation
he expected. Then again, he reminded himself, this was about Lucy's
expectations. She would begin a fourth book of poems down there
whether she actually spoke to God or not. So he boxed the Silverstone
pans she'd set on the counter though he predicted she'd have little
interest in cooking or eating. He zipped up a garment bag filled
with batik skirts she'd never wear. The books-St. Augustine, Jung,
an untranslated memoir of a French abbess, a much-thumbed Koran
lent by a friend-were only talismans and would be no more useful
to Lucy than shells on a string. She didn't read much when she
worked, especially when she was working well. He added a few books
They made love the night before they left, and Lucy was all angles
and impatience. She moved as though she was still sure of the
raw allure of her body, as though their well-worn affection did
not need to be coaxed or teased. The urgent pallor of her face
excited him, however. It was like coupling with a younger, wraithlike
Lucy he'd never known, and he was pleased with his own physical
greed. Afterward, as his body cooled and shrank back toward imperfection,
he watched his wife fall asleep. That was how it was with them,
he thought. Lucy was here, then gone, while he could always be
found in his watchful place.
They'd been together fifteen years. He'd been married briefly
when he was young and believed he was going to be a lawyer. When
it became clear he would take over the stamping plant his father
had founded in Waterbury, his wife left him for a sarcastic editor
of the law review. He worked, shed a few habits, met Lucy when
he was nearly forty. Her first husband had been a poet, and their
mutual misbehavior as partners produced animosity and a great
deal of writing, though only Lucy's poems had been much good.
The ex-husband, Mark, now taught at a small college in California,
a job he landed after he finally published a book. "You're
damn right I keep score," Lucy announced to her admirers
at a party for her third book, a volume she would later tell him,
her quiet husband, was calculated and weak-a charade in falsetto.
"Anger, deception, even stupidity-it's all nothing unless
you turn it into work." She enjoyed implying that her ex-husband
had designs but too little will, just as she enjoyed keeping the
anecdotes about their smash-up marriage alive.
They didn't talk much on the long drive south, ignoring even the
radio. Lucy was good-humored, calm. She wore her hair in a girlish
ponytail and insisted on eating breakfast biscuits at fast-food
restaurants as often as they could. "We'll move among the
people," she joked, slipping on an enormous pair of wrap-around
sunglasses that were a gift from a student. "Think of me
as Yoko Ono. Escort me like that."
The cottage was small but close to the ocean. Lucy wanted to unpack
by herself so after he opened the windows and whisked away a few
cobwebs, he stepped onto the windswept deck and watched two large
families straggle home from the beach. He cringed when he realized
they'd have neighbors who would laugh and quarrel in the heat,
who'd bathe cranky children in the outside shower stalls. Lucy
was used to silence. But the sight of exhausted, reddened bodies
pleased him a little, as well. Company would do him good; he'd
have a lot of time to himself. He remembered the last two hours
of their trip, how Lucy sped down the eroded coastline as though
the flat, sea-gray horizon needed to be pierced.
She chose the back bedroom for her own, squeezing a cheap end
table between two sets of bunks and calling it a desk. "I'll
squirrel away in here," she said, opening the blue curtains
decorated with golden anchors, then shutting them again. "A
child's room, stale with dreams. And with the blinds down I'll
be able to hear the ocean, just hear it." She seemed to anticipate
his objections to the lack of air and good light because she stepped
close and hugged him. "I'm happy, Rob," she said. "I
can't tell you what it means to leap in like this." He returned
the embrace, pressing her against his stomach until he felt her
slender bones flex. But he wasn't tender. Neither of them was.
On the continent's silty unseen shelf
Split hulls creak
And gather . . .
Lucy left their bed twice in the night. In the morning he showered
and ate a dry bagel for breakfast without knowing whether she
was in the cottage or not. He thought of her curled like a dried
wasp on the mattress of a bunk, he thought of her wandering in
the wilderness of her mind. Instead of settling into a deck chair
with the Truman biography and some coffee, he decided to make
a trip to the grocery store. He wasn't to follow Lucy down her
path, not out of concern or boredom-this was their unspoken pact.
He was to play beachcomber or birdwatcher or sluggish retiree.
Anything but her disciple.
The cashier at the store hardly looked at him. She slumped over
his purchases as though she was blind to new faces, had been drained
by them. There was a fishing store next door-the two businesses
were connected by a doorway-and he decided to go in. It looked
like a place where he could ask questions.
The floor of the Frisco Rod & Gun Shop was crowded with bristling
racks of fishing poles and glass-front cases of knives, diving
watches, and reels. Standing there with his grocery bags at rest
on his hips gave him the same feeling he'd had when he stepped
onto the floor of the plant. A good feeling, warm and hard beneath
his diaphragm. This was a serious, well-grounded place-a business
that knew its business-and he quickly decided he'd buy some tackle
or whatever for himself. It took him a moment to realize he'd
walked in on a fiercely whispered argument.
A boy in a baggy blue slicker was standing near the cash register,
his scabbed fist wrapped tight around a rod that was much taller
than he was. The boy had close-cropped hair and a skinny, crooked
face that seemed to splotch with humiliation as he listened to
the muscular young man who leaned from behind the counter. The
boy shook his head, dug his chin into his chest, then shook his
head again. The man, who was blond and bearded and stiff with
impatience, reached for the rod with an open hand. The boy jerked
it away and jammed it into a bucket filled with plastic sand spikes.
"You know I don't got the money," he wailed, kicking
at air with his shredded sneaker. "Damn you, anyhow."
And he ran from the store, coat flapping. Rob thought he could
smell the boy's fury in the braided scent of rubber and stale
french fries that roiled past him. He was also sure the boy had
looked at him before uttering his phlegmy curse.
The blond man made no apologies. He acted as if Rob was the first
customer of the day. "Set your things down. Look around.
Just let me know what I can do." The man rerolled the sleeves
of his plaid shirt above his elbows as he spoke, and Rob suddenly
felt dizzy with responsibility. The grocery bags slipped onto
his thighs, almost beyond control. "I've never been here,"
he said too loudly. "I'd like a lot of help."
When he stepped out the door a half-hour later, he carried a two-meter
rod and a reel, both rented, plus a gooey baggie filled with bloodworms.
Dan, the owner, had refused to sell him anything but the bait.
"Rent for a day, see if you like it. Try the pier maybe,
and high tide this evening. Most of those cottages have cleaning
tables and fillet knives if you need them."
He felt inflated, equipped for adventure, until he saw the boy
squatting near the edge of the parking lot. The boy stared at
him, half bored, half sullen, his astonishing coat now twisted
and knotted around his waist.
"You know, it doesn't cost much to get one of these,"
he said to the boy before he really thought about it. "It's
supposed to be a good time for flounder . . . I mean he, Dan,
said it was. I wouldn't know myself. I could lend you some money."
The boy barely changed his expression, only cracking his mouth,
and he saw now why the young face seemed crooked. The boy was
missing most of his back teeth on one side. "Naw," he
said. "Dan, there is my cousin. He'll lend me one after y'all
tourists are through. He does me like this all the time."
The boy paused to swallow some spit, then opened his jaws in an
exaggerated yawn. "I reckon the Lord forgives him even if
Rob worked his lips but the only sound he could manage was a retreating
hum. He walked carefully to the car where he laid the twitching
rod across the top of both seats. As he dropped the coagulating
bloodworms into a bag of warm groceries, he reminded himself that
he was committed to good sense. Lucy needed him; he was her anchor.
It wouldn't be a good idea to get too involved in anything while
he was down here.
. . . mast, scope,
Shell of cannon, shell of bone . . .
That night he retrieved Lucy from the beach. There was no moon,
but he was able to locate her with the help of a flashlight he
found in a closet. She was delighted to see him, breaking from
her statue pose near the foam-threaded surf to smile into his
eyes. "It draws us in, doesn't it. So massive and lunar.
I didn't want to stay away." He took her hand and led her
back across the vertebraed dunes, using the light to scatter the
dozens of pale ghost crabs that scuttled underfoot. The dampness
of Lucy's skin made him shiver. Later, after her shower, she propped
herself on the side of the bed that was closest to the sea. The
sliding glass door was open; the wind smelled of salt and
insistent storms. Lucy wore nothing but an oversized college sweatshirt
that belonged to him, and he watched the perfect furrows of her
wet hair leak onto the light fabric, staining it, drying. He wanted
her to stay with him, in that bed, until the sun lacquered the
water, but knew he couldn't ask for that. She spread her knees,
then placed her hands on them in the posture of an elderly bench-sitting
man. "Those crabs are fearless," she said. "Actually
unwitting. I stepped on a few of them. They create all that motion
in the dark, you know, but I couldn't sense it exactly, though
I was trying, wanting to. They pinched me. I crushed them. Instincts
worked and failed." She left him then, after a careful kiss
on his temple, that place so woven with nerves. The light burned
in her bedroom for hours.
If I could slink
Among wrecked keel and stern,
He got the car stuck less than a mile down the road to the point.
He'd let some air out of the tires to improve traction, but it
hadn't helped much. Every other vehicle he saw had four-wheel
drive, and he cursed his ignorance until he laughed. What difference
did it make? Someone would tow him back to solid ground when the
time came. He grabbed the duffle bag which contained a sandwich,
water, a compass, and a camera, then began to follow the rutted
road to Hatteras Inlet on foot. Fishermen passed by in their trucks.
He lifted a hand without making eye contact. The wind was steady
and bracing, and he became aware of the astringent rush of sand
past his ankles.
He'd come to see the site of Fort Hatteras and old Fort Clark
which had once stood across the inlet. There was a historical
marker near the ferry that mentioned them, and it intrigued him,
that solemn commemoration of a forgotten skirmish. The makeshift
forts had been poorly defended by the Rebels in 1861, but their
capture was the first in a series of successes for Union
General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside, he knew, eventually rose to
lead the Army of the Potomac, guiding it to a smashing defeat
at Fredricksburg. He'd always liked the idea that a person's history
could be mapped out along lines of success and failure. And he
believed it was important, sometimes, to locate even the most
blithe points of personal victory. They were easier to forget
than the failures. On this day, alone and focused, he wanted to
tread paths once trod by obscure boots. He would follow the trail
of good decisions. He veered off the road when he felt like it
and churned through the scorching sand to a low plait of dunes.
The morning light had gone silvery like the light that haunted
the curves of fine black and white photographs.
Nothing. That was exactly what he saw from higher ground, and
it was what he'd feared he'd find. There were people scattered
up and down the shore, most of them clumped shoulder to shoulder
on the point where the fishing was best. There was a small motorboat
just beyond the dark bottleneck of the inlet-he could see waves
exploding against the chevron of its bow. He wondered what that
was like, negotiating the bars and currents of an inlet that had
grounded ships for hundreds of years. This had always been the
most treacherous part of the Atlantic coast, defined by the rip
of the tides and the assault of the sky. There were no military
ruins here. In fact, there was nothing manmade in sight except
tire tracks and trash.
The heat rose in layers around him, distorting the landscape,
rippling. He imagined a crooked file of fly-ridden troopers, broiling
in blue wool, gun barrels untouchable. Beating double time
and struggling and stumbling and finally reaching the weak palisade
of Fort Hatteras from behind. It is no contest. The heavy guns
aimed at sea cannot turn on them.
As this vision smoldered, he thought of Lucy and how she wrought
words from what eluded her. An afternoon out here-searing, misguided,
all but fumbled away-would become a poem for her, a perfect distillation
of image and judgment, a revelation. Knowing this, he giant-stepped
to level ground, then marched toward the probing surf. His wife
knew who she was and what she was about more than he ever would.
He swung south when his shoes filled with water, determined to
circle back to his trapped car only after he'd passed behind every
fisherman-and fisherwoman-he could see. He suddenly needed to
peer over their bronzed shoulders, smell their bait, note the
brand of their beers. He wanted to hear them talk or, more likely,
hear them say nothing at all as they faced the task of the sea.
My love flails against the long-nailed pluck of the tide.
He returned to an empty house. The washer and dryer were running,
and the sheets on his bed had been changed. A once-bitten muffin
lay sideways on the countertop he'd wiped clean that morning.
These were Lucy's little admonitions-she liked things taken care
of. He made himself a glass of iced tea and sat to read about
the common life of a president, but couldn't concentrate. His
back muscles twinged, his stomach rolled. He finally crept down
the hall to Lucy's room where he dug into her jumbled boxes until
he found a paperback copy of her second book of poems, the one
dedicated to him.
The book still frightened him. She'd written about so much-her
divorce, her sister's illness, the decision not to have children-and
many of the best poems were about him. How she loved him, yet
couldn't do so with all of her heart. How he was sturdy enough
to survive the infidelities she confided on other pages, stolid
enough not to need the assurance of art. She hadn't turned a blind
eye to her own flaws; she was a harsh critic of her ambivalence.
Yet he was awed by her ability to make those feelings public.
She had taken what was intimate between them and refined it, sharpened
its reticent claws, then released it in a flutter of language.
She'd crushed and resuscitated them both many times in that book,
the one that won prizes, the one which rested on his fingertips
with its cover curled like a wilting petal, its margins the color
of old teeth. There were passages, mere syllables, that still
gutted him though he'd never spoken to Lucy about them, not once.
Two affairs? Three? He'd never had the courage to ask.
the flesh of my flesh
There were words he'd never forgotten.
A week later he drove to the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge on the
advice of a woman he met on the beach. "They've got nature
walks and events like that," she told him, twisting on her
towel until her bathing suit slipped to reveal a white crescent
of skin. "A good place if you've got some time." He
winced as he realized how aimless he must look. She'd never guess
he thought about touching that skin beneath her arm. Her children
plummeted in and out of the blue-green surf, and he thought about
inviting her to lunch-with the children, of course. He would drive
to a simple restaurant and eat with someone who liked him, who
might even admire him. He'd pay the bill, flirt. But the woman's
distracted smile cut him off, so he bowed in silence and went
The buildings at Pea Island were low, storm-scrubbed slabs that
looked like they belonged next to an oil rig. He stood in the
parking lot for several minutes, peering at plastic-shielded maps
and reading fine print about the Atlantic Flyway. There were three
cars parked near his, and a single government truck. He could
see gulls wheeling over the salt marsh, agile and fickle on the
A tall woman in a Fish & Wildlife uniform greeted him from
behind a crowded metal desk. Two other women-one gray-haired and
large, the other dressed in the waif-like clothes of a college
student-looked up from where they were scribbling on identical
notepads in the far corner of the room.
"You're busy," he said to the ranger. "I'll come
The heavy woman in the corner of the room laughed. "If dealing
with us keeps Marie busy, she's a worse waste of taxpayer money
than I thought. Do your business. Brynna and I are regulars."
"Too regular," grinned Ranger Marie. "At least
we're getting work out of you."
"Well then, why don't you tell this gentleman about us. Before
you send him up the road to look at your damned fine ospreys."
"Tell him yourself, Helen, and don't scare him off doing
it." The ranger gathered a stack of pale blue index cards
in her rough hands. "I've got a birdwatch to do," she
said to him. "Pete will be here in about five minutes to
answer any questions you might have about the refuge. Take a look
at our literature, if you like, or let Helen preach on. She used
to be with the church."
"Sisters of Mercy Mild," the heavy woman said, snorting.
"But that's another story." She got up from the folding
chair she'd been sitting on and ambled toward him. Her round cheeks
were flushed with sunburn, her blue eyes bright and guileless.
She wore canvas walking shorts and a T-shirt decorated with a
peeling white heron. "We're volunteers here, don't let Marie
fool you. Organizing people for the turtle hatch."
The girl, Brynna, flipped her straight hair back over her shoulders.
"They're gonna come out soon. It'll be cool."
He looked at the girl more closely. She was perhaps twenty with
large languid eyes, narrow shoulders, a lithe body draped in a
gauzy print dress that clung to her thighs. She wore the kind
of clunky sandals he hated, and her blunt toes were creased with
dirt. He could also see that her brown hair had a purplish tint
to it much as Lucy's did when she used a henna rinse. Recognition
of that meaty color against the bones of a stranger's face somehow
"You like turtles?" he asked, wondering if it was possible
for him to sound like anyone other than her father. "That
must be . . . different."
"Ha," roared Helen, who stood next to him now. "Ha.
You take us seriously, mister. Mistake one. Brynna likes to watch
loggerhead nests because it gives her an excuse to spend all night
on the dunes with boys."
"That's not fair, Helen." Brynna stretched and pouted.
"I'm into this as seriously as you are. Pete said he appreciated
Helen, however, was still laughing. She wiped her reddened nose
with the back of her hand, then clapped that hand onto his shoulder.
"If that's not what she's doing out there, she ought to be.
I would. It's beautiful work, waiting for a hatch. Also boring
"I like beauty," he said.
"I guessed that." Helen flicked her fingers at his chest.
"Sign up with Brynna there. This is the week." And she
was gone, steering her body gingerly through the doorway and out
He felt himself blush in the sudden silence. He'd come for exactly
this-for connection, to offer his services to an island he was
stuck on-but it was suddenly too much. He was about to leave when
he noticed Brynna watching him, a yellow pencil twitching in her
fingers like a wand.
"The nests up here are really important because the temperature
is, like, cooler than Florida so it makes most of the babies male.
Marie was telling me how that happens before you came in. She's
really smart, and I like how it's all scientific. I kind of want
to be a vet."
"You've done this before?" He slipped his hands into
his pants pockets, then yanked them out just as he was about to
jingle his loose change.
"Oh, no. I mean this is my second summer at Nags Head.
I wanted to go to Cape Cod with my friends, but my parents wouldn't
let me." She pushed her hair over her shoulder again, a smile
lifting half of her mouth. He saw that she had good, straight
teeth. "They save a lot of whales up there when they get
stuck, you know. I'd like to do that."
He nodded. "Do you think I should sign up? I don't know anything
about loggerhead turtles."
"Pete or somebody can tell you that stuff. We just need more
people for the early shifts, like four hours or so. Mainly to
keep each other awake. There's always time to get the rangers
before the babies pop out. They say the sand on top starts to
boil, sort of."
"And then you catch them?" He tried to alternate his
gaze between her face and a stuffed goose displayed on top of
a filing cabinet.
"Oh, no." Her brown eyes went round. "We just make
sure they get to the ocean. Before the crabs and birds eat them.
Since they're endangered and all."
He signed up to arrive before dusk the next night. "You've
gotta cool name," Brynna told him, leaning against Marie's
desk as a dancer might, hips jutting forward. "You're not
a Bob or a Robert, which is kind of seriously formal."
"No," he said, measuring his smile. "I'm not."
"You down in Frisco? I work at this sandwich shop-well, it's
kind of a bar, too-at Mile Post 7."
"I'm in Frisco for a few weeks. My wife is a writer."
Brynna tugged at a smeared, Asian-looking earring. "She writes
books? That's neat. I don't do so well in English myself. Get
a lot of Cs."
"I was . . . I'm a businessman. We've been married a long
"And you love her because she's creative, right? That would
be so cool. I went out with this painter guy for a while. He made
me feel all beautiful and free. He was really into it."
"Yes, well, Lucy's beyond that now." He had himself
look into Brynna's eyes, at her body, while he spoke. "When
you get older, work like that is more habit than enthusiasm."
Beneath the waves
I am still
Enough to see them all;
Husbanding pelican, gull,
Stabbing tern with blood-bright bill.
He cooked Lucy dinner. Shrimp cocktail, tuna steaks, white wine
he'd brought from home. She ate every bite and sat on his lap
later as they watched the pocked moon rise over the water. He
did all that he could to keep his mind in the present moment,
to appreciate the unique accretions of his marriage. It was simply
a matter of breathing from within, he told himself, of going deep,
much as Lucy did when she was practicing yoga. Though as he looked
at his wife's neck and saw how the skin there was beginning to
wrinkle, he realized it had been a long while since he'd seen
her doing yoga or anything of the kind.
Just when he was sure she'd fallen asleep in his arms, she asked
if she could read to him. It irritated him to know she'd folded
against him, body pliant as a child's, while her mind was elsewhere.
He kept his eyes closed as she slipped down the hall for her notebooks,
though he listened closely for the sound of her feet on carpet,
then wood, anticipating the swift percussion of each step. When
she sat in the armchair across from him and began to speak, he
searched her voice for hints of artifice or condescension or doubt.
But it was as if she were speaking to him from the expanding chambers
of her heart, aligning all that mattered to her into the verses
of song. There was no hint of a retreating, jealous God. She spoke
of durable love instead, the sunrise, the sea. She described the
low, awkward flight of pelicans. She recast a story he'd once
told her about betraying his brother in a ballgame many years
before, and her version, while brief, became true. She sounded
small and honest and warm to him, careful, and it was this he
loved along with the wind-softened crash of the ocean. It was
this that carried him to sleep.
Bodies mollusk and slippery . . .
He was paired with Helen, and he didn't believe the pairing was
an accident. Brynna was to go with a sun-dried old man who'd brought
binoculars even though it was dusk. The old man was quizzing Brynna
closely, asking if she'd want some soda crackers and cheese during
the night, when Brynna caught his eye and gave him an exaggerated
wink. He was too surprised to wink back.
He squeezed himself into the rear of Pete's government-issue Blazer
while Helen settled in front, her legs so large he could see them
on either side of her seat. She began a monologue. "I bet
you'd come when I first saw you, told that to Marie but she wouldn't
take the odds, said I should stick to bingo like that was a funny
thing to say. Ha. I did go to the racetrack some when I was at
St. Joe's. I liked it. All that praying for luck without going
through God first. All that ridiculous hope. Though the ponies
had nothing to do with me leaving the church. No, sir."
He didn't take the bait. Decided he wouldn't ask her why she'd
left, no matter what.
"It was the bird-watching, to tell the truth," she said,
rubbing the tops of her thighs. "At Cape May, then down here.
I told the bishop I just couldn't give it up. Now they're all
jealous as hell of my Life List."
He knew enough not to believe her. And he understood that she
was trying to find out whether he was going to be sheepish or
combative, whether he'd admit his real reason for coming. Pete,
a laconic high-hatted ranger, wasn't interested in mediating between
them. He didn't interrupt to talk about turtles or habitat preservation
or the erosion near Oregon Inlet Bridge. "Nice night,"
he said, glancing at Rob in the bulky rearview mirror. "I
like going out on a nice night."
Pete dropped them off, and they walked the short distance to the
beach where they settled into the sun-warmed palm of a dune. The
nest was perhaps twenty feet behind them, a staked-out depression
in the sand surrounded by reverential footprints.
"I've been thinking about you," Helen said, unscrewing
the noisy cap of a canteen. "Wondering if you're an artist,
like Brynna says your wife is, or what. You want to help me on
"I ran a business in Connecticut. I'm retired now."
"A businessman? That tells me exactly nothing. Very WASP-y
of you to say it that way." She paused to drink. "So
you're saying you don't write like your wife? How's it go then-you
worship the little words she types?"
He swung his head around. Helen's eyes were stark in the final
rinse of twilight. "Yes," he said, "that's precisely
how it goes."
She sighed and dug into a hip pocket. He heard the insistent crackle
of cellophane and thought about his voice, how it sounded cool
and formal in his ears. "I'm nosy, I know," Helen continued.
"I like to pick at people from their blind side which is
another technique I stole from my lousy past life. But I figure
she's either famous, which makes you feel inadequate. Or she's
not, and hates that, so she makes you feel inadequate.
You can't win with artist types. Though I ought to confess I think
it's impossible to win with any type at all."
"You're a cynic on top of everything else?" He tried
a dry chuckle, hoping to downgrade the conversation. "Maybe
we should talk about turtles."
"We could, but that's dull." She'd stuffed her mouth
with cookies, and her munching was jovial, irritating. "I
want to know what makes you tick. Do you believe in love? America?
Is your precious wife faithful to you? Stuff like that."
All he wanted was quiet. Wanted to retreat into his thoughts and
become as perfect as the pitch of the wind which sang through
the sea oats above them-perfect and unwavering. Instead this woman
was buzzing in his ears, and he could feel something cresting
inside him, a thing he'd lived with for a long time.
"You want to know what I really think of Lucy? After all
these years, these . . . retreats?" He began to stand, then
sat again. He could sense Helen's eyes on him, fixed, guarded.
"What if I said she's selfish and loveless and hollow? Would
you stop, if I lied to make you happy?" He swallowed. There
was much more-he felt the words racing along his tongue.
"Got you going, didn't I?" Helen's voice-toneless, bullying.
"No," he said softly, sliding down the dune as the damp
sand gave way before him. "I took care of that myself."
He veered into the dark, feeling shivery and raw. He'd walk, he
told himself, whisk his head clean. But he'd gone less than half
a mile when he ran into Brynna who'd been at the nesting site
just up the beach. "I knew it was you," she said, skirts
blown like bracken around her pale legs. "I could tell, like
it was a little bit psychic almost. Marie wanted me to get you
guys. It's crazy up there, these turtles are everywhere, and that
old guy I'm with is going nuts, keeping us back like he's the
official guard or something. He even elbowed me in the boobs,
he's so into it, then didn't notice enough to apologize. God."
"I'm sorry," he said.
"You would be."
He reached for her upper arm, pretending to steady himself against
it, winded. The milky beams of several flashlights were visible
against the inland sky as though what was happening there was
a marquee event, some kind of ocean premier. Behind him, back
up the invisible beach, there were no glimmers or winks. Nothing.
"Want to go see?" Brynna shifted her weight against
his in a playful shove. "You might not want to miss something
so cool in nature. With Man helping out and not hurting things
like we always do."
"I'm fine," he said, wondering how he might undress
her in his distracted mind. He wanted to be woozy enough to idealize
her, to believe she'd be a relief. "I'd rather stay here.
Talk with a lovely lady like you."
"Oh. Sure. Yeah." She smiled and her good, straight
teeth looked almost horsy in the rime-frost light that rode the
water. "Guys like you always want to talk."
Coil my rage in yours.
Lucy was waiting for him when he returned to the cottage. She
was drawn into a tight ball on the couch, arms locked around her
knees. Her hair was a mess, and her eyes darted right and left
between their lids as if they were looking for escape. He thought
to himself, My wife has nothing but this. He began to speak.
She cut him off.
"Why don't you treat me like I'm Thorazined," she croaked.
"Do me that favor."
"Lucy?" Her name a whisper-the best he could do.
"Where have you been?"
"On the beach. With the turtles. I told you about it."
"I went deaf, Rob. I couldn't hear a sound. No words, no
scratches. And you weren't here. He's not here!" She screeched
into the white valley of skin between her knees.
"I am here." He was drawn across the floor by
a thin, scarred ache in his chest. "I was with some people.
I didn't know you-"
"You were with someone else? You need to torture me with
"I had an ugly conversation with a nun, that's all. An ex-nun."
"Did you fuck her? Did you want to?"
"Lucy!" She was as strung out as he'd ever seen her.
Though it occurred to him that even this might be some kind of
wretched test. "You've had a bad time," he said. "We'll
work it out. . . ." His words trailed off, however, when
he stopped forcing them.
"There are others. I can smell them because I'm a madwoman
just now, the insane mute bitch you married. Did you screw her,
whoever she was, so young and sure of herself? Just tell me that."
"No," he said. And he hadn't. Though he'd wanted to.
Take Brynna, who'd only let him kiss her, and make her understand
the consequences of her naiveté, her jellied ignorance.
He'd walked the beach for hours after leaving her, his clothes
whipping like flags against his body. He'd been so many men on
that journey. Husband, lover, soldier, inventor, frontier priest
in a cassock torn to rags. Lucy refused to see that about him.
How he could imagine and change. How he had mystery.
"Don't lie to me, Rob. It reminds me of Mark."
"I'm not lying. And I'm nothing like Mark, please don't start
down that road."
"I will." She pounded the couch cushion with a fist.
"I will. Neither of you understands what this costs me. I
try to find this . . . these . . .," her hoarse voice went
nowhere, "and you're too busy disrupting things. I need you
It began again-the old feelings falling into place like the oiled
tumblers in a lock. He loved her, he'd nestle her, she'd come
around. But when he drew himself together to lean over and kiss
the tangled crown of her head, he couldn't do it. The image was
still there: his legs striding, his nostrils filling with wild,
"I want to be here for you. But I'd like to go to bed now
if you're all right."
"I'm never all right," she sobbed. "I've abandoned
He turned to maneuver down the hallway. As he passed Lucy's room,
he remembered some of the poems she had read to him the night
before. Fragments of description. A sequence she hoped to craft
into a long poem about this rough coast. She wanted the beauty
and the danger, the history and the yearning, transformed into
words. He paused for a moment to listen-her sobs were rhythmic
and shallow now, the hiccoughs of an aggrieved child. He knew
the sound too well. What mattered were Lucy's tribulations, and
that was what she wrote her life upon-her failures and the failures
she insisted upon others.
. . . graves on the shoals,
They have no markers except the muttered lore
Of captains who will not sail again.
He slept until early afternoon, a sweating but dreamless sleep.
When he sat up in his tangled bed he realized that the clatter
of blinds had awoken him, not sunlight, or even his powerful,
gagging thirst. Blinds were clanging and knocking everywhere.
The sliding door in his room had been opened, and as he limped
into the hallway, he saw that all of the doors and windows in
the house were open, curtains pulled back, screens removed. One
look in Lucy's room revealed that the miniature chaos of her labors
had been cleared away. No books, no papers, no wrinkles on the
beds. He thought at first, with a surprised leaping in his chest,
that she'd left him. But as he moved into the crosscurrents of
the living room, he saw a tidy stack of her belongings near the
couch and became less wary. If he'd learned anything the night
before, it was that she needed him in the most mundane, pummeling
There was a piece of paper on the counter in the kitchen. Handwritten,
creased in the middle as though it had been folded only to be
unfolded again, it was held in place by a seashell and a deck
of playing cards he'd bought but never opened. A poem, one he'd
never seen. Memories of all she had kept from him-the lovers,
the gods, the ghosts-twisted hard along his spine, yet he couldn't
resist. He stood in the rattling, wind-stripped room and read
the poem, then read it again. It claimed, in a language more beautiful
and terse than he could speak, that he would forgive her, always
forgive her, because it was his lot and his heart. They were twined
together, throttling, and he couldn't resist.