“You gotta love the Sharon Lipschutzes of the world,” says James. “You really do.”
Rachel turns the page of her book and looks over at her husband. “Sharon Lipschutz?” She squints at the cover of his book even though she already knows what book it is. “She the tennis-ball girl in the Eskimo one?”
“No, she’s the little girl in ‘Bananafish’ who sits on the piano when Seymour plays. Makes Sybil Carpenter jealous.”
“Sybil Carpenter? The little girl on the beach? What does she have to be jealous of? She’s more of a main character.”
“Yeah,” he says. “God, her mother’s terrible. There are three mothers in the story and they’re all pretty terrible in some way. That must be intentional.”
Rachel sighs and turns back around and opens her book, a popular romance novel. She likes those best and is unapologetic about it. “I don’t want to do any thinking with my reading,” she always says when James criticizes her.
James goes back to reading, too, but only his favorite part, the end.
Rachel closes the book on her finger again and turns back to her husband.
“That reminds me. Don’t forget about tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Will there even be a tomorrow?” He puts the book in his lap.
“Tomorrow’s Memorial Day. The beach. We’re meeting the Davis’s after lunch. I know how you like to forget these things.”
“Shit, the beach.” He flops open the book. He reads the last paragraph, over and over. It’s perfect, he thinks. No wasted words.
Rachel watches her husband read. She likes to watch him do simple, seemingly sane things like this. Life, she thinks, is full of deferments and strategies. Coping mechanisms.
“How many times have you read that stupid story now, I wonder.”
“It’s something like my ninetieth time. If you’d let me finish.” He adjusts the book in his hand and clears his throat.
“Seriously. How many?”
“In reality?” He closes the book and looks at the cover. He puts the palm of his hand on the book as if he were swearing on it. “Maybe twenty times, all the way through. Sometimes I just read bits.”
James Healy doesn’t hate the beach. But he doesn’t like being there. When he is at the beach, he feels like a wrongly placed puzzle piece, or an oddly cast extra in a movie. He brought this up to Rachel once and she assured him that the only thing making him stand out was his behavior. “If you’d stop acting weird, no one would even notice you.” But if he could go there and be unseen, he’d feel very drawn to it: the foamy waves breaking hard against the flat grit of the beach and gently receding; the seagulls cawing and the kids screaming; and the scents too: the fishy-salty smell of the ocean, the seemingly ever-present coconut smell of sunblock; the way it’s always windy at the beach, and the tiny grey fishing and shrimping boats that slide along the taut string of the horizon. And who could object to the bathing beauties? They alone are reason to be fond of the place. Where else might you find young people lying and walking around as if there’s nothing ugly in the world? All these things he likes, even loves, and would experience, again and again, if only he could be there and be invisible.
But the one good thing, the one saving grace of this particular trip to the beach, is that it will be Memorial Day, which means the beach will be crowded with awkward, overweight, ogling, farmer-tanned, middle-aged townies just like him. He figures he can blend in at least.
The Healy’s arrive first. They always arrive first to everything because Rachel has a phobia of being late. This, at times, seems to James like an obscure form of masochism, as she is married to a man who doesn’t seem to care if they ever arrive anywhere at all. After they get everything set up, James and Rachel sit in their chairs under a large hot-pink umbrella.
Rachel opens up a fashion magazine and James holds onto his book and looks around.
“Couldn’t we have gone to the movies or something? Our first outing with these people and you pick the beach?”
“We could have gone to the movies. But we didn’t. And I didn’t pick the beach. They picked the beach. Believe me, I wouldn’t have picked the beach.” She gives him a long, knowing look. “Anyway, it’s a perfectly normal place for people to go to. Look around you.” She slaps the magazine against her thigh. “Are you going to be like this the whole time?”
“All right, all right…” He opens his book, but can’t focus on it. Any time someone walks by he has to look at them. (As he’s predicted, a large sampling of the suburban middle-aged crowd the beach.) A young, college-aged couple is camped out immediately to their right. The young man sits in a reclining chair reading a men’s fitness magazine and his girl lies on her stomach with her bathing-suit top undone, her arms crossed under her head, her eyes closed. James can see the delicate pearly part of the side of her breast. Looking at it gives him a jittery, speedy feeling. He tries not to look, but he can’t help glancing over periodically. The guy catches him and stares James down.
The Davises show up about half an hour later. The Davises are, quite conceivably, the last available couple in the Healy’s social pool, and James knows it. Rachel has made sure he understands that, and he doesn’t want to let Rachel down.
They’re a good-looking, energetic couple, around the same age as the Healys. Matt Davis is tall and brawny and intelligent with, it quickly becomes clear, a strong appreciation of the naughty and off-color. James doesn’t yet know if he has been one or not, but there is something of the frat boy about Matt. Grace is petite but sturdy and has a great sense of humor, but James suspects she might be a bit of a hypochondriac. Whenever someone brings up an ailment or injury, Grace, it seems, has suffered from the very same thing (but only worse, of course) at some point in her apparently perilous life. Both the Davises played a sport in college and don’t show the slightest signs of having let themselves go in early middle age. And Grace carries around with her a bag of assorted creams and lotions she rubs on herself from time to time, very casually, like someone scratching an itch, or taking a sip of a drink. Consequently, she’s always very moist looking. They are, in fact, a new kind of couple for the Healys. Until now they’d hung around people more or less like themselves, the dilettante crowd; vaguely artsy people with some variety of stalled creative aspiration.
In contrast to the athletic and energetic Davises, James thinks, he and Rachel look rather plain—sort of bland and muted. James has a boyish charm, even if it is beginning to fade a little in his late-thirties, and Rachel has a certain cute-nerd quality that can be very alluring and even erotic, but, to James, next to the Davises, they are both somewhat boring to look at.
Grace sits to the left of Rachel and Matt sits to the right of James. Matt looks around before pulling a can of beer from his cooler and pouring it into a Solo cup. He hands James the cup of beer and says, “Pass it down.” Once they all have a cup of beer in hand or at foot, they sit quietly for a good while, listening and watching and drinking. Collectively, they are the very picture of relaxation. James remembers the semi-topless girl and steals a glance. She’s in almost the same position, and her man is too.
“When you get a chance, take a look to your right. Don’t let the ape see you do it though.”
Matt puts on his sunglasses and then glances to his right.
“Sweet Jesus,” he whispers.
James goes for another look and gets caught in the act again.
“Goddamnit! That’s twice now.”
“You filthy bastard!” Matt giggles and gives James a soft punch on the shoulder. “Totally inappropriate….You should be ashamed.”
“What are you two fussing about over there?” says Grace. She hands her empty cup across and James takes it and hands it to Matt. Matt does a scan up and down the beach and refills it.
They enjoy themselves at the beach so much that before leaving they make plans to meet up— after going home and cleaning up and having dinner—for drinks at the Healy’s. James is even kind of into the idea. Everyone is in high spirits and looking forward to furthering the good times later in the evening.
Rachel makes sure James wears something decent. Left to make his own choices, he might pick something that doesn’t match, or a shirt with a hole in it. He has many shirts with holes in them, and delights in wearing them, almost as if the holes were badges or medals. He sometimes even points out the holes to company, which embarrasses Rachel. “I’ve had this shirt so long it’s giving out on me.” He’ll have a big smile on his face. Even many of his “dress shirts” are threadbare. The problem is that he hates going clothes shopping. And there are so many reasons he hates going clothes shopping that there is no one quick remedy. Consequently, Rachel ends up buying most of his clothes, and he ends up hating most of them. When he finds himself liking a shirt or pair of pants he wears them religiously and develops an almost emotional attachment and it becomes very difficult for him to part with them.
The Davises bring some expensive tequila and suggest doing shots.
“Just one for me,” says James. He doesn’t mind the stuff, but he doesn’t feel comfortable being too drunk. Rachel nods emphatically. “Oh, just one for me, too,” she adds. She holds up the shot glass. She smiles and tosses it back.
Being that these are two couples who hardly know each other, their conversation quickly progress from the incidental to the more personal. The booze helps. This is something that James and Rachel have to be cautious about. Sober it’s easy to control a situation and keep things focused on surface matters. But buzzed or drunk, too much could easily get said. The whys and hows of things can come spilling out, not even purposely, and a first pleasant night with new friends can easily turn into a one-time thing.
“We’ve definitely moved around a lot,” says Matt. “But that’s the nature of the field. Jobs are usually contract only and don’t often last longer than a few years.” He looks sympathetically at his wife. She touches his hand and grimaces, as if to say, yes, it is tough, but I understand.
“I’ve never lived anywhere else,” says James. “I was born here and, except for a little travelling in my early twenties, that’s it. Isn’t that pathetic?” He looks at Rachel and her face is wrung up, but with a tense smile. It’s an “oh, my silly husband” look, which is familiar to James. It functions almost as a visual cue for him. Too many of these and he probably needs to be more careful about what he says, needs to dial things back a bit.
“I think it’s great,” says Grace. “I’ve never had that—not even as a child. I was an Air Force brat. Every four years…off we went.”
“At least you got to travel—see some great places. I bet you lived overseas.” Rachel’s face lights up.
“We lived in Italy for four years, when I was in elementary school. I was very young, so I didn’t really appreciate it.”
Rachel points her beer at her Husband. “James has a pension for self-deprecation. He’s being modest. He’s been all over the world. Went off to Alaska when we were dating. Lived there for three months. He’s been to Japan, Taiwan, China…all over.”
“Wow! Alaska.” Says Grace. “That must have been an adventure. I’ve always wanted to go.”
“It was…okay, I guess. I was there during the summer.”
“See what I mean? If he was drunk, he’d talk your ear off about it.”
“Well, then,” says Matt. He holds up the tequila bottle and smiles. “Let’s get to work.”
“Oh, no,” says Rachel and James, almost in unison.
“Come on.” Matt sets up four shot glasses and starts pouring. He is not going to take no for an answer. Rachel curses herself for saying something so irresponsible. James begins to think his suspicions about Matt have been correct: this man is a grown-up frat boy. Matt the Frat Boy, he says to himself.
By around ten they’ve worked their way onto the back porch. James wanted to smoke, which is something he does only when we is drinking. He buys a pack every once in a while and it usually lasts him months. When James says, “I don’t know about anyone else, but I could use a smoke,” Grace says, “Oh, I want one! I want one!” Rachel and Matt look at each other and make disapproving faces. Rachel knows that James’ wanting to smoke is a red flag.
It’s very humid out, but not hot per se. Halfway into his cigarette, James is feeling relaxed and fairly drunk. He notices Rachel staring at him and he winks at her. She raises her eyebrows and looks away. He gets the message, but is drunk enough now not to care.
“You must work out or something.” James leans into his Adirondack chair and takes a drag of his smoke. “You’re a pretty big guy.”
“Yeah, well. I go to the gym every morning.” It’s obvious from his tone of voice he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it.
“Yeah, me too.” James leans over and puts the cigarette butt out in the ashtray on a table between he and Grace.
“Yes, I can tell.” Matt leans back into his chair and shows everyone an amiable, boozy smile.
“Can you? Can you really tell?” James’ tone is harsh. He stands up and pulls back his shirt sleeve and flexes his arm.
Rachel’s the first to laugh. Grace and Matt quickly join in.
James puts his arm back down and starts laughing too.
“You’ve never seen anything like that, have you, Grace?” James picks up his beer and takes a swig of it.
“Oh, dear God, no! It was frightening!” Everyone lets out loud, loose laughs.
“I’m a lucky lady,” says Rachel and puts her head in her hand. She erupts, again, in laughter and sighs. “He’s all mine, Grace, so back off!”
“Man, those really are some guns you got there, Jimmy,” says Matt.
James stops laughing abruptly and so does Rachel.
“Well, that’s just disappointing,” says James.
“What? Did I say something?” Matt’s hands grab onto the armrests of his chair.
Rachel looks nervously over at her husband and sees his posture slacken.
“Nothing,” says James. “It’s nothing. It’s just predictable. So fucking predictable. Big muscly guy makes fun of the skinny guy. What’s next a wedgie? A swirlie? You gonna try fucking my wife?”
Grace puts her cigarette out. She has a rigid smile on her face, as if her lips have gotten stuck that way. Matt looks over at Rachel and silently mouths what?
They all go back inside, except for James. He sits on the porch until the Davises leave. He only comes in once it starts raining, and he goes straight to the bedroom.
Rachel is asleep with the light on, bunched up under the covers, only her head exposed. He doesn’t understand how he can be so hot when she is so cold. James walks into the closet and lifts up a pile of folded pants from a high shelf. He feels around until his hand knocks into it. In the beginning, Rachel didn’t like having it in the house but James convinced her that it would be a good idea and that eventually she would not only get used to it but it would also come to make her feel safe. And he’d been right. She told him as much once. He gets into bed next to his sleeping wife and reclines against the headboard. How can she be under all those covers when he’s sweating in nothing but a t‑shirt and boxers? He reaches over and opens the top drawer of his bedside table. He takes a single bullet out of the drawer and puts it into one of the cylinder chambers. He sticks the barrel into his mouth and angles the tip of it against the top of the back of his throat, just the way he’s always imagined he would. Rachel stirs. He quickly puts the gun under the covers. She lifts her head and squints her eyes toward James. “What are you doing?” she rasps. “Just getting into bed,” he says. “Go back to sleep.” She puts her hand out in his direction and searches for him with it. He touches her hand. It’s very cold. “You’re so warm,” she says. “How are you so warm?” He doesn’t answer and when she falls asleep he gets up, puts the gun away, and gets back into bed with his wife. He gets under the covers and pulls her close. Rachel coos and presses her cold body into James warm body. “Good night,” says James, and Rachel mumbles something that sounds like everything’s okay.
Steve Lambert’s writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Saw Palm, Chiron Review, New Contrast (South Africa), The Pinch, Broad River Review, Longleaf Review, Emrys Journal, Bull Fiction, Into the Void, Cowboy Jamboree, Cortland Review, and many other places. In 2015 he won third place in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contest and in 2018 he won Emrys Journal’s Nancy Dew Taylor Poetry Prize. He is the recipient of four Pushcart Prize nominations and was a Rash Award in Fiction finalist. He is the author of the poetry collection Heat Seekers (2017), the chapbook In Eynsham (2020) and the fiction collection The Patron Saint of Birds (2020). His novel, Philisteens, will be out May 2021 and his poetry collection, The Shamble, will be out in October, both with Close to The Bone Publishing. He lives in Northeast Florida, with his wife and daughter, where he teaches part-time at the University of North Florida.