|Jul/Aug 2009 Fiction|
Spilling out of the speakers as they drove was one of those public radio feature stories that can either etherize you or enchant you. It was about a group of Buddhist monks that viewed the sand as meditation and the sea as the universe. The monks would wait for the tide to roll out and they would gather in small groups on the beach, holding special spoons that enabled them to each scoop up a single grain of sand at a time. One grain only was allowed—two were considered excessive and beside the point for which the meditation was intended. With these single grains as bricks the monks would build exquisite, intricate sand castles, castles worthy of preservation, display and awed appreciation by each day's new onslaught of beachgoers. But on purpose, the monks sited their painstaking constructions just beneath the high tide line, so that the inexorable return of the ocean would obliterate every turret and arch, and the uplifted grains of sand would become deluged and cease to stand out from the mass of sand in any discernable way.
With the next low tide they would gather again with their small spoons and start over. Just as the tide itself starts over.
Destruction and renewal, the NPR voice said, in a closing tone that was hushed and profound, followed by five seconds of dissonant wind chimes.
Laura, who was driving, heard every word of it, but she was sure Sam heard nothing but his own inner scream. He'd spent the entire trip cringing in the passenger seat, spitting into a Kleenex and looking for blood, still obsessed with the cancer that had taken his father years ago. Presumably any amount of blood would qualify as a fatal sentence, even a speck no bigger than a grain of sand.
Laura parked in the frozen rutted dirt that led to the high rocks over the sea and their cabin, actually an old fisherman's shack. It stood partly on the rocks and partly on weathered poles, like stilts, sunk into the water. They climbed out of the car and walked towards the door, Laura several steps ahead of Sam, not wanting to look back at him. The ocean was loud and the sky was definitely in a mood, about to be loud. Laura remembered the old salt, the wharf rat who sold bait, coming down one day boasting about hundred year storms, doing what townies do when they try to scare the paying customers who come from the city. Such storms occur, he said, and when they do all bets are off, there's no telling anything about anything. Could the sea rise up and claim an old shack on flimsy poles, knocking it down and swallowing it whole? Of course it could, although it hadn't happened yet, not in his seventy years. But if if did happen it would work like this: the waves would roll in like mountainous gray battleships on the attack, slamming against the rocks and the seawall at unthinkable speeds. If you were inside you would hear the water bounce off the ramparts, rear up in a thundering rage and explode against the exposed bottom of the shack, battering it from below until the floor split like balsa wood. As it often is with a drowning, the whole demolition might only take moments, and then not a trace...
Only the poles would be left standing, pointlessly aiming upwards. Four corners that once were a box.
Laura made tea and almost couldn't hear the kettle for the wind swirling outside. She stirred it with a spoon and thought of the Buddhists and their spoons. She looked behind her and saw Sam, stuck in a wicker chair, eyes locked on a new Kleenex, a frozen frenzy in him. She pressed against a window and studied the sky, which had blackened, really blackened, and she saw that the ocean was on the move, bubbling like tar with a fire under it. Laura checked her pocket for the car keys. Then she moved close to the front door and listened for a sound, for slapping under the floorboards. Her hand kept smoothing her hair, as though she were expecting a guest.
Hammet's uncle Rocko, the landfill watchman with the sunken tramp cheeks and the fur face and the twisted feral teeth, catches Hammet the Barney's-shopping logo designer in the act of googling blood.
"You got a taste for something. You thirsty, son? You walk the streets at night?"
But no, that's not what's going on here. Hammet's received a happy holiday present from his fiance, a gift card from the Art of Shaving entitling him to hot lather and a straight-razor shave, the old-fashioned Sweeney Todd kind, and it's plunged him into rampaging hypochondria. He's begging the med sites left and right, asking what dangers lurk from one slip of the barber's wrist, one nick on the neck. What plague can he catch? What's unseen crawling on the edge of the blade? What microscopic blood to blood contact with what unknown previous customer can produce what contagion and what odds does Hammet have that his life span will be cut along with the stubble and the follicles?
When Rocko stops laughing he tells him about the old days when he lived on blood money. He tells him about 1964, when they paid 25 bucks per pint, and Rocko and his fellow sewer-grate dwellers lined up at the door of City Hospital with sleeves rolled up and outstretched arms. "You're talking 25 bucks a pint in the days when Old Crow cost two bucks a pint. They could have cut my throat at that price, just like a pig at the pork house."
Every time Uncle Rocko says a p-word the fine spit-spray comes up like a geyser, pushing Hammet back in his rolling Aeron chair. Rocko's on a roll too, though, and he relates his story of the City Hospital nurse and the locked door. "I was with my buddy giving a pint one day, and this nurse in the stiff whites who hooks us up says she's got to leave the room for a bit. To trim her mustache, I hoped. It was getting thicker by the moment. Now this is back in the day and we're talking no automatic shutoffs and stuff. They just stick you in the arm and shove it in and let it flow.
"So we're in the room on the cots, the two of us, and she sticks us and leaves and this door – it was the way things were back in the day – it's a self-locking door like they have in a hotel room. So it wasn't good news when she comes back and knocks on the outside and says she lost her key, misplaced it or dropped it and there's no one else out there that's got one.
"So the blood is flowing and there's no shutoff and the nurse says through the door, 'which one of you is closest to the door?' Well it's me not my buddy so she tells me, 'this is what I want you to do. Rip the needle out and walk to the door fast and open it and I'll be ready to catch you because if you reach the door at all you're going to faint.'
"Well, the blood was everywhere and I did reach the door and everything she told me was going to happen did happen. Just like she said and I woke up in her arms, tickled by that wrist hair of hers. It was matted, thick as a bracelet. And two weeks later I was back to fund a little more Old Crow for me and the boys.
"Blood," Uncle Rocko sneers. What makes you think yours is so piss-ass precious." And the spit-spray hits Hammet like spume from the sea.
In the end, Hammet's exit strategy is sign the gift card over to Uncle Rocko, who brings his landfill reek into the strictly uptown Art of Shaving. He leaves scented like a rose, chin like a child's, and later that night, upon meeting Hammett's fiancé, he arranges a full moon date with her back at the landfill. By the stroke of twelve, the new fur is out, dotting his kisser, even his lips and tongue, and darkening fast.