Beyond the docks the beach curved out to a point and a dozen brightly painted sailboats were drawn up on the sand. Out in the water several larger boats sat at anchor, their colors lost in the glare of the late afternoon sun. Kathy took off her clogs and walked along the hard sand at the water’s edge. Past the sailboats the beach was empty except for a pair of teenage girls sharing a blanket and the last warm rays of the day. They lay on their bellies with their bikini tops unfastened, talking quietly, nose to nose. Kathy stopped and surveyed both the way she had come and the direction she was headed. The beach continued on its swing west half a mile to the point, the point was topped with a shadowy and gray-hollowed dune, and beyond that she couldn’t see. If the boy on the dock had steered her right, Robby had to be somewhere out beyond the point.
And if he had steered her wrong?
She decided to turn back. Then she changed her mind.
The water ran slack. With luck it would be shallow. Kathy gathered up the cuffs of her shorts in her fist and, holding her clogs out at her side, set off on the quickest path to the point, wading out across the harbor.
She arrived at the foot of the dune with the seat of her pants soaked and her teeth beginning to chatter. The setting sun had started up a breeze that flattened the dune grass. She found a path up to the top.
Below lay a marsh and a salt pond, both deep in the shadows of the surrounding dunes. Halfway around the pond stood a dock. On the dock sat—
Well, it had to be him this time.
He was sitting with his back against a piling, shirtless, his legs stretched out in front of him. He wasn’t drawing, only bouncing his pencil up and down on the open sketch pad on his lap, metronomically, as if setting the tempo for his thoughts. He stared out into the pond at a clammer’s dory, a twenty-foot double-ender with a narrow, red cockpit like a coffin stood on end. Two men worked off the boat, one at the bow, one at the stern, pumping their long clam rakes in a matching rhythm. When she crept closer Kathy saw that Robby’s pen beat in time with the men’s rakes.
“Hello, D-Man.” Barefoot, she’d been able to sneak up on him. He was not startled. He looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun directly behind her, and smiled as if he had been expecting her.
Kathy sank to her knees, took his face in her hands, kissed him. He reached up under her hair and brought her down onto his lap. “Hey!” She reached under her and pulled out the sketch pad. The top page was marked with a half-moon imprint of her wet rear end.
“Oh I ruined your drawing.”
“I ruined it. It’s ok. It wasn’t going anywhere anyway. How’d you get so wet?”
“I saw you.”
He blushed. Kathy kissed him again. Then she held up the pad and looked at his sketch.
“These are those guys.”
“I like the way you drew this one leaning on his rake. It doesn’t look like he’s taking a break though. He’s watching something, isn’t he?”
“A boat. Boat I was on. I saw them. They were working out by the inlet when we sailed by. I was crewing for a guy wanted to take his new trophy wife for a sail. We went by and I happened to look over. These guys are eyeing us. Eyeing me, because I was at the helm and they thought that meant I was the skipper, it was my boat, or more likely my rich daddy’s. They were a ways off, but I could still see the smiles on their faces, and it dawned on me. They thought I was funny. They also hated me. Got me thinking.” He turned over the page. It was a sketch of a woman in a bikini, lying back, propped up on her elbows, while a man, fatter, older, grouchy, poured her a drink from a pitcher. This was more of a cartoon and Robby wasn’t happy with it. He grimaced and flipped back to the drawing of the two men raking clams.
“See the pipe in this guy’s mouth? Look out there.” He jerked his chin at the men. “Neither of those guys is smoking a pipe.”
“So why did you give him one?”
“Good question. I did it because Monet did it. And Monet did it because Hiroshige did it.”
“That’s the one you want to take me to the museum to see? Hiro—“
“Hiroshige. That’s him. He did a painting, Ferryboats on the
Kathy was quiet, trying to imagine the finished painting. Robby took her silence as a criticism. He wasn’t hurt. He agreed with what he thought she thought.
“Yeah, well, probably I couldn’t pull it off. Too much going on. That’s a bad temptation for me. I want to put everything I know into every painting I do. See, I was thinking it was going to be allusive, but also satirical, which neither of theirs is. It’s an ironic moment. The juxtaposition of the rich tourists spoiling themselves and these two guys breaking their backs digging clams for a living. I want to suggest how the tourists are oblivious to the way they’re both dependent on the locals and exploiting them and at the same time, how they look at them with a kind of fondness because they see the locals as part of the scenery, which is why they love the Cape, why they come here. Meanwhile, the clammers are watching them back, seeing the tourists as part of a show too, only they’re doing it with more self-awareness. But I’m afraid I’m overdoing it with the irony. It’s there. It needs to be there, but that’s only one theme, and I think it needs to be a secondary one at that. I want to show how both groups are part of the scenery. How they fit Cape physically. They’re all as much a part of the landscape as the dunes, and the sea gulls, and the ocean! There’s a kind of harmony. It’s an arrangement. An aesthetic one and not the business one they think they have. An ordering.”
“You mean by God?”
“God puts us in our place?”
“I’m a waitress and you’re going to law school because God ordered it?”
“No. No! Not at all. I’m not talking about the fates of individuals. I just. We have a place. It’s wherever we are. We’re here. This is our place. We go somewhere else, that’s our new place. The order isn’t disrupted because we move around. It sorts itself out around us. The beach out there, every year the ocean picks up three feet of it, carries it out to sea, and drops it down a little farther west. Every day it’s a brand new beach. And today’s is just as perfect as yesterday’s, as far as nature is concerned, or God. The structure is perfect, but it’s fluid, always re-perfecting itself. It’s our problem that we get attached to the structure as it exists in a given moment. We think, This is the way it’s supposed to be, the way it always will be. What I’m trying to show. Is. In a larger context, all of us are part of this picture that’s drawn, not by God necessarily, but maybe. Maybe by God. By nature, anyway, by the way the universe puts itself together. We’re not the center of the picture. Not the focus. We can’t help seeing ourselves that way. We see life as a series of self-portraits and not as a succession of landscapes. The clammers look at the tourists, the tourists look at the clammers, and both are thinking that the picture is about them, and that everything in it is fixed, that this is the way it is. But it’s the landscape, which includes them, that’s really the point, really the subject.”
“That’s an awful lot for one painting.”
“Too much. But what the hell. I’m learning, right? It’s an experiment.”
Kathy held onto the sketch pad, studying it, thinking over what he’d said. Her thoughts skipped ahead from this one proposed painting to all the paintings he proposed to do in the future. “I saw your roommate before I came out here.”
“He says for you to call your father.”
“He says he’s been calling every fifteen minutes.”
“He’s after me to send in my room deposit.”
“School starts when?”
“Middle of September.”
“You don’t have much time.”
“Six weeks,” he said, as if correcting her.
“Doesn’t feel like much time to me.”
“I should call my dad.”
“You probably should.”
Robby reached for his sketch pad. He studied his picture, his pencil poised, but he did not start drawing again. The clammers had finished for the day. The dory was making its way across the pond at a steady crawl. Close in, the pilot swung around so that the boat came up broadside to the end of the dock. Kathy climbed off Robby’s lap to let him up. He reached his hand out to the clammer standing in the dory’s bow. The man hopped up on the dock and while Robby knelt and held the boat still by the gunwale, the other clammer left the cockpit and handed up seven bushels of quahogs to his partner. This second clammer was a thick-shouldered man with long brown hair and a bushy beard. His partner was smaller and more wiry. The bearded man grunted hello and that was the limit of his conversation. His partner was friendlier.
“Pretty good haul,” Robby observed.
“Average,” the partner said with a grin. He wore designer horn-rims and those, along with his razor cut hair, made Kathy think, Stockbroker, banker, even though he was barefoot and wearing a pair of paint-spattered gym shorts and a grimy tanktop black on the belly where he’d been wiping his hands off all day. “Two, three-hundred pounds. But. Dollar thirty a pound? And it’s all cash, know what I’m saying? Don’t have to share a penny with Uncle Sam. Beats working for a living.”
“Done?” said the bearded clammer in the boat.
“Take her away.”
The bearded clammer went back to the coffin-like cockpit and re-started the engine. He steered the boat back out into the pond, where he tied it to a buoy, exchanging it for a skiff that had been anchored there. While he rowed back, Robby helped the other man carry quahogs off the dock and up a path through the wax myrtles, beach plum, and a stand of quaking aspen to a pick-up truck parked at the end of a sand and gravel road. He came back just as the bearded clammer climbed up onto the dock. Robby offered to help with the last two bushels, but the clammer grunted, “Thanks anyway,” through his beard and, stacking the metal baskets, took them up the path himself.
Robby said, “Guy with the glasses claims he knows forty-eight ways to mess up a quahog.”
“Really,” Kathy said smiling, not at what he said but at how much she was liking him for having helped the clammers.
“Yep. Crepes, sauces, chowders. People come to his place to eat, he takes two containers out of the freezer and starts cooking. Feeds his many friends and relations quahogs all winter long.”
“Must get a little boring.”
“Beats working for a living,” Robby said with a sly grin.
“It’s a lot harder life than he’s letting on.”
Kathy faced out toward the pond and watched the clammers’ dory swinging slowly around its buoy. “I’m thinking of asking my sister to move out. At the end of the summer. I don’t want her living there when my daughter comes home.”
He didn’t say anything. She continued, “I’ll have to find a new roommate. Someone who likes kids.” Kathy watched his reaction out of the corner of her eye. “Know anybody?”
Kathy gave him an accusing stare. “Really?”
For some reason she started to laugh. “No, you don’t.”
He laughed too. “Yes, I do.”
She slapped him on the chest with the palms of her hands. “You don’t.” He laughed harder. She slapped him harder. “You don’t!” She pushed him. “You. Don’t.”
“Yes. I. Do.”
“No! You! Don’t!” And she ran him backwards off the dock. He came up sputtering but still laughing.
“How’s the water?”
“It’s fine. Come on in.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
He fumbled around under the water, his head disappearing up to the crown several times, and resurfaced, lifting his dripping shorts high above him. He threw them at her. She ducked. They hit the dock with a splat. Kathy looked up just in time to see his briefs flying at her. And past her. They sailed over the dock and landed in the water.
“Ha ha, smart guy!”
She looked at him, hands on her hips. “Come in,” he said again. She took off her glasses and set them inside her shoe.
Glancing around to make sure they were truly alone, she stripped off her shorts and her panties, pulled her top over head, waited, letting him get a good look at her, and then she ran, straight off the dock, leaping, pulling her legs up, launching herself at him in a high arching cannonball.
---from Her Life, a short story by Lance Mannion, who is on his way to Cape Cod. Blogging will continue from there.