Sea Change


They find her near the shore, near the bonfire—one of the boys trips over her when he goes for a piss. Lands flat on his face in the sand, smack next to her. It's three in the morning and he smells burnt hot dogs and vomit and is ready to pass out himself but the bonfire's still going, and he can't go home—his father will be up late, a single malt etched into his hand, watching golf and slurring quips at the TV. So he stays on, meandering with his friends, gulping the dregs of the keg and throwing driftwood into the fire and talking shit until they watch the sun creep from the horizon.

The other boys have no desire for home either—curfews ignored and sunburnt mothers cradling cell phones, tennis skirts poured over sturdy thick legs. It's Jim who finds her, he thinks it's one of the girls, the girls that came that night—Sisie and Sadie and Sara, a trio of "Ss"—but those girls can't talk, hold no sentiment for the boys, talk down to them, brush smooth hair off their shoulders, dab on more lip gloss, blow away talk of hockey and surfing, promised hand jobs and shagging under the scrub pines surrounding them.

Now the girls are gone—Chuck drove them home, drunk with shirt tail hanging out and his worn moccasins sliding off his sandy feet and he left the girls on their shell-strewn drives and pickled lawns to whine and swear and boast and vomit. But Jim forgets they're gone and he pats her cheek, get up, get up he slurs and runs his hand over the front of her blouse. But the blouse is damp, he didn't think the girls went swimming, didn't think Sisie tossed off her t-shirt, and stumbled into the wild surf and he followed—dark sweet waves rolling around them. No, he didn't think so and he peers down and looks hard, looks deep into the darkness and feels her cheek again; it's rubbery and cold, so cold like a squid or an octopus beached on the shore—pliant but dead.

His hand springs back and he throws up in the sand beside her. When he looks again he sees it isn't a blouse but a pink slip, waterlogged and translucent by now—large, pillowy breasts blooming through and a dark swatch of pubic hair like wisps of brown seaweed. Jim calls the other boys and they come running over, stare down, slack jawed, drunk, faces flushed. They kick her side and pinch and poke her hips and stomach with pieces of driftwood—dead, Jesus, it's dead, is all they say.

They can't assign a gender to her—it's a body, just a body—and the boys reach down and Jim takes an arm and Jeb takes the other and they drag her to the shack, where they keep boards, booze and plastic tubes—this is Jeb's house, summers only and they feel safe and successful on the beach, pimped up and delirious. They lay her down near the door, throw her body down in the tall, stiff beach grass, and the wild beach plums brush her cheeks and hair. You stay with her, Jim says to Len—the smallest of the group—and he goes back to the fire and raises the dirty tap of the keg to his mouth, stuffs a handful of stale chips down his throat.

The girls had gone home; it's only these four left, with salty throats and branded chests—tattoos slapped down and fierce splashes of hot sun. Len sits stiff-eyed, burning ears and dry hands and he sucks his fingers and looks at her, nudges her bottom with his bare foot and he's scared shitless. The other two follow Jim and they drink more by the burning embers, the fire almost out and they drink more, and two of them pass out and Jim comes back and Len's gone too, stretched out on the sand near the shore, and Jim sits near the woman and the light rises up on the beach and he sees two of her, dead drunk, eyes burning, and lifts her slip and looks at her pubic hair. It branches outward down her thighs, hairs creeping down her legs like an alluvial river, like an estuary of the Amazon, he thinks, dark and muddy and unlike the girls he's slept with—Sadie shaved bare, Sisie, a few small hairs sibilant and still, clutching to skin. He swallows hard, a giant knot in his throat, leans back against the wood of the shack, shuts his eyes and passes out, the thick clouds rolling over him as he snores.

He's the first up and he shakes all of them. It's early afternoon now and they all lie still in the grass as if the hot sun has pressed them down, coated them in a even glow and their bodies are now covered lightly with sand, saltwater deep in their hair and the creases of their necks. Wake up, the girl, the girl. He shouts and they all wake up and hold their heads in their hands and moan and cry out for Len to get them water and they drink water and Jeb opens a beer from the cooler in the shack and sits before the woman and gets a good look. She's older but not too old—just below their mothers' ages, except Chuck, whose mother is dead, died just last year and now he has a younger mother, a younger thing skipping around the house and ordering the likes of them around and she's sort of skittish around him, he tells the boys, always holds her robe tight when he walks in late at night, toasted and loud, and he laughs, a drunken cackle as he heads towards his bedroom and gives her a once over just to sort of freak her out, but this girl—how old is she?

'Cause she's not young and isn't too old and they don't know and her brow is wrinkled—sort of pitted, really, but she's still pretty—a wide slug of a mouth with traces of a red lipstick still there and her dark hair spills into the grass—wavy, knotty and loose. Sand scatters across her face, caked thick near her eyes, near her ears, as if she's merely slept on the beach that night, slept after taking a midnight dip, a bit drunk and heady, calling out to her man standing waist high in the water.

Her breasts are round loaves of bread—blunt and doughy, her thighs, thick and blue. Len thinks they look like the matron's at school—the matron with the big tits who rushes after them in the halls and dorms. Then Jeb leans towards her, reaches out his hand and touches her eyelids, pries them open with two fingers, peers in and looks—her eyes look dull, black and weak like his sister's dolls. What do you want to do? asks Len and he looks like he's about to cry—the police? No police, your fucking father would shit—Len's father is a politician, lean and strict and absent but powerful—fuck it, leave her here. Cover her up near the shack with some towels, this is our beach, trespassers will be shot, remember, Jim? And Jim grins from ear to ear. And Jim's like that, the clown in the group, plump and happy as ever. I need a shower and he gets up, be back later, I'll bring some girls and we go, we go tonight.

They all get up and wander off towards home, large, gaping homes like open wounds, and shower and eat in the absence of any parent, any mother who rises early for golf and card parties and sighs heartily with her friends—boys will boys and he's off to Princeton this Fall, and Jeb is going abroad before Cornell, will sow some wild oats and little Len will intern in the governor's office and Chuck, Chuck will attend, ahem, community college—yes the local one, until he's ready for Boston and he was only away for 6 months, I think it cleaned him up, don't you? God knows they drink so much, these boys, just like their fathers, and they spend the entire summer on that strip of beach—it's good for them, the sun and those silly girls. Sisie is a gem, a gem! And they sip their vodka tonics and the topics move on to perennials and organic soils.

And when the boys return, they've fed themselves from sub-zero fridges or Carmen fed them, ham sandwiches or tuna melts while they snickered and the summer sun is high, not too hot because it never really gets hot there, it's a milky heat, perfect in nuance and loves to rest easy on all and they have more coolers of beer and they're happy so happy but they haven't forgotten about her because when they showered and napped and drank she was sitting in the corner of their blank and surly minds, sulking, waiting for a response.

But they get back to the shack and drink more until someone removes the towel and they stare again and there's a slight smell, like low tide and mice rotting and Jeb wants to call the girls but Chuck says wait and they wait, and they sit in the sand and stare blankly at the horizon. And three of them decide to get driftwood and kindling from the beach for the next fire and Len is there and he sits next to her, waif-like next to her beefy chest and he's had lots of beer, it's 7 pm and he snuck a few drinks while his Dad cursed at his mother and the news anchors and the poor and the welfare mothers and the dirt in the streets and his mother mopes, sulks in the great room until she slips off in her Audi and Len is back here with the boys, a tribe really, a bloody, good tribe!

He's good and drunk and he faces the woman, pushes her up, props her up on her side, leans her against the side of the beach shack, near the outdoor shower where she's rested the whole night, alone and dead. What do you do, what do you do? He kind of whispers at her, this summer rocks. Rocks and rolls! he shouts. Shout at the devil! Love these guys, really love them and he drools on his canvas shorts, his surfer shorts with the right logo and he wants to throw up but doesn't. I don't get dad, I really don't, don't, don't. And he points his finger at her and continues, I'm not sure why he yells, why he cares about all those guys at the office and the politics and you're not very nice to him, no, you're not, he works hard, so hard, he's got tired eyes, dirty hands. I saw him for a full day one day last summer at the party, remember that? Remember? How could you remember? You never seem to remember!

And Len is shouting, shouting at her, and then Jeb comes by. What the fuck, what the fuck are you doing! Leave her alone now, got to drop her into the sea and get rid of her, rid - of - her. But Jeb is drunk, isn't Jeb always drunk? Jeb seems thick really but they all tell their parents he's not—he's smart, you hear? Applying to Cornell, he likes to draw! Going to build houses and tall buildings and their parents nod and twist their smiles, yes, yes, he will and they all know there's money in the bank, Jeb will be fine. Now, it's 9 pm and they're all drunk, smashed as asses against the shore, against the solemn sea, the wretched pull of the tide and waves. She's a woman! A woman! A mother, she could be and he laughs shrilly and prods her with a conch shell, leans over and grabs a horseshoe crab's broken tail and taps her cheeks and nose and prods her like a tuna about to be bought, about to be bought at a Japanese market.

Would she know when I was to be home? Would she know how many pills I took that night? Would she know if I fucked Sadie in the master shower and that Sadie is a sort of a cunt, you know—she fucked Len too, little fucking Len! I don't give a flying fuck and I don't give a flying fuck if I get into any of your goddamn prick schools in the Fall and this is my stretch of land—my expanse of ocean, my territory, my claim to the land. I own! I own! I am well represented on this patch of land and my parents mean shit, really, like a whole island of shit!

That's Jeb now and he sits near the woman, close and looks at her, nods at her and feels heavy, always so heavy and he looks so big next to Len, like an uncle one goes to for advice but he wouldn't know advice if it smacked him in the face. There's no need to think these days, it's all presented before him and they hand him the key, the key to the kingdom, the good and briny kingdom by the sea and he'll marry one of them—cocktails on the deck and cattle calls on the course and he'll spend afternoons at the mahogany bar at the club and clink glasses with the other drunks.

He heaves and haws and drops in the sand like a tired dog and that was that and then Chuck comes storming over and slaps Len on the side of his face, thought you were supposed to pick up the girls? What happened with the girls, man, we can't rely on you anymore and he glances over at the woman, at the dead body, glib and impermeable next to Len and Jeb and sighs. We don't have live girls but instead dead girls and I have to hope to hell she'll be gone before morning. Will she be gone, Len? This is Jeb's house, Jeb's house. And Jeb slips down and rolls around in the sand and runs to the sea and dives in and floats about for a bit and runs out, wild eyed and oblivious but he sees the dead woman in his periphery and sighs again.

Put her in the house, put her in the shack, keep her warm, keep her, keep her and Chuck and Len drag her inside and lay her against the wall, prop her up once again next to some wooden oars and they all roll in from the fire, no one called the girls, they forgot—all horniness has left their limbs like sweat and they sit around her and whisper and chant. Jeb is incoherent and Chuck is drooling and Len is asleep now but Chuck is wide-awake and his face is red and pitted against the coals and everyone is still. Nice, clean Chuck who couldn't hurt a fly yet to fuck a girl, and admires well-tailored shirts. Fantastic—the city! When he goes in and jets around and sees how one really lives, how one is able to leave these dunes, these sleepy villages, and he'll be gone soon enough after some classes and he'll travel to exotic locales and soul search—an outdated term and never once heard in his family. He blinks, blinks again, drinks more, grabs the woman's arm, holds on tight, it's not cold anymore, more stiff, and he begs her to listen, can anyone listen to me?

He wants to shout but he leans closer and whispers to her: what does she do in the boathouse, always got a drink in her hand, a cigarette—whose parents really smoke anymore? She does and it's falling on her sleeves and skirt, how come she doesn't see us? And the guys tease, tease hard because she's the big wig, the "COO" he told them once, yeah, she's like the COO of Ambersend, "the coo!" they all screamed, coochie, coo! Coo coo c'joob, 'cause Len loves that '60s crap and Chuck shuts up about it, never mentions it again. And when he thinks of her now, she's always in a silly suit dress—tinny and whiny. And after work, her hair falls loose on her shoulders and she talks about her days at Wellslesley with the girls and the riding crops and the sandals and everything was so crisp, she says, little in life is crisp anymore like when I was a girl. Perfection is the death of this class; she mumbles and walks out onto the grass, past the wooden mallets rotting on the lawn.

Now Jeb's back, back from the windy surf, the blood wine sea, and he runs back to the shore and breathes heavy, heavy now, heavy now and he's sweating through the drops of salt water on his skin and he heads inside the hut, kicks Chuck's side, hey man, she's starting to reek and he grabs her arms, help me man, Chuck, help me and Chuck grabs her hands and they pull her up. She's stiff and heavy and oars fall and boards slip down and they drag her out, her slip rising and the other boys are asleep on the sand and they drag her towards the shoreline and Chuck holds her arms and Jeb, her legs and they heave and ho and it could be Len they're throwing in—one, two, three and in you go!

And Len would fly high, so high, his lithe, little body floating high above the horizon and they swing again and she drops heavy, heavy into the shallow water and she's a beached whale now that they've rescued then thrown back. She drifts out a little, just a little and they watch the sea pull her out, the strong undertow and Jeb turns around and now Chuck's standing thigh high in the water watching her go but he turns around now too because he hears voices and sees Sisie and Sadie come over, drift over, girls in a parade and the boys come quickly to the shore, walk swiftly towards the girls and hit the coolers, grab a few beers, sit down in the sand.

They all sit still and smoke and drink and watch the seagulls drop clams and mussels against the jetty, drop them until they crack and die and are eaten.  

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