That Morning Sun Comes Rising Up
Helen leaned softly back in her beach chair and watched the corona of the sun rising above the sea’s horizon. In that second, she stopped obsessing about the flashlight batteries missing from her storage closet and let the first soft rays touch her face. Having almost reached her ninetieth year, she felt some kinship to the rising sun and strived to greet it each morning as she sat in her canvas chair on the public beach. Seagulls hovered in high breezes off the water. Two sandpipers skittered along the beach sand, weaving in and out of the waves, probing for sand crabs. Otherwise the shore lay isolated but for the old woman, Helen, and the birds and the faint illumination of the rising sun.
She opened her book and rubbed a dog-eared page with the flat of her thumb. The sun was yellow-white this morning. Its exhalations of light began to expand across the far reaches of ocean. Then a faint shadow far down the shore line glinted in the corner of her vision. She winked as if some floater had crossed the edge of her sight and turned to see a naked man moving up the beach. He was tall and gaunt, leaning forward against the underfoot of the sand. The wind ruffled his mane of white hair. Through the shimmering distance, she could see very well his nakedness and that he was looking out toward the sea as he ambled along. She turned away back to the sun. A wave of annoyance quivered through her. When she raised her eyes askance to the slip of a figure, the man had halted and appeared to be sliding a pair of swimming trunks up his stilted legs. She thought the act to be modest in some peculiar way. She looked back once more at the orb of fire bursting above the ocean’s shelf, then shifted her attention to the open page of her book. She tried to read in the emerging light and determined, almost fiercely, that she would not acknowledge the intruder as he passed.
In less than a minute he crossed below her near the shoreline. The man walked slowly at the very edge of lapping waves. Helen turned the book face down across her legs and rested her head in the brace of her palm. He was an old man with white hair on his chest, a long white moustache, and a head of wild, white hair. A shy smile crossed his face. She gauged his height to be modestly tall, probably a sliver over six feet. Though his shoulders fanned broadly over an otherwise slender trunk of a body, there was a firm slope to them as if perhaps he had carried great weights during his life. She saw that the familiar atrophy of muscle had set upon his aging body. His legs were elongated shanks of sturdy bone rising almost stilt-like into his baggy swim trunks. She liked the interloper less at this moment and gave a blank stare to his broadening grin. When he swung around and faced her, the sun was over his shoulder. A prickling sensation of panic swarmed over her.
“If I had known such loveliness waited here in the dawn, I would have walked this beach long ago,” he sang.
Helen pressed her spine into the back of the canvas chair. His laughter rolled toward her over the soft murmuring of the waves. He turned and began to walk away, looked back over his shoulder, and signaled goodbye with a languid wave of his hand. She heard him say into the breeze: “Ciao.”
Helen touched her cheek. A feverish warmth spread across her face, sank along the back of her neck and down the knotty flesh of her backbone. Laughter erupted in her chest as the full realization of the old man’s flirtatiousness struck her. She closed the book over her thumb and watched his lithe figure grow smaller down the long beach. The old man continued his walk and looked out over the ocean.
Less than an hour later, Helen slid the novel into her beach bag. She had read little since the old man had turned to her and said that she was lovely. As the morning progressed, her mind wandered to the infinite scope of the ocean, to sunbathers drifting down to claim venerable spots on the sand, to young surfers plowing out beyond the reef to sit upon their boards, and to the anticipation that the white-haired man might materialize once again. He did not return. There moved within Helen an uneasiness that for a moment took the shape of fear. She wondered about the faltering of her senses. Had the real and the unreal begun to blend? It was the same uneasy feeling that had come the day before after she discovered the missing batteries. After she had confided to her daughter that a thief might roam the buildings. One day they were there on the lower shelf of the storage closet beside the Maglite and then the next day they were gone.
“Let’s not be ridiculous,” she said to herself. Helen pushed herself up from the chair. The sand was now faintly warm and giving beneath her bare feet. She gathered her gear in the slow, meticulous manner that had been a part of her ritual for the last five of her eighty-nine years and began her steady trek across the dunes to the public parking lot on the knoll beside the picnic pavilion.
In the evening as the sun traversed the lower reaches of a pale, blue sky Helen poured a glass of white wine for her daughter and herself. From the small kitchen, she carried the glasses by their stems to the screened-in veranda of her apartment that overlooked the immaculate green landscape of St. Andrews Estates. A crescent-shaped lake lay just beyond a row of mango trees and the paved walkway that ran from the buildings. As she stepped onto the veranda, the last drafts of the sun shimmered on the lake and caught in her eyes. As so often happened now, time reeled back for Helen and she stood very still as if to gather some lost vision. An egret’s low flight over the water brought her back and Helen set the drinks on the glass tabletop beside a plate of crackers and cheese. She pulled back a chair and emitted a sigh as she lowered herself into the seat.
Her daughter, Maggie, sat at the table with her back to the window. Maggie’s attention was riveted into the editorial page of the Sun-Sentinel. Helen took in the gray essence suffused within her daughter’s blonde hair and the light fan of wrinkles near the corners of her eyes. Her daughter’s eyes were a translucent blue, as had been her father’s.
“A naked man talked to me this morning on the beach. Just as the sun was rising,” Helen said. She detected the faint flare of Maggie’s nostrils. Likened the movement to the slight up and down wriggle of a moth’s wings when the insect is at rest. Her daughter looked up, frowning. Helen raised her hand. “It’s not as frightening as it sounds. He put his swim trunks on before he stopped to chat.”
“Then he wasn’t naked while he was talking to you,” Maggie said. “Is that right?” The lines of Maggie’s face smoothed into a fine balance between judgment and concern.
“He had put on swimming trunks further up the beach after he saw me. He wasn’t naked when he stopped to talk. I didn’t make that clear.”
Maggie folded the newspaper in half and placed it beside the cheese plate. Helen looked past her daughter’s shoulder. It was very still outside and a knot tightened in her stomach.
“What did he talk to you about? Did he bother you?”
Helen’s chest jumped with laughter. “He said I was lovely.” Just as she spent the words from her mouth came a surge of regret. She immediately crossed her arms and became interested in a raven pair perched on the limbs of a pine tree out on the lawn. “I really wasn’t offended. He was just an old person trying to be cute.”
The floor seemed to shift beneath her chair. New lines etched deep into the corners of her daughter’s mouth.
“You should not be so judgmental,” Helen said in gentle reproach. “You’re wondering if I’m imagining things.” Helen remembered her daughter as she looked when eighteen, adorned in Benjamin Franklin glasses, miniskirt. Plump and round knees bared to a revolutionary world.
“I don’t understand,” Maggie said.
“You’re wondering if I’m becoming senile. I know how you worry,” Helen said.
“Mom, you’re almost ninety. What am I supposed to think when you tell me that a naked man made a pass at you. Yesterday it was someone stealing your flashlight batteries. What am I supposed to think?”
Maggie reached for her mother’s hand. Helen drew her hands back and folded them against her stomach. She did not want her daughter’s touch, those warm fingertips stroking across the high blue veins. She watched her daughter lean back in her chair and a stern air encroached the distance between them. Maggie’s voice seemed to come from deep inside a long tunnel. “I want you to talk to a doctor before I leave. I’ll cancel my flight. I’m going to stay a few more days. I won’t leave until I get some assurance.”
“Assurance for what?” Helen spoke and was saddened by the petty defiance rising high up in her throat. When Maggie reached again to take her hand, she did not resist but patted the wrists of her child. Interlaced those slender fingers within her own.
The next morning Helen began her pre-dawn drive swinging the Cadillac sedan south onto St. Andrews Avenue then east onto Palmetto Park Road to the public beach, a route as methodical as one in a recurring dream. She parked the car in her usual spot close to the metal picnic pavilion. Beyond the pathway that wound through the jungle of sea grape vines to the beach, the ocean rolled and murmured. Helen gathered her gear from the back seat of the car, locked the door and made her way through the twilight inside the shrouds of foliage and out onto the sand. On the beach, an easterly wind riffed back her hair and fluffed through the loose seams of her shirt. She doffed her beach bag and chair beside her feet and commenced to setting up her umbrella. She unfolded her chair and braced it evenly over the sand and lowered herself into it. Then she looked down the long span of beach in its half-light in the direction that the old white-haired man had come the morning before.
When she looked back to the ocean Helen pondered the odd movements inside herself. She remembered the golden follicles of hair on her husband’s arm illuminated in sunlight that poured upon them in the open convertible. The long, hard muscles of his leg rested against her thigh. The road on which they drove through the Pennsylvania hills was mottled with shade and patches of light. She had rubbed her fingers across his wrist, her mouth parted in wonder at the glow of such downy hair. She was nineteen. He was twenty-one. They had met at Penn, a sorority soiree in which she noticed that fellows of his fraternity moved around him like squires in service to their knight. He had dark hair, parted down the middle and there was no scent of oil or lotion upon him, just the natural musk of his body. In the months of courtship before he left for the war, they often journeyed out of Philadelphia to her parents’ home in Delaware County. On long weekends she and Bill would ride horses along old Indian trails through the surrounding woods of her father’s great farm or take long walks around the spring-fed pond and follow the stream that fed into it from the hills. He confided to her that he didn’t know what he would do with his life after the war. Probably medicine. Many physicians were in his family lineage, his grades were superior, and his connections excellent. But first there would be the war and it was an exciting time to be young and heroic. She remembered him sharing such thoughts on a crisp, fall day and having such an earnest expression on his fresh face. While they stood on the trail looking down on her father’s valley through the trees, Bill told her that he loved her. She told him that it was very good that he loved her because she believed herself to be pregnant. He took her hand and they walked back down the winding path. She could not stop thinking that this man would be her husband and the great stone house of her parent’s might someday be their home.
After they had married and Bill had left for the war, she lived on the farm with her parents. By March, 1944 during the invasion of Anzio, her husband’s letters had all but ceased. Those few that made their way to her through the weighted year of 1943 had become increasingly remote in tone, as if his experiences in battle had garnished some new truth which he could not share. She busied herself with the care of the baby and helped her father plant and cultivate the family’s victory garden. On Saturday mornings, leaving the bubbling child under her mother’s care, she would drive the family car into the nearby town of Media and participate in the Red Cross saving and collection campaign. The baby boy was eighteen months old when the illness struck. And now as she is remembering the dark curls of the little boy’s hair, the sun’s first rays gorged the sky above the ocean and her thoughts skittered away. She was so good at not thinking about the past. How strange such memories had come to her on this morning. A stirring of emotion wisped up that was greater than nostalgia, sensual longing. She sighed away these vexations within herself and found her book in the carrying bag and waited for the sun.
The faint shadow of a figure appeared up the beach just as the sun broke above the horizon. She was certain it was him. She affirmed that if he stopped again and made another flirtatious comment she would firmly tell him that his behavior was inappropriate. Helen prided herself in her ability to gently reproach, never wanting to hurt anyone.
He came up the shoreline wearing the same baggy swim shorts he had pulled on the morning before. His vision seemed fixed upon the horizon, on the sun rising behind a thin layer of clouds forming a scarlet, half-crescent. Then he looked her way and smiled and passed by without speaking, without even the haughty wink of an eye. She watched him sink farther away up the remote shoreline toward the north. Disappointment settled high up in her chest. What is it? she thought. Helen, woman of grace, felt the prickly heat of foolishness flushing warm into the sides of her face. She opened her book. There was a taste to the disappointment, a shame for having wanted the man to stop and talk. The gray of light was sufficient enough for her to read. As the morning before, the old man did not return.
That evening, the doctor who came to speak to Helen wore a bright, Hawaiian shirt and gray, linen slacks. Sandals clad his feet exposing perfectly trimmed and healthy toenails. A scruffy salt and pepper beard hid his face and accentuated the glint of a gold earring. He kept a half-smile that seemed to beam a constant message of assurance. Helen could not help herself. She liked him. Maggie had left the apartment immediately after the doctor arrived, skirting out the door with eyes averted.
He was apologetic, sat deep into the sofa, and crossed his legs. She sat across from him very straight on the small divan. He said that his name was Steve and that St. Andrews Estates contracted with him to chat sometimes with the residents. “Children worry too much, Helen. You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. Can I call you Helen?” He looked idly at the soft yellow walls and paused upon the gilded-framed photograph of Helen as a young woman. In the picture, she sat astride a horse with her knees high up along the animal’s flank, her body sloped forward across the horse’s neck in that moment of flight over a split-rail fence. Steve looked back at her and Helen emitted her most pleasant smile.
“I know of these inquisitions. You’re going to examine me and pry into my personal life.” A fine trace of a line now separated her lips. “In fairness I should be able to ask you questions in return?”
Steve looked at Helen and rubbed the knotty bone of his ankle with the flat of his thumb. “It’s a deal,” he said slowly.
The mundane nature of Steve’s interrogation surprised Helen. At times, she felt her heart racing as she sought to suppress tiny waves of laughter. He asked her to tell him the day of the week, the name of the United States President, and a recent event of interesting newsworthiness. He challenged her to count backward and remember a list of words that he asked her surreptitiously to recall after their conversation had taken different routes and many minutes had passed. His eyes twinkled. “You’ll love this question, Helen. Imagine that you’re lost in the woods or the mountains during the daytime. How would you find your way out?”
Helen mused into the image of herself alone in the depth of a forest and smiled in condescension. “An old woman lost in the woods. Why would I want to go wandering into the woods?” Helen drew in her breath and told the doctor in the Hawaiian shirt that she would orient herself to the sun and follow a true path. That given the grace of strong legs into her old age, she might follow a stream to its source.
Steve asked her if she heard voices that no one else could hear and whether such messages came in the middle of the darkest night or at the height of the brightest day. She told him that she heard only her own voice that was inside her head. He asked her about visions. “Are you able to see what others cannot see?” Helen shook her head sadly and said that she has not had visions but told him about the old man she had seen on the beach. “It was not a vision,” she said. “He was an old man trying to startle an old woman.”
Steve nodded. “Have you been missing batteries?”
She told him that batteries have been stolen from her storage closet, but life is not meant to be without vexations and she had the means to drive to the local Publix and replace them. “I’m quite agile.”
“Your daughter said that every morning you drive to South Beach and watch the sun come up. It sounds like a wonderful habit.” Steve tilted his head. His thick neck riffed into the scruff of his beard. Helen rejoined his indirect inquiry with silence. Finally she smiled and looked directly into his gray eyes.
“It is a ritual that belongs to this old person,” she said. “It’s one of my remaining pleasures since my husband’s death and there’s nothing more for me to explain.”
Steve had uncrossed his legs and now sat with his hands upon his knees. His vision drifted to the veranda’s open doors. Outside upon the manicured lawns, palm trees swayed languidly under the caress of prevailing southeasterly winds.
“Did you have any questions?” he said. She found him looking back at her now, the gray eyes burning.
Helen asked him when he was the happiest in his life. She looked upon him with great intensity and read the changing lines of his face. Thought him to be honestly seeking some truth to share.
“I was buried in snow when I was twenty-four,” he began. “An avalanche that started a mile above us in the Savoie Alps came down and caught all but two of the eight of us. I was trapped after the explosion of snow settled and unable to move in white darkness. I lost my sense of time.”
The doctor wet his lips and Helen noticed that his hands rested upon his knees as if to steady himself.
“After the horror I became taken by a sense of peace. It was probably the result of carbon dioxide building up but it was very pleasant, like the seeding of happiness. Then a rescuer’s probe struck my jaw. I heard shovels scraping and the voices of others. A gloved hand brushed chunks of snow away from my face. The light was enormous.”
He leaned slowly forward and she detected the scent of sunscreen lotion off his skin and heard his whispered voice.
“The happiest moment of my life came days later. I was standing in my bare feet in front of the kitchen window drinking a glass of water when my daughter’s cat brushed against my ankle and curled asleep over the top of my foot. I stood there looking out across the roofs of buildings through the window but couldn’t move. My wife and my child were asleep in the bedroom and I was crying with happiness.”
A new wrinkle in the pattern of Helen’s life had emerged—the anticipation of the old man’s appearance on the beach. Each morning since the week following her husband’s death five years before, she arose from her bed in the darkness and flicked on the bedside lamp. Arms folded, she sat in the cushioned chair beside her bedroom window and listened to the early weather report on the local radio station. Unless the announcer’s animated voice foretold a great band of thunderstorms marching violently toward the coast, she would prepare for the journey to greet the sun.
Following the weather report, as was her custom, she would gravitate to the kitchen, click the coffeemaker switch—the coffee preparation had taken place the night before—dine on a cup of yogurt and possibly a cold, boiled egg. She would squeeze into her bathing suit, usually the one with flower patterns that had ruffles along the fringe to add modesty to her appearance, slip her beach bag over her shoulder, and leave without locking the door. The carpeted hallway of St. Andrews Estates with its harsh artificial light would be empty and entrenched in the stale breath of silence. She would drive to the ocean as if pulled along by an invisible string to the space in the vacant public beach parking lot. There she would switch the car engine off and rise once more from her seat to hear the ocean waves.
As she reclined in her beach chair during the mornings that followed a racing of her heart would begin as the old, white-haired man wriggled into view far down the shore line. With his silhouette growing more distinct, the desire for him to once again linger and say that she was lovely would overwhelm her. But he would pass her by with a vague, sentimental smile, then look back out onto the ocean in the direction of the sun. Sometimes he pawed his hand into the air, an almost mindless greeting as he passed. Always he smiled and Helen began to return his smile with a sad, abstract upturn of her lips.
At evening gatherings on the veranda with her bridge partners, Marilyn and Father John, Helen would catch the two casting questioning glances at the other. A thimble of air would clasp inside her throat as she realized that her thoughts had been somewhere else far away. After the flutter of embarrassment, Helen would bring herself back and join again the conversation, gliding into it with her light laugh, a sip of white wine: “Oh, we dream too much, we old people.” And everything would right itself again. Father John’s plump hand would light upon the length of her fingers. “We, the old,” he would affirm.
When Maggie called from Philadelphia to announce the arrival date of her next visit, Helen drew into silence and watched through the veranda windows the path of a blue heron above the lake and how the bird’s shadow followed it across the water.
“Mom, are you there?”
“Yes, dear, I keep seeing that old man pass by on the beach and he makes me sad. It will cheer me up to see you.”
That night thunder rumbled far off as Helen lay with the back of her head against the pillow and shut her eyes. A great longing for her lost youth besieged her. She sank further and could hear her heart pounding. Across her eyelids pulsed the faint illumination from a lightning flash. The soft rapping of rain began against the window and she was standing in another world, setting her foot lithely into the stirrup, the hounds baying excitedly before the hunt. Her daughter, a child of thirteen, blood of the fox rouged on her cheeks, sidled her big bay alongside her mount. The hounds, once released, began to fly across the pasture and over the sparse-wooded fields, and she, her daughter, and the other foxhunters whipped into their mounts and bound forward as if released by the earth.
In the darkness Helen awoke and flipped on the switch of the lamp light. The rain had stopped. Later, she drank her coffee and contemplated the weather announcer’s exuberant voice as he told of unsettled bands of clouds moving up the coast, a fifty percent chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon, and high wind warnings. She washed out her coffee cup and set it in the tray of the sink. Helen tried to hold back the strange inner assault of agitation. She ran her fingers through her hair, then gathered her beach gear and left her apartment.
The street was wet from last night’s rains and glistened in the head lights’ beams. When she pulled into her favored spot in the parking area, the wind beat over the car’s hood and rain pattered her windshield. At the horizon, the sky brimmed away like a slate canvas. The ocean heaved forward in vast, white-capped waves.
Helen got out of her car and stood behind the open driver’s door and looked toward the sea. On the beach below, the silhouette of a man faced the ocean, then turned and looked up and waved. Helen lifted her hand above the rim of the door. Sharpened by the wind the rain began to sting her face. She watched him move across the articulations of sand, his knees high uplifted, and reach the wooden steps that led up to the picnic pavilion and then the parking lot. When he appeared in front of her, he smiled. His white hair was damp across his brow and down the side of his neck. A bright, red windbreaker billowed around him in the wind.
“Do you like strong coffee?” he said. He held out his hand. “My name is Sam Fairchild.”
They sat at a table in the café of the Barnes and Noble bookstore on Glades Road, a mile outside Helen’s usual route. Helen felt dizzy, but hollow with excitement. Sam Fairchild had bought them each a small cup of coffee. He paid with a bounty of quarters from his pocket and they sat at a small table by the front window. The murmuring din of social chatter and the foggy aroma of new books lilted around them. Outside the window of the cafe, palm trees lined the medians of the parking lot and swayed in the wind. Rain fell in wispy sheets. Across the highway, the modern edifices of Florida Atlantic University burgeoned up from what had once been an old army airfield. Students from the university occupied most of the surrounding tables. They sat with plastic cords traversing from their ears to laptop computers yawed open and stationed beside the splay of textbooks and composition notebooks.
“Beautiful and serious.” Lamentation steeped through Sam Fairchild’s voice. He sipped his coffee. “They should be elsewhere.”
“Where is elsewhere?”
“Ah,” he whispered, and his eyes looked inward. “On hiking trails in the French countryside. Provence, Dordogne, somewhere eating baguettes with camembert cheese. Cherries off the trees.” He raised a thick finger into the air. “Making love in the shade of umbrella trees.”
“You’re a silly boy,” she said and looked away smiling upon the unblemished faces of the students. Giddiness struck into her blood, sped through her veins.
“Boy,” he murmured, smiling, puffing the air away from his lips. “I love the sound of that word. It makes me feel that I’m one of these lads. You and I have closed the books and looked into the other’s eyes and said, ‘Yes, let’s flee.’ We vow ourselves to poverty and commit to a life in which only love matters. We gather together enough dough and fly to Paris, live in hostels, take rail ventures to Lyon, Marseille. At harvest time, we’ll pick grapes to make money.” He seemed to be looking at her from a thousand miles away. Something wild in imagination burned far back beyond those dark and yellow-tinted eyes. “It would be 1925. We’d be wonderfully poor. Hemingway would be in Paris. We’d look him up and I’d out drink him. You’d drive him crazy with your gorgeous figure and your wit. I’d have to fight him. Pummel the bastard to the dance floor.”
“Stop,” she said. She was sure he was a little crazy, but she couldn’t understand the way her blood seemed to rush through her veins and the way a damp, pleasant feeling rose through her skin. Helen stared at him—the soft, white moustache, the fan of wrinkles almost twinkling across his high cheekbones, the large, crooked nose that evoked in her suspicions that he might have once engaged in fierce combative contests. It struck her that he had probably been handsome in his youth.
“What did you do in your younger years?” Unabashedly, she lifted her chin. “Who is this man that shares with me each morning the rising sun? Tell me who you are, Sam.” She engaged him with an inquisitive crinkle around her shining gray eyes.
Sam rotated the coffee cup in his hand and stared inside it. “After the army when I was very young I filmed test explosions of the atomic bomb.” He hesitated. “Later, I got out of the film business and built houses. Sturdy homes up and down the coast of Florida on land my dad had bought before the Florida boom.” Sam looked up. “And I wrote poetry. Reams of horrible and convoluted lyrical verse. I still write some but over the last few years, I mainly travel to places I’ve seen before. It’s like visiting old friends, Helen. Old friends.” He looked up. Two long furrows in his face deepened into the corners of his smile. “You’re a poet, aren’t you Helen?”
“I think not.” Helen’s fingertips unexpectedly touched her throat.
“You don’t write poetry? Look straight into this old boy’s eyes and tell me you’re not a poet.” He leaned forward on his elbows. She heard him begin to speak very slowly, turning words in his mind as if feeling for dimes among change in his palm.
“That morning sun comes rising up…” he began and paused. His face was alight beneath its furrowed ridges. “The next line will come to me, you wait,” he murmured and half-closed his eyes. He recited slowly, testing each word: “I see in its coming the beginning of my life.” His eyes remained half-shut, as if to enter some doorway into dreams. Then his eyelids, smooth as larvae, drew slowly open. Clenched fists floated upward to the sides of his face. He began again. “That morning sun comes rising up. I see in its arrival, the beginning of my life…” His fingers unfolded and he looked straight into Helen. “Tell me the next line, Helen. What should it be?”
Inside Helen’s chest was the subtle movement that came of melting. She felt challenged but weak and she began to shape the old man’s words aloud. “That morning sun comes rising up and I see in it the beginning of my life.” She looked up, then away, introspective etches forming in her brow. “I see in its light, the chance to live another day.”
A broad grin leavened across Sam Fairchild’s face. Helen shook her head and pushed a curl of hair back from her ear. She frowned impishly. “How horrible. How utterly horrible.”
“We are poets. Horrible, wonderful poets,” Sam Fairchild chuckled.
A half-hour later, Sam Fairfield glanced at his watch and peered out the front windows. The rain had ceased. “I have to go home and call my son. Our check-in time, the child is father of the man.” A bemused expression fanned across his face. “You know, Helen, the boy and I talk and look at each other through a computer screen. From far parts of the world we now talk to each other, but we’ve never been closer.” He flashed his fine grin. “He’s a pilot. International flights. I’m very proud of him. He flies me where ever my heart desires.” She noticed that the tract of skin descending over his cheekbones had an almost translucent sheen.
“I will give you a lift home?” she said.
“No, I’m used to walking long distances. It’s not far.”
“I don’t mind,” she said.
Helen pulled her car off the old AIA road onto the seashell apron that fanned into a parking area in front of the Beach Haven Hotel. A melee of palm trees and palmettos surrounded the building’s stuccoed walls, their limbs swaying in the salt breeze. The front lawn was trimly cut. On the narrow coastal road the traffic hummed past in mocking defiance of the ocean’s music beyond the great sand berms immersed in sea grape vines. A few beach towels of sunset color, draped across the second floor banister and lolled undulantly in the breezes. Inanimate forms seeking the breath of life. Sam got out of the car, waved, and walked away.
The next morning the two old people met on the beach as the sun crested the sea’s horizon like an incandescent wafer pulsating with immeasurable light. Helen walked beside Sam, her breath rising high in her chest, her vision holding over her right shoulder in the direction of the sun. The sand underfoot was smooth and firm. Beside her, in faint, uneven stride, Sam Fairchild turned toward her. She saw in the craggy lines that arched toward each side of his mouth, emanations of delight. He whispered to her: “We are outliers, Helen,” then looked back toward the ocean, his hand reaching for hers.
In the mornings that followed they engaged in lively commentaries about the here-and-now world and the one that had come and gone. For Helen, even the most mundane of topics sheared through her with excitement. Sam pointed out upon his body the scars of old wounds. Madness twinkled in his eyes. He told her about the time he crouched by a stream and a Townsend warbler, possibly disoriented in flight, had alighted next to him on a rock. It stared at him with skittish cocks of its head, round dark eye penetrating the meaning of this human creature that shared the wooded space. “I slowly dipped my hand into the stream, uplifted my cupped palm. It drank, dipping its beak and inspecting me for a full thirty seconds. Finally, fluttered its wings and lit on the tips of my fingers, then flew away.” Sam shook his head. He walked with his hand out before him, fingers curled toward the flesh of his palm as if he had returned to that special time.
Helen told Sam about her horse, Willie, an animal that could open gates by the clinch of his teeth. “As if yesterday was now, I see him on fall days before a hunt when the woods on the hills had turned bright red and orange. He would prance in front of me with his breath smoking in the cool air.”
On the third morning, Sam whispered into Helen’s ear that he had stopped trying to understand the world. He had learned long ago that those who told you they knew about life’s meanings were to be avoided. She nodded in affirmation and clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth.
At Bistro Provence, a small restaurant off the gushing four-lane asphalt strip that was Federal Highway, Sam and Helen had dinner together after the fourth day of their sunrise walks. She had invited him that morning. They had stopped and they were about to begin the trek back up the beach. She felt the warmth of the gentle waves wrapping around her ankles. “I don’t think you’re dangerous,” she said. “I know a little restaurant that has atmosphere and good food. I’d like to take you there this evening.”
“Surely I present a little danger.” He touched her on the back of her arm.
That evening, he wore khaki slacks with frayed hems and penny loafer shoes that had been burnished by heavy swipes of either a shoe brush or soft rag. A white, cotton shirt, freshly ironed, was tucked inside his trousers. He left the first button at the neck undone. Soft strands of white hair curled along the collar. Helen quickly noticed that he had shaven and the skin of his face emanated with a cheery radiance. Seated at their table, Helen leaned forward and whispered, “It has been many years since I’ve sat alone at a table across from a man.”
“I’ve had many women in my life,” he said. “They’ve always come easy for me. I hope you understand that I’m a dreamer and I’m just passing by.”
“How old are you?”
“Eighty-seven,” he said firmly.
“You’re too young for me anyway,” she said.
Sam told Helen about the wondrous quakes of what had been the most powerful explosion on earth, the shock of its flashing light over twenty miles away across a blue sea, and its plume cathedraling as if begot by the architectural sweep of a supernatural’s hand. He told her that after each test in the Pacific, after each profligate cloud had dispersed and the sun had set past the ocean’s rim, he would lapse into periods of darkness. “I’ve had many losses as one should who is old, but the most painful time in my life was when recording the atom bomb tests.” Sam raised his eyes to Helen. “My mood darkened. I drank hard and began to carry a gun strapped to my hip. I picked fights and bloodied up men I called my friends, men who would later die young from malignancies of body and soul. I sought in some way penitence for having borne witness to that which is both holy and evil, for having looked upon such phenomena with adulation.” He shook his head and leaned back in his chair and kept both hands at rest on the table’s edge. “After filming the fifth test, I quit the job. Said I was finished and packed my duffle. J. Edgar’s boys interrogated me on the island before I left the Pacific proving grounds and accused me of being a communist. They watched me for years like special-bred dogs that could never forget my blood smell.”
Sam drew the glass of red wine to his mouth, hesitated before drinking. He cocked his head sideways and gave her a wink. “I don’t talk enough. And when I do I can’t shut up.”
Helen saw that his eyes shone bright in the soft, ambient light of the bistro. It came to her that she felt comfortable in the presence of Sam Fairchild. She dwelled fleetingly on the recognition that when in the company of another she had always strived to be someone else, to be the shape and form of whomever the other wanted her to be, as if that tact, which came so naturally, would control her anxieties of this foreboding world.
“I’m not bored by your talk,” she said and meant it. “And I’m sound of mind.” She lifted gray eyebrows and quirked a smile. “I was recently cleared by a psychiatrist.”
“To an outlier,” Sam said and raised his glass. He smiled, strong white teeth for an old man.
“I’ve lived a sheltered and boring life.”
“That is not so,” he whispered. “There’s no eighty-nine years of life without pain and suffering. You can’t fool an old fool. Tell me, Helen. Tell me the most painful time in your life. I’ve shared with you mine.” Sam’s voice was animated. His lips gleamed in the soft light.
Helen felt slightly off balance sitting in her chair. The air of the moment was odd and transforming into dampness. There was a stirring of elation and sadness in her stomach. She looked at this white-haired man, the crags of his swarthy old face meant for the interpretations of fortune tellers, and told him as if from a far away silent place, from a voice that was not her own: “It was when my first child died. During the war I lived with my parents on our farm in Pennsylvania. My husband Bill was in the war, the Anzio invasion and we had not heard from him for months. My little boy died of leukemia. On the day my child died, I saddled my horse, Willy, and rode through the woods and across the fields and didn’t come home until late in the night. I wasn’t sure I would ever come back.”
Sam Fairchild nodded and reached across the table and touched Helen’s cheek with his broad fingertips. She did not pull away and heard again the natural sounds of patrons laughing and conversing. Sam finally leaned back into his chair and squared his shoulders. “You came back,” he said.
“Willy was hungry and tired. I felt sorry for my horse.” Helen smiled contemplatively. The side of her face tilted toward the sounds of mysterious echoes. “Within two years of my husband’s return from the war, we had another child. A little girl. I’ve always feared her closeness. I’ve always kept my distance.”
Helen could not explain this odd convergence with another man so late in her life. From it fomented an awakening for which she was unprepared. She had considered herself descending toward the supernatural absence of being, as she considered her finiteness, often, usually after a second glass of white wine with one of her more Unitarian and wizened friends. We must go over the edge with as much grace as we can conjure, she would ruminate, half aloud. But knew deep inside herself that no matter how much penance had been enacted, how much grace had been exuded, it would all be stinking at the very end.
But here now was this new blood rushing through her veins, damn near oozing through the near translucent skin of her face, laying her awake at night. Tremors of which she considered perverse in origin passed through her flesh. Sitting alone in her favorite chair on the veranda, she would whisper to the tiny anoles that sought crumbs on the floor, “I cannot love. Surely, I can’t. What is this heavy weight?” Finally, she would lower to her knees and scurry the little chameleons out the gap in the glass door with the back brush of her hand.
On their next morning walk, their breaths heaving into the swiping breeze of the ocean, Sam shook his head and laughed and Helen watched his hair being tousled by the wind.
“It’s ironic that all my travelling now is the retracing of old steps. I was here once before as a young man walking with a girl on this beach before the war, before air conditioners drew mass migrations into the state. Just the natural presence of cabbage palm, sea oat grass, and palmetto out past this sandy shore back then. My old man knew the score. He bought land down here in the twenties for a few dollars an acre.”
“I want you to spend the night with me. I want you to sleep with me.” Their footsteps silent upon the sand, the waves rolling past their ankles, the beat of Helen’s heart surprisingly calm, she waited. He took her hand as they strode forward. Two sturdy old people moving down the twilight beach like pillars of smoke.
“I’ll wager myself Viagra,” he laughed. “I’ll wager that.”
“And I the bounty of lotion,” she said and bumped her shoulder into the long smooth bone of his arm and wriggled away with a sway of her hips. There was music somewhere out over the sea and she did a little dance like a little girl and old Sam Fairchild clapped his hands.
After their third evening together Helen suggested that Sam Fairchild give up his room at the Beach Haven Motel. There was space for him in her apartment, even an empty room with a desk, her husband’s old office, in which he could plop his portable computer and converse with his mysterious son. She proffered the idea after a traditional coat-and-tie dinner in the great dining room of St. Andrews Estates where college students garbed in the uniform of black pants, starched white shirt, and bow tie scurried among the decorative tables in frenzied servitude to the demands of their part-time jobs. Sam had reluctantly agreed to go with Helen to the formal meal but had sat with unusual quiet among her table of friends as their eyes shone bright upon him.
On the walk back to Helen’s apartment in the quiet of the long window glass corridor that connected Building F to G, Sam placed his hand on Helen’s shoulder and turned her slow about. Outside, the garden breathed in a world transforming into dusk. Bougainvillea vines and magnolia tree branches pressed soft noses against the thick sheets of glass.
“I’m just passing through,” he said. He shook his head and his tongue touched the rim of his lip as if his thoughts had leavened. “I will be leaving soon. I do not want to hurt you.”
“When is soon?” Helen said. She slipped her hand through the crook of his arm and they resumed their walk back to her apartment. They strode together with the natural gait of a couple who had long ago acquired the rhythm of the other’s movements.
In her apartment, Sam draped his frayed dinner jacket over the wing back chair and went to sit out on the veranda. Helen joined him and they sat side by side with the porch light off. They looked out into the ink-washed landscape and listened for the final breath of dusk. It came in the warm silence of winking lights in the sky and the wispy lift of Sam’s arm as he pointed toward the emerging constellation of Orion. “The bright star to the left of Orion is Sirius,” he whispered. He took her hand and guided it to the shining pin point. “If you can name the stars you’ll never be alone,” he said.
“Hush, hush,” she said. “It’s another beautiful evening.”
“There’s a trail in the south of France that I’m going to walk again. It leads from the village of Buoux across the crest of the Luberon mountains and down into the village of Lourmarin. As you near the crest, you can see Saint-Victoire, Cezanne’s obsession. We can walk that trail together, Helen. I can show it to you. The light so pure you can touch it. Will you come with me? Please tell me you’ll go with me.”
She lay her head against the side of the old man’s shoulder. Could feel the bone against the flat of her temple, the beating of his blood. “I am too old,” she murmured.
“Don’t think now,” he said. “Tell me later.”
Late into the night Helen rolled over onto her side and listened to the deeply drawn breath of Sam Fairchild. In the last few nights she had grown familiar with its rhythmic flow as if she had been born with its sound in her ears. He sleeps so well, she thought. Where are his fears? His regrets? His demons? The heat of his body struck into her and she gradually eased back away and slipped her feet off the side of the bed. She sat up and stepped silently toward the window. A wavering air of disorientation crossed her brow in the shadowy dimness. She paused before the window and regained her balance then released the window sash and raised the window. She listened for the chorus of crickets, the summer music of late summer still etched deep in childhood memory, but outside came only the distant hum of air conditioning units. Helen turned away and felt her way back through the dark to the bed. She slipped beneath the light blanket and writhed in imperceptible degrees into the man’s long flank. She lay her arm across his chest, felt the rise and fall and let her eyelids draw down to release her into an unencumbered world. Before twilight she awoke and the old man was gone as if taken by some dream that had not yet released her.
She parked her car in the gravel lot of the Beach Haven Motel and looked up through the window glass to the door of Sam Fairchild’s room on the second floor. The smear of darkness within the cracks of the window shades foretold of exile and flight. Standing before the sun-scoured door, she hesitated then rapped gently but knew there would be no answer. The realness of the man’s absence was slicing deep inside her. As if she needed the realization to pierce her more deeply she walked down the small stairway and to the manager’s office. The entranceway door was braced open, its broad lintel shrouded by the fanlike branches of a blooming mimosa tree. Helen entered and the attendant, rail thin, stood peering down at an open newspaper spread across the counter top. He looked at her over thickset glasses perched low on his nose. A yellow transistor radio stationed squat and pink alongside an open box of stale donuts played 60’s music from a local A.M. station. A bronze-tanned girl clad in a skimpy swimsuit slipped past Helen and out the door. A donut was clenched inside her mouth and two more were clutched within her slender fingers.
“Has Sam Fairchild checked out from number 23?”
The skinny attendant thumped cigarette ashes into a metal tray and left the cigarette balanced atop the oval rim. “Number 23’s key is in and he is gone. Caught a ride with Captain’s Shuttle to West Palm Airport early this morning.”
Helen looked down at the dusty tile floor. The desiccated shell of a centipede lay curled within a raft of dust by the wall molding. She backed away and turned to face the morning light. Fruit flies early to work in the flaring blossoms of the mimosa buzzed in the overhead branches. She could hear the attendant’s voice trailing after her through the dewy air. He spoke softly as if one anointed with the power of psychics and channellers of spirits, a clairvoyant stationed behind the counter of a shabby motel lobby to provide passing visitors with clarity of vision.
“Number 23 always paid early. Respectful of others.”
Maggie arrived for her quarterly visit two days after Sam’s departure. Helen heard the gentle knock at the door and the door swing open and the click of suitcase wheels. The usual faint call of “Mom?” as if to shoot some gentle inquiry through the air, a timid probe checking for the existence of life.
“I’m here, dear. In the bedroom.”
Helen came out and embraced her daughter who held her very tightly. “I fell in love with an old man,” Helen said. She had pushed back from Maggie but clutched her daughter’s wrists. She smiled with accusing humor. Helen saw in the long, oval face of her child the tiny fan of wrinkles at play along her cheeks and the liquid shine of sadness in her eyes. Felt the soothing caress of her daughter’s warm hand against the side of her face. “I know I am an old woman, Maggie. There’s no need for concern or sadness. Do you understand?”
The next morning Helen arose and moved quietly about the apartment in preparation for her usual journey to the beach. There was to be a clear sky and the promise of a stunning presentation of the sun. She wanted to be spellbound by its revelation of power. She wanted very badly for the shame of having loved again to stop churning through her veins like some viral poison. And she wanted very badly to feel Sam Fairchild’s hands around her waist pulling her toward his old body and him laughing and singing.
Helen braced herself against the front door, car keys loose in one hand and her weathered beach bag sagging from her shoulder. With a long intake of breath she pushed away and walked softly down the short hallway to the door of her daughter’s bedroom. She gently cracked the door and saw in the shadowy light Maggie’s outline sitting upright on the side of the trundle bed. She heard her daughter whisper, “I couldn’t sleep.”
Helen set down her bag and walked across the floor. She sank down beside her daughter and could feel the blanket-warmth still emanating from Maggie’s skin. Helen wrapped her arm around her child’s shoulder. They were fragile shoulders that sloped too quickly from her daughter’s slender neck. Tremors, soft as far off echoes, emanated from the muscles. Her daughter’s face was wet against the side of her neck.
“You love me don’t you, mom? Tell me you love me.”
Helen stroked her daughter’s hair and held her more tightly, rocking gently. The stale air that abounds in a room of sleep grew heavier in the pre-dawn quiet. Maggie’s breath lengthened against her shoulder. Helen felt her daughter dropping back into another world. She whispered: “Back to sleep, love. Back to sleep.”
She felt Maggie’s lips press cool and damp against the flat of her temple. Her daughter lowered herself back, her legs wriggling up toward her stomach. Helen drew the sheets over her and kissed the lock of hair that curled over her daughter’s ear.
Twenty minutes later, Helen trudged across the span of beach to her usual position above the shoreline and the sand underfoot seemed to give way. She stumbled forward. The canvas chair plunged into the sand. Her arm swung out in front of her and she tried to absorb the fall with the flat of her hand. Her reaction was slow. One knee stung hard into the sand but her shoulder took the main blow. Other than the breathless thump of surprise she felt no fear. She lay there with her face dredged into the sand and could hear the little march of huh-huhs clambering up her throat. Her mind awaited signals from her body. There came only the register of a dull light pain in her shoulder. Patiently, she let time stream past, then murmured, “Strong, old girl.” She pushed herself up to the side of her hip and brushed sand away, laughed nervously high up in her chest. Finally, with careful, ginger motions she stood, testing bones and joints along the way. A renewed lightness and agility seemed to invigorate her body. Down the vast scope of beach there was emptiness but for the perpetual roll of the waves across the white sand at dawn. Helen picked up her chair and her bag and resumed the last steps of her journey. The thrill of the tumble continued to quake through her bones.
After unfolding her chair, she braced her hands on the arm rests and guided her haunches back into the canvas seat. Helen shut her eyes and let the emerging light fill beneath her eyelids. She did not move and only when the growing pangs of curiosity overwhelmed her did she strain to look over her shoulder and study the shell of the old woman lying in peaceful repose on the furrows of sand behind her. Helen was struck by the stillness of the body and how its hair rotated faintly in the prevailing breeze. She turned back toward the ocean and heaved a great sigh and saw within one wink of her eye the back of a small whale or perhaps a manatee glide to the surface and slip back beneath the water. Then the weight of aloneness struck her and she pressed her hands softly against the sides of her face. Just beneath the horizon’s blue line, the sun was aflame. As the corona broached the ocean’s crest, Helen sat mesmerized as if it was for the first time she had ever witnessed the sunrise and realized, finally, that when the sun arose it was always for the first time.
As she lowered her hands from her face the faint wriggle of an approaching figure down the beach pulled her attention away. She turned and watched the person treading alongside the rolling waves and breathed slowly into the electrical tingling down her chest. There was the long swing of his arms, the sureness of his step. As the man came closer into view, the emerging sunlight gave greater clarity to his face and body. He was trim in stature, his feet were bare, and his khaki pants were rolled up to the mid of his calves. A blue windbreaker billowed soft around his torso. He cast a sideways gaze and angled his path across the low dunes toward her.
“Are you Helen?” he said as he drew closer. “I’m looking for Helen.”
A boundless smile crossed his face and the sweeping light, still oblique and soft off the new sun, shrouded his frame. He took off his ball cap that beheld the embroidered golden letters, ‘Pan Am, Where is it you’ve always wanted to go-who is it you’ve always wanted to be’ stitched across the crown. He held his hat in both hands.
“You look so much like your father,” Helen said and felt very calm.
“Yes, I’m Sam Fairchild’s son, Tim.” The man’s chest lifted and fell in a good way from the exertion of his trek across the beach. His voice seemed inflected with natural laughter. “Dad thinks you may have changed your mind.” Tim Fairchild dipped his head. A shy grin transposed to replace the broad smile. “The old man’s waiting for you. He wants to show you the view of Mount St. Victoire from a foot trail over the Luberon. I’m here to fly you wherever your heart desires.”