We crept along the rocks, and how gallant we were, and how brave, through petrified forests of pilings and finally an upturned boat. Rubbish to one soured by too much ambition and too little time, but for us a magnificently sordid chapel, in which we placed, with reverence, the treasures delivered to us by the sea. Clouded from their tumbled journey, bits of glass and shells, none of the blushing citron of the encyclopedic illustrations, but subtle, pale violet and silver, chalky white along the edges, smooth mother of pearl within. There was a tide-pool, home to hermit crabs and the fossil of a sand dollar, round like a small pancake, but smooth and hard as bone. Behind us climbed the rocks, mingling with the pasture-grasses above until, tickled by the sour Bermuda buttercup, they tumbled back down to the beach.
The tide was in, and there were no crabs to pluck up by their shells, watching them dance in the air until they’d pinch our fingers. The waves lapped at the edge of our stronghold, so we removed our boots and our thick woolen socks, tucking them as far back into the dry boat as we could. Our trousers and shirts we dealt with likewise. Then, wearing only our white underpants, our skin goose-bumped, we waded out into the sea. The green water, breath of the Pacific, was bitingly cold and as it rose up our legs we shrieked with the numbness and dived. Keller was the tallest and the water had little more than reached his knees, “Wait for me!” he cried, collapsing after us, Sanders, Dana and me, into the next wave. And we four splashed and leapt and grabbed one another around the ankle. Past the black mud, churned up by our kicking and through the eelgrass, “I felt something alive, I did!” and soon we were beyond our little cove.
Here the waves were smaller, but choppy, and we paddled furiously to keep the salt out of our noses and mouths. Windblown cypress tress creaked and leaned over the small, gray houses perched above us on the cliff and between them we could see small cars winding their antlike way along the road. Without consensus or proclamation, we stopped just below a long dock, off of which a small dingy was moored. At the end of the dock stood the girl who lived in the house, breasts pressing against her checked blouse, lips and hair dulled salty with spray from the waves. Her hair was long and we were young, and with an enormous ruckus we swam into view and fought to steal Dana’s underpants from him and to toss them onto the dock. But even as, between dives, we contorted our bodies with an absurd ache to see her watching, she frantically flattening her skirt, blown up by the wind, and turned, disappearing into the house. “Let’s swim over to Arthur’s and see if his mother has made any buns,” suggested Sanders, and so we turned our backs on the dock.
The rocks below Arthur’s house were sharp, and even with feet summer-tough, we winced and swayed and felt as though we danced on hot coals. Once we had all clamored up the ladder and onto the deck, we looked at one another, skinny and cold, our underpants sagging and we didn’t quite know what to do. “Boys, my goodness, come inside”, and Arthur’s mother opened the door and she pretended not to notice our nakedness and she gave us each a towel. Arthur sat in a large wicker chair by the stove, grinning. “Quite the gentlemen you four are, swimming about with nothing on.” We glanced around at one another, shuffled our feet. “Wish I could do it! You’ll have them swooning before tea!” Arthur scratched at his beard and Dana, Sanders and I sat down on the bench by the window. Keller leaned against the doorframe leading to the kitchen. “Come on Mrs. Beasley, just a little dribble” and he nudged the whisky bottle towards Arthur’s mother and the tea she was preparing for us. “We could all use a little warmth…” She looked away and the color rose to meet her hair, silver in the sun. “Now Keller, what would your mother say?”
Even seated, Arthur was tall and his broad shoulders hid the back of his chair entirely. His flannel shirt had tightened across his belly with the years, but because we had seen him only in his chair by the stove, we could only guess at how powerful he had once been. When we were small and our mothers and fathers had left us behind; when at the cinema, perhaps, or a party, Arthur’s mother would watch us. She would take us on her soft lap and her hair was golden then. She would feed us round buns with bits of chocolate inside and she would tell us stories of her son Arthur. “… And with both hands tied, he guided the ship to safety!” But then, Arthur returned home and sat in his wicker chair by the stove and Keller was almost twelve or maybe thirteen and he could make an old woman blush.
We told Arthur about our boat, “We found it all smashed to bits!” Dana explained “But we built it back up, painted on it with red clay.” “And we fly a special flag, so that everyone knows that it is ours.” Added Sanders. But we felt ashamed of our shells and our glass and so we grew quiet then, and gulped our tea, and Keller did convince Arthur’s mother to give us some whisky and so we drank that, too. “I would love to see your boat some day,” said Arthur, quietly, and we did not know what to say because then Arthur’s mother hiccupped and her face got all red as though she were very hot and she left the room, one hand to her mouth. But Dana stood up and asked, “Why can’t Arthur come to see our boat?” and I tugged on his towel because everyone knew that Arthur was a cripple. But to see the look on Arthur’s face, well it was like Christmas, except that Arthur was a man and Christmas was for boys. “Come and lift me out of this damned chair!” What were we to do? When Arthur’s mother returned, her face again calm, she found the room empty and four scrawny boys lifting a grown man down to the rocks. I looked up at Arthur’s mother, crouched at the top of the ladder, and for a moment it seemed that we were done for, that we would never again eat buns with chocolate or drink tea with whisky, but Sanders was grunting and I turned back to our load just in time to keep Arthur from slipping. And then Arthur’s mother was beside us, helping to squeeze Arthur into a life vest, and like loggers headed down the Mississippi we ferried him out into the water. We kept close to the shore, and Arthur floated amiably along, and we did a pretty good job of keeping his head pointing straight up at the sky. Arthur’s mother stood in the shallow water, her skirt, coral-red, floating up around her like some giant jellyfish. She watched us and said nothing.
I cannot say that we knew what we were doing, or that we pretended to know, but we were children and Arthur was a man and so we held up his ankles when they began to sink. “Sanders!” Dana cried, frantically rubbing the salty water from his eyes. “Sanders, you idiot, you’re letting him go!” And I thought we’d lost him behind a wave, but up popped his head, graying around the temples and he laughed at the trepidation on our faces and so we laughed and then we were around the point and could see our upside-down boat and the yellow of the Bermuda buttercups.
Presently we heaved Arthur out of the water onto a bit of beach where the rocks had left a forgiving carpet of seaweed. His clothes were heavy and wet and so we unbuckled the life vest and helped him to strip off the shirt underneath. The sun had grown warm and the water quickly beaded and dried, leaving patches of salt clinging to the hair on his chest. “And now the boat!” We turned him around, and there it was. “The crown jewels!” Arthur exclaimed and we were no longer ashamed. Arthur held each shell and marveled at the way the sun shone through the sea glass and painted your arm green or red or blue.
A breeze soon picked up, and we retrieved our clothes and our boots and put them on, but Arthur had no dry clothes and we didn’t know what to do because we did not want to float him all the way back to his mother. “He looks tired.” I whispered into Keller’s ear, “maybe we should go for help” so Keller ran for his father who worked in the boatyard. He returned with his father and three other men, all clad in overalls and high waders. “Christ Almighty.” Breathed a red-bearded man under his breath, but Arthur shook his head and smiled up at them from where he sat, half collapsed on the beach. “Your boys are doing a spectacular job” he assured them. “Just a little hand is all I need” and together they heaved Arthur up between them and carried him away. Arthur looked back at us, over their heads, and winked. I picked a yellow flower and chewed on the stem as we walked home. The sour, lemony juice of it made me shudder and so I chewed up another, but I did not spit it at Keller as I might have, and instead let it fall to the sand.
At home we drank tea sweetened with molasses. “Where have you been?” my mother asked us. “Swimming.” And we ate our toast. The next week Arthur was sick and so we visited with our mothers, in shoes and collars, and then it was September, and we went to school. One afternoon, as I was wedged under my bed, feeling around in the dust for a book long misplaced, Keller came over. He stood awkwardly in the doorway for a moment, then dropped his schoolbag onto the floor and sat down on my bed. “Do you think we ought to have taken Arthur to our boat?” His voice was quiet and raspy and I wiggled out from my search to look at him. “What?” “That day, when we took Arthur- I just wonder if maybe that’s why he’s sick, because we brought him to our boat.” “But he wanted to see it.” My sweater was covered in cobwebs and I hadn’t found the book.
Night came earlier and the waves grew larger. One day I looked through my binoculars at the point, and could no longer see our boat, the water crashed so high on the rocks. Then my mother put her hand on my arm and told me that Arthur was dead. I felt like crying because my mother’s lips were trembling. I had never seen a dead man before, and later, at the funeral, I felt nervous and excited to look inside the coffin. There he was, calm as he had been in life, and it seemed that he was smiling. I reached into my pocket and fingered the shell I carried there. It was worn smooth by my touch and without thinking I placed it on the satin beside Arthur’s hand. Afterward there were little sandwiches and my mother let me drink the wine.