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Charlie Bennett
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gulf.jpg
Art by Lee Kurugante 2015

The Gulf

 

Charlie Bennett

 

They’d just dropped daughter Gabby back at college three weeks ago but it felt to him as if she’d been gone a year already.  He and Liz had fallen back into their familiar routines of avoidance.  Her with her friends, shopping and girls nights out.  Him with his reading and shortwave radio monitoring.  But now, they were back vacationing again in this favorite spot on the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, it’d been a pretty good 20 years he thought.  No major problems between them.  Nobody had cheated, as far as he knew.  He certainly hadn’t.  But he couldn’t deny there was a lack of luster.  No lack of love though; not on his part anyway.  He loved her as another part of himself, a part he admittedly could become very annoyed with at times.  But never for good.  All things in time. 

Tony sat outside their familiar rental, in the back by the channel’s clouded and recessed water.  The tide was low.  The oyster cloisters lay bunched up in the mud all in front of him.  Tiny fiddler crabs, active in spurts, formed long conga lines in the sand and mud a few feet below him, several feet in front of him.  He sat in an opening on the shore, palm trees and mangroves on each side of the aperture.  A cormorant glided down to rest on the sand to his right, giving a guttural grunt.  Clouds were rolling in out of the southwest and rode a sweet comforting breeze over the Gulf.  He sat in a chair upon the tiniest pine needles that carpeted the whole back of the property like the floor of paradise.  The mullet were jumping out where there was still enough water for them.  They were hard to catch, splashing around with indifference.  He felt like the mullet in that brief moment when it breaks the water surface and becomes airborne.  A large pink spoon-billed bird came in to his left and hunted down in the mud for food.  There was a high-voltage current of insects chirring from the marsh.  The clattering and snapping of the oyster shells, all in their own time, was like the sound of rim shots to the jumping mullets’ cymbal splashes – a cool morning jazz performed by the Gulf of Mexico.  The singing of the fleeting small sea birds the soprano saxophones to the baritones of the larger water fowl.

He looked back up at Liz on the screened-in porch.  She was reading some paperback.  He thought they should probably give Gabby a call later to see if she needed anything at school.  She could be reluctant to ask for help.  She hadn’t been back at school long but it would probably be a good thing to ask.  She didn’t have much in her account to start with.  He worried more than Liz, but she did her share too.  They’d been a good team raising Gabby.  He looked up at Liz again and smiled.  He could hear Jim Croce on the radio by her.

Look at him.  Doesn’t know a damn thing about what’s getting ready to happen to him, she thought.  Kevin said he’d make sure it looked like an accident.  That’s all she knew, and that it would be done while Tony was out on one of his high-tide kayak excursions.  She trusted him, in all things. If he said it would look like an accident, then it would.  She shouldn’t be worrying.  Nobody would suspect her in a million years.  They were regarded as a loving couple.  No problems, that anyone knew of.  Except Kevin.  He knew everything about her now.  And she and Kevin had kept their love quiet.  She couldn’t wait to be freed of Tony.  Gabby.  She thought of Gabby losing her Dad, but just as always, brushed those thoughts aside as if only dust, dirtying her future, her plans.  Gabby was grown now.  Besides, she’d still have her, and Kevin too.  She’d love him too.  Just gotta get Tony out of the picture, for good.  She knew some night this week, Tony wouldn’t return from his kayak outing.

You spend some time in a place, and really pay attention, you get to know the rhythm of life there, Tony thought.  You become more at ease, less wary.  But you had to pay attention to appreciate the full splendor.  Life was just like that in general.  Sure, he could find things to complain about with Liz.  But he loved her.  He couldn’t imagine living without her.  He paid attention to the good things too, not just the bad.  And by exercising attention to the good every day, he realized how much he loved her, even if they had been distant in their day-to-day lives in recent years.  He had learned to make life fairly effortless, simply trying to do everything put in front of him without fuss or anxiety and he felt her constant, strenuous efforts in every aspect of her life was what created the chasm between them which he constantly tried to bridge.  But really, it was only when Gabby was home now and the three of them did things together that he felt any connection coming out from Liz.  All too often she just seemed blank, vacant when they were alone together.  Still, he hoped things could change.  He always hoped.  All things in time.

She and Kevin would both move.  (We’ll wait a good while and then both move to another town and we’ll start over there.  We can be together every night then.  Conflation.  Got to keep drinking these Margaritas.  Bad or evil is a relative term.  Desperate times, well, something has to be done.  This life is an imprisonment and I’ve given up myself for Tony too long.  It’s only Kevin now.)  She could quit trying so hard now and just let him lead in all things.  She wanted to be led.

He’d read or heard somewhere that man was the spirit and woman was nature.  He didn’t understand that to start with, but, how do you separate the spirit from nature?  If one were really paying attention, there was no separating the two.  Now, man and woman, that was another story.  Any symbol of separation, one that made sense, could certainly be applicable to man and woman.  But not a separation of spirit and nature.  This physical universe, especially in this place, teeming with life, was imbued with the incorporeal sustaining peace that brought a person into the warmth of its nirvana.  Sometimes he had to step back from that to play Bodhisattva to Liz but she was not open to this sort of enlightenment, so he would separate from her down in his regular spot near the water’s edge and would float back into this place beyond desires, away from worries and responsibilities.  One had to be willing to surrender to beauty and to the sublime.  Qualities of fighting and resistance, so praised in the world, were killers, bringing death to the true giving, loving and receiving sprit Tony thought.  Love was his only concern now.  But love for Liz, and whether she loved him, could not be his only overriding contemplations.  He hoped for that love and tried to nurture it, but he also had to be sure it didn’t affect his compulsion to love others, Gabby, himself and the universe at large. 

It was in the very late afternoon when the high tide came, his signal to carry the kayak over to his entry spot.  He never worried about wearing a life vest.  The water was shallow enough all around here that he could stand up in it except in the ship channel once he was all the way out in the Gulf.  It was only in that narrow channel that it got a little deeper. He didn’t like the constraining life vest.  Liz used to fuss at him about it when they were down here.  She’d stopped that. Liz helped him carry the kayak over the forty yards from its resting spot under the stilted house to his entry spot.  It had turned out to be a beautiful day.  Clouds were coming back in though, like they usually did in time for the cocktail hour, but nothing threatening.  Just an easy Gulf evening coming in.  They eased the blue kayak down to the water’s edge. 

“Thanks hon.  I won’t be out there too long.  I’ll just go down to where the Gulf opens up and I’ll turn around and take it really easy coming back.  We’ll decide where to go for dinner then.  You be thinking about what you want.  I’m good for any place I can get some fried grouper.”

“Okay.  I love you.  Be careful out there.”  (Why did she say that? Nervous banter. Didn’t mean a word of it.)

He watched her turn quickly with arms folded, walking back to the house in unhurried steps, her blonde hair pinned up in the back, fully off her neck.  Maybe she did care still, even after all these years.  A good dinner tonight would continue what had been an assuasive start to the vacation. 

The kayak bobbed only slightly in the still, nebulous water as he paddled with little effort through the tunnel of marsh.  She watched him paddle around the bend and out of sight.  It had been quiet since they’d arrived.  He’d told her it didn’t look like anyone was home at any of the several houses up the channel before the confluence with the Gulf proper.  She reached over and turned off the radio playing Tom Petty’s “The Waiting.”  It was quiet save the occasional mullet splash and plop.  She wanted to listen.  She didn’t want to know much but she did want to listen because she was too nervous to do anything else.  This had to work and it had to go right.  If not, what then?  If she and Tony were one, was she doing this to herself?  (We aren’t one.  Kevin and I are one.  Life with Tony is forced duality from my primal self.)  She could not go with the grain, like Tony.  She must split the wood, against the grain, violently if necessary.  It was time for her to live now.  (God, Kevin better never leave me, like he said he wouldn’t.  I’ll kill him myself if he ever tries.)  Why did she know tonight would be the night?  (God, I just know.)

He worked the paddle from side to side and wondered what could be below the surface of the murky water.  What creatures was he disturbing?  Not a pleasant thought to worry about interrupting life.  He loved this kayaking routine he adhered to faithfully when they were down here.  He hoped Gabby was getting into routines back at school.  He’d explained to her just before she left how the little routines and traditions of our lives provide meaning.  They won’t seem like much to others maybe, he told her, but guard them closely and stay true.  You have to have something to rely on in this life.  Understand this and you’ll never doubt the importance.  She’d nodded.  Glazed over. He knew he bored her with what she recognized as only platitudes but he also knew that the endless advice and admonishments would ring in her head as echoes through the years just as his Dad’s voice was a constant guide from beyond for him.  Continue paddling.  Always continue paddling.

She tore at the skin on the sides of her thumbnails causing them to bleed from the side on both thumbs.  (God I wish this was all over already.  Of course they’re going to suspect me.  They always suspect the spouse.  God, what have I done?  I won’t go to jail.  I’ll take an overdose before that can happen.  I can’t survive in a cage.  This one has been stifling enough.  There’s no real freedom in this life.  Maybe death is freedom.)

She sat and listened intently as she tore at her skin and drank more liquor.  She couldn’t ever hear anything except the occasional bird.  The sun had extinguished into the sea.  It was almost fully dark. She’d sat watching the orange glow of sunset turn to the soft embrace of twilight.  He had always returned by then.  It had happened, but what?  What had happened?  Did she ever really want to know?  (Should I call the police yet, would it look too suspicious to call already?  Can I put on the frantic seizures of concern and panic apropos of a loving wife whose husband has disappeared on the water?  You’d better turn it on bitch if you don’t want to choose between suicide or jail.  Get it together.)

She called the police.  “He’s always come back before dark.  He never would stay out this late unless something was wrong.  Please, I just know something must have happened.  Please help.”

Was it too soon to call them? Had she poured it on too thick?  Would it look suspicious in some way?  She heard footsteps coming up the deck stairs. How had they gotten here so quickly?  She opened the screen door of the enclosed porch and poked her head out and around the corner to look down the stairs.  To her horror she was met by the disturbed and bugged eyes of her husband slowly climbing the stairs.  He was muddy and wet and she thought she saw blood on his shirt.  Dear God.  Kevin.

“There’s real trouble.  Do you know what just happened?”

“My God, no, I was worried sick.  I’ve called the police.”

“Good.  I’m going to need to talk to them.  Sit down.  We’d better talk before they get here.”


Charlie Bennett is an attorney and writer living in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife and small children.  His work has previously appeared at fictionontheweb.co.uk.  You can read more of his stories at charliebennettstories.wordpress.com.

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