by Kathryn Hughes

Appears in Other Voices #38

T he beach is almost deserted and everyone still at church or country club brunch when Henry arrives, signing in at the gate at the top of the concrete stairs leading down to the waterfront. A young lifeguard greets him, a lifeguard like all the rest: a red swimsuit, a shade of blonde, lean and tan and gleaming. Ivy League college-bound in the fall. “Good morning, Judge. How are you,” he says heartily.

“Fine, thanks. Great day for the beach.”

“It sure is, sir. There’s a slight undertow, but nothing you have to worry about,” and the young man, innocent of the insinuation, points to the warning printed on a chalkboard along with the air and water temperatures.

“Ha! You’re right! It’d take a lot of tow to take me under,” and Henry laughs and pats his sturdy stomach as the young man grins, blushing.

It is a public beach reserved for village residents. The lifeguards can refer to a list of registered locals, though for the most part these youngsters know almost everyone who frequents the beach. They know Henry. Anyone not on the list is required to pay a ten-dollar fee, or wait until the beach officially closes at six o’clock. Henry appreciates these rules which tend to keep out-of-towners away, although come a hot day, two or three messy cars—dragging mufflers, blaring soul or salsa, riding low to the ground with the weight of large, brown skinned families—might pull down the dead-end street, settling in.

Earlier that day Henry had been brewing a pot of coffee in the roomy kitchen of his Frank Lloyd Wright when he twinged with the ambivalence of remembering his birthday. Alone in the big house, he was stricken with a self-conscious dilemma: if you have a birthday and no one’s there to sing to you, do you still have a birthday? The festivities, what they would be, began Friday evening when a few law clerks and bondsmen and the new court reporter surprised him in his chambers with a bottle of inexpensive champagne. Feeling his age, he was relieved when upon asking the court reporter—blonde, well built and thirty—for her phone number, sure enough she wrote it down.

Suddenly feeling hot and confined, Henry opened leaded-glass doors onto the stone patio, letting in fresh air and birdsong along with the distant tones of a wind chime. It hung in a large willow tree bordering the patio; within the groundscraping branches, its tones rang removed and unearthly. It had always annoyed Henry, who associated wind chimes with patchouli and macramé and doorways of beaded string. He’d meant to remove it and even more the tree, which blocked the afternoon sun and the vista of his backyard. He preferred his lawns uncomplicated and open. But though he’d meant to have them removed, the wind chime and the willow, he hadn’t gotten around to it.

Waiting on his coffee, he slipped into his Brooks Brothers seersucker robe and a favorite old pair of Gucci’s to collect the Tribune where it lay on the green, shorn parkway. Just off to the side, beneath the scant shade of one of the new elms planted by the village, lay a dog. Though it seemed friendly enough (it wagged its tail as Henry went for the paper), it didn’t wear a collar, and didn’t look familiar. Short-haired, spotted and spaniel-like, it stood out in this town of yellow labs and golden retrievers. Henry tried to swish the animal away with the paper, but the dog lay in place, wagging his tail and grinning, if dogs could grin.

Sliding the fat newspaper out of its dewy, plastic sleeve, Henry smiled at the date—June 14th, Flag Day—and for a moment thought to hang his own flag. He’d had it over a year, buying it just before Kim left. The old one, faded and shredded, was something she’d complained about. He’d sprung for high quality this time: hand-stitched in Williamsburg, its colors were rich and true, its pole varnished teak. It leaned in a corner of the front hall closet along with its own shiny brass bracket and screws still sealed in cellophane.

It was a warm day, bright and clear. Lake Michigan lay in deepening shades of Caribbean blue two blocks down the avenue, while three blocks in the other direction, red, white and blue bunting draped the porch-front of Kenilworth’s village hall. And as on every patriotic occasion, bright American flags flew from a hundred art deco street lamps lining the pristine avenues of the North Shore suburb. Henry was fifty-five. He’d been born during the war and, as he’d figure out later, seven months after his parent’s wedding. His mother used to say he was born on a day when the flags flew just for him. A date always easy to remember, when the flags flew, just for him.

Henry poured a cup of coffee then checked to make sure his answering machine was on. His children, from a first marriage, were grown and gone with kids of their own, and he wasn’t close with any of them. He was of a generation when men didn’t parent so much as work a job; and the ugly details of adultery and divorce had put him in an even dimmer light with his children. Just the same, over the years neither a birthday nor Father’s Day had gone completely forgotten. Finding the red light lit and static, he headed for the bathroom to shower and shave.

Well, not to shave. He liked not to shave on the weekend. He liked not to shave and to wear his pants below his thick waistline. Kim was a gourmet cook, having spent a year on sabbatical at the Cordon Bleu, honing her hobby. And in the two years they lived together, he’d added twenty pounds to an already husky frame, no longer resembling the lean track star he was in college. After a long, lucrative law career, he’d taken a seat on the bench; and though the passing of judgment didn’t burn many calories, the swirl of black robe camouflaged his bulk.

Clean, at least, and dressed in a pocket-tee and khaki bermudas, Henry checked his answering machine to see if he’d missed a call while showering. Nothing. After placing his cell phone in its charger on the kitchen counter, he turned on news radio and cooked a typical weekend breakfast of eggs, sausage and a buttered bagel. He could cook a simple meal, but had to admit he missed Kim’s gourmet touch.

As he did every Sunday, Henry separated the business and sports sections from the paper, tossing the rest in the trash, and moved with his breakfast tray to a wrought iron table and chairs in a sunny spot on the patio. The wind chime hung like a talisman, Kim still imposing her artsiness on the space that had been hers as well. To her credit it wasn’t a cheap, tinny thing purchased at an import shop. Rather, she’d spent a small fortune for it at a gallery on their honeymoon in Prague (her idea). Substantial and weighty, its tones rang deep as Czech church bells, melancholy as Kafka (her words).

Henry sat down with his tray and looked around him. Suddenly he felt one of those unexpected chills that move from the inside out. Perhaps it was the nagging awareness of being alone on his birthday, but for a moment he sat expectant and vulnerable, like a child sitting naked in an empty bathtub, no one coming to run his water. When a gust stirred the wind chime, a warm memory washed over him, and he could almost taste an Indian summer evening when she had turned on the outdoor speakers. Snapper was marinating and the grill heating up. He’d had a scotch in one hand and a bestseller in the other until she removed them both, tugging him onto the flagstone and, like something out of a movie, drawing him into her arms and her romance, dancing to Mancini. He’d known many women, been engaged to a few; but no one came close to this gal. She wove a spell around him so that it hadn’t been so pleasurable, cheating on her; it hadn’t been so easy. But it was who he was, and somehow he’d managed. And somehow she’d found out. And somehow he’d let her go.

Henry flicked open the paper, focusing on the NASDAQ.

After breakfast he rinsed the dishes, then gathered up stuff for a day at the beach. A little color on his face looked good against his thick, gray hair, and the lake water this early in the season would be bracing. But Henry would be the first to admit that he was also something of a voyeur. Observing people at the beach between chapters of the latest John Grisham novel—the teenage girls were always an innocent treat—was an amusing way to spend a Sunday in the suburbs. In order to safeguard against being observed or disturbed, Henry always parked himself on a far corner of sand, aviator sunglasses shielding his gaze.

He filled a small thermos with Virgin Marys, then stuffed a pack of cigarettes into a canvas tote along with the Grisham and a beach towel. He took the cell phone from its charger and slipped it into his shirt pocket. Not locking the door (it was that kind of town), he left for the short walk to the beach, stopping by the garage for an aluminum lawn chair. He made a mental note to phone Animal Control when he spotted the mutt lingering on the parkway. The dog, tail wagging, made an effort to follow Henry. But Henry made a sudden, threatening move and the dog lay down again, snout in his paws, dark sad eyes following Henry as he shuffled away, rocking slightly left to right, tote bag to lawn chair, down the flawless sidewalk, past the perfect yards. Heading east.

Henry unfolds his lawn chair in a favorite spot. No sooner does he lotion up, light up, and pour a drink, than a middle-aged couple approaches across the sand, negotiating a small cooler and two lawn chairs between them. At first glance he thinks he recognizes the woman. He thinks it is his first wife, Gayle. He had lost touch with her since the christening of their last grandchild, and though she had moved to a western suburb with her second husband, it could be her. The couple sets up near the water’s edge, maybe ten yards away. Apart from the backs of their heads, the most he can glimpse is a profile. The woman wears a visor and sunglasses and a long, gauzy cover-up. After settling in, she removes her hat and glasses. No, it doesn’t look like Gayle and when she removes her cover-up all is confirmed. Despite her age, the woman’s body is trim and firm. She wears a modest two-piece suit and her stomach and buttocks are taut. No, not Gayle, who had belonged to a number of country clubs not for the sport, but the society.

Relieved (what in hell would they talk about?), Henry begins to notice other things about the couple. At a closer look they strike him as being foreign. He has a good eye for these things. German? Russian? Polish, maybe? The woman’s swimsuit is out of date; the man wears polyester and a small straw hat. They have to be nonresidents, Henry thinks, had paid the fee, ridden a bus from somewhere else.

The man sits on one of those low-to-the-ground beach chairs, but the woman remains standing. Hands on her hips and her feet spread apart on the beach blanket or in the sand (she tends to move around), she talks. She talks with vigor, and she talks nonstop. She seems to be scolding the man, picking up on an argument begun on the bus. As she speaks, her hands cut the air with deliberation, fingers pointing accusation. The man sits calm and quiet, nodding now and then, looking out to the lake. After some time the wind picks up and waves slap the beach, but as Henry tries to concentrate on his book, he can still hear the din of the woman’s rant. He is at once repulsed and intrigued. He feels himself relax muscles he hadn’t realized were tense when, about every half-hour or so, she takes a swim, giving the man some peace.

A little after two, Henry slips on his Birkenstocks and walks back to the house. The dog has moved to the cool flagstone of the front steps, and when he sees Henry he stretches, wagging his mixed-breed tail. In order to avoid the animal, Henry enters the house by the side door, behind a high wrought iron fence. After checking the phone for messages (none), he packs a mini-cooler with ice and beer and a couple of roast beef sandwiches. By the time he returns, the beach is blanket-to-blanket with young families who’d been filtering in all day, and Henry nods at the few who notice and greet him as he makes his way across the beach to his corner, now dim in shade.

He rearranges his belongings in the sunlight and settles in, picking up his novel where he’d left off. He notices the foreign couple lunching out of their own cooler. The woman sits next to the man and the two eat in peace. Even laughter. Henry assumes that they’ve settled their differences and, if only for the sake of his concentration, is glad. Always interested in food, he notes cheese, fruit, a long length of bread they tear with their hands, an unfamiliar brand of bottled water, salamis. He thinks the woman must be some sort of laborer to have that physique. Perhaps a Polish maid, like the women who clean his house every Thursday. And the way the husband handles the salamis—he could be a butcher. Some kind of journeyman, anyway. Aware of his own pre-occupation, Henry thinks, Jesus, Henry. Get a life.

The afternoon sun lies hot on his skin and Henry goes in for a dip. To his left, tow-headed toddlers screech with fun riding their fathers’ shoulders. To his right, some older freckle-faced kids gather minnows in a plastic pail. Henry looks out to the sea-like horizon and skims the surface of the water with his fingertips. A pleasant, playful place, this lake. His lake. He basks in the sun and the water and the feeling of ownership. O.K., Henry thinks. O.K.

Lulled by the beer and the long afternoon, Henry dozes off. When he wakes, the sun is losing wattage as it dips behind the trees and the Sheridan Road estates that overlook the lake. Kenny G, the clink of small talk and cocktails, and the smell of grilled seafood ease down from a backyard barbecue. By six o’clock when the beach officially closes, most everyone has left, making room for a large boisterous family of dubious residence. Two adults with a half dozen children descend the stairs, loud and laughing, carting a charred mini-grill, overflowing grocery bags, simple sand toys and faded bath towels. A teenager carries a large, black boom box twanging country music. A few smaller children run into the waves as their parents, spreading blankets and stripping down, shout warnings after them. Henry can’t help but feel trespassed upon and slightly offended: after all, he pays over twenty thousand a year in property taxes to live in this place.

His stomach begins to growl (the aroma of charcoal has whet his appetite) and along with the Polish couple he packs up his things. The three of them are the last day-trippers to leave the beach. Pulling up the rear is the lifeguard.

Henry hopes to eavesdrop as he follows the couple up the steps to the street, but they aren’t speaking. They’d driven after all—a newer model Marquis, metallic blue, the shiny hood reflecting the stars and stripes of the flag floating from an overhead street lamp. After helping her husband load the trunk, the woman lines herself up against his chest and, like a teenager—like a lover—wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him long on the mouth.

Henry drops his gear on the sidewalk. The lifeguard in a yellow Beetle turbo accelerating down the street momentarily blocks his view. Images flash through his head: his own Volkswagen Bug, a mint ’55, kelly green, his first car at sixteen, the smell and taste of cramped backseat sex, the face of a girl and then others. Did the lifeguard have his own hot date that night? Does the Polish couple, married likely forever, still have sex? Do they shower first, or do it among sweat and suntan lotion, sand still in their shorts? Sure enough, they walk to the passenger side hand in hand, the man getting her car door. All this goes through Henry’s mind in just a few seconds on a warm June afternoon.

Then, like an alarm clock interrupting a dream, sounds of panic rise up from the beach. The Polish couple too must have heard because they slip out of the car and sprint toward the stairs. Henry follows along at a quick walk, but stops short at the landing halfway down for an overview of the pandemonium below. The father plods through the waves, carrying his small son’s limp body toward the shore. The mother runs toward them, her arms outstretched. The children, silent, hug each other or themselves. Someone’s turned off the boom box.

As the Polish couple nears the water, the woman shouts, “We are doctors! Let us help!” The father lays his boy gently on the sand, and as her husband motions the others to make room, the woman pinches the little boy’s nose and opens her mouth to his.

Leaning on the railing, Henry shifts his weight and then shifts it again. Wanting to get a closer look, he skips down the remaining stairs and quietly approaches the small circle of family, his heart beginning to race. Closer up, he sees that the boy looks a lot like his oldest son at that age, the one who took after him. The hair stands up on his forearms and the back of his sunburned neck. He watches unblinking as the man takes over the CPR and the woman repositions herself, crossing her hands over the boy’s chest, pumping. The couple works in unison. The boy does not respond. Henry wipes his sweating brow and, needing to move, turns to leave. He spots a phone booth in the nearby bathhouse. Pulling the cell phone from his pocket, he dials 911. Then he makes another call. “Testing, 1…2…3,” he whispers, after the beep.

Disconnecting, he hears cries of relief and joy, and looking over his shoulder he sees the little boy alive but groggy in the mother’s arms while the others cross themselves and touch the couple’s hands. Henry gasps as if he’d been holding his breath all of this time and scuffs up the stairs, exhaling with each step until, reaching the top, he feels oddly suspended, dizzy. “I need to quit smoking,” he says to no one.

After retrieving his beach gear from the parkway, he makes his way toward home. Nearing his front yard he hears approaching sirens and stops to watch as two squad cars and the fire chief’s truck wail by. Glad for the good ending, Henry shrugs and with a resigned smile turns up his walkway. For whatever reason he does not avoid the dog lying on his stoop. Instead, he reaches down and scratches behind the animal’s soft, floppy ears.

“Hey there, buddy. Still hanging around? Can’t take a message, can you? S’pose you could use a bowl of water, huh? All right, but that’s it. If you’re still here in the morning, it’s the pound for you.” Henry fills a bucket with water from a hose and the grateful dog dunks his head, lapping noisily.

In all the excitement, Henry has forgotten calling home, and so the blinking red light delights him. On hearing his own voice he blushes and, with unnecessary force, pushes the erase button. Next Sunday’s Father’s Day, he thinks. Hard to forget goddamn Father’s Day. And then he dials 411. “Give me the number for Animal Control.” After making the call, Henry is thirsty.

Passing through the dining room, he catches sight of himself in the beveled mirror itself tall and wide as a man. He sucks in his stomach and straightens his shoulders. Running his fingers through his hair, he considers calling the court reporter.

From the wet bar in the den Henry glances out the window at the flags on the lampposts, and is suddenly taken with an urge to hang his own. Aware that daylight will linger a few more hours, he rummages around for the flag in the front hall closet. After screwing the bracket tightly in place beside the front door, he unfurls the heavy canvas, then lodges the pole at a forty-five degree angle. He moves out to the street in order to enjoy the full impact of the flag, its flap and dazzle in the early evening breeze. He thinks how Kim would be pleased. Would have been. Could be. Heading indoors he makes a mental note to put the flag to bed before dark, which leads to imagining darkness and bedtime and an empty bed, implications of loneliness that could sour a soul like lemon in milk. In the doorway he falters, then turns back toward the parkway, his lips puckered to whistle. But the dog is gone.

After pouring a Glenlivet on the rocks, Henry thumbs through his wallet for the court reporter’s phone number. He is feeling out of sorts and yet the prospect of calling the woman fails to help. Henry tears up the paper and thinks instead to telephone Kim. She’d been too fair a person to hold a grudge and may even be willing to be friends. As she was leaving she’d said, “I thought you’d changed.” And on this evening in early summer on a day when the phone didn’t ring and the drowned boy breathed and the Polish couple made love sand still in their shorts and he’d given water to a stray, he could call her. Take it slow. He decides to clean up first, to get rid of the day’s grit and grime. He would shower. He would shave.

Remembering her phone number like his own middle name, he sandals down the hallway, blending the drink with his finger. And as the ice cubes clink soprano, the wind chime tenors through the willow like a last chance.