Flotsam and Jetsam

Paula Lemke

Our 2014 Fiction Contest Honourable Mention.


Rain threatened almost every single day that summer though not once did it actually rain—even their relationship felt a menace in this. Things between them were strained and awkward, they felt the air and the heat and they were easily irritated by everything. It might have gone better had it rained and released the pressure.

The eggs she served the first morning were rubbery, the coffee weak, and bruised fruit sat on a chipped saucer over-ripening in the heat by the minute. Jon got up from the little wood table by the window where they ate their meals. “Didn’t you just buy that fruit,” he said to Beth, not expecting a response, it was not a question. “I mean, look at it, it’s already gone off.” He wasn’t looking at her when he spoke as though he couldn’t quite bring himself to, which implied some kind of failure on her part, she thought, again.

It was still early. There was a patch of coral sky above the cloud bank. Jon put his camera around his neck and went outside without saying another word, letting the screen door flap behind him and stay open. He doesn’t care, Beth thought. He doesn’t notice and he doesn’t care. She took a banana that was half brown off the plate and went out to the porch, closing the door behind her to keep the flies out. He’ll care tonight when the mosquitoes bite and the flies do laps around the room, trapped. Beth plonked herself down on the peeling wood steps. She surveyed the little yard at the front of the cottage and beyond, to the beach, the view of the inlet, its grey water sitting like something dark and gelatinous, not lapping at the shore in waves but instead, quivering when the wind blew across it, like jelly.

There was only a small breeze coming from off shore at this hour, it was peaceful and quiet except for the gulls and eagles and could have been pleasant on a different day, in a different summer. This summer, however, felt wrong and their echoing voices grated.

Do you remember that yellow and blue paisley dress that I wore all the time that one summer back when we were starting out, and we went camping in the Okanagan and I was laying on the beach this one time reading a Daphne du Maurier novel and you snuck up on me and pulled up my dress and kissed my breasts? Do you remember that? My God we did those things all the time. We were reckless like that, weren’t we? I miss that like an ache. I wonder what happened to that dress.

It was low tide. The breeze had died down and the sky in the west was dark and glowering, yet the afternoon was hot. Jon had been gone all morning and then some, didn’t come back for lunch, not that she’d made lunch, it’s just that it was what he would normally do. He would make his own meal, a messy array of chunks of food tossed together on a plate as though in a hurry. A cob of rye with a hunk torn off, a slab of cheddar, some radishes with the ends still on and the dirt barely washed off, a large dill maybe, or some ragged pieces of green pepper ripped, not cut, everything looking a big savaged. And he’d sit on the deck in one of the old cane chairs with his bare feet up on the railing, the wood everywhere was chipping and weathered to the point of slivers. He would eat every morsel of food lustily and well, even pressing up the crumbs and bits with the pad of his forefinger and licking them off.

Beth stood at the railing with binoculars scanning the far tide line. There was a lot of action out there this day. Shore birds galore squawking and squealing, tugs going by, float planes, a ferry now and then, the boom of its horn echoing as she rounded the point and took to sea. There were voices on the wind too, coming from further down the shore, a cheerful, happy sound rising and falling and rising, an ebb and flow of sound. She’d wanted this to be like the other summers. It was such a simple desire, really. Just this. A modest cottage, sky and water, the scent of brine, sounds of birds and boats and watery swells tickling at the beach. Some books to read, a few bottles of dark wine, some board games, maybe Scrabble, maybe crib. Maybe a fire on the beach, the sparks flying up into the dark, their feet near the fire, their fingertips touching each others’. Surely they can allow their fingertips to touch. Instead everything seemed so totally messed up. Everything. How could we fuck up everything that is so simple? I mean, how, really? You’d have to go out of your way.

Something was out there, way out on the sand, there, past the breakwater, way, way out where the water was holding its breath waiting for the switch. Something dark, tossed or lying on its side, like a thing that had lived maybe. She made her way to the silty sand, the water in the tide pools warm as a bath, a lavage over her feet, her ankles, her calves. Where was Jon now?

You were the one who found that perfect moon shell when the tide was so far out in the bay we could walk over to the other island in the tepid water through the seaweed forest. We walked all afternoon, holding hands and treading gently on the soft, sucking bottom of sand to avoid stepping on periwinkles, oysters, the tiny crabs. The squishy floor oozed between our toes. When we got home I put the moon shell on the bookshelf you’d made for my birthday that tilts slightly to the left, which I found endearing.

The dark thing was a dead seal with its eyes open, part of a flipper exposed down to the bone, flies everywhere. Remember that seal skeleton we found off the Oregon coast out near the lighthouse and how we all crouched down to examine it, the children marvelling at the hand bones in its flipper?

Beth looked at the seal’s bones, felt a sudden wind come up signalling the movement of the waters. She scanned the horizon for Jon, for anything. There were dots of people far off in the tidal water, their voices carried in the air, sound phantoms. Maybe Jon’s voice was one of them. Time to get back to shore, hurry, hurry, the tide was flowing from all directions, the pressure was released.

August arrived. The wind came howling across the bay during the night white-capping the water and slamming the screen door of the cottage. A storm portended. Good, thought Beth. In the morning calm though, everything was still dry. The flower pots Beth had planted had fallen over and rolled off the deck, the clothesline had snapped and the thin mattress that Jon had been sleeping on out on the deck had been tossed onto the beach.

Jon had been collecting things. They were lined up along the deck rail—shells and crab carapaces and feathers, stones and kelp floats, and pieces of driftwood sat on the edges of the steps and in clusters around the yard. The wind had pitched them about and hodgepodged them everywhere. Even human artifacts warranted collecting; a child’s pink sock; a doll’s arm; several small balls; weathered glass; a match book; the tabs off of pop cans; all kinds of detritus. Jon was going to make a sculpture to bring back to his classroom, he said. Something that would make a statement, get the kids thinking.

Beth drove to a market on the highway once a week to stock up. It was an outing she looked forward to. Jon never went. He stayed at the beach, a recluse, even to letting his beard grow wild like a mountain man. The market was a meeting place for the locals and the summer rentals. There was a gas station too, and a coffee bar with a few tables spilling over to the outside in decent weather, and at one end of the store was a flea market table that sold books and knickknacks. She always found a book or two and would leave one she’d read behind and once there was a pair of used sunglasses she bought.

I lost the Raybans that I’d had for years somewhere on the west coast of Vancouver Island the fall when I finally left and drove out to Long Beach to get away from you. I was choking, I really was and that beach was so expansive, so deep and broad and wide open that I could breathe there and spread out my arms without having to touch that space around you that you wore like a protective sheath that kept me locked out. I’d grown tired of abutting against that thing all the time. It had developed so insidiously, miserably like cataracts such that I swear you were not even aware of it, you’d lived with it for so long. What armour, you asked.

Jon had stopped speaking to Beth, unless necessary. And there was very little that was necessary. He told her to look at it like a retreat, a time of introspection, of mindfulness, of healing, perhaps. Healing, yes.

Six weeks. The silence between them had gone from screaming loud to feeling normal. Beth had acquiesced and stopped talking too. What was the point? They moved through their summer days like two monks having taken a vow. They pointed and mimed and gestured their way to understanding. But too many things became difficult to communicate without words. What do you want for dinner? When will you be back? Why aren’t you sleeping with me? Do you still love me? It was too hard to keep bothering so they spent more time apart than together, made their own meals when they felt like it, went their own way. They were two strangers who spoke different languages, that’s how it seemed.

Jon did not appear untroubled, however. He moved through the days, through the heat, through the thick air like the dark clouds that arrived every day and made their way heavily, ponderously across the sky. Each morning he left early and when he came back his pockets were full and he was dragging things behind him. Sometimes he wasn’t back before Beth went to bed, and she worried but would find him asleep on the deck in the morning. She would drink her coffee and watch him sleep and wanted to ask him what was going on in his head.

She slept less and less as the hot summer days progressed, a sense of foreboding about them, and would get up earlier and earlier until she was rising in the dark. She’d have a cool shower and make coffee and sit on the deck to greet the dawn. One morning Jon was not there asleep on his mattress and there was no sign that he’d been there, nor was the car gone. She was tired of worrying about him and fretting about their future, but he had not returned and that was something else.

The dawn came on deeply pink and tangerine, casting orange light on the bulks of cumulus clouds that sat still over the horizon. Beth walked down to the shoreline and looked up and down the beach wondering how she would begin to look for her husband. Probably he’d just fallen asleep on the sand somewhere, acting out some survivor fantasy, she told herself. Maybe it was like play, maybe he’d fashioned a fort for himself with driftwood to sleep under, or wanted to spend the night with the stars, few as they were that summer, and the sound of the water and no one and nothing else.

As she walked barefoot where the sand was firm and smooth she took in all the flotsam and jetsam that had accumulated along the high tide line. It was like a living organism, the beach, all the parts working together, contributing, conniving, the water and wind and molluscs and fish, the salted air and birds, the moon playing its part, and humans leaving their mark too, relics of lives. She spotted something amongst the seaweed and shells and pebbles, and bent down to find a twenty dollar bill.

It’s funny what we can and cannot recall. You remember different things than I and there’s no accounting for it. I’ll bet this is one you’ve forgotten, and why wouldn’t you, it’s a nothing much thing, a time when we were strolling along English Bay slowly, feeling terribly special—I remember that—as though we were singled out to be so madly in love, wearing it like a swagger almost, like look at us, aren’t we lucky, aren’t we unique, the chosen ones. We sorted through the beach debris as we walked, finding sand dollars which I’d never seen before having only recently arrived from the prairies, and it was then we saw an American twenty. We considered turning it in but where, to whom, so we kept it instead and went over to Davie Street and bought Chinese food with it. We had fortune cookies with green tea at the end and my fortune—which I remember because I kept that little strip of paper and taped it into my journal—said ‘Happiness lies ahead’. And it did, for a long time, even though you scoffed at it and said ‘they always say things like that.’

As Beth walked the clouds rolled in chomping up the sunlight as they went, but the sun, as though it were having a last hurrah for the day, flung rhinestones across the water, and sparkled the quartz crystals in the sand, lit up shiny stones and glinted off a cluster of coins. Then a piece of paper, folded, it was a receipt. Further on, a credit card, no, a debit card, Jon’s. A watch. His watch. Your watch! Her hand went to her throat. A small yellow spiral notebook, she riffled through it, some sketches, a few notes. A pen. She stopped and looked down at her two hands cupped together holding the remnants of Jon’s pockets covered in sand. Laying ahead like an orphan, his camera in a tangle of seaweed. She looked around for him, maybe he was lying nearby, maybe sleeping, maybe enjoying the sun on his face. He wasn’t.

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d done something out of the ordinary, something extreme. Is this like the other times, like when you got it into your head that you wanted us to live off the land and so you dug up the whole backyard one day while I was at work and planted a garden, and brought books home from the library on canning and bread-making, or like when you went vegan and then onto raw foods and then fasting, or the time you cut up your credit cards and sold your bicycle, your leather jacket, your albums, to pool some money for me, and then went tree planting? You craved simplicity, you said. You wanted to divest yourself of belongings, you said. Is this like that?

She looked out at the ocean, shelved a hand over her eyes and squinted into the last of the sun. The tide was heading out on a warm breeze.

Paula Lemke lives in Langley, BC and writes short fiction, and poetry to keep sane. Though her background is in archaeology and music, writing is her bliss. She has a story coming out in Prairie Fire and has been published in the SIWC Anthology. Paula has won numerous prizes for poetry and fiction. “Flotsam and Jetsam” was the honourable mention in our 2014 fiction contest.

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