...And on the Salty Sea Twirls a Dog
From Little Pockets of Alarm — Tales Short and Shorter
Main Street Rag Press, 2009
Very important to the atmosphere is the dead calm of the sea. A salty sea, remnant of a lake, once fed by a river before the earth heaved and left a briny sinkhole, ringed with mountains, a body of water metamorphosed but, even so, substantial, intimidating. Standing on its banks, a person, particularly a child, must strain to make out the opposite, scarcely conceivable shoreline.
There are fish here: ocean fish, and birds, many of them dying from a diet too rich in salt. There are vacationers, outfitted with boats and water skis. There are RVs lined up, side to side, parked legally and illegally, their chrome and mirrors glinting in the glare. There are two public, bunker-style restrooms that smell no better or worse than the open air mixture of semi-stagnant water, plankton and fermenting birds. There is one restaurant, and in front of it a homemade, life-size diorama filled by three inflatable skeletons imbibing and playing cards, red bandannas tied around their skulls — but never mind that. There will always be transplants who move to a place for its peculiarities and go to great lengths to advertise their allegiance.
Among the vacationers today are Daniel and Allison, cousins, who have already examined the skeleton display and moved along, past the public restrooms, past the RVs, out to the very edge of the jetty that pokes into the sea. Each picks up a series of rocks, smaller, then larger, and heaves those missiles for the splash and sink. Daniel’s father, an amateur pilot, once flew over the salty sea and confided to his son the strange sensation of spotting blue in a world of brown. Now Daniel shares that description of discord with Allison, who peers not at the blue sea but at the bluer sky, hoping a plane will fly over and see them, but that doesn’t happen. As her cousin yammers on, undeterred by her usual interruptions and contradictions, she gives the plane, any plane, every chance to appear and grant her wish. When it doesn’t, she assumes, a year older than Daniel, a veteran of these joint family vacations, that once again she has ruined her chances by hoping too hard. Hoping too hard is a habit she is trying to break herself of before entering third grade.
Balanced on her hands, she stretches her right leg past jetty rocks and out over the water. First she dips one stubby toe into the sea, then her entire foot, past the ankle. Neither toe nor ankle can feel salt, just wet, but Daniel, to best her, drops to his belly, dips a finger, jams it in his mouth and sucks. Every few yards there are strict signs warning against just that. Not Suitable for Drinking! Don’t Drink This Water! Daniel knows what’s been emptied into the salty sea because his mother has told him at least twice in Allison’s hearing.
Daniel shrieks and giggles, giddy with risk.
“Really disgusting,” Allison repeats because, lately, disgusting has become one of her very favorite words.
When Daniel, indifferent to the reprimand, dips a second finger, she feels compelled to improve on what birds and fish and fisherman and water skiers have dumped into the salty sea. Since her list is much more explicit and disgusting than her aunt’s, eventually she achieves the effect she wants, plus a little more besides. The polluted finger slips out of Daniel’s mouth, his face goes slack, his eyes go big, his mouth begins to twitch as if, at any moment, he might vomit. She didn’t mean to make him physically ill, to go quite that far, but now that she has she’ll have to retract and modify and possibly even deny the disgusting inventions she’s proudest of, a kindness she’s getting around to, she is, when both of them notice it, bobbing on the surface, floating toward them.
Because the paws are sticking up in the air, rigid as tree limbs, at first they don’t recognize the shape, and then they do. Instantly their squabbling stops. In utter silence they watch its approach, too taut and stiff to paddle, but drifting steadily in their direction all the same, riding the surface of the salty sea like an upended surfer — if dogs surfed.
Because she’s older, Allison knows it’s her responsibility to get them off the rocks and the jetty; that she mustn’t wait where she is for an up-close view of jellied eyes and maggots or for the chance to breathe in a stench worse than saline. She knows that by staying she guarantees herself a sight more horrible than anything yet witnessed, the receipt and imprint of an image that will return repeatedly to plague her at night, in bed, lights out. Knows too that even if she and Daniel were to leave this very moment, from this afternoon forward, in whatever lake or sea or ocean her parents choose to vacation beside, she will be on the lookout for dead animals twirling toward her in the wash, tensely aware that a calm sea is not a motionless sea; that a calm sea can still transport awfulness, deliver that awfulness to you, make awfulness seem your shame, your fault.
“Run,” she whispers to Daniel, but he is puking now for real, the hamburger and fries, disgusting bits of undigested meat and gristle, turned pink by the ketchup he loves. The chunky spray flies out of his mouth, splashing his feet and hers, and all the while someone’s dog, someone’s lost pet, glides slowly, resolutely, toward them, its coat rough and sticky with hitchhikers.
Coming soon: For You, Madam Lenin is forthcoming (later this revolutionary month)