Listen to this story on the podcast.
True love is hard to find.
The stroll from sidewalk to shoreline was longer than ever, formidable on a given day, crossing the rare beach in Jersey getting wider every year, erosion from the north dumping more white powder to the south and pushing water’s edge further into the Atlantic. But his trek was languorous, lilting, a relief after what he’d left by the street, in the motel shadows.
He’d been sprayed back on the pavement–must have been the beer, right?, nothing more–warm, salty, like the water here in dead summer, but tinged with a whiff of metal, like chewing a penny, got the nose twitching. It showed black on him in the waxing autumn moon, its light a narrowing pathway back across the breakers and the rollers and the swells and up to the border of the night blue sky. Clearly inviting; still had time to freshen up for later; wise to take a cleansing roll in the surf.
He’d developed an overly untidy personal history along the eastern seaboard, from south of the Mason-Dixon up through New England. Myrtle Beach, Virginia Beach, Rehoboth off the bay in Delaware, the quaintly Victorian Cape May, up to Crane in Cape Ann and Orleans in Cape Cod, all had served his purpose until the women’s failings, over and over again, dashed his needs ashore and left wreckage in his wake. Every last, damned one; flashing potential as a partner for paradise. Every one, fallen. Not a single exalted angel among them.
And so he had prowled on, leaving no hint, no trace, avoiding any tell-tale pattern or behavioral arc. There was no flippantly discarded Jersey Transit ticket stub, no crumpled doughnut wrapper, nothing holding evidence of his touch or essence; no way a voodoo-fied black magic trifecta of a careless clue, a desperate coin flip and a lucky guess might lead some investigative brainiac to a crackling a-ha flash of genius and dropping a dozen cops and a dozen gun barrels in his face, leaning in above the morning newspaper, the dry wheat toast, and the eggs, over easy. What a sad gray day that would be.
He waited for a long while, the onshore breeze drying his clothes, pushing back his hair, holding his tears right where they shone by moonlight on lashes, and eyelids, and cheeks. Huh, he thought; no reason to cry. He was at ease with the natural elements here, alone and confident, and in no hurry to go anywhere. He had a date tonight.
They’d met over breakfast at one of the few places still open this far into October, she in no rush to leave town, lingering to help clean up and shut down a friend’s twenty-room summer place until it would reopen for the season by Mother’s Day, latest. Not at all beach-bleached with only lightly streaked dark hair pulled into a tail, athletic without being a kick boxer, skin with an outdoor glow in place of the usual baseball-glove-to-stressed-teak-wood patina most females sported as their complexion down the shore. Not a sun bunny, as in, “I’m workin’ most days when I’m here, and I don’t want to fry on the others.” She laughed easily, conversed comfortably, welcomed getting together if they could work it out.
And he felt sure they could work it out after watching her routine, very closely, for three days, maybe more, noting her lunch breaks, her shopping trips, her loping sunset gambols through the small dunes and past the high tide line onto the water-packed sand, better footing for her oceanfront wanders in the starlit dark. He was an old hand at this, having studied and waited for the many others, and been frustrated, extremely, every time. This had to be, would be, the one, she’d be along soon enough, and until then he would contemplate the mystic, necromantic call of her name; Micki, diminutive of the French and Hebrew for “who resembles God.”
Angling from the dark between the street and rustling reeds and grass on the dunes, she walked toward him through the wind-stirred swirl, beach ghosts they called them, like fingers running across the skin of the shore. Ambling, almost floating, quickly so near, feet obscured by the blowing sand, blue jeans, leather vest over a soft denim blouse, open to her belly. Her head down, she watched her own hands work the last few snaps on her shirt, slide it to the sides of each breast. He saw her creamy and night light golden, imagined a soft smile on her face, certain it was there, as she let her eyes drift down to his waist and lower. He felt the brush-kisses lighting back and forth along his jaw, butterflies and moths in the losing light flitting across his cry-dampened cheeks, whispering into his lips; the tingle, the aroma, like a sea breeze. Her jeans were off and gone, gorgeous, revealing even more cream and gold, Elysian milk and honey, and his jeans must have come off too because he had her with both hands up under her bottom and straddling him. He was hard and erect, she insistent and receptive; and together a reactive natural element on this, his beautiful beach, on his beautiful night. He rocked straight and steady, in rhythmic repeat, and his head rolled back as hers came down to him, face tucked in under his chin, and as they stayed together it was all warm, all wet, all over, and he turned to face the moon with her on him.
He was nearing the end, and drove quicker, and bucked once, and again, and again, and began to calm. His shoulders had been hunched up to his ears, and he relaxed and lowered her to the sand. His mind was loosed, he felt like he was breathing out without breathing in, about to let go of an old life to make room for another.
He knew she still had the soft smile as she retrieved her jeans, had them on in a flash, must be bell bottoms, he thought, to get them over shoes or sandals that easily, and she tossed the pony tail at him as she walked back the way she’d come, into the dark but toward the banging lights and hell-raising racket of the police and emergency medical vehicles that had gathered on the street. He’d been right up there earlier in the evening. He couldn’t imagine what had gone wrong. Better go see what’s doing. And reaching down to get dressed realized his jeans were on him, zipped and buckled, when’d that happen?
Pushing his way up and over the hilly soft, dry sand toward the street, moving in on a crafted set piece conjuring the so many times before, he felt it–slick, viscid, along the inside of his right thigh–took a look and saw the dark staining down the pant leg, leaching from the inside out, smelling sweet, astringent, ammoniated, rich, of sex. He yanked his pullover way down and hoped the seaside air would waft the odor away, keep the cops and crowd from noticing.
They were all busying themselves at a crime scene, note taking, photographing, hadn’t gotten to stretching the yellow tape yet, right where he’d argued with Micki before they’d made up and hooked up on the beach. Yelling at him, she’d spit out the usual bile, he’d heard this same-old before, so many times, “ … what do you mean you’re following me … yes I don’t mind talking and hanging out but I barely know your name much less … you need me to complete you how? … this is so different for you from how many others? … what are you doing?”
What he was doing was spinning on his toes, a beer bottle in each hand, figured they’d share a drink before they put themselves together now that destiny had taken its course, but the suds were flying everywhere, all over them, and he was livid, this whole scene, not again, not this time, and winged them at the stone bench and over-stuffed trash barrel and sandy sidewalk where they cracked open, and the shards, glowing embers in the street light, tinkled like high emerald chimes, and he breathed in, and in, just drew air in, and forgot who and where he was, God, just stop yelling, and yelling, on this quiet seaside evening.
He’d walked away, and her squalling had faded. Or had hard quick silence come first? He’d lingered at the shoreline, and she’d come to him. Glorious. And somebody must have nailed her good on the way back up the beach; had some maniac been watching them? Hunting?
As two cops and two ambulance guys stepped back from Micki on the ground, beer and blood and other stuff drooling down either side of her, half a bottle, a tool with a green neck and jagged teeth, jabbed and jutting out of where it’d opened her, he wondered why he wasn’t crying, wailing, shuddering to the ground, soaked in sadness, shoulders heaving and pulling his forehead to the concrete walk, oh my lost love. And then he found clarity and figured why.
He was sated, for now. Transiently self-satisfied, because he’d done it, hadn’t he? Laid her out and shut her the fuck up when her irrational rejection of their eternal pairing brought back that old feeling all the others had engendered, the need to cut bait and move on.
And do move on, right now.
Get to your room, before uniforms and plainclothes detect more than just a passing interest in this mess. Shake your head, keep going, no sir, didn’t notice or see or hear anything, and he’d be long gone before anyone in town recalled the round-faced, Beatle-cut, shambling, starchily awkward breakfast companion–not at all how he’d look or dress by tomorrow afternoon anyway, when he got off the bus in Philly, where he now newly planned to keep searching.
These saltwater environs were not working out, much as he loved them and that open water wading. He longed to join the origin, the sea, the crux of life, where it all began, as part of a loving tandem. But things might get too tight along the coast, and so better to move west, use the rivers, the Delaware, even the Hudson up past the city was majestic north of the GW Bridge, cleaner than it’s been in decades … or the inland waterway. The Intracoastal. It ran from New England to Florida, always landfall on either side, a lot of it fresh river but plenty of it brackish and wild, it was like hiking a water trail, secluded, whole stretches nearly barren. But could those places serve and brim him over, finish it? He didn’t think so. He’d always been a seashore guy.
Back to the motel, right across the street from the slop on the sidewalk, bottles of red and white in the fridge, the pizza guy over on the bay side open ’til at least one in the morning. He locked the door, poured some chardonnay into a glass, more like a jelly jar, and realized she was the closest he’d ever come to a sharer, a partner in the last journey, the vision and the action at the water’s edge now embedding in memory. They should have traveled together, one step and another and into dark water. The power of connection, the huge blue arc circuitry, dwarfed his thoughts, and what sense he had left. He was too close to pull up and shove off, too close to let her go. The beach Micki was alive, unlike whatever was on the sidewalk.
He could not have killed this one. He couldn’t have. It was nuts to think he did. She’d been with him, after their fight, he’d seen and touched, smelled the blue jeans, tasted the blue denim, his fingers tangled in her hair tie, the flesh in the moonlight, the sex, the longing, her, in and out, liquid, sticky, heavy, temporal, physical and real as blown sand roughing your skin, their lovers’ cooled soothing sweat like the whipped mist from offshore, and the last flash of her hands like wind over waves, a breezy ruffling in your hair, drying your eyes.
His mind had nearly refreshed, struggled to reboot, right below his motel window, on the concrete, where she’d left him the first time. But a gaining madness and his starving need called it certainly only a body down there. Not the rest of her, the immortal coil of her. Down by the water, after he’d dropped her on the walk, she’d found him. Something more remained, bigger than life, and sought him out. Beckoned.
And the idea he was crazy showed itself, took a peek in the mirror to give him a glimpse, at least half-glimmered in his head.
He wouldn’t dwell on any of it; the madness, the need. This was complicated. Transcendental.
He wasn’t drunk. He wanted to be, and finished off the bottle of white, set sail from the moorings, drifted and floated a little more, saved the red for the food.
Wait. Where were her shoes?
Not on her, not near her, the deep sky blue canvas deck shoes with the royal blue stitching, the white trim and soles. He hadn’t swung her around by the ears, drop kicked her, leg swept her, dislodged them. He’d put her down, and she’d stayed down, and they hadn’t come flying off; didn’t mean they were there. On the sand he hadn’t seen them, either; maybe she’d slipped through the fingers of the beach ghosts without them, must have left them on land to come to the waterline, and you leave your shoes behind when you know you’re going to take the plunge. Why hadn’t he pulled her in? She was committed, ready, why hadn’t he taken her, ended it?
He had been distracted; enchanted. Enraptured. Then she’d slipped away, why had she left him, gone back? To finish up what he’d started, was that it? To go die on the broken glass?
Or was it something else, bigger than all this, some mythical marshaled tragedy, luring him, back to the horror, to make him her partner on some eternal road? Who was fishing now? Who was hooked? Where were her shoes?
The devil is in the details. Lurking.
And behind his eyes he took off, one way out of town, never looked back, and his crazy blew way past half-glimmering.
The cops were prepping to take the body away, and soon enough they’d be canvassing any building with lights on, witness hunting, interviewing, sniffing around. Nothing to tie him to anything right now. He breathed, and plucked from the aery ether one last semi-sane moment, and opened the merlot, knocked a little down. Nice.
His window view opened up to the sky, and the rising moon etched a path to the south and east, the shimmering light across the water now off to the right, two scallop boats straight ahead a few miles off, steady red lights tracing their tracks to the beds. The ambulance, body in the back, departed, the mournful sound whining and dropping off while three guys from the clean-up crew decontaminated, denatured and flushed away what was left of the corporeal Micki.
His mind and eyes hooded from the wine, at a loss once again, he pulled open the door and stepped out onto the common balcony walk to clear his head and get a better look out to sea. The scallopers’ lights were flickering now, so rhythmically, in and out of view somehow, even on calm, easy seas, even with the tide receding, and no boat traffic between them and the shore. Something hiding, then showing. A cloak. A secret. Concealed. Revealed. What was that?
He glanced down and linked eyes with a detective, the cop recognizing him from the earlier street scene, no doubt. And now one and another shield turned toward the motel and scuffed over.
The inside of his skull began to burn. He slammed his eyes closed, open, closed, and then open to something new as he yanked back to face the sky, and reveled in the impossible wonder of terns and gulls, sea birds you never see flying at night, in measured meter, driving toward the beach, stroke, stroke, a long, lush tempo carrying them, the boats’ mast lights still blinking, a soft pulsing beat of some unknown heart. See ’em, don’t. See’ em, don’t. The heat in his head spoke in a buzz, a constant static sound, then hard and sharp, ringing. He looked over the railing, saw the two cops come out of the office and head toward the elevator, not many guests staying here, they’ll be along any minute–it cannot end like this. Now that he’d seen the way.
He spun toward his door but around the corner the elevator rang and opened, shit, shit, shit, no, no, no, then he smelled spinach, garlic and ricotta in the big flat box and he told the pizza guy, “Sorry I made you come over so late, sorry, sorry, I gotta go, I gotta leave, look, here’s twenty, thirty, and two more, keep it, and look, take this,” handing over the bottle of red, “make a party of it, give it away, find somebody, but I just … I gotta go.” And after, “Well, OK, you bet, thanks a lot,” the pizza guy took the only running elevator car back down, holding off the two badges a little longer.
He turned and ran along the walkway, down the outdoor stairs toward the pool, looped behind the motel, sensed even more birds improbably winging through the dark toward the beach, with the wind picking up and snaking through ropes on flagpoles, serrated plastic leaves on fake plastic palm trees faux planted on pre-fab plastic decks, upper floor railings of shuttered summer houses and hotels, whistling down corridors and through phone and cable wires and power lines.
And all of it began to sing, first a choir, then with one voice, not the shrieking you hear peeling off gale-battered fishing boats when sailors’ widows hear the cries of their dead, but a thick rich blend, swimmingly decadent, riding a rail into his head and enveloping the white noise inside him with sublimity and allure. A song apart. The birds were hearing it, flying to find it, drawn to the beach. He needed to see.
Everything he’d wanted, so very near. He hurried along the side of the building, looked carefully around the corner for the cops, got down low, and dodged their streetlight silhouettes one block up at the front of the motel, and jogged onto the sand, through the dunes Micki had navigated.
And as more terns and gulls and sanderlings milled about in fervent reverence, his body and mind turned to see, to witness in awe and welcome discovery, her great wings, over the water, undulating in erotic sync with her breathing, up and down, obscuring and revealing the presence of the scallopers so far offshore, pushing air into the music in the wind and the wires, calling, to the wayward. And, more than anything, he wanted to, so he dashed ahead and got salty and wet and ocean warm once more. Religious converts say when the damaged see the light, God comes into you through the wound. Maybe sometimes God comes out of the wound, and sings a song.
He slogged through and past the surf, his face a giant split-cheeked grin, ascending to her face pale and golden like the moon, the great and mighty wings frilled and ephemeral like clouds in a nighttime sky, welcoming, and yes, now surely beckoning, in a gilded streak across the white caps, and when his foot caught he stumbled under and scuttled out along the bottom and tried to rise as the sea floor deepened and dropped off sharply beyond the second sandbar. When he lost his breath his body reacted and pulled for the surface, but he was no swimmer.
Struggling to stay atop, gasping, trying to time the rollers, the wind knocked over a climbing rogue wave and it broke right into his gaping face and down his throat to fill stomach and lungs, and with his body fighting to survive his insanity, so briefly lucid and practical at the end of the line, he thought, I won’t be on that bus to Philly, as he slipped behind the sandbar and began to lose his arms and legs.
And facing the surface, sight fading through the last seconds, with lustre and lunar backlight, up and out of his reach … her wings, passing over and back above him, like waves and swells, ebb and flow. Now the song was over, that high-pitched buzzing back again; not harsh, not a warning, more a lament, like he’d heard on the beach when other sirens had come for her. And if the sea or something in it didn’t lay claim to what was left, those sirens would come for him.
Hanging out a couple hundred yards north, a happy couple has it all, all they need, with surf and sky. They’d be out here, or anywhere land ends, anytime they could; their butts on the sand, backs to the bulkhead that holds storm surges off the streets, eyes to the stars, ears to the breakers’ rumble and hiss, the scent of a crisp autumn ocean. And while a few under-achieving sea birds still picked at crab carcasses to fill their gull bellies after another off-season day of humans not leaving enough French fries behind, these two were wolfing down a manna-from-heaven spinach, garlic, and ricotta pie and a bottle of not bad merlot, all on the arm, courtesy of some customer too busy to enjoy himself, at least according to the pizza guy who offered and left it. “Thank you sir, and a very Happy Halloween,” or whatever holiday comes next, and he was gone.
“Wow,” through the food, in a fake-gruff shuck-jiving blues man voice, “yeah, dinner and baby’s got a new pair of shoes.”
“I know,” she said to him, thrilled, “they’re beautiful, what a ritzy blue, raised stitching, slip-on … perfect. He went by, that man before, kinda grubby, homeless or something, you think he dropped them?”
“What would that guy ever have them for,” he said, “why would he even pick ’em up? Maybe it was that girl dropped ’em, remember? I didn’t get a good look. Hanging around down the way there, jogging or something with the ponytail waving? But she’d have come looking for these booties for sure. They’re just the thing for down here, the shore. She wouldn’t leave ’em.”
Hugging his arm, she corrected him. “These beauties. Yeah,” she said, “unless she was heading to the water.”
They heard the sirens, not too far off. They were used to them from years in the city, and tuned them out.
They leaned back, each with a good pull off the merlot, let their faces and hair catch that ruffling night wind and watched the light play, do funny things on the waves, and lived well, the way you can in the magic dark at the beach, beloveds’ toes just touching the cool deep, right at the edge, down their beloved Jersey shore.
Gary Cahill is a member of Mystery Writers of America New York, International Thriller Writers, and the NYC-based Irish American Writers and Artists. His first short story, “That Kind of Guy”, ran as a Black Mask-style homage in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Other work has appeared in print and e-formats with Short Story Me Genre Fiction, Pulp Empire, The First Line Literary Journal, the Big Pulp Magazine speculative fiction anthology The Kennedy Curse, Shotgun Honey, and Volumes I and II of Plan B Magazine. He worked in Hell’s Kitchen for nearly twenty-five years, and is now a staff member across the Hudson at the Weehawken NJ Public Library. He thinks noir-ist David Goodis got it right when he wrote pretty much anything.