On the Fence

When we got to St. George’s Island, Cliff and I went down to the beach. We plopped onto low beach chairs and opened cans of beer as the sun set over the water. The others went up to the house.

“Look at that duck,” I said, pointing to the waves. A large dark bird floated over the green gray surf. It had a long neck and beak. Its call was high pitched and strained.

“What’s a duck doing out there?” I said.

“That’s not a duck, you goof, it’s a loon,” said Cliff.

I used to have a crush on Cliff in high school. He was tall and blond with cool blue eyes, though he had developed a small paunch. He met my husband Daryl in college and then was best man in our wedding. I never told Daryl about my old feelings but I wanted him to worry about me on the beach with a good-looking man. I knew he wouldn’t. He had said to me once I was the kind of girl most guys considered a pal.

The loon landed on the beach. The sun set behind it and the spray from the waves hung in the light.

“Lordy,” said Jimmy who had come down from the house. He stood looking at the loon as he sipped his beer. “What the hell?” Jimmy was Daryl’s brother and hung out with us at home and sometimes went with us on vacation.

The bird pushed itself up with one foot and lurched forward. The other leg was curled against its body, as if it were maimed or deformed. The creature flopped forward then rolled back onto its good foot. Every few feet it sat and cocked its head, surveying the beach and waves.

“Where’s Daryl?” I said.

“With Caroline,” said Jimmy. Caroline was Cliff’s girlfriend.

I went up to the house and found Daryl and Caroline sitting on the deck, eating chips and dip.

“Honey, you’ve got to try this dip,” he said. “Caroline made it. It’s delicious.”

“There’s a loon on the beach,” I said. I stood at the door, as if to step out onto the deck would make me complicit with something. “Maybe we should call the county.”

He got up and slipped on his loafers. “You sit here,” he said, indicating his chair.

“Dip?” said Caroline.

“No thank you,” I said.

I heard Daryl flipping through the phone book.

“I thought it was a duck at first,” said Caroline, “but then it was so fat.”
The sun was low, just a sliver of orange. The bird came closer to the beach chairs and  Jimmy began making trumpet noises with his mouth. He often did this to tease our dog or draw attention to funny people and situations.

“No one’s answering,” said Daryl. “I say let nature take its course.”

I took the phone book to one of the bedrooms and slammed the door. I found a woman who would come get it. She said it happens all the time. The loons get caught in a storm during their migration and can’t make it to a place where they can rest.

The bird had made its way to the brambles between the houses. I was worried it might make it to the road. I emptied the outside trashcan so I could use it as a container. As I approached, it lunged at me and tried to peck me with its long beak but I managed to get the trash can over its body.

When the bird woman arrived, she put her gloved hand into the overturned trash can and coaxed the loon into the metal cage. She lifted the cage onto the truck. When she got in and closed the door, I wanted to call out to her. I wondered what it would be like to drive around all day saving birds.

I fell asleep that night, fully clothed, reading in bed. I got up early the next day, before anyone. If we had been at home, Daryl would be up checking stock quotes, flipping on CNN. He hardly spoke to Caroline, hardly looked at her. That night he curled up with me in bed, nuzzling his nose in my hair like he used to.

The next day the ocean was flat calm like a tray, the air still and close. Daryl was being solicitous, had offered to pack the car. I stood by the water. He would chatter all the way home as if we were acquaintances. He started acting this way after he began working late, after the doctor told us we couldn’t have a baby.

I stood on the beach at a line of foam. I wondered what it would feel like to move into that amniotic brine, to have the lips of the water enclose my skin and hair, to swim out past the waves and the sandbar until I floated out over the abyss.

First appeared in 971 MENU

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