George McLoone grew up in Arizona but has lived and worked mainly in Virginia. He is a graduate of Georgetown University, married, and has three daughters. His recent publications include fiction in Pulse Literary Journal, Northwind, Alfie Dog, and The Northern Virginia Review.
By George McLoone
“Jack Whitney, adolescent male, low self-esteem, fear of intimacy, acrophobic.” Dr. Nicole Marat had written this in her case notes only a month ago, but today she and her young client were high on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, on their way to the beach, happy, passionately in love and unafraid.
Still, Jack was a growing boy, and earlier they had stopped in Annapolis for dinner at Neptune’s Table, a large meal even for him—shrimp, scallops and lobster tails. For herself, she ordered just the scallops and a bottle of sauvignon blanc. Beyond that, there was little conversation, each anxious about appearing together in the restaurant–he from lack of experience in fine dining, she concerned about running into anyone she might know. She could lower those odds by not staying too long at the restaurant, though she had yet to face traffic delays getting across the bridge and into Rehobeth early on a Friday evening in June. She was anxious about getting there before dark, so Jack could see the whole place and feel the charm of the house outside and in. But she did manage to smile, and for a moment held his hand under the table.
Their waiter returned with the wine and one wine glass, opened the bottle and set it in an ice bucket to chill. A second waiter brought the shellfish and poured a glass of wine for her. When he left, Nicole emptied her water glass into the bucket, filled the glass with wine and handed it to Jack.
“What did you tell your mother you were doing this weekend?” she asked him.
“Going to my dad’s house. I go there most weekends. He’s four miles away from our house, my mom’s house, but I can ride my bike. She has to work late Fridays anyway, so I usually get something at McDonalds’s and take it to his house. I have a key in case he’s spending the night out. Mom doesn’t know that he has this girlfriend at the county clerk’s office where he works, and they go to her house, the girlfriend’s house, an apartment on South Glebe Road. Sandra. I met her once. I left her a note–not Sandra but my mom. I told her I would be back home Sunday night.”
“Don’t you have a cell phone?”
“Not until I get an after school job and can pay for it myself. I’m old enough now, and I’m pretty sure I can get a job at the drugstore on Old Dominion, maybe even start this summer. May I take what’s left with us in case we get hungry later? I’m not as hungry as I thought. You neither, I guess.”
“I’ll have them wrap everything up. Shall we finish the bottle while we wait?” They had met at his high school in Arlington, Madeley, a prep school for boys where she taught General Psychology part-time. She was fully qualified to teach, but so well off she donated her salary to the school’s athletic program. She enjoyed the work and the department meetings yet did not socialize with other faculty, both women and men. They kept their distance for a number of reasons, she believed–her transient academic status, her unmerited private office, her expensive clothes, her cream Lexus convertible in the faculty parking lot, and rumors of a divorce settlement giving her large alimony payments plus an impressive portfolio of tax-free bonds, two lucrative strip malls, and homes in town and country. The rumors gained credence not from a confidante but from the assistant principal, a man in his forties who had once played in a slow-paced, charity golf tournament with her ex-husband, Danny Marat, a cement magnate. The boys, however, liked her for her looks, her wit, and her ready smile. And she liked them, including those from families of modest means struggling to come up with the Madeley tuition, and the emotionally insecure boys, especially Jack—handsome, gifted, but afraid of heights and afraid of intimacy with a girl. Jack had implied as much when he walked into her office one May afternoon after class.
“Dr. Marat,” he said right away, “I was wondering if I might have an extension on my research project, and I may as well tell you the reason why before you have to ask. I know I’m supposed to interview two older relatives or acquaintances—not my parents—and ask them about their childhood fears and their fears now, and write a comparison with a conclusion. So I picked my grandparents. They live in this high-rise building near Tyson’s Corner, and you have to take an elevator to the sixteenth floor, get out into the hallway, which isn’t so bad. When you go into their apartment it’s the penthouse with all this glass–floor to ceiling windows. Worse, their balcony is like wide open. It doesn’t even have windows, just a low railing, and out there is where they like to sit. My heart like races. I hold on but I’m worried I might lose control of myself and jump off. I couldn’t do the interview. I can’t go back. I have to figure out some way to get them down to the lobby so we can talk, take them out for ice cream or something.”
She was standing by the window watering a plant, but listening.
“Dr. Marat,” he said, “I do like your course. It’s my favorite course, but I’m not just distracted by the balcony. On top of all that, there’s the junior prom in a couple of weeks. I had a date lined up until I found out they’re having it at the Best Western in McLean, which you wouldn’t think has a rooftop ballroom—and they don’t—but some of the girls are staying over if they’re like working on the prom. So I ask her where I should pick her up, and she says at the Best Western, Room 1288. ‘I’ve reserved a suite, Suite 1288,’ she says, ‘and have it all to myself after Francine Neely sneaks out to visit her boyfriend. You should see the view!’ This is Jackie Van Dusen telling me this, a student an academy in Middleburg where they let the girls do anything. She was pretty mad when I said I would meet her at the dance downstairs, so mad she told me to forget it, that someone else at Madeley wanted to take her anyway, somebody on the football team.”
Dr. Marat placed the water bottle on the sill, walked around to the front of her desk, leaned back against it told him to sit down in the easy chair by the file cabinet and relax.
“I can give you an extension to the end of the term,” she said. “Try to finish your project by then. But for now stay way from places outside of school that seem to bother you, and let’s catch up on our reading.”
She referred him to the textbook’s chapter on anxiety issues and how irrational fears were often related to a single, underlying cause of which a sufferer might not be conscious. In time and with counseling this cause could be discovered and phobias overcome by insight.
“We’ll work on things gradually,” she said, “one floor at a time, as it were, and nothing too high for you to manage. Try to think of me as a friend, a good friend who wants to help you get through the course successfully and enjoy yourself socially.”
It was all so clear and simple when she explained it. She would be happy to schedule several appointments, and there would be no charge for the counseling. They agreed on a suitable time, five pm, when they were both free and the building cleared out, so there would be no interruptions. When he stood up to leave, she smiled, gave him a firm hug, a hug that seemed more than a hug, and opened the door for him.
To be sure, he had wondered what it would be like to sleep with her, something he had never done with anyone, if also something once possible with Jackie Van Dusen. But it was something highly unlikely with Dr. Marat, whatever his classmates liked to think and say. Then, walking down the hallway, he found himself recalling what his father had said to him six months ago. He had asked his father for a hundred dollars to tescort Jackie to the prom plus related expenses, and expected to hear the old man lecture about money, or gentlemanly behavior, or caution regarding sex. But his father, recently separated from his mother, cut right to the chase—
“Now that you’re going on dates, more often, there will be signs, especially if your date is a little older than you and been going out awhile with other boys. It will be a certain kind of girl, say a girl no longer living at home– or more likely a girl who likes to think this is the case and says she has a separate life while living at home because her room at the back of the house has a separate entrance or is a walkout basement, and her parents don’t have any say about where she goes, or the hours she spends away from home, and so on. This girl, she will let you know right away if she will sleep with you–maybe not directly with words, but she will let you know—a gesture, a touch, or just her attitude of independence. But remember this independence can be an illusion on her part, and you end up having to deal with her parents, or me or your mother ends up having to deal with the parents.
“Now, I’m not saying don’t trust any girls. What I’m saying is don’t rule out sleeping with a woman, not somebody’s grandmother, but a grown woman, single to be sure, who really is independent with a place and an income of her own, and who is experienced in all respects including the ability to carry on a conversation with some sophistication should you want that as well. With them, everything is safer, more interesting, and you can learn a lot from them about all kinds of things.”
By the time Jack was outside Madeley Main in front of the bike rack, he decided his father had to be right. Dr. Marat’s parting embrace, not to mention his own undeniable response, promised an educational and satisfying experience for everyone concerned, his old man for sure and maybe even his mother.
Dr. Marat might well have taken issue with such presumption, but the next morning, in the shower, she reflected on her apparent ardor as well as Jack’s, how the age difference—she was not yet thirty-two–was not so outlandish, that she would be a good influence, not a bad one, and, lastly, that whatever happened between them, she would be leaving Madeley at the end of the spring term, if only to spend more time at the beach house, the one house she had neglected to enjoy in the past.
At their next meeting, the ostensible search for an underlying cause of acrophobia was soon abandoned for more primal—but curative—behavior. The following week– finals week and the last week of the term–they found time for three developmental sessions, and by mid June she concluded that Jack was not afraid of anything. But something did give her pause early one evening, something he said. He was tying his cross trainers and began to outline a radical scheme for next year—
“Nicole,” he said and glanced at his watch, “I’m dropping out of school for a year. Now don’t worry–I have a plan. Yes, I want to spend more time with you. But some of the spare time I will use to get a pilot’s license, so we can go wherever we want whenever we want. Six months from now, I see us renting a Bombardier private jet, me flying the two of us along with a few friends to Lone Pine Station in California, and there all of us to scale Mount Whitney itself–to put my brand on it, the JW flag, on the peak.”
“How wonderful!” she said, but hoped Jack would not remain serious about his plan any longer than the summer. Perhaps that would be enough time to rein him in, and in all conscience she would try. Their encounters in a small office, she was fully aware, had been little better than back-seat, hugger-mugger for an hour or two before the cleaning ladies started their evening rounds, and she felt remiss at restricting it to that narrow setting. She and Jack had never spent a full day or a night together, much less a weekend. As far as she was concerned, he had nothing more to prove. But in all the excitement she had not taken the time to introduce him to the slow movement of the symphony, the quieter, twilight cadence of a shore at low tide that would suggest the emotional balance he would need as an adult in a committed relationship.
After dinner, when they were back on the highway to the beach, she reminded herself that Jack had in fact earned his A for the psychology course in the classroom, not in her office, and that a weekend at the beach and others to come would be a gift for his benefit as well as hers. She owed him as much, even though she sensed from his flight plan fantasy how a breakup could be in the offing. She knew he would not be afraid of that either, if and when it did happen, although he probably had not considered it likely. If it were on his mind, the seclusion of the Rehobeth house and long walks on the beach might help nonetheless, tacitly suggesting the importance of gaining perspective on where they had been in their relationship and moderate where they should go next–separate ways, perhaps, yet with amicable good byes.
But all too soon they were failing to get anywhere, stuck in the Friday traffic. As soon as she approached the bridge ramp, traffic began to slow, and when at last the vast structure rose before them she could think only of the long delays to come before they reached the beach, and whether she could withstand her own measure of impatience. She pressed her forehead against the steering wheel and silently cursed the traffic, the bridge, and the burdens of desire. She knew all this and more could happen in traffic on a Friday evening, but not endlessly–and on this of all weekends!
At last the traffic began to inch ahead. She looked up, touched the accelerator with a bare toe, and found herself at the center of the bridge only to come to a dead stop again. Over the honking horns she could hear music from an old fashioned loud speaker, three bars of “Turkey in the Straw” on a calliope tape looped to play over and over and over. She tilted her head back and raised her arms against the cacophony.
“What now?” she said aloud to the sky. “What now, ye fucking gods of this fucking bridge?”
Jack got out of the car, stepped over the walkway and climbed onto the railing for a better view.
“I see a wreck ahead,” he said, “an old Dodge station wagon and an ice cream man’s van, and a police car, a police officer—no, two policemen–and two women and a man getting into the police car, but no ice cream truck. It’s going to be a while–and I see massive cumulus formations in the north.”
He got back in the car and opened the take-home carton of scallops. The ice cream calliope stopped.
“Do you want some music on the radio?” she said. “Pick whatever you want.”
“Not really,” he said, “and I don’t think you’ll want the shellfish later. It’s all hard and rubbery.”
“Exactly,” she said, and put her forehead on the wheel again.
He saw a seagull on the railing and got out of the car with a handful of scallops.
“Have I got something for you, Mr. Gull,” he said, and tossed a scallop over the railing to watch the bird fly off and catch it in mid air. Amused at that, he climbed back onto the railing, braced himself against a girder, and threw another scallop as far as he could to watch another gull catch it, another gull and another. He hooted at the three gulls mewing, sailing, snatching the scallops. Then Jack began screaming.
Nicole turned and saw the gulls were on him, all over him and fighting for the shellfish. She saw blood running from his eyes. She crawled desperately over to the passenger side, got the door open to scare off the gulls, but could do nothing to save him. Helpless, she saw him flailing, screaming, and falling into the sea.
An hour later, one officer drove her the rest of the way across the bridge in the police car and waited with her in the turn around zone for the other officer to bring her Lexus up. Nicole kept her head down but felt him looking at her and started to cry.
“I know, I know,” she sobbed. “I should have said more than I did when he was out there, but we were stuck up there for so long, and it all happened so fast. This young man and his monkeyshines, and me not alert to what could happen—I don’t know what to say.”
“I can understand that,” the policeman said. “Yes, I can. I’ve been interviewing a number of other witnesses. I counted a dozen people who claim they saw him up there on the railing throwing things, and they didn’t do anything about it either. Two of them sat there in their cars and took pictures of him on their cell phones. Can you believe that? I’m sorry if I’ve upset you. I was told he wasn’t yours, not your son or anything, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grieve. Am I to understand he wasn’t yours?”
“No, not mine. A hitchhiker but a polite young man. I picked him up in Annapolis. He said he had a job waiting for him and needed a ride across the bridge. I don’t know his name. We didn’t really talk.”
“I doubt he could have survived from that height,” the officer said. “Almost nobody ever has, and it’s already too dark and choppy to look for him. We may never find him.”
“I see,” she said, and composed herself. “Please call me if you do find him or, well, if you don’t. I would like to know. Do you have my addresses and my cell number?”
“Yes, Ma’am, we have all that.”
She got out of the police car and looked back at the bridge. The other policeman arrived with the Lexus, stepped out and held the door open for her. She sat behind the wheel, put up the convertible top, pulled into the now flowing traffic, and turned toward Rehobeth. There was nothing more to be done about Jack and the bridge, she reasoned, not today or tomorrow, perhaps never. But she had not been to the beach in well over a year. There would be work to do opening up the house, and she hoped she would have enough time to get to the stores and back to the house before the massive cumulus formations made their way south.
It was a Victorian gingerbread house on a wide, treed lot backing to a wilderness area and facing a deep inlet with a narrow pier and a tied up dinghy, a house not far from the public beach but one sited for more privacy, a place, she now realized, better suited for boating and fishing than riding the waves or lengthy walks along the sand. She turned into the driveway just as it started to rain, parked behind the house, got out of the car and onto to the back porch as it started to pour, ran back to the car to fetch Jack’s school backpack from the trunk, her raincoat, and what was left of the shellfish from the back seat. Her heavy suitcase could wait.
She made her way into the dark kitchen and turned on the light with her elbow before setting her load on the counter. She kicked off her wet sandals, unzipped her wet skirt and draped it over a kitchen chair, unbuttoned her blouse and left it on the washer in the service porch. She walked into the living room, sat down on the couch, put her legs up and started to lie back against the pillows when she noticed the front window curtains were open. She stood up to close them and through the dripping window glass saw a long boat moored at the far end of the pier. It was 52 Pickup, Danny Marat’s, cabin cruiser.
It had not been there when she arrived. Lights were on in the boat’s cabin, and she tried to reassure herself Danny could not have broken into the house. He would not have had enough time, and he wouldn’t succeed if he tried. She had all the locks changed last year, and knew she had locked the front door. She got up, grabbed a flashlight from the pantry, turned off the kitchen light and ran through the all the rooms to make sure he could not somehow get in through a bedroom window upstairs or into the basement through the storm doors. But why would he want to get in? There was nothing of his in the house, and the boat had all the comforts of a well-furnished apartment. The boat had been berthed in Annapolis, and Danny, she concluded, must have taken it down the Bay and around the peninsula for a weekend of his own. He probably had a woman with him, and was too drunk to navigate the trip back, that and the storm. But he had been able to find the old dock in front of the house and tie up—something the woman could help him do. A boat that size needed something of a crew.
She tried to convince herself Danny hadn’t seen her car before she drove behind the house. But even if he had, he would be gone by tomorrow afternoon or she would have the law on him—There had been spousal abuse and harassment, and the settlement included a restraining order. She would remind him of this if he lingered, although she dreaded having to deal with yet more police forms. True, part of her was curious about seeing him and curious about the woman or whoever it was. It had been two years, and she wondered what Danny looked like. For that matter, no one she knew had seen him in at least two years, or if they had seen him told her nothing about him. Their few mutual friends seemed to assume he was permanently unavailable or no longer existed. He never answered the phone or replied to messages and had apparently sold his business, his condominium, and his place in Maine then gone to live on the boat. But tomorrow, Danny would simply have to weigh anchor. By that time, as she imagined, the woman on the boat would also be demanding he get underway. Given enough time, he had that effect on everyone. Still, Nicole did not turn on any lamps, kept the curtains closed, and used only the flashlight while trying to wash her hands—a futile effort since she had not turned on the main water valve in the basement.
She put on the raincoat and thought about making a dash out the backdoor for her suitcase in the car trunk, but changed her mind after an explosive crack of thunder and lightning close to the pier. What she really needed was a drink, and she found a fifth of Old Crow Reserve under the kitchen sink behind bottles of Mr. Clean and Windex, right where she had hidden it from Danny years ago. She opened the cupboard over the counter and fetched a glass, filled it halfway with whiskey, and looked for ice in the freezer but found none. She turned the kitchen faucet handle for her water and was again reminded she would have to make that trip to the basement. She put down her glass and noticed a plastic bottle of spring water protruding from Jack’s backpack. She pulled it out and saw that it was nearly full, the last thing his lips had touched, and for some reason—one she could not explain to herself– poured it slowly into the glass, making sure to leave some in the bottle. She sipped her drink at the same slow pace, thought about rummaging through the backpack and decided not to.
She went upstairs to her bedroom and pulled back the bedspread. There were no sheets or pillowcases at hand, but she found a blanket in the closet, took off her raincoat and crawled under the covers.
When she woke, it was still dark but the storm had passed, and through the bedroom window she could see a night sky full of stars. She thought about why she was awake and tensed when she remembered it had been a noise downstairs–not an old house creaking, but a kitchen noise, and thought it might be Danny looking for something to drink. She wrapped the blanket around her and took the flashlight with her down the stairs and across the foyer to the kitchen. She heard the noise again, silver against china, and when she shined the light on the table she saw Jack Whitney sitting there eating what was left of the shellfish.
“Sorry to wake you,” he said, looking at her and not squinting into the light, “but these are for me, I think.”
“How you have changed,” she said. “Your eyes–”
“Yes,” he said. “They are pearls, real pearls.”
She reached for the kitchen light switch to get a closer look, and let the blanket fall to the floor only to find herself sweating in bed with the blanket sloughed off. She told herself she was now actually awake, looked out the bedroom window at a gray and pink dawn and did not want to go back to sleep. She put on the raincoat, walked outside and fetched the suitcase from the car, her large suitcase with enough clothes for a week or more. As she wheeled it toward the house, she saw Danny’s boat had not left the pier, and she resolved to walk down and give him a piece of her mind. First, though, she would open the main water valve in the basement, give the hot water heater an hour to work, and shower before putting on something nice.
She had never been on the boat. She had seen photos of it Danny sent her that summer when he was so crazy to get her back. If he was going to dock at her pier, she would tell him, he should at the very least give her a tour of the boat– courtesy of the sea or some such custom, and thought up a statement–“because when you think about it all of us have been too long at sea, in every sense of the expression, even if you have a woman friend with you.” The friend, she imagined, would excuse herself at that point. “I can see the two of you have to talk,” the friend would say, and find a quiet corner for herself on the fifty-two foot cruiser—or better, the friend would jump ashore, call a cab, and be gone for good.
She felt a cool breeze brush her bare legs and reached for her blanket before remembering she was standing at the end of the dock in a short sundress and heels. She thought about fetching a sweater from the house, but suddenly the woman appeared on the fantail, a woman wearing jeans and a polo shirt, a woman who was about her age, height and figure, and with the same hair color. The woman motioned for Nicole to come aboard, but Danny was not there.
“He’s below, Mrs. Marat,” the woman said, “in the main cabin stateroom. But don’t go down there. Danny, I’m sorry to say, has passed away. It happened last night during the storm. An accident. He shot himself. I did hear something last night but thought it was the storm, a lightning strike. And no, you don’t want to see him, not like he is. He shot himself in the mouth. There’s nothing left of his face. The state police are on their way over. There was nothing else to do except call the police, and I did that.”
“Oh dear God.”
“Yes, a terrible thing.”
“I don’t think I can face the police, not today.”
“I know what you mean, but they don’t know you’re here. Let me handle it.”
“I’ve never been on the boat before.”
“May I call you Nicole?”
“I suppose so.”
“Nicole, you own it now.”
“He left it to you. It’s in his will.”
“But I don’t want a boat.”
“Yes you do. You will take a long cruise, a long, restful cruise and get away from it all. You will cross an ocean in this boat.”
“But I don’t know how to run it. I can’t navigate.”
“I’ll teach you. We can leave now if you want.”
“But the police and the cabin below, all that. We would have to bury him at sea.”
“Yes, he would have wanted that. But you must hurry.”
“I seem so slow today, and tired. Unbelievably tired. I did see his boat. I’m sure of it. But I don’t see it now.”
“It comes and goes. It’s a boat.”
“And your name is?”
“Call me Sandra. And don’t worry, I can take care of everything.”
“You are a godsend.”
“Yes, I am, and I think we should heed the sirens. We should flee with what’s at hand, the dinghy, and row out into the bay, far into the bay and lose ourselves in the waves. I’ll row, and you can sleep.”
Sandra rowed until the inlet was far behind them and the bay widened into the Atlantic. Nicole awoke to a cold breeze and a night sky without sight of land or its lights, and Sandra was gone, as if she had slipped into the depths on purpose. In the faint moonlight Nicole could see nothing but black water and gray clouds, more cumulus formations now scudding against the stars. She stood up and strained to see the shore or some other boat. But the dinghy began pitching in the wind, and she ended up in the bay, watching the waves toss the small craft away, forever beyond her reach.