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"The Shape of the Shore," short story excerpt

Saturday 4/3/21

Awoke at half past three, thought, invented, met the people, listened to them as the dawn broke, and now I have a major one going here. (Note to self: In this season of hope, in which you have none, hear this--You're going to prevail because this is what you can do, this is what you do every single goddamn day of your life, and it doesn't even really matter if you believe this will ever work out or anyone does. The work will be the deliverance.)


“Shouldn’t you be cold?” I ask my thirteen-year-old granddaughter Gracie as we sit on a log in front of the sea and she gives me one of those looks that translate to, “Get a load of this person, and his dumbass question.”

It’s the same look I see in the face of a mother bird, if that’s possible, when she returns to the nest, puts the worms in the mouths of the chicks, and one pipes up for more.

“Do you believe this guy?” she all but says. “Eh, he just doesn’t get it yet.”

But she’s not cross. It’s simply the ripple of life, how it moves back and forth, which is not the same as from side to side.

“Shouldn’t you be?” Gracie answers back.

“What makes you think I’m not?”

“You’re not shivering.”

“No,” I tell her, “that’s true.”

She wears two beanies on her head. One is hers, the other is her father’s. His is larger, so it’s the outer layer. The sand is like frost. We can crunch it with our feet, break the mounds within our reach that have come to be frozen in place as the granular version of ants in amber, or those people at the base of Vesuvius forever posed with a goblet of wine to their lips.

It’s but a temporary pause for the sand, though, and I imagine, were sand sentient, that frustration would outdistance anguish. “Damn it, I’m stuck,” a mound might think in the very moment of its cold capture, and we are liberators of a sort, Gracie and myself, with each tap of our boots.

She has no hair on her head, beneath the dual-layers of beanies, and I have no right arm on the side of my body. If I did, I think I would have shaved my head in solidarity, but to do so now would be sufficiently overt to disturb the un-rockable, tacit quietude of our bond.

The log never budges. The season does not matter. No teenagers roll it away from its spot in the night, it contributes to no bonfires. You will find it on this beach, as if it has grown deep roots despite its displacement from wherever it came, and its necessarily piecemeal, horizontal status.

I think we both imagine that the driftwood that washes up in the surf—which always vanishes in a day or two—has come to this beach as a pilgrimage in tribute to the king of the wood, our shared seat of the mornings.

Gracie presses herself into my body where an arm would normally be. She gets deeper into me this way, and we’re both less cold, so we can talk our respective games of toughness, though I believe there is more truth to hers than mine.

“So,” I said to her one morning, the wind punching holes in the sky, coming at us from above, “my grandfather told me this time about how sea like this can freeze, and once he had to walk out to his boat and try and chip it out of the ice so they could fish. They couldn’t take the dinghy to it. They didn’t know whether to walk or run over the ice, so that it would hold better.”

“But it wasn’t this beach?” Gracie says.

“Well, no. That’s not the point.”

“How did he know it could happen here?”

“Because he saw this beach. He’d been here. It looked the same. The currents were similar. The shape of the shore.”

“The shape of the shore?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

I can feel her trying not laugh. Or at least not too hard. The unreleased laughter is caged by her ribs, which are humming into my flank. Her mother and father are back at the house. They’re not up yet. My wife will be sitting in the kitchen, cradling her second cup of coffee between two hands, hoping the “kids” are resting well, because God knows everything that is on their minds deep into the early mornings, which are like the ass ends of the night, and I’m sure she’s also ruminating on what, exactly, the conversations Gracie and I are having look like. Certain talks are paintings. Certain rapports are stretched canvases. My wife has a gift for understanding what we can see that most people assume we cannot.

Way back when I was in college, fumbling through a required composition course, a teacher said to me, “Look, Rich, a lot of life is indeed straight-up cliché. It’s plain, it’s ordinary, it’s humdrum. We wake up at seven in the morning, and we have a pretty good idea of everything that will go down before we fall asleep again at ten. But see here,” he said, pointing at my paper. “Instead of saying these two people are cut from the same cloth, you could say, ‘they’re cut out of the same sail cloth.’ Put the specialized meaning in-between the cliché. Because that’s really where the guts of life are. See? Now they sound linked as brave souls, explorers. There’s ambulation implied.”

Gracie’s this way naturally, or perhaps I should say naturally on account of that with which she has to deal and face.

“Does the amount of fish matter?” she asks me, after we’ve sat for a third of an hour, which is how long we usually stay. “Do they get in the way of the ice making?”

“No,” I tell her. “They swim out to sea. They know what to do when the temperature goes below a certain level.”

“Hmmm,” she says, and I wait for it, though I don’t know exactly the form the “it” will take.

“Sounds like shit from the bull to me,” she concludes, and we stand up from the log, our king of the wood, still not officially—or admittedly—cold, tramping over the berm to the house.

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