They had been walking on the beach all day, hypnotized as the waves sloshed over their bare feet. Now and then a crab would scamper in front of them leaving tracks in the smooth sand. The sun burned their necks and shoulders, the wind frazzled their hair.
He had met her at mid morning. She had been dawdling along the shoreline ahead of him, a slim blonde in a billowy red cotton dress she clutched around her legs. He slowed his gait to keep from passing her. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. He was trying to follow the advice of his social worker:. “When you get depressed or angry, think about something you like.” So he was thinking about making a bookshelf for his kids. Wood, saw, hammer, nails. Used properly they were predictable, not like people. Not like the woman ahead of him.
She appeared to be enjoying her feet, acquainting them in turn with freezing ocean, hot, dry rocks, crunchy sand and freezing water again. She created footprints and studied them. In his black mood he wondered if she’d let go of that damned dress and let the wind take it.
He let his stride reach its normal length, hoping to pass her without a word. But she heard his approach and turned, unleashing one of the most powerful weapons on earth: a smile. His black mood vaporized instantly. She was pretty: a ski jump nose, big eyes and a small chin that gave her an elfin look. He revised his estimate of her age. About 40. A few years younger than him.
“Hi,” he said, suddenly shy and awkward.
“Hello.” She adjusted her step to match his. He was confused. People usually left him alone, especially women. She was half his size.
He couldn’t think of anything to say: “from around here?”
“Just visiting.” She took her time checking out his face. He stared at the ground.
“Me too. Just got here today. New job so I’m giving myself a vacation before I start. Just driving around the Island.”
He watched her face as she absorbed the information: that he was alone, employed and successful enough to have a vehicle and a vacation. And that he wouldn’t be around long.
“I love this place,” she said. “I come here every summer just to walk on the beach. Sometimes I stay the whole two months.” Was she alone? She hadn’t conjured a boyfriend. A school teacher? Who else would have two months off?
They walked. He hadn’t talked to anyone in a long time, not even to himself. People like him didn’t get caught talking to themselves. His vocal chords were rusty, his voice, gravelly.
He kept a little distance from her wanting her to feel at ease. She splashed her feet in the water. He crossed to her left side where the water was deeper, trying to get a look at her left hand. He was drenched by a rogue wave. She laughed. He kicked a bit of water in her direction. She retreated demurely, a small smile on her face. He finally saw her left hand clearly. No ring.
He was a mechanical engineer, he told her, working in sawmills and pulp mills owned by MacMillan Bloedel. He loved machinery and he loved being outdoors where he could watch it work. That’s how he’d noticed the downtime needed to change knives in wood chippers. He came up with a small innovation that a welder was able to create with steel plate and sheet metal. It dissipated the heat created by the knives. Now crews only had to change them every eight hours instead of every four. It saved hours of production time, and attracted corporate notice. “They gave me a letter,” he said proudly.
She was an elementary school teacher who hugged her kids in defiance of schoolboard policy. The classes were too large. Some teachers gave up and became time servers. She could tell because they ordered more crayons than normal. Their kids spent their days colouring. It kept them quiet. She looked forward to the beach all year long.
“The best thing I ever did was have kids” he said. Now they were teenagers and lived with their mother. He saw them once a month under supervision. He hoped they’d like the bookshelf.
She glanced up at him, hearing the loneliness in his voice. She’d never had kids. Her husband had been loving in public but prone to angry outbursts at home. He blamed her for his failing career. He felt trapped by marriage. He didn’t want a family, not even a cat. One day she left a letter on the kitchen table: “my sister will put me up until I find a job. I just need some time to think.” A taxi took her to the airport.
Only now was her husband paying attention to her. Sometimes he called her drunk and angry at midnight which would be 3 a.m. in his timezone. She was glad her cell phone didn’t reveal her whereabouts.
She liked the look of this guy. Much bigger than her husband and quiet. She was tired of walking but he seemed too shy to suggest anything. “There’s a little tea house ahead,” she offered.
He was a good listener. He had always listened more than he talked. It was amazing how self absorbed people are. He had developed a test for such people. “When I first got cancer….” he would interject, and then trail off. If his companions didn’t take the bait he wouldn’t pursue the relationship. Sometimes his gambits varied: “when I was in prison… when I talk to Jesus… after my sex change…”
He listened to her in the tea house. He had a loner’s curiosity about how people lived. She fed him details, the hyperactive Bulgarian kid whose settled down after she got him drumming lessons. The home economics teacher who sandbagged union meetings with her dogeared copy of Roberts Rules of Order. Her plans to build a cabin in the woods with wildflowers all around. How much she loved her young students, especially the lonely girl who hugged everybody and wouldn’t let go. She fantasized about kidnapping her. She could give her the love she didn’t get at home. Her voice quavered. He offered her a paper napkin. She was touched by his thoughtfulness and used it to dab her eyes. He asked if she’d like dessert. They held the menu between them. His fingers touched hers, lingering for a moment. It seemed years since she’d touched a man.
She walked closer to him on the way back, their hands brushing occasionally. Somehow he got the nerve to put his arm around her shoulders, squeezing gently. She relaxed into his embrace. He devoured the sensation. His body was stirring. He was glad she was pretty. He would be patient this time.
They were holding hands by the time they reached her little B&B, a three-story house on the waterfront. A flowered archway marked the entrance. They hesitated outside. She was tired. She wanted to think about this man and she needed to be alone. “Sure, he said. He held her at arms length, one hand on each shoulder. “I’m so glad we met.” He said he’d call the next day. They could drive somewhere. Have lunch. Or whatever. There was an ease between them. “Whatever,” she said with a mischievous grin. “Let’s do that.” She stood on her toes and brushed his cheek with her lips. He cupped her head in one hand, stroking her cheek with his thumb. “Okay,” he whispered softly, a catch in his throat. He walked away through the flowery gate, his eyes shining.
When he turned back to wave, the B&B had disappeared. His feet were crunching on frozen slush. He crossed his arms over his chest hugging the memory of her. This was a rough neighbourhood. He needed to keep his wits about him. He was a big man. The two thugs in the doorway ahead wouldn’t bother him, but he nodded his head in his tough guy greeting anyway. They nodded back.
He didn’t want to go to the shelter. He didn’t like sleeping with men. There was a back alley nearby where the light had gone out and a dumpster sheltered the entrance. He entered carefully, peering at the dark shapes in the corners and listening. He moved to the dark side of the dumpster away from the street. There was some fresh cardboard inside it. He spread some over the pavement in a shallow alcove formed by a steel door. He looked around then urinated against the opposite wall. His knees creaked as he knelt over the cardboard, slowly coming to rest on one hip. He sat watchful for several minutes. At last he lay down, his back to the wall, the dumpster shielding him from the street. He drew his heavy winter coat around him. The walk had made him drowsy.
The social worker had been right. He had been able to think of good things, like the bookshelf, his small triumph with the chipper knives and the girl. She had been a very good thing. He would walk with her tomorrow.