Though I told him the year was 1970, Phil kept tapping his watch and listening to it in an effort to determine whether we had stopped for gas an hour or a day ago. Because I had completed my draft physical that morning, Phil offered the beach trip and one of two tiny blue pills. Now I sat on the opposite side of the road looking across an expanse of succulent ice-plant slanting down to a second hill, more ice plant, a third, ice plant, and so on down to the sea. Phil called after me in profanity laced invective concluding with, Quo vadis, Dimitri?
Walking to the sea, I shouted, hands either side of my mouth. He imitated my gesture, repeating what I said in childlike sing-song, and informed me I could go to hell for all he cared. Slipping through ice-plant, catching myself with hands behind or before, I at last arrived at the series of enormous sand dunes, grass covered like the hairy backs of elephants.
I smelled sea air, heard hissing waves, felt the sweet sting on my skin. I stepped out of pants and sandals, and in swim trunks and t-shirt climbed and descended sand hills until I walked through mildly crashing waves. I heard the squeals of seabirds, scattered sandpipers, watched flights of pelicans, waved to a couple coupling on their isolated blanket, who returned a universal symbol for get lost, but how I laughed.
A cosmic identity within had stirred. I discovered the dinghy, buried in sand and sea grass. How long had it been thus imprisoned, prow yearning toward the sea? I spent much unrecorded time extricating and dragging it into the waves. Chest deep, I watched it bobbing on the waves to the unexpected applause of two men shading their eyes on the beach, and a woman in a tennis visor, the only article of clothing among them.
As I approached, the older man, his white hair plaited down his back, beckoned me to join them at what remained of a pig roast in celebration of the summer solstice. I had the presence of mind to inquire if solstice had not in fact occurred the previous month. He was retired, he said, but the young celebrants, unable to match vacations earlier, agreed on one month later than ordained by heaven.
When I told them I could dig that, he suggested that I lose t-shirt and trunks, so I left them where we stood. The young fellow said they would be glad of my attendance due to a need for a human sacrifice, to which the older gentleman whispered, shh, don’t tell him that. We all laughed as we moved toward the distant drumming. When I inquired how they found me, they explained as one how, in need of a site for defecation, they came upon the hole left by the boat, did their business and buried it as they watched me send the old boat back into sea.
And so, the sun having continued its downward drift toward the horizon, we came upon a group of naked humans engaged in consumption of chunks torn from the blackened carcass of the pig turning on a spit over low fire. They shared their libations as the drummers kept rhythm and the dancers threw back their heads in a pantomime of passion, when, out at sea, in last light of day, I saw what appeared to be two distant arms, flailing in distress.
By the cry, I told my new-found friends, a woman imperiled. We hear nothing, they said as one, shrugging at each other, yet I dove into the waves, my powerful strokes carrying me toward pale arms caught in throes of a final effort for survival. How long I swam, I cannot say, until, at last I saw the floating buoy on which the huge white gull, with bright orange beak, waged a desperate struggle to escape the plastic netting that bound its neck and feet.
Darkness cloaked us as I began the laborious process of disentangling the poor, exhausted bird that methodically raised welts and clots of blood on my arms, head, and shoulders. On one knee, then, I tucked her head beneath my arm and wrangled her legs free. The gull shook off the insult as it adjusted to release and took to air, sailing off into the silence of invisibility.
Moonlight made a pathway I could follow, weary arms slapping water listlessly, yet my young and faithful body drew me onward, until I crawled out like original life, hard sand, then warmth of dry beach beneath me. Consciousness fled like protesters from gunshot.
Waking with light of morning in my eyes, arms splayed to either side, I bestirred myself to drag my painful naked body toward a tangle of driftwood gathered there by human hands. After brief refuge, in which I counted the abrasions of my gull, I climbed a first wide dune, a second and a third, ad infinitum, until I came to a narrow, paved road and began walking the direction I must go, like a seeker of the magic cloak.
When I heard the high beep behind, a van pulled to the side of the road, but as I approached, the barrel of a black pistol came out the window. I raised two fingers in the sign of peace and called him Brother. The spray of warm water splashed over me, another, and another. I made my way around the front, climbed in to lean my head against the window, eyes closed as Phil enumerated abominations aimed at getting me to lift my butt off the seat so he could shove a towel beneath it.
When I offered to explain, he showed his best sardonic grin, exposing a black tooth, and flashed the peace sign as we galloped off. His laughter snapped above us like a pennant.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.