Like Sand, or Lanterns

Brent Rydin

Alan drove for seventeen hours, through the night, and picked the kid up at a diner.

“Roger?” He wasn’t much older than Sidney had been, back when Alan was born, eighteen or nineteen.

“Yeah. Hey.” Roger sat in the booth with a small overnight bag on one side of him and a medium-size paper bag, like a shopping bag, on the other, and he reached over the table and they shook hands. He had longish hair, long enough to be called long but not so long as to be long-long, clean but unkempt, and he wore a faded pink polo shirt with a neon green Polo guy on it and a seersucker collar, permanently wrinkled and crumpled and barely resembling a shirt collar.

“Did you eat breakfast?”

“Nah. Just coffee.”

“Do you want breakfast?” The kid didn’t say anything, was poking around on his phone.

“Well, I’m having breakfast,” Alan said.

Roger ordered a breakfast sandwich—bacon, egg, and cheese—and Alan got an egg-white omelette with broccoli and spinach and no cheese and asked for Tabasco sauce. The coffee was strong, and they got refill after refill as they waited for their food. The waitress got back and the food looked better than Alan had expected. Roger looked down, unrolling the silverware from his napkin and loading his coffee with cream and sugar as the waitress shuffled with the plates, but his eyes emerged from his avoidance and peered across at Alan as she walked away.

“We’re not brothers. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” Alan said. “I know.”

“He wasn’t my dad.”

“Me neither.”

***

Sidney had hanged himself. He was forty-four. Alan had been wanting to call but never really meaning to, intending to but never planning to. Every so often, he would try to imagine meeting Sidney, and he would come up with nothing. He’d imagine a hug that smelled like stale cigarettes, and nothing to say masquerading as pregnant silence.

There was a large part of Alan to whom Sidney was only the sum of the DUIs he’d gotten and the jobs he hadn’t held onto, a part where Sidney only existed as a seventeen-year-old throwing his girlfriend out of his car, foot on the gas, when she told him her parents had kicked her out of the house and that she had nowhere else to go.

After all, he’d thrown Alan out of the car that night too.

***

They didn’t drive straight through on the way back. There was no rush.

They got a motel room off the highway somewhere in eastern Ohio. Alan drove around for a while trying to find the nicest chain motel he could. They ate at a bar and grill next door, sat at the bar. Roger ordered a PBR. “Nice try, kid,” the bartender said. He got a Dr. Pepper.

“Sprite, please,” Alan said.

“Do you not drink?” Roger said.

“Not really, not much anymore.”

“Because of him?”

Alan sat and thought for a long moment. “Yes and no.” Roger didn’t say anything.

They split an order of nachos and both got cheeseburgers.

“Do you still play the violin?” Alan said.

“What?”

“Last time I talked to him, he said you’d gone to Ireland or something? Performing violin?”

“Fiddle,” Roger said. “No.”

“He said you were really good.”

“Yeah, well. No.” Roger took a long drink of his drink. “I was. Shit gets old.” He ate a fry.

“That it does.”

***

In the morning, the sun came up in the panorama of the windshield, framed in a semicircular curtain of dead bugs and the residue of wiper fluid. They drove into the day, to the East, accelerating the ascent of the sun, but there was a brief window of time where the swells and crests of hills rose up and up and up, the horizon just for a while chasing the sunlight and suspending them in the dawn.

They hadn’t planned on waking up before sunrise, but it had just happened that way. Alan had thought he’d have trouble waking up as he lay in the motel’s double bed the night before, unsleeping, listening to this kid snoring just six or so feet away, this kid who wasn’t his family at all but kind of was nonetheless. Alan fell asleep eventually, and Roger was awake already when he woke in the predawn darkness, sitting on the bathroom floor, writing in a cardboard notebook in the fluorescent light.

***

“So, he got cremated with a ukulele,” Roger said. His feet were kicked out of the open window, resting on the side mirror, the shredded legs of his jeans hooked around the heels of his shoes and rippling in the wind like dogjowls, his hair blowing around his head in a halo of youth. “Sidney.”

The sun had found the overcast sky, and it radiated out in such a way that the light seemed to be a part of the clouds and the clouds a part of the light.

“A ukulele?”

“Yeah. My mom insisted.”

“I didn’t know he played anything.”

“Yeah. No, he didn’t. I mean, I forgot he had it. I remember him playing it once, when I was a kid,” Roger said. “But it’s, I don’t know, it’s one of those memories where it feels like it didn’t really happen but you know it did. Like it’s a deleted scene in a movie or something. Does that make any sense?”

Alan looked over at the kid. “Yeah.”

“He said we should play some time.” Roger said. He opened the sunroof and pulled in his feet and rolled up the window to break that imbalance of air and wind that chopped through the car. He peered up as if talking to the sky. “I was like seven. It was the realest smile I’d ever seen him smile, like almost hopeful or something, strumming it there before he noticed anyone was watching. It was just after he’d gotten out of rehab for the first time I can remember.”

Alan waited a moment to say anything, not wanting to interrupt Roger’s conversation with the clouds.

“That’s the only time you saw him playing?”

“Yeah. I never even saw the thing around the house.”

“And he had it cremated with him?”

“Yeah.”

“Weird.”

***

The sky was all oranges and purples when they got to Falmouth, but the light of the setting sun got lost in the trees as they took a shuttle from the parking lot to the ferry.

“That’s a big boat,” Roger said.

“Yeah, it is.”

The clouds in the sky were like colored sand, all swirled and mingled and inextricable, even after the light went out of them. At Alan’s cousin’s wedding, there had been a sand ceremony, where the bride took purple sand and the groom took green sand and they poured it into one big vase that symbolized the impossibility of their lives being separated from each other from that point on, that they were the same sand now.

The boat heaved off from its moorings, lurching into a steady clip in the tumult of the sea. They stood on the deck, leaning into the railing, the wind at their backs and their bags at their sides. “Sky’s the color of ash,” Roger said. He paused. “It’s like the texture of it, like it’s coated in it.” In his paper bag was the brown paper package, and he imagined them emptying it into the salted breeze, into the wake of the wind that blew past them, dust trailing behind the boat, into an empty night, and the wind scattering it across the world to make the sky.

But they couldn’t do that, and the ashes would never just dissolve cleanly out into the night.

***

The boat came in to the little harbor town and they disembarked with all the vacationers. The hotel Alan had booked was a five minute walk from the ferry dock, seven at most, and it was expensive but it was right on the ocean.

***

When Alan was a kid, he told himself a story about the ocean. He told himself that he had walked out of the Atlantic as a baby, or that he had washed up in a basket (there were conflicting versions, as with any origin myth), that his parents had found him there or that he’d found them. When his family would go to the beach, when he was growing up, he wouldn’t leave the water but he wouldn’t play with his friends, not really. He wouldn’t boogie-board or body-surf, he would just lie there at the edge of the sand where there’s just a few inches of water at any given time, where you can watch the waves curling over you and let them pull you down by the ankle or the shoulder or the throat, down until you don’t know if there’s an up anymore or if there’s anything in the world but ocean, and they would toss him around like ice in a drink-shaker, slam him into the shifting walls of sand and cold and salt, batter him into sea glass, and he would come up laughing and bleeding from hundreds of tiny seashell lacerations and coughing up bitter salt water as if it was the thing his lungs were most comfortable breathing and the air a thing in which to drown.

***

He slept in, and the kid slept in later, and he stepped out into a thick, grey, fogged summer morning, cold like a rainy day on a powerboat. He got himself a cup of coffee and bought the two of them cheap sweatshirts with the coffeeshop’s logo on them. He bought himself a new pair of sunglasses at some surfer type store, ridiculous things with reflective red lenses and this gradiented teal and orange frame.

He stopped in a bookstore and flipped through an anthology of poetry about the sea and put it back. There was a music shop, and he nearly passed it by—when he was a kid, he’d always drop in on these little music shops and pluck and drum at things he thought he’d one day learn. He would sometimes get depressed, as an adult now, when he’d walk by places like that, and he’d avoid looking in the windows and seeing these little promises he’d broken to himself. We all do it, he figured, break that kind of promise to ourselves, to who we used to be, figure it’s just breaking a promise to a kid, to someone who was too young to understand, but we can only pretend to shrug it off because we are the ones slighted.

So he stopped and turned and walked in with the jangle of a bell.

***

At the car rental place, not all that far from the hotel though he’d taken his time in getting there, he got a car and left the things he bought in the trunk, though he wore the new sunglasses and put on his sweatshirt and held on to Roger’s sweatshirt.

“Is it okay if I leave the car in the lot for now?”

“Sure,” said the guy behind the counter.

He stopped back at the coffee shop and got another cup and one for Roger, oversweetened and thick with cream, and a half-dozen bagels—figuring it was a good idea to have some extra food lying around for the drive back—and cream cheese. He made his way back to the hotel, and he felt baptized by the fog that enveloped him.

***

“Coffee, bagels. It’s chilly out. I got us sweatshirts.” He tossed the sweatshirt, and Roger snagged it out of the air.

“I didn’t know they still made crewneck sweatshirts.”

“Apparently.”

“I already showered and everything. I’m good to go if you are.” Roger pulled the sweatshirt over his tee, grabbed a bagel from the bag, and bit out a huge chunk, and soaked it with a long sip of coffee. “Coffee’s perfect. Thanks for breakfast.”

“No problem.”

“Those sunglasses are fucking ridiculous.”

“I know,” Alan said. “Let’s go.”

“Cool.

***

He hadn’t known the island was as big as it was. They’d spent nearly two hours looking for the place, the summer camp where Sidney had wanted his ashes scattered— scattered in the dirt of the footpath, of all things.

“We’re not going to find it,” Roger said.

“We’ll find it.”

“No.” He looked over. “It’s okay if we don’t find it.” So they just drove.

They drove through woods and fields, passed old dirt roads with names like Old Dirt Road and crumbled stone gates leading to trees and groves and the echoing skeletons of gone lives and farm cows with expressions like they knew what it all meant but wouldn’t let it stop them living.

At the drive’s end, though they didn’t know it was the end, even as they got there, they drove along cliffs that seemed like they could be among the last spines of the earth to withstand erosion in all of drowned existence if the ocean swallowed the world.

The place, when they got there, was a tourist spot, but the tourists went mostly to the lighthouse and not the beach. They could see, even from the parking spot, that the path was long to the ocean.

“Do you want to check out the view?”
“Nah,” said Roger. “No use wasting time looking at where we’re going before we go.”

***

A flood of clay, red and silver, flowed in down the cliffs, cut through the sand and into the sea. They stood, unspeaking in the ambient cacophony of the wind and the waves and the gulls and the suction of their bare feet in the clay.

“Holy shit,” Roger said. He had this look on his face, this deep wonder like he was seeing something Alan couldn’t, or seeing the world for the first time. Alan realized he had no idea whether Roger had ever even been to the ocean.

Roger put down the paper bag in the sand, the one he’d brought with him from Illinois, and he turned and he ran to the deep red base of the cliffs. He took off his sweatshirt and tee and dove at the clay, painting himself red with it. He fell flat in the vein of silver.

“The sign says not to—” Alan started, not really speaking above a normal tone, and Roger was laughing and couldn’t hear him. Alan turned back, walked a few steps. As Roger started back, shirt layers still sitting in the dunes, Alan reached down and scooped two handfuls out of the malleable earth, one of red and one of silver, and he looked at this kid approaching, who was something like his brother, and ran the clay through his hair and painted it across his face.

“He told me about this beach,” Roger said. “This place is sacred to the local Indians, the Wampanoags. Did you know we were Indians?” He did a racist little mouth tap, hoot hoot. We, Alan thought. “His great, his, I don’t know, great-great grandfather.” He paused. “Or at least that’s what he told me. He had a postcard of it, of this beach. They’d come here every day, the counselors, during the cleanup week after the campers left. He tried to sign me up for it once, to be a counselor there. I don’t remember what happened with that.”

“What summer did you say it was? That he worked there?”

“Like ’85 or ’86, I think.”

“Huh.”

***

Alan took off his sweatshirt and tossed it in the bag, and they both stood there, their clothes thick with clay.

“We should’ve brought trunks,” he said.

“Ha,” said Roger.

They waded out, Alan still holding the paper package. “Ready?”
“Yeah.”

The two of them pulled at the paper together and ash spilled over the sides. They didn’t say anything, just grabbed handfuls of ash and threw it into the wind; it painted the sky a richer grey, dispersed in the water and turned it a more Atlantic blue, mixed with the clay on their hands, their faces, their hair. The world seemed darker, a thunderstorm darkness, the kind of darkness that makes all the lines of the world bolder and all the colors somehow brighter, a darkness that turns up the contrast and saturation of the world. Roger shook out the paper when there was no ash left to grab and took a lighter from his pocket. They nodded to each other, and Roger waded further out, the water past his waist. He struck the lighter, and the flame held its center as the world around him battered at it invisibly, and he held it to the paper in his hand. The smoke seemed invisible, seemed to dissipate as soon as the paper returned to atmosphere, and he let it go, into the wind, like his own private lantern ceremony. They watched, the flame carrying into the sky like a phoenix flying off to an invisible horizon, holding for longer than either of them expected before being swallowed by the clouds and leaving nothing behind.

Roger stared out for a minute, hands in his pockets, and then turned and trudged back against the current toward Alan and toward the shore.

“Do you regret never meeting him?” Roger asked.

“No.”

***

Roger sat on the hood of the car in his wet clothes stained with clay and ash, staring out through the dunes of the cliff at the slightest line of oceanic horizon and listening, listening. Alan rummaged in the trunk, and Roger felt the car moving as he sat there, as if he could feel the earth’s rotations, feel its plates shift, feel the buried mechanisms of its core, feel it moving around the sun.

“I got you something,” Alan said, closing the trunk.

“What?”

Alan walked up alongside the car. For a moment, the sun broke through the clouds and shone in Roger’s eyes and Alan seemed like a silhouette, like the absence of a piece against the puzzle of the world. But he stepped forward, and solidified, and came into focus.

He held a ukulele, held it out and handed it to Roger, and had another under his arm. They were a little worn and scratched and battered, but they were there and this was his. He thought, felt, for a second, that he might hug Alan, but he just stared at the instrument in his hands and smiled and looked up. “Thank you.”

Alan didn’t say anything, just smiled and hummed to himself as his hands searched the instrument’s strings and fretboard.

The sounds of the world around them seemed a vacuum of ocean and gulls and the wind in the dunes. The air was all water and salt and gasoline, their bodies just clay and sand and ash and ocean. They sat there on the hood of the car, and they plucked at the strings to find chords, searched just to find the simplest notes.

#

Brent Rydin lives and works in Boston. This is his first piece of published fiction. You can find him on Twitter at @brntrydn.