What Started It

2010 David Rice Ecker Short Story Prize for Freshmen

Whose wife is that?” Johnny says, looking at the woman coming up from the boat, holding the sides of her shorts out like a skirt.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“She’s somebody’s,” he says.

The boats are moving on the water against each other, the smooth white bellies kissing and parting. The woman points her toe over the water and steps onto the jetty, putting her hand out as though there’s someone there to take it.

The boards of the jetty creak from the squeeze of the water in the old wood.

It is now something we do, Johnny and I: go down to the club by the water to eat. It’s a good place, we say. You can always

get a table right down by the dock on the grass because there are so many tables. The couples who own boats like to eat in the club, firstly because they can watch their boats all the time, and secondly because people who own boats like to eat with other people who own boats, that’s just the way it is.

The waitress comes again and puts down two forks and two knives, and a basket of jam jars and chutney. She puts her hand like a cup at the end of the table and sweeps with her other hand the crumbs from the last breakfast. She smiles at me, and asks Johnny if he’s ready to order.

“I know what I’d like,” he says. “Are you ready, honey?”

The waitress opens her hand and the crumbs fall over the grass. The palm of her hand is shiny with grease.

“A cup of coffee. And some of that juice, that fruit juice you have under the counter,” I tell her.

Johnny makes a face and the waitress laughs.

She is big all over, big hips and big tits packed into her pinafore. Her arms are tanned yellow on the upside, but white on the underside, big arms like someone with a lot of children might have.

“You should tell my wife,” says Johnny, “that it’s good for a girl to eat.”

“Sure it’s good for a girl to eat,” the waitress says. “But I’d love to have your figure,” she says.

“You don’t have to say that,” says Johnny. “It’s good for a girl to have something to her.”

One day, the ferry stopped running every fifteen minutes, the way it had run ever since I was born. Now it was every two hours if you were lucky and if you got caught on the crab side after dinner, you were fucked till the next day, unless you knew someone with a boat or you were willing to swim with the crabs. In the meantime, the ferry boat would float useless as a stick of driftwood.

That was really what started it.

When the old ferryman died, I was the one that told Johnny.

“He went to Brighton to die,” I said.

“What are you saying?” he said.

I tried to act like I didn’t care. They say the old man went back to Brighton to die. The way a cat will trail towards his birthplace at the right time. He didn’t know it, they say. He had only felt a pull, in his gut, telling him to go.

I didn’t tell Johnny anything else, like how I’d watched the ferryman before he died, how I’d taken the ferry over to the crab island and back again every day while Johnny was at work, because I wanted to see his old muscles pull the oars.

I didn’t tell Johnny how the ferryman brought his hands to his eyes when each trip was done and rubbed at the loose skin around them. That was when we had a little time to talk, just as long as it took the next round of passengers to arrange themselves in the boat. Then the old ferryman would stop talking and take up the oars again, and I’d step back onto the jetty and

walk home. It was first about small things, the price of fish, the weather getting better. Then about bigger things, what the doctor said, how everything was getting old. His eyebrows were so thin and soft that he could frown and no one would know. The doctor could hold his wrist within the round of his thumb and first finger, like a bird’s leg; it was downy, but not soft. There were too many sinews and bones, so close to the surface.

Because nothing ever really changes on the beach, you can tell a new face like you can tell a pearl in a ring of stones.

The old ferryman found an heir before he died, a young man with foreign looks and long legs and arms like he was made for rowing. He took up the oars quietly, never introducing himself to anyone. I stopped missing the old ferryman, because it was like he’d never left.

The sea howls as I pick up the wool and the needles. I have borrowed them from the woman next door so that I can fix a hole in our blanket. For the last few nights I have sat with the blanket over my legs and tried to learn just by looking at where the threads go over and under.

“Storm,” says Johnny from the other room.

“What about it?” I say.

“There’s a storm,” he says.

I look out of the little red window in the door and see the street, and the sea between the houses opposite filling up like a glass of water.

“Maybe,” I say. The wind comes through the joints in the door.

Johnny puts his arm around the back of the sofa and I sit down next to him, put the wool and the needles in my lap. We watch through the window for a while, quiet. Cars go past. I wrap the pink wool around and around my finger until I make a hard reel. My fingertip balloons at the top and turns blue. I bring my finger to my face and touch the tip to my cheek, feeling my blood hot under the wool.

We have not been to sleep yet. But it’s almost the morning and the phone has already rung once. I get up out of bed, walk across the room and put my head in the basin and turn on the tap and drink. I put my mouth right over the end of the tap like I’m an animal suckling at a belly. The water isn’t cold enough and makes my mouth taste sweet after, but I keep drinking till my throat starts to swallow without me.

“What are you doing?” says Johnny.

I look over at Johnny in the bed. He’s put the pillows up against the wall and is sitting up, picking at the hole in the blanket.

I take another drink. The sunlight almost reaches my head in the basin, I can feel the heat on the ends of my hair. Then I get back into bed and we carry on.

I lie at his side, too low to see his face, my head in his armpit. From there I push kisses between his ribs, and as I do it I feel his

organs moving and his body stiff with breath. I can’t remember if we’ve already made love, or whether it’s still to come. I keep kissing. It starts to feel sore and mechanical, like when you clap your hands for too long. Down to his hip bone. We carry on.

Sometimes, I like him best when he is falling asleep. He will come out with things, better than anything he comes out with in the daytime. As if his brain is different when he closes his eyes. I watch his eyelids, shiny and fruit-hard.

“What was it like before me?” he might ask. And then I’ll wait. I’ll wait until his breath gets loud and I know he is almost asleep before I answer, so that he won’t remember.

Tonight it’s, “Do you imagine other men?”

And I wait till his body is dead-heavy and then I tell him everything.

The sea takes in the stones and the crab shells and spits them out black. Inch by inch, the beach turns black. The water ploughs.

When I want to think about someone, I think about the new man rowing the ferryboat.

He takes the last ferry ride at ten o’clock. He goes later than the old ferryman did, because he is younger and the old man’s eyes fogged up near the end. I think the old man had rowed with his memory, his gut swelling with the tide to tell him how hard to pull the oars, but the new ferryman rows with his eyes. He watches the shore over his shoulder.

We don’t talk; the new ferryman keeps hold of his oars and watches the water over the side of the boat while he waits for the passengers to climb in. But sometimes, if we’re rowing the right way, he’ll look and I’ll look back.

He has a new boat. The old one is tied up alongside the landing, next to the new one, where it will float out and in again whenever the ferryman pulls his oars. The water and the weed finally got into the old boat’s bones. The paint on the inside flaked away and then the wood got soft as fruit until it was all rotten save for the grooves of the bow. When it rocks there in some lights, it is the scraped-out rib cage of a giant animal.

In bed, when I hear the rain hit the street, I kiss Johnny harder.

“What’s wrong?” he says.

“Nothing’s wrong,” I say.

“Something’s different,” he says. He kisses me once on the forehead and puts his arms round my waist and lays his hands over my belly. “I don’t know.”

After that we don’t do anything else.

I wait till he’s breathing out before I breathe in, so I can tell what’s me and what’s him.

Marriages don’t count here. The grains of sand fall through my fingers. I put on a skirt and stockings. I want to be looked at.

The kids are playing with a lighter they have found on the beach. One kid, the tall dark one, has scooped sand with his hands into an aluminum curry carton because he thinks they need a safety bucket, like his dad makes up on Guy Fawkes. When he’s finished he sets it down between them on the concrete. Then he tells the other boys to take the shit out of their pockets and put everything around the carton. One boy pulls out a trading card and some screwed up paper. Another boy pulls out some fishing line and starts plucking off the bits of bacon jelly, all that the crabs couldn’t tear off.

“No leave it,” says the tall boy. “Wanna know how it burns.”

The wind blows the sand on my bare legs and up my skirt.

The kids start without ceremony burning everything in their pockets. They note several things, the smell, what melts fastest. Then after they’re done they take cigarettes from a pack the tall kid has under his belt and smoke, one cigarette between two. In the end, they sit down and turn their legs onto the sand. Then we’re all looking out to sea, me and the six boys. The smell of the burnt things and the cigarettes is blown clean by the wind.

My clothes and hair flag out in front of me. I feel like I might be blown off my feet; when I go down from the street to the beach, I hold on tight to the handrail. The water bursts from holes in the sand, where the molluscs and the crabs bury themselves. All over the beach, holes appear where the water has

burst, like sucking mouths. The sound is horrible. There must be a hundred of them, sucking and popping.

The water rises and bloats.

I think I am seasick, sitting on the sand with my legs out. I have to steady myself by putting my hands either side of me. I feel them sink and the sand pack under them to make a solid ground. The grains fall over my fingers. I’m grazed all over from the sand. The water fills and empties.

He is dark, the new ferryman, his skin dark as the drying sand. All he does is walk from one end of the beach to the other to go home. But I’ve been waiting for him, just to see. I watch him all the way, straining to see the way his chest moves, and the muscles on his sides. My hands find the sand and I start to bury them, finger by finger, through the foot of sugar to the hard old sand where I have to push until I think my fingers might break until I’m part of the beach, fingers and thumbs, old octopus, fossil, nobody’s wife.


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