Issue #19 |

Oklahoma

Marcus woke at the water, teetering in a cold wind. It was night and in his blurry return to consciousness he watched as a mink stalked the edges of the tide, indifferent to his presence. A bit of childhood trivia told him mustela vison hated saltwater and yet here it was, like a totem freed from his dreams, one more thing out of place.

The sleepwalking was new. As if this–his first real stab at sobriety–called for revised methods of self-sabotage. He’d taken to setting up obstacles: chairs and dishes against the door, rope around his ankle. But he still found himself out here, braced against the breeze or halfway into the water. Or back at the condo, wet and shivering on the carpet.

He was staying at his great-aunt Chloe’s along the Oregon coast. When she died, her son called. He’d heard Marcus was clean and determined to stay that way. He still remembered the flush of Marcus’s face, running through Indiana cornfields as a kid. He said he could stay rent-free–just please find something to do with all her stuff. He said it’s what Chloe would’ve wanted and Marcus thanked him and hung up the phone and wept.

But he’d been here for months and knew now that he would never take that step, never break down the life that still seemed poised to keep going despite Aunt Chloe’s absence. Each night he slept poorly in the living room recliner, lying awake long hours, sometimes talking with Aunt Chloe though she was no longer there, or staring in silence at the catalog of things that once belonged to her and belonged to no one now: the plastic-covered furniture and the porcelain figurines, the oak bureau, crystal vases, quilts and rugs and wood-paneled appliances all covered in a film of dust. He didn’t have the heart to inventory, in part because it felt an insult to Chloe’s memory, and in part because it brought back too many of his own bad memories, that raw, gnawing vigilance ready to turn anything that caught his eye into release.

And over the whole place an anticipatory silence, as if the next second might bring a knock at the door, a ringing phone—the arrival of another life into his.

 

In the morning he was back out, taking the mink’s shoreline path backwards. He scanned the beach for anything he may have lost along the way. He passed the daily cast of runners and dog walkers. They acknowledged him with quick nods, smiles–proof he’d earned his place in this ellipsis. A woman he hadn’t seen before, tattoos covering her arms, was photographing seagulls. He headed her way, watching for the birds to do anything other than what they always did. Her camera trailed the loose flock as it shifted toward and eventually orbited him.

“Do you mind?” she called out when he got closer. He shrugged, looked around. She laughed and waved him toward her. “Do you mind if I take your photo?”

He walked toward her as the camera ticked away. When he got closer she set the camera against her hip and smiled, out of breath from her work. Her tattoos were bells, up and down each arm. She had a diamond ring on her left hand and he felt cleansed by this, their dynamic clarified.

 

That night, he called Jess and told her about his day and she listened, sharing his frustration over Tim once again canceling on a job just a few days before it started. Tim ran a pool repair company but his girlfriend had just had a baby and he’d now postponed or outright canceled four jobs. Marcus got it, but at the same time every day carved a little more from the money he’d saved up over summer.

He told her about the lady and the seagulls and she laughed.

“And nothing happened?” she asked. “I wouldn’t mind if it did.”

“No. Nothing.”

It had been a few days since the last time he called. Jess had told him not to. She said that a lot. But here they were, and she wasn’t hanging up or screaming or telling him very calmly that this had to stop. He felt like he was stacking broken glass, each second another sliver set on top. They were talking. Still talking.

Jess was back in their hometown, a thousand miles away, living with her parents. It was so hard to remember that. He always imagined her sitting in their living room, the home he’d bought with her, but then some time into the call she would open a door or respond to her mom or dad and the sound would strip his mind of that image, replacing it with what was real now: Jess, in her parents’ house, her old room, and not his wife anymore.

When she sighed and said her dad needed her, he said he’d wait. He had his cell phone tucked between ear and shoulder and was looking at the gold watch that had been his mother’s father’s, that he’d coveted until he turned sixteen and it became his. The one object of value he hadn’t lost through it all. It had stopped working a couple months ago. Maybe it needed a new battery, but something told him it was worse than that. He twisted the knob and the minutes and hours spun away. There were no numbers, just a single gold rectangle for the twelfth hour. He put the two hands right back at the top, overlapping, and pressed in the knob.

When Jess got back on the phone he asked how her parents were. Her father was having trouble remembering things. Her mother was increasingly anxious. When a silence settled in, he listened to her breathing.

“You know you’re always welcome to come down here and visit,” he said. “I’d sleep on the couch.” She didn’t say anything. She was heating something in the microwave. He wanted to ask what it was, but when he opened his mouth he said, “Any word from Cassie?”

Cassie lived with Jess’s cousin Dolores and her husband Glen, had for almost two years now, in Oklahoma. Two whole years. It killed him to think of it, of all that time gone by without him there to see.

“I should go,” Jess said. And because he was so good at keeping her on the line, she did what she had told him she would have to start doing from now on: she hung up.

In her absence, he asked aloud, “Any advice?” he asked. Just be patient, Aunt Chloe said. “Great,” he said. You’ll figure this out. He asked if she wanted to put some money on that.

 

As he walked along the shoreline that night, replaying the conversation with Jess, trying to find a foothold he’d missed, a voice called out to him.

“Hello there, stranger.” There was a group of people, all shadows in the firelight.

A figure rose and approached: tall, slender, with thick-rimmed glasses and a head shaved completely bald. He held out a hand, then clasped Marcus’s hands in both of his and did a little bow.

“Come sit with us. Let’s be together.”

Almost everyone around the fire was bald. They wore white clothes—robes, dresses, white slacks and shirts. They looked like luminescent mannequins against the flames. They sat and talked amongst themselves. Marcus sat beside the man who’d greeted him, holding a plastic cup that had been handed to him.

They were sick. They were named for their sickness. There was Fibromyalgia, Glaucoma, Marfan. A shapely woman named Scleroderma with eyes like little torches. There was a stocky man named Diverticulitis and a woman named Lou Gehrig, and an older woman called Parkinson-Alzheimer, who sat between Lou Gehrig and Glaucoma, staring innocently out at the world.

The woman with the bells on her arms was there too, though he didn’t catch her name. She still had her hair. She sat across from Marcus and, if she recognized him, didn’t show it. I’m one of your specimens, he thought, wishing he could tease her a bit. You’ve pinned me down forever and just like that forgotten me.

They traveled together. Each had given up their previous life—family, friends, the promises of traditional medicine—to promote an intentional community of healing love.

“Why here?” Marcus asked, which came out like an accusation when all he wondered was whether they might know something he didn’t.

“We were in Portland for a conference,” the leader said. “We thought it might be worth a visit. Do you believe in energy? Healing energy?”

Marcus looked up at the empty darkness of the sky. To stall, he took a sip of the drink and found it earthy and sweet. “I don’t think so.”

 

To read the rest of this story, please purchase a copy of issue #19 or to make sure you never miss an issue of Story, subscribe to the print edition

Justin Chandler is a writer and teacher currently dividing his time between Cincinnati, Ohio and Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and daughter. His creative work has appeared in epiphany and Hobart.

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