Evening Tide

Neal Gordon

Dodge is working at the kitchen table, going over the figures from the big telescope on Cerro Tolelo. The numbers, in precise columns and rows, speak to him of an exactness that he finds reassuring. He thinks that the numbers depend on him to give them meaning, and for this dependency, he is grateful. There was a time when his family needed him. A time when a new bride, a new job, a child and then another demanded his strength. But those times are gone and now only the numbers need him, and Dodge needs to be needed. He concentrates on the numbers, seeing the slow trends and wave-like patterns that they represent, and for a moment he feels how insignificant his life is in comparison.

Annie removes the lid from the kettle and steam rises from the hot shells. Using tongs, she lifts the open shells from the pot and places them in a clear glass bowl. She covers the pan and leaves the shells that are not open to sit above the hot liquid. "They're perfect," she says, as she carries the brimming bowl to the table, "Just perfect."

Dodge eyes the clams for a moment. They need to be cooked exactly, he thinks. Because he has shown her how to do this many times in the past twenty-three years, he knows that they will be overdone. He says, "Yes, they look wonderful," as he moves several onto his paper plate.

Annie sits down opposite him and takes a half dozen of the clams onto her plate. "You're going fishing with Charlie in the morning?" she asks.

"Yes. He's got Will for the weekend," he says, and uses his fork to pull one of the clams free from its shell. When he begins to chew the clam, he feels that it is nearly right, and knows that he should have cooked them.

"Ok?" Annie asks, brushing back the long strands of her hair from the sides of her mouth.

She tucks the hair behind her ear smoothly and Dodge sees the precision in this gesture, the automaticness of it, how her middle finger catches the strands and tucks them away. He smiles, mumbles a yes, picks up his pencil and crosses out a line of calculations.

"I heard that there might be a storm," she says.

"It's supposed to stall inland. The high pressure will stop it," he says without looking up.

In a while, Dodge realizes that Annie is crying. The sound of her breathing, so shallow, tells him clearer than words. "I need to talk to you," she says.

"I'm listening," he says, adding a number to one of the columns.

"No, Dodge," she says, putting a hand on his writing hand. "With you. I need to talk with you."

Although he dislikes the distraction, he sets the pencil down and removes his glasses saying, "You know I trust you, just get whatever it is you think we need."

"It's not that kind of thing," she says.

He can see now that her eyes are brimming. A slow fear comes to him like the paw of an enormous bear, pressing him into his chair. "You don't need to ask my permission," he says, trying to comfort her by patting her hand.

"You don't listen," she says and feels the words on her dry lips.

"Yes. I'm listening. Go ahead. Tell me."

"I'm going," she says, flatly, and laughs.

"Where to? Maybe I'll tag along."

"No. I'm going away from you."

"I don't understand," Dodge hears himself say.

"Divorce. I'm going to get a divorce from you," she says and uses the heels of her palms to wipe the tears from her cheeks.

"But you're my wife."

"Not for long," she says and pushes back from the table. A glass topples over and spills water across the page of calculations. Annie stands and goes out the back door to the beach.

Dodge sits in silence because he does not know how to act, does not know how to solve the problem that is suddenly before him. When he stands, he begins to clear the dishes from the table.

He does not understand his wife; cannot get a bearing on her, he thinks as he folds the paper plates into the garbage. What he understands is numbers. Raw data, clean and comprehendible. The numbers that come from the Vax computer, long strings that indicate the locations of the stars. Numbers that predict, indicate, and display the stars that he knows by number and name.

He remembers when the house settled. It happened in the fall of sixty-two, with Dodge in his new teaching position at Penn. An early autumn storm hammered the island. The wind and water rose up and pulled almost fifteen feet of sand from under the foundation. He and Anne drove down from the city. Their first son, David, was due in a few weeks, but Dodge had wanted to check on the house. When they got to the island, the bridges were washed out. Dodge hired a small whaler that drove them from the bay to the beach side. The pilot identified the wrecked homes that stood sideways in streets, upended on the beach, or half buried in the water. So many had simply been washed away.

Dodge's father, John, was standing where the half basement of their beach house should have been. Dodge clambered out of the boat and was halfway to the bulkhead that separated their backyard from the long public beach when he saw the old man's stern look. Obediently, Dodge turned around, came back, and helped her out of the small boat.

"You shouldn't have come down," John said as they walked up the beach.

"I was worried about the house," Dodge said.

His father kissed her on the cheek and put an arm around her, helping her on the soft sand. "You have some other things to worry about," he said, putting a hand on her swollen stomach as Dodge followed behind the two of them. "You can repair architecture, but you can't replace family, Dodge," the old man said without looking at his son.

They had been lucky during the storm; the water took several yards of sand behind the bulkhead. Washed it away: reminded everyone that the island was nothing more than a big sandbar. The old house sat on forty foot pilings. It was one of the only houses on the island that had been built that way. John was from the mid-west, and although he loved the ocean, he had always been wary of it; insisting on what the contractors considered needless safety standards. He liked to err on the side of caution.

They were one of five houses at this end of the island that were still standing. They had the foundation rebuilt that fall, after the baby came. While the contractors waited for other home owners to collect relief and insurance from the federal government, they were happy to have the work, and unwilling to look John in the eye.

Inside the house, Dodge finishes the dishes, collects his work from the table, and closes the numbers into his briefcase. He opens the back door and steps down the stairs to the cool sand, hoping to find Annie. He knows that he must find the thing to say to her now, must find the key to the equation that will produce the correct solution.

The moon shine on the sand sparkles like diamonds. Dodge sees a figure walking ahead of him and knows that it must be her by the way she walks. He smiles at the pleasure of the recognition. I know how she walks. He begins to hurry towards her. I must have seen her walk a thousand miles, he thinks.

When he reaches her, he catches her elbow and she stops. "What can I do?" he asks.

"There is nothing to do," she says. She does not pull away from him. She stands as if her elbow as detached from her body.

"Tell me how to make this okay."

"You can't."

"We've been married twenty-two years. There's got to be an answer in twenty-two years," he says, feeling the edge that comes with the unsolvable, the unexplainable.

"There's no answer." she asks, pulling clear of the tightening hand.

"Let me try to find an answer." He reaches out a hand to her, but she doesn't take it.

"You don't even understand what I'm talking about," she says touching her forehead.

"I understand that you're upset." He puts a hand on her shoulder.

"Obviously I'm upset," she says and leaves his hand where it is. He feels how warm she is through the thin shirt. It is as if she is burning up. As if the speed with which she is moving away from her is creating friction.

"And I want to help," Dodge says.

"You don't even know what's wrong and you expect to help?"

"If you tell me the problem, I'll try to find a solution." Dodge feels the cold wind through his sweater, and he moves closer to her, trying to shield her from the wind.

"I don't want that."

"Then let me give you what you want," he says looking down into her long blonde hair.

"I want you to understand this, not solve it. I don't want to be a damn problem for you to solve," she pleads to him.

"Then what do you want?"

"I want you to understand. Just try to understand."

"That you want a divorce?" he asks, squeezing her shoulder.

"No, that there's a problem." She nods her head to him.

"I don't understand," he says and reaches his other hand towards her.

"I know," she says as she pulls free from him and runs towards the house as if pushed away.

Dodge watches her run away from him. He watches closely as she steps up the back stairs and goes in. A chill stirs him to walk and he goes toward the house where he grew up, not knowing where else he should go.

His father left him the house, along with everything the old man owned when he died. Dodge kept the house exactly as it was. With the money left him, Dodge bought a large fishing boat like his Dad had always wanted. It seemed a concrete way to spend the money that the old man had worked so hard to make and never enjoyed.

The boat came fully equipped; a beautiful teak deck, snorkeling and scuba equipment, a little bathroom, a weather radio for emergencies. Dodge's one major addition was an antique bronze mariner's compass. The compass sits high in the center of the of the rear deck, its clear glass like a jewel. It weighs almost forty pounds and came out of a luxury liner from the twenties. It is exactly what a compass should be, accurate and reliable. Dodge thinks of the compass now, and wishes the compass was attached to Annie.

When he gets back into the house, Dodge sits in the kitchen, listening to his wife in the rooms above him. He looks at the worn plank flooring of the kitchen and sees the way the house leans from front to back. How it always has, even before the hurricane when Dad died. If you drop a marble down in the living room, it'll roll towards the beach, just as it did when he was a child and when his children were children. He thinks, I know each of these rooms, know which get the sun in the morning, know which windows get the cool breezes from the salt marshes, know which mattresses are lumpier than others. I have slept in all of the bedrooms, gradually moving up to the third floor as I grew away from my parents, just as my children grew away from me. And as my wife now has.

Because he does not know what to say to her, does not know how to solve her problem, he goes upstairs to their bedroom that overlooks the beach, pulls the curtains, and undresses. After he puts on his pajama bottoms, he stops and listens to his wife on the third floor, in the boys' rooms. Dodge opens the curtains and climbs into bed between the covers. The bed is very cold, and he turns up the electric blanket to compensate for his wife whom he knows is not coming to join him.

As he falls asleep, images of Annie's white skin pass through his mind. Her skin so white that it glows pink, as if it thinly veils the blood below. The image of her body, across shoulder blade, under arm, to curve of breast comes to him. Her skin is smooth and clean and even though he is on the edge of sleep, he knows that the image is an old one, from when they were both young. He sees her breast, smooth and white, it's light pink areola like the color of her lips. He sees how her breast pulls away from the body when she lies on her side, how its weight pulls the skin taught from the side of her rib cage.

Before sunrise, Dodge wakes to the sound of his boys in the rooms above him. He smiles a turns to Annie, smelling the sweet smell of her long blonde hair on the pillow. It is a long mournful moment when he realizes that Annie is not next to him. She is upstairs in one of the spare bedrooms.

He gets up and goes to the bathroom. He starts a hot shower, undresses, and steps in. The water runs over the back of his neck and down over his shoulders. The water falls across him like warm rain and he stays under it as it begins to grow cold. Because he cannot face what is outside the bathroom, the water is cold before he reaches to turn it off.

When he gets out of the shower, he hears Charlie Stevens yelling downstairs.

"Let's go, Dodge old man," he calls.

Dodge wants to yell down to him, but the stillness of the room, the tired calmness he feels, would be shattered. Instead, he wraps a towel around himself and goes to the steps. "Give me a minute to get some clothes on," he calls from halfway down the stairs.

"Where's Annie?" Charlie asks.

"I don't know," Dodge croaks, feeling the words tighten in his throat.

"She won't care if I make some coffee, will she?" Charlie asks and steps toward the kitchen. Charlie's boy, Will, is standing by the front door. He is a bored thirteen year old, with stiff short hair.

"No, she won't," Dodge says and turns to go back upstairs.

Annie is standing at the top of the stairs, holding her suitcase. "You're going fishing?" she asks him.

"I have to. They can't go without me," Dodge says.

"Fine," she says gritting her teeth and not wanting to look at him, "I'm taking the sedan."

"Can we talk about this for a moment?"

Feeling that she shouldn't, she sets the case down next to the banister, turns and walks to the master bedroom. Dodge follows, trying to think of what to say.

The curtains are open, Dodge notices, and he pulls the bedroom door closed.

"What do you want to talk about," she says, and Dodge hears a harshness in her voice.

"Can I get dressed?"

"No. I won't be here that long."

"You can't leave me, Anne," Dodge says, sitting on the made-up bed.

"And why not?" Annie steps to the window, watching the arc of the sun break the horizon.

"Where will you go?"

"That's not your concern."

"Do you have any money?" Dodge asks.

"Our combined account balance was seventy-three thousand dollars. I took half and put it into an account at another bank."

"Thirty-six five," Dodge says, running a hand through his wet hair. He feels strange sitting in a towel with the curtain open.

"I'm taking the sedan, but I won't bother you about the house. I'll come by in a few days and get the rest of my things," Annie laughs.

"The furniture?"

"Only those items which I found, bought, or refinished. They have no value without my effort," she says and dismisses the question with a wave.

"So you're taking whatever you feel you have a right to," Dodge says, leaning back on his hands. He feels the towel slip and reaches forward, rewrapping it at his waist.

She turns to him then, feeling strong. "Complain and I'll ask for half equity in the house."

Dodge stands. "Please don't do this. You have no where to go," he says, opening his arms.

"It's already done. I took an apartment."

"Anne, please, be reasonable."

"Like you?"

"Yes, reasonable," he says. As he steps toward her, the towel slips from his waist and he catches it in one hand, holding it in front of him.

"Drop the towel," she says.

He can't. He tells himself to do it. To do what she says, but he can't quite manage it. "I can't," he says.

"You're a cold fish, Dodge," she says, hurrying past him to the hallway, wanting to run.

Dodge stands still for a moment. When he hears her shoes on the stairs, he drops the towel. "I dropped it," he yells. He hears voices below him. A door close. For the first time, Dodge recognizes what is happening. That his wife is leaving, now. He feels his testicles tighten against his naked body. In a spasm of movement he runs after her.

"You about ready to go?" Charlie calls from the kitchen.

"Nearly," he says as he stops halfway down the steps. Will is standing next to the front door looking at him as if he is seeing something that he understands too well.

Dodge turns and goes back to the bedroom. He picks up the clammy towel, finishes drying off, and gets dressed, not knowing what else to do.

Dodge steers out beyond the point and then turns east into the ocean, letting the boat carry itself. He runs the engine way up, skimming the boat over the waves as the smell of the water and gas combine with the bright sun to clear his head. His mind wanders over the green grey water. The boat skips off the surface and he drives forward, hearing the engines rap up and up. The wind whips the tears from his eyes and he realizes that he is crying, but can't put words to the reason why. As the engine screams, and the boat slices ahead, he is overwhelmed.

Charlie steps up onto the bow and pats Dodge on the shoulder. Dodge doesn't turn and Charlie points past him to the sonar screen that shows the ghost of a large school of fish. Dodge eases off the throttle, realizing that he does not know how long he has been driving.

As Charlie and Will set out the fishing lines, Dodge spreads his work on the small table in the center of the deck. He begins to recopy the figures from the previous night, collecting his thoughts and focusing in on the new work, finding comfort. The ocean is so quiet that he loses himself among the rows of numbers, shutting out the real world.

When Will leans over the table where Dodge is working, his shadow is cast straight down across the white pages of numbers.

Dodge blinks a few times at the starkness of the contrast and then looks up at the young boy. "Is it lunchtime already?"

Will shakes his head no and says, "I think we have some clouds coming." He points towards the horizon.

"Let's have a look," Dodge says and stands. For a moment Dodge is disoriented. How long have I been working, he thinks. The boat must have drifted. It is getting on to afternoon, the sun at apex. Which direction are we facing?

Will points to an angry black stripe running parallel to the horizon.

"Good eye. We need to get back in," Dodge says and walks over to the compass. According to the compass, the storm is coming from the northwest, Dodge sees. Even though the direction feels completely wrong to him, he turns the boat due west, reasoning that he will find the harbor after he finds a recognizable point on land. The compass is irrefutable.

As they sail diagonal towards the front, they see red and green heat lightening, boiling in the smokey black clouds. "Hail," Dodge says to Will. "See the lightening? That's hail." Both Will and Charlie nod, as if they are joined together.

Father and son take in the lines, stow the tackle. Charlie drinks a beer, quickly.

When the face of the front approaches, the air begins to cool. Dodge feels the heat being sucked off the surface of the water and lifted into the sky. Will begins to rub his arms with his hands, and Charlie puts his arms around the boy.

Dodge pulls out sweatshirts from under the seats. Charlie and Will seem glad to have them, but Dodge knows they are thinking what he is thinking: they should be within sight of landfall by now. The boat moves under the edge of the front.

"Are we going the right way?" Will asks Charlie in a shaky voice, but loud enough for Dodge to hear.

"Are we?" Charlie asks. His voice has an edge to it. He pulls out a life jacket from beneath the back seat and hands it to his son, nodding.

"Well, unless I read wrong."

Dodge checks the compass. Tries to estimate the ocean current. It's dragging us what? East? South? he wonders. He checks the compass and changes course, heading more south, away from the cloud bank. According to the compass, west, southwest.

The wind comes up, and the boat rides in and out of the waves. Dodge tries to keep the boat between the swells. Every few swells, a wave breaks into spray over the gunwale. The boat takes on a bit of water and the bilge pump kicks on below deck. Dodge watches as Charlie motions for Will, who seems to be crying, to sit on the deck.

In ten minutes, it is apparent to Dodge that they are not going in the right direction. "We must have drifted a long way out," Dodge says, trying to laugh.

"You'd better get on the radio and call someone to come get us," Charlie says.

"I only have a receiver. I don't usually go out so far that I need a transmitter."

"Well you did this time," Charlie says. Dodge cannot miss the anger in his voice.

Will pulls his knees up under the sweatshirt and cuddles against his father's legs. The boy is wet. They are all wet, Dodge thinks. He checks the compass again, seeing Charlie rubbing his son's shoulders. The boy is crying hard now, Dodge sees. It is then that Dodge makes eye contact with Charlie. In Charlie's cold stare, Dodges sees that, for this moment, Charlie hates him. It is the hate of a father who is protecting his only child.

Rather than cringing, what Dodge feels then is connection. What he sees in Charlie's eyes is a feeling that he knows and understands. It is the feeling of responsibility he felt that first few years with the new appointment, the baby, his father's death, another baby right away. How it had seemed that he was the only thing that stood between his family and oblivion. The incredible strain of it.

Dodge understands why Annie has left as he recognizes that he misses the responsibility of having so many people depend on him. That with the loss of pressure on him, he has come ungrounded. He has let a space between them open up rather than letting the vacuum of the children's absence draw them together.

In frustration, Dodge clinches his fist and punches the compass. The dial spins wildly inside the glass ball, and Dodge runs to the wheel, turning the boat directly into the storm. He steers by what feels right to him, pushing the throttle wide open.

"What the hell are you doing?" Charlie yells.

"Going home," Dodge says, not looking back.

For ten minutes the air grows darker and colder until Dodge lets out a yell, and steers straight into the harbor. As he hurries the boat toward the dock, he cannot help but mentally plot the course that he must have taken, how the tide must have carried him down the coast, how with each increment of ease in his life he sailed further away from Annie.

As they tie up, the storm lets loose. Rain falls in thick vertical waves. Charlie and Will run to their car without a word. In the minute or so that it takes Dodge to get to his car, he is soaked. The rain is grey and emerald green and so heavy that the windshield wipers merely slosh it around. The car crawls through the streets on the way home.

When he gets home, the house echoes with the noise of the storm. Dodge goes to the master bedroom. Through the windows, he watches as the waves come up ever higher, crashing against the bulkhead between the house and the beach. The water is covered in froth, the foam so thick that it looks like brown shaving cream.

Shivering, he strips off his wet clothes and pulls on a heavy sweatsuit and climbs into the bed, freezing. The bed is cold and he turns the electric blanket up further and lays there, listening to the storm front beat out its fury against the house.

When he wakes, he is broiling. Everything is quiet and he knows instantly that the storm has stopped. The digital clock blinks midnight, and Dodge realizes that the power must have gone out, too.

He gets up and goes to the windows. There are stars out and he sees them reflected on the surface of the ocean. The stairs twinkle on and off in the gentle waves. It is a new moon. Dodge strips off his sweaty clothes and goes, naked, downstairs and out to the sea.

He steps into the cool ocean and swims out into the stars that he loves so much. Out in the waves, he laughs as he realizes that the stars are actually tiny ctenafores, washed up by the storm. As they die, their small jelly bodies luminesce sparks of green. The water is refreshing, and he swims in and out of the tiny glowing stars around him.

When the salt in the water begins to irritate his skin, he walks out of the surf and back up to the house. He turns on the outside shower and feels the warm water wash away the salt from his body. He thinks about how long it has been since he's been naked outside. There was a time when he had done this kind of thing regularly. When he and Annie had enjoyed the house rather than just lived in it.

It was when the children were young, when he felt as if he was under such pressure. He had been able to relax then. Everything had seemed so ridiculously impossible that he felt at ease about it. As the children grew, as the job became easier, as the pressures decreased, he felt less able to relax. Instead of impossibilities ahead of him, everything seemed possible, and less interesting. It was only his work that pushed him on.

He snaps off the shower and walks up the back stairs to the kitchen. Inside, he catches a glimpse of himself in the hallway mirror. His skin is covered with quarter-sized ctenafore stings. His flesh begins to itch as he realizes the high price he has paid.

Neal Gordon (nealbriggs@hotmail.com) Began studying writing at Iowa State University, then transferred to the University of Iowa creative writing program. Following completion of his degree, he left the Midwest for the East Coast, where he completed graduate school at Temple University. His work has appeared in magazines, compilations and online over the past decade. Currently, he teaches at the Episcopal Academy outside Philadelphia.

InterText stories written by Neal Gordon: "When Something Goes" (#34), "The Worse Part" (#40), "Sunset" (#54), "Evening Tide" (#57).

InterText Copyright © 1991-2004 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of InterText #57. This story Copyright © 2003 Neal Gordon.