Alton By the Ocean

by Nancy Dickeman

Alton Grear stood at the ocean’s edge, fluttering like a sail in the wind. At eighty-three, his long body, lean and brittle, was still strong. Even though the waves made him wobble and knocked his faded orange swim trunks below his buttocks, he regained his balance, pulled up his shorts and tightened the white drawstring, all while the ocean swirled at his ankles, teasing him further out.

There were two warning signs posted at Maui’s D. T. Fleming Beach, one for a dangerous shore break, and another for strong currents. Still, the waves that day were small, running one to two feet, and his youngest sister, who’d flown him out for his great-niece’s wedding, had plied his pale skin with sunscreen, SPF 50. Lotion smeared the silver hair that crossed his forehead and dipped beneath the narrow wisps of his eyebrows.

The wedding had taken place the previous afternoon on a cliff overlooking a rocky bay of the Pacific, at a well-heeled resort with a championship golf course and luxury suites. After the usher had escorted him to his seat, Alton sat in a white folding chair watching his great-niece, Sophie, lift her hand towards the groom as he slipped on the ring, when Alton was momentarily distracted by a movement beyond the couple, a splash in the water off shore, and leaned forward, amazed to spot dolphins diving. He nudged his sister, Gretchen, who raised an eyebrow as if scanning the ceremony for signs of trouble. He shook his head and whispered in his quietest voice, “Look over there, dolphins,” and as it became clear he was gesturing towards the bay below, she pressed her lips together in a puckered scowl.

At the reception, he had wandered among the guests, accepting hugs from relatives, trying to remember the names of his cousin’s great-grandchildren. When Sophie appeared at his side, grasped both his hands, kissed his cheek, and spoke to him, he teared up. “Thank you, Uncle Alton. It means a lot you came out here for my wedding day,” she said, still cradling her bouquet of plumeria, orchids and lilies.

“Congratulations, Sophie, you’re a beautiful bride.” He smiled as she allowed herself to be pulled away, greeting a crowd of guests, and accepted the champagne flute pressed into his hand by a waiter, as he walked through the grass to his seat at a table. On his way, he stopped to read a plaque explaining the sacred ground, the burial grounds of the dead. He’d also seen it in the tourist guidebook, and learned that the development had been opposed by the Hawaiian community. Built where it was, the development posed an especially egregious infringement. In fact, he’d wondered if he hadn’t seen a ghost in his room the night before, a woman floating past the foot of his bed with flowers tangled in her hair.

Perhaps it was someone from the burial grounds, but he’d only seen a swoosh of hair, blossoms and a transparent figure, and also wondered if it might have been Miriam, if she had passed, the woman he’d loved the most and sent away. He remembered the time he mailed her a magenta flower, a single petal pressed and enclosed in an envelope. First, he’d held the silky petal up to the sunlight, watching it light the back yard like a burst of flame, and then brushed its feathery down across his wrist.

Four decades ago, they had met in line at a bakery in Seattle that was part of their individual Saturday morning routines; he bought a cream cheese Danish, and Miriam an apple turnover or, whenever they were available, blackberry. At the time, Alton worked in human resources at Boeing. He mused at what they called things these days, in his time, it was known simply as personnel. Miriam was an elementary school teacher, first grade. He thought it was something they had in common, that they both dealt with people, albeit in different ways. He loved to listen as Miriam told him about her day. There was a particular child who threw temper tantrums, who one day, Miriam coaxed into closing his eyes, counting to ten, and coloring whatever he felt on the page. The boy created a swirl of purple, red and orange across the pale brown paper that she had pinned to the wall with the other stick shapes and amoebic houses. Alton could imagine it: Miriam crouched beside the pint-size wooden school chair; her arm perched on the table. No wonder the child gave way — Miriam’s voice soft and smooth, like a rare pair of doves he once heard cooing in the back yard of his Maple Leaf craftsman.

Alton appreciated that he showed her the same patience and on nights when he was irked and fed up with work, she rubbed his neck and shoulders, her hands smelling of lanolin and rosewater. On other nights, when he left work relatively satisfied, no deadlines looming over him or disgruntled co-workers to worry about, he invited her to stay. He stretched out beside her in bed, tracing the curve of her collarbone, the hollow of her throat, the arch of her back as it led to the slightly round bell of her hips. When he moved aside her hair and pressed his mouth against her neck, he tasted a specific salt, the scent of seawater. Their lovemaking was quiet and luxurious, his bedroom punctuated with their brief gasps.

Less frequently, he stayed at Miriam’s house: a small, two-bedroom that butted up against a blackberry-strewn ravine, giving the illusion the house was set in the woods and not, like it was, in a small, forested patch within the Northwest’s largest metropolis. The last night he stayed, he noticed things that had escaped him before. The smell of Miriam’s compost bin when she opened the kitchen window – nothing he could identify precisely, but a hybrid scent of rotting vegetables and flower stems wilted into a green mash. Half-empty red wine bottles, fruit flies flocking to the stained corks, cluttering the kitchen counter, and on the table, a stack of magazines with various how-to articles beckoning from the glossy covers. What did it matter, he thought, what she read, if she used parsley and lemon to clean, or mint in a facial? Or, if she imbibed in a glass of wine before greeting him? Still, he’d been thrown off track and wasn’t sure what to do.

That night, when they went to bed and she reached for him, he felt rushed, and imagined himself a chore or children’s assignment to be checked off Miriam’s list. He recalled the instructions she’d given him the time they paddled in a kayak along the western edge of Lake Washington. They were not far from the Montlake Cut, and when a powerboat hurtled past, its wake coming at them from the side, Miriam yelled for him to stay centered in the boat. When he followed instead his body’s instinct to lean away from the rolling wave, the kayak tipped and he plunged into the cold water. He held his breath, aware of Miriam maneuvering to release the spray skirt that kept him trapped and help him wriggle from the boat’s cramped cavity. Thinking of it now, he felt flustered, and when Miriam pressed up against him, he bristled until she rolled back over, scooting to her side of the bed. Propped on one elbow, she leaned close to his face and stroked his ear, “Al, what’s wrong, honey?”

He looked at the ceiling, the stain where he’d stood on a ladder and helped her fix a leak from the roof, and then into her eyes, and realized he didn’t know, he had nothing to say that she would find reasonable, that she would not be able to explain away. “I’ve got to go” was all that came out of his mouth, a phrase he uttered like a frog, he thought, or a toad, a low, guttural croak.

Although he felt badly for years, he never went back, and was never able to put his finger on what was wrong. Maybe he hadn’t been fair, in fact, he was almost sure of it. Still, at some point, to ask her to take him back, the unjustified plea for forgiveness, was more than he could muster, more than he had in him.


As he looked at the ocean, he thought again of the apparition, and considered another possibility – maybe it was his mother in her youth. When she was on her deathbed, he’d done his best to save her. He shifted her in the bed towards the window where the lavender branches stuck out beneath the morning’s frost, the stark white limbs raised to the sky. He’d argued with the hospice team for denying her fluids, when it was her thirst that overcame her, her body parched and wilting for days. He took the damp swab and brushed the edges of her lips, and told her stories, the time he and his siblings played in the snow beneath the maple. For much of his life, he’d gone by Al, but in his older years, he reverted to the dual syllabic formal name, in deference to his mother, who had been hurt when he’d used the nickname, and with whom he felt certain he would be reunited with soon.

Now another wave rose from the ocean, its face green beneath the overcast sky, although the day was still hot, hot enough to make sweat slip down his back, and convince him to take another step deeper into the Pacific. This time the wave crossed close to his belly and the force of it bounced him backwards. He wavered, his thin arm lurching in the air, and landed with his heels dug into the sand. He thought of his body like an anchor that would always wind its way into the sand, pitched upright.

He looked to the horizon but didn’t know to count the set of four or five waves rippling along the ocean’s surface, as the breakers pushed him a little harder each time. He did notice that twenty feet away, the water seemed calmer, those waves lapped onto the shore, curling slightly before vanishing into foam. Two young women, one wearing a black bikini, the other canary yellow, swam there. They dove through the swells and emerged on the other side, smoothing out their long hair, slipping in and out between the crests.

Alton wondered how Miriam would swim if she were still alive, what her hand would feel like if he held it at the tide’s edge. Had she left her hair long, or cut it? He remembered running into her once at the grocery store years after he’d told her goodbye. She was buying bread and her auburn hair, barely sprinkled with grey, was swept across her shoulders and puffed softly atop her head, which gave her the appearance of one of the flickers that flew past his window.

“Alton, Alton.”  He slowly rotated his neck to see his sister calling his name, her mouth gaping and her finger pointing. What was she making such a ruckus about, he wondered, annoyed with the distraction. She should be happy he’d agreed to come on the trip, even though it had yanked him from the comfort of his stuffed chair and the meals the assisted living kitchen fixed to his specifications – gravy on the side, no sauce, extra ice cream. He’d had his doubts at the airport, when he resisted being stripped of his belt and the uniformed TSA agent yelled at him, as Alton explained to no avail that the belt’s heavy brass buckle was no match for the metallic hip hinged inside his skin. He would make any machine bleat like a lamb startled by a fox on his grandfather’s farm.

Now the sun emerged from behind a cloud, and the water glistened, turquoise. It swirled with color. He tried to count all the shades of blue. He watched as the swell pulled away and rose. It arced into a curve as tall as his shoulders, beads of white splitting from the tips like pinpoints of stars, the constellations taking shape in the midday sky.

He could see there was nothing more beautiful than this one wave. Not the wedding party in flowing violet gowns, nor the bride in gathered lace skimming the grass, nor the whitewater filling the bay, not even the magenta petal he’d sent to Miriam, or his sister’s voice singing his name as if she were a bird in the wild. He would not argue with this wave, that would take him uncontested as he was, that grew transparent in the sun. When he looked at its underbelly, he saw periwinkle, the color of Miriam’s eyes.

Alton felt the ocean wash over him like a wall that disintegrated into water, forcing him under. He lifted his head to gulp in air, swallowing saltwater instead, registering pain as it went up his nose. He thought of Miriam, the apology he had yet to deliver, and tried to keep his face tilted towards air and sky.

When he felt an arm slide around his neck, he worked to follow the lifeguard’s instructions but couldn’t help grasping for something to clutch, for something solid to hold. “Hey, take it easy.” The lifeguard batted at Alton’s arms as he slapped them through the water. “You gotta relax, buddy. I’ll get you in.”

Alton sputtered and jerked his head in a panicked nod. He let his body go limp, and felt himself culled through the ocean like a wayward piece of timber, part of a ship’s hull washing up from Fukushima, his head cradled against his rescuer’s chest.


Nancy Dickeman’s poems and essays have appeared in Post Road 32, Pontoon, Poetry Northwest, The Seattle Review, River City, The Seattle PI, Common Dreams, OCEAN Magazine, and other publications. She received her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Washington where she won an Academy of American Poets Award. Her first novel manuscript, a nuclear age story, is titled The Wind-Scattered World.

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