Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 7...
For at least fifteen minutes she stood looking upon the face of the youth center from halfway up the footpath that connected its entry porch to the sidewalk. At her feet she’d arranged the two shovels she’d procured, both metal, one pointed and mostly flat for breaking up dirt and rocks, the other more of a bucket shape for tossing heaps of soil up and out. Behind her their carriages remained untouched just like everything else in Claremont. Ahead was the silent tomb of her father, and even though she’d reached it after two miles worth of building up her willpower, as soon as her gaze fell upon the building every ounce of determination was sapped from her.
Of all the terrible thoughts that cascaded across her mind as she stood there, the one most crushing was an odd wish that her father was there to help her. How simultaneously ironic and poetic that she must now shed herself of that life of meticulous micro-management by burying the man who’d orchestrated and conducted it. This was both the beginning and the end for her. The last step she would take as a child and the first step she’d take as an adult.
If there were any others who survived the Christmas bombings, she imagined many of them had reached or were approaching a similar situation. Childhood’s end. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Fifteen minutes, or so she figured, was enough. She wasn’t going to allow herself another day pacing in the sun and wallowing in the prisons her mind so expertly created. As the cold, soft breeze carried to her the springtime scents of nature’s renewal, so too was she renewed… enough, at least, to start her Converse-clad feet marching toward the youth center, up the steps, and through the doorway. In her mind she went somewhere else as she walked on auto-pilot into the auditorium, to a bench on The Marginal Way in Ogunquit where she could sit and watch the waves crash upon the smooth rocks biting up along the coastline. Here she remained while she carefully rolled her father into the blankets she’d placed over him, unaware at least in the moment of exactly how everything she was doing was tied to the nightmare she’d all but forgotten. As she dragged her father’s rigid form across the polished floor of the auditorium, through the lobby, and carefully down the front steps of the youth center (his bootheels clopping on each step and stirring other hazy images from her dream), she turned her mind’s eye down the coastline to Ogunquit Beach where the sun beat down upon white sand spiked with a rainbow of umbrellas. A river curled around the edge of the coastal plane, emptying out into clear, emerald water. White foam fizzled at the edge of the sand as the water rushed up the beach, curling over and crashing before retreating back. Kites floated upon currents of air, the largest a great, black octopus that her Into to Lit teacher Mr. Kellogg would have called Lovecraftian. It’s tentacles curled and undulated gracefully in the breeze, waving down upon the beachgoers clustered in its massive shadow.
Beth spared only enough attention to her real-world doings to keep herself on task and productive as she gathered her tools and walked them over and into the shade at the edge of the grounds where she’d dragged her father. By the time she had broken her way knee deep into the soil, she was nearing the end of The Marginal Way, winding down along the cliffs toward Perkins Cove as the ocean hissed to her left and the leaves of overhanging branches fluttered above and to her right. She strolled past the packed oceanside courtyard of The Oarweed Restaurant where she and her parents had picked through their first dinner of real Maine lobster. She pushed through a churning sea of people and sidled her way between tightly-packed cars tended by multiple valets in white polos and red shorts. Making her way down alongside the harbor where lobstering and fishing boats of all sizes and colors were moored, she smiled as her gaze fell upon a tanned young man, his bare chest strung with thick suspenders holding up rubber waders. He paddled a dingy backward toward the dock, balancing deftly upon its bow as his haul stood stacked at the wider end of the boat, three traps teeming with agitated lobster.
The scene was so vivid, repainted from her memories of that trip she’d taken with her parents, that she nearly lost herself in the hole she was digging. It was just as well she snapped out of it when she did. It wasn’t long after that trip that Mom had her accident with Dad at the gravel pit where they’d both so loved to blow off steam by unloading bullets into targets. Then came the surgery. Then the painkillers.
Beth stopped digging and brought herself back to reality. The grassy edge of the grave she’d dug was now at her chest line. Definitely deep enough. She tossed the shovel up and out of the hole, wincing at a burst of pain in her biceps and pectorals that would almost certainly feel worse in the morning. Above, the midday sun beat down upon the trees that shaded the grave, winking at her through the waving branches and leaves above.
How long had she been at it? Three, maybe four hours?
Backing up a few steps, she got a running start at the far edge of the hole and thrust herself up and out in a series of kicking grunts that loosened tufts of soil from the sides of the hole. She’d dug a lot deeper than she’d needed as she toured what she remembered of Ogunquit in her mind, so the little extra she’d sent raining down wouldn’t make any difference.
As she settled on the grass her stomach offered a timely rumble. She didn’t want to stop until the job was done, but a nagging voice in her head reminded her of how much better she’d felt yesterday after drinking and eating. And that was fine. The final and hardest part was upon her; a break was in order.
Leaving her work behind her for a good twenty minutes, she walked through the grass toward the carriages, her feet and jeans swishing against the swaying blades. She sat in the shade at the edge of the road while she finished the box of Waffle Crisp she’d started yesterday. Between each dry bite she swigged a mouthful of water. Scooping the last handful of tiny waffles out of the box, she tossed it into the ditch along with the two bottles of off brand water she’d consumed. She sifted through the sugary dust that always collected at the bottom of the bag before cramming what was left into her mouth and pausing to look over her father’s carriage.
Her gaze settled upon the box of liquor underneath as she chewed, her mind largely vacant as she waited for the image to churn out something meaningful. A thought. An emotion. Something. This was, after all, the last and only vice she’d observed in her father, something that a darker, more insightful part of her knew would have devolved into something immensely destructive for the two of them had it been permitted to run its course. But nothing came. As with her struggles the previous day to touch upon the last thing they’d fought over, she could glean nothing of substance from this box. It was as if her mind refused to acknowledge that this man, this terribly flawed and broken man, had been anything less than perfect.
A tremor rippled through her body. The tips of her fingers began to tingle, and as she turned her gaze upon them she watched as they curled into fists. Before she knew it she was walking toward the carriage. Seconds later she was struggling to pull the box out, grunting and seething, her breath exiting her body in spurts through teeth that bit down upon her tongue. The bottles of water in the package beside the box squeaked as they were ground together until all at once the case slid from beneath the carriage and the box tipped forward and onto its side.
Beth fell backward in the ditch, landing on her butt and wincing as a small surge of pain shot up her spine. She didn’t linger on it long though as her gaze once more fell upon the tipped box before her. All of the bottles remained packed in place, their snubbed necks now pointing toward her, caramel colored liquid sloshing about inside. Beth reached out, scooting herself forward until her fingers curled indiscriminately around the closest bottle. At first it wouldn’t budge, Dad had packed the box to bulging capacity, but after a few kicks with her soiled Converse, the bottle grated against the glass of the others and came free. She nearly tipped backward as the force of the removal took with it three other bottles, all of which clattered upon the gravel and macadam but didn’t break.
Taking a deep breath, Beth blew a floating strand of blonde hair, it’s auburn roots now plainly visible, up and out of her face. She turned the bottle around in her hands until she could read the label. The Macallan, it read beneath the small image of what looked like a white farmhouse. Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskey. Then in the largest and boldest of lettering: 18 Years Old.
“Jesus, this alcohol is older than me,” she said aloud. Glancing back over to the box, she noted that most of the bottles inside were of this same shape. “Must be the best,” she mused before heaving herself to her feet, bracing her free hand against the stone wall, and pausing to reflect down upon Dad’s spilled treasure box. Her first impulse was to break it, to break all of it, but she quickly found that she was spent on anger and judgement. Instead, she bent down and picked up a second, matching bottle and marched them over to the grave.
Once more she returned to Ogunquit, this time finding herself in Veteran’s Park at the town square, a small monument plaque surrounded by flags representing each branch of the government with a larger pole flying Old Glory protruding up above the others. She walked the brick sidewalk up to where Route One converged with Shore Road and the beach access road, hearing her father speak above the din of voices large and small about what a clusterfuck the intersection was.
Hush, Mom scolded. What’ve I told you about using that language in public?
Beth smiled, glad they were all together in this place, as far off and away she carefully pulled a blanket-wrapped object into a hole she’d dug.
Yeah, yeah, Dad fired back. Always someone to offend these days. He led the two of them by hand in a daisy chain across the clogged traffic lanes. In the distance the Leavitt Theater clung to the edge of a tree-covered hill, its anachronistic marquee hugging street-facing side of the building, unchanged in the decades since its single-stall box office was first occupied beneath a gold-plated arch lined with bright, bulbous lights. They were showing an old silent film there with live musicians playing the soundtrack. Mom said it would help Dad get a little culture, to which he’d responded American culture was enough for him.
Beth smiled and clung to her father’s arm as they reached the box office and bought their tickets. In another world entirely, sweat dripped down and off of the nub of her nose as she finished arranging the object at the bottom of the hole and reached up for one of the bottles she’d brought over with her. She lowered it to the soft bed of soil and lifted the edge of the blankets nearest her father’s hand and tucked the bottle into the groove between his arm and his midriff.
There used to be another theater in town, Mom said as they stopped at the concessions counter inside the Leavitt. The smell of popcorn was pervasive and intoxicating, and here they still served it in little cardboard tubs. It was called the Ogunquit Square Theater. I remember going there with my parents as a little girl. Can’t remember what we saw.
Probably something foofy, Dad joked, handing each of them a tub of yellow popcorn glistening with butter. I still can’t believe I let you drag me to this when the Red Sox are playing The Yankees.
Beth ran a dirt-smeared arm across her brow. Her flesh ran together like two slick eels, doing nothing to sponge away the perspiration that was now running down into her eyes, but she continued shoveling with an unflinching smile.
You talk a good talk, Mr. Man, but you aren’t fooling anyone but the boys you pal around with. You have an artist’s soul. Mom’s hand came softly down between Beth’s shoulder blades. She urged her gently along after her father, who guffawed his way into the auditorium. Beth’s smile broadened as her memory recreated the darkened, arched hollows of balcony box seats to the left and right of the stage where a five-piece arrangement of orchestral instruments sat waiting for their human counterparts. Such a sight it was, and she’d nearly forgotten how it had transported her back in time. What a marvelous mashup of history where once live actors had performed for a world blissfully ignorant to the impending juggernaut of motion pictures; now that same dimly lit stage stood beneath the stretched canvas of a movie screen. It was a backwards trip in time so arresting, that even Dad paused in the entryway and drank it all in.
“I wonder if it’s still there,” Beth sighed, dropping her shovel to the grass and all but collapsing backward. All at once she was back in the moment. Ogunquit had served its purpose, and she was now seated beneath an ancient oak in the receding afternoon light, tracing the mound of her father’s grave with incredulous eyes. For a few minutes she simply sat there, mind empty, staring at what she’d done. A few minutes later her gaze fell upon the bottle of The Macallan at her feet, and she scooted her way toward it. Picking up the bottle, she adjusted herself so that she was sitting cross-legged where the packed soil met the grass then peeled off the foil around the cork and pulled it with a thump. She brought the mouth of the bottle to her nose and breathed, noting that it wasn’t as biting as the smell of Johnny Walker, it was more mellow and almost smelled of woodsmoke.
“Eighteen-years-old.” She tilted the bottle so that she could read the label again. “Two years older than me.” Only this revelation didn’t strike her now in the same way it did at the edge of the road. Perhaps it was just the shock of being alone in the world that had grown her up in mere hours, but Beth felt decades older. She brought the bottle to her lips and took a sip, just enough to taste it. It burned as it went down, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the stuff she’d had back home before dumping Dad’s last bottle and setting them on the course that would eventually lead to this moment. That bullying voice that sometimes spoke up in her head tried to rekindle the guilt she’d felt before about so many things relating to her father, not the least of which the idea that they were out there because of her. But she shut it down and tilted the bottle to her lips again, taking a greater pull this time and fighting back as her body tried to reject it.
She remained there with Dad for the rest of the afternoon as a warming sensation in her stomach blossomed into a full buzz. After she’d drained a quarter of the bottle down her throat, she began to sway with the wind, aware that she was drunk and intent on drinking until she was hammered. She’d earned it. She’d buried her father, and with him she’d also buried Beth. The person who now sat there in the grass outside the youth center, giggling at every hiccup and burp that escaped her was a new woman.
“And I shall call myself… Tawanda!” Her hands clapped to her mouth, muffling her laughter for reasons her inebriated brain struggled to grasp. But she kept them there just the same, because she could, because she was in charge now and she could do with herself as she pleased. When her giggles subsided she took another pull on the bottle and returned to swaying there in the breeze. “Maybe I’ll just start calling myself Elizabeth,” she whispered. “And now that that’s settled, what should Elizabeth do with the rest of her life in this bullshit world?”
As if the bullshit world itself were speaking to her, an object flopped up against her arm. The newly minted Elizabeth opened her eyes and glanced down at the brochure pressed against her in the breeze. She leaned the bottle against her thigh and hunched forward. Making sure that the bottle wasn’t going to tip, she snatched up the brochure, and turned it over in her hands. At first she wondered where it had come from, but she quickly remembered the rack she’d used to prop open the youth center door. It was a trifold with glossy finish, covered in images of not-so-far-away North Conway. Hiking, Skiing, train rides that wound through the mountains and valleys. Though there were smiling faces in every picture, Elizabeth saw them more as background to the still-preserved natural wonders pictured in the brochure. Humanity itself had faded into the background, now just a footnote of a footnote in the natural history of the world.
She lifted the brochure and allowed the breeze to reclaim it, uninterested in the call of the White Mountains, but in that moment she recalled the hauntingly personal brochures littering the ground in her dream the night before. Though most of the details of the dream had, to her gratitude, sifted back into her subconscious, the idea of the brochure remained.
She rubbed away an itch at her nose and took hold of the Macallan bottle, taking another sizable glug before scooting back a bit, stretching out her legs, and relaxing back onto her elbows. The world around her was beginning to move a bit all on its own, but her thoughts remained clear and focused on the brochure from her dream. It invited her to return to Ogunquit, to revisit the place where her life had been at its most perfect. So why shouldn’t she? There was nothing left for her in Claremont. Christ, there was nothing left in Claremont.
“What do you think, Dad?” She tilted her head toward the unmarked mound of dirt. “Want to go to Ogunquit again? Can’t tell me you’ll be missing any Red Sox and Yankee games.” Her lips puckered and her eyes squinted mischievously, and she giggled to herself before inching back up just enough to drain more scotch down her throat. Wincing, she smacked her lips and raised the bottle as if in a toast. “It’s decided! Tonight we get faced, and tomorrow we set off for Maine.”
Had her father actually been there to respond, he probably would have stood over her with his arms crossed, face painted in a reproving frown that served only to mask his amusement at just how adorably drunk she was. He would have said, Baby, tomorrow you’re probably going to be puking too much to go anywhere.
Silent as he was, he was there just the same.
To Ogunquit then.