By The Sea
Robert Haydon Jones
Jimmy O’Hara often wept as the crash boat banged through the chop Sunday nights returning him to the mainland, to the railroad, to the city, to his empty apartment — stark, useless and absurd without his wife and children, who dwelt barefoot from Memorial Day through Labor Day in the shack Jimmy rented nestled behind the deserted dunes of Whalehouse Point on Fire Island.
“Wept” is the proper word – although there was no audible boo-hoo accompaniment. The tears would well before the jam-packed crash boat was half way across the bay. Occasionally, tears would trickle down and he would blot his cheeks and blow his nose like it was allergy.
Once he looked up as he was blowing his nose and a man about his age caught his eye and nodded knowingly. It helped not to be alone with his tears. But it was disquieting. The guy understood. But he wasn’t weeping.
From the time Jimmy stepped on the mainland till his return on Friday evening, he soldiered relentlessly through the week like the veteran mercenary he was.
He worked fiercely at his job, which was unusual, since he was very talented and working hard at his profession was regarded as very uncool.
The truth was he felt an absolute failure not being with his family in the shack behind the dune. When he was done working, he drank in pubs with people he had come to know. He drank hard. He gobbled the pub food. Or he would go on to a restaurant with a few of his drinking companions.
Women frequently asked him up. He was a good-looking, successful, young man. Maybe three or four times a summer, he said, yes. He rarely repeated and he stayed through the night only once.
On Wednesdays, he would catch the last five races at the track. He hung out at the finish line in the Club House with a group of eight men he had known in the Marines. Once in a while, he cashed a big score. Usually he broke even.
This summer, the Fourth of July was on a Friday. Nobody was working Thursday, so he came out Wednesday straight from the track. He was feeling very good. He had hit a nice score –a blind lucky number bet – that was the Triple. He had collected $7,300. And it was a long, 4-day holiday.
He could see his two boys, eight and nine, jumping up and down as the beach taxi headed along the water’s edge toward his shack, which was the only dwelling within a mile. Every week his boys got a little blonder and a little wilder. He hugged them hard and gave them the usual candy bars.
He went in and kissed his wife on the cheek. His wife was not a hugger. Jimmy had learned not to take it personally. He told her it was good to see her. He told her he had missed her and the boys. She didn’t say anything. She was reading The New Yorker magazine.
He kicked off his shoes and socks and took $6,000 in cash out of his sport coat and gave it to his wife. He told her he had picked a lucky ticket at the track and she could put this extra money in any cookie jar she pleased. She took the wad of money into the bedroom and spread it out on the sheet and carefully counted it out twice. It was his annual salary just five years back. She put the money in the drawer with her lingerie.
It was still two hours till sundown, so Jimmy put on a bathing suit, grabbed the beach blanket and a new novel by an old friend and went over the dune with his boys. It was half tide and the surf was relatively quiet. Even so, it was fierce.
In early June, a 70-foot fishing boat had run on to a sand bar at night just 40 yards off shore. The crew was sleeping and the mate at the helm was drunk. Miraculously, the crew made it to shore in a life raft – but by day’s end, the surf had smashed the fishing boat into pieces.
Jimmy horsed around with his boys in the shallows. They knew to keep close. The fact was that every summer, the undertow, drowned half a dozen swimmers on Fire Island. Just this Memorial Day, a rogue wave had swept away two fisherman right from the water’s edge.
Playing with his boys was great fun. He could hug them in the rough house. They hugged him back. The roar of the surf was an exciting undertone. They were the only people on the beach for as far as the eye could see. It was very private. And wild in a very special way.
After a time, they went back to the blanket. The boys were playing with miniature replica trucks – working on fort complexes in the sand and tide pools. It was about an hour before dark. The gulls were busy. The air and the light of the evening sun were toasty. His wife was still in the shack reading, but it felt like heaven. The memory of times like this was what would trigger his tears in the crash boat.
Then his son’s had a territorial squabble about their forts and the oldest boy went back to the shack over the dune with his truck in hand. Evan, the eight-year-old, kept right on with his construction projects – incorporating his departed brother’s forts into his complex.
Jimmy relaxed. The evening sun felt mighty fine. His towhead son splashing in the tide pools was the epitome of beauty. Jimmy opened the book he had carried out and started to read.
It was hard to read under these circumstances. He would scan a few lines and then check on his son. It was herky-jerky. His son seemed to be doing just fine, so he read two pages through.
When he looked back up, his son was gone. Jimmy stood up. He looked up and down the beach and on the dune. His son was gone! He ran along the water’s edge and scanned the surf. There was no trace of his son. He ran back up the beach and up the bluff and looked at the path back to his shack. There was nothing. His son was gone!
Jimmy felt he was about to vomit. He ran back to the beach and yelled and screamed, for his son again and again. There was just empty beach. The gulls were finishing up. Night was descending. His son was gone.
Jimmy gathered up the blanket and trudged on back up and over the dune on to the path back to his shack. His son was gone. It was Jimmy’s fault. He wondered what his wife’s reaction would be. She would be sad. After a time, she would be angry at him. Very angry. Would she ever be sad for him? He didn’t have any idea.
When he opened the screen door to the shack, he had to step over a mammoth fort his two sons were constructing with their blocks. They were running their trucks back and forth.
Evidently, Evan had slipped away and gone over the dune and returned to the shack while Jimmy was reading the two pages. Jimmy looked at the boys again. Evan was alive! It was almost too good to be true.
Jimmy had never felt so lucky. Dinner was on the table. His wife had opened a bottle of Margaux. She smiled at him. She wearing a short, red satin, off the shoulder, dress he had never seen before.
Many, many, years later, Jimmy O’Hara sat on another beach and wondered if he would ever feel strong again. He had just been two months in the hospital following radical surgery and chemotherapy for lung cancer. He felt so weak he knew he was still very close to death’s door.
His amazing second wife had pulled some strings and they were ensconced, all expenses paid, at a fabulous resort on the Kona coast on the Big Island in Hawaii. When they first arrived, Jimmy had behaved badly.
When they walked on to the beach and went swimming, the big puckered wounds on Jimmy’s chest and back drew a lot of attention. One couldn’t help looking at them. They were ugly. They were scary. Guests looked – looked away – then stared at Jimmy’s chest.
“What are you looking at?”, Jimmy would yell. “What’s the big deal? Didn’t they tell you to watch out for the sharks?”
After a day or two, Jimmy behaved. But he still had occasional bad days. This morning when they got to the beach, the red flags were out for dangerous surf. But the lifeguards were not at their stations. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition had just been delivered from the mainland and the lifeguards were clustered around a copy.
Jimmy left his wife on the chaise lounge, strode up to the life guards and chewed them out for dereliction of duty out like they were his Recon Marines and he was their bad ass, highly decorated, Captain.
Fortunately, the word had already traveled on Jimmy and the lifeguards heard him out. A couple of them said, “Yes Sir.”
Jimmy went on back to his spot on the beach and his wife on her chaise and told her he had given the Lifeguards the required correction. He wondered if he should speak to the Resort Manager. He felt strongly that competent cadre would never have allowed the Swimsuit distraction in the first place. But he decided to let it go. His wife agreed that was best.
Even though the red flags were up, Jimmy decided to take a swim. His wife asked him to be careful. He said he would be careful.
He looked for a guest he could swim with. Jimmy knew surf. You never swim alone. If the undertow grabs you, you never fight it. If you do, you will exhaust yourself. You relax and go with the flow. Later on, you’ll be able to swim parallel to the shore and come in safely.
There were just a few guests by the water’s edge on the entire beach. Jimmy picked out a guest in his early forties standing by himself about fifty feet down the beach. He was a pale-skinned new arrival.
Jimmy walked up to him and said hello. The man said hello and stared bug-eyed at the scars on Jimmy’s chest. Then he prepared to dive into an incoming wave.
Jimmy said, “You should have seen the other guy.” And dove with the guest into the wave.
But Jimmy had dived to ride the wave out and the guest’s dive was the other way to ride the wave in. When Jimmy came up, he was alone. He immediately felt a raging current. The undertow had seized him. It felt like a wild thing. He had a flash of a horse’s flank under his hand after he had taken the horse on a long gallop.
He was headed out to sea! Next stop, the Marshall Islands. Jimmy tried to swim out of the undertow and back toward shore. He was so weak! Just six or seven strokes and he was exhausted. Just treading water was difficult. The current was so strong and he was so weak.
He looked in at the beach. Everything was normal. Most of the guests reclined on chaises. A few children were playing in the sand. Four college boys were tossing a football around. His wife was looking out at him.
Jimmy realized right then that the surgery and chemo had addled him. He realized he was fighting the impulse to wave his arm at the lifeguards and call for help. He realized that he was seriously considering drowning in the next two or three minutes as preferable to asking those louts he had just chewed out to save him.
Just as he decided he would ask for help, his wife stood up and four lifeguards ran for the water. Two had outsized surfboards to use as flotation aids. When the first lifeguard got to Jimmy, he said, “Just playing it safe sir.” Jimmy said, “Good to see you. I had maybe twenty seconds left.”
It didn’t take long for them to swim him in with the big surfboard. It looked routine. Nobody except his wife was paying attention. The guests were taking the sun. The birds were chirping as normal. The little kids were busy in the sand. The college boys had gone over to the beach bar for drinks.
“Thanks, men,” Jimmy said. One of his rescuers said, “You’re welcome, sir.”
His wife said, “You really are crazy, Jimmy. I’m glad you didn’t drown.”
Jimmy said he was glad too. Then, he talked to her about how surprising it was that everything on the beach was so normal even while he was seconds from drowning.
Later, that afternoon back in their room, he lay down to rest and a wave of gratitude swept over him for the heroic medicine that had saved him from cancer.
The big sadness came then. And he wept. They had saved his precious life.
His wife let him go and when he was done she hugged him and held him.
That evening while they were in the ballroom dancing, he saw a blonde woman in a short, red satin, off the shoulder dress and he immediately understood for the first time that he was already the luckiest man in the world long, long before he survived lung cancer.
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