Elsie was swimming and tanning, he was playing at the arcade by the
waterfront and trying to win a prize for her. The arcade was full of
delightful creatures that teased him with their insolence. The
alligators kept sticking their red slimy tongues out at him. But in
fact, they weren't wasn't slimy at all. It was just solid red
plastic. His sweaty hand gripping the mallet twitched as he whacked
the green meanie. Like a row of ants burrowing their way out of the
soil, the prize tickets snaked their way out of the arcade machine.
It was just enough to exchange for a sweet yellow birdie at the
counter with button eyes and a stubborn hook of a beak. Stuffed into
the narrow cage of his pocket, it bobbed up and down and rubbed
uncomfortably against his thighs.
the boardwalk, Elsie was bobbing up and down in the water. Jerked
upwards by the surging rush of a wave that aimed its frothy flashes
at the sky, she was flushed into a whirlpool seconds later. He set
down a beach towel on the wet sand and stretched himself out upon it.
Seeing him, she emerged out of the water, her wan bluish skin seeming
to deflect the rays of the sun. He reached for the yellow birdie in
his pocket and juggled it like a ball.
"This may just
be for you," his lips slightly widened into a semblance of a
"All that money
at the arcade just for this pathetic little thing. You must be
kidding me," Elsie sneered and beat the bird down mid-air as it
was still being juggled.
bird landed on the towel beak-down with a whoosh. Elsie sat down
right on top of it.
"Get up, you'll
crush it," he whimpered.
He watched the
opaque blue of her eyes blend into the far reaches of the ocean. He
didn't want to look into them for the fear of seeing his reflection -
stooped shoulders, rigid lips breathing in salt and flying particles
of sand."You fool, it's a pile of rags not a real bird,"
she retorted in a voice loud enough so that a boy digging in the sand
nearby overheard her.
Turning to face her,
the little one asked: "Hey, do you have a bird over there?"
The blond curls sticking out of his tiny blue hat made her think of
some kid's picture on a cereal box.
"Just go give
him the bird ok?" Elsie said to Michael.
"Sure, he's no
brat, he may just deserve it," Michael replied, shoving Elsie to
the right, but she barely budged.
"Ewww, get your
hands off me, you creep," Elsie yelled out.
just want to get the bird that you're sitting on," insisted
Michael, raising his voice and tapping her shoulder.
tough luck," answered Elsie. "I'm keeping it. You are never
supposed to retract a present. That's just not how it's done, buddy"
Michael leapt to his
feet. The wet ground collapsed beneath him as he ran so that his
footprints trailed him. The goo-like sand jelly sucked in his feet
and yet he could still hear Elsie's voice broadcasting "Wait for
me, I am coming to swim with you." As he was gurgling
underwater, her voice seemed to bounce off the bubbles he blew with
his pursed lips. The salt water coursing through his ears absorbed
her words and imbued them with an achy bitterness. They resonated
within him like the dull muffled vibration of air in a seashell.
swimming, he recalled his time at the hospital. Elsie, in his mind,
was wearing these white gloves, with pieces of loose latex drooping
off the ends of her fingers. When she spread ointment on his back, it
wasn't her hands that were touching his burned skin that felt like it
was being ripped off, but the rubbery latex with its scratchy
friction. He heaved like an unruly colt trying to throw its master
off the saddle. She told him to stop moving as she pulled on his ear.
There was something very methodic about her "care." Ever
since he was pulled out of the fire, she showed up exactly at the
same time every day, 3 p.m., dressed in all white from skirt to
blouse and cap. He once joked with her, "You aren't on the
hospital staff, you don't have dress in white you know." But
it's not like it mattered what he said to her anyway. She would just
sit in her chair and watch him intently. He tried to catch her
blinking, but her eyes seemed always open, her blue pupils piercing
and bright. She never dozed off and closed her eyelids even for a
moment. The one time her silent routine got disrupted freaked him out
quite a bit. She walked over to the foot end of his bed and slapped
He asked her.
just an ant that was on your sock," Elsie replied quickly and
went back to her seat.
He was always aware
of her: even when he sat up to drink his juice, he knew she thought
about his slurping. He had to get to her to talk. Reaching over to
his fruit cup, he launched a plastic spoon in her direction. It
landed right in her lap and the squished moist peach leaked on her
white dress. "You are gross," she raised her voice.
he emerged from the water, he kept hearing that “You are gross”
from many years ago. They were set to head over to the boardwalk so
that Elsie could hit the shops and browse for trinkets. Michael
waited for her near the entrance of
a small boutique decorated with seashells. He watched her figure turn
into a shadow swallowed by darkness as she quickly strolled to the
far back of this tiny space cluttered by shelves and stands. His
elbows propped up against the door, he noticed how the red neon glow
of the lamp vibrated on her black curls. He tiptoed gingerly toward
her, slowly as if trudging through water, the soles of his feet nary
making a sound. Stopping within a few inches of her gaunt figure, he
admired the straightness of her back. She was trying out a blue bead
necklace in front of the mirror; stretching it out in her hands, she
glided the beads across the string from one end to another. Standing
right behind her, he peered over her shoulder. The swiftness of her
fingers outstripped his patience. The beads quickly flew out of his
line of sight like a bunch of sparrows who scurried up into the air
one after another. "This necklace just doesn't suit you,"
he whispered, breathing on her neck and lightly grazing it with his
Elsie turned around
and squeezed his shoulders tightly with the curled palms of her
hands; her narrowing blue eyes caught the red of the lamp and glinted
"I told you to
stand still and wait for me. You scared me,"she said
she wasn't surprised in the least; she knew he was standing right
behind her for several minutes. She was even tempted to pick up one
of those trinkets from a shelf to her left, a tiny plastic red
lobster, and throw it at him. Its antennae reminded her of a wall
plant and its affectionate tendrils. Instead, she took off her
necklace and carefully hung it around his neck. Lifting it with his
right hand, he spun it on his index finger and the beads seemed to be
flying this way and that, as if they were not attached to anything
but freely floating through the air like azure fireflies exploding in
the night and catching the sleepy eye unaware with their tiny points
She teared up and
sniffled slightly. "You're always so .... ugh." Michael
walked away from her towards the wall and gazed through a narrow
window; a wave crashed against a breaker and the foam that flew
upwards eventually settled on the rocks, turning their color from
gray to dark brown. He wished he were sitting there in his swimming
trunks, watching the maelstrom's spiraling lines as the water was
sucked in towards the depths. Turning her head in his direction,
Elsie squinted her eyes and breathed in deeply; she had the sensation
of a vigorous cool breeze rushing into her and expanding her chest,
the kind that made leaves rustle and dance on a mellow autumn
afternoon. In a lilting voice, slightly raspy and rapturous, she
uttered: "You'd like to go on the rocks, wouldn't you? The high
tide is coming in." Elsie was indeed relieved that he would. Of
course, it irritated her endlessly that he tuned her out while he was
there. But that certain calm, those soothed nerves of his satisfied
her. If not for her sake, then for his.