The sawgrass hissed as it dried out in the early spring wind. The rain had stopped only an hour ago, creating ideal walking weather. Around noon, the temperature had spiked to an abnormally high seventy degrees, and was only now beginning to drop with the sun still a few degrees from the horizon. Above the gradually sloping sands, a half-dozen gulls, wings arched and frozen, rode up and down the invisible strings of an offshore breeze. Ahead lay the confluence of a nameless tributary of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. Normally only eight to ten feet wide, the tributary had expanded to nearly twenty feet following the tropical-like downpour; stream water rushed quickly to meet an advancing tide, creating standing waves that complemented the gulls’ movements.
In the distance, beyond the pale yellow rug of the receding sawgrass, above the gently swaying birch and ash of the forest, just now blooming, the Southport water tower stood nearly black against departing clouds of a late afternoon sky. The sand was fine-grained and cool to the touch. Truman had put his parka shell back on as the temperature began to drop, but had left his hiking boots off, tied together and hung around his neck. He continued walking barefoot, despite the encroaching chill, and enjoyed the feel of the sand between his toes, shaking the clumps loose every few steps.
The slope of the beach was much less severe as he neared the swiftly flowing water of the river, and the sand in front of him shimmered, indicating high moisture content. As his toes dug in he looked down, and gave in to the familiar childlike urge to wiggle his feet until the sand covered them to his ankles. The higher water content of this sand numbed his feet slightly. He took a series of deep breaths and reflected on how he got here.
Since arriving earlier that afternoon to open the family cottage, less than a mile back, he and Sarah had argued non-stop: about who had forgotten to pack what, who should have made calls to the neighbors.
Sarah had raised her voice at one point, accusing Truman of a cavalier attitude towards this family tradition—his family tradition—which she now felt obliged to supervise. He did not expect a compromise from her, but pled his case nonetheless: a combination of several restless nights and a stressful period of work had distracted him from careful planning.
“You forgot the key to the shed!” she said.
Her failure to call the neighbors in advance paled in comparison. The shed held the bikes, kayaks, fishing poles—and the backup generator, which was then desperately needed amid the tumultuous downpour.
“What can I do about it now? Drive back home to get it?” was Truman’s response.
Sarah had paused. Truman thought that she really wanted him to go back. And he considered it, during the long silence.
“No,” she had said finally.
A week without an alternate source of power, during the early spring when it was often needed, was going to keep her on edge. He tried to close the space between them, but she held her arm up like a traffic cop and he got no further than the palm of her right hand.
So he had said, “I don’t deserve this from you,” while Sarah began unpacking the food supplies. “I’m going for a walk. When I get back, we’ll both apologize and talk in normal voices.”
“Why am I the only one who ever yells around here?” she had said as he opened the back door to leave, “You never raise your voice, Truman. It’s like you don’t care about anything!”
He had closed the door quietly. As he descended the stairs past the dinghy, past the small shack containing life vests and assorted beach gear, he had heard the door creak, then slam shut. The first steps of his walk along the beach were consumed by thoughts of her last remark. It was true he never raised his voice. He could not remember a time in his life when he had raised his voice in anger, or even in enthusiasm. He thought of himself as “unflappable;” she had evolved into thinking of Truman as “disconnected.” Truman had always been emotionally distant, but he felt that “disconnected” seemed rather harsh. He was still the same man she had pursued in college. He thought that during their seven years of marriage, she was the one who had changed, but only in her increased level of frustration with him. Otherwise, she was the same powerful, emotional, beautiful and competent woman he had fallen in love with.
When he looked down at his feet again, the sand appeared to be inching up his lower calves. Pretty loose sand here, he surmised, noting the shape of the spit of sand he found himself standing on. Though he could reach out and touch the stiff two-foot stalks of grass with his right hand if he wanted to, he realized he was in the middle of what amounted to a ten-foot-long by five-foot-wide finger of sand jutting out into the water. On his left, the Atlantic; on his right, beyond his reach and a few feet beyond the grasses, the fast-flowing tributary.
By wiggling his toes slightly, he could tell there was no loss of feeling, just a slight discomfort due to the cold. The walk to this point had achieved its purpose of relaxing him. He pulled his right foot up in an effort to release it from the sand’s grip. He got the heel nearly to the surface when his other leg suddenly sank up to the knee, soaking the pants he had rolled up only to the widest part of his calf. Fearful of losing his balance, and twisting his left knee, he tilted right with his upper body, and when he leaned on his right leg to even the distribution of weight, it too sank to the knee.
Looking skyward, he noticed that the gulls had departed; to his left, that the tide had crept up, chewing at bits of a tiny cliff of sand. Around his two legs, the shiny surface seemed more watery than sandy, but when he pressed his knees forward, it seemed to solidify in front of the kneecaps, leaving holes behind the legs which water quickly rushed in to fill. His pants soaked up the water, the cold Atlantic mixing with stream water chilled from the late spring melt-off of snow in higher elevations caused by the heavy rains. The wetness and discomfort wicked up to his thighs. He would have to move slowly, deliberately, in the direction of the sawgrass rooted in firmer soil.
These spring trips to the cottage were eventful for two reasons. First, the tradition itself, passed on from his father’s father, to his father, to himself. Also, he and Sarah had first made love in the cottage, when both their parents were out to dinner and his little brother was at a neighbor’s.