“Look at us on the beach.”
“Yes,” said his sister, Victoria. Morris’s sister. He was the first and most important, the antecedent. They weren’t on the beach yet, they were walking through a scrubby forest on the way there. Another brother they didn’t speak to was far away, nameless for our purposes.
“Have we ever been on the beach together?” Morris asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“Not once in fifty-eight years.”
“You’re fifty-eight,” she said.
“Not once on the beach together before you were born, either.” He gave his habitual sniff: he’d figured out a way to be accurate if not correct. “I love this spot. At high tide, it disappears completely.”
The children had run ahead, out of the thicket and toward the water. Morris’s Teddy, Victoria’s Millie. She was small and fair, had her hands on her hips, wore a flowered dress and a pair of baggy velvet trousers, a sun hat, was twelve, carried with her everywhere a satchel, had a lisp and anxiety and dreams of becoming a singer. He was brown, glint-eyed, shirtless, his glossy basketball shorts low on his bearish torso. His cast-off shirt hung from an otherwise naked tree. He was nine but so tall for his age people forgot. I’m nine! he liked to bellow. A fact and excuse. I’m this tall, and I’m nine.
“Teddy!” Morris called, retrieving the shirt. “Teddy boy!”
It wasn’t summer. Everything had the feel of an old children’s book, as though they might build a canoe and discover an island. As though they were strangers who’d found themselves on this beach, which appeared and disappeared with the tide, and they would now have to rely on each other for survival. The grown-ups were middle-aged. Late bloomers. Parents of only children, who are all odd: mathematically, and to their parents.
“You need some sunblock?” Victoria asked Morris. She had taken a tube from her purse and now rubbed the cream onto her nose overhandedly, like a cat.
“Is it so hot?” he asked.
“Don’t look into the sun.”
“Anyhow,” she said, “it’s not how hot. You should sunblock every day.”
Everyone there needed a haircut, but only Morris’s shag looked intentional, along with the moth-scalloped neck of his sweater, the rye-bread scuff of his leather sneakers, his beard. He was an actor. Every bit of carelessness amplified how well-kept he otherwise was, even in late middle age. He might have been preparing for a role, or on his way to an audition, or already in costume. He was none of these things. The theaters were closed. Nobody was filming. His young wife had a job as a PR person for a tech company, so he spent his days with Teddy, whom he loved.
“Lookit the cousins,” said Victoria. “Look at us, on the beach.”
“I’m glad they have each other,” said Morris.
“It’s good to have someone your own age.”
“I don’t remember that ever being your philosophy.”
The children stood at the water’s edge, poking something with a stick, as Victorian children did, and medieval. Cave children, too. In every era, there have been sticks and children and washed-up dead things made less fearsome by the rocking, shushing ocean. These children, in particular, had never met each other before. They needed an ancient way to communicate. The sand was festooned with thin, brown seaweed that looked like unstrung audiotape, and gray rocks, and thumbnail seashells.
“Nice here,” said Victoria. She bent down to pick up a shell at her feet, half-buried, no, a fragment. The sand hadn’t been hiding the rest of the shell but its brokenness.
“What have you got there, Teddy?” Morris said, as he and Victoria came close, though he didn’t care. Amazing how much the parenting of an only child consisted of making conversation. He’d been good at that his whole life.
“Stick,” said Teddy. He turned with it and poked Victoria in the thigh. “I poke you with the stick of Zeus!”
It was a large stick, tapering to a point, and it had recently stirred something dead. He smiled, as though waiting to be congratulated. His father’s smile. It would take him places. A remarkable thing, a child unafraid. Didn’t run in the family. He pivoted and trained the bough on Millie. “I poke—”
“Gentle, Teddy,” said Morris. “Gentle with your cousin.”
“Poke, poke,” said Teddy, poke, poke.
“Ow,” said Millie, in a distant, melancholy voice.
“Put the stick of Zeus down,” Victoria said.
Teddy regarded her. “I never knew I had an aunt. I knew about the uncles, but.”
“Allison’s brothers,” explained Morris.
“Your dress looks like wrapping paper,” said Teddy. He shouldered his weapon and fiddled with the waistband of his shorts.
“It’s a caftan,” said Victoria. “Or a muumuu. You like Greek myths?”
“Monster trucks,” he answered.
“That’s not true,” said his father. “You do like Greek myths.”
“Egypt,” said Teddy. Then he took his shorts off one-handedly, left leg, right. He wasn’t wearing underwear. Millie goggled at him and then peered into the privacy of her satchel.
“Teddy,” said Morris. “You have to keep your bottoms on!”
“Don’t whine.” In an explanatory voice: “Company.”
“Company’s at our house. This is the beach. We don’t own it.”
“But it’s ours in a way, right? We’re showing it to Millie and her mom. He won’t keep his clothes on,” he said to his sister. “We’ve raised him without shame.”
“Good job,” Victoria said dubiously.
“Can’t do anything about our own shame, of course. Teddy! Shorts back on.”
“But you can be naked at the beach,” said Teddy.
“Alone, you can. But—”
“Is that man all right?” said Millie.
Morris and Victoria looked down the beach and saw a supine figure sniffed by a spaniel. The sleeping gypsy and his lion. They both thought it. “Rousseau,” he said. They’d grown up with a print in their parents’ bedroom, the lion giving the viewer the side-eye. The tide was coming in.
“Is he all right?”
“Yes,” said Victoria.
“Surely,” said Morris.
“What’s he doing fully dressed on the beach?”
“We’re all fully dressed,” said Morris, uncertainly. “Except one.” They took a few steps closer, though they were still far away. The man on the beach was wearing a suit. An old-fashioned one. There was probably a label sewn into the lining, the designer’s name written in cursive. In his head, Morris was already going through the pockets to find some identification, see who the man was. Was, if alive. Had been, if dead. All his life, Morris had been afraid of finding a corpse. Had hoped to.
“His ankles are crossed,” said Victoria, as though that were a clue.
The dog looked up at them. He sat, a good dog. Shook his head. Thought about it. Came lolloping over. The metal tags of his collar rang like a set of keys. When he got near, he began to bark. A spaniel, with big ears and a docked tail. The man on the beach did not move.
“Hello, you,” Morris said to the dog, who sat and barked again, but conversationally.
“He’s all right. Aren’t you all right, pup?”
“Shall we go check?” Victoria said. “The owner.”
“Do we know he’s the owner?”
“Shall we check the man.”
“I’ll check!” called Teddy, still naked, now brave.
“Stay there,” said Victoria. She pulled out her phone. “No signal.”
“Me neither,” said Morris. “Come with me.”
“Go ahead,” said Millie. “I’ll look after Teddy. We’ll make a sandcastle.”
“I’m taller than you!” said Teddy, naked, fat, hairless, incandescent.
“I’m thirteen,” she lied.
“Put your shorts on, Teddy,” said his father.
He dropped his stick and did so.
No way to walk across sand quickly, but as they got closer—to the body, the corpse, the figure in the landscape—they slowed down. They knew to be afraid but not what of. They’d left behind their children and their children’s childhoods, which might be changed forever but at the moment were intact. The man could just be dead-drunk, of course. They had experience with that. Morris thought about taking his sister’s hand, for courage. He’d never felt such a brother in all his life. As they got closer, he thought, Now I understand death, not as I always have, as an event to be avoided, but as a mystery.
The man was in his forties or fifties, hair close-cropped, silver a little, mostly brown, probably done in a mirror with a set of buzzing clippers. His face was red. Was that something that happened when you died? No, blue, or gray, graying. He wore sand-colored work boots. His tan suit had a brown stripe. You don’t check pockets first, Morris reminded himself, you check pulses. Neck, wrist. He never got anything right the first time. He always mistook the sunbather for a corpse, the corpse for an abandoned mannequin. He regularly reeled on the street at a shocking example of human deformity before realizing it was a woman with a baby strapped to her chest, or a man wearing a dark silk scarf like a European. He overlooked misery till it was too late; more than once, he’d thought the sound of happiness was weeping.
Behind them, the children watched the dog jump in and out of the water, and roll in ecstasy and filth, and try to bite the little waves that came in.
Just as Morris reached out his hand to the man, to find his jugular pulse, Victoria said, in the voice of an arriving waitress, “Hello.”
The man sat up as though on a spring. In this way, Morris caressed his neck.
“Jesus!” said Morris.
“Christ!” the man answered, knocking Morris’s hand away, replacing it with his own.
Then Morris said, making his voice tender, as though the man had been missing for years, “I thought you were dead.”
“I’m not, asshole,” said the man.
“Do you need help?” Victoria asked.
“I was asleep!” said the man, in an aggrieved tone, and it felt to all of them as though this were an argument they’d been having forever. “Jesus! What are you even doing here?”
“Beach,” explained Morris.
“Beach, yeah, beach,” said the man, standing up, smacking the sand from his suit. He was shorter than both of them, and they trusted him less because of it. They watched. At any moment, he might falter, might need their help after all.
Instead, he shouted, “Otto?” Then, “Otto!” Then, “Where’s my dog?”
“Otto!” called Victoria.
The man looked at her. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Teddy, honey,” Morris called across the distance. “Have you seen the dog?”
Teddy rose, the great length of him, bare-chested, sandy around the mouth, oh, he was feral, had always been feral, but the past year and a half hadn’t helped. Still a little kid, despite his height and the boom of him. He pointed straight out to the ocean, which appeared empty of dogs.
“Otto!” called the man, running toward the water in his sandy boots. “Otto!”
They heard his voice break and felt responsible. They’d been brought up that way—to assume guilt for any missing book, dollar bill, animal, soul, they couldn’t shake it. Dogs could swim, couldn’t they?
Then, the jingling miracle. From behind them, the dog. He’d been somewhere distant around the bend, someplace fantastic and full of stench, and when he arrived, he presented the smell of dead fish. No, not the smell of one dead fish, but all the dead fish of history. Thank god, Victoria thought. And now the reunion. Men like that were always bursting into tears over dogs, at least in videos on the internet.
“Goddammit, Otto,” the man said to the dog. Otto was a name you could yell but not whisper. To declare your love in dulcet tones to an Otto would always be a joke. “Come here.”
The dog lowered his head, angled his front half prayerfully. A good dog. He’d run away to get help. Here was help.
The man pointed at the sand in front of him, and the dog inched forward, obsequious, hopeful. But all sentiment had been scrubbed away by the fetor. The man grabbed the dog’s leather collar, dragged him close, and hit him five times just above the stump of his amputated tail. Then, out of breath, he pointed and said, “Bad dog. Bad, bad dog.” Not even an Otto any longer. The worst example of his own species. The dog looked miserable, then sat and panted: he had forgiven everybody, even himself.
“Jesus,” said Morris.
The man said, “Don’t fucking start.” He clipped the leash to the dog’s collar. The dog seemed happy to receive it. “Oh, god,” the man asked the dog, “how am I going to get you home?” They turned and walked, man and dog, toward the forest.
Morris’s own backside burned as though he’d been the one spanked. It excited him. Victoria, too, felt beaten, but ashamed.
“I can’t believe he hit that dog,” she said.
“Disciplined,” said Morris. “You’ve done worse.”
Morris thought. “I’ve done worse.”
“Brittany spaniel. Like Ivan.”
“Same markings. Roan. Like your beard. God, I hated that dog.”
“A terrible animal. We never—”
He turned on her. “Don’t,” he said. “Just shut up—”
“Victoria,” he said, in a warning voice.
After a moment, she said, “Ivan was an asshole.”
“Asshole,” said Morris. “Word of the day.”
“Why did you get your own dog when nobody else did?”
“Can we drop it?”
“Fucking asshole,” said Victoria, “trying to help an unconscious man like that.”
“Right?” said Morris.
There they were, left on the beach with all their good intentions. They turned. The children knelt by the water’s edge, heads inclined toward each other, on a piece of land getting smaller. They’d been cut off by the tide. The beach hadn’t waned like the moon but had been eaten like a cookie, some bites bigger than others.
“Oh, god,” said Victoria. Her brother brought his hands to his mouth to bellow. “No,” she said. “Millie will freak out. How do we get to them? Shit.”
“Through the trees,” said Morris. “Don’t worry. They won’t be washed away for minutes.”
“You’re not funny.”
“None of us ever were.”
The children hadn’t noticed. They’d built a sandcastle—it was supposed to be a sand pyramid, but something was wrong with the sand, said Teddy, it just kept sliding off the sides, and they were left with a cone—and he realized his cousin, whose name he’d forgotten, was looking at him—not staring, but sidelong looks, much worse. “Do you like girls?” she asked, and he said, “I’m nine.” “I know,” she said, but she’d forgotten, too, in a way, and she said, a moment later, “That’s a really good castle.” “I’m good at castles,” he told her, and smashed it. She couldn’t make a fool of him.
Through the crabbed trees, Morris did take his sister’s hand, to help her over roots and gullies. No path. “Careful,” he said. Her hand was their mother’s, he supposed, though he didn’t remember holding their mother’s hand, either. His own hands were not their father’s—everything about their father had been outsize and brutish on his corporeal self: hands, feet, his head above all. In their neighborhood, they’d recognized his outline from blocks away.
“I hope it’s not traumatic for them,” Victoria said.
“The dead body. Getting cut off.”
“He wasn’t dead. It has to be real to be trauma.”
“Spoken like an older brother.”
“What do you mean? Oh. Well, I was always nice to you.”
She stopped. Through the trees, she could see Millie and Teddy, safe. They stood. Somehow, Teddy’s shorts were off again. Millie was holding the stick of Zeus and laughing. Victoria said, “You made me eat a whole package of hot dogs.”
Morris laughed. “But that was funny. And not—trauma isn’t hot dogs.”
“They weren’t cooked.”
“All hot dogs are cooked,” he said. “It was perfectly safe.” He could picture them then, the cold hot dogs sliding out of the plastic, polygonal from the crowded packaging, puckered at each end. He’d loved cold hot dogs. His sister would have been Teddy’s age. Or Millie’s. He held a branch back to let her through, like a gate.
“That made me a vegetarian,” she said over her shoulder.
“You’re not a vegetarian.”
“I am a vegetarian,” she said. “Ben and Millie, too.”
He’d better call Allison to warn her. Right: no signal.
“You made me eat them in front of your friends,” she said. “Rainy Dupont and all of them.”
“René,” he said.
“He pronounced it ‘Rainy.’ Right?” She could see Rainy Dupont then, his red turtleneck and brown-plaid pants, vivid because she hadn’t seen him since. But she had no memory of what Morris had looked like in those days. When she imagined him younger, it was this near-sexagenarian in front of her, but shorter and differently dressed. Eight years between them. He remembered her in all her versions. He might remember her as a baby. She wanted to ask, but couldn’t. “Anyhow,” she said, “there’s a reason we both have only children.”
Then they were through the trees to the bit of beach that was left, with the path to the parking lot. “Ahoy!” Victoria said, and she watched the children come apart. Teddy tugged his shorts back on—why had he taken them off again?—and Millie stood and looked at her mother, then picked up some seaweed. Something has happened, thought Victoria. The air smelled of a mistake, one that might blow over, or linger forever. But Morris was looking to his left, where the man had been, as though he might find him again, or somebody else, and this time mind his business.
“More than one reason,” he said. “Our only children, I mean.”
Why assume a man on a beach was a disaster? Because life had always been disastrous. Because you hoped that, wherever your brother was, some idiot, hopeful stranger would intervene. Because—
“Why did you do that?” Millie shrieked.
When Morris turned, Teddy was standing by the path. He looked shocked. Millie was already in her mother’s arms, weeping.
“He threw a stick in my face,” she sobbed.
“But by accident, right?” said Morris.
“It’s OK,” said Millie, quietly into her mother’s shoulder. “It’s all right.”
“By accident, right, Ted?”
“Shh,” said Victoria. “Let me see.”
Their adolescence had been full of catastrophe, minor and major, and who knew when the damage had been done, and who was the perpetrator, and what, if anything, could be forgiven, and what would be remembered, and what (nearly everything) need never be discussed. Oh, those exalted days of Teddy’s babyhood and toddlerhood, when Morris told himself, He’ll forget this. We still have a chance at a happy childhood.
Morris opened his arms. He said to his son, “Come here, honey.”
But Teddy shook his head, showed his father his empty hands.
“Come here,” said Morris, “I need a cuddle.”