Issue 13. August Goodbye

a short story

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Since launching the newsletter, I haven’t shared any fiction. I’ve been getting a little tired of writing out of my own direct personal experience and wanted to push the boundaries and get inside the life of someone else, in this case a child’s eye point of view. Fiction is the perfect venue for that. So here is a new short story. Let me know what you think in the comments or by email.


August Goodbye

Jake's parents didn't want him going to the funeral. You're too young, they said. 

"I'm almost 10. How am I going to say goodbye to Sandy?"

Dad cinched his necktie and sighed. "There won't be any kids, except immediate family. You wouldn't see her anyway. It's a closed casket. Everyone will be crying. It's going to be a sad affair." 

Mom was standing at the mirror fixing her hair. "Remember what we talked about last night, sweetie? About keeping the good memories of Sandy inside?" she said.

Sandy was his first cousin. She had always been kind to him. When they would visit Aunt Wendy and Uncle Al’s home, Jake would follow Sandy and her older brothers through the cavernous rooms he thought would never end. They would include him in games of ultimate frisbee and wiffle ball. Jake thought it must be nice to have siblings.

"Why did she have to die? I thought she could swim," Jake said.

Dad pulled him to aside. "There was a very bad riptide. It dragged her out to sea. She wasn't strong enough to swim back...and..."

"She sank."

Dad closed his lips, pressed to frown. 

Jake remembered the last time he saw Sandy, at her beach house over 4th of July weekend. They collected seashells and waded into the water, letting the waves lift them, the undertow tugging persistently around their feet. A few times, the waves bowled him over, and he had known the power of  salt water blasting his eyes and nostrils. But to take so much water into the lungs that you couldn't breathe—that boggled him. 

A few days before when the devastating phone call came, Jake watched his parents sitting on their bed, hunched over, sobbing. Jake, not knowing what to do, ran to the bathroom and yanked two tissues from the box and bounded into the room. 

"Here Mommy. Here Daddy." They sobbed even more.

***

"I wonder what it feels like to die," Jake wondered aloud. 

Dad pivoted to him. "It's like going to sleep. But you don't get up. You don't move. You don't dream, I suppose."

"Does dying hurt?"

Dad shrugged and looked over at Mom. 

"I hope she went to a better place." 

"She did," Mom said, trying to reassure him. "She's on another shore, now. I don’t think dying is like sleeping, though. I don’t want you being afraid to fall asleep, OK? Caroline should be here any minute. Go and watch from the sun room."

Jake passed through the living room, opened the french doors and cozied up to the window seat that looked out on the park across the street. A Ford Thunderbird passed in front of the apartment building. Caroline his babysitter was 16 and had just passed her drivers test. She was allowed to drive the car around town now. He could hear the Thunderbird turn into the parking lot. Caroline got out of the car with a purse on her shoulder and a few record albums under her arm. Jake watched her walk around the front of the building to the door.  

"Look, Martin. She's here!"

Jake buzzed her in. 

Caroline gave him a hug. "Jake! I am so sorry about your cousin."

“Aren't you going to say hello to Martin?" Jake said. Mom and Dad were just then entering the room.

"Oh, right, yes, how could I forget. Good morning to you, too, Martin." Caroline extended her hand and pretended to shake, looking over at his parents. 

They were frowning, and for the first time that morning, it wasn't about Sandy. Last week while washing the dishes, they had wondered aloud whether Jake was getting too old for an imaginary friend. They didn’t think he could hear them. He was too young for some things, too old for other things. That night in bed after saying his prayers, he scratched his head and apologized to Martin. They don't understand us. It's OK, Martin whispered. They used to understand, but they've forgotten how. 

"Mom, can I play out front?"

"Stay close to the building. And no park."

Caroline said she would keep a close eye on him from the sun porch. 

"C'mon, c'mon," Dad said. "We're running late!"

After they left, Jake retrieved a bucket of colored chalk from the closet and went outside to the front walk. He looked back at Caroline and waved. 

Jake drew curvy waves in blue and made brilliant orange sun rays. He carefully drew a stick figure likeness of his cousin lying face up, floating above the waves, smiling. Under the waves he spelled R.I.P in big letters. 

I hope you're right, Martin. I hope she can see it. I hope wherever she went, she can still smile.

He was so busy drawing that he didn’t notice the clouds scuttling in, until the raindrops started falling. He ran inside. 

Caroline was in the accent chair leafing through the Sears Roebuck catalog. She looked up. "You made it just in time!"

Jake ran to his seat by the window and watched the rain fall hard and steady on his chalk picture. In the apartment above, he could hear Mrs. Stokowski's whining Hoover vacuum grinding at the floor. Caroline went to the record player and turned up the volume. 

Caroline went into the kitchen and came back with a bowl of red grapes. She placed them on the coffee table. She stacked two records on the spindle and propped the album cover on the bookshelf. “Mind if I put another record on? Is it fine with Martin, too?”

Jake nodded. “We don't mind.”

"Here, have some grapes. You going to be OK?" 

Caroline stretched out on the sofa and popped a grape in her mouth. Her legs were long and tan and softly muscular. Something about her was coming alive, and Jake felt a magnetic pull. He took another grape and offered it Martin, went over to the record player and watched it spin.  

He turned to Martin. Let's go. 

***

The sky was lemon yellow and the sand was not hot. It tickled their toes. The beach was scalloped with high dunes, the waves mightier than real life. Look Martin, they're as tall as our building!  They came upon a burly man in a straw boater hat and white suspenders. In his hand he held a bunch of red, orange, and blue balloons. He was barking to anyone within earshot, "Balls for Loons! Balls for Loons! 25 cents! Grab one now!"

Jake felt in his empty pockets. Martin handed him a quarter. Jake passed it to the balloon man. 

"Here's one for you and an extra for your friend. Which color?"

"I'll take the red one."

"What's your name, kid?"

"Jacob. This is Martin."

"Are you new here? I've never seen you around this beach before." 

"We get around, but this is our first time here." 

Martin tapped Jake on the shoulder and whispered something. Jake pointed at a muscle man with puffy pectorals and legs like turkey drumsticks, lifting a weighty barbell with one hand. His chin was jutting upward in a haughty way.  I don't know who he is. “Hey balls for loons man, who is that guy over there?”

"That's Phil Ofenself. He always hangs out here. Likes to show off to the girls. He likes to kick sand in kids' faces."

"We'll steer clear. Isn't that right, Martin?"

He turned. Martin wasn't there, his balloon aloft, getting tinier the higher it went. 

"Where'd he go?"

"I wasn't looking," said the balloon man. 

"Maybe he got scared and ran away?"

"I'll keep an eye glued. Hang on tight to your red balloon until you find him."

Jake wandered up the beach. He came upon an empty lifeguard boat with oars in the oarlocks and a white lifesaver at the end of a long rope. The ribs in the bottom of the boat reminded him of bluefish gills. He wondered where the lifeguards had gone, and an ominous feeling chilled him. He pulled the boat beyond the reach of the surf and sat in it. He looked out to sea. There was a large man in Hawaiian shorts riding the frothy crest of a wave. The ends of his toes were sawed off, emblazoned with blocky numbers 1 through 10. The surfer, who looked too big for the board, disappeared into the pipeline and shot out the other side, fists pumping the air righteously. 

"Well done!" shouted Jake. 

The surfer let out a whoop. 

"Watch out!" Jake called. Another breaking wave crashed into the man. He stood up and shook the water out of his hair, laughing. 

"Hey, where’s my surfboard!"

Things around here have a tendency to disappear without notice, Jake thought. His reverie was interrupted by the choppy sputter of a propeller. Jake looked up. A biplane passed above, a banner streaming from its tail. Jake couldn't read the message because the words were facing the ocean not the beach. 

Behind his back, a voice called in some distress. It might be Martin. The noise emanated from a surfboard standing upright, the fin jutting like the beak of bird. A talking surfboard? He walked up to it. Sandwiched just beneath the waxy surface was a face with sandy hair, dimpled chin, and blue eyes. The eyes were moving side to side. 

"Hey kid, help me out. I've been stuck inside all morning."

"How did you get in there?"

"If I knew, I'd know how to get unstuck. Maybe ask that guy over there reading the Sgt. Rock comic book."

Jake walked to a brown bearded man, reclined against an inner-tube decorated with broad petaled flowers. He looked up from his comic book.

"Sorry to interrupt you, sir. Can you help me get that man out of his surfboard?"

"Maybe, maybe not. What's it worth to you?"

"I don't have any money."

"What about that red balloon?"

"I'm not supposed to give it up."

"You sure you don't got any money?"

Jake shook his head. "I'm broke."

"OK, here's the deal. He got into that surfboard all by himself." The man directed Jake’s attention beyond the dunes to a patch of tropical vegetation, lush with fat waxy leaves, green stalks and iridescent flowers. 

"He came out of the bush with a bunch of leaves and flowers and rolled them into a cigar. He really shouldn't have smoked that red Poinsettia. What with all the smoking and flower dust he got high as a balloon and fell asleep on his surfboard. When he woke up he was stuck inside it. I suppose he had a dream and melted into it. I’m no expert on how dreams work. I propped him up so he could have a look around when he woke up."

"How's he going to get out?"

"Don't worry, it'll be alright. The effect wears off eventually. Like when the sun rises and warms up the chilly morning. Going to have quite the hangover, though."

"Have you seen my friend Martin?"

"What's he look like?"

Jake drew a likeness of his friend in the wet sand with his finger and a sea shell. 

"Nah, I haven't seen anyone of that description. Maybe that sea gull knows."

"You have talking seagulls, here?"

The man nodded. "The plants and ocean waves can talk, too."

The gull did seem to be knowledgeable. It was standing on the chest of a voluptuous, dark tanned woman in a red and white polka dot bikini, reclining on a beach towel. A floppy straw hat and sunglasses covered her face. The gull watched the boy approach and nodded. 

"Hello sir. I'm Jake. And you are...?"

"I don't have a name. Gulls as a rule are opposed to proper names. Nice to make your acquaintance. Forgive me for eavesdropping on your conversation with Sgt. Rock over there."

"That's OK, Mr. Gull. Do you know where my friend Martin went?"

"I might know a thing or two, but you should talk with her first."

The gull tapped the woman's chest with his beak. She sat up and removed the hat and sunglasses.

"Sandy! You're alive! And you're grown up. You're a beautiful woman now!"

"It's good to see you again, cousin Jake. I almost didn't recognize you!"

"So you didn't really die? Did you swim to this island in the ocean? But how did you get older so fast?"

"No, I died. Really. Drowning is no way to go, let me tell you. I want you to promise to practice your swimming."

"I most certainly will. I have to ask you, how did you become un-dead?"

"It's a long story. Another time."

The plane flew overhead again, its engine sputtering like a Bronx cheer. Sandy and Jake waved to it.

"Jake, there are other people on the beach who need help. Mr. Gull will take you to them. Before you go, let's help that surfer dude out of his board."

She instructed him to take a pail of seawater and douse the board, then spread his palms along the surface, as if waxing it down, which is precisely what Jake did. The man emerged and fell out of the board face first.  

He spit sand out of his mouth. "Thanks a million, dude, I owe you one."

"Good job, Jake!” said Sandy. “Keep following the gull. He'll take you to the others."

The gull waddled ahead into the patch thick with leaves and tropical flowers. 

"Did you see a face in the bushes?" 

They both spied a clean shaven man. He seemed wary of contact, at once hiding yet unable to escape. They asked him what the matter was.

"I got high on flowers and lost my way in the leaves."

Jake didn't know what he could do. If only Martin was there to make suggestions. The smell of the flowers was intoxicating, and he could feel his muscles getting rubbery. It was tempting to linger and pick the flowers, but he was afraid of getting lost, or winding up inside a surfboard or seashell. 

"I'm bad at saving people. I have no clue what to do. I'm sorry, sad man."

The gull whispered in his ear. "Ask him to sing you a song."

"Sir, we'd like to know if you would sing something for us."

"Really? OK. I'll sing you one about my bedroom. I miss it."

The man's singing was angelic. When it was over, Jake clapped and the gull squawked. 

"That was beautiful." 

The vegetation seemed to agree. A sea breeze wafted through the leaves like gentle applause. The man stepped forth from the plants and was free. 

"Wow, that was easier than I thought," Jake said. "Is there anyone else around we can save?"

"Yeah, my pals are trapped in the ocean, follow me."

The plane and its banner buzzed past them again. Why wouldn't it turn around and come the other way so he could read the words? They got to the shoreline and stared at the oncoming waves. 

"I see them!" the gull said. "In the waves. Look at the wall where it starts to curve."

Sure enough, he could see two faces, bearded and wooly like mountain men. Their expressions were calm but somewhat forlorn, how zoo animals seem when they look at you from inside the cage. 

"How are we going to get to them? I'm too small to swim out to them," said Jake. 

"I'm too scared to fly out to them," said the gull. 

"I can't swim," said the clean shaven singer.

“And I’d prefer staying on dry land,” Sandy said.

They looked at one another and shrugged. Jake really wished Martin was there. He went deep into himself and imagined. What would Martin say? How do we get them out?

Then he got an idea. He whispered it to Sandy. Sandy whispered it to the gull. The gull squawk whispered it to the singer. Everyone agreed.  

"Good idea, Jake. They need to hear a song. It's your turn to sing. You should sing to them."

That wasn’t Jake’s original idea. He thought someone should sing. But him?

"I don't know what to sing. I’m not good enough. Why doesn't he sing? He has a better voice than me. I wouldn’t know what to sing!"

"Make up a new song. How about you sing a song for someone you miss."

Jake liked that idea. If a song could release people from plants and waves, maybe it could conjure Martin back, too.

So Jake sang. He sang into the waves that were taller than his apartment house. The words came out with ease. They even rhymed. The water wall rose defiantly, then listed and crashed. When the surf receded, the two wooly men were flat on the wet sand, free. 

"Thanks kid! You rock. Who’s hungry? We’ve been stuck in the ocean and haven’t eaten in days."

The gull led them to a beachside hot dog stand. Behind the counter was the sober looking proprietor, his arms folded. They ordered hot dogs and roasted peanuts. 

"Can you put this on my tab?" asked the gull. 

The man nodded, frowning. 

"Why the sad face?" asked Jake. 

The man sighed. "Business is slow. Summer’s over. The customers only ever order junk food. They don't buy the really good stuff on the menu."

Jake took a closer look at the menu.

"You sell dreams, too?"

"That's right. Big ones, small ones. 31 flavors of dreams."

Now Jake was frowning.

"I don't have enough money for dreams.”

“What about the balloon?”

“Not for sale. Could I make a wish instead?” He wished Sandy hadn't drowned. He wished his best friend would reappear.

"I'm all out of wishes. They're backordered. Dreams are different. Dreams don’t come true. That’s why nobody wants them anymore."

Jake was confused. His mind felt like the sputtering plane that was flying past again, as if running low on fuel.

"A dream is a better value, though. It stays with you for a very long time. For as long you want it to stay, really. Just like your buddy Martin."

"How did you know his name was Martin? Have you seen him? Will I ever see Martin again?"

The man nodded and for the first time, cracked a smile. He put his arm around Jake and pointed up. 

From the cockpit of the plane, he could see a hand waving, then a head popping up.

"Ahoy my friend. You would love the view from here!”

“Martin! Why did you vanish?” The plane was too far away for Martin to hear him.

“Godspeed! Farewell!"

Jake watched the plane turn around. He could read the banner now. It made him smile.

Everybody finished their hot dogs. By now, the balloon man had joined the party. He gave Jake a pat on the back.

"It's getting late,” he said.

“Your parents will be home soon. I guess you have to go now.”

“I'd like to come back here. Next time, I'll purchase some of your dreams, Mister.” He turned to the balloon man. "Will you keep my red balloon for me, here?"

The balloon man tapped his skull and said, "I won't forget." 

***

The needle lifted off the runout groove. Caroline slipped the record back into the sleeve. Jake could hear his parents' car pulling in behind the building.  

"Well, what did you think?"

"I liked it."

"Yeah, they're great. Did Martin like them, too?"

"Martin? He's in the plane."

"What plane?"

He took the album cover from her hands and pointed.

"Ah," Caroline said. “I see.”

Jake looked again at the plane and gasped. The cockpit was empty. 

***

When his parents walked in, their exhaustion turned to relief and joy upon seeing their son, head bent over the album cover, wiping his eyes. Without saying a thing, his mother embraced him, holding him longer than she ever had before. 

Dad tussled his hair. "I loved that picture you drew of Sandy on the front walk, son."

"You can still see it? I thought the rain washed it away."

"It's still there. I'll take a picture and send it to Aunt Wendy and Uncle Al. They'll cherish it."

Caroline was gathering up her things. Dad thanked her profusely, fished money from his wallet, and gave her an extra large tip. 

Caroline gave Jake a goodbye hug. She opened the door and hesitated, the car keys jangling off her index finger. Jake was back at his window seat, partially hidden behind the hanging spider plant. She came back inside and handed him the record album. 

"Jake, I want you to have this. Whenever you listen, you can be with Martin." 

"Sandy too?"

"Sandy, too."

Jake took the album and rubbed his mouth. 

"I already made a cassette tape copy. I listen to it in the car, mostly, anyway. You keep it. Really."

She left the building, sidestepping Jake’s chalk drawing. Jake listened for the sound of the Thunderbird coming to life and driving away. The warm sun had broken through the storm clouds. He looked across the street at the stately trees in Everhart park. The school year would start next week. Through the screen Jake could feel a twinge of Autumn, just a suggestion, hanging in the air. He craned his neck and looked through the treetops at the open sky. How lemony it seemed to him now, like never before. 


Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed the story. Leave a comment or send me an email with feedback if you’d like.

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Till next time, be well.