Lily Pond

by Dennis Must


    She carried her father in her coat pockets.
    You couldn't see the ocean from the house, but you could hear it just beyond the scrub pine and oak under the mist. Follow the sand paths. We had taken the dogs for a walk that morning.
    "When's the gathering?"
    "After breakfast," she said.
    "Do you expect Michael?"
    "He'll attend."
    The dogs scrambled over the dunes to enter the water. Amos swam out a ways. Tug hung close to the shore, barely wetting her underside.
    Of course I didn't know what Alicia was carrying.

   He lumbered when he walked. Shoulders slightly stooped, head bent forward as if he were reading. Years earlier when they'd surprised him with the newly purchased summer house, he wasn't happy.
    "Stephen, what do you think?" his wife asked.
    Following her to the front door of the modest Cape tucked back in
off the ocean road, he replied: "I don't like sand on my feet."
    "We'll make it nice for you. You'll have a study for all your books, and we'll screen the porch where a slight breeze comes in off the water. You'll be able to listen to the surf."
    "I'm used to traffic going by our window," he said.

   Alicia ran into the water, lifting the coat above her knees. She tossed Amos a stick. In many ways she was like her father: cerebral, proud, confident in her grasp of any topic. Normally the coat bloomed in sail as she ran the coastline. Today it shrouded her body.  Tug normally dawdled after her. This morning it was Alicia who shadowed the old Lab. Weighted down.

   She wasn't when I first met her. I was taken by her natural beauty and ironic humor, something in her character that I was lacking, her certitude, perhaps . . . neither thin, nor brittle. We'd been unrestrained in the love act, sensing we'd never reach the other's reserve. But she spotted vulnerability.
    "Alicia . . . "
    "Please, don't," she said.
    "What?"
    "Make more out of it than what it was."
    "But you don't know what I was about to say."
    "May it be as good with other women you meet."
    I adjusted the lamp and wrapped a towel about my waist.
    "Don't weigh me down with stones of silly romance. Come back to bed."
    As I walked her to a cab that evening, her hair in a tight braid, brushing the small of her back, I recalled her gliding over me on the streetlight filtered bed. Again and again she'd light, only to arc, and come at me again like a carnal shadow, her long narrow feet nearly touching the stone pavement.
    It's her corporeality that weighs me down. It's torpor.
    "Ben, lust has its own mind."
    She laughed, stepping into the cab. Her white undergarment a laced-cotton nuance as she closed the door.

   A hundred yards down the shoreline, the water wicking up the coat's hem. Alicia, head down, reading messages in her footsteps going the other way.
    "They'll be waiting breakfast!" I yelled.
    She took my hand, the dogs running ahead. The coat's pockets bulked up as if filled with shells. But on this coastline only polished rocks that in sleepless hours rolled out to sea like bowling balls, thousands of them, coursing over each other, then thundering back in with the surf.

    "Will Michael show?"
    "You asked me that already, Ben."
    "But I'm not certain he will."
    "Why?"
    "It's not how he wants it to happen."
    She walked ahead, picking up the pace.

   Following that first evening in my East Village apartment, I believed I would never see her again. Alicia was off to the university. Correspondence exchanged, but hers mostly was about other men. How they entertained in the beginning, then didn't. I read that others boyishly succumbed as had I. Her body's sough I'd willed to cloak in vowels and scarce consonants that night. But she'd have none of it. Her sundress lay puddled on the floor.
   "Don't name it, Ben. For God's sake, please don't."

   Later I found a note slipped under my door.
    "I must see you. Please call."
    It had been nearly two years.
    "Alicia, it's Ben. Is everything OK?"
    "I'm staying at my father's. Can I see you?"
    I now lived four flights up in a loft building. One had to ring a bell on the street. From my Bowery window I lowered a key on a string.
    When she stepped inside and closed the door, she pulled me close. Her strained expression framed by a fury of hair that fanned out to her shoulders.
    "What is it, Alicia? Is something wrong?"
    "My mother's dead."
    "My God. How?"
    "Yesterday morning she stood at a friend's kitchen sink, rinsing out a cup, when she collapsed. It would have been hers and my father's twenty-fifth anniversary."
    Sunlight nimbused her hair, a fiery bush on the wall behind us.
    "I'm glad you're still here, Ben."
    Vulnerability.
    It trailed her about the mottled plaster walls. In each doorway. Over by the sink when she poured herself a coffee.
    "You know how I hated him, Ben."
    Her mother had returned home from work one afternoon during Alicia's senior year to discover Stephen sitting on the sofa alongside a packed suitcase.
    "I'm leaving," he announced. "Elaine and I are planning to marry." A doctoral student, twenty years Stephen's junior, and their occasional dinner guest. When confronted by a dumb countenance, he offered, "She needs me, Ruth. I don't believe you and Alicia do any longer." Then, sotto voce, "A miracle's occurred."
    Alicia walked to the front of the loft, dropped the white porcelain cup onto the plank floor, and crushed it under her boot, crying:
    "For two decades she suffered his daily exegete of the New York Times, listened to him pontificate mathematical conundrums over martinis at dinner, was his faithful bridge partner and charming hostess each evening before retiring to a connubial bed that remained as fucking dry as the sand he wouldn't condescend to walk upon. And miraculously my father becomes tumescent?"
    Her old passion -- but it was dark and ancient as Euripides.
    "Alicia, you are staying at his apartment?"
    "Yes."
    "Why?"
    "He's the only family I've remaining."
    "He's treating you civilly?"
    "Like any conciliatory murderer would."
    "And Elaine?"
    "Hecuba."

   Michael had renovated the previous owner's pony stable into a music shed. His Fender keyboard, a midi synthesizer along with a drum machine and amplifier were stored inside. He watched us return with the dogs. The dun waterline on Alicia's poplin coat had begun to evaporate back to its hem.
    Elaine stepped outside the house.
    "Michael and I decided we'd forgo breakfast until after the ceremony if it's all right with you and Ben."
    Alicia offered no resistance.
    We suspected Elaine, like Ruth, once Michael was born, had adjusted to the bitter constraint of conjugality. The scant sensuality that was in evidence occurred when Stephen sat down to their groaning table.
    "Are you sure Michael's joining us?" I asked.
    "Will you ask him if he's ready, Ben? Alicia, you come with me so we can get it ready."
    Amos and Tug collapsed under the tortured oak.
    Michael stepped out of the old paddock wearing only pants and his father's moccasins. A hollowed gourd, over whose opening he'd stretched and tied a drum skin, hung from his neck.
    "Your mother asked me to come and get you," I said.
    Stephen had once doted on the boy . . . but late into Michael's adolescence grew weary of listening to ceaseless chord permutations. The chess moves weren't terribly inspired, either.

   Soon the four of us circled the lily pond, a pool the size of a horse's water trough that Elaine had lined with a rubber dam. Two terra cotta urns sat submerged at its center, encasing lily roots whose pads floated like green writing paper.
    Water spat out the mouth of a ceramic frog.
    "Do you want to begin, Alicia?" Elaine asked.
    Alicia shook her head.
    "How about you, Michael?" He declined.
    "Ben?"

    It hadn't been the same since Stephen chased his shadow one March daybreak. Only once had I ever seen him enter the water, and then for a stroll to his midriff off a Cape's pond grassy beach.
    Ultimately I found it strangely comforting to be in the presence of somebody who brooked no humility regarding an encyclopedic recall, as if there were present a spirituality of the intellect. Practical matters I could figure out, with Alicia even. Over time I'd carpentered additions to their summer residence but understood it would have been sufficient if Stephen resided in a bare cell, so long as it was serviced by electricity, a lavatory, and somebody else.
    He was, in many respects, a monk whose spirit hovered the universe of numbers, yet was stymied by metaphors of the heart. Elaine tethered him to the earth with her meals, and Alicia, the product of an earlier marriage that darkly foreshadowed his present one, caused a contiguity, a musicality even, unencumbered by flesh.
   But Michael. Ah, poor Michael. With all his musical instruments in the stable. Stephen, the agronomist of the mind, and his son isolated in a sand paddock of scores not of the Goldberg Variations.

   The mute irony that on a chromatic winter morning before Elaine aroused, Stephen walked onto their penthouse balcony and decided to chase his shadow to hell. He left the coffee perking, his moccasins on the terra cotta floor. I'd never seen him dance or stand upon one leg, let alone climb onto a wrought iron banister, to tremble, then leap. Did he spread his arms that grey pudding of dawn? Why was it that the startled voice of the woman in 218 caused Elaine to awaken as Stephen glided past?

   Alicia smiled. "Here, Daddy."
    She reached into her coat pocket and withdrew a handful of what appeared to be pond silt. It oozed between her fingers. The left hand dipped into the other pocket, and out came another fistful of grey ash. "There's more," she said, casting in two quick strokes the mud balls into the hole Elaine had spaded alongside the lily pond.
    Alicia removed the summer overcoat which was Stephen's. How it would have looked on him if he'd worn it that hour of flight, flapping in the Manhattan sky. She balled it up and placed it into the grave.
    "I pray, and my sweet mother, Ruth, prays that you will be reunited in the hereafter with your body one day. Come back and visit us when you do.
    "And, Father, thanks for not showing us how to fly."
    Elaine nodded to Michael.
    He began drumming on the gourd.
    I knew why.
TAR
DENNIS MUST's collection of short stories, Banjo Grease, was recently published by Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA. His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway and his fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Blue Cathedral:Short Fiction for the New Millennium (Red Hen Press), Rosebud, Portland Review, Riversedge, Writer's Forum, Salt Hill Journal, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, RE:AL, Red Cedar Review, Sou'wester, Blue Moon Review, CrossConnect, Exquisite Corpse, Alsop Review, Southern Ocean Review, Big Bridge, and Linnaean Street. He resides in Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.
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