He wasn’t supposed to have been here, by himself, this long. They’d found the cottage home last summer. Cute, it was, and exotic, in the sense that it was on the Gulf coast, not in the hills of western New York.
He had been retired a couple of years. When the time had come, he was more than ready to leave the accounting firm. He hadn’t had the time to find other interests but that wasn’t a concern because this whole plan to move, to find and buy the cottage had been all- consuming. For awhile.
His wife was still working, and her income would be needed to pull this off, to keep the old house up north, and maintain the cottage down south. She saw this as a permanent move to a new place, she who was still up north. Her plan was to find a new job so she could move too. So far, it hadn’t happened.
He was the one, she said, who was giving the mixed signals. When friends asked if they were going to be snow birds, he would say, after taking a half breath, “For now,” and they would smile, a little, not sure what else might be said. He wasn’t saying.
When the look on friends’ faces was one of uncertainty, worry, he felt his heart being pulled toward the place where he had lived his whole life, until now. He only hoped that his breast bones, his ribs, would remain intact through all the strain. When, on the other hand, the look that friends gave was one of envy or better yet, celebration, he felt his heart begin to soar to a place he did not know yet. At least it meant he was not stuck. He was off, flying, waving at them, heading to a place of sun, promise, adventure.
It came in waves, the emotions, this taste of panic in the mouth. And then the next few sensations, rising and falling, would be sweeter, a reassuring touch of warm air, not expected at this of year. Midday might hold a bright view, sunshine falling in the almost familiar slanting light of January but more softly here, more expansively. Even the tides, he noticed, were different. Twelve hours apiece, not the six hour cycles up north. Everything seemed to be in less of a hurry.
She was fully supportive whenever she could be. She was terribly busy back home, surrounded by her colleagues, the fullness of such non-stop life and relations. Sometimes she would simply text, at the end of a particularly long day, “Exhausted. Will call you tomorrow.” She had anointed him as “the homesteader”, a kind of go-ahead 21st century pioneer. When they’d packed the car, he’d been forced to leave a lot behind. There was only so much room. As it was, they could barely see out the rear view mirror, for all the things piled in the back seat.
He would try to remind himself that he had it made. He had the luxury of time and space that others craved. He could, almost, write his own ticket regarding how he might spend each and every moment of the passing days. There were so many of them, passing days, making it difficult to tell which one was Tuesday, for example. The TV Guide had become his new Day Minder.
“Yes,” he was starting to meet some people, “yes,” he had already made one commitment for volunteer work. That would start next month, February.
She kept saying that she was eager to get down to the new house that she was looking regularly for job postings. It would be a transfer. Made more sense to stay with the same company, a lot more sense.
She had driven down with him in that packed car, stayed the week, and flown back the following Sunday. On Monday, he heard some strange noises late at night, tried to track them down, but he always got to the adjoining room too late. On Tuesday night the sounds were a little louder. A small scampering. Still no evidence.
The cottage, built in typical Coastal style, had a significant crawl space underneath, the house itself elevated on two-foot cement blocks. The cottage was, after all, a cottage. It was not the solidly made two story plus attic and full basement home that he’d left behind. The walls were thin, the floor consisted of red pine planks atop an imagined sub-floor. The roof was made of metal. When it rained, the whole house shouted ‘shelter’.
On Wednesday night, he heard a sudden noise, something had been tipped over in the back room. He got up slowly from the couch, walked in his senior version of tip toe, and headed for the dark hallway. When he reached the room, he slowly felt for the light switch. As if hit by a bolt of lightning, there was a race along the baseboard to the corner before disappearing.
“Well, for god’s sake,” he said aloud in the nearly empty utility room. And as if the illuminated air needed any more explanation, he said simply, “a mouse.”
Success, it appeared, would take more than a couple trips to Walmart. They had the best prices. On one of his visits down the familiar aisle, he saw a middle aged couple staring at the precise shelves toward which he was headed. He hesitated, hoping they might move on. They appeared to be in a serious discussion about optimal pest control. When at last he approached and stood next to them, the husband turned toward him.
“Looks like you have the same problem we do.”
“Oh, yeah.” Surprised, pleased. Accepting a friendly overture. “They are very tricky, fast. I had two of the plain wooden traps and I got cleaned twice. Took the bait, but no mouse in the trap.”
“There is this one,” the wife said, pointing to a small black rotunda looking device, “traps them and then you just take it outside and let them go.”
“Peanut butter,” said the husband.
“That’s what I used. They still got away.”
“Well…so we live twenty feet up, and somehow they’ve gotten in the wall.”
“They’re not in the house,” the wife added.
“Twenty feet up?”
“Yeah, you know, since the storm. The new construction. Up on the pillars.”
“They’re not in the house,” the wife repeated.
Both of the men nodded in agreement.
“Steel wool,” he told his wife on the phone.
“That’s what finally worked. You have to figure out how they’re coming in.”
She didn’t respond right away. He thought he overheard the diminished sound of mail being sorted, tossed aside. Finally she said, “…Well…then…” and he could tell that she was trying, again, to do two or more things at once. It always caused this conversational slowdown, a rubbernecker of little curiosity in the flow of talk back and forth.
He asked, “How was your day?”
“Oh, really, we had a lot of…it was okay.”
“You’re doing a lot.”
“I know that you are taking care of business there. And I appreciate it. I would really like to have no mice, if possible. We had mice here too, remember, a few years ago?”
“I do. The traps worked then.”
“Maybe northern mice aren’t as quick on their feet.”
“They get distracted. So much more to pay attention to.”
“Hmm. More likely the cold. Slows everything down.”
It was one of those brilliantly sunny days. He had developed the habit of driving the short distance down to the coast, its wide sandy beaches. He was glad to know that in winter the humidity could be very low. On this particular day, the water reflected the deep blue of the sky perfectly, a mirror with slight ripples.
He had noticed a jumping, swirling motion in the water close to shore and had walked down to the water’s edge for a closer look. He thought he was completely alone on the beach.
A voice came up from behind. “Redfish?”
“Are those redfish in there, moving like that?” The fellow was wearing a bike helmet. He had left his bike up by the road. He spoke with a slow and easy drawl.
“No, I think it’s a sandbar, the way the water pours over it, comes back around.”
A moment of shared reflection. The newcomer said, “Yeah. See it. Sandbar.”
“Aren’t redfish only out in deep water?”
“Oh no,” said the bicyclist, “they can come in very close.”
They stood there, side by side, looking at the swirling water, then looking out farther at the simplest of waves, helplessly drawn to look beyond, right out to the very edge where sea and sky joined.
For a time neither man spoke. Then the bicyclist said, “I came down here two years ago when I retired. We were in Hattiesburg, a hundred miles up the road. The wife and I love it.”
“Nice,” he said, hearing the sound of his own voice, how it sounded different from those around him. A Northerner. When he spoke, he had to articulate clearly. Usually they understood but they often looked as if they expected something more, or maybe something easier to listen to. At home, words came out quickly, with little elaboration, almost always just to the point and no farther, a mutual engagement in an uptempo and well pointed dance.
“You’re not from here?” the bicyclist asked.
This would be the moment to say ‘Rochester’ but not as in Minnesota, or ‘New York’ but not as in Manhattan, or ‘Lake Ontario’ hoping the other party had some sense of geography.
Turned out the bicyclist had a cousin who had lived in Buffalo for a couple years. Shortly after explaining the part about why the cousin then moved out to California to be closer to his wife’s family, he suddenly asked “Is there a Seneca Falls up there?”
“Finger Lakes. He used to talk about it, said it was real nice, though he’d like to get back to Baton Rouge. That’s where his daddy’s family is from.”
They were both silent again, looking out into the Gulf. When, at last, the bicyclist spoke, it was as if his voice flowed outward, out toward a place where air lightly touched the water, and light gathered in a moment of shimmer. “Sometimes,” he said quietly, “you’ll see dolphins.”
“They follow the fish.”
He wanted to ask about what he might call this sense of…otherness. Of being from away. He wondered how long it might take before separation faded into the background, became altogether invisible, a distant memory, rarely recalled.
What he said was, “I’d like to get to know more about fish.”
The man from Hattiesburg turned toward him, hesitated, drawled, “You said fish?”
“Well, fishing. Saltwater fishing. Finger Lakes I know, but this,” he said pointing to the expanse of Gulf in front of them, “I know nothing about.”
“Well…I could take you out…”
“If you’re interested, fishing, I have a boat.”
“I’ve met some interesting people,” he told her, wanting to sound hopeful.
“Yes, they are. That’s what I thought too. When I was there.”
He hesitated. “Any more of an idea…”
“…When I can get there?” She didn’t wait for his answer. “Not soon enough, for me. I still have to wait on some of the paper work.”
Neither spoke for a moment. She said, “I really envy you.”
“All that time. In that place. Whatever you want to do. The freedom.”
He felt as if the air itself was widening, molecule by molecule, stretching apart, becoming impossibly thin, spacious. Engulfed. Lost in unspeakable distance. He had been holding the phone to his left ear. He decided to use the speaker phone. He moved the phone down so he could see the keyboard, he took a moment and selected the speaker option. He was breathing hard. He had not yet adjusted the volume.
He looked up from the phone, from where he sat, and looked around the interior of the small cottage. He thought he heard the sound of something scratching nearby. It was in the wall.
Her voice sounded very tinny in the small speaker, very far away.
“Are you there?” she asked. “Hello? Are you there?”
He had to decide to raise the volume. Or he could put the phone back up to his ear.
“Hello?…did we get disconnected?…are you still there?”
He had to decide. Her voice was so small. So remote.
“…maybe I will call you back…sounds like you are still on the phone…are you alright?…”
He raised the volume, and said “I never had an accent up north.”
She didn’t respond right away.
The scratching in the wall moved down along the baseboard, then part way up the wall.
“I hear something,” she said, in normal volume.
“Where you are changes you. Whether you like it or not.”
“Are you writing on the table or something?”
“Okay, so I don’t get this, what’s going on?”
“When I was home I didn’t have an accent.”
“Well, okay, I’m not sure where this is going. You did though, you know.”
“Have an accent.”
He hesitated, “How so?”
“You just didn’t hear it.” And then, “See, the move has brought out things you didn’t appreciate before. It was always there. Waiting to be revealed.”
The noise in the wall was sudden, stopped and started, seemed joined by a second small body, as if bumping into it, two bodies surprised, both of them scampering off.
“Am I on speaker phone?”
“Are you alone?”
“Not at the moment.” Before she could respond he added, “I’m talking to you.”
Life had been so orderly, so full, so predictable. If his wife had asked him, which she hadn’t…she wanted him to share her enthusiasm. He didn’t want to let her down. He hadn’t seen this coming…this far…this different.
He’d done the mental ledger trick, listing pros and cons. She would only see the pros. It was, logically, all that he could see as well. Which did not explain the abyss on which he walked, the shame he felt, the gratitude he should have felt.
At the moment, the abyss softened into very white and thinly granulated sand, here and there an oyster shell. He thought he heard someone call his name, he turned and saw the cyclist straddling his bike, waiting for him to come back up to the sidewalk.
“I was thinking about a day later next week?”
“I wanted to make sure I had the right number to reach you.”
Plans were made for the fishing trip. The cyclist took off and after he had gone some distance, turned in his seat and waved.
It was close to low tide and he was able to walk out onto the sandbars that lay momentarily exposed. In a matter of hours the sea would return, covering them for the night.
Water shimmered in blue reflected light. Walking on finely sifted sand took extra balance. He moved forward. Gulls swooped to familiar gathering spots. He stopped to listen to their chorus, the raucous pitch, calls full of intention and judgment, determination. They knew where they were. They were not lost.