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Ruby Beach

by Greg Maurer

On the western edge of the Olympic Peninsula, where the continent first emerges from the blanket of the Pacific and the waves swipe at the land like clumsy paws, there’s an 11-mile stretch of coastline called Ruby Beach. On the beach stand several seastacks, monolithic rock formations like the characters of a lost language. There are wide inlets of water surrounded by fallen tree trunks, stripped and washed white by the ocean, lying in piles like the collapsed skeletons of ancient giants. In the moonlight they seem to glow silver, cursed femurs and tibiae…

It was a warm and windy spring night on Ruby Beach, the crumble and slide of the waves a sound so constant and rhythmic it was like a silence, each tidepool a distillation of the sunset, a glossy swirl of red and orange, the sun’s curve a dimming bulb, the black water drowning it, the rays of color like a shortout, electrical sparks, curtains of clouds catching fire…

Jack put the gun down at his feet and took his shirt off. He pictured the sun sinking down into the dark ocean, a wide maelstrom forming in its vertical wake, all the color sucked down into that whorling funnel, trails of light from all corners of the sky drawn into that black hole of water. A large wave slapped the shore and swished across the sand, leaving the beach sleek as a burnished dancefloor in the moonlight.

Jack looked up and down the coast, north, south. His heart was drumming and he could feel it reverberate all over his body. He focused on the thrum of its rhythm and the sound of the ocean disappeared and when he closed his eyes he saw the estuary of his left ventricle, the blood spouting in and splashing off the walls and the image decelerated until he saw it in slow motion and the sound of its pulse disappeared and the sound of the waves replaced it, like the slow, thick exhalation of water-logged lungs. He picked up a rock and threw it towards the water but he couldn’t see where it went. A plane flying south from Canada or Alaska was leaving a scar of light behind it as if it were slicing open the night sky, which was nothing more than a shade drawn to conceal an unbearable radiance.

No, no, this is all a lie.  He sat down and the wet sand dampened his ass. Don’t get me wrong – the stars were probably very beautiful, and who can deny the overwhelming power and beauty of the northern Pacific coast? But they didn’t really matter, not now, not in any immediate sense. Here’s what was important in the immediate sense: the gun. Not only that, but also the other gun that was coming, not to mention the man whose pocket it would be in. And where’s the poetry in that? In the bullets? The craftsmanship of the gun? The wound? The dying words? We’ll see, we’ll see…

Soon it would be dark, except for the quiet white moon and all it was able to send down. If they were going to have their showdown tonight they’d have to build a bonfire. Otherwise they’d have to spend the night on the beach and duel at dawn, which wasn’t what they had planned, but when one party was late and there were no official judges to oversee the affair, then you’re at the mercy of your circumstances, variable as they are on a beach at dusk.

So he sat there waiting, watching the water grow dark, folding end over end in the moonlight. He had been sitting there for a while, had maybe even fallen asleep for some time, when he became aware of Kyle’s black outline in front of him.

“You look like a baby angel slid to earth on a ramp of moonlight.”

“What took you so long?”

“I won’t lie to you – I decided not to come, but then I changed my mind.”

Kyle sat down on the beach next to Jack. Jack couldn’t see his eyes, they could be looking anywhere, or closed. “So I guess we’re just gonna do it in the morning?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Kyle didn’t say anything. He got up and brushed off his ass.

“I’m gonna take a walk.” He dropped his gun on the beach next to Jack and walked down towards the water. His black figure merged into the night and disappeared. Jack inspected the gun, looked at the bullets, felt its black weight in his hand, felt the curve of the trigger. He put it back down and stretched out. The stars seemed like they were right in his face, yet still so tiny, just little perforations in that great black mesh, glimpses of the great light behind it.

Kyle came back and sat down.

“Water’s cold.” They sat there together listening to the water. If Kyle had been on time, one of them would have been dead right now. And who would it have been? The terror of that question saturated the silence. They both fell asleep in the tide of that silence, the wind skipping off the water and across their sleep-numbed bodies.

When Jack woke up Kyle was gone. So was his gun. Seagulls were scanning the beach for dead things in wide ellipses. The night was gone, somewhere beyond the horizon, hovering over the Pacific like a rain-bloated nimbus. Jack stood up, brushed the sand off of his clothes and walked down to the water. A filigree of foam ran along the edge, a white membrane that seemed to be containing the ocean, preventing it from washing over the land and drowning the continent.

The sun lit things up on the beach – stones, pieces of glass, something near his foot. A piece of metal. A belt buckle – Kyle’s. The water was playing with the belt, making it twist and slither. Jack looked out over the water, expecting to see Kyle’s head out there somewhere, bobbing like a buoy. The waves were too peaceful; the sun was so hot on the back of his neck, they should’ve been roiling and steaming like a Venutian sea.

He dropped the belt and walked back to the path that led up to the highway, looking for signs of Kyle. Squat, curled bushes covered the rock slope like misknit pieces of yarn protruding from a canvas. A cloud blocked the sun and a shadow slid across the embankment like a memory of the night. The bushes all seemed to come to life in a choreography of movement as the shadow withdrew and Jack wondered if Kyle was in there somewhere with all the gnarled branches.

He began walking up the path, more sensitive to the quiver of leaves to either side of him than to the pinch of sharp rocks and shell fragments on his bare feet. Where was Kyle’s gun? In his pocket, wherever he was, or out there on the bottom of the ocean? Or was it in his pocket at the bottom of the ocean? Jack wanted to disappear into those bushes himself, to escape from all the feigned madness and desperate romanticism at the heart of their quarrel, which they had agreed to carry out in all its chivalrous, anachronistic theatrics.

He walked the rest of the way up to the highway and there was Kyle, standing there with his thumb sticking out.

“Two hours I been standing here, and no one’s given me so much as a brake.” He kicked a stone across the road. “Hitch-hiking in America is dead.”

“So you changed your mind again?”

“I left you a message in the sand. You must not’ve seen it.”

“No, but I found your belt.”

“That was the exclamation point.”

“Well, do you consent?” Jack was silent. “Well, you might as well.” Kyle spat. “Save me the trouble of having to explain the extenuating circumstances.”

A blue minivan pulled over about 100 feet past them and started to back up. Kyle started walking towards the van. The handle of his gun was sticking out of his pocket.

“You coming?” Jack stared at him. “I’ll call you next week,” Kyle called back as he stepped into the van. The door slid shut and the van pulled away. Jack watched it disappear into the shimmer of heat sitting on the highway. He watched a few more cars drive by, heading south from the peninsula, and then walked back down to the place on the beach where they’d slept. He looked through the arch of one of the seastacks, which framed a narrow and infinite corridor of water and sky. He wanted to zip down that ever-widening corridor, skimming across the water, until it spat him out somewhere – the Arctic, Korea, wherever. He thought about Kyle and the van, sailing over the gray highway all the way down to Portland, that little safe haven of a city, that port of refuge, refuge from the isolation of Ruby Beach. You couldn’t fire a gun in Portland without somebody knowing. There’s safety in numbers.

When Kyle got to Portland it was raining, that gray, drizzly, briny rain indigenous to the Pacific northwest. The streets were wet and suffused with the light of the streetlamps and store signs like plumes of fireworks frozen mid-burst. People were walking beneath umbrellas, carrying cups of coffee, sidestepping puddles. The van threw fans of spray at them. Kyle watched through the windows, constellated with tiny globes of rain.

The family let him off at the bus station. Across the street the gate of Chinatown stood, enormous and empty, like the very maw of the dragon coiled around its green metal arch. The esophagus of the avenue was empty except for the lone figure of a hunched man slowly crossing the street several blocks down, dragging his shadow through a pool of green light. The smell of Chinese food, borne on a humid breath from deep within the dragon, blew into Kyle’s face. He felt the weight and shape of the gun in his pocket. “Is that a boner in your pocket or are you packing heat?” he thought. A bus pulled into the station behind him and slowed to a stop like a boat drifting into dock. No one got off except for the driver, a chubby black.

Kyle started walking towards downtown. He went into the first bar he came to, an open place sitting under a sourceless silvery white light, reflected so strongly in the bartender’s face that it seemed to be emanating from it.

“Can I get you something?” He spoke very distinctly, pronounced everything perfectly.

“How ’bout a scotch?”

“Fine.”  The bartender’s movements – the reaching, the pouring, the handing – seemed perfect to Kyle. They had an evenness to them, a smoothness not exaggerated enough to be called graceful, but perfectly smooth and fluid. He seemed to float down to the other end of the bar where he tended to another customer.

Kyle noticed that there was music playing very faintly. He felt the scotch scraping his empty stomach and mounting a gentle pressure behind his eyes. He thought about Jack for the first time since he’d left him standing on the highway. He stared at the phosphorescence in his glass and felt for a moment as if he were drinking mercury, felt a metallic cold sliding down his throat, pictured it coagulating into a melted glow in his stomach.

Kyle finished off his scotch and, as he set down his glass, sensed the approach of someone behind him.

“I’m sorry,” said the bartender in a soft and plain voice, without a trace of any accent or inflection, “but firearms aren’t permitted in this establishment.” Kyle looked down to see the butt of the gun protruding from his coat pocket, its metal as luminous as the bartender’s face. “If you’d like another drink, I can hold it behind the bar for you until you leave.” Kyle already felt woozy from the one drink, even a little sick, but he had cause to celebrate: he wasn’t dead. He withdrew it and handed it to the bartender, who went back behind the bar to store the gun and pour him another scotch. The smell of it turned his stomach so he drank it in one wincing gulp. He felt himself swaying on the barstool. The faces of all the ghouls were spinning around him like moons in orbit and the band had just started playing a lively swing when he hit the floor.

Jack finished burying the gun in the sand and walked back up to the highway. East to Seattle or south to Portland? Or some small motel on the peninsula for the night? After about half an hour a car pulled over for him.

“I’m going to Portland,” said the driver.

“Me too,” said Jack and got in. They hardly talked the whole ride. The radio played oldies to which the driver, long and emaciated, occasionally sang along very quietly. Jack looked out the window, watching the coastline disappear in the night. After it was gone he watched the green glow of the dashboard lights.

“Am I driving too fast?” the driver asked him.

“No, you’re fine,” said Jack. The driver slowed down a little anyway. Jack couldn’t get the sound of the waves out of his head, could almost feel them lapping up against the bank of his forehead from within.

The second half of the trip went by in a couple of minutes, a black slur of movement, occasionally hiccupped by the shift of gears. Then it stopped.

“I need to wait here for my wife. She’s on a bus from San Francisco.”

“Thanks for the ride.” Jack searched his pockets for some money to give him though he knew there wasn’t any there. The man half-smiled.

“It’s ok. I was going here anyway.” Jack nodded sorry, thanks again, and stepped out of the car, which drove away to park. The sky was starting to get light.

He walked past the entrance to Chinatown toward downtown. The city was so quiet, the wet sounds of his footsteps sounded like stomps. The streetlamps carved out foggy yellow bulbs in the watery light. He tried to picture Kyle somewhere, fast asleep, dreaming about the asylum of bars, living rooms, televisions, stereos, bathrooms.

He passed a bar and looked longingly in its neon-framed window but all he saw was his own reflection, tired eyes, hair still stiff from the ocean air. It reminded him of a picture he’d once seen of his father in the ‘70s, content, careless, maybe a little arrogant and self-conscious. He felt none of these things. He felt tired and thirsty.

He walked more slowly, dragging his feet. He stopped at the corner and looked up and down the street. He watched the traffic lights change colors for several cycles. A few cars passed. None of the drivers looked at him. He heard a door open and close behind him. He turned around and saw a thin man striding smoothly across the street. He disappeared between two buildings. Had he come out of the bar? It was about five in the morning.

Out of curiosity and a lack of anywhere else to go, Jack went back to see. He didn’t hear anything from inside the bar. He tried the door. It opened soundlessly and he stepped into a tight entryway. The floor was metal. He opened another door and stepped into the bar.

There was a band onstage packing up their equipment. They all wore black suits, ties loosened. There was a man behind the bar looking at Jack.

“I’m sorry, sir. We’re closed.” The air inside the bar felt very cold and dry. Jack’s throat felt like it was full of sand. The bartender watched him as he slowly approached the bar, almost involuntarily, as though he were sleepwalking or wading his way in from the Pacific. The bartender’s eyes remained locked on his as though they were holding taut the line that was reeling him in. Jack risked a glance out the window but it looked the same as from outside, a large black tile with silver trim. He felt the line go slack and snapped his eyes back to reestablish the link but the bartender was gone.

He reached the bar with what felt like a lunge and settled awkwardly on a stool.

“I’m sorry, sir,” a voice next to him said. “We’re closed.”

“Please,” he said, “just let me sit here for a minute.” The bartender did not protest.

He eyed the bottles of liquor behind the bar. He’d never wanted a drink so badly. One of the band members was walking around holding his hat upturned for tips. Which was funny, it struck Jack, since he was the only one in the bar, and looked a mess. In a moment of genuine confusion he reached for the hat as the man passed him. The man caught his hand and held it.

“Did you play tonight?” the man asked him. “Did you empty your lungs into a piece of brass for two hours?” Jack looked at him pathetically. “Go ahead,” said the musician. “Take a dollar.” Jack shuddered. “Please. Take a dollar.” Jack tried to pull his hand away. The man held it tight and pushed it down into the hat. “Go ahead. It’s a grab hat. See what you get.” Jack splayed his fingers apart to show that he had no interest in the man’s grab hat. “You play drums? We need a new drummer. Consider this a little something upfront.”

“It’s ok,” said the bartender. “He doesn’t need any money.” He placed a drink on the bar in front of Jack. Jack’s hand was released.  He withdrew a dollar from the hat and slapped it on the bar before he walked away

“There’s your tip,” he said. “On behalf of my friend.” Jack watched him walk away and then turned his attention to the bartender who was busy washing and wiping things. When the bartender did not look up at him Jack turned his attention to the drink in front of him, and when that was gone he turned his attention to his forearms, which made a nice pillow on the bar. He fell asleep.

They both woke up on the floor of the kitchen, dizzy, Kyle with nausea, Jack with sleep. The white floor tiles were cold on Kyle’s cheek and he sat up with such suddenness that the room did a couple of laps around his head before rocking pendulously into focus. Jack stirred and his eyes half-opened. The light in the kitchen was a diluted yellow, almost convalescent. He looked up at Kyle, who was staring at something.

“Good morning,” said Jack. Kyle looked down at him blankly.

“Is it?” His eyes went back to whatever he was staring at. His index finger went up his nose and dragged something out. Jack tried to sit up but it felt like something was pushing down on his chest. He gave in to it and rolled onto his back. The ceiling was far away and metal shelves loomed over him like buildings. A fan on the ceiling was quietly cutting the cold air.

Kyle put his fingertips to his temple and started kneading the skin. Jack was finding it difficult to breathe. It felt like Kyle was sitting on him. “Would you help me get up?” Kyle was making circles around his eyeballs with his thumbs. He stopped and looked at Jack like he was crazy.

“What are you, hungover?”

“No, but it feels like it.”

“It’s very bright in here.”

“It’s not that.” Kyle stood up using the shelf behind him for leverage. For a second Kyle’s head blotted out the light and a gray shadow fell across Jack’s eyes. But it was a brief respite. Kyle leaned over and extended his arm towards Jack. Jack wrapped his fingers around the wrist and let himself be hoisted to his feet.

“Your wallet’s on the floor.” Jack stared at it. Kyle picked it up for him. Jack flipped through it. “All there?”

“Yeah. Still nothing.”

“Then we better take care of breakfast before we leave.”

“I’m starved.” Kyle lit a burner and plucked a few eggs out of the carton in the fridge. They cracked against the side of the pan and the yolks went “ssssst” when they hit the bottom.

“Find some bread.” Jack found a loaf of white bread on one of the shelves and put a few slices in the toaster.

They sat back down on the kitchen floor and ate out of the frying pan with some plasticware that was on the counter next to the sink.

“Good?”

“Anything would be good at this stage in the game.” They finished the food and left the pan in the sink.

“Which door?”

“Try that one.” It opened behind the bar.

“There’s my gun.” Kyle picked it up.

“What was it doing there?”

“The bartender took it. Where’s yours.”

“I buried it on the beach.” They walked through the bar. There was no one in it. Outside it was raining again. The sky was the same color as the street. They walked in silence. Neither was leading, neither was following. They were walking away from the bar, and that was it. They were in Portland and not on the beach. The rain that was hitting them had been imported from the same body of water, the big, beautiful Pacific, but you never would have recognized it running down the gutters and collecting in potholes. It was nothing like the ocean.

They kept turning corners, walking blocks, passing stores, it all looked the same. “Now what?” they were both thinking. It was a good question. Cars drove past them cutting effortlessly through the rain with their headlights and engines.

“The hell with it all,” Kyle mumbled.

“What?”

“What?”

“I didn’t hear you.”

“Just talking to myself.”

“You wanna say the hell with it?” They stopped walking. Kyle took the gun out of his pocket. They both looked at it in Kyle’s hand, the rain hitting it. “If that’s it, throw it away,” Jack nodded toward the trashcan a few feet away. Kyle walked over to it, hesitated for a moment, and dropped it in. It made a quiet thump sound. Kyle stood there looking down at it. Jack joined him. It was barely visible, just a faint shimmer of metal in a pile of empty cartons and globs of chewed gum. It could have been a key or a watch.

“Well, that’s that,” said Jack, trying to sound cheerful. Kyle was silent, absolutely still. Rain was dripping off the end of his nose into the trashcan. “Come on,” Jack tugged at his wet shirt sleeve and started walking. He stopped to look back. Kyle was following him but very slowly. He kept going.

He turned to look back again when he reached the next corner. Kyle was sitting on the curb about halfway down the block. Jack wanted to go back and say something to Kyle but what could he say? Nobody had won, nobody had lost, nobody was dead, it was all over. Jack watched him for another minute or so but he never looked up.

When the light changed he crossed the street. He didn’t know where on earth he was, but that was beside the point. The rain was letting up and the sun was coming out. There’d probably even be a rainbow somewhere.

Greg Maurer was raised in New Haven and received a BA from Davidson College.  He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.  But if he did live in New Haven, he’d live in IKEA, washing down hot dogs with lingonberry soda every day and sleeping in a different bed every night.

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