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  • 30. Destination

    By Jensen Beach

    We’ve had more summer quiet times here at 52S, but they’ve been productive: In the last month I’ve read more excellent original short fiction
    than ever before.


    The dam breaks now, with this almost classically shaped portrait of three different figures going, for just a moment, in one shared direction. Jensen Beach understands the poses we all strike in awkward situations—and what we keep for ourselves.

    From across the room Martin was monitoring his wife. He planned on taking her home before she could drink too much. Henry, the son of the party’s hostess, was speaking very loudly about the variety of modern coffin-building materials. He was twenty-two and appeared to have a preoccupation with dying morally. Martin did his best to listen, but Henry kept going on and on about biodegradability and the cycle of life until Martin believed he saw, on the cream-colored wall above his wife’s head, the image of a tree growing out of his own decomposing skull.

    It was getting late. Louise was beginning to show signs. She had an easy tell: Her left eyelid drooped as if part of her brain were shutting down. Henry said “banana leaf eco-coffin” and Martin saw Louise’s eye began to twitch and her head cock to the right. She was prone to compromised vision. Martin excused himself, maneuvered his way past two women whom he knew his wife disliked and who smelled he thought like chlorine, took Louise by the elbow, and led her from the room.

    Louise struggled to keep up. She said, “excuse us, excuse us, oh, excuse us,” as they walked down the empty hall.

    “Martin,” Louise said. “I was enjoying myself.”

    “Precisely,” he said. The last time they had stayed too long at a party, Louise spent much of the next afternoon on the Internet, purchasing replacement butterflies and dolphins for a shattered collection of glass animal figurines.

    Earlier there was rain but it had passed. They walked to the car and Martin kept his eyes on Venus. The planet, he had read online, had been visible in the night sky for the last month or so. Lately, Martin had discovered that he enjoyed reading about astronomy.

    “Anyway,” Louise said as if she were picking up a conversation they’d been having. “It’s all very tragic, apparently. Totally heartbreaking.”

    “Heartbreaking,” Martin said.

    “Carol’s son was nearly finished with the boat when some idiot set fire to the whole marina,” Louise said. “For insurance money, of course.”

    “People will do that,” Martin said.

    “It’s a terrible thing. You can’t imagine.”

    “Fraud? It happens every day.”

    “I think I see the car,” Louise said.

    “Did they salvage the boat?”

    “I didn’t catch the whole story,” Louise said. “You know how it is. A lot of voices everywhere. But I guess Henry, that’s the son’s name, had been working on the boat for two years. He was planning to sail it to Peru. Can you imagine?”

    “Unimaginable,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of ocean between here and Peru.”

    “That’s where Henry comes from, Peru. He’s adopted. Handsome boy, don’t you think?”

    “I hadn’t noticed,” Martin said. “He talked a lot about death.”

    “He’s getting reimbursed, you understand. The marina was well insured. But you can’t put a price on all that work. Two years.”

    “Two years is a lot of work down the toilet.”

    “Henry has contacted his birth mother. He did it behind his mother’s back. Carol is very upset. Can you imagine?”

    “He’s an adult,” Martin said.

    “I just try to imagine how hurt I would be. Can you imagine anything so hurtful?”

    “We don’t have children,” Martin said.

    Louise stopped to remove her shoes. She balanced herself with a hand on Martin’s shoulder. “Well,” she said. Martin concentrated on providing resistance. Louise lifted her foot and reached to take off her shoe. She turned around and repeated the process with the other hand and other foot. She held one of her shoes against Martin’s shoulder. He smelled a flimsy odor of leather and feet. “I can’t imagine,” she said.

    “Can he speak Spanish?”

    “There’s a person running on the sidewalk,” Louise said. “I wonder if we left something.” She looked down at her dress as if she were searching for some forgotten object.

    “Louise!” Henry trotted toward them. His shoes made a thin, sharp grinding noise on the sidewalk.

    “Hi, Henry,” Louise said. She had a shoe in each hand and lifted them up in front of her. “We were just talking about you. You’re not supposed to be real.”

    Henry looked down at the sidewalk, scratched his arm. “Are these yours?” He held a small pink purse about the size of an overstuffed envelope straight out in front of him. There was a pink rosette sewn onto the side of the purse.

    “That’s only one thing,” Martin said.

    Henry dropped the purse to his side. It dangled from its strap, grazed his knee. “I thought it might be yours, I thought.”

    Martin watched the dim orange light from the house as it spilled into the street a block or so behind Henry. It was a distant fire, harmless and inviting. He had not enjoyed himself at the party, particularly. The other guests annoyed him—he never felt comfortable around the husbands and children of his wife’s friends—and it was exhausting to keep such a close eye on Louise. But, from this distance, Martin had the dull, cold urge to return to Henry’s parents’ house and get in out of the night as if it held some waiting menace he was unprepared to face. “You should get that purse back before someone misses it,” he said.

    “Look,” Henry said, looking at Louise’s breasts. “Can I have a ride? If it’s not too inconvenient. I mean, I’ve been drinking a little.”

    “Of course,” Louise said.

    “It’s getting late.” Martin said.

    “Where are you going?” Louise asked.

    “Downtown, I think,” Henry said.

    “We’d be delighted,” Louise said. She insisted that Henry ride in the front.

    They had not been on the road more than a few minutes when Henry rolled down the window. It was November and cold. Martin watched Henry put his hand out into the wind.

    “Henry,” Louise said. “It’s cold.” Henry rolled the window up. In his lap he held the purse.

    “Whose purse is that?” Martin asked.

    “I found it,” Henry said. “It’s probably mine.” He rolled the window down again, leaving it open now to the biting wind. He then began to remove coins and small pieces of paper from the purse and toss them out the window.

    “Henry,” Louise said.

    “Whose purse is that?” Martin asked again. “What are you doing?”

    Henry took a small mirror from the purse and held it up to his face, examining it closely. Martin stopped at a light and turned to watch Henry watch himself in the mirror. “It’s green,” Louise said.

    “Henry,” Martin said. “What are you doing?”

    Henry took a cell phone out of the purse. He pushed a button on the phone and its face lit up blue. “Hello,” Henry said and threw the phone out the window. It shattered against the curb. He found a tube of lipstick and turned it in his hand as though he were curious about its owner and then tossed it out the window too. Next to go were a pair of nail clippers and what appeared to Martin to be a teabag.

    “Henry,” Louise said. “That belonged to someone.”

    Henry put his hand into the purse and moved his hand from side to side. “That’s it,” he said. He rolled up the window. Louise made a concerned face at Martin in the rearview mirror. With his free hand, Henry switched on the radio without asking. It was tuned to talk. “Should we go back?” Louise asked. “We should go back,” she said.

    “It’s late, Louise,” Martin said.

    “Talk radio,” Henry said.

    Martin pressed one of the preset buttons to tune it to a classic rock station. “Everyone likes classic rock,” he said to no one in particular.

    Henry removed his hand from the purse. “I wonder who this belongs to,” he said. “There’s nothing inside.”

    “You threw everything out of it,” Louise said. “You emptied it out the window, dear.”

    “I guess so,” Henry said. He fussed with the clasp on the purse. The sound it made was like a key going into a lock. “Is it yours, Louise? I thought it might be yours.”

    “It’s not,” Martin said.

    “Martin,” Henry said.

    “I’ve been drinking a little more than I’m comfortable driving on,” Martin said, putting his hand up in the space between them. “So I hope you don’t want to go too far. You know how it is.”

    Henry coughed into his fist. “No, nothing like that. It’s only that I think I love your wife.” He turned around to face Louise in the backseat. Martin noticed the way the skin on Henry’s neck stretched taut across his throat. “It’s true,” Henry said.

    “Martin,” Louise said very slowly, “I think this boy is high on drugs.”

    “Not me,” Henry said. The leather of his seat creaked a little as he turned back around. “I just love your wife, Martin. No drugs.”

    Martin considered this. He listened to a commercial on the radio—it was for a used car dealership not far, he noted, from where they were at that moment—and also to the loud whisper of tires outside on the wet street. Martin wondered if the high-pitched scratching noise he heard meant he should have the oil changed. He wished he knew more about cars. There was something wrong with a person who did not know about cars.

    “Yes, I’m pretty sure about it now,” Henry said. “I love your wife. One hundred percent.”

    “Two thousand cash back. Low APR. Low monthly payments. Zero down,” the commercial said.

    “Oh my,” Louise said.

    “You don’t know my wife,” Martin said, a little angry now, but committed to seeing how this all played out. “You don’t know my wife, yet you love her. Well, I do know my wife and—”

    “Martin!” Louise said.

    “I do know my wife,” Martin said again. He looked at Louise in the mirror. Her lips were pressed together in such a way that Martin thought she looked like her father.

    “I love her,” Henry said.

    “Exactly how is that?” Martin asked.

    “I’m a very spiritual person. It’s in my heritage. I recognize love easily.”

    “If only it were that simple,” Louise said. “Can you imagine?” Martin felt an almost imperceptible change in his wife when she said this. It was as if she had been very far away from him, living in a foreign country or stuck on a mountaintop somewhere, and had, just at that moment, finally figured out how to get home. “Can you imagine, Martin?” Louise said.

    “Unimaginable,” Martin said, which is when he failed to see the red light at the intersection. He swerved to avoid the broad, white side of a speeding van. There was a loud scraping noise as the car overtook the curb at the opposite end of the intersection. They passed over the soft patch of grass between the sidewalk and a parking lot. The car dropped off the grass with a bounce into the empty parking lot and came to a stop in a dark corner. They were not far from the street. Martin heard the steady honk of a horn behind him but was too scared to turn around to see if he had caused an accident.

    “Stop honking the horn,” Louise said. “Stop honking the horn!”

    Martin removed his hands from the steering wheel and said, “In twenty thousand years many of the most familiar constellations will appear differently than they do today. From a human perspective here on earth, that is.”

    “He’s become interested in astronomy recently,” Louise said.

    “I think I’m bleeding,” Henry said.

    “I don’t see any blood,” Martin said.

    Louise unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned forward between the seats. “Neither do I. Are you sure?”

    “It’s probably internal,” Henry said.

    “We drove over grass,” Martin said. “There wasn’t even an accident.”

    “I may exsanguinate.”

    “You may what?” Louise said.

    “It’s the medical term for bleeding to death,” Henry said and burped.

    “What a strange word,” Louise said.

    “It makes sense in Latin,” Henry said.

    Martin started the car. The heater pushed a throaty whisper of air through the vents. “Where can we drop you off, Henry?” He drove across a row of empty parking spaces and fell in line with a series of large yellow arrows on the wet pavement. “It’s one-thirty in the morning,” he said. His arms and legs felt very light.

    Louise placed her fingers on Henry’s shoulder “Are you feeling all right, dear?” she asked. Martin admired her fingernails.

    “In the spring,” Henry said, “I’m traveling to Peru.”

    “How nice,” Louise said.

    “It’s one-thirty in the morning,” Martin said. “Where can I drop you off?” He missed the turn to leave the parking lot and made a wide circle around two light poles.

    “I’ve always wanted to see Machu Picchu,” Henry said. “It’s part of my heritage. Do you know I’m adopted. Has Carol told you?”

    “Your mother told me about your boat. I can’t imagine how you feel,” Louise said.

    “I’ll have to fly to Peru now. With the insurance money from my boat I should live pretty high on the hog for at least a few months down there.”

    “What’s our destination, Henry?”

    “Lima is located inside a basin. From the surrounding hillsides, the city looks like an enormous bowl. I’ve only ever seen pictures, of course. I have family there. They’re going to let me stay with them when I arrive. Of course, I haven’t asked them yet, but I’m sure they will.” Henry yawned. “I’m sure they will.”

    “Sounds like a beautiful city,” Louise said.

    “I’ve always wanted to see where I came from,” Henry said.

    “It sounds breathtaking,” Louise said. “I can only imagine.”

    “Destination,” Martin said.

    They circled the parking lot again. Martin turned the heater off. He listened to the scratching noise from the engine and struggled not to lose his temper with Henry—or with Louise, who, he suspected, was enjoying all this. She was always mistaking inconvenience for adventure. Technically, because they had crossed First Street going south, they were downtown. He could kick Henry out of the car and be over with it. But it was late, and Henry had now leaned his head against the window and was taking long, even breaths as though he were going to pass out. Leaving Henry alone and drunk in a dark parking lot would mean trouble. Martin was reasonably sure of this, but took another lap around the parking lot to consider his options.

    “Henry,” Louise said from the back seat after a long time.

    There was no answer. Martin looked at Henry. “He might be asleep. I think he is.”

    “I was going to ask him something about Machu Picchu. It sounds like such a spiritual place. Intensely spiritual.”

    “He’s asleep.”

    “He must be very upset about his boat. I can’t imagine,” Louise said. “Carol didn’t mention any other sorts of problems, but at Henry’s age, well, you remember how it was.” She stroked Henry’s shoulder. “We were that age. What happened to all of that, Martin? Where did it go?” She sat back in the seat and scratched the side of her nose. “Peru seems like such a spiritual place.”

    Martin turned left out of the parking lot and headed back toward Henry’s parents’ house. At the stop light he had run earlier, he leaned forward and looked up through the windshield but could not see Venus. He had begun to feel tired. He looked at Louise in the mirror. Her gaze was fixed on some distant object. Henry’s breath fogged the window.

    Martin parked on the street outside the house and walked around the car to help Henry out. He slapped Henry’s face lightly and said, “Henry.”

    “Not so hard,” Louise said.

    “Henry,” Martin said and slapped his face again.

    “Martin,” Louise said.

    “Henry,” Martin said.

    Henry opened his eyes and looked at Martin. Martin reached across Henry’s midsection to unbuckle the seatbelt. His wrist brushed Henry’s side. Henry mumbled something and then stepped directly into a few inches of water that had collected in the gutter. Water splashed onto Martin’s shoe.

    “Water,” Henry said.

    “Don’t forget the purse, Henry,” Louise said. “Someone must have been looking all over for it.”

    “Careful now,” Martin said.

    “I don’t think he’ll feel very well in the morning,” Louise said. Henry crossed the lawn and disappeared inside the house. Through the large front window, Martin watched the few remaining guests turn their heads to look at Henry. They appeared to find Henry’s entrance funny. A man Martin remembered speaking with earlier clapped his wife on the shoulder and they both let out enormous silent laughs. In a corner, a woman was dancing alone.

    “Let’s go,” Louise said from inside the car. She had moved to the front seat, but Martin hadn’t noticed until he heard her voice much closer than it had been.

    He turned the radio back to talk, but it was a rebroadcast of a program he had already heard, so he switched it off. The streets were empty. Martin stopped at every light. “How about that,” he said after a long time. They had turned onto their street. He put his blinker on before pulling into the driveway. The garage door was opening. “I’m exhausted,” Martin said. He inched the car forward until the hood touched the tennis ball he had hung on a string for just this purpose. The headlights narrowed to sharp yellow points on the wall in front of the car.

    Martin cut the engine and the overhead lights came on inside the car. No one moved. “Exsanguination is quite a word,” Louise said. “Exsanguination. Exsanguination,” she said over and over until the steering wheel became cold in Martin’s hands.

    Jensen Beach blogs here . . .

    Gets interviewed here . . .

    And he keeps some of his necessary fiction here!

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