Mac Barrett

They sat in the house, Cara reading aloud to her boy from the slim book of Salinger stories—so that he could get through his summer assignment easier, so that they could have something together. Her new friend Jay was upstairs in the room he’d begun to call his office and, in the long breaths Cara took during section breaks, during sips from her glass, the boy could hear him up there typing.

“What did you think of that one?” Cara asked her son. She pulled off her tortoise-shell glasses, sipped her drink.

“It was OK,” he said. “I liked it pretty good.”

“What did you like about it?”

“I don’t know. Just kind of liked it. Maybe it was how you read it.”

“And how was that?”

“Good, just good.”

Jay appeared, coming down the stairs, and shot a smile at the boy as he passed Cara and her son. The boy could hear him open the porch door and step outside for a smoke.

“Should we read another?” Cara asked.

The boy could hear the porch door closing again; Jay appeared at the edge of the living room and smiled at Cara from just beyond the beige rug. “Do you think it might be time for a little break?” he asked.

“He’s got to get through this,” she said to Jay, holding up the book, then smacking it against her open palm, as if threatening to beat him with it. “So I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be taking breaks every ten minutes.”

“The storm’s coming,” said Jay, dipping his head to see under the half-drawn blinds. “Just let me have him for half an hour.”

“And what is it that you’d like to do with my son in a storm?”

“Just a little boogie-boarding.” He flashed his eyes over at Cara’s son—they were silver-quick eyes, eyes full of themselves. Before she could get the disbelief out of her throat, he said the words: “Just hear me out.” She folded her arms and looked at him, listened to him. “My dad used to take me and my brothers as kids—whenever there was a big storm. That’s when the best waves are. All the other times the waves are just little fellas—these are the real ones.”

The boy could see his mother’s face weakening, losing its resolve.

“You don’t want to keep him from that,” Jay continued. “You can’t keep him from that, can you?”

Cara’s brow looked as though it had filled with a sour liquid. She moved her head from side to side.

“We’ll be careful.” Jay gave a little motion with his hand toward her son, to indicate that the boy should stand now and show that this was something he wanted to do.

“You’ll be real careful, right?”

“We’ll be real careful,” Jay said, looking at the boy.

Cara stood at the doorway to the garage with her hand held up, open. Her other hand was tucked into her jeans pocket. She stood that way for the whole time it took Jay to back the Jeep out of the garage. While Jay was turned in his seat the boy was left alone with the image of his mother and her hand, her motionless goodbye. He raised his own hand the same way and it felt like a salute, an exchange of respect or of meaning, something that maybe said: I see you seeing me and I am going away from you just as much as you are going away from me, the separation of mother and son made mutual. Their hands in the air like that formed, perhaps, a dignity, a nobleness, in that they both had to do their part to make Jay feel like he was a part of them.

By the time Jay and the boy reached the beach the sky was lit only by what the sun had left behind, and the air had become night air. They sat at the side of a dune untying their shoes and stuffing their socks inside them. They pulled their shirts off like afterthoughts. Jay’s darkly-hairy chest was suddenly visible to the boy, who followed Jay’s cues, followed Jay’s grin with his own, stood squared to the sea the way Jay did. They Velcroed their boards to their wrists, not to their heels, because in wind like this, in wind this greedy, it would be important to have their boards easily at hand. As they made their approach the boy hugged his board against his chest—feeling as though he were keeping something away from a swarm of grabby ghosts.

“You ready?” Jay shouted over the breathy snarling of the air. Sand whipped up and stung their knees. The storm had turned the sky cadaver-gray, a sky that seemed to channel something even older than itself. “You see those waves—” Jay said, pointing out at the slow, grueling abandon of the sea, then pausing, possibly like a troubled person with a thought he can’t stop turning over in his mind might pause.

Jay gave a countdown from three and they ran screaming toward the water, as if to meet chaos with chaos. It actually occurred to the boy that they might have wanted to intimidate the sea the same way it was intimidating them—and that this screaming, this charge of noise, was in that sense perhaps their admission of fear. The boy was afraid, but with Jay there it was a light fear that existed just on the surface of himself; it wasn’t rooted in him. Rather, it was just something to move through, a fear that could be penetrated and then left behind, and then looked back at.

Just before the running became impossible they left their feet and dove in and landed with a smack against their boards. There was then a moment of what the boy thought might be something like peace. They floated on their boards, in position to be taken, swept away, owned or borrowed or delivered, in position perhaps for inspiration to strike, ready to get up on the shoulders of the sea. Jay, even in this quiet moment in the salt air as the icy water slid back and forth over his calves and forearms, yelled, “Where I’m from we call this living!” And then he whooped and paddled. “Here it is!” he shouted—and they were aboard something much greater than they could probably ever be. They might have floated—but they were flying. The boy felt everything up against his face—Jay had been right: there was life atop these waves.

At the end of the ride they found one another hollering and turning back to run in again, to find another beauty. “We got the best of that one, didn’t we?” Jay shouted.

And the boy responded, “We sure did!”

The next wave took Jay but not the boy—his timing had been off and he had not been able to paddle hard enough to recover. He listened to Jay’s voice funneling out into the distance. The boy floated, looking over his shoulder, trying to keep facing the shore, to keep ready. The wind grew silent for him, for his moment alone on the water, and in it he sensed that real fear was making itself available to him now, but he ignored it. He was OK. People in the world were too worried all the time. He had heard his mother talk to her friends at dinner parties where she took him along to be exposed to good thinking and politics—he had heard about the way the government tried to keep us frightened, so that they could control us. Jay himself had written about it on a website that got a large number of daily hits. The boy was happy to have Jay in his life, happy that his mother had found someone. She deserved that, and everything else good. At first it might have seemed to the boy that he had come along with Jay on this adventure just to please him, because Jay would not have understood being turned down, but now it was clear that Jay had given the boy something special—a ride on the back of a storm, a bit of life; fathering, even.

In the surf the boy could see Jay raising a victorious fist. He had conquered another wave. The boy turned and then saw blackness swelling—the fear that showed itself in himself, that licked through his insides, was delicious, even over-rich, like too-sweet candy. The dark water-mound surged by, the boy paddled hard not to miss it—and, in a moment, it had him.

The boy stopped paddling and held on, but felt immediately that holding on would not be enough. He had come onto the thing at an angle and everything was happening too fast to straighten out. He fell sideways off the lip of the wave and knew then that there would be no time, no moment in which to move out from under the collapse of the wave. When it hit he went under into nothingness. His forehead hit sand and hard shells, then the side of his face and his cheeks scraped against the bottom. The feeling was of maybe having slipped into an immense and angry soul. There was no quiet, but it was so quiet; no up or down—no ocean in here; he was being pulled by the sea’s idea of hands, indifferent and furious. He couldn’t locate his limbs, he lost his arms in their flailing, he felt himself blurring, he thought he might be on the verge of forgetting himself completely. The boy felt air lacking in his lungs, like a slow burn, an ache that came right up into his throat and stayed there. His hand reached out, touched flat sand. His foot followed his hand to the same place, and then pushed, springing him off at a weak angle like a sad firework. He tore at the sea’s surface, emerged. He breathed. Jay was nowhere to be seen at first, and then appeared to the boy from nowhere, still grinning, more like a child himself than like his mother’s lover.

“You OK?” Jay said.

The boy coughed and tried to spit out the flavor of the sea, while Jay looked up and put out his palm. “Uh-oh,” he said, “here it comes,” as the sky shattered and fell down on them in a screed of angry raindrops. As they pulled at the sea’s surface and fought to disentangle themselves from the waves, Jay’s kneecaps lifted out of the water like the heads of pale animals. The shells on the sea floor thickened as Jay and the boy approached shore. The shells felt to the boy like they would shred his feet with each step, and he wondered how he had not noticed them on his way in.

Back in the Jeep Jay tossed the boy a towel. Jay had a bighearted smile on his face and was breathing hard from the sprint back to the car. “How you feel?” he said.

“Good,” said the boy.

“That was fucking great, wasn’t it?” Jay shouted, smacking the steering wheel.

“That was amazing, Jay.”

“I know you were a little reluctant, but are you happy I took you out there?”

“Oh, yeah, I.... But, oh yeah. Thank you so much, Jay. It was really a great time. Great, just a great time.”

They were silent for most of the rest of the way, except for Jay occasionally smacking the steering wheel, then turning his headlamp of a smile onto the boy, who, in the heat of that attention, nodded slowly, smiled his own smile. He tried to feel happy, to feel excited about having swam in a storm, because he knew that this would give him his best chance of coming across as genuine—he wanted to be genuine, to be real, for Jay. They shook their heads in near-unison.

Jay turned on the radio. A woman was dedicating a song to a new person in her life. Rain fell like spilled tacks onto the roof of the Jeep. The boy watched the trees filling with wind and water, making hard gestures to the left and to the right.

“Maybe next summer we could try surfboards,” said Jay. The boy felt, again, the heat of Jay’s eyes, moving between him and the road as they turned onto the street where they lived.

“That would really be exciting,” said the boy.

Jay gave a little holler, a celebration, the boy knew, not that they together would go surfing but that Jay had succeeded in creating something of his own with himself, Cara’s son. The boy knew that Jay knew he would be able to stay with his mother, now that he’d shown her son how alive life could be, and that now the boy was also his.

Jay and the boy stood inside the front door. Cara put down her book—a stocky paperback thriller—next to Salinger’s on the table, and came towards them, smiling tentatively.

“Back in one piece,” said Jay, presenting her son to her with two open hands. She glanced at Jay but focused on her son—she ruffled his hair, just a little.

“How was it?” she said.

“Great,” he said, looking over at Jay.

“We had a great time,” said Jay.

“It wasn’t scary?” she asked. “Did you go under?”

“It was totally fine, Mom.” He looked at Jay again. “It was better than fine. I want to go again the next time there’s a storm.”

Jay smiled, and then Cara kissed Jay, quickly. “Well,” she said, “I was just about to make some dinner.”

In bed that night the boy heard noises from their bedroom. He knew what these noises were, had heard them many times before. He got up and listened with his ear nearly touching the door, his hand drifting to the opening at the crotch of his pajamas, the tips of his fingers beginning to sneak inside. The sound was a crunching sound, and there was his mother too, breathing louder each time she breathed. The boy moved away from their bedroom, down the hall to the porch door.

Outside, the rain puddles were cold on his bare feet. He looked up at the sky and saw that the stars had spread themselves out almost evenly, so that each one had room to shine. The air seemed to him to be full of what the day had been like—everything that had happened was now alive both in the night-air’s chill and in its weight, as though the late-evening sky itself had reached a point of exalted exhaustion.

When the boy heard the door begin to open he bolted down the porch steps and rolled under the porch—all in one swift movement, as though this had been his plan all along. He found himself lying flat on his back looking up at the long lines of faint moonlight between the boards. Jay stood directly above him. Puddles, stirred by Jay’s presence, dripped and drooled through the boards onto the boy’s cheeks. Everything was quiet, then he heard the flicking-sound of a lighter. He listened to Jay inhale deeply, watching the absence of light that was Jay through the boards. The boy, completely still, his head lying in wet mush, watched until the cigarette was finished, listening to the easiness of Jay’s lungs—and it sounded to the boy then, from these breaths, like Jay had never lost anything in all his life.

Mac Barrett's fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Salt Hill Journal, Hanging Loose, on the radio for WBAI, and at He works as an associate producer for CUNY TV and lives in present-day Brooklyn and 1920's Paris. This is a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story.

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