(20 minute read)
by Max Talley
Alan Pearson surveyed the mist rising off the sea. He scanned the narrow strip of beach that curved around Whale Cove and heard the concussion of waves against monolithic offshore rocks. No sign of the lurking stranger yet. This place had been his dream for years while he sweated and grumbled in San Diego. The hot climate down there overwhelmed him, being from the Midwest.
After a decade of selling insurance, he finally saved enough to buy a neglected coastal cottage in Northern Oregon. No more heat headaches, no more squinting into glaring sunlight in Southern California traffic. He couldn’t make the transition alone though. A year was spent seeking a woman to share his new life with. Blind dates, online matches, friends fixing him up, and random conversations in Trader Joe’s. All failed. Just as he lost hope, Alan met Becca. A quiet, dreamy woman with brown center-parted hair and a pale oval face. Though her clothes were contemporary, she held the air of a forlorn heroine in a Gothic novel.
Becca claimed to have been a Deadhead, then had spent time in various cults, including Scientology. She had escaped, but the experience left her bruised and dazed. She seemed to be in retreat from her own life. That suited Alan fine. He had endured a marriage with someone who talked incessantly. A calm partner, who answered questions but didn’t fill the silences with relentless chatter, was ideal.
Eight months into living in the refurbished cottage, Alan questioned the wisdom of his move. It rained five out of seven days a week along the coast — except during summer. A wet fog often blanketed their cove and the moisture penetrated into his fifty-three-year-old bones, making him feel much older. Sunshine remained a rarity and most often came diffused through clouds. Still, a perfect hideaway. Alan wanted peace and solitude so he could finish a historical novel. A modest endeavor that stretched to 200,000 words, without any clear ending in sight. Worse, he feared it had only reached the halfway point.
Becca worked part-time at Depoe Bay Urgent Care clinic. Otherwise, she watched television in the den, or sat on a La-Z-Boy chair in the living room staring through the west-facing windows at the restless sea.
The benefit of the spattering rain, the chill, and the dense fog-banks during winter was the lack of beachcombers or “storm watchers.” Folk tales spread through town of foreign tourists taking selfies on the rocks that jettied out into the ocean. Distracted, they didn’t notice rogue waves approaching until too late, casting them into the riptides and often to their deaths. Weather-battered signs now stood, reading: Stay off the rocks. Avoid the ocean during storms.
Alan’s daily rhythm of writing at a table in the living room required silence and no distraction. Becca remained quiet while he scribbled on notepads or tapped on his laptop. To break from the avalanche of text and a novel that had gotten out of his control, he pondered the ever-changing sea. While no homeowner could own the beach, possess the rocks or ocean, Alan felt they were his property, his land. If a stray dog saw fit to leave any deposits, the beast would get a good shouting at. If a dead sea lion washed up onshore in plain sight, well, Alan made sure it washed right back out with the tide.
Today, Alan paused from describing a bloody skirmish in a Napoleonic war, and gazed outward. His stomach tightened. Not again.
The wild-haired man, middle-aged like Alan but far more disheveled, stood in a long, gray-blue coat facing west. He waved his hands about with odd gestures, as if having a silent conversation with the sea. Alan glanced over at Becca in her chair reading.
“Becca, do you see him?”
“A visitor?” she replied in a sigh of breath.
“That same trespasser. What the hell is he doing out there?”
“You know the public has access here.” Becca spoke softly and without emotion.
“Yes, yes, I’m aware of that.” Such facts annoyed him. “But this guy is a derelict, a bum. The way he’s waving… He must be mad.”
“And how does that make you feel?” she asked.
Alan did not like the direction of their conversation. Any figure in motion outside, in his sight range, was an annoyance. Something to be removed.
“People come and go on a beach,” she added. “Remember? We once did the same in San Diego.”
“I’m getting a sandwich in town.” He grabbed his raincoat and slid into boots. Walking out their front door, he asked, “Do you want anything?” but didn’t wait for a reply.
The next day, Alan found no trace of the odd flailing man. He even patrolled the thin spit of beach carrying binoculars meant for whale sightings.
Small progress was made on his chapter, but by afternoon, Becca returned from work and stared through the windows with longing. At least Alan perceived it that way. Something about her squinting and craning forward bedeviled him. It constipated his brain, causing his writing to veer into a wet cereal mush of dates and battles—rendered with the dull logic of scholastic history books.
After breakfast the following morning, he noted Becca’s half-smile verging on a smirk as she crocheted a shawl.
Outside, the bedraggled cretin loitered, arms flying about, a mere thirty yards away.
“Don’t you have your shift?” he asked Becca.
“I traded shifts. Working the afternoon today.” She looked at him with curious eyes. “Am I crocheting too loudly?”
“Uh, no,” he said. “I just can’t concentrate with things in motion, on the periphery of my vision.”
“Why not write in the den? You bought that expensive desk…”
“I won’t be chased out of my living room.” He pulled the curtains, the gray outdoor light dimming to darkness. Alan searched the closet for more lamps. He found a crate of orchestral and classical albums: Mantovani, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky.
“Honey, what’s with all these records? We don’t even own a turntable.”
“Those are yours,” Becca replied. “You insisted we bring them from California.”
“Really?” Alan didn’t recall that. Memory gaps disturbed him. A sign of aging, infirmity.
Becca lost enthusiasm for crocheting and eventually shuffled off into the kitchen.
The indignity of possessing an 180-degree ocean view and shutting it out. Alan would not have his work environment controlled by this interloper. He strode onto the beach holding a golf club, in case the dazed man was off his meds and acted aggressive. The tide had risen and waves crashed then hissed, the sea both awesome and near-deafening.
“You there,” he shouted. No response. “Mister, you can’t stay. This is my property.” Alan knew he stood on tenuous legal ground so he shifted tact. “It’s dangerous to be out here alone in storm season.”
The gesticulating man did not turn or give any reaction. Alan edged closer until finally gripping his shoulder. It was moist and felt kelpy, as if the dude had emerged from the sea and been softened, worn away by long-term immersion.
The stranger grunted and waded forward into the shallows, where he resumed his hand motions and finger twitches.
“You fool,” Alan yelled. If the idiot died from hypothermia or drowned, there would be investigations, notoriety, curious tourists. Everything he shunned. The whole point of living in Oregon was to dig yourself a foxhole and hide from society, from civilization. Get away from it all and not be hassled by bullshit.
Alan grabbed at the man’s arm sprouting from the torn sleeve of his wet raincoat, but he shrugged off Alan’s grip and moved crab-like to the north. Alan swiveled in pursuit and got thrown off his feet by a sudden rogue wave. It drenched him completely before the tides cast him into the shallows. He crawled back to the beach on his knees and felt another crash impact him, then blacked out.
He awoke lying supine with Becca lightly slapping his face. “Can you hear me?” She turned. “Less voltage.” For an instant she resembled a stern doctor. “What were you doing?”
Alan coughed up salty water and levered himself forward. “I-I tried to stop that moron from wading out into the currents.” He glanced around the empty beach and shivered.
“Who? You’re the only soul here.”
“The same guy from two days ago.” Alan rubbed his eyes. “The man who was waving his arms about.”
Becca said nothing. She cinched her long windblown hair behind her back. “Do you need help walking?”
“Of course not. I’m soaking wet, not an invalid.”
Though fifty-three, clerks in stores sometimes asked if Alan wanted the senior discount, while his forty-three-year-old wife was often mistaken for being in her mid-thirties. “And what will your daughter be eating tonight?” Like his father Cyrus, Alan’s hair had gone gray at forty and a silvery white by fifty. Attempts to dye it blond had resulted in a weird sea foam, beer piss color.
Standing up, Alan felt gut-shot and dizzy. He could have used support but the golf club had vanished into the cross tides. He groaned and hobbled after Becca. Never show weakness, Cyrus had told him. The vultures swoop down and thieving bastards come out of the woodwork.
Once inside and wearing dry clothes, he reclined under a blanket Becca insisted he use to ward off the chill. She eventually went off to the Urgent Care clinic. And while he couldn’t resume his chapter, Alan felt relieved that the beach lay empty, the shifting panorama entirely his domain.
Alan slept on the sofa, and because he dozed off early, awoke soon after dawn. Raising the blinds to enjoy the first light reflecting on the ocean, he was outraged to see the unhinged man yet again. This time, he stood barefoot in baggy green pants, long gray hair animated by the wind. Alan couldn’t find the binoculars, but from a distance the man’s exposed back looked bruised and scarred, and if possible, barnacled.
“Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck,” he said.
Alan needed corroboration, wanted Becca on his side when the time came to complain to city officials. Intestinal pains began as he imagined lawyer fees to craft an injunction to keep this vagabond nincompoop away from his—and several other sane homeowners—private cove.
He padded into the bedroom and shook Becca. She resisted, face pained, desperately trying to cling to sleep. She once confided to feeling happiest while immersed in dreams. Finally Becca rose with a startled expression, on the verge of horror. “Oh, it’s only you, Alan. I thought it was a monster.”
“It’s okay. That must have been a nightmare. You’re awake now.”
Becca propped herself up with pillows. “I wasn’t dreaming. Lucid sleep.”
Alan had no idea what New Age nonsense she spoke of and didn’t care. “Come with me, that maniac returned.”
“What?” She yawned and frowned. “Alan, it isn’t even seven yet.”
“Just humor me and then you can sleep till nine.” Alan escorted her from the bedroom. Though Becca possessed a baby face unmarred by lines, stumbling along in her nightgown, bathrobe, and oversized slippers, she acted more like a frowzy dowager with a hangover.
In the living room, Becca pressed her long slender nose to the window glass. “There’s no one out there, Alan. Not a fucking soul in sight.”
Alan felt stunned. Both by the absence of the bedraggled man and from Becca cursing. She’d never used the F-word. “He was there. I swear it. This is some game he’s playing with me.”
“Are you sure he’s not a projection?”
“Of what? Jesus, you’re a nurse not a therapist.”
Becca scowled. She flapped a hand in dismissal and sauntered back toward the bedroom. The door slammed loudly behind, then locked.
Before nine, Alan drove twenty minutes north to the Lincoln City Police Department. He recognized Officer Deavers, a surly fellow in his early forties, who had the shiny, mustached face of a zealot, a man who might march at a night rally brandishing a tiki torch if the occasion called for it.
“Another complaint?” Deavers asked.
“This is the first.”
“You wanted us to clear some tourists from the beach outside your house. We explained about community access.”
Alan paused to think. “That was months ago. This is a deranged transient, a homeless stranger loitering near my cottage.”
“Depoe Bay is a little beyond our jurisdiction. We have our hands full here with paperwork and maintaining the speed zones.”
“Yes, but there’s no police department in Depoe Bay,” Alan said.
“Yeah, that’s a shame.” Deavers scratched his mustache. “Has this beach bum threatened you?”
“Well, uh, no…”
“Has he exposed himself or made sexual advances?”
“You still alone down in Whale Cove?”
“No, I’m married.”
“Really?” Deavers clicked rapidly on a laptop. “Your last complaint listed you as the sole occupant of—”
“I live with my wife. She’s just a little younger…”
“That’s right, you came with your daughter.” Deavers smiled. “Fine-looking young lady.”
“That was my wife, Becca.”
The officer whistled. “Nice. Anyway, describe this alleged trespasser.”
“Wild gray hair and dirty clothes. I didn’t see his face clearly, but he seemed pretty old.”
“Old as you?”
Alan took a deep breath. He reminded himself that he lived in a cottage on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, while this ass-clown rented a crap apartment in a moldy, dilapidated complex and was likely married to some milk maid puffed up on Tillamook cheese. Probably worked at the damn factory.
Deavers snorted. “Just seems a retired rocker like you would be more tolerant to fellow eccentrics.”
“The Alan Parsons Project. I’m mainly into country music, but classic rock is cool.”
“I’m Alan Pearson.”
“Not what I have in my log.” Deavers frowned. “Go report this to the Coast Guard. You mentioned hand signals. Well, if he’s signaling to panga boats—”
“Open-hulled boats loaded with drugs. If your man is part of their operation, the Coast Guard will shut him down fast.” Deavers smiled. “Thank you for visiting the Lincoln City Police Department.” He wandered off.
While Becca worked her shift, Alan finished a difficult chapter on the Treaty of Paris. By early afternoon, the carefree drifter lingered on the shoreline, the low tide’s small waves slapping at his feet. Though Alan felt angry, resorting to violence would only land him in jail. So he observed.
At one point, the stranger’s baggy, ill-fitting pants dropped, revealing a weathered and mottled ass. Gah! Alan turned away. The fool pulled them back up and belted them tight. What if the guy had swiveled around and flashed Becca? Unthinkable.
Alan drove to Coast Guard Station Depoe Bay beneath the old trestle bridge in the fishing harbor. He met the Officer in Charge, Lars Svenson. A burly Swede with a catcher’s mitt for a hand. “Welcome, welcome, to the world’s smallest harbor,” he said, his ruddy ham-hock of a face beaming. “Can I give you a tour? Where are you traveling from?” In his white outfit and nautical hat, he cut an imposing figure.
“Actually, I’m local,” Alan said. “From Whale Cove.”
“Aha.” Svenson sat, the joy draining from his expression. “Missing animal or missing person report?” He let out a loud sigh and opened a weathered log book, no computer in sight.
“I’m reporting a deranged man on the beach near my property,” Alan said, but the officer showed little interest, even stifling a yawn. “And today he dropped his pants, exposed himself.”
Svenson leaned forward. “Showed his manslem, to your wife?”
“No, his rear, and Becca had gone to work.”
“Well, frontal nudity toward your wife, that would be an offense. But flashing his buttocks…” Svenson laughed. “Back in Sweden, we called that horseplay. Harmless stuff.”
“But he may break-in while I’m away and my wife is all alone.” He noticed Svenson drawing on a pad. “Are you hearing me?”
“Yes, yes.” Svenson nodded. “Come take a look.”
Alan peered at the sketch. Though crude, it resembled the tramp with his ill-fitting clothes and mad scientist hair. “That’s the guy. You know him?”
“Haven’t seen him in years, but it’s Silas.”
“The lighthouse keeper at Cape Foulweather.”
“That’s just south of Whale Cove. But the lighthouse—”
“Oh, it’s derelict now.” Svenson filled a meerschaum pipe with tobacco. “You can only reach it at low tide. The jetty gets immersed in waves and riptides until the rocky promontory becomes an island.” He lit his pipe. “I assumed Silas had moved on to a working lighthouse.”
“No, not really.”
Svenson smiled yellow. “Would you like to file a complaint?”
“I just want to remove this lunatic.”
“It’s not illegal to be on a public beach.” Svenson exhaled a massive cloud. “If he becomes threatening or fondles himself, then take photos with your phone and show me. We’ll deal with it.” Svenson shrugged. “Such territorial disputes are best settled between the two parties and not by government agencies or in court.” He stood to hint the interview had ended. “Talk to Silas. The man I knew listened to reason.”
Alan found no sign of the mysterious Silas in Whale Cove. He waited until low tide, then waded through shallows around the rocky point. In the distance he saw Cape Foulweather, and at once the wind buffeted him while a spitting drizzle descended from fast-moving gray clouds. When Alan had traversed the crescent of beach to the jetty, the weather had calmed enough to remove his rain slicker’s hood. A pungent stench hung in the air, both feculent and of washed-up seaweed. It smelled of ass. Mermaid ass.
He carefully navigated the jetty of slippery rocks out to the promontory. The weathered door to the lighthouse slapped open and closed with the wind. The rank odor grew stronger inside, and Alan could see that high tides had swept in, staining and distressing the tower. Gripping the iron rail, he climbed the spiral staircase. The second floor held a library of damaged old books, the third had a Spartan bunk, dresser and table. Finally, at the top, he reached the great lamp. It had been cracked and damaged; cold air blew in through the open portal facing west. The circular tower room seemed familiar. Alan saw traces of wrappers and food boxes. His eyes were drawn to the framed photographs hanging on the walls. Dated images that due to exposure looked to be old, almost sepia-toned.
No mistake though, they were photos of Becca. What the hell? Was Silas obsessed with his wife? Alan found sheaves of water-damaged paper with orchestral notations that he didn’t understand.
A charge of electricity shot through him, the world went black and came back into focus. He had slumped against a grimy wall. Outside, the sea grew louder in the dusky glow. The incoming tide would soon cut off his escape route. At the base of the lighthouse, he sloshed through ankle-deep water, almost lost balance, but managed to scupper back to the jetty rocks and reach the beach. By the time he returned to Whale Cove, rain hammered down in a moonless night while wind shrieked through coastal pines.
At his cottage, the keys didn’t work. Alan shouldered the door but it stood firm. Dim lights shone inside. “Let me in,” he shouted. The driveway sat empty. “Becca, can you hear me?” In response, the home’s interior turned dark. “It’s Alan. What’s going on in there?” He pounded his fists then collapsed on the landing, a small overhang sheltering him from the downpour.
A rumble grew louder and a tremendous glare blinded him from the driveway. Muscular men in scrubs surrounded Alan, and when he struggled, strapped him into a straitjacket. A sharp prick in the arm and his vision melted into a shower glass blur.
He woke sprawled on an office sofa facing a familiar woman who seemed different, serious, her hair pulled back tightly. “Becca?” Alan said. “What’s happening?”
She let out an aggrieved sigh. “I am not Becca.” The woman in a lab coat turned to a Germanic man with slicked-back hair and a trim beard. “This transference isn’t working,” she said. “He’s clinging to another identity and is still convinced I’m his wife.”
The other man nodded. “Yes, Brooke. He may require more electroshock.”
“Where is this?” Alan attempted to sit up. The straitjacket had been removed but his hands were bound. “Why am I restrained?”
“For our safety,” the woman said, “and so you won’t claw out your eyes.”
She retreated behind a large desk and the man approached. “I’m Doctor Vogel. You’re in the West Salem Mental Health Clinic. Do you recall our previous conversations?”
“Salem? Shit, no, I’ve never met you.” Alan studied Vogel and felt a small twinge of recognition.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Visiting the lighthouse.”
“Of course.” The doctor nodded to the woman. “So you had returned to Whale Cove?”
“Nearby. Cape Foulweather. The lighthouse is disused, but I found that’s where Silas lives.”
“Ah, yes, your so-called drifter.” Vogel half-smiled.
“Worse than that, he’s a stalker. Had photos of my wife…” He gazed over at the woman but she took notes. “You know, Becca.” Alan scratched his head. “There were musical scores too. Folders filled with them.”
Suddenly the woman smiled and Vogel pursed his lips. “Good, good, that’s progress. Are you starting to place Silas Orloff?”
“The beach bum who waits outside my cottage for Becca?”
“No.” Vogel frowned. “The Russian composer and orchestra conductor, living in Los Angeles until three years ago.”
“That crazy homeless guy was a musician, a conductor?” Alan stared at the doctor. “Uh, why are you wearing a monocle?”
“It’s just a reading monocle.” He gestured to books heaped on the desk. “I’m afraid he’ll need another ECT treatment.” Vogel spoke to the woman. “Identity is still fragmented. I think maximum voltage.”
Three attendants burst inside to grab Alan and lead him out to a hallway that stretched forever. Somehow he broke his restraints and slugged the biggest man—who went down. The others froze, confused. Alan ran and ran, the hallway snaking off into passageways and narrow corridors, the fluorescent light strips above bleaching everything white. He sprinted until his feet slapped against wet asphalt in the darkness outdoors. Alan traversed a deserted highway from Salem, Oregon back fifty miles to the coast. Moving through some empty nightmare world. It grew darker until his motion ceased and everything tangible melted away.
He found himself crouched on the beach. Those Salem treatments had been years ago. He could only be in Whale Cove. Nearby, the bald patch of dune where his cottage had once stood showed. After-effects of a Japanese tsunami, scientists claimed. The Coastal Commission didn’t allow house construction so close to the shore anymore. Using twine found among driftwood, he tied back the coarse tangle of his hair.
Waving his hands, he began conducting a symphony of the sea and sky and clouds and wind. Day after day, he wrote new scores on music paper in the lighthouse. To perform outdoors when completed. The giant black rocks rising off the coast were not merely chunks of basalt, but the shoulders and spines of monsters birthed from volcanoes eons ago. They had conspired to rob him of his home and wife. He would remain on the shore conducting an orchestra of the elements until at the crescendo, the sea brought forth his wife Becca. Returned to him what was his.
Then Silas Orloff could rest again.
Copyright © 2021 – Max Talley. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Max Talley was born in New York City and lives in Southern California. His writing has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Litro, Santa Fe Literary Review, Bridge Eight, Entropy, and Atticus Review. Talley’s novel was published in 2014 and his curated anthology, Delirium Corridor, debuted in December 2020.
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