It was the smell that got me.
We drove along the harsh edged cliffs – the same I ran along as a kid – with the windows rolled down. The same salt that stained the shoreline rock faces stung the inside of my nose, and memories tumbled through my brain.
"Boy," I said to Linda, "you can really smell the sea."
"What?!" Linda, who was driving, yelled over the whipping wind.
I rolled up my window. Linda did the same.
"The sea," I said. "You can really smell it."
"Oh, yes," she replied.
And we drove in relative silence, me pondering why this smell was so provocative. I recalled Linda talking about smells and memories once; but, like so many memories, it had grown fuzzy. I didn't bother asking her about it. She would have been happy to remind me, and careful not to patronize – which I would interpret as patronizing. Because I am not a very nice man.
I'm teasing. Dad used to say that to Mark and me as kids, whenever we used to ask "why":
Why won't you let us take the boat out? Why can't we go play at the lighthouse today?
Well, I guess because I'm not a very nice man.
But after thinking about this – a painful, slow effort – I finally said "I don't recall the smell being quite so…"
I paused, turning the pages of my mental thesaurus.
"Smelly?" Linda offered, careful not to think too hard about her answer.
"Odiferous," I said, and Linda chuckled. A good woman.
"You've been away a good, long while," she said.
We pulled into the funeral home parking lot around noon – noonish. It was misting.
"Oh – Scott, Scott, put on your jacket."
"Put on your jacket – you'll catch a cold."
"Oh quiet, lady."
"I'm serious – Scott, I'm serious." She walked around to the trunk and opened it, pulling out the shiny, garish new rain jacket we had bought from the outdoor supply store by the airport (I had made sure to pick out one with a reasonably drab color, but it still looked obnoxious somehow).
"The door is right there! There is no point–"
But I was already, obediently, turned around, arms back for my doting wife to put on my jacket for me.
"Oh, so I have to wear one but you don't?"
"I'm getting mine," she said, patting down the ruffles of the jacket on my back. True to her word, she went back to the trunk and threw on a purple one – somehow less ridiculous looking than mine. "Happy?" she asked.
She closed the trunk and walked over, putting her arm under mine. "Are you ready?"
Her inflection had changed, from playful banter to concern. The change threw me for an instant. But then – yes, it made sense. We were there to prepare for a funeral. A sad thing. Mark had died, days before, and we had to bury him. That is why we were there, in that parking lot. Funny – it had gotten hard to think beyond or behind the present; it was as if we were only there to fuss over raincoats. But no. We were there about my dead brother.
I snapped back, aware that Linda was probably worried about me. "Yes, yes," I said, quickly, voice consciously cheery. We walked inside.
I was obsessing a little bit over the grating sound of nylon (or, whatever it was) rubbing against nylon on my new jacket – general childishness, I know – as Linda chatted with the funeral home maître d (or, whatever he was). He was dressed in a sharp but stock black suit, and had a painfully pleasant voice: "Hello, Mr. Richards. Mrs. Richards. We are so honored to meet you." I took note of his careful diction – "honored", more dignified than "happy" or "excited". Very careful.
He introduced himself with a name I cannot honestly remember. Linda did most of the talking. I was elsewhere. He must've asked if we had any questions, and Linda, ever mindful of the pressures of expensive service industry workers face when dealing with their clientele – particularly those with the emotional baggage of a dead loved one – came up with some, trying to help the boy feel like he did his job.
They finished eventually. He put an endearing arm on my shoulder and said "Mark is in good hands with us, Mr. Richards. Linda. Thank you for trusting us with his memory."
I grunted. It was a line from the brochure we read on the computer back home. Linda gently reminded me with a nudge with her elbow that I shouldn't be an ass. She said thank you, and I shuffled a little bit toward the door.
He noticed this micro-movement. We turned to leave. "Oh!" he said, "before you leave, sir — I often — people often want to visit their loved ones, one last time. To say one last goodbye."
Before Linda could remind him, I asked, "Wasn't he cremated?"
She looked as mortified as he did.
A tense moment passed before he said "Yes, oh dear. I am terribly sorry."
"It's quite alright dear, honest mistake," Linda said, laughing piteously. But I said, "Sure."
"I'm sorry, sir?"
"Sure. I'll see him."
Linda started to say something, but I began to walk toward some rooms in the back, and the man quickly spun so he could lead, and before she could stop us we were on our way to see my brother.
He was in a small room reserved for the next day's services. His urn was simple; a monotone ceramic gray like the clouds of an autumn shower.
"He's a littler smaller than I remember," I said.
As we left, I got the sense that Linda wasn't amused with my morbid humor. But she wasn't mad, either. And I knew it then why that was the case.
Truth be told, Mark was always the funny one. I saw him last about twelve years ago; we took the boat, a twenty-two foot sailboat he never bothered naming, for a boozy cruise around Henrietta Sound. He had been looking forward to it, and I had too.
"Did you check the forecast?" I asked him.
"Did I check the forecast?" He repeated impetuously, not looking up from the rope he was coiling. "Who do you think I am?"
"Looks like rain."
Mark scanned the horizon. The sun was still out, and while dark clouds hung over the horizon, they didn't yet look imminent.
He bent his head back down. "Well," he said, "We're going to need to get drunk as fast as possible. Need to leave enough time to sober up before the storm hits."
It was drizzling when we drove down to meet Sully from the marina at the crash. Linda parked on the side of the road, and we walked down the rocky trail to what little shore there was in between craggy cliffs and jutting rocks. The boat was in two distinct halves, split over one particularly long rock that stuck out over the water. The front half must have slid forward and smashed against the face of the cliff there; pieces of the bow were scattered across the beach, buried in the coarse, pebble and stone filled sand. I looked for blood, but couldn't find any. The rain must have washed any of it away.
I was still fretting about my pansy rain jacket. Sully had on an orange one, one that looked like it belonged – or, at least, that's what my male insecurity was telling me. He saw us and half waved, staggering over the loose sand toward us.
I inspected the wreck as he told us about the storm. It wasn't overly severe, he said, but visibility was poor. The tide was falling, too, and the wind must have pushed him too close to the rocks by the water's edge. They tested the emergency engine, and it wouldn't start. Sully guessed that it was broken before Mark took off, but there was no way to tell.
"Mark knew these beaches, Sully. He knew this wasn't a fine place to be. He had to."
"Can't be sure. But the beacon a few miles up was out. Condemned. So he must've thought—he had to have thought he was somewhere else. Gotten mixed up somehow," he said. "Or something. Can't be sure."
"He's sailed through storms before."
"Yeah. Yeah. It was dark too, you know. Things happen."
"Yeah." I looked through what cracks I could see from my angle inside. "It was days ago, Sully. When are they gonna clean it up?"
"That's my job," he said. "And it isn't going to be an easy one. Were gonna have to carry it up to the road, piece by piece."
"They can't just send someone?" I asked, not knowing who "they" were.
Sully sort of shrugged. I was annoyed by the apparent silliness of the question.
We stood in silence for a few odd moments before Linda, who had been listening earnestly, piped in: "What kind of beacon? What is that?"
"A lighthouse," Sully said.
We saw it the next day. The funeral was being held in the cemetery where Mark would be buried, which was down an old road about a quarter of a mile from the ancient tower. There was a light rain again, and it took a minute for it to materialize in the distance as we drove down the road. It was white, but looked gray against the backdrop of overcast rainclouds in the distance.
"That must be it," Linda said.
"Do you remember it? As a child?"
I didn't reply. I stared at the old thing, flummoxed by how small it was. Maybe three stories? I always had thought it was as big as a city skyscraper.
"Huh – yeah?"
"Do you remember it?"
Mark and I had ignored the lighthouse as we tacked up the shoreline that morning, drinking cheap whisky and trying fruitlessly to fish. Mark had caught a runt of a flounder that quickly died. I caught a boot. It was the most fun either of us had had in a long while.
We dropped anchor about a three miles from where we started, out of sight of the lighthouse, and retreated into the galley as the rain moved in. We drank and talked about other times we drank, and forgot about our problems for a while – but, as it happens when you're trying to forget, memory crept up on us.
It was my fault. "When are you gonna sell this damn thing, man. The damn walls are dripping!"
He feigned a laugh. "I was gonna, brother," he said. "Sheryl made me promise before," and I understood why he hadn't. I tried to sigh empathetically. "Well…"
"Yeah," he said, elongating the word. "Silver linings."
"Yeah," I said, and we listened to the tittering rain hit walls of the old boat.
I wanted to change the subject, but we were already there. Linda had told me that it would be good for him to talk about it. As loathe as I was to admit it, I thought she was right, and I knew I was the only person in the world he would talk to now.
"How's it been, lately? Since she went back?"
He shrugged. "Quiet. Been focused on work, you know. Keeping my head down."
"Yeah, yeah yeah," I said. "That's good I bet. That's probably the way to do it."
He shrugged again. "That's what they say. You know, just keep pluggin' away. Keep moving." I nodded dumbly.
"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah."
We were both painfully aware of how emotionally ill-equipped we were to talk about stuff like that. Too silly middle aged man-boys. I for myself had been leaning heavily on the advice of Linda, who gave me a few pointers with her much smarter lady-brain.
Which is why after a long period of heavy, silent drinking I said, "Linda tells me it's good to talk about it."
"She says that?"
"Yeah. She's good at this. She is – you know, she, kinda knows this stuff. A little bit."
"Doesn't she work with kids?"
"Yeah, Mark she works with kids, but she knows about adults too."
Mark brooded over this, and then smirked, and then he started laughing. He laughed then as hard as he laughed all that day. "Scottie!" he stammered, "Scottie, Scottie!"
I was laughing reflexively. "What? What?"
"She works with children. I'm not sure if I'm emotionally mature enough for that kind of therapy!"
I laughed easier. "Well, if you start seeing her we have to make sure Sheryl doesn't find out. She'd get the woman on the phone pretty damn quick, let me tell you."
We laughed together – the way only men of a certain age laugh about wives and ex-wives: resigned, with a humming hint of mutual self-deprecation and empathy. Yes, we were silly, sad boys running head first into middle age, who, even after decades on the earth hadn't the slightest clue what they were doing; we were unable to figure out life, unable to see the future, unable to forget the past, and quite drunk.
We sat and drank and caught our breath. "Are you gonna have kids?" he asked.
I was happy to talk about me. My problems were far less problematic. "Aww, I don't think so. We thought about it. Neither of us were ever too keen on the idea, really. She sees enough kids, and me – well, it was just never something I felt too strongly about, you know. We talked about adopting, though."
"Oh, yeah?" he nodded, with earnest.
"Yeah, you know, when we got older and settled down a bit, maybe. I'm not so sure now though. It's expensive, you know. But it would be the only way now. We talked to the doctor about it, and at her age its—" I caught myself. I froze instinctively. I looked up at Mark. His eyes were fixed on the ground below him and I knew what I had done.
I thought about apologizing, but I figured that would just make it worse. I pretended it didn't happen. "We're probably not going to bother with that. It's a lot of trouble, you know."
"Riskier," he said. "She's, what, fifty or so?"
"Fifty-three. A month to the day older than me. That's how I remember, you know?"
He ignored my attempt of a joke. "Younger than Sheryl," he said voice was barely audible over the ever growing amount of rain. He then started to cry, soft as a baby. I looked about the window, gazing at the streaking rain while quietly seething at my nosy wife.
They didn't mention Mark's stillborn child at the service, and they didn't mention Sheryl – who was, as expected, absent. It was a short funeral – and thankfully so, because Linda insisted again that I wear the jacket over my suit. The crowd was sparse, but the people there genuinely loved the man. At least that was the feeling I got. I recognized few faces, and the ones I did I remembered only barely – no one I could conversate with, as my dad used to neologize.
They put what was left of Mark in the ground, in sight of the now defunct lighthouse, around four o'clock. There was no official reception afterward, so guests milled around, sharing small talk and trying to connect the dots of their memories of the deceased in a fruitless search for meaning in death.
Linda and I sat as a few came up to share their condolences. She was polite, but I sat quietly to myself. The last root was in the ground, in a small grey urn, and I didn't want to pretend otherwise. After a several minutes, Linda stood to chat with the rest. "Scott," she said.
"I'm going to go see the lighthouse," I told her.
"The lighthouse? Alone?"
"Yeah. I'd like to. It would make me happy."
She tilted her head in response to my rarified emotional honesty. "Is it safe?" she asked. I shrugged. "Well," she sighed, "be careful, okay? I love you."
The lighthouse was a few football fields away. I clambered up to the old wooden door, barely tall enough for me to walk through without ducking. There was no lock – only a rusted metal knob and a faded sign signaling the old tower's condemnation. I pushed the door open and squeezed my way inside. It was stuffy, dusty – my eyes stung as they blinked into focus, adjusting to the dimness of the light. I looked up; the walls, cracking with time and wind and rain, let in beams of light in random intervals all along the length of the tower, piercing it from every angle like arrows. Where the light shone, cobwebs twinkled, motes of dust glistened, and ancient wood glowed – each dark fissure of the illuminated boards highlighted like black lines of text against the wrinkled, eggshell white pages of some aged tome. But most of the inside remained dim, out of focus, edges blurry, and undefined. I found the bottom of the staircase that spiraled to the top, and started to climb.
I was breathless when I emerged into the gray light of day. The glass that had once housed the rotating spotlight was mostly gone, as was the light itself. I stepped to the edge that faced the ocean and peered down. The tower was smaller than I remembered; but, it was still tall enough, combined with the height of the sheer cliff below, that the length from me to the ocean below still gave my gut a mild leap.
Mark didn't set out that afternoon, I think, with a bottle or two of cheap whisky and a broken engine, with a clear plan of ending up dead. But I knew it then that he knew that there would be a storm, and that the lighthouse had long been condemned, and that he was a crap sailor when he was drunk – but he went out anyway. I wondered if, were he given the chance, he would change anything, knowing how that day would end.
We were coming in off the Sound. Mark was laughing again.
"Wooooo, woooooo," he sang, mocking my exaggerated, drunken swaying in reaction to the tilting boat.
"C'mon then. You sail."
"No shot," he said. "You are drunk, sir, but I am drunker."
"Then shut your damn mouth, unless you want to swim."
"I bet you wouldn't make it."
"I'd make it farther than you. Pussy."
"Can't think of a better way to go," he said. We laughed.
It was storming, and the tide would be changing soon. We weren't going to make it back to the marina. "Look," I said, "look, that little bit there."
"Huh?" he shouted above a thunderclap.
"That little beach there," I said. "We can beach her there and wait it out."
He drunkenly saluted. "Sail on, captain."
We hit the beach, and pulled the boat up as far as we could. We drank a little while afterward and passed out, waking around noon the next day – just as the tide was rising again to carry us home.
Or maybe it was different, I thought, still standing at the top. Maybe we didn't laugh as much as I thought we did. I looked sightlessly over the precipice of that disappointing lighthouse, racking my brain for the truth. Trying desperately to remember what he had said, how he had said it. I was trying desperately to remember what his face looked like.
For some reason, I kept getting distracted. I could only think of Sully's face, or that fellow from the funeral home – or Linda's. And I kept thinking about this annoying rain jacket, and the slinky sound it made every time my arm twitched from lack of movement.
But then the rain let up, to barely more than a mist. I took it off, dropping on the ground behind me, and turned back to face the ocean that killed my brother.
I wanted to experience a gale – the kind that I saw Mark sailing through that night in my mind. I wanted to feel my sagging skin pushed back, wind curving around my ears and pressing my eyes shut against gale. I looked down at the haggard rocks below. I wanted to feel the feeling we felt as kids – breeze against our faces, inviting us to the horizon, when we could wonder what was out there, what was out anywhere – I wanted the sky to rage and the wind to howl, pushing back to a time when I didn't have so much to remember. When Mark didn't have so much to remember.
I looked down at the sharp rocks below. It was still a long fall. A loose piece of glass sat by my foot, and I kicked it over – it tumbled through the air, faster and faster, until it fell soundlessly into the water. It must have been gusty, a fall from that height.
But suddenly, in an endlessly quiet moment, I felt like the water was laughing at me. Salt stung my eyes – it must have – I squeezed them shut and rubbed them hard. A silly, overdramatic boy.
I turned, grabbed my jacket, and headed back down.
The jacket was back on by the time Linda saw me – relieved. "You were gone a while," she said.
"How was it?"
"It was fine."
She sighed and smiled. "Well," she said, "Some folks are going to a pub – some Irish pub – O'Hara's?"
"I know it."
"Well, some folks are going over to meet after, so I said—"
"Let's just go home."
She hesitated. She started to say my name, but thought better of it, and only nodded.
We walked to the car, air stilled by silence. The rain had stopped completely, replaced by a fog spreading up from the sea, wrapping the lighthouse in a dewy embrace and blanketing the short, green grass. I lurched into the passenger's seat as Linda started the engine.
"What did you do up there?" she asked.
"Oh, not much of anything, really. We used to go up there as kids."
"You and Mark?"
"Well, I'm glad you got to see it again." She glanced back for another look. "I wonder what's going to end up happening to it."
"No use wasting money tearing it down," I replied. "Just let it stand there, and crumble to dust."
She looked at me a moment. She drew a sharp breath, like she wanted to say something important. But she only exhaled, and said "That's a shame."
But I don't think it was, really. That little tower was really a bit of a letdown. But I kept my eyes on it as my wife shepherded me away; the crumbling tower became dimmer and dimmer, its fading figure veiled by the thickening mist that crept up behind, growing ever more shrouded until, despite the best efforts of my searching eyes, it was gone.
Frank Burch is a writer and high school teacher living in Houston Texas. His work has appeared in Gravel and the Delta Literary Journal.