He stepped into the sodium glow of the streetlamp outside the hospital doors, struck a match, and grimaced around the cigarette between his lips. Somewhere, a horn was sounding. It pulsed against the night, bleating its heedless warning, frightening no one away. He didn't see the use in car alarms; if someone wanted what you had badly enough, they would simply take it. The papers were full of stories of would-be heroes cut down for defending something hardly worth defending. What did it get you? A city full of car alarms set off at nearly midnight, a chorus of idiot horns that served no purpose, other than to keep you up at night if you dared to sleep with the window open, hoping for a breeze.
There was no chorus tonight. Only the solitary horn, shattering the night. When it finally died, there was no sound at all. No rush of cars passing on the highway, no chirping crickets from the open field next to the hospital. It was as if someone had clamped a lid down over the night, the way he'd trapped fireflies under Mason jars when he was a boy. He'd never wondered, as a child, whether the sudden consuming silence of an airtight jar had frightened the fireflies he caught-whether they knew, at that moment, that something terrible was about to happen. He exhaled.
He crossed the parking lot to his car. Rolled down the windows and shrugged his jacket off, then loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt. It was possible to feel the whole weight of your life press down on you at once, he thought. Like the pressure of a heart attack, all of it on your chest, until your ribs cracked and your lungs gave out, and every regret and mistake finally let you go. On an upper floor of the hospital, a window went dark. He started the car, exited the lot, and wove his way through the city.
At an intersection, waiting for the light to change, he heard it again: the sound of a horn. The blaring noise, the stink of the city, the press of strangers on the sidewalks. He could no longer remember why he'd moved here, just to spend his days alone in a cheap apartment, cheaply built and cheaply furnished, none of the walls or surfaces reflecting anything about him; he wished now he had hung a framed photo or two, had, at the very least, covered over the beige paint with a color he might have liked to look at. Blue, maybe. The light was still red. It was late; the intersection was empty, and still he waited under the glare of the light. What was the point? He flicked his butt out the window and lit another cigarette. Surely someone, the car's owner, had heard the horn by now and would shut it off. The sound had become feeble in its repetition, like the moans of a dying man. Would the light never change?
Quiet again. Not quiet-silent. No sound at all but the grumble of the car's engine. He turned his face away from the endless red light and felt a light wind touch his face. The scent it carried stirred something inside him. He knew that scent. Saltwater, sand warmed by the sun. There was no ocean nearby, yet he could smell it on the breeze.
An image came to him: his mother, slender-limbed, clad in her bathing suit, her hair damp and curling from the saltwater, her arms hugging her knees to her chest as she turned her face to him and smiled her sad smile. Her lips moved, she said something to him, something he couldn't hear-she was too far away, too long gone. He remembered her warm hand against his bare skin as she rubbed lotion over his back, the gold band she wore long after his father failed to come back from the war.
Under the glare of the red light, he shifted his car into reverse, backed up, pulled into the far right lane. Made a legal right on red. Turned down a street that led away from, not to, his apartment. Green lights this way, all green lights. He drove through the empty city, away from the gentrified districts and into the old neighborhoods, the ones where the Italian and Irish mothers would lean from windows to call their children in to dinner. Neighborhoods much like the one in which he was born. In the summers, while his dad was overseas, he and his mother would squeeze into the Ciccones' car and escape the soft asphalt, the scorched sidewalks, for a weekend at the beach. There, in the back seat, pressed between Mary Louise Ciccone and her sister, Annunciata, he had experienced his first erection, his hands covering his tented swim trunks as his cheeks burned without having yet seen the sun, and the Ciccone girls tilted their heads back and let the wind from the open windows blow their soft hair against his face.
The bridge he crossed took him out of the city and onto the interstate. The numbers on the clock and the odometer rolled onward without his noticing; the hazed glow of the city disappeared from his rearview mirror and darkness overtook the highway, until the only lights against the night were his headlights and the lights of farmhouses far off the road. Warm kitchen lights, he imagined, turned on to comfort the insomniac, the nighttime rover of the house. The farmers would be asleep, surely, resting up for the early morning ahead. But their wives might find themselves awake, unable to fall back to sleep, their heads filled with worry. They'd pushed their quilts back, drawn by some unnamable concern down the hall and into their kitchens, where they poured themselves cups of coffee and wept quietly, and where, in the morning, their husbands would find them at the stove, scrambling eggs as if nothing were the matter.
He had lived in such a house as a younger man. He had never been a farmer, had never raised chickens or birthed calves. He had, in fact, been a teacher, for a time; he'd driven each morning to the nearby town to spend the day telling children that if they worked hard, they could be writers, doctors, presidents. Leaving his wife behind each day to cope with the silent house. Every night that he came home late, claiming a meeting with parents, a rehearsal for the Christmas pageant, had been a deceit. It had all been so clear, what to do, leading up until the day they got married. You courted, you wooed, the girl fell for you, and you walked down an aisle, bought a house. Had children. That was what they waited for, all those years, until one day, his wife did not turn from the stove to tell him good morning and offer the eggs. He found her, instead, still seated at the table, the coffee having gone cold, her eyes red and her hands trembling. It wasn't him, she'd said, but what else could it have been? Their marriage had soured, had been souring since the moment they had moved the last piece of furniture in, hung the last picture on the wall, then turned to each other, neither of them knowing what came next.
He took an exit, not bothering to read the sign that would tell him where he was, or where he was going. The pack of cigarettes was nearly empty; he barely remembered lighting the last smoke, or the one before that, he'd become so lost in thought. No one told you, that was the thing. No one told you that there would come a time when you would become lost. He had waited too long. Always hoping for something, some call that would come in the night, some voice that would guide him and lead him out of the wilderness in which he felt he'd been lost. Something that would tell him how to live and what to do. Give him some direction.
When his wife left, he'd thought she would move back in with her mother; instead, she applied for a passport and went to Europe, and when she returned, two years later, she was married to an Italian photographer, and she had cut her hair short, and all the time she'd spent roving through Europe had equipped her with something she hadn't had when she'd been married to him. Something he was missing, himself. She moved to the city with her Italian. Each Christmas, he opened his mailbox and found a card from her: a family portrait, her beaming face and the child on her lap growing taller and more handsome with every year.
He came out of his reverie long enough to notice the car was almost out of gas. The gas station he found was lit with neon and fluorescents, garish against the countryside. But inside, while he waited for the cashier to make change, he was surprised to find a shelf of old-fashioned penny candy. Gumdrops, chocolate squares, single sticks of gum, peppermints. Along the top shelf, an entire row of jars that held cellophane-wrapped stick candy. Five cents apiece when he was a boy, now they went for a quarter each. He drew a stick from the jar marked Root Beer. The last time he'd seen candy like this was when he was eight or nine, back when his mother would send him to the market for a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread; she would let him keep the change, which he would use to buy the candy. Outside the convenience store, his change in his pocket-minus twenty-five cents-he peeled the cellophane away and licked the candy stick. The sweet, sticky taste of root beer, the buzz of sugar on his tongue. It tasted like summer. Like afternoons in the street, stickball games that were interrupted when the occasional car drove through.
Far away, the sound of a horn.
He tilted his head, listening hard. Faint, but distinct-it was the same sound he heard earlier, in the city, the single repeated note piercing the night. Impossible. Of course it was impossible, and it wasn't the same sound, not really. In the city, he had heard a horn; this was not a horn honking over and over, but a shout. Yay! Yay! Yay! The sound of cheers. He listened until he could no longer hear it.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and strolled toward the car, the stick in his mouth. Accidentally kicked a stone across the gas station lot. When the stone stopped and he caught up with it, he kicked it again. He followed the stone to his car, his loosened tie fluttering as he ran and kicked.
At the lot's exit, he intended to turn back. Head back the way he had come-he couldn't recall why he'd driven away from the city in the first place, just that he had felt heavy, weighted down with all the years behind him, but now he felt light. The engine idled and he pushed the turn signal down-right turn, back to the city-and then he heard it once more: Yay! Coming from the left-from the east.
He turned. Headed toward the coast. If this night was not the time to be spontaneous, to do the things that seemed unreasonable, when would it be? He could count the months ahead of him on one hand. There was no one to blame, no God to shake a fist at. Only himself. If his was a life full of regret, it was only due to the decisions he'd made. The roads he hadn't taken. As a boy, he'd dreamed of joining the Air Force like his father, or becoming an adventurer. Traveling far, seeing things most people never had the chance to see. But somewhere along the line, he'd grown timid. Afraid of taking the wrong step. How did such a thing happen to a person? How did one shrink, wilt, bow under the difficulties that came upon a man? In college he had debated with his classmates, coming down firmly against fate. A man is the captain of his own existence, he'd insisted; he steered his boat as he saw fit, and if the oceans rose against him, it was up to him not to abandon ship but forge ahead. Where had that bravado gone?
The road narrowed to two lanes, the shoulders almost non-existent until he wound his way through another town-this one larger than the others, with Victorian houses and manicured lawns. In the town center, he found a campus. Alice Parker-Duplass Science Complex. Roger T. Stone Library. Every building named for a donor, most of them dead, he imagined. By day, students would walk the paths between dorms and have the same arguments he'd had as a student, the same expectation that they could mold their world to their liking. All of life ahead of them. If he could stop the car, stay until morning; wait for the first freshmen to wake late and run, unshowered, to their eight o'clock classes, would he stop them? Take them by the shoulders and tell them the truth: How all of their dreams for the future had been dreamed before, and would be dreamed again? How only the smallest handful of them would live without regret and die happily in their sleep?
The candy stick was nothing but a button on his tongue now. All the sweetness sucked out of it. He spit the last bit out the window.
It hadn't been a bad life. That was what he'd heard other people say, men his own age who spent their retirement years reminiscing about the past. Oh, I've had my fair share of troubles, but all in all, I can't complain. He tried the words out, whispered them to the empty road. They didn't feel true.
Closer to the coast now, he could smell the ocean on the air again, not the phantom of a scent but the real thing this time. The last town on the road was a fishing community-houses with paint bleached by the salt and the sun, old boats moored in yards for repairs. At the water, fishing boats were docked for the night, bobbing silently in their slips, waiting for first light.
He'd retired to a town like this one. After he and his wife separated, he'd become something he couldn't recognize. The next years, decades, were ones of lonely living, days spent working as a bookkeeper in an anonymous-looking office-he'd always had a head for numbers-then coming home to a solitary dinner each evening. He'd wanted a change of scenery, so he'd moved from the city to the sea. That had been the time to make up for all the lost opportunities of his youth, he thought. He might have taken up painting. He might have bought his own boat, spent mornings on the water fishing not out of need but for the joy of it. He had always thought he might write a book. But the news of his wife had come only days after he arrived in the little village-he never had figured out how the Italian husband had found his address so quickly. The letter said only that she had died peacefully, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, and that she had spoken fondly of him, in the end. That she'd never regretted their time together, as brief as it had been. As disappointing, he'd inferred. The word had never passed her lips; perhaps she really hadn't been let down by him-perhaps that had only been his perception. Whatever the case, she had found a way to be brave, after all. Because wasn't that what it took to live a life the way you wanted to live it? To be uncompromising in the face of everything that pushed against you? Bravery. He'd folded the letter and tucked it into a book he was reading at the time, and when he finally gave up-the paints he'd bought dried out, the paper upon which he'd hoped to write his own story yellowed but unmarked-and returned to the city, he couldn't find the book again; it had gotten lost, somehow, in the move.
It had all simply slipped away.
He parked his car outside an all-night diner. The windows were lit yellow in the heavy night. Inside, a young woman moved from booth to booth, wiping the surface of each table with a rag. Behind the counter, a middle-aged man stood tallying figures in a book, dressed in a cook's white shirt and apron, stubble on his chin. Otherwise, the diner was empty. It would be nearly four in the morning, he thought, though he couldn't bring himself to check the clock. He got out of the car and watched the diner couple move inside their cocoon of light.
He heard it again: the horn, the cheer. It no longer sounded like either honking or shouting, but like mourning. A wail of regret. The sound had followed him from the city. Not followed-led. It was before him. Coming from the beach. He left his car unlocked, headed toward the sand.
There was a day he recalled, a day from his brief life near the sea: It came to him suddenly, as he left the parking lot and crossed to the beach. He'd decided to take an afternoon, sit on the shore, let go of all his dark thoughts. A sunny day, but late in the season; there had only been two other people at the beach that day. A young woman and a boy of eleven or twelve. A mother and son, he'd assumed. They played in the surf, splashing each other, laughing. Then they moved further out, floating their bodies and swimming past the shallow part of the water, out to the deep, until they were just two heads bobbing on the surface of the sea. He watched as the two of them took turns diving under, the slippery way they slid head-first into the water, their feet breaking the surface before disappearing. They stayed down forever; at one point, he feared the boy had drowned. When they had finished their game, they swam back to shore, emerging onto the beach, spent and gasping but grinning like fools.
They collapsed on the sand. The mother must have fallen asleep; he watched the boy wander off, barefoot, toward the road back into town.
After the woman woke, she strolled past and he called out to her. She came closer, and he saw that she wasn't nearly old enough to be the mother of an eleven-year-old boy. She might have been nineteen, twenty-not even old enough to drink.
Still he said, "Your son went that way, up the street."
"My son?" She laughed. "You mean Andy? That's not my son. That's just Andy."
"Who's Andy?" he'd asked.
She shrugged. "He's just a boy. I just met him."
She was about to leave.
"Wait," he said. "Tell me-what were you diving for?"
She cocked her head, a puzzled look on her face. "We weren't diving for anything. For nothing." And she'd walked away, the towel wrapped about her waist flapping in the wind coming off the sea.
His loafers had filled with sand. He unlaced his shoes, took them off. Peeled off his socks. He hadn't realized how encumbered he'd been, how heavy his shoes had grown until he took them off. The sand felt like silk between his toes. He the unaccountable urge to run. He dashed across the beach, sprinting until his heart pounded alarmingly inside his chest. Until he reached the water.
After several minutes bent at the waist, his hands on his knees, he caught his breath enough to hear something other than the sound of his own wheezing. The horn. He could still hear it. Not coming from the beach, but from the water. Somewhere out there, out on the ocean, there was a boat, perhaps, sounding its horn again and again. Or-a swimmer. The horn was not a horn, but a cry. He strained to hear the faint voice over the thud of his own heart in his ears. A desperate plea: Help. Help.
Without thinking, he shed his shirt, stripped off his pants. Before he realized what he was doing, he was naked-as the day you were born, his mother would have said-and had stepped into the water. The shallows were long; he waded in past his ankles, past his knees, up to his chest. It seemed he would never reach the point where he was in over his head, but then he was-suddenly. The floor vanished from beneath his feet and his last step took him under. Sputtering, he emerged and began to swim.
The old strokes came back to him with surprising ease-the movements his mother had taught him during those beach weekends, the ones he hadn't used since childhood. At first his arms and legs felt awkward, out of sync; he could tell he was struggling to breathe, rather than letting it happen effortlessly, in time with each stroke. Don't think about it, just do what feels natural. He could hear her voice, the memory of her voice, and it soothed him. His strokes lengthened and he swam on.
How long was it before the tiredness set in? He couldn't say; it seemed he'd been swimming all his life. He expected panic to overtake him-at some point he would realize how far out he was, how far back the shore, and fear would squeeze his chest, and his own voice would join the voice he'd heard, both of them shouting help, help in the darkness, unable, even, to find each other. But he felt no panic. Not even when-limbs aching, lungs burning-he paused to tread water. He turned in the sea, like a planet turning in space, and looked back at the shore. All he could see was the faint yellow light of the all-night diner, where the cook would be slicing vegetables and warming a broth. Soon, there would be a hearty stew, which would simmer through the coming morning and would feed the fishermen that afternoon when they came in from their chores. Soon, there would be coffee perking, and early risers would line themselves up at the counter, and the young waitress would pour out steaming cups and take orders. Soon, the day would start.
That was when the first small bloom of fear blossomed inside him. He felt it tugging at him, pulling him back toward shore. The diner, the fishermen, the cook, and the woman-they were all so far away. He couldn't go back. He had been going back all night, back over the years and the regret, and where had it taken him? Nowhere useful. There was nothing to do but go on. There was never anything to do but go on.
Now the sound had changed again. It was no longer a horn; not a shout, nor a wail, nor a cry for help. Now it was a sigh. He felt the fear, nestled inside him. But he also felt something else. An ability. A willingness. He could go on, in spite of fear. He turned around and faced the open ocean.