by Brian Dalton
Part dream, part ghost story, a story about the comradery one can find with strangers.
I never wanted to go to the clambake, but it was a tradition, long-held by my step-father’s circle, so I obliged each year, piling into the truck with Rick and his friends and making the half hour trek to the shore. When I was younger, sixteen and seventeen, I wasn’t invited but was called towards early evening to drive to the shore with a friend, to pick up the drunken debauchers while my friend drove their truck home. Then I began going around noon, passing the day on a craggy Massachusetts beach, drinking beer for an exhausting eight hours until, signaled by the blurred twilight, I’d call a younger cousin to pick us up.
Rick and his friends were raucous, playing catch and tackling one another into the freezing September Ocean, shouting and carrying on as if still high school boys, out only for the few hours their parents would allow them and making a fine mess of themselves in the meantime. I could see why it meant a lot to them, like an afternoon vacation from their wives and worries. I didn’t have worries though, and drinking didn’t give me the giddy kicks it gave them. Drinking with them depressed me, a reminder of where I would be at their age, fatter and more secure, but still bored, still partying.
A big cauldron-style pot was set up over a fire pit on the sand, filled with seaweed, butter, spices and beer-then sausage, clams, lobster, and corn. They tossed in other stuff, but I couldn’t tell what anymore. The last of my beer swirled around in the bottle, more backwash than alcohol. It was getting colder now that the day was carrying on to late afternoon, when the sun leaves its noontime perch and begins to promise approaching night. I emptied my beer into the sand and, taking out a receipt from the bridge toll, wrote The Gloaming on it, and stuffed it into the bottle. The gloaming I said to myself, what a perfect word, and walked down the beach away from the laughter of the bake to find a lonely place to enjoy its onset.
The beach stretched on a few hundred feet, separated from the road by vast dunes with KEEP OFF signs and parallel, white picket fences. The sand was white and cool and the water’s pulse soothed away the blues of a too-drunk-young man. Whish…Wash…Whish…Wash…The rhythm soothed. The beach ended where steep, grassy hills began, so I climbed the nearest one, holding the grass like I used to hold Rick’s hair when I was on his shoulders, so I wouldn’t fall backwards. The green slopes wrapped around a sharp turn, so that I could not see the beach that had just ended when I looked back over my shoulder. I kept walking, balancing best as I could, until I reached another beach and sat down in the grass to catch my breath and wait for the sunset.
The beer had made me sleepy, and I reclined and rested my head on the soft earth. The grass tickled my ears and its smell filled my nose. It all made me groggy. The waves still lapped the shore and it still soothed. What a salty heaven I thought. And that’s when I saw him.
He started as a speck. Then he drew closer and grew larger. Now I could see the length of the beach on which he walked, and the horizon line beyond it. The sunset was a deep pink, brilliant and cold over the water. I thought it a trick of the twilight or a coincidence in timing; as the man walked slowly forward, bobbing somewhat with his steps, watching his feet all the time, the gloaming followed him. It fell like a great curtain being drawn from East to West. The skyline behind him faded, and grew dark. But he watched his feet; stopping now and then so the nightfall could catch up with him, so the pink could fade to red, to dark blue, to black.
At the end of the beach he stopped, and I could see he carried in his hand something bulky. From my spot he was only a silhouette, a shadow of the beach and I thought it very possible that I was seeing things, dreaming, drinking too much at these damn bakes. I stood up, and felt my legs sturdier than when I had sat down. I took a careful step but gravity pulled me down the hill faster than I had anticipated, straight towards the figure. I tried to stop or slow. I couldn’t. I dropped to let myself roll, fearing I would scare or provoke the man. The grass scratched my tumbling body until the sand sprayed and I stopped, faced down on the beach at his feet.
“…hmmm…hmmm. It’ll be around here…somewhere..”
I looked up and he was humming, surprisingly undisturbed by my acrobatics. His head was searching about, surveying the ground as he hummed with a voice that seemed to come right from his chest.
I jumped up and dusted myself off. In an attempt at nonchalance I stuck out my hand. “How goes it?” He stopped.
“There we go,” he said and lunged passed me. The bulky thing he carried was a lamp that looked like a bug zapper, large and square with metal criss-crossing the bulb. He also carried a mug, which he put down, once behind me. Its contents steamed from the ground while he wrestled with the cord of the lamp.
“What are you doing?”
I walked up behind him and looked over his shoulder.
“What are you looking at?”
He turned his head bringing his nose within inches of mine. A huge grin spread across his face. His teeth were two perfect rows of square pearls. He turned his head back, and drew a long, muscular arm up and pointed at a spot in the grass.
“There.” His teeth said.
Where he had pointed in the grass there was a perfectly square bald patch. The soil was a dark brown, visibly rich even in the gloaming. He knelt next to the spot and I followed. Pulling the cord up he found the end, and held it up in front of us. Then he prostrated himself on the ground. Was he mad? No. He brushed off the bald spot and something glinted. I looked closer. There, barely visible in the darkness, were four perfect outlets, each made of dirt. He laughed a little laugh of triumph-Ha! Then he plugged it in. The lamp flickered and came on. He grabbed it, scooped up his mug and walked towards the water, away from me. My eyes followed him but were distracted; above us the stars had come out, brilliant, bright beyond any I had ever seen. They cast light on the beach and I could see him, standing at the waters edge, the bug-zapper held high in one hand, the mug held at his chest in the other. He took a sip from the steaming mug. He let out a deep giggle when the waves splashed his feet. He must be cold I thought-all he wore was a pair of 1930’s style swimming shorts the blue and yellow of the flag of Barbados, complete with the trident right on the butt.
I stood up, slowly this time, and dusted off my dirt stained shirt. Thinking Rick must be worried I started off, but thought better of it. Serves him right for dragging me to this thing each year-I thought-might as well follow up on the most interesting thing to come from it.
He was smiling still, staring out into the water. Sssshhhhh…the waves said, but I didn’t listen.
“I’ve been there,” I said pointing to the trident on his tiny bathing suit. “NO…I mean…not there, there…to Barbados…the country…not your…yeah.”
He took a sip from the mug but said nothing.
“You been there?”
“Born there,” he said.
“My cousin was too, but he’s German. Not black. Not that it makes a difference, I’m not racist or anything.” He kept smiling, kept staring. “Hey, you got anymore coffee?”
“Not coffee,” He said, turning to me for the first time since the outlet. His eyes widened. “Hot water.”
He sounded very proud of it. The wind picked up and I crossed my arms, grateful to myself for bringing a jacket.
“Aren’t you cold?”
His smile disappeared. “You aint seen cold.”
“Right. I thought you were from Barbados.” Sssshhhh.
“I was,” he said and sucked in a deep, hissing breath through his nose. “I come from Barbados, then they move me hear, then they punish me. You aint seen cold til they through with you.”
“Who punished you?” Sssshhhhh…came the ocean.
I looked back to him.
“I was born in Barbados and William they called me there. Born to a slave, so, naturally, born a slave. I stayed there til’ they take me here. Here they called me Billy even though I tell them ‘Don’t call me that!’ Life’s hard here, winters were cold. Some of the other boys got a hold of rum. Barbadian rum! We started drinkin, and that’s when I started stealin.”
His eyes shined dark, barely visible beneath his brows.
“Chickens, Chickens.” He shook his head. “I’d get drunk, and climb the fence of dis farm near ma house. Two Years in Siberia for chickens! FOR CHICKENS?” He screamed, his eyes bulged and I thought he would throw his lamp or his mug but he held them even closer, as if to protect him. He drank deeply from his mug; his hand shook but he spilled nothing.
“I didn’t even get to eat them.” He said blankly.
“It’s where they send slaves as punishment. Because it’s cold, because they know we hate the cold.”
“No hot water either,” he said and raised his cup.
“And the bug zapper?”
“If I ever make it back to Barbados, I’ll need it for the mosquitoes. I’ve lived my life in exile, but the island is my home. I remember it best, and I remembered the mosquitoes.” And he raised his lantern.
“All for chickens?”
“I didn’t want the chickens, I just couldn’t tell which one was the rooster in the dark. I wanted a rooster. Still,” he knelt and put his cup in the sand, “there are uses for chickens.”
He turned and pointed again. There, near the outlet, was a giant cast iron pot, suspended over a dead fire pit.
“I wanted the rooster to make it a fighter, to make money to get back to the island,” he said as he ran to the pot, dug behind it and pulled up another cord like the one to his lantern. He plugged it into the outlet, and a fire sprung up. It roared and danced over the sand, the contents of the pot boiled, visible just above the rim.
A noise from behind us made me start. I turned and saw a procession of chickens, led by a great, red- black rooster. The chickens chided and jerked their heads as they marched, single-filed behind the rooster, their steps in unison. He led them all the way around me and back toward the pot and stood next to it. On the opposite side stood the man. The chickens kept marching and, in the light of the fire, hopped one-by-one into the pot with a hiss of the water and a puff of feathers.
“Found me a rooster after all. HA!” And the rooster cawed in concurrence.
The man knelt and dug in the sand to produce a two-foot long cooking spoon. With the chickens gone he began stirring his soup in vast, slow circles. Then he tasted it, shook his head, and put a top on the pot.
“Won’t be too long,” he said happily, seemingly talking to both the rooster and me.
The rooster cooed.
With the beer worn off my head felt fit to burst. I had many questions but the ocean said Ssshhhh, and soothed. I forgot my questions, and when the Barbadian asked me to help him and his rooster dig for clams for our soup I said sure. So we dug for clams, and the rooster even brought in a little octopus and I found some crabs. We dumped it all in and waited for it to be ready.
I took a seat on the sand and the Barbadian did too; the rooster chose to stand.
“Where you from?” He asked.
“About a half-hour inland.”
“When you go to Barbados?”
“A few years back. I still have a bottle of Mount Gay at home.”
At the mention of his island’s famous mountain his eyes fell from focus, and the smile came back to his face as big as ever.
When the soup was ready we ate it out of three black, iron bowls the Barbadian conjured from a hollow tree trunk on the hill. It was hearty and salty, and despite my fears there were no feathers in it. Afterward he took a great drink from his mug and passed it to me. Hot rum punch warmed me all the way down, sweet and spicy. I put the cup in the sand before the rooster and he dipped his head in before the Barbadian took it back again. Before I knew it I was drunk again, but happy and full in the company of the strangest of strangers.
“You know, in ancient Greece, the only punishment equal to death was exile.”
“No. It aint equal. It’s worse,” he said and smiled his big, beautiful smile. He took a sip and smacked his lips. I drank some more. I had questions again.
SSSSHHHH. Came the Ocean.
“Alright!” I told it.
The rooster cooed and settled into the sand. I fell back, warm and tired. The last thing I remember was the Barbadian, William, sitting on the other side of the rooster, taking sips and shaking his head, that big smile shining out to the water. Then sleep took me.
I woke up confused, sand caked to the side of my face and body. I groaned my eyes open and saw the beach. Pieces of my night returned to me: the man, the gloaming, his rooster. This morning, though, I shared the beach with no one.
I walked back up the hill and over to the other beach, then through the forbidden KEEP OFF dunes and onto the road. An old bureaucrat with a greasy mustache and crew cut stopped for me when I put out my thumb, and he took me all the way home. I’d looked like I had a tough night he said. I said no.
Without bothering to find Rick and explain, I ran up to my room. In a piece of luggage, still unpacked, was the bottle of Mount Gay. I drove back to the beach. Making my way from the site of the other clambake, where empty beer bottles were left as a reminder of the day before, I found where the night had taken me, where there were no reminders of what had happened save for my blurred memories. I took the bottle out and buried it in the sand, with a note attached to it: To the exile. May you never find this, but instead, have made your way home.