Syracuse, NY 13210
Volume 6, 2006
Three on a Pier
Sandra Shwayder Sanchez
When the boy’s mother had first disappeared into the crowd on the boardwalk promising to “be back soon” and instructing him to go watch the people fishing off the pier, the sun had been out. It had been, if anything, too hot. But after hours of watching for her, the child was cold. The sun had gone behind a bank of large dark clouds, and the wind whipped up blowing the waves higher, and it had begun to rain. Groups of surfers took their boards and headed for warm homes somewhere and one by one the old men and women who fished for sardines from the pier packed up their boxes and bags and buckets and left until only the pelicans and gulls remained to keep the child company.
He thought to shelter himself from the wind and rain on a bench inset along a wall of a small locked building on the pier. But when he came close to it, he saw the space was taken by a large, dirty looking man who sat with his back against one side of the inset and his legs stretched out the length of the bench. The child hesitated to approach, not wanting to intrude on the man’s privacy. He was only six years old but had already learned not to invade the privacy of adult men. On the other hand, he was very cold, and the thought did occur to him that the man might help him find his mother. So he hovered close trying to decide what to do and wished the man would turn around and see him and ask him in a kindly voice if he was lost. If asked in a kindly voice, the boy would pour out his soul.
The man, meanwhile, was sunk in a deep sleep and every time a cold gust of wind almost awakened him, he thought of dying because he was so tired of the cold. He had come to southern California to be warm and had not expected the unusual cold spell to last as long as it had. His stamina and strength were sorely taxed by the repeated onslaughts of rain and wind. What good was it to make it through the long winter nights if the days did not bring forth sufficient hot sunshine to bake the chill from his bones?
Then he’d remember he was being punished, deserved to be punished, was paying the price for having lived through the war.
Always beneath his thoughts ran the undercurrent, the riptide of fear, that calculator counting the inches, the seconds that separated him from death, sudden and final until he couldn’t stand it any longer and he shouted to the stars, the shadows, whoever was out there (because someone was out there) that he was ready, take him, blow him up, kill him, he was tired of waiting, of counting the seconds and measuring the inches to death . . . . he was READY. But the shadows were only palms waving in the breeze; no one was out there; no one took him away from this life.
Sometimes couples walking on the beach at night heard him shouting, and they would whisper, “he’s crazy, let’s get out of here,” thinking if they whispered he couldn’t hear them over the sound of the surf, not realizing he heard everything, imagined everything, laughed at all of it until he cried, confused, and sought oblivion at least for a while. How tired was this old man of his daily resurrection; now he longed to simply sleep through it, if only he could get warm enough.
Something caught his consciousness, and he turned to look around. At first he glared because he didn’t want to be awake and cold and aching in all his joints; this frightened the little boy who had been staring at him. The child began to run down the pier toward the now deserted boardwalk, and the man called out to him.
“Hey little feller, where’s your mama. Are you lost?” He put all the kindness he could ever remember feeling into his hoarse old voice, and the child turned around, began to speak, then began to cry, then stood there just nodding his head and wiping his eyes and nose with his shivering hand.
When the boy’s mother had left him near the Pier, she had thought she would be back within the hour: quick sex and back with a couple hundred dollars. She was not a common prostitute, but she had just lost her job at the bar, and she knew the man who was a regular there. He had seen her on the boardwalk and asked why she hadn’t been at work. When she told him her story, he had been sympathetic and told her to come see him, keep him company a while and he’d give her two hundred dollars. He seemed like a nice enough man and she needed the money badly. She had not been prepared for what he needed. She knew he was a drunk, but she did not know what that meant for him. He never got mean at the bar, never got into fights, just passed out sometimes and needed help home.
He was overjoyed to see her because he hadn’t really expected her to come to his rented room even when she repeated the address after him. He insisted on fixing her a meal, and she asked to take some leftovers with her for her son, letting him know she had a small child who needed her. Then he tried without success to have sex with her (nothing worked), and she became impatient to leave. She asked for the two hundred dollars he had promised, and he gave her a handful of bills, several one hundred dollar bills, some fifties and twenties, almost eight hundred dollars she counted. When she tried to leave, he said he’d kill himself if she left him alone, and he took a kitchen knife out of a drawer and brandished it, threatening first to hurt himself, then her . She was more afraid of his confusion than his intent.
She had to calm him down, walk him over to his bed and massage his head until she thought he was asleep. It was dark, and she heard rain on the roof. When she looked out the window, her heart sank as she thought of her little boy out there alone with no jacket and no one to keep him company and reassure him. She tried to sneak out the door quickly and quietly, but the man, not only drunk but drugged with this and that, whatever he could get his hands on to get himself through the nights, the man, woke and leapt up from his bed and tried to strangle her, not even knowing who she was or where or when.
She had to talk to him for what seemed like hours, in a calm voice, a kind voice even though he kept his hands around her neck. He kept his hands around her neck as they walked together back to his bed and sat there and she kept on talking, all the while praying that she and her son would survive the night and promising a god she had decided to believe in that she would never again give herself for money no matter how desperate things seemed.
The old man was tired, not really up to the long walk to where he had left a stash of stuff in a shopping cart covered by a tarp, but the little boy was shivering and needed to be kept warm somehow. So the old man joked a bit with the child to win his confidence because he knew kids were afraid of him, the nice ones. The mean ones just made fun of him. The boy gave the old man his hand, a gesture that took the man by surprise, but he took it and together they walked like a grandfather and grandson down the Pier and along the boardwalk to an alley where the man located his shopping cart hidden behind a dumpster.
Someone had stolen all the cans he had collected and crushed to sell for cash, but the blankets were still there, dry under the tarp. He wrapped the sleepy child in a ragged blanket, noticing how dirty it was and feeling ashamed and sad . Then he carried the boy to a place where he knew they would be protected from the rain. It smelled bad there but the child was already asleep so the old man lowered himself to the ground and sat in his most comfortable position, back up against the wall and legs stretched out in front. He laid the boy on the ground with his head pillowed on his legs and dozed off.
The coldest time of night is just before dawn as if the night gods were giving it all they had before being banished for another day. A last icy dying breath. That intensified cold woke the mother who had fallen asleep beside the exhausted drunk who lay passive and snoring, his hands now clasped in front of his chest as if he prayed in his sleep. She wanted to curl up beneath a corner of the blanket and sleep restfully, but she was worried about her little boy and got up to go look for him. She put the money the man had given her in her shoes, carefully flattened and divvied up. She could pay her rent from that money and buy food and still have enough for the electric bill. It was more than he had promised her, but he had taken more than was right from her. She left the apartment and walked down the stairs and out onto the street.
She began her search by the Pier. She imagined her little boy huddled there sleeping, cold and sad but safe. She told herself she would feel it if something terrible had happened to him and then reproached herself because her abandonment had been terrible enough. She could hear the surf and it soothed her, and she saw the white crests of waves glistening like liquid silver in the full moon’s light. She walked to the Pier and out to the end of it, calling her son’s name to the night, and there was no answer, and she examined the shadows and found only birds. She accepted that she had a long, anguished search ahead of her. She deserved that.
She sat a while on a bench inset into the wall of a small building and watched the dawn light take over the beach, and she readied herself for the coming day. “Have faith, stay calm” she repeated to herself. Pelicans began to dive into the surf coming up with swarms of sardines that they swallowed whole, stretching their throats skyward. On a bluff above the beach far away a hawk grabbed a small bird from a nest and flew off with it, and she heard the scream of the baby bird blended with the sounds of squabbling gulls and pounding surf. The mother got up, grateful that the rain had stopped, and the sky was clear and getting bluer by the minute.
On the beach a little girl, vacationing with her family from some landlocked place, sighted a school of dolphins and shouted “ohmygodohmygod” in awe and then began to turn cartwheels all over the beach for sheer joy. The mother, watching this, thought of her little boy, visualized how joyful their reunion would be. “If you can visualize it, it can happen” she said to herself. Someone had told her that a while back, and she had not believed it but now she did.
The old man had had to get up and pee in the night, had tried to put it off but finally had had to move the little boy’s head to a pillow he made of his own filthy jacket; he got up to relieve himself steeled for the cold. He rummaged about in his cart and finding a piece of blanket wrapped himself up in it and walked out to the beach to watch white gulls flitting about in the moon light. He had a small bottle of whiskey wrapped in rags in his cart, but he knew he would have to wait until he found someone to take charge of the child before he partook of that comfort. When he felt talkative he would tell anyone who cared to listen that he still felt guilty about coming back from Nam alive and with all his limbs after seeing friends and comrades blown to pieces. Once in Colorado a woman who had stopped to give him a couple bucks responded to his comments that perhaps there was a reason he had been spared and perhaps he should consider discovering some purpose in his life. He blessed the woman for giving him the money and told her that god had not yet revealed to him what his purpose might be, and she told him to forget about god, do something kind for someone else. He thought that was easy for her to say. She didn’t understand that he could still see and hear the bombs sometimes.
But sometimes by the ocean’s edge, in the black and silver night all he could hear was the surf and all he could see were the palms waving in the breeze, and they didn’t always remind him of another ocean and other palms, other nights. Sometimes it was simply here and now and peaceful and for this reason he loved the ocean. He thought all these things as he watched the night sky lighten to reveal the shoreline and the morning birds and then went back to wake the boy.
The old man and the boy cleaned up as soon as city employees unlocked the public restrooms on the beach and then they began to walk up and down the boardwalk questioning anyone who appeared. The boy tried to remember what his mother was wearing: a skirt with flowers all over it and a tee shirt with words he couldn’t read, long black hair, he didn’t know how tall she was, taller than he was, and he reached his hand up to where he imagined her shoulder would be. She always leaned or squatted down to talk to him.
The mother meanwhile walked up and down the side streets and alleys also questioning everyone she met about her little boy, in khaki shorts and a white tee shirt with the picture of a sunset and the words Puerto Vallarta that she had bought at the flea market. He hated wearing shoes she explained to people when telling them he was barefoot. Short black hair, large brown eyes, described a lot of children wandering around the boardwalk. Several times during the morning they passed within yards of each other but couldn’t see each other through the crowds. They each felt discouraged as the day warmed up and they circled one another in those endlessly moving crowds.
Hunger overtook them. The mother had kept a twenty dollar bill in her pocket, ready, and she thought how nice it was to get change from the pizza vendor instead of carefully counting out one dollar bills and quarters. She sat on the beach to eat her pizza and refresh her resolve, visualizing her reunion with her son, his happy relieved smile, her own heavy heart lightened.
The old man talked a vendor into giving the boy a hotdog and the vendor gave him one as well. The man ate the meat and told the boy they should go to the beach and he would feed the bun to the birds. He always enjoyed feeding the birds. They sat on a bench overlooking the sand and the man crumbled the bun and held the crumbs out to the birds. Soon the man was covered with hungry gulls. They pecked the crumbs from his hands and after all the crumbs were gone the birds continued to peck at his empty hands until his hands bled. A woman stopped and talked to him. She told him he should go to the hospital because his hands were wounded, and he said it was just a scratch, but the blood was abundant and frightening, and soon people gathered around to see what was happening. Among them was a man who had just been speaking with the mother of the lost boy and he was able to find her and tell he that her son was sitting with an old homeless man who had been pecked bloody by birds.
The mother ran to her son and scooped him up in her arms and they both cried with relief. She told the old man she would go with him to the ER to see about his hands; he said it was “just a scratch,” and she told him that a scratch could become infected so he agreed to go with her to the ER even though he knew they would put him in detox for a few days: they always did. Sobriety drove him nuts, but maybe in this place where he could hear the surf and watch the moonlit waves come in and recede, maybe he’d give it another try.
The three of them then walked together to the hospital, and he told the mother how he had been waiting all these years for god to tell him why he had been spared when others had died, what was his purpose in life? And she told him his purpose was to watch over her son all through that night. He said that was a good purpose, that would get him through the day . . . tomorrow would take care of itself. “Have faith” she said to the old man and to herself she visualized a job, maybe at the hospital.