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Story by Susan Henderson (Read author interview) August 15, 2004

She reads alone, in the sunlight, in the open, where men believe she means to tempt them. They approach, hoping for a response, but she gives only brief looks, waist-high, if that, then quickly down again, her hair falling across the open book. Beautiful girls are snobs, they conclude.

The truth is she has so many freckles, parts of her face look smeared in mud, and her teeth are twisted and overlapping. She can’t stand the idea of looking up, or worse, opening her mouth. Her voice when she is nervous, and she always is, comes out as a squawk. So when approached, she scribbles in the margins to appear busy. She writes anything that comes to mind until the man leaves, and then she wonders about him: Was he kind? Did he see her face? Had she disgusted him?

But here is the one man who came back. He bobbles in the passenger seat as she parks her car beside the autumn beach. She looks nervously his way and removes her boots, stuffs her stockings inside.

All during the drive she held the crisp page to the steering wheel, glancing at what he’d written to her. Now she gives it a second read. The will tells her nothing about him or the cause of his death or why he left his ashes to her. She looks at his name again; still unfamiliar. Car off but keys in the ignition, she picks up the urn.

Whoever he is, he’s won her attention.

She rather likes the look of his urn: matte purple, biodegradable, cute in the manner of a pillbox hat. Was he tall, she wonders? Was he shy like her? He must have been. She carries him to the shore.

The beach is empty except for birds that screech and peck at a rotting fence. She can hear her hem brush the sand as she walks. Her hand is sweaty and smeared purple, the urn already recycling.

The wind picks up, whips her dress against her thighs, blows her hair toward the sea. She unscrews the lid and the ashes, eager for freedom, vault from the urn and race to the water. She empties the rest of him in one clump on the wet sand and watches him mix with the sea.

He has her interest now, at this distance, where she likes her men.

She sits just beyond the wet line of the sand and digs her feet into the cold. As the sea draws nearer, she buries her legs. By now the purple box has lost its shape and bobs in and under the waves.

The water has become playful, uncovering her toes, tickling them before leaving in haste. She laughs out loud, surprising herself. Her hand starts to cover her mouth, but returns to the water, splashing at the gathering sea. She smiles and lies back, letting him know he is welcome. He can be fierce and strip the sand off her like bedding, push inside.

Rolling her, dress wrinkled and raised, he rushes between her legs. She shouts the words she might have scribbled in a margin, feeling giddy and then strangely peaceful as he strokes the hair from her face. She tastes the salt on his fingers, feels him leave her slowly, a single drop at a time. He breathes against the freckles she hates and is gone.

She does not leave the beach. She listens to the tingling pops of foam and watches the sun, a dim dot moving up the sky and behind her head. Only when he is away does she feel the cold, her body heavy without him. He’s left her something, she’s just discovered: ribbons of seaweed in her hair. She untangles one and watches the stars. It is a long wait for daylight, when he slips his body over hers again.

He returns many times and she loses count of days. She lies among the gifts he’s left: barnacles of yellow, orange and red that cluster on her skin like jewels. They gasp for the last drops of him and then close their mouths with quiet clicking.

Birds gather in crowds with growing confidence as the days become shorter and darker. Alone and waiting, her body remembers his touch, each one. She yearns for him to lick the grains of sand from her legs. But will he return, will he choose her again? She wants to say his name, cannot remember it, so calls her own.

Like a bride, she lies on the shore, jewels nearly glowing under the low clouds. The birds surround her, trilling and pacing. They can hear him. As he pounds closer, barnacles open their mouths to drink. She raises her body, waits to feel his arms thrust beneath her and carry her where he wishes.

About the Author

Susan Henderson is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and the Managing Editor of Night Train. Her work has appeared in Oakland Review‘s 25th Anniversary Anthology, Zoetrope: All-Story Extra (December 2000 and September 2001), Today’s Parent, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Eyeshot, Alsop Review, Happy, Opium (January 2003 and April 2004), Carve Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, The MacGuffin, Zacatecas: A Review of Contemporary Word, Word Riot, Pig Iron Malt, Mid-South Review, Eleven Bulls, Insolent Rudder, Ink Pot (January 2004 and July 2004), Moondance (December 2003 and April 2004), North Dakota Quarterly, The Edward Society, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, SmokeLong Quarterly (June 2004 and August 2004), Avatar Review, as well as in a number of pamphlets and training manuals used at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. She recently helped to judge the “20-Minute Stories” contest at McSweeney’s.

About the Artist

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison’s work here.

This story appeared in Issue Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Five

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