“We want you to have this.” John’s mother pointed to the crystal vase he had brought them from Europe when he was a student. “We want you to have this after we’re gone.”
John’s parents often said things like that whenever he visited. What began as an offhand comment by his mother years ago had grown into solemn moments before the china cabinet. Allegedly there was a list somewhere stating who in the family would get what. For John there would be the German wine glasses, the carafe and now the vase, all of which had been on display and untouched since the day they were unwrapped. John’s mother went through the rows of knickknacks with care and recited the names of his brothers and sisters. The only thing of value was a china tea set and she agonized aloud over which daughter should get it. John’s father sometimes stood beside her like a witness to the ritual.
John always played cribbage with his father on the visits. Fifteen-two, fifteen-four and the rest don’t score. The rules of the game guided their conversation along familiar routes and there was room between the deals to comment on the weather, the garden, neighbors who had stayed and those who had moved.
After the evening’s last game John’s father rose, went into the bedroom and returned with something in his hand. It was a belt buckle mounted with a gaudy roulette wheel painted gold, red and black.
“I won it in Vegas. There’s real gold in it.” He let John hold it.
“Take it! It’s yours.”
John and his daughter Alice left for the beach early in the morning. Alice curled up in the back seat and closed her eyes.
During the weeks before John’s trip to California with his daughter he told friends, “I’m taking Alice to the beach. She’s never seen the ocean.” Who can forget their first glimpse of the great ocean? And at six, Alice was old enough to carry the experience with her for the rest of her life.
By the time they reach the State Beach the coastal fog had burned off, the sky was immaculately blue and Alice sat at the window looking out. John led her to a building at the edge of the sand where he paid for a day’s rental on a surf rider. Alice hopped with impatience until John had their things in his arms again and nodded to her that they were ready. She shot off across the wide expanse of sand to the ridge leading down to the water. John watched her and could imagine the look of wonder in her eyes as the waves crashed.
After spreading out the blanket and arranging their things John joined Alice at the water’s edge. He brought the surf rider, dragging it close behind him by the rope that attached to his wrist. Then he took it into his hands. “A day at the beach isn’t complete without a surf rider. I’ll show you how it works.”
John waded out into the cold water for the first time in many years. He tried to dive under the waves but the Styrofoam board yanked him into the turbulence. John looked back to see if Alice could see that he was struggling. She waved to him; he waved back and eventually caught a wave that took him onto the shore.
“Did you see how I did that?”
“Now it’s your turn. Here. I got it for you.
“You use it.”
“It’s too small for me. I got it for you. I’ll help you”
John pulled the board with Alice out to where it was about waist deep for her. He steadied them until they rushed out of his hands on the strength of a small wave. When the board grounded Alice got up slowly and stood on the sand. She looked at the band on her wrist and picked at it.
“That was great, wasn’t it?”
“It was OK.”
They didn’t go farther out the second time but when Alice slipped off the board she went down and could barely touch the bottom. She was still coughing when a larger wave swept her and the board toward the beach. John ran after her calling encouragement and she held on all the way. When the ride ended, however, Alice marched back to the blanket. The board flopped behind her until the rope fell limp to the ground.
John handed her an orange as she sat on the blanket shivering inconsolably and wrapped in her towel.
“The board is too big for me.” She handed the orange back and he peeled it.
Perhaps John should have waited a year or two before putting Alice on a surf rider. But who knows when they would ever be together again at the beach? He was just trying to give her a good time, something to remember him by. John rolled to his side and Alice returned to the water, still wrapped in her towel like a shipwrecked young thing.
Alice’s mother lived on a farm now with an architect and they had animals and a garden. John heard all about their pumpkins. And one time Alice came for a visit talking excitedly about how she had chopped wood. John wondered what she would remember of the ocean.
Tomorrow they would fly to St. Louis where her mother would be waiting and he would continue on to Philadelphia. His car was waiting for him at the airport and there would be a stack of unopened mail on his kitchen table. He would make some calls the first night and then go out to eat. He rolled onto his stomach and rested his head on folded arms.
Alice stood on the beaten sand and watched how it goes. The water swells slightly in the distance, then falls from view, then rises suddenly like a mountain that curls and crashes on itself. Bodies in the water are pulled into the wave on its way up and thrown out on its way down. Out of the crash comes a smaller wave that gets smaller and gentler as it rolls to the sand.
Alice runs toward the water with the towel stretched over her head and flapping like a magic cape. She runs along the water’s edge then turns and jumps into the water’s harmless last surge. Alice takes pleasure in this and she shouts. The water repeats the sequence again and again, and again Alice shouts.
Writing in Nashville Tennessee, Thomas Heine‘s prose and poems have appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Kansas Quarterly, Cumberland Poetry Review among others. Heine teaches German at Middle Tennessee State University.