Rain and Sand
He ran through the surf. Salty waves stung his legs as they swept over his knees. The clouds overhead were getting thicker and darker, the first fat drops of rain hitting his face and shoulders. Thunder ripped through the air overhead, and he stopped. He needed to get back, get back to shelter, the hotel. He began running back the way he’d come. The landscape flashed bright with lightning, revealing twisted trees tossing violently in the wind. Thunder crashed, and he doubled his pace, raising his eyes to catch a glimpse of the hotel beyond the sandstone cliffs. The next flash of lightning arrested him completely in the pounding surf. The rain came in torrents, but he could still see. The hotel, the parking lot and cars, the brewery and the road were gone. Nothing but dunes, trees and the wild stormy shore.
Tom threw his hands out before him to block the terrible absence and knocked his laptop off the little table and onto the floor, its cord taking his coffee cup with it.
Crap, he’d fallen asleep somehow. He glanced up at the clock: ten thirty. He must have slept for over an hour. Shit. He went over what he’d written quickly, just atmosphere and outline, but solid. He began again.
All the natives—that’s what they are, natives, not people of the world, but people possessed by a place, of it in an essential way that makes them a little more…maybe less…human. A face in the sand, sandstone.
They either stare at him in truculent silence, or show such overeager interest in him, and his money, that the interactions feel predatory.
He checks in in the ancient lobby, all puke green, gold and burnt orange which have faded to different shades of brown and nicotine grey. The parking lot is almost empty, but the hotel’s in such disrepair he doubts the place does much better during the tourist season. It smells of stale cigarettes and spilled beer.
He carries a photo of himself and his brother, lost. He carries a sketchpad, and he sits down on the bed to watch some TV, the pad in his lap.
He falls asleep and dreams of swimming with his brother, climbing and scrambling over dunes and dark rocks, chasing him down the beach. His brother disappears behind an outcropping of sandstone. When he catches up, all he sees is a horrible, crude face gaping out of the sandstone from which it was carved.
It’s windy and cold and the rain slashes at his skin, and he yells his brother’s name but the wind carries his voice away. He wakes and the face in the sandstone is drawn on his notepad. Does he find his brother, or what happened to him? Does he leave the slumbering village, or does part of him always stay? No matter what, it won’t be a happy ending.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Tom jumped at the pounding from the door and fell from his chair onto the sand encrusted carpet. The knock came again and he got up, crossed the room and yanked the door open to find Larry standing there, arm raised to knock again. Larry blinked in surprise and smiled.
“Larry, Jesus,” Tom said, running his hand over his face and hair, “You scared the shit out of me.”
“Sorry, Mr. McMurphy,” Larry said, though he didn’t look it, “But it’s one thirty and your students have been waiting for half an hour. Lena thought you might have lost track of time.”
The students. How much time had passed? Normally, he really liked teaching. He liked how hard the kids worked, how open they were to advice and criticism, and how much they grew as he worked with them. He thanked Larry, darted back into his room for his student files. Out the windows, it was still raining, though there were patches of sunlight streaming down over the ocean. He turned and followed Larry downstairs.
Larry led him to a well-lit conference room off the lobby. People lounged on the tastefully muted furniture as they talked and drank coffee. The conference room was nothing special, aside from the advertised views of the beach and some lurid blood red upholstery and curtains.
As he sat down, Tom noticed that someone had followed him into the room and was making herself comfortable in the chair across from him, a yellow legal pad in front of her.
He drew out his first file and hoped it was right.
“Hello,” Tom said, trying to smile warmly at the thirty-something sitting across from him with the proud smile and eager posture. “You must be Karen Zimmerman.”
“That’s right,” she said. “How do you like the hotel?”
“Great,” he said, “The weather could be better, though.”
“Oh, but then we’d all be out frolicking on the beach together, instead of writing.”
Tom looked at her sharply, but she continued to gaze at him with bland anticipation, as if he were about to say something delightful, or offer her a drink.
“So, I hope you found my notes helpful.”
At that moment Tom realized that he hadn’t put any thought into what he was going to do with these students now that he was here. He’d assumed he’d just run through his typical coursework, but these people had manuscripts. What was he supposed to do with them in three weeks?
“Um, do you have anything new to show me?”
Now she paled, visibly. Tom felt reassured, he wasn’t the only person who’d come unprepared. Her eyes roamed the room and she shifted in her chair.
“Ah…well, nothing I want to show—right now, that is.”
“I see,” Tom said. Maybe they’d all be like her and he’d be off the hook. “Well, do you have any questions I can answer?”
“Um, well …” she scrunched down in her seat, looking embarrassed.
“Don’t worry,” he encouraged, “Whatever it is, I’ll be happy to help you work it out.”
A look of relief swept over her face. Sitting up, she leaned forward and asked, “How did you come up with the marketing plan for A Piece of Time?”
“What?” Was this a joke? Tom leaned back, looking around the room for a point of reference. Amy understood this kind of thing, she’d always been good at explaining what these people wanted.
“I mean, it was perfect,” she went on, warming to her topic. “Your book was so much a part of the moment. All that epic music from Seal and Annie Lennox, and Braveheart and Batman-mania, and the beginning of surreal thrillers like Seven. I mean, how do you catch a wave like that?”
Tom hesitated, realized he wasn’t breathing, and then tried, “Really, Karen, it wasn’t any …”
“I’m thinking of using the penname Miranda Trip.”
“Wow,” Tom said. She looked at him expectantly, he wasn’t sure why, so he said, “That’s nice.”
“Isn’t it?” She beamed. “They say four syllables is best for a memorable name. I was thinking of going ahead and changing my name altogether, what do you think?”
“Um,” Tom’s eyes ricocheted around the room, but found no hint to tell him what he was supposed to say. What the hell was he doing here? “I think I need some coffee,” he managed, forcing himself to exit the room at a casual pace instead of outright fleeing.
Opening the door, a dozen pairs of eyes turned his way, hungrily expectant. Lena was lounging sideways across a chair next to the fire talking with a man in a tweed jacket and elbow patches. Until Tom entered the room, now she was watching him.
Tom glued his vision to the coffee on the sideboard, and making his way there seemed to provide some kind of answer to this audience because they slowly started talking to each other again. He filled a large paper cup and took a sip, but found it unsatisfying. He didn’t need coffee, but he could feel the eyes on his back as he stared at the wall eighteen inches away.
What did he need?
He needed space, and time, and a break from the relentless expectation that he say or do something he didn’t know what so he turned and walked toward the glass doors, through them and out into the cool of the mid-afternoon rain.
He was descending through the salt grass on the other side of the parking lot before he realized he wasn’t wearing his coat. At that point, he almost turned back. But it was barely a rain now, more a thick mist that fell from sky to earth. He found he was really quite comfortable. In fact, the cool moist air on his face was a relief after today’s cloying conference. He would just take some space, fifteen minutes, then he’d go back and finish the meetings. He took another sip of his coffee, savoring the contrast of the heat and the cool grey air, turned to the left and started walking.
He spilled a couple of times into the sand before he managed to get to the firm wet sand by the water. The huge rock in the bay, what was probably called a haystack, towered over him. There were dark storm clouds out over the water, but he didn’t pay them any attention. He’d be back up at the hotel in five minutes, so for the time being he kicked off his shoes and kept walking. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d walked barefoot on the beach.
What was it they wanted from him? He wasn’t a publicist, he couldn’t advise them on how to get rich. Amy always said that people yearned to have a share in one’s fame, but his student Dana’s success had been a fluke. She was good, but since when was that a ticket to easy street? Maybe they thought he knew what he was doing because of that damned mirage of a book he’d written all those years ago.
He thought about it, A Piece of Time and all the other things he’d written over the years—books and collections with good reviews and low but consistent numbers. Would the university press have published them if he wasn’t already working there? If they were asking about those other books, he’d know what to do, but they always wanted to know about the first one, the freak.
Tom was getting cold now, but he didn’t stop or turn around. In fact, he started to speed up. Somewhere along the line he’d lost his coffee, but he wasn’t sure when. He stalked the sands with agitated speed as the sky darkened.
Where had it come from? He never knew. At the time, he was renting a room from an elderly retired journalist. The man claimed to be noodling around with a book idea, but eventually gave up, saying he needed to focus on other things. One day he was going through his old pieces and found it, in fragments here and there with different dates. The whole story was just there, he only had to flesh out some dialogue, build some scenes, some atmosphere. He remembered how unbelievably lucky he felt—he thought it was inspiration, the muse. For a while, he even believed it had come from him and that, given time, he could do it again.
But he never did. Never could. And eventually, he’d had to stop thinking about it. Because, he now realized as he stopped in his tracks, the book had just happened to him.
A clap of thunder broke so close overhead Tom felt the concussion in his ears. Fat raindrops started coming down fast, and now Tom remembered. He remembered his dream, and that he hated this place, so wet and forlorn. He turned, started jogging toward hotel the way he’d come.
It would be there. Of course it would be there, but he couldn’t help himself and his speed increased through the shallow waves, with the rainfall and the lowering dark. There was no sign of his tracks, but the tide was coming in, and so his tracks would have washed away, anyway. Not that he needed them, there’s only one way to go. He watched the dunes, and the occasional outcropping of sandstone, straining his eyes to see the first glimmer of the lights of the hotel.
He slowed down. He wouldn’t admit to himself he was relieved. In the twilight of the storm, the lighted windows of the Kestrel and the hotel behind it fairly glowed with warmth and light. Tom shivered as he trudged through the parking lot.
He’d been gone longer than he meant to. He would have to apologize, be especially good from now on. But he’d find a way to make it up to Lena, to his students.
The lobby was empty when he entered, and Larry didn’t even look up from whatever he was doing behind the front desk. Bookkeeping, probably. Tom thought about saying hello, but he was too tired, and instead he slipped quietly up to his room. Once inside, he tore off his sandy, sodden clothes and stepped into the shower. It took a long time for the hot water to warm him up, and finally, he sloshed out to see if some bourbon could help the shower along.
In the morning, he woke dry, warm and in bed after a dreamless sleep. It was nine in the morning, and there was sand on the floor from yesterday’s adventure. How long had he been out?
It didn’t matter, what mattered, Tom realized, was that he needed to find Lena. They needed to have a heart to heart; he’d tell her everything, about cursing out Heidi in the department meeting, about the book, about Amy, everything.
Tom was downstairs in twenty minutes. Larry gave him a polite wave and Tom returned it, but Lena wasn’t in the lobby so he continued on to the Kestrel. Hopefully, she hadn’t gone back to her room—that would be awkward, talking to her there. But maybe he could talk her into a walk on the beach; he thought she’d like that.
She was at the Kestrel, sitting at the bar with the man with the suede patches on his tweed jacket. They were deep in conversation, so Tom took the empty seat at the bar on the other side of Tweeds rather than interrupt them. He thought it was the right move, because as he passed Lena didn’t so much as glance at him. When the bartender came by, he ordered oatmeal and coffee—just in case his meals were no longer free.
“Your conferences went alright then yesterday,” Lena asked Tweeds, sipping her coffee as her gaze failed to waver.
“Oh, yes,” Tweeds answered after swallowing a bite of pancakes, “they all seem to be ready enough. Truthfully, though, I’m glad they’re out of the way and we can get on to the classes.”
So that’s what the conferences were for, Tom thought. Why had they seemed so mysterious, why did he think it was his readiness they were evaluating? He felt relieved, because in that case they really weren’t very important. He could move on as if nothing had happened.
“Excellent,” Lena smiled. She put her coffee down and let her gaze shift past Tweeds, past Tom out the window to the beach beyond. “We’re really lucky to get such a beautiful venue, don’t you think?”
“Very,” Tweeds mused, “I’ve found it particularly inspiring.” Tom heard the excitement in Tweeds’ voice, familiar, though from a long time ago.
“Really?” Lena asked, her eyes back on Tweeds
“Yes,” he said, leaning forward, forgetting his food, “You know, it’s never been this easy for me, ever. I mean, my reviews have been good, but my books have always sold in such small numbers I don’t think they’d have been published if I weren’t already on the faculty.”
“Now, Bill, you’re being too—,”
“Honest,” Bill interrupted. “I’m being honest. But this…this is different.” He scooted his stool a little closer to Lena, so that Tom had to strain to hear. “Did you know, Lena, I was looking through my notes last night. You know, there were all these little bits I’d jotted down over the years—fragments, really. And suddenly, I just saw them; saw they could really work, that they’d be good.”
“That’s fantastic,” Lena said, her voice matching his, low and excited.
“Yes,” he continued, “It’s an artist who comes out to the coast in the off season to look for his brother, and he keeps dreaming of this horrible face carved in the sandstone—sort of a supernatural thriller.”
“How exciting,” she sighed, her voice caught, “Oh, Bill, are you going to have time for it, with all the work for the retreat?”
“Are you kidding,” he retorted, finally leaning back, “This story, it’s just coming, happening to me so fast. No problem. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Dreams of Rain and Sand.’”
Tom felt his body go to jelly. Was this it, how it had happened to him? He left his cooling breakfast on the bar, and started moving toward the door. He couldn’t think about this, he’d just prepare for his class and hope he wasn’t fired. He was almost at the door when Lena called after him.
“Tom, are you alright? You didn’t look well, yesterday.”
He looked at her, realizing that she was giving him his last out. He looked at Bill, so filled with anticipation, and wondered if he should say anything.
“Thanks, I’m much better.” She gave him a guarded smile, so he continued, “I’m just going up to prepare for class.” Her smile broadened.
When he returned to his room, Tom was unsurprised to see that his computer was in its case, showing no sign of use. It was for the best, and what’s more, his room was free of sand.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED