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Flotsam
a story by David Fickett

The belly of the dog was swollen and wet. Wrapped in seaweed and ocean foam, peppered with pink sponge and black refuse. The things that washed up on the shore. You could never tell what you might find. It looked like a setter. Reddish-brown fur, matted to its fat body in patches where the skin hadn't torn from the bone. William bent down to look. No smell of decay, only the smell of the sea. He poked at it with a long stick. No tags. He looked closer.

"Sadie?" he asked it.

He climbed the crushed shell bank. Bare, wet trees hung against a gray sky as William took the path home. He usually went around the end of the point and then through the pasture, but now, he thought he ought to hurry back and phone Russell to tell him about Sadie. Russell would want to know.

The path was soggy that led down into the pasture. A bowl of brown water between William and the house. Through the woods, then. Would have to go over toward Sybil's to skirt the water. Couldn't go through all that. He broke through the solid arms of saplings to get into the woods. Some snapped, others swung back at him, grabbed at his glasses, pulled them up, snarling his hair. Long white strands fell in his face. He fixed his glasses and hair and pushed on.

The smell under the black, tall trees was like wet mittens. The rain started, it speared through the long fingers of the trees. An icy rain. Too cold for the fall. William pulled up his hood. Huddled deeper into his coat. He felt old and hated it. When he got home he'd have to make some tea. Stoke the stoves. And phone someone. Russell? Yes, Russell.

He came out into a clearing. He could see the ocean again from here. Metallic clouds were coming this way. Rolling straight for the cove. The water like corrugated aluminum. William found a rock big enough to sit on. He rested for a moment.

"Poor old Sadie," he thought. "Old girl. She must have gone in over on the tip of the point. Tide's awful powerful there. Have to find someone strong to help lift her. Russell will be some shocked." He had a vision of Russell in his barn coat, leash in hand, Sadie jumping and whimpering with excitement to go on a walk.

William blew on his hands with hot breath and put them back in his pockets. He thought about Sadie. He never liked animals much, but Sadie was different. If she hadn't been Russell's dog, though, he wondered if he'd have liked at all. He thought of her warm tongue on his hand, her brilliant bark when he and Russell would walk through Shetterly's field, hunting for fireweed and paintbrush to put in the jar on the mantle. Maybe he should help Russell find a new puppy.

Under the pines the rain wasn't too bad, but when he reached the back of Sybil's property it came at him like a fire hose. He walked faster, then ran, which he knew he wasn't supposed to do. Sybil was looking out the window over her sink. He came up on the back porch. Her flat, wide face the size of a skillet, her eyes as big as fried eggs.

She pulled him into her kitchen. "Why, William Clare, what are you doin' out in this?"

"Good morning, Sybil," he said with a chuckle.

"Let me get you out of those things." She helped him off with his coat. "Your hair is all wet. You're not supposed to be here are you?" she asked, her long pencil-line of a mouth stretched the length of her face.

"Yes, yes. I was walking along the shore. I came upon a terrible thing, Sybil." He sank down into a kitchen chair. Could smell the familiar "Sybil" smells: washed laundry, Lemon Pledge, Mop ‘n Glow.

"You shouldn't be out by yourself," she said. "Where is Ellen?"

He looked up at her. She didn't hear him. He needed to tell someone about that poor dog. Ellen? He knew he should know who Ellen was.

"William," Sybil said as she lifted a basket of laundry onto the table. She started folding towels. "Want me to call Ellen? She might be over to your place by now and wondering where you are."

"Oh, no. No." He remembered Ellen. Oh, yes. Ellen. Sweet smile, condescending, though. Russell doesn't like her at all. But she's helpful. Wouldn't remember to take the medication if not for her. "Ah...I told Ellen I needed a walk. I'm fine today, really. Don't worry so about me, Sybil."

"Hard not to worry about someone been my neighbor for fifty years. You want some coffee? I just made some."

"Ah…yes. Now, I had something to tell you..." he muttered.

"Oh?" Sybil went to get him a mug.

He visited for awhile. Never could remember what he wanted to tell her. She insisted on taking him home. He enjoyed the short drive down the road. Sybil was always cheerful. She didn't talk down to him about his forgetfulness. She would just tell him right out, that he had forgotten something. That was that. A good neighbor. A good friend.

"That's the last time I want to hear about you running off, mister," Ellen said, waving an index finger at him as he got out of Sybil's truck. Treating him like a wayward boy. Or a fool. He looked past her and went into the house. He sat down in the chair by the sliding glass doors. The storm was really brewing now. Ellen thrust the vacuum nozzle under the coffee table, then the sofa, then over the rugs, moving like a house afire. She drove William crazy. So fast. So efficient. He hoped Russell wouldn't come by while she was still working. He knew there was a reason that she did his housework and cooked for him, but he wasn't sure what it was, just that it had to do with his health. His niece over in Trenton had hired Ellen. He'd tried to get rid of her, but she'd cry, or phone Elizabeth and tell her how ornery he was being.

"Ellen, I can get my lunch. You go on home," he said when she'd finished up the vacuuming.

"I don't know if I should leave you. How far did you get along the shore anyway?"

"Oh, just my usual walk. Not even a mile."

"Next time you want to go walking, let me know. I've told you not to go out until I come in the morning. I'll have to let Elizabeth know about this. She won't be happy."

"I've already talked to my niece today. She didn't see any harm in me walking around my own property. Now, you go on home. I'm just fine."

William had trouble sleeping that night. He'd always had trouble sleeping, though, especially when he had worked. Always had so much to remember at the bank. But, still his mind had been sharp, and he'd managed to get an award for his services each year. But those numbers and endless columns of figures kept him staring at the ceiling many a night, while Russell snored on, next to him.

When he thought it was close to daylight he went downstairs and put on the coffee. He looked at the calendar. Wednesday. Well, Russell would need to do his shopping today. He thought he might get Sybil to take them to the store. He went to the phone to dial and noticed the time on the clock above the sink. It was only a little past midnight. He held the receiver in his trembling hand.

He woke later in the easy-chair. Still, and as black as pitch. Stars were flickering like Christmas lights. The storm had passed over. The dog. That's what it was. Sadie. He could remember the first summer that Russell had Sadie. He fed her that messy mixture of baby cereal and puppy food. His hands would smell like it when William had them to his face. Russell's hands were beautiful. Wide and tan, with sprinkles of light hair on his knuckles. William had always chewed his nails, but Russell’s were so nicely manicured. Russell’s forearms were thick, and when he'd pull in on Sadie's leash, the muscles and tendons stretched into something thrilling. Something vividly masculine.

When Ellen showed up he got another lecture about how he shouldn't get up in the middle of the night. Shouldn't sleep in that chair. He'd get stiff muscles, a kink in his neck. He wished he could tell Ellen about the dog. It would be much more convenient. She could drive him down to the shoreline through the old road, in her Jeep. She was probably strong enough to pick the carcass up with his help. Russell would probably want to bury Sadie in his back pasture. But he couldn't tell her. She'd never believe him.

When she was in the bathroom scrubbing the tile, he went to the kitchen and phoned Sybil. "Sybil, I remembered what it was I needed to tell you yesterday," he said.

"You had something to tell me?"

"Yes, I found something on the shore, and I need your help. I'd call Russell, but he's going to be so upset," he whispered.

"Now, William, you know...," she stopped speaking and sighed. "Can I stop over there later? Is Ellen there yet?" she asked.

"Yes, she is."

"I'll come over later. May I talk with Ellen?"

"Certainly. Now, don't mention Sadie to her. When you drop by I'll have some tea ready."

"Sadie? William, what are you talking about?"

He turned. Ellen was standing there with her hands on her hips. "Now, who are you talking to?" she asked.

"Sybil. She wants to talk to you." He handed Ellen the phone and left the kitchen.

He listened outside of the door. He could tell that they were talking about him. Why did everyone worry so much? Ellen said he'd gotten worse. That was just wishful thinking on her part. When he heard her say, "Sadie? Oh, my goodness. Now I've heard everything," he walked quietly out through the living room to the sun porch.

"William, Sybil wants you to tell me about Sadie," Ellen said as she came into the porch.

"What about her?"

"Why did you mention her to Sybil? She thought you were worried," Ellen sat down in the white wicker chair opposite him and took both of his hands in hers. Her eyes were moist. She looked like she might cry. He knew she could get weepy over little things, but why was she upset now? He hadn't even told anyone that the poor dog's mutilated carcass was thrown up on the shore like it had been spit from the mouth of some great creature.

He studied her worried face. Well, maybe she would help him get the body over to Russell's after all. She really wasn't a mean person, just liked to be in control.

"Well," he started, "I found Sadie's body on the shore yesterday. I just hate to tell Russell." He lowered his eyes. He didn't want to cry in front of her.

"William," she moved her knees in closer to his. "Don't you remember? Sadie died. She died a few years back. Now I think that you'd better come into the kitchen and have some tea while I finish up, maybe we should talk about Russell, too." She stood up and went through the door. Her voice drifted off toward the kitchen. William sat still looking down at his hands.

William promised Ellen that he wouldn't leave the house. She left a note on the fridge telling him what time Sybil was coming over, but he didn't care about seeing her now that she'd conspired with Ellen. He remembered about Sadie now. She'd been killed by a car years ago. She was old and getting lame and didn't get across the road fast enough. Russell buried her in his pasture. How could he have forgotten Russell's face all streaked with tears and mud while he covered the dog? They'd gone to Milbridge to pick out a stone. William had to drive because Russell kept crying. Even in old age Russell had been handsome. White-blonde hair that had never thinned. The twin crevices permanently buckled between his eyes, above the bridge of his thin nose. Symbols of Russell's strong convictions. His pale lips, still thick, outlined with a delicate white line. The soft flat space of skin below his cheekbones where a fine down of hair shone in the sun. It was like calf skin to the touch.

He put on his coat and boots. He had to know whether or not there was a dead dog on the shore. He couldn't have imagined it. He might be confused from time to time, but he knew what he saw. He went outside and smelled the day. The storm had snapped a few branches off of the oak in the front yard and had thrown the metal chairs over that were down near the water. Across the bay, he could see the flashes of sun on car windows going up the mountain. The last of the season’s tourists. A lot of the bright orange, red, and yellow leaves were still clinging to the trees, though the ground was now scattered with many of the ones torn free with the strong winds.

He went down the trail to the shore. The large pool that had saturated the path the day before was lower. He could go through it today without the water getting into his boots. It slopped around his feet as he went. He wished he had a nickel for every time he'd gone down this path. Sometimes alone. Sometimes with Russell. When they were out of sight from the road and house, they'd walk hand-in-hand. That was something they hadn't done for years. Russell needed to walk with his stick. They couldn't seem to keep their balance if they were holding on to each other.

The air was clear on the shore. No scent of a storm. The smell of snow had been in the air yesterday, but today it seemed almost like summer. It was getting warmer, and the light was fixed right in his eyes. He pulled the brim of his hat down. He thought about that poor old dog going unclaimed, stinking in the sun.

He thought about the day that Russell had found a kitten that had been hit on the highway and left there for the crows to pick apart. William wouldn't have anything to do with picking up the animal and putting her in his car. Russell had been so disappointed in him that day. But the thought of the stiff, bloody thing in his new Cherokee made his skin crawl. It wasn't just the idea of messing up the upholstery; it was the idea of having something dead in there. But Russell refused to understand, said William was too goddamned fussy, and they'd ended up sleeping in their own houses that night.

Russell always got upset with William if he thought William was over-reacting to a situation. Like the time that salesman was openly flirting with Russell. Well, why wouldn't anyone want to flirt with Russell? He'd always been so friendly, so likable, and so damned handsome. William tried not to show it, but Russell could tell that William was upset as the salesman kept adjusting the collar and pulling at the sleeves of every coat and shirt that Russell tried on. William’s eyes kept meeting Russell's in the mirror, and William, finally, turned up his nose and frowned. Then, he turned and left the store. Russell was furious when he found William across town in the cafe on Border Street, sipping tea like nothing had happened. Well, he wouldn't overreact now. He'd simply look to see if the dog was there, and, if it was, he'd let someone know so that it could be removed.

As he got closer to the place where he'd seen the dog, he squinted his eyes, trying to make out its shape against the driftwood and flotsam that was strewn about. He looked near the weathered log that had been on the shore for years. That's where the dog had been. He was sure. Did the storm take it out? He walked a few more yards ahead and looked. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was up a little further. He wandered up and down the shoreline but no signs of a dog. Had they been right? Was he getting worse?

Today he decided to walk out to the tip of the point. Hadn't been out there for awhile. No point in hurrying home. He had nothing to say to Sybil now. He would just pretend he'd never mentioned Sadie.

The rocks were slippery below the watermark. Green with slime and knuckled with small black shells that stuck to the stone. As a small boy, he would pop them off from the rocks and toss them into the water, thinking he was saving their lives. He'd start with a few shells, but then he couldn't stop until he'd cleaned the rock of all of the shells, leaving a rich, black surface, glistening in the sun.

The smell of seaweed was strong, salty, and fishy. He felt a little out of breath and sat down. He and Russell used to come out here and build a fire between the crevices of hulking rocks. Warm up from the ocean chill. Steamed clams and lobsters. Drink dry wine while leaning against rocks, opposite one another with their feet touching.

The days were real then, clear, and defined by morning routine. Lunch with Russell at the cafe, evening stroll along the shoreline. Not like now, all pushed together like finger paints being smeared by a child’s unguided hand. When they spent the evenings on the rocks, Russell would read some of his poems. William would close his eyes and smell the wood in the fire. The lobsters steaming in the smoky black kettle. The bright surprise of sweet fern drifting in the air, smelling like tansy and cinnamon. How long had it been since they'd done that? Surely they weren't too old for at least one more lobster-bake?

He turned and started up toward the woods, and then he saw it. That familiar tawny fabric with the leather cuffs. The lining, plaid. Golds, reds, and greens. He went over to it and bent down. How could it have been left here? Russell wouldn't have left it outside. Maybe he'd already found Sadie and carried her up to the house. He probably didn't realize yet he'd left it behind, and what a mess. It was wet and flecked with seaweed and broken shells. He lifted the collar of it and recognized the company label. They'd bought it in Quebec one fall. It had to be the same one. He picked it up and shook it out. It was heavy with wet insulation that smelled like a flooded cow pasture.

He thought about it carefully as he went through the woods. He certainly wouldn't tell Ellen about it. She didn't believe him about the dog. He wouldn't even let her see the coat. He'd get it cleaned. Might be able to get out the stains if he tried hard enough. He remembered how well those stainsticks worked on Russell’s shirts. And if he couldn't mend the tattered cuffs himself, he'd hire that little woman in town to do it. Yes, he could get it clean. That was certainly one thing he was good at, getting dirt out of clothing, or stains out of upholstery.

As he got closer to the house, he could see Ellen’s car in the drive and Sybil's too. Now what were they discussing? They worried too much. He stood for a few minutes with the warm sun on his face, thinking about Russell. Russell, running along the sand beach with Sadie at his heels. He thought about it for a long while, hoping those women would go away, let him have his peace. As the sun slipped behind a white, billowing cloud, William bent down, smelled the collar of the coat one more time and stuffed it deep inside the heel of a rotted stump. They'd never believe him, anyway.


"Flotsam" Copyright ©2002 by David Fickett.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology
should send inquiries by email to the author.
Inquiries by mail may be sent to: David Fickett, c/o collectedstories.com,
Columbia U. Station, P.O. Box 250626, New York, NY 10025.
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