Ward Kelley



Part One

Forgive, O Lord,
my little jokes on thee,
and I'll forgive thy great
big one on me.

--Robert Frost

a different kind of lust


The night the Atlantic disappeared, Warren and Zoe debated valiantly about infidelity. Sparring with adultery on the beach, they engaged one of their most dangerous bouts, one potentially yielding the most verbal blood, yet also capable of a quick KO. And this was how they showed their love, or at least their interest in the marriage.

Warren inhaled the slightly ancient smell of salt, and wondered at the luminous property of the surf until he realized it reflected the lights from the hotel up beyond the dunes. He joked, "I understand the innuendoes, but I'm not certain about the source of them -- surely you're not insecure. In fact I could make a case of how you would most likely get some sly momentary pleasure from the fact I was having an affair. That is before you disemboweled me."

Zoe remained quiet, flicking some water up from the undertow with a raised big toe, the nail short and unpolished.

Warren went on, far too happily it seemed to some inner referee, "I don't know. But I suspect I would tell you nearly immediately, if I were having an affair . . . at least in the first week. Particularly with my secretary, someone who thinks her beauty lies between Madonna and Helen of Troy. She wouldn't go to bed with me even if it meant redeeming the known universe, but -- I have to tell you -- if she ever did, I'd be so amazed, I'd want to tell you all about it. In detail. In Panavision. You know I tell you everything."

These contests really couldn't be termed arguments, not in a pure sense with yelling and gnashing and dramatic gestures, and in fact they both attained too much satisfaction from them. On the other hand, they weren't exactly happy with each other either; there truly was some anger there on the shore this particular night, although an anger laced and perforated with fascination, a different kind of lust. They loved each other, it was true, but they sometimes loved these discourses more, and so this was how their marriage zigzagged and dodged and evolved, or stayed alive, after fourteen years -- this fascination with the sardonic -- for truly it was some form of sport.

Warren scanned ahead, down the sand, always the good manager who attempted to peer into the future: deserted as far as he could see through the darkness. "So I haven't reported anything to you yet, have I? I'm sure I haven't mentioned I'm boffing my secretary between the file cabinets and the fax."

Zoe still didn't take any of this bait so he sighed, somewhat in sorrow over his spent youth, as evidenced by this affair with Joyce -- the beautiful aerobic devotee employed as his secretary -- sounding simply implausible. "Besides, I have no time for it. Not to mention, affairs require a lot of energy. I really haven't been up to it since I turned forty." The aging process actually seemed worse than his inability to attract Joyce.

"Time is your big problem." She took a studied breath while he waited. He knew she didn't like contemplating their age, forty-three, but lately she seemed always ready to pick apart the time-at-work issue. Soon she fired her first volley, "Your big affair is with work itself. Now there's the unbeatable mistress, all the time away from me and the family she sucks out of you. Work is sex. This dawned on you a few years back. You realized you can legitimately cheat on me. Daily."
He wondered if she were making herself depressed since she now tried to pick it up a little, putting a humorous spin on the accusation. She jostled, "Here's Warren's idea of an afternoon jump -- placing the phone on hands-free, so he can call his faithful wife while operating his calculator and laptop simultaneously, the sound of his shredder resonating from under his desk. Zoe dear, just called to tell you it looks like production is up 2% in the second quarter, and I'm about to have a climax, just thought you should be updated."

Warren admitted he usually admired the way she thought, the way she hooked her words together, and the nuances she used to display these verbal nets. He wondered if he should take her hand, then decided she would think he tried too hard at this business of vacationing here on the Jersey shore, here in the moonlight, here with his little, dark wife, his impish wife, when maybe they would both be more content in front of a VCR. If he could have seen the texture of her grins, hidden from him there in the dark, those happy little girlish grins -- ones she knew flickered unseen -- he would have melted. Instead he plowed ahead, "Okay, we can stipulate I do a pretty good job of keeping you informed, of -- in fact -- telling you everything that goes on in my own larcenous heart. But what about you? Do you ever keep me informed of the weekly shifts of your own particularly carnivorous heart? Do you keep me updated concerning the shifts of your own temperament? You know me completely, but I know of you only coincidentally, or obtusely -- there's someone in there who used to be Zo, and every now and then she surfaces, slinks around for awhile, then submerges beneath layers and layers of . . . of . . . charisma." What was her crime after all? There for a second he thought he might have unraveled another of her secrets, but apparently he came up empty-handed.

She ducked the issue of different Zoes floating around her depths, "Now I'm like any other facet of your business . . . just another function of the Plant? You require updates? You would like to stay informed?" She leaned toward him to pinch his belly but got mostly shirt. "Wanting to keep you informed is like someone wanting Dorothy to keep the Wizard informed. I mean you're the one who's always pulling my chains and twirling my levers. And now you're requesting I inform you of the very plots you yourself devise. You are truly an insidious man."

Warren wondered where this one was going. A wave hit him just right -- as startling as the lick of a St. Bernard -- slapping him behind the knees, sending a spray of cold water up his thigh. "I have plots?" For the sake of time, or for the sake of his own curiosity, he decided to step directly on the land mine, "I'm devising plots?"

"Of course," she again leaned toward him, this time to peer up at him with her ignited green eyes, "you know you're hatching them all the time." She moved back to her former space beside him, and he watched her taste the salt on her lips, leaving her tongue there a moment to pose the next point. "Your plot concerns buying more time to spend at work by hinting around at having affairs, with the idea I'll encourage you to work harder as an outlet for these mid-life crisis energies." Zoe reached into the surf and flicked some water at his face, but he easily sidestepped it. "Frankly, I've defoliated much more thorny plots from you, and in a sense, you're right -- having other women chase you around would absolutely enhance your value as a stud."

Warren imagined himself as a stud, and he felt pretty good about it -- the stud here in the surf at Stone Harbor, New Jersey. "So, staying with your Oz analogy . . . does that make me the Wizard or the Lion?"

"I think maybe the Scarecrow."


"Maybe you'll be granted a brain at the end of the film."

Warren feinted toward the surf with his hand, splashing fake water, counting on her hyperactive imagination tonight. While he had her watching this hand, he kicked up a good volume of water, hitting her squarely, the spray engulfing that area between her chest and the top of her head. Sometimes things happen just right, sometimes the fates allow you the bull's-eye at the perfect time. He looked at the full moon, thanking some unnamed god of trajectory who directed his capricious aim, the image of her soaked, pretty face now projected by his memory on the movie screen of the giant rock up there. He enjoyed the scene for a few seconds, but when he turned back to her to begin apologizing for this terrible yet fulfilling act, he realized she was gone. This thought and the sand hit him at about the same time, for she had briefly ducked out of sight when she reached into the ankle-deep water to scoop out two handfuls of wet, sticky, slaphappy sand. She apparently suppressed any laughter itching to proclaim the event even as she plastered the back of Warren's neck.

The sand slithered, in multiple, ill-sized clumps, down his neck, under his shirt, oozing over his back, feeling alive in the same sense cobwebs sometimes feel animated to the skin, tricking the flesh into believing this foreign substance had a life. Warren first slapped the back of his shirt but knew there was nothing to be done there to remedy anything, so he spun around and dove under her next wet sand attack, placing his head aside her waist, lifting her from her feet, then lifting her to his right shoulder. The momentum took them out of the water, up to the beach, and Warren made a semi-circle over the dry sand, as he headed back to dunk her.

During this journey, she pounded her sandy hands on his back, and kicked her legs, periodically trying to knee him as her large breasts seemed to get in the way. None of her attacks was seriously meant to harm him. She then attempted to tickle him, trying to get a grip on his sides as he started walking, but unluckily for her, tickling was just out of her reach.

Warren wanted to find the water again, and stopped where he felt certain it would be, but apparently he had misplaced it. It seemed odd, for surely this was where they walked in the water only a few seconds earlier, and then it had been over ankle-deep. He felt disoriented, similar to losing your car in a parking lot although you felt certain you knew its true location. He concluded the water must be building toward a larger than normal wave, and perhaps the undertow had sucked it all out. As he carried her farther into the dark, he stayed on the lookout for a monster wave.

"Put me down," Zoe briefly held his sides, tickling him before she lost hold, "I said put me down. I'm about to call you a worthless piece of shit."

Warren grinned, and squeezed the back of her right thigh where he balanced her, but quickly became unsettled again -- he didn't like Nature being quirky and acting in unpredictable ways. Zoe raised her voice and issued other threats while kicking somewhat more violently, yet Warren comprehended these loud words less and less as he took more steps out toward the water. All the while he peered into what now appeared as a black void. Abruptly he slid Zoe off his shoulder; it must have surprised her because she immediately stopped yelling, as though she took a mental gulp. Warren hunched himself in an attempt to penetrate the space where the ocean should be, as though bending his body would help him pierce the dark. He went farther out, only to still be walking over wet sand. Now he realized there was a distinct and in fact blatant lack of noise on this beach: when Zoe quieted she took the last decibel from the area, and he could hear nothing else . . . no gulls, no wind, and most apparent of all, no crashing waves or scuttling, slushy undertow. Simply nothing.

Zoe still stood quietly where Warren deposited her, like someone who got off at the wrong bus stop. "Where are you going? War, come back here."

Warren turned toward her, then opened his palms, appearing to deliver a few beatitudes, "Where's the water? Where could it go?" Not waiting for her answers -- since he felt certain she possessed none -- he faced the ocean again and walked still farther out, now a good twenty feet away from the shoreline, right where there should have been waist-high water. He knew something very odd was occurring here, and where it was indeed disturbing, it also seemed fascinating, a mystery, and his curiosity was stirred and unsettled. It seemed unclear to Warren whether in this case curiosity would serve him or imperil him. How could the ocean disappear, how could such a thing happen? One moment the ocean existed, and everything appeared normal at Stone Harbor, the next moment found the Atlantic vanished, leaving only an eerie, marble silence in its place, the solitude of a cemetery minus all the tombstones. And another odd thing -- he felt no fear, absolutely no trepidation, in the face of this bizarre occurrence. Where most men would be frozen or backpedaling over the dunes by now, he felt only curiosity. Or was he enthralled by the whole thing?

"Warren!" She placed a boomerang spin on the way she pronounced his name, and he knew he was to immediately return to her.

He called over his shoulder, "It doesn't make any sense. It should be right here." Did she understand there appeared to be a cataclysmic event occurring to them, an unnatural act of Nature, if such a thing were possible? You go all your life traversing the mundane, treading water, and suddenly there it is in front of you -- the grand or awesome occurrence your intellect says can't be happening, that spectacular event eluding any explanation. All your education and sophistication leaves you then, while you wondrously approach the situation like some Neanderthal viewing a comet.

She walked up to him. "Let's get out of here, War."

In all their years of marriage, he had only seen this look of fear on her face a few times before, and the look always gave him pause, for if Zoe feared something, he had better think it through completely. Zoe went about her life so recklessly it seemed to acquaintances, but so methodically to those who really knew her -- methodical in the sense her capricious approach to living always landed her exactly where she wanted to be. So you came to understand there was truly very little caprice to it, but rather a zest to her style of being Zoe. And here she stood, alarmed.

He tried to explain it to her, but the words kept coming out the same, regardless of how he emphasized them, "I just don't understand it. We should be standing in the middle of the ocean. It has to be right here in front of us. There's nowhere else it could be." Thinking he could prove this theory even more explicitly, he took three more steps outward, pulling Zoe along; her sandy fingers locked on his arm as if she believed she could hit a home run with it.