The boy and his father waded further from the shore. Fifty yards out. They might possibly find something fifty yards out, Hank figured, but the tide was low; the water had just begun to dampen the father’s shorts. Long shorts with numerous large pockets. Everyone wore them these days. The father carried the clam rake over his shoulder in the manner of a rifle, a spade in his free hand. His hair was blonde—an expensive, messy cut—and his face burned red from the sun. His T-shirt was thin and blue, the beginnings of a paunch, but muscles bulged in his forearms and triceps; he looked as though he had once been in shape. The boy was slight, the same blonde hair. An energetic bounce as he moved about in the water, knees lifting high. Hank had been watching them from his perch on the hill for a half hour or more.
It was late July. Usually this time of day, this time of year, there would be more clammers out here than these two, but the season had been a poor one, and the spot over- fished. A young man who didn’t look to be much out of college and his assistant–a high school kid–ran a kayak business at the bottom of the hill, and they had provided the rake to the father and the son when they had paddled back in from a few quick laps around the water. Everything was quick. Vacation now meant that you needed to squeeze everything you could into a short week’s time, doing as much as you could with the kids before racing back to eighty hour work weeks. It made Hank laugh a little.
The water, Gardiners Bay, ran out to Orient Point, Plum Island, and then broke into the sea. It was shallow for hundreds of yards out into the channel, making it, once, an ideal spot for clamming. Hank remembered a time coming down here each morning with his father, just before the war, just after sunrise, well before all the others would come to rake the bed.
They lived in the same house Hank lived in now, a small house just beyond the peak of the dunes, that had been in the family since Hank’s grandfather was born.1872, his father once said, something like that. These days dates, and numbers and names, all seemed to fade into one another. Plenty of people, some who reminded him of the man down there with his son, had stopped by over the years offering to buy the house. More the property than the house, Hank supposed–they would just level the house. The figures had grown more astronomical over the years, but Hank had little need for them—he liked his spot on the hill, and he always said no. One fellow had actually threatened him with eminent domain, but Hank had laughed at that; the man was a private contractor, and Hank had never heard of eminent domain from private contractors—it wasn’t as if they were going to build a highway to the beach. In any case, he had never heard from him again. That was back in the 70’s, or maybe early 80’s, long before Louise had died.
Hank puffed his cigar and then set it down in the sand beside him. He had never smoked until these past few years, but he found he liked cigars, liked the way they burned, slow. They gave you time to think, and watch. There was something meditative in smoking cigars, and at this point in life he figured there were plenty of other things that could, would, beat them in the race to kill him.
The man and his son were peering closely into the water now. The water was clear until you raked up the sand. Mostly flat, calm, a quiet lapping on the shore. An occasional humble white head would slip in from the channel, but from up here they resembled little more than ripples. The man scraped the bottom, and then held up the rake, water dripping. He pulled out some seaweed, the boy eagerly looking on as he did, and then he pulled out what must have been a rock; the man examined it closely before skimming it across the water, and then he raked again.
The kayak boys had a charcoal grill on the beach that they lugged down each day. The younger of the two was lying beside it now in the sand, a single burger patty sizzling above him. His partner was out on the water guiding a tour party. The boys usually did fairly good business but today it had been slow.
When Hank was small it was rare that you saw many people at all this far out—at least September through May. Hank’s father had given him a small dinghy, and Hank used to tell his mother he planned on rowing out into the harbor to keep an eye out for his father’s ship. In his nine year old mind any ship coming back to America would have to pass this way. His mother was still pretty back then, beautiful some might say, with auburn hair and deep red lipstick. Thin at the waist and a subtle flair to her hips beneath her royal blue cotton dress. Hank remembered nights in the autumn when she would relax in her chair before the fire, Hank nestled against her bosom, and they would listen to the foghorns in the distance, the quiet of the water. And sometimes she would read a letter from his father.
He remembered the day his father had come home to announce he had enlisted. He wasn’t forced to, wasn’t drafted. He was thirty four years old, and he had a wife and child. The war was still fairly young then, August 1942, and if there was any sense of panic, it was a confident one. Hank’s mother knew where he had gone, and she was at the stove when he returned. Slammed a frying pan down upon the burner, violently cracking eggs into the pan to scramble for an omelette.
Eventually she had turned to him, words hot on her lips. “You had no business,” she said. “No business.” His father just looked at her a moment, not angry, and not remorseful. His eyes just looked curious more than anything else. He had deep blue eyes, remarkably clear and his face was already brown and weathered from his time on the water. He was a handsome man with a square chin, and a mischievous smile that curled up a little on the left, his lips still pressed tight. After they had eaten, he had taken Hank down to the bay, and they raked for three hours or more, his father occasionally whistling as they did.
“How long will you be gone?” Hank had asked him. The sea was higher than usual that day, the waves passing by with steep crests, hurriedly, obscuring what was visible on the floor of the bay, but the day was warm and humid, the smell of chocolate in the air. The chocolate factory was half a mile a way, a building that always seemed obscured by the trees in the distance, and later it always struck Hank odd that they had set up shop out here. So far away from everything.
His father stopped, he was still looking down, but even at that age Hank could tell he wasn’t actually looking, but thinking. “I don’t know,” he said at last in response to Hank’s question. “I suppose that is up to Mr. Roosevelt.” He paused again. “And Mr. Hitler. Or the other guy. What’s the other guy’s name?” he asked with the hint of smile; he knew that Hank looked at the paper every day, following the war.
“Hirohito,” Hank said.
“Yeah,” said his father. “Or him. Though I don’t believe I’ll end up in the Pacific. At least they led me to believe that probably won’t be the case.” He circled his spade and raked again and when he raised it this time the basket was nearly full. Hank lifted the larger basket, a wire basket round in the bottom with a wire handle like the bucket on a pale—the one they used to store the clams they had caught—and his father dumped the contents of his rake inside. “Just look at that,” he said. “Not one rock. What are the odds of pulling up that many clams without one rock? A million to one, I figure. We must be lucky today, Hank me boy.” He rubbed his head. “Look at it this way, for once we can have a little money coming without having to rely on these godforsaken clams. Uncle Sam will pay me okay, I imagine.”
“I like it,” Hank had said.
His father had raked again. “Like what ?”
“I like digging clams. I like digging them with you.”
His father laughed. “No one likes digging for clams. It’s almost as bad as working a fishing boat. Not quite, but almost.”
Hank’s lips had begun to tremble then, and he looked away. He was ashamed that his father might see him cry, but his father had spun him around and dropping to one knee, hugged him in the water. He hadn’t hugged him since he was very small, and he would never hug him again. Even when he got on the train. Getting on the train he had just given him a wink, and rubbed him on the head. And leaning over he had whispered. “Take care of your mother,” he said. “You know how women can be.”
Hank’s mother was standing a few feet away, her face still stoic. She still hadn’t forgiven him then, and Hank had to wonder if she ever forgave him after. The letters came regularly. Straight through 1944. June the 6th. And then the only one more, this one from the government. He had nearly made it to the shore, they said. A decorated hero, and it was because of men like James O’Malley that the Allies had now begun their movement across Europe.
They never saw a body, but they buried a casket. Empty. Purely ceremonial. The medals had come later, along with his uniform, pressed and neatly folded in a slim, square box. Hank’s mother had wanted nothing to do with it, but Hank had kept it; it was still up at the house, on the top shelf of his closet in his bedroom. His mother was never the same after that. When she wasn’t detached, sitting at the kitchen table, sipping her tea and staring out into nothing, she was irritable. She had lived with Hank and Louise until she died in 1993, and by that point she no longer recognized him, nor herself. Hank, himself, had just missed Korea, and then he went to school and studied accounting. Kept the books for a hardware store in town, and worked on a highway crew when it came time to lay down more roads. Summers were full, and winters were bleak, but the autumn always remained a favorite time of year for Hank. The tourists dwindling along with the leaves, and the cool October air, coming in off the bay. The clam diggers were still out in October, but Hank was never with them, hadn’t been since that last day with his father. He couldn’t. And Hank and Louise had never had any children. They never knew if it was because of him or because of her—they had a hard time pinpointing those things back then—and Hank had always consoled her, telling her it didn’t matter. Life was too unpredictable, anything could happen, and maybe it was better that they didn’t. Louise herself had been gone for four years now. Healthy one day, a blood clot the next. There was nothing they could do for her by the time they got her to the hospital. It was a few months before Hank even wanted to step back outside.
Now, the man with his son took out a pocketknife and pried open a little neck. He pulled the clam free with his teeth, shaking his head wildly in mock bravado. The boy started to laugh, and his father held his arms up in victory. He took the clam shell and skimmed it across the water. The kayak kid was now sitting cross legged, eating his hamburger, a small radio playing beside him. Hank looked down to the little beach. A white sports utility vehicle had pulled up. Hank knew the driver. Pete Sagan. Late fifties, maybe early sixties. A wide brimmed hat, a wide jaw and steady blue eyes, he worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and he had his binoculars out, watching the man with his son.
The man handed the rake to his boy, and the boy began clawing at the sea bed, his strokes awkward and short as he pulled the rake through the water. Hank could see Pete Sagan take out his binoculars, honing in on the man and his boy. He waited. The man caught another clam, and pried it open, and then Pete was out on the beach—the water quietly lapping just inches from his feet—blowing his whistle. The man looked up, looked around him, looked at Pete’s vehicle, and then Pete blew the whistle again, waving his hand and calling the man to shore. The man took off his sunglasses, leaned over to whisper something to the boy, rubbing his head, and he then began trudging through the water. The boy just stood there, rake in hand and completely still.
The man held his hand out, smiling wide, as he reached Pete Sagan, and Hank had to chuckle a little. He knew the type—the man was going to come in schmoozing, and if that didn’t work, within minutes he would be screaming. Chest thrust forward as he pointed his finger. And it went just like that. You couldn’t schmooze Pete Sagan, his job meant everything to him. He already had his pad out, scribbling a citation, and the man yelled on. Hank could only make out a word here and there, but he knew the argument centered on the lack of a license. The man was a summer person, of course he didn’t have a license. The man stepped closer, attempting to snatch the clipboard away from Pete, and as he did, Pete jumped back, raising a hand for him to stop.
The man didn’t. He took a swing, connecting with Pete’s jaw. Pete took the punch hard, and the man seemed to be catching his breath, but then Pete reached up, grasping the man by the hair on either side of his head, pulling it down, and kneeing him square in the nose. It was an impressive move for a man of Pete’s age, shrewd and quick. There was a spurt of blood, and the man dropped to his knees holding his nose. Pete stomped off to the car and his radio.
The cops arrived within minutes, and during the time in between the man had begun pleading with Pete, at one point even pulling out a billfold. Things to make the situation worse. The cops had hopped out of the car, their hands on their pistols, and as the man approached them, one hand on his shattered nose, and the other out to shake their hands, they spun him around cuffing his hands and throwing him face down in the sand. Hank had little sympathy for the man, but he figured it was a terrible thing for the boy to have to see. The boy hadn’t moved from his spot in the water.
The cops had positioned the man up against the car, reading him his rights, as the owner of the Kayak company, Chad, came paddling to shore, guiding the tourists behind him. A fat lady with a perm, and what looked to be her two sons. Four or five others. Chad got out and spoke to the police officers, and they attempted to call the boy into shore. When he still didn’t move, Chad paddled out to get him.
The cops allowed the man to speak to his son a moment, and then Chad took the boy over to his assistant, still manning the grill, as the cops pulled away with the boy’s father in the back of the car. The tourists were standing on the beach, the fat woman with her pants rolled up to her ankles, shielding their eyes to block the sun. After a time, Hank snubbed his cigar out in the sand, and made his way down through the narrow path in the dunes, the grass tall and sharp, and a touch of a breeze coming in off the water.
Hank remembered the days following his father’s funeral, coming down here, and wading out as far as he could. He would stick his face into the water, watching the marine life beneath him. The small fish, and miniature crabs scurrying. The starfish, floating with the tide, and the clam holes. Hank would keep his eyes open as long as possible, determined to keep the view. A view he imagined his father would have for the rest of eternity. Hank could picture him, floating face down and eyes wide open, in the waves somewhere off the coast of Normandy. Lost from his boat, and lost from this world. The image followed him through his days, and haunted his dreams, but he couldn’t escape it. A lifeless, wordless man, rising and falling on the surface of sea. A man Hank had loved more than anything else in the world.
When Hank would finally raise his head, gasping for his breath and the salt stinging his eyes, he would sometimes turn to see his mother standing atop of the dunes in the distance, silently watching him. But as soon as he met with her eyes, she would turn, arms folded and the wind streaming her hair and head back to the house. She never asked him what he was doing, and they never spoke of his father.
Now Hank reached the beach and took a minute to catch his breath. Chad was over by the kayak truck, loading one of the boats, and the tourists were already pulling away in their car. The sun was lower on the horizon now, casting a yellow glow across the water. Hank made his way over to the boy by the grill who was keeping company with the arrested man’s son.
“How’s it going, Robbie?” he asked.
The boy at the grill looked up at him and smiled. His front teeth overlapped, and his hair had curled from the wind and the sea. Hank came down occasionally when he noticed that business was slow, and they would talk about the Yankees, and some of the characters that were known about the town. “Hey Hank,” he said.
Hank stopped to catch his breath again. The little boy was sitting down now, his knees up and his arms wrapped about them. His eyes looked more alert than frightened.
“Bit of a scuffle?” Hank asked Robbie.
Robbie was still smiling. “A little bit. I didn’t know Pete had it in him.”
“A lot of people don’t,” Hank said. “Sure was a tough way to find out.”
Robbie flipped a burger—there were two on there now. “He wasn’t too happy. I think he cited Chad, too.”
“Why Chad?” Hank asked.
Hank shrugged. “Chad gave him the rake. Chad has the permit. I guess he was supposed to be out there with them. I think Pete takes the clamming around here a little too seriously.”
Hank nodded, thought on it a little. “Maybe.”
The boy had looked away now, his eyes focused on the sand, no longer interested. The wind came again, blowing his hair across his forehead, nearly covering his eyes. Hair was getting longer again with kids. At least with the rich. Hank stepped over and crouched down beside him, his left knee making a popping noise as he did.
“You and your Dad do much clamming before?” he asked him.
The boy looked up. He had thin lips, and was missing one of his front teeth. “Not me,” he said. “But my Dad has. My Dad’s done everything. We were going to catch a hundred or more before that guy came and blew the whistle.”
“A hundred or more,” Hank said. “That’s some serious clamming. Do you fish much, too?”
“My Dad took me out on a boat once. Last summer. He hired some guy to steer, and he pulled in a marlin. It must have been twenty feet long. Probably the biggest one anyone’s ever caught.”
“I bet,” Hank said. From the corner of his eye, he could see Robbie, flipping the burgers again, trying to suppress a smile. “Where did you go fishing for Marlin?”
“Hawaii, I think,” the boy said. “We were on vacation in Hawaii. The captain of the boat tried to help my Dad reel him in, but my Dad told him where he could go—he was doing it himself. And he did. That’s the way he is. That’s the way I’m going to be.” The boy looked Hank square in the eye then, and his lip began to tremble, a tear breaking at the corner of his eye. “Are they going to let him out of jail?”
Hank hesitated a moment, and then he reached out and patted the boy’s head. “Easy now,” he said. “No crying. They’ll let your Dad out.” He turned to Robbie. “They say anything?”
Robbie shrugged a little. Slid another burger into a bun, and took a bite. “Shit,” he said his mouth contorting. “That’s hot.” Mouth open, he began to speak and chew at the same time. “Yeah, they said they were just going to book him and let him post bail. Something like that.” Robbie pointed at the boy. “He asked us to keep an eye on him for an hour or so.”
“See?” Hank said to the boy. “He’ll be back in less than an hour. How about your mother? Is she around?”
Robbie shook his head a little, dropped his voice to a whisper. “The guy said he doesn’t want her to know about this.”
The boy wiped his eye. Sniffled a little. “She’d be yelling all the way home.”
“Where’s home?” Hank asked him.
“Westport,” he said. “It’s in Connecticut.”
Hank smiled. “Paul Newman lived in Westport.”
“Paul who?” the boy asked.
Hank took a breath. “Never mind.”
Robbie bit again into his burger, and handed the second one to the boy. “He makes salad dressing,” he said. “And popcorn. I’ve seen his picture on popcorn boxes, I think.”
“That’s right,” said Hank. “He made a lot of popcorn.” Hank looked out at the water, still and pale. There was a sailboat out there. A blue and yellow bright sail. Cutting between the reefs. Hank crouched down in front of the boy. “You feel like doing a little more clamming while we wait for your Dad to get back?”
The boy wiped at his eye, looked up towards the road. “I better not.”
“Why’s that?”asked Hank.
“I don’t want to get arrested, too.”
Hank tried to suppress a laugh. “Well, they can’t arrest you, you’ll be with me.”
The boy turned and looked at him again. “You got a license? That was the problem, I guess. My Dad didn’t have a license.”
“Up at the house,” Hank said. “And Pete Sagan knows all about it.”
Robbie finished off his burger in two bites, he looked at Hank, skeptical. He had never seen Hank clamming, but it was true. He did have the license, renewing it every year, though he never used it. Never thought he would. It was just a little way of holding onto the past, that was all.
“You better get it on your hat or something, Hank,” Robbie said. “That’s what Pete is always saying—he’s got to be able to see it.”
Hank just stood and gave him a look. Robbie shrugged.
The boy dropped his burger in the sand. “Will my Dad be able to see me from the beach?”
“Sure,” said Hank. He picked up the rake and the spade, lying there in the sand. Handed the bucket to the boy. “You mind if I borrow these?” he asked Robbie.
Robbie shrugged again, looked over at Chad, still sliding kayaks onto the truck. “It’s okay by me,” he said.
Hank nodded a thank you, and started heading towards the water. He stopped for a moment and rolled his pants up to his knees. “You always have to make sure your legs are bare so you can feel the squirts of water as the clams try to escape,” he said to the boy, his eyes still on the water. “You can feel it as they go to dig deeper. They know you’re coming, and they want to get out of there.”
“No, sa,” said the boy. “How can they know you’re coming? They’re just clams.”
“Oh, they do,” said Hank.“Believe me. They do.”
“What are you keeping your sneakers on for?” the boy called out from behind him.
“Glass. Sharp shells. I don’t want to cut my feet. I remember cutting my foot once when I was your age, and it bled for seven days. And then it rested.”
“Seven days?” said the boy.
“That’s right. And then there’s the jellyfish. It’s not a lot of fun getting stung by a jellyfish.”
The boy looked over at his own shoes, then scurried over to retrieve them.
Hank waded about eighty yards out, the water cool and invigorating—it had been some time since he had been in–and the boy was soon moving to catch up with him, elbows raised at right angles and taking high steps over the gentle waves. The water was clear and you could see almost right to the bottom. The terrain hadn’t changed much in sixty years. Hank, squinted, looking for the holes.
“You want to be careful,” he said to the boy, without looking up, “that you’re going after a clam hole, and not a fiddler crab hole. You pull up a fiddler crab and he might try and take a bite out of your finger.” Hank began to tap the spade against the soft floor of the bay. “See if you can see, or feel, them squirt. Once you do, you can pinpoint the hole.”
The boy was carefully looking on. There was a small burst of water, a geyser from the ocean floor, and then Hank took the spade and worked at widening the hole. Once he did, he reached down with the rake, clawed once and brought to the surface.
“We got two,” he said. “Not bad. I was thinking there would be more than that down there. I must be getting a little rusty.” He gestured to the boy to hold up the bucket, and he dropped the clams inside. The boy stood staring at them for a moment.
“You like clams?” Hank asked.
The boy looked up, squinting in the light of the setting sun. “I’ve never had them. I bet I do though. I like shark. I ate a shark once.”
“You catch him yourself?” Hank asked.
“No, my Dad bought some shark meat at the fish market. We were out on Martha’s Vineyard. They have a lot of sharks out on Martha’s Vineyard.”
“I bet they do,” said Hank, twirling the spade about another hole. He pulled up a fourth clam. Smaller than the others. “Lots of sharks out this way, too. Out around Montauk.”
The boy looked startled for a second.
“Don’t worry,” said Hank. “They don’t come in this close.” He dumped the clam into the bucket. “That there is a Mya arenaria–a soft shelled clam.I’ve always liked them best.” He handed the rake to the boy. He could already feel a dull pain beginning to form, low in his back. “You can rest the bucket on the floor, there. They’re not going anywhere. Let’s do this. I shake them out and you pick them up with the rake. Deal?”
The boy nodded. “Deal.”
Hank tapped the bed. “You feel the water on that one?”
“I think so.”
“Pull the rake over right there,” Hank said, tapping again with the spade.
The boy lunged, his movements jerking the basket as he did. Coming up with nothing but a few flat oval rocks. Worn smooth from salt water and time.
“You want to be careful,” Hank said. “You want to move quickly, but not too rough. You start to get good at this, you can feel yourself move in time with the rake. Kind of becomes like a dance partner.”
The boy squinted at him. “A dance partner?”
“Something like that,” Hank said. He pushed the spade about again, pointed with his finger, and this time, the boy, holding the tool steady, came up with a catch. His face was beaming, but he didn’t say a word. Hank held up the bucket, and boy dumped the clams inside. And then Hank hit the spade back into the ocean bed.
“Who taught you to clam like this?” the boy asked, his eyes focused on the task at hand.
Hank hesitated a moment. “My Dad taught me.”
“Your Dad? Is he still around?”
“No,” said Hank, laughing a little, “he’s been gone quite a while.”
“Is he dead?” asked the boy. The breeze came then, warm and high, and Hank could smell the chocolate.
He nodded. “He is. He died in the Second World War.”
“My grandfather died,” said the boy. “He died about two years ago.” The boy was quiet for a minute. “I hope my Dad never dies. My Dad’s the best.”
Hank nodded. “I bet he is.”
Hank twirled the spade again, sending up a small cloud of dust through the water.
“You must have had a lot of fun, though,” said the boy. “Digging for clams, I mean.”
Hank looked at the sun spreading, breaking, in reds as it fell towards the horizon, and he figured the next day would be a good one. The sailboat had disappeared behind the reef, and everything was quiet around them. It was the quiet that never changed. Not when you were out here, wading in the water. Wrapped in the breeze, and the gentle lap of the waves. It could have been 1941, or it could have been 2009. Hank remembered when the sun would get too hot, both he and his father would pull off their hats and dunk their heads, both coming up with a loud splash. Then sometimes when they finished, they would strip down to their shorts and go for a swim. There were no kayaks around here then. “We did,” he said quietly.
The boy was still busy with the clams. Hank twirled the spade, and the boy followed with the rake. He brought it to the surface, sea water dripping from green clumps of sea weed, and then his face broke into a smile. “I got one!”
“Actually, you got two,” said Hank, pushing aside a clump of the seaweed. “Both look big enough to keep, too.” They dumped the clams in the bucket, and Hank began to work the spade again. He could see his reflection in the water as he did. An old man, eyes smothered in wrinkles, and his nose misshapen from scotch after supper. He could see the reflection of the boy beside him, and then a small, gentle wave rippled across the water, and one blurred into the other. For a second he felt his eyes welling up, but then he swallowed his breath, and looked towards the horizon, the sea, merging with the sky.
He heard a car door slam.
Hank looked up to see a cab pulling away from the end of the road. The boy’s father started down the beach, a bandage of some sort taped across his nose. He had his keys in his hand and blood still splattered on the front of his shirt. Above him, Hank could just discern the roof of his house, from here looking to be buried in sea grass, and he could picture his young mother on the edge of the cliff, watching them. Hank glanced at his watch and felt an emptiness stirring within him. Time. It made little sense. The future could never compete with the past. The past was forever, and the future was not. And still we raced to get there. The boy had yet to notice his father had returned. Hank looked over at him, leaned over now with his face close to the water, and then he looked back towards the shore. The father was still standing there, looking far away and small. Silently watching. He had yet to make a move, but surely there was somewhere else to go. And Hank wondered how long he could wait before he called them to shore.