Talking while driving and doing neither one well, Duncan Leland came to the end of yet another fruitless phone call with his estranged wife, Cora. He clicked his cell phone shut and tried to quell the sour tide in his gut. How had the solid continent of “Us” become the scattered islands of “him” and “her”? They’d been separated since the middle of summer, and as fast as calendar time was progressing into fall, he was slipping farther behind. Neither he nor Cora had intended that he go live with his mother when he left. They both assumed he’d bunk with his buddy, Slocum, until their marital crisis passed, but their crisis solidified instead. Duncan did not last a week living above Manavilin’s Fish Shack. Sleeping on Slocum’s sofa, numb from the barstool remedies for marital woes pressed upon him by friends, and wrapped in a blanket of fryer fumes, he felt himself regressing into the stupor of college life. Every night he seemed to sink deeper into emotional time, until one day he went to his mother’s house to do his laundry and never left. Now it was beginning to feel normal, and he worried he might never find his way out again.
In his agitation, he became disoriented and suddenly unsure of his ability to navigate. “Keep the water to the right, water to the right,” he said to himself as he drove, a silly mantra, considering all he had to do to get home was stay on Shore Road. While he lamented the shipwreck that was his marriage, he mourned the equally disastrous changes in his old route. It was no longer the road of his blissfully rudderless youth, when this stretch was a wild and untamed curve of the bay, dotted with signs of warning—“Swim at your own risk” and “Caution, strong tides”—which had only encouraged recklessness. This area had once been so sparsely settled that, at low tide, he and his older brother, Nod, could walk the few rocky miles from their house to their dad’s office without ever touching the civilization of the sidewalk. They loved the damp band of earth that was neither wholly sea nor entirely land, a constantly changing landscape that offered their prepubescent souls new, exciting dangers to overcome. Duncan and Nod had felt themselves gifted at avoiding the perils of the seaweed slicks. They had leaped across the cracks and crevices with ease, even grace, and had waded unafraid through tidepools full of barnacles and crabs. They had scratched their bare legs on wire lobster traps and tripped on minefields of trash, surviving to tell the tale. As boys, they were masters of their world, demi-gods of the water’s edge.
Now their infinite kingdom was gone. They’d be arrested for trespassing if they took that walk today, even if it were possible to climb over, under, and around all the new docks and fences. The shoreline had been rapidly built up over the recent years; and now, as fast as it had all gone up, it was coming down. Duncan passed the unfinished “Lightkeeper’s House,” as the developer called it, a plywood mansion with a fake lighthouse attached. The protective plastic that had once covered the raw wood had blown away in shreds, waving like battle standards. The site was another ruin in the making, like so many others along the curve, abandoned during construction due to the homeowner’s or builder’s financial apocalypse. The wrecks were signs of a lost civilization, like pagodas in the jungles, chocked with vines and inhabited by small bands of monkeys.
He pulled into his mother’s driveway where there still existed a window to his old world and turned off the engine. He looked across the lawn and out at the water, which rose and fell as methodically as a breathing chest. A few lonely boats wobbled in the cove, filling him with unnamable longing. He closed his eyes and tried to channel an answer from the universe about how to repair his marriage; but instead, over the sound of the surf slapping the rocks, he heard his mother’s voice as sharp and piercing as a gull’s, down at the beach carping at Nod. “Fix it! Fix it!”
Duncan had no idea what she was all head up about, but there was no shortage of things needing fixing right now. Even his financing needed a fix. Sitting on the passenger seat was a manila envelope that held an unsigned contract from a local loan shark—Duncan’s last chance to save his fish processing plant, Seacrest Ocean Products of Maine, Ltd. It was on ground as shaky as his marriage. He needed the loan to tide him over until his new product line was launched, but he risked losing the business altogether if he could not pay it back in six months time. What he needed was something exciting in the pipeline to insure Seacrest’s future, and he might very well have found it at lunch. He reached for the tin gallon of Slocum’s jellyfish soup, an experiment gone awry, which had sent half a dozen customers to the emergency room. Duncan had asked for some to go because anything that could stop grown men dead in their tracks might have a few commercial applications. Jellyfish had become the single largest biomass in the ocean, more abundant than ever due to warmer waters and the over-fishing of their predators and competitors. The jellyfish had since crowded everything else out. If he could find a lucrative use for them, he would have a constant supply, and the fishermen would be happy to have them gone from the waters. So little was known about them, nothing was impossible. From seeing how they interacted with stomach linings, they might even have potential as a biodegradable solvent.
He got out of the truck and paused. Usually he would get to the backyard by the wraparound porch, but he and Nod had just stored all the lawn furniture on it for the winter. Instead, he used the ratway, a narrow path squeezed in between the house and the neighbor’s high stone wall. Zoning would not allow a house to be built that close to the property line today, but there was so much about the structure that was grandfathered in, it might as well be a boat in dry dock for all that it conformed to modern building code. Even the porch railings, which canted inwards like a ship’s rails, were more nautical than domestic.
The ratway was overhung by hairy conifers, casting him in a green underwater light. The trees had been planted on the other side of the wall decades ago by the abutters and left by subsequent owners as a barrier against the irregular life of the Lelands. To his left, open latticework concealed the crawl space under the porch, and he kept his eyes averted for fear of spotting furry things creeping among the terra cotta towers of flower pots and stacks of storm windows, beyond which lay the foundation of the house, the crude heavy stones upon which all the rest depended, and upon which the old house had teetered during gales, always—amazingly—managing to set itself right in the end. Beneath Duncan’s feet, the path crunched with layers of seaglass, the dumping place of a century’s worth of family beachcombing. As a hobby, Cora made whimsical mobiles from seaglass, and sometimes scoured for pieces from the path because the supply on the beach was so rapidly dwindling. It had once seemed an unending source of material, but now, between the change to plastic and the ban on dumping, sea glass, that perfect collaboration between man and nature, was becoming a relic of the past.
Well, weren’t they all?
At the end of the ratway, the house and the wall were spanned by a stone arch, and he had to duck to get out from under it. It was getting late, but the sky was blue, and a rising sea breeze moved through the branches, flickering the sunlight in yellows and greens. The season was changing, and it was change at its most beautiful—unlike his life, which was change at its lowest ebb. Keeping to the edge of the yard, he passed the grotto made by his great-aunt Hilda in her youth, where she had pressed seashells, fish bones, and seaweed into concrete, creating a fossilized ocean cave, complete with hidden piping that dripped water from cement stalactites. He paused at the black pool full of pine needles, where insects made ripples and clouds of gnats hovered over the water. Off to the side sat a streaked verdigris marine monster with a scaled tail, webbed toes, and a somewhat human head from whose nostrils spurted water in the summer, if anyone remembered to turn it on from the house. Duncan reached in his pocket and tossed in a penny. “Cora,” he said out loud, and then he headed for the beach.
At the top of the stairs that led down to the water was a mulberry tree, old and twisted and hanging by a root-toe to the land as it leaned precariously towards the sea. Over by the pier, he could see his mother and Nod messing with the inflatable’s outboard motor and guessed that’s what needed fixing today. He reached for the iron railing to start his short descent, and with each footfall on the loose stones, bits of rubble tumbled to the beach below. Halfway down, a gnarly wild cherry tree had sprouted from the crevice of the rocks and served as a newel post. He wondered how it stayed alive in such inhospitable earth. As it was, the tree was a third the size of its kin near the road. Cora always said, “A good home environment makes all the difference,” and there was the evidence. He neared the bottom, passing the spray zone where seaside goldenrod and beach pea held the earth in place. Judging from the exposed tops of the stone pilings where Great-Uncle Lloyd had kept up his herring weir, it was mid-tide. Duncan wondered how the market for herring was these days. He had to start thinking of what he would do as a fallback position if he could not keep Seacrest afloat.
His mother’s dog, Chandu, met Duncan at the bottom of the steps; and the two of them walked gingerly along the shingled beach towards his family, who did not look up from their work. They were over near the jetty, whose wooden ramp was hanging limp in the water, the float having washed away in a storm a few weeks before. The rubber inflatable was beached because of it, and seemed to be going nowhere if their carrying-on was any indication. Around the crescent tip of beach, he heard the rattle of chains and the sound of moorings being pulled at the Boat Club basin. A screaming seagull passed overhead and released a mussel, shattering the shell and splattering its occupant on the rocks. Half a dozen gulls arrived to fight over it.
“There’s never any shortage of animals willing to share in the profits of others, eh Chandu?”
The dog whined in response, and Duncan looked down to see a front paw tangled in fishing line. As he stopped to free the dog, he took in the sheer amount of garbage that had washed up lately. Detergent bottles, fish bins, lobster buoys, lawn chairs—the tide of garbage rose and rose and never seemed to ebb. He’d heard about a flotilla of plastic trash the size of Texas rolling around in the South Pacific, and seeing how much there was just on this small patch of beach, he could well believe it.
“There you go, old boy,” he said, and he held up the line for the dog to smell. Duncan remembered how he and Nod used to string scavenged line with fish vertebra they’d collect at the hightide mark and make necklaces for their mother. She wore them still.
“Duncan, dear,” his mother called. “Stop talking to the dog and come help us!”
Nod stood unsteadily in the rubber dinghy which was half in the water, half out, with the outboard motor end in. His mother stood on the rocky beach and directed Nod’s pulls on the starter rope.
“He can’t help us,” said Nod. “No one can help us.” He kicked an empty Clorox bottle that served as the inflatable’s bailer.
“Duncan, you get in there and give it a good pull,” his mother said.
“I’ve found a way to keep the factory’s head above water for a few more months, but there are risks.”
“This is no time, Duncan.”
“We’ve got to get this started first,” said Nod, clearing his throat.
“Tighten that screw there, Nod.” His mother squatted down and pointed a finger at the motor.
Duncan could see he was not going to get anywhere with them until the dinghy was working. “Is there gas in the can?” he said.
“Of course there is.” Nod picked up the red can attached to the motor by black tubing, and shook it to prove there was gas. But there was no sound. Nod unscrewed the cap and looked in. “Huh.”
“You carried the can down from the house without realizing it was empty?” said Duncan. There were some men, like his brother, who should be protected by law, like fish and game. Was it any wonder Nod still lived at home? Then Duncan remembered that he was living at home, too. Was this how people saw him? Incompetent and not fully aware of the world around him?
“Duncan, dear,” said his mother. “Run back up to the house and get the other can out of the shed. Nod has got to retrieve the float.”
“There is no other can,” said Nod. “I left it at the gas station.”
“Someone found the float?” asked Duncan.
“The Club called,” said his mother. “It washed up last night. Why don’t you go siphon some gas out of your truck?”
“No,” he said. If he agreed to it this time, they’d never get gas from the outside world again. “It’s siphon-proof.”
“Nothing is siphon-proof,” said his mother. “If it can go in, it can come out.”
“We might as well wait until tomorrow at this point,” said Nod. “By the time he returns with gas, it’ll be too dark to tow the float back.”
“Read this,” said Duncan. He pulled the folded manila envelope from the pocket of his windbreaker and handed it to his mother. She took the papers out and gave them a quick glance. In the dim light, she seemed younger by decades; and he had a vision of how she appeared to him when he was a child, when her braid was bright red and her face had the unkempt beauty of a woman too distracted to cultivate her looks.
“What’s the problem?” she said, as she slipped the contract back in the envelope. “You need money, and he wants to give you money.”
“Osbert Marpol is not the most virtuous man I’ve ever met.”
His mother gave him the envelope. “As J.P. Morgan said, you can do business with anyone, but you can only sail a boat with a gentleman. I wouldn’t sail with this man, but you’re just doing business.”
“Mom, you don’t sail with anyone,” said Duncan, returning the envelope to his pocket.
“And if you don’t watch out, you won’t be doing business with anyone.” She exhaled in impatience. “You have to look for answers in the problem itself.”
As usual, her maternal advice was gnomic at best. Giving up on one another, they all stared at the outboard motor. “The problem,” said Duncan, “is emptiness. Does that gas can have a filter?”
Nod looked in the opening and nodded. “Why?” he said.
“Let’s fire up Slocum’s soup du jour. It’s pretty volatile stuff. You never know.”
Nod and his mother made encouraging noises. One of the few things he appreciated about his strange family is that they never questioned even the most absurd comments or actions. If Duncan believed that soup could combust, well then, go to it. He popped the cap of the tin can and peeked in, sloshing it around to see how many solids were in it. But it didn’t slosh. It was a solid.
“Or not,” said Duncan. “Nod, do you have your splicing knife?”
It was a silly question. It hung on a loop from his bunk bed even as he slept. He unclipped it from his belt and tossed it.
Duncan stuck the knife in the can and started slicing the metal from hole to hole, and as he did, the can crumbled in his hands. The soup had already begun to burn through the metal before it solidified.
Nod began to put things back to rights on the boat. “I guess I’ll have to go into town tomorrow to get that gas.”
Their mother stood up straight and wrung out the tip of her braid, which had dragged in the water. “Coming back up to the house with us, Duncan?”
“I think I’ll stay here a bit and watch the sun go down.” While he continued to pry the can apart, Nod and his mother pulled the inflatable up the beach and tied it to a metal loop cemented into a rock. Duncan freed the hunk at last and inspected the amber substance in his hands. It wasn’t sticky as he had expected, and it didn’t even smell. He held it up in one hand to consider. It was amazingly like plastic.
“Knife,” said Nod. Duncan returned it to him, then watched as Nod and their mother headed for the stairs. Chandu swayed slowly behind them, in hopes of dinner.
“Don’t stand there thinking too much, Duncan,” she called without looking back. “You know how you get.”
“No, how do I get?” Duncan said to no one as he turned the solidified soup over in his hands. He knelt to hit it against a rock a few times, but it did not break. It didn’t even chip. He sat down to think, while overhead seagulls flocked in uncoordinated groups across the sky, flying to wherever it was they slept. Off in the distance, he could see the lights coming on around Port Ellery, doubling itself in the water’s reflection, and making it twice as lovely. A wave of yearning for Cora washed over him, as intense as the first moment he’d fallen in love with her. How could he get his life back?
As the sky turned dark, the beam of the lighthouse became illuminated, highlighting the shoreline in mesmerizing seven-second intervals. The water shone in the ashy light, and Duncan felt a shiver run through his body. The tide continued to recede, leaving behind all the plastic crap of modern civilization, turned grotesque in the twilight, plastic that would never change, never go away, which would only keep building up and up until they were all trapped alive in an indestructible murk of their own making. It was a problem that put all of his into perspective. If, as his mother had said, the answer to a problem was in the problem itself, then he held the answer in his own two hands.
Jellyfish plastic. What else could pull him and the world out of their hole than something totally off the wall? It was a dream at any rate, something he hadn’t had in a very long time. Maybe that was all he needed to move forward. A little hope combined with the absurd. He rested the block in his lap and took his cell phone out of his pocket. It was not too soon to call Cora and tell her he saw their future. She would be surprised to find out this future of theirs might feature jellyfish containers, but there you had it. He imagined what he would say to her. He would start by comparing marriage to the ocean, how they both held the secrets to their recovery in their own murky depths.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novel “Addled,” published by Little, Brown in 2007. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and others. “Infinite Kingdom” is excerpted from her novel, “Float,” which is due out from Ashland Creek Press in 2013.