Once A Hero
by David Lambert
He sits hard at the edge of the sea, exhausted and voiceless. Adrenaline pulses through him and his head throbs. His wife hovers near. It is his wife they talk to.
Colors whoosh red and black behind his eyes, and little things, silvery white, float through his field of vision. Around him, commotion, foot falls, shuffling sand. . .and bodies moving, but he hears none of it, only the thud of blood pulsing through his brain and the muffled voices of his two young sons somewhere behind him.
And the headache, the headache. An offer of water comes, a towel, some ice?
The long sun rests hot now against his back and turns the salt to crystal that crinkles against his skin. There, on the verge of the tide, seawater erodes the wet sand beneath him; both find their way back to the sea.
‘Home,’ he says, and he pushes up to stand. He is unsteady, unaccustomed to his feet it seems. Tentative steps, a brief catch of balance. The crowd opens and he moves toward home.
Near the dunes his toes cleave the fine powder, hot still from the summer sun. He mounts the wooden walk that crosses to the street. Old wood, this ramp, silvered and splintery, with ridge-heaves from the salt and heat. Back there someone is yelling. His eyes sting. Sun and sweat, salt and sand. He wipes them with the back of his hand where the sand is least.
The sun has angled more now and cars pass, neighbors coming from work. Normal neighborhood, his, the noises, the movement; but the sameness strikes him as odd. He wonders about this until the pounding intrudes and overtakes his thoughts.
His wife moves beside him and takes his hand. The boys walk behind quietly.
‘You alright?’ she asks. He nods but does not answer. She understands, accepts his quiet, kens his exhaustion, and she does not ask again.
Their house is six back from the ocean, one short block, two cross-streets—-a long walk today. It faces east toward the Atlantic. Houses on the street form a gantlet, a wind-tunnel that directs Atlantic breezes to their doors. Nearly every day their window curtains billow.
Theirs is an old house, cypress, a house not built for air conditioning. He has been fixing it now for 10 years, weekends mostly, and evenings, fixing it while their kids grow. This house has a singularity, a smooth brick floor that stays cool in the summer; a floor that won’t warp or wash away if a rogue hurricane pushes water up over the dune, down the street, down the thousand feet to their door. It was his grandmother’s idea, this floor, and it was a good one.
This late day he steps on the patchy grass of their yard. Near the house, near the low palm, he has rigged a shower, a galvanized steel rod with a plastic head to wash off the sand and salt. He walks past it today and opens the screen door. Inside is dark and the brick cools his feet, hot from the warm tar road. Did he lose his flip-flops? Leave his sunglasses on the beach?
Inside, in the cool dark, his body drains down and his knees take on signs of betrayal. He sits quickly as his boys come through the door. He is wet still with sand clinging lightly to his shorts and legs. Today his wife does not complain about the salt or the wet; she does not mention the upholstery, the fine wood.
His boys give him side looks as they walk by. His youngest looks scared. What do I look like that scares him, he wonders. He forces a smile their way. I’m o.k, the smile is meant to say. And he is o.k., mostly, and for that he is thankful. Except his head pounds.
He sits there a moment cooling his feet on the brick. Parts of the last hour play keep-away in his head, popping up between throbs. His running on the hard sand. Diving deep through the crushing whitewater. The small scared screams. The judgement of current and the rip, the big waves.
But the throbbing returns and he wonders if he’ll throw up. Aspirin, he thinks, and he walks to the bathroom.
Here the walls are stark and cool. He turns the shower on and spreads his hand against the tile. He leans his forehead into the water and he does not think of the sand and salt or what the water takes away.
He does not think how much he loves his family or this old house. And he does not think of the young mother back there on the beach, who was, for that one long moment, idly toying with her infant child while her two young daughters played in the clasping currents of the big September surf.