Tuesday, July 3, 2007

ENTRY: Short Story July 2-July 13, 2007

BEACON OF HOPE
by Shar MacLaren

Hot August air filled the dusky eve, the sand beneath the woman’s feet still warm as burning embers from the earlier sun-drenched day. Her bare toes sifted the sugary substance as she made her way to the hefty rocks that lay nestled at the foot of the pier, their very presence a reminder of her frailty. The pier’s great length stretched out over the unusually still waters like a long finger pointing straight west. At the end stood the stately red lighthouse, a picture of beauty, solidity—permanence. A long beam of light shot out across the waters summoning visitors and natives alike—an invitation to safety—a ‘Welcome Home’ banner.

She’d grown up on these shores, knew them like she knew her favorite childhood books, had memorized each dune just as she’d memorized the lines to “Green Eggs and Ham.” This was her safe place, one of the only true ones she knew that still existed. On nights like this she could come out here, squeeze her eyes shut, and remember…imagine…pretend.

Reaching the shoreline, she pulled up the hem of her long, flowing cotton skirt and sat atop her favorite rock, the flat one that looked like a table. She used to stretch out on it like a sunning duck, watch the kites overhead and wonder which was higher, the kites or the clouds. She would span its length from head to toe back then but still not reach its entirety. Now her feet would dangle off the edge if she tried.

But she wouldn’t try. Not now.

“Come on, Missy Beth,” her daddy would call. “It’s time I took you back.”

The woman looked up, scanned the empty shoreline. Foolish. She dipped her head back down to watch her toes do a work of their own in the shifting sand, the hole they dug going deeper, creating a pool for incoming water. “Not yet, Daddy,” she would answer in the finest kind of whine, the kind that always wins. “Please, can we stay a little longer?”

“Well, just a few minutes then. Our time is almost up and your mother will wonder why I’m late bringing you back.” Something in his deep, resonant voice held sadness; she always picked up on it, even as an innocent child. Now that she was grown, she knew it for what it was—regret of the deepest kind, maybe even sorrow.

A distant gull cried for his mate—or was it just that he was hungry? Food was plentiful along the beaches this time of night, the careless picnicking crowd always leaving behind tidbits and morsels of left-over hamburgers, potato chips, and half-eaten ice cream cones. If the debris wasn’t buried by the shifting sands or picked up by a concerned citizen or a park attendant, birds and other night creatures could enjoy their fill.

Dusk produced a sunset worthy of a paint brush. Misted-over eyes trailed the length of the beach. From here it seemed as if she could see into the face of eternity. Was there no end to these sandy beaches, these treasured walkways? And yet, she knew there was. There seemed to be an end to everything—at least everything she held dear and close to her heart. She swallowed down a lump that had grown out of proportion, felt an unwanted tear trace a path down her sunburned cheek.

A couple of handholding teenagers passed by. The girl lost her foothold and started to trip. They giggled, the boy and girl, him catching her before she fell. “Sorry,” the girl murmured to the woman, sidling the rest of the way past her, hardly even noticing her really. Hands clasped, as if there were no tomorrow, they headed for the lighthouse.

Moments passed in sullen quietness, save the occasional curl of current beating against a craggy rock, the distant cry of a bird, a car’s horn, or the hoot of a restless teen looking for some Saturday night excitement.

“Beth.” His voice caught on the soft, arid breeze, taking her by complete surprise. John. How?... “I wondered if I’d find you here.” His smile was generous but wary, genuine but guarded. That place in her heart reserved for bitterness softened slightly. I must remember I am angry, she scolded inwardly. He came to stand over her, his posture uncertain. He was big and surly looking, muscled and firm, yet in his heart of hearts he’d always been soft—more so than her. “May I sit?” he asked, his tone denoting caution. And would she tell a strapping grown man that he couldn’t?

“Yes,” she answered.

“Beth,” he began. “I’m sick of fighting.” His voice had lost the harshness that was there just hours ago. He swept the hair from his forehead, its sandy color bleached from hours of golf.

“Me too.”

“That’s all we do any more.”

“I know.”

He shrugged his shoulders tiredly. It frightened her. “What shall we do?”

What was he asking? This man she’d been married to for twelve years. Her heart crumbled into a million pieces at her feet, joining the other pieces that had fallen earlier. Was this it then? Had they somehow come to the end of their resources? Would his next sentence include the ‘D’ word—divorce? They’d had counseling, such as it was, joined a support group with other ‘flailing couples’, followed the Ten Steps to a Healthy Marriage by a renowned psychologist right down to the letter, even made a conscious effort to reserve a ‘date night’ every week or so. But it always came back to the same old thing.

Money.

There wasn’t enough of it to go around. They fought over it, fretted over it, lost sleep over it. It was never ending…like the vast Lake Michigan shoreline.

Like so many of their friends they’d bought into the idea that the bigger the home, the more contented they’d be; the fancier the car, the happier; the nicer the furniture, the more comfortable; the better the yard, the prouder; the more toys, the better-off. Trouble was, none of it had paid off for them, although they kept waiting. Oh, they had it all, yes; right down to the two kids, the dog, the swimming pool, and the three-stall garage. But they also had debts—insurmountable debts. Their credit was maxed out. They had good paying jobs, but the money never stretched as far as needed. And when pay day was still three days away and the milk had run out, what good did all the toys, the fancy cars, and the three-stall garage do them then?
They were tired. Plain and simple. No longer did they own their possessions; their possessions owned them. Slowly, but surely, everything they’d worked so hard for seemed to be slipping through their fingers—like the sand she reached for even now.

“What are you thinking?” he asked. “Tell me.”

“I’m…scared,” she answered, her words catching in her throat. “I don’t want Mandy and Jason to suffer.” She knew only too well how divorce affected children. Her own parents had been so distracted by their pain that hers had gone unnoticed more often than not.

“I agree. We won’t let that happen.” But how could they be sure?

She slumped tiredly, afraid to lean on him, but longing to with all her being. Could she hold herself upright if divorce was mentioned? It’d been mentioned before and she always fell apart at the seams. There had to be something more, a way out for them.

“We could sell everything,” he suddenly offered. “The furniture, the piano, the new bedroom outfit…” The thought had occurred to her a time or two, but what would it solve? They owed more on their possessions than what they were actually worth. “We could go down to one car.”
“How would we get to work? Which car, yours or mine?” She felt the old defense button click on. He wants to sell my car. What would I drive?

“Maybe you could stay home, do child-care.”

“No way,” she shot back. “You know I love my own kids, but watching someone else’s? Besides, I like what I do. And I bring home decent money.”

He snarled under his breath. “Oh right, good money.” In two winks they’d donned their gloves and were back in the boxing ring. How had it happened?

“Hey, Beth! John!” In the distance they spotted their neighbors, Ron and Karen Moore approaching, hand in hand. Something in Beth’s heart took a plunge. She’d always admired the middle-aged couple, secretly wondered what it was that kept their love so alive. They were always taking walks, laughing quietly together, working companionably in their yard.

John stiffened, obviously on edge over their own unsettled state of affairs.

“How are you guys?” Ron asked, smile warm and friendly.

“Fine.” – “Awful,” they replied simultaneously. On a whim, Beth chose to be truthful with her response; John not so. And he fairly glared at her for that fact. “We’re not—fine,” she added. “Why should we keep on lying about it? Our marriage is going under.” She was shocked by her lack of reserve. Maybe desperation was doing strange things to her.

“Beth, for crying out loud.”

“Well, it’s true. We put on this happy front for all our friends when, in actuality, we’re sinking—fast, and—we need a lifeline.” Tears sprang out and threatened to fall as she turned her gaze toward the lighthouse and tried to muster some composure. What must these fine people think of her—of them?

“You know, it’s okay to admit when you’re in trouble,” Ron offered simply and not in the least condemning. “I won’t say Karen and I were in your shoes once, but I would imagine the footwear was very similar.” He grinned knowingly. John relaxed his posture. Beth sat a little straighter.

“Really?” Beth asked. “How do you mean?”

Karen and Ron both eyed each other, waiting for the other to speak. In the end, it was Ron who did. “We were in a lot of trouble; I’d lost my job and, consequently, almost lost our house; Karen had a miscarriage, which led to chronic depression. Our finances went down the tubes, and our marriage fell apart. We were barely treading water.”

“What did you do?” This time is was John who spoke, his voice a mixture of concern and curiosity.

“We prayed. Like never before!” Ron said with a chortle.

“And we started going to church,” Karen added. “We found that when we got our priorities straightened around other things began to fall into place. Ron got a better job, I started feeling whole again, we gained control of our finances. It didn’t happen over night, mind you. Anything worth fighting for takes a lot of time, patience, and hard work. I guess you have to ask yourself if what you have is worth fighting for.”

Beth and John stared at each other, both thinking their own thoughts.

“Why don’t you come to church with us tomorrow? Head over the bridge. It’s the last church out of town, going East.”

“I know which one,” John answered. “We just may do that.”

The two couples chatted on about nothing in particular until Ron finally pulled Karen along and they headed back down the shoreline. Beth and John watched them leave.

“It’s the one thing we haven’t tried, you know. God,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Do you think there’s a chance for us?” His voice was hesitant if not hopeful.
“I want to believe there is,” Beth answered, cautiously optimistic.

They smiled at each other and stood. On the way back to their cars their fingers brushed. John grabbed hold and their hands swung loosely between them.

A foghorn moaned in the distance. The lighthouse sent a shaft of light like a ray of hope out over the waters as if to say, “Come home.”

Submitted by
Shar MacLaren

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