Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Drowning

When the nude young man, tall and tan and apparently drowned, was washed up out of the sea, Stella Frances found him. Stella Frances Irons was a plump, somewhat stern-looking, ash-blonde woman in her mid-fifties. Though it hadn't always helped her, she had always loved the beach. Since her husband's death six years ago, she'd spent every summer alone in the beach house the two of them together had seldom had time for, now a mile or so behind her. She had strolled along this part of the beach every afternoon of every summer, but she'd never encountered anything like this.

Stella Frances didn't mean to be, but she was a little bit frightened of the man. She was afraid that he might be dead, yet even more afraid because he was naked. She had been married for a good long time and knew what men looked like when they were naked, but her husband had been dead for six years now and she no longer felt comfortable (if she ever had) in the presence of nudity—anyone's nudity. Even alone in her own house, she liked to keep most of her clothes on until it was time for shower and bed.

The presence of this naked man in daylight, this mysterious foolish-looking tan man who was either dead or unconscious, was only slightly less unnerving than if he'd been awake and looking right at her, maybe even—well, saying something awful! At least while he was unconscious, she neither had to look at him or pretend that she wasn't looking!

She rubbed her hands anxiously and frowned very hard. She couldn't think, couldn't think straight at all, but she should do something, she was sure of that. She whipped off her straw hat and stared at it blankly for a moment, then trotted down to the sea and scooped up a hatful of water. She ran back, breathing hard and feeling her weight with every step, remembering sadly how prettily she used to bounce! She had never quite gotten used to being overweight. All her life she'd been a pretty girl, and it was hard now sometimes for her to remember about her loss of looks and grace. It had been hard for her these last few years, unlearning her confidence in herself. As she ran, Stella Frances stumbled and looked down. The tightly-woven straw hat was leaking more and more with every step she took. "Hurry, hurry!" she told herself. She was convinced she had to get there soon or she'd look like a bigger fool than she felt, arriving without any water in her hat!

Finally she got there, gasping for air. She leaned down over the naked man and splashed what remained of the water on his face. He didn't stir. She still couldn't tell if he was dead. Just then, a small Negro boy ran up, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Shit, lady, that man's drownt with water, he don't need no more!"

"Listen, young man, don't you—!"

Stella Frances paused, looking confused. She had been about to give the boy a long sharp sermon about his language, then considered that there were more important things.

"Oh—yes. I suppose you must be right," she said, shaking her head. What the little fellow said was really quite sensible, she thought. "I'm just being stupid." It was a great relief, really, for someone else to come along, even if it was just the colored boy.

"Well, you're a very smart young man, aren't you?" she told him.

The boy looked slightly startled at her change in tone. He seemed to frown at her with his eyes, though he kept his mouth firmly set in a straight, inexpressive line. Regionald was ten and he already hated being talked to in that patronizing tone of voice. White people were especially good at it, he knew, though it wasn't peculiar to them. Anyone older than him was liable to use it.

"Makes 'em feel smart!" he thought sullenly.

"Maybe you know where the nearest telephone is, dear, and can get some help over here?" Stella Frances asked in a sugarcoated voice.

"Yeah, I know, lady," the boy muttered disinterestedly. "There's a house real close."

"Do you know who lives there?"

"Sure, lady."

"Yes?" she asked hopefully.

"I do."


Stella Frances couldn't comprehend the little boy's cloudy answers. Why was he making it so hard, she wondered? He did seem bright, but he just wouldn't volunteer anything. She'd have to try again.

"Well, run as fast as you can, dear, and call the sheriff or the operator or somebody and tell them to send an ambulance out here right away!"

As she spoke, the boy rocked back and forth, changing restlessly from one foot to another. He stared at her relentlessly all the while, his mouth opening wider and wider until, to Stella Frances, he looked like a gaping idiot. What was the matter with the boy, she wondered! He started walking backwards toward his house before she finished speaking, and by the time she'd said the word "ambulance", he was already trotting. If he had run in a straight line he'd have been out of sight already, but the boy ran playfully, looping back and forth. Still he was quite a distance off when he hollered back over his shoulder.

"It won't do no good to call for the sher'ff, lady!"

The child's voice was shrill, though not weak, and it seemed as if the wind was going to blow his words away before she could catch them. She screwed up her face and strained to hear him. Her hearing wasn't what it used to be. She paused before answering, waiting to make sure she'd understood him.

"Why in the world not?" she yelled hoarsely, as loudly as she could. She was annoyed at the child, running away so quickly and making her have to shout like that, but she realized that it was neither fair nor wise to let her crossness show in her voice. He was only a little boy, after all. And if she made him mad, he might just run away and not do what he'd promised.

"Why not?!" she yelled again, her throat aching with the unaccustomed strain.

"Cause that's Sher'ff Constancio you got lying there 'thout no clothes on!" the boy yelled from far off.

"Oh, my goodness!" she muttered. She stood there frowning for a moment, then smiled. "Well, that explains it," she thought. "He isn't tan, he's Spanish! I've never seen a Mexican man undressed before." She wasn't sure why it was, but she was certain it was something interesting.

Suddenly her smile dropped away as she thought of something and she raised her hand to her forehead. "Oh, no!" she thought. "That's exactly what that silly little boy will tell them, too—that I've got the sheriff naked out here! It'll be all over town in no time. People will be talking about it a long time before they have any facts—the same way they talk about things a long time after all the facts have been forgotten and the truth won't much matter. The truth never does."

Stella Frances understood about gossip; she'd started enough of it herself. She just knew she was going to end up looking ridiculous. Ever since Edward had died, the fear of it had been her constant companion. No one had ever liked her as much as Edward did.

She couldn't understand why she acted like this, felt like this. It was only when she was at the beach that she felt so insecure. At the university where she worked she was fairly masterful, she knew, at times even intimidating with people. Before she'd been demoted from the position of executive secretary to the President of the college, some people had even feared her. To her, that part had all been funny, though. She'd never felt very frightening; she'd only felt like herself. But why, oh, why did she get so disconcerted during the summers now? She couldn't understand it. Even though she was old enough to know better (and knew it very well) and even though she'd dealt with enough men at work not to take them very seriously, still she wasn't used to baby-sitting naked men, Caucasian or Spanish, dead or otherwise. She was shaken by an uncomfortable premonition that everyone she knew (and even some she didn't) were going to be preternaturally curious about this mess she'd stumbled into.

"God, they'll be asking me no-telling what-all silly questions about it!" she muttered, her face turning red. "I wonder if I shouldn't go and look at him more carefully so I'll have some kind of answers?"

Her lips were dry and she licked them. She knew she couldn't just keep standing there like an ignoramus, a frightened woman who refused to notice a single detail of an interesting situation, but she couldn't very well go stand and stare at that naked Mexican either.

"What about that butt-naked man you found on the beach?" the smart-aleck kids on the beach would laugh.

Stella Frances shuddered. Young people were always so direct and vulgar. It was just awful, she felt, sharing a love for the beach with such wild and unpleasant creatures. She really couldn't see where they loved anything. She had to suppress a desire to call the police every time she saw them, but police these days, she'd found, weren't interested in anything less than murder or bank robbery or arson. They didn't have time for her complaints at all. In fact, the last time she'd called them about prowlers one of the detectives had spoken rather brusquely, she'd felt.

"Look, lady, things are changin'," Detective Trunnels had said, "and I ain't in charge of the changes. Don't blame me 'cause things are getting worse all the time, 'cause mostly it's the same damn people that pay my salary that are getting worse! Miz Irons, you just can't do nothin' when everything changes!"

The policeman's talk frightened her; it had given her the impression that he was as helpless as she was and she didn't like thinking about that. The world had gone topsy-turvy enough when her husband had died without men in general ceasing to be what she expected of men. She was often confused and angry. "But so's that policeman," she sighed.

The ladies at the Bromeliad Club would have their say too about the drowned man, she knew that. "What did you see, Stella?" they'd ask her, their faces prim, but their eyes snickering at her. Why was everyone like that these days?! What was the matter with everyone? It made her so uncomfortable!

And what could she say, after all? "I found a naked man unconscious on the beach. That's all I know."

"That's all, Stella?"

Say something else! Say something else, they're snickering!

"Uh—a little Negro boy ran up and said he was the sheriff. I just took his word for it, though. I'd never seen him before in my life!"

But didn't that sound a little like the boy said he was the sheriff? Oh! She'd sound stupid, all right, she just knew it. All because she hadn't paid attention. She couldn't focus, just couldn't focus!

"Maybe I should take a better look at him," she thought nervously, "just to see if he's still alive."

Actually she'd been staring at him the entire time since the boy had run away, though only at his face. She had held her hat in front of her so that it obscured the rest of him. He might be bleeding to death, instead of just half-drowned, as far as she could swear later in a court of law. Somebody might hold her responsible, she worried. For all she knew, some kind of murderous Spanish obscenities might be scrawled across his belly in lipstick and blood. "I really ought to look him over!"

She moved the hat and looked, but had to look away immediately again. It was really too much. The horrible man, though certainly still unconscious, was—well, aroused! She cleared her throat several times.

"Oh my!" she thought. "They'll be here pretty soon. Someone will come up and this is what they'll see. Oh...oh, dear..." She had to stifle an urge to wake him up, to shake him and make him stop it. "That wouldn't work, though," she told herself impatiently. Besides, how good an idea could it be to wake up a man with—well, one of those!

She thought about throwing her hat over it, but that didn't seem like such a good idea. She didn't want to lose her hat, and she wouldn't exactly want it back after—putting it there! But what if she did it anyway, she thought? Every time she put her hat on again, she'd think about the man who'd—.

Suddenly, for the first time in years, she really laughed. "This is so ridiculous!" she gasped.

She walked over to the man, smiling now, blurred her vision intentionally so she wouldn't have to see what she'd already seen, and threw her big straw hat over his crotch. She sighed with relief and then leaned down.

"Well—no obscenities, at least," she thought as her eyes came to rest on his chest. She giggled a little as she lightly held her fingers against his cheek and nose to check his breath. Yes, he was breathing—fairly regularly too. When she stood up, she jumped back quickly, quite out of breath.

"Goodness! That took more nerve than I've used in years!"

Suddenly she remembered how her husband, Edward, used to wake up like that several mornings a week, no matter how old he got. When she'd been a young woman, she'd accused him of doing it on purpose to aggravate her, but she'd finally realized it didn't have much to do with her and that it wasn't anything he had much control over. Usually it went away as soon as he'd gone to the bathroom, so she just stopped looking at him in the mornings until after he'd gone.

"Bluesteel boners!" she thought suddenly and giggled again. She'd almost forgotten that silly, vulgar phrase of her husband's until now! She put her hand over her mouth, trying to stifle herself, fearing someone would choose that exact inopportune moment to come rescue the half-drowned Sheriff Constancio.

"I'm really feeling rather giddy," she thought. "Is this what they mean by hysteria?"

She looked up and down the beach desperately. Far, far down the beach she saw several teenagers poking around in the sand. She knew she ought to stand up and wave at them, do anything she could to get their attention, but she sat down quickly beside the sheriff and crouched there, low and out of sight, breathing heavily. Even if her failure brought injury to the poor drowned sheriff, she couldn't bring herself to deal with those awful young people. She couldn't tell too well from this distance, but one of them even looked like he might be the one she suspected of peeking in her windows at night. She couldn't stand the idea of being friendly or obligated to that boy! She'd heard them talking among themselves and they talked so roughly for no reason at all! They were probably all on dope. She could just imagine him saying something like, "Hey, fuck you, lady! You deal with it!" What possible use could those crude and cruel children be to her or anyone else?

She went back and checked the man's breathing again and he seemed to be breathing even better now. She placed her right hand on his forehead to check his temperature. Unconsciously her left hand rested lightly on the curve of his stomach. His belly was rising and falling noticeably now, reminding her of a sleeping dog.

"He's just an ordinary-looking man," she thought charitably. "Kind of handsome, kind of stupid."

Suddenly she wasn't afraid of him at all. She felt warm toward him, almost maternal. She smiled and began to pat his belly. But moments later she realized what she was doing and stiffened. It suddenly became clear to her how the most embarrassing thing would be if he woke up before anyone got there, not if someone showed up before he woke up! She liked the new idea even less than the old one! "But how embarrassing for him!" she couldn't help thinking.

"Poor man," she whispered. Affectionately, yet still quite unconsciously, she patted his stomach again. "Poor, poor fellow," she thought. But somehow she was thinking of herself as well. "Maybe I should put something else over him, something less ridiculous than this," she sighed.

She tried to think what that might be, but there really wasn't anything else, whether ridiculous or not. She had a scarf, but the wind would just blow that away. It wasn't big enough to tie around him and she could hardly tie it to—!

"Oh!" She laughed louder than ever, finally clapping her hands over her mouth to stifle her noise.

"Dear God, I'm cackling!" she grinned. "Why is this so difficult?!"

She looked up and down the beach anxiously. Off in the distance in one direction she could see the small group of young people moving away. From the other direction the young Negro boy was returning, running lazily, unconcernedly. Drat the boy! He hadn't brought a blanket or anything. Or had she even asked him to? She couldn't remember. She hoped he'd at least called for help.

"I tole my mama!" the boy hollered in his thin unfriendly voice. "She phoned somebody, okay?"

"He sounds so far away," she thought. "Or is it just me?"

Stella Frances Irons sighed, feeling confused again and inconsolably sad. She felt cheated. She hadn't felt this way—threatened, excited, involved, called upon—since her husband had died, and she'd missed it without even knowing it. If there had been enough time, she would even have thought of something to cover the young man with, she was sure of it. Still, a part of her was relieved that someone was coming, even if it was just the colored boy. She wasn't responsible for this nonsense, after all. She just happened to be there.


4th draft: 02/02/07
©1989 Ronald C. Southern

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