The window was open just enough to let in the cool night air. It felt good and unexpected after the scorching heat of the day. There had been very little relief lately. Even the sea breeze seemed to have given up and the ocean was as sluggish as molten pewter. Will Carter didn’t know if the summers were getting hotter as the talking heads on TV kept saying or if it was a byproduct of getting old. He remembered running on the beach as a boy. He didn’t care about the heat then or the brightness of the sun. And he didn’t care about sunburn when he walked on the sand with Tess, and dreamed of what their life would be. They lived inside that dream for a long time. The jobs came haphazardly, like the children, and they took both as they came. Tess was gone now. Five long years already. The children had children of their own. They were spread all over the country, east and west. They called to check on him, on birthdays and holidays, and when they felt guilty for not having called in a while. They were good kids, mostly thanks to Tess. He didn’t have much patience with them when they were little. When they were big enough to catch or throw a ball, or enjoy a game, then yes, he had all the time in the world for them. He was a good father, just not into the baby stuff. The way his mind rambled made him smile. Tonight, he could feel it humming nicely. All the cogs might not be perfectly greased and maybe they were a little out of alignment but all in all he was still sharp. And healthy. It wasn’t anything to be proud of. He had been insanely lucky. That war they had sent him abroad to fight was a freak show. Blinding flashes came back to him from time to time. Too many memories and despite what popular wisdom said the bad ones didn’t always fade away. The happy ones however turned brighter.
He went to the window and opened it wider. The full moon painted streaks on the waves and the dunes making them look more mysterious than they really were. He knew every inch of sand around the house. He could walk the path through the dunes with his eyes closed, and had done it quite a few times when he was too drunk to trust his eyesight. He never slept through the night when the moon was that big in a cloudless sky. City people complained about street lights shining into their bedroom windows, but they seldom took time to look at the big orb of the goddess in all her glory. The unblinking presence made him restless. The moon did more than watch him. It knew all there was to know about him and he felt it growing impatient with him, a little more every night, pushing, pulling, nagging. Waxing to uncomfortable pressure when full.
He grabbed a chambray shirt, jeans so old they were as soft as flannel, and a pair of scuffed loafers. He despised old men shoes, the boxy clogs his buddies from the community center wore. They looked like deep-sea divers in the old adventure movies, weighed with lead-soled boots. He took his sturdy cane and went down the corridor. He had mocked Tess when she insisted they buy a house without stairs. They were in their early thirties then and running up and down the steps leading to their two-bedroom apartment like mountain goats. But Tess saw clearly into the future. She had made up her mind to live a long life with him, in that beach bungalow she loved so much. Every day he thanked her for her foresight.
The two steps leading to the wooden walkway through the dunes were easy and broad and the weathered balustrade was sturdy. He carefully avoided looking at the moon. If the night hadn’t been so cool and inviting, he would have stayed in bed and turned his head away from the window and the temptress in the sky. He strolled to the bench he had built at the end of the walkway. It had been a birthday present for Tess.
He wished he had brought the flask of bourbon he used to carry in his golf bag. “Strictly for emergencies,” he used to tell the girl in the cart who drove around the course selling these tasty sandwiches he couldn’t help wolfing down. Where was she now? She probably had kids in high school. Funny how we only truly measure the passing of time in the face of strangers. We get used to our own in the bathroom mirror one wrinkle and one lost hair at a time, and we can’t see our children getting older because of the memories slipping through and distorting the picture.
He sat down on the bench. “Ready for you, girl,” he said. “Spin it.”
It never happened right away. Miss Moon took her sweet time. That was okay. She had all night and so did he. It was a ritual of sorts, even if he wasn’t the most dedicated altar boy in this church of the above and beyond. Sometimes the weather didn’t cooperate, sometimes he just didn’t feel like it.
Their relationship started after he lost Tess. He had finally disposed of all the leftovers from the funeral–how many green bean casseroles can a man eat–and went for a walk. He had been cooped up in the house for too long and when the full moon lit up his bedroom like a theater stage he heeded the call. It was something he used to do with Tess often. Get up at night and walk through the dunes in that silvery and otherworldly glow. The neighbors were in bed, the tourists had packed their gear, and they had the place to themselves. Tess grabbed a tote bag and a corkscrew and he took a bottle of wine and glasses and they cuddled like teenagers on a blanket. They had made a couple of kids that way. After he built the bench, they no longer needed the blanket. That was much later, the kids had already left home. There was still cuddling, but less strenuous gymnastics.
He went out that night, disturbed to be alone for the first time and angry because the moon didn’t care he had lost the love of his life. It started with a whisper. Maybe he had dozed off, maybe he was dreaming, maybe he wanted it to happen. No place evoked memories of Tess more strongly than the bench overlooking the beach. They had lived side by side in the house for years, yet it was this old piece of amateurish woodworking that summoned her presence the most vividly. The color of the moon that night reminded him of his wife’s eyes. They were light brown, leaning to green and changing with the color of the sky. They had these strands of yellow in them sometimes when the light hit just right, like the moon shining behind wispy clouds. He wasn’t his usual hard-headed skeptical self and it certainly played a part. He started talking to the full moon, and she responded. It wasn’t Tess, of course not, but it was an emanation of her. And it felt good to pour out everything that was weighing so heavily on his heart.
Eventually, the delusion ran its course, like mourning is supposed to do. You get used to the absence, you cope. The sadness comes back from time to time, triggered by a word or an object, and then it retreats further and further away. It never goes away completely, trace elements remain, but the pain becomes bearable.
Tonight, he was ready to say a final goodbye.
The goddess had different ideas. “You’re not going back to the house, Will Carter,” the voice that sounded so much like Tess said.
“I’m sure not spending the night out here,” he said. “I used to camp in these here dunes when I was a kid. Those days are over, sweetie.”
“Don’t you miss me?”
“You’re here, ain’t you?”
“Don’t be fresh with me, Will. You know what I mean.”
He shrugged. He hadn’t come all the way from his bedroom, in the middle of the night, to be scolded like a ten-year-old by what was, by all accounts, a figment of his imagination.
“You know what?” he said. “I don’t have to listen to you.” He tried to remain polite. Tess never responded well to coarse language.
“Admit it, Will. You’re scared.”
Was he? Not really. He could imagine himself falling asleep and not waking up. What difference would it make? He had seen enough glorious sunrises and sunsets to satisfy his soul.
“You could be with me right now.”
He didn’t like that insinuating tone. It didn’t sound like Tess at all. He squinted to dim the glare. A silver dollar, that’s what the moon looked like. He had a few of those in a box in his desk drawer. Tess wore one of them as a pendant for a while. The moon didn’t remind him of his wife’s eyes anymore.
“You’re not her,” he said. He had always been able to spot a lie-weaving no-good trickster from a mile away.
“The sea is coming in. Tess is right there.”
He had never noticed the hissing sound trailing behind his wife’s name.