“Land Sick” by Brian Friesen

 

Bernice lifted the tea cup to her lips and gazed through the cafe window while her sister copied phone numbers onto a white slip of paper – work phone, cell phone, the salon, the tennis club, several other clubs. Outside, sunlight filtered through the leaves high above the crowded street. People rushed by or lingered on the sidewalk, waiting for the streetcar. Small, round wafers of light drifted over the row of tables along the wall just outside, over the cars and people passing by. A woman with a large potted cactus strode past the cafe, dust motes trailing behind her. The flecks of dust made sunbeams in her wake that hung in the air behind her, even after she turned the corner and followed the street that sloped down toward the Willamette River.

The dizziness passed over Bernice again. She closed her eyes for a moment to hold it at bay. Her sister, Elizabeth, didn’t seem to notice. Her tea trembled in the white, porcelain cup. She had lived on the river too long. Too many months turning into too many years. This frantic spinning in her head might keep hanging on like this. For days, maybe. She had packed her bags that morning and left. Bill was on his own now. For a few days. Or maybe longer. His insulin would run out in less than a week, and he probably wouldn’t even know where to go for more. He’d actually have to think about it, and climb up the ramp, and step onto dry land for once.

Elizabeth passed the slip of paper across the table. “There you go Bernice. If you can’t reach me at the office or any of these other places, then I’m not reachable at all. The cell phone is just for emergencies.”

Bernice. People back home, at the marina, called her Bernie, but that wasn’t bothering her  so much anymore. And not being bothered was starting to bother her. It’s not like the name Bernie was any shorter than the name Bernice, or any easier to say. That was the whole point of familiar names, wasn’t it? Convenience. It was the same with Marge from the middle marina. She wanted everyone to call her Mar, and she practically demanded it, saying, “Go ahead and leave off the ‘g’ next time, honey.” And then there was Doris.

Everyone called her Dory. What was wrong with these people?

A name was a treacherous thing. Everything else grew from there. She had read all about it in a magazine recently. Good economic standing could often be traced back to certain successful-sounding names. Names were likely to affect intelligence quotient. Your name was often the first impression in new relationships. It determined the kind of people that would be attracted to you and even the quality of your relationships as they went along. Nicknames weren’t the problem. It just depended on what the nickname was, or what it suggested. Men named Richard who used the familiar name Rich grew up more  financially successful. There were statistics to prove it.

How different it would be down on the river if she had become friends with a Margaret or a Doris. You would never have tea in a downtown cafe with Mar or Dory.

When Bill had convinced her to move onto the boat almost five years ago, she had tried  politely to hold their new neighbors to the name Bernice, but the name Bernie had stuck. What a stubborn, masculine name. It put people on the defensive, as if she were an insolent, presumptuous woman who needed to be put in her place.

At least now, for the next few days, or weeks, while she was living with her sister,Elizabeth and the newest husband downtown, she could listen to people say her real name for a change.

Elizabeth picked up her cup by its thin handle, steadying it underneath with a saucer in the other hand. Elizabeth asked if she was OK, maybe tea had been a bad idea so soon after arriving, maybe they should take their time, let her settle in a little before they tore up the town.

“No,” Bernice said. “It’s good to be anywhere as long as it is up on dry land.”

Bernice brought the cup of tea slowly to her lips. A blue and green streetcar hissed to a stop outside and the doors opened. A young couple outside stood up from their table, both of them fishing through their pockets. Bernice dropped her cup into the dish with a clink.

Elizabeth asked if everything was OK with Bill.

Bernice looked out the window and told her that Bill was fine, just about to start a new job. They had both decided a short vacation for her was a great idea before the position started.

The woman outside tossed several coins onto the tabletop, grabbed the young man’s arm and pulled him through the door of the streetcar just before it closed. The train hissed as it rolled out of sight.

Bernice was on vacation. That was what she called it – coming downtown. A vacation. That was the label Bill had come up with earlier that morning when Bernice had packed her bags and called her sister, looking for a place to stay. He said that a vacation was a great idea, just what was needed.

She called in sick at the office in St. Helens where she worked two days out of the week. So these were sick days as far as the accounting firm was concerned. Sick days. Vacation days. Days to decide what to do, whether to quit her own job and join Bill, or whether to let him go alone. He was starting the new job with the boat brokerage the next week, a position delivering boats by water up and down the coast. And he couldn’t make these trips on his own. All this meant that they would spend even more time down on the water instead of less.

Bernice let out a sigh, and gazed out the window. “Oh, Elizabeth, it’s just so good to be up on land, having tea in the city again, things happening all around, away from that floating trailer-park.”

“Take your time with it all, Bernice,” Elizabeth said. “We can talk whenever. When I’m not around, I’m always near a phone.” Elizabeth reached for Bernice’s hand across the table, her eyes wrinkled with concern. “I’m glad you knew you could come to us.”

Bernice looked into her sister’s eyes. “I’m on vacation, Beth. Really. Just for a few days. Don’t try to make this into something it’s not.”

They grew silent for a while. The glass of the window radiated the heat of the afternoon sun. Perhaps Bernice had overdone it a little by wearing the heavy sweater. Elizabeth had on a thin blouse and a skirt too short for someone as old as she was. The blouse looked like it might even be made of silk.

On the other side of the glass, a man in gray rags staggered up to the table, scooped the change into his palm, and stepped away. A coin rang as it hit the sidewalk and rolled out into the street. The man bent down at the waist and picked it up. Elizabeth didn’t seem to notice any of it. Funny. Of all the things Bernice had seen since arriving downtown this morning, that homeless man seemed the most familiar, his loose stride, the slow meandering way about him. He could have been someone from the marina, a liveaboard, Bill even, minus the boat to live on and their savings account, her meager paychecks, her inheritance.

Bernice’s sister stiffened and looked at her watch. She’d forgotten something at the office. She would have to go back, but she wouldn’t stay there for long. She slid a single key across the smooth, glass tabletop and told Bernice to go ahead and make herself at home up in the apartment. She asked if Bernice wanted her to show the way back to the right building.

Bernice shook her head and reached for the key. She said she would stay and finish her tea. Elizabeth leaned across the table and put an arm around Bernice’s shoulder. Their cheeks touched for a moment. Bernice caught the heavy scent of her sister’s perfume, the same old stuff, that officious, secretarial kind of smell. The blouse was made of silk. Either that or rayon.

Then Elizabeth stood up straight and looked down at her. Bernice turned to face the window again.

Elizabeth took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Bernice, I tell you what. I’ll give you some space.

I don’t want to crowd in when you need some room to breathe. You let me know when you want to talk again.

Jeffrey and I can head out of town for a few days if you’d like, if you need some time to yourself. We’ve both got plenty of vacation time of our own. I gotta go. Just let me know. I’ll see you, OK?”

When Elizabeth had passed out of sight down the sidewalk, Bernice stood up and walked toward the bathroom.

Most of the tables on the way were empty. Several people huddled close, speaking softly. A photograph of the Portland skyline and the Willamette River hung on the wall behind the register counter.

The floor began to rock under her feet. There it was again: the dizziness. She tried to correct her balance and then overcompensated, placing her hand on the shoulder of a woman sitting at a table. Bernice pushed off the shoulder and grabbed onto the back of an empty chair behind her. The woman turned around, giving Bernice a cold look.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” said Bernice. She breathed deeply, walking quickly to the bathroom door, grabbing one empty chair after another along the way. She locked the stall door and sat down on the toilet, her eyes closed, her head spinning, and then began to rock back and forth on the seat – slowly at first, and then faster – trying to make the spinning stop, trying to tell herself that land sickness wasn’t the same thing as home sickness, that it was nothing compared to seasickness, and that Bernice was a lovely name, an elegant name, her name, and it would be so good to hear people say it again.

~

Bill would run out of insulin in a couple of days, and then he would call her for help, probably, since he didn’t know where she went to pick up refills after the old pharmacy in Scappoose closed down. Probably, he wouldn’t even remember to take it while she was gone. But Bernice wasn’t going to call him about it. He could call her. He had the number. If she called on the first day, it would mean that she was checking in on him, or updating him on her arrival. It would confirm to him that this was indeed a vacation.

She called Dory instead. Twice on the first day. She made the first call right after arriving downtown. Bernice had been waiting for her sister in the apartment lobby, sitting in a high-backed chair against the wall, her bags stacked in a row beside her. A security guard, a man older even than she was, sat behind a tall, oak counter beside the elevators nodding to those who came through the glass doors from the street outside. After he had glanced sternly in her direction for the third time, Bernice stood up, opened her address book, found Dory’s phone number, and paced over to the pay phone booth across the lobby, pulling the smooth glass door closed behind her. She kept the call short, told Dory she and Bill were separated, and that she didn’t want anyone to know, that she would call back again in the evening if she got a chance, that she was fine, and that, no, she didn’t want her to go give Bill a piece of her mind.

A couple of weeks ago, Dory opened the hot dog stand on the fuel dock for the annual summer run of Polish foot longs and local sauerkraut. She had painted a new sign for the stand that read “Let’s Be Frank,” and then hung it on the front of the red and white-striped condiment cart. Dory knew the marina news, at least the news of found romance, dwindling romance, or lost romance, and what people were saying about it. During the rest of the year, when she wasn’t making hot dogs and doling out advice on the fuel dock, people came to her boat to talk.

Dory insisted (with a wink) that she wasn’t a chain smoker since she never lit a new cigarette off the red coal of the previous one. She always used a lighter to get the next one going. As she puttered around the fuel dock, she lit cigarettes. Sometimes she had several going at once, balanced on the rims of several ashtrays among the tables where she had several different conversations going. Bernice once saw Dory stab out a cigarette absentmindedly on the top of a fuel pump over by the only official non-smoking table on the fuel dock.

You could always count on Dory. She would be on the back deck of her boat moored several slips down from the fuel dock, or she would be at the hot dog stand. She would be ready to talk. She would be smoking. She would have a can of Red Dog nearby, warming in the sun or gathering drops of rain.

Bernice had only spoken to her a dozen times since moving aboard. She couldn’t stand all the cigarette smoke, and Dory didn’t take a shower every day, either, but Bernice was intrigued enough to watch and listen at a distance. Dory treated everyone the same. Names and background didn’t seem to matter. The rich kids cruising through on their speed boats and the alcoholic bachelors at the marina all got the same hot dogs from her at the same price. Dory’s sense of equality came across as effortless. If only Bernice could get through the

cloud of tobacco smoke to listen and learn, unless it was the kind of thing you couldn’t learn but needed to be born with, or the kind of thing that came from ignorance rather than thoughtful consideration.

~

Bernice made the second call to the marina later that first day downtown, after Elizabeth had served her and Jeffrey a quiet dinner of noodles and vegetables with tofu. “Comfort food,” Elizabeth said with a half-smile. Jeffrey asked if Bernice needed any money. She shook her head and excused herself to go out for a walk and then stopped at the pay phone downstairs in the apartment lobby.

The security guard sat behind the counter, his head bent forward. He snored once loudly and then sat up straight, but his eyes soon began drooping again.

When Dory answered, Bernice whispered into the receiver. “Hey, it’s me.”

A cigarette lighter flicked once on the other end. “Talk to me, sweetie. I’m dyin’ here.”

“Bill and I had a fight,” said Bernice.

~

Sort of. They had never fought like this before, throwing things, raising their voices, but Bill turned it into a kind of game. Bill could laugh his way out of anything, and he usually got Bernice laughing too.

They were never supposed to stay on the water. That had been their agreement from the beginning. They were supposed to just try it out for a little while in order to save money. But a little while had come and gone and then Bill had been laid-off and out of work for several years until he had found this recent boat delivery job.

Then, yesterday, after Bill poured the holding-tank chemicals into the toilet on the boat and splashed them all over her one and only evening gown, Bernice just lost it. She had smelled the chemicals and discovered several big holes in the bottom of the dress where the stuff had eaten through. They hadn’t used the toilet on the boat in years since they had turned it into a closet for hanging up their clothes, the nicer clothes they never wore anymore. Why would he need to pump those rancid chemicals into the holding tank when it was empty?

Bill answered, saying he was cleaning out the boat a little, getting it ready for the trip to Newport where they would switch boats for the delivery to California. He thought maybe they could go on a short cruise downtown before the new job started, visit some nice restaurants before the long trip down the coast. She abruptly reminded him that now she would have nothing to wear to a nice restaurant thanks to him and then marched over to the dresser and pulled the boat ignition keys out of the drawer and threw them out the hatch and into the river and thanked him for letting her in on his plans. She went into the aft cabin for her purse and said she was going for a drive into town to spend some more of her own hard-earned money. That’s when Bill strutted over to the key box by the main hatch, pulled the car keys out and threw them outside into the river, too. He even smiled after he did it as if out of relief, or maybe just awkwardness. Neither of them had ever done this kind of thing to each other before. They were in uncharted territory.

Bernice started throwing more things into the river: a couple of screwdrivers, Bills deck shoes, a bag of corn chips, the TV remote. Bill was still grinning and she started smiling a bit too, which made it worse, dissipating the anger she wanted to feel. She turned to face him, narrowed her gaze, and called him William, which only made them both laugh. Bernice had to leave and go for a long walk down the dock in order to stop smiling, in order to call attention to the seriousness of what had just happened.

Later, Bill took the dinghy downstream and came back with a few things that were light enough to float. He even brought back the bag of chips. The boat keys were on a bright yellow floating key ring, so he got those too. But the car keys weren’t. She spent the better part of the evening searching through the boat for her spare car keys, but they never turned up.

The next day, Bernice packed her bags and stood silently by the main hatch with her arms folded while Bill flipped through the channels on TV. The future of their lives hung heavily in the air around them. That’s when Bill said the word vacation.

The security guard was snoring loudly. Bernice told Dory about the fight, about Bill throwing the keys into the river, about how he had laughed at her. “It took me two trips up the ramp this morning, by myself, to get my bags over to the gate where the cab was supposed to pick me up. I don’t know what I would have done if someone had seen me. Do people know? Has Bill talked with anyone?”

Dory’s lighter scratched over the line. “I haven’t told a soul, sweetie, though I think people heard me on the phone with you earlier and know something’s up, so yeah, pretty much everybody knows. And pretty much everybody knows that Bill doesn’t know they know about it but nobody’s saying anything.” The lighter flicked again. “To Bill, I mean.”

Bernice told her about the insulin, wondering out loud if Bill would remember to take it, wondering if she should call home.

“Listen girl. If you’re going to do this, and let him know you’re serious, then you need to really do it, you know? If you don’t mean what you say, then who will? You know what I mean? You want me to have Mike stop in and check on him?”

“No, you’re right Dory. He needs to know that this isn’t some vacation.”

~

Elizabeth and her husband left for the beach. At night, alone in the unfamiliar apartment, Bernice left the TV on and tried to sleep on the couch. At night was when Bill seemed to need her the most. During the day, he usually had the energy to put a good face on things. Bernice stayed awake imagining Bill sleeping on the boat without her.

She was the one who gave him his insulin shot late at night, after he had fallen asleep. Bill hated needles. He usually slept right through it. Recently, it was getting harder to catch him in deep sleep since he was getting up to pee more in the night. She lay there waiting, watching his chest rise and fall, his body twitching. Sometimes he would pretend to be sleeping and when she reached for the needle, he would start whimpering or humming a mournful song.

The common bathroom in the upper marina was fifty yards down the dock. He had gotten to where he couldn’t make it that far, and he was tired of walking up and down the dock all night. He relieved himself in the kitchen sink now, in the galley, rinsing it out afterward with hand soap. In the morning, Bernice wiped the dry spots of urine from the floorboards and the counter top. It bothered her at first, but not anymore. She didn’t say anything about the spots, or the smell in the sink. It was hard enough for him. He usually had a tough time going back to sleep after getting up to pee. If Bernice rubbed his back he would drift off  more quickly. Sometimes they would make love in the dark, but more often, they would lie there and talk, sometimes until the sun came up.

~

Bernice kept close to the phone on the last day of Bill’s insulin supply, in case he called. She turned the black leather couch to face the TV and watched Perry Mason, then Murder She Wrote, then Oprah, hoping to hear the phone ring each time the credits rolled.

Late in the afternoon, the clouds hung heavily in the sky outside the tall windows, almost black along their bottom edges. According to the weatherman, the wind would carry the storm clouds east before they could drop their rain.

When the drums started pounding somewhere in the streets outside, Bernice removed her glasses and pulled the binoculars from a peg where they hung on the wall by the window. Her sister had called again that morning from the coast to warn her about the peace protest, but she had already heard about it on TV.

What do you call it anyway, she wondered. A march? A protest? A peace walk? A rebellion? Democracy?

What did you call it? Everything depends on what you call it.

Several city blocks were visible through the tops of the trees, and between the buildings, the river hung like a dark ribbon weaving through the city blocks and wrinkling faintly in the light breeze. From the apartment, every time she looked, the color on the surface of the river always seemed to multiply the effects of the sky above. The river carried a deeper blue, a duller gray. Some mornings, the surface shattered its reflection into a hundred dancing suns. People paid good money for a view like this; for a view of something they  wouldn’t want to get close to if they knew how foul and green the water really was.

Looking out the window, the dizziness came over her with renewed strength. Bernice found that if she got too close to the window, even sitting on the black leather couch to look out, the floor tilted down toward the river, and she had to close her eyes to make it stop. But she did OK while looking through the binoculars. If she wanted to see the streets below, she had to walk right up to the windows and look down through the binoculars. During the day, there were people everywhere. The homeless. Businessmen and women. You could tell a lot about them by what they carried, or how they carried themselves, their posture, the quickness of their pace, their confident weaving along the crowded sidewalks. You could even guess their names and probably not be too far off. Some men still yielded to the women, letting them go first off the curb when crossing the street, but mostly, people kept clear of one another.

The drums were getting louder. The streets were strangely empty.

Just below her building, riot police began to arrive. She had to lean into the window to see them. On TV, the news said that police were prepared to use tear gas and pellet guns.

The sun started to push through the clouds. It looked like the weatherman would be right for once.

Bernice stood up on her toes to better see the street below. She leaned into the glass and waited.

Dozens of riot police climbed out of several black vans, pouring out one by one like the impossible number of circus clowns jumping out of impossibly small cars. Clowns. She had never thought of the police in this way. They looked more like clowns pretending to be soldiers. Or ants. Call them cops. Pigs. The Fuzz. She sensed her own perceptions shifting slightly under the different names that came to mind. Law enforcement. Police force. Portland’s finest. How strange and laughable they looked through the window high above the street in their tight formations. Toys. They were like toys, or pawns. They fanned out in groups of five or six, lining the intersections along the parade route.

Light began to spill into the streets. The tone of the gray river shifted and deepened into blue. Cloud-shadows climbed from the streets, over the trees and buildings, and then fell back flat onto the pavement again. The pounding of drums came louder through the closed windows and echoed off the surrounding buildings.

Bernice held her breath. Half a dozen blocks up the street, the first of the marchers rounded a corner. She lowered the binoculars for a moment. A river of rippling color poured slowly around the corner and over the gray concrete, swallowing the staggered yellow traffic lanes. Her head began to sway. She lifted the binoculars back to her eyes and swept them up the street and away from the marchers to where police on motorcycles passed back and forth across the parade route. Red and blue lights spun  dimly under the glare of the sun. Several banners waved from open windows high above the street. People leaned out into the air. Heads above and heads below all turned toward the sound of the drums. Bernice watched them.

Then she paused. Something familiar about the man approaching the march from the opposite direction. His arms hung heavily with a stack of books, shoulders bunched up under the weight of them. At first, she couldn’t place him, a face from another world, another life. Her head lightened and her body began to sway – the dizziness coming on even with the binoculars. She pressed her palm against the window frame to hold herself still.

Then it hit her. From the marina. What was his name? That guy always loafing around the fuel dock. Met with the others for coffee in the morning. Fisherman. Sloppy clothes and hair. What was his name? The guy looked exactly like him: the untrimmed beard, the thick canvas pants and flannel shirt, cloth wrinkled into a web of shadows in the bright sunlight. What was his name? The resemblance was amazing. But no. That guy rarely left the docks except to putter around in a rowboat or to go buy booze.

But it was him, even though it couldn’t possibly be. He would have just spent the morning with Bill over coffee. Only hours ago. They would have been laughing together. Bill might have even confided in him. Christ, what the hell was his name?

But no. It couldn’t be him. It might be his unkempt hair and un-ironed clothes, but he had all those books in his arms. The only thing he ever read was the paper and the tide tables. Everyone knew that. And everyone knew his name. It was on the tip of her tongue.

The guy became even less like himself when he stepped down off the curb and into the river of colorful clothes and banners, his head nodding to the rhythm of the drums, his face smiling. That settled it. There was no way. But she watched him. There were children there beside him. What were children doing at a protest?

And there were older folks in wheelchairs. The man balanced the books in one arm and handed something to a child next to him. No, the child was handing something to him. A woman next to the children seemed to know him.

The soft carpet tilted under Bernice’s bare feet and her head rocked violently. The window seemed to fall forward in front of her. She leaned into the glass and a force like a windless wind pushed and pulled her down toward the crowded pavement. She shut her eyes and listened to the drums until the ground felt firm again and then she lifted the binoculars back to her eyes.

The first marchers had moved out of sight. Only the top of the liveaboard’s head would be visible now. Where was he? Where were the children? What was his name? Her gaze swept back and forth over the crowd of college students and monstrous puppets, the gyrating dancers and drummers, but she couldn’t find him.

Bernice turned away from the window and collapsed into the black, leather couch near the window and rubbed both hands over her eyelids. Had he followed her here? Was it really him? Or was the real guy just back at the fuel dock, where he always was, fishing?

The drums stopped. The second hand on the clock above the kitchen counter rolled around the face in a smooth arc. The crowd below roared loudly. Sirens blared. Bernice looked up at the spinning ceiling.

She made her way over to the counter, eyes closed, and reached for the phone. The room tipped again and she grabbed the edge of the countertop. She reached for the phone a second time.

The drums sounded again, but sporadically, and then stopped altogether. Or it might have been gunshots.

Bernice dialed. Even with her eyes shut tight, the darkness rocked back and forth. When Dory picked up, Bernice tried to speak slowly, tried to calm her trembling voice.

“Dory?”

“Yeah sweetie? You OK?”

“Dory. How can I get back? I can’t get back to him. I can’t go back on what I said. What are we going to do? Bill and I can’t just laugh our way out of everything all the time. If you are really paying attention, you can’t just smile at everything.”

Bernice held the mouthpiece away from her face, breathing deeply. The noise of the crowd began to fade outside.

Dory flicked the lighter on. “Listen, Bernie. How long are you gonna drag this thing out?”

“What do you mean, me dragging it out? Dragging what out?”

“You know what I mean, Bernie. You’re pretending you’ve really left him, and making it all sound so complicated. You guys are crazy about each other and you know it. I haven’t seen Bill crack a smile since you left. Do you know that Bill took your boat out this morning? When was the last time you guys did that? He did a little trip around the island. One minute, he was heading south and then a few hours later, there he was coming up the channel from the north, and he stopped by the fuel dock to fill the tanks. He bought a couple of hot dogs.”

“But I’m not making it complicated. It is complicated. Love and romance isn’t enough.”

“You might think about calling him, honey.”

“Wait. You’ve been talking to him, haven’t you? I can’t believe you!”

“Bernie, wait a minute.”

“My name is Bernice, you got that?” She paused, shaking. “You and everyone else down there disgust me, but especially you, Doris! You and your goddamn hot dogs!”

Bernice hung up the phone and grabbed her purse, letting the door slam behind her on her way out. While she was waiting for the elevator, she remembered the man’s name. Larry. That was it. That was his name. But what did that matter now? What the hell did she know about the guy?

In the lobby, Bernice felt the security officer’s eyes on her as she stumbled out the large glass doors and into the crowded streets where the march had become a jumbled mass of people moving in different directions. She clipped the sunshades onto her glasses kept moving and let the tears fall and no one stopped to ask her if she was OK or even took notice.

~

Bill called later that evening. Bernice was waiting by the phone. He asked how the time away was going.

“It’s the worst vacation I’ve ever had,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said, “we’re giving vacations a bad name.”

After a long silence, he told her he missed her. He asked her if she would like to go out for breakfast in the morning. He wanted to let her know that he was going to drop the boat delivery job if that was what she wanted. They could even consider moving back on land like they had originally agreed, or at least go out more in the evenings to places on land. He said he was planning to bring the boat down to the downtown waterfront tonight and walk up the street to see her in the morning if she would have him.

Bernice told him to come on up as soon as he arrived, no matter how late. She would be up.

They were both silent for a moment, and then Bill spoke again.

“You’re probably getting more sleep, at least, now that you don’t have me keeping you up at nights.”

“No, Bill. I’m not sleeping well at all. I’ve been so land sick.”

~

Late in the night, out on the couch in the dark living room, Bernie realized that she hadn’t asked Bill about the insulin. She made her way out of the guest room and into the living room and dialed home. The phone hummed its calm tone through the receiver. No answer. She hung up and tried again. Nothing. Not even the answering machine. So he really had left, pulled the phone cord out of the jack next to the shore-power outlet on the dock. She dialed again and let it ring over and over, holding the phone in one hand and pulling the binoculars off the peg with the other. The phone rang and she looked out over the dark patch of the river by the waterfront until her eyes hurt from the pressure of the binoculars. She hung them back on the peg where they swung, bumped the wall twice, and then grew still. Bernie went over to the couch and listened to the ringing in the receiver, switching ears when one of them began to ache, gazing out the window toward the broken line of the river below. She imagined the miles of phone lines and cords that began at the phone by her ear ended finally at the jack by their empty boat slip, the home for their home, where  her potted flowers were still resting along the edge of the floorboards in the dark night air above the water.

After a while, Bernice hung up the phone, put on one of her sister’s heavy coats, took the elevator down to the street, and headed down the hill toward the river. Maybe it was the darkness of early morning, or the black roof of the sky studded with stars, or the quiet  streets, or maybe the thought that she would be back aboard the boat soon, but when she  looked down the slope of the hill toward the river, her eyes were steady. She waited for the  dizziness to spin the buildings and the streetlights around her, but it never came.

 

 

Brian Friesen recently completed an MA in English at the University of Alberta where he was a recipient of the James Patrick Folinsbee Award for Creative Writing. Brian has published stories and poems in several northwest publications. He has been an editor and writing instructor both inside and outside the university, and was the producer of a bi-weekly literary radio show for Golden Hours at Oregon Public Broadcasting. He is currently living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two children.

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