Ghost Boots by Christopher Woods
Mary, my good neighbor,
Asked what size I wore.
I told her twelve. It was true.
Turns out her deceased husband,
A man she loved dearly,
Had worn the same size.
She gave me his cowboy boots.
I wasn’t a cowboy
But I took the boots anyway
As a way to honor her husband.
I don’t wear them often
Two, maybe three times a year,
Make the obligatory joke
About being a dead man walking.
I wonder what will become of these boots
After me, when someone else wears them,
Dances the Cotton-Eyed Joe
Climbs into bed
Some honkytonk night
With another man’s wife?
Year-End Observance by Peter L. Scacco
Russet December sunset
staining the bronze-fringed hills,
sprays of yaupon berries
and mustard lantana
fade in the gathering dark,
a chill seeps through the skin ─
once more the year winds down
and still I keep the weary watch,
waiting for the unforeseen,
for something mysterious,
something less than a threat,
to uncover itself
and animate the sap
sinking in my legs,
to penetrate this twilight
of long, plodding shadows
and emerge resplendent
in a new day, a new year.
Submerged by Penny Perkins (fiction)
I am drowning.
This is not a metaphor.
The ocean grips me in its icy palms and I can not escape. I am dragged along in its sickening swirl—held captive by its powerful tug—flailing about in utter panic.
The yellow flags on the beach had cautioned me. Damn myself to a watery hell for not heeding their warnings. Within minutes of entering the water, I had been dragged below the waves unexpectedly by a fierce undertow.
Now captive in the ocean’s hold, I tumble over and over like day-old laundry confined to a dryer, but instead of dried air I am caressed on all sides, inside and out, by the wet, slobbery kisses of doom. I struggle for the surface, but I have lost all sense of which way is up—and my terrified thrashing doesn’t help, doesn’t point me in the direction of the sky. All I am able to do is be pulled along—out to sea—by a seductive current that is stronger than my will or ability to fight it. My lungs do all the things that lungs do when deprived of air for this long—they ache, they burn, they scream. They desperately, desperately beg for air. But I know if I give in to this, if I open my mouth or breathe in through my nose, water will rush into to my trachea and my highway of bronchial tubes.
But the temptation is so great. And I have been struggling—struggling for what seems like so long. I am so tired. I fear that I can no longer fight this watery clutch; I cannot maintain this struggle against the current. The waves slap me again and again, and still I cannot find the surface. I have been fighting so hard to get to air that all my strength and all my willpower is spent. My game is all but over, the blue-green murky embrace of Neptune bidding me eternal sleep. The mermaids beckoning me home, home to the salty depths where all life began so many eons ago.
“Don’t you want to see the beginning of time?” the mermaids ask, their scaly tails brushing up against my bare torso.
Oh, yes, I nod. I do. I do.
“Then surrender and come with us,” they whisper.
And then it happens.
I give up. Stop struggling.
I roll into a ball, the fetal position coming to me so naturally. It is the full circle of life, I think: I came into this world from a soggy space in a fetal scrunch and that is the way I will leave it, too. Upon realizing this, and accepting it, everything changes. Peace washes over me the way the waves already have. The rough tails of the mermaids rub up against me. I don’t just accept my fate, I welcome it. I say goodbye to all that I have left undone, everyone I have ever loved and failed, and all my self-aggrandizing hopes and plans for the future. I give thanks for the time that I did have here on this ocean-soaked planet and I throw my arms open wide in a gesture that is meant so convey, “Take me. I’m ready.” The mermaids wave goodbye.
The air escapes from my lungs, the bubbles going up as I sink down and down.
Eventually, my fingertips brush sand and I realize the ocean floor is just beneath me. Instinctively, intuitively, and instantly I turn myself around and push off the sandy bottom with my feet in a powerful spring-coil surge that is fueled by adrenaline and a renewed will to survive. I swim straight up, up, up—fighting against fatigue and the ticking time bomb of missing oxygen. At last, my powerful kick-thrust catapults my head above the sea’s surface and I gasp and sputter and greedily grab the air. I quickly go under another towering wave again, but at least I have full lungs and a sense of direction—now I know where the shore is. I manage to get my head above water again and I can feel the sucking grip of the rip current lessening. By chance and by luck—and by kicking and tumbling—I am slowly extracting myself from the death zone of the rip tides grip. Thrashing and bobbing, I move away from the current dragging me out to ocean depths; I swim parallel to the shore and away from the current’s clasp for good.
I am desperate to get to shore, but I am at the end of my energy, so even though I am desperate to get out of this damn water, I must float on my back a few moments to gather my strength.
Then I push forward, exhausted strokes pulling me closer to the shore, where at last my feet consistently touch sand and my head is now permanently above water. One slow yard at a time, closer and closer, I move toward safety—the sea reluctantly releasing me from its harrowing hold, its siren call still screaming in the crash of waves behind me, and burning me with briny sadness.
“Come back!” it cries like a jilted lover.
But I don’t look back. I keep my gaze toward the land.
Now I am walking in waist-high water, now knee-high—the waves that further out were large and deadly, now are cute and lapping at my feet like a rollicking puppy.
Nearing the beach, I’m gasping for breath from all the exertion, tasting nothing but salt and relief. I am so exhausted that I am crawling in the shallow water on my hands and knees like a baby. Finally, I am at the shoreline, the surf, with the ocean’s foam tickling me and welcoming me home to this hot, wet lip of land.
It is only in this instant—when I am sure that I am past the liquid portal that led to certain death—that I think, ruefully, how I had come to the beach today to relax. I laugh at the thought now, but even this small impulse to chuckle has sent me sputtering and coughing, retching up the mouthfuls of sea that I swallowed in my struggle.
I had come to Anastasia State Park, my favorite beach in St. Augustine, alone—just as I have gone everywhere alone since I moved to Florida two years ago. I have no friends here. My only companions: my two Italian Greyhound dogs and my elderly, medically-compromised mother who I left a job, a community up north, and a failed marriage to come take care of. My struggle on land these past 24 months adjusting to my new circumstances has been as tumultuous and as harrowing as my struggle with the sea. And so on this sunny, heat-drenched, humidity-soaked Florida summer day, I had extracted myself from the dogs and my mom to get some peace and respite from the constant caretaking and the insufferable summer heat; thinking I deserved a break, I stole away for one afternoon to go relax on the beautiful white sands of Bird Island.
Upon arriving, I had spread my colorful beach towel onto the warm body of the sand, eager to sink into its enveloping embrace. After setting up my shade umbrella to protect myself from the blistering kiss of the sun, I positioned myself in the little pool of shadow and attempted to read. But after a short time I realized it was too hot to concentrate, the sweat from my face dripping onto the pages of my book, and so I ventured to the ocean’s edge to cool off in the water. I noted the lifeguard tower to my right, which was empty at the moment, and the children playing with plastic buckets and shells in the ripples of surf. Yes, I saw the yellow flags, and yes, I read the metal sign about rip tides and the dangers of being swept out to sea, and yes, I ignored it because I knew I wasn’t going in that far—just a few yards to get my feet wet and have the coolness of the ocean make the heat a little less unbearable. But I had wandered in deeper than I realized—still, it was only about waist high—when a strong gust of wind threatened to blow off my big-brimmed beach hat. The hat began to lift off my head and I leaned forward to grab it before it flew away. That’s when I lost my balance and went tumbling face-first into the ocean and got caught in the fierce tugging below the waves that wouldn’t let go. The current quickly submerged me and pulled my body out away from the shore; I found myself fighting for my life before I even knew what had happened. Caught in a strong undertow and slammed by constant overtopping waves every time I got my head above water. I was in trouble instantly.
Still, through some miracle, and a little bit of dumb luck, I had survived.
Now, with that nightmare behind me—and certain of my shore salvation—I crawl past the surf and collapse face-down in the dry sand. Heart racing and lungs heaving, muscles twitching and throat raw with salt stains, I am drained and spent—but alive.
A few moments later, I lift my head when I sense feet approaching. I look up and see a lifeguard. A tall, muscular man, bald and wearing sunglasses, in red shorts with a white cross stitched on one leg.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
I am wondering the same thing. And also: where the hell had he been when I was drowning?
I push myself up to my knees, rest my hands on my thighs, still catching my breath, then stand up proper and look at him.
He is smiling at me. Which annoys me because it seems vaguely inappropriate given the circumstances. Why would you smile at someone who almost drowned…especially when you should have been saving them?
“Here,” he says, thrusting an orange life jacket at me, “You probably want to put this on.”
I think he is crazy, because here I am standing on the beach, away from the water. And unless there is a tsunami coming that I don’t know about—maybe I missed the earthquake while I was busy drowning—I can’t imagine why I would need a life jacket now, after I have successfully prevented my own watery demise.
“What?” I say confused.
He makes a weird smirk with his face and nods at me.
I look down and realize what he means. My bikini top is missing. A casualty of my skirmish with the sea. I’ve emerged onto the beach wearing only my bathing suit bottom, with my breasts completely exposed. Shame washes over me—the humiliation of being naked in public and not even knowing it! I grab the life jacket, quickly hoisting it over my neck to cover my torso.
“Thanks,” I mumble as I turn away from him.
I desperately search for my umbrella and towel—my home base and security—and finally spy it down the beach near the lifeguard stand. It seems so far away. I try to run toward it, but my legs quickly turn to jelly from all my struggle with the ocean, and I trip and fall to my knees, scaring a small group of sanderlings who scatter and fly off. I crawl the remainder of the way on my knees and then my belly, like a soldier in the underbrush. Sand now covers every part of my body and the searing sun bakes me like a breaded appetizer.
When I reach my towel, I search through my tote bag and find a handkerchief to wipe the sand and sweat off my face. Then I find my water bottle and rinse the grit from my mouth. But I quickly spit the water out because it has been baking in the sun and there is nothing worse at the beach than drinking hot water. Except maybe drowning. While naked.
I pull out my t-shirt from the bag and position the umbrella to help hide me. Then I discard the life jacket and quickly pull the t-shirt over my head. At last, with my breasts covered and safe on my towel—racked with weariness and covered in sand, sweat, and shame—I collapse under my umbrella and sob. Deep, heaving sobs. A rush of water and salt run from my eyes. The tears flow over me and wash the sand off in little rivulets. I marvel how this fluid is the same composition as the water that stretches before me making up the vast Atlantic Ocean—a body of water and salt which eventually merges and shares it currents with all the oceans that circle this globe, isolating continents where mammals like me lubber on land and are brought to our knees by the sea’s punch and power.
Yes, I am sobbing and thinking about salt water, how it comes out of my eyes here and now, and how long ago all life came out of it from the sea. But why am I crying so uncontrollably? Why is my heart breaking? Why am I awash in such abject misery? Because I almost drowned? Or because I am exhausted from the struggle of preventing it? Because of the humiliation of my nakedness? The shame of my public exposure? Or because I lived through it all, only to face a future that is as uncertain as the coin toss of my surviving today’s mishap? Again, I find myself alone, utterly alone, with my troubles. A sad and shattered middle-aged woman crying on a beach. I am drowning in a sea of solitude—all by myself, as I have been for two years—and fear I always will be like this: alone, broke and broken, and completely vulnerable to life’s vicissitudes, no safety net, no life jacket to save me. I am relieved, yes, that I have lived through the day’s double whammy of near-death and bodily shame, but I am suddenly hit with the larger, sadder truth of my existence: a lonely ride home to my real captors, my own personal unending rip tide—the oppressive family obligations that keep me in this foreign Florida land of innumerable dangers to body and soul.
I cry and cry, struck by the fragile human wisp of existence, the temporary nature of our stay on this earth. Time stopped while I was drowning in the ocean, but now it is has started again and will drag on and on, creaky hour by creaky hour, a mind-numbing repetitive stretch of days all exactly the same in their emptiness and meaninglessness and solitude.
For a brief moment while fighting the sea, my life had had some meaning, fueled by pure animal instinct: to stay alive. But the aftermath of the relief of not-dying is the horrifying revelation of what stands on the other side of that lucky save: the stagnant nature of my life, the daily mind-numbing routine of an unfulfilling existence with no hope, no future, no prospects.
Yes, I almost died. But that is not the saddest thing about this day. The saddest thing, of course, is that I’ll be driving home alone to my small little life of two high-maintenance dogs and one sickly mother, spending my days hiding out from life in a crowded, cluttered bedroom that has no room for me and my crumbling sense of self, a self which is desperate to erupt and expand but has absolutely no idea how to do that.
In the meantime, I will continue as I have: drowning. In solitude, in hopelessness, in failure.
I have been saved from the sea. But for what I do not know. Perhaps for nothing more than more misery, more pain. But, as bleak as it seems, I accept my fate, for now. In the meantime, I have stopped crying and it is time to leave.
I wipe the sand from my body as best I can and pack up my gear to head home so that I can be back in time to fix dinner for the dogs and help my mom with laundry and loading the dishwasher.
About the Contributors
Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas. He has published a novel, The Dream Patch, a prose collection, Under a Riverbed Sky, and a book of stage monologues for actors, Heart Speak. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Columbia, and Glimmer Train, among others. His photographs can be seen in his gallery: http://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/ He is currently compiling a book of photography prompts for writers, From Vision to Text.
Peter L. Scacco is the author of the illustrated poetry chapbooks The Gray Days, Along a Path, A Quiet Place, and Chiaroscuro. Mr. Scacco’s poems and woodcuts have been featured in numerous publications in print and online. He has lived and worked in New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Brussels, and since 1995 he has resided in Austin, Texas. Examples of Mr. Scacco’s artwork can be seen at www.scaccowoodcuts.com.
Penny Perkins holds an MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. Her short story “Car Ride Through Corn Fields (1975)” was chosen by Manuel Muñoz as the winner of Beecher’s Magazine 2014 Fiction Contest. Her short story “Gut Feelings” was a finalist for the Reynolds Price Prize in Fiction as a part of the 2015 International Literary Awards sponsored by the Center for Women Writers; it was also a semi-finalist in the SLS-Disquiet Literary Contest for 2015. Recent fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in the Rocky Mountain Revival, The Pine Hills Review, Waxwing, The New Verse News, Entropy/Enclave, Beecher’s, and HOAX. Other publication credits include Salon.com, Conditions, The Portable Lower East Side, Curves, Girlfriend No. 1, and Book, among others. She currently lives in northeast Florida and teaches creative writing at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.