What If There Is a Hidden World
That We Can’t See?
by Eleanor Lerman
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2,
3, 4, 5, 6, 7
I still went to the beach with Bobby every once in a while, though I didn’t go surfing, and he had stopped trying to coax me. Sometimes I even brought the longboard with me, but I just couldn’t make myself go any further into the surf than knee deep. Mostly, I sat on the board at the water’s edge and watched Bobby carve the waves.
Then, early on a warm morning at the edge of spring, when I was sitting on the beach, I saw the man again. There were good waves that morning, and Bobby had joined the lineup out where the swells were curling into high, robust surf. Everyone seemed to be catching a good ride. I had just watched Bobby glide into shore, jump off his board and paddle out again when something made me turn around.
In the east, the rising sun was beaming out bright, crackling rays, and I had to shade my eyes when I pivoted to look behind me. There he was, standing at the railing of the boardwalk.
He was wearing the same jeans and tan windbreaker as when I’d seen him before, but it wasn’t his clothes that riveted my attention, it was the look on his face, the same look that had been haunting me since he’d walked into the store. He didn’t seem to be watching the surfers, because they were off to his right, and he was gazing straight ahead, across the water, towards the far horizon.
Perhaps without even realizing what I was doing, I stood up and began to walk towards him. As I did, he suddenly angled his head slightly and looked down at the beach, at me. Directly at me. The expression on his face didn’t change, but I knew that he was at least registering my presence. And then, abruptly, he turned and walked away.
I was so stunned by this experience that I couldn’t quite process what had just happened. Just about all I could do was focus on two simple questions: Who is he? What is he doing here?
I was still standing in the same spot, looking up at the now-empty boardwalk when Bobby came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, Chris,” he said. “What gives? Are you all right?”
He had dropped his surfboard next to my lonely longboard and was standing beside me, dripping wet. He had switched from winter gear to a lightweight wet suit with a nasty-looking spider logo on the chest which didn’t quite make him look as cool as it was supposed to. He knew it and he didn’t care.
I tried to focus on that — Bobby’s laissez-faire attitude to the world in general — in order to try to find some middle ground between the feeling of strangeness that had overwhelmed me from the moment I had glanced up at the boardwalk and spied my visitor — if that’s what he was — and trying to convince myself that his appearance held no significance at all.
“Let’s go home,” I said to Bobby. “I’ve got something to tell you.”
Sitting on the front steps of our house, I tried to explain about the man I had now encountered twice, once in the store, weeks ago, and then, half an hour ago on the boardwalk, and how I had seemed to be seeing reminders — no, more than that, I made myself admit: mirror images — of the haunting look on his face in the faces of people on TV. Specific kinds of people: men and women trying to solve a mystery.
When I was finished with my story, I felt embarrassed. Just listening to myself talk had made me wonder if I wasn’t becoming just the tiniest bit paranoid. Either that or I was channeling my long-ago drug-addled days because nothing that I had told Bobby sounded grounded in any kind of reality. And because of all that, his reaction surprised me.
“Well, wow,” he said. “So do any of these people in the TV shows actually solve the mysteries?”
I gave him a sideways look. “Really? That’s all you have to say?”
“Yeah, I guess, What shows are you watching?”
“What shows am I watching? Mystery, science fiction, crazy theater.”
“Hey, babycakes,” Bobby said with a deep frown. “You don’t have to get hostile.”
“No?” I said, really irritated. “Then tell me how you’d feel. I mean, doesn’t all this seem a little weird to you? Or is it me? Maybe I’m starting to get weird?” I looked up at the sky, which just kept on getting sunnier and sunnier. Wrong day for that, I felt. “It could be Alzheimer’s,” I ventured. “That’s probably the next thing that’s going to happen to me.”
“Maybe,” Bobby said. “Or maybe you’re just underemployed, like the rest of us, and that’s messing with your head. We had a good time back in the day, but now, not so much.” He stood up and stretched. “You should start surfing again. That’ll fix everything. Guaranteed.”
* * *
The conversation ended there because we both had to get ready for work. I caught my usual bus, but at the shop, before I took my place behind the counter, Jay, my boss called me into his office.
Jay was the oldest son of the family that owned the business, a nice enough guy around the same age as me, which is why I think he had hired me in the first place: he had understood how hard it was for me to find work after I lost my job and didn’t give me a hard time about being overqualified or if I thought I would be “satisfied” working behind a counter. Still, I was afraid that I might be getting laid off — I was always spooked about that — but it turned out there was a completely different plan in the works.
Jay told me that he was going to set up a food truck in Edgemere. Over the past two summers, a ten-block area of the peninsula near the bridge that connected the peninsula to the city boroughs had been “discovered” by the twenty-something crowd.
Brooklyn hipsters, mostly. They took chartered buses to the beaches about two miles from where I lived. During the hot summer afternoons, they invaded the one diner and two or three old Irish bars that had hung on over the years to serve the die-hards who wouldn’t live anywhere but at the beach, no matter how rough the times were.
Some of these people were surfers, but they were what Bobby and the other year-round residents called DFDers-surfers down-for-the-day who dressed like the Beach Boys and thought that meant they were making an ironic statement. Their surf boards usually cost about half my year’s rent for the drafty first floor of Emmett’s illegally sub-divided house.
Last summer, some entrepreneurs from the city had gotten the idea of setting up food trucks by the beach to sell paninis and fancy burgers to the summer crowd and had been very successful. Now, Jay wanted in on the action. He had bought a truck, equipped it with a rudimentary kitchen, and intended to sell another popular food item: gourmet tacos. Tacos with the kind of high-end, high-quality ingredients we sold at the store including shrimp and imported cheeses as well as a variety of meat fillings. And — this was the big news — he wanted me to work on the truck, which he intended to set up near the beach starting this coming weekend heading into the Memorial Day holiday, which would kick off the season.
Jay’s son, Randy, was going to be in charge and there would be one or two other employees on the truck, but I was going to take orders, serve them, and generally keep things organized. The work sounded hectic, but it wasn’t like I could say no. So instead, I said, “Thank you. Sounds great!” And then went back to my regular job.
When I got home that night, I watched a movie, a real weepy one about love and infidelity. It wasn’t really all that interesting, but it managed to hold my attention, which was all that I wanted. Over the past week or two, I had been trying to wean myself off the programs that had held me captive for so long. No more seekers, no more investigators, no more wondering about the man in the windbreaker whom I had seen in the store and on the boardwalk.
But then I fell asleep on the couch. I woke up in a fog, not sure, at first, where I was or whose voices I was hearing, though I knew there were two people involved in an intense conversation punctuated by even tenser silences. Finally, I realized that I was in the living room, and the voices I heard were coming from the television.
I pulled myself up, focused on the screen, and immediately recognized the program that was on: a late-night rerun featuring the gritty sheriff in the cowboy hat. Since I had seen him last, the arc of the story had obviously advanced. He was now accompanied by a woman deputy — as lean and plain-faced as her boss — wearing a dusty uniform and a star-shaped badge the color of nickel. They were having a discussion about the crime they were investigating, if indeed it was a crime. From what they were saying, they still weren’t sure what kind of mystery they were dealing with.
The details, as I understood them, were these: the house featured in the earlier episode had been inhabited by a group of men and women who were unknown to anyone in the area. Perhaps they had been squatting there, but now they had disappeared. Had they left of their own volition or had someone who didn’t want them in the area done them harm?
The sheriff had his suspicions. Now, he and his deputy had come upon a recently abandoned campsite near a dry riverbed in the desert. As he walked through the site, the sheriff kicked over some rocks and found that some of them had been carved with strange symbols. It was unclear if these were ancient markings or had been created more recently, perhaps by the vanished campers. Was there a connection between the symbols, the campers, and the missing people from the house? Could there even be a link between all of them — the markings, the campers and the people — and something else, something that the sheriff and his deputy couldn’t even imagine?
The sheriff picked up one of the rocks, folded his hand around it, and looked off into the distance, into a sky so blue, so pure that you couldn’t believe it was real; a sky that could only be pretending not to know what had happened beneath its cover. And then, I saw it again: the look on the sheriff’s face, the clear, penetrating assessment of what could not yet be known, what might never be known.
“What are you thinking?” the deputy asked him.
“I am thinking,” he said, gripping the rock even more tightly as he surveyed the blue arc of the sky, “what to make of all this. I mean, what if we don’t even know what we’re looking for or where we should be looking?”
“I don’t understand,” the deputy said.
“Maybe I don’t either,” the sheriff told her. “But I’m thinking... well, what if there is a hidden world that we can’t see? And even though we can’t see it, really, that’s where we should begin.”
What? I thought. What did he say? As the channel switched over to a long series of commercials, I kept going over and over the scene in my mind, wondering if I had heard the sheriff correctly. What if there is a hidden world that we can’t see? What if that’s where we should begin?
Well, what the hell could that mean? Was it possible that I had misunderstood? Or maybe I had somehow imagined that’s what the sheriff said when really, he had spoken some much more sensible words? I hoped that when the commercials ended and the show came back on, I would be able to figure out whether the sheriff had suddenly developed a mystical nature or if the program itself was veering off into X-Files territory.
But nope; when the program resumed, the sheriff and his deputy were back at their headquarters, having a conversation about whether or not they should inform the local district attorney about the case, if it was a case. And then the episode ended.
I couldn’t stay up all night puzzling about this, so I made myself get up off the couch and go to bed. I didn’t expect to sleep very well, but actually I did, and when I woke up I couldn’t remember a single dream I’d had. It was as if I had been in a coma for a couple of hours and it took me a while, that morning, to get going.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Eleanor Lerman