Fiction · 05/11/2016

After the Storm, The Cement Ship

The storm lasts three days, and by the end of it the mud is sliding under the patio door into the kitchen. Our baby, who has just learned to walk, slaps her feet through the mud on her way to the living room and you chase her, swatting at her diaper with a hand towel.

You tell me about fresh air, which you learned from your grandmother. Babies need fresh air, you say, and children, everyone, your own grandmother every summer of her life in her beach chair on the pebbles of Brighton — all ills cured by fresh air. It seems an old-fashioned notion to me, like catching a chill from wet hair. But the rain has lifted and the sun is hot, so I follow you and the baby down the hill to the storm-wrecked beach.

The fresh-air takers around us sip wine from thermoses and liquor from Mountain Dew bottles. The beach teenagers with white dreads pull their dogs on frayed hemp ropes and carry soggy boxes of others’ half-eaten pizza slices. The fog is coming in like smoke. Our fresh-air baby sucks the saltwater from her wrist, kicks the twists of taffy wrappers to the wind. A team of junior lifeguards, red suits bright as emergency, plummet into the waves, 55 degrees on the chalkboard, high tide 12:07 pm.

We say, Look, baby, there’s an old rotting smelly cement ship down the beach a-ways, stiff with cormorants, and we think you ought to see it. And the baby agrees.

Those before us have made skeletal cabins from the storm wreckage, and they dot the beach like a small, mysterious village. The baby wants to sit in them and stir a stick in a hole like a little grownup. She calls herself baby. She calls the sniffing dogs baby. We try to make a new door in one of the cabins and knock the cabin down.

The cement ship museum is housed in a portable trailer. The baby goes around pressing everything — the stuffed seal, the box of shells, the elderly volunteers — to see if it talks. The elderly volunteers say the eucalyptus trees have been falling from the cliffs since the storm. Yes, we say, we climbed over the pile of trunks that had washed up the inlet. We stare at the old photographs of dining tables laid with white cloth and silver, of men and women mid-stride on the polished dance floor. One never expects such elegance under the cement.

Out on the pier, we approach the cement ship along the uneven planks. A locked gate bars our way onto the half-sunken deck pocked with holes and rusted iron and smelling of dead fish. You point and the baby points, too. Is that the spume of a whale through the fog, or just the spray of waves against the cracked hull? The cormorants hold out their wings to dry.

I want to go down one of those holes in the cement ship to see if the dining tables are still laid for dinner. It would be just the three of us, drowning in the 1930s.

The road home is washed out by another mud slide. We have to backtrack and find a small cliff face to climb. I wrap the baby in a towel and sling her close. We clutch the ice plant that grows from the cliff, but it splits between our fingers and breaks from the sand. The breeze brings the cement ship’s dead-fish smell back to us. The air is not fresh, and we are stuck halfway up, climbing toward nothing, a rental house buried in mud. The ice plant keeps breaking, and it is too early or too late for the bright pink blossoms that might have brought a fresh joy to the picture. I grab your arm for support. You brave soul, you try to haul us all up, your hand cupping our baby’s soft head like an egg.

Baby! the baby says. We sigh, too tired to look up. But we feel them, the brown pelicans, dragging their shadows across our backs.

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Wyatt Bonikowski’s stories have appeared in Yemassee, Devil’s Lake, NANO Fiction, Fairy Tale Review (Mauve and Grey Issues), Wigleaf, and other journals. He teaches literature and creative writing at Suffolk University and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.