He looked through the eyepiece, tried hard not to squint for fear the moon might disappear. The sextant was heavy in his hands, and he watched as the moon above him fell to the horizon, brought there by his own hand as he moved the index arm down.
The moon touched the black line of the bay. Across the water lay Delaware; due west of him, he knew from the nautical chart in the house, the St. Jones River on Murderkill Neck. Each time he thought of that name, of the thin piece of land he'd seen yesterday afternoon from the dock he stood on now, he wondered how it had come about: Murderkill. Each time he imagined old Dutch fishing boats hundreds of years ago, a nameless body pulled in from just off shore, and the place-name that had followed.
He brought the sextant down, held it with both hands. Its weight somehow comforted him here in the dark, and in the cold. He looked out across the water, blinked at the wind in his eyes, felt them tear. He breathed in, the air cutting into him, and he felt comforted in that as well.
His son's own name rose in him now. He felt the warmth of it in his throat, the tender feel of it ready to be uttered. He formed the word in his mouth, held it there a moment.
Then from behind him came the sound of the front door closing. He turned, saw he'd left open the sliding glass door onto the porch. He could see through the inside of the house to where his wife stood leaning against the front door, her straw handbag hiked up to her shoulder, a white plastic grocery bag in each hand. Light from the kitchen fell out onto the porch, cast sharp shadows on the boards.
"Hugh!" she called out, and he knew she couldn't see him for the dark out here. The taste and feel of his son's name was suddenly gone. He said, "I'm out here."
"It's freezing in here," she said, and pushed herself away from the door, made her way toward him through the house to the kitchen. The table sat just inside the sliding glass door, and she set the bags there, hooked her handbag over the back of a chair.
"Sorry," he said, and turned back to the bay, the sextant still in both hands. "Forgot again."
He heard the soft pull of the door through its tracks, then her footsteps moving on the boards of the dock. A moment later she stood next to him.
He looked at her. Her arms were crossed against the cold, and she was staring out at the water. For a moment he believed she might say their son's name for him.
But she said, "There's four more bags out in the car. Everything's rolling around in the trunk. The kid at the Acme just tossed whatever he felt like into the bags. No rhyme or reason."
He nodded, took in another breath.
She moved close to him. They stood side by side, and she leaned against him, her head on his shoulder, her arms still crossed. She whispered, "If I've told you once, I've told you three times, don't leave the door open. It's February, remember?"
He said, "How could I forget." He was silent, the only sound the silver push of the waves beneath them. He said, "Won't happen again."
"Right," she said.
She uncrossed her arms, put one around him. She hadn't looked at him. She said, "Let's go on inside."
But they only stood there.
Then he brought the sextant up again, found the moon, made it touch the line of the bay again.
He had been out here at the end of the dock each night since they had come down from Englishtown -- three nights now -- and stood with the sextant and made the moon do his will. The dock was more a small pier that jutted thirty feet out from the porch of the house. At low tide the water stopped just beneath the end of the dock, the pylons the dock and porch and house were built on all exposed; at high tide the water lapped beneath the house.
Tonight the moon was almost full, the right edge sanded away and soft, and through the eyepiece he could see the barest edge of the dark side, black against the blue night sky.
Neither the sextant nor the house were his, but belonged to his boss.
"A cottage, really," Mr. Halford had said when he'd first told Hugh of the place. "We're down there every weekend rain or shine April through October." He stood at Hugh's desk, his yellow bow tie as tight to his neck as every morning. Hugh was turned to the monitor, hands to the keyboard, so that he was looking up at Mr. Halford over the top of the screen. He hadn't heard him come in, hadn't seen him, his thick white hair, tan face. He had no idea how old Mr. Halford was, his skin taut yet aged somehow, smooth but worn. And now here he was speaking to him of a cottage, and Hugh had had to blink, swallow, afraid he'd missed part of the conversation with his boss.
He'd been at Hess for seven years already, had graduated from Middlesex Community with an Associate's, gotten on at Hess as a programmer, and now it was seven years later, and he was still here. There'd been promotions: first to a program supervisor, then into payroll. Now he was on the seventh floor, his office one of the glass-walled cubicles he'd only caught glimpses of those years ago.
"Nothing more than that," Mr. Halford was saying. Hugh nodded, eased back in his chair the way he'd seen others do when he was first brought up here two years ago. He put his hands behind his head, smiled, still with no idea what his boss was saying.
Hugh nodded again. "Sounds like a nice way to spend the weekends."
Mr. Halford was quiet a moment, his smile still. He cleared his throat, folded the piece of paper in his hands in half. He lost the smile. He said, "It's yours, you want it ."
Hugh blinked. "Sir?" he said. He brought his hands from behind his head, sat up at the keyboard again.
"Walker," Mr. Halford said, and he cleared his throat again, moved to the front of the desk. He stopped, folded the paper in half again. "Hugh," he said.
Mr. Halford put his hands in his pockets, the square of white paper in the left hand disappearing with the move, and for a moment Hugh wondered if the piece of paper were only a prop to get him in here, to speak to him using his first name. This was the seventh floor, but there was the ninth floor, too, a place where the walls were oak paneled, pictures on the walls, carpet. Mr. Halford's floor.
"There's no walking around this. There's no getting away from it." He wouldn't look him in the eye, Hugh saw. Mr. Halford, vice president of finance, could say his first name, but couldn't look him in the eye.
"Simply put, the wife and I want to offer you the place for a while. You and Laura." He turned from the desk to find the single chair pushed against the glass wall behind him, sat down.
Hugh turned from the monitor, laced his fingers in front of him on the desktop. Printouts lay in neat piles on either side of the blotter, piles suddenly thicker than they'd been before.
Mr. Halford's eyes finally met his, and Hugh felt his own smile disappear, though he tried hard to hold on to some shard of it.
"Leave of absence," Mr. Halford said. "With pay. Mr. Hess himself approved it." He paused. He leaned forward then, his elbows on his knees, hands out of his pockets and clasped before him. Hugh wondered at how tight the bow tie was, how choked his boss must feel leaning forward like that. "Not that Mr. Hess's approval means anything in this matter. I would have offered you this myself even if he'd said no." He paused. "All we ask is you come back up here a couple days a week, help hold things together."
Mr. Halford smiled, unclasped his hands. "So, the place is down at Reed's Beach, on the Delaware. Almost to Cape May. Just a strip of houses, really, all summer cottages. But a couple years back the wife and I weather-stripped the place, insulated it, put in those windows, you know, the double-pane jobbers. Forced heat."
He stopped, sat up in the chair. He put his hands on his knees. Hugh still tried to smile.
"What do you think?" Mr. Halford said.
Hugh swallowed. He lay his hands flat on the desktop. He said, "I'm okay, Mr. Halford."
"Son," Mr. Halford said, and now his eyes were on Hugh's, cut into his in a way he'd not known before.
"I have three boys," Mr. Halford said. "I have three of them, grown up and gone. And believe you me, son, you are not okay."
Hugh felt his palms suddenly go wet. He said, "It's not the work, I hope. It's not how my work is going," and now the piles of printouts were no thicker than they had ever been. His own words were only some sort of shield set to deflect what Mr. Halford was really saying to him: You are not all right.
Mr. Halford smiled, shook his head. "Hugh," he said, "I'm giving you the key right now," and he stood, reached into his left pocket. He pulled out that square of paper and a key ring with a single key.
"We spruced up the place last weekend. The inside at least." He laid the keyring on the blotter, unfolded the paper. "Brought you a map, too."
Hugh watched as Mr. Halford's hands spread the paper flat on the blotter, heard words from him, his finger tracing the course of a road that intersected another road and another and another, finally stopping at a small box marked with an X.
But Hugh saw only lines there on the paper, numbers, a few words. Not a map at all, but some configuration of symbols drawn by a man who had three sons, grown and gone.
Hugh nodded and nodded, acted as though the words being delivered to him by this man were the most important he had received since the death of his only child.
He took the paper, folded it into the same square Mr. Halford had, as if in following those creases his boss had made he might know something of the touch of those three children, of a father who had seen them through. Then he stood, picked up the keyring, and put both the ring paper in his left pocket.
Mr. Halford's hand was out to him, and Hugh took it, shook hard.
He said, "Thank you, Mr. Halford," and tried the smile again, felt a piece of it play across his face. "I'll give Laura a call right now, see what she thinks."
"Dennis," Mr. Halford said. "Sir?" Hugh said, and stopped shaking his hand.
"First name's Dennis," he said. "Me. You shacking up in my place means you have to call me by my first name." He smiled, put those hands back into his pockets again. "At least when it comes to matters involving our cottage."
Mr. Halford turned, moved for the doorway. There were no doors into the cubicles, the glass walls lending no privacy to anyone's desk, and for a moment Hugh wondered how many of the other seventh-floor junior executives had witnessed this exchange, the handing over of a key and fingers moving across a hand-drawn map. He wondered, too, what they would make of it over lunch in the cafeteria.
Then the truth of what they would make of it came to him: His son had died three months and five days before, and now the vice president of finance was loaning him his cottage. Nothing more than that: only the truth.
Mr. Halford stopped, turned. He said, "It's the view down there will help you out. Seeing a different place. Being somewhere else. Not parking your car in the same damn driveway every night." He took a hand from a pocket and gave a short wave. He said, "Get down there soon as you can."
Hugh waved back. "Thank you," he called, and started to say that first name, Dennis. But Mr. Halford was already headed toward the elevators.
He felt the square of paper in his other hand, the hand still in his pocket. The key was still warm.
"The groceries," Laura said. This time she turned from him, took two or three steps back toward the house, her steps dark and hollow on the boards of the dock.
He still had the sextant up.
She stopped, said, "You know how to use that thing yet?"
He was quiet, then said, "I've got those books." He said, "Give me time."
She said nothing.
He brought the sextant down again, the moon returned to its place high above the two of them, above this cottage and Reed's Beach and all the earth. And above their car not parked in the same damn driveway as every night of their lives, but on the dirt road in front of this place, a car inside of which rolled loose food items some kid from the Acme had thrown into bags. No rhyme or reason.
That was when the word rose again in him. But this time he did not lose it in the voice of his wife calling out his own name.
He looked at the dark line of the water, scattered across it the small broken pieces of light a nearfull moon gave out.
He said, "Michael."
He heard no sound after his son's name, not even the waves beneath him, moving closer to shore, the tide on its way in. He heard nothing.
Then, from behind him, he heard the word whispered, an echo, but not: Michael.
He turned, saw his wife there, her arms still crossed against the cold. Behind her fell the light from the kitchen so that she was a silhouette to him, a shadow.
But he could see her head was bowed, then saw how her shoulders quivered, and then all trace of the name was gone on the wind out here, and in the dark.
Copyright © 1991 by Bret Lott