The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 21, No. 3


by Elizabeth McCracken

What beach was this, he wasn't certain. Rock and sand, a harbor town, and everywhere the sort of pottery he'd combed for as a boy in the 1940s. Let his brothers fill their pockets with sticks and shells, ordinary sea glass: he knew how to look for the curved ridge on the underside of a slice of saucer. Flip it over and find the blue flowers of Holland or China, a century ago or more. All his outgrown fixations had returned to him now that he was old. Once, on the beach outside their summer cottage down the Cape, he had discovered two entire clay pipes, eighteenth century, while his six older brothers sharked and sealed and barked in the water; beyond them he could see, almost, the ghosts of the colonists who had used the harbor as a dump, casting out their broken bowls and mugs so he could find them in his own era, put them in his own pockets. But this wasn't the Cape, or even Massachusetts. His brothers were mostly dead. That is, they were all of them dead but in his head only mostly: they washed up alive every now and then, and Louis would have to ask himself, Is Phillip alive? Is Julius, Sidney?
     Study the beach. Here, half-buried: a tiny terra-cotta cow with its head missing, otherwise intact, plaything for a child dead before the Industrial Revolution. The sea-worn bottom of a bottle that read Edinbu before the fracture. Lots of bits of plate, interesting glaze, violet and coppery brown. On an ordinary day in his bedroom at home he might hesitate to reach down for fear of falling over. Not here. He found the pottery and snatched it up. A teapot spout. A cocked handle from just where it met cup. A round crockery seal with a crown and the word FIREPROOF. He thought, That which is fireproof is also waterproof, but he wasn't sure whether that was true. Good picking anyhow. Some boy was calling far off for his father, Dad! Dad! Louis looked up. He was that father. There was his boy. Boy: a full-grown man, shouldering a plaid bag, standing on the steps that led from the storefronts of the harbor town down to the little beach. On the street above, a man in a kilt passed by. A Lady from Hell. What they called the Black Watch. They were in Scotland. His son had brought him here, to this island.
      "We'll miss the boat," his son said.
      "Let's not," he answered, and put his treasure in his pockets.

He had wanted a kilt and Irene (née MacLean) had forbidden it: that was the story of their marriage. He was one of those Jews who could pass for a Scot, redheaded and black-humored. Why did he want a kilt so? He liked to sing:

     Let the wind blow high, let the wind blow low.
     Through the streets in my kilt I'll go.
     All the lassies shout, Hello!
     Donald, where's your troosers?

     Of course it had never really been about the kilt. He was the youngest of seven brothers, none of whom ever married, except he, at the age of forty-seven. Before that, and for years, he and his brothers had run the family department store in Salford, Massachusetts. Back then, their parents dead, the brothers still went every year down the Cape for two weeks' vacation, crammed into a cottage called Beach Rose, until Irene MacLean met Louis Levine in Wellfleet and took him away. He had deserted one family and wanted only to belong to the next. He'd thought he might wear a kilt to their wedding. "Oh, no," said Irene. "No kilt." "But your uncles—" "No kilts anywhere." "Bagpipes?" "I hate them." What could be sadder in a marriage than incompatible feelings about bagpipes? Ought they still marry? They eloped, and had a child, and never argued, except for the one thing. It became a running joke: the man wanted a kilt. "I have fine calves," he said.
     Now Irene MacLean Levine was two months dead of a heart attack, and their son, who'd been working as a translator in London, had flown Louis to one island in order to take a ferry to another island to take a boat to a third uninhabited island that promised puffins. David himself didn't like birds, couldn't tell them apart, didn't want to: it struck him as feebleminded, to stare at the throats and tails of birds for a flush or flash, just so you could name them. Seagull, pigeon, chicken, hawk, that was all you needed. All other birds were sparrows to him. As a child he'd found his father's ornithological obsession a moral failing: the man had never asked a single question about his son's life, or the lives of any other living humans. Louis loved animals, ate them; the mass grave of the local natural history museum had made David a vegetarian at age thirteen. Study me, he'd wanted to say to his father: the narrow-footed David, the bearded Levine, the flat-arsed vegetarian. Write me down in your book.
     He missed his gloomy mother. Together they called Louis "the Infernal Optimist." He'd burn the house down looking for a bright side.

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