By Laura Lovic-Lindsay
Marcus Mason had been an object in motion and had goddamn well intended to stay in motion, until he got the wind knocked out of him by an outside force: cancer.
Stage four and pancreatic, no less. His liver and lungs obeyed the ancient laws of hospitality, feeding and housing the cancer as well. Grateful, it grew.
He resigned the law firm as quietly as he could, convincing them the abdominal pain was a stomach ulcer even worse than the rest of them carried within. They bought it--no one could sell a lie like Marcus.
Something compelled him south. Florida. He had been, once, as a young boy. He was convinced the lemons and oranges all over the trees were a joke his parents were playing. And that ocean.
Marcus ran to it, arms outstretched and let it pound him. It drew him into waves like a hug. It drew him now.
Away from the tourist draws he found:
--ROOMS TO LET-- By week or month
Marcus almost passed the house indicated by the mailbox-taped sign. It had all he needed: half-hidden by trees and brush, air conditioners in most windows, and the beach so very near. Seagull-grey shingles, paint peeling, falling off. Bent lightning rod above. It would do.
He parked at road's edge, careful not to lose too much tire in the sand. As he opened his car door, the humidity welcomed him with a punch. Muscles he had forgotten he had began protesting as he slogged through the deep sand toward the steps.
An older man wearing Bible-thick eyeglasses, stained t-shirt, and boxer shorts gave Marcus half a glance and went back to his morning paper.
"Morning," Marcus nodded at the man. "This your place?"
The man made no attempt to answer him.
"Sir, do you own this place?" he tried again. "Only, I saw your sign down at the road," he gestured behind him but the man wouldn't acknowledge.
"Oh!" A woman's voice from within. "I thought I heard a car stop." Her slippers masked her footfalls as she quickly appeared in a too-brightly flowered housecoat. She eyed him through the screen silently, blowing smoke. Her voice told Marcus that cigarette never left the left corner of her mouth.
"You're awful young to be--"she began and stopped herself. " 'Course, we get all kinds--"
"Mercy." The newspaper man interrupted. "Send 'im on his way." He flipped to the sports section, never looking up.
Mercy's mouth hardened visibly and she drew on a tight smile. "Excuse me, Dave Williams, I suppose you pay the mortgage around here?” She turned back to Marcus. “How long would you need the room?”
Marcus hadn't considered this. “Umm,” he shrugged. “Couple weeks, maybe?”
“Well, where are you headed? Not much further south you can go.” She picked a piece of tobacco off her tongue.
“Not really headed anywhere. I just wanted somewhere quiet. Do a little fishing.”
“Listen, if this is a problem, I'll just keep looking. I need a place. Doesn't have to be here.”
She tossed a defiant look at Dave Williams. “Yeah, I got a room for you. Go get your bags.”
Newspaper Man hawked and spat his disapproval off the side of the porch.
“MIND THE LINE”
Someone had stenciled the warning over the kitchen doorway. Marcus imagined a houseful of senior citizens raising canes and walkers at one another, fighting to receive the biggest spoonful of creamed corn.
“Rent's $200 a week,” the woman had been speaking to him. “You don't look like that'll break you none.”
“No, that's fine. That's fine,” Marcus was half-listening, half-caring. The house was quiet but for a distant television. That was good enough for him. “How many people you got here?"
She ignored his question, continuing with her script. “I'd like that $200 in cash, beginning of the week. You'll share a bathroom with three other men—You watch out for Harley, now. He'll walk in on you in the tub, fine young man like yourself. I'll show you how to wedge the door shut from 'im.”
She pointed out Marcus's seat and he took it. From one of the cabinets, she pulled out a mimeographed contract for the room, all the while detailing the do's and don't's of living in her house. The lawyer living in Marcus's brain rose to attention. He talked it back down.
She handed him a pen and he signed, pulling out a wallet thick with twenties. He handed her ten of them.
Upstairs, he threw his bags on his bed, propped open all three windows, and let the ocean sing him to sleep.
Marcus was up at sunrise. The blessed hands of Mercy Porter were frying bacon and coffee was waiting for him.
Last night, he had dreamt of fishing, standing knee-high in those waves for hours. Mercy found him an old pole at the house while warning him not to go too deep in. “Drop-off out there. You can't see it. Stay far away from them tall rocks and you'll be fine.”
She had packed his lunch, adding a few bottles of beer in a cooler. She told him it was an investment. He owed her fish for dinner. He made a mental note to tip Mercy well when he left.
He took his time walking up to the shore. Breathing wasn't coming easy to him.
It was good to be alone at the beach. The rocks Mercy warned him about recalled to him the stories of standing stones in Europe. A little Stonehenge.
He sat when he needed to regain strength, and the pulsed heartbeat of wave-rhythm gave him the most peace he'd known since his diagnosis. A couple and their dog were up-coast far enough that he could hear the dog's barking, but no one came closer than that.
Marcus pulled eight fine sheepshead from the waters that day.
Mercy' voice gruffed when she saw them. “Haven't had sheepshead since Mr. Porter was alive. He'd bring 'em home every Saturday.”
Marcus cleaned them under the back porch and brought them in for frying while he bathed.
The dinnerbell warned everyone to queue up. Most of the men were already near, drawn by the scent-link of pan-seared fish to their memories. Mercy called Marcus up to the front to be first-served.
“Oh, no, you don't,” Marcus laughed. “I saw the sign.” He gestured behind him above the doorway.
Mercy seemed genuinely confused.
“The words?” He decided to explain the joke: “You know, 'Mind the line'? Don't want to get in trouble with anyone.”
Understanding dawned on her. “Ah, right. No, that's just...” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. “Well, here it is. You like lemon? Butter? Wait for grace, now.”
One by one, men in various degrees of disrepair began filing in to chairs. Some of them balanced their own plates, shuffling slowly; others waited as Mercy set their food before them.
When all were seated, Mercy took the head of the table and bowed them.
“O Lord, we thank Thee for Thy bounty and for what Thou has put before us.”
“Amen,” the men chorused, and Marcus sat silently.
She squeezed lemon on her plate and scooped a bite of fish.
Five a.m. brought clear warm skies and Marcus made up his mind to fill Mercy' freezer with what he caught. Something to remember him by when he was gone. Pole, bucket, and cooler and by five-thirty, he was off.
After an hour of meditation in the waves, Marcus caught a dark dot moving toward him. The dot revealed itself to be Dave Williams.
Dave stood back a ways from Marcus, watching, never speaking, not even when a coughing fit wracked Marcus. After a bit, he turned and walked back the way he had come. Close to lunchtime, Dave appeared again, this time carrying his own rod and bucket.
The two men fished, silently, popping beers until the sun said it was time to head home. Dave dumped his catch into Marcus' bucket and rinsed his hands at the fish table. “Gonna sit a while before dinner,” were his first words to Marcus that day.
Marcus cleaned the fish and took them into Mercy. She kissed his cheek.
The week passed quickly. Marcus passed Mercy another $200 without a word and she nodded, understanding.
Every day, Marcus came back sooner from the shore. Fewer fish, but the freezer was already bursting. He found peace out there. Still, the sun warned him he was giving in earlier every day.
By the middle of Marcus' third week, Dave began walking out to the strand with Marcus instead of catching him up later. A small exchange played between them, always on the topic of fishing. Until one day it wasn't.
“Marcus Mason,” Dave spoke with a sigh that held gravity.
Marcus looked at the man, squinting between clouds.
“Way I see it,” Dave continued, “you are much too young to be retired. What are you, twenty-five?”
Marcus answered wryly. “Thirty-three next month.” He'd begun dragging an old aluminum-framed chair out to the shore these days. He sat in it now, rod secured in the sand holder. He had a good idea where the conversation was headed.
“Thirty-three,” Dave repeated the number, examining Marcus to confirm the number. He nodded. “Well, your Benz tells me you've got some money. However you made it, you don't seem in a hurry to get back to that life.”
“Pole dancing. You had a look at my ass?”
Dave laughed. “No such thing. Mercy Googled you already. Junior partner, Coneelly, Engels, and Engels. You were doing okay.”
It was a question rather than a statement, but Marcus answered it with a shrug and popped a beer.
He drank all of it before answering.
“Ulcers.” The lie was sour on his own tongue. Or so he thought.
Marcus bent double and retched in the sand. It was a new symptom, somewhere on the list the doctor gave him at the end of their argument. He lost his breath and began coughing. He was surprised at how much blood he expelled.
Dave saw it all. “Ulcers, huh? You think I don't hear you wheezing every step out here, every morning?”
“You're turning grey, boy.”
Marcus picked himself up into his seat, finally looking Dave full-on.
“Pancreatic, stage four. Liver and lungs, too,” Marcus finally admitted. It actually felt good to get that out.
Dave nodded. “Yeah, I thought it was something like that. No Chemo? Radiation?”
Marcus shook his head, spat a bitter laugh. “For what? To draw it out a little longer? Nah. I don't have kids. Not married. No. Game over. I'm going out fishing. And enjoying your company.” He snorted.
They said no more on the matter. At the usual hour, Dave began packing up both his things and Marcus' for the trip back to the house.
“Leave it,” Marcus gestured at his items. “I'm gonna stay out a whil--” As he finished speaking, he was bent double in the sand again.
Dave waited for it to pass, then helped Marcus up. Dave draped Marcus' arm around his own shoulders and the two headed home.
Mercy herself had taken up Dave's seat on the porch. They arrived just as she was finishing one cigarette and starting another. Marcus was exhausted, but not so much that he didn't notice the look pass between the two: Dave gave Mercy a double nod and she, in turn, raised an eyebrow at him.
Mercy came down from the porch and together two septuagenarians got the young lawyer into his own bed.
And Marcus slept.
Late morning, two days later, Marcus' body granted him a reprieve and he headed back to the shoreline. Dave was already there, among the rocks Mercy warned about.
Dave saw him approaching and sent him a wave and half-smile.
“Gonna want to be careful, there,” Marcus cautioned. “Bottom drops out and the tide'll get you. Mercy heard stories, I guess.”
“Yep. Know all about the rocks, but thank you.”
Dave stretched his hand toward Marcus to help steady him in the shifts of sand.
They moved to their usual spot. The winds seemed calmer today.
“You have family we need to know about?” Dave handed Marcus a beer. “If something should happen, that is?”
“Don't want to get stuck with the body, huh?” Marcus managed a smile.
“Naw. That's not it. Pretty much all of us have faced the idea. Harley's probably the youngest at the house, least until you showed up. He's sixty-eight. And Mercy has had to call 9-1-1 for a few while I've been here.
“No,” he continued. “But if we needed to let anyone know...” He trailed off and let Marcus put it together.
“Like I said, never married. Never reproduced. Parents gone.” Marcus shrugged. “Just me.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Dave's voice had dropped by an octave.
After a moment, Dave offered, “You're in the right place, you know.”
“Yeah, it's beautiful down here. I thought about Hawaii. Just didn't seem right. I came down here with my parents. Good trip, good trip. Maybe that's why I headed this way? Be near them, somehow?”
“Not what I meant,” Dave told him. “Maybe you're supposed to be here. At the house. Everyone of us has somethin' going on like that,” here he gestured at Marcus's abdomen. “We've all had the hourglass tipped over.
“Sand running out one way or another...” His voice trailed off into the oncoming tide.
“You?” Marcus asked.
“You getting treatment?”
“Remission. Creeping back up on me, though. Gonna need something real soon.”
Marcus nodded at him. A couple pelicans were debating fishing rights a few hundred feet out into the water.
“This the place to come, then? Terminally ill drawn like lemmings to the waters edge. Literally.” He smiled at his own joke.
Dave was staring at him. He started to say something just as Marcus's fishing rod took a hard hit.
“I think I should tell you--Ha HA! WHOA! Grab 'im boy! Play it out. Play it out. Bring him to you.”
Marcus's rod curled into a hard C, his arm tensed and screaming from the effort it took to wind line.
Dave was whooping it up behind him, cheering him as the fish finally broke the surface.
“Well, I'll be! That is a beautiful snook! Just look at it!”
Dave ran into the waves with the net and brought back Marcus's prize. He slapped Marcus's back as he handed it over like an award.
“Well, that's easily worth another beer,” Dave insisted.
“None for me,” Marcus collapsed into his chair, winded and laughing. Then he bent and retched and his world turned black.
There was whispering, an argument, in the hallway. It had invaded his dreams disguised as dune grasses scratching the wind. He swam to the surface and woke up. He was in his room with no idea how he got there.
The back deck was littered with Adirondack-style chairs, and Marcus dropped into one near Dave, sighing.
“You don't have to die of this thing, Marcus.”
“Yeah. I do, actually. What do you mean, chemo? I don't want a couple more months, Dave. Not months like that.”
“Not what I meant.” Dave shifted in his seat. “Not what I meant at all.”
The older man bit a hangnail and spat it out to sand.
“Hope,” he explained.
Marcus laughed. “Hope? Jesus! I thought for a minute you were importing pills from Mexico or Europe or something. Oh, God, it hurts to laugh. Hope,” he snorted.
“You done?” Dave asked, eyebrows raised.
“Ah, sure. Go get me a beer and tell me all about how hope is going to save me.”
“Hope saves. I've seen it happen.” Dave nodded to himself. “You're here for a reason, Marcus. This place, this time, this house—all for a reason.
“Those tall rocks out in the ocean. Mercy told you to keep out of them—and she was right to say that. Because there's something powerful in 'em, Marcus. Aw, hell, you laugh if you want, but I have seen it, Marcus.”
Marcus leaned his head back in his chair and closed his eyes. Dave continued.
“How well you know your Bible stories, boy? Your Mama take you to Sunday School? Hell, yeah, she did. You remember the Pool of Bethesda?”
“Ah, no. Guess Mom missed that week.” Marcus kept his eyes shut.
“It was a pool of water where the sheep drank. And an angel of the Lord would descend and stir up those waters and who ever made it in first would be healed of whatever afflicted them. Jesus healed a guy who couldn't make it in in time. Others always pushed past him to get in, get their healing. They didn't mind the line, those days.”
Something clicked. Marcus's eyes snapped open. “ 'Mind the line'?” He emphasized each word, almost in anger. “You're bullshitting me. That's what that means—over the kitchen? 'Mind the Line' means stay out of—what, the rocks? The ocean rocks?—until it's your turn? Sweet Jesus, Dave. You can't be serious. Look at you. You're sitting there like you're actually serious.”
“Keep it down, boy. Keep it down. I told you, I have seen it happen.”
Dave kept his eyes toward the far ocean. “I wasn't just out there to fish with you. Even if you hadn't been out there every day, I'd have gone to check the waters. Been building lately. Longer between each time. We might lose it entirely at some point.”
“So, whose turn is it? Yours, I guess, or you wouldn't be out there every day.”
Dave didn't answer.
“Yeah, yeah, it's your turn,” Marcus scoffing turned to bitterness. “Not nice to make fun of the terminally ill, man. Pretty shitty joke, actually.”
Marcus stood to go, but Dave held up a hand to stop him.
“I want to make you a deal. A trade.”
“What do you want from me, Dave?”
“Obvious, isn't it?” The old man's face reddened. “I'll trade you my turn for money. Buy my healing. Hell, go back to your law office and make it all back again in a year. I get some money to live out there rest of my days somewhere better than this shack. Maybe get a girlfriend. What good is a healing to me? What good is another ten, twenty years as an old man? It doesn't heal age.”
“What's to keep me from just going out there and taking your turn anyway?”
“I'm willing to bet you can't make it out there on your own again. You need my help.”
Dave had called his bluff. Marcus let the screen door slam as he went to his room.
Mercy loaded his plate with scrambled eggs. There was no talk of a day of fishing ahead any longer.
“Thank you, Mercy,” Marcus said quietly as she placed his plate on the table for him. They had the dining room to themselves.
“What Dave said you last night,” Mercy took a long sip of orange juice before continuing. “It's true. You didn't wonder why there's a houseful of old people about ten miles from anything?”
Marcus didn't know what to think. So, Mercy was in on it, too.
“Guess I thought you all knew each other. Thought you collected them. Like strays. Crazy cat lady, but no cats.” He looked at his breakfast while he spoke.
“They ended up here the same way as you ended up here. Meant to be.” She tipped the last of her bacon onto his plate.
“Here,” she told him. “Too damn skinny.”
Marcus found Dave reading the newspaper on the front porch, looking very much like he did the first day Marcus arrived.
“So, how do I do this? Do I write you a check? Go to the bank? I'll transfer to your account.”
“You believe me, then?” Dave asked over the top of the sports section. “It's important that you believe. I think your hope is half the magic of it.”
Marcus shrugged. “I'm not sure I care any more. I'm on my way out, I figure. You fished with me. Helped me when I was sick. We shared more than a few beers. Money's gotta go somewhere. I want Mercy to get some of it, too.”
Dave didn't answer that. “I was up along the shoreline this morning. Wouldn't surprise me if it's churning by this evening. That's what we're looking for. Turmoil in the water. Whirlpool. It oughta look like it's being stirred.”
Turmoil in the water. Marcus rolled his eyes. For crying out loud.
He went back into the house to start cutting checks.
Mercy slapped fresh bedlinens on Marcus's dresser. “Mr. Porter was the first I ever saw. Dave—you think he's feeding you a line. But, nope. It is a sight to behold. A few of us from the house are gonna come up tonight and have a watch, if you don't mind.”
“What happened to Mr. Porter?”
“Car accident a few years back. But they were good years we had together. The best.”
Dave. Now, he could believe Dave would bullshit him. But he couldn't shake the conviction he saw on Mercy's face. That was real. She believed it.
Dinnertime was nearing. Marcus had no appetite. He had handed checks over to both Mercy and Dave earlier. Mercy had actually kissed his cheek.
Marcus saw Dave headed out to the beach shortly after he heard plates cleared below. It wasn't long before Dave came jogging back.
“Time!” He burst into Marcus's room. “It's time!”
Marcus tried to hide his disappointment. He had hoped to end the charade after distributing his checks, maybe get more rest. He suspected it wouldn't be much longer for him now.
But they were determined to play it out. Marcus went along.
The water was restless—that much was clear from a distance. Marcus caught Dave in a little dance at one point as they approached the shore. Dave believed. That was clear.
Mercy had tagged along, as had Charlie, John, and Al. A tug in Marcus's chest told him that Al wouldn't have wrestled his walker out here onto sand for no reason. The skeptic in Marcus gave way by another inch or so.
The water inside the rocks swirled. It rose and fell, but never left the border of rocks. Marcus was transfixed. Dave caught his arm.
“Marcus, do you believe? Even a bit?”
“Maybe,” Marcus began. “Yeah, maybe a bit. Let's do this.” He stepped between the rocks and allowed the waters to take him.
Heat, electricity spiked through him. His spine, abdomen, neck all knew fire. The cancer was being consumed, he told himself. Here he opened his eyes.
Dave had his hands wide, one on each rock either side of him. His eyes were closed and he was shaking.
Mercy and the other three men were behind him. Charlie took a step forward only to be slapped by Mercy. “Mind the line!” she snarled. “It's Dave's turn.”
Marcus wanted to correct her, to laugh, “No, it's my turn,” but he found it harder to breathe, to stand. He began to notice a kind of heat wave coming forth from him and making its way to the circle's edge. Toward Dave.
“But it's my turn,” Marcus tried to protest. The words never came.
The old man opened his mouth and breathed deeply, sucking in whatever came from Marcus. Mercy smiled. “You've got 'im, Dave. You've got 'im. Just a little bit more.”
Dave nodded, hands still riding the rocks, already looking stronger.
Marcus' knees buckled at this point. He drained quickly and was shredded by the remains of the stir.