The Present at High Tide

By Chris Schacht

Jo stopped above the waterline, where the hilly tufts of grass had never been submerged by the tide. Directly in front of us was an old beach mansion, the once-blue siding bleached white, the roof long ago blown off the top and now crumbling farther on up the beach. The water was also mere centimeters from covering the first step. It was like a sad, lonely old man who’d already gone bald and was now sagging around the middle. Some people like to romanticize these old things; I don’t get it. It’s like fondly remembering a wart.

“Aw, you bought my brother and his wife ocean front property,” I said to her. “How sweet.”

“We’re not buying anything,” she said. “We’re salvaging.” Her years of experience at ignoring my sarcasm showed strong today. The head of her sledgehammer dented the sand, and she let the handle fall, too. She unbuttoned and pulled off her flannel shirt while kicking off her shoes.

“Which is illegal,” I said.

“There’s still good stuff in that one.”

“I hope it’s already wrapped, with a card.”

“Tide’s coming in. We’ve got about twenty minutes. You want to go or not?” I dropped the crowbar she’d given me earlier, then stripped off my jacket and started unbuttoning my own shirt. “Like I have any choice.”

“No, you do not.”

I’m sure we looked quite dramatic, two women facing down that cool, South Carolina coastal wind, our hair whipping about us, grim determination on our faces as we looked out over the poor choices and ruined homes of previous generations. We were not, however, trying to save the world, stop oppression, feed the hungry, or anything so noble. All we were trying to do was make a baby shower present for my sister-in-law. That’s it. So for you, this might seem inconsequential. But for me, this kind of shit is life or death.

When I came home and saw her sitting there, staring out the window, a cup of coffee in her hands, I knew she hadn’t made the damn present. But I held back my anger. Not until I knew. I forced myself to walk up and kiss her cheek.

“You have a good day?” I said.

“I started in on that dresser project.” Jo’s job is to help manage the community compost system, specifically the methane trap. It’s highly technical work that requires years of training yet leads to a mysteriously light workload. Which means that what she really does is hang out in our garage and make unnecessarily elaborate home improvement projects, like carefully shave and paint a plastic rain barrel until it looks like a whiskey barrel, or transform reclaimed 2x4s into a beautiful headboard. “One side is just so knotty, though,” Jo continued. “And the top and bottom look so good, I was like, fuck it, I’ll tip it over and make a mirror dresser.”

At this point, I stopped hearing what she said. I had looked down into her cup and discovered that the liquid inside wasn’t black. It wasn’t even brown. It was deep red.

“Wine?” I said. “You’re sitting here drinking wine?”

“What? It’s Friday.” She looked over at the clock. “It’s like, six. Just because you work late…” What I did was work as a lawyer for the county, because even though we have universal healthcare and guaranteed income, people still like to fall down in public places and attempt to sue the shit out of every public and private entity within view of the city.

“Have you made the present,” I said, slowly, punctuating each word. “The one you promised you would make?” She froze, all expression gone. “The one meant for my yet-to-be-born nephew? The one my bitch of a sister in law will murder us for not providing?”

“It’s okay, we still have time,” she said, setting the cup aside.

“Still have time? The shower is tomorrow!”

“Plenty of time. Wait, what day is it again?”

“Friday. The 23rd.”

Her brow furrowed, like she was going through some mental calculations. Then she jumped up from the couch. “Okay, so we don’t have much time. Come on.”

This is how we ended up on the beach, wading out to a dilapidated house from the era of arrogance. I followed behind her, bitching and mumbling, because that’s what I do when I’m anxious, which is pretty much all the time.

“Remember the last time we did this?” I said. “That board snapped and I fell in and died?”

“You didn’t fall in or die,” she said.

“Oh, so the board just snapped. That’s right. How reassuring.”

I had to walk behind her and focus on her back and neck tattoos to keep going at all. Jo had a lot of tattoos, mostly animal, though no pandas or tigers or anything exotic. They were all everyday animals, like squirrels and rabbits and the like, all ones connected to humanity, ones we’re unlikely to lose. They’re all jumbled together, arranged such that they cover the pock marks left from the enteropox epidemic that swept through the country when we were teens. My family was spared; living in one of those no-energy communes at the time, we were more insulated. Jo and her family were not so lucky. She lost her parents, her brother, and most of her extended family, as well. She was the only one who made it, though permanently stamped by the scars the disease left behind, all across her neck and upper torso. As many enteropox survivors would say, one scar for every loved one lost. For some, it was an important reminder that they would never want to lose. For others, it’s a reminder that they must cover up, remove, or otherwise forget, and they paid thousands to do so. Jo fell into the latter group.

Anyone with a basic understanding of people could tell you that this was why it was hard to get close to Jo. This was also why, when I got that mystery flu two years earlier, she basically stopped going to work so she could take care of me. No more scars for her.

It should be no surprise that she and I didn’t have a lot of friends. The water went up over my knees before the sand under our feet began to rise again, from all the sand trapped on that side of the house. Despite living by the ocean, I’m not a big fan. There’s the stinging jellies, the hurricanes, the trash, and even the ocean itself. I’m old enough to still think of it as this thing that eats the land. Those of us whose parents used to live in New York City or Miami, we can’t see the ocean as this pretty landscape meant for sunsets. Maybe the kids today can, or people from generations ago, but not me.

A thin skim of water covered the front step of the house. As I stepped on it, it moaned like a sick dog.

“So on a scale of 10 to 10, how unsafe is this?” I said.

“We’re going to the kitchen,” she said.

“Seriously, is this safe? A yes or a no will suffice.”

“Come on, it’s one of the first rooms that will flood. Besides the basement.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Even though this house is one of the few left standing, it’s actually one of the oldest,” Jo said. “I’d guess like 1960’s. After that, the building materials just got shoddier. It’s like they knew that lifestyle wasn’t going to last.”

“And here I thought it was because the house is farther up on the beach,” I said.

“Well, that too.”

The interior of the house was nearly as bright as outside, though the slanted light of the evening sun cast a yellow hue to everything. The flooring on the second floor had long ago been torn up, and ceiling of the first floor collapsed through, giving us a full view of the sky. The drywall had all rotted out, so the walls were just the ribs of wall studs with siding behind. The interior walls were just studs.

“Come on,” Jo said. “We’re kitchen bound.”

The kitchen wasn’t much different. Lots of bare 2x4s and some broken down counters with empty spaces that used to hold stoves or fridges, but were long ago dismantled for metal or Freon. The only significant thing left was an island unit separating the kitchen from the dining room, the countertop mostly gone. There were still a few decorative tiles attached to the sides of it, showing bright skies above a sandy beach. So fitting. The island could live up to its name and become an actual island. It was so poetic that even the original builders might have appreciated it.

“And this is where the sledgehammer comes in,” Jo said, just before swinging into one corner of the island. The wood cracked and crumpled. One of the tiles launched out and shattered on the floor.

“Jesus!” I said. “You want to warn me?”

“I did.” She swung again, and this time the whole corner collapsed. She kicked some of the loose wood out of the way and kept going. I wanted to whip out a smart comment about what she was doing, some island metaphor like I’d been thinking of, but nothing was funny. There was something sad about what she was doing, tearing out the last structure here that wasn’t a wall.

It didn’t take much to get rid of the whole island. It had been weakened over the decades and was ready to go. What was going to replace it? What would replace the whole house? Just sand? Just the endless ocean trash of generations past?

Jo stepped onto where the island had been. “See?” she said. There was wood flooring down there. Nice wood flooring. “It’s a little warped, but we can plane out a straight piece or two.”

“How did you know?”

“I just looked down through the top. My guess is this is the original flooring, maybe for the dining room. They took out a wall here and put in this island when islands became popular. The crazy thing is, when they replaced the floor, they actually cut out the old wood before putting down tile directly on the floor boards. And they just cut around the island instead of moving it and taking all the floor.”

“Why the hell would they do that? Is that something people did back then?” “Why do people do anything? I mean, look at this house.”

I did as she suggested, but there wasn’t much to look at. In a few more years, there would be even less. I suppose that was what she meant. The world is on pace to get another three inches or so of sea level rise before the snow in Greenland starts turning to glaciers again. Boston isn’t happy about it.

I looked back to the flooring she’d uncovered. I’d seen enough of Jo’s reclaimed wood projects to know that this wood was actually quite beautiful, once you sanded through the gray bloat on the outside. The tide crept over it, then back, like a gently caressing hand.

“Maybe this is too nice for my sister-in-law?” I said.

Note that I kept saying, “for my sister-in-law.” I did not say for my future nephew, because he didn’t care. His concerns revolved around kicking my sister-in-law from the inside, giving her acid reflux, and making her favorite foods taste like ash, all of which I was very grateful for. He deserved all the presents in the world.

Nor did I say I was getting this present for my brother, because he also did not care. They had plenty of money, certainly more than Jo and I, and they could buy their own damn diapers and strollers and whatever creepy floating baby Momitor is hot right now. The only reason he cared, to the extent he actually did care, had to do with his wife, because if I pissed her off by not providing a good present, the blowback would go all on him. He would have to endure more crying and spite about how I don’t like her, and then he and I would have to engage in yet another awkward conversation about how I needed to apologize to her or take her out so that she felt I liked her. I didn’t want him to go through all that. Hell, I didn’t want to go through all that. I loved him and wanted the best for him, and because he was too brainless to marry a nice woman, I had to provide the best, most meaningful present any woman you’re forced to call “sister” had ever received.

Jo got down on her knees and put out her hand for the crowbar. I handed it to her, and she jammed it into the floor.

“So at first I thought, pull up some boards and make a changing table,” she said. “You know, like baby gets to shit on the past, right? But then I realized baby tables are supposed to be soft, so forget that. Instead, we’ll make a hamper, like for dirty diapers or clothes. And the lid and the front of it will still be this board, so, you know, she can put all the shit in the past.”

“A hamper?” I said. “They have a garbage can. More than one, as a matter of fact.”

“You put me in charge of this okay? And this is what I came up with.”

“And what’s this shit about the past? This is a baby present, not your senior art project. You said, you told me, it has to be something practical and attractive, and you had a good idea for how to make that happen, and since you specialize in crafty stuff, you would take charge. And now we’re standing out here, in a house that could collapse on us at any time, talking about hampers and shitting on the past. Is this really your plan? Is this what you think kids are, is a chance to make some kind of social or moral statement? A kid is just a kid.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt your tirade, but if the queen of Target gift cards is ready, we can pull out this board and get something done before we get flooded out of here.”

Okay, so I do have to admit that I shared some level of blame for this situation. I should have never gotten a gift card for my brother’s wife’s wedding shower. I should have been aware enough to not buy the exact same gift card as their wedding present. I acknowledge this mistake, and I’ve apologized for it. But that’s just me. I never cared about that kind of stuff, and I couldn’t see why anyone else should, either. It’s not a reflection on how I felt about her, which is of course the way she read it. I bought my brother gift cards, too! Get over it, already.

“You have to describe to me what we’re doing,” I said, without moving.

“We’re going to pry up these boards. The wood is all waterlogged and swollen. It’s going to take us both. You grab the board.”

“And you’re sure you can use this wood? It will be fine by tomorrow?”

“Do you want to do this or not?”

“This is such a pain in the ass,” I said. “He shouldn’t even be having kids.”

“Well, you’re right there. He shouldn’t.”

“Like we need a bunch more CO2 bombs on this earth.”

“I told Trista and Dan to get a dog, but no. Now why don’t you get – ”

“I want kids,” I said. I hadn’t expected to. I didn’t know I’d been thinking it. But once it started, I couldn’t stop. “Or at least one. Just one. I want to be pregnant. I know that we say kids are a problem, but that just seems like an easy way out, or like we’re just pretending. I want a kid. I think you’d be a good mother.”

Her arms, which had been working the crowbar up and down, went rigid. Her shoulders tightened like she’d been hit with an electric jolt. She started to shake her head, I know it. There was only a little twist, but I know that motion, what it’s the beginning of. She stopped herself before she could complete it. “Let’s just tear up this board,” she said. “The tide is coming in?”

“We have the money, the space, the time. It won’t be bad.”

“The tide? Seriously?”

“I promise. The scars will be on me this time.”

She let go of the crowbar and sat down on her haunches. Then she slapped her hands into the water. “Goddammit!” she said. “Really? Really?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Can we please just…” But there was nothing to say now. I had taken it too far. I had fucked it up, yet again, by bottling up my true emotions until they came spilling out in the most inappropriate ways. At least I know that's how she would say it. For me… how are you supposed to say these things?

I knelt down next to her, the water now warmer on my legs than the air on my wet skin. She pushed against me at first, with her forearms, like the water on her hands was paint and she didn’t want to get it on me. But she didn’t resist when I put my face against her neck.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” I said.

“No, you shouldn’t have.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know… I had to say…”

“I know you want kids,” she said. She finally put her hands on my shoulders and separated us. “But let’s start with the board? If we can’t do that, kids are pointless.”

Of course she was right. And now that I was down in the water with her, it was finally possible. I handed the crowbar to her, and she got it wedged back under the board. We heaved.

We abandoned the hamper idea and went with a shelf unit for breast feeding stuff, like bottles, bibs, etc. The big board we’d pulled up would be the back of the unit, as well as an arch along the top. I ran to the store for some of the previously mentioned etc. while Jo started the woodwork. Once we used up our allotted electrical energy for the day, I jumped on the bike to charge up the battery and keep the lights on.

It took us most of that night and the next morning. Before final assembly, Jo decided she wanted to paint an image on the main board. She joked about painting a pair of breasts squirting out milk, but I gave her the silent treatment until she decided on a right whale swimming with her calf, since my sister-in-law was a big whale person. I mean, we all became whale people after the krill thing, but she was seriously into it.

Come shower time, we were both tired but ready. Hours and hours of us working together had actually resulted in something both beautiful and practical.

Neither of us brought up what I’d said in the house.

Trista (my brother’s wife is named Trista, by the way) looked gorgeous, as pregnant women so often do, especially pregnant women who got their hair done that morning and their nails the day before.

“What is this?” Trista said, looking at our gift with her big bright smile. “Tsk tsk,” Jo said. “It’s not time to open presents yet.”

She went to put it on the pile, and I went to find my brother. The beard Trista had forced him to shave off for the wedding, and the honeymoon, and the baby announcement photos, was finally coming back in. He was starting to gain some weight too, which made me happy. He’d always been skinny, but now with the gut growing out he was beginning to remind me of our dad. It made hugging him a lot more enjoyable.

“Michelle,” he said. He opened his arms and I basically collapsed against him. “You brought a real present!” he said quietly, right by my ear.

“You better like it,” I said. “It was a pain in the ass.”

“It looks beautiful. I can tell because you didn’t wrap it.”

“Wrapping is overrated. I want my future nephew to not be wasteful.” By this point I should have let go of him, but hadn’t. My head was still resting against his chest and my arms clasped behind him, so he asked me “What’s up?”

“Jo’s pissed at me.”

“She looks like she’s doing okay to me,” he said, and nodded behind me.

And there Jo was, talking to Trista, both of them laughing, and then Jo’s hand on Trista’s belly. Jo shook her head, but not in denial. There was a big grin on her face, like she couldn’t believe what she was feeling through that stretched skin and split abdominal muscle. It hit me with a sick wave of jealousy like I’d never felt before. That should be me, by Jo. But then the dumb games began, and it was Jo by me, just as she always was. We played pin the diaper on the cardboard baby. Jo put the diaper right on the baby’s head. Everyone laughed, and I tried to join along, nervously tittering, but it wasn’t funny. And then she asked me to help her, and I guided her hand to put in right on the baby’s butt. Everyone cheered. Finally we got to presents, which was good because it meant we got to sit down and not do anything, and because it meant we were almost done with this thing. I ran my hand across the back of Jo’s neck, more for my comfort as hers. Years ago, she had flinched when I touched her scars. Now she relaxed and leaned back in her chair. She put her hand on my leg, and I relaxed in turn.

Trista picked up our shelf first. “I love this so much I have to start here,” she said. And she gave us that smile, with her eyes all dewy, that I’d always thought of as the calculated smile of dragon. For the first time, I considered that it was actually genuine, that she really was that emotional and warm all the damn time. Could it be, I wondered? Wouldn’t that just be exhausting?

I’d wrapped the bottles and bibs in little presents and put them on the shelves, so she took them off, one at a time, giving such heartfelt thanks that it had to be fake. When she’d uncovered enough presents to reveal the painting at the back of the shelf, she went into full tears. Of course, she held it up for everyone to see, and there was the flash of cameras… but she wasn’t crying for them, was she? And when she hugged me and Jo…

My eyes got moist, and I had to wave her away, but nicely, smiling. Thank god my brother didn’t hug me right then. He knows better. I’m not like Trista. I don’t want to be the center of attention.

I barely remember the next ten or twelve gifts. It was too much, Trista gushing her emotions all over me like that. I couldn’t think straight. But towards the end, she unwrapped this big flat rectangle. Trista’s brother, also crafty but not on Jo’s level, had made something. He’d built a frame around an ultrasound image of my future-nephew, and also touched up the image, making the lines brighter, the rounded crown of his head smooth and lovely, the darkness around him warm and inviting.

Jo, whose hand was on my thigh, gave me one, long, slow squeeze. It was whole seconds of squeeze, hard and firm, making the relaxed flesh of my thigh tighten up and fit her arching palm.

I knew what that squeeze meant. It was one word, the one we can’t be afraid of, the one I don’t like to say but that we need to say again and again, no matter how many homes fall into the ocean, no matter how many scars are left on our collective human body. I say it, even though it makes me anxious, and she says it, even though it scares her. We say it together, even if not in perfect unison.

Not that she actually said it, or that I’m going to now. My god. One step at a time, please. One step at a time.


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