SUNSET HOUSE by Stephen Bauer
ON OUR FIRST MORNING in Grand Cayman, my mother looks weary, but I expect we all do. She helps load groceries into the condo’s kitchen, after my sister Matty and I walk to a supermarket, and she takes turns with my wife Sharon in calling the airline, trying to locate our lost luggage.
After breakfast, with the sun already high, the kids agitate to go swimming in their jeans, and Sharon and I relent. My mother takes my arm and we begin a slow circuit of the pool.
“David,” she asks, “how do I seem to you?”
“You keep asking me that,” I tell her.
“I need to know, though. I trust you to tell me. I feel as though I’ve lost the sense of my own feelings, of my own well-being.”
“I’m sure that’s natural,” I say. “Just part of it. It’s only been a month.”
Rosie waves to get my attention and we pause to watch her make an underwater passage from the shallow end to the deep. Jeremy, in the meantime, is striving to lift himself out of the water via the railing of a bridge spanning the pool. A woman in a white robe and red sunglasses, just arriving, seems to glance warily toward Jeremy before heading in another direction.
We continue looping around the pool’s edge. “How do I seem?” my mother repeats, her grip on my elbow dry and light.
“You seem tired,” I say. “Subdued. It’s all going to take time, right?”
She nods. “I can’t focus. I start on one thing and...” She slowly sweeps her free arm away, wiggling her fingers.
“That will come,” I say. I feel helpless, falling back on platitudes, and gaze at the broad beach and jetty beyond the pool’s cement perimeter. Rather than walking at a tortuous pace, I want to be out of this sweaty polo shirt and swimming in the warm Caribbean Sea, gliding far from shore. “My God, it’s only been a month since he died.”
In the afternoon, when our luggage is delivered, we move quickly, unpacking only enough to gather our beach gear. In between locating my swimsuit and yelling at the kids to put on sunscreen, I duck into the cool, dim living room where my mother has been watching West Side Story. I find her asleep on the couch, head tipped back at an angle that looks uncomfortable, and consider that I don’t remember her sleeping during the day, ever.
Predictably, fissures are starting to form among us, and I’m pulled in several directions, unsure how to navigate. So it comes as a relief, on this morning, to be booked on a boat trip, all together, with little choice in the matter now that my mother has laid out considerable funds.
The captain of the Buccaneer, shirtless and eating an ice cream cone, greets us as we step off the gangway. He’s tall and tanned, with big, rounded shoulders, a drooping belly, and a broad smile revealing several missing teeth. Soon we’re cruising out of port, and everyone seems relaxed and settled. A breeze darkens the tranquil water, then passes on. I wonder if the trip will grow rougher with this freshening wind, whether I’ll become queasy.
The captain, sitting back now with a cold soda, steering with a big toe hooked into the wheel, calls on one of the mates to pop in a CD. Soon, my mother and I are listening to a musician called The Barefoot Man singing a song titled, “Three Wild Widows from Wisconsin.”
“My God,” my mother says, midway through the song, “am I really that much of a stereotype that there’s already a song written about me?”
She laughs until tears flow, and when the song is over her expression is more stark and frail than ever. I wonder if I should get her talking but prefer just to swing my legs in the sun. Both Matty and Sharon are better at knowing what to ask, and when. I admire their grace and resilience, how they can enter the fog of my mother’s grief, remain there for a spell, and then move clear, seemingly without effort.
In the middle of a song, I notice we’re slowing down, and soon Rosie calls out to me, waving. I help my mother to her feet and we move forward. The anchor is dropped with a splash and we rotate in the current, stretching the rusty chain taut. As we all gather at the prow, waiting for the captain, I notice about a dozen boats before us. Crowds of people stand in waist-deep water, some hoisting stingrays in their arms. When I look closely, I can see the dark shapes of rays crossing the white sand, moving towards the groups of waders.
“Welcome to Stingray City,” our captain proclaims. After that opening line, he begins to speak more haltingly, but manages to get across the basics: starting in the 1920’s, fishing boats stopped on this particular sandbar to clean their catch. They dumped the offal into the water and stingrays were attracted; the rays came to rely on these feedings, and generations of them have stayed.
“No one on my boat has ever been stung,” he says. “Not once.” After we feed the rays, he explains, we can pet them and even lift them in our arms. We just have to watch where we step and follow orders.
After the mates and a group from New Jersey, I descend the ladder into the warm, shallow water. My mother doesn’t need any assistance, and we follow the mates toward the crowd, leaving the captain alone on the Buccaneer.
I fall into step with Sharon, and she tells me a bit about the two mates, a woman from Thailand and a man from Jamaica. I squeeze Sharon’s hand before moving to my mother’s side. Rosie joins us, her expression uncertain.
We continue toward the crowd, dragging our feet through the sand as instructed. A ray overtakes us, gliding on the bottom, the edge of its wing sliding cool and smooth along my calf.
“Isn’t this lovely,” my mother says. “Just grand.”
The mates lead us to a relatively open area and I study the life jacket that the Thai mate is pulling along the surface, notice that it serves to keep a container of squid afloat.
The mate extends her hand toward Rosie, who blanches at the sight of a slimy, purplish squid. “Take it,” the woman says, smiling. “Hold it in the water with a flat hand.”
Rosie and I both try, and soon a ray swims close and takes the squid from my palm with a sharp suck. “You don’t want to get your fingers trapped,” the mate instructs. “Hands flat.”
Rosie shrieks with delight and reaches out for another squid. I see Jeremy standing in the middle of a circle, to my right, leaning forward to lift a stingray in his arms. My mother beams at her grandson, probably thinking that he’s growing older, turning fearless. More rays are headed toward us, their hunger unlimited.
Elsewhere among the circle of boats I watch young men showing off for their girlfriends, dunking a ray forcefully back into the water, or kissing a ray, or wearing one like a hat. These hundreds of rays have turned docile, I realize. It’s as though they’ve lost their will, their agency, their spine. I wish one of the mistreated rays would lash out with its stinger, just to demonstrate that it retains some shred of wildness. But in the intermingled crowd of waders and rays, I might be the only one with misgivings.
Jeremy rises from his towel, spraying sand over Rosie in his haste, and he’s out of earshot by the time she protests. Dodging between towels, then swerving to avoid a man walking the shoreline, Jeremy hits the water at a dead sprint, diving into the shallows.
I scoot closer to Sharon. “You think they found the place?” I ask.
She nods. After the Buccaneer trip, and sandwiches at a restaurant called “Eat,” Sharon and I and the kids have walked to a small beach while my mother and Matty search for a place the condo manager described, where they can buy fish from men cleaning their day’s catch in the shade of a lean-to.
Jeremy churns ahead, taking one last cannonball off the jetty, then passing by us, dripping wet, and prowling the boundary of the beach, with its rusted beer cans and singleton flip-flops, before finally surveying a stand of palms, staring upward at the coconuts.
“What now?” asks Sharon, swiveling to track Jeremy. “You want to head over there?”
I walk back to a shaded area where a man and a woman at a picnic table watch Jeremy begin to shimmy up the trunk of a palm tree.
“Dad!” he calls, much louder than necessary. “I was talking to them” – motioning downward with a bob of his chin – “and they told me it’s the yellow ones that are ripe.”
The man and woman smile at me, then return their attention to Jeremy. I settle with my back against a neighboring palm.
“Too hard,” the woman says, “too difficult.”
“Let him give it a try, though,” the man says.
Jeremy grasps the trunk with his thighs and strains upward. Sometimes, as he rests, I can see him sliding back before he tightens his grip.
“I don’t think he’s going to make it,” the woman says.
“It’s a long way up,” the man agrees. “Pretty damn slippery, too.”
For the next few minutes, I confer occasionally with Jeremy and observe the man and woman. She pulls out barbeque potato chips, opening the bag on the table between them. I listen to them talk about the weather and about a show they attended the week before. The man is dark-skinned and the woman white; I wonder if they’re both islanders. I wonder how long they’ve been together and if racial differences have ever been a problem in their relationship, or with their families. I wonder if one strives for more, personally or professionally, while the other remains more satisfied with their lot, and if they will manage to stay together despite any obstacles.
Jeremy pants with exertion, and I know his legs must be chafed raw, but he continues upward. The time stretches long, and I consider our captain on the Buccaneer, how I last saw him, seeming much reduced, slumping in the wheel well of the van, dirty sweat running down his arm as he worked on another ice cream cone. For years I romanticized an island life, a simple existence on the water, and I find that notion sometimes hard to shake, still, but here it was. His mates are just moving through, my mother told me, with the Jamaican man relocating to New York after the high season, and the Thai woman between semesters of a nursing program in Atlanta. The captain remains, ferrying tourists from point to point in a nearly-unvarying routine.
Rosie arrives soon, and Sharon sits beside me. Seeing Rosie far below, at the foot of the tree, seems to give Jeremy renewed strength. He announces his plans to split a coconut open, strain the juice, and add sugar until it is perfect.
For the final ten minutes – as Jeremy rests more frequently but inches upward until finally starting to reach for the prize, though only swiping at thin air in his first attempts – I overhear the man and woman telling each other they can’t leave now, since it’s getting too good. “He’s a determined one, isn’t he?” says the woman.
Soon Jeremy brushes the bottom of a coconut with his fingertips and it wobbles. Then he connects and it falls, striking him in the head on its way down.
Jeremy lies on his towel, rolling the coconut this way and that, and Sharon reads The World According to Garp. I’ve been thinking about my mother’s husband Gary, and memories keep coming, unbidden, as Rosie and I carry our flippers and masks and snorkels to the water’s edge. Several boys sit in the shallows, watching us, their gazes steady and disconcerting.
We swim slowly, hand in hand, and I consider that it has been three years since my mother found Gary, addled and unreachable, standing in the bedroom closet with two loaded pistols aimed toward the center of the room, two years since her bone-weariness and Gary’s deterioration resigned her to putting him into a nursing home, and now just a month since he died. Going back further through the decades, my mother went through a tough upbringing and was twice married and twice divorced. I wonder how much a person can bend, how much can be endured. My mother is turning 75, and I wonder if the frailty I see will only progress.
Fish whiz by in a tight formation, and turn as one. Rosie points downward and I see a cloud of sand, a crab retreating toward cover. I remember visiting Gary in the nursing home. We often seemed to arrive at twilight, and against the dark green of the facility’s wide lawn, enormous rabbits stood out. My mother said the rabbits provided comfort, and I did see residents in the hushed dining room – those who were relatively mobile and clear-minded – swivel in their chairs to face the windows.
Where the water is just over my head, Rosie removes her snorkel and dives, and I follow. Whatever flash of color she has noticed is no longer visible, and she pauses, searching, before surfacing again. I remember – and know how links can continually be added to this chain of memories – a woman bumping her wheelchair repeatedly against a wall, complaining that her mother wanted her home; a man at Gary’s dining table, now a double amputee, explaining that it took five miles to stop a freight train he worked on, that if cattle loitered on the tracks, there was nothing to be done to save them; and the way Gary would lie down to sleep at night – his body straight, narrow, and confined – as if for burial.
We reach the tip of the promontory and then head back. During the last year of Gary’s life, I flew west to visit every few months. He seemed relatively content during some visits, morose during others. On one of my last visits, he slumped forward in his wheelchair, toward his congealing dinner. He was silent for half an hour, appearing pale and pained, and I heard rain starting, lashed against black windows. When my mother and I rose to push him back to his room, he muttered, “Everybody knows.” We leaned close but he shook his head, pausing, before continuing, “Everybody knows it’s over. The world is ending.”
As Rosie and I wade toward shore, the same boys I noticed earlier now advance toward us.
“Can I have?” they ask, reaching toward our masks.
“Can I use?” they demand, grabbing at the snorkel Rosie holds.
“Keep walking,” I tell her, and to the boys I say, “No, I’m sorry. No.”
Wrapped in a towel with knees drawn to her chest, a minute later, Rosie seems downcast, and asks whether it would be gross to use someone else’s snorkel without washing it first, and why the boys are poor.
We talk and then fall silent. Rosie lies next to me, nestled under my arm, her wet hair across my chest, starting to warm already in the sun.
On the afternoon of our third day, I persuade everyone to visit the Cayman Historical Museum in Georgetown, but as soon as we enter the building I sense a lack of activity, a lassitude, contrasting with the crowds in the street, where hordes of cruise ship passengers ransack stores for trinkets and devour ice cream and rum cake as through provisions on board have run thin.
“We are not open, actually,” says a tall woman at the front desk. “This gift shop is open, but all the rest is under renovation.”
“It’s too bad,” I say. “The guidebooks said you had wonderful exhibits.”
She clucks her tongue and says, “Old information.”
I learn that the museum was damaged by Hurricane Ivan, and that renovations would hopefully be completed within the year. I consider that the duty-free rum shop is equally exposed, yet has been repaired, as have other stores on that ocean-fronting street. The powerful hurricane breached a section of the island but much has been restored, save for the ill-built houses of the poorest residents and the museum of island history.
We ask about a place to go snorkeling, and the woman tells us there’s a great spot but it’s quite a walk, and she can’t remember the name. She directs us out of town, along a road we have not yet traveled.
Back outside, we buy waters and sodas from a sidewalk stand and start out in search of the elusive spot. As we leave Georgetown, launches are motoring back to the cruise ships, and we pass a solitary set of vendors in a dirt lot, under a faded banner announcing a crafts fair. Women wearily pack up their wares, on their backs or on bicycles, after another day spent on the unfrequented outskirts of the shopping district.
The road goes straight toward the water and then turns sharply left, following the shoreline, bordered by stone walls. The kids surge ahead, and cars buzz by in both directions. Within fifteen minutes, my mother seems parched and tired.
We walk and walk, past the neatly-painted and picturesque houses of the haves and the untended shacks of the have-nots.
After another half hour, I wonder out loud if we should turn around. My mother is noncommittal – gallantly, she seems determined to never put a damper on our activities. We agree to go just a little further, though unsure what we are looking for.
When we come to a place called Sunset House on the ocean side of the road, Sharon goes ahead to the main office to ask for further directions.
“Look at that pool,” Jeremy says, from the vantage point of a tall stone gate.
I lift Rosie, and Jeremy pulls her the rest of the way up.
Soon Sharon returns, smiling. “I’m not sure if this is the place or not,” she says, “but they said we could dive right here. They said we could set up at the bar and dive and then come back for a drink.”
“Can we use the pool?” Jeremy asks.
“No,” I reply.
Sharon musses up his hair and then turns back to the rest of us. “The woman told us there’s an underwater statue, out a ways, a mermaid. She said we should look out for it.”
We find a table overlooking the water, cooled by a light breeze coming up. I hear waves breaking into a stone wall, in the direction Sharon said we could snorkel, and wonder how we can safely put into the water.
My mother settles at the table and orders an iced tea. Sharon stays with her and the rest of us collect our gear. As we approach the seawall, we see two divers descending slowly, but they are in full scuba gear; they are likely experienced, and they have each other. Jeremy and Matty gaze down and say they might try it another time, before heading back to the table.
Rosie pulls on a flipper and says, “We’re going, right Dad?”
I nod and stare down at the steel ladder descending to deep water, and the wash of waves.
When Rosie and I are ready, I walk toward the ladder and watch a wave smack against the seawall. I climb down the ladder first, facing the wall. I feel clumsy, my flippers slipping on the rungs, but maintain a tight grip with my arms. When I’m waist deep, a wave washes over my shoulders, and the suck of the retreating water almost pries me away. I wait for a trough and push away from the ladder, swimming strongly to clear myself from the wall. I tread water, bobbing in a rising swell.
“Your turn,” I call to Rosie. I try to keep my voice calm as I give instructions, but imagine a wave catching her at a defenseless moment, banging her head against the ladder.
Rosie makes her way down the seawall; from a distance she looks pale and defenseless, but in some ways that’s an illusion; in reality, whether justified or not, she is unfazed and confident in the water, and I’m always left with the question of how much to dampen down that sense of bravado with my cautions. She joins me without incident and reaches for my hand.
The water is deep and clear. We head out, over broad green canyons. Bright fish pick at the sunlit coral, and large tarpon cross below, moving out of sight. My eyes search the shadows, the dark descents into wide crevices. Two divers come from our left, far below, and turn to follow that same line between shadow and sunlight.
I’m sure Rosie is only seeing what’s before her, purely enjoying the experience, but I cannot follow her example. Instead I think about the abyss we anchored near on our final stop with the Buccaneer, how the continental shelf ends and one could dangle over a depth of several miles. And I recall how Rosie laid nestled against me on the beach, how the time of such affection is so fleeting. And I’m worrying about making our way out, soon, back toward the bar: what if the waves are growing rougher? What if I’m injured, and Rosie ventures too close to the seawall in trying to reach me? What if her cries for help cannot be heard?
After a long swim, Rosie and I pause. She says she wants to keep searching for the mermaid, but I tell her I think we should be heading back.
Later, I sit in the Sunset House bar drinking beer. My mother is talkative, and she urges me to read Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John. I describe to her a character from Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade and am surprised to learn that she read one of Carl Hiassan’s madcap Florida novels. We laugh about the character who was shot in the butt crack, could not afford to get the wound treated, and stole drugs from nursing homes to handle the pain.
Jeremy and Rosie head off to swim in the pool, out of our sight. As I talk to my mother, I continue listening for them, and whenever I hear their laughter I feel reassured.
Eighteen months after our trip to Grand Cayman, I wander through the Mutter Museum during a visit to Philadelphia. The museum contains many medical specimens, as well as oddities such as drawers full of hundreds of objects a doctor retrieved from the throats and stomachs of his patients. (I smile to view a “Perfect Attendance” pin a child swallowed.) I am particularly drawn to a wall of human skulls, each accompanied by a placard, such as, “Policeman, age 24, died of stab wounds in Florence.” There are suicides, hangings, deaths by typhus and tuberculosis. I linger, puzzling, before a skull whose placard states, “Protestant, soldier, age 28, suicide by gunshot wound to the heart, because of weariness of life.”
Outside, the sun beats down, and heat radiates steadily from the sidewalk and from brick facades. I walk under a massive scaffolding, and think of the ways we prop ourselves up, and need support. How was I to know, as I sat beside my mother at the Sunset House bar, pleased by small signs of animation that seemed to be returning, encouraging her to talk about books –- how was I to know, back then, how fully she would recover?
STEPHEN BAUER holds an MFA from Vermont College and teaches at Babson College, where he also directs the Rhetoric Program. His work has appeared in American Fiction, Tennis Magazine, Sewanee Review, South Dakota Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He grew up in Wisconsin and has never met a cheese he didn’t like.