"Cold Ocean" by Richard Burgin


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He was in search of strange sights, or not so much strange sights as new ones.  His mother had died just over three months ago and even though the illness leading up to it was long, he was still shocked as if his brain couldn’t quite adapt.


There weren’t many people he could talk to about this (there were always only a few people he could talk to), in this case only one.  He was a man a little older than him named Harvey, who worked in a bookstore in the Village, who he sometimes had a drink or dinner with after Harvey got out of work.   He listened to Harvey only because his mother had died too.  It was Harvey who suggested he go someplace new for a few days, to a place that wasn’t “saturated with memories of your mother” as he put it.  Harvey said he had gone to Utah and then to Santa Fe after his mother died and claimed that it helped.  “It’s not as if your grief will disappear, Barry, but it will do some good.”


“I don’t want to go far,” Barry said.  “It would be too hard.”


Harvey nodded.  He was the sympathetic type.  They were eating quietly at a Japanese restaurant in the Village.  There was one other quality of Harvey’s he especially admired – his superior sense of geography.  It was as if while he spoke about a place, he was looking at it on a very reliable map.  It was like that at the Japanese restaurant too, as if he’d placed an elaborate map of the United States on the table cloth that not only had all the states in their correct positions but how long it would take to get to each one from New York.


“There’s a two step process of elimination we need to follow,” Harvey said, tugging at his beard that was prematurely gray.  “First we need to select a place that isn’t too far away.  Second, it needs to be a place you haven’t been to with your mother.”


Barry had told Harvey about all the trips he’d taken with his mother after she got her money, money that was now his.  He’d told Harvey about his missing father as well.  He’d told Harvey quite a lot. but he’d also kept a lot hidden.


“I think we need to add a third condition,” Harvey said.  “I think it needs to be a place that’s not only new and not too far away but also one that has impact.  A place with some real impact sights.”


A number of places were proposed and eliminated: New Orleans, Kansas City, and the Outer Banks in North Carolina.  Finally Harvey brought up Chicago.  He spoke of it with great enthusiasm and precision as if he were making a presentation at a conference.  Barry was unmoved until he began to describe the beach.  “It’s in the middle of the city and it’s startling, surrealistic, like seeing the sand and ocean in the middle of Fifth Avenue.”


There’s no ocean in Chicago, Barry pointed out but Harvey said Lake Michigan was so big it looked just like the ocean.  “Wait till you see the beach surrounded by the tallest buildings of the city, I swear you’ve never seen anything like it.”


…It was the beach Barry was on now.  Oddly, there weren’t many people  though it was a close to perfect beach day in early June.  The sky was a pure light blue with the last little wisps of cloud lifting above the Hancock Observatory and the other huge buildings in the distance looming over the beach like a pack of dinosaurs, just like Harvey said.


A lifeguard directed him to a men’s room in a tunnel at the far edge of the beach and he changed into his suit there.  He thought of how much his mother would have loved it here, how happy the two of them could have been and he nearly doubled over in pain.   But she’d have wanted him to be happy, wouldn’t she, he thought, as he ran out of the vast tunnel.


He was carrying his clothes in one of his traveling bags and was wearing the white towel he took from the hotel over his shoulder.  The towel was as white as the few slowly sailing bits of cloud.  His bathing suit was as black as his hair – he was glad Harvey talked him into buying it just before his trip.  Lake Michigan, however, was a sharper shade of blue than the sky but all the colors of the day were clear and distinct.  That was his last thought before he went in the water.  After he swam for a while he was glad he picked Chicago for his trip.  He was beginning to relax a little and he needed to relax and plot his next move, though with his inheritance he had enough money so he wouldn’t have to work for at least five years (some said ten) and if he invested it well, maybe not ever.  Still, Barry thought he should probably do something about his novel – which he hadn’t begun to actually write down yet—just in case it didn’t work out.


…When he first saw her walking towards him she was wearing dark sunglasses so he couldn’t tell if she meant to talk to him or not.  It was just a body in a one-piece white bathing suit and a walking pair of sunglasses.  It was a good body too and it moved well.  He’d just come in from the water and was toweling off.






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Per Contra Fiction - Winter 2006