This is Not a Beachby Rachel Kapitan
These are the general events, as they actually occur:
In late March, on a single night, three things simultaneously transpire. Jake puts a pack of cigarettes and a lighter on the bedside table and peers at his wife Hestia who suffers from recurrent urinary tract infections, his wife who refuses to look at the strange glow in the sky, and who went into bed early. The Honorable Clayton P. Reed, Mayor of Oconie, Florida presides over a City Council meeting where the debate about whether or not to reopen the public swimming beach on Vacant Lake becomes unexpectedly contentious. And the Amateur Astronomy Society of Oconie, Florida gathers at Vacant Lake to observe the Hale Bopp comet as it nears perihelion and is heartbreakingly bright in the night sky, even without a telescope. According to doctors, recurrent urinary tract infections are more common in females due to anatomy. According to politicians, risks to public safety must be addressed, no matter how unpopular. According to astronomers, the orbit of Hale Bopp takes more than four thousand years and there is a chance that in two hundred years, it could have a near miss with the planet Jupiter. None of us will know, if it does.
One month before this night, in February, Hestia drinks a bottle of Henessey, swallows two handfuls of over-the-counter sleeping pills, and stumbles into the bedroom. She confesses to Jake that she has done so, and he rushes her to the hospital where she stays for two weeks. During the hospitalization the doctors note she again has a urinary tract infection and caution her to take her entire prescription of antibiotics; the bacteria are becoming resistant. She laughs dryly when thinking over their concern. Jakes tells anyone who asks that she is vacationing in Colorado, at a spa. People unaware of what happened last summer say, isn’t she lucky. According to most psychiatrists, suicidal attempts during periods of grief are most likely to occur within the ﬁrst year of the loved one’s passing. Jake switches from menthol to unﬁltered cigarettes around this time.
Exactly one month before, in January, at the ﬁrst public hearing on the whether or not to extend the temporary ban swimming at Vacant Lake, experts deliver testimony, including the autopsy results of Montgomery Jones. The process of death by a lake dwelling amoeba is detailed, with an invasion to the brain via the nasal cavity of the hapless victim. Mayor Reed senses the opportunity to mitigate his lackluster record on public safety, after the Shady Oak Mobile Home Parke incident.
The prior month, December, three days before Christmas, a family of six migrant workers from Jalisco, Mexico dies in the not-to-code double wide home they rent in Shady Oak Mobile Home Parke, when devastating tornados strike in the middle of the night. In the precarious position of being both part owner of the Parke and the town’s Mayor (ultimately responsible for code enforcement of his own property) Reed tires of the derision and blame, and slams his ﬁst on his desk, shouting: “What do people expect me to do? It was a fucking ACT OF GOD.” It wasn’t like Mayor Reed was in control of the weather. According to master meteorologists, the tornadoes that caused the destruction of the mobile home park were of the strongest recorded strength on the Fujita scale, known trailer upenders – to-code or not. Some things you can't guard against.
Before that, in November, Hestia and Jake open the manila folder that contains the official autopsy report issued for Montgomery. They read: “Montgomery Jones, Caucasian male, age 9 years, height 3 feet, 9 inches, weight 59 pounds, died as a result of exposure to the pathogenic amoeba Naegleria fowleri, present in immunoﬂourescent staining of the brain secretions, which entered the deceased through the nasal cavity, and traveled the olfactory nerve to the base of the brain. In the brain the pathogen caused cerebral meningitis, resulting in intracranial pressure, massive organ failure, and brain death. Cause of death ruled accidental.” The report lists macabre features, like the weight of Montgomery’s brain and eyeballs. Jake weeps when he reads the small details, yelling at Hestia: “Why did we consent to this? Why did we let them cut him up? How do they know how much his eyeballs weighed? Were his eyes sitting on a scale, on metal tray? A metal fucking tray?”
Two months before even that, in mid-September, Jake walks around Oconie for hours, and nobody says a word to him. He walks under the power lines that skirt Main Street, disturbing an entire ﬂock of crows that erupt into the sky. Their simultaneous takeoff makes the rushing sound of the circulation of blood as heard through a stethoscope. He decides then to stop walking so much and start smoking again. He walks past Henry West, the man with Downs syndrome that constantly stands on the corner of Main holding a soda cup. Hey, Henry Jake says and Henry smiles at him, shufﬂing his sneakers on the cement. Jake thinks about the news he just learned, that his best friend Avery is divorcing Alice, and Jake worries. According to Hestia, suffering from the initial urinary tract infection, Alice considers the split is amicable.
A week before the initial urinary tract infection, early in September, the City Council votes unanimously at the urgent behest of Mayor Reed to close the beach at Vacant Lake. A notice is posted that reads:
Danger! By the order of the City Council of Oconie, Florida, USA swimming in Vacant Lake is hereby prohibited and punishable by a minimum ﬁne of $15 that shall not exceed $150, due to a public safety threat.”
Below this, a stenciled orange sign reads:
“This is not a beach.”
It’s not anymore. Even when the notice curls and fades in the relentless sunlight, the orange sign remains, reminding everyone what this area is not. It is not a beach.
Three weeks before the beach is not a beach, on the ﬁnal day of August, at Oconie General Hospital, Montgomery Jones is removed from life support. When the machines sustaining his body are shut off, when the whirling and beeping noises cease, the room is oddly quiet. Hestia Jones doesn’t know what to do, so she removes the trachea tubing from her son’s throat herself, and a rivulet of blood drips from the corner of his mouth. He is dead, she knows this. The doctors told her this, but she doesn’t understand until she sees the blood, so red against his check, which even in new death is ﬂushed from the fever that the expert doctor couldn’t lower. She cries so hard she gags. A nurse observes this and holds a plastic bedpan under her to catch the vomit. Jake has to leave the room, has to leave Hestia with Montgomery’s body and the nurse, with the vomit and the bedpan.
Two weeks before, in early August, Montgomery Jones is taken to the public swimming beach on Vacant Lake by his teenage babysitter, Veronica. It is a Saturday. Hestia and Jake carefully plan the time alone, drinking very cold white wine, laughing as they close the curtains in the afternoon, turning on the radio to mufﬂe any sounds from the bedroom. Jake is gentle with his wife. While Jake and Hestia are intimate, on his afternoon at the beach, Montgomery Jones delights in the feeling of lake mud on his feet. He throws himself into the water. He tells Veronica he likes being nine.
One week before that Saturday, on the ﬁrst day of August, Montgomery turns nine, and they eat his favorite, 7-Up cake, all three of them. Montgomery opens his present, a telescope. In winter, Jake tells him, when the sky is clear, we are going to see so many things up there. Montgomery wants to try it out as soon as it gets dark. It’s too cloudy to see the stars tonight, they tell him.
Two years prior, the astronomers Hale and Bopp separately discover a comet. The comet is obviously a signiﬁcant discovery because comets fascinate people.
A little over seven years before that, Montgomery is conceived after Hestia and Jake both get splendidly drunk at the wedding of their best friends’ Alice and Avery, on a special trip. It is the only time they’ve been to the West Coast, the whole way to San Diego, California.
Two years prior to her impregnation, Hestia fears getting old and throws a coin into the fountain at the mall, wishing time would go backwards and instead of that, she meets Jake, who tells her she reminds him of his favorite songs. She stops worrying so much.
Thirty years before her worrying eases, the eukaryotic organism, the predatory amoeba Naegleria fowleri is discovered in a laboratory in Australia, and identiﬁed as a dweller of warm water and mud. Microbiologists note 99 percent of the cases of infection with this rare pathogen prove fatal.
3.5 billion years before that, eukaryotic organisms evolve on Earth.
Another billion years before that, the dominant theory of modern astronomy is that most comets formed either in the Oort cloud or the Kuiper Belt, somewhere beyond Neptune. Not even expert astronomers care to explain that with speciﬁcity; they are divided on it. Hale Bopp likely starts on its 4000 year purgatorial trek through the reaches of space somewhere at this time.
This is an actual account of what happened on March 27, 1997. These are the pertinent details of the speciﬁc events.
The Amateur Astronomy Society of Oconie, those lay astronomers, trudge to the lake with their telescopes, past the sign that reads “This is Not a Beach.” None of them notice the sign. They look to the skies, Hale Bopp so wildly close and vivid that the acting president of the organization yearns to climb on the roof of his truck and howl and murder something.
At the same time, at City Hall, Mayor Clayton Reed intones “The City Council of Oconie has voted 5-4 to permanently extend the ban on swimming in Vacant Lake effective immediately” to a smattering of both applause and groans.
Grief is a failure of science.
Me and you. Us. It is still not spring and darkness comes too early. The night is unkind in the absence of sleep. We are plagued by constant insomnia. So this is what we do, you see? You drank half a ﬁfth of Jim Beam straight. Is half a ﬁfth a tenth? You drank half a ﬁfth? Can you still get hard? Yes. You have another infection? I think so. Pissing blood from the sex. I know it. Do you need to look at pictures ﬁrst? No, not tonight, I don’t think. Will you rub my back with oil? Yes, of course. The curtains are still open and the lights are still on. People can see in, people can hear us. Who cares? Now we are naked. On the bed, if we weren’t here now, if merely observing, it would appear thus:
Woman ties blindfold on man, both on bed. She lights cigarette for him in between his lips and as he inhales a string of smoke rises up from it. Woman drenches her own back in baby oil then submits, on all fours, man positioned behind her, on knees, cigarette dangling from his lips. Man rubs erect penis through the glut of body warm oil on her, running it the length of her spine, no vision, only by feel, then resting it between her ass cheeks. She uses her well muscled ass to squeeze him. He hits her, scratches her thighs, moans, grabs her umbilical cord hair with his placental hand. Urgently he enters her and they move strangely, swimming underwater in darkness that is not night. Is not night. Smoldering ash falls from the tip of the cigarette to the small of her back, startles her eyes open, and despite her aversion, she glimpses the night sky through the open window and sees the comet and when they move it goes in and out, in and out, it goes in and out, moving moving in and out singing dirges of astronomical fever, in and out this is not a beach this is not a beach, this is not a beach in and out, in and out this is not a beach, comet in the sky this is not a beach, in and out in the dark that is not night this is not a beach, in and out eyes closed eyes blindfolded eyes on a steel tray this is not a beach. This is not a beach.
This is how we move. This is what is proven.
If we weren’t on the bed, deﬁned by what we aren’t, I would tell you we are not comets. We are not comets.