Authors: Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
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Copyright Â© 2014 by Kristin Bair O'Keeffe.
“Readers Guide” copyright Â© 2014 by Kristin Bair O'Keeffe.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-13949-7
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bair O'Keeffe, Kristin, 1966â
The art of floating / Kristin Bair O'Keeffe. â Berkley trade paperback edition.
ISBN 978-0-425-27148-3 (pbk.)
1. Missing personsâFiction.Â Â 2. Disappeared persons' spousesâFiction.Â Â 3. Women authorsâFiction. 4. Loss (Psychology)âFiction.Â Â 5. Psychological fiction.Â Â I. Title.
Berkley trade paperback edition / April 2014
Cover photo of house Â© Jill Battaglia / Trevillion Images.
Cover design by Lesley Worrell.
Interior text design by Kristin del Rosario.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For those who are lost
and those who are found
Bowing and raising my glass toÂ .Â .Â .
My Shanghai writing partner, Mishi Saran, who was the first person to read this novel from beginning to end.
Sandy Huffman for believing and cheering me on.
Julie Samra, Christi Sperry, Marissa Hsu, Erin Delaney, Steve Thomas, Julie Long, Jennifer Karin, Meredith Mileti, and many other friends, family, and writing students in both China and the US whose humor, friendship, sensitivity, wisdom, and patience have touched this book in important ways.
My rockin' agent, Barbara Poelle.
Leis Pederson, my stellar editor at Berkley Books.
The universe for that moment in a cafÃ© when this story burst into my brain and heart.
My tenth-grade English teacher for seeding my obsession with Homer's
Jamaica Blue on Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai, where I spent hours and years drinking lattes and writing draft after draft of this book.
The Shanghai International Literary Festival, where good writing is nurtured, savored, toasted, and shared.
A couple of special souls who I hope find their way from lost to found.
My awesome-blossom daughter, Tulliver, who grew as this novel grew.
And my husband, Andrew, for his support, as well as his humor about the highs and lows of being married to a writer.
A small rock holds back a great wave.
Sia Dane discovered the m
an on the beach exactly one year, one month, and six days after her husband disappeared.
One moment she was out there alone, moving toward the old clam shack with Gumper lollygagging behind, nosing about in a seaweed jumble for shells to carry home, and the next, there was the manÂ .Â .Â . standing at the water's edgeÂ .Â .Â . drenched as if he had just walked out of the sea.
He was wearing a black suit and a white dress shirt. He was tall, narrow, and square-shouldered, and he stood straight, like a reed, with his arms tucked against his sides. In the breeze, he swayed slightly back and forth, mimicking the movement of the marsh grass.
Sia stopped. At first she couldn't figure if he was real or if he was, perhaps, just a mirage conjured by her broken heart.
She closed her eyes.
“Mirage,” she whispered.
She opened her eyes. He was still there.
She looked at her watch. 5:13
“Gumper,” she called, and slapped her leg. But her great black behemoth was joyfully buried up to his ears in seaweed and didn't pay her any mind.
â¢Â Â â¢Â Â â¢
A few hundred yards down the beach, the Dogcatcher scuttled flat-bellied like a crab along the water's edge until she was close enough to make out Sia, Gumper, and the man in the black suit. She squinched her eyes against the bright sun and lay still with her chin buried in the sand. She didn't move. Didn't scratch. Just watched.
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For a long moment the beach was quiet and still, as it was every morning at this time. But then through the sucking stench of seaweed, fat-nosed Gumper looked up from his treasure, caught the man's scent, and launched himself forward on his huge hairy paws, barking madly as he closed the space between them. Gumper loved people. All people. Those who loved him back and those who didn't. But even with Gumper loading at him full speed, all bark and blur and fur, the man barely moved. He simply shifted his head slightly in Sia's direction, the way a distracted dog might offer a single ear to his owner when called.
Like Sia's husband, Gumper was a pacifist. A loving lump of dog so magnanimous he didn't even snap at the chipmunks that sneaked into his bowl for free kibbles. But he was loud and gargantuan, so much so that when he barreled wildly at people he didn't know, they usually screamed or ran. Sometimes both. And though Sia often failed, she always tried to minimize each victim's terror.
“He's friendly,” she'd holler through cupped hands over the thunder of crashing waves. “Just stand still.”
But she didn't offer any assistance to the man who'd appeared so suddenly at the water's edge. Instead she let Gumper run until he plowed into him, kicking sand in all directions, nearly but not quite toppling him. Then she watched her hulking beast dance madly, nudge the man's bottom three times with his colossal snout, and finally sit down close, leaning his full weight into the man's leg.
It was at this moment that the man looked at Sia for the first time, or at least looked in her direction. His eyes were focused but blank, and it felt as if he were looking through her or past her or maybe very far beyond her to a place she couldn't see.
Sia waited, and then slowly, as if the weight of the water in his suit or the weight of something invisible were unbearably heavy, the man lifted his arm and set his hand on Gumper's ten-gallon head. As she moved a few more steps toward them, an astounding tsunami of sadness rolled from the man, rippling the sand between them and nearly tipping her backward. Sia, whose limitless empathy roared whenever a wounded soul got close, blinked, adjusted her footing, and said “Oh” out loud, as she opened her mouth, gulped, and swallowed the sadness as awkwardly and skillfully as a heron swallowing a silvery minnow.
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When the sand settled, and the danger of Sia being knocked into the ocean had passed, she noted that aside from the suit and the impressive reedlike posture, the man looked like the barnacled belly of a whale. His face was splotchy, rough, and puffy, and water dripped from the tip of his nose and the lobes of his ears. His wet suit clung to him, and bits of seaweed were stuck to his crotch, a sleeve, and the cuffs of his pants. One especially long frond was draped over his shoulder and swayed behind him like a tail in the breeze.
“Who the hell are you?” Sia said under her breath. She felt strange and uncomfortable, as if she were witnessing an intensely private moment. The man looked so weak and exhausted that if Gumper hadn't planted himself next to him and sat willing to take his weight like a cane or a fence post, she suspected he might have toppled right over.
“Hello?” she said.
The man didn't respond. He didn't speak or smile. He didn't cock his head, extend his hand, or offer any other gesture common when one individual is introduced to another for the first time. He didn't even blink. He just stood thereÂ .Â .Â . like a shiny statue in a park after a downpour.
“Hellll-loo?” Sia said again, and she took a few steps toward him.
At the tug of her voice, Gumper grunted loudly. Then he opened his mouth, craned it toward the sky, and bellowed, scattering the flock of hungry, hopeful seagulls that had settled nearby.
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The Dogcatcher lay motionless. She was good at lying still when she was watching. She was good at watching without being seen. She liked that about herself. She liked the dog, too. The silly black giant. “Gumper,” she said to herself without making a sound. “Gumper, Gumper, Gumper.” Though people didn't interest her much, she kind of liked Gumper-Lady, too, and though he was no longer around, she used to like Gumper-Man.
But she didn't know this man in the black suit. He was a stranger. An absurd stranger who had no idea how to dress for a beach.
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Sia gnawed the raw spot on the inside of her bottom lip, then glanced backward for someone with whom she could share the strange moment. But it was early, and as usual, she and Gumper were alone. The arm-pumping beach-walking widows and the metal-detecting old men wouldn't get started until at least six o'clock.
Sia turned back. The man's hair, which hung well past his shoulders, was matted to his head and thin rivers of water streamed down his cheeks and forehead, gathered in the shallow divot at the base of his neck, just below his Adam's apple, then disappeared behind the open collar of his shirt. He had this look ofÂ .Â .Â . ofÂ .Â .Â . of nothing on his face. Questions rallied for attention in Sia's head: Was this guy sick? Was he on drugs? Was he in a trance?
I should be scared,
It's 2012, not 1950. A strange guy on the beach acting like a nut should scare the piss out of me.
But when she looked at Gumper, who was stuck to the man as passionately as Argus would have stuck himself to Odysseus had he not been lost at sea, she knew there wasn't anything to be afraid of. She took a deep breath. One last try.
“Hey there,” she said, “you okay?”
And as Sia considered the man's unusual resistance to the normal call-and-response of everyday conversation, she studied the swollen lids of his eyes and the smell of the sea that drifted from himÂ .Â .Â . the deep seaÂ .Â .Â . that fresh, salty, mostly pleasing mix of brine and shell and scale that you pick up on the wind when the fishing boats dockÂ .Â .Â . a scent so strong she could smell it ten feet away.
“What the hell is going on?” she said. She turned to the ocean. A trio of gulls landed on the water with a splat and a few introductory squawks. “Well?” she said to them.
Good question, but the bobbing birds didn't answer.
Farther out, a sailboat skittered across the waves. Though it was too far away for her to read the letters painted on the hull, Sia knew it was the
. A giant red smiley face on white sails. Not easily mistaken.
Jackson had loved that boat. The jolly jolly joke of it.
With the sun in her eyes, the sky looked like a silvery tarp, and she knew if she stared long enough, the whole thingâsky, sailboat, smiley face, gullsâwould disappear and there would be nothing left but light.
Warm, watery light.
The world absorbed.
If only she could be part of it. Absorbed into the heart of things. Like Jackson.
She could feel him this way. Right then. His edges melting into hers. And the ache for him thumped up from her toes into her middle.
“Jack?” she said. “Where are you?”
One year, one month, six days.
Then Gumper grumbled as he always did when she began to drift, and she remembered the man.
“Fuck,” she said.
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At 5:19, Sia's cell phone rang, and because it was 5:19, she knew without looking that it was Jilly, whose ever-present obsessive-compulsive need to make all things happen on Jilly time was often a little annoying but
annoying this early in the morning.
“Hey,” Sia said into the phone.
The man continued to stare in her direction while she spoke, but his expression, or lack of expression, didn't change.
“Hiya,” Jillian said. “I need coffee. How's it going? You going to be on time?”
Sia looked at her watch. “Believe it or not,” she said, “I might actually be late today.”
“Yes, Jilly, late.”
“Seriously, Sia? You're never late. You can't be late. You don't even know how to be late.”
“Yeah, today I can. I found something on the beach. I think I need to take care of it.”
“Found something? What do you mean?”
“I can't explain right now, Jil.”
“Found something? You mean like a dog or a seal or another whale carcass?” When Jilly grabbed hold of something, she was relentless, like Gumper with a dead fish.
“Something like that.”
“Do you want some help? I can be there in ten minutes.”
Sia paused. “Yeah, I could probably use a little help with this, but give me a while. Meet me at my house in an hour.”
“You're going to bring this thing to your house?”
Sia looked at the man. The silvery minnow of sadness she'd swallowed in those first moments lashed its tail, and she sucked in a breath. “I don't think I have a choice.”'
“Wow. Okay. But is it safe to bring into your house? It's not a giant squid or anything, is it? 'Cause those things have suckers and poison and mouths with beaks and all kinds of dangerous shit.”
Sia shook her head and sighed. “No, Jil, it's not a giant squid, and yeah, I'm pretty sure it's safe,” she said. “Safe enough anyway.”
“How big is it?”
Sia sized up the man. “Bigger than a bread box.”
“Really? Is it round or square?” Jilly loved games.
“Neither. Gotta go, Jil. Meet me in an hour.”
“Can you carry this thing yourself? I mean, really, I can come right there and help you. Just gotta throw on a pair of shorts and hop in my car.”
Sia tried to imagine toting the man home on her back.
, she thought,
I hope his legs work better than his mouth
. “No, I can manage,” she said. “Meet me at the house.”
A world-stopping pause followed.
“Siaaaa?” Jilly said. “Are you okay?”
“I'm fine. Just bring coffee.”
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In winter, the beach on the northeast coast of Massachusetts was desolate and naked, black and white and unruly. Terrible winds blew in from Canada and cut across the sand like sharp blades. Snow and ice gathered in every crease and divot. But in early summer like this, the beach was costumed up and decorated. Grass, wildflowers, and reeds blossomed against the backdrop of tender sky. The water could be blue like a robin's egg, a jay's wings, or the virginal innards of a clamshell. It was Sia's favorite time of year, and she was on that beach every morning at five
, often earlier. Gumper loved it, too, though he didn't distinguish as much between seasons. For him, the beach was the beach, the one place he got to run wild, bark freely, and chase all the humans he could sniff out.
After she closed her phone and tucked it back into her pocket, Sia looked at the man, then Gumper. “Well, Gump, what do we do now?”
Gumper's plumelike tail waggled back and forth. He grumbled and grunted, then settled even more firmly against the man's leg.
“Yeah,” she said, “that's what I figured.” She closed her eyes. “Jack?” she whispered.
But she already knew that answer, too. Jackson would have called the police on the spot and said, “Hey, I just found a guy on the beach and it looks like he needs a little help. How about sending an officer out this way?” Then he would have plopped down in the sand and waited, keeping company with the strange man until help arrived.
If Jack had been thereÂ .Â .Â . if he hadn't vanished into thin airÂ .Â .Â . he and Sia would have bickered about this.
“It's too dangerous to bring a strange guy into our home,” he would have said.
“No, it's not. It's okay, Jack,” Sia would have replied.
“How do you know?”
“I just know. I feel it.”
“Sia, this guy could be anyone. A killer. A rapist. A thief.”
“So you'll bring a potentially rabid animal home to save its life, but not a man?”
Their ongoing tiff about logic versus instinct would have progressed from there, but right then that little fish in Sia's middle was flipping and flopping like crazy, and she knew she couldn't call the police until she had a sense of what was going on. Obviously this guy had been through something, arrived from somewhere, and didn't have anywhere to go, at least in that moment. He was probably thirsty, especially if he'd spent significant time in the water. Hungry, too.