He’s been dreading the call, waiting for it. He’d always suspected it was some dramatic exaggeration, this thing about sick people waiting to die alone. But Nora wasn’t like that. And it’s not as if Nora – or he – had a lot of people lining up to visit. They’d kept more or less to themselves ever since Rebecca died.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and slouched there, feeling how the empty space next to him in the bed had a weight and heft to it that it hadn’t had before the phone call. He recognized this feeling from the years after Rebecca’s death. How he used to call her to dinner and then wonder where she was. Well, it was a long time ago and the feeling of a space drained of substance inside, that stopped after awhile. But he still didn’t like to think about how Nora answered the school district’s automated phone calls and sat there with the receiver pressed hard against her ear, listening to the cancellation message meant for a living child. She wouldn’t let him remove their phone number from the district’s call list. He had to do it secretly.

He straightened his left leg to stretch the old ACL injury from his day’s of high school track. His thighs were still muscular. His body was still strong. Looking at the frailty of her when he had visited, he’d often wished he could have given Nora some of that strength, just so she could feel what it was like again, just for a few minutes.

He reached out and snapped on the bedside lamp. He took the cordless phone from its cradle and carried it over to the writing table Nora had inherited from her Ukrainian grandmother, its scratches and marks filled with a troubled history that, for Nora, had overridden any objection to its appearance. He pulled out the little chair with its delicate carved back and faded embroidered seat cushion and sat, embarrassed by the feeling that he was just a big oaf playing at being a gentleman. For a minute, he just sat measuring his size in the world, then he pulled the lists on the table toward him and began making calls.

There wasn’t much to it; he’d had time to think about it, and it was just a matter of dialing the numbers and speaking the words. The funeral had all been arranged ahead of time, and since the burial was two days later, it had been over before the numbness wore off.

There hadn’t been much to the funeral either: a few of the other women from the Rosh Chodesh group at the synagogue, a couple of the people who Nora had stayed in touch with from her substitute teaching days. Dave had been driving, of course, and couldn’t be there, though Hailey had put aside the bookkeeping and insurance plans long enough to pay her respects. She had looked at him so sadly with those bright, over-painted eyes. When she had hugged him, he had felt the promise of her youthful breasts, but it only made him think of Nora’s wasted bosom. He had been pretty sure he wouldn’t ever feel desire again, and this thought made him sad; he stood at the grave-site next to the Rabbi, the torn black ribbon pinned to his lapel lifting and falling in the easy breeze as the few mourners had shaken his hand and wished him a long life.

The synagogue ladies made sure that he wasn’t alone at any time, and people from the Temple who he didn’t know but looked a little familiar to him continued to stop by with food. At one point, he had been vaguely surprised when there were enough people in his home to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, it had crossed his mind, watching the people, that Nora maybe hadn’t removed herself as much from the world after Rebecca’s death as he had thought. Or maybe she’d just re-entered it after awhile and he hadn’t noticed.

Because he’d done this before, he patiently endured the people in his house. He found one of the women covering the mirror in the downstairs bathroom, and he put a hand on her arm to stop her, telling her gently that he and Nora weren’t that kind of Jewish. She murmured apologetically, folding the black cloth over her arm, and asking if she could get him anything. There was a moment when he felt indignant at her offer of hospitality in his own home, but he reminded himself that it was meant well, that it was just one of those things people say in these situations, so he politely told her no, thank you. When she left, he put the sweating beer bottle down on the back of the toilet, and splashed a little water on his face.

When the seven days were over, he shaved the stubble off, and got up at his usual 3 a.m. to go to work. The boss was surprised to see him. His boss told him that it was okay if he needed more time, but he told him – and meant it – that it was better to work. The boss nodded and went back to checking off the trucks before they headed out.

Dave wasn’t surprised to see him. When his mother had died, they’d talked a lot about how their religions dealt with death, so Dave already knew that the Jews believed that life is for the living. Dave gave him a warm hug and told him he was sorry that he hadn’t been able to make the funeral. Dave teased that he was glad to have him back. That the guy who had been working in his place was a clueless Hispanic kid named Omar who was strong, sure, but didn’t speak English well enough to understand Dave’s bad jokes. It made him smile a little.

At the start of the route, he’d swung himself out of the cab and tightened the lifting belt around his mid-section. In a house or two, he’d put some Vick’s under his nose to mask the smell of the garbage, but for right then he was comforted by the smell of the living world’s waste. As he dragged trash cans to the back of the hauler, he felt almost giddy using his body again. He had mostly been sitting or lying for seven days, and the old athlete in him resented the lack of motion. There was a corporeal familiarity with this repetitive lifting and dumping that reminded him that he was still alive. He knew that Nora would not want him to feel bad about being alive, he allowed the athlete to override the mourner in him and enjoyed the steady arc of the can through the air, the satisfying thump it made as he bounced the side of the can against the rim of the compactor.

He swung himself up onto the back bumper of the truck, signaling Dave to drive on. He did this over and over again. He jumped down. He dragged reeking cans of garbage, or shiny black gardener’s bags stuffed with grass cuttings and twigs, or broken children’s furniture over to the hauler. He tossed it all into the back and watched as the packer blade swept it all under the compacting plate. He swung himself up onto the bumper and waved at Dave, who was keeping an eye on him in his side mirror. He repeated this ritual: jump, drag, throw, crush, climb. When Dave asked if he wanted to drive for awhile, he shook his head no.

At lunch, Dave drove the hauler to an industrial park on the river, where no one would complain about the truck’s smell, and parked so that the cab was facing the water. He sat next to Dave, glad to not talk about anything. Watching the slow, sunlight-dappled current, he could not remember if he’d ever told Nora about this place. He looked out the side window so his buddy wouldn’t notice that his face looked as if it has been run through the trash compactor in the back. When Dave asked if he was ready, he nodded, slipped on his gloves, and interlaced his fingers to press the material down between them.

At the end of the day, he was as tired as ever. He stood under the shower back at work thinking how it was more exhausting trying not to think about something than it was to just think it. At home, he stood over the kitchen sink eating cold soup out of the can, and decided that he’d still rather not think it. He poured himself half a glass of Wild Turkey, watched Jon Stewart skewer someone he doesn’t know, about something he didn’t know had happened, and fell asleep on the sofa.

He worked hard. He slept on the couch downstairs. He passed through his bedroom to his closet as if it were an intersection on a lonely rural road. He moved his toothbrush and clothes downstairs, spending as little time as possible in the bedroom. He averted his eyes so he wouldn’t see the half-finished copy of a James Patterson novel on Nora’s bedside table. He murmured the appropriate, thin words to people who asked how he was. He drank beer with Dave after work and talked about the Patriots, popping bar pretzels in his mouth like a caricature of a working-class buffoon. A month went by.

He stood in front of the eggplant at the Shoprite, lost in a reverie about Nora’s parmigiana. The saliva in his mouth was bitter with the knowledge that he’d never taste that dish again. At home, he pulled out her recipe and attempted to make it himself. He threw it in the garbage without even tasting it, knowing that a guy just like him would be tossing it in the back of a garbage hauler the day-after-tomorrow. This was the first time he cried after Nora’s dying.

Another month went by. He stood in the doorway of his daughter’s bedroom, looking in and feeling like a disaster tourist. He thought about the day Nora had finally went into Rebecca’s room and stripped off the brightly colored sheets and striped duvet, replacing them with the neutral, modest sheets that she’d purchased. He had a vision of Nora dumping the drawers of clothes into open cardboard boxes, the smooth, swinging movement reminding him of himself at his job. He remembered how she stopped with a pair of Rebecca’s tights clutched in her fist and stared bleakly out the window where the crocuses were starting to break through the winter ground. He stood there thinking about all this as the light leached out of the window.

After awhile, he went and stood in the doorway of his bedroom to look there, too. He knew that there would come a time when he would have to pack up Nora’s life. He wondered if he should just get it over with.

This was how he found his dead daughter’s diary. At first, he was confounded. It was not apparent from the outside what the little book was. He turned it over in his hands. It had a beautifully tooled café-au-lait-colored leather cover and it was tied closed with an untreated leather thong. Later, he would feel proud that his daughter felt secure enough in her privacy that she didn’t feel the need to lock it. This made him even angrier at Nora.

When he untied the book and opened it, he saw the friendly, broad loops of his daughter’s handwriting. He closed the book immediately. Her handwriting was just as recognizable to him now as it had been when she was alive and leaving sulky teenage notes on the kitchen table announcing her whereabouts.

He lowered himself from his crouch – the diary had been hidden at the back of Nora’s shoe rack – to sit on the floor, and he waited. He did not start trembling at the unexpectedness of being suddenly in his daughter’s presence again. His brain did not go numb, nor did his heart convulse. He did not hear the blood rushing through his veins. In fact, what he heard was the rap of the old walls of the house cooling down after a warm day. He sat there on the floor doing the calculations in his head, and no matter how generous he was, he could only conclude that Nora had had the diary for most of a decade.

Sitting there in his closet with half-filled packing boxes all around him, it occurred to him that maybe Nora hadn’t told him because there were things in the diary which he would not have wanted to know. Rebecca was almost fifteen when the meningitis got her. She was more or less insufferable, a judgment of her which had hung around his neck after she was gone like the shadow of a raised executioner’s axe. He was sure that the diary was filled with ugly adolescent details. Unexpectedly, he felt a fierce rush of love for his daughter. He had to put a hand down on the floor to steady himself.

But that wasn’t it, he thought as he held the diary. He wasn’t the kind of person who was afraid of other’s judgment if he felt he was right. Nora had known this about him. Besides, any indication of how important he’d been in Rebecca’s life would have been welcomed. Nora would have known this, too. Yet, she had not told him about it so they could sit at the dining room table flipping the pages together, so that they could feel the pain and pride of being her parents together. Nora had not let him know that the option existed.

There was no way to avoid the conclusion. It was an act of pure selfishness, a way of keeping a piece of Rebecca for herself. Not telling him was a way of evening things out because Rebecca had been closer to him than to Nora. That’s just the way it had turned out. Hoarding their daughter’s diary had been a way for Nora to know their daughter more, and more intimately, than he had.

He thought his heart might break, except that he was so angry with his dead wife, and sad for her, and ashamed at wanting to yell at a dead woman, and angry at her all over again. And Rebecca. Now he missed her, too, the ache of it like the dull background complaint of the old knee injury. Only now there was a new pain to beat like a pulse against the old dull pain.

He lowered his head between his knees and took deep breaths.

When he wasn’t at work, he carried the little diary with him. He began to feel like one of those bible-thumping ministers, pacing with the Good Book in his hand. But he didn’t read it. He wasn’t sure what he felt about it yet. Or, rather, he wasn’t sure which of his feelings he’d settle on finally. Until then he kept it with him, but unopened.

The reasons he didn’t go into his bedroom now were different than they were. Seeing Nora’s things so reasonably organized made his anger harden into stone. He realized now that she had been hiding behind all this tidy organization. Inside, she had been a jumble of jealous, spiteful, and, yes, loving feelings so tangled and fine that she couldn’t unravel them. All the neatness had just been compensation for the feelings she had been able to arrange tidily. Instead, she had folded the t-shirts perfectly and stacked them neatly, had arranged the Tupperware in the kitchen so that they nested perfectly together. He passed the compact disk rack in the living room and stopped, suddenly aware of Nora in the alphabetically-arranged C.D.s. He tipped the whole rack over and listened to the C.D.s clatter to the floor, a chipping plastic cacophony to accompany his despair. It was a petty revenge, the kind of thing that would have made him roll his eyes if Rebecca had done it. With lips pressed tight, he put the C.D.s back in the racks in whatever order he took them from the floor, and swept the plastic pieces into his open palm.

On certain nights, sitting in front of the muted television with the small leather book balanced on one knee, he caught himself thinking he couldn’t violate the privacy of someone who wasn’t alive to have privacy any longer, right? He drank to drown the lie. The problem was that the hangovers the next morning weakened his resolve, and he had, two or three times now, found himself standing in front of the worn dresser, a death-grip on its edges, looking down at the diary where he had carefully placed it. The problem was that he came to and realized that he had been observing this scene as if he were watching someone else do it. The problem was that if he hadn’t been hanging onto the edges of the dresser top, he might very well have reached for and opened the diary. He wondered if the grip he had on the dresser at these times was about more than his resolve. He wondered how many of these blind, quarantined moments he had in him.

More than that, not reading his daughter’s diary filled every available space inside him. Where was the space for Nora? He stared at the photo of the two of them at high school prom that sat on the dresser. Even looking at her, he couldn’t find the woman he loved. Where was Nora?

Weeks passed. The anger shrank into a small orange ember throbbing at the base of his throat. He drank more beer to try to put out the bleating pulse of heat, but there was no extinguishing it. Not that way, anyway.

After awhile, he was no longer angry at Nora for keeping the diary from him. Well. He was, but more than that, even, he was angry at Nora for putting him in this position, this razor’s edge of grief and curiosity and wanting-to-do-the-right-thing. He would never have risked losing Rebecca’s respect, of looking like less than the person he wanted her to be. But with her dead – with both of them dead – who was to know that he had intruded on her private thoughts? Where was the betrayal? Where was the hypocrisy, now that all the participants were gone?

Still, he tried to shake off this dangerous thought when he realized he was thinking it, and focused again on the swinging of the bags of trash, the roar of the compactor, or the parabola the glass in his hand made in the air as he lifted it to his mouth from his thigh where it was resting. Soon, he was shaking off the thought while he was making peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, while he laid his forehead against the sweating shower tile, and while the thrum of the Toyota’s engine made the driver’s seat tremble beneath him.

He laid on the sofa and listened to Billy Joel’s angry piano in “Captain Jack,” all the while feeling the pulsing ember burning further into his core. How did he honor his child’s trust, and go back to mourning his wife, who surely deserved to be mourned outside of this one terrible act. How did he stop the hot ember from burning a hole in him?

He ran through the options. He could rent a safe deposit box and put the diary there. But he would always have the key, and the cold metal box inside the bank vault seemed too much like the coffin he’d put in the ground.

He could ask Dave to hold onto it for him. That would get it out of the house. But Dave had known Rebecca, and Dave knew him. What if, out of curiosity, he flipped through it thinking it couldn’t hurt? He knew that it would hurt. He could not keep his friendship with Dave if he made him a guardian of Rebecca’s diary.

He could destroy it. This thought made him hesitate. He tried to ignore the unkind thrill that filled him at this thought, how it would give him the final word with Nora even though she wouldn’t be around to hear it. There could be no temptation to break the trust that made Rebecca think that she hadn’t needed a lock. He laid there imagining a world with no Rebecca’s diary.

But then he started to think about how to do it. He could burn it. He pictured flames tinged blue as the diary caught fire, but the violence of the flames unnerved him. He could shred it. But even if he could avoid seeing what was written on the pages as he ripped them out, he didn’t like the idea that this would just make his daughter’s thoughts into a confetti puzzle to be pieced back together.

He could throw it into the river. He thought about that one. The journal would sink because of the weight of its leather binding. Even if it washed up somewhere downriver, the ink on the bloated pages would have leached away. At the least, it would be so blurred on the swollen pages that it would be unreadable. The river seemed like a good option.

He went to his car before he could think better of it. He concentrated on the yellow line that separated him from the oncoming traffic. He counted the seconds between red lights turning green. He drove to the car park where he ate lunches with Dave. He climbed down the chicken-wired boulders that held the river in place, and stood for a moment listening to the lap of water against the rock under his boots.

The journal was in his coat pocket. He felt it there like a dare, like an accusation. He slid his hand into his pocket to lay his fingers against the cool leather. He could pull it from his pocket and sling it out over the water as if he were skipping a stone. In his mind’s eye, he saw the leather edge catching the water and sending the diary cart-wheeling until it smacked ungracefully against the surface of the river and sinks.

He imagined it as his fingers traced the pretty vines and flowers tooled into the leather, but no matter how he tried, it wasn’t just the diary which he saw in his mind, but his honey-haired child with her one incisor hiding behind the neighboring tooth and her ears sticking out just far enough from her head to give her something to obsess over as she stared into the mirror. He heard her complaining on the phone to a friend about the prices of Third Eye Blind concert tickets, and saw her through her cracked bedroom door striking too-adult poses to Destiny’s Child music. He remembered worrying that no boy would ever find her crooked smile and full cheeks and awkward length as beautiful as he had. He heard the contempt in her voice as she told him that her D in biology was no big deal, and he remembered how his world shrank into a small black smudge of disbelief when she had told him to just leave her alone.

A few minutes later, he was back in his car turning off the engine he’d left running. The engine ticked as he drew the diary from his pocket and turned it over in his hands. He ran his thumb along the leather thong gently, remembering how he used to stroke Rebecca’s hair to soothe her to sleep. When he looked up from the journal toward the river beyond his windshield, an hour had passed. He started the engine and turned the car for home.

Would he ever be able to grieve for his wife, he wondered.

He was raking leaves in the backyard when he realized that this thing he was feeling was actually longing for Nora. The rake paused in mid-stroke. He missed Nora? The moment he thought it to himself, he was overcome. A part of him stood aside, calmly and complacently watching him give himself over to this longing. He turned his face up to peer through the empty branches of the chestnut tree in the backyard and into the long, flat sky beyond.

Eighteen years she had been with him through all the big decisions he’d had to make, listening as she put groceries away or folded laundry or graded papers. Asking the right questions to let him feel okay about doing the thing he’d already decided to do. Eighteen years of sharing frustrations about the lack of respect she had gotten as a substitute teacher, from the kids in her classroom and the administrators who’d never paid attention to how seriously she took the job. She’d hated those teenagers with their smirks and obvious attempts to derail the plans for the day, but she’d loved the elementary classes. She’d been in a good mood for days after teaching one of those.

He’d been surprised when she said she wanted to get pregnant. He’d teased her, reminding her that whatever kid they had would certainly grow into one of those smirking teenagers. It had worried him a little, that secret smile she’d made in response. He’d wondered if she thought she might be exempt.

But then there had been the pleasure of coming home to find Nora and little pot-bellied Rebecca in bathing suits on the back patio with finger paint everywhere, on the brick and the little blow-up pool, on the plastic green-and-white lounge chairs, on their swimsuits and in their hair. There had been the quiet contentment of seeing the little red handprint of paint on Nora’s pale thigh.

He’d never been much interested in little kids. He’d loved Rebecca, of course; she was his and the enormity of protecting her and caring for her was a wonderful burden, but he couldn’t remember what it was like to not be able to tie your shoes, or to be put in a bath when you didn’t want to be. It had been different once Rebecca turned twelve. Things had come back to him: the frustration of being told to wear a coat, or of not being allowed to walk to the park by yourself, or the humiliation of having to tell your friends you had to go because your parents wanted you home as soon as it was dark. Suddenly her desires hadn’t seemed so alien to him anymore. Maybe it had been because he could remember those things that Rebecca had drawn closer to him. He’d seen how it hurt Nora, how it confounded her that she could be so devoted, so adoring, and that it had counted for nothing with Rebecca. He’d seen it, but he hadn’t known what to do about it.

Well. He had felt sorry for Nora, but it wasn’t as if he’d sought it out or taken some kind of pride in the transfer of affection. And anyway, he’d coached enough teenagers in the JCC baseball league to know that any allegiance was temporary. At the time, he’d felt a little annoyed that Nora wasn’t more realistic about raising a kid. That was what teenagers did: they moved away from you.

But standing here now under the flat, colorless sky, there was so much he missed about his wife. The smell of the cold cream she used to take off her make-up at the end of the night, and the way the crow’s feet around her eyes had become magically visible afterwards. The exuberant way she had shaken her hips to Huey Lewis and the News as she cooked dinner, but laughed with embarrassment when he had caught her doing it. The full-throated commitment she’d shown to grieving Rebecca, even when it had worried him sick.

He wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve and began dragging the rake in long, violent strokes across the soggy lawn again to collect the leaves. Yes, he missed Nora, who would have listened to every conflicting thought he had about the journal, if only she hadn’t kept the secret to begin with.

That’s right, says the part of him that had stepped aside and patiently waited for him to circle back to it. Miss her all you want. But there’s no forgiveness there.

When Dave came to him with the idea of going to Mexico for a long weekend, he thought he’d lost his mind. You’re kidding, right? he said to him. What would people think?

Dave looked away uncomfortably, then seemed to steel himself. Putting a hand on his shoulder, Dave told him that no one was going to think anything, that it had been a year. He didn’t know what surprised him more: that it had already been a year, or that it was Dave who had had to say it.

It’s time, man, he said. The fingers tightened on his shoulder. We’ll get out of here for the anniversary and ignore it somewhere else. And when we get back, we’ll quit the drinking, right? I’ll do it with you. I could stand to lose a few pounds myself, he said.

So he understood then. Had he really been drinking that much? He thought back over the months, but it wasn’t until he thought about how he’d been putting the recycling bin out every week instead of every three weeks that he realized Dave might be right.

His friend shook him gently. C’mon, man, it’s time. I’ll take care of everything. It’s always sunny in Meh-hee-co, he added. Dave clapped him on the shoulder. I got it, buddy, don’t you worry, he reassured him as he moved around to the front of the cab. The driver’s door squeaked open, but he didn’t move, afraid that if he did, the delicate balance he’d struck of swallowing down his emotions right then would get away from him and surge out into the open.

He didn’t say much that day. He let Dave fill in the space with analysis of the Patriots’ defense, and the news about his neighbor’s two boys in Afganistan, and a recounting of Justified’s dark drug humor. He let it flow around him when he was in the cab with him, and wished for it when he was outside tossing trash. At the end of the shift, they both stood in the truck yard for a moment listening to the ping of the metal wrenches as they were put down roughly on the cement, the raised voices of the mechanics telling jokes over the noise. He turned toward Dave to say something, but Dave shook his head. Instead, he clapped him again on the shoulder. I got this, buddy, he told him. Leave it to me.

The plans were made so quickly he wondered whether Dave had already made them before talking to him. He didn’t even know how he’d arranged it with the boss, but he stood at the kitchen counter the night before the trip, Rebecca’s journal on one side, and an unopened Coors can in front of him with the plane ticket next to it. He drew the ticket toward him. Cabo San Lucas. Tequila and molé and deep sea fishing. And whores, if you want, Dave had said sympathetically. God knows, I do, he joked.

He didn’t want to be here for the anniversary. For what? To put a stone on Nora’s headstone? To make a gesture for the world to see when all along he was thinking about was Rebecca instead of her? It would make him sick to his stomach. He looked at the beer can. Dave was right about that, too. Life was for the living. Even in her surliest moods, he knew that Rebecca had loved him and wouldn’t have wanted him to stay unhappy forever. He put the sweating Coors can back into the refrigerator, and carried the diary upstairs where his half-packed bag was laying on the bed.

He delayed making the most important decision by concentrating instead on packing. At last, he was staring into the open bag, the zipper curved apart like a toothy question mark. He should leave the journal at home. Maybe, if he were totally away from it, unable to look at it and touch it, maybe that would be the thing he needed to break this awful habit of carrying it. Maybe the trip would stop the sad music that had been playing in his head since he had found the diary. Maybe there was an adagio for Nora out there that hadn’t been able to push its way in through the dreadful minor chords of the diary question. He wondered what it would be like to hear the ocean hissing over the beach sand instead.

Carrying the journal to his bedside table, he slid it into the drawer. He scooped up his bag as he passed the bed, closed the bedroom door behind him to punctuate the decision, and went downstairs to sleep on the sofa.

In the morning, he returned to the bedroom and put the journal in the bottom of his bag. He wanted to feel like a failure. Instead, he went to Cabo with Dave.

They didn’t behave like guys who were giving up drinking. They started on the plane down, and pretty much used beer to keep themselves from dehydrating from the moment they landed. The fact that they were never actually drunk pretty much proves that Dave had a point. Dave never seemed drunk, either. Maybe he was only pretending to match him. Maybe he was just keeping an eye out. It was Cabo, sure, but it was also Mexico.

Dave was making good on his promises, though, there was no question of that. The hotel was third-rate, filled with overweight, jovial Americans with Panama hats they’d bought off the street, but that first night, and every night after, Dave took him to a large cantina where chicken molé and tequila shots were placed on the wooden table in front of them. The waiters ignored him when he held his hand over the shot glass and told them no mas, but they did it so genially that he couldn’t be irritated. Their expressions seemed to say that it was all part of the experience, and the frenetic strumming of the mariachi players strolling through the restaurant reinforced the no-consequences atmosphere that the restaurant as clearly trying to cultivate for the tourists’ sake.

During the day, Dave took him to the beach where he tilted the Panama hat he had bought down over his face and let the hazy southern sun bake the alcohol out of him. He could see, way down the beach, one of the marinas where the rich Americans who didn’t wear hats at all docked when they came to Cabo. He left Dave basting and walked down the beach toward the boats.

He could only get so close. There was a fence that kept people like him out. There were some big boats there. Ships, he guessed, not boats. They rose and fell with the swell, as if the sea was taking lazy inhalations of deep slumber. A feeling of peacefulness came over him as he watched the neat, empty decks of the boats.

There was a tug at his sleeve, and he looked down to see a boy, maybe ten years old, black hair falling across his eyes. He was wearing a black Guns ‘N Roses t-shirt tucked neatly into tan running shorts that have a red waistband and stripes down the sides. The arms and legs that extruded from the shirt and shorts were thin, even spindly, but the boy’s face was round and full and his smile was bigger than the whole of him.

You want to ride, the boy pointed at the boats beyond the fence and raised an eyebrow. He shook his head. Just looking, he told the boy. The boy nodded knowingly and turned to look out at the boats with him. A few minutes passed quietly, then the boy turned and made a show of dusting off his clothes. Come, the boy told him, motioning to follow him. The imperious command from this little captain amused him and he followed. The boy led him back the way he had come to the water-side shacks and businesses that lined the beach.

He brought him to a neat store-front where the professional blue block printing on the white sign said that tickets for deep-sea fishing trips and whale watching were sold here. Inside the sliding glass window, there was an older man with a deep squint who glanced up from the soap opera he was watching on TV and fave the boy a noncommittal look before turning back to the show.

The boy tugged at his sleeve again and pantomimed reeling. You fish? he asked. He pointed at the sign on the front of the store. Big fish, the boy promised. He shrugged apologetically. The boy considered him. He pointed at the other end of the sign that advertised the whale watching. No fishing, the boy said, his palm sweeping the air in a flat motion that signals that was off the table. Just watching, the boys told him. Bigger fish, the boy grinned.

On the sign, there were sketches of different sorts of whales with the name under each sketch. The sun was hot on the back of his neck. “Sperm whale” was spelled “Spherm.” The boy followed his gaze and held his arms out wide. The biggest, the boy nodded like a salesman conceding the point.

He thought maybe he’d like to see a Spherm whale. He bought two tickets for the afternoon, and went to wake Dave.

Turned out that there were no Sperm whales. The boat took them on the wrong side of the peninsula for the Sperm whales which calved in the Gulf with the Humpbacks and the occasional Blue whale. But the Pacific side of the peninsula was where the Gray whales congregated to feed and raise their calves. For a long couple of hours, they didn’t even see Grays and had to content themselves with the dolphins which surfed the bow wake as the boat plowed dutifully through the water.

He stood at the railing, letting the flashes of sunlight on the water blind him, then closed his eyes to watch the dark spots float around the inside of his eyelids. He tried to keep his mind off the cheap safe in his hotel room where he had locked Rebecca’s journal.

When he heard the yell, he turned to look over his shoulder at the top deck where a crew member was scanning the water with a pair of binoculars. The sailor was pointing west and yelling to the captain. He turned to look out at where the sailor pointed. Squinting against the glare, he finally held a hand up to shade his eyes from the sun. The boat started to turn in the direction the crew member signaled, but it took a minute to be able to pick out the tiny spots of gray that bobbed to the surface and disappeared again.

There was a lot of activity suddenly on the side of the boat, and he moved along the rail to watch the crew getting a zodiac ready to lower. When he looked up again, he realized that the gray spots he saw were actually not whales but other small boats and zodiacs floating in a cluster. The crew herded him and the other few passengers to the side of the boat and held the rope ladder steady so they could make their way down into the zodiac rising and falling in the sea next to the boat.

He watched the other tourists climb into the zodiac. They all had on practical weather-proof jackets. They were wearing flat rubber shoes. Their cameras were slung over their shoulders and hung against their backs so they didn’t knock against the side of the boat as they climbed down. He considered Dave in his wife-beater t-shirt and flip-flops, but before he could think too much about this impractical expedition he’d taken the two of them on, the on-board engine roared to life, and they were tearing through the water toward the group of boats on the horizon.

Coming up to the cluster of boats, the crew member cut the engine and let the zodiac drift forward. Dave was still hanging onto the rope that ran along the side of the zodiac. He wondered if his friend might be regretting his decision to come, but just as he was thinking this, Dave’s face opened in amazement. He followed his gaze.

There were six boats, some fiberglass, some rubber zodiacs, and around them suddenly sprout the explosive jets and mists of three Gray whales rising to the surface to breathe. In the boat, they all sat silently, listening to the pneumatic explosions of the giant creatures exhaling, watching their slow graceful arcs up to the surface, the way one seemed to slow down as it passed by a nearby boat, how it raised its eye above the waterline and slid by, watching the people in the boat watching it.

The sudden gasps and fumbling for cameras made him turn away from the scene. Holy mother, Dave whispered next to him and pressed himself back against the side of the zodiac. From the other direction, he could see the gray bulk of a whale approaching the boat just under the surface. The water was turquoise above it, a glance of tumbling color bearing down on the boat.

The crew member said something in Spanish, and the others all reached out to hold onto the handles and lines along the rounded rubber side. But – and he didn’t know why – he moved in the opposite direction toward the edge closest to the approaching giant and leaned forward. One of the women gasped, and the crew member put a restraining hand on his shoulder, but he could tell from the light touch that he was only putting his hand there to remind him not to forget that he was a land mammal, a bit of flotsam next to the battleship bulk of the Gray whale.

The mottled and crustacean-crusted bulk made a slow, graceful bank and slid easily past the length of the zodiac which barely rocked in the controlled grace of the whale’s easy, lazy propulsion. The knotted scarred swelling of the whale’s blow hole rose up from the water and slid past under their gazes. The whale expelled a breath and the mist and heat of it hung momentarily on the air and then settled on his exposed skin. And still the animal was sliding past the boat, it was that big.

Before he knew it, he was leaning half-way out the boat, his arm stretched as far as he could make it without falling over the side. The crew member must have been familiar with this reaction, too, because he felt him grasp the waist band of his pants and give him a balancing weight to strain against. Gratitude filled him for this generous act as he trailed his fingers in the water and the whale’s cool bulk rose to meet his fingertips, alternatively rough with barnacles and smooth where the skin is free of them. After, the notched tail became a white shadow against the surface and sank away.

There was a nervous exhalation of laughter from the others in the boat when they realized that they hadn’t been rammed or lifted on the back of a leviathan. He twisted to look at Dave and he couldn’t help it, he was grinning wildly. He could see Dave wanted to be glad for him, even though he thought his pal might have lost it.

For the first time since finding the diary, he felt like he is on solid ground.

He didn’t find the little boy the next day, even though he waited by the fence for most of it. He had figured that this was probably a regular trawling spot for the boy, but the hours passed, and he bought himself two slices of watermelon and three bottles of beer waiting. Finally, he couldn’t wait any longer and went back to meet Dave who had his hat pushed back on his head and was staring out at the sea with the dazed look of someone who had just realized how small a part of the universe he was.

They decided against a sit-down meal that night, preferring to buy burritos and churros from a street vendor. They wandered through the town. Dave wanted to find a whorehouse somewhere; if he was going to feel insignificant, he wanted to lose himself totally inside that feeling.

He was amenable, though not interested, and he waited outside the short, squat building, leaning against the adobe wall a few feet away from the door. Every few minutes, a different girl popped her head out and smiled beguilingly at him. He shook his head politely, wondering how many of them there were in there. A warm yellow light tumbled through the door onto the street and the low mournful crooning of some Mexican singer tumbled out along with it.

When he looked around again, the little captain was leaning on the wall next to him, his arms crossed against his chest, surveying the street scene with casual expectation. Hola, the boy said out of the side of his mouth, as though they were spies meeting surreptitiously to swap information. He laughed. Hola, he told him. Fishing? the boy asked, leaning out from the wall and pointing to the open door of the whorehouse. He laughed again, and shook his head. Now the boy regarded him a little suspiciously, and when he crouched down next to him, the boy took a step back, as if he might have misjudged the interest. He shook his head at the boy to assure him, and drew the diary from his jacket pocket to show him. He found himself offering it to the boy.

The little captain squared his shoulders and gave him a steady look. He wanted to be sure everyone knew that he was no fool and that if anyone would be conning anyone here it would be him. He nodded his understanding and held out the journal again. The boy took it from him, curious, and the little captain who closed bargains became just a little boy who couldn’t resist knowing things. The boy turned the book over in his hands and then opened it and flipped through the pages filled with Rebecca’s buoyant scrawl.

He looked away into the street while the boy did this, still unwilling to catch a glimpse of his daughter’s secrets. It was clear from the fact that the boy didn’t stop flipping that he didn’t read English. After a moment, the boy closed the covers and handed the book back with a shrug. He slipped the diary back into his pocket.

It took a little while and he had to pantomime at times, but he was able to find out whether the boy ever had access to any of the big boats down at the marina. When the boy nodded proudly, the man patted his pocket. Could the boy find a place on one of those ships to hide this book? The boy shrugged. The man wasn’t sure the boy understood. Hide the book, he said slowly and covered his eyes and extended one hand, palm forward, away from him. Then he had an idea. The man took the diary out of his jacket and waved his hand over it. No mas, he told the boy pointedly.

The boy took the diary from him again and gazed down at it seriously. He looked up at the man. No mas? he slid his hand through the air over the book with the question. The man nodded and repeated the words, but in his head he thought, Let the whales and sea turtles be the guardians of it. Hide the book forever. Let it sail the seas ‘til the end of time. Not destroyed, but not read, either.

The boy straightened with purpose. They looked solemnly at each other. The boy put his hands on the man’s shoulders, one captain to another, and nodded slowly. No mas, the boy assured him.

He stood on the beach and watched the boy slip past the guard booth and into the dark shadows of the moored boats. The boy darted into the dark with the quick grace of a lizard. After a few minutes, the man sat down on the sand and pushed his feet under several inches of the cool silicate. He felt Nora’s presence draw near him, but he didn’t raise his head to look.

He heard her voice in his head. I didn’t read it, she said.

He nodded. I believe you.

After awhile, the little captain appeared at his side again. The boy sat down next to him in the sand without saying a word. The two of them stayed there as the sky turned rebel gray, then lightened so the pink quartz of the sand caught the rising dawn. The boy was wide awake and alert, his hair lifting gently from his forehead in the on-shore breeze. The man noticed that he was wearing a Beyonce t-shirt today.

He turned his face into the breeze, thinking about his wife.

 

Elizabeth Rosen

In addition to being a writer, at various times in her life Liz has been a backpacker, waitress, freelance editor, college professor, hamburger flipper, mail-sorter, step-parent, dog-rescuer, and receptionist who collected the payment from prostitutes to pay for their ads at the back of an independent newspaper. Her fiction has appeared in Xavier Review, Stoneboat, Litro New York, and a few other spots. Her study on apocalyptic fiction and film, Apocalyptic Transformation, did not include a chapter on zombie apocalypses, so she missed the boat on that one.

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