arry jammed the gear stick of his nineteen seventy-two Chevy Cheyenne into neutral and engaged the brake lever. The sky-blue pickup truck rocked back and forth as it jolted to a halt, its rusting suspension springs creaking with the motion. A pearl-inset wedding band hung from the rearview mirror on a chain, swinging back and forth.
Gusts of wind shook the forest that lay beyond Port Orford Convenience Store, which was so old and decrepit, it was liable to blow over under the strength of a particularly strong gale. Larry’s hands shook in his lap. His eyes sagged, as if his bushy, white beard was pulling his skin toward the ground.
Larry stepped out of his vehicle and noticed the smell of brake fluid hanging in the air. He’d have to work on the truck again—another weekend spent contorting his stiff body into ungodly shapes instead of driving up to his cabin and installing a new roof or hooking up the kitchen sink. Larry slammed the truck’s door shut. He wondered if he’d ever find the time and money to finish the cabin or if his dream of retiring to it someday was childish.
A young man with greasy hair and sunken eyes approached Larry and asked, “Do you have spare change?” Larry thought he recognized him as one of the McCoy boys from up north. The kid was missing teeth and his movements were jittery. He wore an orange 60-liter pack that was so dirty, it was almost brown. His body smelled of shit and rot.
“No, better look for a job,” Larry replied, avoiding eye contact. He could feel the boy’s hatred projecting onto his back as he walked by.
The neon “Open” sign in the store window was not lit, but it was seven-thirty in the morning, which was when Port Orford Convenience opened. Larry pushed on the door, expecting it to swing open. His muscles tensed when the locked door rattled against his weight. He saw the scrawny kid—Toby was his name—scrambling behind the counter. It looked like he was struggling with the coffee maker again. Larry’s buddy, James, used to make the coffee, but he died six months earlier from a heart attack behind the counter where Toby stood. James made a good cup of coffee; this kid had no idea what he was doing.
“It’s seven-thirty,” Larry grunted through the door. His breath fogged the glass.
The boy scrambled and eventually opened the door. His nametag said “Tyler,” but Larry thought he looked more like a Toby, so that’s what he continued to call him.
“How’s that cabin of your’s comin’?” Toby asked.
“You’d know better than me, Toby. The God damn liberal slicks they have runnin’ the town these days have let the roads get so bad, it’s pathetic. I keep spendin’ my weekends workin’ on the truck.”
“My dad said there were elk on your front porch last Sunday.”
“Why was he on my property?”
“There were some homeless wonderin’ around the area.”
Larry snorted and slapped one nickel, two dimes, five quarters, and a single one-dollar bill onto the counter. Two-fifty for a cup of coffee, which was five times more than it was back in nineteen seventy-four when the store opened. Same cup of coffee for five times the price, but that’s the kind of world Larry lived in. He waved goodbye to Toby because it was the polite thing to do. Truth be told, Larry was happy he wouldn’t have to see the kid again until Monday.
Larry raised the styrofoam cup to his lips and took a sip of joe as he turned back onto the Oregon Coast Highway. The hot liquid burned his tongue. He swallowed and felt a burning sensation drip down his throat, which made him cough repeatedly. Damn boy couldn’t make a cup of coffee right. He never burned his mouth when James brewed it.
Tsunami warning signs littered both sides of the highway. Most people ignored them because there hadn’t been a tsunami in 150 years, but Larry didn’t. He was always on guard, ready to flee to high ground if needed. He could care less if other people were prepared—it’d be their funeral.
Larry pulled off the highway onto a dirt road that ran through a pine forest. He knew where all the potholes were and swerved to avoid them without slowing down, threading his front wheels through the minefield. Coffee rocked over the edges of Larry’s cup and burnt his hand when his back right tire skid into the bottom of the pothole. He cursed into the pickup’s void at the kids who flew down this road in their cars and the men who towed trailers over it. The city leveled the road once per year and it was never this washed out so early in the summer until people started moving in and overrunning the place.
Larry cranked the driver-side window down as he turned into the beach parking lot. Ocean air rushed up his nose. The rising sun in the east illuminated whitecaps that were rushing toward him from the west with a bright glow. Waves crashed into the sand, a Common Murre called into the distance from overhead, and wind blew across Larry’s ears—the chorus of the ocean was welcoming him. He should have been a fisherman instead of a plumber. It was too late to change jobs now, though.
The parking lot sat elevated atop a small cliff overlooking the beach. Larry turned his truck to face the ocean and parked in front of a large boulder. It was the same spot he parked in every morning. Despite a decade of formal complaints that he’d submitted to the city council, a guardrail still hadn’t been installed. He liked to park in front of the boulder in case one of the reckless youths backed into him and pushed his truck toward the cliff edge.
Larry’s coffee was at a more acceptable temperature now, so he took a few sips before pulling a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes from his shirt breast pocket. He smacked the bottom of the pack until a single cigarette fell out, then bit it between his teeth. His shaking hands struck a match and brought the flame up to light it.
Larry inhaled, letting the smoke warm his lungs. Blood rushed into his head and calm reverberated down his spine. He looked out across the water. It was still the same as when he was a boy. Everything else had changed, but the sea hadn’t.
Larry’s phone rang. His heart raced as he grabbed the flip phone strapped to his belt buckle and looked at the caller ID. It was Dr. Hartford. Larry sucked on the cigarette again and let the phone ring, then blew the smoke out and answered, “Larry Butterfield.”
“Hey Larry, It’s Dr. Hartford. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“Ya, hurry along then.”
“Your test results are in and the tumor is malignant… I usually like to tell people this in person, but you’ve been difficult to get a hold of and I want to stress that you have options. If you’re willing to come in—”
Blood coursed through Larry’s temples as a sinking feeling dropped in his chest. He felt disembodied. As if his consciousness was floating above his head, watching his body move about like a puppet.
“Larry, are you still there? I said I have an appointment today at 3pm. I hope you’ll take it?”
“I’ll try,” Larry replied, then hung up the phone.
Larry’s eyes welled as he bit his lip to hold back tears. He hadn’t cried since the day his wife, Mary, died twenty-two years ago. There was nothing worth crying about. He was a lonely man dying of cancer and nobody would miss him. Everyone he knew had passed away. He was the last survivor.
Larry parked at the beach to watch the sunrise each morning and sunset each evening. He never got out of the truck. He didn’t visit as an activity, but as a place to be. It was an excuse for why he was too busy to meet his coworker, Jim, for a beer after work, and why he didn’t have time to drive east to visit his cousins and step sister.
Larry ripped his wife’s wedding ring from the rearview mirror and stumbled out of his truck. He needed to get to the beach. He hadn’t felt the cool sea water or soft sand on his feet in years. Mary liked to go to the beach. Sometimes from the parking lot up above he’d see memories of Mary and himself chasing each other through the sand and building a fire to cuddle around as they watched the sun set. Back when the world was simple and his life was in front of him.
As Larry ambled down the path to the beach, the volume of breaking waves increased. His mind naturally countered this inflection by quieting. Each crash was a distraction. Every gust of cool, misty breeze on his face brought him back into his body.
A large man was hunched over staring at the ground just beyond the reach of the waves. He waved a metal detector back and forth, listening for a signal in the headphones wrapped around his bald head.
“What are you doing?” Larry asked the man.
He did not respond. Larry felt like a ghost.
Larry sidestepped in front of the man and shouted over the waves, “What are you doing?!”
The man did not lift his head, but his gaze shifted up to make brief contact with Larry’s. There was no expression in his beady eyes or chubby face.
“What are you looking for?” Larry asked desperately.
“Treasure,” the man replied. Then he hobbled over to a red ATV, rested the metal detector across his lap, and sped down the beach into the haze, where spires of rock jutted from the ocean and the corners of winding cliffs faded into the distance.
Larry was alone.
He stumbled down the beach bank and into the water. A wave collided with Larry’s head, knocking him to the ground. When the sea pushed him up the beach, Larry remembered his school teacher telling the class during a tsunami safety drill that six inches of water moving at seven miles per hour is enough to knock a grown man off his feet. The sea was powerful.
Sandy water swirled around his face. Then gravity yanked the sea back down the steep beach slope, pulling Larry toward open water.
Why did people need to know when they would die? Wolves and bears didn’t know when they would die. They lived their life until they didn’t. Larry spent Mary’s final three years watching her suffer. The doctors did their best, but they mutilated her.
They drained her. They broke him.
He’d never retire and move to his cabin, now. He was out of time.
Larry relaxed every muscle in his body except those in the hand clutching his wife’s ring. He floated for a while, rolling in the ocean as waves crashed over his body. There was some pain, but mostly he felt like a cloud of energy swirling in the water. He enjoyed being at the mercy of something higher than himself.
Mary went through chemo, then remission, then relapse, then chemo again, and all Larry could do was watch and hold her hand. They could have enjoyed six more months together, playing cards under candlelight at their dinner table and walking down the beach as the sun set. Knowing was pain and deception. Knowing was misery. Larry didn’t want to know anymore.
Larry’s face broke through the surface of the water. The rising sun warmed his pores and lit the inside of his eyelids with a red and orange glow.
He let his body float and waited. He waited for the rip current to pull him toward the black depths of the ocean, where he’d burrow his feet in a soft blanket of marine snow, and the cold sea would hug his old body.
He’d find Mary there.
All would be quiet.
He’d be at peace.