It’s funny what things dig into memory and nest there. One thing from years ago I often recall was the last day of the final summer my family and I went down to the old cape house on Cathryn Beach.
That afternoon, I finally did it. I climbed all the way onto the top of the covered bridge that connected either side of Wampanoag Bay. Wampanoag Bay was this tiny inlet of ocean down on the end of Cathryn Beach where a small slab of a wooden bridge linked the two sides of a jetty. The locals constructed some steps on the bridge’s outer frame so swimmers could clamber up the side facing the water. Jumping off the bridge was something all the kids who vacationed during the summer in Hyannis did. Just like my dad, my two older brothers, Charles and William, made the leap before they were in double digits. I was twelve years old and still hadn’t lived up to tradition.
My brothers were shouting from the shallows as cars rushed by behind me. The smell of exhaust mixed with the sea air made me cough. As I got ready to step out onto the final plank, my father, who’d followed me up, had taken to whispering soft encouragements in my ear.
“Come on, it's not so far. You’ll be down before you know it.”
I turned my neck and met my father's marble face. I nodded, holding tight to the bridge as I steadied myself on the small plank of wood that jutted out from the highest part in the bridge's frame. I wouldn’t look down at the water, only out to sea. My father was crouched low beside me on the other side of the guardrail.
“It’s real easy, you just take a step out and let go.”
I heard my brothers below splashing wildly, wrestling. I began to remove my other hand from the bridge.
“There you are. Now just step out.”
The last car to cross the bridge behind me faded from earshot. Everything went quiet except for the distant squawking of some gulls. Despite the summer heat, my skinny frame shook from the cold wind swirling through the bay. I turned and looked into my father's sharp eyes and blinked, trying best I could to hold onto our stare. I couldn’t maintain it very long, and with a sigh, began to make my way back over the guardrail.
“Wait, wait, wait, where are you going?”
My father stopped me, putting one of his hands on my chest; his hands were so big.
“I want to see you jump.”
I turned back around to face the water. I still couldn’t look down.
“I don’t want to jump,” I said softly.
My father must not have heard me.
Charles, the oldest, yelled out, “We're waiting!”
“Shut up down there!” my father screamed back. Charles and William dutifully obliged.
Following his holler, my father kicked his large legs over the guardrail and grabbed me by the shoulders. He moved me toward the edge of the jumping block.
“Dad?” I said with a tremble in my voice, the sun hitting my eyes as I began to lose footing.
My father used his body to move me a few inches closer to the edge. His figure overtook mine on the platform. I had no choice but to jump.
I fell down into the water easily, popping up a few moments later, shocked by the chill. Treading water, I looked at my two brothers as they stood and applauded on the nearby shore. They whistled between claps and each added a sarcastic, “Bravo!”
“See, I told you!” my father yelled before vaulting down next to me. After a huge splash, he surfaced.
As we made our way to shore, my father began spraying me with water from his mouth. I giggled.
Once we'd dried off, we left Wampanoag Bay and made our way home. My father covered me with his big, white blanket as my brothers tore on ahead of us, swinging their own towels against the air.
That night, a hurricane tore through much of Cape Cod. It was amazing; the most awesome display of nature I’ve ever witnessed. The homes that lined our idyllic, private piece of beach we shared with a handful of neighbors saw some of the worst of it.
Shortly after we got home from Wampanoag Bay, the skies went from a peaceful, blue twilight to a foreboding, cloudy steel. The other beach-goers vanished in one great migration, all huddling inside to wait out the inevitable destruction. Rain soon followed, coming on fast and hard. Gales began to blow in off the ocean as if pumped from a massive bellows. Thunder cracked. Lightning flashed across the sea as it grew wild; waves moving in and out, back and forth, in weird, seemingly unnatural directions with an ever-increasing tumult heaving themselves ashore.
We lost power just after dinner. I don’t remember what we ate, but I didn’t eat much.
As darkness descended, I snuggled up with Knight, our family’s Burmese Mountain Dog. Knight had been a part of our tribe since I was in diapers. With every snap of thunder, Knight would bark and paw at my loft’s window, hoping to beat back the ugly weather. I remember the fear the storm put into me, and being attracted to that fear.
After half hour or so alone, I heard the creak of the spiral stairs as someone made their way up to my bedroom. The glow from a candle preceded my mother as she entered.
She sat down next to me, tossing her curly, red hair off to one side. We listened to the storm for a while - quiet in those peaceful moments between thunder peals, and then tense during the angry rumbles and brief bolts.
My mother loved to sing. She sang something that night; a soothing melody, I don’t know which one, most likely some Simon and Garfunkel or The Carpenters, two of her favorites. I remember the feeling of her slender fingers through my hair and how it almost put me to sleep.
Eventually, we joined everyone else downstairs. I took Knight by the collar and followed my mother as we descended the corkscrew stairs. Walking the hall that led to the living room, I heard some muffled, irate bursts of conversations over the incessant rain. The door slightly ajar, I spied my father on the rotary phone in one of the guest bedrooms, his back to the entrance.
In the living room, William sat on the leather couch shuffling an ancient, pirate-themed deck of cards on a small folding table. Charles was on his hands and knees in front of the fireplace trying to get the kindling to take to the logs.
The four of us started playing whist, or hearts maybe. It was Charles and William against my mother and I like always. Barely into our first hand, some loud clomps boomed down the hallway. My father entered the living room and came up to my mother in a huff. He whispered something to her and the two left the room. They came back minutes later and my father went to the wet bar to make himself a drink.
Then there was the stillness of th evening and the firelight dancing on my father’s face as he took a big slug from his crystal glass, his shadow flitting out across the room and into the open-floor kitchen with the rain pelting the roof with millions of petulant taps. I watched my father’s drink as he sat in the lounger. His drink was swallowed up in one of his hands flopped on the armrest. His other hand went slack over the edge of the chair. This was the way he always sat. Knight rested at his side and he petted his fur lovingly. The pair stared into the fire.
We played about a dozen rounds in near silence, speaking only to announce our bids and the score. After every second or third round, my father got up and made himself another drink. He must have gotten bored with watching the fire because he moved into the kitchen. Soon, he called us over to his side by the bay windows.
I’ll never forget what the sky had to show us that night. Have you ever seen chain lighting? It’s surreal, creating a moment where the energy and force of the world so dwarfs man's own power that a feeling of awe and subsequent emptiness overtakes the senses. Every one of those incredible sparks caused the beach to glow for a moment before being swallowed again by darkness; a slide show of insane environmental carnage that froze my family and I in mesmerized amazement. And every time we caught a glimpse of the sand, we saw the constant barrage of rain that fell in sheets like giant blades. Coupled with the increasing downpour, the waves were more ferocious now, coming half way up the beach, reaching out to us.
As we all stared intently into the storm, a flash of the beach briefly showcased a seagull losing a fight against the wind. The bird swung in all directions, crashing into the sand, leaping back into the air, only to be thrown down once more. Lost, it stumbled and rolled all over, desperately seeking shelter.
The scene outside went dark for a spell. The five of us watched the black before a massive fright of thunder began rolling and another series of lightning bolts popped. Against the chaotic strobe, the seagull whirred closer and closer toward the window.
“Look out!” my father yelled.
The seagull rammed into the glass, exploding shards into the house.
Knight went berserk, barking with this gross, bassy growl I’d never heard him make as he fired back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. The seagull flapped riotously, trying to right itself in the window pane. More glass spat out from the wind and panicking bird.
I don’t know why, but my father was laughing. I remember his smile and I smiled too.
After a few seconds, Knight leapt up on the counter as the seagull finally found its footing. Once its bloody, orange feet left the white of the window pane, the bird was caught in the wind again and vanished. Knight followed it out the window and into the storm. I reached out.
“Knight jumped outside,” I hollered over and over again. Nobody seemed to be listening, but they had to of heard me.
Before long, my father was in his slicker with a flashlight. He opened up the backdoor and there was a loud crack of wood-on-wood as it slammed outward, shoved by the powerful breathes of the gale. Dad looked back once, then covered his face with one of his arms and pushed out against the fury of the storm, struggling against it to close the door behind him.
An endless cycle of time flows between what was probably about fifteen minutes from when my father left the old cape house that night and when he returned. I just wanted to keep the fire going; smell those deep, musty embers, and listen for the tiny snaps from the cherry wood. After patching up the window and cleaning the glass, my mother and two brothers sat close by with me.
I didn't sleep much that night. Instead, I stayed up and looked out my loft's window, waiting for every dazzle of lightning to show me a hint of the beach. Fatigue finally got the best of me, and I slept for a few hours as the storm started to die out.
In the morning, I sprang from bed and rushed downstairs. I was greeted by my father running our luggage out to the station wagon. We exchanged some conversation and he told me we would be cutting the vacation short that year because he was needed at work. I remember pleading with my mother, but don’t know what I said. I ran outside and hit the sands.
Cathryn Beach was a mess. There was patio furniture, grills, pieces of fence, and all other manner of destroyed bric-a-brac scattered everywhere on the wet sand. Our neighbors were walking around in droves trying to decide whose wasted remains were whose, sharing stories about the storm and assessing the damage. A flock of seagulls squawked at each other as they fought over the contents of an overturned cooler.
I raised a hand to protect my eyes from the morning sun and looked out at Wampanoag Bay far off down the beach. A catamaran had come off its moorings and crashed into the rocks. A large group of onlookers were gathered near the wreck. I watched as pieces of the boat floated down the shore.
I yelled out for my dog. My mother came up behind me. She told me the neighbors were bound to find Knight soon and give us a call. I found myself crying gently and my mother comforted me. I inhaled the scent of firewood still fresh on her sweater.
“We have to go now,” my mother said, leading me back inside. “Somebody will find him.”
Knight never returned, and that fall, my father was forced to sell the old cape house.