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  Maine Light

Alan Lightman

When John finally got to the end of the dirt road, his father was standing next to a patch of purple fireweed drinking a beer. The sun was still hot. John waited in the car until the dust had settled, then got out and walked over to his father, the two of them facing each other.

"You're looking good," said John.

"Shit, I know I don't look good," said Ben.

The older man, lean and sinewy, was dressed in khaki pants and a faded blue T-shirt. His squinty eyes roved over the BMW and its out-of-state plates, then up and down his son. He frowned and shook his head. John began taking off his tie. "I drove straight from the office," he said. "I thought I might be able to get back to Jenny before midnight."

"Don't know why you come all this way to see the place," said Ben.

"I came to see you Dad," said John. He looked around, slowly remembering certain things. The bend in the road just beneath a clump of spruce trees, the lopsided grey cedar shack, the tree stump where he'd learned how to use a knife. Somewhere overhead, the shrill chirps of an osprey. He exhaled heavily, and his breath mingled with the warm summer air.

"I don't have much to give you," said Ben, not looking at his son but gazing off into a grove of birch trees. "Gave the boat to Wally. Wally can use it up to Pemaquid."

"Yeah," said John, "I don't need the boat anyway."

A breeze came through the trees and fluttered Ben's fine, chestnut hair. "Your Mom said I should show you the shack, case you wanted it," he said. "It's not much."

John sat down carefully on the tree stump, began rolling back the sleeves of his shirt. He was already sweating and took out a handkerchief to wipe off his face. He had the same high forehead and huge chin as his father. As he sat there mopping his face, he was wondering whether he should sell the whole damn place.

Ben turned and tossed the empty beer can into the back of his pickup truck. It rattled against metal. In the silence afterwards, John heard the soft sound of water lapping against the rocks down the hill. That too he remembered. Then, unconsciously, his thoughts drifted to his comfortable study, Mozart floating in from the living room.

The music was interrupted by the grind of a boat starting up somewhere in the bay. "Probably Wade's boat," said Ben. "It sounds like his engine."

"Wade's still here?" asked John.

"Thirty years," said Ben.

John stood up and brushed off his pants. He walked over to the clump of spruce trees and kicked one.

They went into the shack, not much larger than a storage shed, the pine floor warped from years of rain and inattention. A stack of wooden lobster traps sat in one corner. A cot, hardly wider than a man. A kerosene stove with a Zenith radio and some playing cards on top. On the ceiling, a patch of strong sunlight flickered and pulsated, reflected off ocean.

John took two steps into the trembling light and stopped. There was that old, familiar smell, the stink of dank sea kelp and fish, the smell of his father. John didn't go any farther, but reached over and turned the knob on the radio. It clicked and that was all.

Ben laughed bitterly. Then began coughing hard. John went over to him, touched him lightly on the shoulder. Ben roughly pushed his son away, turned his head aside, and leaned against the wall. "Told you it wasn't much," he said.

"Dad," John said.

The sun had stopped its ceiling dance, the angles no longer right, and filled the tiny room with slants of light. A strut in the window cast a feathery shadow on the opposite wall. The light swarmed around it.

Ben was looking down at something on the floor, massaging the mole on his neck. "Spent some good times here," he said. "Even got your mother to come over from the house and roost here one night, you and Wally were out to Aunt Lonnie's. Remember?" John shook his head no.

"Why didn't you ever bring Jenny up here?" asked Ben. "At least to the house?"

John hesitated. "Jenny's a city girl," he said.

Ben looked away, then said, "Let's go."

They stood outside the shack. A thatch of wild pink roses, rosa rugosa, bloomed beside the wooden door. The air was whitening. A fog was coming in.

"Got to go down and put a new plank in the float," said Ben, holding a two by four under his arm. He waited restlessly. John nodded, looked again at his father, and began moving toward his car. Sea gulls squawked raucously.

"You might as well see the dock before you leave," said Ben. "It comes with the place."

"Shouldn't you be in bed, Dad?" said John.

Ben didn't answer but started down the hill, limping and dragging the two by four. John looked at his watch, sighed, and followed.

The older man had just got to the ramp when his leg buckled underneath him and he went down. "Fuck that no good fucking leg," he shouted from the ground and deliberately slammed the bum leg into the two by four lying across his knees. The board flipped over and slid off the ramp, into the water with a splash. Ben struggled to his feet. "Are you coming or not?" he asked over his shoulder, and continued down the ramp to the float.

John walked behind, got to the float, and stood beside his father. It was ten degrees cooler down on the water. Gold sea kelp draped over the rocks like braided hair, bristled and hissed with tiny bubbles popping in air. The shoreline straggled, green and sienna. And beyond, the ocean stretched like a vast dark sail, slowly ruffling in the wind.

While the two men stood together on the float, looking out, the fog grew slightly thicker, turned the air translucent. Not solid, but misty. The more distant lobster buoys disappeared. The setting sun became a gauzy fire.

Suddenly, the air began to glow. Fog scattered the sunlight, bounced it around and back and forth until each cupful of air shined with its own source of light. In all directions, the air beamed and shimmered and glowed, and the gulls stopped their squawking and the ospreys became silent.

For some time, they stood in the silence and the glowing air, watching together. Then they turned and walked back up the hill.

Originally published in the April/ May 1996 issue of Boston Review

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