The first inkling Frank had of the change that would overtake him came on the drive down. He was in the back seat, his hip aching from hours on the Interstate, listening to a radio show about snow geese migrating from the Arctic, big flocks miles high but always along the same route: migration corridors they called them. And all of a sudden Frank was up there flying among them, mile after airy mile in unison. Who knows how long it lasted before Kathy turned and spoke to him, words he didn’t catch but that startled him back down, into his body? He shook his head, a horse throwing off a fly; he was a practical man, not given to daydreaming. ‘How long till lunch?’ he asked Kathy who asked Tom who wanted to get another hundred miles at least.
The three of them, father, daughter and son-in-law, were headed for Florida. Tom had an office down there; Kathy would look after her father, a late addition to the party. A week ago, at the farm, Frank had broken a hip. On crutches, he could no longer manage for himself. On his return from Florida he’d have a choice: move into the city and live with Kathy and Tom, or sell the farm to pay for a nursing home. The sale would raise enough to pay the bills for three years, four tops. The mathematics of old age.
The condo was top floor and right on the beach, with a view of the Gulf from the balcony where he sat most of the day and into the night. Between the heat and the noise from the air con, it beat him how anyone slept here. When he did sleep was mostly late afternoon, out in the easy chair. Late afternoons were the best, with sun on the balcony but not so strong. Through binoculars he watched pelicans dive for fish in the shallows, and the little sandpipers scurry and dart. The sandpipers seemed to move without thinking, barely conscious of their own bodies. And sooner or later, without really trying, he’d be down there among them, slipping from his body as though out through a window.
It was Amita, the woman who came twice a week, who’d told him they were sandpipers. After she’d cleaned she’d sit out on the balcony and tell him about Sri Lanka. She talked about her village, the temples and the food. He saw dolphins some days, too, and gulls, watched them intently, though even with living in the country he’d never had much time for Nature. There were the old birds, too, men and women, some of them no doubt older than he was. He watched them march back and forth, puffing along the beach.
And then later, with the sun going down, warming his old skin, and a bit of a breeze, he’d lower the binoculars and just stare out to sea. Dropping off and waking, dropping off again. Imagining, one time, that he was standing on the bow of a great ship, rising and slowly falling as it sailed over the horizon to somewhere. Not Texas.
He was aware of the change stealing over him, but he made no more effort to resist it. There were the daydreams—that was how he thought of them, though they seemed more than that—and there were other changes too. The first few days he’d watched girls sunbathing, the young ones and the not so young, but not anymore. His appetite for food had been steadily dwindling and it was years since he’d enjoyed a drink, even beer, but it was a surprise to learn he could lose interest even in female flesh. What was more surprising, the loss didn’t bother him.
‘Anything new today?’ Kathy now asked each time she came in from somewhere. A couple of times he got her to watch the pelicans’ clumsy diving. She said they were fascinating, though she didn’t sound fascinated, and that she was glad he was taking an interest. Ever since they arrived she’d been on at him about interests. Why didn’t he come to church or out on the boat? Go sit by the pool at least. He was depressed, she lectured, not himself. Why come all this way to sit cooped up like a chicken?
Tom had taken to calling him The Birdman but it was only Amita who knew what birds were what. She told him about the spoonbills on the next island and then she brought him a hardback book from the library. He was reading about starlings, the way they built their nests out of twigs and grass and leaves, even trash, when his granddaughter Lindsey arrived. She just showed up the way she did, blonde like he was when he still had hair, and pretty as a pin-up. There was a guy with her. They shook, and Frank felt the kid recoil from his claw of a hand.
Kathy went to make coffee and Lindsey sat down next to Frank, holding his hand and chattering away, but his attention kept shifting to her guy. He wanted to grab him by the collar and yell in his face: You should have seen me at thirty, the year I made deputy sheriff.
‘You even listening, granddaddy?’ asked Lindsey.
The kid was headed inside. Frank asked where he was off to and she said a swim. He thought she meant the pool.
‘Look, granddaddy!’ She dropped his hand and picked up the binoculars. ‘He’s swimming right out to sea!’
When he got back up from the beach his hair was all on end. He was panting and practically wagging his tail. They left soon after. Lindsey kissed Frank’s cheek and her guy gave him another limp handshake, called him sir. Kathy went along to check out their motel room so the balcony was all his again.
As the sun dropped to the horizon his eyes went to the pelicans floating on the glassy sea. By the time he came back to himself it was dark. Each time, he felt sure, it lasted a bit longer. As his body softened and broke down his imagination grew stronger. He got up and shuffled inside. Finding no sign of Kathy, he tried the TV. The Nature Channel had a program about elephants. They talked about how long the mothers were pregnant and then they showed a birth. The babies were the cutest thing, watching them try to stand, and taking a bath in the river.
Halfway through Kathy walked in. They watched the rest of the program together. The last part was about elephant graveyards. When an old elephant made up its mind it was time, he just slipped off alone. The others understood, so none of them went looking. Frank thought they’d show the graveyard; he was annoyed at first when they didn’t, but really it was better that way. Knowing they went some place but not exactly where.
Kathy switched off the TV but she didn’t get up. It was dark and quiet, just the sound of waves from the balcony. She took his hand and pressed it against her leg. They sat like that, neither one breaking the silence, until Tom came home and switched on the light.
Half an hour later, when their bedroom door closed, Frank moved back out onto the balcony. The moon was a slice of grapefruit and the ocean flat and still. The waves made little sighing noises, relieved to make the shore. The breeze was still warm on his face. He sat thinking about those elephants and their graveyards. Not all animals went to such peaceful deaths—he recalled a program he’d seen about lizards, and another about chimpanzees—but whatever way they went it was natural at least. You never saw a bird that looked old, or middle-aged even, sick or stiff-limbed. Birds, animals, fish, they weren’t kept alive by caregivers or long-suffering children, by blood transfusions and bypasses, pacemakers, life-support machines, multi-colored pills.
‘You heard about the turtles?’ Amita stepped out onto the balcony, sliding the glass door closed behind her.
‘Seen my share of turtles. What about them?’
She sat herself down first. ‘These ones, the babies only hatch every few years, around the full moon. It’s going to happen right here on the beach.’ She tipped her head in case it was unclear which beach she meant. ‘My friend saw it the last time. She said it was like a miracle of God.’
And the next day she was back with a DVD: Lifecycle of the Loggerhead.
Most of it was filmed underwater, or at night. The shots of the babies hatching out of the sand made the hairs on his neck prickle. They used their tiny flippers to burrow out. Then, drawn by the light of the full moon, they started crawling down to the water. First one or two, then a dozen. Finally the whole beach was swarming with baby turtles, dragging themselves down the beach to catch the tide.
He watched the DVD three times through. ‘That’s something I wouldn’t mind seeing,’ he told Kathy and Tom over breakfast. And the next thing Tom came home with a pair of infra-red binoculars. ‘Full moon the day after tomorrow,’ he told Frank.
For two nights Frank sat out on the balcony with a blanket, but those baby turtles didn’t show. Amita reckoned the beach had got too built up; the mothers had found a more secluded spot to lay their eggs, further down the coast. He decided to sit up one more night.
It was after two and the turtles weren’t coming. He hadn’t really thought they would. He sat listening to the sea and feeling tired but not sleepy. Feeling like he wanted food or a drink, but not hungry, not thirsty. What had he come down to Florida for? What business had he here?
All of a sudden he knew.
Kathy stepped out onto the balcony in her dressing gown. She sat down next to him and slid her arm through his. ‘Why don’t you get some sleep? We’ll take a drive tomorrow, see Amita’s spoonbills.’
He told her he’d just as soon sit up and she said he was a stubborn old man. ‘You think those turtles are going to show just because you’re sat out here? Nature’s got its own timetable.’
‘Yes, it has,’ he told her, and thought he could tell her some other things besides, regrets for the most part, but instead he just smiled and that did the trick. They looked at each other a minute and Kathy smiled, too, and kissed his cheek. She said goodnight and he said goodnight and she walked back in to bed.
He felt grateful that he’d been able to leave her with that: a happy memory of a father who, one way or another, had never been much of a father. The moon bobbed up out of the ocean and he felt unafraid. After weeks of inaction he was impatient for the struggle. But first he would sit here quietly a while. He’d picture each step.
The crutches were too noisy. He could use them to cross the balcony but from there he must crawl. Slowly, painstakingly, across the tiled floor of the living room, past the sofa and along the corridor to the hallway. Once there he’d use the coat stand to pull himself up, lean against the door while his fingers worked the lock.
With the door pulled gently closed behind him there’d be no turning back. Crawling on hands and knees or else dragging his legs along the balcony, past one door and a second, to the elevator. Would he be able to get up high enough to reach the button? His mind refused to conjure an image of the elevator—either he would or he wouldn’t. If not, then three flights of stone stairs. That would take longer and perhaps he’d take a tumble but he’d make his way down. His body was weak but he was stubborn.
Through the parking lot underneath the condos, and out along the flagstone path past the swimming pool. That would be the longest stretch. From up here on the balcony, by the light of the moon, he made out the wooden gate beyond the pool. He would use that to get up on his feet again, get the gate open.
He’d be standing then at the top of half a dozen concrete steps that led down to the sand. Would there be enough light down there to see the steps? Better perhaps not to see. Gripping a gatepost in either hand, he would throw himself forward and sideways, a clumsy, headfirst flight that would end in a soft, heavy fall. And gasping for breath on the sand.
The beach sloped gently and progress from there would be gentle too. Dragging his weight through the soft sand, along a silvery path towards the light’s pale source. Until the water took him, came and carried his old body away, sucking and rolling, and him along with it.