George might have called it a perfect day, the way the sun was slicing through the deep fall sky and the waves were cleanly peeling, the way everyone seemed to have left their cares behind to play on the beach. An old man let a wave swallow him on his raft, a redhead knealing at the surf held her baby closer and smiled for her husband’s camera, and two boys erected a sand castle together. Perhaps one boy was to turn out a CEO and the other a junkie, but it did not matter just then—for just then they were both perfect, as was the old man on his raft, and the redhead and the redhead’s baby and the three grommets shredding the surf a good ways out. As were the pelicans in V swinging south, and the sandpipers picking over the fruits of the Sargasso Sea blown in by a recent nor’easter. It was one of those days that could congeal entirely into the memory.
It was the sort of day that brought back to George recollections of his grandfather catching sheep’s head too big for the oven and his grandmother tending summer phlox around a beach cottage, which seemed made out of the sun, the light beaming through the windows and the seabreeze flapping the curtains, inviting an afternoon nap. His mother swooped the net around massive crabs, which then crouched in a bucket, blowing self-important bubbles out of complex mouths. Escaping from the bucket onto the little pier, they snapped at poking fingers. After they were cooked, his family used to sit around the table on the porch—with hammers, knives, finger-dipping bowls, bowls for the shells and jealously-guarded bowls for the moist, white meat—and cracking, banging, snapping, crunching, picking and telling stories.
What a place to live! George thought, stretching out in his beach chair and thinking back on tales of monkeys at the gas station, a matronly elephant in a two-bit zoo, a shirtless old man with alligator skin and a straw hat, a headless ghost swinging a lamp down the railroad tracks, a battleship moving up the river like a giant caterpillar carried by ecstatic ants—the strangest menagerie blending with azaleas and crepe myrtle, and in the background, always, the steady thrum of the Atlantic.
It was that sort of day in Cape Fear—so crisp, so technicolor, so brimming that to seize its richness, one had to slow down and breathe deep and do nothing. And that is what George and Martin, Cheri and Ruth did that day, spending the afternoon on the beach after a month of setting up an operation that helped people who could not yet read become computer literate. Only that day was far from perfect, for the end of it brought great pain.
“Finally,” George said, “it’s taken off.”
He looked at Martin. “Over 100, and they all came for you.”
Martin put his hands behind his head, yawned and sighed, crossing his feet. “No they didn’t. They came for themselves.”
“And for your teaching.”
“Teaching’s for people who like to hear themselves talk,” Martin said. “You remember what you discover, not what you hear. That’s why I don’t teach.”
“You’re teaching Nogo to program,” George said, “but, OK, very little need to teach with what you’ve set up—true. I wonder if we’ve created the first learning arcade.”
George sat up and watched Martin. “What is it?”
Martin was sitting straight up and silently looking out to sea.
George looked to where Martin was looking. “I don’t see anything. Martin, what is it?”
“He missed yesterday.”
Martin nodded. “Anybody seen Nogo?”
Ruth slid her sunglasses back up her nose. “You know I’d tell you.”
Martin took out his cell phone and dialed and listened. After half a minute, he dialed and listened again.
“Oh-oh!” Cheri said, burying her feet in the sand. “He’s playing hooky.”
Martin shook his head. “Even if he absolutely has to miss, he calls. We’ll swing by there on the way home.”
The sun was setting behind them when Martin knocked on Raymond Gantry’s door. Several cars were parked along the street. The door opened, and Nogo’s 6-year-old daughter let them in. She wore a black dress with a little black bow in her hair. Martin leaned hard on his forearm crutches, bending down to put his face a few inches from hers.
“Hey, sweetie,” he said softly. “Where’s your dad?”
“He’s OK,” she said. “He’s with the angels.”
Martin nodded and swallowed. “Yea. OK.” His voice came strangled. “What a big girl you’re being.”
George looked into the house. It was filled with people quietly murmuring. Nogo’s wife, also in a black dress, sat on a sofa and cried, two older women flanking her, patting and squeezing her shoulders.
One of Nogo’s uncles informed Martin, George, Ruth and Cheri that Nogo had been found dead with a gunshot wound to the side of his head. The Army was calling it yet another suicide of a serviceman facing deployment, troubles at home, failed relationship—but Nogo’s wife kept calling the police until there was talk of committing her.
There was Nogo’s own gun lying beside his head and matching ballistics, and then there was a note in Nogo’s hand, left on the dresser in the bedroom. It said, “I’m sorry.”
That Nogo’s lip was split, his eye busted, and the entry had been on the right while he was left-handed had not concerned the investigators, who saw an open-and-shut case of suicide. It had been all over the news how the suicide rate among servicemen had skyrocketed in recent years.
Nogo’s wife said, “Did he split his own lip, too?”
The women beside her shushed and patted her.
“I’m asking you,” she said, “how’d Raymond bust his own eye?”
“We know,” they said, and they shushed her again.
“He’s left-handed, Mama,” she said, “and the entry was on the right. You think he did that?
He’d never leave me.”