Float: A Novel

By: Joeann Hart


God Help Us.

The words, writ large in the sand, appeared on the beach after Duncan Leland’s attention had already drifted. It was in the pink of the afternoon, at the end of another trying day, when he should have been attempting something spectacularly proactive to save his sinking business, such as scrambling numbers on a screen or gathering somber consultants around him, but instead, as was his habit, he was looking for answers outside his office window. The sky was clear and blue, the water calm. The serenity of the day mocked the economic storm raging around him. He was now, as Harvey Storer of Coastal Bank & Trust had so coldly pointed out to him that morning, officially underwater. He owed more on Seacrest’s Ocean Products of Maine, Ltd., than the business was worth.

“True that,” Duncan had agreed, “but only at this very moment.”

“What else is there?” asked Storer.

A leveling silence washed over Duncan as his mind slowly emptied of words. He was opening and shutting his mouth like a fish when Storer, sitting across from him at the loan desk, leaned in closer.

“Duncan? What else do you have that might secure this loan?”

Duncan shook himself out of his trance, realizing that Storer’s was a fiscal rather than a philosophical challenge. “It’s all here,” he said, half-standing as he slapped pages of the loan application down on the mahogany like tarot cards. “Look, in the spring, our new line of fertilizer hits the market, opening a revenue stream so robust it’ll be like drinking water from a fire hose!” He displayed a spreadsheet thick with projections, but this banker, like the ones who came before him, remained unmoved. Duncan’s vision of rosy profits in the future failed to overcome the devalued assets of the present, and in that moment he saw his business begin to slide away.

He’d left Storer’s sterile cubicle in a funk and gone back to his office, back to the warm embrace of his chair and the tranquilizing effect of the harbor view. He fixed his gaze on the beach, a patch of rust-streaked sand so inhospitable it did not even exist at high tide, and let his mind fix on a plastic bag caught on a submerged stick. He watched the bag, alive with water, wash gently from side to side until his own currents of thought slowed to a listless tempo. After an empty space of time, the retreating tide abandoned both stick and bag to the land, and his hypnotic amusement was over. Looking back, he was sure of one thing: There had been no one on the beach, and there had been no mysterious message written in the sand. That was two things, but still.

He wondered if he might have been a witness to the event if the music hadn’t ended. He liked to keep an iPod playing on the factory floor, on the theory that if he was asking his employees to spend their days cooking fish skeletons down to a fine powder, then he had better give them some background music to divert their senses. If nothing else, managing the sound system was one of the few enjoyable duties left to him, so when a cycle of early Beatles ended, he turned his back on the water view to deliberate at length between Playlist #8 (Miles, Coltrane, and Rufus Harley) and Playlist #22 (Dylan, Joni, and Steve Earle) before abandoning hope of coming to any decision at all. He clicked shuffle in defeat and returned to his chair. When he looked back down at the beach, there, scratched into the sand, were the three-foot-high wobbly letters spelling out God Help Us. The surface was still reflective from its recent brush with water. The message faced the harbor, not him, so it didn’t appear to be a personal accusation, more like a random act of prayer. Or not. Worst case scenario, it was written by an employee petitioning God on behalf of Seacrest’s. But no matter who wrote it or what the intention was, it was a desperate message and a bad one for potential investors, should he ever have any. It had to go.

Down, down to the sea he climbed, taking the two iron flights of the fire escape to avoid his factory workers, who seemed to want so much from him these days, most of all an optimistic face on Seacrest’s future. Gone, gone, gone. It was low tide now, and his heels sank into the wet sand as he trudged toward the words, his footprints filling with water behind him. With the tip of his black rubber boot, he proceeded to rub out the message, erasing the d first, changing God Help Us to Go Help Us.

“Better,” he mumbled. More ecumenical, more in keeping with his Unitarian ancestry. Then he contemplated Us, that sweet plural pronoun of marriage. He rubbed it out. It had been the middle of August when Cora had asked for a little air, and here it was after Labor Day and he still hadn’t heard back from her whether she’d caught her breath. He stood very still, trying to quell the sour tide in his gut. How had the solid continent of Us become the scattered islands of him and her? They had just wanted what everyone else seemed to have. “Is a baby really too much to ask for?” as Cora would say. “They’re everywhere!”

He should have known that to have expectations was to court disappointment. Two years ago they’d decided it was time to add to their fund of general happiness, but nature had not taken its usual course in the bedroom. Was it her? Was it him? Or were they just a bad combination? But Cora, even-keeled as she was, wouldn’t let them go there. “No finger-pointing,” she’d said. “Let’s just get the problem solved.” And in July they began to take deliberate steps toward in vitro. At the very first appointment, he was asked for a sperm sample to test for volatility. He found the staff oddly humorless about the situation, and his jokes fell flat, but he got the job done. Afterward, it was he who fell flat. He froze in the hallway with the filled specimen cup in hand, locked in terror as if staring into a milky abyss. A nurse had to wrest the container from him, and from then on his marriage began to spiral down the drain.