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Dinner On the Pier
Dinner On the Pier
“This is weird.”
“Oh Bug, hush up.”
“Other mothers don’t date their daughter’s teachers. Why do you have to be the exception?”
Maggie chortled. “Singular, dear child, singular: teach-er. Because I love nothing more than torturing you. It’s my purpose in life.”
“You should go pro.”
“Besides,” her mother said smugly, ignoring her dig, “this isn’t a ‘date.’ And stop wrinkling your nose like you smell moldy cheese. We promise not to make out too much in front of you. Deal?”
“Oh puleeeze. You’re nauseating me.”
Her mother chuckled and then sat back, sipping soda through a straw, regarding her with amusement.
They sat at the end of the Imperial Beach Pier, just a short walk from the restaurant housed in the diamond-shaped building there. They had managed to grab the last available table—the one located farthest away from the building itself. Melody was grateful for that. The sun was setting and soon they too would be cast in shadow. She was already cold; she could use all the remaining sunlight she could get. The shadow would freeze her solid once it advanced over her, she grumbled to herself. She figured she had another half hour before it did. She thought of pressing the subject, then dropped it. Her mom was having way too much fun at the expense of her misery and was obviously itching to increase the good times. Melody had seen that face before.
The sun cast a painfully bright, shimmering yellow brushstroke across the jade-blue
as it set. Left of that, and five miles distant, the bluffs of ,
rose from under a diffuse white-brown haze of salt air and pollution. Melody
shifted her seat to take away some of the glare—but found that brought her
mother out of it, who was still smiling mischievously at her. Tijuana, Mexico
Mr. Conor was fifteen minutes late. Melody shifted her chair again to further decrease the sunset’s brilliance. But she still had to squint. And now she was getting goose bumps from the chill. And—
“He stood you up.”
Her mother took a long drag of soda, swallowed, and then replied, “My, girl, you are grumpy this evening! And no, he hasn’t stood me up. I’ll have you know I’m far too pretty to be stood up; and besides, my taciturn and snooty daughter just happens to be his prize student.”
“You have a crush on my math teacher. That’s so gross.”
“I most certainly do not,” her mother retorted instantly. “I’ll have you know this dinner is for purely educational purposes.”
“What ‘educational purposes’?”
“To ascertain which cute boy in my daughter’s math class she has such a monster crush on that she has forgotten about her mother, her dog, her other schoolwork, and her violin. This is an intervention—didn’t I tell you? The first step: admitting that you are addicted to tonsil hockey behind the outfield fence.”
“Oh, whatever, Bug,” said Maggie, dismissing her with a wave of her hand. “Mr. Conor told me this afternoon when he called to confirm dinner that there’s a boy in particular in his class that can’t seem to take his eyes off you—Seth Mueller, does that ring a bell?” She smiled silkily at her daughter. “Seth and Melody sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G….”
Melody was blushing furiously and fighting a losing battle to maintain her hard-won frown. She felt goose bumps race up the calves of her legs and asked poisonously, “When you were my age did you use ink to take notes, or were you and the tribe still using charcoal left over from the mastodon feast the night before?”
Her mother frowned, suppressing a laugh. “You just wait, little girl. Forty-seven comes around fast. I just hope I’m around to see your daughter give you the fits you give me.”
“Oh whatever, Momma.”
“Oh whatever, Bug.”
“Just try for once to be cool. I don’t want to have to hurl into your salmon salad.”
Her mother appeared to be in the process of forming a barbed response when she looked past her right shoulder. “There he is,” she said, motioning with her head, “just walking past the lifeguard tower now.”
Melody whipped her head around. Mr. Conor was walking up the mid-Pier incline in front of the lifeguard tower, his form appearing as though he was rising regally up the stairs of a palace to his throne. It seemed an appropriate enough analogy, Melody thought. Mr. Conor, she considered, carried himself like a king.
She found herself smiling.
(Which was okay, she thought. Her mother couldn’t see it.)
It was then she noticed it.
Twenty feet above her teacher a trio of seagulls floated in precise formation, as if waiting for him to toss crumbs or something. They were large birds, almost glowing white, with beautiful gray tips on their wings. They seemed very interested in him, following him all the way to where she and her mother sat.
As Mr. Conor approached he waved upward at the birds in a kingly gesture of dismissal ...
... and the gulls dispersed as if royally commanded, gracefully winging their way back down the length of the Pier.
It was then Melody noticed that other trios of gulls over the water had dispersed in the same exact fashion, and at the exact same time.
As Mr. Conor came within speaking distance, Melody, gaping, said, “Wow! That was cool! How did you do that?”
Her math teacher gave that familiar devilish smile. “Hello, Melody. Maggie—” he nodded in a half bow.
Maggie scolded her: “Honey, that’s no way to greet—”
“But didn’t you see that, Momma? That was incredible! I mean—” she stopped short, noticing the hard scowl on her face. She glanced up nervously at Mr. Conor, who now stood just behind her. “I mean—er—hello, Mr. Conor….”
He gazed at her with that same smile and then sat down after draping his blazer over the back of his chair. He scratched his beard and shook his head. “Stupid. That’ll teach me to toss crumbs from a loaf of moldy bread, won’t it? I’m surprised I’m not covered in bird dung!”
Melody gawked. “Those gulls were following you—because you were feeding them on the way here?”
Mr. Conor shrugged, chuckled. “My mistake. Silly beasts just kept following me. I forgot how insistent they can get!” He then nodded to both, as if introducing himself again: “Melody … Maggie … you are both looking quite pretty tonight….”
Melody was thinking still of what she had just witnessed, but at least had the presence of mind to say in unison with her mother, “Thank you.”
But her mother had said, “Thank you, Aedan,” and suddenly Melody’s mind was back in the present, wrenched there violently against its will. A frown instantly reformed on her face. It’s not Aedan! she thought, it’s Mr. Conor. MR. CONOR! I really, really hope I don’t have to hear that too many times tonight. To stop this first-name smarminess from continuing, she blurted, “How did you get all those birds to just fly away like that?”
Mr. Conor regarded her amusingly. “I’m a salty old dog, my dear. The birds know if they don’t I’ll eat them.”
Her mother chuckled. “Serves you right for feeding them in the first place.”
“Lesson learnt, yes.” He cocked his head slightly, conceding the point.
“Melody, please,” interrupted her mother, the slightest tone of warning in her voice. “Let’s move on, shall we?” She glanced at him. “Shall we eat?”
“Yes, let’s,” said Mr. Conor, standing with them. “It’s been a long time—too long—since I’ve eaten at Fisherman’s Choice. I used to come here all the time.”
“I imagine that teaching doesn’t allow you much free time at all,” Maggie offered as they started strolling towards the restaurant at Pier’s end.
“It doesn’t,” he grumbled quietly. “I take it you still have to go to the counter and order and then they bring your food out to you?”
Melody always thought this strange too; but Fisherman’s Choice was a wildly successful local eatery that had just gone national, opening several other restaurants on piers around the country. Her mother swept her arm around her and said, “To use a term from the Bug here: Yeah, it’s weird.”
She stopped short in mid-stride because Melody had stopped walking altogether, frozen in place with humiliated anger, her hands on her hips, her face a deep crimson red. Her mom turned and, wincing, mouthed the words I’m sorry.
But Mr. Conor was still walking. Without looking back he spoke loudly, his Irish accent very pronounced: “The salmon is excellent here. You should try some … Bug.” He chuckled.
The goose bumps were gone. In fact, in her terminal shame and embarrassment, Melody now felt quite hot, as though she had worn layers of winter clothing in subtropical heat. Her face burned to the point of physical pain. Her mother mouthed the words I’m sorry to her once more, raised her hands in a sheepish gesture for forgiveness, then wheeled about and scurried towards her math teacher.
In fact, the salmon salad was quite good.
But Melody didn’t really take the time to taste it until she had firmly resolved never to forgive her mother for her faux pas. In the meantime, she had consumed most of her dinner in a sour, solipsistic state of mind, silent.
‘Maggie’ (MS. SINGLETON!) and ‘Aedan’ (MR. CONOR!), after trying to include her in the ongoing conversation, had finally given up, content to let her stew in her own discontent.
Which was just fine by Melody.
Mr. Conor had told a joke, and as her mother laughed and Melody rolled her eyes, her mom, lowering the bottle of beer she was holding to the table, tipped the small bowl of calamari sauce next to her elbow over the table’s edge—and into her lap.
“Well … hell,” she muttered, looking down.
Mr. Conor immediately half stood, lending his napkin to her. “First dates, eh?” he grinned. “First me with the feathered circus overhead, now you—”
“Thanks for the napkin, but no—” Maggie smiled up at him briefly before looking back into her lap. “This needs a little more attention, I think … Besides,” she continued, rising, “I need to use the restroom.”
The calamari sauce had left a long red streak at the bottom of her blouse before splattering into a large, irregular star on her brown corduroy pants.
She shook her head. “I’m glad I’m not eighteen anymore … the dying-of-embarrassment schtick no longer occurs with me.” She walked around the table.
Mr. Conor remained standing. “Now I know the truth. The joke was so bad you had to conjure up an excuse to run to the loo—”
“Be back in a few minutes.” Melody noticed her mom gently touch his arm as she passed him.
He called after her: “Mind if I have an after-dinner walk with Melody to the end of the Pier?”
Her mom waved without looking back, hurrying towards the restrooms in the plaza at the Pier’s foot. “I’ll meet you there. Give me ten minutes …”
Melody gazed up at him. Mr. Conor reached for his blazer and put it on. Then he turned full to her. “My dear …” he motioned with one arm, stepping behind her chair to pull it out. The debonair gentleman.
The sun had set half an hour ago, the sky a deep pink laced with burning yellow ribbons of silky cirrus clouds high above, and white, puffy clouds from the marine layer below. The layer was slowly making its way back to shore, soon to cover them in fog. The sea was glassy and navy blue, almost indistinct against the horizon. Despite the fact the temperature had dropped several degrees, Melody no longer felt cold at all.
She and Mr. Conor stood at the Pier’s very end, on the walkway behind the restaurant, looking west. Her teacher was bent at the waist, his elbows resting on the wooden railing, his hands clasped together. Melody stood to his left. She sensed a great change in him as he stared out over the water. Sadness?
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” he said quietly.
She nodded, and then realized he hadn’t seen that she had answered him. She said, “I love coming down here to watch the sun set. Whenever I’ve had a bad day, this is where I come. Yaeko, my best friend, comes with me all the time. She says it’s her favorite place in the whole world.”
“Bet you spent a wee bit of time here after that day with Mrs. Lilywhite, yes?” he said, still staring out at the water.
“Try every day during, too.”
The sudden single motion in Mr. Conor’s back told Melody he had chuckled once, silently.
After another prolonged period of silence, he asked, “What do you see out there, Miss Melody?”
She looked out at the darkening waters, the settling sky, the bright yellow dot of an aircraft moving within it, and said, feeling immediately stupid afterward, “The … ocean, I guess …”
Another single motion signifying a silent chuckle; another long moment of contemplative silence. Then: “Did you ever think how—what’s the word you kids use these days? —radical? —how radical it would be if this Pier didn’t stop here, but just kept going on and on, connecting lands, kingdoms … whole worlds?”
The question surprised her. She didn’t know how to respond—and it seemed, oddly enough, that Mr. Conor wasn’t just playing at pretending here, but something deeper, something real…. She peered out over the water and tried visualizing … an infinite pier stretching over silent, vibrant depths, a pier connecting lands as distant as China thousands of miles away … a pier that continued, on and on, over alien, uncharted waters, ancient lands, lost empires, forgotten peoples…. But then her analytical mind, always naggingly present, it seemed, barged in, and she replied, “An infinite pier? The wooden supports would have to be seven miles long to reach the bottom of the ocean in the deepest places … whoa….”
And then she thought some more and added, “But it wouldn’t be an infinite pier—eventually it’d just circle back around behind us….”
He turned his head and watched her. “Radical,” he said, smiling.
“No, it’s not ‘radical,’ ” she snickered. “ ‘Rad.’ ”
“ ‘Rad.’ ”
Mr. Conor gazed back over the waters. Something seemed to be pressing on him, bothering him. He straightened up abruptly, as if he had decided something, and buttoned the bottom button of his blazer. “Come,” he said. “I want to introduce you to a friend. I told him about you—your maths abilities—and he wants to meet you.”
“But …” Melody hesitated, “my mom is expecting us to be here—”
“Oh, no worries, my dear. He’s just in here—in the back kitchen of the restaurant.” He motioned towards the door twenty feet away that led into the rear of the eatery. “A very quick introduction, nothing more. My friend works as a dishwasher here. But I must warn you: he’s mute, and a little strange to boot, so don’t worry when he says nothing to you, okay?”
She nodded nervously, but he didn’t notice. He seemed very uptight, as though he wasn’t at all sure of himself. He came to the door ahead of her and grasped the knob, which was rusting from sea salt. He flashed a hasty smile at her, which vanished a second later. After some effort the knob turned with a grinding sound. The door opened with a loud crack, like wood splitting. He motioned her to follow him with a slight toss of his head. He didn’t try smiling this time. Melody stood a good five or six feet back, but quickly closed the distance as he strode inside just ahead of her.
“Close the door behind you.” His voice was very serious and commanding. He turned around to face her. “Are you okay?” And then he answered the question for her. “Of course you are. Of course …” Another quick, edgy smile. He grasped her shoulder gently and said, “Left at the corner. He’s at the sink, I’m sure. Don’t say anything to him, I’ll summon—er—I’ll call for him.”
She walked cautiously down the short, narrow corridor towards a dimly lit room. Above her head was a ladder of some sort, hooked to the ceiling. The air was thick with the smell of fish. Ahead were the sounds of running water and the steady clanking of dishes and silverware. The hallway ended and she walked into a room. Now it was fish mixing with dish soap. Nauseating.
The dishwasher stood at the sink with his back to her. But no, he wasn’t standing, really: he appeared to be holding some sort of posture: his legs were spread somewhat wider than his shoulders, his knees bent to the point that his thighs, which seemed as thick and powerful as tree trunks, were parallel to the damp tile floor. His back was perfectly straight and rock-steady. His bald head was completely motionless, the diffuse low amperage light bulb that hung from the ceiling above him throwing an indistinct yellow sheen on his skull. There were two long white ribbons tossed over his right shoulder, tied ornately together with thin, short lengths of brown and red leather strung with intricately designed beads. It came to her that those weren’t white ribbons, but finely braided hair.
The dishwasher hadn’t heard their approach and continued washing dishes, his arms moving with a perfect, swift, relentless motion, as if he were some sort of completely integrated machine.
Behind her, Mr. Conor loudly cleared his throat.
The flawless motions of the dishwasher slowed perceptibly, as though an invisible knob that controlled his speed had been carefully turned down, as though the internal momentum of the machine controlling him was tremendous and needed time to properly decelerate. Those motions continued slowing, slowing, slowing to a crawl … ceased altogether. The dishwasher lowered the pan he was holding and then brought his hands to his sides, his legs bent as deeply as ever…. He remained perfectly still for what seemed to be minutes, but Melody wasn’t sure. Her heart was thumping wildly in her chest; she felt herself shaking with fright—
From behind her, an Irishman: “I am here, Melody Singleton. There is nothing to fear.”
The dishwasher rose slowly, straightening his powerful legs; and then, as if made of a single, massive gear, he turned until he faced them.
Mr. Conor said, “Harry, this is Melody Singleton. This is the … student I told you about. Melody, this … this is Harry Chin.”
Melody gave the slightest of nods and forced a nervous, close-lipped smile to her mouth.
Harry Chin stared at her math teacher briefly, and then gradually brought his attention to her. He was a short man, maybe two or three inches past five feet—Melody’s height at best. He had strong Asian features, his eyes dark slits, his skin yellow. The twin strands of his pearly-white beard fell down the barrel of his chest and beyond, perhaps half as long as he was tall. He brought his gaze to Melody and then began walking towards her, his face completely expressionless, his black eyes—
She gasped. His black eyes had no whites in them, and no pupils—
—and Melody found she could not break the stare, and knew somehow very deep inside herself it would be pointless to try. Harry Chin continued approaching her until he was perhaps a foot or less from her. But she hadn’t noticed. Harry Chin’s eyes held her completely transfixed. She hadn’t noticed that the kitchen, Mr. Conor, the Pier, the planet … had disappeared. She had fallen into the dishwasher’s eyes as into a bottomless well…. She was falling, weightless, losing sense of herself with every passing moment….
She found herself floating … swimming … in limitless twilit stillness, perfectly clear, tranquil as the deepest sleep. She breathed, but her lungs felt as though she could inhale forever; when she exhaled it felt as though she could create whole hurricanes with the slightest of efforts. She felt as if she could identify every single red blood cell in her body: blood as vibrant and energetic and dense as the fiery matter in the heart of a star. Her eyes … her eyes felt like they could see anything, eyes like twin beams of solid light, powered and connected to a source of awareness so vast she felt herself vanishing to utter insignificance when she moved into it. There was music playing somewhere … everywhere … it was … it was the melody! It was the melody she had heard inside her spirit her entire life! It was incredible, beautiful, beyond beautiful … a symphony that filled her senses to overflowing, to bursting, her spirit lifted and transformed until it felt as if she were the music….
And suddenly, in that single tick between two anonymous seconds unchained from eternity, and therefore forgotten immediately afterward, the music’s ultimate meaning became crystal clear to her. The immensity of it. The responsibility. The courage she would need! It was too much! She shrank into that immensity, the music silenced, and then shrank further still. Blind fear shot through her—she was going to disappear from existence! From the very core of her being she cried out, pushing violently against the lightless void that threatened to consume her—
—and the black, pupilless eyes were back. Melody gasped—and in that tiny instant she thought she saw those eyes widen very slightly in surprise. Harry Chin held her gaze for a few moments longer, and then looked up at Mr. Conor behind her. The dishwasher nodded once: three inches down, three inches up, like a sphinx in wintertime. She heard her teacher whisper incredulously: “I’ve never seen anything like that….”
And then, as Melody’s mind reeled and as she fought to make sense of what just happened, he added quickly, “Harry—thank you. My dear, let us be going. Your mother must be wondering where you are …”
He led her quickly back down the corridor, the dishwasher staring unblinkingly after her. Her mother was just rounding the restaurant’s corner as Mr. Conor closed the back door. She waved with a smile.
“Sorry,” she said, approaching, “got caught up in conversation with Alexandre at Surfing Bessie’s. Anybody want a cone? My treat …”
The calamari stain was still on her blouse and pants, surrounded by a larger blotch of dark, which must’ve been the water she had applied to it. But Melody hadn’t really noticed. The puzzling, mind-boggling encounter with the dishwasher had felt like it had taken days—but less than ten minutes had passed.
They strolled down the nearly empty Pier towards the plaza. Mr. Conor was very quiet, but Melody could sense something like great relief in him, mixed with tightly held elation, mixed with an almost terrifying sense of foreboding. He walked straight, just behind them, saying very little, his already intense eyes seemingly twice so.
The bright overhead orange lamps that lined the north side of the Pier were flashing on, one by one. Melody once again mulled over her experience in the restaurant’s kitchen with the odd, mute dishwasher. What just happened? It was like she had blacked out and had gone … somewhere else. Somewhere very peaceful, somewhere very joyous—that she remembered; that she was certain of. But she panicked. And that panic brought her back. She was certain of that, too.
She wrenched her attention back to her mom, who was asking Mr. Conor not to use Melody’s nickname at school; and he was responding with, “Of course not, of course not. Only during roll call, that’ll be the only time, I promise—but with the gym teacher’s megaphone, as some students have hearing difficulties …” and turned to beg him herself—
Melody saw them wing into view from beyond the orange glow of the lamps—seagulls. Four very large ones, flying in an impossibly tight formation, an angry white streak aimed directly for his head. In that millisecond she saw a black marking on their chests—a flat ring covered in flames and a broadsword thrust down through its center—but then the gulls had closed the distance between the gloom beyond the railing and her teacher’s skull. The lead gull shrieked—a shriek Melody had never heard from any kind of bird ever—a shriek of fearsome hatred—and then they were swarming over him, pecking madly, swooping up and then down again. Mr. Conor yelled, waving his arms over his head for protection. Melody screamed. Her mother yelled “Aedan!” and pulled her away while at the same time tearing off her sweater and wading back into the fray, waving it into the maddened attackers. The birds were screaming their hatred of Melody’s mother now—one came in with a great vertical dive, aiming straight for her head. Melody screamed, “Momma!—”
And then they were there: terns. At least half a dozen materialized from seemingly nowhere. Their sleek, virgin-white bodies were silent streaks of deadly accuracy. They attacked the seagulls ferociously and noiselessly, diving in with great speed, only to curve impossibly out of the way of a stabbing, screeching counterattack, only to swerve in again to Mr. Conor’s defense. They attacked without a sound, while the gulls’ hatred was unearthly and deafening, so much so that Melody had to cover her ears.
The seagulls were no match for the terns. One gull was flapping on the Pier as though in a seizure, two terns on top of it, pecking at it with a rapid and mindful military order that made Melody’s stomach lurch. Her mother was standing over Mr. Conor, who was half sitting, half lying beneath her; she was still waving away the gulls, which finally went on the retreat, hotly pursued by the remaining terns. Melody could not see the ongoing battle past the orange lights and into the blackness over the ocean beyond, but she could hear it clearly: the shrieks of hate were now shrieks of defeated pain....
Her mom was bent over Mr. Conor, who was propped up on one arm. He gave a bass roar of great pain … and Melody shrank back with a whimper…. Others on the Pier were running towards them, running to help, Alexandre, Surfing Bessie’s owner, among them—
As she did within the magical gaze of the dishwasher, Melody cried out and pushed against her fear. A second later she was sprinting for her math teacher. She stopped cold.
Mr. Conor’s face was covered in blood, his neck bleeding freely, his ear appearing torn, his clothing spattered and soaked in dark red. One eye was cut and closed and swelling hugely. His shirt was tattered at the shoulder, as if he had just fought a losing battle with a paper shredder. Her mother was on her cell phone to 9-1-1, yelling into it for help….
Mr. Conor reached up to Melody suddenly and grasped her hand so tightly it hurt. His hand was wet with blood. He bellowed in pain again and then said, staring into her eyes, “It was worth it, goddamnit … It—was—worth—it.”