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Sea Change

I was walking down to the Red Skiff for eggs and anadama toast. The air was clear, the sky was blue, the water was calm and the town was still. It was a day full of brightness.

I heard a siren, but I couldn’t see where it was coming from. You don’t hear a lot of sirens in Rockport. It’s a compact and clean little vacation town. Hard to imagine the need for sirens.

But I heard it and it seemed to be coming from a boat that was racing across the water faster than I’d ever seen a boat go. Then the siren was swallowed as it rounded the jutting headland that separates Back Beach from Front Beach.

I had to walk past Front Beach to get to the Red Skiff and when I got there I saw police cars criss-crossing the street. I saw people milling around, looking worried. Two girls were sobbing and a young man was running furiously off to tell someone something bad.

“What happened?” I asked a man standing nearby.

“A diver got in trouble,” he said. “The lifeguard couldn’t find him. One of the guys on the roof there . . . ,” he gestured to the cedar shake house we were standing in front of, “saw him. Went and got a snorkel and a mask and found him at the bottom. Six feet underwater,” he paused, “I guess it’s not looking too good for the diver.”

He said “divah.” He was local.

“It’s so sad,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, “It’s awful. Nobody deserves it. And mostly here it’s quiet, you know? Nothing bad ever happens.”

He was local. He was defending his town.

“Yeah,” I said.


We stood there a minute, not speaking. To walk away seemed apathetic, dismissive. But there was nothing else to do. So I said good-bye and walked on to the Red Skiff.

The Gloucester newspaper said the scuba diver died without regaining consciousness. It said he had been the Rockport Little League coach, Chamber of Commerce president and an innkeeper. He ran a little breakfast joint directly across from Front Beach within easy sight from where he died.

On the day of his viewing, throngs of people crowded the parking lot of the funeral home waiting to go in and say good-bye to this man who had died in the sea.

A few years ago I was lying on the beach watching a woman walk up and down its entire length. She looked worried. Eventually she went over to the lifeguard and we watched while the lifeguard got off his chair and the two of them walked up and down the length of the beach again. We caught a little bit of what the woman was saying. Her husband was missing. She didn’t know where he had gone; maybe he was in the water, in distress.

We waited, expecting the lifeguard to clear the beach or dash heroically into the surf. But nothing happened. After a while we saw the woman again, not with the lifeguard but with another man, probably her missing husband.

The drama over, I rolled over onto my back to let the sun make brilliant patterns on the insides of my eyelids. Small-time domestic intrigue, I thought. Maybe the guy snuck away to go call his girlfriend. Or maybe he had a little bottle tucked somewhere in the car and he went out to the parking lot to pay it a visit. Or maybe he just needed to take a long time in the bathroom.

I wondered about their marriage. Then I wondered if maybe I was being too cynical. Because after all, the ocean is big. It’s beckoning. Maybe the wife really did have reason to believe that what her husband wanted was to give himself up once and for all to the unceasing shush of the waves.

After my mother’s death my family gathered at Race Point Beach on Cape Cod to scatter her ashes. That had been my mother’s favorite spot in the world and though I’m not sure she had ever asked us to, it had seemed as though it was the best way to honor a woman whose personality was as lively and tempestuous as the waves themselves.

We waited till dusk when almost everyone had gone home. The air was chilly and windy as we waded thigh-deep into the water and opened the box that held her remains. I read something. And then we each took handfuls of ash and released them to the water. Most of it drifted onto the waves and was carried away. But the wind blew some of it back on us so that our knees and thighs were dusted with ash and we had to wash them in the surf.

It was 100 paces—I counted them—from the little studio apartment rented for the week down to boulder-strewn Back Beach. I went out there with coffee every morning. Every night I walked down while the rest of the town was asleep. All during the day, if I listened hard, I could hear the ocean’s shushing sound underneath all the noise of traffic and commerce.

Even now, I sit at my table looking out the window at the tree-lined street—a pretty street, I know—I wonder why I am here and not there, not anywhere where I can see and hear the endless heave and shift of waves.

Full fathom five thy father lies,

Of his bones are coral made:

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

The Tempest, William Shakespeare

—Jo Page

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