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In his final week of training at the recruit depot in San Diego, Mitchell watched a fellow Marine drown. The Marine, Mathews, was eighteen or nineteen, a former Mormon from Moab, Utah, though Mitchell had not known him really, had never spoken to him, and when they dragged the ocean for his body, he stood on the beach and drank beer and watched with the same detached interest as the rest of the Marines.

Two days later he called up his mother from the bus station in Costa Mesa.

"I'm back," he said. "I'm home."

His mother showed up at the bus station just as it was getting dark, and on the ride home, as they drove along the coastal highway, he tried to explain it to her. He told her the story, how he had been on the same boat with Mathews when it happened, less than twenty feet away, but somehow it came out wrong. The story, the way he told it, sounded false and empty, and later, as they ate dinner out on the back deck, he realized that he had left out everything about afterward--about the fact that when Mathews went under, when he disappeared, he had felt nothing at all.

Now Mitchell had been home almost three weeks and he hadn't brought up Mathews once, though he thought about him often--at night, lying in bed, or during the day as he drove along the beach. Most of the time, though, the base and all of his training there seemed far away, a distant place, and he did not miss it. He did not miss the morning runs along the beach, the drills, the crowded barracks, the routine of everything. He did not miss his platoon sergeant or the other recruits. Like so many things in his life, it had been a mistake, a bad decision, and now he was faced only with the full uncertainty of his present life.

Since he'd been home, Mitchell had been mostly idle. Days he spent driving his mother's car down to the beach, looking for familiar faces--people he'd graduated from high school with two years before, or Kate Lapshaw, a girl he'd dated at that time. Kate was his age, twenty, and home from UC Berkeley for the summer. It had been almost two years since they had dated seriously, and though they rarely spoke anymore he still thought about her all the time. In the late afternoons he often drove out to the mall where she worked and parked in the parking lot and listened to the radio. Sometimes he would even see her walking out of the mall in her uniform, and he would consider driving by and talking to her, just stopping to say hi, but something would always make him pause, hesitate, and then he would see her red Toyota pulling out of the parking lot and it would be too late.

In the evenings Mitchell ate dinner with his mother in front of the TV. That evening, like most, he had wanted to talk to her about the Marines, and about Mathews. He had wanted to explain that he hadn't known Mathews, had never spoken to him, but even so, he had been there. He had seen it. Sometimes he believed she would understand. His mother was a sad, gentle woman, who had always supported everything he did, respected his decisions, and never asked questions or lectured him when he'd made mistakes. Each morning Mitchell drove her to the Montessori nursery school where she taught and then at four o'clock each afternoon he picked her up again. When they were alone together, they rarely spoke of his father, who had moved to San Jose three years before, but Mitchell liked to believe there was an understanding there, a connection that had grown between them since the divorce.

After dinner, his mother sat with him out on the deck in their backyard while he smoked. On a clear evening like tonight, you could see the whole way across the bay to the houses and small buildings on the peninsula where Kate lived.

"I might be leaving for a little while," he told his mother as she thumbed through the paper.

"Where to?" she asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I guess that's the point."

"Well, let me know when you find out."

"Maybe up north," Mitchell said.

His mother nodded.

Mitchell liked that his mother respected his privacy and never pried. When he had come back from the Marines, she had not asked questions about why he was not returning, and when he'd dropped out of San Diego State in his second semester she had simply asked if he was happy with his decision, and when he'd said he was, she'd taken him out for lobsters and beer. Before the Marines, Mitchell had lived alone with his mother for a year. He'd worked at American Grill in the marina most of that time. Every night he'd brought home paper bags full of greasy leftovers, fries and cheeseburgers, which they would have for dinner, his mother joking that American Grill would be the death of them. Mitchell had always tried to smile, even laugh, when his mother made these types of jokes. It was something he'd grown up with and was used to, though lately her humor had begun to sadden him.

Now Mitchell's mother spent most of her evenings with a man from work named Carl. Carl was an older, tanned man, who was retired, but volunteered occasionally at the Montessori school. Three or four nights a week Carl came over to the house and played scrabble and drank gin out on the porch with his mother. Sometimes Mitchell would hear them laughing and talking loudly about the people they worked with. But when Carl was not around his mother never brought his name up, except occasionally in reference to a story he had told her.

The sun was descending now on the other side of the bay and after he finished his cigarette Mitchell stood up. "I'm going to take the car tonight," he said.

"Where are you going?" his mother asked.

"I don't know," he answered. "To a party maybe."

His mother nodded. "Well, have fun," she said. "Be a gentleman."

"Always," Mitchell said, winking at her. His mother's face looked sallow, worn, and he wondered if she had wanted him to stay home with her tonight. It was times like this that he understood the guilt his father often spoke about.

"Hey," he said, touching his mother's hand. "Are you going to be okay?"

"If you mean, do I think I'm going to die tonight, then no, I think I'll probably live all the way through."

"Not funny," Mitchell said.

"I was joking," his mother smiled.

"I know," Mitchell said. "It's not funny."

There were parties almost every night across the bay and Mitchell had hopes of running into Kate. Mitchell wanted to apologize to her. He'd regretted going to her house the day before. He realized he should have called first. He should have asked instead of just showing up. Yesterday he had stopped by and found Kate and her friends in the backyard, sunning themselves by the side of her pool. He had stood outside the tall metal fence that surrounded the pool and when no one had noticed him he'd jumped up onto the fence like they'd done in training camp and pretended he was going to climb over. Now he didn't know why he'd done that. It was stupid. At the time it had seemed funny, a joke, but now he realized it had frightened her. Kate had started to scream and then her father had rushed out onto the patio and Mitchell had suddenly felt embarrassed and climbed back down. He had nodded at Kate's father, a small balding man, who had looked confused and not recognized him.

"Jesus, Mitchell. What are you doing?" Kate had said.

"I want to talk," he'd said.

"Aren't you supposed to be in San Diego or something?"

"That's part of what I want to talk about."

Kate's friends had not looked at Mitchell as he'd tried to explain himself and, finally, he had just told Kate he would call her later and left.

Now, as Mitchell cruised along the Pacific Coastal Highway, he tried not to think about Kate. It was only a twenty minute drive to the other side of the bay, and he knew where the parties would be--the same beach houses where he had gone to parties in high school. During the year the beaches and the marina were often empty, but in the summers everyone came home and it was like high school again, almost exactly how he'd remembered it.

Sometimes Mitchell would see a group of kids he recognized from his graduating class sitting at outdoor bars in the marina, wearing their college T-shirts and drinking beer. Only now, he didn't feel as comfortable around them, and they didn't seem as comfortable around him. They rarely spoke to him anymore, and he had noticed recently some had stopped making eye contact with him altogether. In high school he had shared beers with them, had sat in their parents' living rooms and smoked pot with them after parties. Many of them he had driven home when they were too drunk to stand. But now, when they saw him, they only smiled with vague recognition. "So, what have you been up to?" they would sometimes ask, politely, and he'd talk about the Marines and then lie and say he was planning on giving college another try in the fall. He'd say something like, "I've got to get out of this place." And they'd nod sympathetically.

Mitchell never spoke to his mother about his loneliness. He often told her he was going out with a group of old friends, then went to a movie or walked along the beach instead. He didn't want her to worry. He felt it would be unfair to burden her with anything more. Even if he had wanted to, he didn't know how to talk about it. It was something that had come on slowly, ever since he'd graduated from high school, and it was hard to pin down.

Mitchell parked his car along a side street in the marina, then walked along the sidewalk toward the lit beach houses where the parties were. It was chilly out, a breeze was coming off the ocean, parting the palm trees, and out on the water he could hear people on the decks of their yachts, laughing and drinking.

The marina parties were always big, filled with kegs of beer and loud music and people he didn't know, people who had probably just wandered up from the beach. At these types of parties it never mattered if you were invited or if you even knew anyone. Since he'd been back from the Marines, Mitchell had only been to a few. He liked parties though. He liked being around lots of people, even if he didn't know them. He always stood against a wall with his beer and tried to make small talk with whoever happened to be nearby. Then, before leaving, he would take something--a pack of cigarettes or a cassette tape--something too small, too insignificant, to be missed. He didn't know why he did this or how it had started and, afterward, he never thought about it. When he got home later that night he would throw whatever he'd taken into the trash.

But tonight he didn't feel like going inside any of the parties. Instead he just walked along the sidewalk in front of the beach houses, hoping to spot Kate or maybe one of her friends on a patio. People in bathing suits and T-shirts were standing above him on balconies that faced the beach. Occasionally someone would look down and smile or tip their beer to him and he would wave back. But after a few trips back and forth, he gave up and started toward the light of the marina stores. He walked along the boarded sidewalk for a while, then stopped outside a soft pretzel stand and ordered a Coke. In the distance he could see the lights of boats, small motor boats tooling around the marina. After a few minutes he headed over to a pay phone and called Kate's house.

Usually when he called, Kate's father answered and he hung up, but tonight he heard Kate's voice on the other end.


There was a silence. Then Mitchell said, "Yes. Is Jack home?"

"Jack?" She paused. Then she said, "Mitchell is that you? Jesus, what's wrong with you?"

He was silent.

"Look, Mitchell. You really have to stop calling here, okay. And the letters too. You have to stop writing to me." She paused. Then she said, "What's going on with you anyway?"

"I don't know," Mitchell said. "I wanted to talk to you about something."

"Well, I can't talk right now."

Mitchell continued anyway. "Down in San Diego," he said. "This guy I knew drowned out in the ocean."

"Look Mitchell. You can't just do this anymore, okay? You're not my boyfriend."

"I know. I'm not talking about that."

"I've got to get off the phone, okay?"

Mitchell was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Okay."

While Mitchell had been at the base, he had written letters to Kate. He had written about missing her and about how even now after two years he still loved her. When he reread his letters they often sounded sappy, full of hollow sentiment. He had sometimes written many drafts before finally mailing them. He worried that he came off looking juvenile in these letters. He knew that Kate had a serious boyfriend at Berkeley, a graduate student named Steve, and in one letter she had explained to him that though she appreciated his letters she wanted him to understand she was not interested in him romantically.

After that Mitchell had not mentioned anything about love in his letters. Instead he wrote about how he hated the Marines, about how the other privates were hypocrites and generally moronic, and about how there were too many rules. He did not tell her that he often messed up drills, causing the others to have to do extra leg lifts and squat jumps, or that he was not well-liked for this reason. He had simply written that he thought he had made a mistake and realized he was not cut out for military life. He had kept a picture of Kate in his locker during training and when the other recruits asked him who he was always writing to he would say his girlfriend at Berkeley, then pull out the photograph.

It was almost two years now since they had dated. But even so, Mitchell often thought about the nights they had spent together in high school, hanging out on the beach with friends, or sitting with her on the garage roof outside her bedroom window, drinking Cuba Libres and listening to the radio, waiting for her father to come home. And he often thought about the last night they had been together, the night before Kate left to start her freshman year at Berkeley. They had stood in her front yard and she'd told him then that she thought they should break things off before they started college. She had told him that she could not be tied down to anything right now. That she was only eighteen and there were too many things she wanted to do. He had asked her then what types of things she wanted to do, and she had shrugged. "Everything. You know, just things."

Mitchell started back to his mother's house around ten. As he pulled up the empty lit street and into the driveway, he noticed Carl's car parked by the garage and figured that Carl was probably staying the night. Carl had only started staying over in the past few weeks. Mitchell often wanted to tell his mother that he didn't mind, that she didn't have to be sneaky about it. But he could tell it embarrassed her, that she felt guilty even, so he pretended not to notice.

He entered the house quietly. Inside, he could hear his mother and Carl playing cards at the kitchen table. From the volume of Carl's laugh, he gauged that they had been drinking for a while. He stood silently in the kitchen doorway for almost a minute before his mother noticed he was there.

"Jesus, Mitchell," she laughed when she saw him. "You scared me."

"Hey," Carl said, spinning around in his chair to shake Mitchell's hand. Carl insisted on shaking his hand every time he came over to the house and he always shook it heartily, firmly, as if Mitchell had just returned from a long trip.

"Sit down, honey," his mother said, pulling out a chair. Carl stood up and grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and opened it for him.

"Did you have fun tonight, son?" Carl asked.

Mitchell sat down at the table and sipped his beer. Then he shrugged.

"It was okay."

"Your friend Kate called about an hour ago," his mother said. "She thought you were here."

"What did you tell her?" he asked.

"I told her you were at a party." His mother began to deal cards for herself and Carl. "She said she'd try again tomorrow."

Mitchell nodded.

"Do you want in on the next game?" Carl asked. "We're up to quarters."

"No thanks," Mitchell said.

Mitchell often wondered how Carl remained in such high spirits, how he was able to date a woman who was so clearly not over her husband. He looked at Carl and smiled. Then he finished his beer quickly and stood up to get another. He drank and watched the game and listened to Carl's jokes and his mother's laughter, which always sounded tinny, like she was laughing through a can. He felt okay sitting there, the beer relaxed him, and after a while he began to imagine telling them about it. There was this boy, he would say. His name was Robert Matthews. He was a Mormon from Moab, Utah. I didn't know him, but he drowned out in the ocean. It was during a drill. He went under. He just disappeared. He went under and he didn't come up. Not for a long time. Mitchell thought that if he told the story in the right way, the whole thing, the way he saw it--the patrol boat and the nets and all the other Marines standing with their beers--they might understand. But he realized also that he didn't understand it fully, and he wondered how they would react if he told them what he had felt later, standing on the beach. After he went under, he would say, I didn't feel anything.

Around midnight, after several beers, Mitchell decided to call Kate again, and walked upstairs. At first he just lay on his bed--the water bed his father had bought him when he was a child--the phone receiver resting on his chest. The lights were off and he felt a little drunk. He could still hear his mother and Carl down in the kitchen, refilling their glasses with ice and laughing. After a few minutes, he dialed Kate's number, and her father picked up.

"Hello," Mitchell said. "May I speak to Kate please?"

"Kate's asleep," her father said. "Who is this?"

Mitchell didn't say anything.

"Hey, are you that guy who's been calling?"

Mitchell hung up the phone quickly and lay back on his bed. He felt a rush in his head and closed his eyes. A moment later he sat up, opened the window next to his bed, and lit a cigarette. The wind was blowing through the palm trees down on the empty street below. Leaning on the window ledge, he could see a young woman across the street, standing by a blue lit swimming pool in the courtyard of an apartment complex. He remembered that he had seen her a few days before, walking her dog along their street. They had smiled at each other and exchanged greetings. For a moment he considered waving to her, but before he could catch her eye, she turned and headed back inside the apartment building. Mitchell reached for the receiver and called Kate again. This time Kate picked up the phone.

At first, he didn't say anything, forgetting for a moment why he was calling.

"Mitchell?" she said.

He was silent.

"Mitchell, I was asleep. My father had to wake me up. He wants to call the police. That's why I called before."

The phone was silent for a moment and he could hear her breathing. Finally Mitchell said, "Can I see you tomorrow?" It came out softly though, uncertain.

"Mitchell, I have another boyfriend now. This is something you need to understand. Okay? I don't think it's a good idea for us to see each other anymore."

He didn't say anything.

"Look, I don't know what's going on with you, Mitchell. But I think you need some help."

He didn't know what to say to this. It seemed that there were so many things he wanted to explain to her. About Mathews, but also other things too. There were a lot of things. But he didn't want to get into it now. Instead he just said, "Do you ever think about that time anymore? Like when we used to go out on your roof? Do you ever think about that stuff?"

"Jesus Mitchell," Kate said. "You make this so hard for me." There was a long silence. Then she said, "Of course I think about that time. But mostly I just worry about you, Mitchell. I really do. I worry about you."

The line was silent for a moment, quiet, and then she hung up, and he lay back on his bed.

It was late, around one o'clock, when he heard Carl stumbling up the stairs. He listened to Carl run water in the bathroom sink and then, a few minutes later, walk into his mother's bedroom. Carl usually went to sleep before his mother on the nights he stayed over. His mother claimed that the medication she took kept her up, but Mitchell knew it was more than that. He could hear her downstairs in the kitchen now, stacking glasses in the dishwasher, running the faucet. Sometimes she would stay up all night, cleaning the house or reading novels out on the back patio. Since he'd been home, he had fallen into the habit of lying in bed, listening to her move around the house. Most of the time this sound comforted him, though some nights he would also hear her crying down there and he would have to put on his Walkman in order to fall asleep.

After a while Mitchell wandered downstairs. He found his mother sitting outside on the wooden patio deck, staring at the ocean and the houses along the hills across the bay. The patio lights were off and it was dark out on the deck and still cold. He stood next to her and lit a cigarette.

When his mother noticed him, she waved the smoke away from her face. "You know, I've heard that smoking is a pretty bad habit," she said.

Mitchell looked at her, then put his cigarette out on the porch. He sat down next to her then and his mother, as if sensing his unhappiness, reached out and held his hand. She smiled at him, but it was the forced smile of someone who was old, someone who was near the end of their life, and he suddenly felt like he might cry.

"What is it?" she said.

And he wondered at that moment what he could say to his mother. Could he tell her that the Marines, like so many things in his life, had been a mistake, or that for a long time now he had felt the things he did were not the things he wanted to do. That he spent his days and nights driving around without direction or purpose, on empty beach roads, past the houses of people who no longer remembered him. Could he tell her that most of the time on these drives he felt hollowed out, a light, insubstantial thing. A ghost.

The wind was coming up off the water now and the cold air seemed to move through him. He leaned into his mother, into the warmth of her arms, and then embraced her firmly, as if afraid that the full weight of his love for her might suddenly make her vanish.
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Author:Porter, Andrew (American short story writer)
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Short story
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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