DECEMBER 2006 / JANUARY 2007 – NO. 11

How Sound Travels

by Frank Smith

Fiction.


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1

The boat chewed the water under its prow while dragging a water skier behind. Egon watched its progress from the shore. He still had a few hours of the sun but decided to collect his things and go home anyway. A path up ahead cut through the brush and led to a bungalow that he shared with a dog and a TV set. Egon pulled a key from underneath the welcome mat and unlocked the door. From inside he could still hear the waves crashing against the beach and the screams of the gulls. The dog, a beagle, was hunkered down on the couch and couldn't be bothered to wake up from his nap.

Here Egon was free from intrusions and could think. At times the solitude was so strong that he thought he could actually feel the earth making its slow, steady orbit around the sun. That was the purpose of this. He'd unplugged the TV set, but it still stared at him through its one dead eye. The clocks in his bungalow were set to different times, and the phone was off the hook. Pocket paperbacks with broken spines lined the shelves. Egon had the foresight to stock up the liquor cabinet — a cupboard above the stove, really — and fill the refrigerator with beer and bachelor chow so he didn't need to bother trekking the mile it took to reach town. His only distraction was the couple next door who copulated loud and often.

He'd seen them unpacking their rental car only a few days before. From afar the couple looked respectable, when in fact they'd chosen this out-of-the way destination for the kind of rugged individualist sex Theodore Roosevelt probably practiced.

Just as soon as Egon had settled into the mental groove he wanted to be in that late-afternoon, the sounds began anew. He tugged at his hair, he'd cut it short to stay cool and the exposure to so much sun brought back bits of blonde he hadn't known since he was a child. Stale coffee curdled in his stomach. The dog lifted its head and howled as the grunting and moaning began. The walls in these bungalows were thin, to be sure, but there was a fair piece of distance between them. Egon only assumed another bungalow existed on the west side of his. He'd never explored that far. A patch of trees stood in the way. He stood in the center of the room and rubbed away a curl of sunburnt skin from his shoulder. His body was warm and glowed light brown in most places, but was still pasty white around his belly and chest. He'd packed on a few pounds in the last few years and no longer felt comfortable with his shirt off around strangers. He was the man at the beach wearing a T-shirt.

There was only one thing left for him to do:  Egon went to the fridge and filled his knapsack with cans of beer and a packet of hot dogs. He'd build a fire out by the dunes once the sun had set and maybe watch some water skiers wipe out in the interim.

"C'mon, pup. Up and at 'em." Egon slapped the animal on its haunches and shoved it off the couch. "We have to move now." The dog sneezed. It padded over to the front door and whined. Egon opened the door and let the dog nose its way out. The lady next door let go with the kind of moan that stops both man and beast in their tracks. "Whew," Egon said. "That made me want a cigarette." He nudged the dog on its way and followed shortly thereafter with visions of bedpost-dented walls and shattered picture frames littering his mind. They wound their way to the path that led to the beach just as bad rock music began to blast from the cabin. It caused Egon to wonder aloud:  "Why do people with the worst taste in music insist on listening to it so loud?

The dog offered no answers.

The ocean had vomited jellyfish onto the beach. Egon used a hefty stick to chuck them back into the water. He'd stepped on one once, as a child. His mother made the mistake of soaking his foot in baking soda and water. The baking soda dulled some of the pain, but the water helped the venom spread enough to cause an allergic reaction that put him in the hospital overnight. The last of the jellyfish was obstinate. Egon swore that it moved towards him when he first approached with his stick. He left that one alone and instructed the dog not to eat it.

Egon squeezed a healthy dollop of lighter fluid onto the wood and the fire found life. He watched the flames lick oxygen and tossed an empty can into the fire's heart. The dribble of beer still inside the can sizzled and popped as the paint went black and the aluminum began to lose its shape.

Egon rested his head on the dog's back and stared at the stars. The waves lapped against the shore. It was too dark and too far away to discern the spot at which the ocean met the horizon, but the light shining from above kept a dark hint of blue in the sky and in the water that was enough to keep a person from going mad from staring at the void.  

A woman's scream tore through the ether. The dog hopped to, knocking Egon away, and bounded towards the surf. Egon stood up fast and tossed his beer into the air. He ran towards the sound, kicking up sand, and soon left the dog behind. He was not the only one to respond to the scream.

There, a few yards away his next-door neighbor was crumpled on the ground. She clutched her knees against her chest and rubbed the exposed foot that was pumped full of jellyfish toxin. She was entirely nude. The moon silhouetted her bosom while shadows blanketed her other parts. Egon stumbled as he slowed down. The girl looked at him incredulously. Her dark, wet hair clung to the sides of her face, beads of water glistened on her shoulders, and her mouthed formed an "O" — but before Egon could say a word, an enormous weight crashed into him and wrapped itself around his torso. The added density pulled him to the ground and kept him there. Wet, naked flesh pressed against his chinos and T-shirt. "Oh," Egon said. A heavy fist pounded his head into the sand hard enough to pop his ears, and the shock knocked him out cold.


2

Time passed. The moon's pull brought waves crashing against the beach as the earth continued its orbit around the sun. A breeze tickled Egon's body and made him shiver. He reached for his bedsheets and instead filled his hands with sand. His eyes rolled into place and kicked up the shutters of his eyelids. The dog lapped his face with its tongue and brought Egon back to his senses. His bottom lip was split on the inside, cut by his bottom teeth, and his jaw was sore and swollen. He rolled over to find that he was alone, even the jellyfish had abandoned him. Egon hauled himself up and staggered back to the campfire where he kicked what was left of it into embers and headed towards home, dragging his knapsack behind him along the way. The dog followed close by, occasionally pausing to sniff at the sand where the jellyfishes once were.

All of the lights were on at the neighbor's house, and Egon briefly considered pelting their windows with rocks. He spilled the contents of his knapsack onto the porch while rooting underneath the mat for his key. The clatter of beer cans, both empty and full, aroused the attention of his neighbor. Egon heard the screen door of their bungalow next door spring open and smack against the house, but pretended not to notice. He steeled himself as the sound of footsteps plodding against the ground grew louder and closer as his neighbor bounded across the lawn to apologize. Would he be struck again for a violation he hadn't intended?

"Hey," said the neighbor, the man. Egon turned slowly around to face him.

He was of average height, stocky, and wore dungarees and a pink polo shirt. He stopped just short of the porch, where some innate sense of good manners told him it was polite, and said:  "I'm really sorry for what happened back there. I heard my wife screaming, saw you, and just got spooked.

Egon touched his busted lip and looked at the dog who had plopped down on the porch to doze.

"It was those damned jellyfish," the man said.

"How is she now?" Egon said.

"Better. Listen, y'know, we've been here almost a week now —"

"Has it really only been a week?"

"Yeah. Hey, pup." The neighbor bent down to pat the beagle on the head. "You got a name, pooch?"

"When I have to, I call him stupid," Egon said.

"Well, I'm Rob. My wife is Beth, but you already know her."

Egon introduced himself and shook the man's hand. He picked up a beer and offered it to his neighbor. "Might explode," Egon said. The can burst open in Rob's hand, leaving a puddle on the ground that the dog readily lapped up.

"Not much for formalities around here, huh?" Rob said.

"I've got some stuff inside if you need it for your lady's foot. That should take down the swelling."

"We fixed her up with some band-aids and whatnot. I'm gonna have to take a trip into town tomorrow to get some better supplies. We might have something for your lip.

"I just thought I'd dull it down with a drink.

"That might do it too.  

Rob and Beth's bungalow was much homier than Egon's. While neither was a pinnacle of interior design, the young couple had placed more of an imprint on their space than he. Pairs of shoes sat next to the door. Remnants of a Sunday newspaper were stacked on the floor next to the couch. Plates sat in the dish rack, and someone had thrown a scarf over a lamp to provide better ambiance.

"Everyone dressed in here?" Egon shielded his eyes and entered the room.

Beth was sitting on the couch with one foot propped up on a wicker coffee table while the other rested in a bucket.

"That's really not a good idea." Egon grabbed a towel that had been thrown over the back of a chair and went over to Beth. He lifted her foot from the water and carefully dabbed it dry. The wound had swollen into a pucker but, other than glowing bright red, appeared fine. Egon took some of the baking soda they'd used to create a bath and shook it onto her foot, then wrapped it with the towel. "The water only allows the jellyfish venom to spread quicker. They're aquatic creatures, after all." Egon released her foot and backed up towards the front door. He avoided Rob's eyes.

"I'm sorry that I screamed earlier," Beth said.

"Oh, no harm done." Egon attempted to smile; instead he winced as his lip — tacky with dried blood — unstuck itself from his teeth. He'd been sucking his mouth tight such that he resembled a tobacco-chewing little league coach. He sat next to the girl and tried to forget how lovely she'd looked on the beach. Inside this room she now resembled some injured and caged animal.

No one seemed to know whose privacy was being violated. Beth smelled like suntan lotion. She had a pink nose and looked drowsy from too much sun, or perhaps from a mild anaphylaxic shock. Rob, on the other hand, bobbed on his toes and played with a hemp bracelet when he wasn't fidgeting with his washed-out blue ball cap set backwards on his head. Egon pulled his T-shirt over his beer belly and shifted around to keep from looking too bloated, bloody, and unkempt for civilized discourse. They weren't incredibly far-apart in age, a few years maybe, but the things that each had seen and done to lead them to this place set them light years apart.

"So you don't know your dog's name?

"No, we haven't gotten around to that yet."

"How's that work?

"He showed up outside my door one day, and I've kept him around ever since. I put up fliers downtown, but no one's called yet. I should probably plug the phone back in, though. So I can't complain."

"What brings you out here?" Beth said.

"Me?" Egon was coy. He'd been practicing his answer to this question for weeks. "Have you ever just found yourself out on the edge, unsure of who you are and where you're going?" Beth and Rob shook their heads. "Well, it's like when you're not sure about what it is you want to do with yourself, or who you want to be. Do you ever just need some time alone to think? To be free from distractions and think.

"Not really," Rob said.

"No, I like people," Beth said.

"I'm not saying that I dislike people. I've just had some bad times recently. But I found this dog. Anyway, I thought maybe I'd move out west and start over. Lost my job. Lost my girlfriend. Nothing incredibly world shattering when you look at it on a macro scale, but it hit all at once, and hit me pretty hard. So I'm taking some time to cleanse myself of the bad vibes.

"How's it working?" Beth braved Rob's glare to place her hand on the stranger's shoulder.

"Sometimes if feels like just as soon as you can get the bad stuff out, something else forces its way in.

"That's ate up," Rob said.

"Yeah, well.

Egon rose to leave. "I think I've stayed a bit too long. I hope your foot feels better. Once the swelling goes down a bit you should check it for nettles. You can scrape them out simply enough. Take some antihistamines to reduce the swelling. I'll just let myself out.

The dog was waiting for him outside. He woofed as Egon and the couple said their goodbyes then led the way home.

"Nice couple," Egon said. The dog looked at him with its big, brown eyes.   


3

Sound carries differently when you know what's out there to hear you. Egon stared through his window at the lights across the way. He plugged the TV set back in to add some sort of outside life to the room. The beagle was sleeping on the couch again. "A dog needs a name," Egon heard himself say. The dog lifted its head and yawned before silently breaking wind and falling back asleep. "Maybe not tonight." Egon wrinkled his nose and went to fix a drink.

He had never been punched him in the face before. He held an ice cube against his swollen lip before plunking the cube, now tinged red, into a glass. He'd never seen a naked lady on the beach. It had been a momentous day. Egon sat down on the couch and propped his drink against the hollow created between his chest and his stomach. He draped a leg over the armrest and nudged a foot under the dog's belly, gently shoving the animal off the couch. The dog, nails clicking against the floor, toddled into the kitchen for a drink of water. By the time he returned, Egon was watching a PBS documentary about Nordic Walking.

"Er?" the dog said.

Egon patted the couch cushion. The dog backed up a few paces and lunged at the couch. It dug its front paws into the cushion as it scrambled its way up, dialed in circles, and plopped onto its belly. Egon rubbed the dog behind the ears and eased up the volume on the tube.

A wizened old man puffing on a pipe walked up the side of a verdant hill speckled with purple flowers. Like Egon, he too was alone with his thoughts. The wizard used two walking sticks that upon closer examination resembled ski poles to support his weight. At the top of hill he gazed out at the sea and thought of all the pussy he had once known. The hills sloped towards valleys and basins, roads followed twists through the land, and a Chatwinesque announcer came around a bend using his walking poles. He stopped next to a crumbling, stone fence that could be along the side of single-lane, idyllic European roads PBS documentaries seem to love so much.

"In Finland it's known as sauvakävely, but to many Europeans this exercise is known simply as 'pole walking.'" The announcer looked towards the horizon. The wizard had begun to descend the hill with his poles striking the ground in front of him to steady his pace and help him retain his balance. Meanwhile, three smiling women on holiday from university put on hiking boots and backpacks before leaving their youth hostel. They tromped across a fjord with their walking poles.

"Begun in Finland in the years leading up to the War, sauvakävely was a sport practiced chiefly by cross-country skiers who wanted to stay fit during the warm months.

Four Finns with handlebar moustaches, frozen in time and captured within the frame of a snapshot, admired the sunset bouncing off of the Saimaa River in a chalky, gray mist.

"Nordic walking engages various muscle groups in your torso." Chatwin touched his chest. "And the poles themselves absorb the shock —" He clipped a pole against the ground. "That is normally absorbed by your hips, knees, and back." He touched these points on his body.

Egon turned to the dog and said:  "I need some of those poles." He set his glass on the coffee table and heaved himself up. The yard was full of many fine sticks that he could use as walking poles until he could find something better. The announcer went on to discuss how pole walking was catching on in Baby Boomer strongholds in Vermont and Colorado, but Egon didn't hear the rest of the program. He was already rummaging through the brush with his flashlight in search of serviceable sticks. The noise was enough to wake the young couple next door, but fearing a bear attack they remained quiet and held each other close to ward off the darkness. Even after the rustling, grunting, and cursing could be identified and had subsequently died down, their bodies refused to relax back into a fitful slumber.   


4

First thing in the morning, Egon struck out for town with his walking poles and his dog in tow. The sun was still low in the sky, and the gasses trapped in the atmosphere had yet to heat up. Even so, his T-shirt clung against his chest. The dog panted happily and wandered off to sniff the scrub brush. Without turning to look back, Egon whistled every so often, and the dog would trot ahead closing the distance between them.

A rusted pick-up truck came over the hill. Egon moved closer to the grass and yelled at the dog to stay put. He caught sight of the man in the truck as he passed and waved. The brake lights came on just as the truck passed the beagle. The truck pulled to a stop on the side of the road. Egon wound his hands around his poles.

The door to the truck screamed open and a man — tall, frighteningly lean, but somehow delicate and unsteady as if a breeze could blow him away — stepped out. He called out something Egon couldn't hear, and the dog came bounding towards him. The stranger bent low as he threw out his arms and let the dog fall against his chest. Egon caught up to them just as the man was lifting the dog into the cab of the truck.

"Thanks for finding my dog, man," the stranger said.

"He's a good dog.

"Well, I appreciate you looking after him. You weren't the one who put up the fliers were ya?"

"Yeah, I found him about two weeks ago.

"I called your number, but the phone was disconnected.

"Oh, I turned it off.

The stranger's blue eyes pierced through Egon's skull. From up close the man didn't seem as skinny or as frail. Egon could see that he'd gotten this far in life only through sheer persistence. His intensity was frightening, but he turned it off with a chuckle.

"Fuck it, man. I understand. Sometimes you just need some time alone.

"Yeah, that's it.

"Well, I hope the dog helped you on your way. I'd like to take him with me now, though."

Egon walked towards the truck where he could pat the beagle on the head one last time. "You're a good pup," he said.

The stranger got into his truck and tapped on the brakes as he shifted into gear. Gravel crunched underneath the wheels as the truck pulled away. Egon watched the truck bump its way around the bend and disappear into the horizon's curve. He wished the dog a safe journey home, even though it meant he was alone again and the trip into town was too daunting to contemplate.   


5

Like the wizard, Egon climbed to the top of a dune with his poles to assay the land. He could see speedboats racing across the water, water skiers finding their grooves, and the spot in the horizon where the ocean spilled over the end of the world.

He decided to have a sit down and set his great, bit ol' brain a wandering, but just as the wheels began to turn he heard his name and looked around to see where the sound had come from.

Beth stood a few feet away gazing up at him. She shielded her eyes against the sun. Egon picked up his poles and shushed his way down from the dune to meet her on the ground.

"My foot's doing better." Beth held up her foot.

"Looking good. Where's your husband? He's not going to spring out from nowhere and clock me in the head again.

"He drove into town to pick up some medicine for my foot. We're leaving later this afternoon, so I wanted to get one last look at the beach before I go.

They walked along the surf looking for shells.

"Did you grow up around here?" Beth asked.

"No, I'm from the Midwest originally.

"So the ocean isn't something you grew up with."

"Nope.

"Me neither. We're from Ontario.

"So we're both cold-weather people, then," Egon said. They shared a smile. "Shit," he said, "I've never even been in the ocean, to tell the truth.

"What about a boat?" Beth asked.

"I've seen my share of ferries and such, but I've never been on anything that you'd want to use to sail the ocean."

They'd been walking arm-in-arm without noticing, and as they came upon the path back to their bungalows, Beth pulled away and put some space between them.

"I'm sorry for the other night," Beth said. "I hope you don't think poorly of us."

Egon touched his swollen lip. "When I first arrived here," he said, "it took a while to get used to the solitude. I forgot what it was like to be alone. The first night I didn't even go outside for fear of being seen. Eventually I was able to walk out to the tree line in the backyard. The bugs were buzzing, and the waves were crashing against the surf. I walked down the path and stopped right by that bench over there." He led Beth to the bench. They sat down to look out at the ocean. His arm rested on the back of the bench where it was warmed by the sun and the wood; ready to fall around her should she show the slightest provocation:  rest her head against him, scoot in a little closer. "I took baby steps towards the ocean. Once I got as far as this bench I went towards the sand, then the surf, and that's been it. I can only head out to the surf if I take the goddamn dog with me.

"What happened to him?"

"He went home. I suppose it's getting to be time I did that too."

"This vacation isn't ending how I expected," Beth said.  

The couple packed up and left later that afternoon. Egon watched them from his kitchen window and waited for one of them to come over to say goodbye, but it didn't happen. Rob glared over at Egon's bungalow once or twice while packing up the car and made it a point to follow Beth from the house to the car and back again each time. The afternoon faded into evening and Egon was alone once again.

He put on his swimming trunks and a life-vest that had hung on hook by the front door for as long as he'd been there. The vest was snug around his chest, but comfortingly so. Egon padded towards the beach without pausing along the way. He stepped into the surf. The coldness of the water assaulted his senses and tightened his balls. The salt water washed away the sticky sweat and made him forget the humidity.

Egon kept going until the life-vest took over and peeled his body free from the ocean floor. He bobbed forward and frog-legged away from the shore.

The lonely sounds that he made were for the universe alone. "Won't need to be out here long. When I roll onto my stomach, buoyed by the life-preserver, I can see the lights twinkling on the shore. I know where my house is. I've taken the worst the water has to offer, and I was on land, so I really shouldn't be as scared as I am." The more he moved, the more his body adjusted to the water, so he paddled out a ways and rolled onto his back so he could just float in peace. "What the am I doing in the ocean?

He looked up at the cosmos, the blue and the black emptiness swirling around dots of white light, and waited for an answer.


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Articles in this Issue

Introduction
The Fate of the Universe Lies In Your Joystick, by R. Cade
Our Dark Skies, by Arthur Upgren
How Sound Travels, by Frank Smith
Ebb Tide, by Frank Womble
Fourteen men, a plaque, and a mission, on Apollo 15, by David Scott
Preempted, by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger
Our Hero Has a Small Problem, by Peter Twickler
Space Politics, by Jeff Foust
The Turbulent Lens, by Alan W. Hirshfeld
The View From Above, by Karen Rudnicki