Waves by Matthew McGuirk
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
A cool April morning isn’t the beach of my childhood. The bite of the air doesn’t match the warm sun; the low tide showing white eyes along the dark canvas of sand isn’t the umbrella dotted tan everyone pictures. The predawn silence doesn’t resemble screams of excitement from kids with their first taste of the beach or families chatting amongst themselves. The smell of salt doesn’t draw the blue ocean against the eastern shore, so I make my way closer to check that it’s still there. The repetition of crashes is hidden by darkness, black against black in the early morning. I walk alone and the beach is no place to be alone. The beach is a place to be present, not sinking into nostalgia.
The high tide had chased all the beach chairs up to the seawall. Kids crashed over white capped waves or surfed them back to the dune on a boogie board or their chest if the trip couldn’t afford an additional expense. Sandcastles melted below the high tide and umbrellas were set again, now on the back bank of the beach. Dad and I unwound the kite we brought for the trip. I remember picking the one with a knight fighting a dragon. His silver armor and shield held tight against bright red and orange flames on a canvas of blue sky. Dad grabbed the kite when we had enough spool, admiring it for a moment before taking off. I caught that light in his eyes as he began running; he hurdled blankets and chairs, newly formed sandcastles and picnic baskets. Finally, the kite took off and I watched it flutter against the high sun and blue sky. The riff of laughter when the kite caught wind reminded me of a child.
I remember holding the spool and letting it roll out further into the sky and my dad guiding me past the obstacles on the hot sand as I watched the kite gliding on the wind. I took my eyes off it periodically to find his skyward and a smile strung ear to ear. His salt kissed skin was burning across his already freckled frame. His arms were tightly coiled ropes of muscle and his green trunks fluttered a little in the wind, but what I remember most were his blue eyes and how they darted left and right and up and down with the kite like they were tied to that string.
On a morning as dark as this and with no other voices cutting through the rhythm of the waves, there is opportunity to find good shells, but my hands are stuffed in my pockets against the ocean breeze and my eyes straight ahead watching the gentle curve of the bay in the distance and not the sand which left a trail of footsteps behind me. The lap of the low tide against my feet is constant and reminds me of times we’d trekked along the beach during mornings and nights ready to search for shells or chat where the dinner table didn’t seem quite right. We were the early risers and the up-all-nighters; we let others sleep while we plodded along the coast. Now I am the early riser and the up all-nighter and I let my wife sleep while I walk the coast and think about my father.
The days were gone where perfect shells were found at our feet or others where we got caught in unexpected storms that came in sheets off the ocean and sent us back to the house ready for warm coffee between cold hands. Mostly, I thought about the advice he gave. I remember asking him about girls and jobs on those walks and he always replied by finding a broken shell. He’d hold it up to my face in the darkness like a white crescent moon and skip it out across the waves, say, “There’s always another chance, until you find that keeper.” Then he’d plod on and we’d walk with no words between us. The silence on this night was different, not the quiet understanding that followed his advice.
I remember that walk on a cold night in March. I told him we shouldn’t go in his condition and his hollow eyes and thin frame told me otherwise as he went out the door. We walked along the coast at low tide, but the shells had all been scavenged. There were no gems, no cracked or half shells, not even a sliver, just the black sea against the damp sand and our feet moving slower than they normally did. My father always watched the sky, but tonight his eyes didn’t leave the ground. We didn’t have words of wisdom that passed between us or words at all. He watched the ground and I couldn’t stop glancing at his shaved scalp, sunken eyes and diminishing body. The stronger gusts of wind sent him a step in my direction, but his eyes stayed on the ground watching for a shell someone else might have missed. We walked up and back and the black night had only gotten darker, no winks of white scattered across the sand to light our way.
I turn my eyes toward my feet scanning the sand for a shell, something to fit my memory. I grab one, half-buried, and pull it to the surface. The scalloped edges form the perfect shell. I look at it, turning it over in my hands and feeling the sea breeze collect strength. I think about my dad and the ocean, I think about kites in the sky with knights fighting dragons and shells scattered on sand. Mostly, I think about the ocean’s lessons and the things we can learn from something that has been around longer than we have. I hold the shell up as I see that wink of color coming out over the Atlantic and feel a touch of a smile cross my lips.
Matt McGuirk teaches and laughs at his puns by day and scribbles somewhat coherent words nightly. He lives with his family in rural New Hampshire. Words in The Daily Drunk Magazine, Goat’s Milk, Idle Ink, Literally Stories, New World Writing, Sleet Magazine and Versification. Twitter handle: @McguirkMatthew and Instagram @mcguirk_matthew.