A Sordid, Romantic Tragedy
Even the breeziest towns can harbor stagnant secrets. Some secrets hush the gossiper’s lips before they can tumble out. Those omissions mutate into reluctant acceptance, washed across the faces of tired residents. Perhaps you’re a traveler touring other towns and you converse with the locals. At one point, a peculiar expression emerges from their widened eyes and furrowed brows as they suppress sensitive information. They don’t want you to tell the others and they may need to stop you if they fear you’ll talk. The residents of Cape Neddick understand that premise well.
The small cape is a hushed coastal town rippling in the icy Atlantic. Studded with black, glossy rocks and twig-riddled sands, it’s home to mostly-white golfers and the ghost of Phyllis Brooks, who occasionally steps outside of her haunted tumbledown to get her face pecked mercilessly by vengeful, unforgiving ghost Terns. Most iconic, however, is the Nubble Lighthouse. A neck-craning 40 feet tall, the tower hangs over the endless sea as its navy blue head is pelted with bird shit. Nonetheless, it stands tall. Its commanding presence guides both wayward apes and aviaries. Below it, the impressive boulder-clad foundation braces against the abrasive spray of salt water and misty winds. Most residents steer clear of the area. Nobody knows who turns on the generator. A small figure is often spotted hovering on the balcony before skittering back to the service room. There were always problems with past bird infestations, but the remnants of bird life no longer appeared anywhere near the Nubble. Most people shook their head and uttered a single word. Strange. Hmm. Weird. Anyway. The rationale for ignoring this mystery was the assumption that it was probably nothing, not that big of a deal, and not their business. That ignorance alone, however, was not enough to suppress the sin. Unfortunately, some people simply stumbled upon it.
“It’s a mouthful, but the specificity is important!” Dale Summers, rubbing the green-gray stubble on his upper lip, rolled his eyes to his crown, silently mouthing syllables. He gesticulated towards the tan chapel that grasped for the white sky. Saggy-armed tourists leaned against the cold railings. Dead grass flitted up from the uneven stones laid on the mealy earth. Spring was not as much a season as an intense mitigating period between the frigid gales of past Nor’easters and stagnant, breathless heat of barbecue season. It was cold, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Just like every year. The entire tour group periodically shivered against puffs of sea wind as their guide, Dale Summers, explained the title of the stone and wood chapel.
“If you are being absolutely accurate, you would refer to this small church as the St. Peter’s By-The-Sea Protestant Episcopal Church. The bishop would be here today to explain more, but he’s busy burning in hell for not being Catholic.”
Dale gesticulated towards his cross and kissed the desecrated body adhered to it. The mangled corpse of the Son of God flitted in the daylight, hazed over by passing storm clouds blotting the sky. As his chain tinkled in adjustment on his meaty neck, Dale continued his diatribe into the on-paper specifics. Disposable camera shutters clicked over his informative chatter while others admired the warm, red door nestled under the towering, uneven top of the cross-shaped tower. An inviting touch for such a pallid palette, the entrance cozied under the chocolate truss frame, heavy and hunkered below the open bell tower. The clapper, dangling from the lip of the bronze bell, looked like a curious shrew. It unevenly dinged against the ominous howl of the intermittent squall. A man grasped unsuccessfully for his tie-dye bucket hat as it blew away. The man took it as a sign that he looked like an idiot. It tumbled across the crispy, dead field towards a cluster of felled Hemlocks.
Dale was, at his core, a boy scout, and it gave him an unending pleasure to help those with weak knees and allergies to bees. He sauntered over to the dead wood pile with a heavy-footed gait. As he reached for the hat, he peered over a tattered branch. The salt marsh teemed in the horizon. The tall grass wavered in synch as the tepid waters rippled with tiny crabs. That hypnotic undulating brought Dale into his mind. The memories of being a child washed in arcade fever bubbled to the surface. After all, it was only a few minutes away if you followed the shoreline.
Short Sands is a quarter mile of dunes ruled by large birds and crabs. The very front of the double dune is embedded with a handful of cutesy cottages outwardly furnished with tarnished buoys and fake fish. A playground full of colorful metal pipes and some musty public bathrooms are valuable dune assets. Combined with the arcade, those locations create a trifecta of places to blow money. People with small, angry children usually never return to Cape Neddick for that specific reason. The sudden religion-induced bout of guilt tourists feel drives them to the Play-O-Rama, where you can take out aggression on flickering ghouls with a bright red gun attached to a cable. Dale remembered all of that and more. The purely hedonistic pleasure of treating an animal sanctuary like a whore enchanted the child in Dale. To this day, his regular fried dough consumption constantly threatens the function of his pancreas. He closed his eyes, immersed in the sensations of ocean life and rosy nostalgia, for a good long while. He timidly fondled the hem of the bucket hat while soaking it all in.
He whirled around to a rotund, red-faced man, bracing his chest with a film camera that rewound with an aggressive whine. He held out his hand for the hat.
“Should we get back to the hotel? Or at least finish the tour? It looks like it’s going to rain.”
“Yeah, yeah.” The tour guide nervously tugged at his shirt. “Sorry about that.”
He silently walked towards the Nubble Lighthouse. His pulse quickened as he wiped sweat from his neck. He had been told by the other tour guides to ignore the area entirely, but he had not been wise and heeded their warning. Dale had been sneaking onto the property for many years, doing many interesting things, and maybe a few disturbing ones. The shores teemed with little crabs and tiny flecks of green grass. Huge, bulbous rocks rested against the land mass, precariously stacked, molded by the harsh waves and blowing sands. The wind began to pick up as flecks of water pattered against Dale’s forehead. He flinched several times, awakened by the irritants of nature and the anticipation of trouble ahead. Through his water-blurred visage, he thought he noticed a small figure stood on the watchtower of Nubble, but he couldn’t be sure. His excitable nature may have conjured it completely. He had been keeping a secret from the community for the time he had come to live there. Perhaps a person heard a rustling from afar, but never would they think of investigating. Knowing of that security, Dale had been quietly courting a wayward albatross that had made its way to the shore.
She had cultivated a small nest atop a muddy mound and searched the range of the cape for a suitable mate with no avail. Her kind seldom stayed at the cape for too long, as other, more fruitful populations existed elsewhere. Dale was enamored with adoration for this beautiful beast. He had never seen such long wings and intense regurgitations. She had a pouch in her upper bill that contained pure salt water. It confused and excited him. Immediately, he began to court her, and since then, they have desperately tried to produce a single child.
The thing with these poor birds is how hard they work for how little they produce. An albatross perfects a mating dance for 5 years of its pathetic, observant life, and uses it on a single mate. This mate will be their partner for life. Only occasionally does an albatross get a divorce, and when it does, it’s always about the ability to reproduce. This is because they only lay one fucking egg per breeding year. After that, they must constantly survey the egg to ensure it’s protected from other predators and the harsh elements of the environment. On top of that, they can’t exactly go out to eat while they’re watching the kid, so the parents take turns gobbling up crabs and throwing them up into each other’s mouths for nourishment. They lose a ton of weight and are miserable, anxiously guarding their precious child. Once it’s born, they have to do the same thing, only for two people. By the time the kid is fat and healthy, the parents are useless husks of birds. They look like dirty Muppets, only covered in diseases. However, they never leave each other. The parents breed this way for as long as they can until they die, and that’s really the end of it. That’s the life of an albatross: tragically romantic, masochistic, and disgusting. Dale understood that life well.
He had been standing near the lighthouse for 3, no, 4 minutes – the Bucket Hat Man had counted. He had been quietly nagging the guide with questions like “Are you alright?” and “What’s going on?” while absentmindedly taking pictures. At this point, it was a reflex. The tour group was exhausted. Some people complained of finger cramps and scrapes from the jagged plastic winders on their cameras. There wasn’t a baby in the group, but if there was, you’d expect, at this exact moment, that it would start to cry. That would probably be irritating. Wouldn’t help the situation one bit.
Another lady piped in, somehow piquing Dale’s attention: “Are we lost? I’m scared that we won’t be able to go back home!” She choked back tears in an attempt to quell her fear, but she started pacing and whimpering to herself, making some other nice ladies nervous. Their arms swung forward as they started texting their husbands, or wives. You don’t know.
“I’m sorry.” Dale’s face washed over in a weird, pink hue. “This is probably the only opportunity I’ll have before the storm blows over. You have to be consistent.” He began to squat for a moment, stretching his arms in front of his chest. Bucket Hat man inquired again about the state of affairs. Dale could only repeat: “You have to be consistent.”
The group dejectedly took a picture of something close by. There was nothing else to do but shoot in the hopes it would make for a good story to annoy a family member or coworker with. The tour guide walked over to the bushes and started to squat. It didn’t feel right, squatting there. He got up and walked around, kicking some kelp over a cigarette butt. Dale noticed, and felt ashamed litter was strewn around a sacred mating ground. He kissed his necklace with a wet lip. Almost automatically, more cameras flashed and clicked, as if in an attempt to control the situation. It did nothing.
The Bucket Hat man pointed to the edge of the embankment, off towards the right of the guide, and shouted, “What the hell is that?” The group followed his finger, slack-jawed, but didn’t react in the slightest. They simultaneously began to wind their film, apathetically peering down at the numbers on the dial ticking upwards towards the end. Bucket Hat Man aimed his own camera. His automatic flash went off, and for a moment, he felt a sinking sensation in his gut. Like he had caught a glimpse into the shadows of something unseen. Shouldn’t have been seen. Now, seen, and evil. Angry. Vengeful. Aware of its own horror and torturous. The physical appearance alone seared itself into Bucket Hat man’s eyelids, awaiting any moment he closes his eyes, tries sleeping or starts to dream. The creature, seemingly wounded by the bright light, screamed in pain. The scream hit the man’s core and filtered like glass through his veins. It ripped through the whistling rain, spraying the man’s face, hiding his tears. Before he could recover from the shock, the figure, entrenched once again in the stormy shadows, scampered off towards the back of the lighthouse. The man crumpled to the grass and silt and sobbed quietly into his fanny pack.
Dale had turned to the group and swayed, almost drunkenly. His pupils were huge and glossy. His mouth twitched into a grin.
“I don’t think you understand how incredible these birds are. This is like Princess Fucking Diana levels of honor you should be feeling right now. You know how rare these birds are? They one of the largest in the world. They don’t fly around here, they’re fucking vagrants around here, and yet they make due. Their wings are huge. They’re even bigger than you.” Dale pointed to the man with the bucket hat, chuckling with disdain. He was still wiping away tears, sniffling into a bandana.
“They tear fish from the sea while they’re still swimming. They have a huge hammer hook on their face that can kill you with a single peck. They know how to fly better than practically any other bird. Think about it, what else is referred to as an albatross? A fucking plane! Jimmy Buffett used to own an Albatross plane! Cheeseburger in Paradise!” Dale started humming to the chagrin of literally everyone. Even the freshly insulted Bucket Hat Man recoiled in secondhand embarrassment. It was clear the last marble had escaped his head.
“… but what is most beautiful,” He paused, a hot band of sweat formed around his lip and brow.
Dale made eye contact with everyone, their eyes washed over in muted fear.
“The mating process.” It escaped his lips so sensually he licked them for one last taste.
“I’ve been doing this for two years.”
Dale squatted as low as his cargo shorts could muster. You could see everything at the right angle. His heels pressed firmly in the sediment and debris as he thrust his chin out, threw his head back with a distinct snap, and spread his arms out crucifix-style. He began to gag. The gagging became a kind of throaty “uluk”, until it became an understandable bird-like call. His head began to bob. The bobbing and clucking intensified as he began to slowly lunge forward. Then backward. Forward again, all while maintaining the sensual gagging, he looked like some kind of perpetual energy machine. One man braced himself, expecting projectile vomit. Another lady muttered the word “possession” in a sentence, so a few people got into an argument about whether or not it’s possible to become possessed if you are already wearing a crucifix.
A female albatross appeared, as if on cue. As if he knew she was there. Dale gasped with arousal. He whipped his head around towards the horrified tourists. His mouth frothed. “Don’t you see? It’s beautiful. It takes over 5 years to perfect the mating dance. This goes on for years! I’ve been courting this same albatross for years! We’ve been trying to conceive for so long!” His eyes were wet and flashed with a forgotten animal intensity. Overwhelmed with fear, an old lady fainted and landed on a pile of dead crabs. Somebody took a picture of it.
Dale suddenly stopped all movement, head still craned towards the clouds, and screamed. This scream became a hoot, and the hoot became an opened-mouth shout. He sucked in the salty air with a whistle before expelling a short cry that echoed against the rumbling ocean. The female albatross eyed him, seriously turned on.
The flash of another camera startled her, however, and she began to shuffle anxiously around the poised Dale. The rapid clicking and whirring of reloaded film began to drown out the sexy bird performance, and before Dale could regain control of the situation, his mate had flown off. He dropped his hands as she flew out of sight, and returned his gaze to the tour group, still squatting. His legs trembled with stress. His body gave out completely a few seconds later. Every single person took a picture. He sat pitifully in the muddy sand, silent, as the ocean roared and bright lights bombarded him in a semi-circle. His face paled. After the photography ceased, he slowly rose and slapped the dirt off his pants. He walked back towards the guide trail without a word. The group slowly realized and power-walked to trail him.
They had left behind the old woman that fainted onto the dead crabs. A horde of seagulls was swarming her, collectively attempting to lift her body up off the meat, but they only managed to peck her up a bit, and they got a taste for human flesh. They circled into a downward spiral, angrily shrieking for backup through the gusts of wind and rain. The rain matted the horde of people bumbling back to their living quarters. Dale Summers stopped for nobody. He had no more advice to give about trail safety. He had no interest in informing them about the different hardwood trees present or how Terns break open clam shells. Great. Now he had to wait until after the storm passed, as the lightning and thunder was not as erotic to birds as to humans. Out of spite, he had given these people entrusting their life to him the cold shoulder. Who cares if they survive? A human can produce up to eight or nine kids in less than a year if they’re lucky. They can be replaced, easy. An albatross gets dick.
As soon as the hotel was in sight, Dale turned around, back towards the lighthouse. A few stragglers, confused, began to trail him. He swung back, suddenly red and hopping with rage, and choked out a goddammit here and fuck out there, effectively shooing them away. He was going to get this done. At least do a half session, a couple grunts more could have sealed the deal. He always believed that albatross females were graceful, unlike human females. They don’t put out for years and make you do the same thing over and over until it’s perfect. That’s a woman worth waiting for. She’ll even throw up in your mouth if you’re worth it. The group staggered into the hotel, half-shocked, and plodded into their smoke-and-linen scented rooms.
Joseph brushed off the last beads of rain from his digital camera and swiped his key card into the door. For the sake of brevity, it actually unlocked the first time he swiped it. He kicked off his shoes onto the paint-flecked floors and walked towards the sink. His reflection jaundiced in the light, frosted glass bulbs yellowed by past cigarettes. He was getting older. He had been the same size almost his whole life, but it was a large frame that certainly aged his appearance. Maybe the kids would think he’s 50, 60. He’s 38. He leaned onto the tightly tucked bed, coughed, and turned on the TV. Dish. Nice. No porno, though. The air conditioner sputtered to attention and exhaled a waft of luke-warm dust. There was some banging noise going on upstairs, but he was certain it wasn’t sex. His mind felt empty, vast, blank. The past trauma was lost on him, for whatever reason, and he stalled to gather any kind of thought at all. He turned on his camera and pressed a button to review. Half-interested, he flipped through with increasing speed. Typical. Stones, crabs, birds, food, tourist attractions, the public restroom, sunrises, sunsets, grassy mounds, wet mounds, dry mounds, dirt and tar mounds, his own mound. Whoops. Delete. It was a good trip, he concludes. Not as good as the travel forum said it would be, but it may have just been his bad luck with the tour guide. He continued to flip through, attempting to reminisce about experiences just hours ago.
One of the pictures was incredibly dark. He zoomed in closer. Squinting, even with the lit display screen, he could barely make out a figure in the distance. Alone, in an empty room, he suddenly jumped, yelping and grasping at the back of his neck. He whirled around. He thought he heard a scream. He turned back to the camera and stumbled over the dials and buttons to adjust the brightness. As it slowly illuminated, Joseph furrowed his brow. New stress lines crawled up his teeth, gritting intensely. Almost reactionarily, he began to cry. He angrily held them back, whining in a furious, indignant tone. “No, no.” He grimaced, his eyes shut tight against the revelation before him. He rocked the camera in his hands with comforting overtones. He looked up towards the crumbling ceiling and let fat tears cascade down his face, into his ears. “No.” A very real and not imagined banging froze his pulse. He turned around. Someone was banging on his door. Pounding on it. Very fast.
“Hey! Open the door!” The banging became heavy and rhythmic. “Hey!”
Joseph grabbed his hat off the bed and placed it on his head to defensively hide his small bald spot. Even then, he couldn’t risk a situation where hair loss turns them off. He put the chain on the door and pried it open. The door suddenly buckled against the offender, rattling the chain. “Give me your camera!” The intruder attempted to stick his face through the small crack in the corner. His face pinched and reddened while he scraped it against the plastic, painted door. Joseph trembled, paralyzed with fear. He must be after the photo. That photo.
“You know what I want.” The intruder grumbled, huffing hot, angry breath through the opening. “Just say it.”
Joseph leaned in towards the crack. He whispered with fear and excitement. “Just say it?”
“Do it.” It was the voice of Dale. The glint of a crucifix reflected from the hallway light onto the door frame. Joseph swallowed. His throat felt hot and tight.
“Lighthouse.” Joseph squinted, bracing for any reaction.
“Go on.” Dale huffed.
“Monster.” Joseph started to cry. He began, “You.. you..” but couldn’t finish.
“You saw the baby. You saw our baby.” Dale paused. All he could hear was whimpering, suppressed behind a snotty sleeve.
“Yeah…” Joseph choked back a sob.
“Something went wrong. It wasn’t a bird. But… It wasn’t human.” Dale felt his face getting hot. He too began to tremble.
Joseph whispered, hushed by the heaves of guilt from dark secrets. “What was it?”
“It is my son. It is our son.” Joseph flinched as a familiar female albatross squaw sounded behind the bending door. “We can’t let them know he exists. They would bully him. They would bully us. The names, Bucket Hat man, the names.”
Suddenly sauced on adrenaline, Joseph bowed up and squelched out, “That isn’t my name! You never asked for my name!”
“Fuck your filthy pig name.” Dale kicked at the door. I don’t know where the staff was at this particular hotel. Joseph attempted to close it, but the albatross stuck her beak inside and carefully unlatched the chain. Dale kicked again, lunging and forward and squatting, in a both aggressive and erotic manner. He kicked so hard the sole came off his shoe, and then the sock ripped off his foot. His bare feet peeled the paint off the door. Joseph was using his entire weight to barricade the entrance, but he had only prolonged the forced entry. Dale began to laugh, tears streaming down his face, half hanging into the room through the widened crack.
“I hate the kid, too! When I see him, I’m filled with a seething hatred! It’s a reflection of my failure, Bucket Hat Man. Not just to my town, but to my wife. My bird wife. I can’t kill him. She won’t let me. So we compromised. He stays in the Nubble, he runs the generator, I go to Long John Silver’s and gag down 50 fried shrimps with tartar sauce, chug some booze, undertip, and throw it all up into a vat once a month. He feeds on that for a few days, we starve him the rest. It’s the only way. He can’t get stronger. We’re afraid. You should be afraid too. So give me the picture.” Dale rolled his eyes around, regaining lucidity. “Give me the goddamn picture.”
Joseph had enough. He pulled a small nail file out of his fanny pack and clenched his butt to brace against the pain. The bird’s beak began to stab wildly through the opening, nipping at Joseph’s side and ear. One strike drew blood. He took his hand off the door and grabbed her beak like a chicken’s neck. He socked her between the eyes like a shark. Apparently, that only makes an albatross more adamant about punishing you with beak wounds. Joseph realized that as he yelped in pain. Getting gored by an albatross was not as romantic or sobering as the rest of its lore.
“Please! I’ll give you the camera! I’m sorry! It’s a very embarrassing story, I get it!” Joseph through his camera towards the entrance, smashing it against the wall. It fell to the floor and was swiftly snagged by a haggard, webbed foot. He attempted to stop the bleeding, pressing his hands against his arm and neck. His fanny pack was now stained with bodily fluid, and he could never take it to Six Flags again.
“Now will you leave me alone?”
Dale laughed and kicked the door a final time. The wounded man stumbled backward and held his thoroughly pecked arm over his eyes.
“No. Now I’m going to kill you.”
He swung a heavy low jab at Bucket Hat Man. It instantly produced a huge, splitting welt over his brow and cheekbone, cracking like an apple against a club. His eye pooled with blood. Head swaying with concussive observance, he held the nail file above his head, shimmering against the dome bathroom light. Maybe he could cut him a little. Before he could muster the energy to swing his arm forward, another blow slid his head into the carpet, giving his scalp a little rug burn. He could throw a good punch for a bird boner.
Dale was crying now. His face was thoroughly soaked with tears and sweat. His face faded from salmon to cherry red, straight to the tip of his nose, wrinkled and tensed against the rolling waves of conviction and denial. He took his kicking foot and pressed it against Bucket Man’s face. It looked like a bloated, rotten grape.
“You shouldn’t have gotten involved in our business. You shouldn’t have worn that stupid hat. You shouldn’t have come to this stupid place. I can’t trust you’ll keep quiet about this. I just can’t. Not after the last time.”
Joseph blinked. This was most likely due to an automatic, pre-vegetative impulse from his bruised brain, but Dale took his sign of life as a chance to unload another long-suppressed, heavily recited trauma dialog. Totally making him out to be the victim, unlike all the birds he bonked. The female albatross settled onto the disheveled bed and probably messed it up real bad. Like, fine charged to your credit card bad. She peered over the mattress onto Bucket Hat Man’s sprawled, tenderized body. Bird satisfaction only comes with bird sadism.
“I told you I’ve only been here a few years. Well, the last place I lived was with my parents. A few miles away, towards the city. I found a baby albatross, orphaned, laying on the sidewalk. At least ten college students took selfies next to it, assuming it was a new city experience that would be marveled by their simple peers back home. It disgusted me. I needed to find out how to take care of it. So I did. I raised it. She was beautiful. She loved me, and I loved her. Yes, I was like her dad, but she consented, and there was no blood relation! She needed to breed, I needed to be understood.” Dale took a deep breath. His blood pressure was skyrocketing, evident by his pulsing, quivering gait. He had never revisited the past, let alone to another person.
“My parents were suspicious that I was constantly squatting and loudly gagging. I’d wake them up at 3, 4 AM, screaming and throating. I told them I was having nightmares, but they didn’t bite. The next day, my dad had the bird in his hand, shaking his head. My mom, crying. God, she never cried. Not even when her mom died. Not even when her dad turned out to be a different dad.” He bitterly wiped a tear from his chin. “They told me to beat it.”
“Beat it I did. I beat the odds. I came to this town. I beat the rumors. Nobody knows that I do this, besides you. I beat my bird, to that bird, and other birds. And now, I’m going to beat you. And then, I’ve beaten them all. Besides the bird beating, that is more of a daily, scheduled occurrence.”
Dale lifted up his foot and wagged it over Joseph’s head. Joseph could only feel the blood rushing towards his various wounds and escaping out of others. All he did was take a picture. He had already written the Yelp review. Truly, he had prematurely judged the location and its experiences.
“Goodbye, Bucket Head Man.” Dale inched his foot higher and leaned backward. His bare foot was covered in little pebbles.
Joseph winced, and in a sudden moment of clarity, raised his head. He slowly peeled apart his lips and forced out: “My name.”
“My name is Joseph.”
He felt his head slap against the fake wooden floor. Everything faded to black.