Claustrophilia, Outer Banks

Two uniformed men stand on the deck of the U-boat, close enough to hail, Dad and I know, because we can hear them talking. The blond one smokes a cigarette. The heavyset one gestures with his hands. The sky’s icy blue, and the sea between the motorboat we’ve been fishing from and their sub is black and calm. When I look the other way, west toward the Outer Banks shore we’d see if we weren’t so far out, the glare stabs my eyes like a polished knife. It’s possible but not likely that this glare hides us from the U-boat men. Now each of them shields his eyes with a hand—they seem to be staring right through us. Maybe we’re just too small for them to worry about.

“They’re probably looking for shore,” Dad says. “They want to brag that they saw America. They’ll probably lie and say they did.”

Dad had cut the engine when the submarine surfaced, and we rocked in its swells for a minute or two. Then our Germans had emerged.

“Reel in your line,” Dad whispers. “We don’t want to catch something now and get them curious.” The sailors’ voices carry, but we don’t understand their language. “Don’t hook yourself,” Dad says when he sees me flip my bait minnow onto my rubber boot. I can’t stop staring at the Germans.

Dad has been planning this father-son fishing trip since he decided to enlist “before the draft gets me.” Tomorrow Mom will drive him off the Outer Banks, and he’ll be bussed to boot camp. He’ll miss my tenth birthday party.

“Lie low,” Dad says, and we slouch, but there’s nothing to hide behind. “Can you imagine being crammed inside that thing day and night? The whole crew must be dying for fresh air—maybe they’re coming up two at a time.”

The U-boat takes up the middle third of the horizon. The thin, blond sailor points his cigarette at something overhead. I look up, too—there are gulls, way, way up. I don’t like the sky, and I don’t like the ocean. They’re both too big, and they’re meant for birds and fish, not human beings. I think I’d like it inside the U-boat, where I could huddle in the dark in a bunk pressed tight to the ceiling, engulfed in the engine’s thrum.

“You’ve got yourself an indoor-boy,” Mom said to Dad when I told him I’d rather read then play catch. I’m not really sporty, though I’m not afraid of the ball, and I don’t get picked last in gym when we choose up teams. But these are serious times, war times, so when your dad tells you you’re going fishing, you go. The U-boats have been sinking oil tankers in the Atlantic for a year now, but nobody’s reported seeing one yet off the Outer Banks. Before this one surfaced I’d been waiting to hear important things that fathers are supposed to tell sons, like, “You’ll be the man of the house while I’m gone, Billy.”

The German with the cigarette throws it overboard, holding his arm like a salute as he follows its flight. The sailors face each other.

“Maybe they’re deciding what to do with us.” Dad tosses me an orange life jacket, which I duck into and buckle. It smells like mildew. He holds his life jacket without putting it on. Every other breath I take is shivery. If the Germans take us prisoner, they’ll probably bring us below deck.

Once, when I was a little kid, I fell asleep in my parents’ bedroom closet. I’d crawled in looking for Christmas presents and shut the door on myself when I heard Mom on the stairs. In the dark, I made a nest out of a pile of soft towels. The cool fabric of her dresses brushed my cheeks. The smells of leather and shoe polish and mothballs made me sleepy. I listened for my mother and counted to one hundred . . . and woke to harsh light and her too-close silhouette. “My, oh my,” she sighed. “Should I tell your father about this when he comes home?” I stood up on wobbly legs, clinging to a dress, and she stooped and hugged me.

The bright spring sun warms my face, and I’ve closed my eyes, picturing the way the U-boat had emerged: the sea boiling from black to green to white, its tower taking shape like a magical castle, water spilling off the long deck as the submarine rose and settled.

“Whoa—man overboard!”

My eyes snap open at Dad’s whispered cry, and I squint at the U-boat’s deck. I count Germans: one—just the blond, who bends over the rail like he’s seasick.

Dad’s straining to keep his voice low. “The big one’s over—I think the skinny one pushed him.”

There are splashes at the U-boat’s waterline. The German in the ocean is shouting. My arms and legs feel suddenly heavy, as if something’s hanging on them.

“His friend better get him out of there,” Dad says. It feels like we’re watching a movie. “He won’t last long—the water’s still winter-cold.” The blond German pivots from the rail and disappears down a hatch. “He’s going for a life preserver or rope—you’d think they’d have something like that on deck.”  Seconds pass, then minutes. There’s no movement aboard the U-boat, and the commotion in the water has stopped. With a grinding rumble, the German boat slides to our left, north, pushing a lip of foam, then veers out to sea.

Dad’s surprised: “They’re leaving him? I don’t get it.” The wake reaches us, and our boat nods.

Barely breathing, I stare at the U-boat shrinking into the distance. I remember a newsreel I saw a month ago, “Perils of Flight.” It showed plane crashes and zeppelin disasters. The worst accident, worse than the burning of the Hindendburg, involved a blimp that a group of about twenty soldiers were trying to hold on the ground with a rope. But the huge blimp had a mind of its own—it dragged the landing crew across the field, nosing into the air as it shook off soldier after soldier. The blimp soared up and away—with one soldier still hanging on to the rope! I gasped along with everyone in the theatre as we understood that the dangling soldier had made a snap decision and guessed wrong. The blimp rose, a hundred feet, a thousand, towing us up with the desperately clinging man. We were all praying for a miracle, but the newsreel camera was the only thing that caught the soldier when he finally fell, a speck.

“Dad?”

I feel like I’m a link between the blimp-man and the drowning German. Maybe I’m a mirror—maybe the German sinks into me, a reflection of the blimp-man who’s being pulled up into the sun.  Let go, I think, but it doesn’t make sense.

My father frowns at the horizon, his arms folded over his chest. “God-damn bloodless Nazis,” he mutters. “We’re going back in.” He shifts to the boat’s console, presses a button, and the inboard engine sputters and catches. I’m kneeling now, keeping my balance with a hand on the side of the boat. The deck vibrates under me.

“We’re at war.” Dad raises his voice so I can hear him over the idling engine. “You’re at war, too, because you’re an American. You have to be hard. Having enemies is hard. We saw something terrible, but we’re not going to tell about it. It’ll be enough to say that we thought we saw a U-boat. But we’re never going to mention the other thing. Not to your mother. Not to each other. You understand?”

I shrug, and Dad turns to the wheel. He shifts a lever, the motor whines, and we start forward. I fix my gaze on his back—I feel the distance widen between our boat and the spot we’d last seen the splashing German.  Dad will be leaving tomorrow, and I practice the silence I’ve promised him.

II

Fat Victor, go home.  I’m lying on my back, half inside the castle on hole fifteen of the miniature golf course my stepfather Victor Stockman abandoned a year ago when the Jockey’s Ridge sand dunes finally overwhelmed Stockman’s Gulp and Golf. Tonight I slipped out of our apartment in Nag’s Head Village and bicycled through the deserted streets and across route 158 to the site. 

Victor’s not really fat, but he’s a big man, and he limps because he had polio when he was a kid. I don’t really want him to go home, either—that would be to Canada, where he’s from. He’s nice to me and my mother, and there are things to admire about him, like his ambition. And people like him, even the locals who snickered when he bought the cheap land abutting the dunes and built the snack shack and mini golf course. They knew the little storm fence he surrounded the property with would be useless. He’d been right, though, about vacationing tourists flocking to the Outer Banks after the war ended. If we’d been able to keep the course dug out, he’d have made a nice profit. Now he and Mom run Stockman’s Nag’s Head Diner that’s right in the middle of town, under our apartment, where I help out weekends and after school.

Victor salvaged everything he could from the snack shack—freezer and stove, tables and chairs, then flattened the building and sold the wood and bricks and shingles. The dunes ate up the mini-golf course. But every once in a while the winds shift, and word gets out that the tower of my castle—I think of it as mine—is poking up through the sand. When and if I can, I sneak hear with a shovel and clear it out, usually in the dead of night.  Now my legs stretch along the putting surface, my hips on the bridge over the sand-filled moat, and the rest of me inside the castle’s wide mouth. The cup must be under my neck. I’ve burrowed my fists through the sand-filled east and west wings, out of which mis-hit balls used to roll back to the putting surface. I feel like I’m a hand in a glove. 

The castle’s central tower rises straight up over my head, and I gaze through it at a dish-sized circle of night sky. Sometimes I imagine that my castle and I are buried under a tremendous dune, and the tower tunnels up a hundred feet. A few stars creep through my view. When a bright one shows up, like the one I see right now, I make a wish by it, though I don’t always have a good one ready. I settle on Fat Victor go home.

I guess the wish comes out of loyalty to my father, who never made it back from the war. I remember my arm being tired from waving as I stood on our porch with the neighbor who’d be watching me while Mom drove Dad from Nag’s Head to the mainland where he’d catch his bus. It was the only time I’d ever seen him in our car’s passenger seat, and he didn’t seem to like it, because his smile was more of a frown. At the last second, as they pulled away from the curb, Dad pointed his index finger like a pistol at my chest, screwed one shut, and pulled the trigger. The only thing I could guess was that he was reminding me to keep quiet about the enemy we’d left out in the ocean the day before.

The star I just wished on has almost edged out of the circle of midnight blue above me. I struggle to conjure up a memory of Dad from before the fishing trip and the pointing, but it’s as if my history with him started with the rise of that U-boat.  I know he died in a German forest half a dozen years ago, which made him a war hero. I remember hearing Mom cry in her bedroom late at night and that we changed churches, “because the God in that one didn’t do us any favors.” And I know that she eventually met Victor in the choir of our new church, and that they got married without much fuss two years ago.

There’s a sudden brightness— I grunt and try to move, but my arms are stuck in the castle wings. I kick my legs uselessly. Then I see that it’s not an intruder’s flashlight beam sliding down my castle tower. It’s a silver moon that’s crept over the opening, a first. I wince against its harshness. A wish on the moon: how about a girl? What if one showed up now, someone from school, and found me here like this? I picture girls flushed and shiny-faced, spinning with the junior and senior boys at school dances. Katherine, who sits in front of me in Civics: sometimes I spend the entire class staring at the mark pinched on her upper arm by the short sleeve of her white blouse. What if she were outside the castle now, tip-toeing around the sand, about to straddle my lap with a flaring skirt?  With a thrill in my thighs, I imagine her sudden weight. “Who’s in there?” she asks. “Is it you?” I stare wide-eyed into the moon until it hurts, until the feeling turns from good to bad, and I think I’m falling. Stare at the sky too long, and you’ll always see a man who made a bad decision dropping from a blimp. And there’s my father, pointing at my chest with warning in his eye, a German in the water our only bond. 

III

Mom is upstairs in bed, dying, but the smells of coffee and frying in Stockman’s Diner cover up the scent of it. And the clatter of plates and glasses, the buzz of chatting customers, the grease sizzling on the griddle can’t muffle the silence that weighs on Victor and me from above. “Woman’s disease,” Mom called it, when she still had the strength to speak. “Cancer of the ovaries,” I’ve heard frowning regulars whisper after I turn from their tables. When I bring their orders, I see “orphan” in their eyes when they meet mine. But I’ve got Victor, and we’ve got the diner. Mom’s illness made it convenient for me to postpone college, which would have meant leaving the Outer Banks. Victor couldn’t run this place alone, especially with the beginning of summer: vacationers have joined the regulars, and our tables stay filled. 

For the supposed entertainment of our customers, Victor snares me in dialogue while he sweats over his griddle. Droplets slide down his jowls like tears, but he never loses his smile.

“Who’s on first, Mr. Smith?”

I shake my head, rolling my eyes at the grinning customers whose orders I’m taking.  “I don’t know.”

I don’t know,” Victor mimics. “That’s the most I’ve heard out of you in a week. You’ve got to work on your social skills if you want to get ahead, Billy. And it’s ‘I don’t know, Mr. Stockman.’ Try again.” He waves his spatula. “Show a little enthusiasm: Who’s on first, Mr.Smith?”

I don’t know,” I practically shout as I grab dishes and glasses on my way to post the last order.

“‘I don’t know’ . . .?” Victor spins from his griddle, his hand on the hip of his bad leg. If it’s aching, he’s not letting on. In spite of his sweaty face and grease-spotted apron, he’s well-groomed. Patrons regularly compliment the cleanliness of Stockman’s Diner.

“I don’t know, Mr. Stockman,” I correct. I dump my armload of dirty plates into the tub next to the pantry door. Terrance, who prepares cold salad plates and washes dishes, will slink from the kitchen for them when he gets a chance. I glance at the pantry door. There’s a calendar posted on it with Outer Banks’ scenes. June is ocean waves. May was the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge. Before Mom got too sick to do the bulk of the waitressing, I’d often sneak into the phone booth-sized pantry during slow hours. I’d do my schoolwork under a bare light bulb at a little desk wedged beneath shelves loaded with paper napkins, ketchup bottles, and soup cans. When I was needed, Victor or Mom rapped on the door.

 “Here comes the mummy,” Victor would say when I emerged, or “Look out for Dracula—he’s escaped from his coffin!” Victor hasn’t made coffin jokes since Mom’s been sick, and I haven’t had time for the pantry. Even with school over, it would be a nice place to sit and think. 

Not so long ago, when Mom was still working, I’d stepped out of the pantry after a long night of studying. Victor bent over the counter, leaning on his elbows. Mom sat on one of the stools, swiveling herself back and forth with a toe on the floor like a school girl. Both of them had tired eyes, but grinned at me.

“You know what that boy is?” Victor asked my mother. “He’s a claustrophiliac.”

“A closet-what?” Mom asked.

“A claustrophiliac—he loves closed in spaces,” Victor said, and both of them stared at me, still smiling, like I was some kind of science experiment. 

Mom’s taking a lot of drugs now and is almost always asleep. A hired nurse comes in twice a day to change her nightgown and her bedding. Victor or I run upstairs to make sure she’s as comfortable as possible every chance we get.

Third base!” Victor shouts suddenly over the spitting, smoking griddle long after everyone in the diner, including me, has forgotten the routine he started a quarter of an hour ago. I’m busy seating a family of vacationers.

“Hey, claustrophiliac—” my stepfather calls, turning with a little hula to disguise his stagger. I shrug, slipping my curious customers a look to let them know everything’s okay.

“The cavalry is on the way, Billy—we’ve got a new waitress coming at noon. She’ll be on half-days for the summer. She’s the daughter of a lady who just joined the choir. They’re new here.”

IV

Mom passed away on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and Victor closed up the diner. He taped a black bow on the window where Mom had hung a wreath last Christmas and a red heart on Valentine’s Day. Some of our regular customers have set bouquets against the door. The funeral service is brief. Mom is being laid to rest in her family’s plot in the cemetery of the church she’d left after Dad died, and it’s a little awkward. People tell Victor and me “It’s a blessing,” and we nod, because they’re right. We were sad for a long time, but we finished mourning long before she died. Dad is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. I’ve never been.

I stand next to Victor while they lower Mom’s casket into the ground. He’s wearing a snug gray suit I’ve never seen before, and he seems deep in thought, but when someone approaches with condolences he finds a quick grin and a “Thank you.” As the coffin descends, I remember the U-boat. It’s been eight years, and I’ve kept my father’s promise—Mom never knew about the drowned German. I drop a shovelful of dirt on the polished coffin and picture Mom inside, cushioned in satin, then hand the shovel to Victor. I support his back while I listen to the thud of earth on wood. We listen to the minister’s words. My thoughts return to the U-boat, its sleeping quarters, the bunks no more than shelves. A hand on my shoulder, Victor’s, startles me.

“Your castle’s up. I meant to tell you. I saw it yesterday, when I drove past the dunes,” he says, waving his hand as if he’s holding his spatula, “while I was making arrangements.  It’s probably still there. You should go see it. Take Helen. Tell her what we had there that we lost.”

I’m tongue-tied and blushing when I see that Helen and her mother are on the way over. Our summer waitress has a year of high school left, and only now, outside the diner, do I feel the weight of the crush I’ve got on her. I’m so flustered by her approach that I’m slow to process Victor’s news about the castle. It’s been buried for years. How does he know that it’s mine?  Helen’s wearing a flowered dress, the brightest at the funeral, but a black shawl covers her shoulders. The red hair she keeps in a bun at work spreads over the shawl. Victor interrupts the condolences she and her mother murmur. 

“Thank you. Helen, Billy’s got something to show you, out on the highway. Your mom can help me set up the food for the mourners back at the diner—” He looks at Helen’s mother, who nods. “Take the car, Billy. Stick one of these shovels in the trunk.”    

V

“Victor says I can work after school whenever I can, and on weekends,” Helen says.

I stop digging and lean on my shovel, trying to hide that I’m catching my breath. I’ve loosened my tie and rolled up my sleeves, but my dress shoes have been slipping in the sand. To the east, behind Helen, the sky is lavender. To the west it’s so swollen with blue the razor outline of the white dunes threaten to slice it open. Out here things are different than in the diner, where Victor’s banter gives me something to cling to around Helen.

“Nice,” I say.

“So there was really a restaurant here, and a whole golf course?

“Miniature golf. And a snack shack. Stockman’s Gulp and Golf.”

“And all that’s left is this little castle.” Helen’s skin is the dune-white of most redheads, almost blue over her cheekbones. Her green eyes stand out because there are no trees or grass nearby. 

“‘Little castle?’ It’s a matter of how you look at it,” I say. “If you saw it from far away and didn’t have anything to measure it against, you might think it was huge.”

A smile blooms on Helen’s face. “It would be like that in the ocean.”

“I guess,” I say. “But you don’t build a castle on water. I don’t like the ocean.”

“Why not?”

“Lots of reasons. It’s too spread out—you can’t see where it begins or ends. Plus you can’t see below the surface. You don’t know what’s down there.”

“Couldn’t those be reasons for liking it? It’s a mystery.”

The flowers on Helen’s dress look wet, as if they’d stain my arm if I held her around the waist. I grab the shovel and dig away at the castle’s base. “It’s—all—a—matter—of—perspective,” I huff. I don’t bother clearing all the way down to the putting surface. I kneel before the entrance of my castle, poke the shovel inside, and scoop out as much sand as I can.

“You’re getting dirty,” Helen says. She’s got her hands on the waist I wish I had my arm around.

“Can’t be helped. You need to see how I used to crawl inside.” Our gazes brush, too briefly for me to tell if she thinks I’m ridiculous. I turn my back to the castle, lie down, and wriggle my head and shoulders through the opening. It’s a tighter fit than I remember. I force my arms down the clogged castle wings before I allow myself to look up through my tower, where I see the sky. Blue plate special, I think.

“Hey in there.” Helen’s voice is muffled.  

“Hey,” I grunt. My words shoot up the tower. If we were children and this was a playground, I’d worry about Helen wandering off to find more interesting playmates.

“I’m sorry about your mother, Billy. I didn’t get a chance to say so before.”

“Yeah.” 

“Billy—tell me about your father.”

“Victor? He’s a good guy.” Helen knows that—she spent her summer serving the orders he prepared and laughing her throaty laugh at his corny jokes.

“Not Victor. Your real father.”

The circle of sky atop my tower seems to freeze solid, blocking my air, and I’m breathless. Nobody ever asks about Dad. It’s as if they sense something in me that warns them not to. “What’s to say? He died in the war. In the Battle of the Bulge. In the winter. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was tall. He sold cars.” He took me fishing, I don’t say.

“I lost my father in the war, too,” Helen says. “He’s not dead, not that I know. He’s just kind of no good.”

“Yeah,” I murmur. I know something about this. You gather gossip when you wait tables. Helen’s dad had been in the Navy, and stayed in Japan after the war ended. He’d picked a new Japanese bride and started a new family.

“I guess he’s still overseas,” Helen says. “Mom packed us up and we left Indiana. We moved to Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Greensboro, North Carolina—and places in between I can’t remember. Always further east. She wanted to get as far away from Japan as she could. I never made friends I could keep. When we hit the Outer Banks and the Atlantic Ocean, Mom figured he’d never be able to find us if he ever came looking. This year will be the first time since we left Indianapolis that I’ll be going back to the same school. I remember my Dad has green eyes like mine. I think my mother sees him sometimes when she looks at me.”   

I don’t know what to say. I lick away the sand on my lips and grind it between my back teeth.

“Victor’s funny: ‘Who’s on first—’” Helen says. It’s a relief and a disappointment that she’s shifted the subject from herself. “He’s a foreigner, right? His accent is funny.”

“Canada isn’t so foreign.”

“He says ‘a-boot,’” Helen says, and giggles. “‘No doot a-boot it.’”

At first I think she’s said “U-boat” and my legs shift involuntarily. How must I look to her? Like some stupid ostrich with its head buried in the sand? 

“Billy—don’t you have any secrets you want to share?”

We let somebody drown. Why not come right out with it? I’m trying not to squirm. What if Helen’s mocking me now, outside my castle, standing over my thighs, hoisting her dress, pretending to lower herself onto my lap like one of those girls I used to dream about? I once saw a man soar away on a blimp, I could say. He made a mistake—he should have let go. Everyone else did. But I choose a different secret.

“I’m a claustrophiliac.” My words echo as if I’m wearing a helmet. 

“‘Castle—?’”

Claustro. Philiac. I love tight spaces.”

Quiet. Then a whistle that gives me goose bumps. “You love tight spaces, so you wear a castle.” A laugh. “You’re the king of the snails!” For all I know, Helen’s dancing over my headless body. 

“I used to stargaze through this tower,” I say. “That’s another secret. I’d sneak out of the house late at night, and lie in here and stare at the sky.”

“Wait—I can’t hear you.” Something thumps, and I flinch. Helen’s slapped the castle. And there’s scraping—she’s climbing it. “What’s this made of, anyway?”

“I don’t know.” I picture her as a giant, scrambling up the turrets, her flowered dress billowing, her red hair like a flag. “Some kind of rubber.”

“What?” She’s pummeling the walls.

“Rubber!”

Helen’s face replaces the sky. Her features seem to ripple, as if I’m underwater.

“Peekaboo!” she says. “It’s dark. Can you see me?”

“Yes.”

“Close your eyes,” she says, and I do. Something pea-sized hits my cheek. Then my nose.

“Hey—” I call, “—no spitting!”

“Not spit,” Helen says. “We’re kissing. Our first kisses. They’re long distance.”

“Oh—” I’m defenseless. I pucker and wait. The next drop pats my forehead. I smell spearmint gum.

“You like that?” Helen calls down the tower. I can hear her breathing. “I’m getting dry—you like that, King of the Snails?”

“Yes.” 

“Your ‘castle’ thing—that’s permanent?”

I open my eyes. Her face is in shadows. My cheeks are wet, as if I’ve been crying. “I don’t know,” I say.

VI

There’s a sealed urn on the fireplace mantle in the den of our house on the Nag’s Head shore. On nights like this one, just before my four-year-old son’s bedtime, while I’m reading to him or telling his favorite legends of the Outer Banks, the brass urn seems to absorb the light of the fire burning in the hearth beneath it. The urn’s reflection floats in the black picture window we watch the ocean through in the daytime. It’s just a few hundred yards from the house. It’s the reflected urn Thomas gazes at as he cuddles against me. “What’s in there?” he asks for the hundredth time. 

Who’s on first, I think. Some nights I say “A genie,” and we laugh while Helen shakes her head from her seat near the fire. Usually, I say “Grandpa Victor’s ashes,” and I tell Thomas something he’s never heard before about his grandfather. He knows I have two fathers. Someday he’ll ask why. Tonight, Helen is in town—she’s in class, earning her realtor’s license. I look at the urn hovering within the dark glass. “Grandpa Victor,” I say. “And some secrets.”

“Ghosts?” Thomas asks.

Everything’s a ghost, I think. Outer Banks’ lore is full of stories about pirates, Indian princesses, abandoned colonists, fishermen, animal spirits. In his will, Victor had stipulated that he be cremated, which meant transporting his body to the mainland— the first time since I’d known him that my stepfather had been off the Outer Banks. But it was a nonplussed representative of the crematorium who guided me into his office when I arrived to pick up Victor’s remains.

“I don’t understand it,” the little man in the neat suit said, shaking his head. His hand was on the urn that’s now on my fireplace. “You can be assured we followed our normal procedures for—preparing Mr. Stockman’s remains.” 

“And?” 

“It seems that when our cremator opened the furnace, there was nothing there.  There should have been ashes, as always. As in one hundred percent of the cremations I’ve supervised in the twenty years we’ve provided our service.”

“You lost Victor’s ashes?”

The crematory’s representative craned his neck as if his collar was too tight. “Not lost. That would be impossible. They just weren’t there.”

I tapped the unadorned brass urn sitting on the representative’s desk. “What’s in here?”

The little man shrugged.  The sealed urn he presented me, “without charge, due to the cremation’s irregular conclusion,” was, and still is empty. And I’m the only one who knows it.

“First I’ll tell you again about how Nag’s Head got its name,” I say to my son. “Then I’ll tell you the secret.” The bright urn reflected in the window must have reminded me of the legend of the land pirates who posted ponies along the shore with lanterns tied to their heads. The pirate’s goal was to convince ships at sea that the bobbing lights were safely moored boats. The ships would get too close, wreck themselves on dangerous reefs, and the land pirates would row out and plunder them. 

I finish the story: “The nags and the pirates and the plundering—that all happened right out there on our beach.”  The fire is dying, and the urn fades in the dark glass. 

“What about the secret?” Thomas tucks himself under my arm and looks up at me. His elbow is sharp against my ribs, but I don’t ask him to move. You never know what someone’s going to remember forever. 

“I’m getting to it,” I say. “Some people believe that the land pirates used the wood from the wrecked ships to build their houses.”

Thomas’s eyes flit from ceiling beams to door frames to the fireplace mantle. “Our house?” he asks. 

“Just a piece,” I say. “That right there—” I point to the lintel over the door, and Thomas’s eyes widen “—is pirate wood. It’s for good luck. We’re going to put a piece of pirate wood in each of the houses we build along the shore. But it’s a family secret. You can’t tell anybody else.” When Helen gets home, I’ll have to tell her about the pirate wood.

Victor, it turned out, had been buying up parcels of land along this beach for years. “Build,” he told Helen and me from his hospital bed. “One for yourself, then more, for vacationers. I made a mistake with the dunes, but I’m right about building on the ocean. Don’t be afraid. Sell the diner and build.” 

VII

Secrets. I lie in bed next to Helen—she’s pregnant with our second, and she’s snoring lightly under the weight of her big belly. The mounded blanket reminds me of my castle under the dunes. I look for it whenever we pass Jockey’s Ridge. There hasn’t been a sighting in years, but I find it hard to believe it will be buried forever. Sometimes I think I’ll tell Helen about the German my father and I left to drown. I picture myself sharing the story with Thomas when he’s older—he’ll be long and lean, taller than me, and there’ll be a curious but sympathetic look in the green eyes he’s inherited from his mother. We’ll be building another house on this beach, maybe sneaking a piece of pirate wood under a joist, and I’ll stop him. With our hammers at our sides, we’ll look out over the breakers toward the horizon. I’ll begin by describing the way the U-boat rose out of nowhere. 

I’ve been to my dad’s grave in Arlington. Helen’s thinking about trying to find her father, but she doesn’t know where to begin. “I’ve got siblings I don’t know,” she says, “maybe way over in Japan. That’s something, isn’t it? Thomas has Japanese cousins. It’s an amazing notion.”

When I’m on the edge of sleep, like tonight, I think of another secret I discovered only recently. It’s a crazy one: I understand German now. I was in the lumberyard outside of Kitty Hawk, and two men stood waiting for a stack of two by fours to be cut. Their blue eyes flashed from side to side while they conversed in a language I’m sure was German. I listened to their foreign syllables, and, to my surprise, heard my own voice telling me what they were saying. Do they still hate us here? one asked. I don’t know, the other answered. Maybe we should pretend to be Swiss. Their soft laughter sounded like yodeling.

I hear this laughter when I’m nearly asleep, and then I see ten-year-old me, kneeling in a motor boat, watching a man splash in the water almost within reach. He shouts in German, but I hear English: “Hold on!” he calls, and I don’t know if he’s crying to himself or to me. Then I’m wrapped tightly in blankets in a bunk deep within a U-boat. From behind a steel corner I hear my father’s voice. He’s begging for a life. German voices answer him, and I understand.  But when the dream-child-me nods off, I drift away, too. By morning, we’ll have forgotten what we heard.


Gregory J. Wolos lives in upstate New York on the bank of the Mohawk River. His short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road, A-Minor Magazine, JMWW, Yemassee, The Baltimore Review, The Madison Review, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, A cappella Zoo, and many other journals and anthologies. His stories have earned two Pushcart Prize nominations, and his latest collection was named a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. For lists of his publications and commendations, visit www.gregorywolos.com .