Years later, the kids would sit at a rickety picnic table and agree that there’d been nothing else he’d wanted for himself but to sit in the low folding chair at the edge of the surf and let the surf wash over his feet, until his toes were covered in wet sand and he was asleep, and the sun would burn his ankles and torso and leave funny tan lines on his mid-foot and in the creases of his belly. This would be a warm, happy way to remember him.
He would sit and watch other beachgoers, and give them simple titles, and wonder about their inner lives. Like Baseball Dad, who was lean and muscular and whose head was small and trapezoidal, in the style of blue-collar southern men; whose two scrawny, towheaded, coconut-colored sons were not so differently shaped from his own two sons, but had the sloped shoulders and bowed legs and trapezoidal heads of their father; whose sons would rear back in clusters of tortured angles and uncork fastballs that cut through the sea-breeze and found Baseball Dad’s glove as though laser-guided; who would neither smile nor offer any encouragement at this feat, but would simply catch the ball, grim-faced, and throw it to the other son, and harder than seemed necessary, or safe; who practiced this routine with his two wiry sons under the baking sun for hours on end.
Or Tattoo Dad, whose dad-bod figure and scruffy beard gave him an aura of tech-sector harmlessness; whose aura of tech-sector harmlessness was subtly undermined by a range of tattoos on his pale chest and arms and back that were noticeably symmetrical, in a style that suggested, from a distance, the body-art status-markers of Russian mobsters, or white-supremacists; whose vaguely menacing body art was not helped by his American Flag swimming trunks, a sartorial choice that would seem benign, or endearing, under most other circumstances; whose two scrawny, pale sons wore matching American Flag swimming trunks; whose family beach uniform would probably be adorable under most other circumstances, were it not for the maniac running for president and the new strain of white nationalism sweeping the nation.
Or Virgin Teen, who spent two hours or longer under the merciless sun digging a shallow rectangular hole in the dry sand; who then lined the hole with a blue vinyl tarp he’d pulled like a magic rabbit from a canvas shoulder bag; who secured the vinyl tarp with piles of wet sand carried up the beach in a child’s yellow pail; who filled the tarp-lined hole with salt water lugged up from the surf in an orange five-gallon paint drum; who then spent the afternoon splashing around in this depressing little man-made swimming pool, not 30 feet away from the very ocean itself; who did all these things in a pair of golf-pro-chic black Ray-Ban sunglasses festooned brutally with a nylon, logoed retainer strap, as if the glasses might fly away with the brown pelicans were they not safely secured to his neck; whose sunglasses may have done just that had they a pair of wings with which they might escape the embarrassing spectacle.
He would use the shadows of the umbrellas around him like a sundial, and sometime between 4pm and 4:30 he would sit forward and stand stiffly and drag his chair down to the edge of the surf. He would sit there like a sentinel, with his chicken legs bent and his feet flat on the wet sand. He wore giant bug-eyed sunglasses of the type that had been fashionable among tiny women half a decade earlier. For a few minutes every hour he would drape his thin arms over the wood armrests and dangle his fingers in the crackling sea foam as the tide dragged it back from the beach. At first you would watch him and chuckle at his simplicity. Later you would worry that his skin would burn lobster red out there before remembering that it always did and never stopped him. Eventually you would forget he was there at all, and would look up while you packed up your umbrella and see him sitting there, hours later, with the metal base of his chair buried under glistening sand and his feet half-buried and his head lolled over to one side or another. What would his title be? Still Dad. Sitting Dad. Ocean Dad.
Probably he thought about this. He would sit and stare at the ocean and wait for it to commune with him. You would know this because the night before you were to depart you would finally notice how rotten his mood had become. His own scrawny sons would ask him to play and he would sigh and purse his lips and grit his teeth so hard his jaw would bulge. After dinner he would stand at the end of the pier alone and lean on the bleached railing and watch the waves, and when he would finally turn and make his way back to the house his shoulders would be slumped and his head would be down, as if the sound of the surf had spoken some fresh disappointment.
He would wonder aloud, sometimes, whether he would always remember all the details of this or any particular trip to the beach. He wondered whether he should try harder to remember. He would run down a list: remember Tattoo Dad? What was that one tattoo, on his lower back? Remember Baseball Dad? Remember that full moon? Remember the storm? Of course no one had forgotten. You would try to reassure him, but he would shake his head, or smile resignedly, or ignore your reassurance altogether. You would wonder whether he did nothing at the beach so that he would have less to forget.
Days later, you would drag your stiff back from the car and haul your luggage up the driveway in the familiar swamp-haze of blue-dusk, and struggle to believe you had watched the sun rise over the razor horizon of the ocean that very morning. Weeks later you would disagree over which day the storm had come, whether it had been before or after the clear night when the full moon cast your shadows up the blue sand. You would say the storm came from the north, and someone else would say it came up from the south, and neither of you could believe the other had forgotten that important detail. A year later someone would describe the sub-bass thump of a wave crashing and you would squint and contort your brain and nod pensively and try to remember. You would comfort yourself to know that this particular memory would be refreshed in mere weeks, but, then, a person’s life doesn’t cycle endlessly. For that matter, why remember anything at all?