Max was huge and he sweated a lot, but in the heat among his ovens he was graceful. He glowed and glistened like a god of the hearth, and smiled largely when he was there in his element. Her name was Dawn, as princess as he was frog. They worked together in a bakery, making artisan bread for those whose dollars were commensurate with their taste. Until she had come into his life he had never pondered happiness, so had not been saddened by its absence. He was regular in his approach to bread, and was simply sustained by his making of it. Like many bakers he stayed full by just being around food without the need to eat it. He tasted with his nose, so to speak. He lived a ritual way of life without the need to think it into existence or sustain it with his energy. It was just there, like his bread, and he did not have to nibble to believe. Making bread was all he’d done- ever! He didn’t smoke, never went to a movie, rarely watched television, read when he felt the need, enjoyed people when they were around, but never sought them out. His few women over the years were few and easily forgotten. He seemed to have a completeness as measured by those usually around him, although in his mind it had become recently short of enough. He had been without passion beyond his intimate relationship with the making of bread, and had never really thought about passion, although he understood how yeast made bread rise.
Max simply was, until nineteen year old Dawn was hired to apprentice at his side; Max was thirty eight – he had never been nineteen. She had been to art school and done all those art things only to spurn them and turn toward something simpler, more basic, closer to a source. Bread, not cakes or muffins or cookies. Clay had beckoned briefly, but resembled mud. She sized him up as a genius, an idiot savant perhaps, but a genius nonetheless who was honored to teach her and to lift heavy things for her. She turned the focus of her deep and sparkling eyes on Max’s natural mastery of his element. Max turned the intensity of his focus on her. In his mind their mutual attraction was as magnetic as it was mistaken. He thought her affinity for him was what he gradually came to hope it was, personal.
Thoughts were slow to form for him. He had a cat, but the concept of bonding with a dog was beyond him. The idea of a woman in his life was not previously within his universe until his daily physical closeness to Dawn introduced something inexpressible. He could feel things that he could not think and did not have the words to comprehend or express. He never thought before, for instance, of the possibility of love, romantic love; even in movies the concept was out of reach. Like depression, love was perhaps something he would need a doctor to diagnose for him.
Given the ingredients and the proximity, his feelings were not unlike the rising of the dough they mixed and blended daily; after a while they rose of their own accord. He was falling in love, bewildered and in growing torment; it was like succumbing to a gradual and wasting disease without knowing you are falling sick. Max could feel what he could not think; he could think what he lacked the vocabulary to say even if he could summon the nerve. He was in a cul de sac of passion. He was like a teenager who had never been a teenager. He had grown up and apprenticed in Poland, becoming accomplished enough at his trade to have immigrated to America without a problem. For him work and play had been so much the same, play did not exist as a separate pursuit. So it could be said that his life had been one exclusively one of work. Another thing Max lacked was humor. This in no way prepared him for the changes in his self that he was experiencing with Dawn.
At the end of working side by side with Dawn for a year he was, on the one hand, happy beyond precedent and miserable beyond endurance. He had to resolve this or something very bad was most likely going to happen. This state of existance simply could not continue. Perhaps the solution would come through causing something very bad to happen. Could he get another job elsewhere apart from Dawn, or cause her to lose her job beside him? Out of the question!
The flow of circumstances had combined to bring a rare high tide of emotion to Max which crested to take him further than he had ever been, beyond his comprehension. Although he delighted in the passage, its culmination fell short of his unaccustomed hopes. When the height of it ebbed he became stranded. Incapable of returning to his normal survival level, and unable to accommodate to where he was now affixed, he became depressed. He neither understood nor admitted to depression.
There was a third source of happiness in his life that he enjoyed. He loved the ocean. During each year he stayed married to his job as if it were religion. He took no days off and was never sick. Dawn left work at the end of each eight hour day while Max often worked into the night. He went to the ocean only during his two week vacation each year, almost never visiting it over weekends. But when he was there on his vacations, he was there completely. It was the only thing he did that transported him away from his work, away from his self even, into a state of feeling that was all he knew of freedom and all he felt he felt of euphoria. He didn’t go to the beach to fish or collect shells or get a suntan, although he did enjoy swimming; he went to feel the warmth of the sun and stare out at sea. Going to the docks was a daily ritual, to watch the fishing fleet offload their catches of the day. He went to the same shore each summer.
This year as August approached something different was happening to his inner life. He began to dream that Dawn was there with him at Cape Hatteras. He sweated and wrestled in his sleep with these visions as if to shake them off. He was too comfortable with them to be comfortable with them; he could not afford them. Each day at work he averted his eyes from her as if he feared she could be privy to his inner life. She seemed oblivious to any difference in his behavior, simply continuing in her daily work as dedicated to its perfection as he was. She was by this time accomplished enough to take charge of the bakery with its staff in his absence.
Come time to go, he went, with brief and cryptic farewells. This year Hatteras was less simply a pleasure; the bliss of paradise was swirled with darker colors. His dreams of Dawn continued, persisted even, filling his nights with thoughts his mind would never dare approach in the glare of day. The days themselves, although still mesmeric, paled in comparison. He became more active than usual in an attempt to keep thoughts in abeyance. He had never felt compelled to look at himself inwardly and if given the vocabulary to describe himself would have had trouble with the concept of inner life; he would have been led instead to a sense of himself as being instinctive, intuitive perhaps as well, by no means self-aware. Physically, he would have regarded himself as homely, even unattractive. He was a baker. On vacation. He was in love.
For two weeks he vacillated between nights of dreaming and days of Hatteras, but the nights cheated; there were now daydreams. His feelings about returning to work were now mixed, confused. He wanted to see Dawn, to be with her, to work alongside her, and he also didn’t; the prospect was painful. Perhaps he was better off in her company within the dreams. He did want to return to baking; that was a constant. A baker is what he was.
He drove back. When he reported to work, Dawn wasn’t there. She had given her two weeks’ notice the day he left, had gone to work for another bakery. He knew that her someday goal was a bakery of her own, but had assumed that was some way off. He worked at baking, but each day less and less of him was there. She had taken the heart out of him when she left. She hadn’t even said goodbye. Had he meant so little to her? The answer was so obviously yes.
He knew what he had to do. He wanted to die. He would do that. No one knew this because he did not share his inner life with any one. He would end his life as quietly as he had lived it. He wanted no drama; he wanted only to end his pain without increasing it. Pills would be best, he thought, but he didn’t have any pills. And he didn’t have a gun; hanging hurt and sometimes took too long. He remembered seeing in a movie that a man had swum out to sea until he was too exhausted to swim back. That would do. Hatteras would do for that. That would be some consolation. Never having made many ties with others, Max now devoutly wanted to break the few that remained. He wanted to break his ties with life. He would miss baking, he thought. That was as close to humor as Max ever came.
A creature of habit, he packed for the final vacation as he had for all others. He took blankets because he would sleep in his car until the right opportunity presented itself; no motels this time. It would be a long drive fired by adrenaline and despondency. He gave no notice at work of his intentions. He readied himself and got into his car. It was a ride through darkness into darkness, with oncoming headlights and strip malls and towns and cities all the night offered of light. If he were a drinking man, alcohol could have been his friend.
He reached Nags Head at dawn, passed Kitty Hawk. Then on past Oregon Inlet, Pea Island, Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco reaching Hatteras before noon. He did not stop to eat; never a good idea to swim on a full stomach. He wanted a final look at his favorite places and also to scout a spot where he could carry out his purpose in privacy without fear of intervention. He saw several pull offs and parking areas without cars or the likelihood of beach buggies. He didn’t want to risk being in sight of bathers or surf fishermen. The greatest isolation was his preference. In Hatteras he turned around and began the trip back. He had several spots now in mind. It was mid-week so tourists would be less plentiful.
Cars had pulled into the first two of them, turnarounds off the road. Then there was a broad place on the shoulder with much evidence of cars having parked there, so presumably parking was legal, with little likelihood of a park ranger ticketing his car or investigating his whereabouts. He wouldn’t need much time to get out of sight. He changed into his bathing suit and sandals. Then he locked the car and walked through the sand and beach grass to and then over the dunes.
At the top of the dune he wasn’t at first sure what it was he saw on the beach. It was a large gray mass well out of the water. He walked toward it. As he neared it recognition came and the hair rose on his arms. It was a beached dolphin. Approaching it he could see that it was a young one. He ran to it. Its eyes were open. When he touched it, it moved and he jumped back, startled.
Oh, my god, he thought. Nooo!
From the looks of it it had swum ashore, grounding itself and then the tide had gone out leaving it high upon the beach. The sun was out hotly in a clear sky and Max scanned back over some things that he had read. No one knows for sure why they do this, whether it is deliberate or some malfunction of their internal compass. Either way they are at high risk of exposure due to sunburn and sunstroke. It was definitely alive, but there was no way to know if it was dying. He knew the first thing he had to do.
He ran to the car and got the blankets and his bag of clothes and returned to the dolphin. He dunked everything in the surf and spread the wet fabric over the creature. Its skin did not seem to be blistered. It was about half grown and looked at him with eyes that were almost human. It did not resist his administrations in the slightest. He had been there long enough to realize that the tide was now coming in. He also realized that there was a sizeable group of dolphins hanging around fairly close to shore.
I’ve got to get you back in the water, he thought. He started digging in the sand between the dolphin and the surf in a determined frenzy. It didn’t take long for him to realize that this was an impossible task with just his hands. It would take a back hoe, a tractor. No, with the tide coming in I could do it with a shovel. He had nothing like a shovel in the car. A piece of metal like a shovel would do it. Something like that you could find at a town dump. Every town has a dump. He wet the cloths down again and recovered the beautiful creature completely except for its eyes and air hole.
Running back to the car he thought, Every town has a hardware store. Every hardware store has a shovel. Shovels. I could get some help.
He drove back as fast as he dared to Avon and after several inquiries located a hardware store. Breathlessly, he explained the situation and bought three shovels- all they had- and two buckets in the hopes that more pairs of hands would materialize. That would do it, he hoped.
“Yeah”, the clerk said, “that happens from time to time.”
“Isn’t there someone you can call”, Max asked anxiously.
“Yeah, the Coast Guard will tow it out if it doesn’t float free. Once it’s dead. If it’s a whale they sometimes dynamite it.”
“It’s not dead! That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Can’t you call a park ranger?”
“Not much they can do.”
“It’s a baby. A little one.”
Max ran out of the store. Something told him not to try to randomly enlist tourists. He didn’t know if he could do what had to be done alone, but he didn’t want anyone to get in his way and he didn’t want anyone to try to stop him. Never put a baby bird back in its nest rang back at him from childhood. Bullshit!
When he got back the tide had much advanced up the beach, but had not nearly reached the dolphin’s tail. First thing, he wetted the dolphin down again, splashing it copiously with buckets of water. Then he began to dig a trench between the dolphin and the water. This was encouraging at first, but then the incoming water began to move sand back into the ditch. This taught him to throw the sand further back from the slit and to slope the walls more gradually. He did not stop digging and it seemed that the tide seemed to advance more rapidly. Before long the tail was actually in a few inches of water and stayed that way as he worked his way up, first along one side and then the other.
He got up his courage and grabbed the tail, gently but firmly, with both hands and tried to move the dolphin backward toward the water. At first the dolphin resisted by flapping its tail, but then gave in to the tugging and it seemed to Max that he was able to move it a little. He kept digging and raised what seemed two mountains of sand. What had looked to be just some sand starting out turned out to be an enormous quantity. His goal was to flood the trench so that, with a little help, the dolphin could float backward into the surf and free. His worst fear was that once in enough water the dolphin would attempt to swim the wrong way again, up the beach toward higher land.
Max was tiring; however basically strong he was, he was not used to this kind of sustained strenuous activity. At this point he was wishing for some help, but since none had yet appeared over the dunes or up the beach he had no choice. He did not waver in his determination to free the creature and did not cease his labor even for a breather.
The surf became counterproductive; at more or less regular intervals, higher waves would sweep up the beach, some of them now further toward the dunes than the dolphin’s head. Whenever this happened, its backflow would sweep wet sand into the trench threatening to engulf the dolphin’s head. Part of this problem was that tide doesn’t come straight in; it is slightly diagonal. It tended to “rake” sand from one mound and then the other back into the ditch. Max worked faster than ever as he attempted to clear it away. He was particularly careful to keep the blow hole clear, and the eyes. Each time he was working at the forward part of the body he could feel its eyes on him. It was watching. And it was now squeaking and squealing. He barely noticed that the group of dolphins in the surf was carrying on what seemed to be a conversation with it. And that they had moved in closer, now almost to the water’s edge, one of them closer than the others.
Max felt panic when he realized that instead of rising on the incoming water the dolphin was actually sinking into the beach as those higher waves receded. Christ, was he at risk of burying it by starting the digging too soon? He had no experience with this sort of emergency and wondered if anybody did. He realized that he’d better try to take advantage of each highest wave and try to pull on the tail as it went out. It helped; there was some movement toward the surf. He didn’t have to splash it anymore; waves had started to sweep over it slightly.
With one particularly high incoming wave, the dolphin gave a mighty spasm of its body and rose higher in the trench buoyed by some water now under it. Max kept digging wherever it seemed to make most sense. The dolphin seemed to sense when the higher waves were due and did more of the same, wrenching and writhing its body to gain the most flotation from that wave. Max worked in cadence with it. Each time the dolphin jerked itself higher, Max pulled it by the tail closer to the surf. It did not resist and seemed to cooperate Together they worked as a team.
It was now clear that the dolphin wanted to get back in the water. The conversation between the dolphin and its family increased in volume and frequency which seemed to energize the dolphin.
The waves were now breaking over the dolphin in surges. Taking advantage of a very high rush of water, with a mighty twist of its muscular body, it turned its body at a right angle to the current. On the next one it twisted to face the sea. This still did not leave it enough water to swim free in, so shallow was the water between crests, but Max repositioned to continue digging, now in front of it. He dug like a machine.
The dolphin was about eight feet long and probably not much more than twice Max’s weight. When he felt the dolphin tense for the next seaward thrust he knelt and hugged it behind its dorsal fin; when the dolphin tried to swim he crawled speedily beside it pushing, scooting it into the surf. They moved. It was enough. The dolphin was free.
It was a grand family reunion. The mother- certainly- rubbed and circled it over and over. No doubt the father was there and brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. This continued in place for a while, then the pod gradually moved offshore. Max knelt in the sand watching them with joy and sadness and envy.
They swam straight out, slowly at first, then picked up speed, becoming smaller and smaller in the distance until they were out of sight. Business as usual. Dolphin business. Max wasn’t sure what he had expected. Not thanks, surely, but not this lonely mixture of elation and desolation. Exhausted, he had crashed from such a height of emotion as he would never before have been able to imagine, much less feel. As he knelt on the sand he tried to discover what he must do. First was a practical chore; he half-heartedly gathered all his wave strewn clothes and blankets and spread them above the high tide mark. He didn’t know whether to spread them on bushes to dry and then put them in the car or just leave them be. He thought, the hell with it.
What had changed, really? He had saved a life. That was pretty important, wasn’t it? But what about his own? What happens when you no longer want to live? Do you have to live on miserably? To die, you have to wait fifty years or for a disease or an accident. Or you have to end your life in the kindest way. Swimming out to sea and drowning was in a way the same as, for a dolphin, beaching yourself. That’s what he had come to do. What, if anything, had happened to change that resolve? Nothing.
Let’s get on with it. The beach was now half the width it was when he had come. He walked to the water and waded in. He was quickly up to his waist. The water was warm on top, cool around his feet. He walked on coarse sand and a gravel of smooth sea shells. Occasionally, he stepped into a hole and went in to his shoulders. He traveled a long distance without having to swim. Then the water began to get shallow- a sandbar. Presently it wasn’t much more than knee deep. He turned and looked at the beach. His clothes seemed now so far away. He could barely see one shovel sticking up at a cocked angle, but, of the excavation, the tide had erased the beach clean. It was now as if the adventure had never happened.
Being so tired from driving all night and all that digging should make what he set out to do easier. Gradually, the water deepened again and he began to swim. Although he had always enjoyed swimming, he was not a strong swimmer. He took to it as he had taken to the digging; it was a job with an end. One stroke at a time. He swam on doggedly.
Then, looking ahead, he froze in panic. In the distance there was a fin in the water coming toward him at high speed. It had to be a shark. He stopped swimming and watched in terror as it approached closer, closer. Being shredded by a shark was not how he wanted to die; perhaps it would be quick. It went by him at high speed heading directly for shore. Recognition came over him as it went by. It was a dolphin, his dolphin. It was alone.
Noo! He did not want it to die and prayed for its life.
He turned and began to swim back toward land, an entirely different purpose now on his mind. His priorities had swiftly changed.
The dolphin swam all the way to the beach.
Please don’t let this be.
At the surf the dolphin turned and began to swim swiftly back directly toward him. Nearly reaching him, its fin disappeared as it went briefly underwater. Then it rose completely out of the water and soared directly over Max. Max instinctively raised his arms up as high as he could reach and his hands briefly touched the dolphin’s flippers as it sailed overhead. It was over so quickly, but later Max could replay the moment as if it were in slow motion or frozen in time. He followed it with his eye as it swam again out of sight to the horizon.
When Max reached the sandbar he stood and cried. Max never cried. Then he swam back to shore and sat and gazed out to sea as his clothes dried.
I am a baker, he thought to himself and readied himself to go back to work.
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.