The Bystander


Yesterday Ella left. She must have packed up sometime in the afternoon. I came back to a half empty house after a day at the office. It was really something. She’d been meticulous. Only her perfume, maybe Dior, loitered about the place like it was haunting the scene of an accident.

When I woke up the next day I reached for her but found her side of the bed unslept in. Sometime in the night I’d forgotten she’d left. It was about noon. The sun burst in through the windows and you could cut the air. That old window unit’s never managed to cool the place mid-summer. I had to get out. So I drove to the park for a walk on the beach.

Fourteen hours later I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I’d been staring at it off and on for hours. I kept seeing it: the sun, the ocean. The sad, perfunctory line of footprints. The dolphin, clambering out of the water, and the man with the gun. How many steps? How many seconds? Maybe I’d never sleep again.

I saw the dolphin before I saw the man holding the gun. I’d been out on the beach for about an hour and half. My phone was still in the car; otherwise I could have checked the time, afterwards. The sun burned so hot it scattered goosebumps across my arms. There was nobody about but my shadow, pooling around my legs. Sweat ran down my face, coating the string of black inked ladies along the bottom edge of what Ella with some measure of affection called my ‘big bull neck’ until they were all weeping. My head turned into a drum beating time with the waves. I downed the last few sips in my water bottle and, crunching the plastic, stuck it in the pocket of my jeans.

The dolphin’s fin was one in a group of four. They were all very close to the beach. I stopped to watch but the sand was boiling, so I got moving again, all the while keeping my eyes on those fins. The one that jumped was the last one in the group; the fin went down and instead of bobbing back up a little farther to the right, the entire dolphin rose up into the air, gleaming black in the sun.

I wished I had my phone so I could’ve snapped a couple of photos. I watched the dolphin turn on its axle and, spinning four times, dive head-first back into the sea. It jumped three more times. When it vanished, I realized I’d been holding my breath. I sucked in a big helping of hot air and thought of Ella. She would’ve loved that dolphin. She would’ve gone on and on about it all the way back to the car. On the drive home we would’ve stopped by Benny’s for a Coors Light for me and a sundae for her and she would’ve still been talking about it, probably. It would have been one of those lazy Saturdays she and I used to be so good at.

The dolphin did not reappear. I turned away from the ocean and faced the man with the gun.

He stood perhaps thirty or forty feet away and he held it out as though it was an animal which needed restraining: two hands on the handle, the muzzle pointed at a man on the ground, who, half-shielded by one of the boulders that cluttered this part of the beach, seemed to be smiling up at the first one. In the left hand of the man on the ground was a bright reflection; a mirror, I thought, and then: no, a knife.

I no longer felt the blistering sand. My ears rung with sudden vehement silence; the heat thrilled the stagnant air and all the while one man stood pointing a gun at another, who was in a bad position on the ground. As I watch