He started at the water, and wanted to end there as well. Before the sea, Joe knew nothing of himself. He was only a shell of the man his parents wanted him to be, and only a shadow of the man he knew himself as.
He was lost.
Days were short and nights were long on the ship. Joe would stand in his navy blues, looking out over the darkened waves. When the horizon would begin turning pink, he would go to his bunk.
And then the war was over.
Joe and the rest of the men on the ship were all in the reserves. It was the end of the summer when the news was sent around the world. Some cheered, some wept, and Joe didn’t know what he was supposed to do next.
So he returned home.
Trees lined the street, and the noon sun crept through the branches. Children rode their bikes with pop cans between the tires and spokes to make the sound of a motorcycle. Joe walked to his family home, eager to surprise his parents and sister. It sat comfortably on a very green lawn, between two other very green lawns. The siding was white; something mom thought was going to be very popular as 1950 drew near.
Joe came to the front door, inhaled, and knocked three times loudly, followed by two softer ones.
In the door window, he watched his reflection. His left eyebrow had a bald scar running down it from when Joe was fifteen. He thought the postman was flirting with his mother, and defended her honor.
It turned out that he wasn’t referring to the package Joe thought he was.
The doorbell rang through the house, bouncing from wall to wall, then echoing from the backslider up to the front door, just barely letting out a whimper from the original tune. Joe blocked the sunlight from his eyes, and saw the house was empty and dark.
Mr. Wellings told him that they had moved about six months ago to Maine.
He didn’t recognize Joe.
Joe meandered through town, receiving salutes from strangers. He made it to the farmlands, and walked towards the one house he knew other than his own. The siding was chipped, the grass around the house dead, and all of the windows were open.
“What are you doing here, Joe?”
Sally was the same age as him, about six inches shorter, and had long sandy blonde hair in a rough ponytail.
“Where’s your dad?”
Sally looked around.
“He died. Pneumonia.”
“Oh. You’re here by yourself?”
“No, my brother and son are here too.”
“Want to come in?”
The house didn’t hold much character. The walls had few pictures on them and the wood floor was scratched.
“I’ve haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I was with the Navy.”
“That was a year. I haven’t heard from you in six.”
“I’ve been busy.”
A mangy dog joined Joe on the couch. Joe stared down at him, scrunching his brow, lip pursed. The dog laid his head down on Joe’s knee. Sally’s young son ran into the room, stopping upon seeing a stranger with his mother.
“That’s Joe, my son.”
Joe stared at the boy, and the boy back at him. Joe raised his eyebrows, and the boy scrunched his brow, and pursed his lips.
He stayed with them, working the farm. He didn’t mind the work. When the crop duster would come by he’d watch it drop the water. Light would reflect through the mist and make hints of a rainbow in the air. Joe read to little Joe every night. He couldn’t read that well, but he tried his best. He’d take him to his Boy Scouts meetings, and make small talk with the other dads.
Joe was a good guy; he thought he was a good guy.
His Navy uniform hung on the wall of the guest bedroom where Joe slept. He dusted it every morning, and stared at it every night. Sometimes, when it was about to storm, Joe would bring little Joe out to the edge of the field to watch the clouds move in. He told him that you don’t need to be afraid, because every storm has some beauty to it.
“He loves you a lot. Little Joe. He wanted a father and you came when he needed you.”
Joe stared blankly at Sally and smiled.
“I needed him.”
It was the annual father-son camping trip for the scouts. Joe said he had to run a couple errands before bringing his son and him to the campsite. Little Joe waited at the window, eager for the weekend ahead. Joe went to the bar.
And then he left.
And little Joe kept looking out the window, waiting for his dad.
Hours passed. Sally told her son to go bed, and she would take him in the morning. She checked Joe’s bedroom, and the Navy uniform was gone.
Joe looked out towards the sea, the sun warming his face. He fell back into the sand, and smiled.
more by TYLER CLIFTON
photograph by Nick Graham