Fiction

The Last Time Rublev Saw the Sea

By Tom Z. Spencer

The plague days made hermits of us all. It was a lesser challenge by orders of magnitude than Civil Rights or the Great Depression, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, settling or anything like that, yet all over Instagram, YouTube and any other public platform, there was talk of how “things will never be the same again, things will never be the same again.” And frankly, permanent change seemed unlikely to me. Why? Because even near death experiences often only produce a temporary change in a person. Promises to walk in the straight and narrow from now until the end of days are often forgotten after the danger has passed. For this reason, I believed things would become so normal again, that society will glaze over, gain weight, and return to casual bickering. It just seemed the most likely outcome.

All we had to do is stay home, and if your own company felt unpleasant, the days would become tiresomely shapeless, unbroken by gym sessions and happy hours.

The lockdown came a few weeks before Catholic Easter. Add one more week for Orthodox Easter, or Greek Easter as it is sometimes known. I’m not sure that life and work allow it anywhere in the world anymore, but things are supposed to slow down during Lent. And by and large they do. The traditional recommended fast of vegan food and shellfish always leaves me a bit permanently tired. That doesn’t mean anything else has slowed down.

Then, this year, something appeared that made everywhere slow down. New York City, of all places, ground to halt. We had only seen NYC’s streets so abandoned in movies about zombies, plagues, and the end of days, but now the images had come to news live streams. In the coastal Florida town where I spent my days, the crepery, bakery, coffeeshop, Italian place, Jewish deli, acai and smoothie bar, curry place, taco spot, grimey college bar and expensive martini lounge, hot wing sports bar, massage parlour, and thrift store were all shuttered up, or reduced to no-contact takeout-only systems.

What had caused the great ghosting of our towns and cities? A little disease called COVID-19 had erupted and spread like an eczema on the Earth. I can only offer a simmering cauldron of lies that spat up the virus like some sort of conjured demon. In this cauldron we had stories of poor Chinese people eating bats or pangolins. We heard there was a breach in a biological weapons laboratory. Grainy footage with circles and arrows on creepy message boards showed some alleged hooded operative placing dry ice over a vent at a wet market, presumably to let it melt and free the virus frozen within. We were told it can’t transmit human to human, and then that masks don’t work, and then to wear masks, and eventually to go home, and lock the door. So we did. And the days dragged on. I had remote work but many people had nothing.

B-roll footage of Chinese bloody butcher blocks loaded down with all the Halloween animals— bats, scorpions, rats, black cats and spiders—was enough to turn the most laissez-faire live-and-let-livers among us into health and safety busy-bodies. This, to a certain extent, included my Tennessee grandmother. She amended her standby belief of “folks is folks,” which she had often muttered to brace herself when stopping for gas in strange small towns, or working up the nerve to ask a stranger for directions. “Folks is folks, but others is Chinese,” she said on the phone.

Typically, for the Orthodox church, Lent is a whole 40 day journey. Preparation begins on a Sunday at which you stop eating meat, followed by a Sunday at which you stop eating cheese, followed by forty days of lentils and shellfish. It gets tiresome, I will admit. But that is the point. In the final Holy Week, the one before Easter, the week when all the Catholics and Protestants you know have had their chocolate rabbits and egg hunt, it is particularly bothersome to get through. Each year, I am surprised at my inability to get used to the diet. In that final stretch, when everyone else thinks Easter is over, the Orthodox Christians worldwide (often Greek or Russian but also American), keep munching lentils and go to church every night of the week. There’s a service for the last supper, the crucifixion, one offering lamentations at a symbolic “burial,” and the midnight vigil.

Everyone is cranky, and hungry. Growing up, my mom and my friend’s mom would pick leaves for a service in which the priest throws leaves all over the church. They would decorate the church with red and white flowers. Mom would bark at me to stop whining about being hungry, and my siblings would see the breach, and charge to pile on. One thing that baffled me at that age was how my mom and the other moms could make Italian subs, egg salads, and pastries for the midnight party all without a shred of desire to partake while I found the aromas of grilling meat and melting cheese maddening. I would go outside and stomp the spring puddles with their chipped ice, and kick at the dirt-flavored snow cone piles of winter’s remnants. Looking back on it, I can feel cold water and ice chips in my thin dress sock now as I wasted time on these pursuits. Time moved slower then, and I was young enough for it to seem like something endless and un-precious.

During the Holy Week of 2020, we were not allowed to go to church in an effort to stop the spread of this coronavirus. Orders came down closing all non-essential businesses, which meant just about the only things open were the grocery stores and gas stations. Gatherings of ten people were prohibited. Then five. Then it was recommended that two unrelated people stay six feet apart from each other at all times.

Palm Sunday, which ordinarily comes with outdoor processions with men in suits and women in Spring dresses, was nothing but a live-streamed affair this year. It felt thwarted and anti-climactic. I remember sitting on my sofa watching the live feed from the cameras in church. There was Fr. Mark censing the altar. He gave a sermon as though we were all still sitting in the pews. Later, we saw videos of families processing around coffee tables, children with their candles and palm leaves.

The live stream ended, and I turned to lunch. I had two bags of frozen shrimp, two packages of pasta, one giant clamshell of arugula, two cans of pinto beans and some spices. This was my daily lunch and dinner for the last week before Pascha. Various combinations of these ingredients had made up my diet for much Lent, which meant I was sick of them and ready for Pascha. By now, no matter what I did to them, these ingredients seemed to taste like nothing, even with spices and salts. I was tired of mashing them up with my teeth and swallowing, without so much as a beer to wash it down.

By Good Friday, my fridge was empty and so was my cabinet. I ate nothing, as is traditional. Spent Saturday making a trip to the grocery store for Pascha treats. Extra thick butcher bacon, a ribeye, a gouda cheese, cream cheese brioche for French toast, fresh raspberries, grapefruit, beer, greens, scotch and two cigars. One for me, and one for my godfather, Jamey.

As it happened, I had plans to break quarantine for the Easter service. I was going to drive to Jamey’s new place, and we were going to have a midnight party after watching the Pascha Liturgy online. I stowed the whiskey and cigars in the car and packed an overnight bag to crash in the guest room there. Not eating for a day is funny. You feel light, and cranky, yet clean. Chores are welcome because they take your mind off things. After a day lengthened by impatience, I showered, pulled on blue jeans, leather shoes, a white flannel shirt, and hopped in my car.

The road was more or less empty, even the highway, with everybody staying home. The lanes were still populated with Sunday drivers, but overall the trip was far more manageable than the dead-stop traffic jams for which South Florida is infamous.

In twenty minutes, I was outside the gate of the housing complex at a big security box with a rising red and white striped arm. I poked my driver’s license into a slot and waited a minute. I had been approved as a guest from earlier visits, so the arm raised, the gate open, and I drove through. Found the guest spot, and walked around the corner to Jamey’s house. He was setting food out on a table, I could see through the window. He opened the door, grinning.

All greetings were absent of hugs during coronavirus days. To a certain degree, if we were sitting around tables, and chatting in reasonable proximity, it was unclear what good this precaution did. Still, the ever-present thought of infection made us all skip handshakes, hugs, back pats, fist bumps, and other such rituals. Yes, germaphobes took the lead in all social settings during the days of COVID-19. Their victory was total; their rule was law.

The only challenge in conversation was that I had no news. I’d been staying in and working remotely for days on end. So had everyone else. We talked about Lent. We admired the spread of food waiting for the midnight party. Jamey and his fiancée Polina had recently bought a house. This was the most settled I had seen it since helping to assemble furniture and install wall shelving. There was now a rug now under the Lazy-boy in the study, and many of the cleaning products and furniture pieces that were scattered about or still in boxes now sorted and settled.

Evening prayers droned on from the livestream of the church on his TV. What an unusual Lent it had been. We were at the bar portion of his kitchen. He made sparkling water on his SodaStream, and threw lime concentrate powder into it.

“When was the last time Pascha was celebrated with everybody sheltering at home?” I asked. “Was Christianity even legal at that time?”

“I was looking it up earlier,” Jamey answered. “This is the first time the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was closed since the Black Plague in the 1300s”

“Amazing,” I answered. I sipped my sparkling water with lime. It was the first thing other than flat, plain water I’d had that day. Compared to tap water, it was bursting with fruit and fizz.

At this point, we both knew one guy who had been infected with corona. He had mild flu-like symptoms for a week, self-quarantined for three, and all was well again. Most people were more worried about layoffs and austerity measures in the form of reduced take-home pay than infection at this point. Not to mention the fact that none of our creditors had been asked to take a break from earning money in the same way we had.

For many people, watching savings tick down while bills arrived all for “another flu” was maddening. In that disconnect, yet more theories were born. The virus was far deadlier than we were being told. This situation was a dress rehearsal for martial law. The lockdown was an act of large-scale economic sabotage. Or we had all already gotten the novel coronavirus in January. World leaders let the sickness spread, some suggested, while they focused on selling shares at the exact right moment before the big freeze.

Then in hobbled Rublev, an elderly beagle along with his obese twin Baxter. Both were black-eyed, floppy-eared, and long-bodied. Brown-backed with white splotches of cow patterning. Rublev’s yellow nails tapped along the tile floor. I could hear his breath; an up and down wheeze of weary old windbags. Rublev was in diapers at all times these days because of his incontinence, for which medications had been only partially helpful. He looked up at me with a dog’s wide-eyed expectation, and I patted him on the head.

And now, one hand on the banister, and the other pulling on a white heel, in Easter best, down the stairs came Jamey’s fiancée Polina. She was a dietitian at a nearby hospital. They had a full ward, practically walled off, with corona patients. I had heard it had been sixteen hour shifts with a whole staff on the lookout to stop the invisible disease’s spread. Some nurses and similar agents had been more careless than any of us on the outside of the medical profession cared to know. Nerves were fried. It was common enough to see some nurse side-swiping tears out of her mascaraed eyes in the breakroom.

But tonight was not for fluorescent lights and non-latex gloves, disinfectants and antibodies. Tonight was for a light spreading amid the darkness. A moment in the Orthodox Easter liturgy when the darkness is lit first by one candle, and then this flame is passed from person to person. It is an echo of the world’s first moment, and the victory over death. The illumination of each soul.

Today the pews are empty. And we’re watching the event from a digital livestream of all things. There’s a small icon stand upstairs. It was one I had helped assemble, as a matter of fact. A table with a spread of icons and an open Gospel book. Then three wooden shelves, one on each side that held more of them. We all agreed we would rather watch the service up there than in the living room.

As I was walking upstairs, Rublev seemed to slide under my foot, and I trod on his paw. He let loose a hoarse howl of rebuke, and wheezed, hobbling after me with welling eyes. I apologized but he let out another hoarse yowl.

 “What happened down there?” Jamey called from upstairs. And I had to explain myself. I was reassured it was a bad habit of Rublev’s.

And Polina leaned in and murmured, “He’ll be dead in a week anyway.”

In the dark church, Fr. Mark was preaching. Something about the importance of faith in days of doubt and uncertainty. Keeping the spirit of Pascha alive even if we can’t be together. And he said, “The Devil said: ‘Look, I have closed your churches.’ And God said, ‘No you have opened one in every home.’” And with that phrase, the lighting of the candles began.

Diapered Rublev hobbled between us and curled near the cloth hanging from the icon stand. During a lull in the service, Jamey said, “This is his last week. We’re putting him down.” That’s when I understood Polina’s remark, one I had taken for a casual prediction. Rublev, now our furry memento mori, curled himself and napped near the tablecloth, settling into its black folds of heavy fabric. Half of him was behind the black cloth while he slept and breathed heavily.

Greek chanting murmured from the laptop, the one electrical device the table, with its blaring LEDs and tinny speakers, tuned into invisible data feeds we knew how to use, but poorly understood. Around it lay icons and prayer books that had been produced and reproduced for 2,000 years. Soon, the service wrapped up, and it was time for the party. Well, by now my hunger had been seasoned by a good 27 hours or so of water only. It was with near-dizzy greed and impatience I helped put the finishing touches on the banquet table so it could be staged for a photo.

It was a photogenic spread. A lamb roast, a coffee cup with bacon strips. Two wooden boards with garlic and herb cheese spread, and wine-skinned goat cheese as well. Fresh salad with olive oil and vinegar, my bottle of Scotch whisky, and two cigars. Alligator jerky (a Florida specialty) and for an appetizer, garlic sriracha chicken wings.

Yes, it was too much too fast but this is the nature of Pascha parties, and I liked it that way. We each poured a shot of whisky and now came a whirling of serving spoons, and a spinning out of plates, a dance of treats and drizzle of fine sauces over each one, and with plates piled high, we went to a little table near the couch, and clasped our hands for a quick grace.

Ah, when had food ever tasted so good? When had it felt so reviving? So rewarding? The battle had been won, and the victory banquet was lush. Lent is funny, and though in the past I’d craved meat and felt my knuckles clench every time I passed a KFC, this year it was the cheese that I truly missed more than anything. What a treat: to close my eyes and chomp into a cracker spread with garlic and herb cheese, to hear crunching crackers in my ears and taste that savory cream.

Then came bites of broiled lamb, medium rare and dripping with juice. We had champagne with frozen berries crushed into it, which had infused the bubbling beverage with a deep pink glow. Amid the revelry, a chattering sound began. We looked down, and there was condemned Rublev, going into a shivering fit. His nails rattled against the tiles, his wheezing breath grew fast, and his pupils enlarged to marbles. His ears jiggled like saddlebags on his head.

We speculated that Rublev was tormented by visions of the past. He was a rescue case, and prone to behaviors of the desperate and deprived, namely scrapping and hoarding. He’d famously bitten and stolen bacon treats from his long-suffering twin beagle Baxter, and kept them stored for days in a secret corner. In that respect, Rublev reminded me of a slumlord I once knew. Ah, but in truth, neither the past nor the future hurt Rublev. No midnight deathrow sweats for this beast, a week before the execution. Instead, the dog lived in the ever present moment of which the mystics speak. No priest would come to hear Rublev’s strained confession. He was a lesser soul—he suffered a lesser guilt and would warrant a lesser grief.

Jamey went to the kitchen to get medication for the dog.

We cajoled and laughed the night away, buoyed by champagne and the fatted calf. Eventually, I collapsed in a heap in the guest room bed, and floated up into foggy, forgettable dreams.

Morning came to me at 6:40 a.m., unaccountably. This was completely unreasonable and unplanned of me, but I went downstairs and stretched a bit. Dug into the cabinet for a bag of coffee beans, dumped a few in the grinding machine, and dumped them in a French press. Hit the boil switch on an electric kettle and waited. I read the coffee bag. Beans grown in Honduras. Hmm. Birds dove past the windows as they woke up out there, on that fine Easter morning. Ah, up gushes the steam from the water and the grinds, and with it, Honduran coffee aroma. Too good.

Polina was already gone to her work at the hospital. I would have an hour or two to myself before Jamey joined me.

After breakfast of lamb omelettes with more of that herbed goat cheese with fresh greens, and mimosas, we went out to the porch for the cigars. All was well, and we spoke of business ideas, and when lockdown would end, and what Lent had been like. The Florida heat in the middle of the day was too wet and crushing, but it was agreed that in the evening, we would take the dog to the beach, and that would be the last time Rublev saw the sea.

The drive was easy because the streets were empty. It was a Sunday afternoon in lockdown, after all. Boynton Beach’s bridge over the intracoastal waterway is made of cotton-candy blue painted steel. At some points, the metal has been stamped into flat silhouettes of blue fish and mermaids. The seaside restaurants on the bay were dark and closed up; gone were their usual lights and Jimmy Buffet ditties, and harried beachbum waitresses loaded down with trays of Summer pilsners and margaritas, crab legs and coleslaw cups.

The bridge was empty except for a speedwalking mom in modest athleisure wear. Rublev would veer back and forth, always under toe or tangling his leash around my ankles. Jamey and I chatted about work and lack thereof, how long everything would be closed down, and how great it was to be able to feast after the fast. At the end of the bridge, we ambled up a sidewalk till we came to a looming grey stone mansion behind towering hedges and iron gates. We could see three-story tall glass doors to an entry hallway, and behind the dark glass, an iron chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The chandelier with its many curved arms was probably large enough to crush a normal house.

“That place got bought recently,” Jamey said. “Well, in recent years.”

“Can you imagine living in a place that big? It seems impossible for it to be cozy. Unless somewhere in there, there’s a human-sized den.

“I could see that, some kinda sick man cave.”

“So the guy just hosts Eyes Wide Shut-type parties in there you think?”

“Probably.”

It took as long to walk past the mansion as it does to stroll down a city block. I imagined stockbrokers and senators all in Mardi Gras masks and black robes while some dorky Alistair Crowley enthusiast sprinkled blood on kneeling hookers and chanted backwards Latin. It didn’t seem too far off. We are 20 minutes from Jeffrey Epstein’s home in West Palm Beach, and a two hour, 40-minute flight from his place in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I shake the knitting thoughts of vampiric world elites from my mind and return to the pleasantries of the stroll.

We’ve come to a hedge surrounded by caution tape. A squad car is idling nearby, but soon its engines fire up and the black and white car vanishes around the corner we just came from. Now we’re across the street from the hedge in front of the beach, and we see a triangular gap in the green where grey-blue sky can be seen. It’s a people-sized division in the hedge, and surely we can duck into it in a quiet moment. Three cyclists pass us, and when their backs are turned, we duck between the scratching branches and pop out the other side in a rustle of leaves. It is so easy, we assume the beach will have at least a few lockdown violators for company.

We trod up the grassy, sandy hill, walked down the wooden steps to the beach, and learned we were wrong. Before us was an endless bar of grey sand, a shifting blue-grey of ocean with its foaming curls, and the grey sky ahead of it, uninterrupted by any other human, animal, or structure. Strangely, the sky was empty of seagulls, and I wondered if it was because there was no trash for them to eat.

We stepped down onto the sandbar, and stinging sand whipped into our eyes, heads, arms, and legs. We trod through the gritty sand in the high wind, and made our way down to the damp, darkened, flattened part of the beach where the ocean runs and plays over the shore.

A change came over Rublev. His eyes seemed to lock in and work in unison, rather than their typical slightly separated, too-far-outward vision. His limp cleared up a bit too. And then he broke into a run, tags jingling and ears flapping, and that was quite something to see. Jamey and I could not help but laugh. I took off my shoes and ambled along with my feet in the water. This was the first time I had been on the beach since the lockdowns began. The heavy wind carried salt and seaweed scents with it, rushing, and subsiding.

We took Rublev for a bit of a walk, and at a point in the beach, I saw a nylon green net seething up and down in the shallow water. I grabbed a fistfull of the slick plastic, and started running up the beach. The great large fishing net weighed me down, so my sprint was slow. Tendrils of seaweed with clinging mussels and barnacles ran off the net, giving the object the appearance of a giant dark green squid, rounded at the top of the net and trailing down, winding drag marks striping the sand.

Rublev yowled and nosed at the net, and pawed at it. The net did nothing. Rublev was jumping now, a return to youthful behavior unseen in years.

I was determined to swim in this one opportunity I’d been afforded since lockdown began. I had no swimsuit, and just dove into the waves in boxers. It was clear as a green glass bottle. The temperature was even and welcoming as a bath. I rowed my arms through the waves and let them heave up and slap me under. There were no buoys, docks, boats or other swimmers to interrupt the heaving, rippled sheets of water. I floated and rowed about without a shiver, without a sweat, watching the palms against the grey sky on the shore, the buildings with their faux-Mediterranean hurricane concrete, and the appearing red stripe in the sky. Other times, I would turn out, and float letting the endless, bottomless graded grey of the sky fill my vision from end to end. With no lifeguard to chide me, and no boats or surfboards to worry about, I swam out still farther, and felt for a few minutes that the whole ocean was mine. Finally winded, I swam back to shore.

The new plan was to give Rublev his final swim. I gripped Rublev around his ribs, and carried him out into the water. I was about knee deep or so, then knelt and let Rublev doggie paddle back to shore, black nose high and happy. He met Jamey ashore, and scampered around him in circles. He was Rublev from a younger age once again.

Sand had nearly buried my shorts in the wind. I grabbed my things and dusted them off, and pulled dry sandy clothes over the wet boxers I had, and shrugged off the sand, the no-skid texture of the salt. I turned around, and a dough-faced policeman was leaning on the handlebars of a grey ATV. He had a ball-ended nose, puffed out lips and Oakleys. Brown hair in a military cut, grown a tad too long. Maybe barbers were closed for cops too. He was on the plumper, older side of cops.

“Hey guys, sorry to say, but I’m here to run ya off. Beach is closed.”

“Still?” Jamey asked, and the shock was so pure that I myself could believe we had not waited for an empty street, ducked through a hedge and hopped over two lines of caution tape to get here.

“Still,” said the officer. We had done all we set out to do, anyway. Now it was time for pizza and a couple of beers. It was mission accomplished, so far as we could tell. The wind was so high, that the tracks of the officer’s ATV were already becoming faded. We trudged uphill in the sinking, slipping sand. The cop left us to patrol the shore. We walked past the fishing net with its seaweed tendrils.

Then, at the top of the hill, Rublev turned and bolted back towards the sea.

Jamey shouted after him, but the dog charged onward. Jamey began running after him. I followed. Rublev had a great head start, then he tore ahead even farther, collar jingling and ears flapping, and legs skipping over the sand. He kept running all the way to the water, and then charged in. Had he seen a gull? Did he want to catch a fish? What was he doing? Jamey called his name but the sound was lost to the wind. We stopped before the wet sand, and emptied our pockets of phones, wallets, keys, lost our shirts, and charged after Rublev. We both dove into the water and started swimming.

Rublev was now the rounded top of a head, and a shining black nose in the heaving green grey waves. Waves churned and rolled around him. His head went under water. It came back up. He paddled farther out. We swam farther after him. He swam farther still, and his head went under water. It didn’t come back up this time. Jamey and I were now in water deep above our heads. We dove under. Without my glasses, I only saw gritty green seaweed broth under there. Jamey and I both came up empty handed. We dove again and again, knowing we were losing our light to sunset.

Shrieking whistling ripped over the waves behind us. I turned back. The cop was back. He was standing on shore, hands on hips, whistle in mouth, beleaguered and blowing for all he was worth. I touched Jamey’s shoulder, and pointed to the cop. Jamey nodded. I swam back to explain our behavior.

Standing in boxers and nothing else, arms crossed, I walked the half-interested cop through the series of events. When I was done with the story, Jamey had come back. His face was white.

“Got him?”

Jamey shook his head, eyes round, mouth glued shut.

We drove back in silence. So it was that Rublev gave his flesh to fish and corpse to coral. The executioner’s chair would stay empty, the shot of poison unused; it’s vial full and plunger loaded, it’s lethal tip capped. No blue-gloved misanthropes would bring Rublev to a pet-sized crematorium. Crabs instead, the ocean’s undertakers, would do the work of dust to dust on his corpse. And life would grind on.

Categories: Fiction

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