A Chalice of Blue Light
as always, for Marcia
In early July of 1974, at a campground in North Carolina, I befriend four broke women: Lucia (the Lucy of my novel Lucy & Eddie), her best friend Liz and kid sister Becky, and Becky’s classmate Caroline. They are hitchhiking back to Manhattan and need shelter from the North Carolina mosquito night. All four are more beautiful than religion. We share my camp, my tent, my pot, my spam, my apples, my beer. All four have starring roles in my imaginings. The morning of Day-Two of our time shared, we visit the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, where, to me, some things are revealed.
The ascent of the corkscrew staircase to the top of the tower augurs the high Colorado hikes of late summer. A line of tourists ten minutes ahead of us snakes its way above us, up the steep, indeed, arduously narrow, wooden stairway. The voice of their exertions floats down the stairwell to reach us at the bottom. A chestnut banister clings, as it spirals upward, a man made vine climbing to the light at the top of the wall of pre-Civil War quarried stone. Leading the way I set an easy pace, for the slope is steep and the risers high. I know I am on display from the rear, the male among four females, a lad off to ritual, perhaps in the company of a reincarnated Diana, in the role of her new beaux, along with her trinity of friends, the Fates, for all I know. Lucia is beneath the other girls in our line of ascent; still I sense her eyes upon me even when I’m out of sight, around, beyond the curve of wending stairwell. The last of the tourists who’d gone in before us during the ten o’clock hour pass us going down as we near the top, so when we reach the keeper’s watch room below the light room, we find we have it all to ourselves.
The view from the windows of the lighthouse is awesome as the narrow width of the cape, its vulnerability to swollen sea, its fragility, is most apparent. Despite the generally placid July Atlantic that is within view, instantly I know I wouldn’t want to be here on this ribbon of land, this far out in the Atlantic, during raucous weather. But it’s incredibly summery today, as summery as the tie-dyed tee shirt the boyish Becky wears. An airplane drifts towards us from the north, flying slowly and trailing a sign advertising some Cape Hatteras delight. On one of the walls between the windows facing east and seaward, a plaque details the names of those who have died trying to rescue others in these Hatteras waters. Liz remarks that many, most of them, in fact, have the same last name, McKrue, a family that as a ledger on a table below affirms still involves itself in the profession of rescuing shipwrecked sailors. In my mind I imagine the look of a McKrue: the smoking pipe in ocean salted, weather beaten hands, the draw of the apparatus curved like the neck of a swan, the sterling vision of those blue eyes below the widow’s peak of wavy hair, the stained tobacco teeth, an acute feel for the weather in the freckled hands that hold the match, a ponder-er, head full of star maps and charted shoals and coastal landmarks. As this and many of my further adventures lead me to believe: anywhere anyone goes, it seems there’s a family got an understanding of and a lock on the land, on the professions native to the geography of it. For good or for bad? I’m not sure, although I’d wager a McKrue will be ready to rescue shipwrecked sailors from the hazardous shoals a hundred years from now.
A wonder occurs: what geography of employment c onnects the Mc Bards, what common denominator is there among my clan? I’m scrolling through a mental list of the occupations of sundry aunts and uncles, trying to discern a web between them as I stare out at the horizon that fills my vision from periphery to periphery. Truckers, accountants, union men, government spies, convicted felons, and I realize that they all do have something in common, as perpetuity of motion gives similarity to every ocean wave. Uncle Bob, Dad, Uncle Ray, Aunt Mary, Mother, Vincent, the other Edwin Forrest, anyone of my family whom I call to memory, each and every one, loves to gamble. Pinochle, poker, horses, the numbers, anything to beat the odds. To the Mc Bards it is all about the pleasure of taking risks and winning!, beating the odds with a roll of the dice, a gamble paying off, the ticket at the window amid the noise of the track, and understanding the odds, gauging moves to order the overt randomness of a life into a kindness, simple as that. I imagine this is why these women have accompanied me here, have led me here, to this towering view of the sea, for a circumstantial thought, a question answered, a glimpse of my true nature in the ponder of a musing. If I ever have a kid, I think, I’ll call him Risk, or Lucky. Like this view, fifty-fifty, of sea and sky, I feel I have at least even odds of making something happen with this beautiful Lucia, who now stands on the balcony outside, an image that gives flesh to inspiration and recklessness simultaneously. Encouraged by a sullen but steady breeze, the door marked Keeper Only wings shut, as Lucia must have opened it and gained access to the outside balcony through it. The same slight gust also flutters Lucia’s hair in this vision of her, looking towards Africa one moment and Sweden the next. She exalts in the bluster, in the caress of the wind. Her profile would ennoble the prowl of a ship. She turns away from the sea and looks back into the interior through the window, first at me and then to her girlfriends aside me. She cups her hands around her lips and slowly mouths the words to some prophesy that includes Ireland as well as Sweden.
Liz joins Lucia on the small balcony, and I notice Lucia has a habit of leaning toward Liz whenever they talk, a gesture that is a function of their difference in height. They speak together conspiratorially and then they both laugh before coming back inside. Lucia is almost blushing and she averts her face from mine to read the small print of the ledger. Becky and Carolyn have a peek at the view from the balcony in their turn, and then I go out alone.
The breeze and the warm sun are wondrous. I close my eyes against the late morning glare of light on the slate water, and then, squinting, with eyes shaded by a weave of fingers, I search the sea for sight of ships, but I see none. Just that airplane - now well past the campground with its serpent of advertisement - flies languidly towards the extremity of the cape. I wonder at the distance to it, the distance to the horizon. A few miles? Ten? A hundred? How high the sky? has more meaning here. I have no experience nor perspective by which to judge distance here, for the water confounds me, knowing what I see on the sparkling surface, this disc, this record of shining sea, with the cape but a scratch across it, is but a superficial minor aspect of the ocean’s totality, given the volume of it, the miracle of and diverse quantity of life fulfilling it, the mystery and the hunger, the power below the water’s surface. How far down to the wreck of the Santa Regina mentioned in the log of shipwrecks? How purposeful the lives of men who tend the sea? How like Sisyphus? How heroic? How like Pyrrhus? How extreme? The first ghost riders were sailors.
Back inside I find I’m alone; the women are gone. I hear squeals of laughter, the trill of girlish glee, and the pattern of racing feet going down the wooden stairs. Whereas it was a long haul coming up it’s a goat’s delight going down, with gravity the drive, and the snake of a hand rail allows the assuredness of arm and hand to steady the momentum downward. When I reach bottom, before going outside, I check the registry we had signed coming in. I am still curious about Carolyn’s lineage. Ever since this morning when I’d startled and woke her, she has not looked me in the eye or spoken directly to me. Above Lucia Cilento I find Carolyn Ararat written in a neat calligraphy. The signatures of Liz and Becky look surprisingly dissimilar, although both resemble Palmer method Catholic. I've signed Eddie Mc Bard, leaving out the Forrest.
Outside the door to the lighthouse Carolyn is photographing Becky and Liz who are dancing in the sand with the surf and sky as backdrop. Lucia directs the sisters to stand facing each other, toe to toe. They are the same height although Becky at seventeen is slighter than Liz. Their profiles are strikingly similar and Lucia asks Carolyn to get a close-up of their faces, the sky between which she says, “Gives shape to a chalice of blue light.”
I step out of the shade and the coolness of the lighthouse. A group of people are queuing up in the shade of the tower to the north, waiting to be admitted by the caretaker at eleven. I walk over to Lucia and put my arm around her waist.
“Carolyn, would you take one of me and Lucy,” I suggest. But when Carolyn puts the camera up to her eye to focus, Lucia indicates with a push on my arm and a shove of the hips that she’d rather I wasn’t so familiar in front of the camera, in front of her friends. The mixed message of her desire to stand independent of me now after our morning together, like the mystery of the ocean’s depth and its contents, astounds me. A fool I am to think Lucia will reveal the treasure of herself as easily as she had allowed the first kiss of morning. There will be more delight than foreplay and orgasm when it comes to making love with Lucia, should she allow our flirtation to go that far. At first I attribute her seeming irritation with my forwardness to shyness in front of friends. Perhaps she is just not used to the familiarity of a man’s hand on her hip. A chant of beats, a poem, pops into my head
She could be virgin
She could be breeze
Lucia be forest
Be tree under me
A bird’s eye vision of the world colors my thinking to this day because I climbed the Hatteras Tower.