Seventy Years to the Day
Nathan loves the gull as one might love a bald eagle, for to Nathan, it has that kind of majesty and presence and command. The gull lives on the Erie Canal in Fairport, New York, and every day, Nathan visits it. He brings a loaf of bread so that he can feed the gull fluffy white pieces.
Tricia is teaching a summer course and comes into Nathan’s office to pick up her mail. “It’s not the same gull, you know,” she says. “They all look the same—”
“But they don’t,” Nathan says. “They’re as distinct as you and me. I’d know my gull anywhere.”
“Suit yourself,” she says, “but I’m telling you, you’re feeding a different gull every time. It’s not the same one.”
Nathan lives in a blue Cape Cod with a crab grass and clover filled lawn that backs up to the canal, to the weedy edge of it where sloppy green slime washes against jagged rocks. Nathan has worn a dirt path from the house to the paved path along the canal. He’s pushed aside maple saplings and trampled down the Queen Anne’s lace, burdock, and goldenrod that lines the hazy path so that he can get to the gull with ease. Ducks and geese take flight or float or bobble away on clumsy feet when he emerges, and all the gulls rise into the air, circling, watching. His gull comes down, sits on the same rock, and cocks its head when it looks at him.
“Here you are,” he says, throwing a few scraps of bread to it. Love overwhelms him as he watches the bird devour the pieces. “There, there, now,” he says, and he tries to get as close to it as possible, stepping carefully on the flat parts of the tumbled rocks. It flies away; he goes back to the paved path, but then it always returns for more bread, and he indulges it.
He loves the gull. Not in the way he’d love a woman. No. This love is more profound and inherent, older, ancient even—a love that is hard as earth, an imprint on his soul. It’s undisturbed by things of the world, the movements of a society in a constant hurry. It’s his solace and his calling.
* * * *
“My gull was lively this morning,” he tells Tricia when she comes into his office to make copies.
“You and that silly gull,” she says. She ruffles his hair as one would a little boy’s. She’s wearing crimson lipstick and tall high-heeled boots. She’s going out with her girlfriends later, she says, for martinis and cosmopolitans. “Girls’ night out, you know.” And she smiles, which melts him.
Nathan is a handsome guy with wavy brown hair and rather striking green eyes, or so he’s been told. Tricia is beautiful—her pouting lips, wide blue eyes, curvaceous hips and breasts. And she’s a chemistry professor—one of the best and most widely published on the faculty—a gorgeous and brilliant woman. Nathan is the secretary of the Chemistry Department. He had wanted to be an English professor, but he’d never even finished his master’s degree. Bouts of depression and anxiety made it too difficult to go on. He likes the job he’s settled into. It’s routine, predictable, and when it isn’t, he’s able to think fast on his feet. The same couldn’t be said for his study of literature and critical theory.
And he likes the job because of Tricia: her jaunts into his office, chatting with her, hearing about her life, and of course telling her about the gull. He’s been in love with Tricia since she joined the faculty a year ago. He’s hoping that someday she’ll understand about the gull. If only she would come to his house so he could show it to her. But he hasn’t gotten up the courage to ask her.
* * * *
It’s August 6, 2015—seventy years to the day that time stopped and then started again on a whole new clock, for that was the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On August 9, the United States dropped another bomb on Nagasaki, and while it was equally tragic, time had already changed over to that new clock—the one that ticks louder than before, and yet with an indifference no one had ever imagined could be.
Seventy years to the day is a Saturday, and Nathan happens upon Tricia at the grocery store.
“I’m in love,” she says, smiling broadly.
“No one at the college. He’s a doctor, a podiatrist.”
Nathan remembers. “Your bunion.”
“Yes. That’s when I met him.”
“But he said the bunion wasn’t that bad, that surgery wasn’t necessary,” Nathan says, as if it has some relevance, some bearing on her feelings.
“We fell in love,” she says. “I swear we fell in love the moment he held my foot.”
A clock inside of him stops ticking, and a new one takes over, softer than the first, and letting out a cry to mark the hour, the kind of cry a gull makes.
* * * *
The humidity is oppressive. After he gets home from the store, Nathan sits on one of the bigger rocks next to the canal, takes off his shoes and socks, and looks at his feet. I swear we fell in love the moment he held my foot. Nathan considers his feet. They’re not attractive as Tricia’s must be, but they’re not all that bad. The gull lands on the rock.
“It’s over,” he tells it. “She loves someone else. She’s gone to me now.”
The gull cocks its head.
“I have no bread this evening,” he says. The truth is that he felt too sad to continue shopping. He left the grocery store with nothing. But now that he sees the gull waiting, he feels terrible. “I’m so sorry. I should have bread for you. I’ve been remiss.”
The gull flies up and comes down again moments later. “What should I do?” he says to it. “Should I tell her how I feel?”
The gull stares, then picks at the feathers of its left wing. Another gull joins it on the rock. And then another.
* * * *
He stands up and hands Tricia the bouquet of red roses when she enters his office that Wednesday, the seventieth anniversary of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
“Oh, Nathan,” she says, “How sweet.”
“It’s just… it’s… to congratulate you. On your new love.”
“That’s so very kind of you.”
She leaves his office. He gets up the nerve—he has to do this—and he follows her. “Tricia, wait!”
She turns to him.
“It isn’t that at all,” he says breathlessly. “It’s that… I love you. I’ve always loved you—from the first time I ever saw you.”
“You don’t have to decide now,” he says. “You can take your time.”
“But there will be no deciding. I’m in love with Seth.” She pauses. “I’m so sorry.”
“Never mind, then. The roses… they’re stupid.”
“No, they’re sweet. You’re so sweet, and one day, the right woman will come along.”
* * * *
When he goes out to the canal that evening, there are seven gulls on the rock, their heads cocked, waiting. Which is his gull? He thought he’d know it anywhere, but now he isn’t sure.
“Get!” he shouts at the gulls who don’t belong. “Away with you!”
They don’t move.
“I won’t give bread to all of you. Only to the one. The special one. My gull.”
They remain on the rock. He drops the package of bread on the ground and sits cross-legged in the middle of the paved path.
He doesn’t see the man on the mountain bike racing towards him. He attempts to scurry back like a crab from its trajectory, but the bicycle barrels into him. There’s a sensation of flying, and then a cracking sound that pierces his skull, and then water covered with green slime. He sinks down beneath it, the pile of rocks sloping to the bottom of the canal. He tries to get up and out, tries to move his limbs, but he can’t.
Arms reach towards him through the murk, but he slips down further into the blackness. He thinks he hears a gull cry, but it must just be his new clock marking time, marking the hour for the last time before the mud sucks him down.
Emily Glossner Johnson has had work published in a number of literary journals, and her short story "Santa Lucia" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has an M.A. in English from SUNY College at Brockport and lives in central New York.