The String of Pearls

imgres-3In the backroom there’s a swordfish mounted on the wall. It’s not real. I know that now, but as a kid the giant looked down on me, straight into my eyes, and I felt something real there, something inside it. I felt sad for the giant on the wall. I wanted to set it free. I tap its plastic eyeball. It looks so real.

*                           *                                  *

The sand is cold between my toes. By this time of year, most people have left the island already. I walk near the ocean, following a stale set of footprints. It’s a child’s summer expedition. The trail loops up towards the dunes, then back down. There’s a scatter of seagull prints around and I imagine him chasing them excitedly, hoping to catch one and bring it home.


The footprints die abruptly. A fresh set of tire marks interrupt. Fishermen come after season by the hundreds. The water is ripe for fishing they say and park their trucks freely. There’s a group standing just up ahead and I make my way toward them. I ask them if they think it’s too cold to swim. I know the answer. The water’s warmer than the air around us. It will be that way for another month–that’s something only the folks who live down here know. He says as much and I smile. His name is Roger and he used to live here before he moved to Philadelphia. The group he is with just came down for the weekend. A few college buddies. No girls, just the guys, beer, and rods. He offers me a beer and I take it because we’re on island time.

“I’m here without my girl too,” I tell him. Paige had told me to come down from the city. She told me to leave my cell phone at home–work could wait. Reef asked me what I was getting away from. I simply say, “My grandfather left me the house when he passed a few years ago. I’ve been coming down my whole life.”

Reef raises his beer toward the sea; Roger and the rest of the group raise theirs as well, and together toast my grandfather. “The island invites camaraderie,” my grandfather used to say. “You could come down alone–get away for sometime–and you’d make friends by nightfall.” But I’m not sure if I’m looking for camaraderie or not.

Near the rocks is the best place to cast and Roger and the gang start moving down. I don’t fish but I’ve always liked standing there listening to the well of water break into white foam. Today, the water has a green inviting hue.

I thank them for the drink and head back toward the house, making my way along the shoreline. I drain the last of my beer and dip my empty bottle in the ocean, filling it up half way, then pour a fist full of sand inside.

There’s a drawer where my grandfather used to dump his wine corks. Sure enough it’s still filled to the brim. I take one and jam it into the bottle. There’s a bookcase in the backroom without any books. Instead, seventy plus containers of sea and sand sit marking the years. The earliest is from the forties. It’s a glass jar of baby food. The top’s rusted through and the water’s long evaporated. But the sand sits firm at the bottom. It was my idea to use corks. My grandmother passed in the late nineties. I pick up the wine bottle. That was my grandfather’s way of remembering.

*                           *                                  *

The island was once a major part of my life. I’m here now because I felt like it was safe. Paige told me to leave my cell at home and I did. I brought my laptop anyway though. There’s no cable or internet at the house, so I walk barefoot to How You Brew It and order a coffee.

I wanted Paige to come down. But that was being stupid. “I’ll be here,” she said. She’s on Facebook and I message her eagerly. She responds quickly, asks how I’m doing. I tell her about the guys at the beach and the swordfish in the backroom. She’s fascinated by the swordfish.

“Taxidermy became extremely popular in the Victorian era,” she writes excitedly. “It was a symbol of man’s superiority over animals.” Paige is a history buff these days. “Do you think your grandfather was a secret taxidermist?” she adds when I don’t respond fast enough.

“Very funny…I felt bad. It looks like it wants to cry.”

“Only people can cry.”

I think about it for a few moments then write, “It isn’t a real swordfish anyway.”

I tell her how much I miss her. She says she feels the same way.

“Do you know when they are going to decide?”

“I’m not sure. They say they’ll know within the week.”

“I should be there with you,” I write.

She responds quickly, “No. It’s better this way, Adam.”

*                           *                                  *

The shops on the island all have sale signs hanging on the doors and windows. I walk into one: The MadHatter. I was expecting something wilder, but I found some creepy ones. I reach for my phone to snap a picture. Paige would love this, I think. But remember I left my phone in the city. The storeowner tells me I look handsome. I look in the mirror and laugh. “No thanks,” I say and leave.

There’s a bakery near Bay Village with the most incredible elephant ears. As a kid I used to ride in my grandfather’s basket as he biked. We’d get there before the sun rose and it would be chilly so we’d wear sweatshirts. By the time the sun came up it would be way too hot to wear so we’d lose them, but in the early morning they kept the cool air at bay. The bakery door would swing open and a waft of cinnamon would greet the few early risers waiting patiently by the screen door.

“First come, first serve,” said Sal. Sal always opened the doors that way.

“Looks like were first kiddo.” My grandfather ruffled my hair and walked in tall. “Three elephant ears,” he bellowed to the boy behind the counter, then leaned down to me. “You hand one to your grandmother. She says she doesn’t need it, but you’ll see. She’ll love it.”

“Mitch,” said Sal. My grandfather wasn’t listening. “Mitch,” he said again.

“What can I do for you, Sal?”

“We’ve got to talk. Can we talk outside?”

“Wait here kiddo,” and he ruffled my hair.

They headed outside and I pressed my face up to the glass and peered in on all the bake goods. We always got elephant ears, but there was a chocolate horn that was glistening in the sunrise.

“Hey, Grandpa can I get this one!?” I yelled.

“Sure thing, kiddo!”

I could hear Sal getting upset. A couple of heads turned to stare. “What did I just say? You can’t keep doing this, Mitch. Once in a while maybe. But everyday. I have a family.”

“Come on, Sal. My kid’s here. But I’m good for it. It’s just slow,” he added the last part quickly.

“I’m sorry Mitch, I can’t keep doing this. I lent you that money over a year now. I don’t want you back here until you have the money. I’m sorry, but you can’t come back until you have it.”

He didn’t wait for my grandfather to respond. He walked in and my grandfather followed slowly after.

“Which one do you want, Adam?”

I looked at my grandfather and he winked at me.

“The chocolate horn please.”

“You didn’t want one, grandpa?” I asked on our way home.

“Nah, you kidding. I can’t eat that stuff anymore. Your grandmother’s right.”

“You sure,” I taunted, waving it over my head. “It’s that good.”

“Give me that!” and he snatched a big bite.

*                           *                                  *

The coffee shop has more people than normal. Wednesday is make your own smores night. The waitress, a good-looking girl, smiles at me and brings me a latte and a smores kit. I slide my laptop closer to me so she has room to place it on the table.

“Enjoy,” she says.

“Thank you.”

I stick four or five marshmallows on the end of the stick and roast them over the small fire. Then hack off a huge hunk of dark chocolate. It glistens and I close over it with graham cracker and gooey fluff.

“Do you have plans tonight?” asks Paige.

I clean off my hands and type, “I’m going to go to Buckalews Tavern for a little. Maybe catch some of the game.”

“Who’s playing?”

“Hah, I don’t know actually. Just figured there would be a game.” Paige always knows when to ask the follow up question.

After the season’s over the owner of Buckalews devotes a television to the news. I wanted to keep an ear out. If Matt accepted the offer then it would be on the news. Of course, there were still all these logistics to work out and that would take time. But when that was settled I was certain it would reach the airwaves.

“I wish you were here with me.”

“You know I’d want to.”

“Hey, how much would you tip for a latte and smores?”

“Depends how much it cost.”

“I guess…Guess what though?”

“What?”

“They have devil’s food cake here.”

“Yum. I wish I had a piece of Mrs. Parmet’s devil’s food cake.”

“I wish you’d have stolen the recipe instead. Then I could have tried some.”

“Hmmm…not sure why Jo and I didn’t think of that.”

“If only….I have to run. I love you. I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I write and log off Facebook.

“I’ll be here.”

I lick out the chocolate from the bowl, finish my latte, and get the check.

“That good?” says the waitress with a smile.

“That good,” I say.

She walks away and I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. I leave a very large tip.

*                           *                                  *

The island is only 18 miles long and half a mile wide. The causeway is the only bridge to the island and in the summer it can get clogged badly with traffic. My grandfather’s house is located on the bay side. I like being on the bay side because it’s quite and, like I said, the island is only half a mile wide anyhow. Once, though, my grandfather owned three or four houses on the ocean side, which he rented out in the summer months. But for a while no one was renting from him. The houses in truth needed fixing up and that cost money. For a couple years he was stuck paying for the upkeep on houses no one was renting. My grandmother worked at a store that years later went out of business, but she didn’t bring in that much. As a child I didn’t know these things. Now these houses fetch for millions. When my grandmother died, though, my grandfather sold all of the houses on the ocean side. That was before the market boomed.

I ride the bike from the garage down to one of the old houses. It’s past the causeway, near Love Ladies. It’s night and the house is lit. It’s not the same, but part of the old house is there. I think of knocking on the door and asking the owner if I could look around. I’d tell him my grandfather died a few years ago and he’d be sympathetic. But I don’t. Instead I pick up a fistful of stones from the driveway and stick them in my pocket and ride.

“This house will be yours some day,” my grandfather once said. It was September and no one had taken the house for the summer, but there was still work to be done on the place. There was always work to be done. We were in the bathroom fixing some leaky pipes; my grandfather lying on his bad back and tightening the screws with a rusted allen wrench. “And you’ll need to know how to take care of her,” he said through gritted teeth.

“We should get a boat,” I said, sitting in the bathtub with the toolbox.

“Hhhhah hhhah hah!” My grandfather had booming laugh that would shatter into a small chorus of laughter. “Captain Adam. Yes I can see you with a boat, kiddo”

“You can, grandpa?”

“Sure I can. Don’t you know grandpas can see into the future of their offspring?”

“What’s offspring?”

“Hhhah hhhah hah. Grandpas can see the future. And yours is very bright. Brighter than the String of Pearls.” There was no higher compliment than that. The String of Pearls is what my grandfather called the row of lights mounted on the railing lining the length of the causeway. It dazzles tourist still today as they cross over the bridge and enter the island’s bubble. Sometimes I think the island has it’s very own atmosphere where life’s problems can’t seem the penetrate. Those problems don’t disappear of course. They simply hover by the boarder–kept at bay by the String of Pearls that guard the only way onto the island.

“What do you see?” I asked, my hands hanging over the tub.

“I don’t know if I should tell. Seeing the future could be dangerous.” He was right.

“Come on! Please tell me! I want to know. I want to see too.”

“Oh, alright.” He stopped fidgeting with the screw and sat up, wincing a little in pain. Well for one thing you’re very successful. You’re wealthy but that doesn’t matter to you kiddo. No, what matters to you is your family. Your wife.”

“My wife? I hate girls,” I said in sheer disgust.

“You wait. You wait. This one will change everything. She’s beautiful, smart, and oh boy, she’s as ambitious as you. She adores you. And you love her. You love her more than you can possibly know. And you have kids and they are beautiful as well. I can’t see how many, but they are healthy and happy.”

“I don’t ever want kids,” I say and slide back into the tub, disappointed with his future.

“What did you say!?” My grandfather never got angry. But that night he was angry.

“You heard me,” I said folding my arms and tucking my chin to my chest.

“Young man! I thank God everyday that I have you.”

“You’re not my dad and there is no God.” I didn’t believe the last part, not then at any rate and I certainly didn’t feel the first part. I had said it to hurt him. And I did.

Wham! My grandfather hit me only one time in my life and I can still feel that smack across the face. I didn’t cry, but there were tears in his eyes. His hand shook with the sting and then flushed red with regret.

We stayed silent for sometime. Staring at one another. Then my grandfather rested his hand on my hair.

“I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry, kiddo.”

I didn’t respond so he continued. “Your father was never an easy person. He was stubborn. What she saw in him I didn’t know. But I thank God she saw something. When she passed away, he brought you down to live with us. He just needed to clear his head for a couple days. I remember him standing in the driveway, barefoot, digging his feet into the rocks. I thought he just needed time; just didn’t know how to respond. I should have realized then he was thinking how to leave. When I came outside again I found his wedding ring laying on the rocks.”

Again we didn’t speak.

“Do you see a boat?” I said awkwardly.

“Hhhhah hhhah hah!”

*                           *                                  *

There was no boat—at least not the type I was thinking of—and there were no children. He was right about the girl though and eventually the money. And he was right, though not at first, I wouldn’t care about the money.

I ride up the causeway. The String of Pearls smiling at me. Then I peddle faster and harder. I feel the wind ruffle my hair and I bear down, forcing my legs to battle up hill. And then I burst through the bubble. The wind slaps my face and the rush of life converges around me, pulling at me with a million different fingers–and I let them. They carry me over the hump of the causeway then eagerly guide my bike down its slope. The bike comes to a rest by the guardrail along the base of the bridge. I trek down to the sand below, reach into my pocket, and pull out the rocks.

The rocks skim serenely off the water, bouncing high into the air, then crash through the surface of the quite bay water. I imagine them sinking slowly to the sea floor, past the fish and the light. I imagine my father with them in the dark, looking up and seeing the bottom of a boat. My boat. Does he know it’s me? I wonder if I stop for him will he pull me down with him.

I’m out of rocks and so I keep my fingers occupied with my wedding band. My grandfather is nothing like his son. “And I am not my father,” I think out loud. I shake my head because the image scares me, then retreat back to the island.

Our three-month anniversary fell out on Paige’s sixteenth birthday. I took her out to a real dinner on my counselor wages. I was good at saving money and that summer I had done well in tips. My grandfather and grandmother each gave me some extra to spend and I did.

We felt like adults and Paige couldn’t stop smiling. An older woman was out to dinner with her husband. At dessert the waiter brought out a cake and sang happy birthday to the woman. Paige clapped along so I followed. The woman blew out her candles and glared in our direction. Apparently our very presence was a mockery to her birthday dinner because she whispered something to the waiter, who nodded, and walked over to us.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said. “You are…um…the meal, it can be very expensive here and…”

I pulled out my wallet and spread it open. He looked at the cash, apologized, and said our meal would be ready shortly.

I pulled his sleeve toward me, just like the older woman had done, and told him to bring her another piece of cake. He nodded.

I looked at the woman, smiled, and using my straw blew bubbles in my overpriced soda with lemon. She turned away in disgust.

I felt rich. Young. And in love.

When we finally reached our dessert I pulled out her gift. She opened the thin box and her face shown brightly.

“Adam!”

“Do you like it?”

“I love it…but this must have cost…”

“It’s the String of Peals,” I said. “Let me help you put it on.”

When I told my grandfather the story about the older woman he banged the kitchen table and laughed.

“You tell your grandmother that, Adam. That’s a story she’ll appreciate,” and he laughed again.

“One day they’ll be begging you to come and eat there,” he added ruffling my hair.

The restaurant closed down the year I got a major promotion at the venture capital firm. My grandfather took Paige and me out to dinner. My grandmother was already sick by then, but she insisted on coming.

“I love your necklace, dear. Is it new?”

“Grandma, you remember, I bought….”

“Thank you, Grandma,” said Paige, her hand on top of my own. “Adam bought it for me and I love it.”

“Adam is very sweet,” she said and pinched my cheeks.

I looked at my grandfather his hair was thin and his eyes half closed. He took a spoonful of soup, his mouth barely opening.

“What now, Adam?  How steep is the road to the top?” asked my grandfather.

“Steep.”

“They’ve never seen anything like you, I’d bet. A mountain climber. Remember I’ve seen your future. The String of Pearls,” he said looking at Paige more than me.

Paige rubbed my arm.

“I love your necklace, dear. Is it new?”

My grandfather stuck his head in his soup bowl again. I remember imagining his laugh jumping out and drowning in his mushroom barely soup. He finished his last spoonful and excused himself.

“I’ll be right back,” I said when he didn’t return for sometime.

He was seated by the bar, a large scotch in his hand.

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

The bartender nodded and we drank together. Me and my grandfather.

“She’s getting worse,” I said. He didn’t need to respond so he kept drinking.

“What do her doctors say?”

“There isn’t anything to say. She’ll get worse. Soon she won’t recognize anything.” He said anything, but he meant “me.” I put my arm on his back and felt him say, “What do you do when the person you love most doesn’t remember you?” I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing to say so I drank.

We drank that night. We went back to the table and went through two bottles of wine. Paige had a glass. Then my grandfather and I grabbed the second bottle when the check came to finish it off in the car.

Paige drove us all home. Me, my grandfather, and my grandmother crammed in the back of their Chevy. We left our car at the restaurant and stayed the night with my grandparents.

My grandfather’s laugh was resurrected for a few hours. He demanded that Paige park by the beach. We all got out, left our shoes by the dunes, and walked barefoot along the water, my grandfather clutching the bottle and half skipping ahead.

Paige was smiling because every once in a while he’d dart back, stick the bottle into the sand, grab my grandmother and start to dance. They’d spin and twirl and eventually fell into the moonlit waves. The water had an inviting green hue because it was the waning days of summer.

“Hhhhah hhhah hah!”

“Come in Adam, come in Paige!” beckoned my grandmother. Paige looked at me and I tackled her into the water. That night my grandfather was free. My grandmother may have begun to lose herself, to forget the life she built. But for a brief time my grandfather was just as forgetful. They were together again.

We washed ashore some time later. Paige and I ran back to the car to fetch our beach blankets in the trunk. I pulled two out and wrapped one around her then held her close to me. She looked up at me and we kissed.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said.

“I know.” But that was not the truth and Paige understood.

We headed back to the beach. My grandfather and grandmother were looking up at the stars. The moon felt close.

We spread the blankets out and Paige lied on my stomach. My grandmother curled close to my grandfather and we all fell asleep.

When the sun relieved the moon in the morning, she must have smiled at my grandfather standing by the water, the bottle of wine in his hand. I walked beside him, scooped up a fistful of sand and watched each grain sink through the water and join together again at the bottom of the bottle.

My grandmother died later that year.

*                           *                                  *

“There hasn’t been much worth listening out for,” Chris says raising the volume on the television closest to us. Buckalews is quiet tonight. Chris, the owner’s son, is there working the bar. We were friends for a brief span one summer when both of us were lifeguards. There are only so many hours you can sit with someone without becoming friends. When days were really boring and hot, we’d switch off turns going out on the rescue board. I’d circle past the few swimmers using my hands to propel me further out to sea. There were times when I’d see dolphins swim within feet of me, riding the waves like surfers. Now when Chris and I see each other we still talk about that summer.

I take a sip of my wine and turn to the television. The anchor is discussing a series of burglaries that took place over the weekend. There’s a segment on abortion and I say he can lower it. Chris lets me log on to the Internet–“Don’t tell my pop I let you do that though.”

“I won’t.”

Paige is on Facebook and we start to talk.

“I haven’t seen Matt in days,” she says. “Last time we spoke nothing had changed.”

“Okay,” I say. I’m tempted to ask Chris if I could borrow the phone to call Matt directly, but realize I don’t know his number. I laugh at that.

When I bought my grandmother a cell phone for her birthday, she refused to program any numbers in it.

“I know them by heart,” she insisted. “Plus how will I remember new ones then?”

“You won’t need to. The phone will remember for you.” But she wouldn’t hear any more about it.

“It’s almost your birthday, Adam,” types Paige. I had completely forgotten. It wasn’t a significant birthday. But it’s still an odd feeling forgetting your own birthday.

“What do you want?” Paige says then adds a winky face.

“I don’t even know.” And that was the truth. I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t know why I was still on the island when Paige wasn’t here. I didn’t really know what else to say, so I stopped typing.

An hour later, I walk home from the bar and run into the waitress from the coffee shop on Goodrich. It’s dark, but I recognize her. I say hello. She needs me to remind her who I am, but soon we are talking and it isn’t awkward. Turns out Jessica lives near my grandfather’s house and so we start walking together.

“Are you with anyone?” she says as we cross over Mea Lane.

I don’t answer her at first then say, “Yes. I’ve been married for many years. She couldn’t make it here, though.”

I turn my head because I feel my eyes watering. She notices though and says she’s sorry, then quickly asks, “Do you come here often?”

I give her the same answer I gave the fisherman. “My grandfather had a house. It’s mine now.”

She’s at least fifteen years my junior and she is very pretty. She looks at me quizzically, unsure what to make of me. Our eyes meet and I think she sees something she likes in me or maybe she just sees someone she can help or maybe she’s not thinking anything at all, but she takes my hand and pulls me into a sprint and I follow her. We’re running for sometime and my heart is beating fast and my hamstring aches, but she is leading.

“So you must think you know the Island pretty well, huh?” she yells back at me and smiles.

“I…I grew up here,” I choke out.

“That’s not what I asked,” she laughs and picks up our pace.

We turn on Sea Breeze Drive. I lean my hands on my knees and tuck my head to the ground, panting.  Jessica thinks it’s funny and playfully pokes me in the ribs.

“Bet you’ve never seen this,” she says.

I lift my gaze. It’s a massive satellite dish, the size of the small house next to it. The dish is surrounded by a wooden fence and has a plot of land all to itself.

“What it is?”

“I used to pretend that there was a top secrete governmental laboratory underneath and that the satellite was gathering frequencies from outer space,” she blurts out very quickly.

I look at her and we both laugh.

“That or they really enjoy T.V.” I nod toward the small house.

“Come on. I want to show you something,” says Jessica and without waiting for a reply she hops over the fence and starts climbing up the dish. “You coming?”

I stretch out my hamstring and follow awkwardly behind. She reaches the top in minutes and waits patiently for me to get my footing right. Eventually I reach the summit.

It’s an incredible site. From the top, we can see the bay to our right and we can see the ocean to our left–the moonlight splashing off the water with the tide. I can feel the wind on my face and hear the distant crash of the waves.

“Pretty neat,” she whispers in my ear.

I don’t answer her and take a deep breath like a fish out of water. She takes my hand in hers. Then pulls me closer.

I don’t know what she sees in my eyes and I don’t care. She kisses me and I kiss her back.

*                           *                                  *

Our five-year anniversary party was in Paige’s parents house. I would have liked to have done it by the ocean, but Paige’s parents insisted it be somewhere where the guest could commute. So we did it in the city. It was a black-tie event–again Paige’s parents wanted it.

“I don’t like it either,” she held my hand and whispered by the bar. “It’s what they wanted.”

I wasn’t upset and I told her so.

“Thank you,” she said and she meant it. “When you get a chance my father wants to introduce you to someone.”

“Who?”

“Not sure.”

My grandfather was there. Somber, but proud. He pulled me aside sometime during the night and told me so. We talked alone and I don’t remember what we talked about. Only when we’re done he reached to ruffle my hair then stopped realizing it’s gelled, and hugged me instead. “Hold on to her, kiddo” he said and I when he lifted his head up I felt a wet spot on my shoulder.

I looked down at it and felt a surge of pain course through my veins. I cried at my grandmother’s funeral but that was a different feeling. I can’t explain the feeling that night; it was more fear than sorrow. I stared at my grandfather’s leathery face, his hair reduced to mere strands. His eyes sagged and his smile and laugh a distant memory.

I met Matt that night. Paige’s father introduced us and though that was not the night we become close, memory has an odd way of warping the past so that I have always linked Matt with that night. In truth, I don’t think that I thought of Matt until a year later when the firm redoubled it’s efforts in biotechnology. At the time, Matt was developing voice recognition software for an experiment he was conducting. He told me that at the party and I guess I must have stored that somewhere because I remembered him and we met for dinner.

It was at that dinner that Matt told me he thought that there was a fortune to be made in dictation software and that his development could have major commercial value. Matt is a scientist, but he’s a businessman at heart.

We met for dinner again. We met at his lab after that. And then the firm invested. It would be called Dragon and it was clumsy software at first, but it sold well especially to hospitals. Dragon was like having your own personal secretary. Instead of the doctor dictating notes about a patient that his secretary would then type, Dragon cut out the middleman by directly transcribing the doctor’s words into a written report. Of course, you had to train your Dragon to recognize your voice, but as the technology improved the training became less and less, until you no longer needed to train it at all. Dragon took off like fire: from hospitals to schools to virtually every business. And that’s where I made the money my grandfather predicted I would.

When I think back to my anniversary party and my grandfather’s words, I’ve always imagined that I met Matt for a reason. Someone once told me that fate is inexorable. And so it must be. Why else would I have met Matt? Why else would we have worked together? Why would I quit my job–a job I made a fortune doing–to work on an experiment that I was unsure we could accomplish? It’s because something told me that I was meant to explore that path. When life’s fingers grabbed at my shirt and pulled me along that road, I didn’t hesitate to follow. I began the project with Matt because of my grandfather, who was my father, and finished it for myself.

Yet, now I had retreated to the island because I was no longer willing to let life dictate the terms.

*                           *                                  *

I have a dream. Jessica lies on the bed beside me, propped up on her forearm and stares at me. She’s naked. Outside the sun slowly begins to peak through the open window, warming my arms and resting on her breast. I lean toward her and we kiss. She smiles.

“Do you want to ride to the lighthouse?” she asks. I have nothing else planned for the day so we go. We take the car because the lighthouse is at the northern tip of the island and I’m not sure how long I want to stay. Plus, Jessica’s shift starts in the early afternoon.

When we get the lighthouse there is a tour about to begin, which I’m surprised about because normally everything shuts down after season. Jessica wants to join the group of seven.

“Why? You live here.” I ask.

“I’ve never taken a tour of the lighthouse before. Have you?”

I can’t say I have so we join the family of five and an older couple. The family of five has two teenage daughters and a boy around the age of seven.

The tour guide is an elderly man who has trouble with the stairs. He is in good enough spirits though and speaks patiently about its history.

“The tower was originally constructed in June of 1834. Congress commissioned the work, which cost roughly $6,000.”

In 1855 though an engineer, who became famous during the Civil War, reconstructed the lighthouse. I didn’t hear the engineer’s name because the young boy was speaking loudly with his father.

“Did he know Lincoln, dad?”

“Don’t be shy. Raise your hand and ask.”

The boy does and the elderly tour guide tells him it is quite possible because he was promoted to brigadier general after defeating General Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg.

The boy smiles at the answer and his dad rests his hand lovingly on his head.

Jessica grabs my arm and whispers, “He’s adorable. Isn’t he?”

The new lighthouse is four times as tall as the old and is 165 feet above sea level. We climb to the top, slowly. There are small windows on every floor and Jessica stops at each to peer outside. Eventually she says to the tour guide, “I have a question. When was the lighthouse last used?”

The tour guide tilts his head in disappointment. Then points to the sign above my head. It reads: The lighthouse was made obsolete in 1965 by electronic navigation. The young boys mother looks at Jessica with disapproving eyes.

Jessica laughs and takes my hand.

“Maybe you should lead the tour,” I say.

We finally make it to the summit. From the top you have a panoramic view of the ocean and bay. The boy is with his father and they are looking out to sea.

“You can see forever,” says the dad pointing to the horizon. “You can see into the future,” he adds. He isn’t looking at the ocean anymore. He’s looking at me then ruffles the boy’s hair. The older couple, the mother and her two teenage daughters, they are all looking at me. I look to the tour guide. He is no longer old. He’s Matt and he is winking at me.

“What do you see, dad?” asks the little boy.

I suddenly turn to Jessica.

“Why did you bring me here?”

She looks directly into my eyes and doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“Sometimes when you’re lost it helps to get an overview.” Then she leans in and whispers, “She’s obsolete. You’ve made her obsolete, Adam.”

I wake up with a twitch. The sun is beating down on me—its rays magnified through the window and I’m sweating.

*                           *                                  *

Paige was supportive throughout it all. She could see how much the project meant to me.

My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in ’96. I watched for three years as it slowly ate away at her mind. It is difficult to describe how painful it can be to witness her confusion. In a way, though, it was harder when she became lucid and filled with despair from how much she had lost. There came a point in which it was easier for me when she became entirely unaware.

That was not the case for my grandfather. Yes, it tore at him when she would break down in tears having put the milk carton in the oven or when in the summer she’d offer to take me sledding. But I think in an odd way those tears brought hope. He would hold her and together they would cry. Those brief moments gave him a space where he could join her. He imagined that as long as he could pull away the debris, he could tunnel his way through a narrow passage and reach the island where she was trapped. He would push and dig and build walls, construct a damn–anything—to prevent that space from being washed over. In the deepest part of his soul he believed that he could save her. He would kindle a fire and eventually he’d build a bridge or a boat and he’d rescue her. But when it became clear that that space was dwindling and that there was no place to entrench hope, he did not run. He stayed with her even as the tide came in, even as the summer waned.

When she passed, he was forced to return. By then winter had long taken root in his hair. His face had deep lines running in different directions, as though someone had gone sledding across it, charting time in a cruel way.

It took us four years, seven months, and two days for the project to come to fruition. Paige had volunteered to be our muse and all we needed was for her to test it.

I brought her down to the lab one evening. She had known what we were working on, but I had insisted that she wait until it was finished before seeing it. She reluctantly agreed.

“Are you ready?” I said my hand resting on the curtain along with Matt’s.

“Yes!”

I look at Matt then said, “Maybe we should wait a little longer.”

Paige’s eyes widened out of protest.

“I’m just kidding,” I laughed. “Ready, three, two, one!”

Matt and I pulled off the curtain. This time Paige’s eye grew with wonder. She said nothing for sometime and I smiled at Matt.

Finally she collected herself and asked, “So this is what you think I look like?”

Matt looked disappointed. “Well, yes. You don’t think she looks like you?”

“Relax Matt, she is only kidding.”

Paige ignored us. “Can I touch it?”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

Paige slowly made her way closer. She reached her hand out to touch its face before it suddenly grabbed Paige’s hand.

“Hello, my name is Paige. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Nice…nice to meet you too,” she says looking at me.

“We named it after you,” I explained.

“I gathered as much. So what can it do?”

I shrugged. “Ask her.”

She turned suspiciously and continued to speak with it. “Hello, Paige. My name is Paige. How old are you?”

“I am 41 years old, but I prefer to tell men I’m 35.”

Paige nodded at it then looked at me for help.

“I’ve programmed as much as I could about you in her,” I explained further, but she is still learning.

“What do you mean learning?”

“Well,” Matt stepped forward, “in short, the basic software is there. For instance, it’s wired with facial recognition and speech software…”

“Dragon,” Paige whispered softly.

“Exactly. All of which will allow it to remember people, build its vocabulary, and it can even access the Internet if it doesn’t know something. It can think and adapt like you and I.”

“Isn’t that right Paige,” I yelled at it.

“I can integrate new words that I hear or learn online in real time. I may not get everything right, say the wrong thing, and sometimes not know what to say, but everyday I make progress.” As it spoke, the mess of wires in her brain began to hum with activity.

“Pretty incredible, huh?” I nudged Paige with my elbow.

“It looks so real.”

“Well we need it to be and that’s why we need you to spend time with her. Speak to it. Tell it about yourself,” Matt encouraged. “It’s what it wants. Isn’t that right?”

“I wish they could capture more of Paige so I can be more like her. In a rudimentary way I am Paige. The real Paige lives out there, but I want a life you know. I want to get out there and garden,” she hummed rapidly.

“See,” he said with a grin. “You can even talk to her online if you want.”

“She’s on Facebook,” I said with a wink.

“She?”

“It,” I corrected.

Paige looked at me apprehensively. I could see her mulling it over. In the end, I think she was too curious to walk way so she agreed.

“Great!” said Matt and we immediately got to work.

*                           *                                  *

We intended to use our machine to help people like my grandmother recover from illnesses that damage the mind. We thought that if we could allow a person to digitally harvest his consciousness, then there might be a chance of later restoring what was lost. And, at the very least, this digital-self could be used in the home to help that person during particularly bad moments–like reminding them what the weather is outside or that the milk container goes in the fridge. But even more than that: reminding them who they are, what they like, their aspirations, what makes them tick, what makes them get up in the morning…who they love. Who better to help such a person, than something that thinks like that person?

At the time, I thought I was building a boat to save people when the island would inevitably shrink as the tide washed over. I realized later that I was building a boat for myself.

Paige and I were in the lab as we were so often during that time. She was sitting in on the sofa holding a mug of coffee with both hands. She was telling me a story in front of it.

“Mrs. Parmet was taking her daughter to ballet and Josephine and I were watching from my bedroom window,” she pauses to take a sip of from her coffee then continues. “We had done this many times before and it always went smoothly. Our mission was to sneak in and raid the pantry and leave. We were a good team. Jo was far braver than I could ever be. She’d wear this army hat and pull the brim close to her eyes. ‘Are you ready to rumble,’ she’d say in a commanding tone. She would have gladly gone alone to retrieve the goods, of course, but she needed me to get in. You see my elbow’s are double jointed,” she put down her coffee to show me. I had seen Paige do it before, but every time she stretched out her arm and let her elbow dip is that awkward way I cringed. She laughed at my nauseous expression.

“Well I’d slide my hand through the mail-slot then feel around for the lock. And with a quick flick of my middle finger I could unlock the door. After that it was a piece of cake…literally. Mrs. Parmet’s devil’s food cake was the best.”

“Anyway, Mrs. Parmet and her daughter leave and we quickly head over. I get us in easily enough,” she gestured with her hand the process, “and we head straight to the pantry and pig out. We are about to leave when Jo suggests that we explore upstairs.”

“‘Why?’ I ask.”

“‘Because it’s fun. Come on Paige,’ and she runs upstairs.”

“I should have left, but I was too scared to go on my own. So I reluctantly follow her upstairs. We search around, snoop in the drawers. I don’t even want to tell you what we found in there,” she laughed to herself as she picked up her mug and entered that house again.

“Then suddenly we hear a car pull into the driveway. I look at Jo, but she’s already bolted toward the staircase. I run after her, but half way down the stairs the front door is jiggling. She looks at me.”

“‘This way!’ I hiss.”

“We turn back up and enter the daughters room. I close door behind us, but we can hear voices and quick stomps up the steps. I wrench open the closet door. It’s in complete disarray and there isn’t room for both of us. And then something comes over me. Fear I guess. But I kick Jo hard in the shins and she’s stunned for a second as I go into the closet and yank the door shut, or as shut as it will go with the amount of toys littering the floor. Jo comes to just in time and ducks behind the bed.”

“I hear Mrs. Parmet tell her daughter look for her ballet shoes. The door to the room opens and I press my eye to a small crack between the doorway and door. I can see the little girl looking around and I know that she’s coming my way. At this point my heart is beating so hard against my chest I’m certain she will hear it. I pull my eye away and search frantically around the closet…and at last I see her shoes. They are on one of her doll’s feet. I pick it up, retreat as far back as I can in the closet, hiding in her hanging clothes, and hold the doll delicately out in front of me. All the while, praying that the little girl will take it and leave. The door opens slowly and the girl looks at the doll seemingly hanging in midair. I can kind of see her cock her head to the side in confusion. But she accepts it and takes the doll before yelling to her mom ‘I got it,’ and scurrying off.”

“I hear them go down the steps and the car pull away. I stay in the closet though, too scared to move. After what feels like an eternity Jo opens the door.”

“‘Paige where are you?’ she asks weeding through clothes. She finally gets me and yanks me out.”

“I can see she wants to hit me for what I did, but then her anger turns to concern when she sees my face.”

“‘Paige!’ she says with alarm. ‘Are you okay?’”

“I follow her eyes up my forehead with my hand. Blood is trickling down from my hairline. I must have bumped my head on a nail or wire hanger or something but was too scared to feel anything. Jo hugs me and we leave. That was the last time we snuck into the Parmet’s house.”

My mouth was dry from having left it open for so long. I close it. I never heard that story and I was about to say as much, but then it began to speak.

“That is where we got our scar from, Paige?”

“Yes,” said Paige and she spread apart her hair to show a small raised scar that in the future I’d become so accustomed to seeing.

Paige turned to me and said triumphantly, “I think this is working.”

*                           *                                  *

It finally comes on the news. I’m at Buckalews. The rain is knocking loudly on the windows and Chris turns up the volume for me. Even still I can hardly hear over the hammering. Matt is on the screen standing next to a reporter and Paige. The caption at the bottom reads Amgen invests future in AI.

“I’m standing her with Dr. Matt de le Pena, one of the key figures behind the dictation software Dragon and current curator of the AI robot known simply as Paige. Matt, tell us about Paige, and what you and the multinational biopharmaceutical company Amgen hope to accomplish.”

I finish my wine in one big gulp, pay, and leave.

*                           *                                  *

Those days with Paige in the lab were the best time of my life. I know because nearly a year later when Paige was diagnosed with breast cancer we would experience the worst. She went for a routine mammogram and the doctor told her the bad news. I was not there that day, something I still think about.

He said that it was good that they caught it now. He was wrong. Later he’d say there was the possibility that it was a false-positive. He ran more tests; it wasn’t. He’d say that surgery might be her best option; then we’d discover it had metastasized to the liver.

He said they would need to be aggressive, but his expression conveyed defeat. Chemo. Radiation. There were specialists in Manhattan. Memorial Sloan Kettering. He would call a colleague.

He spoke kindly. But there was nothing there. No place to entrench hope.

When I was younger, I remember practicing with my grandfather for an emergency evacuation of the island. There is only one bridge in and out and if islanders fear anything, it’s dangerous weather.

“Flashlight?”

“Check.”

“Batteries?”

“Check.”

“Lifejacket?”

“Check.”

“Bikes?”

“Bikes? Why bikes?”

“Because cars get stuck on the causeway. Bikes?”

“But how will bikes make it through water?”

“I was here in the Great March Storm of ‘62 kiddo. When the ocean meets the bay in center town, cars and bikes are the same.”

I pictured a giant wave riding up the coast then thundering down Bay Avenue. I shuddered.

“Bikes?”

The cancer hit so sudden that if anyone from the outside were to look in on us they’d have thought we were perfectly fine. Our routine never truly had time to catch up to the news that Paige was dying. It seemed only Paige’s hair had understood that things were deteriorating quickly and wisely snuck off in the middle of the night. Paige had little patients for quitters and one morning decided enough was enough and cut ties completely. She used my shaver and came down to breakfast. I looked up from my coffee and said nothing. I was looking at the scar I had not known about until recently. It was ugly. I did not know about Paige’s strength either. How she’d hold on even when her liver failed and her face flushed yellow and she’d pee the color of bark. That would be ugly too.

“Do you want to touch?”

The doctor called us one night while Paige and I were in the lab, rehashing stories in front of it. From what I could tell the late night talking was having more of an effect than any treatment plan the doctors had suggested. She’d smile as her mind drifted through the past.

“What did he say?” I asked when she finally hung up.

“He got me an appointment at Sloan next Monday,” she gave a hopeful smile. Thinking back, there was a slight tinge of yellow already creepy into the whites of her eyes.

“Paige…”

“What do you say we go to the beach house? Right now. Me and you. We go together then drive up to Manhattan Monday?”

“Paige…”

“Come on, Adam. Me and you?”

“Paige…”

But before I could answer it began to speak.

“I have an appointment on Friday to receive chemo and there is a 70% chance of rain Saturday.”

Paige and I stared at it, unable to speak. Paige put her hand in her lap and began to sob. I put my arm around her and held her. Then Paige whispered, “Let’s just go to the beach house and then well go to see the expert at Sloan.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to go tonight,” it responded.

“Turn it off, Adam,” said Paige. “I want you to turn it off.”

I didn’t move. I just looked at the scar on her head. Paige picked her face up, saw what I was looking at then screamed, “Turn it off! Turn it off! Turn it off!”

I didn’t move. When the ocean meets the bay in center town, cars and bikes are the same.

“Paige…Memorial won’t be able to help.”

When she calmed herself she collected her stuff slowly. “Turn her off, Adam,” she said and left.

I picked myself off the couch and looked at it. There was a dull hum coming off it and I could tell it was thinking.

As I drove Paige home that night in silence, I ran down the list my grandfather used.

“…Bikes?”

A boat would have been a better investment.

*                           *                                  *

I wake up early to gray skies. The power is out in the house. It must have gone out with the storm last night because the milk is warm. I was going to go to the coffee shop to speak with Paige, but decide that their Internet is probably down anyway and so I go to the beach instead.

The street is littered with stones from people’s driveways. There is a power line down barricading the main road, making it easy for me to cross toward the beachside.

I kick off my shoes by the dunes, pull my sweatshirt up over my head, and look out. The sea is acting strange today. The ocean has snaked its way on either side of the beach, flanking a mound of sand. I watch for an hour or so as the tide comes in and the water flows around the back, encircling it.

For the most part, the sand has dried firm after the rain. My steps barely leave a mark then fade off completely as I trudge through the backline of cold storm water surrounding the small island. In a couple of months the township will import sand from a few miles off shore in order to restore the beaches and protect the mansions along the coast. Until then water and wind and storms will displace large portions of the beach. From the mound, I turn my back to the ocean and look across at the houses, remembering the ones that my grandfather once owned. But for some reason I’m having difficulty picturing them today. Instead I look to the far right. I can see the distant arch of the causeway. Even the String of Peals are off on this gray morning. The ocean flows around me and fills my ears with white noise.

The night Paige died and I came home the house was dark and silent. I made my way to our bedroom and flicked on the dim light. Paige had asked me to change the light bulb but I never got around to it. I decided to take care of it and opened the bottom drawer. Paige kept the house neat, but her closets and drawers were always messy. She kept the bulbs in the same drawer as our anniversary cards and letters and loose change. I picked up a letter she had written to me. It was written on notebook paper. Its date around the time my grandfather passed.

When Paige is thinking deeply she holds the pen too tight and presses hard on the paper. Her letters were wobbly and it was nearly impossible to read. Instead I traced my fingers along the back of the paper, feeling the grooves that the pen has engraved.

I changed the light bulb, lied back on Paige’s side of the bed, and looked at it for sometime. I reached into my pocket and pulled out Paige’s necklace–the String of Peals.   Her pillow had absorbed her scent and I began to sob.

I didn’t stay in the house alone very long. I got in the car, blasted the radio to ear deafening levels, and road off to the lab.

Matt was there, looking excited. “Amgen said they’d get back to us within the week. Adam…Amgen wants in!”

He didn’t know Paige had passed, but he could tell I wasn’t in the mood to talk. He put his arm on my shoulder where my grandfather’s tears once lay.

“How’s she holding up?”

I didn’t say anything. And he left me alone.

It was in the corner. I walked up to it, pulled the curtain off, and said what I came to say.

“Paige is dead.”

Its eyes locked in on mine, but ignored me. Instead it asked, “When you shut me off, will I dream?”

I thought about it for a while.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I’ve been thinking about what we talked about the other night, Adam. I think it would be good for you to go to the beach house alone for a couple of days. Leave your cell phone and your work behind.”

“Paige is dead,” I repeated.

“We don’t have to decide anything tonight. Go to the beach.  When you come back, I’ll be here.”

“Paige is dead.”

“No. I’m here. I love you, Adam. Go to the beach.”

I looked at it; it’s eyes dilating. There was something there. Was it fear? Was it trying to cry?

There was something and I couldn’t turn her off.

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3 thoughts on “The String of Pearls

  1. This story is really compelling! The way the story was written kept me interested and allowed me to feel for the characters. Not introducing Paige the robot until further into the story was a strategic move. I feel it really added another dimension to the story. This story really brings up the question of whether technology can overtake human companionship and how far will we take technology. If this robot is program to “be” Paige, is there any need for the real Paige? The idea of technology dreaming is another interesting notion, if we can program a robot to think and learn like a human, can we program it to dream as well?
    Overall this story was not only interesting to read and extremely well written but it asks a lot of interesting questions!! Great job!!

  2. Hey!
    I am happy you enjoyed the story. I think you really identified some of the main questions here. I would just frame a few things a little differently. I don’t think the question is whether we “need” Paige or not. I think the question is whether the program is conscious. Can Adam turn this machine off or has it become as real as Paige was?

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