Oppenheimer Beach

by  Tom Paine

In a haze of marijuana and beer, a vacationing photojournalist discusses the state of humanity with a West Indian boy. What are we without our addictions, our distractions, and are we doomed if we hold onto them?

Oppenheimer Beach

“Get off your iPad,” Hugh Copley said. He was lying in a hammock tied between two palm trees. The hammock had been there forever—or at least a hammock—as the hooks were nearly swallowed by the elephant bark of the palm trees. He twisted angrily, trying to get the hammock to swing. He had spent the night in the hammock, and the no-see-ums at dawn had savaged his face and neck. The sheet in which he had wrapped himself like a mummy during the night lay crumpled on the sandy ground. He took a hit off the last of three joints the local kid had slipped into his palm as they checked into the cottage the night before. Raising his head, he pointed a long arm, with a gesture that seemed too fluid, toward the screened window of the cottage. “I know you’re on the thing,” he said. “There better not be Wi-Fi on the beach, or we’re for Borneo. Fuck Steve Jobs. The guy is the antichrist.” A blond head popped up at the screened window. The boy was standing with his legs spread on a waterbed—an odd touch for a tropical cottage—and because he was alternately pressing his feet down, he floated unnaturally in the window. “Why do you think I brought you people to paradise?” The boy was still in the same red plaid pants he always wore, white sneakers without a spot, a black t-shirt that tried to hide his weight and a chest that was almost girlish. Around his neck were two gold chains—Hugh had under duress given him one for Christmas a few days earlier, although his real gift to his son was his own first Leica, and enough film for the next three to six months of their trip. 

“Magnus, did you hear me?” 

Magnus was still framed in the window, but now his eyes were focused downward, and his shoulders twitched as his fingers worked their magic on the computer game he had been playing since the roosters woke him. He raised his eyes once or twice to his father in the hammock a dozen feet away. Hugh Copley was a war photographer, and his work had been in the New York Times and National Geographic: stories on Myanmar, Durban, Kabul, and Grenada. In Kabul he had been kidnapped for twelve hours. He had been away on assignment for half his son’s life. He gave a command well, he felt, and was always surprised his son didn’t pay the least attention to him. He lowered his voice an octave. “Magnus. Put it down and come out here. At least step onto the porch and bring me a beer.” 

Magnus stopped surfing the water bed, clenched the iPad to his chest like a shield, and gazed out through the pixelating screen. His milky green eyes were his most interesting feature—they were very wide set, but too large for his face by two degrees, and hooded. They also tilted upward, which gave an eerily feline, slightly—Hugh felt bad that he saw this in them—otherworldly, or to be more specific, alien aspect to them. His face, his eyes, his blond spiky hair: he was, like his Oslo-born mother, arrestingly good-looking despite his weight, but since he returned from Kabul, his son’s evaluative gaze had kept him up at night.

“I simply want you to come outside,” Hugh said.

“Stay where you are, my Magnus,” said his wife, Alfhild, whose voice was strained, as she was levitating in the kakasana, or crow, yoga position. “You are not his flight attendant.” This was a reference to the six beers he had ordered on the JetBlue flight down to the Virgin Islands from LaGuardia. Combined with two Zoloft, he had achieved a perfectly numbed state that made the grind of the landing gear an almost painful psychic shock. Alfhild was looking at her son from near the terra-cotta tiled floor, her short white-blond bangs framing her raised, open face, the nine fingers (she had lost her left pinky to frostbite as a girl telemarking in the fjord region) elevating her body—straining, splayed, and bloodless. “You can stay in this room all day,” she said, and gasped for a moment for breath as she held her pose. “Play your silly games.”

“The elf-warrior speaks,” said Hugh, in a Norwegian accent. “I should have married your friend Abigael. You can’t go wrong with a name that means ‘father rejoices.’ I pay four hundred dollars a night for us to be right on this famous beach on St. John to kick off our ‘2009 End of the World Tour,’ and I ask my son to step outside and at least touch a damn coconut or something on the very first morning, and you tell him to stay inside and play computer games. Is that helpful?”

“If a ten-year-old boy, whose father precipitously snatched him from his excellent school where he was getting good grades, because his father has a midlife crisis, wants to play computer games,” Alfhild said, blinking with strain in the final moments of her pose. “I say let him.”

“Sometimes, Alfhild,” Hugh said. “I’ve wanted to put a machete through your pretty and pragmatic head like it was a ripe coconut.”

“The machete is new.”

Hugh Copley fought his way out of the hammock and stretched, went to the small fridge on the back of the porch, took out a Corona, and waved it at the Caribbean Sea, the electric blue broken by a regimental curtain of palm trees a few dozen feet away. “You still don’t get it,” he began.

What I am saying is, if no one acknowledges your wonder, you begin to doubt it is in you, and slowly it just disappears. Then you are just Hugh Copley the stoned and cynical freelance photojournalist.

“I get that you have foolishly burned all your bridges and given up your photojournalism career,” said Alfhild, as she lay recovering in savasana, the corpse position. Taking a deep exhaling breath, she crossed her arms across her breasts. “And I get that in six months or less, having completed this forced ‘end of the world let our child see it for the last time odyssey,’ we’ll return completely broke to New York, Magnus will be a year behind in his studies, we will probably divorce, and I will find a wealthy new lover, younger perhaps and more limber, who likes to play computer games with my son, and doesn’t walk around drowning in guilt at being simply—” 

“Enough,” said Hugh, theatrically draining the beer, and reaching in the fridge for another. This time he pulled out a Red Stripe.

As he twisted the beer open with his teeth, Magnus emerged, sat on the top step, and pointed to his iPad. “I’m downloading just as fast as New York,” he said slowly. “And it’s routing locally, so I’m not using up any of my monthly contract minutes.” He looked to his father’s reaction with almost rapture. His voice was still unusually high-pitched. “I was worried . . . it said I’d burn up contract minutes down here like they were on fire.” 

“I’ll light a fire under you, Magster, if you don’t turn that thing off,” his father said. He drank half the beer. “Put it in your suitcase, and try and make it all the way down to the beach or something this morning.” He stood on his toes to see his naked wife, who was now upside down, using her head and elbows for support, and then studied his son’s face. “You look like a ghost; when was the last time you even walked outside?”

“I’ll check,” Magnus said. He put the iPad on his knees, and his fingers flicked across the screen. “I have an app that keeps track of where I’ve been. And if I want to know when I was outside—since I got the iPad at Christmas—I can just ask. Wait . . . Wait . . . Wait . . . Okay, I have been outside of a structure 8 percent of the time, although I don’t know what the app thinks of time in an airplane. This application can be accessed by Alfhild, and she can see where I am at any moment. Alfhild, go on your laptop like I showed you and touch ‘find Magnus’ and tell Hugh where I am right now . . .”

“Magnus,” Alfhild said, sounding strained. “Let mummy finish her yoga, then I promise to find you on the laptop.”

“Okay,” Magnus said, without raising his eyes. “Hey, the app seems to know I am ‘outside’ right now. It just changed the figure to nine percent of the time for ‘outside.’ That’s amazing. Because I’m just outside the screen door, about three feet from being ‘inside.’ So how can it know that unless the GPS is a lot more accurate than they say? Or maybe the iPad is using sensory data, like the kind of light. Indoor light from bulbs is at a total different frequency than the stuff from the sun. But maybe this cottage isn’t even a known structure? I mean it looks pretty new. If that’s the case, all the time I spend in this cottage would count as ‘outside,’ but that means I have been ‘outside’ since we came last night, and that would mean I must have been at like 2 percent or even 1 percent for ‘outside’ time before. Wait a minute, I can check how much I was ‘outside’ at the time we got on the plane in New York.”

“Hugh?” said Alfhild. “Did I hear you just crack another beer?”

“Ask Magnus,” Hugh said. “He has an app that keeps track of his father’s suicidal despair.”

Magnus looked up earnestly at his father. “I can tell you your blood alcohol level. People use the app so they don’t get a DWI.” He stepped off the porch and took the empty Corona bottle, pointed his iPad camera at it and took a photo, then took a photo of the empty Red Stripe bottle. “That’s 4.5 percent alcohol for the Corona, and 4.2 percent for the Red Stripe. Both are twelve-ounce beers. You’ve had two Red Stripes and one Corona, and you started drinking with the first rooster, which was at six twelve this morning, and it is now nineteen minutes past seven, which is an elapsed time of sixty-seven minutes. You are six feet three inches tall. What’s your present body weight, Hugh? Have you gained back the weight you lost in Kabul?”

“One hundred and ninety-two,” Hugh said. He coughed as he pulled on the end of his joint. “I'm down thirty pounds and counting. No worries. It’s the new Gandhi-me. If anyone sees that local kid today, let me know. I’m clearly going to need some more agricultural product. Is there an application for local child drug dealers, Magnus?”

“That’s enough, Hugh.” Alfhild pushed open the screen door and stepped onto the back porch in a bright yellow sarong. She pointed a finger at Hugh. “Don't punish my son because he doesn’t share your newfound belief in nature as some sort of nasty god who demands we weep and gnash our teeth every time we use an electrical outlet.”

“I doubt if it can legally find drug dealers,” Magnus said. “But it can identify plants. I’ll show you.” He suddenly jumped off the porch, walked four steps toward a palm tree, and then slumped to the ground clutching his foot. He closed his eyes and rocked and said, “I think I stepped on some kind of sticky thorny thing.” Alfhild ran over and held his foot, pulled out the thorn, and told him to go inside and get his Crocs.

“He’s in a prison,” Hugh said, shaking his head. “I can’t explain it to you.” He walked over and tried to touch his wife’s back with his fingers, but she shrugged and went into the cottage. Hugh raised his voice and said, “I’ll quit drinking and smoking cold turkey, if you can get him to quit with the technology. But you’ll have to help us both with our withdrawal symptoms. His will probably be worse.”

“I am this close,” Alfhild said from inside, “to taking Magnus back home, putting him back in his wonderful school, and pulling the plug on this madness.”

Magnus came outside in his yellow Crocs. He was walking carefully. “I am going to identify something in the outside,” he said over his shoulder to Alfhild. “To show Hugh.”

“Magnus. If you go to the beach I want sunscreen on you.”

“I think he’ll be surprised,” Magnus said, now talking lightly to himself, as if Hugh were not a few feet away. “If he sees me use it on some of his nature, if he sees what it can do even out here, then maybe he’ll want to try it, and we can use it together on our trip. I just think he needs to see it work on what he likes, like a local tree or unusual bird or something—”

“Magnus,” Alfhild said. “I’m going to look for you on the laptop now. Would you like that?”

“I could start with something easy,” Magnus continued. “Like a coconut. I’ll just take a photo of one, and it will tell me all about it. I think Hugh would like that, because even though he knows about coconuts, there are probably lots of facts about them he doesn’t know. I could quiz Hugh, just to show—”

“Magnus,” said Alfhild excitedly. “It works, Magnus. I have located you. I see you right here.”

Magnus was busy leaning over and taking a photo of a coconut. “There,” he said. “Soon we will know a million things about this coconut.”

“Magnus,” said Alfhild. “Walk fifty feet to the edge of the jungle, I want to see if you move.”

“Okay,” said Magnus, who walked scrolling. “Then I want to show Hugh all the facts about coconuts. There are even educational videos about the life cycles of palm trees.”

Hugh was sitting on the back step of the cottage looking at his beer. “He’s fucked,” he said to Alfhild inside. “We’re all totally fucked—”

“Give it a break,” Alfhild said. “Why don’t you go for a nice swim and cool off.”

“Alright, I’ll go to the beach. But I want that thing put away. I want it put in a suitcase, or I am going to see what a coconut dropped from the roof of this cottage does to the screen.”

Hugh yanked down his wraparound shades, jumped onto the beach from between two palm trees, studied his large feet on the hot sand, and then dashed toward an incoming wave, where he stood as his feet were swallowed by the rushing water and sank deep into the soft sand. He looked down at his two white, amputated peg legs and laughed. He raised his head, took a deep breath, and studied a small, black island sloop with a bright yellow bootstrap and sun-faded maroon sails as it skated rail-down around the rocky point and snapped about in a brisk breeze to head into the bay. A West Indian man with Rastafarian hair to his waist saluted with a raised palm, and the sloop, in the tranquil blue bay bristling with the morning sun, hesitatingly nosed about again before the dark reef, and luffed toward Hawknest Beach, beyond the outcropping of rocks at the end of his beach. There were a dozen tourists over there on the larger Hawknest beach, but Hugh’s beach was empty of tourists, and he closed his eyes and raised his two hands and opened his palms to the sun. He had seen this posture once on ancient Egyptian sculptures, and had adopted this salute whenever he arose with open sky available. He waited until his palms were warm and, when he opened his eyes, watched three pelicans arc down and smash together into a school of skittering minnows. 

The cottage’s designated chairs, wood and striped green, were sunk virginally in the smooth sand, left below the tide line by the last guests at the cottage. He dropped heavily into a chair. He closed his eyes for ten minutes, the sun cooking his nose, where he had a melanoma removed the year before. He touched the slight divot between his eyes, looked at his own long, heavily boned white legs, and then studied his wedding ring, looking at a bright diamond sparkle on the gold that came and went as he adjusted the angle of his finger. Then he stood and walked back up to the shoreline, returning with a notebook and a pen he had left on a rock.

September 12, 2009

Oppenheimer Beach, St. John

Magnus does not know how to play outside? He literally doesn’t know “play” exists. It is like “snow” to the Masai.

The frankincense trees of Ethiopia will be extinct in a few years from global warming, cattle grazing, and invasive species. If Jesus came back, he’d get myrrh and gold, and I’m doubtful about myrrh, too. If Magnus ever wants to know what F trees looked like, he could look at my pictures at home.

Magnus does not know “nature” exists, except as he sees it as an abstraction on a screen.

If Magnus has no sense of “nature” as a living thing of dirt under the nails, can he have a sense of “Magnus” as a living, sensory, fleshy animal?

I gave my photo of a Malagasy giant jumping rat of Madagascar jumping three feet in the air to Magnus for Christmas. I told him we will try to see a real one on this trip, if there are any left. We will have to sit out all night. Alfhild said it was a very weird gift, but I thought a giant rat in midair was very cool for a boy. 

I slept in my bathing suit when we went to the beach. All my friends did the same. We didn’t spend five minutes in the house all day unless we were sick enough to die. The only time we were happy was when we were in the waves or rolling down the dunes. We explored for miles and came home with skin like scorched paper. No parent ever knew where we were: we had perfect freedom. This is over for children.

The only time Magnus is with a gang of kids outside is on a poisoned soccer field for an hour of Nazi ball chasing. 

I find, to my surprise, I am a freak. Jesus said give up all you have and follow me. It is that sort of feeling. A wartime feeling. Jesus should have spent all his time on the beauty of the lilies in the valley.

There is just enough time for this last trip. Maybe it would be kind to put him gently to sleep when this trip is over with an opium cocktail. Alfhild would kill me. I would go happily with my son.

I think it was over for me when I saw forty-eight leopard skins for sale in Kabul right after I was thrown from the car and freed. I understood at once. 

I don’t think Magnus can “feel” beauty. There is something missing. A clear blue sky is an emotion, not a fact.

Magnus dreamed about animals as a boy. And then he stopped. Imagination comes from the soil. Without dirty feet and freedom to wander as a child, I wonder if there can be imagination in the adult?

Alfhild says Magnus is stressed, anxious, and depressed because his grades are not good enough for a good college. She wants him to have tutoring after school and this summer. I’d die first.

I loved the ocean and the sand dunes as a boy, and then later I learned all about marine biology and the flora and fauna of Cape Cod. The love and tactile experience came first, and the hunger was there to learn later about the things I loved. I loved to look at things as a boy, and that led me to want to capture what I saw, and that led me to study the laws of photography.

In Manaus, Brazil—Manaus means “mother of the gods”—I took photos of tiny coffins made just for children, and that night I decided on this trip for Magnus.

Hugh was no longer alone on the beach. There was a West Indian boy climbing up a coconut tree behind him. The sea had eroded around the root ball of the palm tree during the last hurricane, and now it leaned almost sideways over the beach. The boy had a full head of Rastafarian hair, wore red baggy swimming trunks and no shirt on his muscular twelve-year-old body. He was crouched down like a surfer, skillfully walking up the palm tree with a smile on his face. When the tree took a turn upward, he dropped into a straddle and crab-walked his torso rapidly up the crown of the tree, where he stood up again, clinging to a few of the giant palm fronds. He plucked the small fruit of the coconut, no bigger than a large marble, and tossed one down. It struck Hugh’s chair and bounced into the sand near his feet. Hugh looked at the fruit, and then strained his neck and gazed up at the tree, where the boy did his best to hide behind some palm fronds. Hugh pretended not to see him, and three or four seeds flew down, until one landed with an audible ponk on Hugh’s head. He set aside his book, turned in his chair, and said, “I was looking for you.”

The boy shimmied halfway back down the tree and then dropped to the sand. He stood and sprinted toward Hugh, then rolled in the sand. Sitting up, he asked, “Your family enjoying Oppenheimer Beach?”

Hugh had noticed the night before that while the boy spoke with a West Indian lilt, he spoke English with the pointed diction and syntax of an Oxford don. Hugh glanced from the boy at a building back in the palm trees at the far end of the beach. He was aware that Robert Oppenheimer had spent some of his last years in the 1950s on this beach, and that oddity had in some way attracted him here. He hadn’t known the locals called it Oppenheimer Beach, he had thought the name was Little Hawksnest. 

“He be my granfadder,” said the boy, now speaking patois with a grin.

Hugh laughed and said, “Oh dat so?” 

“Yes,” said the boy. “Dey call me de Oppie.”

“Right,” said Hugh. “As in J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

“Dat be de mon,” said the boy, taking from the pocket of his bathing suit a small plastic bag and tossing it to Hugh. “Forty dolla for de bag.”

Hugh sniffed the bag, and Oppie handed him some rolling papers and a lighter. He rolled a joint, took a long hit, and, after hesitating for a second, handed it over. Oppie took a hit and handed it back, and after exhaling pointed back up the steep hillside in the distance and said, “Me mother she grow de plant up dere.”

“Your mother the pot grower is Robert Oppenheimer’s daughter?” Hugh asked, taking another puff.

“That’s right,” said Oppie, dropping the island patois, and a hostile look crossed his face for a second. Then he stood and said, “I’ve got to go.”

Hugh jumped up. “Don’t go. I owe you some money. Plus, I’m enjoying talking to you.”

Oppie smiled and said, “I live here. I’m just going out to visit the reef. We can talk when I get back." 

Hugh nodded and took a hit off the joint. Oppie ran into the sea and dove underwater. Hugh was able to follow his dark shadow, and he seemed to stay under for a couple of minutes. Then Hugh lost track of him, and closed his eyes and puffed now and then on the rest of the joint until it burned his fingers. He heard the boy drop down next to him, and he said without opening his eyes, “I have one important question for you, Oppie. Do you think the life of one of those parrot fish I assume are out there on that reef is as important as the life of a human being?" 

“Of course.”

“Do you think you can talk me through this?" Hugh asked, opening his eyes and lighting another joint. “I guess what I am saying is—what am I saying?—to recap, you think the life of a human being is equal in value to that of a parrot fish. I guess we can assume your grandfather—shall we call him J?—that he didn’t agree?”

“I don’t know,” Oppie said, taking the joint and inhaling deeply. “Sometimes I wish I had met him, so I could ask him a lot of questions, like that one. I mean he moved here to this beach for a reason in the 1950s, right? He wanted to get away from people who questioned his politics, but he could have gone to Saigon or Uttar Pradesh. But he came here, to live on a beach with just one other family, and no road to Cruz Bay. And the thing he saw every day was this reef. So he came here to this reef out of all the places in the world. And every day he sat right here in his khakis with his pipe and a white shirt and he had martinis and looked out at the reef, and once a day before dinner he gathered some local kids and they all put on their snorkels and masks and swam around it for an hour.”

“So you think he was responding to the reef like I bet you do?”

Oppie shook his head. “I’d like to think so. I mean of course he was to some degree. But he was also grabbing some lobsters for dinner.”

Hugh opened his eyes wide. “Grabbing? You mean J. grabbed them with his hands?” 

Oppie sighed and handed back the joint. “They don’t have claws like Atlantic lobsters, just two long antennae. But he didn’t really even have to swim over the reef to get them in the 1950s, he could just climb over those rocks down there to Hawksnest Beach, walk out to his knees, and pluck them from the rocks. Lobsters were everywhere. Now I see maybe one a month, and I kayak them out to Henley Cay where nobody goes much. But my grandfather liked to swim once a day over the reef, and I’m glad he did, as you have to admit it humanizes him, although it also makes what he did with the bomb more complex. It would have been easier in some ways if Grandpa was insane, but yes, he appreciated the reef. My grandmother, who was his cook, told my mother that he said it was the best thing about St. John. Maybe when he was my age he appreciated things the way I do, but maybe no one around him saw that as a good thing, or even acknowledged that he had that capacity for wonder. Your name is Hugh, for example. But what if your real name was Harvey? And if no one ever called you Harvey and thought you were insane when you said, ‘My name is Harvey,’ well, over time it would take a very strong person not to begin to forget all about their true name of Harvey, or feel their ‘Harvey-identity.’ What I am saying is, if no one acknowledges your wonder, you begin to doubt it is in you, and slowly it just disappears. Then you are just Hugh Copley the stoned and cynical freelance photojournalist.”

Hugh took a long drag, held it in his lungs while shaking his head. “How long have you been selling this shit to tourists?”

Oppie sat in the sand. “You mean about being the grandson of J. Robert Oppenheimer?”

“Yes, that.”

Oppie stood up and walked down to the water. He dove into a wave and swam out, then rode a wave back in. When he stood, he whipped his neck around, sending his Rasta hair flying. He walked down the beach, then turned and waved for Hugh to follow him. Hugh jogged down the beach and then walked along next to him. He followed him up over some rocks at the end of the beach toward the mustard-yellow concrete building. There were rusted iron bars over the windows. Oppie got a key from under a conch shell, opened the door, and the two went inside. The floor was cool tile, dank. Oppie took him into a back room and positioned him. There was a green anole lizard doing push-ups on the ceiling, angrily flaring its throat into a red sack.

“There,” Oppie said. 

“What?” said Hugh. 

“That’s the spot my white aunt hung herself. This was her childhood home. She left it to the children of the Virgin Islands in her will.”

Hugh wanted to hit the boy. He felt sick and left the damp, mausoleum-like building. Outside he walked quickly out of the palm tree shadows back to the beach, and stood looking at the waves cresting the brown coral tips of the reef. He found he was weeping, and brushed away the tears with the back of his hand. Then he relit the joint with shaking hands, and took a deep inhale.

Oppie was next to him, looking up at his face. “When I feel like you look, I go swim over the reef.”

“You always loved the reef?”

“When I was five I was swimming alone over it,” Oppie said. "I entered the water right here. It was on Easter, and there was a fish fry on this beach. A fish fry is a big West Indian community party. The government opened the house where my aunt hung herself, half the island was here, and there was a scratch band and dancing. We don’t have many of them anymore. I never like crowds, and didn’t even then, so I went for a swim. And I was looking at a giant brain coral with two angelfish swimming around it, I had the feeling that I was part of that brain coral, that there was no ‘I,’ and I banged my head pretty hard. My other grandfather, Mr. Jacob, was whelking over there on the rocks, and he jumped into the water in his long pants and grabbed me."

Hugh suddenly felt weak after another hit, and squatted down.

“I stopped banging my head on the reef after that,” Oppie said, laughing. “But the feeling that the reef and I are the same thing pretty much stayed.”

Hugh nodded. “You still can feel that?”

“Yes,” Oppie said. “Although sometimes I feel it slipping away. Last year I was sure it would always be with me, but this year I spend more and more time underwater looking at the reef. It’s safe there for me, for the most part.”

Hugh took a hit off his joint and looked out at the reef, a darkness under the blue water. “How do you get that feeling?” he asked and shook his head, looking at the joint. “Well, without this stuff in my lungs.”

“It isn’t hard,” Oppie said. “Everybody who swims over a reef feels it to some degree. You do. I know you do because you’re talking to me about it.” He reached down and picked up a piece of coral. “The difference, I guess in part, is what you do about the feeling after you get out of the water,” he said. “For example, did you feel something the first time you saw your wife?”

“My wife?”

“The first time. You felt something.”

Hugh nodded, “Of course.”

Oppie nodded. “And what did you do next?” he asked.

“Next?” Hugh laughed. “Well, it was in Senegal. I didn’t know who she was, but I went up to her and took her hand and kissed her palm.”

“And then what did you do?” Oppie asked. “I know you did something because now she’s your wife.”

Hugh reached up and pulled a leaf from a palm frond. “I know what you’re getting at,” he said, exhaling smoke. “But my wife is a woman, and yes, I chased her and sat outside her hotel and begged her to be with me. It took a few years. But she’s a woman. I mean you can’t marry a—”

“Maybe you can,” Oppie said, pointing to the reef. He touched Hugh’s arm. “You’re dry. Why are you here talking to me, when you could be out there with her? That’s how the feeling grew with your wife, right?”

“But she’s human,” Hugh said, glancing at the boy and then adding, “and there are other drives there, you know?”

Oppie glanced back at the house behind them and, smiling, said, “I know about other drives.”

“Right,” said Hugh. “I guess you do.” Hugh touched Oppie’s arm. "So the world is doomed?" he asked. “Is there nothing we can do?”

“My mother is waiting for me,” Oppie said.

“I want to know if you think we are doomed,” Hugh said. “I mean, is there nothing we can do?”

You can tell everything about a person by how they respond to looking into the black eye of a squid, or how the squid respond to them.

“I don’t think there is,” Oppie said. “I used to think there was a chance when I was younger, but I was just hopeful, the way the young are before they meet a lot of adults.” He folded his arms and reflected briefly. “I used to take people I thought were nice on swims over this reef. I’d show them the obvious tourist things like the parrot fish . . . and then if I thought they were amazed enough, if they came up blowing water out of their snorkel and choking because they forgot to breathe, I’d show them cooler things like the trumpet fish, the goat fish, or the squirrelfish, and if I really liked them, I’d show them a school of squid. You can tell everything about a person by how they respond to looking into the black eye of a squid, or how the squid respond to them. They communicate with each other by changing color, you know. It’s a color language.” Oppie thought for a moment. “But too many people came up and wanted to know if they were good to eat. One father even went to the shore, came back with a net, caught one, and stood up on the reef and tried to eat it. He said it was sushi and put it in his mouth and bit the squid’s head off. I had serious doubts about that man from the beginning, but his daughter came up crying after I showed her a blue tang school, and so I gave her father a tour. When they got in their jeep to go, she jumped out and ran back down and grabbed me by the arms and begged me to hide her. I should have hidden her, because she was going to be killed by him. Everything is against a girl like that living past the age of twelve. It takes hundreds of years to grow a few inches of reef, but every second person I took out tried to stand on the reef, and they broke off hundreds of years of growth. I can’t tell you how much that upset me. And that father, he didn’t see the beauty in his little girl wanting to stay here forever because she was so moved by the reef. He dragged her back to the car, and when I tried to tell him he was hurting her, he spit on me, and called me a nigger. I think right when his spit hit me, like the spit was knowledge, I knew he would kill that little girl in a few months, or that maybe he had killed her right then, and also that the world was doomed. You know how my grandfather said, ‘I have become death’ when he saw his bomb explode in the Nevada desert? I realized right then that all of us, you and me too, we have all become death in the same way.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, too.”

You know the bleaching on the reef? Whole sections just turn white as chalk . . . That's what human beings are, a sort of white pox. Every human being alive right now, just by being alive, is a destroyer of life.

“You know the bleaching on the reef? Whole sections just turn white as chalk. The living polyps die and just become skeletons. No one is totally sure what causes it. That’s what human beings are, a sort of white pox. Every human being alive right now, just by being alive, is a destroyer of life. You’d think people would just be sick with guilt, want to hang themselves or something.”

“Do you?”

“I don’t think so,” Oppie said. “As long as this reef is still here, you’ll find me here. I get up every morning at dawn to watch the sunrise come over this bay and through the palm trees, or I see a gecko crawling on a tree, or just termites running to rebuild their secret tunnels up and down a mahogany tree, and I just want to wake ten thousand times again to see everything there is in the world. But mostly I want to swim around this reef all day. Besides, there might be a giant plague or something that wipes out everyone and gives the world and this reef some breathing space. But I doubt that will happen in time for this reef. I think if this reef died, I’d want to go with it, I wouldn’t want to just look out here at the skeleton of a reef with no fish or octopuses or conch or polyps. There is one thing that might push me over the edge—if I see a single lionfish here on this reef. The lionfish came in the ballast of tankers from Indonesia, and they take over a reef, and can eat their body weight in juvenile reef fish in a day. Once there is one, the reef is doomed. You kill one, and ten more are there in a month. They have dozens of awful poison spines. They are territorial and will attack you sometimes, or you might not see it and brush it. The last time I touched one by accident out on Lovango Cay, I had to be airlifted to St. Thomas after I had an allergic reaction to the toxins, and they said the next one would kill me. He turned and looked Hugh in the eye. "My mother is waiting for me up there. I have to water her plants, and then go into town. I’ll be back this evening, and maybe we can swim over the reef, you can look a squid in the eye and I can see what they think of you. I’m sure they’ll think you’re okay—”

“Just one more minute,” Hugh said. “Don’t you want to go to a university, get a PhD? You could change . . .”

Oppie drew in the air the shape of a mushroom cloud. “A lot of people I talk to on the beach tell me I should leave St. John and go to school Stateside,” he said. “I've talked to some of the better-educated people in the world on this beach.” He shook his head. “But it is pretty clear education would be the death of me.” 

“The death of you?” 

“Yes. But what I mean by ‘me’ is different than what you mean by ‘me.’” Oppie laughed. “Anyway, education would kill my sense of surprise. It might make me too proud.”

“Can you explain that?” Hugh said.

“Sure,” said Oppie. “Most people I meet here on the beach are too proud. Not just about their education, or their money—that they can spend $3,000 for a week here in a villa—but proud of their existence. Everyone thinks about themselves as if they made themselves. All the adults I meet on the beach are so proud, as if they mixed their own DNA the way I mix them a coconut and mango daiquiri.” Oppie ran his fingers along his long black plaits of hair and then grabbed his chest with two hands, as if he were having a heart attack. “But I’m a surprise,” he said. “My body is a surprise. Your body is a surprise. But I’m the only one who seems totally surprised to have a body. You may have once been surprised to have a body, but you have forgotten to be surprised. I think you might still remember to be surprised. It would take first of all you wanting to be surprised—but I think if you go to bed at night and say, ‘Please, make me more surprised, it might happen.’” He suddenly reached out his bare foot and touched Hugh’s foot with his own. He tapped on his foot and said, “I have to go back to my mother.” Hugh found himself standing, and almost bowing, before he caught himself, and then yelled after the boy, “I want you to talk to my son sometime!”

That afternoon Hugh stood in the checkout aisle with one hand on a quart of eleven-dollar orange juice, his credit card flipping in the fingers of his other hand. The checkout girl took the orange juice out of his hand and ran the bar code, then did the same for his case of Red Stripe and a bottle of dark Cruzan rum. Then she touched his arm and pointed, and he awoke and asked for fifty dollars cash back, slid his card, signed, took the brown bag in his arms and the case, and walked out of Starfish Market.

The parking lot was full of a hundred brand-new rental jeeps, and the smell of fresh asphalt filled his nose in a sweetly putrid way. Hugh sat in his jeep and smoked another joint while pressing the brake over and over with two bare feet, the wheeze of the hydraulic compression an alien pleasure in his toes. Eyeing the orange juice, he pulled out the bottle of Cruzan rum. The winter trade winds nipped and scuttled whitecaps across the waters of the industrial harbor below, where dozens of trucks and jeeps awaited the next barge to St. Thomas.

Hugh was surprised to hear his tires squeal when he pulled out of the marketplace. He drove rapidly up Centerline Road, sipping from a warm Corona. The sun was losing its harsh noon rule over the hillsides, and moister and darker green tones played in the breezes on the steep hillsides. He smiled a few times as he took the switchbacks up to the top of Bordeaux Mountain. At the top, he pulled over and gazed out over Coral Bay at the serpentine green arm of St. John’s East End. It was an unreal vista, perhaps the most gorgeous he had seen in his years of travel around the globe, and Hugh wept so hard he was unaware he was violently punching the steering wheel until a tourist tapped on his window and asked if he was okay, making him aware of the pain in his knuckles.

He took North Shore Road and parked behind an old blue Land Rover. He got out and rested his hand on a plastic dinosaur that had been wired on as a hood ornament, then scratched at the plastic with his fingernail. He passed easily to the sides of the locked iron gates that said oppenheimer beach, wondering why he never noticed the sign before, and halfway down the ridged concrete driveway came upon a Rastafarian who was chipping at a coconut in his palm with a machete. Hugh said hello, and the man said, “Me Oppie in dat water” and pointed with his machete.

He was swimming rapidly toward the boy when he saw him extending his arm toward a layered antler of staghorn coral. The boy’s mask glittered, and he worried a barracuda might strike. He saw the hand suddenly flash back from the reef, and a fish darted out and seemed to attack the boy. The boy was grabbing it to his chest, or maybe he was trying to push it away, but the fight went on for a few seconds, and then he was quiet, and gently swayed downward on his back to the shallow reef, on which he seemed to levitate.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Courtesy of NHPR (http://nhpr.org)

Tom Paine’s story “Oppenheimer Beach” appeared in the November 2012 issue of WLT. His poetry is upcoming or published in The Nation, Glasgow Review of Books, Volt, Fence, Blackbox Manifold (Cambridge), The Common, Epiphany, Green Mountain Review, Forklift, Tinderbox, Hunger Mountain, Hotel Amerika, Gulf Stream, Tampa Review, and elsewhere. Stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New England Review, The Boston Review, Best New Southern Stories, The O. Henry Awards and twice in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He has won fellowships from Sewanee, Yaddo, and Bread Loaf and written for Francis Ford Coppola. His first collection, Scar Vegas (Harcourt), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a PEN/Hemingway finalist. A graduate of Princeton and the Columbia MFA program, he is an associate professor in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire ([email protected]).