Is Anyone Out There
"Is anyone out there." Cub wondered aloud as he read the title on the front table of Bindover BookStore. Why was there no question mark in the title? He mulled that thought and decided he was getting too picky, too anal retentive. What would be next? Shushing people chatting in the store?
Cub was addicted to books, had been since kindergarten. It's not that he was nerdy or anything like that. He just loved the tingle in his brain cells when he read something new, whether it was Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, the Mayan pyramids or the science fiction of Ray Bradbury.
At twenty-five, Cub had done well in life. His parents were proud of him and other relatives had little to criticize about Cub. He had graduated, got a small scholarship and studied a major that he thought he would like. He had shied away from narrower disciplines like psychology biology. He wanted to use his mind in broader ways. Sociology seemed general enough and being fairly new, there was lots of room for original thinking. Besides, wasn't he supposed to be helpful to society and help find answers to its ills?
Names like Mead and Benedict were the totems of early sociology. It was disturbing to Cub how these women had impregnated virgin societies, using natives as kind of "guinea pigs" without political or social repercussions. Was this the "White Man's Burden" concept of Kipling still alive in this age and time?
"What are you reading?" Cub, absorbed in thought, had not noticed a young woman sidling up to him, looking at the book Cub had just opened.
Cub was taken aback. He hated to be disturbed while poring over a book. He closed the cover and showed it to the woman.
"Is anyone out there." She read the title. "My, that's just what I was thinking about this morning," she continued, to Cub's annoyance.
Another airhead, Cub thought Too bad she hadn't approached him when he was sipping his Latte Grande at the coffee corner. It was only when he was with his main passion, books, that everything else seemed a major intrusion.
She had a kind of fresh charm about her, though she was too short and her clothes were definitely grunge. Her long dark hair was twisted into strange shapes with the aid of a purple scarf.
"Really?" Cub finally said, not wanting to be totally rude. It was not a question. It was a statement that said "I don't want to talk to you, lady. Go away."
Cub was the collegiate type. You know, khaki shorts, a pastel colored Lacoste shirt and the latest sport shoes GQ touted. He had been out of college for a while, but somehow that did not enter his mind. The media fed the youth thing from all directions. As the years passed, Cub had allowed the media to encroach his life, little by little. He did not realize it and he did not fight it. Certainly he would not admit this at a cocktail party.
"Did you notice there is no question mark in the title?" she said, grinning at him when he finally looked at her face.
"Yeah," he said. Now he really felt uncomfortable. How could this little sprite think like he did when looking at that title? Did she even have a clue about grammar?
He decided to take the offensive: embarrass her with his clever repartees and she would go running off, confused and beaten. That would teach her not to bother the "great Cub" while he was trying to concentrate.
"Actually, we don't really have to abide by the rules of grammar or punctuation in this, the New Millenium." Cub emphasized the last two words. He sounded quite professorial, he thought.
To his surprise, the girl burst into a peal of laughter.
"Shhh," he said, mentally kicking himself for saying that.
"You are funny," she exclaimed. Surprisingly, she had a wonderful laugh: kind of like crystals tinkling against each other. Cub noticed her eyes were green and a kind of golden green right around the irises. There was a long silence.
"I'm sorry," Cub finally said. "I'm being an ass. Please forgive me."
"That's quite all right," the girl said. "I'm the one who should apologize. I don't usually hit on handsome guys in a bookstore." Now her eyes were really green and kind of dreamy, too.
"Care to get a bite of lunch at Goffey's?" Cub offered. "My treat."
Several people in the bookstore looked over and smiled at Cub. They had been listening to this boy meets girl scenario. Cub didn't notice.
"I mean, I would like to make up for my behavior," Cub said. "I'm quite harmless, you know." Now there was a glint in his eyes, which happened to be a gray blue.
"Why, kind sir," she replied with mock formality. "I would be de-e-elighted."
Goffey's was always busy. It was the place to see and be seen. They were canine friendly, an important plus in this area. Dog biscuits were placed on the counter, gratis and there was a little fountain outside where fresh water flowed into a shell shaped bowl.
Many of the young and beautiful who seemed to outnumber just plain folks, brought their dogs to promenade in this outdoor walking mall. They expected their Russian Borzois, their Malamutes and their precious Pomeranians to be treated like royalty. The pet shop near Goffeys sold rhinestone lined sunglasses, designer sweaters and darling little diapers, all with the canine in mind.
"By the way, I'm Culbert," said Cub as they neared the café. "But you can call me Cub."
"Hi, Cub," she said casually. "I'm Phoebe. You can call me Phoebe." They both laughed.
They chose to sit outside under a forest green umbrella. Several people were playing Scrabble at one of the tables. A young man, sitting with a group of people, waved a quick hello to Phoebe.
"Do you come here often?" Cub asked.
"This is my hangout," Phoebe said. "But I usually come here later in the evening. We sit around with the gang and have long discussions. We probably spend two dollars between us. But Goffey's is cool that way. They don't mind.
"What do you talk about?" Cub asked, curious about what this girl might consider worthy conversation.
"Oh things," she grinned. "We try to solve the problems of the world." He knew she would laugh at this and she did.
"Well, if it isn't Cubby," someone said walking up behind Cub.
"Cub, this is Marlena, my fiancée." Robert had been a classmate of Cub's. His father owned a Fortune 500 company. Marlena looked like she had just walked out of a spa. There were rings on several fingers. Cub was sure one of them was an engagement ring. He wasn't going there, though.
"Hi. This is my friend Phoebe," Cub said, rising from his chair, in a gesture of courtesy.
"May we join you?" Robert asked. "We were just shopping and Marlena's new Italian sandals are a bitch to walk in." Marlena smiled just a little, not enough to disturb her carefully applied lip pomade.
"Sorry, old man, but we were having a private conversation," Cub said.
Robert turned several shades of red, but rose to the occasion with "Of course, old chap. Next time." The couple walked off and disappeared into the crowd of shoppers and passersby.
"My goodness," said Phoebe. "Am I that special?"
Now it was Cub's turn to grin.
The waiter brought several plates with fresh baked long rolls, slightly toasted with olive oil, thinly sliced hams and cheeses and another plate with radishes, carrots, fresh basil and other salad goodies.
"Joe, don't forget that special Balsamic vinegar," Phoebe reminded the server.
"I'm gonna charge you extra for that," the server joked.
They topped the meal off with fresh lemonade and a slice of tiramisu. Cub was not into sweets and had never tried this gooey concoction that seemed to contain every rich ingredient known to man.
"We must have their tiramisu," Phoebe insisted. "It is scrumpdelicious."
"Joe," Cub ceremoniously called out when the server breezed by, white shirt open at the collar and sporting a large white cotton apron.
"Bring us the lady's choice of dessert and please bring two spoons." Cub was afraid to pronounce this weird Italian dessert. He did not want Phoebe to laugh at him.
The sun was throwing shadows on the beach as Cub and Phoebe walked barefoot in the sticky sand right next to the surf. They headed southward, toward the point where the ocean met the inlet. Phoebe picked up a shell here and there and put it in the soft cloth bag she carried over her shoulder and across her breast. Cub had taken off his Nikes and strapped them over his shoulder.
When they reached the "Point" as it was called, the sun was beginning to bathe the sky and water in shades of orange and pink.
"Want to walk on the jetty?" Phoebe asked. Cub saw the rough looking coral rocks, covered in part with watery plants, shells and seaweed. He thought of his clothes. They would be ruined.
"Here I go again," he thought to himself. "Am I an ass or what?"
"Sure, let's go," Cub, agreed.
As they slipped across one rock to the next, Cub's feeling of joy being with Phoebe turned into a fear he had not known since childhood.
A neighbor's child had drowned in a lake and Cub never forgot that incident. He chose not to join the swim team in school even though he had the build and the ability to be a great swimmer.
Phoebe was several rocks ahead of him, jumping gracefully from one foothold to the next. Cub had a hard time trying to keep up.
It was dark now. Cub turned around, looking toward the West, where the sun had set, leaving a faint glow. The lights on shore seemed distant, too distant.
"Hey, Phoebe, let's turn back," Cub said. "It's getting late."
As he turned toward the dark expanse of the East, he couldn't spot that little figure ahead of him. There were only the rocks and the constant crashing sound of the powerful surf.
"Phoebe," he yelled. "Phoebe."
There was no sound.
"Oh, God, Phoebe. Help." Cub screamed now, but the wind quickly swallowed his urgent yells.
Suddenly the Coast Guard cutter was there. Then Cub was on the boat. He could hear radio messages, sirens and the crackling of static.
"Phoebe," he mumbled, looking at the face of a dark skinned Coast Guard wearing a yellow slicker that covered part of his head.
"We're taking her to the Emergency Room. We're doing what we can."
"Please save her," he moaned.
"Easy, man. We're doing our best. She hit her head on a rock when she slid off the coral," another man told him. "This kind of thing happens here a lot. We can't stop them from going out there. It's a free country, you know."
Cub didn't want to hear any of this. He just wanted Phoebe. He had never wanted anything in his life, not really. Now, this little sprite was she most important thing in the world to him, his lifeline.
He had been drowning for a long time. The Roberts and Marlenas in this world had heaped enough water on him to drown a continent. As the boat sped westward toward shore, Cub felt his whole brain shifting. It was like layers of a continent shifting with the ice age. Now nothing mattered to him except to see those green eyes again, to hear that tinkling laughter.
"Hey, Cub," the server named Joe greeted him. "Awful sorry about what happened to Phoebe." Goffey's was as busy as always. Life went on. The Great Danes and the clipped miniature poodles were out in force. People were playing Scrabble as usual.
"I know," Cub said flatly. "They wouldn't tell me anything at the hospital. The family came and they totally ignored me. I can't really blame them either."
His eyes were red and swollen. He tried to hide them behind the largest, darkest sunglasses he could buy.
"Joe, you knew her," Cub asked when Joe brought him a black iced Cappuccino. "Who was she? I mean, you know what I mean."
"Don't you know?" Joe said, surprised. "Everyone on the Road knows Phoebe Shiffer. Didn't you go to her book signing at Bindover BookStore last week?"
"But she was just a kid," Cub said.
"A kid?" Joe looked at him. "She was in her forties."
"What book? What book did she sign?" Cub asked, feeling like an idiot.
"She was a sociology professor at the State University. She wrote a book about why we need to leave primitive cultures alone, respect them, you know. She used to talk about it right here at night. We had some great conversations going here, you know." When Joe was stressed he would say, "you know" at the end of each sentence.
"Joe," Cub said, trying to be patient. "What is the name of her book?" Somehow he knew what the answer would be.
"Here, Don, you tell him," Joe was uncomfortable with talk of books. Besides, he had orders to take care of.
"Come sit here," a man called Don told Cub.
Cub went obediently and sat with several Scrabble players.
"We heard you were with Phoebe when it happened," Don said. "It's really too bad. She always took chances, poor thing."
"What about her book, what can you tell me about it?" Cub said.
"It's hot, my friend. You should have seen the line of people trying to get her signature. Too bad you missed it," said Don as he picked up three vowel tiles. He seemed to be leading the others in this round of Scrabble.
"She and I had many discussions about it," Don said. He was an older man with very thick glasses and he seemed to have a slight drool. "I dabbled in anthropology and did quite a bit of traveling in my time. But Phoebe had a mind like a steel trap. She had passion, that's what it was, passion." Don looked into the distance.
"She believed aborigines were sacred, that we shouldn't tamper with them," said Don, halting the game of Scrabble.
" I disagreed, but with reservations. She said the so-called primitive societies touched by the West lost their beliefs and their purpose in life.
"It was a First Nation man in the Canadian Northwest. He told her they had never asked the gods, which were represented by the Northern Lights, for anything. Their gods were too sacred for that. They would either suffer when hardships came or thank the gods when things were good."
Don took a small brown paper bag out of his shopping bag on the floor and took a sip.
" When the white man came," Don continued, "the man claimed he lost his faith, his reason to live." Don kept shooting glances at the Scrabble board, as if to catch a cheater while he was not watching. The others waited patiently, perhaps because of what had happened to their friend.
"She told me," Don said sadly, "how this grown man had dropped to the ground, crying like a baby. 'Is anyone out there,' is what he cried, over and over again. Of course, he said it in his native tongue. Phoebe used it as the title of her book."
Don turned toward the group. "Hey, was anyone cheating while I wasn't looking?"
Cub sat there, playing with the straw of his iced Cappuccino. This was either the worst day of his life. Or maybe it was the first day of his life.