Cynthia W. Iliff, Untitled (Men Playing Cards), 1942

Cynthia W. Iliff, Untitled (Men Playing Cards), 1942, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Jerome and Anne Kaplan, 1992 (https://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/86967.html?mulR=1407603385|12)

I wonder how long I waited there, as the clouds slowly moved in and obscured the sky, first dropping scattered raindrops and then eventually pelting the world with hail. I had gotten so used to the briny smell of the sea that I was surprised to notice it that morning. Sloshing and crashing against the dock and rocky shore, the waves turned foamy and fragrant, redolent of fish, mud, and decaying vegetation. It was invigorating.

I was bored, but the white noise of the rain and the hollow thumping of the wooden boats against the dock lulled me into a quiet, pensive state. In this way, I waited the storm out, listening, looking, smelling the sea air. In the room adjacent to the flimsy shelter that stood between me and the rain and hail and wind, a group of dockworkers had gathered together, passing the time with a game of cards. One man, maybe seventy or seventy-five years old, crouched down, spry and limber as a kid. He looked over at me and winked. Beside him sat a man just barely older than myself, his skin yellow and unnaturally puffy looking. He had a persistent cough that made it hard to hear their conversation. They were mostly quiet anyhow. Several of the men looked on, quietly smoking cigarettes, their faces hidden in shadow.

After a while, once the clouds had thinned a little bit, the men dispersed, coughing, picking up newspapers, putting out cigarettes, gathering together the deck of cards, knees creaking as they stood up. Not long after, a man in a white paper cap went in and mopped the floor, picking up cigarette butts and scraps of paper as he went. He muttered to himself under his breath as his mop swept back and forth across the floor. Down the dock a ways, I noticed  a young girl with a pink-and-white striped coat and bright yellow umbrella. Her attention was turned away from the group she was with toward the sloshing waves. A few feet away from her, a pair of weathered young men in overalls walked toward a fishing boat that seemed too small to hold much more than a minnow. The taller of the two men shouted something at the other and gestured at the water. The other man broke out laughing as he turned toward a jumble of ropes and nets.

Some time later, after I’d made my way into the shelter that had held the group of men playing cards, I saw a blue-and-white boat pull up at the dock. Joan–Joan who I barely knew, but who wanted me to help her on the island–climbed out onto the dock. I saw her looking around for me and my breath quickened. I hesitated, for just a split second, and then stepped out toward her with my small suitcase.

As we moved out from the dock, chugging through the choppy water toward the gray immensity that lay between us and the island. I looked back at the shore for a long time, watching the busy strip by the docks become dwarfed by the sprawling green forest that spread out around it. The mist and clouds left much of the world looking murky, which, I supposed, was a fitting end to my time there.

As we rounded the tip of the cape and the docks and the shore of the town dissolved into a blur of land-sea-mist, I looked out in the direction we were headed. A lone gull soared and swooped a few yards ahead of us, shrieking every now and then. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a key, looking at it for a moment, remembering the creak of the front door of the house, the smell of plaster dust in its front entry, and the way heat always gathered at the top of the stairs on sunny days. I squeezed the key in my fist and then tossed it overboard.

We were moving at such a clip that I didn’t even see it slip down through the frothy wake of our boat and down, down, down, into the deep ocean water beneath us. The light of the day was dimming and we chugged forward through the gray water.

 

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