ugust was a bench. That month’s bookmark. It was a place to which I escaped in order to contemplate, if only briefly, the quivering hand of life’s compass, all too often unable to settle on true direction.
The bench was long, three beds worth at least, and double-jointed so that its back rest could be hinged forward or back depending on the spirit or inclination of the sitter, so he could face sand and sea or inland homes. I never once found it facing away from the Atlantic side of its two-way invitation. Such was surf song’s hypnotic allure. The grand ocean-front homes, despite their rounded wooden grace, verandas aplenty, could not compete with the metallic-hued expanse of water they were built to overlook. Lacquered in salt-resistant white paint, it sat, the last of its family, the outermost sentry, at the end of the boardwalk on a beach in the state of Delaware biblically named Rehoboth.
Rehoboth Beach was and remains a popular Atlantic resort town some two hours east of Washington, D.C. Its boardwalk is a turn-of-the-20th century wood plank affair that runs more than a mile inset from the beach and Atlantic breakers it parallels.
Maybe two dozen times in a now seven-decade lifespan, I stopped what I was doing, set aside the complications of location (I was often in Europe) and headed to Rehoboth, where I’d rent a hotel room overlooking the sea, always alone, and make my Lourdes-like pilgrimage to my timeless bench at the end of the boardwalk, a bench few of the hundreds on their daily promenades ever chose to visit, let alone alight on. Too far, many probably said. Or, there’s nothing there. Perhaps underneath it all was something deeper: that the last bench represented an end, a terminus, and that thought alone can keep people from last things, from edges, from cliffs, from the imagined encroachment of peril and nothingness, perhaps the most potent of implications imbued, as the often are, in outlying spots. Better to gaze at the Grand Canyon from safe havens and above all among others. Beauty and awe take perdition’s place, albeit briefly.
I, of course, made the bench my locus precisely because of its lonesomeness, as if to sit on its uneven planks for hours at a time, sometimes deep into the night, were tantamount to the act of a cloistered monk, aware of the world but parked into a small cell swollen with personal infinity.
A non-believer and secularist — based in Rome, of all places — I extracted my sense of the spiritual from presence on the bench, the high dunes and Atlantic breakers inducing a salty and aromatic mantra. To me, the immensity of the ocean made God, not the other way round. It was the immensity in the world that called for a creator, since such vastness could not simply be. It could not be a self-made mightiness derived from an evolutionary cocktail of clever molecules fidgeting for purpose or wholeness. Preposterous! The ocean was of its creator, as was I, and I came equipped with an everlasting soul.
Try as I did to encircle this concept, the bench itself talked me out of it. It seemed to insist on its own absolute randomness and suggest that I, and not it, the bench, had made it into a shrine. It had no self-importance, no importance at all in fact, aside from my own assumption that in its “presence” my life seemed clearer, more worthwhile, while at the same time absurd since to think of what I sought to feel or accomplish — to start a newspaper, to dwell on a beautiful face — was, no matter how passionate, the stuff of evanescence. To the bench and its ocean my goals were only passing things, and my determined pilgrimage useless, or, if not that, then amusingly human.
Sitting on the bench at night I learned to identify a constellation or two. I remember Orion, and grew to feel like a minor league mariner as salt slowly crusted on my face. On the bench I made resolutions: to work more diligently, to establish myself, at the same time feeling a personal and age-old tug away from such assertions, backwards inside into the private, the disappearing act I wished my life to be in anticipation of the final and to me definitive ending. On the bench, much as I dreamed conventional dreams I fell into the rhythm of last chapters, the end of the boardwalk, the last bench, the sound of the ocean a metronome above a piano never to be played, since the keys, literal and metaphorical, would never come into my grasp.
So it was that the bench became my place of hopeful negation, the place where I conjured extraordinary happenings while aware all the time of a powerful undertow, a sadness delineated by limitations that became all the more tangible as I took a different, each-time-older self to my bench, which I sat on first at five, then sixteen, twenty-six, thirty-nine, forty-seven, and finally midway into my fifties.
By then I’d come to know that while the bench and oceans were friends, or imagined as such, they had no wisdom to impart unless I brought some of my own for their imaginary inspection. A decade ago I wanted badly to stop things as I always had and take myself down the planks. But no, I was too busy. I had other plans.
Soon after, I became Ill and my plans were mooted, my vision with them, and the bench opened itself in mind as at a bookmark primed to begun my own last chapter, all the previous sixty-some chapters read and briskly held in place by the ocean wind, no going back.
I will never see my holy place again. I will no longer be able to invest myself into symbolism of my own making. But in my mind’s eyes I will begin reading from the final chapter — as I do now — seated in my favorite spot, sand and salt in my hair, the ocean as my uninterested but commanding audience, and in time the great aloneness will carry me off.