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Melissa arose, drew the gauzy curtains around the bed, came inside them and kissed Billy on the lips. Billy raised neither a protest nor a hand of assistance as Melissa stripped the bedding and hospital gown from him, stepped out of her Levi’s and her underpants: passive and pliable, he simply allowed her to do as she wished. He knew she meant him no harm.


Billy told Melissa his dream: "I’m swimming in salt water, warm and pale and so clear I can see all the way to the bottom. Something’s shiny down there, so I dive, and the water presses in on my face, cooler and cooler. It’s coins, ancient gold coins, each one with a different face that I know from long ago. If I can take them with me I’ll never forget anything again.

"I grab two handfuls of coins and push off from the bottom, but now I’m losing my breath and I can’t swim with my hands full, and I start sinking down.

"So I have to let go, and the gold coins drift back across my face and I start to rise through the water. I’m deeper than I thought. I don’t know if I’ll reach the air before I drown, but I can see a light spilling across the surface, and it gets smaller and stronger as I rise. It’s the sun, brighter than any coin."

He took Melissa’s hand, pressed it between his chin and collarbone, and forgot about it. "The ocean will always be there," Billy said. "I can always go back down and touch anything I want, I can know it, I can have it. I just can’t keep it."

He reached for the buzzer.

After a minute the nurse’s voice came from the intercom. "Yes, Billy?"

"Is it too late to get some ice cream?" Billy asked.

The nurse laughed. "What flavor do you want?"

Billy asked Melissa, "What’s that one I like?"


Published in the Chicago Review, Fall 1993 [Pushcart Prize nominee, 1994]


Reprinted as the leadoff story in the anthology Voices of the Xiled (Doubleday, cloth and paper), 1994


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