At the beach down the road from my father’s house in Connecticut there is a goose standing on one leg near the water’s edge. It’s standing on one leg because it only has one foot. A man who lives adjacent has been feeding it, and my sister-in-law has gone home to get a dog bowl of water for it, but I wasn’t there for any of that.
I arrive later by paddleboard, with my sister, after we’ve paddled ourselves a long way up the river and back to the mouth, getting a good look at the mutating skyline of our home town. I don’t recognise the new buildings, and I can’t remember what was there before.
But the most profound change has been to the local fauna. Driving around with my sons, I see deer and rabbits and wild turkeys, all gambolling together in the same front yard. At first, I thought they were lawn ornaments.
“I’ll have you know,” I say, “that when I was a child this area was devoid of wildlife.” Some may find it encouraging to see these animals returning. To me, it looks like the end of the world.
Then there is the one-footed goose. By the time I’ve rounded the point my legs are beginning to shake from the effort of staying upright, and I’m glad to haul the board ashore and sit in a deckchair with the rest of my family.
“What’s going on with that goose?” my sister says.
“It’s been here all morning,” my sister-in-law says. “The guy who lives just there has been feeding it corn.”
As she speaks, the man in question comes out with an umbrella – not a beach umbrella but a regular black rain umbrella – and tries to stick it upright in the sand to create some shade for the goose. The goose is not happy, and does its best to assume a threatening posture.
“I know this seems insane,” the man says, digging a little hole.
“It’s adorable,” my sister says.
A little while later another woman arrives at the beach, walking along the sand and waving hello to people, until she sees the goose.
“Jesus Christ!” she screams, covering her face with both palms and then shaking her head. Very loudly, she runs through a litany of all the difficulties she has faced in the past 48 hours, some domestic, some administrative, one or two existential.
“And now this fucking goose!” she shouts.
“Have you met Joan?” my brother says, quietly.
“Uh-uh,” I say. Joan starts quizzing the man with the umbrella. At first, I think she is furious with him.
“This goose is in bad shape,” she says.
“He comes back every couple of days,” he says. “I’ve been feeding him for a while.”
“How long’s a while?” she says.
“About two weeks,” he says.
“You’re a saint!” she yells, unintentionally making it sound like an insult. She makes a call to some animal welfare person, discussing the fate of the goose at top volume.
“Can he fly?” she asks the man with the umbrella.
“I haven’t seen him fly,” he says.
“Goddamit, we don’t know if he can fly!” she shouts.
Some days after this, before our flight back to London, we return to the beach one more time, my brother’s family and mine, and my sister, and my father, who has just turned 100, making him the oldest person I have ever met.
Once again, he has declined to wear his hearing aids to the beach.
“They’re $500 apiece,” he says. “I’m afraid they’ll get wet!” Under these circumstances communication is one-sided and anecdotal: he tells me news from that morning’s paper, and I nod. After a few minutes he walks down to the water’s edge, casts his cane aside and swims two widths of the beach.
An hour later, preoccupied by the business of travelling, I decide to take one last swim myself. It’s possibly the nicest day of the trip so far, and for a moment I float there, under the hot, hazy sun, thinking about traffic.
My brother swims over, and when I turn back towards shore I see the goose in his usual spot, next to the water bowl, balanced on his single stalk.
“Look who’s back,” I say.
“Oh, yeah,” my brother says.
We watch from the water as my father slowly crosses the sand, heading in the direction of the goose, finally stopping when they’re about five feet apart. The goose turns its head, but doesn’t move. This is the image that will come to me again and again on the plane home: the old man with his stick and the goose with one foot, contemplating one another at low tide.