Monday, December 12, 2016

The Sailor

New Fiction

Illustration by Paul Carroll.
Illustration by Paul Carroll.

Edward’s unmooring evolved from something—but from what he does not know. Suddenly he is simply adrift in the Minneapolis grid, riding concrete waves in beat-up old Nike Icarus running shoes, his socks emerging in tufts from cracks in the top and sides. Street signs float past him like driftwood, the light revealing the slight sheen of their green paint. Each time he tries to control his course, he loses sight of the words on these signs, loses sight of landmarks—a McDonald’s, a gas station, anything that would serve to orient him. It is exhausting.

Edward has divided his world into the known and the unknown, with most things slipping into the unknown: the city, his life before the present heartbeat. Each moment is composed only of feeling. Right now he is thirsty. He thinks about licking the blacktop or anything that would force him to produce saliva. Salt’s everywhere: there’s some on the roads right now. Won’t saltwater will make you go crazy? Neurons? Something with the neurons? Can’t you drink your own urine? How many times? Only so many and then you’re dead. Isn’t that the damndest thing? Even the body turns against itself. Someone told him about drinking saltwater once, about drinking urine once. A student—he reaches for a name—a student who had been in the Navy. “First they shave your head,” the student wrote for an assignment once, “It’s part of how they take away your individuality. Then you put on the uniform, ironed and buttoned up tight. You don’t look like yourself anymore. You don’t even recognize yourself anymore. You’re just like the guy standing next to you, and he’s just like the guy standing next to him. There’s a whole row of you and another in front of you and another behind you.” The student’s face appears before him like a mirage. Edward sucks in his cheeks, which have thinned considerably, and pulls his tongue against the roof his mouth, swallowing what little saliva he gathers by doing so. Maybe if he thinks about drinking a big Coke. He can feel the cold can in his hands and more saliva fills his mouth. It helps for now.

His dirty jeans, discolored and heavy with freezing early spring rain, start to dry when the sun comes out. The sun feels good, and its warmth anchors him; he remains still in a patch of light between two trees. He puts his face to the sun and spots a billowing cumulus cloud. It looks like a ship and he closes his eyes, an image coming to him: A ship on a wall—a red wall—and the sun hit the gold on the sails. Light. It lit up the room, lit up the whole room. I felt like I could step aboard. Feet on the deck, the wind, the wind hitting my face. Salty air. Like that old paddleboat cruise me and Loretta went on down the St. Croix. Just like that except we’d be on that big ship on the Atlantic. Step right into the picture. What else? What else? He remembers a stereo, a Joni Mitchell LP. I had to pick up the needle. It didn’t come up automatically. I had to do it myself. And “Blue” skipped—every time I walked across the room, it skipped. I can hear the creaks in the floor. Creak, step, creak, step, skip, that one line, that one line, what was that one line? “Hell’s not the hippest way to go…” There was an acoustic guitar with a hole punched in the side. How had the hole gotten there? No way to know, no way to know now where anything is. More details flood his mind: a black velvet couch; a hardwood floor, a patch of sunlight traveling across it, marking a circadian rhythm. When he thinks about the place, his stomach grows heavy, the constant clawing inside it ceasing. “You just wanted to go home. It didn’t matter if you were in Hawaii or Spain or Ireland. You realize that every place just blends into the next place. The only place that really stands out is home. You just wanted to go home,” his student had written in the same assignment, “I just wanted to go home.”

A cloud like the belly of a ship floats across the sun. And the warmth that had been drying his clothing becomes so obviously absent, the air suddenly redolent with the smell of rain. His anchor lifted, he is floating, movement necessitating sonata, and his thinning frame feels buoyant. He grows cold in the absence of sun and his legs move in dream-time motion. He thinks he sees concrete pillars, gargoyles, a great building in front of him. The building makes him feel reverent and he fears he is underwater. Perhaps it is Atlantis in front of him. Or perhaps an ancient church of some sort and now he is a pilgrim. Bring the palm branches. Usher him in. If he kicks his legs quickly enough, then perhaps he can find answers, perhaps he can find something by talking to someone, anyone: a nun, a priest, god. So he kicks and he kicks and he seems to move faster toward it. Job. I’m Job and I need to talk to god, maybe he’ll help me. Finally, he reaches the front door of the building, and he tries to open it, but it’s locked. He cups his hands and peaks through the glass doors. A man in a gray uniform is on the other side. The man stares at him, pointing to the right, his gesture stabbing the air. He mouths something, but Edward cannot make out the words; the mouth is slow and full and Edward can only follow it helplessly with his eyes. The man opens the door:

“If you want to get into the museum, you have to go the main entrance. These doors are only open in the summer,” he says.

Edward shakes his head and stands there dumb.

“It’s free,” the man says, his eyes softening, “and you only have to pay for the exhibit upstairs,” he pauses and smiles, “and really, the regular collection is pretty all right, man.”

“Okay,” is all Edward manages, though he feels so much more inside him, so many more words bubbling up like air from below water. How long has it been since someone smiled at him? That little boy, Frankie, he knows my name. He asked me my name. That little boy. Did I tell him? I hope so. I hope I told him because I might die here, he thinks, but Job didn’t die like this. God spared Job.

He turns right, wanders off down the street, and turns right again so he can walk down the long side of the building that has just disappointed him. It’s as he predicted: impenetrable, unscalable. There are a row of houses, some lovely, some in varying states of disrepair. He stops in front of one. A “For Sale” sign is prominent in the yard. He stops in front of it. “You wanted to be part of something bigger than yourself. You wanted to help. You wanted to do more. You wanted to make your mark on the world, to grasp at something that wasn’t just going to float away. But to do that, you had to be ground to nothing first. You were willing to give up everything to try to do something,” his student had written. The water surges and he floats farther down the street until he meets another house, an empty house with a “No Trespassing” sign in the window. When he reaches it, his clothes are suddenly sucked tight to his body; all the water disappears. What happened? No. What did I do? No. What have I done? No. No. No. He can clearly picture the inside of that house, the room with records, the hardwood floors, the ship pictures, everything. This was it. This is the house. And Loretta in the house. She was smiling and then not smiling; she was slamming cupboards; then she was slamming the bedroom door; then she was slamming the bathroom door; then she was slamming the back door. It was so loud and then so quiet. So loud and then so quiet. Like the sky changed. Sea change. The whole house falling. He feels sick thinking of it all. “They hated you sometimes when you left, but you kept leaving. You cared, but this was bigger than you were. It was bigger than both of you. So you told them that as many times as it took for them to believe it. You called. You sent letters. You said whatever you had to say. You did whatever you had to do to keep them happy.” I didn’t treat her like a real person, Loretta said, like I wasn’t there. But I was thinking of her, I was always thinking of her. What was it? What was it? Loretta, oh Loretta, what is it? What is it Loretta? What did I do? He closes his eyes and the water rises, he back floats then, and words and sentences unmoored from context, limbless soldiers, march through his mind as he floats toward where the North Star will rise.

I can’t watch you lay around here for another goddamn day, Ed, smoking Camels and staring off like that. It’s starting to depress me. You aren’t the only unlucky bastard to lose his job. We’re the new kids on the block. First to go, you can’t take it so personally.

Easy for you to say. You’re doing just fine.

This isn’t a competition. You are so consumed that you aren’t even here. You might as well be a sailor. Where are you Ed? What port are you at and what native girl are you fucking?

Cute. I can see why you’ve been publishing so much. He remembered turning over then, feeling her eyes on his back.

Oh Christ, I’m sorry, Ed. I just don’t know what to do. You aren’t here. I don’t care about any of it but that. I just can’t pay the bills alone and we have to figure something out. I can talk to Bill. Do you want me to talk to Bill? There’s got to be something for you—even just one class.

I’m not interested in downward mobility and I’m no one’s fucking charity case. He heard her start crying; he closed his eyes and tried to invent a melody of her tears.

The gnawing in his stomach stops, replaced by seasickness, the acute nausea of anxiety: Oh, my pretty redhead, did I leave you? Was it me all along? Did I leave you, pretty girl? He freezes just as he is back outside the building with the gargoyles out front. He passes the big building with gargoyles until he reaches a park. “Washburn Fair Oaks Park,” the sign at the entrance to the park reads. And there in the sun, Edward thinks the day cracks open like a crusted eye. Clear as a mountain stream. Clear like crystal. Don’t use these examples. These are clichés. Don’t follow the examples I’ve given you. By all ever-loving means, don’t follow the examples I’ve given you. Say that the day cracks open like a crusted eye. Say that the apartment sagged like a tired old aunt. Let go of reason. He had been good with words, he remembers. He had known how to write and write well. He had known how to talk to people in ways they could understand. They asked for me. They asked for this stupid son of a bitch.

They love you, Ed. They love you. You have a gift, Loretta said.

The sun is warm, restorative. And for the first time in a long time, he tries forcing his mind to focus on one thing. He concentrates on stillness, he concentrates on silencing the waves around him. If he can discover one fact, one tiny thing, he thinks, he will understand the evolution he has been lost in all winter. And maybe he will be able to find his way home. The word is warm and round and he says it aloud, Home. Home. Home. He needs to know how. He squeezes his temples with the heels of his hands, squinnys at the ground and grits his teeth. Think, you piece of shit, think. And then after a minute, as the sun penetrates the shirt on his back, as the sun hits his skin, he is still. He takes a deep breath and a series of images plays in his mind, an old flip book. He and Loretta are standing there. They are staring at one another, still, tense. The sound of her breath is resonant.

So, you’ve made your decision?

Responded to your ultimatum? Yes.

Jesus Christ. You can’t turn things around in that head of yours, can you? You can’t even see how I feel. It’s been over a year, and we can’t—we couldn’t—afford the house. The house is gone, Ed.

Those are just threats, Loretta. Don’t be naïve. They are only idle threats.

She throws a rubber-banded group of envelopes at him.

It’s over, you fucking idiot. It’s over. She starts crying and again he hears her tears not as weeping but as a melody of his own making, beautiful, yet unmoving. She pummels his chest with her fists. It’s over, it’s all over, it’s all over. He remembers his shoulder dampening from a mixture of her saliva and tears. Fuck you, Ed. And then she had put her arms around him, clung to him tightly. And he remembered stretching his arms out, hovering over her, unable to clasp his hands together behind his back.

I’ll pack my things.

I’ve already packed them, Ed. Where have you been this past week? Where have you been?

I’ve been pleasanter places. Seen things you haven’t seen. Done things you haven’t done. I have volumes, Loretta. I have volumes.

Have you listened to yourself? You don’t even make sense. Where are you going to go? You aren’t coming with me. Not this time. Not anymore. Where are you going to go?

I’m just going to go out that door and start walking. Everything is on the other side of that door.

You need help. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help you.

I told you—I’m no one’s fucking charity case. I don’t need help.

Just remember, in the end, it’s your pride that undid this. Nothing but stupid pride.

And then there was nothing but the brilliant green of her sweater as she walked away. The house devoid of sound, of what had been his life.

Edward begins to weep.

When the tears subside, he no longer feels like he’s floating, but grounded. The earth solidifies underneath his feet and he takes a deep breath, not afraid of water filling his nostrils. Washburn Fair Oaks. I know now. He points in front of himself. The sun rises there. East. He points behind himself. The sun sets here. West. He points to his left. Polaris rises here. North. He points to his right. Centaur, here. South. A slight wind comes up and rushes through his hair, which has grown long. It feels like a wind born of land, not of sea, and he turns his face up to take it in. He walks east, and then turns north. Soon he is in front of another large building made of red stone. Edward is drawn toward it though he cannot articulate his attraction to it. It looks holy; it looks reverent. He stands in front of it and he feels quiet all over. He stands there in the sun, hoping that the warmth will never cease shine on him. The door opens, a big wooden door beneath stained glass windows, and he swears he hears water part though now he can see that the concrete is dry. “And when you finally stepped off that ship, it was amazing,” his student had written. “You never understood the word ‘grounded’ until you got off that boat. You couldn’t believe you were standing still. You couldn’t even believe you were about to go home.” He feels like that just now, like he has come back after being gone for a very long time.

The sun blocks his immediate view, but he feels a hand on his shoulder. How long? Jesus, how long since someone touched me. I can’t remember the last time somebody touched me. Jesus, Jesus. So warm. The hand is attached to a body and soon he can see that the body is attached to a face and that face smiles at him, the second smile in one day. And he feels like a person. How long has it been? He feels a tear slide down his cheek. The face in front of him materializes; it is the face of his student, the sailor, but the voice that comes from it is a woman’s.

“Are you hungry?” she asks.