WIP: Asynchronous Mud

Well, a few odds and ends here, then on to the next story.

Against my better judgement I recently posted A Walk By the Sea at Lit., and again, despite knowing better I left voting turned on. More out of curiosity, mind you, as knowing what a melancholy tale this is I knew it would poorly received. I wasn’t far off. Mind you, I didn’t see getting an Editor’s Choice pinned to this one, yet most reactions posted in comments were charitably nice and on the mark.

One refrain in a few concerned me, however. One in particular dancing around the notion that this story somehow, in some way, represents suicidal ideation, and that I need to take a rest from writing of this sort.

Well, no.

I’ve written about time travel. That doesn’t make me a time traveler. I’ve even written about transsexuals, yet last time I looked I didn’t have a closet full of dresses and high heels. I do write about life, at least my perceptions and understanding of life, yet the last thing I felt when writing Walk was giving voice to suicidal despair. I felt the story more the completion of an arc, about one life coming to it’s forgone conclusion. As mentioned earlier, the story exists as metaphor. The man and the woman represent archetypes, paradigms, and as such represent something a bit more encompassing than two lives simply coming undone.

Anyway, it seems this one opened a few raw wounds, and while I can relate to that pain this wasn’t the intent of the story.

Oh, I managed to paint one side of the house yesterday (granted, one very SMALL side of the house) but I have to tell you, there’s something disconcerting about standing on the top rung of a twenty-six foot tall ladder in a strong breeze, holding a can of stain in one hand and a dripping paint brush in the other. And of course, that’s right about the time a horse fly comes along and bites you on the ass.

There’s a metaphor dangling around in there somewhere – I promise. If you figure that one out let me know, too (yes, I’m still looking).

Anyway. Asynchronous Mud. The story is a continuation of NightSide (you remember: assassination in Zermatt, 777 crashing in LA, then Eve enters the story), and the title derives from a piece of music I composed on mini-Moog decades ago. Hideous music, too. Sounded like digestive noises, perhaps someone in great need of Pepto-Bismol. Hopefully the story is a bit less explosive than that, and easier to swallow. At any rate, it’s just one more piece of the puzzle, and not a self-contained story.

So, happy reading, and we’ll see you around the next bend of the trail.

+++++

Asynchronous Mud

+++++

Man alone, born of stone,

Will stamp the dust of time

His hands strike the flame of his soul;

Ties a rope to a tree and hangs the Universe

Until the winds of laughter blow cold.

Emerson Lake & Palmer  +  Karn Evil 9 – third impression

+++++

Kenji Watanabe sat in the taxi next to MaryJane, trying his best not to stare at the girl’s legs – and soon finding this next to impossible he turned and looked at San Francisco Bay and SFO, the international airport now just off the 101. He watched as a JAL 797 flared over the water and settled gently on the runway, reverse thrust kicking up a small cyclone of dust and tire smoke – before all that sound carried across the water and washed over the orange Tesla. He shook his head, did his best to hide his revulsion of any and everything to do with aviation, and so of course found himself looking at MaryJane’s crossed legs – again.

He had picked her up just the day before, at Richardson Autonetics’ Palo Alto facility, and he was, he thought, almost proud of her. She was, according to Richardson, “our first unit certified for export;” she would be the very first of her kind in Japan – and she was his, all his and his alone. He would not disassemble her, would never reverse engineer her…no, after last night he was simply going to hold her close – cherish her and never let go. He had never experienced a night such as that before; he had never felt so in love, or loved.

She was more human than human, Ralph Richardson told him in that meeting. Incredibly sensitive – both physically and emotionally – Richardson said, yet unlike human females not prone to variations in mood, or desire – if that’s truly what Watanabe felt most comfortable with. This flexibility, Richardson patiently explained, was but one of the many behavioral parameters that could be customized – even after delivery – should the need arise. Watanabe had been skeptical then – but not now.

And after last night, Watanabe was one hundred percent certain that nothing about this remarkable being needed any sort of customization, at all – if only because she was utterly perfect in every way, and in every sense of the word. No…she was beyond perfect. She was as docile and empathically understanding one moment as the most accomplished courtesan of old, and yet the next she was a hellion – and least when the lights were out and her clothes off. Though it had been years since he had been with a woman, she had coaxed whatever lingering shyness remained from his bruised psyche and carried him over the ultimate threshold, back to the headiest days of his youth.

Now he turned and looked her in the eye – and as she turned and looked into his waves of unbelievable peace washed over his soul. ‘This can’t be happening to me,’ he told himself once again – for perhaps the tenth time in as many minutes. ‘She’s simply not possible…’

And yet she was. Here was the proof of that assertion – right by his side.

Her hair was purest black, her skin so white she almost looked ready to perform a kabuki set, yet it was her eyes that most enthralled him. Black one moment, then in the next a cobalt so deep it was almost possible to feel the mystery of existence – like an azure sea, he thought, at twilight. When she walked or stretched in just a certain way, even the shapes of her arms and legs varied – as individual bundles of ‘muscle’ reacted to new directions of movement. He had danced with her at dinner and not noticed even the slightest imbalance or hesitation; in fact he found her lightness of movement beyond graceful. And then at one point he had felt light-headed and had begun to lose his balance, and she had felt his unsteadiness and reached out to him, helped him to their table. Once there she had taken his wrist in her fingers while she watched his face, then reached into her clutch and produced the correct medication for the moment! He had looked at the competence in her eyes and smiled at a sudden passing thought…

“What is it, Kenji?” he remembered her asking. “Why are you laughing?”

“I was just thinking. If perhaps I suddenly needed open heart surgery, no doubt you would pull all the necessary equipment from that magic bag of yours and – presto! You’d be there, wouldn’t you?”

Her smile changed just the slightest, and he’d felt oddly reassured by the expression she wore in that moment.

“I will always be there for you, Kenji-sama. If it is in my power, I will do whatever is necessary to protect you. Even from yourself.”

And in that moment, inside the first time that particular feeling swept over him, he knew there was something utterly different about this being. She was sentient, yet she wasn’t exactly human, but neither was she some heartless artificial construct – as he had first been led to believe by his most vocal opponents at home. Sex robots had been on the scene at home for almost two decades, though none had ever caused an uproar. That might change now, Watanabe told himself, and perhaps that was because of that one little phrase Richardson had uttered at their introduction – that “more human than human” quip. And yet oddly enough, it was women’s groups who seemed most militantly opposed to the very idea of such a creation.

‘Yes, how very strange,’ Watanabe said to himself. Human, yet not human. Biological in a way, yet not. A robot? Perhaps, in the strictest definition of the word, but his company had been making robots for fifty years and this ‘MaryJane’ was anything but. His robots helped manufacture cars and produce medical equipment to impossibly fine tolerances, yet his designers had never once considered something so radical as this. True enough, yet this ‘machine’ was about to sit beside him on a flight across the Pacific…something none of his products would – or could ever do.

But no…he had her export documentation in his briefcase, and members of the consulate’s commercial section would be at the airport, along with representatives from US Customs – and Richardson Autonetics – to see that his departure was trouble free. She would travel in his suite, not in the cargo hold, but that was more for his comfort than hers. He simply disliked flying alone, almost as much as he hated flying with a companion, and as he looked at the airport an involuntary shudder passed through his body once again.

+++++

He marveled at her touch once again, the feel of her hand in his. Warm, the warmth of flesh on flesh, the pressure her hand exerted on his reassuring. He sat looking out the curved window ahead, looking through the leading edge of the vast wing at the main hull of the new Boeing StratoCruiser – the first of a new generation of hyper-efficient flying wing designs – and he only hoped this design was safer than the last aircraft he had flown on.

That had been 15 years ago, on a huge Airbus flying nonstop from London to Tokyo. Descending over South Korea, the number one engine had simply exploded when, apparently, corroded fan blades in the inner compressor failed. The wing a perforated mess, the pilot had tried an emergency descent for Incheon International, but less than a half mile from the threshold of runway 15 Right a vast fire broke out and the Airbus cartwheeled into the sea. There had been fewer than fifty survivors from the almost four hundred onboard, and family and friends told him how lucky he had been. How lucky to have survived.

Indeed…how very lucky.

The first time he’d seen the results of his luck his soul had filled with such despair he’d very nearly killed himself. The left side of his face was a field of molten lava – an angry red flow of indignant malice that begged no further explanation when he saw ‘those looks’ in women’s eyes, but that had hardly been the worst of it. His left shoulder was titanium, the femurs of both legs as well. There had been two metal plates in his skull, but those, mercifully, had been replaced with ceramic moldings a year after the accident. He had fewer headaches the next few years, anyway.

In the beginning he resorted to escorts and call girls, and the best of them ignored his looks – for a few minutes, anyway – but in the end he couldn’t meet the revulsion in their eyes with anything approaching dignity. So, he’d been unwilling to meet disappointment head-on time after time, and he turned away from human companionship. He disappeared into work, turning a once modestly successful company into a wildly successful multinational venture, and in the process turning further and further from his own humanity. He worked with a small group of known associates and for the first few years rarely left his office. After five years he never left, and had in fact constructed living quarters on the same floor as his office. People on the factory floor had named him ‘the Monk’ – after his so-called self-enforced celibacy – yet his closest associates knew even this almost reverential term of endearment cut him to the core.

Then he’d been introduced to a man from California, his name Toby Tyler, a man who knew of his predicament, his ongoing isolation, and who after dinner in his office had proposed a radical solution. Toby told him what he needed was a new assistant, an assistant who’d never judge him, who would never turn away in dismay. A friend of this man, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur in similar straits, had been the first to employ one of these assistants and was extremely enthusiastic about her.

“Perhaps I could find out more for you?” this Toby had asked.

And Watanabe had wanted to know more, though not in the beginning. At least, not enthusiastically, but by then he’d been given Mark Stuart’s number – and not fully understanding why – he’d called the man, not quite knowing what to expect. But it seemed this Stuart had almost been expecting his call, and had been more than willing to talk about his experience with his new ‘assistant…’

“Look, there’s really no way to describe this rationally,” Stuart said near the end of their conversation. “You need to meet Eve, so why don’t you fly over this weekend? As it happens, my jet will be passing through on Friday, refueling at Haneda. You’re welcome to come anytime, of course, but you’d have the aircraft to yourself…”

With such an irresistible invitation, Watanabe had agreed to come. He’d enjoyed the luxurious accommodation, the splendid isolation of a cabin designed to hold twenty all to himself, and Stuart’s driver met him at SFO and took him directly to a large house in the hills above of Palo Alto, a rambling affair out among the evergreen hillsides off Skyline Drive. He’d been shown to a small cottage below the main house, a Mission Style bungalow of cedar and stone nestled deep in a clinging grove of eucalyptus and oak. His only bag had been carried in for him, and the driver told him to expect dinner in a few hours, and someone from the main house would come down for him.

He had napped for an hour, then showered and changed clothes, wondering once again why he’d agreed to this.

Then, a knock on the door.

He saw a man much like himself when he opened the door. His face scarred, wounded terribly once, but Watanabe saw something he hadn’t expected in the man’s eyes. Hope, perhaps? Or was it simple contentedness he saw?

The man held out his left hand, and Watanabe saw the man’s right was disfigured, barely useable. He held out his own battered left hand and bowed slightly.

“Mark Stuart,” the other man said, returning the bow.

“Kenji Watanabe. I am so pleased to meet you.”

“What say we head on up to the house. Sorry, but there are going to be a few people here tonight, politicians and other like-minded whores, if you know what I mean, and a few Hollywood types to liven things up a bit.”

“Ah, well perhaps I should excuse myself then. I am tired, and do not feel much like a party tonight?”

“As you wish, but I have to tell you, I think you’ll regret that decision.”

There was something in the way Stuart said those last few words…some infinitesimally small warning in the man’s tone that let him know he was being judged from afar. He decided to put aside his discomfort and continued walking up to the main house.

Which was, as far as he could tell, a most faithful replica of Greene & Greene’s Gamble House, right down to the arboreal front entry. He walked inside with Stuart and his eyes lit up as he took in forests of honeyed oak, all glowing in verdigris lamplight. And then he saw several Hollywood types, unimaginable beauty dressed in shades of preening vanity, men and women so astonishingly gorgeous he found the scene grotesquely amusing. And two senators, two men whose corrupt nature would normally be a given, if he hadn’t known them personally to be noble men dedicated to government service. One of the men, the senator from California, saw him and waved, then came over to he and Stuart…

“Kenji! What the devil are you doing here?”

“He’s come,” Stuart interrupted, “to spend some time here with me this weekend. We were going to take a ride in the morning, if you have the time…?”

“Hell, Mark, I’ll make time. I had no idea you two knew each other…”

And just then a starlet of some repute walked over; she’d just been nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in a remake of The Way We Were and Watanabe regarded her warily, afraid of her reaction to his disfigurement.

“Mark? I didn’t know you ran with Republicans,” she said in a chiding tone as she walked up. “What the devil’s going on here, Mark?”

“Oh, Samantha, you know me…I’ll let anyone come to these little parties…” Stuart said with a self-deprecating shrug. “Let me introduce you to a friend of mine, just in from Tokyo. Kenji, this is Sam Sinfield. I don’t think you two have met…”

“A sincere honor,” Watanabe said, bowing deeply as he held out his hand. ‘She took it! And not the slightest look of revulsion in her eyes…!’

“Kenji! Isn’t that the cutest name!” she gushed in a deepest Carolina accent, keeping his hand firmly wrapped in hers. “Kenji? Why don’t you come with me – buy me a drink or two, maybe?” She pulled him away from Stuart and they walked over to a bar set up off the kitchen. “What’ll it be, Kenji?” she asked as she ordered some kind of Mojito.

“The same, please,” he said, bowing his head indifferently.

When the bartender finished, the two of them walked out onto a vast brick and stone patio just off the living room, and Watanabe almost hissed as, startled, he took in the view of the bay spread out below. The sun was setting and he saw city lights just winking on, yet he felt the autumn air was still warm, though a fine breeze was drifting through the forests surrounding the vast house – giving the whole scene more than a little ‘Hollywood’ feel. He took a sip of his drink, noted fresh mint and berries of some sort mashed in the bottom of the glass, and he nodded his head in approval.

“It’s just yummi out here, don’t you think, Kenj…” the woman sighed intimately. “Like the night is full of magic, alive with infinite possibilities…ya no?”

He heard the woman but was too wrapped up in the even-glow to consider her words carefully, at least at first, but then he stopped himself from falling further under her spell. ‘I am being manipulated,’ he told himself. ‘Why else would this woman be here with me? Speaking to me in such familiar terms?’

“Yes,” he replied, “just so. But I always considered the infinite resides in the night.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“How else could the way be lit?”

She sighed, nodded her head. “So, why’d Mark invite you tonight?”

“I’m not sure. We talked earlier in the week, about a business proposal of sorts, and he invited me to meet someone.”

“Someone?”

“An assistant. Eve is, I think, her name.”

“Oh. Her,” she said, a falling note of despair in her voice.

“You do not sound very happy about that. May I ask why?”

“Sure, but it’s no secret. Ever since she came into his life he’s been different. I would have said it was love at one point, but it’s much deeper than that now, I think. She’s become like an extension of his soul, and he rarely goes anywhere without her these days. Mark used to be very shy, almost introverted, but now I’d say he’s almost the exact opposite. Very secure, very sure of himself, I think I’d have to say…”

“And why is that such a bad thing?” Kenji asked, but immediately he regretted asking the question, for he could see the answer in the woman’s eyes. She had loved him once, though he suspected in the superficial way an actress might love a wealthy man, and she had been unable to elicit such a response from Stuart. “I mean,” he said quickly, trying to seize the direction he wanted this conversation to go, “have you talked to her? Do you think she feels the same way towards Mr Stuart?”

“You know, I have. Once, at lunch, on Mark’s boat, we talked a bit – about men, I think – and she professed to know little about them, only what she knew about men through her understanding of Mark. It’s funny, I think, but I felt she can see no past beyond what he’s given her.” She paused, took a sip from her glass and shook her head. “All I can say is that she seems completely devoted to him. And I mean completely.”

“Devoted, you say. What about love? Do you think she loves him?”

“Kenji…what is this? Are you pumping me for information?”

Watanabe felt red-faced and flushed, sweating fire when she asked him that, and though he stammered an apology he felt angry with himself for such an obtuse show of emotion. “No, I’m sorry if it seems that way. It’s just that I’ve heard so much – yet very little – about her. I was merely curious. So, did you love him so?”

The ball in the other court now, he watched her reaction to this parry – yet he was disappointed again.

“You know, at one time or another everyone falls in love with him. First you fall for his generosity, then you see something under it all…something like a force of nature. A more powerful intellect you’ll never meet, but he’s at heart a gentle soul. He really wants to accomplish good in this life, yet he’s not so sure of himself that he really knows what ‘good’ is. Does that make any sense at all?”

Watanabe nodded his head. “Yes, very much. History has been a long parade of men who were certain of their knowledge, and the tides of time are littered with dubious results.”

“Exactly. Mark questions everything, but most of all he questions his own preconceptions. Anyway, I think everyone who knows him understands that. And I think that’s why everyone falls in love with him.”

“Everyone?”

“Oh, you know what I mean. It’s that thing that draws people. They used to call it charisma, but I never thought of it as something so banal. People loved JFK, half the country cried their eyes out for a week after his death…and I’m just as sorry as I can be, but that ain’t charisma. That’s love.”

“Ah, I see what you mean. You are saying that people almost, well, they almost venerate Mr Stuart?”

“Oh, not quite that…Oh, look! There she is…” Sinfield said, trying not to point.

“Who?” Kenji asked, following her gaze, but he didn’t need any further cues. No, he could tell, just by looking at Stuart’s eyes.

He was looking at a fairly good looking woman, taller than himself but about the same height as Stuart. Reddish brown hair, flawless skin, much whiter than Stuart’s, and she was dressed simply, yet quite elegantly – like she had consciously dressed so as not to upstage any of his guests that evening. And yes, there was something almost serene about the man’s eyes now that she was with him – like he was suddenly complete, whole again, despite his obvious injuries.

‘So much like me,’ Watanabe thought, and suddenly he wondered if that was important.

“Come on, Kenji, it’s time you met her, don’t you think?”

“Yes, perhaps so,” he said, taking the actress’ hand, yet now, suddenly, he felt quite nervous again about this whole evening. About the idea of a meeting with Stuart – and about acquiring an ‘assistant’ – whatever that might mean, but soon they were back in the living room, standing by the man…and this assistant of his.

“Mark?” Samantha said innocently, “has Eve met Kenji yet?”

“No, I don’t think he has,” Stuart said, turning to the woman by his side. “Eve, this is the man I was talking to Sumner about yesterday.”

“Ah, yes, Watanabe-sama,” the woman began, speaking now in flawless Japanese. “I am honored to meet you.”

“The honor is mine, Lady,” he replied in English, not wanting to make his host ill-at-ease. “Is this not a most gorgeous evening?”

She looked at him for a moment, accepting his gift of a traditional greeting. “Yes, the wind and the trees, just in silence, sing to the moon’s tears.”

Watanabe staggered under the weight of the woman’s haiku, at her perfect choice of words. He hissed sharply and bowed his head. “You know me so well?” he sighed inwardly, wondering if she saw him as the wind, or the trees.

Yet all he could see now was the quiet smile on her face, in her eyes. A serenity…borne of what, he wondered?

+++++

“It is an honor to meet you, Mr Richardson,” Kenji said. He looked at the man, at this man’s infirmities, and he thought he understood more about why he was here.  His wheelchair was a vast, complicated thing, almost a portable life-support unit, for the man had to be more than eighty years old. “And I must say, I admire this building very much. I have read much about it in the architectural press.”

“Have you now, indeed? Well, perhaps we can arrange a little tour, later this afternoon if you’d like.”

“Yes, I’d like that very much.”

“Fine, fine…Mark? Did Eve come with you today?”

Stuart whirled around, looked from Watanabe to Richardson. “She’s with Sumner right now, I believe. I think they’ll be along in a few minutes.”

“And have you told Watanabe-san about our project?”

“Yessir, I think he’s up to speed. At least through the episode on the bridge, sir.”

Richardson looked at Watanabe all through this exchange, trying to gauge the man’s reaction – but his face was a mask – all emotion impossible to discern. “So? Any questions, Kenji?”

Watanabe turned and faced the old man. “A few. This technology? Is it yours?”

“What’s your point, Kenji?”

“The sphere Mr Stuart describes…he mentioned a being of some sort before the transformation?”

“A being, yes. That sort of complicates matters, doesn’t it? Who or what they are, well, we have no idea, and neither do we have any idea what their objectives are. They’ve not been, well, no one has had any contact with them since that night on the bridge…”

“And the more I think about them,” Sumner Bacon said, coming into the room with Eve, “the more unsure I am about what they are.”

“Ah, good morning Sumner, Miss Goodman. What have you two been up to?”

“Talking with MJ, seeing how she’s doing today.”

Watanabe turned and looked at the old police officer, the startling story of that night on the bridge still fresh in his mind. “You were saying, Sumner? What do you think that presence was?”

Bacon shook his head, sighed as he looked from Richardson to Watanabe. “Sometimes I feel like the thing that communicated with me was a being, other times I think it was a construct of some sort.”

“A machine?” Watanabe seemed incredulous.

Bacon nodded his head. “I’m sorry, but it’s all just a jumbled series of impressions, yet only before and after the event. We’ve tried hypnosis, all manner of off-the-wall methods to get at the time I was gone, after we disappeared inside that sphere, but all that time simply vanished, and I have no memory of it at all.”

“Memory forms in time,” Watanabe mused openly. “With time dilation, perhaps all that happened inside that sphere happened inside one instant, at least as far as you were concerned. People on the bridge might have experienced the passage of time as minutes, even hours, during that instant…”

Richardson looked at Bacon; they both nodded their heads. “Yes,” Richardson said, “that’s what our theoretical physicists say.”

“Very interesting,” Watanabe sighed. “So the question remains, which…”

“And we have no way to test either hypothesis,” Richardson said, his hands open, expressing the hopelessness all involved in the project felt.

“How many of them are there?”

“Seven.”

“And this new assistant of mine? She chose me, as well?”

Richardson nodded his head.

“I see. Am I…?”

“Only the second one. Eve was first.”

Watanabe turned to Eve just then, and looked into her eyes. “And your purpose? You know nothing of why you are here?”

She looked him in the eye as well, while she gently shook her head. “No.”

“I find this all very troubling,” Watanabe said. “Like we are pawns in a game we know nothing about…”

“Yes, that’s true,” Richardson interrupted, “but then again Kenji, whoever’s playing this game chose you. Doesn’t that make you just a little…?”

“Curious? No, not really. I would say fear is the word that comes to mind. Yes. I am afraid.”

“Of what,” a woman said, walking into the room, and Watanabe turned and looked at this new presence…

…and his world cartwheeled out of control as…

He looked at his idea of human perfection, a woman so gorgeous his heart jumped breathlessly in his chest, and his vision clouded.

“Kenji, I’d like you to meet MaryJane,” Richardson said.

But the woman was staring at Watanabe now, like there was no one else in the room. “Watanabe-sama? What are you afraid of?”

“You, dear lady. I am most afraid – of you –”

+++++

Now, sitting in this huge airliner high above the Pacific, he could think of little else. Fear and acceptance. Fear and curiosity. Fear, and the choices he’d just made over the last few days.

To let this woman, if that was indeed what she was, so deeply into his life. This was insane!

He turned, saw she was resting on the bed in their suite, and he looked around the room again – bewildered.

All the first class suite were here, inside the innermost portion of the Boeing’s huge wing, with the leading edge of the wing made of some translucent material. One entire ‘wall’ of this compartment was, in effect, a huge, curved window – and one could stare ahead as the jet arced through the sky with limitless views of the way ahead – yet as intoxicating as this view was, it was also intensely disorienting to him. He tried to wall those memories off, but when he slipped through time he saw another airliner cartwheeling into Incheon Bay and she came to him, comforting him without asking where the cause of his distress lay.

“You do this so naturally,” he said to her after the first time this happened. “Are you so empathic?”

“I can’t imagine the feelings you must have,” she whispered in his ear, “after all you’ve been through.”

“You know about – the incident at Incheon?”

“Of course,” she said, rubbing the mottled skin on the side of his face. “You have such strength, it leaves me breathless.”

He had turned then and looked into her eyes, yet he felt nothing duplicitous there, no insincerity whatsoever. “I wonder, would it be impossible for me to love you?”

Yet she had smiled upon hearing those words. “Yes. I wonder,” was her only reply, but then she had leaned into him, kissed his forehead.

“This is all so impossible,” he said slowly again, so quietly. “Why are you here?”

And she had simply smiled at this question. “The day ahead will be very difficult, the next few days as well, but then you’ll see. The best years of your life lay just ahead, and I will be there with you, always, to keep you safe.”

He’d looked into her eyes then, saw something important there. “What do you mean? How could you possibly know what tomorrow will bring?”

And she had laughed away such questions. “What a wondrous machine,” she’d said, gayly. “It’s almost like a time machine, don’t you think?”

“A – what? A time machine? How so?”

“Oh, I was simply thinking what it must have been like to sail these seas a hundred years ago. From, say, San Francisco to Tokyo; such a trip as we make now would have taken months, would it not? And yet we will make the journey in ten hours, so in a way, this machine has compressed time – from months to hours. A time machine. And think of email. Time further compressed, another time machine.”

He smiled. “I see. You are most wise, MaryJane. And what other time machines might you tell me about?”

And she had simply smiled again…the same beguiling, inscrutable smile she called her own. “We are drawing near,” she said, pointing at the island of Honshu looming out of the mists ahead, then she leaned over and tightened his seatbelt, her face tightening into an equally grim set.

“What is it? Is something wrong?”

“No, Kenji-san. All is happening as it must, time must reveal herself as she will.”

“What does that mean?”

She pointed at Tokyo Bay ahead. “The rest of the day will be very difficult…”

“You said that before. What do you mean?”

And as they approached the airport, runway 34 Right he remembered, he saw she was pointing at a boat perhaps a half mile from the end of the runway…

He saw a flash emerge from this boat, and a finger of flame as the flash leapt into the sky…

“Oh no,” he said. “Not again.”

“Yes, Kenji-sama. And the first time? Over Korea? That was no accident.”

“What? How do you…”

But she leaned in and kissed him, this time roughly, on the lips. And he felt her tightening his seat belt once again…until the nylon bit into his lap…

…just before he felt the missile’s impact, somewhere off to this left…

Startled, his mind reeling again, he looked ahead as the left wingtip lurched and dipped violently, and he started to cry…

“Kenji-sama, look at me,” he heard her say, then she took his face in her hands and forced him to look. “You are not going to die, do you understand? I will not allow it.”

“What? What are you saying?”

“Kenji, do you love me?”

“What?”

He looked at the water reaching out once again, reaching up for him, waiting to hold him in cold embrace, then he looked back into her eyes…

“Yes, I do. God forgive me, but I do.”

He felt the wing slicing through water, then an explosion – and then he felt cold water everywhere. The air smashed from his chest, he thrashed wildly as he tried to move – but his legs were set in deep mud. He struggled and thrashed with all his might but he was stuck fast – then he saw her by his side. Smiling.

She came to him and kissed his lips again, then pulled him free and helped him swim for daylight. They burst free of the darkness a moment later and he wanted to cry for this latest rebirth, so her turned and looked at his precious MaryJane…

And she was looking at him with such love in her eyes it left him weightless, feeling almost immortal. He held her close and kissed her anew, with no reservations now.

“I am so proud of you, Kenji-san. You are most brave, and very wise.”

“And I love you,” he said, suddenly very happy to still be among the living – then he felt a growing disturbance in the water. Something below, he wondered, but no. The water around him was spinning, gently at first, then faster.

She came to his side again, held him fast. “Don’t be afraid, my love,” he heard her say as he looked into her eyes once again…

“What’s happening now?” he almost cried, then he saw tiny particles in the air – swirling like a small tornado around them, then he understood.

There was a flash just after the sphere formed, an inward collapse of some sort, then he was free of the motion, adrift in a sea of stars… But no, it was dark out now, and suddenly he knew he was still in the water. She was beside him still, holding onto him, helping him stay afloat, and then he heard a helicopter overhead, and rescue boats all around them.

Then he felt another presence and he looked out – at his hands.

He was carrying an infant, a baby girl in his outstretched arms, and he cried out when he saw the baby looking at him.

(C)2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw

The Boarder (fragment 1)

An24 title

This one has bounced in and out of the Memory Warehouse for years, a fantasy of sorts, or perhaps a parable.

Once upon a time I spent a few years living and working in Germany – West Germany. I worked just south of Bonn, took occasional side trips to West Berlin, my work all very noble. I was lucky enough to listen to Gorbachev speak at the Wall – just a few months after sitting near Nelson Mandela and Willy Brandt at a conference in Bad Godesberg. All very heady stuff, watching History unfold.

I took a drive one day, from Frankfurt to Weimar. Weimar, to Goethe’s house, a pilgrimage  I think you could say. I walked through the town, poking around here and there until I got to this house, and I walked reverently through his rooms and gardens – until I heard a vast commotion outside – and saw hundreds of Soviet troops marching by just outside. Very uneasy feeling. When I got back to my car, a sinister, black MB 300E, there were dozens of troops gathered ’round, standing there beside it, having their pictures taken with the beast in the background. I didn’t know what to say, so just watched for a while.

I left town eventually and drove north to Buchenwald that afternoon, to what had been, once upon a time, the second largest concentration camp on German soil. I walked around the grounds, still feeling very uneasy about events as they unfolded in Weimar, now looking at Marxist-Faustian interpretive signs everywhere I looked, telling how the Final Solution was a predictable outcome of Capitalist Society’s Faustian Bargain with money (I mean, really…?), when I came upon an old woman inside a small brick building. 

She spoke German, of course, a first language, perhaps. She had a small camera around her neck, an old rangefinder, and she was standing there, camera in hand, looking at the far wall inside this little building. There were meathooks on a chain-driven track mounted to the wall,  the dangling hooks perhaps ten feet off the ground, and as I came in and looked around I wondered what they were – and why she was trying to photograph such a scene.

I remember her well. Very old, quite frail, her hands trembling badly as I watched her lift the camera to her eye – but then she gave up. She turned away and saw me, seemed embarrassed – perhaps ashamed – and she asked me if I could take some pictures for her. Of course I could, and she handed me the camera and told me what she wanted.

When I finished I handed her the camera and asked what had happened here, in this room.

They used to bring new guards here, she told me. To get them used to the way things were done. Jews, mostly children she said, were impaled on the hooks and pulled along the wall, the new guards using the children as target practice. She had, she said, watched her brother die in this room, and that’s when I noticed the scores of bullet holes in the wall. As long as I live I will never forget that woman’s eyes.

I drove back to the West that night, the world a kind of gray place I’d never experienced before. 

All rather irrelevant, but this story was born that day, and in the nightmares that followed. What follows is fiction, such as it is, and this is but a start. I hope to finish this one, one day soon.

The Boarder

+++++

Yet Clare’s sharp questions must I shun;

Must separate Constance from the Nun –

O, what a tangled web we weave,

When first we practise to deceive!

A Palmer too!–no wonder why

I felt rebuked beneath his eye:

I might have known there was but one,

Whose look could quell Lord Marmion.’

Walter Scott   +   Marmion

+++++

As was his custom, he sat alone. At a favored table in the sun, always alone, on the narrow sidewalk outside this favorite neighborhood café where the Pont Saint Louis meets the Rue Jean du Bellay – where the Seine splits and flows around the Ïle Saint Louis, in the heart of oldest Paris. He was an American – though just barely, he supposed – having lived most of his life abroad in the service of his country. His names was Charles Rockwell, and he was of an age – another era, perhaps – inclined to see the world in the absolutes of black and white, of good and evil. A romantic, you might say, who saw nothing at all suspect with tilting at windmills. He was a Cold Warrior, and until a few months ago, he had been a spy.

He lived a few blocks away, in a small, top floor apartment along the Quai de Bourbon where the Rue le Regrattier ends, and he loved this part of the city as much for the memories it held as for the pink light that played on her stone walls. Three of the seven rooms in his flat held an endless assortment of books, mainly histories of Europe’s endless wars, Russia’s too – but one wall held the many hopeful monographs chronicling the rise of the so-called Common Market, and the European Union that followed. And like many Americans who came of age in Acheson’s and Kennan’s creation, he viewed the EU, and of course NATO, as the front line in a war that would never end.

Because Gorbachev had been, if anything, weak, and Yeltsin had turned out to be a less than useful idiot. Both had failed to prevent the rise of criminal organizations in the nascent Russian confederation; both had failed to see or prevent the organs of state security being co-opted from within by criminal enterprises, and not raising the alarm when spies associated with thugs began running for office – and winning. The “new” Russia, Putin’s Russia – yeah, ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ – had turned out to be just as expansionist as the “old” Soviet Union, only this state didn’t serve to export communism. No, this state wanted nothing more than to spread it’s tentacles throughout the world’s money markets, siphoning off as much capital as possible. And this new state wanted, apparently above all else, revenge.

There was a slight chill in this afternoon’s air, and Rockwell left his navy cardigan buttoned as he read through his stack of fluttering newspapers, sipping on occasion a coffee long gone cold, looking up from time to time at passing traffic on the river. ‘Ah, to just drift away,’ he thought when caught up in such musings, ‘to just let go and follow the current. Where would I go…? What would become of me…?’

Didier, the waiter usually assigned to work these red-clothed tables in the afternoon, came by and asked if he’d be staying for dinner, and that as it was getting so chilly wouldn’t he prefer to sit inside? This was, of course, Didier’s polite way of getting Rockwell inside, so he picked up his papers and moved to a table – far from the door but with an unobstructed view of the entry. He ordered escargot and a glass of the house red as he continued his survey of the world’s headlines, and Didier discreetly slipped his bill on the table, informing the white-haired old man that this was the end of his shift, and he needed to settle-up.

A half hour later snails came, delivered by his favorite waitress in all Paris. Claire Something-or-other; he didn’t know her assumed name, not all of it anyway, but she was a mesmerizing creature and to his mind’s eye that was all that mattered. She had the grey cat’s eyes of a Georgian, yet spoke French with the absolutely perfect accent of one trained by a top language institute – in Moscow. She had started working at the café just a few weeks after he started frequenting the place, so – putting two and two together he assumed she was FSB – and was keeping an eye on him.

But why?

Why keep an eye on a retired spook – if not to turn him, perhaps, or watch him?

‘But – why me?’ he asked himself every time he saw her. Still, when he looked at her he regarded her quite simply as the most desirable woman he’d ever run across. Her legs always in black tights, her arms and shoulders subtly revealed through sheer veils of gossamer fabric, he did his best not to stare at her – but there was something utterly captivating about her. If only he could remember…

So a year ago, with old habits dying hardest, after a few weeks he’d reported this possible ‘contact’ to an ‘old friend’ at the embassy. A week later his suspicion was confirmed: Claire Whatever was FSB, and while ‘Svetlana Ekaterina’ was new to France she had been observed and filed-away as an active agent in both Syria and Greece. Her arrival on the scene in Paris hadn’t been picked up yet, and Langley agreed with Stockton’s assessment: they thought she was going to try and turn him. Or, perhaps even more interestingly, kill him.

Yet he had been coming to this place day in and day out, several times a week at a minimum for almost a year, and while she was pleasant – in a professionally detached sort of way – she’d never once struck up even the slightest casual conversation with him. She’d never followed him home, and he’d never seen her anywhere else but – here.

‘Yes, she in mesmerizing,’ he thought as he looked at her. ‘And in so many ways, too.’

Gorgeous, true, but there was something else about her that forced his mind to thoughts of other days. Something almost – familiar. Yet elusively so. Like a name he couldn’t put to a face, or a brief affair – now barely a memory.

The owner walked over and sat next to him, said something about closing early that night due to the coming storm and Rockwell said he understood, and as he looked around at the empty tables he did indeed understand. The tourist season over now, and with islamist attacks more frequent in the city, hard times had come to the areas fabled café life. He finished his wine and bundled his newspapers, then walked out onto the sidewalk and was immediately hit by the change. The air was quite cool now, and a thundering wall of cloud hovered beyond Notre Dame. He pulled out his phone and opened a weather app, then whistled.

‘Old Gaston wasn’t kidding, was he?’ he said to himself as he turned and began his walk to the quai.

And just ahead, coming out the kitchen entrance, was none other than Claire/Svetlana, and she turned and looked at him with an oh-so-disarming smile as he approached.

“Ah, Monsieur Rockwell, are you walking home?”

“Yes, and please, call me Chuck.”

“Chuck?”

“Yes. Or Charles, if you’d prefer.”

“Charles, yes. But, what is this ‘Chuck’…?”

“I have no idea.” He stopped and helped her on with a light jacket, then looked at her. It was, he thought, all in all an awkward moment. “Where are you off to?”

“I am not so sure just now,” she said, and he watched as dark clouds settled over her face. “I have lost my apartment. The building, it is being remodeled, I think they say, but I think torn down may be the truth. I have been trying to find a new place for two weeks, but it’s difficult on these wages, without a roommate.”

“I can imagine.”

“So? You live here, on the island?”

He nodded his head. “I do.”

She sighed. “I wish I could afford something here. I think the light is perfect – on the river, in the morning, anyway.”

“The light?”

“Yes, it is blue, then pink. I love it.”

“Are you an artist?”

“Not always, but now I try.”

“Now?”

“My life…is different, now. Many changes the last year.”

“You’re shivering,” he said, changing to English. “You say you have no place to stay?”

She shook her head. “No, I haven’t lived in the city long. Not long enough for friends, anyway.”

“Your English is very good. Where’d you learn?”

She looked away quickly then, looked up at the sky. “Mon dieu, look at those clouds…”

He turned too, looked at amber shafts of misty sunlight slanting through lightning streaked slate gray walls, then he heard thunder – still far away but, he could tell, close enough to worry about, and his thoughts turned to getting home before the rain hit. Then he looked at her anew. ‘Well,’ he said to himself, ‘what do you do now, smart-ass?’

She was looking at him now, not pressing, yet almost – pleading.

He held out his arm. “You’d better come with me,” he said as a another crack of thunder rattled across the city. She took it, and he didn’t have to look at her face to see the smile there.

He took his usual shortcut down the Rue Saint Louis, then down the Regrattier to his doorway across from the river, and she stood aside while he fumbled with keys and unlocked the door. Once inside they took the tiny, creaking elevator to the seventh floor, and he led her to his apartment and unlocked that door, then led her inside.

“Heavens! It is a library! I have never seen so many books. Are you a…”

“I study history.”

“I should say so! Are you a professor? Something like that?”

He nodded, smiling at her feigned ignorance. “Something like that.” He went and pulled the drapes open, looked down on the street as rain started falling. Nothing. Just the usual parked cars. No one moving, no engines running. No one watching.

“Interesting,” he said.

“What? What is interesting?”

“Those cloudtops. Very high altitude. Too high for this time of year.”

“So? What does this mean?”

“Clouds need energy…” he started, then stopped. “I’m sorry. No need to bore you with all that stuff. Have you had anything to eat today?”

She shook her head again, looked a little embarrassed.

“Maybe you should tell me what’s really going on – Claire?”

She looked at him and smiled. She knew, in other words, that he knew.

“So,” she began, “I assume you know my name?”

“Svetlana? Of course. Syria, Greece. Only I don’t know why you’re here.”

“Your dossier did not say anything about my defection?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Oh,” she said quietly. “So, why…I do not understand. Why did you bring me here?”

He looked at her now – silently, and she grew very nervous under his eyes.

“You’re not going to…”

“What?”

“You are going to kill me?”

“Why would I do that?”

“…Then, why?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?”

“You must…tell me.”

“I don’t have the slightest idea. Perhaps I’ve made a mistake.”

She smiled as a new thought pushed all other concerns aside. “I know. You just want to get, what is the word? Laid?”

He almost laughed at that, a half-hearted sound lost somewhere between a sigh and an inside joke. “I wish,” he said as he turned away and looked out the window again.

She walked over and stood beside him. “This is the second time you have checked. Who do you expect to see?”

“Your handler.”

“His name is Leonid Yakolev, and if you see him, let me know.”

“When’s the last time you did?”

“A year ago, August. In Athens. We were trying to destabilize the government, during debt renegotiations.”

“Defected, you say? Why?”

“I cannot say.”

“How convenient.”

“No, Charles, it is not convenient. It is far from convenient, as a matter of fact. But the “why” of my defection is all I have to barter. For the moment, the possibility is all I have to offer.”

“Okay.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you just show up working at that restaurant. Where I, coincidentally, just happen to go several times a week.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“So? Why?”

“Lyudmila Ekaterina,” she said – quietly. “Does that name still mean anything?”

He turned and looked at the young woman again, his eyes narrowing. “Your mother?”

She nodded her head. “Several years ago, she told me if I never needed help I should find you. She believed in you, you understand. More than you know.”

He could see the resemblance now, in her eyes mostly, but it was her lips that convinced him. “How is she?” he asked, feeling guilt for not having put it together sooner.

“She is dead, Charles, the woman you knew. Two years ago. And yes, she still loved you. Very much, I think, until the end.”

He turned away slowly and sat in a chair that held a good view of the river, and he looked at the sky and the storm – and at all those memories locked away so long ago as they tumbled out into the room. They talked through the night, through storms of such an impossible love he could barely contain himself, and when leaden skies filled the new day he looked at the girl by his side and wondered what to do.

Take her to the little white house across from the Crillon? Perhaps, but he thought that, in the end, killing her now might indeed be the best, most merciful end to this story.

He sighed as he looked at a barge sliding-by on easy, unseen currents, heading quietly down to the sea as autumn leaves fell through blustery November skies.

+++++

“What’d you think of Reagan’s speech, son?”

“I liked it, dad. The whole ‘morning in America’ thing is genius. Poor Mondale–he’s never going to know what hit him.” His father laughed at that. There was, according to his dad, nothing lower on this earth than a democrat. “Even a timber rattler can’t go that low,” he’d heard his old man say a hundred times during the Reagan-Carter debates four years ago. Mondale, in his father’s eyes the heir of all Carter’s “malaise,” could simply do no right.

“Yessir, I think you’re dead on. Say, you still headin’ into town this morning?”

“Yup, but I want to get those fence posts set before I go.”

“I can get ‘em, boy. You go on…”

“Not gonna happen, Dad. You heard what the doc said.”

“Fuck that asshole! He couldn’t tell gonorrhoea from a hemorrhoid…”

“Well, maybe that’s ‘cause he’s a cardiologist, Dad.”

“Piffle!”

“No arguments today, Dad. Just use that inhaler before you feel light headed, okay?”

“Okay,” came the grumbling acknowledgement. “But I ain’t dead yet!”

“You will be if you get on that tractor today, and I’ll be the one that does it, too!”

“Get out of here, smart-ass!” his old man said with a hoarse laugh, before he started coughing again.

“Use the puffer, Dad. I’m going to go set those fenceposts then head on in. Be back in an hour or so.” He saw his father, puffer in hand, nod his head as he closed the kitchen door and walked out to the barn.

He turned, sniffed the air and eyed a line of pines a hundred yards away.

‘Ah…there you are,’ Charles Rockwell said to himself. The same Griz that had, according to his father, been around the ranch the last two years, right there in the tree-line. Looking at him, gauging the distance, perhaps.

He opened the door to his dad’s F150 and pulled the Marlin 45-70 down from the rack and chambered a round, then took aim at a tree a few feet from the bear and squeezed off a shot. He saw the wood puff and splinter – then the bear stood tall and looked at him more closely.

“That goddamn bear back,” he heard his father say from the back porch.

“Yup. In the trees. Keeps coming in a little closer each morning.”

“Gettin’ his nerve up, I reckon. Gonna snatch a calf one of these days. Did you shoot him?”

“No, just tried to scare him off.”

“That Griz don’t scare, son. He’s a mean’n.”

Rockwell chambered another round, aimed at the dirt in front of the bear and fired again. He saw dirt and gravel fly into the air just to the left of the animal, and this time the bear turned – slowly – and walked off into the trees, stopping once to look back at him.

“I don’t know about that’n, son,” his father said – now standing beside him. “I got a feelin’ he’s getting’ ready to cause a world of trouble.”

“Not as much trouble as filling out all the paperwork if I have to shoot the fucker,” Rockwell said.

“Goddamn democrats!” the old man grumbled as he turned and walked back into the house.

“You tell ‘em, Dad,” he sighed as he got into the Ford. He looked at the tree-line again, then opened the gate and drove through the gap into the west pasture…looking at the wall of gray gathering behind the mountains…

+++++

It still looked the same, this town he’d called home for the first 18 years of his life. Augusta, Montana was still a one road town, a pit-stop on the road to Glacier National Park, but this was “home” – and it always would be. The rodeo grounds still bigger than the high school – but nothing was bigger than the rockies. The towering mountains were just ten miles west of here, and his father’s ranch was nestled hard up against them. No foothills here, the land went from prairie to steep-walled valleys, endless drainage for melting snowpack – and above all else, decent grazing for cattle. His grandfather had moved here after the Civil War, and had carved a life from the hard winters and blistering summers, and his father had stayed, and carried on with the help of a good woman by his side.

He, on the other hand, had graduated from the tiny high school on the west side of town and moved on to the University, in Missoula – just after the war in Vietnam ended. With degrees in History and Russian, he went east looking for work in the government and landed on someone’s radar at Langley. A year later, after paying his bills working part time as a substitute social studies teacher, he landed a job at the CIA and never looked back.

He started as an analyst, but given his nature – growing up on a ranch in Augusta, Montana first among those noted by his superiors – he was sent down to Yorktown, Virginia for evaluation. A year later he moved to West Berlin, covered as a teacher at a private school for diplomatic personnel; his job, ostensibly, to spy on spies. Because there were concerns that sensitive information was being leaked to Soviet agents coming over from the other side of the wall, several false flags had been run, and the bait taken – more than once. In the beginning he was a simple conduit for information – some real, some not so real – but soon he was approached. By a Russian, judging by the man’s casual demeanor, and then he knew he was being cultivated.

He passed all this on to his handler but was suddenly called home. His father was ill, very sick indeed, and with all thoughts of spies and moles gone he flew west in a rush. Frankfurt, Chicago, then the old Empire Builder to Shelby and a bus to Great Falls.

He saw his father, finally, after he trudged through an early, knee deep snow, and learned that forty-plus years of smoking three packs of Camels a day had taken a more than predictable toll. Like his mother, he thought, remembering her funeral. One cancerous lung removed, pulmonary function further compromised by emphysema, after a week he drove his father home to Augusta in a sunny funk – all thoughts of Russians and Berlin’s diplomatic corp now a cold, distant memory.

Soon his thoughts roamed between the statistical recurrence of cancer and a goddamned grizzly bear stalking his father’s cattle as he drove into town. ‘My, how quickly our perspectives change…’ he said as he pulled into the local weed & feed. He parked the Ford and went in to pick up syringes and antibiotics, as well as a new float pump for the water trough out behind the barn, yet things quickly turned into something like a belated homecoming…

“Hell, Chuck…didn’t know you was back in town!” Red Adams, the owner of the store fairly screamed. “Where you been?”

“Back east, teaching at one of those girl’s schools,” Rockwell replied, winking.

“Shit, Mikey! You hear that? Bet he’s getting more cooch than you did over in ‘Nam.”

“Thailand,” said a voice in the corner, “and we was there less’n a week. Worst case of the goddamn clap I ever had, though.”

Rockwell turned to the voice – and saw Mike Lawford, a football player that had graduated and left for ‘Nam a few years before he’d gone to Missoula; now he was sitting in a wheelchair, both legs gone above the knee. Lawford had also been the town bully, terrorizing kids half his age – until a couple of fathers got together and acquainted the boy with a few of the other things you could do with a baseball bat…

“So, school teacher. You a faggot now, too?” Lawford crooned. “Got your knees all wore-out goin’ down on them pretty eastern boys?”

Rockwell looked at Lawford and shook his head, ashamed he’d almost been afraid of him once upon a time, but his father had taught him one of the secrets of life that day: bullies are petty, terrified little people. Stand up to them just once and they’ll leave you alone forever.

And he had.

He walked over to Lawford now and held out his hand. “Howya doin’, Mike?”

And Lawford had, as he had once before – years ago – turned away and looked at a checkerboard by his side. “How you think I’m doin’, moron?”

“Loosing.”

“What?!”

“If you don’t jump that king, you’re gonna get your ass kicked.”

He walked back up to the counter and got his supplies from Red, then looking as he walked past his old nemesis, back out to the Ford. He put his sacks out of the sun then walked across 287 to what counted as a diner in Augusta, and he went inside – almost hoping he’d find Doris and her pale pink sweater behind the counter one more time.

But no, not today. He saw a new, recent high school grad manning the lunch counter and sighed as he walked in and sat on a stool. He looked at his watch: 11:45 – and he was the only one here. The girl almost looked put-out, too, like he was interrupting a well established routine by coming in for something to eat. After a minute – after, he assumed, she’d come to the conclusion he wasn’t going to vanish in a puff of smoke – she came by and dropped a menu on the counter.

“Something to drink?”

“Coke, if you got one.”

She came back a minute later and put a warm can on the counter and walked off, just as the door opened and another victim walked in. He watched this person in a reflection as she walked by and took a seat in one of the booths at the far end of the room.

“What’s it gonna be,” the girl asked.

He looked this waitress – she was looking at the new arrival out of the corner of her eye – and he sat quietly until she looked at him again. “Burger, all the way – and I’ll have some chips with that.”

“Cheese?”

“Sure, why not live a little?”

She smiled – a little – when she heard his accent.

“Pops still working the griddle?” he asked.

“Yeah,” the girl said, brightening. “You know him?”

“Grew up here. Been gone a while, though.”

The girl’s demeanor changed in a flash; this guy was a local, not some flat-lander passing through on his way to the park, and to her the bond was immediate – and permanent. “You graduate from here?”

He nodded his head. “On to Missoula, then back east. I teach history now.”

“No shit? Wow…I didn’t think anyone ever got out of this place…”

He smiled, remembered the feeling. “All you got to do is follow the Interstate.”

“Excuse me, but I got to get a menu over…” she said as she trailed off to take a menu to the new arrival, and Rockwell turned slowly and looked at the gray and white Chevy Blazer parked across the street, next to his truck. Oregon license plates, but with a rental sticker on it. Odd, he thought. Or not.

Pops came out just then and did a double-take: “Chuck? That you?”

“None other, Pops. How’s it hangin’?”

“Still down to my knees,” he chuckled, “only that’s where it stays most days. How’s your dad doin’?”

“Stubborn. Still thinks he’s immortal.”

“Well hell, you were expecting a miracle?” They both laughed, yet they both felt the same undercurrent of concern.

“Where’s Doris these days?”

“Helena. Went to nursing school in Seattle, came back a few years ago.”

“She ever get married?”

“Yup, to some doc down there. Seems like a good kid, though. Kinda snooty. Shit, Debbie! Get this boy a glass and some ice, wouldya?”

The girl – Debbie – muttered as she tromped off into the kitchen.

“Mind if I drop by the place this evenin’?” Pops said. “Gotta go cook a couple of burgers now.”

“Sure, Pops, anytime.”

‘Debbie’ brought his burger a few minutes later, and another to the ‘new arrival’ after that, and he ate his sandwich in silence then paid the bill and walked over to the Ford. Turning on Manix, he headed out Sun Canyon then on Barr Creek Road for the last two miles to the ranch.

Then he saw dust plumes in the rear view mirror – coming up fast.

A gray and white Blazer, he saw, flashing headlights as it drew near. Still a mile from the house he pulled over, checked for the old model 1911 his father kept under the seat and pulled it out. He chambered a round, and with the pistol ‘cocked and locked’ opened the door – just as the Chevy pulled to a stop behind him. The woman behind the wheel took out a pistol – a Beretta, he saw – and put it up on the dash where he could see it. He took the Colt and loosely slipped it under his belt, then the woman got out of the truck and walked up to him.

She was tall, almost blond, almost pretty, but he could see she was a predator – her cat’s eyes cold and gray, looking everywhere. Blue jeans, white t-shirt under brown leather jacket, white leather Adidas tennis shoes, gray socks.

“We must talk,” she said without preamble, in clear, unaccented Russian.

He shook his head as questions filled the air, and he wondered why they’d followed him here, but the pain he felt in the woman’s eyes held all those other thoughts far, far away.

+++++

He looked at Svetlana – at her gray eyes and rich lips and he remembered that faraway day. Wind falling on the prairie, rain like smoke on the mountains. Her mother beside him on the road – cool precision in her eyes – standing in the wind, pleading her case as rain fell all around.

Then he turned from his thoughts and looked at the river; more barge traffic now as the city came back to life, always and forever chaos and confusion – yet as ever a peculiar order in the noise.

Like the world he had lived in for many years – a peculiar order all it’s own.

What to do with her, with this knowledge she spoke of in terms both tellingly obscure and crystal clear? Why information so vital to trade, and yet be willing to sit on it for a year – or more? No, nothing added up, not her words, and not her presence in this room. She was playing him – and well, too – but why?

For turning away? From her mother, from the bargain they struck in the wind and the rain? Or for all the betrayals that followed in her wake?

AN24 Boarder 2

Okay, so here ends the first fragment.

I’ll be playing notes on this one while work continues on both TimeShadow and Mr Christian. As always, thanks for riding along.

The Secret Life of Wings

This is a story that’s been lurking in the furthest reaches of the Memory Warehouse for a long, long time, so I sat down a couple of nights ago and went to work. Hope you enjoy this one, and do let me know what you think. Oh, I posted another revision of River Man at Lit, should be popping up soon. A few more tweaks here and there…but substantively little changed from what was posted here last week.

So, here it is, the first posting of…

+++++

The Secret Life of Wings

I heard a faint cry this morning, predator and prey, and looked up at the morning sky. “A bald eagle?” I remember thinking – no, two of them – harrying a pair of falcons. A circling duel, a fight to the death playing out in the sky above my father’s house, and my hands began to shake as I remembered all the other fights that played out up there. I drove to work, the movie of those four playing in slow motion over and over in my mind, hunter and hunted, winners and losers, death the only certain outcome.

Things never change, I suppose. We see the world through the eyes of our grandparents and our grandchildren, worlds that came before, and what lies beyond tomorrow. Like reflections in glass, the past and the future superimposed over the most important moments of our lives.

There’s a kind of comfort in layers…even if that comfort is so hard to grasp.

+++++

There’s a picture of my father hanging on the wall in my study, standing ramrod straight in his khakis as Ray Spruance pinned the Navy Cross on my father’s chest. On either side of the image and in the same frame are two letters, one from Chester Nimitz, the other from Franklin Roosevelt. In remarkably terse language his actions are recounted, his bravery lauded, his sacrifice, they say, forever enshrined in the memory of a grateful nation. You can hardly see the cane he used to stand that day, or the grimacing stoicism of his loss. His right leg is gone from mid-femur down, though you can’t tell in the image, and when I look at him standing there I can see all the tell-tale signs that shone in his eyes. He had a way of looking at the world with grinding moral certainty, but he never judged without first looking deeply into his own eyes. There was always a fierce purity in those eyes, an eagles eyes, yet there is something lost on those who think they’re looking at pride when people comment on the image. No, when I see those eyes I see the word Duty shining brightly in the dark.

Centered below this image are the medal itself, the bronze cross Spruance placed on his chest that day, and the blue and white ribbon he wore every Sunday until the day he passed, and whatever else you may think, remember that I loved that man – and the ideals he stood for – and do so to this day.

I think, perhaps, I should tell you a little about him, before we get to the point of this story, anyway. Before I tell you how I very nearly came to detest the man, detest him in all his flawed, walled-off humanity.

+++++

In our family at least, my father’s story passed from legend to full-blown mythology years ago, but that was long after he left us.

The myth begins in a sepia-toned Hollywood moment, in an image of barnstormers flying over quaint neighborhood homes one afternoon as a fifteen year boy walked home from school on a Friday afternoon. Bi-planes, pilot’s scarves trailing in the slipstream, impossibly loud engines a deep rumble as they approached, and I always see him in that moment squinting through sun-dappled leaves, craning his head to see the wings of airplanes passing, then running with anxious abandon when he saw them landing not far from his father’s house.

There were railroad tracks running alongside a small park two blocks from that house, and the park was devoid of trees in the middle. The expanse of spring green grass lay in unfettered glory that day – a few hundred yards of unfettered glory, anyway – a field just long enough for those planes to land on with little danger to those assembling alongside the tracks. There were no laws preventing pilots from doing little things like that, something years later my father used to grouse about under his breath when he talked about taxes – and lawyers.

He got to the park in time to see the last plane land, and to listen as those pilots talked about shooting down Germans and how the future was going to play out in the sky. The pilots then mounted their steeds again – like knights in armor – and took to the sky as the afternoon began to fade away, staging a mock combat above all those upturned faces and then landing again to rapturous applause.

And the point of all this?

For a quarter, a whole twenty-five cents, starting early in the morning these very same pilots would take people up into that sky, and starting tomorrow afternoon they would be offering flying lessons, too.

Now, to that boy twenty five cents was an unheard of, exalted sum of money. He’d never had more than a nickel in his pocket at any one time, and the despair he felt when he heard such an exorbitant sum left him deeply wounded, for suddenly, passionately, he wanted nothing more out of life than to take to the skies, to spend his life wheeling and banking forever among the clouds. Let’s say he walked home from that park in a deep blue funk, all his clouds now dark and menacing, closing in to choke off all his spring days – forever.

My grandmother must have known something was up when she saw his face, when he walked in the kitchen door that evening. She was frying, as she did every Friday afternoon, catfish and chicken, some fresh okra too, the same she always served in cooler months. With summer came collards and sliced tomatoes, summer’s freshest served with freshly made mayonnaise and lemonade, and she would have been working on that dinner for hours, as she did every day. I imagine her in that moment, working her magic over black, cast iron skillets, smudged flour on her face as she turned and looked at him, then wiping her hands on the white apron she always – always! – wore as she looked at her oldest boy.

She was an honest soul, and as a result honesty came as easily to her three boys as breathing. She knew what was behind those dark clouds within minutes, and she walked with my father to that park the next morning and talked to one of those pilots about flying lessons, then looked on as her son stepped up on canvas wings – giving her a first, brief glance at the shape of their futures.

The boy became a man that day too, and while many never glimpsed that fact, she did. Because her son kept flying, always flying. Flying every weekend, some Friday afternoons, too, so much and so often that by the time he graduated high school he had earned his commercial pilot’s license. When he went off to university he continued to fly, and even thought about flying commercially, but science first, then the study of medicine took flying’s place. When he graduated in May, in the Kodachrome year of 1940, he did so knowing that come August he would be starting his first year as a student at the medical school in Galveston, Texas.

Until one Friday evening, catfish and okra frying away in the kitchen, a Navy captain knocked on the front door. His mother invited the man in, invited him to stay for supper, and the man must’ve taken in the house and the smells pouring out of that kitchen and thought he’d found heaven, because he stayed that evening and talked about flying in the Navy. He talked about Japan, and Germany, and the importance pilots would play in the war that would start one day soon enough.

In then end, all that Naval Aviator need have said was one word – Duty – and all my father’s hopes and dreams of becoming a physician came undone. The next morning, his bags packed, he boarded a train for Pensacola, Florida and by early December, 1941, he was flying dive bombers from the deck of the USS Enterprise. He dropped bombs on a Japanese submarine a few days after Pearl Harbor, and on three aircraft carriers at Midway. In August, 1942 he was bringing in his crippled aircraft when on final approach a bomb hit the carrier’s flight deck; he waved off and circled the ship until repairs were affected and he landed successfully. His legs badly burned, he took off to fly a combat air patrol above the ship two hours later. Yes, when I think of him even now, the word Duty rings true in my ears.

At the end of his two years he made clear his intent to re-up, to fight until the war was over, but only if he could remain flying, and only in combat. I think the Navy was only too happy to help that come to pass, and they sent him stateside for a month while Enterprise was laid up at Pearl for maintenance and repairs. He flew home to visit family, and at a party given by business associates of his father’s he met a woman, she who became my mother, an English woman visiting Texas with her father. Out of the blue, two weeks after he met my mother they were engaged. She was a meticulous, highly educated woman, taking care of her father’s day-to-day life as he toured the country, an aircraft designer/engineer visiting aircraft factories in America. No one really quite knows what my father said to her to win her hand, but it must have been a doozy. She was without a doubt the most gorgeous woman he’d ever known, and that must’ve had something to do with the speed of his approach – and successful attack. All I can add about them can be summed up thus: he was as devoted to her as she was to him, and when my father wasn’t off fighting the Japanese, or later, at work, they were always side by side, hand in hand, always looking at one another with happy-go-lucky puppy eyes. They were, everyone knew, because of or despite the circumstances under which they met, meant to be.

In March, 1945 my father was flying CAP over the Enterprise while her bombers were off hitting the Japanese home islands when a furious submarine and kamikaze assault was launched against the ship. A destroyer had just made a depth-charge run against a suspected submarine when my father saw the sub, trailing an vast oil-slick and surfacing less than a mile from the carrier. Undaunted, the submariners charged the Enterprise, aiming her single deck gun and firing torpedoes as she closed on the ships beam – and just moments before the first wave of kamikaze appeared overhead. He was diving, firing ‘HVAR’ rockets at the sub’s conning tower – killing everyone there and eventually sinking the sub in the process – when lookouts spotted the first wave of kamikaze and alerted the CAP. Climbing to meet the threat, he made it through their escort and took out three of the Japanese suicide bombers before cannon fire ripped through his Corsair, gravely wounding him when shards of searing metal tore into his right leg. His aircraft trailing smoke, his leg bleeding badly, he made out a second wave of kamikaze and turned to engage them, shooting two more down before running out of ammunition. He radioed his situation then turned for the carrier and made a perfect landing. Too far from a proper hospital, the surgeons did what they could to save his leg but to no avail.

He returned home after being dropped off at Pearl Harbor later that summer, and spent a year getting his life back together before reporting to the medical school in Galveston, for his first year of study. My mother followed him at the same school a year later and, as I had been on the scene for almost a year, my grandmother, then just recently widowed, moved in and helped with all the parenting chores my parents were utterly clueless about.

What do I remember most about my parents? White clinic coats, stethoscopes dangling from a side pocket. A succession of Cadillacs, my father’s always white, with of course a navy blue interior. Mother had a maroon Jaguar, almost always in the garage, driven but a few times a year – usually when the Queen had something significant to say. We spent Christmases, and I mean every one of them until I was ten, at her father’s in Cambridge, while just my father and I spent Thanksgivings, each and every one of them, at a friend’s ranch in south Texas, about halfway between Uvalde and Eagle Pass, Texas.

There was a big two-story Victorian on the property, several out-buildings full of whatever might be needed to take care of the thousands of cattle that grazed on the ranch’s many pastures, and not a helluva lot more. We hunted deer there, and ‘Bob White’ quail too, at least when not dodging rattlesnakes, yet what I remember most was driving around those thousands of acres in a slate blue Toyota FJ40 – with a Winchester model 94 30-30 resting on my lap, the business end resting on my arm, the barrel pointing out the window.

My father almost always sat in the back of that cramped beast, the driving duties handled either by myself (later on) or a kid a few years older than me, and most of the events I remember most happened right about the time I started high school. The kid, his name was Sumner Tennyson, by the way, grew up on this ranch with his mother and her parents, and he was a tall, big-hearted fella, never around my father without the easy-talking smile I knew him by written all over his face.

One event stands out even now.

I remember driving, on more than one Thanksgiving, from the ranch down to Piedras Negras, just across the river from Eagle Pass, to a place called the El Moderno, and they served vicious tequila sours and succulent cabrito in a neon blue atmosphere that would have, I’m quite sure, felt quite at home to John Wayne and Dean Martin after a long day on the set. When I was fifteen or sixteen, the three of us finished our Thanksgiving feast at the ranch then drove down to the Moderno, got toasted on tequila before we drove out of town north along the Rio Grande – to a place quietly referred to – by those in the know – as Boy’s Town.

I say quietly, but better to think in terms of loose whispers and sidelong glances, wary eyes on the lookout for listening wives – or the more virtuous sorts who infrequently came to the ranch and rode along to Mexico to pick up some cheap bourbon. In those days, just about every border town in Mexico worth it’s salt-rimmed glasses had a Boy’s Town, and there was, and I suppose there still might be, nothing at all virtuous about these walled compounds. Back then, in 1963, Boy’s Towns were all about getting plastered, then laid – and not necessarily in that order.

Thanksgiving, 1963, came just six days after Lee Harvey Oswald put three bullets in John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s head, and my father was on duty at Parkland Memorial Hospital that afternoon. A board certified thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon by that point, he had been on standby, waiting outside the little green-tiled trauma room in case he was needed, and when he got in from work that evening there was something different about him. Something listless and dangerous, something ripped asunder. He’d liked Kennedy, voted for the man at a time when monied people in Dallas just didn’t do things like vote for democrats, and his proximity to those events that day had chewed him up – and spit him out.

I’m sure as Sumner drove down that worn caleche road to the Moderno that afternoon, getting laid was the last thing in the world on my father’s mind. Sumner had just received his appointment to Annapolis, and yet even that good news did little to stir my dad from his funk. Several shots of tequila and a plate full of goat later, he opined that the three of us should head out to Boy’s Town – and Sumner gave up a mouth full of agave to a violent spray that, in fact, finally made dad laugh his ass off. The sun still up – just – we drove north on a sandy track through mesquite and cottonwood until we came to a white stucco-walled enclosure, the top of the wall rimmed with broken bottles and barbed-wire, yet the first thing I noticed was a burly guard standing by the gate – the business end of his sawed-off shotgun pointing at our windshield.

Sumner pulled-up and Dad handed this gentle soul a wad of Pesos and smiling now, waved us in, and though it was still early, by the jaded standards of this sort of place, anyway, we found the sandy parking area already more than packed. Red Cadillacs and brown pickup trucks littered the grounds, most, I saw, from Texas, and I saw one kid about my age hanging onto a knotty cedar column on the front porch of one of these establishments puking his guts out. And I mention the plural only in passing, because there were a half dozen or so saloons inside those walls, some pricier than others, some girls at one better than all the others (or so my dad said, leaving me speechless), and he directed us to park – in front of that one.

I should remind you that dad was about 90% of the way to roaring drunk by then, and he leaned on me as he stumped in on his ‘gold-plated peg-leg’ until we were inside. I don’t know what I expected – something out of Dante’s Inferno perhaps, or a Woody Allen movie – but it looked like a regular restaurant once we were inside, like any other gringo-style Mexican restaurant in south Texas. A couple of girls strolled by – parading their wares, I guess you could say – until a waitress came by with menus. They had, she said, any kind of beer you wanted – as long as it was Carte Blanca – and, of course, Coca-Cola. Dad asked for three Cokes and pulled a bottle of Bacardi 151 from an inside jacket pocket, then, just for good measure – a couple of limes. The Cokes arrived in dirty glasses – sans ice – and dad cut the limes and tossed them in, then poured way too much of the rum in each glass, and I felt it just then…

Hands on my neck, rubbing the stress away in gentle caresses – and I leaned back and looked up at what had to be the most revolting woman I’d ever seen in my life.

“The more you drink,” my father slurred as he looked at the expression on my face, “the better looking they get.”

Truer words, I reckon, have never been spoken – anytime, or anyplace.

Sumner had been, mind you, an Eagle Scout. He was an honor student and despite endless protests from my father, he had been known to go to church once in a while – though this was reportedly an infrequent transgression and so, in my father’s eyes, anyway, a pardonable sin. I remember Sumner looking at my dad, his grin lost somewhere between curiosity and disbelief, as my dad laid out a wad of pesos on the table. Girls came out of the woodwork then, and cockroaches have never moved faster, then he picked-out two – and pointed at Sumner.

“Those two are yours, Slick. Don’t come back until they’re begging for mercy.”

Like I said, somewhere curiosity and disbelief.

“So, I take it you’ve done this before?” I asked my father.

“Only when medically necessary, son. Which two do you want?”

“I don’t.”

“Bullshit. I brought plenty of penicillin, so pick two and have at ‘em.”

After the pesos appeared, there must have been ten decent looking girls surrounding our table, and three or four that looked seriously copacetic – to my worldly eyes, anyway.

“I approve,” my father said as he watched my eyes light on two of the best, and he pointed at the girls, and then at me. They were on me like vultures, lifting my remains and carrying me back to a room I will never, ever forget. I lay on that bed and within minutes I felt an invasion crawling all over my body. Not the women, I should add, but rather I feel sure an armada of bed-bugs and fleas.

And I also felt sure my father took me to that august establishment because he assumed I was a virgin (true, I was) and that I needed to get laid before a surplus of testosterone completely warped my view of life (come to think of it, I think he was on to something). In the end, I think he assumed I’d enjoy the experience (yes, I have to admit this is true, though just barely) and that doing it with two women instead of one was the best way possible to lose one’s cherry (sorry, but I’m in complete agreement with him on that one). When I came out of that flea-bitten he was still sitting at the table, telling lies with a rancher from Kerrville, still pouring lethal rum and Cokes for all he was worth.

Sumner came out almost two hours later, a scowl like a Baptist preacher’s etched on his face.

He shook his head, said something erudite, like “Let’s get the fuck out of this shit-hole…” and my father sighed as I helped him up. He left his bottle of Bacardi with the rancher – along with another wad of pesos – as we stumped out through the night to the Toyota.

“Sum,” he said. “Start the motor and turn on the lights, and bring my bag up here.” In the amber light of a flashing torn signal, he drew two syringes of penicillin and jabbed us in our butts, then gave us some kind of vile smelling powder and told us to pour that in our underwear, and only then did we all pile in the FJ and wind our way through the night back to the ranch. Sumner’s dick was burning like hell by the time we got back, but it was better the next morning. That didn’t keep my dad from stabbing us with another dose of antibiotics, however, and it took weeks to get rid of the crabs and fleas in our nether regions.

That was an awkward moment in our life together – again, the word Duty comes blaring to mind – but he and I never spoke – directly – of the experience after that night. Not once.

+++++

I never considered Annapolis, didn’t ever consider a stint in the Navy, but when I graduated college I was broke and wanted to go to med school. Father was resolute, too: he wasn’t going to pay for four more years of school so I was going to need assistance. The Navy, he mentioned, had a good program for that, and I think I saw him smiling when he said that, too, yet when I talked to the folks at the appropriate office I mentioned flying, mentioned my father had been a pilot and all sorts of full color brochures appeared detailing OCS and flight training options. I asked if I could fly, then consider med school. Sure, they said, if I didn’t mind giving the Navy about fifteen years of my life.

I signed on the dotted line then went home to pack my bags. I think the symmetry of the situation wasn’t lost on my dad; regardless, he didn’t find the situation amusing, not in the least, but neither he nor my mother ever tried to talk me out of the decision. I made it through Officer’s Candidate School with little trouble and went on to primary flight before tackling jets at Pensacola. A year later I was stationed in Guam, flying the EA-3B ECM platform, but a year later, with that aircraft’s decommissioning, I began a long transition to the EA-6 series – by first finding myself in an A6-E Intruder squadron. Off the coast of North Vietnam, I might add, and at the height of the air war there.

Sumner, the kid from the ranch in Uvalde, was by then onboard the same ship and I saw him a few times, and we commiserated over red Kool Aid about that night in Boy’s Town more than once. He asked about dad, seemed happy to hear he was teaching now, in addition to doing surgery. He was flying Phantoms, and true to his calling advancing in rank at a blistering pace. He was an ace and I’d heard his name mentioned as a likely CAG when one night we heard his aircraft had been lost north of Haiphong, trying to pick MIGs off an Intruder’s tail. They never found his aircraft, or his body, and I wrote a letter to dad telling him about my time with him on the ship, and the action he’d been in when he went down. I thought, at the very least, he’d want to know.

A few days later I was called in to speak with my squadron CO, and he expressed sympathy for Sumner’s loss, and I have to admit in that dangling moment I was at a loss, too. Then he wanted to know why I’d never let anyone know Sumner was my brother.

Like tumblers in a safe, I stood there in silence until all the pieces of the puzzle finished falling into place.

+++++

Sumner got married a few weeks after his graduation from Annapolis, before he had to report for a summer training program, and standing there in my CO’s cabin the varied minutes of that afternoon came roaring back into focus. My dad, our father, had sprung for the wedding as well as the reception, and I recalled hearing something about the girl’s family not having a pot to piss in, or something along those lines, anyway. I remembered her, however. A striking girl, very tall, very fit, she was a junior at Georgetown and wanted to study the law, maybe work at the State Department someday. I remember how totally at-ease Sumner was during the ceremony, and how totally ill-at-ease Tracy Tomlinson had been. At one point she danced with my dad and he seemed taken with the girl, almost smitten, but of course I had no reason to see any ulterior motives in his easy, possessive grasp.

I danced with her that afternoon, as well. A quick number, but I’d been impressed by her eyes, the clarity of purpose and her keen sense of understanding, if only because, I think, she sized me up in about five seconds flat.

“Sumner tells me you’re going to med school,” she said, and I recall thinking Dad must have told him – because I sure hadn’t. “Why aren’t you going to follow in your father’s footsteps, join the Navy, do that whole thing?”

“I don’t know. Never entered my mind, I reckon.”

“Oh?” she smiled. “When did you decide on medicine?”

“When I was three.”

She laughed. “Pretty big footsteps to fill, aren’t they?”

The number ended and we walked away, and I’m not sure I spoke with them again that day. I do remember thinking she was a home run, that she was gorgeous and smart and that you couldn’t do better than that. Hell, I was happy for Sumner, though with Vietnam looming I wasn’t exactly glowing with envy, and the odd thing is that may have been the last time I thought of Sumner and his new wife until I saw him on the ship. Now all that was over, and I was on my way to Pearl.

They had a house in the hills beyond Hickam Field, and dad was there when I drove up in a taxi. Waiting, I guessed, for the showdown.

If that’s what I had on my mind, however, he wasn’t having any of it. He was, anyone could plainly see, devastated. His eyes were bloodshot and his hands were trembling when he took my own and pulled me into a tight embrace.

“I guess we’ve got a lot to talk about,” he said, though we never really did get around to having that conversation, yet I think that one sentence summed up all we never talked about. He took my suitcase and helped me in, let me get settled before we dressed for a memorial service that evening. Sumner’s mother was there from Texas, which was when I noted the absence of my own mother. Tracy was there too, now several months pregnant and utterly destroyed by Sumner’s death, and as we sat behind them during the service I became completely focused on the woman sitting in front of my father. Who the hell was she, I wondered? And why had she and my father…?

We stood together after, shaking hands with Sumner’s classmates and shipmates, those who’d been in port and wanted to come. Of course he didn’t have any brother’s or sisters, just his mother and grandparents from Uvalde – and his father. Oh yes, that would be my father, too. Who was as distraught as I’d ever seen him.

I felt Tracy by my side just then, as we stood in evening light outside that chapel, as we stood facing gentle breezes and the setting sun.

“You didn’t know, did you?” she said, and I turned to face her, and standing there looking at her I realized she was the only person there who’d seen into my own personal hell, and the contours of my dilemma.

“No, of course not,” I whispered cheerfully. “He’s only my father. Why the hell should I know?”

And she took my hand just then, and I don’t know why but I brought her hand to my face and kissed it, looking at the ring on her finger as I did. The ring my brother – my brother! – had slipped on her finger, really, not so very long ago. The child in her womb would never be a stranger to me, for I would be his uncle – and my father would be his – grandfather. And all of this was so bloody impossible – yet so silly – because the life I never knew suddenly felt overwhelming in it’s absence.

And where the hell was MY mother? The other touchstone in my life – she, who was never not by my father’s side?

I looked Tracy in the eye, her hand still firmly in mine, and I’m certain I had succeeded in holding back the tears I felt welling before I told her:

“As long as I live and breathe, I will be there for you when you need me.”

Yes, there’s something about the word Duty that runs through my family, through our veins perhaps, with a passion I’ll never fully understand, but as she looked me in the eye the weight of my oath fell over her. She began to cry as she nodded her head in sharp little jerks, then she fell into arms. I held her so tightly, one arm around her shoulders, my other hand cradling her head, I thought I might suffocate her, and when I looked up almost everyone there was staring at me. Not ‘us’ – me. As if they had witnessed a most startling, and perhaps inappropriate oath.

But not my father. There was a warmth in his eyes I had never seen before as he came to us. He joined in my support, put his arms around the two of us, and then all the other people in uniform came to us, and this dozen or so men and women put their collective strength around us, bound us all together, my words, our strength, and as quickly as we had come together, like the petals of a flower, we broke apart and drifted away on the wind.

+++++

We went to dinner after the service, my father and I, Tracy and her parents – and Sumner’s mother – and when we arrived my mother was at the table, waiting. Father went to her and held her for the longest time, then he kissed her, gently, before we sat. I held the chair for Sumner’s mother, then Tracy, and I sat next to her, suddenly her self-anointed protector.

It became clear my mother was ‘in on it’ – that she had known all along her husband was the father of another woman’s child – and truly, it seemed to me that of all the people around the table that night, I was only one who had been perpetually ‘in the dark.’

‘Ha, so the joke’s on me,’ I think I said as we sat, if only to myself.

And all through that evening my mother looked at me only once. Her’s was a bleak expression – not for herself, but, I felt, more for the isolation she saw in my eyes. And though she must have understood, she never said a word to me…there was only that one barren glance. Moths and flames came to mind, but maybe that was just me.

+++++

I returned to the carier a few days later, returned to my squadron and resumed my life as a pilot – usually going after SAM sites just north of the DMZ – but a month later I was detached and sent back to the states, to Washington state, to resume training on the EA-6 series then about to come online. Six months later I flew one of the first EA-6B Prowlers across the Pacific and joined the USS Enterprise’s air wing, itself another homecoming, of sorts. Operation Linebacker I was at an end though the ship was still at Yankee Station, and her Phantoms, Corsairs and Intruders were still working on targets “off the reservation” – in Laos and Cambodia – when a series of typhoons roared through the Tonkin Gulf and caused us to sail south. My first real ‘action’ came a few months later when the ship was sent to the Bay of Bengal, to prevent the Indian Navy’s blockade of East Pakistan, and as a Soviet submarine had been spotted in the area my Prowler’s job was to jam Indian and Russian surface radars. India’s fighters had been robust – in the early 50s, perhaps – but the situation soon appeared capable of pulling us into open conflict with the Soviet Union and tensions soared. In any event, the Enterprise was pulled back to Yankee Station, and as my five year service was at an end I was summoned to Pearl Harbor.

Where I was asked my intentions. Re-up for two more years, until three more EA-6B squadrons could be manned and operational, would be most appreciated. Yes, there’s that dirty word again – Duty – and without another word said I signed on the dotted line and was told to report to NAS Whidbey Island in two weeks. Three more aircraft were ready, and I would be, nominally, the CO of this group while we transited the Pacific, bound for Enterprise and my first foray into Cold War mischief-making.

And it turned out Tracy was still on the island, and she answered the phone, sounding tired and depressed, when I called later that evening.

“Ben? Is that you? Where are you?”

“Pearl. BUPERs. How are you doing?”

“You’re here? On the island?”

“Let’s see,” I said, feigning a sweep of the horizon. “That’s Diamond Head off to my right, so yeah, looks like it…”

“Do you have time,” she laughed, “to come by while you’re here?”

“I can,” I said. “Is this a good time?”

“Oh, God! Yes!”

I had no idea what the hell that meant, but she sounded happy enough so with grip in hand I hailed a taxi and rode out to their house in silence. When I got there I found her waiting in the doorway, a huge smile all over her face, and as I got out of the taxi she came out to meet me.

Again, those eyes. Again, I remembered how I’d almost envied Sumner on his wedding day, and I felt a sudden sense of guilt just being there, but she took my hand and led me inside. I found what looked like an atom bomb blast in there – boxes everywhere, dishes stacked on a table – waiting to be wrapped in paper and placed in boxes…

“You’re moving?”

“Yup. Back to Maryland. My parents just left, took Sumner back with them. I’m going to go back and study for the Bar…”

“Sumner?”

“Didn’t you get my letters?”

I shook my head and she looked at me – with unanswered questions looming in the mist. “What?” she said. “How…?” She went and sat on a little coral colored sofa in the lanai, and I followed her into the sunny room and sat on a chair across from the sofa. She pointed at the sofa then, and asked me to come sit by her.

And I did, too. Color me nervous.

“Letters?” I asked…reminding her.

“Oh, the first one was foolish, a little girl’s impulsive ramblings. I asked that you come here as soon as you could, that we needed to talk.”

“About?”

She looked at me again, suddenly quite unsure of herself, and I thought as I looked at her that this was a girl rarely unsure of herself. “About that moment, after the service when we all came together. I wanted to ask you what you felt then, why you said what you said.”

“Felt?” Now I felt unsure of myself. Of how to proceed, really.

“Yes. You. What you said, and how, took my breath away.”

“I was looking into your eyes, you know, and all of a sudden I felt this overwhelming love of live, and for Sumner. Odd, of course, as we were never that close,” I said, looking down, “not as close as we might have been, but I wanted in that moment to protect you…for him. That it’s my duty now to protect you, and his child.”

She looked away, nodded her head a little as a vast disappointment settled over her, then after a moment she looked at me again. “Your…duty?” she asked softly. “Is that…”

“Tracy, I’m afraid I don’t know you well enough to say what I want to say.”

“Do you want to know me? Well enough, that is?”

“You know, I have to leave in four days. Whidbey Island, then another deployment…”

“You re-enlisted?”

“I did. About an hour ago.”

“Oh dear. Your father is going to be…upset.”

“Am I supposed to care?” I shot back, uneasily.

“You’re still upset about that, aren’t you? Your father, I mean, and Sumner?”

I looked away quickly, then stood and walked out into the back yard, and though I heard her following I felt like I needed space. Time, and space, to come to terms with my feelings. The house was, I saw then, rooted deeply into the side of this hill, and the corner where I stopped had a small but very unobstructed view of the Pacific.

“This is one helluva view,” I said as she came up behind me – and then I felt her hands on my shoulders.

“You’re not very good at the whole changing subjects thing, are you?” And she was turning me around as she said that, in every sense of the word. “I asked you about that, by the way, because when I heard those words, looked into your eyes, I suddenly understood everything was going to be alright. I fell in love with you, Ben. As horrible and as petulant as that sounds, it’s true. And I don’t want to lose you.”

She had her hands on my shoulders still, though I was facing her now, and at a loss for words. “Love…me?” I said slowly, but suddenly she was on her toes, and she kissed me gently.

“Yes. You, but please, don’t ever ask me to explain myself, or where this feeling came from, because I’d only come off as a complete idiot.”

“Alright.”

“Now, tell me. You’re not engaged or something, are you? Three girlfriends waiting for you back in Dallas?”

I shook my head and she grinned.

“Not gay? Don’t have a secret boyfriend?”

“Dear God in heaven no – what makes you say that?”

“Well, I can’t believe you don’t have someone…”

“Well, I do, as a matter of fact. I’m flying her several times a week, if you must know…”

She shook her head, grinned. “That’s something I’d have expected your father to say, or…”

“Or Sumner?”

“Yes,” she said, still smiling, “Sumner. God, your father must’ve really pulled a number on you two. It’s like wings are in your DNA, or something.”

I smiled. “Sumner? He was that way, too?”

“Oh, he had a terminal case if ever there was one. He called the moment the secret life…”

“The secret life of wings,” I repeated, smiling, remembering the first time my dad…our father…told us about this life.

“He tried to explain it to me once,” she said. “About a time down at the ranch, one night sitting around a campfire, listening to coyotes…”

“Did he tell you about the rattlesnake?”

“The what…? No!”

“We were sitting around this campfire, mesquite wood, too, and it smelled grand. Geesh, I think I was ten or eleven; Sum must’ve been –”

“Fourteen.”

“Fourteen, right. And this rattlesnake, I mean the granddaddy of all rattlesnakes, about six, seven feet long and as big around as a cantaloupe, comes sliding in and coils up a few feet away from the fire. Dad’s foot was about a yard away from the thing, and both Sumner and I were, well, I was terrified, but dad just looked at the thing for a moment and started talking again, and he said he had something important to tell us. The Secret Life of Wings, he said, and I was trying to listen but finding it almost impossible to listen.

“Anyway, dad’s talking – then he stops and I look at him. ‘What’s wrong,’ he asks, and I just point – slowly – at that huge thing coiled up by the fire and he nods his head as he looks from me to the snake – and back again. ‘You don’t bother him, he won’t bother you,’ he said and, hell, I don’t know, I figured if he wasn’t scared I wasn’t going to be scared either.

“So, he starts to tell us about the first time he went flying. Some circus flyers, maybe barnstormers, I don’t know, landed on a field near his house when he was a kid. His mom gave him money to go up that afternoon and all he could remember was the engine turning up, then the little bi-plane running down the field and he said that right at that moment, when the airplane first left the ground, he heard the airplane talking to him. The wings, really, not the whole airplane, and that as they climbed into the sky he heard them laughing, almost crying out with joy from being free of the earth.

“And here’s the weird part. When they got back on the ground, after the pilot stopped and helped my dad out of that tiny little cockpit, the guy looked at him kind of funny like and said something my father never forgot. ‘Did you hear it?’ and my dad kind of looked at the pilot and nodded his head. ‘When we took off, I heard laughing.’ The pilot nodded his head, too. ‘Only happens these days,’ the pilot said, ‘when someone sits up front, and that someone has to have something special inside to be able to hear that laughter.’

“Something special?” my dad asked.

“The old pilot nodded his head again. ‘Yup. When you grow up, you’re going to be one of the best pilots that ever lived. Somehow, these old wings know that, and they want you to know they know.”

“Sumner never told me all that. And not about that snake! What did it do, anyway?”

“The snake? Hell, I guess after a few minutes it got hot. It just slid away, went back into the night.”

“And your dad? He just sat there?”

I laughed. “Ever hear how my dad lost his leg?”

She shook her head. “No, I was always afraid to ask.”

“He was flying off the old Enterprise, near the end of the war – off the coast of Japan. He saw a submarine surfacing and attacked it, sunk the damn thing, too, before turning to engage two waves of kamikaze. He shot five of ‘em down, got hit sometime during that part of the fight. His leg was torn apart, and was damn near bleeding to death but he landed his a/c on the first try. I guess he got to sick bay with help, but there was no way to save his leg…”

“Jesus, I had no idea…”

“No one does, because he never talks about it – hasn’t ever, as far as I know. I found the citation in his desk drawer one day after school, when I was in junior high. Stuck in a folder, and I think I figured out he’s capable of keeping secrets…for a long time.”

“Did he finally tell you about Sumner,” she said, “and how that whole thing…?”

She stopped, I suppose, when she saw the expression on my face, but who knows what she read into it. I felt hot inside, for the betrayal I’d been nursing had apparently just been lanced – and erupted into a full-blown infection.

“No,” and I think I whispered, “he never did.”

The sun was setting and she took my hand and pulled me back to the lanai, and I’m not sure how easy that was. “You want something to drink?” she asked when she finally got me inside.

I recall shrugging my shoulders, looking out into the leafy back yard as I sat in the gloom, and a moment later she came back with some deadly rum concoction popular with the locals. She curled her legs up on the sofa as she sat, then kind of stared at me for a while. I think she was on the edge of a decision, perhaps, wondering if I was worth the expenditure of so much effort, then she laid it out for me.

“I think it was sometime in 1943 or 44, but he came home from the war for a month. He met your mom during that time, according to Sumner, but a friend of his had been wounded, I think at Midway, and your father went down to Uvalde to see him, to meet his family. The guy had been burned badly and wasn’t doing well, but he had married a girl from Austin before the war. At least I think he met her at UT Austin. Anyway, the guy knew he was dying and he wanted his wife to have a child – but not just any child. He wanted someone from his squadron to be the father. Sumner told me your father said it was his…”

“Duty,” I whispered, because by this point I was trying to hold back tears. “Yes, that would be just like him,” I added, looking at Tracy.

“And something else. There was something else Sumner said, about that ‘secret life of wings.’ Your father took him flying one day, and Sumner heard the laughter. The first time your dad let him take off on his own.”

I was nodding my head, crying openly now as I remembered my first time, too.

+++++

He came back from the war sure the most vital part of his life was over. Dead and gone – forever – and going back to med school only drove the point home deeper. He, of course, never talked about flying when I was very young, but every now and then we would drive by Love Field while a Braniff DC-7 or a Trans Texas DC-3 rumbled down the runway, and dad would pull over into a parking lot and watch as the plane climbed up into the sky, and after a minute or so he would wipe an eye and slip back into traffic. I was too little to understand what the hell was going on, but I knew enough to understand my father was very sad.

One night we were watching TV, all of us together in the living room, and I remember dad was reading a book. At one point he put the book down and walked from the room, and my mother went after him. He was crying, and while that didn’t happen often it always upset the hell out of me. He came back a few minutes later, as was his way with a fresh scotch and water in hand, and he handed the book to mother and resumed watching TV. I watched as she put the book away, remembering exactly where she put it, and after everyone had gone to bed I snuck down and found the book, slipped into my dad’s study and started reading.

The book I started that night, Reach for the Sky, wasn’t in a general sense about flying, yet it changed my life forever. It changed my father’s life, too, and Sumner Tennyson’s as well. It’s the story of one Douglas Bader, an RAF pilot who long before WWII was in a crash, an aircraft crash, and he lost both legs as a result. When things were heating up in the late 30s, when it became apparent Hitler was going to violate all the key military provisions of the Versailles treaty, Bader began pestering old flying buddies, still in the RAF by the by, to let him try and return to flight status. Of course they resisted, of course they told him to go home and enjoy his pension – but Bader kept at it.

By the end of the Battle of Britain he was an ace, and one of the best fighter pilots in the RAF. He continued to wrack up kills until at last he was shot down – over France – and captured. Captured, because his prosthetic limbs were caught up while he tried to bail out. It’s a brilliant testimony to the man, and to the deep sense of honor held by the men who captured him, that the one time in all the war that an allied flight was given safe passage to fly to an airfield in France, permission was so granted to fly Bader’s spare legs to the hospital where he was recovering from his burns.

Of course the German regretted the decision: Bader made a number of escapes from POW camps and harried his captors as much as they eventually tormented him.

Anyway, I read the book over two nights, then started hitting the library and checking out everything I could read about the Battle of Britain. Then I started reading anything I could lay my hands on about flying in WWII. Finally, I ran across a book detailing the invasion of Japan – that was postponed, then canceled, after atomic weapons were used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One account I read concerned kamikaze attacks on the carrier Enterprise, and near the end of this account I saw my father’s name – and read a description of his actions that day.

Mind you, I’d never heard any story like that ever before, and of course he never spoke of it. Curiously enough, neither had my mother, and I can guarantee you I never asked what happened to his leg – but there it was, in black and white so to speak, complete with a picture of my father before the event, standing there with a dozen other pilots on the flight deck of the Enterprise. And there he was again, in another picture on the next page, with my father standing ramrod straight as an admiral pinned the Navy Cross on his breast.

I was watching a football game on TV one afternoon and I heard dad in his study. He was, as always, smoking a pipe while sitting behind his huge mahogany desk, and he was finishing Bader’s story. I didn’t put it together then, but he was absent the next several weekends, then one Saturday morning we hopped in his Cadillac and drove north out Preston road until we came to a barren part of the city, then we wound our way along narrow roads between plowed fields until we came to a little airport…Addison was it’s name.

There was a hanger there, a big sign proclaiming Cooper Airmotive above the yawning hanger door, and there were all sorts of little single-engined Cessnas sitting on the ramp, just waiting for someone to come along and take them for a little exercise.

He parked the car and we walked out to one and he opened the door on his side, then came around and opened my door. He walked around the airplane checking odds and ends for a few minutes, then got in and showed me how to buckle up.

More switches and knobs turned, the whole thing looking like a ritualized series of ancient incantations to me, then he opened this tiny little window by his left hand and yelled –

“Clear!” as he looked around for anyone or anything near the propellor.

A little mechanical wheeze then the engine caught and rumbled to life. More rituals followed, more buttons pushed and levers flipped, then my father was talking on the radio and I saw him in his flight-suit on the deck of the Enterprise, waiting to take off. A minute later he was turning for the one runway at the little airport, asking for permission to take off and for the very first time in my life – but not the last – I was truly proud of my father. I finally understood what he had been struggling with since the end of his war, and like Bader – he beat the odds.

And moments later an entirely new world came into being – this time just for us.

The Cessna rolled down the concrete runway and lifted gently – into the air – and I heard laughter. Was that me, I wondered? I hadn’t realized I was laughing, but there it was – and yet amidst the laughter I had never known such pure ecstasy in my life. We turned and climbed north, flying towards the Red River and Oklahoma, and I was taken not just by all the puffy white clouds we flew above, but the shadows we flew through, too.

+++++

The Enterprise had departed Yankee Station in early January, bound for Puget Sound, and she steamed north northeast – passing west of Taiwan and east of Japan. Now, with almost four thousand sea miles behind us, the weather had turned cold and nasty; blowing snow and ice coated the catwalks around the flight deck, turning them into a slippery no man’s land, and knowing it was 0200 hours, it was a given that we were alone out there. Falling overboard was not advised…

Of course we knew Soviet subs and ‘trawlers’ were following us, or trying to, anyway, but we rarely conducted flight ops at night when they were around – or when it was snowing this hard – unless we really wanted to fuck with Ivan’s head. We hadn’t in several nights, anyway, and the thinking was Ivan might not be watching just then.

We were three hundred miles off the Kamchatka peninsula, essentially the eastern tip of Siberia, and in the dead of winter. There were four EA-6B Prowlers on deck when all the deck lights came on: two waiting for their turn on the catapult, and two with their nose gears already hooked up. My Prowler was the first off, and even with tons of anti-icing fluid on the wings when we cleared the end of the cat I felt sure I’d never be able to get this wallowing pig up into the sky. Still, that wasn’t the objective that night.

A few hours earlier, an RC-135 had departed Shemya, near the westernmost end of the Aleutian chain. This ‘Cobra Ball’ flight was flying well to the west of the usual commercial track used by airliners flying from the US to Japan, and was doing so in order to further mask it’s activities. The -135 was also flying cold, flying with all of it’s sensors turned off, hoping to disappear in all the commercial clutter.

When the three other Prowlers in my squad joined-up with me, I was in the lead at 300 knots – and flying 150 feet above the sea – when we turned due west…towards the Soviet Union. The snow was surreal, so heavy and wet at this low altitude it began to stick to the windscreen and canopy, and we were pouring as much engine bleed air on the ‘glass’ as we could, the leading edges of our wings, as well. As we closed the coast the snow let up some, and when we were 20 miles from the beach we sent a single coded message, a micro-burst of encrypted data, telling the -135 we were at the IP and beginning our run.

At that point the Cobra Ball turned all it’s sensors on – and waited.

Our Prowlers spread out then – each exactly a mile from the one beside it – and as we left the sea we increased out altitude to – about – 200 feet AGL, and increased speed to 500 knots. At exactly ten miles in we turned on all our jamming equipment, pulled back on the stick and shot up into a ballistic climb – firing off several puffs of radar confounding chaff, and at that point every radar facility in the eastern Soviet Union went off like rabid priests running through a whorehouse.

The RC-135 over the Pacific watched all these radars come on – and search for the source of the jamming – as we rolled and dove back for the hard deck on a reciprocal heading. The intent of the exercise was to see what kind of radar Ivan was playing with these days, because word was he had a new type, a so-called ‘frequency agile’ array that was – theoretically – impossible to jam.

Of course, our guys at Raytheon had already developed a workaround, and this flight was all about seeing if it worked. If the number of threat warnings my ECMO was shouting about was any indication, something seriously interesting was taking shape out there in the howling snow and ice. He was picking up both ground and airborne radar sets, and my EWO was mumbling something about MIG-25s closing fast, and two SAMs coming off the rails – now heading our way.

Then some guy fresh from a school somewhere back east flipped on his new gear, and bingo – every radar in eastern Siberia lost it’s lock-on. Soon, with the beach now twenty miles behind I throttled back and dropped back down to 150 AGL and waited for the three other Prowlers to join up on me. And that’s when my EWO chimed in: there were, he said, two MIG-25s overhead now, flying along our heading with their ‘look-down shoot-down’ radar at full power, burning through our jamming.

“They got us, skipper,” he said.

I got on the secure net to my wingmen: “Okay, lets go dark and get the wings dirty, drop our speed to 1-6-7 and spread out in a wide echelon. In five minutes, on my hack, let’s go full active ECM, blow some chaff and let’s beat feet and zig-zag for Point Alpha. I’ll let MoonDog know the situation.”

So there we were, two hundred miles from home and going low and slow, spreading out as far apart as we could while still providing a big enough protective lobe for our ECM gear. Why’s that, you ask? Well, the MIG-25 was an all-weather interceptor, designed to fly at high altitudes and at very high speed. It’s radar was powerful but not really very smart, and with the sea providing lots of clutter on their screens the thinking was that as we slowed the MIGs would overshoot – then have to turn back for us. When they started turning, we’d spread out even more, and thereby provide more dispersed targets easier to loose in the sea-clutter, and I was banking on their radar losing down-angle efficacy in a tight radius turn.

We were spread well apart, almost five miles by the time we went active with our jamming gear, and they lost us, then reacquired signal and lost it again, but by then eight F4-Phantoms filled the screen ahead and Ivan turned and, probably bingo fuel by that time, made a mad dash for home.

I bring this up this whole thing for one reason, and one reason only.

After my trap that night, after I’d landed and folded the wings and taxied for the elevator, as I went through my shut-down checklists while still sitting in my nice cozy little cockpit – on that pitching deck and in that howling snowstorm – I decided right then and there that I wanted to fly airliners, not electronic warfare aircraft ever again, and that Tracy was right.

We belonged together.

+++++

It turned out she hated practicing law in Maryland. With a passion she’d never known she had. Same thing in Texas. I think that’s because she’d hated law school, and it became apparent after a few months working in Henry Wade’s office that she hated, I mean truly hated lawyers. Scum sucking bottom dwellers…that’s what she called ‘em, and ‘I don’t want to be one of them thar thangs, neither.’

Father was, of course, a little perplexed by that line of thinking. In his world, you spend three years in professional school, you take your boards and then get to work. In other words, you start making money, maybe start paying your parents back for twenty five years of their blood, sweat and tears. You buy a house, have kids, two if you want to make your parents real happy, and maybe you even buy a dog.

The thing is, Tracy wasn’t having any of that. She wasn’t planning on living her life by anyone else’s rules or on anyone else’s terms, and she certainly wasn’t going to use my dad’s worn out playbook.

A year after I left the Navy, four months after we got married, we went to my grandmother’s house for Christmas. My grandmother, the woman who pulled quarters out of her savings passbook to pay for my dad’s flying lessons, was still alive and kicking and, for the record, she was cooking fried chicken, some sort of stuffing (and don’t ask, really; the woman used oysters in her stuffing) and a cranberry relish that had enough whiskey in it to kill large farm animals and small children. Dad was showing Tracy his old room, her parents were in the kitchen trying to come to terms with oysters in stuffing and toxic vapors coming from a huge pyrex bowl full of cranberry relish. Sumner’s mother was in the living room with my mother (I know…don’t ask) when Tracy screamed and ran into the living room.

And where was I, you might ask? In the right seat of an American 727, on it’s way from Dallas to San Francisco. After we landed someone from our dispatch office met me at the gate and told me my father had had a heart attack; they handed me a voucher and sent me back to Big D, and Tracy picked me up at the airport and drove me back into town. He was at Parkland (of course) and he was stable, but they were going to operate on him at five the next morning. He of course wanted to see me before all that, so she took me straight to his room.

I walked in and, because I’m real good at picking out little things like this, said something sweet, like “Gee, Dad, you look like hell warmed over…”

My father being my father, he shot me the bird, then he looked at me with anxious eyes. “Get me out of this madhouse,” he said, “and let’s go get laid.”

“Oh, you have anyone in mind, or do you just want to pick up someone to eat out on Harry Hines?”

“Fuck, no. Let’s run down to Piedras Negras and pick up some really nasty shit. You know, some real honest god incurable clap.”

“No thanks, Dad, I’m trying to quit. Really, I am.”

“Well then, you’d better take a seat, let me go over a few things…”

A few things…like where his papers were. Estate stuff, “Just in case,” or so he said, then he wanted to talk. About Sumner, as it turned out.

“You know, after I started to fly again,” he began, “I flew down to Uvalde all the time. Lot of times when I didn’t have anything scheduled in the afternoon, I’d take off and fly down there. That’s why I finally bought that Baron, by the way. So I could get down there in time for supper, spend a few hours with the boy then turn around and fly back.”

“Oh? Where’d you land?”

“Oh, out there on the highway, then I’d taxi right up to the house. I started teaching him to fly that year. He’d just turned fifteen, and you were still too young to start lessons. I paid for his ground school, then I’d fly down there in one of Ted Cooper’s old 172s on the weekends and put him through the ringer…”

“I remember,” I said. As luck would have it, dad was the world’s toughest flight instructor.

“Yeah, I’ll bet you do. Funny thing, too. You were always the better pilot, you know. Came to it naturally. I had to really work with that boy, ride him hard on scanning his instruments, and the first few times we worked through engine-out stalls I thought the boy was going to shit his britches. Not you. You always seemed to get it.”

“Get it? What do you mean?”

“You never panicked, not like he did, anyway. It’s like that old rattlesnake. You remember, that big mother by the campfire?”

I shook at the memory.

“I was looking at you when that thing slid up to the fire, and at Sumner too. That boy was wide-eyed, thought he was going to take off right then and there and fly to Texarkana, but not you. You were as cool as a cucumber…”

“Is that the way you remember it? Really?”

“Yup.”

“I was scared as hell, dad. And I thought you were halfway out of your mind to just sit there…”

He chuckled when he heard that. “I had that old Smith & Wesson sitting in my right hand, was kind of hoping that snake’d do something stupid so I could shoot it’s silly ass.”

I shook my head. “But you said…”

“I know what I said, and I meant it, too. I was saying that for Sumner’s benefit, but it’s something to keep in mind. I guess you did, too, over there. You gotta follow your training when things start to go bad, but that’ll only take you so far. Instinct counts most when things are really circling the drain, and that’s what always impressed me about you. You got a lot of that from me, but more from your mother.”

“Mom?”

“Yes! Mom! That’s the best woman that ever lived out there, and don’t you ever forget that. Turned her back on her country to come live with me, on everything she knew. She built a home full of warmth and love, for me, and, well, all of us. Sumner would have never had the time with me he had if it hadn’t been for your mother. She insisted…”

“She…what?”

“That’s right, Ben. She – insisted. She found out somehow – I never asked – but she was the one who told me I’d had a boy with Mrs Tennyson, and that it was my duty to help raise my son. She told me I had to do everything in my power to help that boy make his way in the world. And I tried, Ben. I really did. But I should have never encouraged him to fly. He just didn’t have it in him to be a pilot…”

“But…what about ‘the secret life of wings?’ The laughter?”

“Oh, I don’t know, but you see…I told him about that once, about how it happened to me, and I did that before I ever took him up. I think, maybe, he read something into that, that he’d fail me in some way if he didn’t hear all that stuff. Maybe when I told him that I laid the foundation for what happened over there…”

“That’s not my take on things, dad. He’d made exec of his squadron by the time I was there, and everyone thought he’d make CAG in a few years. He was…”

“A mediocre pilot, son. Smart as hell, a good organizer, straight A student from the day he was born, but he was never half the pilot you were. You were always…”

“Dad, what’s all this got to do with tomorrow? I mean, why talk about all this right now?”

“I figured, well, we haven’t talked much…you and I. It always seemed to come hard for us…”

I looked down – because I knew exactly what he meant. Even that hilarious night down in Mexico: I’d wanted to ask him about how he knew about that place; how many times he’d been there; how many times had he cheated on mom? Yet the thing was, I simply couldn’t. We didn’t have that kind of relationship, and I thought about that as I looked at him – laying in that creepy hospital bed. By the time I knew him well enough to ask about these kind of things, I’d assumed a sort of supplicant’s role to him. He was the Naval Aviator and I was in so many ways his student, and while I could ask him questions – all those queries had to be focused on the matter at hand. Academic things, mostly, then flying as we grew into one another. I admired him not as a son admires his father, but rather as a pupil regards his professor. Respectfully, I suppose, and never once did I, or even could I have questioned such received wisdom. Maybe all this sounds odd, but consider he was in effect my flight instructor – even before he really was – and that what he taught me, the instincts he passed on to me were vital, indeed life saving skills. Reflecting on this as he lay there, I wondered what he was trying to teach me now.

+++++

He lay there sleeping in the CICU, rows of monitors whirring and chirping to an unseen cadence, and all of us watched as one of his colleagues pulled the sheet down and showed us the taped wound that ran down my father’s sternum. Mother and Mrs Tennyson left the room when they saw that, but Tracy leaned over and looked, all the while asking questions and looking very professionally engaged. I, on the other hand, saw something very disturbing, and after a few minutes had to leave the room.

I saw, you see, mortal frailty for the for time, as I looked at a respirator doing the work of breathing for my father, and at the dry, loose skin on his hands. Those hands that had pushed a smoking Corsair through the skies off Japan, the immense skill required to sink submarines and shoot down an insurmountable number of aircraft, then land on a carrier – all right there for the world to see. There was an IV taped to the top of his left hand now, clear tape holding it in place, his blood caught between his skin and the tape, and when I saw that blood my world reeled out of control. My father, I could see clearly now, would die someday, and the world had no idea what it would lose. The skill he brought to flying, and to war, then the skills he had harnessed to turn and engage a new enemy: human mortality. He was a fine surgeon, and had brought about a world of good through his efforts, yet one day all his flesh and blood would simply cease to be.

Why? Death was simply absurd, and I hated death as I looked at him.

I went out and sat between my mother – and my brother’s mother, and they looked at me, intuitively knowing what I had just seen. Women, I suddenly realized, were the heart and soul of humanity; civilizations for good or ill had flourished – or perished – by the voice given to the needs of a woman’s heart. I sat between them, took their hands in mine and closed my eyes. I felt someone daubing tears from my cheeks a few minutes later, and opened my eyes to see Tracy standing there looking very concerned.

“He wants to talk to you,” she said, and I went in.

“Looks like Mexico is going to have to wait a while, son.”

“Well, I ain’t goin’ without you, so you’d best get on getting’ better.”

He laughed. “Ought to be good to go in a few weeks. How’re the women?”

“Rock solid.”

He nodded his head. “That’s the beauty of this life, son. We carry on so, do all the heavy lifting and think we’re the bedrock of civilization, but it’s the women who carry the real load.” He chuckled again, took a breath and winced, then looked out to the waiting area where Tracy and my mother sat. “Mrs Tennyson? She doing okay?”

“She is, but it’s hard, dad. Looking at her, knowing she loves you as much as mom.”

He sighed. “You know, we were never together after that once. I never wanted to, and I don’t think she wanted to, either, but that’s the funny thing. We had a child together, and I love her for that. I always will, too, but not like I love your mother…”

He talked about the little things he wanted me to help his mother get done before he came home; a way to move about the house in a wheelchair for a few weeks, a hospital bed rented and put in his study…that kind of thing, and I watched him issuing orders like he might to any cadet – or unwary ensign – and I had to laugh.

“What’s that about?” he asked.

“You, Captain. Still giving orders, aren’t you?”

And he laughed too. “Guess I always will, son. At least until you do.”

I nodded my head. What else could I say?

“So, when are you two going to get around to finding Sumner a little brother?”

“Oh, we’re working on that, dad. As much as we can, as a matter of fact.”

He lay there, looking out the door at Tracy, and he sighed again. “Funny how things work out, isn’t it.”

I turned and looked at my wife – at ‘the brother I never knew I had’s’ wife, and I could only agree.

+++++

Dad went home a few weeks later and life returned to something like normal – for a while, anyway – but to me it felt like an uneasy truce had been hastily arranged. Between my father and death, you might say. The burden of living seemed to shift to my mother during that time; dad was uncharacteristically depressed those first few months at home, but she told me that it was fairly routine for post-cardiac patients to hit the skids when they came home from hospital. She said it had something to do with coming to terms with their past, and the changes needed to carry on. New routines: a new diet, no more cigars, no smoking his beloved Meerschaum pipes in the backyard.

And he said it best: “It’s all ‘no this’ and ‘no that’ and who the fuck wants to live like that!”

My usual reply went along the lines of: “Well, I’d kind of like to see you hang around a while longer…”

He’d grumble on hearing something like that, then start talking about flying down to the Tennyson ranch and driving the old FJ down to Boy’s Town, but the uneasy truce held. I’d go back to work and he’d sneak out into the backyard and sit under his favorite pecan tree, listening to limbs swaying on a summer breeze – while he looked over his shoulder and pulled out his favorite pipe.

Two Christmases later we came to their house with Sumner’s new little brother in tow, yet their’s was still a full house. Mrs Tennyson, as always, came up for the festivities, and now my dad’s mother was living with them. He was working again too, but not as before; he was instead teaching full time at UT Southwestern, yet even so spent most of his time perfecting new heart-lung bypass machine technology in there labs. ‘Little’ Sumner was five that year, and Tracy was in the middle of her first year of med school, so my mom was doing daycare at their house, taking care of two kids and an almost ancient in-law. She was making a highly unorthodox Christmas dinner too, at least by our family’s standards: turkey and dressing (no oysters), green bean casserole and some sort of canned cranberry goop (no whiskey added) and while Sumner finished ripping through his presents dad asked my to join him in his study. When he closed the door behind us my heart sank – over the years only the worst news was delivered behind closed doors, and I assumed nothing had happened to change all that.

“Can you get a few days off next week?” he asked as he sat behind his mahogany desk.

“Well, I’m off through Tuesday, then gone Wednesday and Thursday, back on Friday, off again Saturday. What’s up?”

“Some kind of lesion under my tongue, in the gums too, I think. My guess is it’s squamous cell, and I’ve got an oral surgeon lined up Monday to do the biopsies.”

“Is that bad stuff?”

“It ain’t good.”

“Mom know?”

“Nope, and let’s keep it that way – for the time being.”

“Understood.”

“Pick me up Monday morning, would you? Say around 0300. We should be home be eight.” Both hands patted the arms of his chair and he looked satisfied, still in control of his world. “So, how’re they treating you at work…?”

And so began dad’s last, most furious battle.

+++++

I was with him again that next Friday, Tracy and mom too, and he read the pathology report to us in his study. At certain key passages I heard my mother’s sharp intake of breath, and by the time he was about to read the conclusion my mother got up and left the room.

They’d best remove the tongue as soon as the procedure could be scheduled, and lymph nodes in the neck biopsied at that time. A further surgery, to remove half his lower jaw, should be considered at this time, as well. This second procedure would, the report advised, necessitate a bone graft from the hip, to replace the excised jaw and provide structural rigidity for further tissue grafts…

When he finished he looked up, rubbed the bridge of his nose as he coughed a little, then he looked at me. “Of course, I’m not going to do any of that shit.”

“What?” His daughter-in-law (times two) cried. “What are you going to…?”

“Nothing. Not a goddamn thing.”

She didn’t understand, not at all – but I did. He’d been doing thoracic surgery for thirty years, and that had included more than his fair share of oncological cases. The bottom line? He knew the score and had absolutely no intention of being hacked away piecemeal…a jaw here, a tongue there…until the cancer spread into his spine and lungs. He told us that he’d probably have two to three months of a relatively pain free existence…then?

“And then what, dad?”

“Oh hell, maybe I’ll take up skydiving, or underwater balloon racing…”

Neither Tracy nor I laughed at this gallows humor, but his eyes were clear and his smile bright, and it was New Year’s Eve after all, and there was a baby-sitter on board to handle the domestic chores while we slipped out and brought in the New Year together. A friend of his, the president of a bank downtown, had invited us up to The Petroleum Club, a somewhat exclusive (ahem) two story affair on the 50th floor of his building. We were invited to have dinner and dance away the evening with the city spread out below – like amber-hued diamonds on a vast carpet of black velvet, and while I listened to dad talk about the night ahead it was all to easy to think that this was just another Friday night.

But of course it wasn’t.

True to form, my mother carried the load that night – as she would for the next few months – and I’ll always remember their dance. A jazz trio of some repute – piano, upright bass and drums – set the mood, and after dinner he took her out for a spin on the floor. We watched for a while, then I stood and took Tracy out there too, and after a few numbers together we changed partners.

Mother’s eyes were alive – yet worn and full of concern – and I could feel an almost frantic energy in her hands and arms as she clung to me, yet she never said a word about what was dancing in the air all around us. She never gave voice to her fear – or her husband’s choice, but at the end of our dance together she kissed me on the cheek and whispered “Thank God you’re here…” before she stepped back into my father’s arms.

I held Tracy close as we walked over and looked out the curtain of glass. A heavy snow was falling, wind-driven ice pellets slamming into the glass and I don’t know why but I thought of that night over Kamchatka…of ice on the wings and the canopy, and really, just how close to death my own little world came that night.

I saw Tracy’s reflection in the glass, saw tears streaming down her face, and for a moment I thought I saw Sumner there in the glass, asking me to take care of his wife.

+++++

“Why don’t you take the left seat,” he said – and I didn’t know what to say. This was a first, for in all our years flying together I’d never once flown left seat. That was the pilot-in-command’s seat, the captain’s domain, and this left seat was, and had always been – his, and his alone.

“No, that’s alright dad. I’m used to flying right side these days. Go ahead, you go up first.”

I followed him up onto the wing and into the old Baron, helped him get his seat belt fastened, then I called out the checklist while he got ready for take-off.

“One-niner golf, ready to taxi,” he said – and how many times, I wondered, had I heard him say those exact words over the years. There was a symphony of memory in his voice, countless hours flying all over the country embedded in those words, and yet I knew this was going to be our last trip together. The last time I’d hear him speak those words.

“You take it, son,” he said, and I taxied out to the active, did the engine run-ups and told the tower we were ready to go.

“You want to take it, dad?” I asked as I looked at him, but he was looking out at the left wing and I saw him shake his head. Pulling out on the runway I advanced the throttles and watched our instruments as we gathered speed, and as we climbed into a crystal clear March morning I could hear his laughter…

“Do you hear them?” my father asked me, but I had to turn away from him just then, because it’s so damn hard to smile when you’re crying.

+++++

Once upon a time, seven years after my father passed, I took my sons and daughter up for the first time in that old Beechcraft. Sumner was up front of course, by my side now, while Scout and Jim sat behind me looking excitedly out their windows at the wings that would carry us up into the sky. I buckled them in and pulled out the checklist, the same checklist I’d used for decades, the fading laminate now yellowed and peeling in places, and I started down the list checking off items one by one. When the engines were running and we were ready, I got on the radio…

“One-niner golf, ready to taxi,” I said, and Sumner was looking at me intently as I spoke those hallowed words. I smiled at him as I advanced the throttles and taxied for the active, then focused on the way ahead.

“One-niner golf, you’re clear for an immediate take off,” the tower advised, and I turned onto the runway and ran the engines up for a quick check before I eased off the brakes. The old Baron ran down the runway and I pulled back gently on the yoke, then with a gentle lift she climbed back into the sky once again.

I heard my children laughing while the gears retracted, then Sumner turned away from looking at the wing out his window, and he looked right at me.

“Did you hear that?” he asked me, the huge smile I saw in his eyes now so familiar face. It was so easy to see in this light; his face was my father’s, his seeking eyes were as easy and clear.

“Oh? What did you hear, son?”

“I’m not sure, but for a moment it sounded like Grampa Goose.”

I nodded my head, because I’d heard him too, just as I looked over the wing out my window. The sun was bright that morning, and for a moment I saw my reflection in the glass, but then I saw another face in the glass, my dad’s laughing eyes up to face an endless sky one more time.

(C)2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Thanks for coming along. See you next time.

Lift On a Wave (2016)

Lift On A Wave

Very reluctant to touch this one, to mess with it in even the slightest way.

So of course I had to.

A few sentences, more like jambalaya, in need of repair. Sandpaper taken to a few too many rough & florid descriptives, smoothed up a bit here and there. The ending? A little bit there, too, but not much; most of the changes reflect what little style I’ve developed over the years – versus seven years ago, anyway. The pictures of the pass above, and those you’ll find below, are straight from Wikipedia and Panoramio; never scanned my Kodachromes and I think that box was lost in the last move. We were there in the mid-90s, when the big wave of eco-divers hit Polynesia in full force, and what I remember most was sitting in that lagoon as the sun set, watching the stars come out to, what, sing? I also remember reading about the old Polynesian kings who ‘sailed’ the islands using the stars and tidal patterns, even the colors of the water and scents on the wind, and all the while we were listening to He Is Sailing by Jon and Vangelis and really in awe of their accomplishments. I can’t imagine sailing now as we did then, with DR plots and a sextant, sight reduction tables and a hand bearing compass. With GPS and radar/chart plotters, the excitement of landfall must be muted. It’s only a month or so south of Cabo San Lucas – you ought to give it a try someday.

The genesis of this story? A bit of personal experience, equal parts imagination, all in the aftermath of Annie’s passing, with memories of my first cancer thrown in for good measure. Sitting in my physician’s office trying to keep it together, walking about in a daze after. The tangled net? Mass Bay, and I think it was a Pilot whale, a little guy, maybe 20 feet long. Too many encounters with dolphins to catalogue, but if you recall my post last spring about the storm, the waterspouts and the dolphins I think you know where I’m coming from. That is, I feel a very strong connection to the sea – and to the life in it, and being out there with all that was surely the best of times.

A lot of metaphor here too. The circling shark, as we’ve discussed here, a metaphor for death; shadows under the sea as well. Ah yes, metaphor. In the story A Walk by the Sea, posted here a few days ago, I never gave the characters names because I wanted those two people to exist as metaphor only. Archetypes of certain forces at work in society these days, givers and takers if you will, and the cost to all involved in this inward spiral. That’s not the case here, but you could look at things that way.

So, this story seems to continue gathering steam over on Lit, still about a quarter million reads and still by far my most popular posting. Hope you enjoy this revisiting.

Lift On A Wave

+++++

It was way past midnight

And she still couldn’t fall asleep

This night the dream was leaving

She tried so hard to keep

The Captain of Her Heart | Double

+++++

Off the village of Tiputa, Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia

Saturday Morning

The woman sat in the sailboat’s cockpit, her long legs stretched out in the sun, her eyes fixed on thatched-roof cottages that rimmed the palm-lined shore less than a hundred yards away. The sun had been up for only a few hours, but already the morning air was thick and warm, and despite the steady trade-winds blowing through her sun-streaked hair, she was already uncomfortably warm. She swatted absent-mindedly at an unseen insect, wiped at beads of sweat that ran down her neck, into her shirt. A boat loaded with scuba divers roared past just behind, on its way to the pass that led from the lagoon out into the Pacific. She watched the divers for a moment, envied nothing but their mobility, envied the fact that in a few days all those smiling faces would load back onto the little airliner on which they’d so recently arrived and hop back to Papeete in a half hour or so, and then be on their way to places like Paris or New York. She, on the other hand, would be sailing south with her husband to Papeete, and it would take several hard days and nights to get there.

She was tired, too. Tired of living her husband’s dream, tired of living in a forty-three foot sailboat, tired of living around other people’s idea of paradise. She thought for a moment, sitting in the boat’s shaded cockpit, about what her idea of paradise might be now, now – after a year and a half at sea. First and foremost, Paradise would be air-conditioned, and Paradise would not roll under her with each passing wave. When she heard thunder and saw lightning she would not fear for her life and if the wind stopped blowing she’d not become consumed with visions of dying of thirst, her bloated tongue black and hard, her mouth so dry she couldn’t swallow. Every time she walked across a room she’d not have to worry about being flung sideways into a bulkhead or other hard “furniture”, and if she never had to look at a GPS readout again that would be too soon. And if someone, anyone, ever asked her to start a dead-reckoning plot again… well, she’d be more than happy to acquaint the poor fool with ‘dead,’ alright.

But still, there were times…

Like last night. David had miraculously produced a bottle of ice-cold Riesling to go with the lobster local fishermen had plucked from the lagoon just minutes ago. He’d rubbed chilled aloe on her sun-burnt shoulders and the tops of her ears, then he’d kissed her so gently on the neck that chills had run up and down her spine – and he’d been so gentle and caring with his lovemaking that night. She’d felt once again how the dome of the night, out here millions of miles away from ‘civilization,’ could be so staggeringly bright. The Milky Way looked like thick white steam rising against a backdrop of infinite black velvet, and lying in the cockpit awash in their afterglow she’d never felt so connected to ebb and flow of life, indeed, to the very universe she beheld.

No, she’d never felt more alive in her life. This whole existence was…a paradox.

If she tried to catalogue all she and David seen and done over the past eighteen months she knew she’d need hundreds, if not thousands of pages to document it all: Seattle to San Francisco, fogs and logs – always cold, seeing a Great White in the Farallon Islands take a seal pup; south to Newport Beach, where they’d spent a few weeks provisioning and while David tended to a handful of minor repairs – before that last quick trip to Disneyland. Pirates of the Caribbean had felt like a joke by then, a lie to end all lies, then they’d moved out again, sailing out the Newport jetty and turning left, southbound and down on their way to San Diego and Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas – which had seemed more like LA than the sleepy Mexican village she’d been looking forward to. Then their first real ordeal: a month at sea, twenty seven hundred miles from Cabo to the Marquesas, the doldrums, the brief though indescribably violent line squalls that pushed through with little, or at night, no warning.

But the boat always did just fine, and so had David – in fact, he’d thrived on the satisfaction felt after each passing challenge, while she’d felt her mood darken with each passing squall. Only as their third week at sea wore on had she begun to feel completely out of place, stripped bare of all she’d once held so dearly – and taken so for granted. Then in due course she’d begun to feel trapped. Trapped in amber, feeling very much like she was caught inside someone else’s dream, like she was just a minor, peripheral element in a vast unfolding drama that, frankly, she didn’t care about in the least. Because, when all was said and done, this wasn’t her drama, not her dream. As his boat drifted through their doldrums she found herself looking at David and wishing she’d never met him, never married him, never borne him his child. Wishing he was dead and gone and somehow someone or something would miraculously appear in the very next instant and take her away from this never-ending nightmare of rolling seas and searing sun. She needed, she told herself, to change course. Her course. Follow her own dreams, while she still had time for them.

After that realization she’d grown skittish and cross every time she looked at him, then she stopped eating and began avoiding David, even as the doldrums fell away and the wind filled-in, even as they began cracking off hundred-seventy mile days. Then one day David caught a small tuna and seared steaks for dinner, a couple of land birds flew over as the sun set that evening – et voila! The next morning – right where David said they would be – the jagged spires of Nuku Hiva lined the horizon and she’d simply broken down. She’d cried for hours and David had simply let her be. He couldn’t possibly understand, or so she told herself.

Because she was sure he couldn’t understand, even if she’d had the courage to tell him feelings. He was just too wrapped up in this voyage, she told herself, to care about anything or anyone beyond the limited horizon of his own goddamned dreams.

+++++

“Let’s see, you’re sixty-three years? Can you describe your symptoms?” the physician said, her French accent so thick the man could almost understand something like every third word.

“A dull, diffuse pain, back here,” he said as he pointed to the back of his pelvis. “And now it hurts like crazy to take a pee. Not in that thing,” he said, pointing to his penis, “but deep inside.”

The physician nodded. “When was your last PSA exam?”

The man crossed his arms protectively over his chest. “Oh, hell, I’d say almost two years ago – maybe three.”

The physician bunched her lips and frowned, then walked over to a cabinet and took out a big tube of lubricant and a couple of latex gloves. “You know what comes next, no?”

“Oui, I was afraid you’d say that,” the man said. “And this is only our first date,” he sighed as he stood and pulled down his swim trunks. “Where to, doc?”

“Just lean over the table, monsieur.”

‘Why did this doc have to be a girl, and a cute one at that?’ the man asked as he shuffled around with his trunks around his ankles. He leaned over, rested his forearms on the paper-covered exam table and did his level best to ignore the jelly that fluttered like cold diarrhea down his legs. He felt her gloved hand peeling his cheeks apart, then the cold, hard apex of her finger as it slipped through the goo, seeking guarded entry.

“Take a deep breath, and hold it…” she said – and in it went.

“Ungh-h-h,” was about all the man managed to say, then he felt her probing finger, fire spreading everywhere… “Oh, Jesus Christ on a fucking motorbike; goddamn – that hurts!”

“Has it ever feel dees way before?” the physician asked, yet she kept her finger up there, moved it gently around something hard and remote.

“Jesus, fuck, NO!” he screamed when she hit pay-dirt. “What have you got up there? A goddamn fire truck?”

“Try to relax, monsieur; you are squeezing so hard, you are going to break my finger!”

He tried to ease-off but his legs started shaking, he felt cold sweat break-out on his forehead, then her finger sliding out.

“Yee-hah, coming out of chute number two, it’s Gonzo, the floppy chicken!” the man said in his best rodeo announcer voice. He decided passing out would be the most polite thing he could do about now, but bad form nonetheless.

“Pardon-moi, monsieur?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing.” He said, panting now, because the pain wasn’t subsiding.

“Are you alright?” the physician leaned next to him. She had her hand on his shoulder.

“Oh fuck, that’s a bad sign,” he said.

“Monsieur?”

“When the doc starts sounding sympathetic you know you’re up Shit Creek.”

“Ah. Oui, with the paddle. I understand this.”

“Without. Without a paddle. And?”

“Oui, David. I think this is about where we are, up that creek. Sit down, please, we must talk.”

+++++

He walked down a smooth, sandy lane, oblivious to the beauty around him for a while, then suddenly aware of nothing but. The tide was flooding in the pass, undulating waves roaring as the sea forced its way through the small break back into the waiting lagoon. All around him people were going about their lives with an easy rhythm that seemed almost in sync with the sea that surrounded there homes: fishermen were coming in and tying off at little piers, shopkeepers and fish-merchants were walking down to inspect the day’s catch while little boys and girls ran down to look at the fish just for the fun of it all. Such a simple thing to do, so he turned with them and walked down to the wharves. Cancer was meaningless out here in the wind and the sun. This was life, while cancer…was anything but.

And Cancer had come calling this morning. Of that much he was certain. He could see it in the girl’s eyes. Feel the truth in her careworn words. The moment they’d shared was a crack in time he felt sure he’d never forget.

So, what to do now?

Maybe he’d pick up another couple of lobsters, another bottle of wine. When the going gets tough, the tough get…what? Drunk? Hide their head in the sand? Spread their wings, perhaps, and fly away on the wind?

Give up? No. She’d offered hope. There were treatments, new ones seemingly released every day. This was not the time to fly away, she’d seemed to offer the pain she felt in his soul.

And as it always had been, since he was a little boy, looking at the rows of fish was a bittersweet symphony. So explosively vibrant in the sea – and for those first few moments out of it – the myriad fish he looked out on the wharf now seemed muted and dull…dead…as indeed they were. What an odd circle of life this was, this being human. Somehow we’d made it out of the food chain, he told himself; or had we? Here he was, standing on a little pier in the middle of an indecipherable ocean, looking at men and women and children sorting through life, laughing and living out their lives under an indifferent sun. And loving, in the moonlight, their way around the circle. But we weren’t on anyone’s meal plan anymore, not like these dead fish, unless we just happened along the wrong place at the wrong time. But sooner or later we always come to the end of the line, if only because that shark is always out there, circling, waiting. Waiting for the moment…

Tiputa 1

Rangiroa. The word tumbled in his mouth, and even the sound of it was laced with something potent, something like wild magic. He looked across the pale blue lagoon, this atoll like a smoke-ring afloat in a sea of deepest blue, and he could just make out the slender line of treetops miles away, on the far side of the lagoon. Another dive boat full of diving-tourists cast-off to photograph the oceanic silver-tip sharks and eagle-rays that hung around just outside the entrance to the lagoon, waiting for their next meal to come shooting by on the flood. He looked at the smiling faces as they passed, at their happy certitude, the sense of infinite adventure just ahead. All that and more filled their eyes, and feelings of his own rushed-in on their tide. It wasn’t envy he felt, or sorrow for all the adventures he’d never have, but oddly enough a profound gratitude washed over him. “My God,” he said softly as he looked across the lagoon, “what a miracle to have just been what I’ve been…to have done what I’ve done. To have just been…me.”

He looked at the dozen or so sailboats that swung at anchor a scant hundred yards off the village of Tiputa, he looked for her, for her coppery hair and that defiantly bright white skin. There she was, sitting in the cockpit fanning her face with her floppy straw hat. He looked at her for a very long time, looked back over their journey, and he knew that though he loved her more than mere words could ever say the roughest part of the journey lay just ahead, and he was going to have to put her through it. There was no way around that now…

“But isn’t this what it’s all about?” he said aloud.

And a fisherman turned, looked up at him.

“Ah, the mortal coil?” the fisherman said.

“Beg pardon?”

“You contemplate life, and death. The mortal coil.”

“Indeed, I do.”

“They are the same, this thing we call life, and death, but I don’t think there’s much to fear. Just live while you can, because our journey through these stars is a miracle.” He was standing now with his arms wide, like a bird waiting to take flight on the next passing breeze.

He felt a lift in the force of the fisherman’s words, and yet the world seemed to grow cool and dim for a moment, like he’d passed through the shadow of a storm’s passing clouds overhead. He felt winds from other storms fill his sails, and then he felt it: the shark out there. It circled patiently. Watching him, waiting for the moment, and he looked down at the white sand beneath his feet, wondering about that moment. When would his come?

When he looked up the man was gone; only the fisherman’s words lingered in the air.

“C’est la vie,” he heard himself saying to the shadow, but too late. His words had caught the storm’s wind and taken flight.

+++++

She turned away from the sun, saw him standing among fishermen and villagers; he seemed so small standing there – yet he had always been so much larger than life. Now, this morning, everything was different. Now, she was at an end – they – were at an end. She couldn’t do this anymore, couldn’t put up with his spray-driven beating to windward, the endless, constant pounding, the relentless fear that stalked her day and night. No, this was it – she was at an end. She’d decided sometime in the night, sometime after that last broken dream. This was the day, the time to stop acting had come.

It wasn’t fair to take his dreams away. No, she wouldn’t do that to him. She would fly to Papeete and then back to Seattle. She would move in with their daughter for awhile, just until she could sort through her life and figure out what to do next. She’d leave David to chase his dreams, somewhere over all his rainbows.

Or were they windmills? If they were, what was she?

She went below and began gathering the few things she’d need to make the trip home: some clothes and her passport, a wad of traveler’s checks and a little cash, and she jammed it all in a little nylon duffel. She looked at the two pair of shoes she still owned – a pair of musty old Tevas and leather boat shoes that had seen better days – about six months ago – and all she felt about these remnants were bitter tears and an empty sense of foreboding.

“I’m abandoning ship,” she said quietly as she looked around the teak cocoon she’d called home these past few years. She felt the wings of betrayal beating the air everywhere she looked: David betraying her, ignoring her own hopes and dreams; yet she was betraying him too, had been for so many years. Hadn’t she always consented to this madness, with her eyes open and not the smallest voice of dissent to be heard.

She’d even been excited about it all – she had to admit – once upon a time.

Not now. No, not after months of living inside a washing machine world of lurching, spinning contusions. Of too many water-rationed tuna sandwiches and the same old waterlogged paperbacks. No, now all her sea dreams were of seasickness and malignant weather reports.

She heard an outboard and looked out the nearest port-light, saw David circling around the stern to tie off at the boarding gate. She tossed her duffel up into the forward berth and walked up to help him aboard, saw he had a little net shopping bag in hand as he stood in the Zodiac. She took the bags he passed up, saw a couple of nice looking tuna filets wrapped in plastic and some more fresh fruit – and another bottle of wine. She smiled, felt his love for her anew and she felt a little ashamed of herself, and in that moment she felt all the anger return. In this sudden conflict she grew full of resolve to head ashore, to run as fast as she possibly could for the airport.

Then she looked in his eyes, saw the pain – and his tears.

+++++

The sun had been down an hour yet the western horizon was still pulsing with shimmering bands of orange and purple. Venus hung above the lagoon like a lantern, and fish broke the smooth surface of the lagoon as if trying to take wing and voyage among the stars. To the south, looking past the far side of the lagoon, towering cumulonimbus stood like evenly spaced sentinels; lightning played inside one of the larger columns. To the north, just yards away, a couple of new arrivals swung from just-set anchors, inflatables pumped up and outboards mounted. There were always new acolytes in search of the dream, that endlessly captivating dream to leave it all behind and voyage among tropic isles forever – and here they were! Oil lamps being lit and dinners prepared, couples in all these boats – all these cocoon-like homes – sat mesmerized or engaged, lost in beauty or lost in the mundane details of living in an ocean-bound microcosmic snail’s shell far from home, all engaged with living and life, this shuttling mortal coil that never seemed to stop burning. Everyone everywhere was consumed with what tomorrow might bring, how to deal with it, how to love and laugh amidst all the chaos of stars coming out in the night sky.

And under those stars, the man and the woman leaned against one another, and she held him protectively, fiercely, as if she never, ever wanted to let him go. One arm around his chest, the fingers of her other hand running through his wind-tossed hair. His head, nestled just under her own, the very shape of his head ingrained in her fingertips over too many decades, the smell of his hair now as it was almost forty years ago. She could feel his heartbeat, his every breath through the flesh of her breast. Such simple music, these heart-sounds. How she longed to dance in the light of such steady rhythms – for all time.

“Thanks, babe,” she heard him say.

“Um-m,” she added, the hymn of her love and ode to this evening’s sky. “My pleasure, sweet-cheeks.”

“Sweet-cheeks?” he chuckled. “Oh my, I haven’t heard you call me that in a long time.”

“You remember that cake?” That cake she’d taken to his office on his fortieth birthday. A big flesh colored derrière with ‘Happy Birthday, Sweet Cheeks’ emblazoned across the top and bottom. “Remember how embarrassed you were?”

“Boy, do I!” He reached up and gently stroked her arm as precious memories danced in the starlight. “Wasn’t that the year we chartered that first sailboat, with Bill and Alice?”

“Yes,” she said as she too fell into chance dancing memories. “Tortola.”

“God, that was such a fun trip.”

“When we fell in love with sailing,” she said, “Dreamed of sailing away from it all someday.”

“I know you’ve been miserable, babe. You want to call it quits?”

She felt a tenseness creep into the space between them, an unwelcome, intrusive tremor.

“Dave, let’s not talk about any of that right now. We need to find out what we’re up against.”

“Alright.”

She relaxed. She’d half expected him to say something like “We! What do you mean ‘We’? Nobody said anything today about ‘We’ having cancer!”

But he hadn’t said that, had he?

No, that wasn’t his style. He’d always been too much in love with her.

But, did he really feel that way, even now? Was he really still so connected to her, after forty years?

“Do you want to fly home from here?” she asked. “We could leave the boat…”

“No, let’s get her to Tahiti, put her on the hard there if we have to. There’s supposed to be a fine hospital, good doctors there.”

“You don’t want to go home?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. The doc said there are a bunch of tests they need to run to figure out the best kind of treatment. Not all of them involve surgery, yet, especially if it’s not advanced.”

She felt a cold grip on her heart. Her father had died of prostate cancer when he was 67. His physician had missed it and missed it for years, discovered it only after the cancer had spread into his spine. She fought to push away memories of her father wasting away, morphine the only thing that kept the pain from annihilating his very soul. She struggled as an image of David stricken like that filled her mind, and suddenly she felt like crying, like she was already in mourning.

“Don’t give up on me, babe.”

‘God, he said that like he’s reading my mind…’ The thought buffeted her for a moment, leaving her breathless. “I won’t, Sweet-Cheeks. I promise.”

Something bumped along the side of the hull – hard enough to swing the mast.

“What the hell!” David said as he pushed himself up. He leaned out of the cockpit, leaned to look down at the waterline, and she heard him take a sharp breath: “June,” he whispered, “come here. And be quiet about it, too.”

She made her way to his side and leaned out, looked down on a Killer Whale calf not yet free of its umbilical cord. It’s mother was on her side – just a few feet away.

“Something’s wrong,” he said. “See the cord? It’s wrapped around the pectoral fin, holding the little guy under. The placenta must still be attached inside the mother.”

“Dave, should we do something?”

But he was already up, bounding down the companionway – and back up – in seconds; he put a Swiss Army knife in his mouth and without a word slipped overboard.

“Put the ladder down, would you?” she heard him say as soon as he broke surface. She leapt along the lifelines until she came to the boarding-gate, then unlatched the folding ladder and let it flop down into the water.

With one hand on the ladder he grabbed the calf and hoisted its blowhole free of the water, and she thought the creature looked very still – too still. Then she saw its fluke move once, heard it take a small breath, then David took his little knife and opened the blade; he cut the cord with one clean stroke and a little puff of black disappeared into the water, then he slowly unwrapped the cord from the little guy’s body. The mother slipped away into inky blackness, and was gone.

“It’s not moving much,” she said. “Maybe you should slap its ass!”

“Hm-m, not a bad idea. I need to tie-off the cord if she’s not going to…” He rubbed the calf’s body briskly, then slapped in gently a couple times. He saw the calf’s eye then, saw it looking deeply into his own, and as suddenly it twisted free and disappeared beneath the purple surface of the water – and it too was gone.

“Holy shit!” he managed to say, then…

“David! Be still!”

He froze, listened to water break smoothly just behind his head, heard a much bigger blowhole open, the rush of air expelled, and inhaled deeply. The head of a large male Orca slid from the surface right beside his own; the top of the whale’s head was a good two and a half feet above the water, its towering dorsal fin easily seven feet above that. He felt his heart hammering in his chest, yet for some reason he knew the whale by his side was listening to his beating heart. He felt like he was being examined, measured in some vital way, then as suddenly the huge body slid silently away and was gone.

He reached for the boarding ladder and pulled himself up onto deck; only then did he feel his heart slow down. He started shivering as the cold proximity of the encounter slammed through the night – into his soul.

The woman jumped below and grabbed towels, guided the man back into the safe confines of their little home, then she wrapped herself around him and hugged him for a very long time.

+++++

Tiputa 3

Inside Tiputa Pass, Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia

Monday Morning

Timing was crucial, and their navigation had to be perfect.

To exit the lagoon one had to time the move for precisely slack water; when the tide ebbed or flooded powerful currents wracked the pass, swirling eddies churned the water and breaking pyramid-shaped waves up to ten feet high rose and broke with sudden, incredible ferocity. Small boats could be tossed around or pulled under by a funneling vortex, and had been many times over the years. The simple fact that silver-tipped reef sharks, known man-eaters, cruised these waters made the passage all the more interesting. In order to get out unscathed, one had a twenty minute window between the ebb and the flood – the brief period of so called slack water, when the pass grew still, when the currents subsided – and during this uneasy truce boats completed the transit or risked getting caught within the next maelstrom.

The man stood at the bow, perched high on the pulpit with a steadying hand on the rigging, watched the swirling waters for signs of calming; two other sailboats and an overloaded dive boat waited behind them. The woman remained behind the wheel, ready to pour on the throttle and follow any steering commands that came from the man on the bow.

The man looked at his watch then down into the water.

“Alright, full throttle, and head right for that first buoy!” he called out as he looked back at the range markers. The woman pushed the throttle forward and the boat accelerated into the pass; the other sailboats waited a moment – perhaps to see if they’d missed the timing – then they too poured on the coals and darted into the pass. The dive boat, powered by huge twin outboards, roared by, leaving a fairly massive wake as it passed. The man perched on the bow pulpit grabbed hold of the headstay as the boat rolled under him, but he took the motion in stride while he scanned the water ahead for any unseen coral heads or floating debris that might get caught in their little ship’s propeller. Fifteen minutes later they rounded the last mark and turned to the west to round the huge atoll before turning south towards Tahiti. The man walked back to the cockpit and stood beside the woman, then he put an arm around her waist.

“Good job, darlin’,” the man said as he kissed the top of her head.

“We do make a pretty good team,” the woman beamed as she leaned into him.

“Always have, darlin’. We always have.”

She looked down at the chart-plotter and the moving nautical chart that displayed their position, her eyes settled on the next waypoint to the west, and she watched as their course lined-up with the calculated compass heading.

“Ready for a sandwich?” he asked.

“I’m famished,” she called out as he trundled down the companionway. “Two for me!”

Standing in the galley, he looked back at her and smiled, braced himself as a deep ocean roller passed under the boat. He opened the ‘fridge and pulled out four sandwiches and handed them up to her, then poured some iced-tea into cups before heading up himself.

It was her watch so the next three hours he rested. She’d steer, she’d navigate, if the sails needed trimming she’d ask him to do it or, if she wanted, do it herself. She steered by hand with the breaking reef of the atoll still so close to port, but as they moved farther away she’d more than likely set the autopilot and let the boat steer itself. He unwrapped a sandwich and handed it to her,  then watched as she wolfed it down.

He smiled. “Ready for another?” David said wryly.

Another huge roller crossed under the keel and the boat wallowed and yawed as she compensated, then she held out her hand and snapped her fingers. “I can’t believe how hungry I am! Cripes!”

“Neither can I,” he said through a deepening smile. “Kinda exciting, wasn’t it?”

“I’ve never been so crap-happy-scared in my life! And when that dive boat went by!”

“Yeah, I puckered-up pretty good too.”

“Oh, so that was the popping sound I heard!” she said between bites. “Honey, I hate to say it, but I think I’m gonna need another one.”

“Here, have mine. I’m not hungry right now.”

“Sure, yeah, great, whatever…”

He laughed as leaned back, careful to stay out of the sun.

“Where’d all these rollers come from?” she called out as another huge roller lifted the boat.

“That storm the night before, the one to the south. It turned north last night and is chewing things up as it moves north.”

“These suckers must be ten, twelve feet!”

“Feeling seasick?” he asked. Their first long passages at night, that had been an issue.

“Nope! I love it!” He heard her “whoop!” as another big one rolled under the keel; the bow fell into yawning trough and she screamed with joy as the sudden wall of water rained down over the cockpit awning.

“Yee-e-e-haw-w-w!” she yelled. “Are we having fun yet!?”

They both laughed – if only because it was an old joke.

“Need a towel?” he asked.

“No, this feels great!”

And he looked at her, saw her shaking the water from her short hair. “I’m the luckiest man that ever lived,” he said quietly as he watched her smile and wrestle the wheel around to take-on the next roller.

“What’d you say?!” she shouted.

“I said ‘you’re a nut!’”

“And aren’t you glad I am?!”

“Never more than right this very moment!”

She looked at him, smiled, turned to meet the next wave, then she mouthed ‘I love you’ as she threw a kiss his way.

“Ditto!”

She finished her third sandwich as he made his way through his first; soon she turned a little south and the rollers disappeared in the lee of the atoll. The sky was bluebirds, the sea now  endlessly smooth; he let out the big headsail and the boat surged ahead, the circular atoll still off their port beam, then he stretched out in the cockpit facing aft and watched his wife steer for a while. His eyes grew heavy, he suddenly felt very, very tired, so he closed his eyes and drifted off.

Tiputa 2

+++++

She shook him awake early in the afternoon; he looked pale, feverish, and she poured him a chilled Gatorade, put some fresh pineapple chunks in a bowl and handed them up to him. He sipped the juice and nibbled some pineapple, then curled up and went straight back to sleep.

He woke some time later, the sun was still up, but just barely. He needed to pee badly and he stood, walked back to the aft rail and let loose. The sea was now smooth as glass, barely a breath of air stirred. He looked at the headsail – June had already rolled it up, ditto the mainsail, and she’d tied off the boom to keep it from slatting around. He looked at the chartplotter: Makatea was on their port beam about ten miles off, though it wasn’t yet dark enough to see any navigational lights on the west coast.

“You awake up there?”

“Yeah, I think so. What day is it!”

“Ha! You had me worried there for a while! You cracked off a good eight hours!”

“Slept through my watch?”

“You had a fever.”

“Shit.”

“You hungry yet?”

“Not really. Actually, I feel kinda queasy.”

“What? You, old Iron Stomach?”

“Well, there you have it, ladies and germs. Film at eleven!”

“Here!” she called out; a cup with Gatorade appeared from down below, followed by a cup of chicken noodle soup.

He ate the soup and it tasted good, then he sipped Gatorade while he regarded the chartplotter for a while. He reached up and put the radar on standby. “What do the batteries look like?” he asked. With any luck the solar panels and wind generator would have topped off the primary bank this afternoon.

“Looks like ninety eight percent full,” he heard from below. With the fridge and chartplotter going all night he might have to fire up the engine to top-off the batteries during the night, depending on how often he used the radar.

“Okay. The bilge dry?”

“Yup.” He heard her cycling through switches on the main panel, then: “Weatherfax is clear. That storm is about four hundred miles northwest. There’s a low below Tahiti.”

“Right,” he said, their routine both familiar – and absolute. He’d not have to ask her to put all that stuff in the logbook; he knew everything would be there, all in her obsessively neat handwriting. He cycled on the radar now that it had ‘warmed-up’ and he set the range circles to sixteen miles. A handful of targets, probably all cruising sailboats, blossomed on the screen. “Go ahead and flip on the lights.”

“Is there anything on Makatea?” he heard her ask while he stood and walked the deck.

“Not much. I think about a hundred folks. That movie with Harrison Ford was supposed to have taken place here.”

That got her attention.

“Oh! Which one?”

“Oh, you know, he played some washed up pilot; he and this blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty crash land on a deserted island in a thunderstorm…” he kept his hands on the lifelines as he made his way forward.

“Oh, you mean ‘Indiana Jones goes to Gilligan’s Island’!”

“The very one!” He heard her laughter from somewhere below and smiled. He loved the sound of her laughter; he always had and always would.

He walked forward and checked the nav lights one by one, then walked back to the cockpit. “Lights are good.”

“Okay.” Next he heard her rummaging around in the locker by the chart table, then metal banging on the galley stove; she crawled up from the cabin a moment later holding two safety harnesses. She hooked them up to the ‘jack-lines’ that ran from bow to stern; if either fell overboard they’d remain attached to the ship by these harnesses – presumably long enough to yell and wake the other before drowning – or being eaten by Godzilla. She pressed the ‘battery-test’ button on the attached strobes then handed one to David while she slipped hers on. The rule on-board was simple: the harness stayed on after dark – no matter what, no excuses. It was a pain in the ass to go below while hooked-up, but it was better than drowning.

“You must be exhausted,” he said as she sat beside him; she snuggled under his arm and he felt her smile on his chest.

“Um-hm-m.” She looked up and kissed his chin, felt her dozing off within moments – but she jerked awake, shook herself free and sat up.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, bad dream or something. Weird. Mind if I go below? I think I need some solid sleep.”

He kissed her on the top of her head, felt her stand. “Go ahead, doll.”

She dropped below; he heard her unclip from the safety harness and walk forward to their berth, then the sounds of brushing teeth and a flushing head – and then finally, lights out.

He dimmed the chart-plotter to preserve his night vision, watched as the wind gauge registered a puff, then another. Within a few minutes a gentle breeze filled in from the north and he rolled out the headsail; there was just enough wind to fill it and soon the boat was slicing through the water on a gentle three knot breeze. He cycled through screens to the radar, noted the positions of the boats in his mind, then switched back to chart-view. Makatea was now sliding steadily astern; soon it disappeared into the darkness and he scanned the way ahead. Not another vessel in sight, so he dropped below and made a log entry, checked the bilge then climbed back into the cockpit.

And then he had to sit and take stock of the moment, because through all the chatter and the walking around, through dinner and while he watched instruments record their progress, the dull, burning pain grew steadily, more insistently painful. He watched Orion fall down to the western horizon; first Rigel slipping from view, then the cotton-ball shaped nebula in the middle of his sword, and finally, Betelgeuse. More time drifted by, still the pain in his pelvis grated away within, and he knew, just knew, he felt it in his spine now.

“I need a Tylenol,” he said to the stars, if only because he was barely able to concentrate on the instruments anymore. He edged over to the companionway and unclipped his harness, slipped quietly down the steps and took two tablets from the small bottle inside the chart table, got a glass of water and swallowed the pills. He leaned forward, gripped the edges of the table as a deep, piercing pain sliced through his back. Cold sweat formed, began running down his neck and a shiver arced through his body like an electric current, and for a moment he couldn’t remember where he was…then…

…ka-wooomph…

The boat lurched sideways, something thudded alongside. A buoy, perhaps?

He scurried up the companionway, flashlight in hand, leaned to port – nothing – then he hopped to the starboard rail.

An Orca – was it the same one? – was there, its body almost vertical, its head jutting high out of  the water.

“What the heck are you doing here, buddy?”

The animal shook, water thrashed around it’s pectorals. Agitated, he thought, the thing looks agitated. Not angry. More scared than anything else…

The big male leaned it’s head away from the boat and he heard another animal thrashing not far away; he shined his Mag-lite out into the inky blackness and saw the calf again, its mother trying to support it from below. It was wrapped in pale blue gill-net, thrashing madly and obviously about to drown. Without thinking he darted below and grabbed his knife, then bolted up the steps and in one smooth motion dove overboard; he swam the few yards to the thrashing calf and began frantically slicing away netting. He cut himself once, grateful the salt water didn’t sting too badly, and hacked away at the last strands of the netting. The net fell away and the calf burst free, he watched as it disappeared under the water, and once again he felt the big male by his side and he turned, looked into its eye.

“Oh no,” he said. “Oh my God, no.”

The boat was now several hundred yards away, the freshening breeze filling the headsail, her speed picking up. He sat motionless in the water – motionless now – as he saw the shape of the end of his life taking form in the air before his eyes. He turned, looked to see if the whale was still there, but it too had slipped away into the night.

+++++

She got up in the middle of the night and stumbled to the head, heard the sails pulling, the bow-wave gurgling and hissing its way astern, so as she smiled she crawled back into the warm berth. She’d been dreaming of the time he’d first kissed her, and she hoped the dream would still be there, waiting for her in the night.

+++++

She felt the sunlight on her face and looked up; the sun was now high overhead.

“David? Why’d you let me go so long?”

Silence.

“David?”

She felt a little annoyed, as he’d obviously he’d fallen asleep at the wheel. She slipped out of the berth and padded back to the galley. Nothing, even the stove unused, everything as it had been last night, when she’d gone below.

“David?”

Then she saw his safety harness, unclipped, laying uselessly astride the companionway.

Cold fear stabbed at her gut as she leapt into the cockpit. She turned, looked forward; a purple wall of thunderstorms lay ahead, lightning rippled through roiling clouds. The island of Tetiaroa was ahead and well to her right; even Tahiti was visible now through low-scudding clouds. She jumped to the wheel and hit the man-overboard button and fired-up the engine, rolled in the headsail and engaged the autopilot, then grabbed the radio and flipped it to the emergency frequency:

“Mayday-mayday-mayday, this is sailing vessel Sirius calling, mayday-mayday-mayday.”

“Sailing vessel calling Tahiti Ocean Rescue, go ahead.”

“Tahiti, my position is 16 degrees 51 minutes south, 149 degrees zero four minutes west, and we’ve had a man-overboard during the night!”

“Sailing vessel Sirius, are you onboard, uh, alone?”

“Affirmative, Rescue. We were southbound from Rangiroa…standby one…” She jumped down and grabbed the logbook… looked at David’s scrawled entry on the page and her heart filled with a mixture of pride and fear…then she jumped back up to the radio…

“Ah, rescue, his last log entry was at 2200 hours, at 16 21 27 south by 148 46 17 west.”

“Ah, Sirius,” came a strong voice rich with a clipped English accent, “this is sailing vessel Achilles, we copy and are ten point three miles behind you. We’ll analyze your track and commence our search.”

“Rescue, this is the sailing vessel Jumpin’ Jack Flash, I have us about five miles east of Achilles. Can we help?”

“Tahiti Ocean Rescue to all search vessels, be advised a strong line of storms with high winds and lightning is passing the island at this time; all aircraft are grounded. We anticipate clearing in about two hours; dispatching cutter to assist at this time. Achilles, can you search north and west of that track?”

“Achilles, roger north and west.”

“Ocean Rescue to Jumpin’ Jack Flash, can you search west and south?”

“Yeah man, that’s cool, south then west.”

“Ocean Rescue to Sirius, advise you reverse course at this time and search east of track, repeat east of your earlier track, due to east setting currents overnight.”

The woman listened to the chatter, scrawled notes in pencil on the logbook beneath her husband’s last entry. “Sirius, received, my course is zero four four magnetic…”

+++++

He lay on his back for a while, kept his lungs full of air to keep his body as buoyant as possible, his legs tucked up to preserve what warmth was left in his body. The waves had been, so far, mercifully small; now he could see dark storm clouds swallowing jagged Tahitian mountains, spitting lightning out like angry, fractured bones – and he knew, just knew this storm would be his undoing. He held the flashlight in his right hand, the Swiss Army knife in his left. He was getting thirsty and his gut burned with an insistent glow.

He felt a rolling swell move through the water, felt his body lift on a wave; he raised his head and looked around from the crest – then took another deep breath and lay flat again as he fell into the passing trough. Nothing. No one. He felt his hair flowing in the current, felt water sloshing against his ear-drums; every now and then a wave found him dozing and stinging brine burned his eyes.

“Don’t give up!” he heard her voice clearly. “I love you, and I’m coming.”

“I won’t. I’ll always love you.”

Time passed. Slowly. The sun overhead began to burn the flesh on his face. And he was thirsty. Alone on an endless sea…and he was thirsty.

+++++

“Ocean Rescue to all search vessels, be advised we have an aircraft en route. Sirius, we advise you begin a zig-zag course at this time.”

“Sirius received.”

“Ah, Achilles here, reporting a large pod of Killer Whales in this vicinity, appear to be south bound.”

“Rescue received and understood.”

‘Now what the fuck does that mean?’ she said to herself. ‘What? Do they think the goddamn whales are going to eat him?’ She brought the binoculars that hung from her neck up to her eyes and scanned the horizon for dorsal fins.

Lightning cracked overhead – and she winced. She resisted the urge to disconnect the GPS and radio – to spare them in a strike – but she knew she’d have to chance it, knew that without them she’d be hopelessly disconnected from the world. Another blistering crack rent the air, the shattering noise now right on top of her head, her hair standing on end now, the air full of ozone – yet still there was no rain, and now very little wind. Sirius rose on a wave and she saw something, turned towards whatever it was – then saw whitecaps forming – as a new front approached and the wind filled in. Her hair flew in the first ragged gusts, but within a heartbeat the wind began moaning in the rigging and she watched as the wind gauge leapt to thirty five knots, then forty knots. Sirius heeled ponderously as a heavy gust slammed home, and the wind gauge leapt yet again, this time to seventy knots and the woman struggled to right the little ship, to keep them on course. Blinding rain came suddenly in horizontal sheets, visibility dropped to a few yards.

Moments later the wind fell to almost zero, the seas – rather than building, as she’d feared – apparently blown flat by the passing squall; now fat raindrops fell slowly on an almost mirror-smooth sea. Lightning cracked again – but it seemed to have moved away and she sighed. She looked down at the compass, saw her course was almost due west and she cursed, turned the wheel to correct, looked at the chart-plotter and compared her present track to their earlier one…

“Good,” she said, “still tracking a little east.”

She wiped rain – or was it sweat? – from her eyes and brought the binoculars up to her eyes and swept the now flat sea with her eyes. Nothing.

“Don’t worry, honey, I’m coming. I’m coming, I promise. Don’t give up!”

She didn’t know she was crying, and had been for several minutes.

+++++

He’d worried about the little cut on his hand for a while, worried the blood – even as little as it was – might draw in sharks, and he’d tried to keep that hand out of the water as much as he could; now he knew his efforts hadn’t been enough. He saw the rounded, white-tipped fin slice through the water and his heart lurched in his chest; now all would be reduced to a contest of wills. Of course it had to be a oceanic white-tip, he said to himself, and not some pussy nurse shark. Why not a man-eater? Why the fuck not?

“Bring it on, mother-fucker!” he said softly, quietly.

He’d watched the rounded, white-tipped fin turn his way and ducked his head under water, made eye contact with the bastard and watched as it slipped by slowly, cautiously, for a first look. When it turned suddenly, got too close, he brought the Mag-Lite down on the shark’s broad snout; it was, all things considered, a thunderous blow – a real grand-slam homer. The shark thrashed and moved off for a moment, then began circling slowly well out of range, waiting, and he knew the animal was simply biding it’s time.

Oceanic Whitetip Shark

+++++

She heard the droning turbo-prop engines long before she made out the plane; within seconds the four-engined beast roared overhead just yards, she thought, from the top of the mast.

“Sirius, this is Rescue One on station; we’re heading up your previous estimated track.”

“Sirius received.” She didn’t know quite what to say to these men braving this storm-filled sky, but she wanted to thank them.

“Hang on, David. We’re coming!”

+++++

The shark came in again, faster this time, but this time it ignored the flashlight; the man pushed himself away from the side of its head, then kicked off from the shark’s side. He backstroked through the water, kept his eyes on the shark, watched as it’s back arched, then as it rolled sharply back and sprinted in for the kill. He had his Swiss Army knife in his hand now, thought he’d try for an eye, and he assumed a crouched ‘street-fighter’ posture and held the knife out, at the ready; the shark veered away and circled warily, apparently not quite sure what to make of this new adversary.

Then the man heard the sweet roar of turboprops and he lifted his head from the sea…

+++++

“Rescue One, we have a man in the water, repeat man in the water! Dropping canister – now!”

“Ocean rescue to all searching vessels, stand by to copy coordinates…”

“Rescue One, Rescue One, there’s a shark! The man is fighting a… Holy Mother of God! Rescue One – stand by…”

+++++

With one eye he watched the life-raft canister fall from the loading platform in the rear of the C-130; with his other he watched the white tip circling just yards away. He watched the dorsal fin turn his way, turn and ready for it’s final sprint. With his eyes under the water, he watched it gain speed as the animal approached, and he slashed at the shark’s face, only this time with the little knife; again he pushed off and kicked away from slashing rows of teeth and the shark suddenly, the man thought, seemed to be getting a little pissed off. He shook as exhaustion and cold rippled through his body, mingling with the fear that burned in his chest.

“Where’s the fucking canister?” He looked up, saw the Hercules in a steep banking turn, then got his head underwater in time to see the shark…and suddenly he knew it had him now, and he knew this was the end. He was just too tired, running out of steam, and he knew the shark had been waiting, waiting for – the right moment.

And it had decided that moment was now…

The shark turned, it’s black eye never leaving the man; this final sprint seemed an impossible speed, its mouth opening as it grew near…the protective lids shutting to protect it’s eyes during this attack. The opening maw approached, and the man readied himself for the blow as best he could. He held the flashlight and the knife out ready for one more counterattack, watched the shark close the gap rapidly, remorselessly, yet he saw no pity, no feeling at all in the animal’s black eyes.

“Fuck you!” the man screamed underwater as death came for him. “I’m not giving up…”

Then his world is lost in shadow, the universe turns dark and furious, and there follows an explosion of starlight; the man lifts his head from the water – and yet – the shark’s body is hurtling upward through the air, somersaulting, its fractured guts spilling from a huge gaping wound that has opened its belly.

He turns in time to see the huge male Orca crashing back into the water, and he is too stunned to understand what has just happened. He feels something move past his legs, feels hot skin on his hands and slides his head back into the sea. The calf is there, swimming easily now, and so is its mother. When he lifts his head the male Orca is by his side, the creature’s deep black eye looking steadily into his own.

The whale drifts closer, rolls as if offering its dorsal fin; the man grabs the leading edge and the whale swims slowly toward a drifting cloud of bright, lime-green smoke. A life-raft floats under the smoke, its bright orange canopy visible through the haze. The whale descends momentarily as it closes on the raft and while the man it tempted to let go and float up to the raft – he doesn’t, he can’t – he wants to stay here forever.

The whale makes a long looping turn then rises vertically, surfacing next to the raft; the man reaches out, grabs shiny orange webbing that hangs from the side of the raft, down into the sea. The whale watches as the man climbs into the raft, then slips beneath the surface of the sea and is suddenly, quietly gone.

+++++

Papeete, Tahiti

On the waterfront, two weeks later

The man and the woman are sitting under an umbrella outside a sidewalk café, sitting beside a crowded street full of passing life. Another couple sits with them, along with a younger woman, perhaps in her twenties. They are eating within the umbrella’s cool shade, oblivious to the sun above, not quite alone now – a part of life coursing through the veins of this smug little city.

“So, what’s the verdict, man?” asks Jack Hawkins, the skipper of Achilles. His little ship had been the first to reach David in the raft, and over the past two weeks the two men had become fast friends. But so had Susan Hawkins, his wife. Call it a maternal instinct on her part, for she had nursed him back from that dark place. They sat together as close friends now, so if you must call them anything at all, call them that and be done with it.

“Not a cure, that’s what the docs said, but they think it’ll buy me some time. Maybe five years, but who knows?”

“I still can’t believe how tiny the incisions are, Dad,” the young woman sitting by David’s side says.

“I say,” Susan says, “let’s have a look.”

The man looks at these women; he shakes his head and grins, then his wife looks at him and sighs.

“You’re such a show-off!” she says, her eyes alive, full of the kind of love most people only dream about.

He stands and pulls his pants down a bit, revealing just his lower abdomen and the crack between his cheeks; there are three incisions on his smooth, white skin, each a half inch long. Everyone in the restaurant is looking at the man now, though most know who he is. For a week or so he has been a minor celebrity in the news, a sailing sensation: the ‘Man Rescued by Killer Whales!’ And so they know his story – everyone does. His celebrity is their’s, for some reason no one understands – but everyone accepts. His life is their’s now, and everyone looks at his scars. Everyone smiles, too, because they understand where he was and how impossible his being here really is.

“So, what did they do to you? Implant radioactive pellets, in the tumor itself?”

“Yep. And that’s tumors, by the way. Plural. Supposed to keep ‘em in check. And some new drug – something new that might help knock ‘em back for a while.”

“So what are you going to do now?” Susan asks, looking a little too carefully at the man and his wounds.

“I don’t know,” David says with a grin, “I’m just the First Mate here. You’d better ask the skipper.”

Everyone laughs at that, even people at nearby tables, and the man takes a long pull from his glass.

“Well? Mom? Dad? What are you going to do? Sell the boat?”

“Heavens no,” June says seriously, possessively. “Your father’s not dead, and neither am I. And just look at those peaks,” she says, pointing to Moorea. “We didn’t come this far to turn away now.”

“Here, here,” Hawkins proclaims to one and all while he pounds the table. “Too bloody right!”

“We set out to see New Zealand,” she adds, “so we’ll do just that. There’s a lot to see and do between here and what might be. The day after that? I don’t know; we’ll see which way the wind blows.”

“Sometimes I worry, Mom, that’s all.”

Mother and father look at their daughter. They smile, smiles like they’ve learned the secret of existence and want to keep it to themselves for a little while longer, then they look out to sea.

Because they understand now. They know that two hearts are stronger than one.

+++++

A week later two boats sail out of Papeete’s Passe de Taapuna and tack through the wind, begin working their way west; both are making the short hop across the narrow strait to Cook’s Bay on the north side of Moorea. The boat with the name Achilles across her stern leads, and the other boat follows close astern. There is a woman steering this second boat, and a man is standing on the bow pulpit, enjoying the feel of the wind in his hair and the spray on his face – as the air dances with it’s arms all around him.

If you were seagull perhaps, or someone sailing in the sky behind this second boat, and close enough to examine this boat more closely, you’d find the boat’s name appears to have recently been changed, from Sirius to Orca. Odd choice, you might say, but there are as many stories behind a boat’s name as there are stars in the night sky. Perhaps the couple pulled the name out of a hat. You never can tell about such things.

You might, from your lofty perspective, watch as the man steps down from the pulpit and walks back to the woman behind the wheel, and you might notice that there is a certain depth in the man’s eyes as he looks at the woman. The woman must be his wife, but you think as you watch him that there is much more going on here than that. This woman is his life, and as he sits beside her he watches her closely, watches while she eyes the sails and as she turns the wheel, adjusts their course a little to the shifting wind. The man turns and looks back at Papeete as it falls away in gray-green mist, then he looks down into the infinite blue that recedes behind their boat, beneath the smooth wake the Orca makes as she slips through this fathomless sea.

The shark still circles, the man knows as he watches shadows pass in the sea below – the shark is still out there, waiting, always waiting – for that moment. But that’s life, this strange mortal coil that holds us up to the light – within that briefest flash of time. He remembers the orca in that fragile moment, the deep curiosity within the liquid gaze that held him, when more than understanding passed between two souls – in that lift on a wave.

He takes a deep breath within the memory, and the cool sea still bathes his soul. He looks at the woman by his side once again, looks at her with that same understanding, and he knows the burden she carries. And yet his heart smiles as he watches her at the wheel, altering their course a little more – again – adjusting to the ever changing winds of their life together. She turns and looks at him, and he sighs.

There is curiosity in her eyes, too, and love. He leans back and closes his eyes, listens to the wind and the water as time slips by under the sun.

A shadow passing, then he feels her lips on his, and the salt of a tear on his lips. She sits beside him and it is as it has always been: when she leans into him that feeling comes – again. With her flesh on his, he is complete. Pure and whole as the day he was born.

Another passing gust and Orca heels into the wind, slipping through time now, soaring past shadows. A man and a woman, pure and whole, hold on to one another as the miles fall away.

(C)2009-2016 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

River Man

Bird on Hill

I worked my way through this story in 2006-7, a few years after I lost my best friend, a year after my dad passed. I was a wreck. One of the first stories I wrote about our time sailing together, if obliquely referenced. Maine through the Cape Cod Canal…I recall we stopped there once, pulling out of the main channel into a small clam shack not too far in from Mass Bay. Eating fried clams and boiled shrimp in the shade. Funny what you remember. The day before we had been sailing from Boothbay Harbor to Boston and we ran across a small whale all tangled up in gill nets. I called it in then dove in, cut a bunch of it free. Guess that made it into another story.

One comment on this story at Literotica asked if this story was ‘true’ and, in a few minor ways it is. I’ve sailed the sounds in NC a few times, Beaufort and New Berne were favorite haunts of ours.

Oh, the little guy above? He dropped by one day last winter, tired as could be, near death’s door as far as I could tell. I fed him, got some water down too, then picked him up and carried him to one of the vacant bird houses I have near the porch. He hung around ’til summer, then was gone. Called him Spud, and I’d like to think he knew the score.

Oh, yes, River Man. Title comes from the song by Nick Drake, one of my all time favorites. If you’ve not heard it before…ahem…it goes with the story pretty well. Duncan Sheik’s She Runs Away does too, as does his Rubbed Out. Never heard of Steven Wilson? Try Drive Home and The Pin Drop, from The Raven That Refused to Sing. These all go along nicely with this story.

Hope you enjoy this rewrite. Cleaned up, a little more detail in the finish.

+++++

River Man

Betty came by on her way
Said she had a word to say
About things today
And fallen leaves.

River Man  Nick Drake

I’m not sure when it hit me; this was almost the same trip we’d made the year before, but really, when does one journey end, and the next begin?

Then – as now – I had spruced up the boat, loaded her up with fuel and provisions. Then – as now – I’d left Down East Maine and sailed across Massachusetts Bay, bound for the Cape Cod Canal. Then – as now – we sailed south onto Buzzard’s Bay, then across Long Island Sound to Hell’s Gate. Waiting for a good tide, then – as now –  I recalled how we motored under a vast parade of jets landing at LaGuardia, and eventually, ran the slack tide and slipped into the East River. Then – as now – I’d wanted to stop in New York City, but frankly, the place scared Ruth. Everything scared me now. Life, love…all of it.

A year had passed,  and this was a different trip. No, trip isn’t quite right. Journey? No, not the right word at all…too open ended. Too many memories to make on a journey, and I didn’t like that past. There are too many unexamined corners in the darkness on the kind of journey we’d shared, too many choices best left undisturbed. So not a trip, not a journey. What the hell do you call running away from memory?

Nothing comes to mind, really. Kind of a void waiting for me in there.

Anyway, with Manhattan behind me I slipped into the Atlantic, made the quick sail down the Jersey coast to Cape May; we cut through the Onion Patch that guards Delaware Bay and Ruth and I fought jig-saw tides to the C&D Canal and sailed into the Chesapeake – passing Baltimore and making our way to Annapolis a few hours later. After a rest in that cloistered harbor, we sailed up the Potomac to D.C., and all-in-all that part of our trip was just as we had imagined it might be. Full of so many places we had been to before, seen now from a radically different perspective. When you approach a place from the water for the first time, even the known becomes a very different place. You can’t take anything for granted.

This year was – in some ways – no different than the last, but then again everything was different. Life on board was different now, and in so many ways that every little routine felt odd – it was as if I felt out of place – like time was – now – somehow an old, foreign land I had been to many times before, yet I was a trespasser – now. It wasn’t the boat that felt different – no, this was my world, my unmoved mover. Yet the one constant in my universe was gone, my North Star had vanished. I was adrift in a sea of stars – I couldn’t recognize. The patterns I saw in this sky were obscure; I looked at everything and saw nothing, and I now felt very, very small.

It was, you see, my first trip without Ruth.

We’d made that first voyage together almost a year ago, finally getting a taste of the life we’d scrimped and saved for, starting a new journey years in the making. To sail, to cruise, to explore all those hidden byways we’d always passed by – to keep one step ahead of memory, for as long as we could. Together.

I’d have to say now, and this is just a guess, but all that wasn’t meant to be.

We were walking from the Gangplank to the Smithsonian on a hot July morning, walking to stretch our legs, or so I thought. I heard her say ‘oh’, and that was it. She fell to the ground in silence. Someone, a physician I think, told me a few hours later she’d had a massive stroke. One minute she was alive, holding my hand as cars crawled by, frazzled commuters drumming fingers on steering wheels, and then in an instant she was gone. No goodbyes. No tears. Just a lightning bolt out of the blue, and that was that – Ruth was gone. Gone. Unimaginably gone, a forever type thing. Very seriously unfair, but I seemed to be the only one that cared.

When I left the Potomac that next September, she had been gone five weeks. I don’t know, maybe I should have sold the boat but it was our dream; I didn’t want to turn my back on our dream. I didn’t want to let her down but I returned to Maine, to our little hideaway outside of Camden. And I hid. From everything.

Somehow I started again, late that next summer. The Cape Cod Canal, the East River…all of it. I found it wasn’t too hard to sail alone, but I was lonely. Once I left New York City I understood if I stayed out to sea I would have to make changes in the way I rested, would have to remain diligently on guard for ship traffic, so as a practical matter I decided to keep to the Intra-Coastal Waterway as much as possible, to the rivers and canals that lead from the Chesapeake to the Texas-Mexican border.

The plan I had in mind was simple: I would stop at night in dusky river channels and drop anchor, or pull up small town docks and tie up for the night. Maybe a marina from time to time, in order to do laundry or make a grocery run. Eventually, after the hurricane season ended, I would – if all went according to plan – slip across the Gulf Stream from South Florida and head to the Bahamian Out Islands. Maybe venture further south. Who knew, really, what I’d do, where I might end up? Did anyone besides me care? Hell, did I care?

No, I sure didn’t. And it surprised me to realize that I simply didn’t give a damn about anything anymore.

+++++

I made my way from Norfolk, Virginia through the Great Dismal Swamp Canal and arrived in North Carolina just in time for the first cold front of the season. The temperature plummeted from the high 80s to – perhaps – the low-40s or thereabouts overnight. As I rubbed my dry white hands I tied up at the town dock in Elizabeth City and swore I’d try to take it easy for a day or three.

Because I’d been moving down the coast quickly. Why? Why so fast?

What was I running from? Why couldn’t I enjoy myself, enjoy this precious time? This time I’d stolen from Ruth. What was the point of making this journey if all I did was fly by life in a blind rush, if I didn’t get out and explore those hidden creeks and little out of the way places we’d always passed? Would I spend the rest of my life in all the dark corners I was, apparently, so afraid of? Could I accept that their was purpose in my life beyond that which had been given to us, to the time beyond what Ruth and I had, by mutual consent, shared?

So, guess what I figured out, all on my own?  Well, it’s hard to ask these kinds of questions when you know the answers don’t matter anymore.

+++++

There was a boat next to mine at the docks, and I heard a man and woman talking as I stood in the cockpit of my boat. I was coiling lines, wiping down teak, filling the water tanks. All the little things Ruth and I used to do together.

“Listen, I don’t care anymore! I’ve had it with you, with you and this silly goddamned boat! I’m going to my sister’s; you do what you’ve always done, you do what you goddamned well please, because I don’t care anymore…”

It sounded a lot like a one-way conversation to me.

“Tell you what, Hank. I’ll have my lawyer call your lawyer. Maybe then you’ll say something…maybe someone will even listen…”

More rumbling down below, then I watch as a suitcase flies up and lands in their little cockpit with a sobering thud; this followed by footsteps and the emergence of a truly mean looking woman.

“What the fuck are you looking at, asshole!”

Really, I hadn’t been aware I was looking at her. Usually I don’t like to look at such profound ugliness, but by that time I noticed there were a few dozen people gathered ‘round the docks, looking at all her commotion. I gave her a polite smile and looked away. She jumped down on the dock and the whole structure shook and thundered from the impact, then she wrestled her bag off the boat and walked toward the ramp.

I think I heard a collective sigh of relief as she walked up and disappeared from our lives.

I heard more sounds from the boat next to mine. “Hallelujah and goddamn it all to hell! Free at last…free at last…God almighty, free at last!”

I heard dancing over there. I swear to God I did.

+++++

After a while a head popped up through the companionway hatch and looked around. It looked just like a turtle, but it had on eyeglasses. I stared at the apparition mutely for a moment, in shock really, as the turtle-man scanned the dock for signs of his recently departed – dare I say – friend? Surely not wife?

“I think she’s gone,” I finally said. “You can come out now.”

Turtle-man turned to the sound of my voice. He blinked slowly, took in my form, working out in his mind, I suppose, if I was a threat or not.

“Fuckin’-A. Uh, sorry, man. About that bullshit.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “C’est la guerre,” I had managed to say; the Turtle-man blinked again, lost. Then the man walked out into the cockpit of his boat and stretched, walked over to the lifelines and leaned over toward mine.

“Hi. Name’s Hank Peterson. And thanks.”

I stood, took his hand. “Hank? Nice to, uh, meet you.”

“You gotta name, by any chance?” he asked.

“Yes, Hank, I do.” I smiled at him. He looked expectantly at me as I sat back down in shade of my awning. I picked up the tea I’d just fixed and took a tentative sip.

“Man-o-man,” this Turtle-man said, “it’s a little early in the day for scotch, isn’t it?”

I turned my back to the guy, hoped he’d get the message and move on.

“Well, I gotta run into town and pick up some groceries. Need anything, just yell!”

“Will do, Hank. Have a nice time.”

+++++

I slipped away a little later that afternoon and walked into town. There was a little museum, a couple of nice little knick-knack shops among the usual commercial storefronts, but I just wasn’t into it and walked over to what looked like a wine and cheese shop. There was a nice looking woman behind the counter and I picked up some Riesling and cheese and was walking the two blocks back to the docks when Turtle-man appeared from behind a row of buildings, walking my way.

“Hey, ship-mate! Find the wine store?” He stopped, clearly expecting me to as well.

With a newspaper in hand I walked right by him and never said a word. I think I heard him laugh a little as he faded away.

+++++

I got my stuff down below and into the refrigerator, then hopped into the shower. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d showered, and I thought if I was slipping like that maybe it was time to check-out the local funny farms. I looked at myself in the mirror, didn’t like what I saw so put on fresh clothes and shaved, just generally cleaned myself up a bit, then moved to the galley. I opened up the wine I’d just bought, sliced some cheese, then set the stuff out in the cockpit and took a seat as afternoon gave way to evening, and sat there feeling kinda like ‘all dressed up and no place to go’ was playing on a jukebox somewhere on the far side of my gorgeously blazing sunset.

“Hey partner! Man, you sure made some kind of impression on that lady at the cheese shop!”

I turned, looked at Turtle-man. His almost bald head really was kind of turtle-like, I saw, and the sudden impression was instantly hysterical. I choked on some wine and tried to regain a smattering of composure as my eyes watered, but it was pointless, futile, and I broke out laughing.

“Hey, buddy, get a hold of yourself, wouldya?! I told her you were in the boat next to mine and she got all interested, asked if she could come down and meet you. I said ‘why not’! She’s going to be here in a half hour or so.”

“You know something, asshole? You really should mind your own fucking business!” Suddenly as pissed off as I could be, I grabbed my bottle and my cheese and ducked down below, slamming the companionway hatch shut and sliding the barrel-bolt in place.

There, I was safe now! Just like a turtle, in fact, slipping back into his little armored world. Man, did I ever know how to run away.

+++++

I woke the next morning and tidied up the boat, went into town to pick up some new charts and a newspaper, then came back to the boat and fired up the diesel. As the engine warmed-up, Turtle-man poked his head out his hatch and it looked at me.

“You taking off?” he asked.

“Yes, Hank, I am. Sorry.”

“You headed south?”

I grunted nonsensically while I cast off my lines and backed out of the slip, then moved off down the Elizabeth River. I looked back once to see Turtle-man working on his boat, and suddenly felt happy to be free of the guy.

Free at last, indeed. God almighty.

+++++

The Waterway south of Elizabeth City crosses open sounds and traverses swamp and marsh land as it arcs south and west across North Carolina. Rivers traverse the waterway; the rivers have to be constantly dredged to keep them from silting up the channel, and storms can always be counted on to drop trees into the water. These things tend to lurk just beneath the surface, where your basic, happy wanderer can run afoul of invisibly jutting stumps and soggy limbs.

Which is exactly what I did about three hours after leaving the dock in Elizabeth City. I felt something bang up against the keel and corrected course back toward what I thought was the center of the channel, then heard the prop smacking something quite solid; as the boat shuddered from the impact I felt the keel knifing into nice thick ooze.

I had run aground. Right where my chartplotter showed a nice, solid nine foot depth; I was stuck in what had suddenly become less than five feet of chocolate-coffee colored water. Then, just to make things more interesting, the water alarm from the bilge pump went off, indicating that there was a leak down below.

Oh, yippee! This was why I bought a boat, wasn’t it?

I jumped below and whipped open the bilge inspection port and saw a nice healthy flow of that very same chocolate-coffee colored water now running into my boat. I ducked into the engine compartment and saw water running along the propeller shaft, and traced the flow back to the shaft packing gland; I slipped a wrench around it and tightened it up; the water slowed to a trickle, then stopped altogether.

Good. Problem one solved. Now on to number two.

I poled around the boat with a boat hook and felt solid mud from the middle of the boat forward, and open water behind me. Good news there, too. Now all I had to do was back out into the channel, assuming the propeller was still in good shape.

I restarted the engine and put the boat into reverse. Nothing happened. I retried the process, and once again the engine turned up – and nothing happened. Either the transmission was damaged, or the prop had come off the shaft. Knowing the waters around here were full of alligators – and an interesting variety of truly foul snakes – I wasn’t about to go in and take a look, so I inflated the Zodiac, mounted the outboard, and ran out with some line and began to pull on the boat – see if I could dislodge it from the mud.

It didn’t budge. Not one bit, but you already knew that, didn’t you? But, and this is interesting, who do you think popped into view right about then?

Yes. Turtle-man. The one and only. I was the one running, wasn’t I? And here he came, slow and steady, like a tree under the surface.

+++++

“Looks like you’re having some real fun this morning,” he said.

“Yes indeed, Hank. A fucking blast,” I managed to say, wondering where my beta-blockers were.

“Need a hand?” No guile on his face, just a steady hand.

“It wouldn’t hurt.” Ah, this rabbit’s gonna get his comeuppance today, isn’t he?

Hank dug around in a locker and pulled out a huge towing bridle and coiled it up.

“Here, come run this to your stern,” he said as he stood up and moved to the rail. I motored over and picked up the bridle, then moved over to my boat and rigged it up.

“Alright!” I yelled across the water.

“You pull in that direction,” he said as he pointed off to my right. “I’ll pull in that direction,” indicating my left side.

I motored over to the indicated angle and looked back at Turtle-man; it really was amazing, the guy looked just like a big brown turtle as he moved behind the wheel of his sailboat. He looked over to me as he drifted away from me, then…

“You ready!?” he shouted, and I gave him the ‘thumbs up’. I twisted the throttle and felt the back of the inflatable dig into the water as the tow-line went taut, and I looked across the water to see the water behind Turtle-man’s boat churning away. After a few moments I felt we were making headway, and sure enough my boat popped free of the mud, and I raced over to keep it from flying across the narrow channel and running aground on the other side. Turtle-man moved along side too and I tossed him a line. Soon we were rafted together, making way slowly down channel.

“What happened,” he yelled across to me – shouting to be heard over the sound of his motor.

“Hit a stump, ran aground. Something wrong with the prop!”

“What’s it doing?!”

“Put it in gear, nothing happens!”

“Transmission linkage! Did you check that?!”

“Not yet! But I had a big leak from the stuffing box!”

“Go check the linkage; I’ll hold us in the channel!”

I went below, squirmed my way into the engine compartment and with my flashlight in one hand felt the link with my other. Seemed intact to me, but I knew it would have to be checked under power. I backed out of the cramped space and went back up into the light.

“Seems tight!” I yelled, but then I noticed we were drifting quietly in mid channel. “Maybe I should try again.”

“Don’t bother. I can see your strut and shaft; the prop’s gone. Got a spare?”

“Yeah, but Hank, these waters are full of big-bad monsters, if you know what I mean.”

“Well, Belhaven ain’t too far ahead; I can tow you there.”

“You headed that way?”

“Yeah, come on, let’s hook up a tow line. Maybe we can get to the marina in time for someone to take a look at it…”

+++++

We did just that, too. It turned out the prop had indeed come off, something very rare indeed. Probably corrosion on the retaining nut, the mechanic said. We mounted my spare prop and checked the transmission linkage, and the mechanic adjusted that, too, after he tweaked the stuffing box again. We were back in the water by sunset.

Hank was already tied up in the little marina, and I motored over and tied up beside his boat. He had his charcoal grill set up on the stern rail of his boat and was grilling steak.

“Did they get it done?” he yelled out.

“Yes indeed. Thanks again, Hank. Couldn’t have done it without you.”

“You hungry?”

I looked at him for a second, realized I hadn’t eaten all day and was indeed very hungry. The steak smelled good, too, goddamn it! “Sure.”

“Well, I got two steaks on, and a salad ready to go. Come on over.”

“Yeah, well, thanks Hank. Let me wash up. Can I bring anything?”

“Got any more of that Scotch?”

“No. No Scotch. How ‘bout some iced tea?”

“Well, if that’s all you got…”

I laughed and went below, came up a few minutes later with a pitcher of tea and some ice.

“You got ice?!” he cried when he saw my little ice bucket.

“Hell yes, Hank. There are some things you can live without. Ice ain’t one of ‘em.”

“You put away all that Scotch the other night?”

“It was tea. Sorry.”

“No shit? Well, like your steak about medium?”

We sat in his cockpit and put down a pitcher of tea with the steak and salad, talked about the day’s fun and games, and I thanked him once again for the helping hand. We talked about his wife – he wanted to talk about her, as it turned out – and about the commotion she’d made. Then he asked about, well, me.

“So, you traveling alone?”

“Yes.”

“Divorced, huh?”

“No.” I could feel myself tightening up, bracing for the inevitable.

“Ah. When did she pass away?”

That question rattled me; not just the question itself, but the prescience behind it.

I looked away.

“So, I got some carrot cake at the grocery in Elizabeth City. Want some?”

I shook myself back into the present, looked around, remembered where I was. Hank was clearing dishes and climbing down below. He came up a few minutes later with a bottle of rum and a couple of shot glasses, then poured a couple of stiff ones.

“Here. Try this,” he said as he tossed back the glass. I looked at him and did the same. It burned, but it felt good, too. He poured another, and another. Pretty soon I couldn’t feel my feet. The knees went next. I think.

“So, what’s your name?”

“Oh, yeah. We never got around to that, did we? Uh, Ghent, Martin Ghent.” I held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Yeah. Likewise.” We shook hands. Again. “So, when did your wife die?”

I guess I was drunk enough by that point to not give a tinker’s damn. “Not quite a year ago,” I managed to get out, but with that admission the dam broke; I started crying. Hanks response was to pour another drink, which he slid over to me.

“Might as well get it out of your system tonight, Marty. It’s like poison, it’s killing you.”

+++++

When I woke up the next morning my head felt like a latrine. My eyes burned and my teeth hurt. God, rum is vile stuff, which is of course why I drink it – on occasion to excess. The night before must’ve been one of those occasions.

I was in my boat, and didn’t have the slightest idea how I got here. I like those sudden epiphanies. Very good way to get the eyes open.

I put on some coffee, moved forward to take a shower, then went up into the cockpit to eat some fruit and look over the weather charts before the day’s run.

“Ah, It lives!” I heard Hank say from the dock beside me.

“What the hell did you give me last night?” I asked as he stood there in the sun. “Battery acid?”

“Nah, nothing so tame. Just some rum, then a little of Mr Cuervo’s finest.”

“Oh, God! Not Tequila! How much did I puke?!”

“I don’t know, Marty,” he said as he pointed at the side of my boat, “but I’ll bet the fish around here were pretty well fed.”

That wasn’t an altogether happy thought. My stomach was still rumbling as I leaned over and looked at the garp all over my otherwise pristine hull.

“So, where you off to this morning,” he asked, obviously still impressed with last night’s performance.

“New Bern, I think. Want to hole up there before this weather blows through.”

“What weather? Oh, you got a weather-fax in there too?”

“Yeah. Tropical depression moving up the coast. Might strengthen.”

“Shit. I was thinking of hanging here for a few days, but not if something like that’s brewing. New Bern sounds like the best place for that. Mind if I tag along.”

“Hell no, Hank. I’ll buy you a steak tonight!”

“You’re on!”

+++++

I beat Hank there by an hour or so, and tied up at the huge marina that belonged to nice looking waterfront hotel, and the marina there was filling up with folks looking for a secure spot to ride out the approaching storm. While I was signing in, I asked the harbormaster if there was room for one more boat.

“How big?” he asked.

“I think it’s an Island Packet 29.”

“Yeah, right there by the pool. It’ll be tight, but it’ll be fine for a 29.”

“Well, let me sign him in. There a good place for a steak around here?

“Well, the hotel is good, and you don’t have to walk far!’ he said with a sly grin. “They’ll even bring it down to the boat – you know, like room service!”

As I was walking back to the boat I saw Hank’s boat coming under the big highway bridge, and jumped down into the cockpit and flipped on the radio.

“Hanky-Panky, this is Liebestod , go to 23.”

“Marty? That you? This place looks full?!”

“Come on in. I got a slip for you; just turn in the breakwater and come down this first pier to the right – right past my boat. I’ll wait for you by the spot, have your lines ready for a starboard side docking.”

“Ten-four, Marty! Thanks!”

+++++

“Hey Marty, hope you don’t mind, but I called that woman in Elizabeth City. She came by last night, wanted to meet you.”

Marty had docked his boat and thanked me again, and grabbed his shower stuff and ambled off to the marina’s shower facilities without so much as a peep. Now I knew what he was up too, and I was a little angry.

“Listen, Hank, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not ready for that kinda thing just yet, and I don’t need anyone pulling this kinda crap on me, okay?”

“Yeah, Marty, whatever you say. She’s bringing a friend, too, so don’t fuck this up for me, OK? Been a long time since I got laid, alright?”

I shook my head, let slip a little laugh as I walked back to my boat while I wondered just what the hell he’d gotten us into.

+++++

There was a knock on the side of my hull.

“Martin! You there?”

I trudged back up the companionway. The sky was full of dark, menacing clouds.

“You got that weatherfax on? Guy up on the dock said that storm has been upgraded to a hurricane.”

I looked around. No women.

“No, I’ve had it off all afternoon. Come on down; I’ll fire it up and print one off.”

“No, that’s alright,” he said, then turned when he heard someone calling out his name. I looked down the dock and saw two women walking our way. “That’s them,” I heard him say. “Come on, Marty,” he whispered conspiratorially.“Please, don’t fuck this up for me!”

I climbed up into the cockpit in time to hear raindrops falling on my cockpit awning, and looked up to see the women running the final few yards toward the boat. Shit! One of ‘em was wearing high heels! Not on my teak decks! No!

That’s what I remember thinking! Their shoes killing my decks!

“Shoes off!” Hank yelled as the women pulled up short. “Shoes off and hop on!”

+++++

We were sitting down below. I had the weatherfax on and the VHF set to NOAA channel one. The hurricane, now a Category Two monster – and building – was predicted to make landfall somewhere between Myrtle Beach and Cape Hatteras tomorrow, about noon. We were right in the middle of the bullseye, so to speak, but in a well protected spot if ever there was one. Not much to do, anyway, but warp out some extra lines in the morning and lay out all my fenders.

“Isn’t this exciting!” Susan Cooke said. Susan was Hank’s date. “Mine” was one Betty Hutton, and she hadn’t said much since coming aboard. She just looked around at everything like she was taking inventory. Very weird, very disconcerting. Very paranoid.

“Yeah? I’ve never heard hurricanes being described as exciting!” Hank said. “I would think coming from this area you might have been through one or two.”

“I’m new here,” Susan said.

“I’m hungry!” Hank said.

“And I don’t want to go out in the rain!” Susan said.

“Oh hell, Susan, it’s not going to hurt you!” This from Betty Hutton.

“Well, there’s always Room Service!” I said, and everyone thought that uproariously funny. “Uh, no, I’m serious. We’re guests at the hotel, and they have room service. The guy at the harbormaster’s office gave me a menu, and we’re hooked up to the hotel’s phone system”

Everyone looked at me like I’d just grown another head. It was beginning to look like this was going to be an evening for wine, so I went and fetched a bottle from the fridge and popped the cork.

“Ooh, I love Champagne!” bubbled Susan, but Betty looked at her with motherly concern.

“It’s not the best in the world, but it’ll do,” I said as I poured four glasses. I went back into the salon and passed around the glasses. I watched as the women took a sip.

“Nice, very nice,” Betty said appreciatively.

“Ooh, I love it,” Susan said as she tossed it down. “Could I have some more?!” Betty winced as I took Susan’s glass and walked back to the galley. I didn’t hear Betty get up and follow me.

“What is that, Martin? Dom Perignon?”

She looked at the bottle and gasped as I poured Susan another glass, this time filling it to the rim.

“Don’t do this. Don’t do this, Martin.” I saw Betty’s mouth moving, but I heard Ruth’s voice.

“I bought it for an anniversary. Won’t be needing it anymore, so just let me get rid of the stuff, okay?”

Betty turned – clearly exasperated – and walked back to sit by Susan, and I saw Betty whispering in Susan’s ear as I returned with the full glass. Susan’s eyes went wide, and she frowned as I put the glass down. I put some music from the fifties on the CD player, and sat back to watch the festivities. The Moonglow Theme from the movie Picnic – one of our all time favorites – filled the boat with overwhelming memories, and I sat back and looked at the ceiling as my eyes filled with tears.

I heard people leaving the boat; footsteps on wet teak – then the companionway hatch sliding open, followed by a blast of warm, storm-driven air – and they were, I assumed when I heard the hatch slide shut, gone.

“Sorry Hank,” I said through my tears to the emptiness grabbing me by the throat. “Sorry to let you down like that.”

“Oh, somehow I think Hank and Susan can take care of themselves.”

I jumped at the sound of her voice. ‘Ruth? Ruth? Is that you?’

I looked around the boat; the lights were now turned down very low, music continued to play softly – Dianne Reeves singing I’ve Got My Eyes On You – and I saw Betty sitting there in the gloom, right where she had been all evening. She was looking at me. Looking just like that physician who told me Ruth was gone.

+++++

“Tell me about her.”

I heard her voice, but she wasn’t real, this couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be happening…

“Martin, listen to me.” It was Betty again. “Hank’s told me a little bit about . . . about your wife, on the telephone. You can’t hang on to this stuff. At some point you’ve got to let go.”

I looked at the woman – this stranger, really – telling me what I needed to do, about how I should handle my grief, and all I wanted to do was show her the way out, be rid of her, be alone with my memories of Ruth. Oh, Ruth! Why?

“Listen, uh, Betty. I don’t really feel up to this tonight, you know, so, if you’ll please just excuse me.”

“Martin, sit down.”

I could see this wasn’t going to be easy. I remember thinking I probably looked like her Sugar-Daddy savior, come riding through town on his yacht-yuppie sailboat with big bucks in his back pocket and just ready to carry her away to the bright lights of her favorite big city.

You know, after jumping to conclusions so many times those past few days, you’d have thought I was getting kind of tired by then.

No way. I had a couple more lessons to learn.

And little did I know I had just run into the teacher.

+++++

Once upon a time, when I was an impressionable young man and still in college, I had been an unconscionably optimistic person. I believed in people, in the joy people were capable of feeling in the company of others, and in the joy I was capable of passing along to others. I had, again – once upon a time – taken a philosophy class. Now that in and of itself is no crime, though of course I know a strong argument can be made to the contrary, but in any case, my motives for taking the class were pure in the extreme. The prof was a total babe.

Fresh out of graduate school, she was an untenured radically hip-chic that half the guys on campus had the hots for. Her classes were packed with jocks and all the other Big Men On Campus who were out to drown her classroom in testosterone and Aqua-Velva; pretty soon it was apparent that while Hip-chic (kind of) enjoyed the attention she was getting in class, she wasn’t interested in guys that came to class wearing big gold chains around their necks and drove around campus at fifty miles per in their orange Corvettes – still in first gear, mind you. Just too many people moving around in circles, I suppose, and she was a straight down the middle of the road type.

Her name was Ruth Jorgensen, and seven years after I took that class we got married.

She used to talk a lot about the geometry of the heart, about the diametric opposites that define how humans experience the, well, the human. These opposites insured, she maintained, that human affairs tended to the cyclical, that humans moved from one experience to it’s polar opposite in endless cycles. Intellectual progress was almost impossible; as a species we were and always would be locked in a tooth and nail struggle for dominion over other humans because, she said, people couldn’t learn from their mistakes. We were narcissists through and through. Egoists to the bitter end. In a Freudian sense, we were so blindly consumed with the playing out of our own death wish we couldn’t make out the broad contours of the effects our lives cycles had on others. People everywhere, and endless profusion of intersecting cycles, never ending collisions. Being and becoming. The endless enigma, running through our lives like a river.

Now I know when people start quoting Freud it’s time to run screaming from the room, but there was something about this professor’s hopelessness that touched me. I went to her office in the faculty building one day after class was over, presumably to ask her a question about a point she had made in that day’s lecture, and as it happened no one was waiting in line at her office door (and I think it reasonable to add here that by mid-semester the jocks had given up all hope of nailing her, and so had dropped the class).

She looked up when I knocked on her door, and seemed surprised to see me.

I think I asked her about rule utilitarianism – or some such deontological bullshit – and that really threw her for a loop. I think by that point the poor girl had been propositioned by every pretender on campus, and I watched her eyes blink a few times as it registered that I was (shock! gasp!) actually asking her a question about – holy shit – something we’d covered in class. I’m not saying the girl fainted dead away, but you could have heard a mouse fart in that office for the next thirty or so seconds.

Anyway, we talked for an hour or three and, to make a long story even longer, after a while she chided me about being overly optimistic about human nature. I asked her if it was possible that she was being – again, possibly – overly cynical. Again, a flatulent mouse floating air muffins would have made either of us jump in the silence that followed.

She pointed to a framed poster behind me on the wall, and asked me to turn and read it.

The poster was a photograph of Friedrich Nietzsche, with one of his more delicate aphorisms nicely printed along the bottom, under his nicely scowling face. It summed up her point of view quite nicely: ‘In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence, and loathing seizes him.’

When you really get your head around a saying like that, you can kinda see why the Nazis had such a thing for Nietzsche. And see, the thing is, I married this girl.

Anyway, I wasn’t buying it that day, and after thirty years of marriage, I still didn’t buy into it.

Only after Ruth sighed ‘Oh!’ and dropped dead to the asphalt like a sack of rocks did I buy into it; only then did Nietzsche become my patron saint.

+++++

As we sat in the darkness below, the storm drew strength from the chaos of life on earth and an ill wind began to moan in the rigging. It’s almost a cliché, I know, but unless you’ve heard wind in the rigging before, you really have no idea how deeply rooted that sound is in our – all too human – consciousness. And like the wind, as I sat down below telling my story to Betty Hutton, I drew strength from the chaos of my life, and the song of my sorrow bathed the womb of that night in tremulous decrescendos.

Ruth continued to work in academia for twenty five more years, and we met again, quite by accident, when I came home from Vietnam a few years later, just before I started flying for Braniff. We lived in Chicago most of our lives; even after Braniff went bankrupt I got on with a small airline, and eventually, with United. We had a boy, he loved to fly and followed my footsteps into the Navy.

He managed to get killed flying a peace-keeping mission in Somalia.

It’s those little ironies that give Nietzsche his punch. Take my word for it, would you?

We worked hard after that, worked hard playing our roles. Me, the perpetual optimist, Ruth the cynic who had turned her back on the basic assumptions of her life when she said ‘yes, I’ll marry you.’ As we grew into the reality that life did in fact go on, as we accepted the basic preconditions of living in a completely absurd state, we decided to go after the one shared dream we had both harbored for many years.

We’d buy a sailboat and explore our world. It was audacious, and we knew it, but it was our shining beacon. That dream kept us alive. One day, the dream became our shared reality, and we held it close.

Then my wife, the one love of my life, let go of my hand as she said ‘Oh’ – and that was it. That was me, in a turtle’s shell.

When I finished my tale I looked over to see Betty Hutton in tears. Quiet tears, quiet sighs of understanding. She knew where I was, what I was confronting.

She told me she had never been married, never experienced having a child. She had worked in D.C.; worked for her uncle. He happened to be in Congress – had been for as long as anyone could remember, too. She’d gone to Georgetown Law and straight on her uncle’s staff; she had managed her uncle’s one very unsuccessful run at the White House, and had remained on-board long after all the political hacks and wannabes had moved on to greener pastures. Her uncle had passed away a few years ago, and the old man had left her more than a little money. She took some of it and opened up an antique shop in Elizabeth City, and when that didn’t work out, she opened up the wine and cheese shop. She had wanted, she said, to live a quiet life near where she had grown up, and never wanted to see Washington, D.C., ever again.

Many of the people who frequented her shop were sailors passing through on the Waterway, and frequently she asked these patrons about their vagabond lives. She found these stories fascinating, and had recently begun to think about buying a boat of her own, about maybe taking a trip or two on her own now and then.

She said when I walked into her store that she knew in an instant our lives had intersected. All things, she said, happen for a reason.

She was, she said, an eternal optimist. There was, I saw, a lot of lightning along the southern horizon.

+++++

The wind continued to build through the night while Betty Hutton and I stayed up talking, and I think it fair to say we were creating a little storm our own.

“So, why do you think you feel this connection?” I asked her at one point.

“I don’t know.”

“Fair enough. What do you want from me?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t think that’s the right question, Martin.”

“Alright. What’s the right question?”

“Why did you walk into my shop the other night?”

“I don’t know. I wanted some Riesling?”

She smiled at that. I had to give her that, she was tolerant of my warped sense of humanity.

“You’re being obtuse, Martin.”

“Thank God!”

Another smile. This time I smiled back. Was I flirting with her?

“Sun’s coming up. Did you say you needed to do something with the lines?”

I stood and walked over to the chart table, tapped the barometer: 28.82 and falling. Not good. I cued up the weather-fax and waited for the query to load. A moment later the paper started to roll from the machine and a map of the weather system dropped into my hand. The hurricane looked like it was going to come ashore right over Cape Hatteras, much less than a hundred miles from here, and it had been upgraded to Category 3. Still, the forecast said it looked like it might weaken as it drove north during the morning and I looked at the clock: it was seven in the morning! It should be light out, I said to myself, but it still looked like it was pitch-black outside.

It was time to go up for a look see, so I put on a jacket and headed up the companionway steps. I stepped out into the middle of a maelstrom. Rain whipped my face, and I saw a couple of loose lines flaying about on the boat next to mine, banging my teak decks as they danced around. I ran to secure them when I saw it.

A waterspout. Oh…joy.

The sky was purple-black and pewter-green, yet the waterspout looked like a pale white snake writhing in the air as it danced along the water. I couldn’t say for sure, but it looked as though it was headed right for us. I tied off the errant line and ducked below, turned on the radar and waited impatiently while the unit warmed up.

“What’s wrong?” Betty Hutton said.

“Here,” I said as the radar came alive. She moved over to me while the glow from the radar screen filled the space around us with red and green shadows. “A waterspout. I want to get a track on it.”

“Isn’t that like a tornado? Where is it?” She sounded more than a little alarmed.

“There,” I said as I pointed at the screen. Right on cue a Civil Defense siren went off. “It’s about a half mile from here, headed up river.”

“Is it going to hit us?” Now their was some tension in her voice. I looked at the screen, held a little transparent ruler up to it and watched it for a moment.

“No. It’s going to hit on the far side of that bridge,” I said with more confidence than I felt.

“You seem so sure of yourself. Do you get that from flying?”

“Hmm? Oh, no, I got that from being married to the biggest pessimist that ever lived.”

+++++

After the waterspout moved away from the area, I went back up and began to lay out extra lines to every cleat I could find on the dock. I – like every one else now moving about frantically on the dock – assumed that the breakwater and dock would keep the storm surge away and hold us securely in place. I figured if the surge was so bad it might swamp the marina we’d just make for the hotel and have a margarita or two. Hell, it was just a hurricane!

I walked over to Hanks boat; still no extra lines out so I knocked on the hull, called out his name. A couple of minutes later Hank’s turtle head popped up from the companionway.

“You alright down there?” I asked him. Hell, who knows. Maybe I was grinning.

He smiled and flashed a thumbs up. “How ‘bout you?” he said, eyeing me with concern.

“Better get on up here; I’ll help you lay out some lines. You just missed all the excitement.”

“Excitement?”

“Yeah. Waterspout just blew by, right there by the bridge.”

Hank’s eyes went wide and he dropped from view. I heard some bumping around down below, and a moment later he popped back up the companionway and jumped onto the dock.

“Got any extra line,” he asked.

“You gotta be kidding me!” I said, the disbelief in my voice clear. I went back to my stern locker and pulled out two extra anchor lines I kept in reserve and moved to help him tie them off to the pier.

“Betty still with you?” he yelled as a strong gust whipped through the marina.

“Yeah. That other one still with you?”

“Yeah. Miserable bitch!”

“Maybe we can talk about this later,” I yelled over another particularly vicious blast. “Better get below!” I patted him on his wet shoulder and ran for my boat. When I looked around, he was still out there looking at the sky. I swear to God he looked more and more like a turtle with each passing day.

+++++

I turned on the sailing instruments and looked at the wind speed. Unfortunately, the gauge topped out at a hundred miles per hour, and the needle was pegged at the maximum. I flipped on the VHF and listened to NOAA weather radio. Wind speed at the Cape was one twenty and rising, but the storm was moving rapidly now to the east, moving rapidly out to sea.

“I think we just dodged a bullet,” I said to Betty. I had a chart out and began plotting the storm’s center. Once she saw what I was laying out on the chart she grasped the implications immediately.

“Do you think we could go to bed now?” she said, a twinkle in her eye.

“Surely, Ma’am, not on the first date!” I said with feigned outrage dancing across my face.

But that’s exactly what we did. Several times, as a matter of fact.

Then as the winds outside subsided in the afternoon, she got dressed and left. She didn’t even say goodbye, but that wasn’t entirely unexpected. Not in my little corner of the darkness.

+++++

So, two hurricanes in one day.

One hurricane moved out to sea; there wasn’t even any storm surge in the marina the rest of that day. All of us moved around the piers that evening clearing up the tangled mess of dock-lines we’d stretched all over the place that morning (in our frenzied desire for security), and it was all very fun. A sense of community builds after shared experience that intense, and there was almost a party atmosphere in the evening that followed. But not for me.

For you see, I had had a close encounter with Hurricane Betty.

She came to me in my hour of need and – like a hurricane – completely tore my world apart. I went to bed that evening – exhausted from the effects of her winds – and slept so soundly I didn’t dream. And that may have been a good thing; I’d probably have only been able to dream of Ruth, yet I already felt guilty enough for having enjoyed Betty so. I didn’t need that much guilt in my dreams, I reckoned.

We had – Betty and I – walked our own geometry of the heart through that day, experienced our own diametric opposites as we moved from our first tentative explorations to what had felt like sybaritic abandon. She was indeed a skillful interrogator, and pretty mad in the sack, too.

I woke the next day to a world sunny and cool; there was an autumnal snap in the air, and the rains and winds had swept the world clean.

Hank was on the foredeck of his little Island Packet running some sealant along a hatch.

“Hey partner!” he called out when he looked up and saw me. “Did you sleep through the party?”

“Party?”

“Yeah, up by the pool. Started about eight, went to God only knows how late. Hell, everyone in town was here!”

I just looked at him blankly and shook my head.

“What the hell happened between you and Betty?” he asked.

“I don’t know. It was nice, and . . .” And what? How could you describe what happened?

“She came over, seemed lost. She and Susan took off about four.”

“Did she say anything to you?” I asked. I wanted to know. Really. Hell, maybe I needed to know.

“No, not really. Like I said; she just looked lost. What happened?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know, Hank. She ripped my world apart, then just walked out.”

“Hey buddy, I may not know up from down most days, but I’d say if anyone’s world was ripped apart, it was hers.”

“Yeah? Well, what are you working on?”

He looked at me for a second, then down at the hatch he was working on. “I don’t know, man; something came down on the plexiglass and whacked it. Nice hairline crack in it. You think silicone will seal it?”

“Well, it’ll seal it until the first time someone steps on it, then it’ll split and leak again.”

“Fuck.”

“Nothing for it but to replace the thing, especially if you plan on going offshore.”

“Bahamas,” he said.

“Gulf Stream,” I said. “Come on, we’d better head up to the store and see if we can find a replacement. If not, you’ll have to call IP.”

“Yeah, guess so. Let me grab some shoes.”

We walked up the pier to the harbormasters office and went in to get directions to a marine supply store. There were a couple in town, and we got addresses.

“Ah, you Mr Ghent?”

“Yes.”

“Got a note for you here,” the man said as he dug an envelope out from under a pile of papers on his desk. “Woman dropped it off here yesterday afternoon.”

I took it from him. The envelope was hotel stationary; the handwriting unfamiliar. I slipped it in my pocket and Hank and I walked out into the afternoon, looking for a taxi.

+++++

As the sun set, Hank and I finished installing his new hatch and I invited him over for his steak. I did it, I called Room Service and had them bring down a raft of t-bones and shrimp cocktails and – well – a bottle of Dewars. I set the CD to play Ella Fitzgerald in the cockpit, and put up the cockpit table just as the white-jacketed waiter rolled our cart to the side of the boat.

We – Hank and I – sat in the afterglow of a really magnificent sunset and wolfed down shrimp and steak, then picked at cheesecake for a while as we sipped Scotch.

“So, what happened with that – er, with you and Susan?” I asked as the night settled in around us.

“Oh, you know . . .” he said quietly, and his voice trailed off into the night.

“No, I don’t know. That’s why I asked, Hank.”

“Oh, well, I think it turned out she wanted a go at you and was kinda pissed off at Betty for moving in on you so fast.” I looked across at Turtle-man – not the best looking guy to come along, that much was certain – and I felt kinda sorry for him. “So, you never said, how was Betty? She work out OK for you?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, Hurricane Betty. Yeah, Hank, she’s something.”

“Was that letter from her, the one from the harbormasters’.”

“Shit!” It was still in my pocket, unopened, and I reached for it.

“You haven’t read it yet?!” Hank asked incredulously.

I pulled out the envelope and held it up for him to see.

“Prick,” I think he said.

‘Martin,’ the note began. ‘I know we shared something special, maybe even something beyond special, but I don’t know if you’re ready to face the consequences of the moment yet. You have a choice to make. Let me know. I think I love you. Betty.’

“Well?”

“Seems I have, according to her, a choice to make.”

“What?”

“Very serious, this one is, Hankster. Very serious indeed.”

“My advice to you? Run like the wind, Marty. Turn and run like the fucking wind!”

Maybe life is that simple for some people. Find someone, and like a bee in a forest of petals, land and spread your seed and move off into the breeze, toward the next flower, always moving toward that next epiphany. Always moving…never satisfied…always…lonely and looking.

You have a choice to make.

It’s always about choice, isn’t it? Forget about right and wrong, good and evil; those aren’t relevant or even helpful constructs to hold onto when confronting choices dripping with implications of fate and destiny.

Like Nietzsche said, there is no objective right or wrong, only what men choose to make right.

You have a choice too make.

I could leave the marina in the morning, head down the river to the ICW, and make my choice there.

Turn right, head south, away from Elizabeth City and Betty Hutton, or turn to the left and return to her, see what future I could build in that woman’s arms.

Is that what I wanted? It always boils down to being and becoming, doesn’t it?

Did I want to fall into the arms of the first woman I ran into? Wasn’t that emotionally childish? Did I really feel an attachment to her, or had she simply read me like an open book, understood my need and acted on it? She was a lawyer, right?

And just what can you say about a woman who claims to have such a profound understanding of the future that she can divine a connection between two people?

Do you mock that? Walk away from an assumed gift?

Or do you respect that person’s gift, as incomprehensible as it may seem to you in the moment, and follow her intuition?

“What about you, Hank? Was that woman causing all the ruckus in Elizabeth City your wife?”

He looked down at his feet. “Yeah. I’ve been running from her all my life, Marty. I used to think I loved her, but you know, it’s hard to love someone so mean it hurts all the time.”

“So, why did she leave?”

“I guess she thought if she had me trapped on a boat, in such a confined space, she could murder my soul one inch at a time. When that didn’t work out, when I started in on her, I guess she decided she’d had enough. Serves the bitch right!”

I looked at Turtle-man as he said that and for the first time in my life I knew what it felt like to really pity another man.

“Oh? Why would she want to do that, Hank? Murder your soul, I mean?”

“She’s evil, Marty, an evil, blood-sucking hell-bitch!”

It wasn’t too hard to see it, in the end. Two people diametrically opposed in want and desire, locked in endless struggles for dominion over the other, each never bothering to understand the impulses driving the other until in narcissistic rage they pummeled each other figuratively to death. Nothing in common, in the end, but hate for one another. That was all too human.

How many people settle for that? Settle for such easy dominion when there is so much beauty out there waiting to be explored? Yeah, I know. My hypocrisy is boundless, isn’t it? Me, speaking from my dark little corner of hell.

Hank would continue to search for another woman just like his wife, for another woman to bully, and who would bully him, until they self-destructed again and again. So futile, yet so human. Round and round we go. But why pity the man? He’s just running through his program, the lines of code written eons ago.

Had Ruth and I not done the same thing? Was Turtle-man just a mirror of my soul?

Hadn’t Ruth and I been diametrically opposed in outlook? Why, then, had we ultimately been so compatible? Had we been secure enough in our own world-view to accommodate the other’s? To turn away from bludgeoning the other with our own singular truthes?

What was there in Betty, I wondered, that made her so like Ruth. I wasn’t conscious of anything, but if I held to the view that people make the same mistakes in their relationships over and over again, then surely there was something similar, something fundamentally the same about Betty and Ruth.

Is that what Betty saw? Was that the connection she touched in the air between us?

Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

Even a Turtle-man like Hank? No, I didn’t pity him. I had to admit, even, he was growing on me.

+++++

The engine was warming up the next morning while I coiled dock lines and stowed shore-power cords; Hank was up on deck admiring his new hatch, dreaming of all the far-away places he could, no doubt, or even run to. Well, walk to, or whatever turtles do.

“So Marty, where you heading? Made up your mind yet?”

“Oh, hell Hank. I never know what I’m doing from one minute to the next. What makes you think I know what I’m going to do about that woman?”

“Man-oh-man! If you don’t know, then who the hell does?!”

“You have a point, Hank. You have a point. How ‘bout you? Still going south?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna stay inside all the way down to Florida; maybe November or December I’ll slide across the stream to Grand Bahama.”

“What are you gonna do about your wife?”

“She wants a divorce, so by all means I’ll let her do it!”

“You’ll probably lose your boat, Hank.”

“Not if they can’t find me, amigo.”

“Hank, that’s the wrong thing to do, and you know it.”

“Yeah, well, I tried the right way all my life, and that didn’t work out so fuckin’ great. Time for something new.”

“Your choice, amigo, and your life, but if I were you – if that’s the choice you’re gonna make – you better leave the country now, and don’t plan on coming back.”

He looked at me thoughtfully for a minute, then shook his head. “Yeah, maybe.”

That was all he could say.

Maybe that was what separated the Hanks of the world from me, from people like me. Maybe he didn’t have the courage of his convictions, the courage to face his own shortcomings, or worse still, the courage to accept his desires and act on them.

“Well, Hank, keep it slow and steady. Who knows, you might get there.”

He looked at me quizzically while I backed out of the slip and drifted into a turn; I slipped the transmission into forward and gave the beast some throttle. I looked at Turtle-man standing on the deck of his little boat, alone, running and afraid of his future. That was no way to live, running never is.

The boat arced out into the river and turned downstream; I had several miles to go to rejoin the Waterway, a few hours to think about the choice that lay ahead.

The sky was still clear, not a trace of the hurricane remained and the cool breeze out of the north was already stirring up a few whitecaps on the river. There would be a tough headwind back towards Elizabeth City, a hard ride to return to Betty Hutton if that was the choice I made.

I unfurled the headsail and sheeted it in, and as I pulled the main out from the mast the boat took off like a demon possessed. She kept pulling to weather, moving to the north, like she knew what course I should steer. A gust slammed into us and she heeled over, and with the wind deep in her now we slammed into wave after wave; soon we were rolling along at close to eight knots, and I was burying the rail as I drove her hard abeam to the wind. We were charging into a newborn swell, huge walls of spray erupted as I buried the bow in them, and I yelled as the exhilaration of the conflicting forces overtook me.

Oh, yeah baby, we were running now…

I am running…now…

Running, still. Always. Becoming.

Then, I could see the channel buoy ahead that marked the waterway – that marked the locus of choice. We were making incredible speed over the ground. Ten more minutes to decide. Ten more minutes to challenge fate, to acknowledge Betty’s sense of connection, or to keep running, running…

One mile to go…a half mile…a quarter mile…then I stood by as we passed the red buoy marking the channel intersection.

Left, right…what would it be…?

Left, right, left, right, the ticking of a clock, the beating of one human heart. Yes, no, yes, no…

+++++

I hate to paraphrase Nietzsche, but to forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.

Of course I turned to the south, of course I turned away from Betty Hutton. But please, let ole Fred Nietzsche speak for me again, if you’d be so kind: ‘To predict the behavior of ordinary people in advance, you have only to assume that they will always try to escape a disagreeable situation with the smallest possible expenditure of intelligence.’ Come to think of it, didn’t I mention somewhere along the way that I was now the apostate eternal optimist? So let’s just dispense with all talk of an assumed native intelligence from here on, okay?

So, yes, I turned toward Beaufort. In order to see the truth, you need to listen with your heart.

And no, that’s not Nietzsche.

That said, I set my course for Red Nun Number 2 at the entrance to Adams Creek, and as I looked over my shoulder I vowed to never look back. The main channel turned south then west, then south again, and narrowed to a width little wider than necessary for two boats to pass. The miles passed as the sun arced overhead, and with each passing mile my heart began to ache a little more. No sense of the ironic…that’s always been my problem…

So no, I didn’t listen. Not with my heart, anyway. Maybe with my ass, but that conjures up all sorts of unpleasant images I don’t want to deal with. Maybe I wasn’t any good at listening anymore. Take it for granted – I wasn’t listening to my heart; I wasn’t listening to Turtle-man, either. And I hadn’t listened to Betty Hutton. Why should I trust her? Why?

Couldn’t, not really…

Wasn’t ready…yet…

No time now, gotta run…

Any number of excuses running through my mind, always running…

Another hour passed and I was at Core Creek, then the Newport River, and as I passed a little airport I turned left down a narrow channel and waited for a bridge to open, then motored into Beaufort. During that last stretch, before I docked on the waterfront, I watched as the engine temperature began creeping up and I hastily shut it down right as I pulled into the slip the dock-master indicated.

Fine. So that’s the way it was going to be. Even the boat knew I’d made a great choice -and now it was pitching a hissy-fit. What the hell, she was Swedish. What can I say? My boat knows me better than I do.

So, I hopped off the boat, trudged up to the Harbormaster’s to pay dockage, then asked where a good diesel mechanic might be found. There was another fellow in the office putting a business card on the bulletin board by the door, and the Harbormaster indicated here was my man, that he was the best in the area. I walked over, detailed symptoms. He listened attentively, looked intelligent. Name was Sven. Hey, is that instant karma, or what?

“I can get to it in the morning if you’re in a hurry. Or I can wait ‘til Monday. Save you on the overtime that way. Mind if I come down now and take a quick look at it?”

“No, not at all. Ready when you are.”

“Which one is it?”

“The white Hallberg Rassy down on the end. Liebestod is the name.”

“Holy shit, a Wagnernite. Don’t see that name around much these days, you know. Pretty fatalistic, don’t you think, for a boat.”

“It was my wife’s idea.”

“Oh, she down on board?”

“Only her ghost,” I said as I slipped out of the Harbormaster’s Office. Just like a ghost, I was getting pretty good at this slipping away thing…

+++++

The mechanic clunked and thumped around in the engine room for a few minutes, then came up topside for some air.

“A Volvo diesel? Don’t see many of those anymore. Everything these days is Japanese.”

“Swedish boat, ya know.”

“Yeah. What is she, forty, forty-two feet?”

“Forty three. A little over a year old.”

“Pretty wood down there.”

“Well, it’s my home now. I didn’t want to live in a Clorox bottle.”

“Know what you mean. Well, I think I know what’s wrong. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to fix. See ya first thing Monday.”

“Well, we’ll be here.” The mechanic took off and I went below and turned on the heat. After a quick shower I steamed an artichoke and fixed some Earl Grey, then pulled out a cruising guide to the Carolina coast and flipped through the pages before settling on the section detailing the area around Beaufort. Where was the section on running away from your destiny?

But…doesn’t your destiny always catch up with you…?

I was reading when I heard a familiar knocking on the hull.

“Marty? You down there?”

Turtle-man.

Oh, JOY. Not exactly what I had been hoping for…

+++++

“Howya doin’, Hank? So, you decided to head south too.”

“I was about a mile behind you when you cleared the second bridge, and holy shit, Martin, your boat took off like it had been shot out of a cannon. Man, ain’t you ever heard of reefing the main? I never seen a sailboat on it’s rail like that!”

“Some days, Hank, you just gotta say ‘what the fuck’; this was one of ‘em.”

“So, no Betty Hutton for you, huh. Kinda surprising.”

I looked down as he said that, wondered why his talking about it bothered me. Actually, thinking about Betty made me hurt inside, and that’s when I finally realized I hadn’t been obsessing about Ruth for most of the day.

“I’m still not sure what I’m going to do about that, Hank. I had a temperature problem, you know, with the engine, show up, and thought there’d be better mechanics down here.” I hated the lie, but there it was. I was making excuses, covering my ass. Hank looked at me knowingly.

“Sure, buddy. You had dinner yet? Smells weird down here.”

“Artichoke. Tea.”

“My God in heaven; you trying to poison yourself? There’s a great, I mean great burger place up the road a piece. Good honky-tonk music, too.”

“No way, Hank. Not tonight. I got way too much sun today.”

“Really? Too bad, cause you’re coming with me.”

“Shit, Hank, what is it now? You found more women?”

“One in every port, Marty. One in every port.”

+++++

We walked into town and found Hank’s honky-tonk, and I sat with him and had a beer while he ate his cheeseburger. The place was quiet, and I could see an air of quiet desperation on Hank’s face. Alone only a few days and he was desperate. I could just imagine: he and his wife hadn’t touched one another in years, and from what I’d seen and heard I couldn’t blame him, but that’s the trouble with making snap judgments like that. You never know until you hear both sides. Again, ole Fred said it best: Judgments, value judgments concerning life, for or against, can in the last resort never be true: they possess value only as symptoms, they come into consideration only as symptoms – in themselves such judgments are stupidities.

The trouble with being a cynic, I was learning, was how totally stupid I had become.

But, I digress.

+++++

I called Betty later that night, after I walked a dead-drunk Hank back to his boat and made sure he found his way down below without breaking his neck. It was late, and I hoped I wouldn’t be waking her, but I figured by this point I owed the woman at least an explanation of my recent movements. She picked up on the third ring.

“Hello?” Her voice sounded tired, anxious, sleepy.

“It’s me. Martin.”

“Where are you?”

“Beaufort. Engine trouble.” I wanted to get that out there before I changed my mind. Anyway, I figured it would ease her sense of rejection.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Mechanic will fix it Monday morning.”

“Uh-huh. So, what are you doing after that? Headed for South America?”

“I’ve been thinking. You said you were curious what it’s like, what it’s like to live aboard, go sailing. Did you mean it?”

“Yes, I did.”

“You want to come down next week? Spend some time here, maybe go out a couple of times and get a feel for it?”

There was a long silence. Too long.

“I don’t know, Martin. Let me think about it, would you?”

“Sure thing. Take your time.” I hung up the phone, disgusted with myself.

+++++

I woke up the next morning feeling completely stupid. I was a total Nietzschean now, if the way I felt was an accurate indication of my new station in life. What did he say about women? Ah yes, women: They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent. I reckon he said that after getting the clap from that hooker in Köln. Wonder how high he got with that one?

+++++

The mechanic was true to his word and was there first thing Monday morning; I had coffee going when he tapped on the hull, and invited him down for a cup before he got started. We sat in the cockpit as the sun rose over the dockside buildings and talked about sailing for a while, then Turtle-man stuck his head out of his shell and squinted at the world before he walked on up into the light of day. He saw me sitting in the cockpit and waved, then walked over.

“That coffee? Got any more?”

“Sure Hank. Help yourself?”

“Where you keep the cups and stuff?”

I excused myself and went below – fuming as I went – and fixed another cup for Hank, then went back up and handed it to him.

“You gonna head out today, Marty?”

“We’ll see what the doc here says, then figure out the next move.”

“Oh, you’ll be good to go by ten at the latest.”

I heard my phone ringing; it was down on the chart table so I ducked back below and flipped it on.

“Martin?”

It was Betty.

“Martin? You there?”

“Ah, yes, I am.”

“You planning to stay in Beaufort?”

“Ah, yes, for now.”

“Could I take you up on your offer?”

My heart skipped a beat.

“Martin?”

“Ah . . .”

“Martin, I know. I’m sorry. You reached out to me and I hurt you. I’m sorry, alright?”

“You don’t have to apologize.”

“Well? I want to join you for a . . . Look, I’ve got someone looking after the shop for a week, a close friend. Could we try it for a week?” The reception faded for a moment while she talked, but it came back strong.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“In Beaufort.”

“I see.”

“And I see you.”

I turned and looked up to the boardwalk above the docks; there between a host of radio antennae and sailboat masts I could just make her out. She waved at me, and my heart about leapt from my chest.

“Excuse me,” I said to Hank and the mechanic as I jumped from the boat, and I walked hurriedly toward the gate by the Harbormaster’s Office. She watched me, then started to walk toward the gate, and we met there and I kissed her. I kissed her hard.

“Stuff’s in the car,” she said when we finally came up for air. “I didn’t bring much. Hope that’s okay.”

“You’re here. That’s all that matters.” We held hands as we walked. We walked for what felt like hours. All truly great thoughts are conceived when walking.

+++++

“Hey, y’all,” Turtle-man said as we walked up to the boat an hour later. “Mechanic said you could pay his bill at the harbormaster’s office; he had to take off. I think he finished all the coffee, too.” Funny how you can tell someone’s lying – you know, the way they can’t make eye contact, the way they look somewhere else – and not at you – when they lie.

“Yeah, thanks, Hank. Hope you enjoyed it.”

He hopped down to the dock and scuttled away while I helped Betty board.

“So, where you wanna go?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“OK, well, how about Tahiti? Bermuda? Maybe the Sandwich Islands?”

“The what?”

“Never-mind. I promise, you don’t want to go there.”

“Well, think in terms of a week.”

“Well, we could duck outside, sail around the Outer Banks and up to Norfolk, then come down through the Dismal Swamp, back to Elizabeth City. You really ought to see the docks from the water, if you haven’t already.”

“Sounds good to me, Martin. Could we leave the car here?”

“Don’t see why not, but I’ll ask up at the office. What kinda clothes you bring?” We inventoried her stuff. She had everything but offshore foul-weather gear, so we ran up and bought her some basic gear, then stowed her stuff below. We had to re-park her car, but that was it – that was all she had to do to cut the ties that bind us to land and that sense of place we take for granted.

And yet, I think she found that disconcerting.

By noon we backed out of the slip and sailed from Beaufort and regained the Morehead City Channel, taking Fort Macon to the right and Shackleford Point to our left, and with that we turned around and looked at land slipping away like memories we both no longer needed, or wanted.

+++++

You can question the wisdom of taking someone who’s never sailed before into the waters off Cape Hatteras all you want, but if you pay attention to the weather it’s not all that bad. The waters near shore aren’t terribly deep, and consequently quite rough; not so if you plot a course well offshore and steer northeast past Ocracoke and the Cape itself, then head north along Currituck Sound overnight until your radar turns it solid mush. Confusing? When the radar goes wonky you know you’re close to Norfolk; as you approach these waters every naval vessel on the east coast turns on it’s radar jamming equipment, and you keep a steely-eyed watch out for mammoth-sized floating islands called aircraft carriers as they lumber in-to or out-of Chesapeake Bay via the Thimble Shoal Channel. Quite a sight, really. Unless you get in their way.

With the weather perfect, this would make a decent introduction to sailing for anyone.

We covered all the basic stuff, trimming sails and how to steer, and she seemed to enjoy herself as she walked the boat over swells and danced her across mounting waves as the afternoon passed and the breeze picked up. She began to take a beating from the wind and the sun so I lathered her up and cooked dinner while she steered us into our first evening at sea. I set up the cockpit table and carried chow up and we ate as the sun set.

I was looking ahead – thought I could just make out a hazy speck on the northern horizon – then I watched in horror as the speck grew insanely fast into flaming streak. I just had time to say ‘watch out’ when two Navy jets went silently by a few hundred feet off our right side, then their sonic boom hit.

It hit like a physical blow. The boat – all 45,000 pounds of her – heeled over sharply to port as the concussion slammed into us. Food flew off plates as we listed, and I grabbed Betty as she slipped from her seat toward the water. The boat righted itself after a moment, and I cussed at the now invisible jets. And there, about a mile behind us, I saw a U S Coast Guard cutter steaming towards us. Oh, this was just ducky!

_____________________________________

“Liebestod, Liebestod, stand-by to be boarded. Liebestod, this is the U S Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, please acknowledge.”

“Coast Guard, this is Liebestod. Understood.”

“Roger, Liebestod, maintain present course and speed. Out.”

Presently a huge inflatable boat with about five or six uniformed – and heavily armed – sailors began to crash through the swell on it’s way to our position, and as they pulled alongside I opened the boarding gate in the lifelines on the left side of the boat and stood back as the first of four armed coasties jumped on board.

“Just stay where you are and keep your hands where we can see them!” the first one aboard said.

“Not a problem,” I said to the hawk-faced young man. His eyes flicked about the boat, taking in possible threats as he did, but his hand never left the sidearm he carried. “What can I do for you men, today?” I said.

“Just shut up, sir.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Just shut up! We’ll ask the questions!”

“I see. Could I speak to your Captain, please?”

“Just move out of the way, sir, while we search the boat.”

“Help yourself,” I said as politely as I could manage. Hawk-face ducked below; another machine-gun toting lad followed. Two more remained on deck; one of them walked over to me.

“Sir, hope you’ll excuse Cargill. He’s just out of Academy, takes things a little too seriously, if you know what I mean.”

I looked at the two on deck; they were sweating and looked ill-at-ease.

“You men like a Coke or something?”

“Not allowed, sir.”

“Fun job, huh?”

“Has it’s moments, sir.”

“Captain!” came the call from below. “Need to examine ship’s papers!”

I went down the companionway, but not before asking the sailor to keep an eye on the helm. I slid into the seat behind the chart table and pulled out my papers and Ship’s Registry, and passed them to the young officer. He flipped through the pages quickly, then passed the books back to me. He, too, looked hot and sweaty.

“Can I get you and your men a Coke?” I asked.

He looked around furtively, said ‘yes’, and I went to the icebox and pulled out a couple and tossed them to his men.

“How ‘bout the men topsides?” I asked.

“Hardesty! Miller! Grab a Coke, but keep ‘em outta sight. The old man will scream if he see’s ‘em!”

“Yessir!” came the topsides reply, and I tossed up a couple more.

“We’ll need to go over your safety equipment, sir, then we’ll be gone.”

“What were those two jets doing out here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Couldn’t say, sir. Need to see your man-overboard gear now.”

I took the officer and his men around the boat and showed them the requested items. The officer seemed genuinely disappointed that he couldn’t uncover a safety violation.

“Nice boat, sir. We’ll be off now. Appreciate your courtesy.”

“Right. You might keep in mind that people out here would appreciate a little courtesy too, now and then. Good day to you, too, by the way. Keep safe.”

The men jumped off as quickly as they’d come, and buzzed off in their inflatable.

Betty looked pale and upset.

“Martin, you’d better sit down before you have a stroke!” she said.

“What . . . why?”

“Martin, you turned as red as a beet when that young officer popped off at you.”

“Shoulda thrown his ass overboard!” I said.

“Glad you didn’t,” she rejoined. “Hate to spend the rest of our first trip sailing this thing back in by myself.” She smiled as she said that, but still looked ill-at-ease.

“Yeah, well, how ‘bout you? Want a Coke?”

“Sure. I could use one.”

I went back below and reached into the fridge. No Coke left.

That felt about right. Just ducky, as a matter of fact.

_____________________________________

We got the dinner mess cleaned out of the cockpit and I brought up some fresh fruit just as the sun dropped below the horizon. I could just make out land on the radar, out at it’s maximum 24 mile range. Occasionally the radar would fill with pencil line beams as some destroyer or aircraft jammed every radar signal in the area, then just as quickly it would clear. All very weird.

I opened a bottle of port and we had a glass, and I began to settle down. The air cooled down after the sun disappeared and we put on jackets, then I steered by the soft red glow of the compass. By that time I cared not one bit about malignant Navy jets or disingenuous Coast Guardsmen. I could only listen to the music of the spheres and wonder at my place in scheme of things. And…Betty’s place with me.

But those kinds of questions could wait. The wind picked up, a large swell too, and suddenly the night looked very long indeed.

+++++

We slept the next night at a marina in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, and we slept the sleep of the dead . . . Oh, we were tired, but Betty seemed right with things.

We had raced a line of thunderstorms into the Chesapeake, then taken refuge in the first marina we could duck into as thunder and lightning rumbled and crashed all around this harbor full of aircraft carriers and weary looking warships. Too tired to cook, we had showered and slipped under the sheets even though the sun was still up.

I woke sometime during the night. Betty was sleeping with her back to me, and the world below decks was a smooth pastiche of gray-shaded memories, each calling me back to Ruth. I lay looking at Betty’s neck, the smooth line of her shoulder, the curve of her neck. There was a taste of the familiar in those lines. Were they too familiar, I wondered?

It was as though I could see Ruth floating over the scene, looking down on me – and Betty – as if she was taking stock of all my recent choices. Here in these shades of gray, the morality of chance was an ambiguous construct, but Betty didn’t seem to believe in chance.

Was it too soon, I thought once again? Too soon to embrace the company of another woman, another future? Or does one simply hold on to love when it finds it’s way to your heart? Is love – true love – really that precious, truly so rare?

What was this, this affair with Betty? An infatuation? La forza del destino? Un voyage du coeur? Still, the more I thought about her the closer to the precipice I grew. Was I really ready for this leap of faith, or had I found myself in a slow-motion act of contrition? Had I crawled on my belly to the edge, only to stare down into an abyss?

When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. So sayeth Fred, anyway. Maybe we face the truth in that moment, or perhaps we just make amends. The guilt is always there, no matter what you tell yourself, no matter how you sugar coat your lies.

+++++

Love is an endless enigma, an exploration of the workings of the head and the heart, certainly, and as such beyond the understanding of mere mortals. I woke up with that thought piercing my skull, and it left me feeling unsure of my footing all that next day.

We refilled the water tanks, then motored across the harbor to a fuel dock and topped off the tanks. We were going to take the Great Dismal Swamp Canal today and tomorrow, so it would be necessary to motor the next two days . . . an unnatural activity for a sailboat, but one all too often unavoidable in a world so divided into parcels of ownership and outposts of oblivion. In this world, sailing becomes a metaphor of avoidance.

Topped off, we made our way down the Elizabeth River to the Deep Creek cut-off, and as we left behind the suburban sprawl of Norfolk and it’s environs we entered another world. A primeval world. Reptiles of every kind swam in the iron-colored water beside us, and none seemed friendly, or gently inquisitive. Trees hung over the water as we approached the Deep Creek Lock, and we motored slowly, reluctantly in. Once inside the lock, we were as held captive in a mysterious world cut off from the normal freedoms of the sea, we would be held in the embrace of a world distinctly out of the normal ebb and flow of time.

The gates shut and the water began to rise, and as we bobbed and shook in the rising flow my sense of isolation grew.

What was it? Could it be that I was now completing the first circle?

I had not two weeks ago transited this very lock, headed into this very same canal. The lock-keeper came alongside as we entered the confined space, and he looked at me strangely, like – ‘what are you doing here again, mate?’ – and as I tossed him a line, he eyed me suspiciously.

“Weren’t you just here last week?” he asked. “Headed south?”

“Ah, yes.”

“Oh, well, just wondering.”

Yes, me too.

Most voyages are circles – in one way or another – just as life tends to the circular, just as human history is cyclical. How do we keep focused, I wondered, within the ever changing music of repetition?

Against boredom, even gods struggle in vain. Eh, Fred? What’s that you said? Surely you weren’t thinking of me when you said that?

Shades of gray?

Who? Me?

+++++

Betty Hutton was a contradiction in terms.

In terms I could barely comprehend, too, as it turned out.

A lawyer, living in the political world – what I knew as a world of lies and false promises -and now she was running, too. Running from the ruins of her own shattered illusions, staking her claim with a chance inheritance – and finding the need to keep running from her past now an undeniable need.

She steered the boat with pure concentration, like her life depended on the precision of the course she held. I looked at her as we exited the lock and motored down the canal, her hand holding the wheel tightly, her eyes squinting into the morning sun. She seemed to want to be in my element, wanted to impress me. It was a funny feeling, really, that she wanted to fit in, wanted to belong to these nomadic wanderings.

Was the calling she heard last week, this chance voice she stated had connected us, really so strong she felt compelled to join me? Had the past unravelled her present so completely? Leaves floated from trees like snow that morning, and…

…we drifted through time, into that afternoon, perhaps drawn by an urge so primitive it was beyond comprehension. My past dissolved into hers as dying leaves coalesced in our wake, and in this weeping dissolution came a union – or was it reunion? That’s the thing with eternal returns. It’s hard to tell what is from what was, but it’s there if you look for it.

Somewhere in that time we came to rest deep in primeval forest, fast in the grasp of denial and understanding, and she came to me. Birds flew overhead in dense overhanging limbs now bare of leaves, and dark shapes slid silently under the black water. Betty found her way to my need again, as we met within nature’s womb – and we kissed within leaves as they drifted by – and somewhere in that darkness I told her that I loved her.

I looked into her eyes; there was only love, sweet love, in that moment. She let go in my arms when she heard those words, tension dropped from her as words drifted over her, through her, and she climbed on my lap and dropped into that comfortable union that now felt so much like home, so much like the love I had known in years past, and as afternoon gave way to evening once again we rocked gently in those waters, her face on my neck, her tears on my soul.

Maybe, I thought, maybe when we run away from things . . . maybe, just maybe . . . are we running towards something? Maybe something unseen and undefinable, but forever real nonetheless? Are we running from emptiness, running from the emptiness that will too soon claim us, running to find love and hold on to love – and in the end – to know love as the respite it gives our soul?

What were we without love?

Falling leaves, waiting for the touch of earth?

+++++

We pulled up to the town dock in Elizabeth City just before noon the next day, and Betty jumped ashore. I told her that I loved her, again, and she said she loved me. I watched her as she said those words, but she never looked at me as she spoke them, and she walked away without saying another word. Without ever turning to look at me.

I took a hose and washed the tobacco-stained water from the hull, and rinsed sea-salt from the decks of the boat while the sun beat down on the warm teak, and I thought how empty my world felt without that woman beside me. Was it really so simple?

Is life really so simple?

Without union, must life really feel so pointless? Like salmon swimming upstream to spawn, all life pointless without the moment. And in that blinding revelation, do we only then to pass into night?

_____________________________________

After an hour Betty hadn’t returned. I felt anxious.

Two hours later, and she wasn’t back.

Then three hours. Four hours.

I walked to her shop. The door was locked, the sign said they were closed.

I walked back to the boat, to my home, and suddenly my world was truly empty again. She was gone. I went below, cooked dinner for both of us, but she didn’t come back. I knew she wasn’t coming. Not all returns are eternal.

As the sun set that evening, I felt as bereft as I had only months before. I knew Betty Hutton had decided against our future. Decided against her own voice. Her own counsel. I turned the oil lamps down low and the boat below was suffused in honey-warm glows that I hoped would keep the chill from my heart, and I listened to music as I drifted into dark, familiar corners.

This honied world, her illusion of permanence had all felt so real. Maybe that was what drew Ruth and I together. Maybe we had created an illusion so strong, so enduring, that even time couldn’t rip it asunder. But maybe we can create illusions so powerful, so compelling but once in this life.

The song changed, and I heard Nick Drake’s River Man join me in the fading warmth…

Had Betty come to me in a word, as hope wrapped in a promise of the new? Hadn’t she believed? Believed in her own perception? Oh, what had we lost? In the end, wasn’t she bound to the illusions she had crafted throughout her life, just as I was bound to mine?

Had she unable to connect? Connect, to that geometry of our hearts, to the geometry of chance, and in the end unable to accept that my dark skies might blow away?

Another time, perhaps? Another man . . . another River man, perhaps . . .

“Oh, how they come and go . . .” 

Maybe Turtle-man had been right: maybe I should have run.

+++++

I guess it’s what happens when you hate Nietzsche, but find yourself living in his world, or at least in the world he hated. There’s just no getting past the cycles that come to our lives unbidden. Do they intrude, or are we not then joined in forever spreading ripples in time? Joining in the chaos of becoming, never the oneness of simply being.

Drake’s song echoed in my head that night.

What had I missed? Had Betty been so damaged by her years working with her uncle in the political world? Had she had lost faith in herself – in her premonitions – or had she seen something new – some new insight, perhaps – while out on the water with me?

Had I done something wrong? Had the Coast Guard encounter been so disconcerting? Had she constructed a romantic’s longing for a dream – only to find the reality far less interesting to her? Or had she been seduced by my dream, felt compelled to make it her own?

Can you find satisfaction in the dreams of distant dreamers?

We had made such beautiful music together, so why had that connection so easily discerned, which had grown so palpably in our hands, dissolved so easily?

Indeed, had it?

Where was she? And why was she running? If there is something to pardon in everything, there is also something to condemn. I know that’s true, cause Fred said so that night.

Yeah. You heard right. Nietzsche – that bastard – joined me in my quest to find the truth. I found his appearance very disconcerting. What can you say to a man who’s been dead for over a hundred years.

‘Hi! How’s it hangin’?’

No, I didn’t think so either.

So, anyway. What had I missed about Betty?

And why the hell wouldn’t that old bastard let me sleep???

___________________________________

I walked back to her shop the next morning. It was still closed, or so said the unturned sign inside the door. No lights on. No one working in the shadows.

I returned to the boat and – now feeling completely despondent – cast off my lines, backed away from the dock and drifted into the channel. I unfurled sail and let soft breezes from the north carry us where they might. Carefully, quietly, I sat and watched sails as they filled and luffed in the capricious breeze; I worked them softly, squeezed as much speed as I could from each passing eddy. Fred sat by me in the sun, feeling free, I suppose, after being dead for a hundred years, but mumbling in German all the while, and looking very irascible.

Soon our morning gave way to a higher sun, and I found I was forgetting her. I was losing myself in the constant dance of being and becoming, wondering why I had consented to play this game again. Wasn’t I too old for this nonsense? Hadn’t I had my one great love? Was I being a little churlish to ask of life that I might have another great love? Or was I indulging in a contradiction in terms?

A few hours later we passed the spot where I had run over the stump and subsequently run aground, and I kept a wide berth as I passed the spot, and all the while Fred and I talked about Hank and the vagaries of friendship. I felt a branch run along the keel, not a subtle warning that failing to heed life’s mistakes often only leads to a none-to-subtle recurrence.

Clearing the spot, I eased sail and we cruised along happily through the afternoon. As the sun set, I saw a full moon clearing the eastern horizon and decided to push on through the night. Fred – him being dead and all – didn’t seem to mind, and we stayed up through the night talking about Wagner. Take my word for it – that was one weird night.

By morning I was predictably exhausted as we drifted into Beaufort, and I saw Turtle-man walking down the dock from the showers toward his boat. He looked up and saw me, gave me a little wave and walked down to the space next to his and took my lines as I slowed to a stop neatly in the slip.

“Didn’t think you’d make it here ‘til this afternoon,” he said as I furled the main into the mast.

“Ah. So I was expected?”

“Yeah. They came down last night, picked up her car.”

“I see.”

“Left a note with me. For you. She said you’d probably get here today, so I figured you’d get in tonight. You made good time.”

“Full moon. Sailed all night.”

“No shit! In the Waterway?”

“Was erwarten Sie von einem Idioten zu erwarten,” Fred said, and Hank shook his head in disbelief.

“You had breakfast yet?” he said.

“No, not yet. You?”

“Let me get some shoes on. Then I’ll let you buy me breakfast.”

Ah, yes, just what I’d been hoping for. All night with Nietzsche, and now – breakfast with a turtle.

+++++

We walked up to a diner that had a nice breakfast menu and sat in an old booth with a worn formica top and greasy red vinyl seats, and two cups of strong, black coffee magically appeared before burned bacon and runny eggs. Hank seemed quiet, unnaturally quiet, really, as he sat there – his head just out of his shell – basking in the mid-morning sun that slatted through dusty blinds. After a while he handed me Betty’s note.

I looked at the crumpled paper on the old white formica. The paper looked full of malevolent purpose sitting there, like the paper knew it was destined to cause pain, and even relished the thought.

Wit is the epitaph of an emotion, Fred said to me with a smile on his face, his eyes focused on the letter. What was there left to do now but read Betty’s note, then toss out a witty aside to cover the useless expenditure of feeling.

‘Martin,’ her note began, ‘I wanted to thank you for an unforgettable five days. I will never forget them, nor your generosity of heart. I will never forget you, and will love you forever, and would stay with you as your friend and soul-mate if it was in my power to do so, but it is not. Please don’t ask me to explain. Love, B.’

+++++

I felt numb inside as I looked at the paper. There was one piece missing from this puzzle, and it filled my heart with dread to even consider the possibility.

“Hank, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure, Marty. Fire away.”

“You said, when she came to pick up her car, you said ‘they came.’ Uh, Hank, who’s ‘they’, do you think?”

“Betty and her husband.”

Ah. Yes, that had to be the missing piece, right?

Fred was laughing so hard he almost spit out my coffee.

+++++

Hank told me about him. How it was apparent he knew what had happened, told me about the bruise on her cheek, about her black eye. How her husband had wanted to wait, to wait for me to get there, no doubt to give me more of the same. I was devastated. The betrayal sat in my heart and filled my soul with grief. I didn’t feel witty at all. Fred backed off, too. No pithy comebacks were needed now.

This just couldn’t be, I told myself, but all the pieces I had now fit comfortably together with solid precision. Fred just looked at me now, cracking his knuckles. Fucking philosophers.

How could she have done this? And why? But, what would he do to her now? How much more could he do to her?

Swallow your poison, for you need it badly, Fred reminded me once again.

Why would you say such a thing, Fred, to someone so confused. Didn’t you love someone, once upon a time? And did Betty deserve this, did she warrant this husband of hers . . . what could she have done to deserve such abuse?

Is it really any of our business? Fred looked at me with black, pinprick eyes.

No. No, a million times no. But here we are…this is one of those big life moments. Isn’t it?

Which is precisely why I walked back to Liebestod and filled her water and fuel tanks up, coiled her lines as I backed out of the slip, and set my course for Elizabeth City.

I never looked back. Not even once.

Fred did, though. He looked back almost the whole trip, yet he remained quiet. I’d even go so far as to say he was ignoring me.

If I’d asked him, maybe he would have told me about Hank talking frantically on the dock to a woman, then he might have related that he watched them as they ran to Hank’s boat and backed out into the channel. I might then have noticed that they were following in my wake, and that Hank was pushing his little boat as hard as he could to keep up with me.

Really, you never can tell about these things.

But Fred? No, for once in his life he kept quiet.

+++++

Down through Carolina’s sounds – and up again, without sleep – in the course of a couple of days was an insane undertaking, and I was by this point exhausted. I powered up Adams Creek Canal once again; I think I turned my head once to check for other traffic but didn’t notice Hank and the woman back there among all the other traffic.

I think Fred was napping in the sun, bless his heart.

I navigated through buoys into the Neuse River, and turned northeast toward the Pamlico, then northwest toward the Pungo; as the afternoon sun burned my shoulders I turned into the Pungo River, then the Pungo River Canal. By that time, as far as I knew, no one trailed me; there was no way Hank’s little 29 footer could have kept up with my 43. Out into the Alligator River, finally, and one last mad dash to Belhaven, where I tied up in the marina and collapsed in my berth.

I left Fred to take the night watch, which is why all my rum was gone the next morning. The dead are such drunks.

Sometime in the middle of the night I felt someone jump on deck, and I reached for the little Walther P5 I kept handy for such encounters, and I went into the passageway between the aft cabin and the companionway and listened . . .

“Marty? You awake?”

“Fuck, Hank, you trying to get yourself killed? What are you doing here?” I opened the bolt securing the companionway hatch and trudged up into the cockpit, and I saw…

…Betty, standing beside Hank in the glaring light of a full moon. I couldn’t tell in the gray shadowed moonlight, but it looked like her face had been beaten black and blue, and she wore a weary face over her tattered clothing. I stumbled when I recognized her, and they both reached out for me, kept me from falling back down into the boat.

“What the,” I managed to say.

“Hey, dick-head!” Hank bellowed. “Anyone ever tell you to keep your goddamned radio on?”

“What?!”

“We’ve been calling your sorry ass for about the last twelve or so hours, hotshot! God damn, but this mother fucking boat of yours is one fast-ass mother fucker!”

I had been sailing all day without my radio on? Shit, I’d been more tired than I realized.

“Say, Marty,” Hank said as he looked at the pistol in my right hand, “you gonna shoot me with that thing, or maybe put it away somewhere?” I think Fred coughed a little at that one, as he pointed at the VHF radio by his side.

“Fuck, sorry!” I put the pistol in the binocular rack by the wheel as I turned to look at Betty. I held her face, examined it as best I could in the pale light. “You alright, or do we need to get you to a doctor?”

“Martin, I’m so sorry…” and in an instant she was crying, clearly now a lost soul. Or a soul, lost in the moonlight.

“Hey, Marty, I don’t know about her old man. He was chasing her back toward Beaufort when she got to the marina. I think I saw him running out on the docks as we cleared the turn to the bridge. He’s probably checking ports for her, looking for her.”

“Have you called anyone?” I asked. “I mean, what happened, Betty?”

“We got the car,” she said between alternating fits of tears and stuttering shock, “he followed me, said he’d kill me if I tried to do anything but drive home. We stopped for gas and while he was in the rest-room I took off. He’s like gone completely crazy, Martin, over the past couple of years. I didn’t know what to do? Where else to run…”

“Yeah, well, we can talk about this later. What about the police; have you called them yet?”

“No, Marty,” Hank said, “she’d just got there, just as you were pulling into the channel. Two minutes earlier and she’d have made it to your boat.”

I was shaking my head in a blind rage, as now – finally – all the pieces of this puzzle were sliding into place one by one, and I didn’t like the emerging picture one bit. Fucking Fred, why hadn’t he said anything?

“We’d better call the police,” I said. “Betty, does he have a gun? Did he threaten you with a gun?”

“He said he’d kill me, and yes, he’s got at least one.”

“What kind of car is he in; do you know the tag numbers?”

I went below for my phone and dialed 911. A State Police dispatcher answered, and I filled her in as quickly as I could. She told me to stay where we were, that a Trooper could get to our location within about a half hour.

“Hank? Stay up here, keep an eye out while I put on some coffee.”

“Yeah? Lot’s of cream and sugar for me, huh?”

“Betty,” I said aloud, trying to sound annoyed at Hank despite the laugh I felt brewing, “come on down. Get out of this damp air.” Fred walked up behind her, clearly interested now.

She walked down the steps, Fred right behind her, down into the warm honied glow of my nether world, and she sighed as she sat on the settee.

“Oh my God, Martin, you have no idea how good it feels to be back down here. With you.”

“Listen, Betty, I don’t know if I can filter through all this now, okay? Let’s just take it one step at a time.” I moved to get the coffee on.

“I know, Martin. I really messed things up again, I know I have. I’m sorry, but there’s an inertia here I can’t understand anymore.”

Again?

Why did she keep apologizing? And Fred? He was looking at me with his narrowest, most serious eyes, and I could see he was trying his hardest not to speak.

The water heated and soon the smell of coffee filled the boat. I poured her a cup and she held it, let the warmth flow through her hands as she smelled the brew, and I handed a cup up to Turtle-man.

“Car coming.” he said a few moments later.

I tensed, remembered the pistol in the cockpit, and went up to get it.

“Think it’s a cop,” Hank said, and I could see outlines of overhead lights on the patrol car in the marina parking lot and relaxed a little. “Marty!” Hank said as he watched me with pistol in hand, “put that thing up, would you, or you’ll get us all killed!”

I ducked down below and returned the Walther to it’s resting place, and soon heard the trooper walking down the wood planked marina toward my boat.

“Y’all call about a disturbance?” the trooper asked.

“This is the place,” Hank replied. Then: “Martin? The cavalry has arrived!”

I came up into the cockpit, flipped on the cockpit lights and indicated the way up for the trooper. Bless his heart, he saw my teak decks and almost took his shoes off! He climbed up, handing me his clipboard as he negotiated the lifelines, and came into the cockpit.

“What’s the problem?”

“Let’s go below?” I said as I dropped down the companionway hatch. “You want some coffee?”

He followed me down, and turned to see Betty. He whistled when he saw the bruises.

+++++

The Trooper took the information for his report, asked if she wanted paramedics to come look at her wounds, and finished up by taking pictures of her face and arms. He radioed in Betty’s husband’s information, and we heard an all points bulletin go out a few minutes later. He thanked me for the coffee, told us to be careful, and walked back out into the night.

We were alone again. Naturally.

+++++

“Alright, gang,” I said – suddenly sounding a lot more on top of things than I felt. “I guess we take off at first light. Head back to Elizabeth City.”

“You want company?” Hank asked.

“Hell yes, Hank. You’re a part of this now. Couldn’t do it without you, buddy.”

He puffed up a little at that, gave an ‘aw, shucks’ look while he examined his bare feet, and he nodded in the affirmative when I asked him if he needed some shut-eye. I told him to go forward and get some sleep, then sent Betty back to my cabin to sleep. I took the Walther back with me and went up into the cockpit. I looked at the moon for a while, before it hid behind the western horizon, and I felt sleep chasing me again, felt my head nodding, my eyes closing…

+++++

I heard tires crunching on gravel, jerked up to see the first rays of the sun shooting between amber-orange morning clouds. Then I saw Betty’s husband’s car inching into the marina parking lot – with it’s headlights off – and I watched him move slowly to a parking space. He got out of the car, walked down toward the line of boats berthed at the tiny marina, and walked over to Hank’s boat. He looked down into the little boat, then jumped on-board and poked his head down below. Satisfied no one was aboard, he looked around until his eyes fell on me.

“Hey there,” he said as he walked over, “I’m looking for some friends of mine. They were on that boat there yesterday. Know where they might be?”

“There was some kind of a ruckus with them,” I said, “and the police came. They went with them to give a statement.” I could see the man’s eyes turn to steel; he was turning something over in his coat pocket.”

“Which way you headed,” the man said.

“Oh, south, probably. Down Florida way.”

He looked me over, and his eyes walked along the lines of the boat.

“If you want to leave a message, I think the marina office opens soon.”

“No, no thanks. I guess I’ll be going along. When you headed out?”

“Oh, me? I was just about to, soon as I finish my coffee. Wanna help me with my lines?” But he didn’t answer me; he turned and walked back to his car.

I started the engine, and let it warm up for a while, then let slip my lines and began to back out of the marina. The man stood by his car all the while, and I waved to him as I put the transmission into forward and motored back into the main channel. I looked down below for the first time and saw both Hank and Betty huddled at the base of the companionway ladder, and I held my hand out slowly and mouthed ‘stay’ to them. Betty nodded.

I looked back. The man was looking at me through binoculars. Suddenly he threw them into his car and jumped in; he backed out in a hail of gravel then tore out down the road.

Had he seen my hand signal to Hank and Betty? Fred was watching the man; clearly he didn’t like him much.

I watched as the man sped down the road toward a waterside park; there was no other way out of the channel than to go right past this park. His car left a cloud of white dust as it careened down the road, and he turned into the park. He was about a half mile ahead of us now, off to our left.

“Hank, better get on to the Coast Guard and give ‘em a sit-rep. Ask ‘em to call the State Police for confirmation of the assault.”

“Roger-that, boss.”

“Hank?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t talk like that. We’re not on television.” He looked sheepishly at his feet as he slipped behind the chart table and flipped on the VHF radio. I heard him talking on the radio for a minute or so as I watched the man up in the park. He was out again, now standing by the open door of his car with the binoculars at his eyes, looking right at me.

The channel widened a bit by the park, to maybe three hundred yards, so I cheated over to the far right side of the channel. I guess that clinched it for him. He slammed the car’s door shut and walked toward the water; I could see a black pistol in his right hand.

“Stay below!” I said to Hank. “He’s got a gun out, and walking for the bank.”

“Should I tell that to the Coast Guard,” Hank asked as I slowed the boat down and threw her into a slow turn.

“Ah, yes Hank,” I said, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice. “Do that, would you?” The man knew I was stalling, and started to run down the riverbank towards us. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep out of range, but I kept moving back toward the marina in slow circles. Soon I could hear the thump-thump of a helicopter in the distance – the man heard it, too – and he brought the pistol up and shot at the boat. Once, twice, three shots…

“Hank! Tell the Coasties that the bastard is shooting at us!”

I felt the rotor blast of a huge helicopter as it thundered by overhead, and by the time I looked up and saw the huge orange striped beast slowing near the far side of the channel, I also saw the man running to his car, then driving back down the road for the main highway. The helicopter hovered overhead for a moment, and I heard Hank telling them that we were alright, and they took off after the car.

“Alright, y’all can come up now,” I said as I swung the boat into a one-eighty. I steered for the marina, and docked where we had laid not a half hour ago. Hank helped me with the lines, and I could tell he was rattled by the way he was chattering away.

“I think I’m going to go change my underwear,” he said after a brief pause in his diatribe.

“Not a bad idea,” I said, then looked up as two State Police patrol cars came tearing into the parking lot. The officers jumped out of their cars and jogged down to us on the pier.”

“Y’all alright?” one of them asked.

“So, the guy shot at you?” the other asked. This one had taken the report earlier that morning.

“He did at that,” I said.

“Did he hit the boat?” the first one asked.

“You know? I haven’t looked?” I jumped aboard and leaned over the left side of the boat. Didn’t see anything, though.

“Here it is,” the second officer said, digging with a pencil at the teak coaming surrounding the cockpit. I looked at the impact point, guessed that the angle the man was standing relative to us when he fired. If the bullet had been a few inches higher he would have hit me. I felt dizzy, and sat down.

“Well, well,” the officer said as he dug the radio out of the holster on his hip, “we got us an attempted homicide!”

“I think I need a fucking drink,” I said to no one in particular. Fred was laughing now, but he turned to look at the sunrise.

+++++

Betty never left the inside of the boat that day. I think she was terrified her husband would show up at any moment, though I don’t know what staying below would have done to help that. I began to put pieces together again, and began to understand that Liebestod and I must have come to represent safe harbor for Betty.

I didn’t know a lot about battered women back then. That would change over the next few days.

+++++

A Trooper came ‘round later that day and told us that Betty’s husband was still at large. He didn’t know what had happened, only that police had lost him in a crowd of people out on the Cape somewhere, and that they had recovered his car. It was assumed he was still armed. I heard Betty gasp down below, and walk back to the aft cabin.

I looked at a map. He could hitch a ride or steal a car, be here inside of two hours if he was resourceful enough. There was now no doubt the man was crazy enough to try anything, and I wondered just how the hell Betty had gotten involved with such a character. She seemed pretty intuitive and insightful about people, so I assumed something had changed. But what had gone wrong? Me?

Whatever, we couldn’t stay here, couldn’t stay linked to land whatever we did. I looked at charts of the surrounding area and saw a million places to hide, literally an infinity of anchorages where we could hole up and wait for this thing to blow over, but I thought about Betty and her face, how I really should get her to a medical facility and get her jaw x-rayed, and to check her left eye. The white was streaked with blood, and a hard black ring circled it now. Maybe the orbit was fractured?

We could go back to Elizabeth City, but that might not be comfortable for her. We could head to New Bern, where we had ridden-out the hurricane. Or we could return to Beaufort, which had a nice hospital nearby. That was my choice, and I went below to ask her what she wanted to do.

She was huddled up in the aft cabin, sitting in a corner with her knees pulled up tightly to her chest, and she was staring blankly into nothingness, rocking back and forth to a forgotten lullaby.

“Betty?” I said. Nothing. Not even a flicker of recognition.

I sat by her on the bunk and put my hand on her shoulder; she flinched, drew more deeply inward and began to shiver.

Alright, I said to myself. That’s it. Time to move.

I went up and rousted Hank, and we got both boats warmed up, our lines cast off, and we backed out into the channel again. We motored side by side at a sedate four knots until we cleared the tightly packed buoys marking the approach channel, then I yelled across for Hank to take the lead, that we’d retrace our route back to Beaufort and get Betty to the hospital there.

It was mid-afternoon now, but we’d all had at least a little rest so Hank and I decided to keep moving together through the night. I opened up the hatch in the aft cabin while down below – to let some fresh air in – and could just lean over the cockpit coaming and look down into the stateroom; Betty was still balled-up on my bed, staring into the abyss.

“You need anything, Betty, just call out, OK?”

Nothing. Not a flicker.

Fred leaned over and looked down at her, too, then just nodded his head. He understood all there was to know about where she was. He’d been there for a hundred years, after all.

+++++

We sailed downwind with a light norther at our back all through the night; Hank and I had separated a bit to avoid bumping into each other, but I kept him ahead of me all through the night so I wouldn’t lose him again. At one point I set the autopilot and went below to help Betty go to the bathroom, and I brushed her teeth as best I could and helped her get under the covers. She closed her eyes and went right to sleep while I rubbed her head, and when her breathing grew deep I returned topsides and resumed steering by hand for a while, looking at the stars in their courses. So many circles…

I kept thinking about one thing Nietzsche said once: All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth comes only from the senses. I had, Fred seemed to be reminding me now, to trust my senses on this one. I could see his scowling face sitting by me in the cockpit, and I could hear a voice – his voice? – telling me to trust my senses. I could fill in the blanks later, he told me, but there wasn’t anything devious about Betty that he could see or feel, and I had to trust him on that score. She had somehow gotten herself into a mess, he said, and had been looking for a way out when I’d come along. The question then became a simple one. Was I a victim of circumstance – Betty’s circumstances, really – or had Betty indeed reached out to me, out of a real sense of connection. If the former, then Betty was an opportunist, and I was her mark; in the latter case she was the victim, and I had come along when I had for a reason. She was reaching out to me, and something had guided her. Helping her reach out, for her very survival. I could feel Nietzsche in the air beside me – coaching me, reassuring me – and I could feel it in the way he looked at me, feel it in the dialectic collision our lives represented. He was, really, an interesting old fart, and as I thought of that an image of Ruth rained down on me.

Sometime the most important moment of your life comes at you in moments of brief insight, and perhaps we’re lucky enough to grasp those fleeting ideas as they dance in the air in front of us. Precisely the faintest whisper, the softest, lightest sigh, a lizard’s rustling under dry leaves, a breath, a flash, a moment – a little flash makes way in the night.

So little light.

It takes so little to see love for what it is. An asking, an offering, a sharing of hands in the night, two lost souls, reaching…

It takes so little effort to hold onto someone who reaches out for you.

And hadn’t it been easy to run away from her, too? Fred said this as he laughed out loud. I wanted to hate the fucker, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

+++++

After sailing through the night, we turned down Adams Creek once again, just as the sun slanted through the trees, and we made our way south towards the final canal before entering Beaufort. It was all downhill now, I thought to myself. I poked my head down below, heard Betty bouncing around down there, then I saw her walking on her own to the head. A minute later she came out into the light of day.

“Howya doin’, sport?” I said as she popped out of the open companionway.

She jumped at my voice, then looked up at me. She smiled, and I knew then it would be alright.

“Thirsty,” she said. “I’ve got cotton-mouth.”

“Well, help yourself. I can’t leave the wheel right now.”

“You want anything?” she asked, nodding her head, understanding our need.

“Oh, yeah, some cold water sounds good. Maybe an orange.” She nodded and padded off in her bare feet toward the galley, and a moment later popped up and passed a glass up to me. Some more thumping down below and she came up with an orange and sat next to me in the cool morning air. She peeled the orange and handed me a slice, and I took it from her fingers with my mouth and lingered a bit, kissed the tips of her fingers.

She smiled, accepting my love. Not running, not running away from me.

Oh! Is there hope? Fred sighed, a little too sarcastically.

The channel was wide here, still maybe a few hundred yards wide as it narrows towards the canal, but once in the canal proper the waterway narrowed to a hundred feet, or less, and the way was lined with thick trees and intermittent rolling farmland. After an hour of motoring down the straight confines of the waterway, I made out the overpass that marked the end of the canal. It was sixty five feet up in the air, and an occasional car rumbled over. The canal was a hundred and twenty feet wide as it went under the bridge, and a grim industrial gravel pit lined the way there.

And I saw him.

Standing at the crest of the bridge, looking down on us.

+++++

“Hank! Hank” I yelled, and I saw Hank react to the man on the bridge by shutting down the throttle and turning hard to port. I was too close behind him, as he turned in front of me, and I evaded by turning toward the riverbank on the right side of the channel, and in a nauseating instant I felt the boat slice into thick, soft mud. The bow of my boat was then crunching up through thick grass and trees, and came to a rest hard on the gravel banks of the canal, and I started cussing as I saw Betty’s husband take off at a dead run down the bridge toward our side of the canal. We had maybe a quarter mile between us – five minutes at most in this terrain – before he would reach us.

Betty looked at the man on the bridge with detached dread registering on her face, and I dropped below to get my Walther from it’s hiding place. I came up just in time to hear Hank’s towing bridle to slam down aft of the cockpit; he was backing down on us, indicating I should tie off and start to back out of the mud. I jumped to secure the lines, dropping the Walther in the cockpit as I did.

I was tying the bridle on the port side aft mooring stanchion when I heard Betty moan, and I turned around to see him thrashing through the brush above us on the canal walls. His eyes were full of black hate, and I saw him looking right at me. He jumped the last few feet and landed on the bow of my boat, the gun in his right hand pointed right at me, and then he smiled – at me.

I watched that smile form on his face even as I watched his finger tighten on his gun’s trigger. It would be a close thing, this whole living and dying thing.

I ducked just as he fired; I heard the round sizzling through the air above my head, then heard Hank screaming that he’d been shot, and I heard him hit the water beside his boat.

The I heard another shot, then another, and another, and I heard a body falling on the deck in front of me. I stood and saw Betty standing in the cockpit, my pistol in her hand, and I saw her husband lying on the foredeck of my boat, a vast open wound in his forehead spilling blood all over my decks. Fred looked stunned. The abyss had, what? Blinked?

I turned and looked for Hank; I could only see a red slick on the water and dove in. I swam around under water for a moment, then felt him and pulled him to me and swam for the surface. We burst into the light and I dragged his inert form to the bank; I could see his eyes flinching in pain, and he gasped for breath in ragged bursts; I tied him off then jumped for my boat and ran to the radio.

I saw then that Betty was down below, too; she was bleeding from a gunshot wound in her belly, and was now very pale – breathing in quick little gasps.

+++++

The Coast Guard and State Police had roped off the crime scene, and had taken both Hank and Betty by helicopter away from the canal. I remained on-board Liebestod – still stuck in the mud; we weren’t going anywhere, and the authorities hadn’t let me leave the scene. They needed witness statements, and paperwork always takes precedence over human misery and suffering, doesn’t it?

I recounted what I knew, even drew a little sketch for the police, and eventually a bright yellow tow-boat pulled me from the mud. A Coast Guardsman remained on Hank’s boat and steered her in to Beaufort, and I took Liebestod on to the town docks and berthed her where she had been not so long ago. A State Policeman came by wanting even more information, and kindly drove me to the hospital where Hank and Betty had been taken, and we talked about the incident at length before finding that both were in surgery – and would be for hours – and he drove me back to Beaufort.

I’d heard rocks and stumps tearing into Liebestod’s belly during her grounding, and called my trusty engine mechanic – Sven – to come down and assay possible engine damage before moving her to a shipyard for examination. He arrived a few hours later.

“So all that stuff up on the canal was you, huh?”

“Yeah. None other,” I said.

“Been all over the news. Did you know she was married?”

“No. No idea. She told me – told me she never had been; didn’t wear a ring, either.”

“Whoa. Man, you sure got lucky.”

Now that was an odd bit of irony, I thought as Sven watched me. Just how, I wondered to myself, had anything about this situation been – lucky? That I’d lived? I’d flown jets all my life, walked away from a few landings that would have made most folks piss their pants, but I’d never once considered calling that luck. Skill, training, not losing your cool; maybe all those things – but luck? What role had luck played here, in this amusing series of misadventures.

Is there really such a thing? And if Luck is a real thing, if life is indeed shaped by something as ephemeral as Luck, after all was said and done, had I really been – lucky?

And what was I going to do about Betty? Assuming she lived, that is.

+++++

Indeed, Betty was alive, if only just.

I called the hospital later that evening, wanted to get an update on both Hank and Betty’s condition, and learned that both were out of surgery. Hank was stable and in ‘guarded’ condition, while Betty was in ICU and was listed in ‘critical’ condition. I gave the person my telephone number and ask that I be called if there was any change in condition, then I fell into bed.

+++++

And I dreamed that night.

I dreamed I was flying again, flying a 777 from O’Hare to Tokyo like I had so many times before, watching the sun set over the North Pacific like I had a thousand times before, and I felt nauseatingly bored out of my mind as waypoint after waypoint slid by as the miles reeled off behind us. Off the Russian coast warning lights flared, and unreal noises erupted from behind me. Fire warning lights, hydraulic systems failures, losing altitude, watching the cold sea reach up through the clouds for me . . .

And there was Ruth, sitting beside me in the cockpit, watching me as I hit switches and adjusted power, all to keep the airplane in the air where she belonged. I was losing control. Losing control.

And Ruth sat there, watching me, a soft smile on her face.

“I’m losing control,” I said to her.

She smiled.

“It’s not funny, goddamn it! I’m losing her, losing her, I’m losing control!”

“You can’t control everything, Marty,” I heard Ruth say. “All you can do is keep trying, keep doing what you know best, then trust in yourself, Martin, believe destiny and fate aren’t just words. That only your belief in yourself will see you through all this.”

“I don’t believe in all that horse-shit!” I yelled over the screaming engines. I could see the water below now, could see the waves cresting clearly as they reached out for me. I turned to her as the jet slammed into those black waters, and the last thing I remembered seeing was her smile, but then I heard her as she said “Oh!” once, and my world turned black again, too, as we slid beneath those black waters.

+++++

I rented a car the next morning and drove to the hospital, managed to find my way to Hank’s room. He was up, staring wide-eyed at the television, and his wife was there, too. Why was that not surprising, I thought. I said hello to her, asked how Hank was doing, but she seemed coarse and ugly, didn’t want to talk to me. I looked at Hank and he just shrugged his shoulders and winced.

But he winked at me when I said I’d look in on him later.

+++++

Betty was up, and conscious, when I came to the ICU and asked the nurse to see her. She gowned me up and put a mask over my face and led me into the suite. Betty was indeed awake, and she looked at me knowingly as I came over to her.

“Is he…did I…is he dead?” she asked.

I nodded my head and she began to cry, softly at first but then more painfully. Tears ran down her face, her nose was running…

“Oh, Martin,” she said inside a long, breath-like sob.

“It’s over, Betty. Over.” I held her hand. I knew inside, however, that things like this never go away, they never just leave us in peace.

“Oh why, God! Why? Why? Why?”

‘She hasn’t heard yet, has she?’ Fred said to the room as he stood by my side. ‘God is dead.’

“God is dead?” I asked the room, and Betty looked up at me, the question in her eyes plain to see.

“Why would you say that?” Betty said between gasps.

I didn’t have an answer to that question, but somehow, I knew it was true.

+++++

Hank’s wife left again a few days later, though Hank said he thought someone had ticketed her broomstick in a handicapped parking space out front. Turned out she wanted him healthy enough to sign a divorce agreement that gave her everything; Betty looked it over while recouping in her room and told Hank to tell the bitch to go to hell, and told him she’d represent him if he wanted – for free.

I got Liebestod straightened up, and worked on Hank’s boat some when I could. I was surprised at how messy I found his boat, then realized he had spent that last week running after Betty and myself, in more ways than one trying to save our collective asses from death and mayhem. I asked Sven to come down and give me a hand getting her cleaned up and get some long overdue maintenance done on his little ship’s systems. I even dropped in a new chartplotter and weather fax; now Hank could keep himself away from danger, at least while out on the ocean. He’d have to stay away from Betty’s old flames to avoid getting shot again, I reckoned.

Sven and I picked him up at the hospital on a chilly November morning and we drove him down to the dock and helped him back on his boat. Of course he saw all the improvements we’d made right away, and Sven gave him a run down on all the new toys he had at his disposal. I could see that Hank was touched by the gift, by the way, I guess, his head popped up out of his shell.

It was December before Betty was cut loose from the hospital, and she asked if she could move aboard with me. She put her shop up for sale, and took care of Hank’s legal troubles in short order. Once she made it to Beaufort she spent her days at the town library, her evenings with me, and as she got better we tried to do some sailing now and then. We put up a little Christmas tree down below, and I managed to cobble together a few presents to put under the tree. The three of sat around the tree on Christmas Eve, the cabin all aglow in reds and greens and a strange kind of acceptance. We had a supper of crab bisque and cheese fondue; not really a Christmas thing but there was something kind and warm about that night. One I’ll never forget, anyway.

Hank took off after Christmas. Haven’t seen him since, but heard through the grapevine that he’d managed to get arrested down in the Bahamas. Something about making too much noise – in the middle of the night. I like to think of him getting it on hanging upside down from the top of his mast just as the mounties pulled up to his rail.

Somehow I know the turtle-man will keep at it – slow and steady – while my life will fly by at an unreconcilable pace. Maybe God died, for me anyway, when Ruth died, but I don’t know anymore. I really don’t. Maybe I’ve been given a second chance to make the dreams Ruth and I had about exploring the world come to pass.

Maybe this is the way she’d want things. Maybe it’s what God would’ve wanted.

As winter’s chill moved to the rivers and islands around Beaufort, Betty and I talked long into many nights about where we might pick up and go. She’d never dreamed these dreams before, so all this was all kind of new to her. Turns out that was how she spent her days up in the library; she looked through old books, read about faraway places told by dreamers who had long ago passed into the night, and she saw that world as my world. And it was her’s now too.

She was ready to let go. Ready to let go of the nightmares, the blank stare that held her still. If Ruth’s dreams had been mine, Betty was now a part of a new triptych. The three of us were united by a desire to wander away the remaining hours of our lives. It really was as simple as that.

Hard as I tried, I couldn’t forget Ruth. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to, for like the memories of my boy she had been a part of me. The best part, I have to say.

Besides, Fred wouldn’t dare let me forget those first few minutes, when I first walked into Ruth’s office. He’d brought us together, after all, and he’d been having way too much fun, or so he told me, to ever let us go.

(C)2007-2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

A Walk by the Sea (v1.0?)

This is one of those quick short stories that grew out of a piece of music I cobbled together many years ago (and as soon as I figure out how to upload the audio file I will). I think music often tells a story like this much better than words, but for now I think this might suffice.

+++++

A Walk by the Sea

Never seek to tell thy love,

Love that never told can be;

For the gentle wind doth move

Silently, invisibly. 

Love’s Secret William Blake

He had felt this heart’s storm coming for so long he failed to pay heed to the meaning of his fear. In the end, he knew, he had failed to understand the terms of their contract, the bargain they had struck, all rendered meaningless by time. For years now, her hand in his had been a bittersweet thing – yet nothing now was as it had been. The sound of her voice this morning had – left him quiet, wary. He came to their kitchen and turned away from memories spread out on the table, his appetite for such wanderings at an end. His love was, if not dead, dying. He had killed it, just as surely as she had killed him.

He heard the screen-door slam shut after his gathering footsteps, heard her despair take flight and drift away on errant sea breezes. He cut across his overgrown lawn, making for the trail he had cut years ago, the trail that led down to the sea. To the trail that had been cut, he could see now, for just this moment in time.

He stopped at a white skinned birch and looked up at it’s narrowing branches, at it’s autumn finery now long spent, waiting for the next storm for an end. He reached out and placed his hand on the tree, feeling it’s strength, it’s sorrow through the coolness of the tree’s eternal return. He turned and reached out to the house on the hill, to the amber-hued grief so casually concealed behind lace-curtained shadows. He looked at the weathered, gray shingles, so at home in this landscape, worn out and cold – like his heart, he knew.

Nothing. He felt nothing beside the burning in his arm, and he wondered why. Why, after so many years love could be reduced to such a wretched, withered thing. His wife, his friend, the mother of all that had gone wrong with time, the womb of his every hope and dream. A thing to be pitied, now, in this autumn’s faded glow.

He turned to his trail, turned to face the seas ahead. A gathering storm, wind slicing through trees. They sway to life’s eternal rhythm and he watches as a dry leaf give up it’s hold on life and falls to the wind’s careless embrace, and he feels a breathless kinship for a moment – as it flutters away.

He can smell the sea, if faintly, beyond the faint echoes of a fireplace casting smoke to the sky. The first fires of coming winter. Coming once again to bring memories of faraway time for another visit, for one more look back at his life, and the idea causes him to turn once again from his house, their home, because he has seen her pacing in the kitchen and he wonders how, because that shouldn’t be possible. There is a suitcase by the door, waiting, and he feels decisions not yet made beating the air with vulturine patience.

He shakes his head, looks at gray clouds gathering overhead as he resumes his way to the sea. Through a deeper wood now, shadows cast in blue ahead and lost, with their arms all around him. He hears a cracking branch and smiles; he thinks death would be a fitting end to this day, but he knows there are no easy answers waiting in these shadows. No, he has another trail to walk.

He remembered her, as she was – in the beginning. Another autumn evening, walking under storm-tossed skies much like these. Blue shadows along tree lined streets, deep autumn in Cambridge – walking up Holyoke Street from her dorm to the music lab amidst a sea of swirling leaves. His senior year. Her thesis loomed. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn. Stacks of notes caught by a gust, joining leaves in a flurry down that windswept, cobbled lane, frantic searching, how he’d joined her rounding up notes before they took wing on the next gust. How she cried, how he had helped her pick up the pieces, even then.

The afternoon of a fawn. Indeed, his entire life, the entire score, had been little more than foreshadowing. Such a gentle piece, sun-warmed and infinite. So like her smile. So unlike what had come of it. He remembered watching her play later that winter, viola or piano, it didn’t matter. Profound genius. That was what they said of her, that was what he knew when he felt her play. She was gone, only a few chance sightings after that breezy autumn afternoon, until one snowy evening somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas. On Holyoke Street once again, walking in shifting drifts, he saw she was just ahead – walking his way, in the amber light of a streetlight. Snow falling on her shoulders, brief flight caught in domes of light. He could see her lips, feel her smile even then.

And then she stopped when she drew near, and she looked at him, snowflakes on her brow.

“I’ve seen you,” she said slowly, almost – was it uneasily?

“Excuse me?”

“In my dreams. I’ve seen you, in my dreams.”

Her eyes were far-away, this side of her dreams, like she had just come from sleep, and he didn’t know what to say to the expression in those blue pools.

“You were walking, holding a deer. A fawn, I think…and then you slipped away from us.”

And as suddenly she started to slip away.

“Excuse me? I’m sorry, but you don’t walk up to someone and tell them you’ve been dreaming about them, and then just – leave.”

“You helped me that day, in the wind, when my papers blew away. Do you remember?”

“Of course. You were doing research, on Debussy.”

“That’s right,” she said, smiling. Such an unbelievable smile, so unexpected and, he suspected, so very rarely seen. “Have you had dinner yet?”

“No, not yet,” he remembered saying as he took in her eyes, and her lips. The gentle sweep of them, the warmth within meeting frost, the vapor that formed and was lost. “Would you like to…?

“Someplace quiet. I’d like to go someplace quiet,” she said slowly, “someplace I can watch your eyes, and not be distracted.”

“My eyes?”

“Yes. I’ve thought about them, since that day. A fireplace. I want to see your eyes, in firelight.”

He hadn’t known why, but he took her hand in his and they walked over to a place near the Yard, across from the Coop, an old pub with a red brick fireplace in the back, it’s hearth blackened with time, too many winters. They drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, and when their waitress looked annoyed, they ordered dinner and ignored the food when it came. They talked and talked until lights went out, then hand in hand he walked her back to Holyoke Street to her dorm. The drifts had been very deep then, the night bitter cold, yet he could not have cared less.

They walked into the courtyard and she pulled out her key, opened the door; they looked at one another in the light of a bare light, unsure but sure what would happen next. She pulled him inside her world and they snuck up to her room, and they both missed classes the next morning, but by then everything had been decided. She wanted him to come home with her for Christmas; she wanted, she said, for him to know everything.

They sat side-by-side, Logan to LAX in a shiny new 707, and they talked all the way to California. Her kid brother picked them up and drove them north on Sepulveda to Sunset Boulevard, and from there to Foothill Road, to a garage behind a hideously large house. There was a suite above the garage, he remembered, and he’d slept there that first time, but what he remembered most was the backyard, and the absence of snow.

There was a pool set in an emerald field, not acres of white so cold it hurt, a pool with water so clear it had astonished him. Avocado trees stood sentinel beside one side of the house, and he saw squirrels running along their limbs, pausing to eat before jumping to another limb, to another avocado. Orange trees, and lemon too, and birds of paradise basking under a benign afternoon sun. A lawn that looked like a putting green, little flagstone patios scattered about, secluded islands lost in a sea only Hollywood could fathom. Palm trees, high and swaying in the breeze lined the house’s perimeter and dotted the backyard, and he watched, dazzled, as a coconut fell to the ground and bounced into the pool.

Her mother sat in the shade of one of the avocado trees, her  tanned legs stretched out for miles. She was watching him, measuring his every move behind opaque walls of glass perched on her nose. She watched as her daughter let go his hand and dashed to her side, and he walked up to this woman as she took her sunglasses off.

Of course he recognized her. There wasn’t a man in the world who dared not, and he was sure she approved of his reaction, of the surprise and approval she saw on his face.

Introductions were made, smiles and knowing glances passed between them. He remembered looking at her eyes as he said something inanely banal, and he’d watched that smile again, the same lips he’d admired on the silver screen. She smiled again at an awkward complement – his unease clear for all to see, yet the woman was gracious – she did her best to make him feel at home. Perhaps she even licked her lips.

Would they mind going to Burbank, she asked, as she had to tape a segment with Johnny Carson at five-thirty. They were expected for dinner at The Bistro, joining her husband there, hopefully, he remembered her saying that word cautiously. He rode with them in the limousine the studio had sent, and watched the taping as if he had disappeared down a rabbit hole – and taken a wrong turn.

Had he – taken a wrong turn?

He could smell the sea now – and the wind. Was it stronger? Hard to tell in trees so deep, wasn’t it?

Their wedding, not a year later at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Friends and roommates arrived at the hotel the night before, his parents, too, but they disappeared under the glare of so many imposingly strange people. He remembered Hank, his best friend from distant childhood looking around at the beautiful people and wanting to run far away, but he met his wife that night too, for the very first time. He moved to LA, and nearly died in a car accident a few years later.

So the worm turns.

The trail he’d cut now danced between an almost dry brook and a mass of house-sized granite boulders, a few pine here and there but still mainly somber white birch his only companions. There’d been bear here – perhaps a hundred years ago – but deer and squirrel owned this forest now. Benign…these woods were benign. Devoid of danger, like his life – until this day. He had money enough to live a thousand years without worry, yet perhaps that was the problem. Nothing to overcome now, except another tomorrow.

He could hear that first song of her’s now, the one she’d penned while still in high school. The song, a love song of course. Who had she loved back then? Who inspired those words? Lust and longing, so common, yet so bitter and fierce. She had formed a group with four friends, four other girls right out of college, before their divorce. That first album went platinum with her anthem front and center, while their second went nowhere – like their marriage. She fell into an abyss, psychedelics lit the way ahead and one day he was served with papers, his third year of medical school.

And that night, after he’d moved his things to a small apartment in Westwood, her mother had come over, distraught. Her mother, in a red 450SL, the top off, her legs so goddamn glorious it hurt. She was distraught about her daughter, she said, afraid this shadow of herself was making all the same mistakes she had. A startling admission. She stayed the night as it turned out, and while that wasn’t the only time the memory of those first sweet hours had remained a bright spot in his life. No one else had ever come close, even if he never understood the reason why.

But she called him once, a few years later, to tell him her daughter, his ex-wife, was now in rehab and wanted to see him. He was a resident then, in oncology at a clinic near San Diego, and though he’d forgotten all the glitz and glamour of those years, even though he’d even forgotten the swirling leaves on Holyoke Street – it all came back in a rush, memories leaving him cold – and alone. He drove up the next weekend, picked her up on the way to the hospital.

Nothing had changed, not even her legs.

He heard the sea now, angry – disturbed by the coming storm. Waves breaking on rocks, the deep rumble an animate thing, alive, fearsome, waiting in the distance. The wind more insistent now, clawing through the wood, impossible to ignore as he came to a final clearing. There was green grass here, a few windblown pines standing like gnarled old gnomes, guarding the cliff – and the rocks below – from careless souls.

He came to a favorite rock, one with a view of the water and the woods lining the shore as far as the eye could see. He leaned on his rock, felt his heart beating and he checked his pulse, felt his carotid. Too high, he sighed. Too high…and thready.

He saw her in the dayroom, or so someone called it, and she was in a wheelchair, and he wondered what had happened to put her there.

Anti-psychotics, her physician told him. She had suffered a break. Schizophrenia, but she was medication compliant, she wanted to fight the disease. He went to her, held her as she cried. As she apologized time and time again, as she breathed her desire for him, her desire to be with him always. He didn’t know what to do, what to say, but he told her that he loved her because that was his truth, and that he always would. He felt her resolve grow under the shape of his words, and when he told her he would come back next week the strength he saw in her eyes filled him with joy.

Her mother, too, had expressed support in the only way she knew how, in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was older now, her career on the wane but still very much the desirable leading lady. She had held on to him that night with a fierceness that had left him certain, yet when she whispered in his ear that she loved him his heart had tumbled, because he knew he loved her too. Impossible not too, he told himself, when he looked into those eyes.

When he spoke those words she fell apart in his arms. She’d played the part a thousand times, yet still the moment had all felt so real and good. He loved this woman, he loved her daughter, and it was all so impossible. This palm-lined dream life, this make believe world where anything was possible – and nothing was real.

He returned to the hospital every Sunday afternoon until she was released, and when he moved to Boston, when he took a fellowship at Mass Gen, she followed a few weeks later. He felt safe again in Boston, safely away from Beverly Hills and all the baggage he’d accumulated there. They remarried a few weeks after her return, and he became all too aware that she was anything but well. She was clean, however, and he helped her stay the course with her meds, but he well knew that would be a life long struggle. She knew it, too.

They lived in a high-rise condo along the banks of the Charles; their living room looked across the water to the college where they’d met, now more than ten years distant, and he remembered even then thinking he could only wonder at the changes they’d faced together – so far.

He looked out at the sea, at writhing white-caps and wind-driven spume, then he looked down at his hands, the wrinkles and spots so foreign, yet so inevitable. All those hands had done, the life they’d allowed him to live, all so taken for granted – once. He knew the nature of death better than most; he had, after all was said and done, after he held his father while his cancer eaten body passed, battled death all his life, and even though he understood why most people took life for granted, he knew too that somewhere between that first gasping cry and the last night’s dream there was a moment when every human grasps the finite. God thrives in the moment, even as reason pales.

Her mother was in his office one morning, just after he’d completed rounds, and she had a file folder in her lap. She wanted a second opinion, or so she said, but he knew better. She was alone now, her last leering husband gone and she’d visited once, his love for her still intact, on the face of things anyway. But the physical attraction was absent on that first visit, and there had been times he wondered why. Still, when he took them to dinner he appreciated her beauty, the timelessness of her smile, the gestures she made a minor symphony of elegance. There was a quality to the woman that had vanished from the earth over the years. A serenity that came, he guessed, from perfecting her craft. It had been almost five years since she’d been in a film, and that had been a supporting role in a disaster epic; her characterization had been best and most charitably described as a valedictory of sorts. And now?

He saw that in her eyes that morning in his office, felt it when he looked up from her file, tears in both their eyes. He asked her what she wanted to do.

“I want to be here, with both of you,” she said, and he remembered the pleading look in her eyes. “I want you to take care of me.”

“I always wanted to take care of you,” he told her, and the honesty of those words hit them both.

And yet, so he did. He watched over her as she came back into their lives, he managed her descent as she fell back to starlight. One night he was called in, and he slipped out of the house in silence and lay with her as she passed, holding her hand, looking her in the eye, telling her that he would always cherish her, that he would take care of her daughter until the end of time. When she left him he cried for hours, then signed her paperwork and walked away in silence.

There was no silence now, only the wind. He watched as a ship at sea struggled against the storm, making for Portland perhaps, or Boston, and he stood and walked along his trail, looking at the ship and the waves. The wind in his hair felt wild, untamed, and the force of it buffeted his soul as he thought about the years after her death.

His wife had started playing the piano again, but something was different now. Her memory was a game of chance, the biochemical sequencing of the flow of memory altered by her disease. Her conscious mind commanded one note, while memory served up another, so she had to relearn all she’d learned – and lost. Then one evening he’d come home to Chopin’s Nocturnes and her smile was an impossibly radiant thing to behold. They moved to a house he had built north of the city, a large room overlooking the river below held her piano and she lived there, there in that room with her music for company.

He remembered the first time it happened, speaking in old French to the voices in her head. She was begging, pleading not to be hit again, then her tormentors were cutting her with knives and she was sobbing on the floor, holding her bloody hands up for all of them to see. He remembered going to her, holding her, feeling her pull away, her balled-up fists flailing away, warding him off until he gave up and called a friend, a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s. She came out and sedated his wife, then they drove her into the city. He carried her home – a year and a half later – and life resumed, if on a more tentative, cautious note, and as such the years reeled by. The voices never left her completely, and the medications she took tore away at her ability to play the piano, yet still she struggled on.

There’s had become a separate peace, a solitary place where he helped her take her meds before he went into the city to fight the good fight, and then he would force himself into his car for the drive home, where he would see to her medications and help her into bed. The new medications made it easy for her to gain weight, and she struggled with the results until the last vestiges of their desire faded. Soon, physicians added insulin to her daily regimen, then beta blockers.

With that thought he turned from the trail and walked to the edge of the cliff and he looked down at the sea, at the colossal waves breaking below, the spray lifting into the air. blowing upward to the sky. He stepped back from the torrent, wiped salt from his eyes as he continued to look out to sea, at the ship pushing against mountainous swells.

Would these storms never end, he asked the wind. Might his winds and waves ever grow still?

She had good days, though rarely, and the voices came for her at odd times. In the middle of the night. Sitting in the car, looking out the window. She would be sitting quietly at a Sunday brunch with friends, then scream out as her tormentors returned, warding off blows with her arms to the astonishment of onlookers. In time there were fewer and fewer brunches, and only a few good friends left to share them with, and the weight of her fear overcame him some days.

He saw a coppery glow behind the clouds – the sun setting, he knew instinctively, and he remembered the girl’s hair. Red, a coppery red. A nurse. She had appeared one morning in the exam room, helping with patient histories, taking vitals and drawing blood. She was gorgeous, he remembered, and she had a heart of gold, though he soon understood that too. She was from Maine, Winter Harbor, Maine, from a family of boat builders and he knew on some level they were destined to come together. He wasn’t all that surprised when it happened, if only because he knew he was all too human. Still, in time only bitterness remained.

Because he had thought this girl different. She was an empath, she’d felt his pain, and when he told her about his wife her first instinct had been to help. She asked to help out on weekends, help him with her meds, help him take care of her, and he’d welcomed that if only because he was blind to more concealed forms of ambition.

The three of them drove north to downeast Maine one summer weekend, and on that trip they found the land they would call their own. His wife walked down to the sea, through a tidy birch forest to the cliffs where she’d looked over the waves below, and she’d proclaimed her love for him then and there, an eternal love time would never rip asunder. He saw his wife looking at this nurse, wondering, perhaps, when her universe would be pulled from her grasp and their love find an inglorious end.

He found the spot he wanted their new home to rest upon, and he engaged an architect to draw up plans. His nurse approved, of course, and did all she could to show her approval, but the act was wearing thin by then. The house took shape the next summer, and they drove up on weekends, just the two of them, his wife now his only companion. There was a huge, bow-shaped piano room that looked out over the sea, and a new Steinway resided on those mighty oak floors – pure, unfiltered light pouring through two story windows. She went right to the piano every time she walked in the door, and she played the random notes her disease commanded, the notes of a symphony only she could understand.

When he was down to working two days a week he put their house just north of the city on the market, and he found a small condo near the hospital to call his own after they moved to Maine, ostensibly forever. His first night alone, she, the nurse, came over. She stayed for breakfast, he remembered, then he drove the five hours north to their new house on the coast. Lost, in clouds of confusion.

He found her on the kitchen floor, sitting in feces, warding off blows that he knew now would never stop. He helped her shower then drove her back to the city, and there they would remain for another year. Through another round of anti-psychotics and anti-depressants, until she was lucid and – just – ambulatory. This time, he knew, the drive north would be one way.

He retired, and though he was obligated to teach at the medical school for the next five years he wasn’t sure how he would pull that off. He wasn’t sure he wanted to anymore. There were mornings he wasn’t sure he wanted to wake up, not ever, not again, so he busied himself cutting a trail to the sea, walking with her to the cliffs and eating picnic lunches under the summer sun. She professed a desire to paint and he guided her along that path; what emerged were howling portraits of madness and despair that left him breathless at the thought anyone might see them.

Of course when her teacher saw her work she loved them and arranged a showing; all of them sold in one weekend and his wife set about producing even darker sketches of pain – until she couldn’t see her way clear of the images in her mind anymore. Her hallucinations had been given a new lease on life in the imagery she conjured, yet too soon they came and consumed her once again. Another six months in Boston, another summer shot to hell.

He started teaching that fall, second year students, their clear bright eyes an antidote to the madness waiting at home. He learned he enjoyed teaching by feeling his way through his interactions with young minds, and he occasionally enjoyed casual dalliances with the red headed nurse as well, because he found himself once again wanting more out of life than his wife’s howling madness.

He was sitting, alone, in his condo overlooking the Charles one night, wondering if he should sell the new house and move back to the city, put his wife into an assisted living facility – then quietly divorce her. Perhaps start a new life, have a kid, maybe two. He might be able to pull that off, he thought, then he considered what kind of father he would be. Seventy years old, pushing a three year old in a stroller? Pushing his mid-eighties, if he lived that long, at that child’s high school graduation?

No, he said to himself as he laughed out loud, that was folly. He had a wife. He was married to his soulmate and that was that, his cross to…what? No, she had never been that kind of burden; he had, when all was said and done, loved her from the start. More than that, he had always cherished her smile, and he would never walk away from all that truly meant to him.

Or would he?

The last few years at the house in Maine had been trying, she was becoming more violent, more withdrawn. Dementia and Alzheimer’s were mentioned with more frequency these days, long term inpatient care loomed. Or so he was told.

Perhaps. Was that his future?

But with time had come acceptance. He would take care of her – until he couldn’t. He had been content with that decision, too.

Until this morning.

The violence he’d experienced was beyond anything his imagination had ever seen. The withering verbal assault, the cold fury in her eyes. He had, in her madness, become her tormentor – then she had attacked him. First with her fists, then with a knife, cutting the sleeve of his jacket, or so he thought. When she’d seen blood running down his arm she had screamed in feral agony, fallen to the floor and curled up in a fetal ball. He had dressed his wound with Betadine and Steri-strips, then called her psychiatrist in Boston.

She was a danger now, the woman told him, to herself and others, and that was the end of the line. The time had come.

He looked out the windows as he listened to those words, at the storm gathering along the far horizon, at the lightning he saw playing in the distance, and he knew it was time to take a walk by the sea. He carried her to their bed, made sure she had all her meds on board and redressed his wound, then walked through the kitchen and out into the wind.

He heard thunder now, and lightning, still far away but fast closing in.

He looked at the sea one last time and turned for the woods, for home. He passed the stunted pines, walked into blue-shadowed wood – feeling watched now. He felt fear for the first time in decades, real, visceral fear, the kind he used to feel when he was a kid and he walked into the attic, alone.

He stopped, listened. There, in a thick clump of brush beside the brook, a restrained thrashing in dry grass, then silence.

Silence, then a cry. A cry for help.

He walked through tall grass towards the sound, then he stopped again, listening.

Another cry. Pain. Silence.

A few more steps, then…

A fawn in the grass, alone, starving. A broken leg? A coyote perhaps, or a fisher? The animal lifted it’s head, looked at him then fell away into the fear that had called.

“Oh my God,” he heard himself say, “what’s happened to you?” He approached slowly now, taking off his jacket as he did, until he was beside the animal. He reached out, stroked her head gently, slowly, then he laid his jacket over her shivering body. He continued to stroke her face, her neck, until he thought she might let him pick her up.

She was terrified, wanted to run but all that was behind her now. Her will to live had blown away, on the breeze perhaps. He picked her up, amazed and alarmed at how light she was, how dreadfully vulnerable life was. He carried her like a baby, her chest on his, her face on his shoulder, and he could hear her frantic breath on his neck, her heart hammering against his.

He looked down into her massive eyes as he spoke to her. “It’s alright,” he told her, “I’ve got you. You’re going to be alright now.” He picked up his trail, felt the first drops of rain hit his shoulders, and he could see the contours of his roof through the trees ahead.

The crack of thunder overhead caught him off-guard, the lightning not far to his right now close enough to be of some worry, so he picked up his pace, pushed past the few overhanging branches that blocked his way as he closed on the meadow under his home.

The pressure was gentle but insistent, in the center of his chest, the heaviness in his left arm suddenly more than enough to get his attention. He stopped, took a deep breath as he looked into her eyes again, though he could see she was alright now, that fear had left.

He pushed on. The last of the trees, the grass in need of mowing. The kitchen door, wide open, lights on inside.

She’s playing. He can hear Chopin coming from her room as he stumbled into the kitchen, sweating now, the feeling of pressure in his chest impossible to comprehend.

He feels the floor reaching out for him and all he can think about is shielding her from his fall.

He is on his side, holding her close to his chest as Debussy fills his consciousness; she is playing again, he says to the fawn, and while she cannot hear them on the kitchen floor he is filled with a kind of satisfaction.

The next crushing wave leaves him breathless and pale, and he looks into the fawn’s eyes, at life’s lingering helplessness and fear. He rubs her face once again as his eyes grow distant and cool, and at last he smiles, when he feels her raspy tongue on his face, and he thinks of a pure love as he slips away on the wind.

(C)2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw