a short story by Christine Gosnay
SHE WAS A small woman, hard and clean, with glaucous eyes. When I opened the door, she was on the other side, waiting, with her arms folded over an open housecoat and a thin gown. I had just come back from three months at sea—my God, the swells we saw! On the sea, there were no faces to remember, twisted as ours were by the salt and the fish and the sun. I didn’t know who this woman was.
Before Giles came downstairs to meet me, she asked if it was charcoal or lemon that could cure the stomach. That took care of our introduction, her asking the question and me telling her that I didn’t know. Giles introduced her anyway, not knowing that we were on the intimate terms of two people who have betrayed ignorance to each other. This was Jean, he told me, come to stay the weekend on her way back home to Zimbabwe, and would I come inside already, if I wasn’t too used to being outdoors. I would never learn what she was on her way back from, what she was to Giles and his wife, or how they knew her. But that was typical of the way people came and went around their place, me included.
Hoping that I hadn’t intruded on any important reunion or custom, I did go inside, but I made my way straight through the house to the backyard, forgetting that I’d been asked there to celebrate my return home. Over the next hour I was reminded, in a vague kind of way, that we were celebrating, as Giles stood next to me and poured steady amounts of red wine into the glass in my hand. And when his wife Melissa came home, she was carrying not just their two little children in her arms but a bunch of balloons and a small cake and a block of cheese and a quiche as well. In her usual way, she tipped everything she was carrying onto the kitchen counter, also unloading information about where she’d shopped for it and how long she’d waited in line. She then came outside and wrapped her arms around me and talked over my shoulder at Jean about how good it was that we’d met. There was excitement when the balloons bumped the ceiling and started to pop on the violently stippled paint. The children screamed and jumped around her legs. Jean pulled the remaining balloons down and tied them to the back of my chair. There was a blue, a green, and a red. We didn’t see the children again. Sometimes Melissa left and came back, shaking her head or carrying something wet to the sink, dropping the toys and crayons that she found on the floor down her yellow apron. I saw her do all this through the window.
The sun went down behind Giles’s fence while I sat in my ballooned chair. I found I was in the middle of a discussion about healing that I didn’t hope to join. My stupidity kept me out of it easily enough. I was not a healthy guy. Too much sun and hard, damp work had taken care of that. But healing held apparent significance for Jean, who now had a mug of tea between her hands that was spiked with an entire lemon’s worth of juice and a lump of charcoal. Giles had pulled a coal from the chiminea that was warming our hands and faces. The two of them went back and forth about how to cure a sour stomach. That’s what was ailing Jean, who’d eaten an unfamiliar lunch.
A ring of fuzz crowned her head, “all due to a failed nap,” she told us, patting her head three times. The more I examined her, being glad to sit still with my balloons in the dark coming on, I saw that she didn’t look like the old women I was used to, whose feet usually indicated a careful cultivation of bandages and wrappings and thick shoes. Jean’s feet and legs were healthy looking and pale and her shoes did not match her robe; they were low heels. She said the tea was working for her stomach and gave Giles credit for her recovery, as he had not only grown the lemon tree but had also stoked the fire that had produced these fine orange coals the size of a walnut. I wondered out loud if the two additions to the tea hadn’t prevailed over one another or canceled each other out, and if it wasn’t the tea itself that she was owing some credit, too. She bent forward over my comment very seriously and appeared to be working out a much bigger problem than I had meant to give her, but Giles was already incredibly drunk, and was starting to lift up coals with his bare fingers one at a time, daring us to imagine anything canceling them out. He left for the kitchen and came back with a bottle of absinthe, which he put into Melissa’s hands, demanding she open it, because his hands were “ragged from the demonstration.”
It was easy enough talking about weak stomachs and pouring half my drinks into the bushes so that Giles thought I was keeping up with him. When Giles gave me a cup of absinthe, I tried to refuse it like Jean did. Jean looked so neat folded up in her chair under the black sky with the orange fire light on her face and the smoke in her hair, and I would have liked to feel that clean way that she looked. But Giles cranked up his charm; unlike Jean, I could not resist it. Some trust or respect made him offer the absinthe to her only one time, but I was bombarded, and the cup shoved into my hand as I laughed and tried to push it away, again and again. Why the little cup of absinthe was so important to him I don’t know. But he was very convincing anyway, and only he and I were left seeming bold enough to drink it, which made me feel important and a little bit above him, as though I’d given his absurd insistence some motivation. When I tasted it, I was pretty sure it wasn’t absinthe—I’d had real absinthe once, and vomited it out into the street—but I let it go.
Why had I loved the sea? It wasn’t like the sea I loved in my head. When I got out there to the peninsula and boarded the Sooner Mary, I had no more time to think about the sea than I had to unpack my duffel bag or to touch the smooth, knotted beams on the deck with my hands. It was trawl the nets, pull the nets, dump the fish, and sift the fish, or be dropped at the next docking without money. By the time we finished with the catch every morning and hosed the deck clean, the surface of the sea was too bright to look at for long, and we were too tired to look at each other in the hold, where it was dark enough to look, and for two weeks I never emptied my bag or thought about the sea that was rolling into us. I slept sideways on my cot with my hands around my face, rolling my fingers against the sheen of sand and salt grit in my sideburns and in the fine hair behind my forehead. When I slept, my dreams were points of light like markers on a highway racing by. I kept my arms and my eyes closed. One morning, outside the straits, the sea was glassy, and the captain got spooked and took us out into the channel. But we found it even smoother there. A silent wind pushed a cloud over the Sooner Mary. I stood at the rail and looked at the shadow of the cloud that was like a deep stain in the water just below the surface, and out past the shadow I could see other shadows, from other clouds, and I thought they were fantastic pods of whales that bent around the horizon.
One night, they found a man tucked behind the door of the freezer hold clutching a bag of cookies and a frozen jug of dirty water. He was a stowaway. Three of the deckhands dragged him up on deck, but anyone could see that he was already dead. His eyes were open and white. The captain tied him to an oil barrel and pushed him over. We all stood there and watched as the floated in place like a bubble suspended in jelly. The sea was as flat as a pane of glass. The swells came a day later. We were forty miles off shore and we lost the whole catch. It had been a terrific haul, with sturgeon and tuna that shimmered like chain mail, fish longer than I was tall, and at least four dozen fiery red snapper with eyes the size of a cake plate.
These were circumstances I would try not to think about. They would occur to me everywhere, though, and all the time, like they did here around the chiminea, and later on the soft grass behind, grass that looked purple in the night, grass that belonged to Giles. We sat cross-legged with our purposes held close to us like our glasses and mugs. The children ended in bed, and we four sat in the quiet, thinking of saying things to each other. None of it would be talked about here tomorrow, where we were all sure to wake up. I remembered falling asleep in a stranger’s house now and then when I was a child, and waking up to a breakfast that sounded different from my own mother’s efforts with a spatula. How would it seem as an adult, to be up and standing at first light in a house full of different things and people? I thought it would be thrilling, and I pulled at the blades and the damp clay eagerly, wondering when the earth would open itself up to us and whether we would sleep outside, or whether Giles would fix me a bed on the floor, or if I would be placed with the children, since I was not really an adult—not one with a family or a wonderful, violet lawn.
Then Jean said she would answer my question. She didn’t think the charcoal could cancel out the lemon, but she wouldn’t say why. Her voice was a delightful one, abrupt and almost shrill, and she reminded me of my mother’s sister, probably because she too had once appeared and talked about the strangest things only when she was least expected. Now I had forgotten the question, so I made a demonstration of stroking my face, and found that it was hot and pleasant from drinking.
“You have to tell us all about your time on that ship,” said Melissa.
It wasn’t until many years later that my time on that ship made sense to me. Melissa was almost asleep because of her children and shopping. It was sad to see how comfortable she was; I had never seen her otherwise. Someday it would be time to see her stand up and perform gymnastics, I thought; her shape was right for that. I gave them the name of the ship, and I described the ship and the fish that landed in it; I told them all about those tremendous hills of fish. I used to look at the piles of fish the way a dragon looks at his gold, and if I had had an enormous claw, I would have run it across their scales, and I would have watched them fall on the deck and jingle against each other. No sooner had I said so than I was sure that a magnificent change would occur in my body and in the world, which were the same thing! And God, who was a distant memory, as tiny as a figure on tall, empty shelving, could scarcely have given me a greater vision or clearer eyes. God could not have seen the things that I saw in the blades of grass around me, which grew up through my fingers eagerly until they became a magnificent forest. And I was waiting there in the dusk at their feet, and I put aside my ax and my gun because my body was stronger than either of those things, and my arms and my hands were the weapons I used.
Many years later, I was an old man. Why had I loved the sea? That was the expression my mind tampered with, never altering it, never ceasing to turn it over and begin it again. That was all I expected from my mind now: to repeat the question from when I woke up until I fell asleep. I stood and watched the double turquoise barrel of sea breaking on itself from a beach where I held my own shotgun in my left hand and the duffel bag full of important things in my right. If I had an enormous claw, it was my gun, and the water was my tremendous wealth.
Now and then I fired the gun into the ocean, as an old man. That was my weapon. The bag was no weapon, but it was my pillow and my comfort. When I was young, when I first came to the beach where I stayed until I was an old man, I beat the waves with my fists. I had to wade out into the cold water and stand waist-deep to get within striking distance of them. The water would hit me across my bare chest and splash me in the eyes. I stood in the water and saw nothing but that water endlessly rolling up and in on me. That was what I liked to do. I had no gun, then, and I left my bag on the sand or I hooked it on a tree. I used both hands to attack things when I was young, whether they were things like the ocean or the trees or other men, who were afraid of me because I was so big. Without a shirt on, I terrified them. Men ran away from me when they saw me coming, and women walked away. But they didn’t know that I was hurt, like they were. When I swam in the water on a clear morning, a ray attacked me and left a mark like a mountain on my thigh. The water was thick and cloudy, so I never saw it. It felt like a slap, and then like a bolt of lightning. That was when I bought the gun off another man who lived near the beach, like me. He also wanted to protect himself, but he was handier with a knife.
There wasn’t anything much in the duffel bag then. It was only a duffel bag with one smaller plastic pocket, about a gallon-size pocket, sewn inside to hold your valuables. I called it the Josephine pocket and I called the duffel the Napoleon pocket. That way if I had to tell someone where my valuables were, or if I wanted to think about my important possessions, I would say, “They’re in the Josephine pocket.”
The Josephine pocket held only money and identification when I brought my duffel with me to celebrate with Giles. “Come by and celebrate now that you’re home,” he said to me on the phone. Giles knew that I didn’t have a home, and maybe he didn’t want to say so because he did. I called him from a pay phone in San Diego, where I stood holding my bag and a handful of coins. Back then I still had an identity like the one on my card in the Josephine pocket. Men still looked at me and saw a man. They looked at my eyes, and I looked at theirs, when we passed each other on the street. When I was an old man who loved the sea, men stopped looking at my eyes when they passed me on the beach. My identity was a green duffel bag that dangled from a tree between an ocean and an old coastal road. They were men on their way somewhere to look at the sea and then go away and remember it. They would not stare at it every day for hours on end until their faces had been erased. They would not fire a slug into a wave where it would scatter beautiful silver shot, different every time. They would see only small silver bait fish in their waves. When they came walking along the beach with their children and wives, I hid my shotgun under the sand and sat down, but they could see me and my big head of salt even if they couldn’t see the gun. I was worse than the gun with my old head and its one question. They could not hope to learn that I was an old man who knew the name of an emperor and his wife from long ago. They could not know that as a child I had books about the sea, or books about the empress who knelt in the bright cathedral with her hands together in the afternoon.
“The stowaway came on board somewhere on the Ivory coast,” I said to Jean. “He was a black man like the captain, and the captain wanted to ask him what was the matter, why he jumped on the ship like that. The captain wanted to interrogate him in front of us.” She listened to me with a firm hand on her mug. In the mug, only one damp coal was left. Her face was close to mine and we were holding hands, and we were in the chairs by the fire again, and that fire was almost out, it was just white coals. The coals made a quick knocking sound, and sometimes they hissed. After Giles fell asleep in the grass and Melissa fell asleep in her bed, I walked through their house, listening, my head almost brushing the door frames. There was a ticking clock in the living room that you could hear all the way outside. The clocks upstairs were soft with their ticking. There was a pipe that was full of cool activity, and after I used the toilet, I listened to it outside the door where I discovered the children were sleeping. Their breathing sounded no different from the pipe except that it wasn’t nearly as loud. I could not see them. I could only hear them wheezing. The hallway was painted a dark color. Though it was dark, I could tell by the pictures on the wall that the wall was darker. The pictures looked like newsprint in that light. They were only missing their headlines.
“But he was already dead,” she went on, because I had told her as much already. I was sorry I hadn’t saved the punchline.
“Yes,” I said. “The captain couldn’t ask him why he came on board. He couldn’t ask him a thing. We threw his cookies out there with him.”
She wasn’t upset by the grisly description of the man, whose eyes had been open and white, or of the cookies, which were hard and blackened. She nodded. Her round eyes were clear; she hadn’t been the one to throw him into the sea. She hadn’t seen the cookies. On the way back from the toilet, I didn’t touch a thing, not one picture and not one clock, not even the grandfather clock with its big gold coin swinging behind a glass door. But as I got downstairs, I found I was hungry. The only light in the kitchen came from a bulb over the stove. Everything was clean except for one iron pan on the stove that was greasy and hadn’t ever been washed. I took Melissa’s block of cheese from the counter and unwrapped it. Jean shared it with me. I broke it apart with my hands. The pieces were almost even in size.
When I woke up, Jean was gone. She had been on her way to Zimbabwe. I remembered that. I was lying on the floor in the living room behind a big couch, between the coffee table and the wall. No one could see me. At first it was exciting to be there, and to wonder what would happen next from down there on the floor, backed up against the wall. It was like being a child again, in a game with obvious rules. But it didn’t sound like anyone was making breakfast, and it was very bright, and must have been almost noon. In my old green t-shirt and my thick corduroy pants, I smelled like a brewery, and my hair stood in every direction or fell in my eyes. I was terrified at once of myself being seen that way, not knowing who put me there, remembering that I was ashamed of being in people’s houses, even if they were people who loved me.
The duffel bag with all my clothes was still next to the front door, the same door where Jean approached me. Giles had pinned a note onto the bag that told me they were out to run Jean to the airport, that I must wait for them and eat their food, which made me feel like one of the children. I knew what it meant. The children standing over me early in the morning, maybe at dawn, watching me sleep on the floor like a big animal; Melissa would have moved them away, smiling, shhh-ing.
There was a low shelf near the door, filled with knick-knacks. I picked up a bright little yellow canoe and turned it over. On the bottom was the word Free, maybe Freeport once, but that part was rubbed off. It was carved all from one piece of wood, what looked like linden. There was an intricate model sailboat and a doll trapped in an elaborate Mexican dress too, but I kept the canoe. I put it in my duffel bag, next to my passport, in a small plastic pocket sewn inside to store your valuables. Giles and Melissa would not know it was missing right away. They wouldn’t notice it for years, not until they packed their things to move away from that house. They would know immediately, though, that I was missing. When they returned home they would look for me right away, even before they took off their shoes. None of their food would be missing except the cheese.
When I walked away from their house with my bag thrown over my back, I thought about how I looked, and I had not looked at myself in years. As big and broad as I was with my stolen canoe and my stomach of salt, in all the world, no one was missing me.
It was going to be a long way to the nearest place where I could hitch a ride, so I took a wad of tobacco out of my pocket tin to pass the time. It was ruined. Water had leached in somewhere along the way. I walked over the black clay lawns through the afternoon sprinklers and across the parking lots and the gas stations and the city plazas in the direction of the sea. Grass stuck to my boots and my legs. By the time I made it, days later, I was grassy and green from walking in the summer evenings through crickets and streetlights. I walked into the water at the marina and sat on my hands on the cement. The water was not the water of the Sooner Mary or of my old age. It was thick and mixed with diesel and plastic and trash. If anyone saw me, they didn’t say. If anyone saw me, it was someone like me, someone who didn’t see himself, who came to look at the sea.
Christine Gosnay is the founding editor of The Cossack Review. Her first book of poetry, Even Years, won the Stan and Tom Wick Prize and will be published in 2017 by Kent State University Press. She lives in Israel.