Tag: short fiction

Love Patagonia Style

Dear Martha,

Thank you for returning my clothes and my jackknife. It is not easy to understand what has happened. You are in your new warm home, with bright windows and skylights, clean wide Persian carpets. You have the privacy and sense of home you’ve always yearned for. How silly of me to have worried about theft. It wasn’t high school boys, it was you all along, teaching me, I suppose, about the absurdity of possessions during a time when you had to live in a slanty old farm house with a backdoor made of plastic sheeting with an inch of straight daylight showing underneath—and skunks fighting under the un-insulated floor.
One blue Patagonia jacket, one pair of running shoes, my soccer uniform, and my Swiss army knife—gone from the seat of my Toyota pickup truck, now mysteriously appearing in a paper bag on the truck’s hood. No mystery left. No questions. Except for one. Why did you bother to tell me after these six months? Why not right away, or in a year? Or not at all?

Dear Nick,

I am sorry I took the clothes and the knife. Such an indirect message, such a strange way to say good-bye. I hid them under the bed during our final month together—during the hours you spent fuming and pouting, in bed, turned away from me, and only two and a half feet above the missing items. That thought provided me with a malicious satisfaction, a delicious revenge against a man who read L. L. Bean catalogs during his treasured private moments in the bathroom while I sat in the living room beside the ridiculous stove, seeing my own breath—warmed only by my reading of feminist politics and social psychology .

But now you have your things and I derive some satisfaction knowing your world is complete again, even though I am gone.

Dear Martha,

Thank you for your letter. Yesterday, I went up onto the hill and cut a dead tree, which was as thick as the distance from the tip of my middle finger to my elbow. I always get nervous around tree cutting because of all the weight and forces involved. I miscalculated, and the top of the tree I was felling got tangled in the branches of the tree next to it and would not fall all the way down.

It is better in such cases to hire a tree expert. But you know me. Instead, I thought and thought, and looked for a place to make the critical cut, in such a way that all the forces contained in the caught tree would neutralize each other, and the tree would continue its fall without incident.

Instead, the enormous weight and the hidden tensions unleashed an explosion and splintering, such that a piece of wood about the size of a man shot past me. It caught my Patagonia jacket at a spot between my shoulder blades and tore it nearly in two, barely jiggling me in the process—and left me in a cold sweat and with some nausea. It is not easy to hang on to a tree, hold a running chain saw, and throw up, all at the same time.

When I stopped shaking, I thought of you and realized how pleased you would be, knowing I had probably been given a lesson in what is valuable, and what is not.

Dear Nick,

I am glad you survived. I am not glad you have finally lost your Patagonia jacket. I have changed my mind about the symbolism carried in your jacket. I am glad instead you are still climbing trees, still make wood to heat to the old house. There was some bit of warmth–in another sense–in those fires. I can even say I miss them now. Somewhat.

Dear Martha,

I am sending you the halved Patagonia jacket. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what it means. Perhaps as a final gesture of our relationship. You can toss it, if you like, or hide it under your new bed. I have become superstitious about Patagonia jackets and have decided–in my new relationship–to no longer to wear them.

Dear Nick,

Here is your jacket back. I don’t need it. I also have a new relationship. To soften the sting of this news, one last communication from me: Hank insists we each wear pink Patagonia jackets when we go out.

Take care.

Dear Martha,

You might be amused to hear I finished the back door after all this time. The house is insulated now, and painted, too. And I have begun tunneling underneath the house as part of the first step in bringing up a foundation and driving the skunks out forever.

This morning I was vacuuming under the bed, and thought of you. I looked around, found the old torn Patagonia jacket, and spent the rest of the morning sewing it back together. After all, we do still talk.

Dear Nick,

Forgive me for sticking this note under your windshield wiper. I had the chance, so I thought I’d do it. A friend of mine said she saw you at the American Peace Test action at the Nevada nuclear test site last April—handcuffed and in the men’s cage. I think it’s wonderful you were there.

Dear Martha,

It was good to see you at the play last Saturday. I liked your friend. She was very funny, and you looked better than I have ever seen you—with your wit, your warmth, the irony in the turned up corner of your mouth.

This is an odd world. Yesterday I noticed my hand-sewn Patagonia jacket was missing from the front seat of my Passant. I hope whoever got it is warmer now and appreciates its long history.

Fondly, Nick

Dear Nick,

I have your jacket and, after a great deal of thought, I’ve decided it’s not going to be enough, and I want what comes in it.

Love, Martha

First the Joining

I had gone to bed early. That is one of my favorite things to do. It is like Christmas, or vacation, to watch the deepening shadows, the last glow of day, hear the slosh of the waves against beach—ancient sand, I like to think, ground up stones from temples to Apollo. Just beyond the promenade outside the old hotel.

I lay on my back, spread eagle, which is my way to relax. On the top sheet, clothed only by the soft Mediterranean air coming through the windows. I must have slept, drifted off, sunk down into the weariness of a day of water and sun and walking across ancient landscapes, greeting the small gray lizards on warm rocks, who took bits of processed cheese from the tip of my finger and were no different than those Alexander the Great considered his equal companions on the earth.

It is all the easier, this dropping off, this going to sleep earlier, after forty.

There was a noise at the door. I thought at first it some play in the latch, the door responding to a shifting draft. Then I heard a clear knock. My first concern was for my nakedness, my second for my loneliness in the world. And the disasters that could break over me. A telegram about one of my two sons—drowned while surfing, a blow against the head.

I opened the door wide enough to speak but also to hide my nakedness. It was the artist from the beach, a young French–English woman I had spoken to and admired. She had passed me carrying a wicker laundry basket with wet wash she intended to spread on the breakwater’s dark rocks, and I had retracted my legs some, so she could maneuver through the space between me and a snoring sanglier of a German, who–judging from his color–could soon be served with a side of rot kohl and, in his mouth, an apple .

Out from under her straw hat, she gave me a cheery thank you, and I said something like, this way—with my legs pulled back—she wouldn’t drop her basket on my head. She said I shouldn’t worry, the clothes were freshly washed. And I had said–all smiles and charm–in that case go right ahead and drop them.

Later she returned, in her long blue dress, and set up her easel where the wild bore had been cooking. And we talked—I from where I sat on my rotting, about-to-rip, candy-striped beach chair, with my notebook; she standing at her French easel, leveling it in the sand, holding her brush in her teeth like a bone.

While she painted her clothes, which were now spread out on the dark rocks of the breakwater, and while the waves sloshed close by, we talked about Greece and the history of its admirers.

We brought up names. Many we weren’t sure of. Winckelmann, Flaubert, Thackeray, Mark Twain, Julia Ward Howe, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and Edwin Dickenson. We ruminated on what people hoped to find when they came to Greece, and on how to address a theme–a motif–so that when you worked it, it didn’t become just one more variation on a cliché.

She said she mostly painted headlands and points, and moored fishing boats, sometimes villages and children and goats. She said she thought the ancient essence of Greece could still be glimpsed in the rectangular pupils of its goats. In this painting, with her wash lying over the stones, and the boats in front and the sea behind, she used blues and oranges and emerald greens, all of them set off by bold darks, which gave a convincing depth that, in my opinion, was almost troubling. I read her a poem I had written beside the roasting German about the shadow of sorrow one can feel in the face of immense beauty—by which I meant Greece, its mountains, dark islands, and seas. I told her how I had suffered for a long time from my sense of separation from the world I observed, until I realized I was made of the same carbon matter it was.

Her name was Alex. She was French and English. Her language showed the accents and richness of both cultures. When she said “boat,” her lips came forward, rounded, as if she were blowing out a birthday candle. When she smiled out from under the brim of her straw hat, her dark eyes caused a yearning in me, powerful at first, then fainter when I remembered how many women I had yearned for–and not found. There were a thousand reasons–psychologists knew all of them–why she would never be the woman I wanted to see in her. I think for the first time, in that moment—pivotal for me—I decided to toss aside ideals and take the risk of living in the real world, without any assurances, without expectations, without any guidelines but kindness.

When the light weakened, she packed up her things and got ready to leave. She paused beside me for a moment, holding her basket of now-dry, folded clothes against her hip, with her box of paints and brushes on top. In her free hand, she held the easel folded up and vertical, with her wet canvas still clamped against it. I could tell she was pondering something. She was studying me, not quite ready to speak. The wind played with her black hair, her long blue dress.

“What do you want?” she asked, holding my glance with her dark eyes.

I was speechless. This was a question I had never directly asked myself. It was also unsettling that someone else was asking it.

“Sex and applause,” I said, twisting and weaving. “The first followed by the second.” I said this with one of my smiles, being clever and evasive, but also laughing a little at myself .

“I believe that’s true,” she said.

“Maybe love,” I said, shifting about in the arena of discourse.

“No, I think it’s the former,” she said, and the corners of her mouth rose, as she found humor in it all.

“And laughter,” I said.

“What about sadness,” she asked, still holding the basket on her hip, one brown foot jutting seaward.

“Ah, sadness. That’s the key. I don’t think men know how to grieve. And I’m a man. We’re too busy coping, surviving, searching for meaning. We stagger along stuck full of arrows, and we pretend they aren’t there. We place crosshairs on the forehead of a boy from the next town and squeeze the trigger, full of certainty and righteousness. Plastic floats beneath the surface of Homer’s wine dark sea. Men can only grieve over the someone they love when one or the other of them is dying. Sadness is a dark subterranean river—that is always there.”

She looked alarmed, but then took a deep breath, and shifted the basket, then nodded, and said she we should talk another time. I said good-bye and did not expect to see her again.

Two steps away, she turned around briefly and said, “Good answer.”

I had said farewell as many times as there were years in my life. I watched her go, examined her bottom, the way the off-shore breeze pressed the long blue dress against the curve of her legs, the way she pivoted on the balls of her feet, swinging her heels inward, to gain traction against the sand. At the narrow stone boardwalk, she turned and—I like to think—smiled at me and tossed her head in a kind of wave. But I don’t see that well, and all I can say for sure is that she then turned and entered the hotel and was gone.

When I drew the door back toward me, the one in my room, in the dark of that evening of the soft wind and the waves, I saw Alex standing before me, barefoot as at the beach, with a long white dress and holding a bottle in front of her and, in her other hand, two long-stemmed wine glasses.

“Do you like Retsina?” she asked. “With goat’s cheese and raw garlic and Greek bread?”

“I like Retsina,” I said, still poking my head around the corner.

“I don’t have any goat’s cheese or garlic,” she said.

“I don’t have anything on,” I said.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, and came through the door.

We sat on the bed, drinking the Retsina. Me clothed only by the wind and lit only by the deep Aegean night. We talked about the things we liked in the world: cities, books, films, and friends. Then we talked about things that threatened us most. I spoke about abandonment and betrayal. She talked about severed relationships, remoteness in the midst of closeness, the conflicting expectations of lovers, the absence of gentleness, walls of defensiveness. Last of all, about violence and anger.

When the bottle was empty, and I think we were both feeling the Retsina, she asked me if I knew what she was wearing, and I said a long white, probably cotton, shift. She said I was mistaken, that I was affected by the wine. She asked for my hand, and I wondered how that could determine the color of her dress. She held my hand higher than, say, the level of her knees, higher than her waist, and placed it against a soft curve of bare skin.

“How did you manage that?” I asked.

“I just decided to do it.”

She held my hand against her.

“I mean take it off without me knowing.”

“Timed to the slosh of a wave.”

“I can feel your heart,” I said. It was not something clever. I could feel her heart, and its beat was slow and steady.

“Is this a moment that joins or separates?” I asked.

“Joins,” she said.

“Then separating?” I said.

“First the joining,” she said. “First the basket full of wet wash, then my painting of the clothes, then your poem, then a declaration on grieving men, then your nakedness, now my beating heart.”

“I’m not a superman,” I said.

“I’m not a pin cushion,” she said, “—or a jukebox.”

“How about lips?” I asked.

“And lips,” she said, and she raised my hand still farther, until the tips of my fingers were touching her French and English mouth—which I could tell was smiling.

A Letter to the President

I saw you on television the other night, Mr. President, and so we certainly know a few things about you. I just thought I should let you know a few things about me. You know, make it kind of even. And to tell you I am leaving your country and going to another. I thought I’d try Colombia. I like my violence overt. Perhaps if I’d been better at math, I would have stayed closer, perhaps have a brick house in Georgetown, perhaps moor a Herreshoff sloop in some tidal creek in Maryland, swept by the flight of herons.

I am not a bad person. I suppose you could say I am a weak person. If something comes along that makes me famous once-removed for a moment, what’s the harm in it?

And so, to the reason why I am writing you, Mr. President: Renal Lauswald was my roommate in the Fifth Form, at the Regency School, in Bristol, England. My father designed war ships for His Majesty’s Navy. And then for your Navy.

That was more than forty years ago, and I know someone like you might spot it right away, and say that I am an unreliable witness, because of all the time lapsed. And then there’s all the added information your people will pick up eventually, namely that I was repeating the Fifth Form. Still, keep in mind, my mother was an American, and I am therefore also a citizen of your country.

The point is, you just appointed Renal Lauswald–also a citizen, I may point out–to the point of the most secret of secret agencies in your government. (How would I know this? An article in the New York Time’s culture section)—no, not the one we hear about, with three letters. The other one, with five letters. And better that you appointed Renal, rather than me. He was so smart at this school on the sheep-tinkling knoll, with its bees waxed floors and gas wall lamps, and he fretted so much about getting anything less than one hundred percent on everything, that they made him an instructor in math, chess, Monopoly, and, for fun and relaxation, the game Battleship.

I, on the other hand, fell into crisis every time I was faced with a verbal arithmetic question. You know, a train is approaching a stalled car, somebody’s parents, at a crossing, and the woman is pregnant and very much in love (looking like photos of my mother in her thirties), her whole life in front of her, and the question is: how much time will he have, my father, to get her (and the beginnings of me) out of the 1941 Hillman, if the train is going such and such a speed.

Or, like in modern terms, if a Predator drone fires a Hellfire missile at a terrorist wedding, and the missile approaches at 1,400 feet per second, and 3.8 miles away the twenty-year old Toyota pickup truck—the one that’s carrying the bride and groom and is all filled up with flowers and children and garlic and three kabob-bleating lambs—is bouncing along from the other direction at 37.5 mile per hour, and the bride groom, grinning, already singing her the traditional song “I gave you my heart, now I leave it to God”—if he shows his white teeth every nine seconds, how many times can he smile before the wedding is 100% called off and the garlic is overdone?

The point is, Mr. President, Renal would be able to solve that problem in a few seconds, without using any paper, and without displaying even one of the frowns you and I use when confronted by baffling information, such as the Constitution or the Geneva Convention.

In strictest confidence, there is something regarding Renal I should warn you about. After all, he slept two beds away from me, on the other side of Ping Pong Pawley, there under the medieval rafters. His stomach was in constant turmoil over, I suppose, his father’s expectations of him (Isn’t that usually the case; it was in my own), and his breath was so sour because of it, that I was glad to sleep next to the window, which I opened quietly—after his breathing had slowed and his mouth turned to dried snake skin and he tried to force air through his stress-pinched nostrils. How do I know this? Because I would ghost past him at night on the way to the common lavatory)

Mr. President, this is petty, I know, but Renal stretched his blankets and top sheet very tightly, military style, as if in unconscious preparation for his looming career. Then, sitting on his pillows, he would worm his feet, then his legs, then the rest of his body, under the sheet and blankets, like a larva returning to its cocoon. He did this with great precision, so as not to loosen the tuck. (How do I know this? I could look right across Ping Pong Pawley’s bed and see Renal’s rituals) Then he lay on his back, his arms folded behind his head with his elbows out, constrained as if by straightjacket, rigid. Then the vapors began to rise out of his cracked-open mouth, rigor mortis et somni, and I would get up to open the window and let in the night air. While he lay on his back making dry strangling sounds, I lay on my side breathing in fresh black winter air, listening to the last dying pings of the hot water radiator, and trying to remember the principal parts of irregular Latin verbs, fero, ferre, tuli, latus (to carry). Or, in the variation I now prefer: defero, deferre, detuli, delatus (to inform against, betray).

I have no memory of him in the morning when he rushed hollow-eyed out of the room, in his usual state of morning panic.

But the most important the thing, Mr. President, is the conspiracy of his nose and upper lip—the likes of which you can confirm the next time you do a white couch sit-down with him. The package curves out and down, as prehensile as a tapir’s snout, and suggests a generalized tumescence—like something on a mad Roman emperor, or on various members of the House.

I do not go so far as to say that this is a red flag, Mr. President, a warning about character. Plenty of good citizens have big brains and tumescent snouts, but still approve of water boarding and chip away at those things that could restrain us from war. Not that Renal Lauswald has ever taken a public position on any of these patriotic pursuits.

I hope I’m not coming off as a tell-all, Mr. President. I’m not really that type of person.

Renal left no other impressions on me, so he may be okay—and may not have demanded an investigation of Abu Ghraib or opposed the 9/11 Commission—and I like that in a man. He is probably one hundred percent behind you, Mr. President—which is the way it should be. Lock step when it comes to terrorism.

Maybe I ought to have written this letter earlier, Mr. President, but you must be a very busy, as I am, getting ready to go off to Colombia. That’s Colombia, South America, Mr. President, not the university in Manhattan.

In closing, Mr. President, let me thank you for your attention and wish you much success with your new head of the Other Agency. I know it’s curious, getting this information from someone like me, but if you just stand upwind when you make joint appearances at functions, you should have no trouble leading this country the way you have been right up to this point.

One further matter, Mr. President. Because of the underlying confessional nature of this letter, and because I must have seen something of the confidant in you, let me rhetoricize a bit more and ask, as a matter of conscience, was it me, then, finally, who opened the window at night, against his haunted breath, and began the long process of exposing him to things out beyond the lead-puttied window, where darkness conspires to suspend useless law and break the socialist social contract?

Or was it when I crept to his bedside each night after he had fallen asleep, and tightened the bed clothes still more, and lay his extra pi
llow across his mouth, so that he struggled for breath, gasping and calling out in tongues, for the next eight hours, possibly incubating, in part, the very demons we have now let loose across the earth—in the end making myself instrumental in the application of God’s will, such as to visit upon all the wedding parties of Afghanistan our own Divine and Collective Justice?

Yours sincerely,
George Aesop
Princeton ‘76
Hotel Langley Porter
401 Parnassus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94143

Mr. Sterling Bennett’s Obituary

Mr. Sterling Bennett’s OBITUARY

What follows is the text of the funeral address given by the Most Reverend Duane Allgood on the occasion of Sterling Bennett’s journey from this world to the next, given last Saturday at the First Unitarinan Church on Pitts Road.

“Dear Friends,

Let us stand, to commemorate the soul of one of us who has recently departed.

Sterling Bennett, Assistant Mosquito Control Commissioner and son of Gustav Bennetov and Josephine Moreland, of Bavaria, Germany and Cork, Ireland, passed on unexpectedly, on Saturday last, due to an accident, while mowing on Peck’s Hill.

His estranged wife Harriet Perkins, a paraplegic, who sat in the field, was helpless to prevent Mr. Bennett from killing himself with the cutterbar of his 1954 gray four-cylinder Ford tractor. According to Mrs. Harriet Perkins, who is the widow of Clarence Perkins–her first husband, the former principal of South Otselic Elementary, Mr. Bennett inadvertently mowed off the two rear legs of his Irish Setter, Sam, as the dog ran through the high rye grass, barking at a rabbit or perhaps the tractor. Seeing the dog crawling ahead of the cutterbar, spurting blood, and not wanting to turn off the tractor which only started with great difficulty—and entirely forgetting to take the machine out of gear, Mr. Bennett is said to have jumped from the moving tractor, stumbled, then picked the dog up in his arms.

According to Harriet Perkins, a stream of blood from the dog struck Mr. Bennett in the face, blinding him. He is said to have lost his direction and to have stumbled back into the path of the advancing tractor, which, with the over-sized teeth on the cutterbar, cut limbs from his body as he stumbled backward, still holding the injured dog.

Mrs. Perkins reported Mr. Bennett kept appearing above the rye, then falling as if someone had tripped him. Each time he appeared lower, until he didn’t get up at all again.

Firemen who reached the scene–coming directly from the Founders’ Parade at Beaver Meadow–found the tractor at the bottom of Pitcher’s Gorge, upside down on the dirt road and burned as black as night, having fallen fifty feet over Indian Leap Cliff. Mr. Bennett and the setter Sam were both at the scene, attached to the cutterbar and charred beyond recognition.

The fire was reported by Mrs. Dolores Higgins, who was returning with her daughters along the Gorge road, who are from North Pitcher. State Police found Mrs. Harriet Perkins in the Peck’s Hill rye field several hours later. She was said to be suffering from evening Fall chill and showing but a faint heart pulse. Dr. John Ward said she was suffering from depression due to the accident.

Mr. Bennett is survived by his companion, Mertle Wasent, a philosophy student at Mission University, and by his two sons, Markus and Dylan, a photographer in California and a reporter in Sidney, Australia.

Interment will be held at the First Presbyterian Church on Sunday, November 9, which is tomorrow so you’ll all be able to attend. Flowers should not be sent to her or the sons, as Miss Wasent is allergic to them. Trustees of the church will meet after the services. Members are reminded to bring refreshments, as usual.

Let us pray, please.

Oh, Great Lord of the Heavens, accept this man’s soul into Your bright rye fields, just as You accept what is left of him and Sam into the perfumed bosom of Your perfect earth. And may what was once their noble heads lie between Your sweet breasts, Lord. And may You cool the fires which burn in them– with the white softness of Your arms, Lord.

May You uplift him and Sam, and put them on their feet again, along the flight paths to Your Wide Heaven.

And, Lord, may You be as merciful to those of us who are still down here mowing and dashing through Your rye fields.

AMEN.”

A Hunting Prayer to the Moon

I leave this message for you, O Great Freya, goddess of the womb, the furrow, and the forest. I will go out from this cave by full moonlight to seek the food I no longer have. There has been nothing for three days now, and we drink only water from the snow and eat pieces of bark I peel from the branches of trees. I cannot supply enough Water and bark, even small twigs, to those of us who are left. I leave these thoughts here by the Fire–the dwindling Fire–the last of the wood, beside my sleeping, exhausted, sick family. I have only that much strength left–to shuffle through the glinting snow under your pale light, following–if you will grant it–the trail of the Rabbit or the horned, fleet ones, your speeded hoofed ones, the Deer. If it is your wish that we should survive this long Night of the soul’s starvation, if you will show me the track, slow the Rabbit, limp the Deer and fix it in its tracks, confused by my ghostly self. If you let me shoot it and carry it home on these weakening shoulders, then I will believe, O Great Freya, that this dying Fire will not be extinguished entirely–that the great cold and long Night will end, the Greening will return, the seeds we sow will sprout, and our Women will ask for love’s plowing, love’s sowing, and love’s harvest in the full soft Light of your eternal grace.

O Great Goddess, have Mercy on us who worship you!

The Bennett Fish

In the 18th Century, mariners reported a fish called the Bennett Fish, which was large–some six feet in length–and found in African waters. It had a red snout and tail, yellow fins and purple lice-infected scales streaked with orange. English observers, buccaneers all of them, who preyed on the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese fleets, were known to call out “Gorden Bennett” whenever they saw this fish–a surface feeder–near their ships.

Through time, there have been various explanations for the first word in the expression, as, for example, something like, “Goddamn, another one of those Bennett fish!” Or, shortened, simply “Gorden Bennett!”

Now none of this would carry much importance if it were not for the fact that we Bennetts–a family inclined for generations to keep at least one foot in Depression’s puddle–are more than happy to accept anything that can give our lives meaning.

Over the centuries, family scholars have tried to get to the bottom of the matter. There were not too many of these. They were persons literate to the point of being able to write–an affliction the rest of the family considered akin to mental imbalance. My father, one of these literati, thought he had better know more about his own name if he intended to give it to the brown-eyed beauty who had accepted his kisses and agreed to marry him. On August 13, 1952, he went to the Boston Public Library and thumbed to “benn” in the Oxford English Dictionary. There, between the thin pages, he found a scribbled page, in thick pencil, perhaps inadvertently left behind by an earlier discredited family scholar.

He lifted the paper out, pushed the heavy Oxford to one said, and began to read. Harry Butler Bennett, the writing claimed, had gone to sea with the British navy in 1779. He fell into the pernicious habit of cannabis consumption, a activity he learned from an Africa lover–a woman of such ill repute that he had nearly married her. Subsequently, he had visions–one of them from the top main cross stays of the thirty-two-gun HMS Intrepid.

In this vision, he described a fish with pink snout and tail, yellow fins, purple scales infested with fleas or lice–he claimed he could see clearly from eighty feet above the water–and with orange streaks along its sides.

Since the Dutch fleet was not far off in the moonlit sea–the object of a sneak English attack–and since that plan was going to be ruined by Harry’s rantings from the top gallant, the captain ordered marines to climb up into the rigging and slit Harry’s throat–an order the captain punctuated, it is said, with the words “God damn Bennett!”

The two marines had just reached Harry eighty feet up and, while chatting agreeably with him, were reaching back to unsheathe their knives, when “Goddamn,”sometimes remembered as “Gorden” Bennett, pointed down at the water.

What the two marine assassins, then the whole ship, then the whole English and Dutch fleet plainly saw was a vast shoal of great fish swimming along beneath their keels, in pinks, yellows, purples and golds– colors illumed by the fish’s own long phosphorescent wake. All of which came to be called the Gorden Bennett Event, and the end of a horrendous English-Dutch war, before it even began–for which a whole generation of potential widows, in their nightly prayers, gave life-long thanks–and confirmation of the existence of the now extinct phenomenon of the Bennett Fish, the discovery of which has brought so much honor to our name and lifted us out of depression forever.

The Go-between

There was a knock, and then he opened the thick wooden door, peered in at me under his dark brows, took one step into my cramped quarters–that was all it took to reach me–and handed me what looked like a poem, or at least something in verse, certain key words that arrived all at once, perhaps a codicil in matters of love or war, or what the ship may or may not do.

I squinted, trying to focus. The first thing I thought, it was an epitaph, to be read over my own chained canvas coffin. All manner of things ran through my mind. A toasting song for the ship’s crew, which I should correct. In short, I did not know what thing it was, at the time. I only looked up out from the moving circle of my whale oil light on my small desk, reached out, blankly, and took the writing from his big hand into my smaller, smoother, ever so slightly trembling hand.

“Translate it into German, if you please,” he said, as he bored me with his eyes, withholding his Sir! then shut the door and was gone.

Why would the Mate ask such a thing? And in such a manner? I did not know, for weren’t we westering along the Gulf Stream, like an evening star ourselves, bound for Jamaica, Dominica, and Cuba–all places where I knew we were as unlikely to come upon Germans as we were upon Orientals and other Infidels on the Great Saint Lawrence to the north?

The Rebecca, an eight-gun, eighty-ton frigate, ploughed through the dark sea, with the wind steady over her starboard beam, so that we rose and fell in a comfortable dependable rhythm–the kind that lets a man sleep, or think unfettered thoughts under a swinging lamp, and wander in his mind and think of his childhood and home, and remember a woman who smiles at him, hands him a cup of water from the spring and indicates, Linger for a while by me, for the day is hot.

The words formed a poem, in brown ink, and they trembled–for several reasons–as I read them:

Born too soon,
Too soon the grave.
See how life passes by!
I would give everything
for this moment,
that you choose me–
with your smile,
and I could hold you
for all eternity

I rendered it, though it was not my tongue–I did my best:

Früh geboren, husch ins Grab,
Was meint ihr,
wie das Leben fließt vorbei!
Und was ich alles geben würde
für diesen Moment,
wo Du mich wählst,
mich lächelst an,
und ich Dich halte–
Von jetzt hinan.

I had no sooner rolled the blotter, than there was a knock, and the Mate was back, this time with a pistol, fixing me with conspiratorial intensity, the hint of menace. I nodded, rolled the parchment, and tied it with a scarlet ribbon befitting the message and, perhaps too, the recipient’s hand.

I handed him the scroll, my eyes brushed his. There was nothing I could read there. He gave a knuckle to the brow–a kind of Sir, nodded, and then was gone.

Is this what I was hired to do? I thought, write poems for unseen courting? They had not trained me for as much, at the maritime academy, or any other. Not for this.

And so, I took steps of my own, out from around my writing desk, and opened my own door and took the ladders forward and out of sight, climbed up through the anchor chains and ropes, up before bowsprit and its nets– raised a hatch and found moonlight and sea air.

I sat down upon a capstan and let my eyes accustom, when, just then, the ship swung its bow into the wind and began to slow. The great canvases luffed and boomed, and clapped a din that should have waked the dead–except that, already, dark figures, the present watch, leapt to the rigging, mute, to right the sails, control them, and calm them, as trainers would wild animals, at least did, back when I was a boy, and things were clear.

Then a dark form rode beside us, as tall as cliffs, a ship, much larger than us, parallel and slowing–not two cable lengths away. I, as an officer, should have stood up and gone to the captain and informed him of the other ship’s presence, except that my body, as if capstan-bound, seemed turned to wood and iron, and would not rise.

A ship’s gig left the tall ship’s side, and one from us as well. But someone also shouted an order. Someone, from us, with excuses, gave to explain the meeting. On our board, a voice of authority ordered marines and muskets.

In the water between, by moonlight, I saw the captains’ gigs draw close–their crews no longer rowing, on each eight oars suspended straight out, the helmsmen guiding–and two figures rise, one in each bow, one handing something to the other, who was a smaller figure, a woman I think, because of the pale skin of the face, from which a cape’s hood had fallen, and I could see the long dark hair falling down.

The oarsmen steadied the gigs, the bows bumped. The woman read by moonlight. And then she looked up and cried out something muted by the waves. And then they drifted closer still, so that they could hold each other, and then he climbed from his gig up onto the gunwales of hers, stood balanced there, to make the hop–when a volley of shots cut the night and moonlight and tossing sea. And he fell back into the arms of the oarsmen who had brought him to that point.

The boats drew apart. Already drums rolled on our deck, and orders of arrest were being spoke. The men in the other gig rowed for their ship. In their bow stood the small figure, looking back at us, holding, I could see, with both hands, the parchment against her breast–until she first and then her gig disappeared around the stern of the tall great ship that had been beside us, and had come from I did not know where, or how–but only why. That ship, already falling off the wind, turned away from us, its boat retrieved, and soon was gone.

The body, attached by ropes, came over our gunnels, and men laid it face up on the deck, where all could look upon it. I came aft, as was my duty, to test for pulse, as the captain then ordered–which, kneeling, I did–first below the jaw, then just up from the rough hands. The pistol was still in his belt, his brows arched, glints of spray caught there, from lanterns and moonlight.

The captain ordered a bucket up over the side. There was wooden bump, as it came back up. I stood back, and a sailor doused the corpse, to wash away the blood, to see more clearly. I read a softness in his eyes I had not seen before. They wrapped him in canvas, then in chains. The captain spoke, He broke the law, may God have mercy. They tipped him up, I stepped to the side to see, they let him drop. And he was gone. I had labored over his words and knew them still ~

I would give everything
for this moment,
that you choose me
with your smile
and I could hold you
for all eternity.

Something Was Bound to Happen

When he said they were getting married, I told him it was a mistake and that something was bound to happen. It was true she was very beautiful and talented. But she did not particularly like me–which I thought did not reflect well on her character. She asked me about my trips to East Germany. I had gone there several times. The excuse was to attend workshops in East German culture and literature.

The real reason was to be inside a Communist country and see what made it tick. It was also the only place I could go where I could talk to the enemy: Russians and North Vietnamese–all of them, like me, speakers and professors of German.

At some point, I mentioned to her that I liked most of the people I met, with the exception of a few controlling East German party hacks, and a few political watchers among the Soviets. I told her that the professor from Vietnam had been a colonel in the NVA, the North Vietnamese Army, during the time they called the American War.

As I said this, a small frown formed on her perfect brow. Sure of eventual approval, I continued sharing my confidences: how, on seeing the colonel in front of me for the first time, I had said him, “I am so sorry for what my people did to yours.” With a tremor in my voice, I told her how he had reached out and hugged me, and I, him. And how we held each other, there, in the Party clubhouse, in front of the tables of the whole Eastern Block delegation. And how, then, for the first time, the Russian professors had cast aside their suspicion of me and had pulled at my sleeves, as I walked back between their tables, and told me to sit down with them and be their friend.

My friend’s bride, Constance, looked down at the ground and said nothing. I could feel her disapproval, her poorly hidden suspicion that I was, well, a fool. And this looking down and then away happened each time thereafter, when I tried to mention the paradox of good people having developed their goodness in the midst of a repressive political or social structure.

I love my friend dearly, and wished him well, of course, and went so far as to offer my home as a sight for the wedding ceremony. And so, on a sunny warm day, after a night of unexpected August rain, the guests arrived, and the couple, dressed in expensive, flowing white, clothes of the latest fashion, stood under the old arching cypress trees at the top of the hill and began to exchange their vows–she in her pretty white flat-heeled shoes just at the edge of the wet clay, his white coat taking a drop or two of condensed fog from the still dripping cypress.

I had mentioned to them earlier, the place might not work. Close by the wedding spot was a small, now slick, clay gully that descended quickly to a high, loose stone wall and, behind it, a small–but deep–farm pond. I had emphasized that they should not stand too close to this slippery ravine. And, when they took their places, at the very last moment, and to the annoyance of Constance, I motioned that they should move a half-step toward me, and away from the clay behind them.

But now, as the sun slanted down through the dark limbs, women’s eyes moistened, men tried out various poses to show solemnity, children twitched and looked the wrong way, and the minister—a publicly comfortable, balding man from Big Sur and, summers, Montpellier, France—asked if there were rings.

My friend said there were and brought them out of his right trouser pocket, dropped one, his or hers–we still don’t know, stepped back away from the firm cypress needle floor where we stood, reached down to pick up the wayward ring, and placed his weight on the slick clay.

His bride probably had been right about me, because, when she caught the tail of his expensive jacket, to hang on to him, my only thought had been that the jacket had probably been woven in some third world country by a woman too poor to return home at noon and see that her seven-year old had a proper meal.

Constances’s high fashion wedding shoes–slippers really–did nothing to hold the couple back, and they glided with increasing speed down the clay ravine, as she held his coat tails, he out ahead of her, he waving his arms, seeking his balance, still holding the rings, and both mute in the crisis of their descent–while the wedding party cheered, thinking it was grand fun, perhaps even rehearsed, a new twist on an old ceremony, something different and Californian.

Then they hit the loose stonewall, which rose between them and the pond. I confess I had sited these stone with a lack of expertise. They did not interlock. The were not keyed and laced and overlapping, and they fell now all at once, like bowling pins in a strike, as the bride and groom passed through them and hit the brown pond water–where they were pinned, as it were, to the bottom, she in her flat white slippers, he still clutching the rings, and the rest of us–me, albeit, with a slight frown–still applauding from the hilltop, most of us still firmly convinced this had been the most extraordinary California wedding we had ever attended.

The Launching

Let me say first of all: Welcome to this house!

There’s something inviting about the wind-grayed shingles, wild roses, small pane windows, and porches. You see the sand, how it stretches out in ripples beneath the dune grass toward the blue sea. This is not a place just anyone can come to. We are privileged. I am happy to welcome you back.

I first came here as a boy. That’s a long time ago. My mother cooked apples, not apple pie, the way you might be thinking right now because of the smells in the air. She baked apples, whole, with walnuts and brown sugar in the place where the core used to be. My father smoked his curved briar pipe and sat in a white wicker rocking chair on this porch, over these same Delft blue two-inch boards. He’d have a thought, then rock forward, hold the position up against this same pine table, dip his pen in black ink and write poems that made people’s eyes water when he read them aloud. He wrote poems for friends who had died or given birth or launched boats they’d built. Once, his younger brother–my uncle Flori–built a Seabright skiff. These were Jersey beaches, and that was before the time of big highways and plastic boats. My uncle Flori built the boat, because it was a skiff with a flat bottom and could sit upright on the mud at low tide. He used yellow, pumpkin pine for planking, that mounted up, one lapstreak at a time, gleaming in the gloom of the chicken-feathered barn where he worked.

Then my father stood up. Everyone had gathered in the marsh grass beside the salt creek and the sloping ways. Really, just two two-by-ten fir planks soaped for the launch. He took out his curved pipe, held up his piece of paper and made us see the South Seas, Arctic displays of lights and crystals, and white birds and God inventing boats, and made my Aunt Bessie Kingman cry and my eyes water, and got me thinking of Indian girls lost in swamps, Hiawatha or something similar, about true love and forests, though my father’s poem never ever mention any of that.

And then Uncle Flori put Seamstress, his beloved English sheep dog, in the skiff for weight, took the sledge and tapped out a small wedge, and the skiff and Seamstress slid down and bobbed in the clear high tide of the creek, and bucked a little when Seamstress abandoned ship and swam ashore. My father said, “Congratulations, Flori, you’ve given birth!” And everyone thought that was funny.

And just when they were laughing and had their mouths open and their faces lit up with life and fun, I noticed the face of a girl I hadn’t seen before. The edge of her big straw hat was bent up in front and let the sun down on those teeth and lips and the crinkles around her eyes. And she’d been watering them, just the way I had, so we were really closer to each other than we might have been otherwise. Later, we went walking along the side of the creek, all of us, to the river, to watch Uncle Flori row. There was a spray of roses on the stern seat and a bunch of sunflowers tied to the bow, and Aunt Laura sat in the bow with her skirt pulled up so as not to touch the water, showing her legs, in her white stockings, while Aunt Bessie Kingman sat beside the roses in back and trailed her maiden hand in the water.

And then we went back up the creek, through the marsh grass, crossing the muskrat trails, and talking, and I ended up walking beside Julie, a little back from the others, the girl who had had sun on her teeth, and she seemed wonderful to me, and two months later we were married, and a year after that you Jonah, were born, then you Greg. You Roger were next, then you Mark, and finally you Jim. Always one year apart.

I know you’ve heard this all before, but on a day like this when we gather to remember your mother, here at this old house with the gray shingles and the roses and the beach stretching away, I just wanted to tell the story again. How I met her, what it was like, and why this is a special place, so all of you–your wives and children–won’t forget. As Proust, or somebody said: Reality is a state approached only through memory. Something like that. I don’t remember, and you’re not supposed to at my age.

Anyway, I think it smells like the apples are ready, and I say why don’t we go in and eat them, the walnuts, the brown sugar, all cooked togetherh, like this family, at the old table, in the middle of this house, on the blue boards. And think how very lucky we are. Especially me.

Nailed to Reality

There is a theory circulating, around me mainly, that Mexican writers–because of their national history, the church, the social structure, and their mothers–see reading their writing in public as the kind of adventure that can have no good ending. In all my considerable humility, I believe this is because, for Mexican writers, the distance between fiction and reality is not great enough. As if one were nailed to the other, and impossible to pry apart.

The writers I have seen at the local salon either don’t read at all or read so quickly that one can’t absorb what they’re saying. A cloud of anxiety rises around them and then streams out over their listeners like fog from dry ice.

My friend the fiction writer teaches Theology at the local university. He is a very good writer, but he will not read for others. That is, I suspect, partly because he has a built-in safety mechanism which keeps him from showing parts of himself that are not perfect. Comedy, irony, and the ridiculous are all too dangerous, even when only directed at others. He takes Goethe’s famous line from Faust I, Prologue in Heaven, most seriously: Es irrt der Mensch solang’ er strebt. Man errs however much he strives.

Mexican writers know instinctively that something like fiction, or irony, can be taken literally. For example, my friend wrote a story about a conversation with the Devil. When he read it to his wife, she looked at him with astonishment.

“Was that this morning?” she asked.

He thought she was referring to his writing session with his French writer friend. She meant, it turned out, an actual conversation with that lisping cloven-hoofed personage she would never invite to her house for all the reasons learned from the priests who have taken her confessions over the years.

After lunch, while washing the dishes with her daughter, she mentioned, “Your father had a conversation with the Devil.” The daughter, a lovely intelligent creature, assumed her mother was referring to her former boyfriend.

My friend published the story “A Conversation with the Devil” in a local literary journal, bowing to pressure from his French friend. Rather than use his own name, he chose F. Scott Fitzgerald Cruz as his nom de plume–and was immediately recognized by half of the city’s bureaucrats, municipal and ecclesiastical.

The results came quickly. The Federal Commission of Electricity moved him up into a consumer category no longer eligible for government subsidization. His wife and daughter, at communion, each received three red Cheerios on their tongues, instead of the holy wafer. When he went to pay his predial, his property tax, they directed him to a different window, one that had bars on it, as if the bars might offer better protection for the person waiting on him. Half of those who rented his several business properties began to pay their rent more than ten days late. The men who passed his house regularly in the morning, calling “Gaaaassss!” for natural gas and “Aawaa Ciel,” for water, which is a product of the Coca Cola Company, no longer came by, and his wife had to call the companies and demand delivery. Even then, the water garrafones and the gas tanques leaked, spilling water on their floor tiles and seeping gas into the family lungs. When he gave up his briefcase at the central university library, where he went to write, the receptionist and the guard, who accepted his briefcase for a numbered tab in return, gingerly examined the item, as if it might explode or have the capability to fly around over the city at night.

When I learned about the story, the fictional conversation with the Devil, I suggested he read it at the local literary salon. He looked at me very seriously and said, “You know the iron cages at the top corners of the Alhóndiga, where they hung the heads of Allende and others, rebels against the Spanish, and let them rot for years?”

I nodded.

“Well, that’s why they do it,” he said, as if he were talking of just yesterday.

I nodded again, as if I understood.

I told a friend of mine, who has written many books in Northern California, about my Mexican writer friend. I told him about the conversation with the Diablo, and that it was a fine piece of writing that should be published in the States. My California writer friend asked for a copy. My friend sent the story north, but then, after a week of consideration, asked that it be returned, since he feared that it might affect his visa status.

Hoping to help finalize things–move them along, so to speak, I mentioned, in a pique of disappointment, that the National Security Agency had probably already detected the word “devil” in the email transmission. It was, after all, a country where at least 40% of the people followed an orthodox religious conservatism. Perhaps a higher percentage in the intelligence agencies. And those people were probably sniff-sensitive to something like conversation with the Devil, and detected either the smell of heresy or a whiff of conspiracy.

That was several Mondays ago. Monday morning is when he and his French friend write at the café that has the best coffee in Central Mexico. His email transmissions have ceased, I learned from the Frenchman. Telephone calls go unanswered. He does not show up at the café. And I do not think he will be coming to the next literary salon reading, scheduled for a week from today.

Any good Mexican publisher who reads this report should consider sending men in black, at night, with flash lights, to find the manuscript. And take it. Out of his hands, so to speak. They should publish it, change his name entirely and, here and there, elements of his style, to protect him from recognition. Mexico’s federal attorney general will have to work out ahead of time the mechanics of full protection from any foreign or domestic governmental or ecclesiastical agency, observing the Constitution’s strict reaffirmation of the co-existence of fiction and reality. In this way, all of us will be able to read one of Mexico’s great writers. Whoever that may actually be.