While I was awol, I completed the rework of a novel that will be published in hard copy by mid October. I will put it up a chapter at a time, for no other purpose than to entertain. we are writers. That is what we do. Not up for critique (other than lavish praise) or rework.
The story is based on a couple I befriended when I was twenty, and living on my boat at The Isthmus, which is the harbor on the windward side of Catalina. It is an Adam and Eve story, It is Almost Avalon. Avalon is the Celtic word for paradise.
And Almost is one of the most powerful words a writer could ever hope to use. An implication of what might have been… Here were go. Chapter One.
Death and failure to those who confuse love with desire…
…but for those who get it right…immortality
And a return to the garden.
A novel by
802 South Tremont Street
Oceanside, California, 92054
I cast my net to a sea of indifference.
I drift, between the flow and ebb,
and I haul, from the sea of indifference,
the empty web.
December tumbled out of a storm cloud one night passing over the island on its way to Los Angeles. It had to have broken a few bones when it hit the deck, and it woke me, but I didn’t crawl out from under the blankets to investigate. I was hoping maybe I dreamed it, but there it was, early the next morning, cold and wet, pounding on the aft hatch, hungry, and telling me how it liked its eggs. It made itself comfortable, with no sign of moving on. I’ve been looking over my shoulder for two weeks, and hiding the silverware since December made its descent. Tonight is no exception.
December. It is the bully of all months, the disciple of the twelve to betray the good intentions of the calendar. It does not roll off the tongue, like April, or May. It scrapes the roof of your mouth to speak its name. Its voice is brittle and its words are harsh, and it berates my every move. You’re going to lose her, you know. Go back, while you still can. I’ll make it easy for you. She’ll understand.
When I answer, You don’t know who you’re up against, it says nothing, but sucks a degree or two out of the air when my back is turned.
My name is Aaron. I don’t even know what I look like anymore, in case you’re curious. I’ve got other priorities, but I’d like to think I’m at least half as handsome as Melissa is pretty. First words to her, from strangers, from men, are always about her looks, and she knows they do not speak of her beauty, but of their lust. I am the caretaker of her curse. But I am not drawn to the beauty, the perfect skin, the perfect face and form; I am drawn to the light within her. I am the keeper of her flame.
No… I lie. I am drawn to her beauty like every other man, who looks at her lips, and wonders, who by accident brushes against her hips, and imagines.
She tells her friends she’s married to John Lennon. I’m a head taller than she is, and we’re both a little too slim. Her hair is long, and dark, and straight; mine is a bit more complicated, and I’m probably overdue for a haircut. I might cave in to that the next time we pull around to Avalon to hit the Laundromat and take in a movie, but the beard is here to stay. When Neil Young sings “Twenty-four and there’s so much more” we both know what he’s talking about. I hope that helps.
I almost had this thing turned around; I was almost there. Traps baited and dropped from the face of Ribbon Rock all the way to the West End, after a week of down time waiting for an alternator, after a week of flat and glassy water and watching other boats pull in each night fully loaded, and watching Melissa be everywhere but here. A few good days of fishing was all I needed on the lee side of bad weather, but then, December, and this storm.
I’d gone topside and groped my way forward to check the mooring, for chaffing and drift. Even tucked away where we were, the boat was bucking and doing its best to throw me, and the rain on the deck might as well have been bacon grease. Darkness had come by seven o’clock, and just got meaner, more serious, with each passing moment. The anchor light, small and dim atop the masthead, was fast asleep, and I was not about to let it nurse on the battery. The Gray Marine engine takes a big gulp to get itself started, and we needed to be out and working as soon as the weather broke.
…One of the other lobster boats gave us a jump last week. It felt like a welfare check, or pity, and Melissa…I saw the way he looked at her, him thinking there was not enough of me to even bother to hide it. He mumbled a few words to her before flicking his cigarette in the water and powering off in his skiff. “You owe me,” he said, over his shoulder…
I took a glance south of Cat Head and seaward. Nasty stuff, the night so wet and slippery most of the stars had lost their grip and slid off into the blackened sea, never to be seen again, after the brief sizzle as they lost their fire. Even the moon would have nothing to do with this storm, and had gone off to some bar to wait it out, leaving a bullet hole in the sky that gushed wind and blackness and blood. I did my work by the blink of lightning, and when I was done, I worked my way aft. I looked through the port hole in the door to the cabin. Melissa had just lit the alcohol stove. I rapped twice on the wood to let her brace herself before I slid the door open and dropped below.
I shrugged off my pea coat, and eased it between the third and top step of the companionway, thinking maybe it would drip itself dry if it had nothing better to do. I dusted excess moisture from my watch-cap before setting it on the mahogany chart table.
Melissa pumped a few spurts of water into the kettle and set it on the stove, flattening the blue flame. When she turned my way I slipped my finger into the loop on her jeans where there should have been a belt coiled around her, but we needed the belt to cinch a split in the oar of the dinghy. I pulled her to me. I almost touched her recent wound.
It happened like this: The storm had been rolling our way a few days ago—you could feel it in the water, but not yet in the air— when kelp snagged the last trap of the day. As it was topping the gun’ll, the line snapped, just as Melissa was coming to me with a cup of coffee. The welts on her torso? The signature of my neglect. The burn to her fingers as the coffee tumbled? The nuance of my affection for her. I did that to her. That line should have been replaced a month ago…
I was contagious with rain and made slick her only dry shirt. I should have known better, but I selfishly wanted that re-assurance a man gets when woman parts are firmly up against him, especially a woman he loves. She backed off and put her hand to her breast, then looked in disbelief at her fingers, and then at me. She was moist with colorless blood, evidence she had been wounded, pierced—again by my own hand. She said nothing, and wiped her hand on her jeans. I have punctured her heart and now there is nothing left to do but gamble for her clothes.
I knelt before her, as I did every night of rain, hoping to be knighted. Arise, Sir Aaron. But she never said those words. Instead, while I supplicated, she tugged my armor of wool over my shoulders and bunched it into the small sink, keeping it at arm’s length.
I hoisted myself from the floorboards, and eased in to the settee, fisting and opening my icy hands to pump some blood into them and get them back on board. Eight o’clock was approaching, and I needed them dressed and sober. Someday, perhaps, by some noble act, she will see her way clear to knight me.
I tested my fingers, drumming them a bit on the side of the radio bolted squarely to the table where it joined the hull, and as I turned it on, its red light glowed like the beacon light on a jetty, somewhere on that mahogany shore. But for a burning candle, and the low blue flame of the alcohol stove, it was the only illumination from within the cabin. That, and the constant halo that blinds me whenever Melissa looks my way. Jesus, she says, I’m not an angel, as she preens the feathers of her wings.
My hands were obedient but still unfeeling. Or is that my heart? One hand rotated the dial and tuned the radio. The other one stood watch. I cranked up the volume as high as it could go, just as December dumped another bucket of marbles on the roof, and the sky cleared its throat of thunder. My marine-band was navy surplus, but reception on the windward side of the island was always dicey.
We were bobbing up and down and confusing the hell out of the radio waves coming out of San Pedro. The boat shifted on its mooring yet another time, as faintly, sandpapered with static, the Eight O’clock Notice to Mariners commenced. “Catalina Island…wind out of the southwest…twenty-five to thirty knots…” The voice babbled like a coughing Pentecostal. “…six to eight foot swells at ten second intervals…”
The voice was so distant that it made it hard to believe that the mainland was less than the twenty-minute freeway drive from Carlsbad to San Diego. The impartial, detached voice that I couldn’t believe belonged to someone with a pulse continued, “…Currently raining…visibility two miles with low clouds and fog…estimaxxxx…”
“Jesus! Can you believe this!” Just when I’d dialed in a fix an errant gust of wind spat at us crude and rude from out of the Northeast, shifting the boat, changing everything. If the battery had been stronger, or my fingers more nimble, I could have, I know I could have picked it up. I grit my teeth and threatened my fingers. They trembled and felt my wrath. They have seen what I do to an abalone with a knife when I bait my traps.
The radio continued to screech and wail, but I missed the forecast, the only thing that mattered. I put the radio out of its raspy misery with a flip of the toggle-switch. The bubble of red light faded to darkness as a beacon burns out, smoldering for a moment in the dim darkness, its passion spent.
“I’m sorry.” I leaned my head back against the bulkhead.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I mean…losing my temper.”
She took my hand. “It’s all right,” Melissa said. “My guess is we’re not going anywhere in the morning.” The water for tea was not yet at boil, and she sat across from me for a moment, until the kettle screamed.
We’ve been breathing the same air, over and over again, for quite some time, now, and it tastes like wet cardboard. Maybe tea can change the taste in my mouth.
San Pedro’s Ordinary Seaman didn’t get it right.
An old gull, gray and huddled for the last two days between two salvaged lobster traps on deck—I have more faith in him, and I trust his intelligence. In his wings, the weather recorded, and within his dulled eyes, a forecast.
The sweater in the sink had not been dry for three days and had not seen the sun in twice that long. Faded wool, and heavy with water. I believe in its youth, maybe even as late as last summer, it was peach colored. It’s the color of oatmeal now, which is to say, no color at all. But, in spite of its dampness, it locked out the wind the same ironic way a deck swollen with water stays water-tight. I crawled inside it once more, compelled into action by the slap of water on the hull, the shrill cry of the wind as it slit its tongue on the stays of the mooring mast, and the rockslide of rain on the roof.
“This seems to be picking up. I’m going out to take another look at the mooring. See how we’re holding.”
“Pick up the Sunday paper while you’re out, won’t you?”
Melissa knew the drill. Opening the hatch put the candle at risk. The wind was as hungry as we were, and had sharper teeth. We’d seen it tear a chunk of air out of our little cave swift as a shark and disappear into deep water. We’d seen it swallow the flame whole before, on other nights like this, and from this, we learned.
I slipped back into the pea coat, slipped on my watch cap, and turned to see that Melissa had canopied herself over the candle.
“Got it,” she said. The flame clung to the wick as if it were the last petal of a flower. She loves me…she loves me not…she…
I opened the hatch and stepped up and out on the deck. Less than a year ago we’d be flipping TV channels about this time, or raiding the refrigerator during a commercial break. Stuff so tame you trick yourself into thinking life is an adventure by saying that getting off the sofa to paw through left-overs for cold pizza in the fridge is a raid.
I looked skyward. This broken canopy that is falling upon me, is this what Melissa wants? The safe and numbing drama of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite; is that what she wanted?
I wasn’t on deck more than a moment when I heard a voice. Join me, won’t you? offered the night. Let me carry you away with me, as I do the wind, to join the decomposed and just drift off into the sweet darkness. Wouldn’t you like that? It required only that I nod in consent. But how can I drift? There is a woman down below who loves me, and she’s counting on me. I can fail myself, I have failed myself, but I can never fail her. We’ll have this talk again, said the night, but wasn’t there some purpose to you stepping out here, in the cold?
The mooring, yes, that umbilical cord that keeps us tethered to this womb of a harbor. That is what I’m here for. Confined, and unable to fish, checking the mooring while braving bullets of rain was the only manly act of self-sacrifice left me. And for a moment, I escape Melissa’s scrutiny, and can stand erect and without shame. I have no need of dignity in the dark, where there is no witness to any act, noble or foul.
The trek against the wind to the bow was of course unnecessary, the boat being just as secure now as it was a half an hour ago. Somebody from Marina Del Rey paid three hundred fifty dollars for this mooring, for the one summer weekend or two that they would motor over, when the water was so flat and the wind so nothing at all a Danforth could have held them.
The Catalina Island Company that ran the place kept an elephant graveyard of engines died of cardiac arrest, pistons frozen in the arteries so hard by rust they were Do Not Resuscitate. They laced half inch chain through the engine blocks, sunk them in a line with a buoy and a number. They didn’t budge, except maybe to burrow into the sand. We’ve never dragged but sometimes I play out a little more line if it’s chaffing through the chocks.
I scanned the horizon for a break in the storm, but the mouth of the harbor was black as blood, and I saw only the lights from the few other fishing boats bouncing like drunken fire-flies. It was a mistake to have wasted the power from the twelve-volt on a weather report that told me nothing that I did not already know. I would like to have heard if the storm was changing direction, though. That would have been helpful. Even if it were raining just as hard in the morning I could pull if the wind changed direction and started to beat down the swells. If the wind died, fishing in two days. But if it changed direction, tonight, right now, I could fish in the morning. It had only to change direction.
As things were, the swells were not tickling their way down the coast as they usually do, casual as tourists, but were getting backlogged and blue-balled bulking up directly on the face of the cliffs, and punching it out, making an approach to the traps death by stupidity. A smaller boat, maybe, but not mine. Even in good weather it was a hard boat to maneuver near the rocks. It was a soft-chine Monterey boat, too big and with too much roll to fish lobsters, but it had headroom, a vee-berth up forward, a galley and head, a settee and even a hanging locker. We couldn’t get that in a skiff with a cuddy cabin, not even a Radon boat.
It was, by default, a lobster boat.
The sky and sea sloshed together like bilge oil, too dark and heavy to even tell where the island ended and open water began. Another sporadic pulse of lightning lit up the sea, and the sea was ugly. I could make out a lot of kelp drifting by the boat at a good clip towards the beach, telling me that bad water at the harbor entrance was bound to seal us in a few days more.
In the darkness, the bow of the boat becomes my confessional, and here I confess my sins, then cut them loose. They get a little more distant from me, drift off across the water and disappear. It’s easy, and gets easier. I numb myself to my own imperfections. But to confess love for another being, for a woman? I tremble. I hear the sharp smack of a gavel, and remind myself it is only thunder. I am as angry as a man freshly in love, with suddenly so much to conceal, so much to make disappear for his beloved. It is this, the night, my confessor, extracts from me, and this does not easily drift away with the current…
…The wind must be reasonable. It has to change direction. In the distance there is a flash of gunfire. I hear a fresh volley of rain tearing through the darkness and heading my way.
I brace myself.
I can feel it coming.
Without flinching I check the mooring line and bitt.
I pass on the blindfold and cigarette as the rain crosses the bow.
Melissa, forgive me. I only slept with that woman because …
…I was riddled with gunfire, my confession incomplete.