Almost Avalon is a completed novel based on a couple I met years ago while I was living on my boat at the Istmus at Catalina Island. I hope you enjoy reading about their struggle, and suffer none such struggle yourself. Chapter one can be found in “Departments, Thorn’s blog”
“Hey, why you keep checking it? We seem to be holding just fine.”
I shrugged out of my gear without her help, the coat on the steps, the sweater in the sink. I sat down before I answered her, “But, in this weather…” and then I realized there was no answer, the nobility of my act a work of fiction.
I was only vaguely aware that Melissa had pulled off my boots. She then took my hands and wrapped them around a warm cup from which vaporized the faint scent of green tea.
She sat across from me, and leaned back to let me drink, watching me. I couldn’t think of anything else to lie to her about. Is it really her on the other side of the vapor, being so kind?
I closed my eyes and steam anointed my brow. I set the cup down, still warming my hands by it, and I, too, leaned back, feeling released by the warmth as the tea channeled its way into me. When the steam on my brow cooled, I opened my eyes, and there it was, that smile of hers, that’s got me doing all this.
Melissa reached under her seat, and pulled out her journal, wrapped in a towel like baby swaddling, and sheathed in a plastic Woolworth’s bag. Her one true pleasure that even December could not usurp. She un-scrolled the aluminum foil in which were a few pens and colored pencils, and she began to write. I could not read the upside-down words as they drifted upon the page as I was across from her, nor would I choose to read them. They were hers, to do with as she liked. But I could make out, in the margins, and sometimes dividing one passage from another, her sweet little drawings; a starfish, a whale, sunflowers, or a blackbird testing its wings.
Melissa winced, as a drop of rainwater could hold on no longer and fell from the ceiling, pelting her on the back of the neck. She placed a pan under what apparently was the newest point of siege, and water began slowly to collect itself. “That’s our roof leakin’,” she said. “Beats paying rent for one that leaks just as bad.”
Our apartment in Encinitas never leaked a drop. And, anyway, it never rains in Southern California, Catalina excepted. Still, it sounded good, coming from her. I lie, to distance myself from reality. Melissa lies to create a better reality.
But the truth was, we were just overwhelmed by the rain, cold and copious thing that it had become. No corner of the boat was ever dry. Even our words were made of water. To speak them was to wring them out of a wash-rag, spilling them on the table, spilling them on to one another each time we spoke. Of late, we say very little to each other, and what we speak travels no faster than the Monterey boat, slow and sluggish between trough and crest.
It was with words unspoken, then, that I thought of repairs for the boat.
A few good days of fishing would make such a difference, just a few good days.
“The storm should get the lobsters moving,” I said, “That’s what the other boats tell me. They always pull well after a storm.”
Melissa held up her hand without looking up from her journal and kept writing; I had interrupted a thought in mid-sentence.
I waited for her to lift her head to look at me. But that damned journal, which I praise.
There I posed, the centerfold of despair, staring out the window, watching the rain dilute a hemlock sea, watching it as the boat contorted at the end of the mooring line, like an animal struggling with its foot in a trap, hearing the hunter approach.
We tried to imagine what it would be like, when we were living at the mainland, but our understanding of the weather then was as mindless as the voice on the radio an hour before. Never did I say “There is so much rain” without a tremor of disbelief, and while there was that trace, while I pretended to be shocked by what was happening, I could somehow avoid apologizing for it, for inviting her into all this.
It had been about eight months since I had taken her from the mainland. The summer was easy. I worked in the boat yard, and Melissa as a waitress in the café. We lived on the boat, sometimes sleeping on the deck under the stars, and waited for October and the start of lobster season. Laid off after Labor Day, as we knew we would be, September was a month with nothing to do, and we did nothing, very, very well. A month to camp in the interior of the island, which can look like Vermont in the fall, a month to snorkel for abalone and spear fish, a month for Melissa to sit alone in the hills and oversee the world, journal in hand. A month of making love on secluded beaches; a month of making amends.
Catalina! Twenty or thirty miles at most from Los Angeles, an island, one of the Channel Islands, grazing in the blue-grass of the Pacific like indifferent sheep or goats. The windward side of the island was stark, striking, erodible and eroded, but it was redeemed by the presence of an all-weather harbor that bore the same name as the island itself, and the cliffs surrendered themselves to the gentle sloping at the Isthmus, and with the first rains of late fall, all was green.
Years ago a small herd of buffalo were barged over for a John Wayne movie. Their descendants meander on the hillsides and in the trough of the Isthmus. They mingle with goats and tourists and crop the tall grass that ripples like the water on the horizon when the sun plunges to cool itself at the end of the day…
…My skin was brown and my hair was bleached, just a few short months ago…
Melissa folded her journal, and before she thought about what to do next she pulled out a deck of cards from a canister lodged between the sweat sheathing and the hull. All forty-eight or fifty of them were warped by moisture and worn beyond retirement. She dealt the first hand. The three of hearts was torn slightly down the middle, a spattering of wax stained the black queen, and the six of clubs was dog-eared. Marks on half a dozen other cards made them readable from either side, but we overlooked that and played. This was the surrogate for the adventures that I had promised her, and even believed I could deliver.
Ours had been the dream that everyone dreams who reads Treasure Island. Magnificent square-rigged schooners, tall and proud, with sails as full as the love Melissa and I had for one another, coming over the horizon and dropping anchor, dropping sails. But the vessels that round Cat Head now stagger in drunk, smelling of Diesel and larceny— degenerated fishing boats, lean and un-kept like those who manned them. It was hard to find a boat without a gun on board, “to pop the goats on the cliffs,” they said, to tumble down to the water to cook in charcoal on the transom of a boat, but I have seen also bull seals bloated and floating and freckled with buckshot, have seen gulls taken down like clay pigeons, for alcohol inspired sport.
Our pirates, the lobster fishermen, would drink coffee together in the harbor each morning, almost like a family, but when the fishing was bad, as it often was, they would steal from each other once they rounded Cat Head, the prominent point that sentried the harbor. And then in the evening, it was all bluff, bluff and beer, as they rafted together for their evening pissing contest.
We never rafted with them; I was the only one with a woman on board. They thought it so unfair that someone like me should have someone like her. They were real men. Dirt under the fingernails and sweat pasting their wife-beater shirts in place. Beer on their breath like a bird on a branch. What was her problem?
After a while, I noticed that I had a pile of matchsticks on my side of the table, and that Melissa had very few. The isolation, the boredom, was a blunt and scar-less beating that I never saw coming. We just need to ride it out.
There was escape, I suppose, if we really wanted it. We’ve got a dinghy trailing off the stern. The wind would have been with us if we wanted to row in, to row ashore to the settlement. A juke box, a pool table, a bar, and the skeleton crew that anchored the island and kept it from drifting out to sea until next summer. But the wind would be against us rowing back, and it would have been too much to contend with, and the rain would have us flirting with pneumonia.
As I scraped minutes from the cliffs of time, I was looking less and less at my benevolent Medusa, and I became less able to distract myself with a game of cards. The lapping and the rocking would not relent, the bobbing up and down, the collage of rain and salt and lights smeared on the porthole like butter, an animated finger painting. Melissa had dealt the last four hands, I think. I was staring through the glass. I was looking around the perimeter of the overhead that wept here and there with rain. I was staring down the radio. I was looking at the candle. I was looking everywhere but into the eyes of my beloved, for I would surely turn to stone if within that sweet deepness I should see what I have done to her.
Thank god the deck above us was cambered. Most of the water that worked its way in would slither, rat-like, down the corners of the cabin, but
for the few brave or suicidal droplets that took direct aim and dove for our shoulders or neck, free fall to the jugular.
Distracted, again, I was, by a drop of rain, dripping down, spiraling down my chest. Melissa was no longer across from me. Her fingers were dripping downward, weaving in and out of the buttons of my shirt. My clothes, almost dry. My skin, warm underneath my flannel shirt.
“I have some very nice things to say to your body,” she said, “but your clothes keep interrupting me.”
I closed my eyes, before I turned to stone.