17 February, 2009
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
He reaches the notch in the cement wall and steps through. There it is! The ocean! The smell of it, the sound of it, its fine, cool moisture on his face and on his arms. He inhales deeply and it fills his lungs. How many years did he live without it, not even knowing of its existence, let alone experiencing its presence, its power, its ability to bring truth and meaning to everything else in life- to work and play and friendship and sleep and death and food and drink? No wonder all those years he was so lost and confused. There was no ocean.
He climbs up to the crest on the trail where a short tunnel, blasted through the rock separates the public beach from the stretch of sand where he lives. On the other side, he scans the horizon. The moon is bright and the sky is cloudless. The breakers are blue with moonlight and maybe just a hint of phosphorus. The tide is coming in. He can see his weird little cabin off in the distance, lit by moonlight, nestled in the cove.
Then he sees something else. A tiny wisp of smoke is rising from the fire circle, rising straight up into the windless night, and even from this distance he detects the very faint glow of embers. He quickens his pace. Company! Who could it be? He follows the trail down to the edge of the sand where it winds through a bed of ancient fallen logs worn smooth by waves and stable enough to host the suggestion of a trail. His heart is light with happy expectation. Company is a good thing! Company is always a good thing. Anyone who comes to see him in his own home is a welcome sight, indeed.
He slows down as he approaches the cove and tries to make out the shadowy form seated on the log by the fire. Large of bulk, hunched of posture, motionless and calm, it could only be one man.
“Hey, Carl.” he says as he enters the firelight. “Welcome. How long you been here?”
“Not too long,” Carl intones. “Couple of hours. ‘Bout as long as you haven’t been here. I stopped by the Dogfish. You weren’t there either, which I thought was strange. So I came here.”
Wilbo sets his pad and pencils down on the porch. He sets his concertina case down on the pad, so the pictures inside won’t blow away. He takes a few sticks of driftwood from the pile and tosses them on the fire. The sparks whirl and fly.
“So, Wilbo,” says Carl, “What you got to drink around here?”
Wilbo smiles, happy to have a satisfactory answer to that question. “How ‘bout some Almaden Tawny Port? That just about oughta hit the spot right now.”
Carl nods, solemnly. “Yep. That just about oughta.”
Wilbo unlocks the door, enters the house, and fumbles around under the bed until his hand caresses the long skinny neck of the bottle. He pulls it out, pops the cork and breathes in the warm welcoming aroma. He takes two stoneware mugs out of the cupboard and fills each one to the brim. The bottle is completely drained.
Outside, Carl takes his cup with a grunt of appreciation. In respect for the man’s girth and commanding presence, Wilbo surrenders the entire length of the bench, sitting politely instead on a smaller chunk of driftwood opposite the fire.
“Your brother stopped by the Dogfish tonight,” Carl announces. “Said he was looking for you.”
This tidbit of information rattles Wilbo, just a little.
“Oh yeah? What did he look like? Was he drunk?”
“Sober as a monkey on a bicycle,” Carl replies. “Even wearing a tie and a white shirt. Tucked in.”
Wilbo frowns, as if this is bad news. “Well, what made him think I’d be there?”
Carl glances up. “Same thing that made all of us think you’d be there. It’s where you usually are at that time of night. Kind of mysterious, actually.” He takes a sip from his cup.
They sit quietly and stare into the fire for a while, for a long time in fact. It’s that kind of scene, the kind where you can sit quietly and stare into a fire for a long time, comfortably, even when there are uncomfortable issues at stake.
“I met this girl.” Wilbo says, eventually.
Carl nods. “Oh. I see.”
“She’s very young... I mean, I think she’s too young.”
“Uh huh.” Carl takes another drink of his wine. “Why don’t you bring her down to the Dogfish sometime and let me look at her? I’ll tell you if she’s too young.”
“Well, I think maybe she’s… too young to take into the Dogfish. I mean, legally.”
Carl chews on that one for a while. “Oh,” he says, “That young.”
Then they’re comfortably silent some more. The waves crash and recede. A grouping of little terns skitter about on the sand.
“That’s an interesting development, Wilbo.”
“It’s interesting.” Wilbo agrees. His thoughts are swirling, but they’re swirling slowly. He has time to look at each one of them as they swirl by. It’s a good thing about this kind of moment. He can look at his thoughts as they swirl by. He can take his time and form them in his mind until they make some sense, and he’s ready to articulate them.
Finally he says, “You’ve got to have a code of ethics, Carl. I’ve said that before.”
Carl agrees. “You’ve said that before.”
“You can’t just do anything you want. Maybe you could, but you can’t anymore.”
Carl shakes his head. “Nope. Not anymore.”
“That’s what she was asking me. The difference between being young and being old. But I couldn’t put it into words. Not then. But you know what it is. It’s a code of ethics. That’s the difference. When you’re young, you just do stuff, just to see what happens. But when you get older, it matters, what you do. You don’t want to do just anything. You don’t have that much time. Time is precious. You want to be sure you do the right thing. You may not get another chance.” Wilbo picks up his cup of wine, sniffs it, then sets it down without tasting it. An annoying memory has drifted, unbidden, into his mind. “She told me I was old fashioned, like somebody’s grandfather. That’s what she said. What does she know about that? What does she know about a code of ethics?”
Carl shifts his weight on the bench, slowly, deliberately. He passes through a phase of visible discomfort. He winces once and his breathing becomes labored. Finally he finds a new position that works- same as the old position, except that he faces a different direction. He waits until his breathing stabilizes. Then he takes another sip of wine.
“Well, from my experience, people don’t change when they get older,” he says at last. They just become who they always were, only more so. The times when someone changes into someone else as they grow older- that’s the stuff of legends. Wilbo, I suspect you’ve had this code of ethics ever since you were a little boy. I suspect you were raised with it. I suspect you haven’t really thought about it in the last few years. Not deeply.”
“Why do you say that, Carl?”
“Well, what is it, this code of ethics? Have you written it down? Have you made it into a litany? Can you recite it as a creed?”
Wilbo considers this for a while but his thoughts come up with nothing concrete.
“You’re the bookworm, Carl. You know it better than I do. It’s been written down a zillion times. There’s the Golden Rule. There’s the Fourfold Path of Right Action, there’s the Mosaic Laws. There’s the Hippocratic Oath.”
Carl chuckles and sips his wine. “That’s what I’m talking about, Wilbo. You defer to the common culture. You can’t tell me what your personal code of ethics is. I’ll tell you what your personal code of ethics is. I’ve said this before. I said it just last night. You make fun of people and you favor women. That’s your personal code of ethics.”
This accusation doesn’t have any personal punch for Wilbo. It’s just Carl, playing with ideas, like he always does.
“People are fools, all of them. They need me to make fun of them. They’re like sheep except that there’s no shepherd. The shepherd is dead but they still follow him. They follow his ghost. And women are more beautiful than men, so I favor them. Can you blame me? Isn’t that what I said last night? And then the hippies. Those stupid hippies. They had it right to begin with. They realized the shepherd was dead. But then they just went completely out of control. They had no code of ethics whatsoever. They just did whatever they felt like doing, with no thought of what was right.”
Carl turns his head slowly until he’s looking Wilbo square in the face. “Well, what about us, then? Your friends at the Dogfish. Are we just fools, too?”
“Of course not, Carl. We’re the eccentrics. We wobble outside the wheel, like we were talking about last night. Although I don’t know that we’re doing that much wobbling really. Mostly we just sit around and drink and talk about it. Maybe Floyd, he’s trying to do something with his real estate business. And of course there’s Doralina…”
For a moment Wilbo slips into a reverie, like a short film projected across the screen of his mind. Floyd Collins, in his office, is slumped over his desk with an empty Southern Comfort bottle in his hands. Then he gets up and knocks a plant off the shelf and opens the closet door and there’s a woman in the closet and he closes the door and Doralina climbs out the window. It all happens quickly, like time lapse photography. What was she up to, Doralina, climbing out the window like that? Wilbo has never known Doralina to start something that led nowhere.
In a long, drawn-out gesture, heavy with world-weariness, Carl produces a tattered red bandana from his pocket and blows his nose soundly and thoroughly into it, wringing out his nostrils and combing his moustache with it, before replacing it in his pocket.
“They were a movement, Wilbo, the hippies. If you study history you’ll see there’s always been movements of people who go against the grain. They rise up and they push the consciousness forward a little, but then they fall apart. They always fall apart. Sometimes they go bad before they fall apart, like the Nazis, so the bad overpowers any good they might have done in the first place. But there’s always good, and they always fall apart. That’s what Hoffer says if I read him right. Look at the Knights Templar. They renounced the cruelty of the Crusades and set up a mystical order of the highway. Saint Columba of Ireland. He broke away from the aristocratic priesthood of the O’Neils, and established a spiritual community on the island of Iona, based on the ancient and feminist Brehan laws. The Quakers. They were thrown in jail and even executed in seventeenth century England, just because they refused to swear an oath in a court of law. Think about the Utopians in New England. The Oneida Commune. The Transcendentalists. Think about… Henry David Thoreau. Mahatma Gandhi. Aurobindo and his wackly Hindus down in Pondicherry. Hell Wilbo, you ought to hitchhike down to Arizona sometime and see what Soleri and his people are up to in Arcosanti. Even the hippies. You can’t blame them for trying something new. Hoffer doesn’t trust movements, I don’t think, for all his talk. He calls them all mass movements. He says there’s good and bad mass movements, like Nazism or the Catholic Church. But I don’t think he goes far enough. I’m a firm believer in movements, Wilbo. Some of them, anyhow.”
The man does know his books, Wilbo thinks to himself. But he’s not sure how to fit all this with what he’s been talking about, and he’s not sure how what he’s been talking about has anything to do with Claudia.
“So I met this girl.” he says.
“Yeah. I believe you mentioned that. What are you gonna do about it?”
Wilbo picks up a stick and stirs the fire. He taps the coals and breaks up some big chunks into little chunks. He smooths out a ridge of fiery orange into a plain of glowing amber.
“Nothing.” he says at last. “Nothing in particular. Just roll with the punches, I guess. I don’t even know why I brought it up. You meet girls every day.”
Carl chuckles. “Maybe you do.” he says and he raises his cup. Just before he sips he stops. It’s like he’s making a decision. Oh, what the hell? his gesture says, and he drains the cup dry.
“You got any more of this stuff?” he asks.
Wilbo glances down at his own mug, untouched and still full to the brim, wedged in the sand against a rock.. “Nope. Just what I’m working on myself.”
This information seems to cause Carl some discomfort. He sets his cup down on the bench and lumbers through several different positions, finally settling on one, resting his wrists on his knees and curving his shoulders forward.
“You spend too much time alone, Wilbo. That’s your problem.”
“I don’t know where you get that. I haven’t been alone all day. Or yesterday. Or the day before that, as far as I can remember.”
“I don’t mean alone like… you know, alone, where there’s no people. I mean alone with your thoughts. You keep your thoughts to yourself, Wilbo.”
Wilbo thinks about this, to himself. Carl looks at him and nods his head several times. He leans back slightly, then leans forward, slightly. He repeats these motion a few times until he’s got a little rocking thing going, like a porch swing, or a pair of lumberjacks at a two-handled saw. Eventually he gains sufficient momentum to propel himself awkwardly to his feet. Erect, but shaky, he brushes the sand off his jacket and cracks his knuckles.
“You might want to think about what I said, Wilbo. About movements. You don’t have to be alone, you know. With your thoughts, I mean. You’re not the only one who thinks this way. Come back to the Dogfish tomorrow night and we’ll talk about it. Bring the girl if you want. We’ll find a way to get her in.”
Wilbo stands because Carl is standing. He’s glad to be on his feet. The little chunk of driftwood doesn’t have near the ergonomics of the ancient and well-worn bench. For awhile they stand there in silence, two comfortable old friends who rarely agree, in no hurry to part company. The sounds of the ocean nicely fill in the silence. The two figures standing by the fire begin to sway slightly. It’s not because of the wind; there is no wind. It’s more like an invisible music with invisible rhythms. It’s more like two invisible musics, each of the two figures swaying to a separate rhythm.
Finally Carl clears his throat. “Welp. Guess I’d better be gettin’ back. It’s a long walk for this old bag of bones.”
“I wish I could take you in my Corvette, Carl.” Wilbo replies. They both laugh. Then they shake hands and Carl steps away from the fire. Wilbo remains standing, watching him as he completes the entire distance of the beach and disappears into the tunnel on the cliff. This takes about twenty minutes.
Wilbo leans over and picks up his untouched mug of tawny port. He carries it into the house, sets it down on the counter by the empty bottle, and lights a candle. He fumbles through the items on the shelf until he finds something that might work- a small, stone cream pitcher with a pointed spout. Carefully he pours the wine from the mug into the pitcher, and even more carefully he pours it from the pitcher back into the bottle, holding it steady even after it empties, so that the last few drops can roll down the wall. Then he corks the bottle and places it back under the bed.
He takes off his clothes and folds them carefully, even his socks, and prepares for his evening ritual.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Awakened by something, he sits up suddenly in bed. It’s a voice outside. Maybe. Whatever it is, it’s outside.
He brings his weight around and sets his bare feet on the cold wood floor. The cabin is completely dark- not a trace of light enters through the open windows. It must be very late. The moon is down.
What would wake him so soundly like that? He is wide awake- no trailing wisps of glory from the dream world, no heaviness of body, no sluggishness of mind. He throws open the door and peers out into the night.
It’s like there’s nothing out there. He can’t remember when he’s seen the night so dark, and empty and silent. Outside the door there’s just a blank space, an empty room, an open mouth. Without dressing, he steps outside for a closer look.
Immediately he senses one more missing factor, besides sound and light. There is no motion. There’s no wind, there are no little wading birds doing the do se do on the sand, no seagulls cutting the sweep of the horizon, singing their lonesome songs, there’s no colony of seals bobbing and crying on the jagged rocks, there’s no beacon lamp circling and searching the shore from an offshore vessel beyond the waves. Even the waves themselves, though moving, seem strangely static, repetitive, without variation or modulation, like an endless looped filmstrip a landlocked person might watch when he’s lonesome for the sea.
Wilbo steps further out into the night, trying to get closer to what’s happening, trying to make some sense out of it. He gets a strange image: it’s as if, while he slept, the night was rolling on toward that proverbial darkest hour, just before the imperceptible return of the forces of light and activity. But it did not stop there. Somehow it slipped sidewise and kept on going, beyond that point, to a point outside of time where nothing changes, nothing develops, and there’s no way back.
He reaches the water’s edge, the scalloped line left by the last wave, and stands there with his bare feet in the wet sand. Presently the wave returns, licks his toes and heels, then retreats, carving a hollow and drawing sand out from beneath the arch of each foot. He notices that the new wave has left the shore unchanged. It has simply and neatly filled in the contours left by the wave before it.
This is just too weird, he thinks. Something is hiding behind something else.
There is a brief moment where he thinks, Oh, this.
Then he thinks, What do you mean, Oh this? State your case. More clearly.
Then it happens. There’s a shift- inside or outside, he’s not sure, but suddenly there’s a shift- everything changes- and at the same time he experiences a sensation he’s never felt before. It’s none of the five senses; it’s something brand new, and it being brand new, he has no point of reference. He can’t locate it anywhere on the meridians of his body. It’s not in his head. Perhaps it’s in his arms, but perhaps it’s just doing something to his arms, causing them to feel something… armlike. It’s doing things to his stomach too, and his legs, and now his heart is starting to pound, and his breathing is going shallow and strained. One thing is clear- it’s a feeling that requires an action, a response- there is something he is supposed to do about it. And it isn’t optional. His entire field of awareness is overtaken. Although he has no idea what he has to do, he knows he has to do it.
He falls to his knees in the sand, thinking, this is so corny. But what are my choices?
Once on his knees, he senses he has further to go, so he falls prostrate on his face, his hands stretched out before him, tasting the salty, gritty sand between his teeth. In this humiliating position he picks up a clue. It’s a picture of a place, a location, a physical center.
He lifts his head. The first thing he sees are the rocks, the double arched rocks, just offshore. They seem to be glowing. No, the rocks aren’t glowing. There’s something behind the rocks, glowing, a soft bath-like glow- it might be white, it might be blue, he can’t tell for sure. The rocks themselves stand silhouetted against the light. He can see the arch in one rock, with the light shining clear through it. The other arch is hidden from this angle.
Instinctively he finds himself scrambling to his feet and wading out into the water, toward the rocks, toward the light. There’s no thought whatsoever behind his action. His eyes are fixed on the rocks and his body is pulled toward them, like a magnet. A wave rushes in to meet him. It breaks against his knees and the foam splashes up into his face.
His movement slows. The water is icy cold and his feet shout with pain from hard pebbles under the waves. He stops and the water surrounds him. He turns to the rocks.
The glow is fading like a fire doused in water or like a cartoon sun dropped into the sea, faster than a real sunset, slower than the snuffing of a candle. By the time his mind completes these images, the glow is gone and the ocean is dark. He is standing naked in swirling waves feeling suddenly cold and silly and void of the sensation that drove him there in the first place.
He turns around at once and begins to wade back to the shore. Then he stops again.
There’s something there- a suggestion of movement. No, it’s more than a suggestion. There’s something moving. Where the trail meanders through the old fallen driftwood forest, someone is walking, ambling slowly, casually, almost gliding. No, it’s more than one person. It’s two. Attached at the hip and wrapped in each other’s arms, two star-crossed lovers, way past their bedtimes, taking a lover’s stroll across a deserted beach, or so they think.
Mortified by the thought that someone might see him standing there, alone and naked, Wilbo collapses into the water and sits down hard on the sand beneath the waves. But the ocean is inhaling. The waves pull back and suddenly there’s a naked man, sitting on the beach in plain sight, framed by breakers. Quietly, slowly, he rolls onto his belly and flattens his body against the shore, trying to make himself look as much as possible like a log of driftwood. He angles his head so that he can watch the couple advance along the trail.
Their passage is faltering and slow. Perhaps they stop to kiss- he can’t tell from this distance. At one point they separate and the girl runs ahead- at least he thinks it’s the girl. She stops and waits by a post marker in the trail. The man quickens his pace and catches up with her. This time it’s a kiss for sure. Wilbo can hear their voices blowing toward him on the breeze. He can’t hear the words, just the voices, lilting and happy.
It occurs to him: the hour has changed, then. Motion has returned, motion and sound and light. There’s a breeze. There are people walking. There are birds. There are modulations in the sound of the waves.
Just then the next wave strikes his body and engulfs him completely. He has to hold his breath while it does its thing, shifting the sand beneath him and wrapping a garland of seaweed over his back and shoulders. So this is what it feels like to be an inanimate object.
By the time the water has receded, the couple has reached his house. They are very curious about it. No longer entwined, they are exploring it from all angles, peering through the windows, climbing up on the corner frames to examine the pockets of the roof, poking and probing through the composition of the walls. Then one of them discovers that the door is ajar. Wilbo is pretty sure it’s the man. The shadowy figure shoves the door boldly with both hands. The door obliges. The figure disappears into the house.
Wilbo’s first inclination is to jump to his feet and rush the house, but he holds back. It would be quite a scene, he admits, but he’s not ready for that level of comedy. He lays low and watches.
The man comes out of the house. He’s got something in his hands. He takes it to the girl and they examine it together, holding it up between them, holding it up against the dark sky, holding it down against the sand. Wilbo has no idea what it is, but it’s something from his house, and they’re taking it. Does he care? Should he care about this? Should he stop them? He can’t decide. What if it’s his concertina? His bag of money?
He lumbers to his knees, then staggers to his feet just as another wave strikes him from behind and delivers him back to his knees.
He hears their voices again, laughing carelessly. He looks up and sees the girl running, the man chasing her. She keeps looking back and holding something up, as if to taunt him.
All right, that’s enough! No man who is a man would just lie there in the sand and let this sort of thing happen to him, no matter how naked he is. Even completely naked. He gets back to his feet and starts across the beach toward the house, not running, not shouting, still not exactly sure he wants this thing to happen at all. He finds himself assuming a stealthy gait, crouched, fingers splayed, striding singularly from side to side as if he were apprehending an enemy encampment.
The man catches up with the girl and they tussle. He wrestles the stolen object from her grasp and takes off running. She pursues him and their shadows diminish in the distance. Wilbo knows he will have to make some effort if he wants to catch up with them.
Is it worth it? No, maybe not. What’s the point? What could he possibly have that’s worth all that expenditure? He’ll go back in the house, that’s what he’ll do. He’ll assess the situation.
At the door of the house he stops to catch his breath. He feels terrible. He’s winded. His body is covered with sand, sweat and seawater. He stumbles into the house and lights a candle. He draws himself a mug of cold water from the crock and pours it down his throat. He grabs a towel and dry-scrubs his body vigorously from head to foot. Then he looks around the room in the candle glow, taking stock.
The concertina. The money bag. The pencils in their case; the tablet, with the pictures still pressed between the pages. The quilts and pillows. The parchments and prints on the wall. The books on the shelves. The colored glass bottles. The mugs and the cups on the counter. He gets down on his knees and fumbles around under the bed until he finds the bottle. Yep. Still there. Everything of any importance is still in order, as far as he can tell.
He sits on the edge of the bed and the room spins around him a few turns, then it slows and finally settles to a stop.
“What a strange night…” he says out loud, but quietly, not to be heard by anyone. Then he reaches for the money bag on the bedside table, picks it up by the drawstring, shakes it for its jingle, estimates its weight, sets it down.
Maybe I’ll take a day off from work tomorrow. I can afford it. I’ve made a lot of money. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll catch a shower first thing in the morning and then I’ll just… I’ll just take a day off. I’ll just see what happens. I’ll do something else.
He stretches out on his back and lies there for a long time, listening to the surf. Many waves break, in series of sevens. He counts the waves as one might count sheep. He counts them in sevens. Seven waves times seven waves break before he loses count and turns to greet the boatman, John of Dreams.