16 March, 2009
The following two posts concludes the novel, Small Boat Sails into Big Mystery. Thank you so much, all of you who have journeyed the whole distance. If you have been reading this, now is the time to come out of the closet, like Amanda, the patron saint of lunch meat. Please leave your comments, lavish praise, constructive criticism. If you can't post comments on the blog, send me an email at one of these addresses:
And if you liked the book, please tell your friends and neighbors. If I decide to try and get it published it would be nice to say I generated a certain buzz with it when I posted it on my blog.
I think after this I will mothball Jim's General Blog and just use this one for all my blogging purposes. So don't be a stranger, come and see me any time, and I will do the same for you.
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
Just outside the hospital the sun is going down. Wilbo scans the parking lot for Arno’s old green beat-up Falcon, but it isn’t there.
Why am I not surprised? he asks himself. To further complicate the matter, he has no idea where he is. He had no idea there was even a hospital in this town and of course he wasn’t paying attention the morning they brought him in. Standing at the curb, he has a wistful moment. All those people who came to see me when my house was rebuilt, all the presents, the music, the dancing! Now here’s the great Wilbo Hoegarden, recovered from wounds received while rescuing the girl, and not even his brother is there to meet him! Where are your friends when you need them the most?
But he doesn’t dwell on this thought. What’s the point? Self-pity has always been one of the most useless of human indulgences. Wilbo searches the sky for the position of the sun. Setting in the west, then. Ocean to the west, that’s the direction he should go.
It takes him a good hour, zigzagging through unfamiliar streets, keeping an eye on the sun, before he begins to recognize landmarks. By this time the sun is gone but it’s OK. He knows where he is and he feels fine, with only a little tightness in his stomach. All that late night wandering through the hospital has served him well.
Some light still remains in the sky when he emerges from the tunnel and stops to gaze down on his own little beach, to sniff the air and to read the signs. It’s been a clear day; there isn’t a cloud. The tide is coming in. A few beachcombers are picking about on the rocks near the driftwood forest; otherwise the beach is deserted.
Almost always at this point he quickens his step, anxious to see what might be waiting for him at home. Tonight is no exception. Hurrying along the trail through the driftwood forest he feels grateful for the skill of the good doctors who stitched him up- everything seems to be holding. And there’s his house. As usual, he slows when he approaches it.
The first thing he notices is that the yard around the house has been cleaned up- all debris from the party is gone except for a few unbroken glass bottles which are lined up neatly on the porch. Then he sees two things at once- two objects stuck to the door, messages! One is sealed in an envelope while the other hangs loose from a thumbtack.
He grabs the envelope first, rips it open, recognizes Carl’s scrawling handwriting.
WILBO, I TOOK IT UPON MYSELF TO PUT A LOCK ON YOUR DOOR WHILE YOU WERE GONE. HOPE YOU DON’T MIND- MEN OF STRONG CONVICTIONS WATCH ONE ANOTHER WITH SUSPICION (HOFFER)
Ps: the key is in the blue bottle.
Yes, in fact there is a padlock on the door and one of the bottles on the porch is a blue one with a mouth wide enough to fit a key. But Wilbo’s attention is drawn anxiously to the other note.
The paper is pink. The left hand margin is ragged like it was torn out of a tablet. The words are written in bold black marking pen. When he grabs the note he sees that some of the ink has blotted through and stained the door.
WILBO PLEASE COME AND SEE ME 9 PM, THE LIGHTHOUSE, CLAUDIA
Wilbo looks at his watch. Eight twenty-three. The numbers seem to flash at him like an alarm going off. At the same time he feels a great weariness rushing into his legs from all the miles he has walked, now that the walking is over.
Claudia! He reads the note over and over, looking for its hidden meaning. Why is the paper pink? Why is the margin torn? And why did she use a marking pen? She must have stood on the porch and tacked the paper to the door before she wrote the words, as evidenced by the ink blotting through. Nine o’clock! I just have time to get there if I set out now.
Nonetheless, he honors his weariness, briefly. He finds the key in the blue bottle, opens the padlock and steps inside the house. It’s dark and quiet and clean. All the books are back on the shelves. All the papers are neatly stacked. The dishes are washed and set to dry on the wooden rack. The bed is neatly made. He sits on it, then he lies on it. He feels his body sinking into the mattress like a stone into a deep lake. But all the while a single word is ringing in his head: Claudia! Claudia! Claudia! Eventually its force overwhelms him, pushing him up out of the bed, through layers of heavily weighted air. In a moment he’s out of the house and in the next moment he’s off down the beach leaving the door ajar, the padlock hanging open on its hasp.
As he trudges doggedly along the trail, pressing against the forces of inertia, her name keeps repeating itself on his lips, Claudia! Claudia!
The Lighthouse is crowded. Musicians are setting up, perhaps the same musicians. The stage is littered with sophisticated electronics and primitive percussion. Wilbo stands at the door searching the crowd for her face. When he finally sees her, it’s not as he expected. Somehow he pictured her sitting alone at a table; perhaps she’d be reading a book; perhaps there would be a single red rose lying on the plate in front of her, like some lonely heart’s club code. What he isn’t expecting is to see her standing behind the counter, wearing an apron dusty with flour, laughing with Jimmy while tossing a wad of pizza dough back and forth between her hands.
When she looks up and sees him her smile falls for just a moment before another smile replaces it, a deeper smile, with less mirth. She raises her arm, wiggles her fingers in a wave. She says something to Jimmy, then she pulls off her apron, tosses it to the floor, and comes swooping out from behind the counter toward him. Her arms are out and she throws them around him, burying her face in his chest. The embrace is tender but chaste, although she remains in it for a long time.
“Wilbo, I’m so sorry,” she blubbers, “It didn’t turn out well. But it’s OK, I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Do you want something to eat?”
Before he can answer the door bangs open. Claudia looks up and releases her hold.
“Oh, good!” she says, “Here’s Arno.”
Wilbo drops his arms to his sides. His feeling is somewhere between rage and terror. But Arno’s body language is disarming, if not a little overdone. He comes slinking in with a sideways shuffle, his head bowed to the floor, his hands clasped behind his back. Claudia and Wilbo have broken their embrace. Arno sidles up to both of them but he addresses Wilbo directly.
“I know you’re mad at me,” he says. “I don’t blame you. Claudia and I talked about it for a long time. She set me straight. It takes a woman to make me understand my own brother.”
For a long, uncomfortable moment the three of them just stand there staring at each other. Wilbo can’t imagine what he would say. It’s like in a movie by Cassavetes where the silence, although speaking louder than words, still says absolutely nothing.
It’s Claudia who finally speaks. “I think we should sit down,” she says. “You can talk better when you’re sitting down. Maybe we could get something to eat.”
They find a table in the corner, somewhat removed from the bustle and the noise. The body of the lamp at the table is a hula girl and the lampshade is a palm tree over the hula girl’s head.
Claudia sits against the wall with her chair pushed back, her hands folded in her lap. Arno commandeers the entire tabletop by covering it with his arms and splaying his fingers as wide as they will go.
“I know you’re mad at me, Wilbo,” he repeats.
“I’m not mad at you Arno. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know what happened. You just left, that’s all.”
“We didn’t just leave. You told us to leave.” Arno is getting defensive. “Claudia explained it to me afterwards. At first I was angry. But then she explained it to me. There’s a lot for you to have to take in right now, Wilbo. Some things you don’t even know yet.”
This one hits Wilbo like a rubber bullet in his gut. Some things I don’t know yet? He gets the urge to just stand up and walk away, but no. He’s got to stick it out. He’s got to find out what’s really happening.
At that moment there’s a loud blast of electronic noise from the stage. The band is nearly ready. At the same time, Wilbo sees Jimmy, weaving through the crowd toward them, an order pad in his hand. He knows, momentarily, conversation will be impossible, and anyhow, he’d like this conversation to end as soon as it can, as soon as the necessary information is imparted. So he asks the most direct question he can think of.
“So, do you have a new boyfriend, Claudia?”
Claudia’s face flushes. She takes a huge breath and then she lets it out in a long, slow, studied sigh. She rocks her chair forward and flops her arms across the table. She leans forward and looks into Wilbo’s face with a strange, almost disembodied expression.
“Yes Wilbo, I do.” she says. “His name is Jesus.”
At once, a deafening chord chimes from the stage, followed by a drum roll and the chaotic squawking of a saxophone. Then there’s Jimmy, standing next to the table with his pad in his hand, standing over the three of them as they sit there dumbfounded, locked in a frozen moment of time.
With a rush of blood to the head, Wilbo stands up, nearly knocking over his chair. He turns to a strange sight. Everyone in the room is facing the cacophony blasting from the stage. Every single person is caught in the same gesture, both arms raised high above the head as if they’re all being held up by the same gang of bandits.
In his rush between the table and the door, Wilbo catches two short bits of conversation above the rumble of the band. The first voice is Claudia’s, the second is Arno’s.
“It’s OK, Claudia, let him go. He needs to think.”
Wilbo smashes through the door into the dizzying, clear, cool night air. He doesn’t stop to look around. He doesn’t want to hear his thoughts. He wishes he could take the sound of that band with him, just to drown out his thoughts, but he can’t stay in that room. And besides, he knows where he wants to go.
A raging pain drives him on. It seems to be pulsating from the center of his chest and the center of his head at the same time. But at least his stitches are holding. He gives them a workout as he plods blindly over the wooden walkways and the stone cobbles of the warehouse district.
Finally his destination appears in the distance as a fuzzy, neon glow. A number of cars are parked on the street outside, although he recognizes none of them. Still, that’s a good thing. The place will be full of people and warmth and cheer, and drink! He can already taste the heat rolling down his throat.
He throws open the door like a cowboy entering a saloon and scans the crowd for a familiar face, but he sees none. It’s all right. There will be friends at the bar. The peripheral people come and go.
His usual stool by the salty shell peanut bowl, is of course, occupied by someone else, a skinny man in glasses and a string tie. What does he expect? They certainly can’t hold the spot for him indefinitely. He leans over the counter, looking for Karen’s familiar face. But tonight’s bartender is someone else, a portly, bearded man he’s never seen before. The man catches Wilbo’s glance.
“What can I get for you, mate?”
Wilbo is beginning to feel a bit disoriented. He sweeps his gaze up and down, along the stools at the bar. No Carl. No Floyd. He focuses his attention on the little table by the kitchen door where Levon and Opal usually sit. But it’s unoccupied, and piled up with unopened crates of Corn Nuts.
“Where’s Karen?” he asks the new bartender.
“Oh, she had to go to Montana or someplace. Something about a girl named Jocelyn. Don’t worry, she’ll be back. What can I get you?”
The question presents Wilbo with a real dilemma. What he drinks here, almost always, what he wants, is something known as the usual, a secret formula known only to Karen and passed on to the other, usual bartender, Rick. Wilbo has no idea what’s in it. It’s something strong and sweet and amber in color, over ice, with a maraschino cherry floating in it. That’s all he knows. His perplexity is immense. He glances up at the colorful display of bottles on the shelf behind the bar and his eyes fall on a long slender flask of amber liquid with a distinctive label.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, “How ‘bout a shot of Johnny Walker on the rocks.”
“Sure, matey. Black or red?”
Wilbo’s head spins. He feels like he’s going to fall off the barstool. In fact, he does slide off the stool, landing shakily on his feet. The hum of voices in the room continues to swell and reverberate, but in the small space surrounding the bartender’s question, an attentive hush builds, as if to the handful of people in earshot the fate of nations hangs on this one simple decision: black or red.
Or perhaps, he imagines all this, but nonetheless, he bolts for the door. He feels nothing but the heat of bodies as the crowd parts to let him through. Snatches of conversation come to his ears and an irrational part of his mind ascribes them to his departure.
“Well, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” someone says, and from another part of the room, a woman’s voice: “His intentions were good but it’s all in the delivery.”
Thrust out of a room full of warm bodies for the second time in one night, into the cool and falling dark, Wilbo staggers like a drunken man over the cobbles of Water Street. In fact, he’s feeling real, physical pain now, a stretching and tearing in the incision in his stomach, but it’s nothing compared to the whirlwind of emotions raging through his arms and legs and mind. He feels the boundaries of his body dissolving. He feels the powerful energy of a great sorrow pressing against the restriction of a lump in his throat. He feels like a small boy on vacation, left behind by his family at a rest stop. He wants to run after the departing station wagon crying, Mommy! Daddy! He knows he has to run after something, or toward something. As he stumbles onto the wooden walkway of the warehouses he realizes what it is.
The realization slows him down a bit- that and the pain in his stomach. He’s feet on the planks make loud, clonking noises; his step becomes steady and determined; his pounding heart and racing breath seek equilibrium.
He steps through the notch in the wall onto the quiet beach. Memories flood his mind. He remembers the time he first passed through this notch with Claudia, to walk on the beach and talk, and he remembers the other time when she left him here in anger, forgetting her shoes. Still no thoughts, just images; he crosses the dark, public beach, scattered with occasional campfires. He ascends the shoulder of the cliff and passes through the tunnel.
His own beach is deserted and very dark. There’s no moon and the stars are obscured by fog. As is his habit, he stops to sniff and scan, but he only does it out of habit; he notices nothing. He really only has one thing on his mind. The trail through the driftwood forest could be lined with mermaids for all he notices. The image of his house is fixed like a mathematical constant in his mind, and inside the house…
The door of the house is left ajar, the padlock hanging on its hasp. At first this startles him; then he remembers. Claudia’s note. His hasty departure. He pushes through the door and fumbles around on the counter until he finds the box of matches. So much is different in the house. He’d forgotten that, too. Even the counter is not where it used to be. But he locates the matches by their distinctive cardboard feel, and in the light of the first struck match he sees the lantern. He has to strike a second match to light it.
Yes, there it is, standing tall and proud in the glow of the lantern; he has a half-memory of noticing it when he first came here out of the hospital- and it’s even bigger than he remembers, bigger than the first bottle, the one he shared with Carl but drank none, a full one and a half liters, Almaden Tawny Port, plenty good plenty.
He rips the seal with his fingernails and the cork pops with a lovely, resonant tone. He pours rapidly into the big stone mug, filling it to the brim. The aroma is overwhelming. He raises the mug before he drinks as if to salute an invisible comrade. In fact, his words are addressed to a specific ghost.
“I told you I never made any promises!’ he declares out loud, and he drains the mug in four large gulps.
The rush that rises to his head collides with the warmth cascading down his throat. The power of it seems to make things happen in the house. The lamp wick flickers and the shadows dance. Colored glass beads hanging from wires in the window begin to sway. A silent music from the walls themselves enters the room.
“More of this!” he cries. He fills the mug, drains it; he fills it again. The sweetness of the wine is powerful but it does not daunt him. It tastes like something his soul has been craving for a long, long time. He fills glass after glass. When the intoxication begins to hit, he slows down a little, allowing the liquid to roll over his tongue, swirling it around in his mouth, bringing it in contact with all his various taste buds.
He leans back in the chair and his vision travels in great, sloppy loops around the room. The colored glass bottles look like voodoo dancers in the window, their super-sized shadows leaping across the wall in the flickering lamplight. The bottles make him laugh. He laughs out loud at the bottles.
He sees faces in pictures, not in artwork on the walls but in the logos of products on the shelf. A Quaker in a broad-brimmed hat and a Mona Lisa smile peers out at him from a tin of oatmeal. A newborn chick, fresh from the egg, looks to peck on a can of powdered cleanser; hasn’t scratched yet! A beautiful Indian maiden morphs out of a green stalk on a box of cornstarch.
“Why do I have cornstarch?” he asks out loud, and then he laughs out loud at the question.
Why do I have cornstarch?
In throwing back his head his eyes light on something he hasn’t seen before. A poster is taped to the rippling driftwood ceiling, Mott the Hoople. All the Young Dudes. A gift from Floyd Collins and the lovely Amanda. It’s a collector’s item! Carl must have put it there. He wonders if Floyd would be offended to see this treasure stuck to his rippling driftwood ceiling with a piece of masking tape. This thought makes him laugh. He laughs out loud at the poster on the ceiling.
The room spins with his laughter and his head rocks forward until his eyes light on something else- another source of amusement! Hanging in the window on a shoestring chain, Arlequino stares back at him with his happy-sad smile.
“Oh, it’s the omelet!” he cries, and an image of Mac’s Burger Shack flies through his mind. Then he thinks of a pun, and the pun makes him laugh so hard he can barely say it.
“The omelet! It’s easy! His yolk is easy. It’s over easy!”
His laughing doubles him over. His doubling-over pulls at the stitches in his stomach. At that moment something happens. There’s a sound outside, or maybe not a sound. There’s a presence. Wilbo sits up suddenly straight and the room spins in the wake of his sitting.
It has returned then. Its pursuit of him is relentless. It’s calling him again. He knows instinctively where it lives when it’s quiet and it isn’t calling him, but it hasn’t really stopped calling him, not since the night when he first heard it calling him from behind the arched rocks. It ‘s voice has permeated the events of recent days, the voice of the skunk, the salamanders, the coming of Claudia, the turning of Arno, the mysterious appearance of Amanda, the patron saint of lunch meat.
“I know who you are” he whispers.
The words stand there solid as a rock that won’t be moved and can’t be scaled. Yet something inside of him wants to rise up against them, either that or plunge whole-heartedly into them.
“I know who you are,” he says out loud. Everything in the room seems to stop and listen. “I know who you are,” he says again, this time a little louder. “I know who you are!” He stands from the chair. He rushes to the door. He throws the door open.
“I KNOW WHO YOU ARE!” he cries out into the night. But then he stops and stands dumbfounded.
Something very strange is happening out there. It halts him completely. He falls back against the house and rubs his eyes. He squints hard to clear the crust from his vision but what he sees persists. The fog has rolled in from the sky and poured out onto the beach, softening everything with a light, misty filter, but this does nothing to obscure, and even seems to enhance the mysterious event taking place at the line of the breakers.
There, at the turn of each wave, where the dark of the sea changes into the brightness of foam, a light breaks, a brilliant, blue, dancing and sparkling incandescence, streaking sideways along the crest and then, as the waves pour out along the sand, fading back into darkness. It isn’t moonlight-there is no moon, and even if there was, it would not be moonlight. The glow is emanating from the waves themselves and not from any sort of reflection. Smaller waves behind the big waves break into a similar light.
Part of him- his thinking mind- knows at once what it is. Dinoflagellates. Bio-luminescence. The phosphorescent ocean. He’s seen it before, but never with such intensity, and the explanation does nothing to subdue the effect.
He stumbles out toward the water. He’s beginning to realize just how drunk he is, but it doesn’t matter. In fact, the intoxication serves as a driving force. He reaches the shore and stands there, tottering, with the little waves lapping at his feet. His eyes are drawn beyond the flashing breakers to a dark space, and in the arch in the middle of the space, a blue blaze pulsating. The source! In the blossoming of some half-remembered pondering, a message flashes:
I can go there. I have a boat.
He turns and begins a faltering trek back to the house. The intoxication is in full bloom. He knows in time the crash will come but for now he rides high on the power he needs to complete the task.
The boat is easy to upright. A short piece of rope tied to the oarlock provides a good tow hold. He stumbles many times as he pulls the boat out to the water. Sometimes he lands on rocks, striking his knees. Sometimes the boat itself clips him in the heel. He thinks he might have hurt himself but he feels no pain.
When he reaches the water he wonders, should I take off my clothes? But by that time it’s too late. The wave has already surrounded him and lifted the boat up off the sand. He feels it tugging to get away from his grasp. No time to lose! Summoning the power, he hurls himself up over the oarlock and into the hull, striking his head hard on the bench and collapsing in a heap in the bow. Still no pain, although he thinks there might be some blood. He lies there quietly for a while and he feels the boat catch the wave and rise up toward the sky.
The voice of prudence reminds him: this boat won’t just take him out to the rocks on its own, like a faithful horse. He has to surmount the breakers. He has to use the oars. For a moment he’s afraid he’s left them behind, but no, his knee clunks against one of their splintery blades. Getting the oars into the oarlocks is another story. He almost decides it’s physically impossible before he figures it out. The small end goes in first, and it fits in from the front.
Fully oared, he scans the line of breakers for an opening. With his first stroke the oar strikes the sand beneath the waves and sends a shock of impact up his arm. Shallower strokes bring him closer to the breakline but the boat keeps turning in circles- half the time he’s rowing backward into an unknown fate.
He has his back to the breaker when it hits. It’s a big wave- maybe the seventh, and the boat catches it right beneath the curl. Suddenly there is light everywhere. The boat is filled with liquid light and light explodes off the oars, the oarlocks, the bow, the deck. Light drips from his arms and dances a wild tango at his feet.
Wilbo gives a good tug with both oars and the boat seems to rise up over a hill and sink down into a dark valley. When it rises again he can see what he has accomplished. He has passed the breakers and he is floating on the high plateau of water beyond them. He sees the shore as a dark and distant thing. He sees his house like a shadowy mound against the cliff. But even as he sees these things he feels the boat lunge forward with the next incoming wave.
The work is not done!
He gets a hearty grip on the oars and somehow manages to pull the boat around so that he faces his goal. The rocks appear much closer from here, and they also seem much stranger, presenting an entirely different face from the one visible on the beach. In the many nights staring at these rocks he has grown familiar with their distinctive burls and even on idle evenings assigned them quaint nicknames like Bob Dylan’s Stovepipe Hat, Agnew’s Ears ,the Skunk in the Pulpit Now a whole new array of shapes rises up to greet him, suggesting names like the Wounded Salamander, Gary’s Knife, the Clock on the Wall. The arch is at an angle from this vantage. He can see straight through it, and strange stalactites hang like teeth from its ceiling. The bioluminescence inside the opening is furious, leaping off the walls with each strike of the waves. For the first time, he sees the sea lions. Illuminated by the strange glow they scamper about on a narrow ledge inside the arch, casting huge shadows on the blue lit walls. When they dive their wake flashes like fireworks.
Wilbo considers his goal: to get behind the rocks. To get to the source. Nothing is as clear now as it was when he first set out, and everything seems to be happening at once. The waves are driving him back to the shore and the rocks themselves are dancing with activity- sea lions jumping, waves crashing. From the higher ledges he sees the dark shadows of cormorants dive into the light and swoop back up into the darkness. Behind the rocks the incoming waves are enormous, like mountains rolling toward him, threatening to engulf him.
He rows hard but he feels his strength failing. When the first big wave arrives it lifts the boat up high onto its summit, higher even than arch, or so it seems. Wilbo sees strange things- something that looks like a tiny village of straw houses on a cleft of the rock, and above that, some kind of writing, large symbols like ancient runes scrawled in white chalk, or maybe it’s just the droppings of many generations of seagulls. He can’t tell. It’s just a glimpse, for at that point the boat catches the gravity of the far side of the wave and begins sliding down its slope with dizzying speed.
Wilbo pulls the oars out of the water and hides his eyes like a child at the beginning of a roller coaster plunge. When he opens them again he is at the bottom of a great well of water, the walls rising up before him and behind him, veined with light. There’s nothing to be seen but water and sky; then the wall behind him advances, the boat tips forward and rises, and in the rush of water before him he sees a terrifying thing.
He is behind the rock, in line with the rock, and being lifted up by a wall of water with a relentless trajectory toward the rock.
I know who you are, he says to himself.
The rock seems to change form. Its features melt together and reassemble themselves into a face, with a smile that could be crying, and eyes hollow with laughter, yet filled with tears.
And you’re afraid of me, it says, as the downward spiral begins.
There is water everywhere, and a swift forward spinning, following by a tremendous crash and a dazzling blue concussion. His body seems to fly everywhere at once. There is no up or down, there is no here nor there, until suddenly something urgently here presses in on his mind: he is under water. He shouldn’t breathe!
His face breaks the surface and the flash blinds his eyes. Seeing nothing but afterglow he draws a huge breath and inhales a great gulp of acrid brine. He coughs violently into the air and vomits up a ball of burning light before the current pulls him under. He tumbles head over heels and a file of pain rasps his back as the wave drags him along the jagged backside of the rock. At the same time a large chunk of wood, a plank from the broken boat, strikes him on the head and pins him momentarily against the rock, then releases him into the undertow.
Better not to breathe, he thinks, I’m going to die, but the thought doesn’t sit well. In fact, the moment he thinks it a powerful force gathers in his arms and legs and he finds himself kicking and thrashing until he breaks the surface again. He flails his arms to stay afloat and he twists his torso in all directions, frantically trying to get his bearings.
The wave has taken him further out to sea. He sees the rock blinking and sparking in the distance. He can’t see the shore. He gasps and sinks, struggles for the surface, gasps and sinks again. His arms feel like stones; his stomach seems to be opening up like a mouth, and he has no sensation in his legs. As the seaweed pulls him under, the words fly from his throat, I know who you are. I know who you are…
“Wilbo!” A voice speaks his name.
Perhaps it’s not a voice, really. Perhaps it’s just a synapse firing idly in some corner of his head. But it contains his name.
Feebly he raises his shoulders and his head surfaces slowly. Cautiously he sips the air.
There is a momentary sense of calm. He is out past the breakers now, out beyond their noisy crashing violence, out where the sea draws its energy from its depth and vastness, and not its collision with the land. It’s dark; there is no more luminescence, although a few faint stars glow weakly overhead. Wilbo rides the slow rise and fall of the waves and he feels his body giving in. Soon he will surrender entirely and sink below the surface into the welcoming arms of death, his bride.
Shouldn’t there be memories? You always hear stories of people remembering things at the end, their entire lives flashing by like time-lapse photography. He tries to conjure up some memories but nothing comes. Nothing. Maybe his name, Wilbo Hoegarden. That’s about it. Am I really going to die? Where are the memories? Perhaps I’m not going to die. But how could I not die? Who could rescue me now?
He pulls his head up out of the water and looks toward the rock. It seems far away and dark but as he watches, something appears, a glow, blue like bioluminescence, but calm and steady, not flashing. It rises up out of the water and then it begins to change form, like an amoeba. Part of it presses out and forms a limb, then another. The limbs begin to stride, they are legs, and their striding propels the light-shape forward across the surface of the water. Arms form. The arms are swinging, the legs are striding. There is a sense of determination and purpose. Colors appear, and shapes; a diagonal band of red, like a sash, a robe, a cloak, hands, fingers, a face, a beard, a long, streaming mane of flowing brown hair.
It’s Jesus, walking on the water, an image straight out of the painting that Wilbo remembers staring at every Sunday, on the wall behind the pulpit, through the long unintelligible sermons and the endless droning hymns. It’s the very same Jesus, the same tender, androgynous face, the same blemish-free skin, the same fine hippie hair and beard, the same faint halo of light around the head, the same soapstone flowing robes, the same beautiful feet.
It’s a hallucination, he tells himself, it can’t help me.
He closes his eyes and makes his final surrender to the downward pull of the water, but the moment he does he feels something underneath him, something soft and warm and flesh-like, yes, flesh-like, and cradling, like arms, arms! Under the water he feels his body come to rest in a pair of human, cradling arms. He rolls sideways into the softness of a warm human breast, and through a wet cotton tunic he hears the sure and steady beat of a human heart. He feels his body rising up out of the water, cradled in the arms, pressed against the breast where the human heart beats.
When he opens his eyes the face he stares into is unbearably sweet, sweeter than tawny port. He can’t take it. He closes his eyes quickly. He begins to feel a gentle rocking motion as he is carried across the waves.
This can’t be, he tells himself, this is just too corny! But every time he opens his eyes there’s that face, that famous Sunday school face, the watercolor eyes dripping with compassion, the tender little curl of a smile on the lips. He thrashes just once to get away but the grip just becomes surer, firmer. He closes his eyes and gives in, ever so slightly, to the forward motion, to the strange, rhythmic cadence of feet over water.
The motion is remarkably swift, moving with nearly the speed of a surfboard, cresting the waves and gliding down easily on the other side. When he opens his eyes again, Jesus is smiling right at him, and to his amazement he sees there between the smile-parted lips the large dark gap of a missing front tooth.
This is way too corny. This is like something out of a movie.
He thrashes once more and cries out loud, “God damned movies! I’ve seen too many God damned movies!” as he feels his body come to rest gently, safely, on the dry sand of the beach.
Somewhere in a house in some suburban inland city a snapshot is stuffed away in a drawer full of other things, of broken pencils, torn ticket stubs, dead or dying flashlight batteries, tarnished copper pennies, empty prescription bottles. It’s creased randomly in two places, probably from someone stuffing something else into the drawer, and its edges are frayed and dog-eared.
It’s a picture of Wilbo Hoegarden, at his usual spot, between the tilt-a-whirl and the bumper cars with the wooden bench and the breakwaters behind him. At the lower right hand corner of the picture is a smudged and faded date: August 23rd. The year itself is torn off and lost in the repository of forgotten years. This is one of countless forgotten snapshots, stuffed away in countless cluttered drawers in a million inland suburban homes. This one might even be considered the Jungian archetype of the forgotten snapshot, the perfect Platonic form to which all forgotten snapshots aspire.
But nonetheless, there’s a story there.
It’s a fine midsummer day, August 23rd. The air is bright and balmy and the sun is beating down with the confidence of a celestial body that has overcome all its previous springtime reticence. Hordes of happy people are moving along the boardwalk. They’re dressed in shorts and short sleeves and tanks, and even a few brazen young girls are wearing bikini tops. The tilt-a-whirl is whirling, the bumper cars are bumping; in the distance the Big Dipper rounds the hairpin with a creaking rumble and a chorus of screams.
Wilbo stands by the ticket booth reeling out The Flowers of Edinburgh, wagging his head to the rhythm. He looks about the same as he looked when the story started out. Maybe his joints seem a litter stiffer, his hair a little thinner, but his eyes are clear, his face is calm and peaceful. He clicks his heels like Bojangles, executes a funny little chicken-like movement with his elbows, and segues gracefully into The Boys of Bluehill.
Up the street a gaggle of children approach, maybe twenty of them; they’re all wearing odd little carnival hats; some of them have flowers painted on their faces. Two skinny, short-haired women appear to be in charge. One holds a long sparkly plastic wand with a spout of green tassels on the end. With this she seems to be directing the children, but her attention is focused entirely on the other woman. Both the women are talking at the same time but the other woman, with two hands free, is engaged in a series of expansive gestures, arcs and barrel rolls and back-row summons, like Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.
Wilbo thinks to himself, she’d be a kick to mime. But then something happens. One of the children, a little girl, breaks loose from the others and comes to a standstill before him, her eyes transfixed on the movement of the bellows. She’s holding hands with another girl so the other girl has no choice but to stop as well, and then a trio of boys, looking elsewhere, collides with the girls, and a major pile up ensues. At first the two women don’t notice; they just keep walking, approaching the tilt-a-whirl, the woman with the wand waving it causally. When they finally reach the cotton candy stand and turn around the scene has changed entirely.
All the children have stopped and all the children are staring at Wilbo, who seems delighted with the attention. He has modulated, most appropriately, into The King of the Fairies in E minor, and he puts a little shuffle into his feet to accompany the wagging of his head.
One little boy breaks away from the others and begins to mimic him, drawing his arms back and forth like bellows and duplicating Wilbo’s shuffle with his feet. Wilbo zeroes in on him and copies him back, making his movements a little smaller, a little more boy-like, capturing the boys distinctive sideways wobble. The boy gets the joke. He raises his right arm and wiggles his fingers, and Wilbo does the same, employing an old trick he’s perfected over time, allowing the weight of the concertina to pulls the bellows open so he can play with one hand, at least for a few notes.
This draws great laughter from the other children which in turn emboldens the boy to try other things, knee bobs and shoulder rolls, all of which Wilbo reproduces, nearly simultaneously. It isn’t long before the boy has met his match and he tumbles backwards and rolls into a little boy-sized cannonball. Wilbo does the same. Of course to do so he has to stop playing and toss the concertina aside. In the cessation of music there comes a chorus of children’s voices.
This is where the picture is snapped, perhaps by the instamatic camera of one of the two skinny chaperones. Let’s just look at the picture for a moment, before it goes back in the drawer, and both the story and the drawer come to a close.
Wilbo is in the foreground and slightly to the left, standing on the boardwalk by the railing, next to the coin-operated telescope, his concertina lying open-bellowed at his side. He’s scratching his head like one who has to make a difficult decision, but there’s an expression of vast amusement on his face. A crowd of children is gathered around him. One little boy is sitting on the planks at his feet, looking smug and self-satisfied, while all the rest of the children are raising their hands and waving them about. In the background, on the right-hand side of the picture a man in a straw hat is leaning out of the concession stand to hand a cone of cotton candy to a toddler no bigger than the cotton candy itself. In the center background a few pink clouds hang in a brilliant blue sky. Below the sky, and just faintly visible in the photo’s faded grain, the horizontal line of the ocean beckons like an invitation out of the known into the unknown, out of the commonplace, into the mystery.