Here I am on the verge of whimsy. It comes on from time to time, stress-induced, perhaps. Noodling in a crotch of couch cushions for a lost cornflake, my wife comes into the room, farts, pretends she did not, and sits down, shifting the keel of couch cushions wifeward, opposite which the cornflake is sucked into the oblivion of undercouch.
“What are you watching?”
Momentarily mourning the lost cereal, I am caught off guard. This is an instance of television for the sake of television, a voice in the room other than ours. Isn’t it obvious?
“Volcanoes,” I reply.
“Lame,” she says. “Are you going to rub out my knot?” She hangs another fart in the air between us. Things have been going south a while now. On television is something extraordinary, the groaning of the earth, fire and smoke and the Pacific Rim. It’s 80 degrees in Hawaii year-round.
You are young, you are spry, and virile, I tell myself, gnawing on sodden cornflakes, tired hands kneading wretchedly away at the outskirts of my wife’s spine, visions of tropical cataclysm racing along synapses, I knew—knew!—the best preservative of my own fragile youth was swift and rapid flight.
Show me more, spirit, of your palm-treed visions of scenes fantastic! Spill adventure into my taupe carpeted living room! Show me that these things may come to pass for me!
And so it does: Krakatoa, St. Helens, Pinatubo. Beautiful marbled pyroclasm descending upon Eden with the calm, smooth, unforgiving swiftness of natural disaster—I think of those hollowed plaster shells in Pompeii, mouths agape, screams weighted and muffled by softly alighting flakes of ash. When exactly do I decide to leave? I can’t be sure of the origins of my dreams anymore, only how they change.
Young, spry and virile.
“To the left,” she says. My fingers are wearing down. I have the spindly digits of a pianist, much to my wife’s chagrin. Did I mention she is pregnant? Go ahead and cascade your judgment down upon me in a leaden rain of indignity. Yes, I am planning, plotting, on leaving my wife somewhere in her third trimester. Maybe the late second—we have had healthy and fruitless debates over which week “we” are in and from which week the counting really started. See the whimsy? Feel for her, sure, but I’ll tell you I’m not leaving because she’s grown huge, but because she’s grown ominous in a way less befitting a human and more a cult of personality. She is grown grim. Flatulent and grim. Those are my feelings on it, and while you may judge character and actions, don’t deny me my feelings.
Other feelings: There are things a man of youth should avoid, principally to retain elasticity in the bones. Bones have to have some give, believe it or not. Chief among these no-nos are soft and jellied forms of meat: head cheese, gefilte fish, paté, terrines of all colors and nationalities. And of course SPAM. My wife has affected the person of indiscriminate gastronomer, eating all of these, often in conjunction with ripened, fermented milk products, much against doctor’s orders.
“I want the baby to have a well-formed palate,” she insists.
“But at what cost to everything else?” I ask. She shakes her head and continues to eat without regard for what the pickling process entails (lots of salt and vinegar, which any student of the humors will tell you is only good for the spleen—bilious, bilious spleen).
She’s baking a supervillain.
Furthermore he house stinks unbearably and she is making me arthritic in my prime. Thinking proactively, I researched knee replacements but they cost thousands of dollars. That’s just ridiculous.
I’m beginning to doubt we were ever married. My memory of the event is hazy at best. I must leave soon. During a commercial I tell her the Merchant Marine has called up its reserves and I must return to sea.
“The Merchant Marines,” she says flatly, a pickle dangling from her mouth, “don’t have reserves. Besides, you can’t leave now.”
And that is why I must fly, dearest darling.
It’s the weekend and the call center is closed. I am in customer service, which means I get yelled at on the phone a lot. This, quite frankly is unavoidable in today’s world (evidence: if I knew where to lodge this letter of complaint, someone other than you would be reading it, someone I’d hold personally responsible for my redress; note: I do not hold you responsible in the least), but we at the call center have consistent happy hours at the unhappiest hour of the day to alleviate the quotidian sting of our fellow man’s sometimes (rarely) poignant, sometimes (mostly) petulant dissatisfaction with their cable service (I won’t name names—just insert your own provider and pretend we’re all the same, which we are). I tell my wife I’m going to Cleveland to help my brother Larry move, even though I hate Cleveland, and don’t care much for Larry either. When I was younger I used to ask my parents why they bothered having him, and why, of all the names available, had they chosen a dumpy name like “Larry.” As a response, I got blank stares, which, incidentally, they gave me when I announced I was becoming a teacher, and again when I when I announced I was marrying one of my students. I could say is the story of my life, but it’s not, really. My life has more to it than that—like the time I got terminated for marrying one of my students, or the time I couldn’t find a job so I ended up at a call center making barely enough above minimum wage to assuage my pride, but not by much—simple dentistry or a new carburetor could send me hurtling into poverty and despair.
No blank stares there, but smiles. Bastards.
My wife says Larry will be fine without me and rubs her belly. Her ripe, planetoid belly. She looks even younger with that thing. I wonder if there has been clandestine communication between her and Larry. What would be their code, and how would it crumble? I search through papers—newspapers, bills, magazines, receipts—for signs, letters, codified scribbles. She looks over my shoulder and asks what I’m doing, why am I being weird? So I give her a blank stare.
I’m immediately awed at the genius of my parents.
At four a.m. I’m pulling out of our driveway. I take exactly three seconds to stare wistfully at our bedroom window, then another five to think wistfully and wishfully about a student I once had whom I will never see again but who will occupy a tawdry compartment of my brain for some time to come (not my wife). Now I put the tendons and muscle and bone associated with driving (mostly ankles, feet, wrists, hands and elbows) into action. I’m gone before any wistfulness actually settles upon me (thinking about the student helps). At seven, and halfway to Cleveland, I discover that my wife’s frozen our bank account. More correctly, she’s frozen me out of our bank account. The ATM, regretfully, is only equipped for such specific questions as how much exactly you want to put in or take out of which account. Broader concerns, such as how is any of this possible? or can I speak to a manager? are evidently moot (we need more call centers). The gas station attendant, too, has no answers, and shrugs, and I want to punch him for it, as I do all people who shrug.
Larry finally arrives and pays for my gas. When he’s frustrated he sighs a lot through his nose. It has taken two hours of phone conversation to convince him to rescue me. He swears he’s calling my wife. Apparently he doesn’t understand English anymore because when I explain to him that I’m drowning in a pyroclastic flow, he insists there’s no such thing.
I tell him he needs to trim his nosehairs, and yes, there is most certainly such a thing, and it is deadly.
Fine, he says, with another noseblast sigh.
In Philadelphia, pockets fat with cash from Larry. I left him a note promising to pay him back. I think it’s best to make peace with him, in case he dies before I can return, so I tell him also that I’m sorry about his name, and always was. I will now only look forward, I tell myself.
I visit the Liberty Bell and tear up significantly at the crack. It reminds me of liberty and myself. The crack is small but we are huge, and it’s the hugeness that makes me misty.
I stow away on a freighter, and am a little disappointed when it arrives in Baltimore the next day. I visit the grave of Edgar Allan Poe and mail the first of the postcards I bought in Cleveland to my wife. I write one word on it: ONWARD! There isn’t much worth seeing in Cleveland, so most of my postcards are football related. Even those are dull and sodden with brown.
The innards of ships are dark, and make noises like Armageddon. You can hear the low, huge rumbling of the ocean through the thick metal walls, a rumble that’s always approaching but never quite arrives.
The nights out at sea are cold. I think we may be headed to Africa, which is lush. Although the ship smells like fish and salt, I have never felt so alive! Finally, I am seeing the world—I am cementing memory and experience into my youth, not wasting away behind a desk in front of a rotating bevy of uncurious mediocrity along the side of a highway in the cornbelt of a boring continent.
The boat rocks in the dark ocean, teetering in all directions, yet I have a sense of heading forward, towards something. Yesterday I was attacked by a purple image of a fetus, inside my wife at a control panel, pulling levers marked in a cryptic alphabet, Korean maybe, compelling her to odd behaviors. The fetus was slimy, had tiny, monstrous teeth and no eyes. In the waking hours I imagine the boy (don’t we always think it’s a boy?) with a little top-hat and monocle. This kind of endears him to me, but his image is so disproportionately huge and he smells like fish because everything in my life now smells like fish, including me. I get a distinct notion that I’ve devolved toward the fish, toward my son, who has recently passed this pescatorial stage of his own evolution. And how does he smell? Does ontogeny recapitulate phylogeny and odor? I wonder if providing a name will normalize the purple fish-alien with the top-hat that is my son. I try but am too hungry to think of anything but food names. What is African for pig’s feet?
They found me yesterday and wanted to arrest me, but that doesn’t mean much at sea so they put me to work instead. Tomorrow I will venture to the deck and work on my tan as I learn the ropes.
Africa is nice.
Yes, my skin burns, but it isn’t the sun, it’s the salt. The air here is frothy with it and the seas are muddy. Those big, African trees watch silently from the shore. They don’t have to say anything, their presence alone is bullying. I’d like to jump out, swim over to Africa and tell her to shut up, but she’ll eat me alive. Or the ocean. I realize suddenly how fantastically and hugely indifferent nature is. It gives me a shiver of pride, which is interrupted by a smack in the back of the head.
“Get back to work!” The accent is thickly Greek or Anatolian (Peloponesoasia-minorish—unctuous, menacing consonants and sideways verbs).
No enforceable labor laws at sea either—something to write your congressmen about.
I have no idea where I am. They kicked me off the boat. The people are dark but friendly, and there are many tourists. I’m glad I’m not one of them; the insectoid smattering of camera clicks gets to my brain. They have no appreciation for letting things make their own sounds. It’s always record, record, record. This does not freeze time, and I tell them this. Cue blank stares.
Along these boardwalks everything one could want is for sale. Coconuts afflicted with crazy straw appendages, shark’s teeth on strings (for the aboriginal native look, I suppose), coral necklaces (for the womanly aboriginal native look), pink umbrellas, henna tattoos, brightly colored foam implements that probably won’t save you from drowning in the surf, inflatables, straw hats, fans (fluorescent and painted with dolphins), whistles, incense, sunglasses, cartoonish and stuffed versions of the cute local tree mammal, shotglasses with funny slogans about how fun it is to get wasted in French German and English and some cuneiform I will never take the time to understand. I hear Israeli accents, or French, or something continental. Even the sun is gracious and bright, advertising itself to the tourists. I sleep on the beach and wake up with sand fleas in uncomfortable crevices. In searching for them I’m briefly surprised at how doughy I’ve gotten. Hirsute, too. And gray. Have I always been this gray?
Some guard or army officer is standing over me. His nostrils are too wide and his speech is curt. He uses hand gestures, as if that helps me to understand the intricacies of his language. Doesn’t he know I have to overcome the barriers of inflection, vocabulary, syntax, context, and vernacular? For a moment I wish I was teaching again, but when you’re a teacher fewer people listen to you or take your seriously. The native policeman only stops yelling at me when I walk in a specific direction.
I forget my flip-flops but when I return they’re gone.
When I got off the last ship I assumed another would be by at some point, but I haven’t seen any. I don’t mind being stranded, though. It’s when we’re close to death that we’re mostly alive—that comes from some book I read. To test this theory, I buy a floatie—a nice one with a cup holder—and tie it to a pier to simulate being lost at sea. It doesn’t work as well as I’d hoped. The barnacles on the pier rake over my mushy skin every time I slam into them and I get saltwater in my lungs. The floatie pops, but my blood is diffused with the sea, and the mélange of cloudy red and snot-green brine is less frightening than either alone.
The hospital here is actually quite nice. White and turquoise on the inside, and they really seem to know what they’re doing. The doctor in the E.R. calls me an idiot. It’s the only English I hear him speak. I have yet to receive a bill.
I am traveling back in time. There are no longer boardwalks or tourists, just natives. They wear fewer clothes, and so do I. My skin is bubbling. We are surrounded by menacing palm trees—not like the pretty ones on the beach, but ones that strategically drop killer coconuts—and other jungle creatures. Some make high-pitched squealing noises that I find unnecessary.
The dirt is red all the way down to the bedrock, which is probably red too.
Last night I drank some kind of snake’s blood at a bazaar in the middle of the night. It wasn’t half bad, though it made me think of afterbirth. The guy who sold it to me wore an eyepatch, but I think that was for effect. They were selling monkey parts and plant parts and fish parts, none of which were the parts you and I are most familiar with, these impossibly swarthy people, trying to hide from the sun. I refused to eat the live octopus.
I mailed my last postcard of Cleveland somewhere in the timeline. It had a smallish, oval portrait of Paul Brown and his hat in the corner. I did not write ONWARD! I wrote nothing instead, because I was feeling nothing. After the snake’s blood I wandered through streets so brightly lit you couldn’t help but notice how black the jungle is at night. Larry’s funds dried up but the stunt with the blood has secured my passage on another freighter. The boy keeps coming back to haunt me, and I’m remembering my wife as prettier than she probably is. My students and colleagues have escaped me completely. They’ve melded into an unattractive, uninteresting glob of a face alternately accusatory and laudatory, whichever is most appropriate for the moment. I hop I’m not talking to them aloud. Weird things happen when you don’t speak the language. You start to get really tired.
No matter where I go on the boat the ocean tries to lick my face with its spray. Pretty disgusting, really. Then I see a cloud more square and black and still than I have ever seen. The boat speeds up. These are rough seas we’re in.
I think I am lost at sea.
It’s bright like ice out here, and the ocean’s sprouting hair. There are brown spots on the back of my hand and I’m the only one in this boat—I can’t find anyone.
Wait, nevermind. I see shoreline.
I’m in a cathouse in a place I’ll call Sri Lanka. I think this because they use some English in their signs here. I tell a pear shaped whore about my fears. I am crying, telling her how my wife is poisoning herself, and poisoning me too, but I don’t believe this any more. I am the one who poisoned her, I say, because it sounds appropriate and good, and because it’s true, I realize. I’ve poisoned her youth, I’ve poisoned her life with worry and responsibility forever. Mine too. I tell the whore no matter how far I travel, I’ll end up where I started. We live on a ball. The further you make it around, the closer you are to coming back to the start.
I am exhausted and realize I must sound like a crackpot. The wallpaper looks exactly like what you’d think brothel wallpaper would look like.
“T’veux m’le donner dans mes fesses?” she coos. I guess she understands, probably because she gets this kind of thing all the time.
“Faut que je te lave d’abord.”
She looks nothing like my wife and that helps, since she’s the first and only woman I’ve been with since my wife and despite her scrubbing me beforehand it doesn’t smell good. Not at all.
Home! I stare longingly down at the waves from the dinner-plate window of a 747. Tickets were hard to come by. There was some confusion and a little sobbing and I’m sure my voice cracked, but I got them. I haven’t shaved because I’m still too sunburnt and I think my whiskers will peel off with my skin. I’ve added about a million wrinkles to my face, which I’m not proud of just yet.
From up here the ocean looks like defective corduroy, no uniformity, just haphazard ridges, and I am wistful for recent days when it threatened to kill me. Asea, alone, my life was enormous. My wife is bringing me home and things won’t be the same. Are they ever?
When I returned she took a deep breath and told me I was sunburnt. I told her it was okay, cobra blood has ensured my longevity. I hope it handles melanomas, too, but I didn’t tell her this.
She handed me the boy, my son.
He looked at me weirdly and without emotion, his eyes vaguely crossed. A nacreous gob of drool sluiced down his chin. His smell was fluffy and light. He had no hair. At least no real hair, just silky afterthoughts.
“Is he…normal?” I asked.
“More than you,” she answered.
She looked beautiful with her makeup and semi-normal-sized torso. She put on her high heels for a trip to the store. “Don’t wait up,” she said.
I held the boy and listened to his eyes. In the future, he will have a moustache, I decided, and will throw a football at least a hundred and fifty yards, probably further. This is because of the progress the future holds for us. I whispered to him, telling him about X’s and O’s, about the importance of a quick release, about Paul Brown and his hat. I apologized for not knowing all the details on the zone-blitz.
His head was slung loosely on his neck but I cradled it with my index and middle finger in the shape of a V. And what of my future?
“It’s alright, Ignatius,” I told him (my name for him—she insisted on “Hunter”). His eyes uncrossed and he smiled at me for a moment with the gentle, forgiving authority of an archangel. A sign of some deep comprehension, I realized. Someday, he too will be lost in the middle of things.
“We are still young, son,” I said, in the most comforting tone I could muster. My voice shook and crepitated. “We are still spry.”
That night he shrieked in his sleep and I ran and held him close, whispering promises no one remembers. In the morning, they were both gone.
Gone too were the scents and smells of the sea, the complex gibberish of the sun-tinted skins of sea peoples, faces shining like maps of the living universe. But I still see the boy’s eyes patiently asking questions, and hear his scream, and then the silence of faraway people buried deep beneath volcanic ash rises, and I see mouths open in protest, and it grows louder, this lungless screaming for life and now I am one of them, on the verge of air.
John Leslie is a graduate of the Texas State MFA program.