A young man steps through the hatch and out onto the deck of the ship. He ranges across the deck so drunk he can hardly guide himself until he gets to the railing where he holds on and looks out at the disturbed ocean. Why peace or tranquility or inclusion or love or even a small part of one of those has passed him by to settle within the heart of the next man is undiscoverable. The water has been churning for days. The mate told him that there was a hurricane off the Florida coast and that they were decreasing their speed until they could see what direction it would take. On his bunk, beneath his pillow, lies a note which he promises himself will be his last words to the world.
I am going over, he thinks.
"Say, Jack," he hears behind him and he turns. It's the voice of his good friend, Jim Barks, with whom in his first year at college he shared a dormitory room. The singular voice has acted like a serum which conjures memories from their sepulchre in his brain.
He and Jim stop beneath the trees on campus at the University of Michigan. They hold books; they are the avatars of college men, both representatives of something so much larger than themselves that neither could begin to comprehend it.
"How'd the exam go?" Jim asks.
"All right," says Jack. "It's over."
"You're keeping that 4.0 intact, right? We're counting on you. Without you the world crumbles and splits apart and then the plague begins and..."
"You've been hanging out with Sorenson? Young Yeats?"
Jim Barks and Jack are graced with good looks and their body language suggests supreme confidence and more than once, drunk and affectionate, they told each other they would always stay friends. Neither could possibly know that one week after graduating ceremonies they would never see one another again.
"Jack." He hears now his father's voice. His life has slipped away from the charmed luxury of young malehood and the uncensored approval of seemingly everyone he meets. He and his father have wrestled and punched each other. A lamp has been hurled against a wall; he has smashed his foot through an irreplaceable stained-glass window pane in the dining room door. When the momentum for such destruction first began he cannot say. He always remembers this time as though it were something he'd heard about, something he finds hard to believe of people. He's been at home from college a year and he and his mother and father sit at the kitchen table with their hands folded in front of them, with, as they've told him, most every option available to them gone, talking of final things.
"Jack, your mother and I have shown a great deal of patience. We don't know what else to do."
Yes they had, he thinks, shown a great deal of patience. They had. For months he has been coming home at night as drunk and as drugged as a human can possibly get without stopping the heart and expiring altogether. They have asked him many times why he has felt the need to do it and even now while he sits with them he cannot answer that question, though he would like to. Both of his parents are haggard and exhausted and he is able to recognize in their faces that the worry he's caused them has etched itself permanently into the cast of their expressions.
"Son, what would you think of a place that can offer you things your mother and I don't seem able to. We're..." His father can't finish. His mother is crying, holding her face in her hands like a chalice.
The scene reels on and he stands up from the table burdened with himself...yet not contrite. He has asked no one or nothing for forgiveness and in a way he is glad that something is finally going to happen. Exhaustion has brutalized him and he has been left slugging wildly at the world, he cannot plant himself solidly in place to once more begin and now it has come to this, a refuge for his retreat at the instruction of his parents. That's all right, he thinks, I will survive. Because of his father's job he has lived in Tokyo, Cairo, London, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, Tallahassee, Austin, Seattle, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Detroit, and so deep down somewhere he knows there is a fiber of himself that is indestructible. In his adult life it has not been available, but it will be, it has to.
"Fine," he says, "I'm ready."
"Jack." Again he swings around to look behind himself, hoping to see a familiar face accompanying that familiar voice. Instead, the deck is empty. Metal creaks under the stress of the ocean. Shadows lie like iron against the bulkheads.
"Jack." It is his wife. How he could have possibly married a woman--the unthinkable ability of man procuring for himself a formula for reprieve, the calculations of which are so improbable as to be figured in another universe and beamed directly to him bypassing all human sense--is something that could not be imagined outside the borders of a cartoon strip. He remembers himself talking to her of children, of a job, of a good life and this talk had the exquisite exterior of something permanent and fine and properly theirs. They move into a trailer park home and she becomes pregnant and he feels himself rooting to the spot. He sees the child grow until six months old then, without premeditation, while out on a walk one night, goes to the Greyhound bus station and buys a ticket to Memphis, Tennessee and disappears from her life.
"Jack." But she is gone. He hitchhikes continuously and he is lulled into a peacefulness that comes from the steady travel, from the discovery that the absence of responsibility in his life has in itself an eminence granted him by people he meets in bars and gas stations. Thus he lives, inviolable in his estrangement, until one afternoon in Little Rock, Arkansas he is shot in the arm during a robbery attempt in a 7-Eleven while standing in line waiting to buy an orange Slurppee. He talks to the doctor about his life, the man reminds him of his grandfather, and somehow out of that conversation Jack emerges with a job on a merchant marine vessel.
He is twenty-eight years old and he has been on the ship six months and there is no moon tonight. The stars, he thinks, are an act of God so intricately beautiful that he can't imagine why man was left incomplete. The ocean rolls and heaves as though huge animals lumber beneath the surface. He loves intimately what he sees before him; he loves the profound fact of his body, the two legs, the trunk, the arms, the hands, the neck, the head; he loves the vastness of his thoughts. A seagull nailed to the sky flies just off the fantail and he looks to it for steady reassurance for a moment before clumsily arching his leg up to the top cable of the railing. He hesitates when he hears his name being called from somewhere, from somewhere he hopes he's been called all along, the hope of which he's been too distracted to consider.
previously published in the Dan River Anthology