Pelagic

B. West

As a boy I always wore my hair cut short, in a way that kept my mother happy, and now as a man—or simply twenty years later, manhood debatable—I still always have it cut short, almost military, as if wanting to blend into things against my will. My mother has been dead now for several decades, but I still have this haircut. Letting my hair grow just a little past the ears would be less effort, it takes effort to blend in against my will.

I live in a farmhouse in the field of prairie that some might call a sea, but I just call it grass. If you’ve seen the ocean, really, in person, you’d tremble, expecting Poseidon himself to strike you down, if you called this a sea. The ocean has a depth to it, a depth so unique it has its own measurement. My daughter once asked me how you spell fathom—don’t remember why—so I showed her how to use the dictionary, showed her where the secrets of words are splayed out. I pointed to the little type that stated the old, original sense of the word, ‘something that embraces,’ ‘the outstretched arms.’ She smiled a gap-toothed grin and read more, hence a unit of measurement based on the span of outstretched arms, later standardized to six feet. I helped her read the bigger words. Then I held out my arms their widest span and said, tritely, “How much do I love you?” and she jumped into them like a diver, squealing the question, “A fathom?” Now I think of the ocean as a measurement of embraces, as well as something that has a singular embrace of depth. The ocean has this sickening, vast depth. And this prairie grass, it just has a distance across the horizon that might stretch far, like an expanse of water, but is much more fixed than the sea which rolls and ebbs, flows and ravages.

I live in the old farmhouse, a house that has no screens in the windows and too many cats in its barn. The cats like to come in the house, eat the flies that come in, and then saunter their exit through the open windows back out onto the roof; it all works out in the end, making up a nice routine. This is what I thought—a nice routine—until my wife had too much of my not fixing windows and feeding the damn stray cats and having ears that stuck too far out from the sides of my face. I shouldn’t have said, ‘They’re large all the better to hear your yelling with,’ but there you have it, I did.

Once, I used to be sure she liked these ears; once, she knit me a hat to keep them warm when we were living in an apartment with no heat. It was Chicago in the seventies and not only were our downstairs neighbors noisy, they were some kind of dealers. They smoked so much grass, and maybe sometimes rougher kinds of dope, that the pungent smoke snaked up through the floor so I’d come home from my job to find the cat lying on top of a cold radiator by the window trying to get some sun, his eyes streaming goopy cat tears, stoned out of his little walnut mind.

We were windblown and young and a little bit savage in that era, so we lived without heat in this little apartment with a seedy landlord and the wind whipping in subzero temperatures and a cat who was frequently high. Some people will tell you that the lake by the city is just like the ocean, but they can’t have smelled the ocean or known its tides or fallen into its depths like me. I have to hold my tongue and nod and refrain from telling them they couldn’t be more wrong, that: Falling in love is like an ocean, other things are just your lakes and prairies that you can say remind you of the true thing, or can transform in your mind to a wraith of the thing until you convince yourself it is actually just as good. A lake can’t have a riptide, I’d remind them.

Sometimes I wake up at night with a cold sweat slicking the creases in my joints, and I think about the ocean, as I knew it. I’ll lie there next to my wife, each of us sunken into the hollows we’ve worn into the mattress over the years, the same mattress we’ve carried with us from state to state, as we’ve carried and dropped other things from year to year. I lie in the dark on this mattress and I think about how old this mattress is, and how maybe it’s time for a new one; I can feel the springs getting ready to make themselves felt. Maybe we can afford the cost now, maybe we’ve saved just enough. But when I get to thinking about the age of the mattress, that’s just a reminder of how this mattress has witnessed all the things a body is likely to forget, as much as the body sheds its cells and can’t shed the years.

This is the mattress where these two same bodies tumbled lithely with youth and made love, and then sometimes tenderly and more mundanely made love in middle age, with the TV on in the background. The mattress soaked in the sweat of the ocean after swimming and the sweats of fevers, and even my wife’s own little salty tide when her water broke and we took the little Volkswagen Beetle, bottom rusting out, tilting around corners, to the birthing house all those years ago. The mattress holds in all these things for me, even when my mind lets them loose, to wherever thoughts go when you are not holding them close.

 

 

On this afternoon, right in the middle of the present, when the flies are hatching in swarms even though it’s nearing mid October, and the cats are climbing in and out of the windows creaked open, my wife decided it was too much that our windows don’t have screens. I don’t remember her ever talking about these things with much concern until today, when it’s too much. “It’s European!” I tried to convince her, but this was a crack that she wouldn’t have, no matter how wise I thought it.

She’s screaming now about how I don’t ever change, but I’m just standing here thinking about how much things have changed, will change. All of a sudden she turns and gestures to the bed, and she’s yelling about the old mattress and, “How are we supposed to keep a marriage together if even the thing we sleep on is sagging?” she half yells, half cries at me. I’m thinking, Maybe this is the hormones that they talk about, This is menopause, that, Even she says it makes her feel crazy sometimes.

But I’m not saying anything, except a defense of, “So, you want to just throw it away?” And I’m not quite sure what I’m talking about now, but she doesn’t answer, she runs downstairs.

It has always startled me, more than I’d like to say, that the ocean is dependent on something as distant as the moon. Though, that something so huge and mysterious as the ocean is in synch with something as far away and shadowy as the moon only makes sense, I suppose. To be honest, I still don’t perfectly understand how it works, which should be embarrassing for someone my age and with my history of education. I have the dim memories of school day diagrams depicting the surge of the waters, the attraction of the sun and the moon, definitions of a lunar day. I tried to look it up in the old dictionary that sits in the living room, that same one, but the definition was vague and not scientific enough for me. Again, the thing I liked was the reminder of the beginning of the word: ‘Tide comes from the Old English tīd, which originally meant time, period, era, as in springtide. The sense relating to the sea dates from late Middle English.’ I wonder what Western people called the movement of the ocean in those thousands of years before ‘late Middle English.’ I wonder what caused this shift in the lexicon—I assume the marker of the sea as time—and think, Time and tide wait for no man.

I just heard the slap of the screen door shut—the only thing in the house that has a screen, which doesn’t really make sense now that I think about it—and I stay sitting here on the mattress which, to it’s credit, bounces my weight back a little, like when a guy gives you a comforting nudge or punch on the shoulder when you’re down. I sit here for a minute and just feel my hands meeting each other like a prayer between these old knees. I reach for the phone and I call our daughter, looking vaguely at the spot where a family photo or a picture of her would be if we were the kind of people that kept framed pictures on the bedside table. The phone is ringing. Maybe she’ll want the old mattress; she lives by the ocean. The phone is still ringing, I run my hand through my short hair. It’s not enough.

Author Portrait

B. West's work is generally influenced by the little incursions of the bizarre into the everyday, intersectionality, the collected stories we call history, and neglected areas of science. She grew up in both Portland, Maine, and rural New Brunswick, Canada, surrounded by the ocean and the intriguing local lore and architecture. She eventually graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a BA in Sculpture. Currently, she resides on an island off the coast of Maine with her lay-about cat, Ramona, and works as a freelance illustrator. This is her first published piece of fiction.

View the website of B. West