Not the Ocean
by Rob Ehle
The sun had not shown itself for twenty days, and only six of those had been dry. Today it was drizzling. Still, the boys were playing in the back as if it were mid-July. Dan heard their shrieky voices from the front of the house. The voices went from loud to extremely loud, then back to loud again. They had not played in the yard for three days. If he had let them play inside today, he might have hurt one of them. There was a lull, and he began to be able to think again. He looked back down at the checkbook register and then heard a boom—something very large and heavy had hit the back wall. Dan jumped from his chair, which crashed to the floor, but before he was at the back door the boys were already shouting, It’s okay. He’s okay. We’re okay. When he got outside, he saw the aluminum tool shed tipped off its concrete bed, leaning on the house. The boys were already at the opposite corner of the yard, as if it had been an act of God.
Aaron crouched at the base of a rose bush. He was examining dirt. It didn’t look like he’d been doing anything else for at least an hour. His little brother stood in front of him facing the back door, his expression blank with guilt. He held his hands behind his back as if he were hiding something.
“What’d you do, Aaron?”
“We can fix it, Dad. Satch wanted to see the top.”
He didn’t get the checkbook balanced. By the time Cheryl got home he’d barely finished getting the shed back on its foundation, bolted now into the concrete. He had tried for about ten minutes to make the boys pick up and reorganize all the spilled nails and screws, nuts and bolts, mollies and copper wire, until the sheer lunacy of effort was too much for him. Instead he had them clean their room.
“That’s not a punishment,” Cheryl said.
“Have you looked at that room?”
“That’s what they were supposed to do today, anyway. I told them before I left.”
They didn’t eat until seven. Dan had planned on having supper ready when Cheryl got home, but events had again found their own sluice. It was ten before the boys were in bed and as soon as she’d turned out their lights, Cheryl went straight to a bath. Dan thought he might have a drink. When he opened the cupboard above the refrigerator and remembered he was out of Scotch, his desolation surprised him.
“Dan,” Cheryl said from the tub.
He walked down the hall to the back room, out to the yard. The clouds were finally blowing off, and he could see some stars. They were pretty and new, and it had been so long since he’d seen them that it made him think of night in the mountains. He thought he might take a few days with a pack and a bag and just go up, all by himself. He had all the time he needed. It wasn’t the kind of thing he did, ever.
Cheryl called him again. He couldn’t always hear from the back porch, not always, and he took a couple of steps further out. He smelled the wet under the clearing sky and he could feel the rarefied night on his skin. The smell of grass and dirt started to go musky, and he knew a skunk was out somewhere. The smell didn’t fade off. The neighbor’s dog started barking, and Dan went inside.
“Where were you?” Cheryl said when he came into the bathroom. The water was so hot that steam still ribboned off it, and her skin glowed like Christmas.
“A skunk’s outside.”
“I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“What?” Dan said.
“Larry and I talked tonight.”
He finally couldn’t think of anything else to do, so he smiled.
“I think it’s the right time for something like this, Dan.” She looked at the ceiling as she spoke, as if she were practicing. “While you’re looking for something new. Larry’s got an idea—an opportunity. He says if I stay around any longer, I’ll just learn all he knows anyway and then there’s nothing stopping me from setting myself up and competing.”
“Setting yourself up? With your own produce stand?”
“It’s not a produce stand.”
It was a booth in a gutted movie theater. There were about twenty other vendors, selling specialty olive oils, beeswax candles, kites—anything a person could think of to sell (though not necessarily to buy). But Larry’s instincts were good enough, and he’d finally been able to hire some help. Cheryl went in three days a week to relieve him. She hadn’t worked for nine years, and she was flush with purpose.
“It’s a whole store, and business is doubling every two months. Organic is finally mainstream, Dan. People are really into local produce.” Now she looked at him, and he just let her, stared dumbly back. “Larry’s thinking butters and cheeses now.”
“He’s thinking butters and cheeses?” Dan opened the medicine cabinet, took out the box of floss. “Plural?”
“There’s a space opening next to us. The rent’s almost nothing.”
They had just gotten twenty thousand dollars in inheritance from her grandfather. Before that, there had been only the checking account.
Dan slept badly. The smell was finally so rank he knew the skunk had to be under the house. He had the midnight certainty that one of the boys would surprise it early in the morning and get sprayed point blank. Blinded, maybe. The idea finally consumed him, and he had fitful, dreamy thoughts about hospitals and sunglasses. When he woke again, though, he couldn’t smell a thing, and he was so relieved that he got up, put on his robe, and went to check on the kids. To see them, he turned on the hall light. It half woke Cheryl, who sighed a question and rolled back to sleep. All he could see of Aaron was the rough grain of his hair at the edge of the blanket. Satchel lay sprawled and coverless as if he’d just dropped off the ceiling. His breathing sounded like waves. Dan had taken lately to watching his sons sleep the way he’d once sat on the beach gazing at the ocean—emptied, quiet. That his sons were not the ocean, were small and full of love for him, didn’t always soothe him. He bent to put a blanket over Satchel, felt the damp at his hairline and moved the cover down a little. He went back to his room, slipped into bed, and tried not to think about money.
He heard Cheryl on the phone in the morning, talking to Larry. TV noises came from the back room. There was a sliver of sunlight at the baseboard, the first in weeks. It was a minute or two before he remembered what day it was, and when he did, he rolled on his side and put a pillow over his head. A minute later, Cheryl came in and said, “You’re still in bed?”
“It’s nine, Baby. Larry’s picking me up and we’re going to the farmer’s market.”
She had started calling him this after he was laid off. She’d never used the word
before, not even in sex. “Okay?”
“You taking the kids?”
“To the farmer’s market?”
“They like it. Satch likes the . . . things.”
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Then we can all do something fun.” She snatched up the blinds, and the room cracked open like an egg. “It’s gorgeous out.”
A minute later she was in the back room saying goodbye to the kids and five minutes after that Satchel was on the bed. “I’m hungry.”
Dan told him to get some Cheerios. “Have Aaron help you.”
“Mom says you’re being a lazybones.”
He pulled the pillow further down over his face.
“Lazy Bones,” Satchel said.
“Mom’s just a crazy bones.”
Satchel laughed and stared. Dan’s eyes were shut, but he could feel Satchel crouching, his nose an inch away. “Lazy Bones,” Satchel said. Dan growled, low and wolfish. Satchel began a quiet squealing, almost inaudible. It got louder as Dan’s hand moved slowly toward him under the blanket. When Dan had him by the leg, he yodeled and thrashed in happy terror.
“Who you callin’ lazy?”
Once Dan was up—that bulwark fallen—he resigned himself to French toast. He knew the boys were sated on television. Aaron broke the eggs and Satchel ground the coffee—something destructive for each of them.
“Watch that griddle. Hospital’s closed Sunday morning.”
“Is not,” Aaron said.
The boys ate at the table while Dan stood at the counter with his coffee, frying his own toast. They argued about cartoons. He tried to tune them out with the morning paper, but gradually he realized it wasn’t the boys who were distracting him. He set the front page aside and picked up the classifieds. GRAPHIC ARTIST needed for 6-month assignment; GUI DESIGNER for dynamic new gaming and VR company; R U a SELF-STARTER? He scanned the columns, circling nothing, until he smelled the burning toast. He picked it off the griddle and threw it in the trash, turned back to the paper.
“Dad!” Satchel said. “You just threw away your French toast!”
Dan was still in his robe when Cheryl came home. She was talking as she opened the front door, and he went to the bedroom to get some clothes on. He heard Larry’s voice, the low slight sway, and Cheryl’s laugh, and bags set on the kitchen table. She said, “Where is everybody?” Aaron and Satchel were playing in the back yard. Dan looked for some jeans.
She had met him in her yoga class. Before the organic produce, he’d been an engineer. Engineering what, Dan wasn’t sure—flexible computer screens maybe, microphones the size of bacteria—things strange and wonderful enough to make him tidy money, which Dan didn’t begrudge him. Larry had paid his dues. Cancer had taken sixty pounds and a kidney off him, and in his eyes you saw the Lazarus wisdom. Dan hadn’t known him before he was sick, but he wondered if he’d looked as good—sallow and wiry, hands that reminded you of Lincoln. He had wrinkles that women would still be falling for twenty years from now. Either way, he now knew what was what. Larry said he hadn’t done the organic thing for his health—coming back from the grave, he just liked being around stuff that grew. He might have been married once, Dan could never remember.
Cheryl smiled at him when he came into the kitchen. She held out a carrot: “Carrot?”
Larry stood behind the bags with his hands in his back pockets, shy as a cowboy, and Cheryl took a chomp of the carrot herself and grinned with a full cheek.
“Smells tasty in here,” Larry said.
“Was. French toast with catsup—it’s a House Satchelty.”
Cheryl came up to Dan, aimed the carrot at his mouth, and he opened up. He held it there like a cigar, half-grinning at Larry. Larry grinned back. He had the warmest smile Dan had ever seen—not a grinner, really. (Did that mean that you could trust him with your money, or that you couldn’t?) There was the sound of the door in the back room, and a moment later Aaron walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator as if he were the only one in the house.
“Hello, kiddo,” Cheryl said. “What are you up to?”
“Can I have a soda?”
He closed the fridge. “Okay,” he said, and he walked back out of the kitchen.
Larry laughed and looked out after him and said, “That’s me.”
The carrot was as sweet as an apple in Dan’s mouth, and he almost mentioned it. Instead he said, “Didn’t look like you.” Cheryl looked over at him and he pretended not to notice.
“That’s what I did all the time,” Larry said. “Asked for stuff I knew I couldn’t have. Then I’d go back out and play.”
He really was a good man. Better than Dan, actually, which was a strange thing to think about.
Sometime in the soggy recent past a trip to Point Reyes had been promised to see the gray whales. Dan didn’t remember. After Larry left, Cheryl started packing some of the fruit and cheese she’d gotten at the market. Satchel had wanted to see whales ever since Aaron had gone with his class the year before and come home talking about flukes. Pretty much everything had been flukes now for about a year. They had a fluke poster in their room, and when he took a bath, Satchel turned on his stomach, lifted his fluke-flared feet and dowsed his head, trying in eight-inch water to make sounding. As Cheryl packed, Dan rummaged through a couple of closets for the binoculars. The closets yielded nothing, and Dan began to fear the binocs were impacted somewhere in a tent or sleeping bag down in the bowels of the house. Twenty minutes later he was rifling and muttering in the space under the basement stairs when Cheryl came down.
“What are you doing, Dan?”
“We have too much stuff, you know that?”
“We’ll have a garage sale. But not right now.”
He knelt on a plastic packing box, peering, the flashlight in his hand no brighter than a candle, when the lid gave way and he slipped. His fist went through the weave of an ancient lawn chair.
“What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for the damn binoculars. How are we going to see a damn whale without any binoculars, Cheryl?”
She didn’t answer, and when he looked at her there wasn’t a trace of interest he could see. She sighed and finally said, “We’ll be in the car.” He dug and rummaged for another five minutes, until the boys started yelling. Cheryl pulled out of the driveway, and Dan marched down and got into the car. At the corner, she turned right instead of left and said, “I’m sure Larry has some binoculars.”
“Sure,” he said. As she flipped opened her phone, he said, “You know, why don’t you just invite him? I’ll bet he’s—”
“Wait!” Satchel yelled. “I know where they are.”
Back at the house, Satchel ran into the garage and came back in less than a minute.
“We were reading with them last week. Frank and me.”
“The hell?” Dan said under his breath, and Satchel said, “Dollar,” and no one asked any more questions.
As Dan drove through the city, across the bridge, Cheryl and the boys took turns looking through the binoculars. Satchel said he saw a whale, and Aaron told him it was the Farallons. Cheryl kept saying it didn’t matter if they saw whales or not, it was a beautiful day. She was buoyant and chatty. She talked about Marin and free-range chickens and the fascists in Washington. She told Aaron there was definitely a God, no matter what his friend said. At the rainbow tunnel, Satchel and Aaron both sucked in their breath. Just before the other end, Aaron poked Satchel in the ribs, and Satchel laughed and then got mad.
“It’s bad for you to hold your breath that long when you’re only five.”
“I can hold it a lot longer than that.”
“You lose five million brain cells for every second you hold it.”
“I do not.” Satchel was quiet a moment. Then he said, “Do I, Mom?”
“Jeez.” Dan didn’t even have to look in the mirror to see his older son rolling his eyes. “You better hope not. You don’t have many left to lose.”
He worried sometimes that Aaron was picking up his sarcasm a little quick. The boy wasn’t even ten. At this rate, how dry would he be by the time he was sixteen? Partly it was having a little brother—a walking bull’s eye for irony. Everything in Satchel that brought out tenderness and delight in his parents was, Dan knew, proof to Aaron that he was the stupidest human in America. Dan had had his own stupid little brother, a man who was now a school superintendent in Oregon. All he wished for Aaron, for a boy so frighteningly like himself, was that he not mistake for stupidity what was actually happiness.
They drove along Bolinas Lagoon past dozens of egrets planted out on the water like pennants. Dan thought briefly what it would have been like if he’d been out by himself.
“Ospreys!” Cheryl said suddenly. “Dan, stop! Look at them!”
He pulled into a gravel turnout. They all got out of the car and followed two of the birds as they flew out over the water. When he got his own chance at the binoculars, Dan could make out the stark face markings and crests of the birds as they flew, their feathered legs.
“They look like Mexican wrestlers,” he said. “Don’t they? Those faces.”
“Strong-Bad!” Aaron said, in a Strong-Bad voice.
The boys got their chances with the glasses, and then Cheryl said, “My turn.” Just as Satchel handed the binoculars up to her, one of the ospreys took a dive. Cheryl gasped. The osprey came up with a fish, turning it in its talons straight on to the wind as it flew off. “Look!” Cheryl whispered. “Look at that!”
But Dan was looking at her, not at the bird. Her lips were just parted. She peered through the binoculars like a child peeking through a keyhole. As a wisp of her blond hair blew back and forth from her cheek to the top of the binoculars, desire hit him like a little gust of wind.
“I am Strong-Bad!” Satchel said, giggling. “And I like . . . fish!”
Larry was not the kind of person to take someone’s wife. Dan knew this. But as he looked at Cheryl now, all girlish and bursting, it wasn’t enough. She didn’t have to have a thought in her head of betrayal. Just the happiness alone felt like it. As weeks went by, then a month, then four months without a job, there was a meanness he couldn’t shed, that he felt doomed and hobbled by.
“I thought they couldn’t fly,” Satchel said.
Aaron stared at his brother, and Cheryl smiled and furrowed her brows at Dan.
“You thought ospreys couldn’t fly?”
Aaron looked up at the one remaining bird. They all watched a while longer as it kited above the lagoon.
“Ospreys,” Aaron said finally. “Not ostriches.”
[To read the rest of Rob Ehle's touching story "Not the Ocean," purchase a copy of New England Review vol. 28 no. 3 from the NER website or your local bookseller.]