The Dead Man and the Sea
Wherein We Bid You Adieu
Waves slap the gunwales. The sound is comforting. We have floated beyond the horizon, Papa and I. I pat the waves. If I rock back and forth, the boat moves and Strapping's head bobs back and forth.
I have been speaking to Papa since we got into the boat. I want him to be comfortable. I talk about things he likes. He is fine company.
“We're in the ocean, Papa,” I say.
“Papa, did you know that my favorite song in the whole world is ‘Hang On Sloopy'? It's from the album Hang On Sloopy by the McCoys . Have you heard of the McCoys? Of course you have. You know all about music. On the front of the record there's a cartoon about Sloopy. Sloopy's a girl. She's really, really poor. Her dress has patches all over it. In most of the cartoon, Sloopy's neighbors make fun of her for being so poor. It's very sad. At the end of the cartoon, she is embraced by a short, green man and they are poised to walk into a cloud that contains a castle. The castle is beautiful. It looks like a child could have drawn the pictures. I wonder if you ever wrote a record review about Hang On Sloopy. ”
I rock the boat so Strapping nods his head.
I sing to father.
Sloopy is a girl and she lives in the poor side of town.
Everybody's always trying to break my Sloopy down.
Sloopy, baby, I don't care what you Daddy do
Because Sloopy I'm so very in love with you.
Hang on, Sloopy. Sloopy, hang on.
Hang on, Sloopy. Sloopy, hang on.
I don't remember the rest of the words so I just repeat the first verse over and over. I stamp the floor of the boat in rhythm. The boat has been seeping water. The splashes glitter in the sun. I sing louder and louder until my vocal cords go limp. I continue to sing. “Hisssssssss. Hissssssssssss!”
Father slumps forward.
I help him sit up. With my arms around him, I watch the patterns the sun makes on ocean. I return to my seat.
My nose has started bleeding again. I pinch it closed until it stops. It hurts like the dickens. I rinse my hands clean in the water.
“'The ocean is a desert with its life underground.' Remember that one, Papa?”
I make him nod.
The surface of the water is punctured by a black triangle. The triangle approaches. It circles the boat. It passes close enough to touch.
The triangle is the dorsal fin of a shark. I can see the silhouette under the water. It is a hammerhead. It wiggles sideways. The eyes can see me.
“Papa,” I say, “We're here.”
The shark scares me. This is not what I anticipated. I thought it would be easy. I do not know what to do. I don't want to feed Papa to the sharks anymore. I like talking to him. I want to bring him home where he belongs. I don't know where home is.
The shark rubs the boat. Papa shakes his head. He, too, is afraid.
“Leave us alone,” I say to the shark.
The fin veers away. It recedes. It drops under the water. We are alone once again. “I love cashews, Papa,” I say. “They're my favorite nut. I wish I had a cashew right now.”
Before Papa can answer, the ocean vomits forth a shark. The hammerhead flies from the water and tosses itself into our boat. It has returned. That sneaky shark!
It's halfway in the boat; the teeth clatter the gums; I scoot away it's not interested in me; it shimmies to Papa it latches onto Strapping Danforth's leg and undulates itself backward overtheedge; I diveforward the boat takesonwater Strapping's head strikes the wood and he is pulledoverboard.
I reach Strapping's hand just before he is pulled under completely. I'm leaning out of the boat with both hands gripping the clenched fist of Papa. The shark is invisible below. It tugs on Papa. I tug. I am losing. I will not release him. The boat is heavy with water. I will gladly go over and ride with Strapping Danforth to the bottom of the ocean. But first, I shall fight. The shark pulls, I pull. My fingers are locked around the wrist under the broad fist.
And then Papa opens his hand. The fingers are close together. His hand slips out of my grip. I fly backward into the boat.
When I scramble back to peer into water, the hand is gone. Father is gone. All that remains are bubbles and froth. Chin on the edge of the boat, I stare at this spot until my eyes hurt.
Something floats to the surface. It is small and white. I pluck it from the water. It is a piece of paper.
I shake it, flatten it on my knee. The paper is torn. The edges are blackened with fire. Only a few words are visible. On the top corner: “AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF STRAPPING DANFORTH / PAGE 327.” It is a page from Papa's lost manuscript! Much of the rest of the paper is smeared and pitted with holes. Only one sentence, at the very bottom of the page, is legible. It read, “I suppose I cared about him.”
I hug the sheet of paper to my chest. The sun shines upon me. My hair dries against my scalp. The waves lap the gunwales. The sound is comforting. I have floated beyond the horizon.
I know, I know know know those words were written about me.
--Elk Undercarriage, May 2006