There are moments when logic mimics extrasensory perception; when the ending is apparent but it is also as if the ending is known and has always been known; when events unfold as if by design, in perfect, untouchable prediction; as if given texture and weight through simple observation; as if in a dream.
See the boy skating towards the sign which reads thin ice. See the Labrador, the tennis ball, and the busy street. See the infant teetering at the top of the staircase.
The disparate variables fall into place, one by one. A sinking revelation: that the time for action has passed, unnoticed, and the time for consequence is at hand; as if the gears of serendipity have grinded into reverse, from fortune to ill.
There was a little canoe lake down the road from where we lived – a redundant little place alongside the sea, where the very old came to watch the very young. There was grass, peddle-swans and a place to buy tea. There was shade from trees, and benches bearing the names of the dead who had favoured them. Black deco streetlamps glowed yellow after dusk and, strung in drooping arcs between them, was a line of coloured lights, whose reds and yellows and greens shimmered on the water through the night. It was not so far from the ocean that gulls wouldn’t make a home of it. The gulls wheeled out over the sea and they glided in and settled on the lake. They called to one another, sharp and clear, like travellers itinerant in a foreign tongue. Sometimes they hovered on the cold ocean wind, their white wings arched and still, as if the very action were precious to them.
It was afternoon and the sky was high and grey and the air was flat and muggy. The gulls had settled, bobbing bright islands on the dark water,clutches of them picking their way across the concrete. They had a peculiar sense for the mood of the weather.
I watched them as I walked among the trees. They picked and hopped and took off and made great circles and then came back down again precisely where they had been before. One gull would murmur and squawk and then erupt in cacophonous wailing and then all the gulls would join in and the air would fill with their screams and then, for reasons undefined, they would all quieten down again and settle into the water as one. They were white, as gulls tend to be, with brown-capped heads.
I had come to the lake to sit and read the newspaper. I also had a book in my pocket. It was about a man named Billy Pilgrim and a lot of bad things that happened for no apparent reason.
I took a seat on one of the wooden benches near where the lake curved inward and opened my newspaper. I read the front page, the editorials and the comics, which took the taste of the editorials out of my mouth. People were coming and going. There was a boy and his mother. The boy was all knees and elbows, as boys tend to be. He was maybe ten or eleven and his mother kept looking up at the sky and holding her palm out. The boy was occupied only with the plastic bucket next to him and the spool of twine in his fingers. He was fishing for crabs – a simple pleasure. Bits of flesh were trailed along the muddy brown lakebed as he drew up little brown disks with segmented legs and flailing pincers at which to marvel and release. Set them on the concrete and they will scuttle sideways until they plonk back into the water.
The boy’s bucket was empty. He sat crouched, the spool his hands, staring to where his line vanished down into the shallows, singing Row, row, row your boat to himself. His mother looked up at the sky and held her palm out and shook her head.
There was also a woman in a bulging pink sweater pushing a skeletal old man in a black wheelchair. She wheeled him up the wide grey pavement, along the inner curve of the lake, and then pushed the wheels of his chair right up to the concrete lip of the water. She wore white flat shoes. She stood there for a long time, straight-backed, looking out over the lake, holding the chair with both hands. The old man flexed and unflexed his fingers.
The wind was coming in off the ocean and the gulls glided in their currents. Down and back up again. Creatures with no concept of what it means to fall.
When I was a boy I lived with my grandfather and my grandmother. She was a retired schoolteacher and he was a veteran, as old men tend to be. He called me ‘rapscallion’ and smoked three packs of filtered cigarettes a day. His favourite phrase was, ‘just don’t break anything’.
I lived in the downstairs room and read a lot of comic books and watched Buck Rogers and sometimes I snuck into my grandfather’s study at night to watch the midnight movie which was usually Invasion of the Animal People or Creature from the Black Lagoon or something.
Whenever my grandfather found me doing any one of these things, he would say, ‘What are you doing?’ And before I could answer he would answer for me: ‘Nothing, that’s what. All kinds of nothing.’ When he was dying some years later I would sit next to his bed at night in the dark and sometimes he would say to me, ‘Don’t spend all your damn time doing nothing, rapscallion.’ And I told him, Okay, grandpa.
I read some more of the newspaper. People came and went: a covey of billowy old ladies; a dazed young couple, smoking cigarettes; a line of children in a chain of held hands. The lake was a curious place. It was a place people went not to go, but to be. They did all kinds of nothing. Some of them did crabbing, like the little boy, who was still crouched next to the water, or they distrusted the sky, like his mother. On sunnier days others came to lie on their backs in the grass with the sun on their faces. Some brought their parents down in wheelchairs and wheeled them right up to the edge of the water and stood there for a long time as if they were trying to make up their minds. Some just came to sit in the shade of the trees and read books or nurse babies or sleep or kiss.
The boy was looking at me. I could see him in the corner of my eye. He’d look at me, then away, then back. His mother had gone off towards the little tea house and left him there alone and maybe I made him nervous but the truth was that he was the one making me nervous. I didn’t like children. They were always asking for things.
I guess he worked up his courage because after a while he set down his line and walked over and stood in front of me and stared. I pretended to read my book.
‘Excuse me,’ he said.
I read, Billy Pilgrim has come …
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Sir.’ I looked over the top of my book at him. He had brown hair. It was all mussed up, sticking out everywhere. I looked over the top of my book at him again. He had his dark little eyebrows all scrunched up. He leaned forward.
‘Do you know anything about –’ he began, and then he looked left and right, as if someone might be listening, and he dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘– about crabbing?’
He stayed there, leaning forward, put his hands on his knees and chewed his lip – as if we were in a huddle; a bullpen; a one-on-one.
‘I might,’ I said.
‘Yeah? Yeah?’ His face was alight. He kept looking around for spies or his mother or anyone else who might ruin this exchange of secrets, this tradesman’s chat.
I leaned forward and looked around too; looked over his shoulder. Then I looked right into his little face. ‘I’ll tell you the secret,’ I said. He leaned in closer. He was so close I could smell his baby’s breath. ‘The one thing you have to do, no matter what, is to stay with your line. Don’t let it out of your fingers, and don’t ever, ever look away from the water. Don’t talk to anyone, either. If the crabs hear you talking, they won’t come. You do all that – now, it takes a while, so be patient – but you do all that and you’ll have more crab than you can cram into that bucket. That’s a promise.’ His face was frozen. I could see the crab piling up behind his eyeballs. ‘Now,’ I said, ‘hurry up and get back, and don’t forget to be quiet. You’re breaking the rules right now.’
He fell all over himself going back, his legs twisted, flinging his body towards his line, whispering Thanks! Thanks! over his shoulder as loudly as he could muster. He lay down on his stomach on the pavement and held his line with both hands and stared at the water as if he might boil it just by looking.
It’s probably good I never had any kids of my own. I had wanted some at first but I hadn’t met any women that didn’t have horse teeth and then, of course, came the Vietnam War. For some men, war increases the libido until he looks at just about everything and everyone as if he might take it to bed with him.
One such man was Art Hickory, a round-shouldered, long-fingered monkey of a man who was in my platoon and who whispered at night about the things you could do with a fat, ripe mango. We could be camped out in the rain or yelling over the screams of mortars, and Art Hickory would be going on about how much better life was when you had women around – and if you couldn’t have a woman, the things you could use to pretend that you did, which was interesting because Art did have a woman, Mrs Hickory, back in Bangor, Maine. He carried a photograph of her in his helmet. Not only that, but they had a little boy, too, whose name was Jock.
The other thing about Art was that he got his fill during R&R. He classified women by the shapes and sizes of their nipples – puffers and tweakers and hangers – and he would holler about them while running his machine gun. Machine gunning was his job and he would laugh his lungs bloody while he did it, smoking and shooting bursts of yellow flame off into the jungle with the dirt flying up around him and the bullets whizzing by – as if nothing could touch him. Afterward, when night came, and the guns had stopped firing and we were alive and quiet and the symphony of the tree frogs echoed down from the canopy, he would tell us how much he loved
that little boy and how he couldn’t wait to get home and be a proper family man.
I always hoped it would come back and bite him in the ass. I thought that maybe one day he’d be elbowing us about some woman, squeezing his fist to show how tight she was, when a vine would catch one of the grenade pins on his flak jacket and he’d get a surprised look on his shovel face one long second before he went up in a plume of fire and ragged flesh. I hoped, at least, that a pit viper would slither into his trousers while he slept and I’d wake up to him screaming after an ironic kind of bite. Same sorts of things happened to other men in our platoon all the time. Joel Fritter got run over by one of our own jeeps while he was playing Frisbee with Pepper Saint- John. Pepper Saint-John’s M79 exploded both his hands clean off while he was showing a recruit how not to load it. I myself suffered a viper bite in a foxhole in the middle of a typhoon and ended up hallucinating for days.
But that isn’t what happened to Art Hickory. Art Hickory survived that war and went home. He left his woman and as far as I know he never saw that boy again.
The sun was trailing down out behind the grey and I could hear the tide going out. The boy’s mother was cramming him into his coat and there were only a couple of gulls left on the water. The cold was seeping into my bones and the yellow light in the teahouse had come on so I walked down the pavement with a mind to get a cup.
Inside, it smelled of bacon rolls and pastry and coffee. The old woman behind the counter took my money and slid the Styrofoam cup across the metal counter. She told me it had been a slow day. She said she hoped it would rain more, because it seemed like foxes came out more when it rained. She said she saw a fox in her garden the night before, over behind the shadows of the petunias. And that it had looked at her with its big yellow-black eyes, then darted off into the darkness. Just like that, she said, for no reason at all.
When I came back out the boy and his mother were gone. So too were the woman and the old man in the wheelchair. I walked sipping the yellow-white tea with the steam coming up out of the cup and I came to the place where the boy and his mother had been. Coiled on the ground were his crabbing supplies.
The plastic bucket was translucent, still brimming with murky lake-water, little planets of scum floating around inside. A glistening pile of pork fat was next to the bucket, and a long line of green twine.
Half the twine was still ravelled up in a plastic spool, the other half trailing out into the lake, where the water rippled around it. I set the tea on the pavement and gathered the line up in my fingers and pulled. It had a weight on the end.
Every action has a unique rhythm; a specific meter with which to move and pull and push and breathe, murmured in the tension of execution – the steps of a waltz, the pedalling of a bicycle, the turning of a screwdriver, the tying of shoelaces.
So it was with crabbing. It required deft, deliberate, consistent motion. Too fast and the crab would release its tenuous hold on the bait; too slow and it would finish eating before you got it anywhere. Hand over hand, little by little, as if nothing could go wrong – that was the way.
It is the rhythm of the underlying machine of the world – tangible and self-evident. It makes every action consolatory and predictable, and we take heart in this; as if it is the rhythm that obeys us; as if it is we who pull the threads of the world; as if we could know the ending before it comes.
I did have a woman, once – Miss Elizabeth Kramer, who had legs made for beach-walking and eyes like polished oyster pearls. She and I got to that couple’s place where everything you do, you do together, even if you’re doing two different things. I would watch television from my ratty green recliner and she would listen to the radio, or she would paint in the corner while I sat nearby and read. It was the simple act of doing nothing in the same space as the other person.
So it was that one August night she climbed out of the bath and I climbed in. She stood at the sink with a towel wrapped around her, blow-drying and brushing her hair. Outside, a storm was settling in. We lived in the great wide opens of the Midwest, where, in the summer, the clouds would come down in the afternoon in ethereal shades of violet. Thunder grumbled through the narrows of our walls. It was a little, hollow place we filled together; our bathroom had just one yellowing light bulb above the mirror, and the whole room was so small we had to slow-dance to move around inside it.
I was lying back in the steaming water and she dried her hair. The dryer was as fat and cumbersome as an aubergine, the same bruise-purple in colour, with an iron grate in the barrel, a collection of white switches on the side and a long green wire spiralling out of the butt. She stood, brushing that blonde hair which was like electric light, and when she had finished she put the hairdryer down on the edge of the narrow sink and smiled at me.
It was a stupid idea to begin with; taking a bath, water slick on the tile, with a thunderstorm at our door. But the young possess a unique sort of ignorance which lets them happily look the other way, even ankle-deep in variables for disaster. Neither one of us should have been surprised when she slipped, and the dryer tipped off the edge of the sink towards the bath. But there we were: her parted lips; her wide, pale eyes; as if it were already over.
If I were a man of God I would have said what happened after that was a result of His direct intervention. Just before the dryer plunged into the water, the storm outside spat a bolt of lightning through the transformer regulating the power to our building. At the same moment as the lights went out, I heard the dryer plonk to the bottom of the tub and Miss Elizabeth Kramer’s voice turn to jelly. Then I was out of the tub, tumbling across the floor in the dark. I felt her hands touching me all over, and then holding my face in her palms, her voice saying my name again and again, her lips on my lips, again and again, there in the dark, with the thunder rumbling outside.
Later on, we laughed about the whole thing. She went about looking for Jesus after that. The day she left, she wrapped her arms around me, kissed me on the cheek and rested her head on my shoulder.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘I don’t think anyone really understands anything.’
There was no crab on the end of the line when I got it out of the water; just a shred of fat on a hook. I left the line in a wet coil on the pavement and picked up my tea and gathered my coat.
When my grandfather used to say ‘Just don’t break anything’ what he meant was, pay attention to what you were doing. He meant, if you can’t fix it, at least don’t screw it up more. He meant, you might not be able to make the world a better place, but try not to make it worse.
I went to the bathroom and read more about Billy Pilgrim. When I came back, a gull was picking and tearing at something over by my bench. The wind was stiff and cold. The gull fluttered into the air but then fluttered back down again. I could see the long dark thread of the twine coming up from the ground, the beak scissoring silently.
I had gathered up my newspaper and my book and my tea, but left the boy’s things there. I had left the bucket, the twine, the shred of pork fat and the barbed hook. I had passed the peddle-swans, where they were moored in wooden brackets, and further up the walk, I had stopped by the flower beds and taken a last look back over the water and seen from a long way off the detritus still there on the pavement. I did nothing, and when I came out, it was all the same, save for the red-orange feet of the gull standing in the snaking twine, picking at the meat, the hook already swallowed.
And the variables fell into place.
The gull took flight; white against the grey sky; its black head; and with it the long line, the tangled spool clattering along the pavement. The gull flew between the black deco streetlamps and then it doubled back again in a high arc, a shot white arrow towards the open sea, wings arched and still, as if it were weightless, as if the terrestrial was of no consequence whatsoever, to be forgotten as easily as flying, as if everything could be left behind forever. But against the grey sky the black line still ran from its beak, and the heavy spool trailed far below, a few feet off the ground, like an anchor.
There are moments when logic mimics extrasensory perception; when the ending is apparent but it is also as if the ending is known and has always been known.
When the twine caught the string of lights, the spool whirled up through the air and wrapped itself around the black wire. The consequence was instantaneous and violent.
The gull became a kite on a string in a maelstrom, zagging through the air, every course thwarted, the twine pulled tight, the gull blazing like a morning star on the end of a chain; blood coming already, its tongue shredded; wings thundering and feet flitting, white chest stained with flecks of red; panicked shrieks of which I had never known a bird to be capable.
I stood entranced until the beating of its wings slowed to half-hearted and then stopped altogether. It hung like something lynched, the line coming up straight, the cruel knot of the lights, the spool drifting listless halfway between.
People had gathered and they all seemed to be looking at me. An old woman plastered in makeup glowered at me and wouldn’t look away. I spread my hands and said, A boy left his crabbing things here. It was the boy. He shouldn’t have left them. But nobody said anything and I went down and untied my shoelaces and retied them. The people stood with their hands over their mouths.
In a fiction story, there would have been a ladder, or a resourceful man with a brave, resourceful boy to stand on his shoulders. In a fiction story I would have found a way to cut the bird down. I would have held it against my chest, singing in lullaby tones, feeling its jackhammer heart as I removed the hook from its ragged tongue. Row, row, row your boat. The bird would quiver, with its sharp webbed feet and silky-slick feathers and instinct and fear. I’d have to watch its beak, half-open, ready, like a crocodile, the black eye swivelling. Shh, I would say to it. And when I had the hook free I would release it and it would vanish great and terrible up into the air, beating its wings, never understanding the concept of saviour but saved all the same. The people would be quiet for one small moment with the spears of sunlight coming down through the clouds, and in the span of a breath the gull would be gone, gone, and it would all mean something.
In a fiction story, the ice-skating boy is rescued by his older brother at the last minute, or he dies but his death goes on to shape his older brother in some remarkable, tragic way. In a fiction story, the dog is killed but the woman driving the car falls in love with the man to whom the dog belonged. The teetering infant is, of course, always swept up in some miraculous way at the last moment.
But life isn’t fiction. Life is a chain of trivialities punctuated by blistering grief and secret, unremarkable narratives; a theatre of panic in which pea-sized portions of manifest destiny are served in a thin, tasteless soup; vignettes, not cantos, in which every character is starved for catharsis. The gull was too high up and nobody could reach it.