You’re entitled to surprise. I’ve won no awards for outstanding achievement in personal correspondence, and I have been especially remiss in regard to you. No cards on holidays or your birthday, no postcards though I’m quite the traveler, certainly no letters. You could count on me for not bothering you with that sort of thing, right?
I’m hoping that your shock buys me time here. While you are reading these words in the kitchen or living room of Apartment 213 with a look of disbelief and suspicion on your face, I hope to say a few things that might interest you and which, perhaps, will help explain why in all the years of your life I have not done as much to help you as perhaps I ought. Or should. You tell me; I never finished high school.
Anyway. I’m in New Jersey, back to the old stomping grounds after a lengthy commercial excursion to the nation’s lovely Midwestern heart of darkness. One glance at the snappy Ocean View envelope in your mailbox should have told you I’m on top of the world here, doing just fine. I’m staying in deluxe accommodations, with my own paper toilet seat cover and everything. I can in fact see the ocean, as advertised, if I stand on tiptoe and turn my head just right. Yeah, there it is. That line of blue above the EconoLodge across the street.
I do wonder how you’ve been, you know. Last I heard you were all right. School was about done, you were seeing someone, wedding bells were ready to chime. I hope that happened; congratulations if it did. If it didn’t, I’m sorry. You should have someone, everybody should.
Me? I got a new car last week. New used, you know. Runs good, looks good. A blue ragtop sedan. Big engine. The price was right, as always. I got it in Illinois, drove it out here to the ocean, as far as I could go without making a splash in the world. No tickets, no law trouble. Proud?
The problem right now is it’s hot today. I mean damn hot, stay off the streets if you love your feets hot. It’s hard to breathe the air, and the a.c. here in the motel doesn’t work and the window won’t open. But that’s good for me, really. Lose some weight, sweat it off. Sweat’s good for you, makes you strong.
That was my dad. “If you’re not sweating, you’re not working hard enough.” Sweat was big with him. Work was big. He was a bruiser, worked like a damn mule. Stunk like one, too, come to think of it. He used to hit me if he caught me goofing off on a job. He’d come around the side of a building, there I’d be, kicking back, having a smoke break, shirt off, feet up on the wheelbarrow instead of hauling dirt out of the site. Hoo ha. I don’t remember if I ever told you about him.
“I’ll break your back for you; you don’t want to bend it!” he’d say, and he’d lay into me. I tried to fight back once or twice, but he was tough. Smacked the hell out of me. So I left. Saved up some money, bought a car (not as nice as the blue dream outside!) and introduced myself to the highway. Love of my life, the highway. She takes me places. Lots of places.
Some of them are good, too. Though some, I have to say, are not. Stay the hell out of Texas for one thing. It wouldn’t suit you. And Kentucky. There’s some serious stupid in Kentucky that’ll take you down and clean your bones. I got out of there fast, wouldn’t go back if I could. There’s a standing invite, actually, for me to stay a while down there in the Bluegrass State. It’d be on the government dime, room and board. They’d even provide me with clothes to wear. But no thankee, please. It’s the Ocean View for me.
The ocean view. Did it ever strike you as strange that New Jersey’s on the ocean? I mean growing up you knew, in the abstract, that you were on the coast, but did you feel it? Did you think of it as the kind of place that has an ocean, or was it just buildings and highways and bridges and tunnels, a tight, noisy little place crowded with people, everything the color of the sidewalk, nothing outside the street you’re on but a street just like it, then another and another, then another town with the same streets.
All the while it’s sitting right here on the ocean, all that blue, that openness.
It’s there outside the window. Right at my feets. But stay off the streets.
I wonder if I could be a boat guy, own a boat and live my life on the sea. If I’d been born where I could see it, if the ocean was there in my life every day, how different would growing up like that be? Would it be natural to spend a lot of time out there, maybe sailing far away sometimes, maybe not coming back?
It could be like the highway, right? Only bigger. A boat’s like a car, it takes you where you want to go or it can just take you anywhere if you’ve got no special place in mind. Point the front of it away from shore and press the pedal, or whatever. Throttle back, steam ahead, anchors aweigh! Use the stars instead of street signs. Pick one out, one that sits above where you’re headed, and keep the bowsprit tacking toward it.
That’s nautical speak, of course. Not my native tongue. I’d need to practice if I got the chance to go, embark, cast off. Across the blue, follow a dream, see Paris.
That’s what W.C. Fields says in a movie. They’ve got a rope around his neck and they ask if he has any last requests. He says,
“Only one. I’d like to see Paris before I die.”
You used to watch a lot of TV; you probably saw that one at some point. Has all that schooling changed your ways? Could be you only watch foreign films now. Go out to coffee shops after screenings on campus, discuss themes and motifs, Buñuel and Godard.
Bet you didn’t know I could talk that talk. More fool you. It so happens I kept company with an actress for a while. A French actress, in fact. Mon belle du cinema. She was good looking, too. Oh my. “I want to see Paris before I die.” Been there, I guess. Done that.
My kind of town.
You got the money, I assume. I didn’t have time to include a note with it, so I’d wager you put it in a closet or under the bed and you’ve been wondering what the hell is going on. I like to imagine the look on your face when you got it. That makes me laugh. But listen, it’s yours, no strings. It occurred to me you probably don’t have much. I haven’t seen many ads in the papers looking for liberal arts majors. Not that I’m a devotee of the classifieds, of course. I work steady. I always have.
I happened into that cash in Chicago and thought it might help. Yes, I could have turned your way and headed for the left coast to deliver it personally. But I’m not the Pacific type, and it’s best if I keep the customary room between us at the moment. I’d guess you’re fine with that.
Maybe by now you’re over the initial shock of receiving this and thinking I don’t deserve any more of your time. Well, I’ve paid for it, can we agree? You can listen a bit, and if it’s really a terrible ordeal, you can go out later and buy something to ease the pain. Buy a house or a car. Buy something nice for your lady. Buy a boat.
Let me say this: I’ve done a lot that wasn’t right in my time, but not everything I did was bad. There was a time when things were pretty good. You were happy. Your mom was. That was a good time, and it means a lot to me. I hope it does to you, too.
So I’m not perfect, that’s a given. Not even in contention. But grant me some time for the old days, the bygones, the days of wine and roses. Milk and cookies. The back-in-the-days.
Cue the music, right? Nostalgic tune, with strings. Sinatra.
You know they used to say it was Frank’s world, we just lived in it. It was a silly thing, but I knew what it meant. His songs and his voice, they made something whole. The world was understandable when you listened. If the music didn’t always take the hurt away or answer your questions the way you wanted, it was there anyway when you needed it and that counted for a lot. And the man himself, he did what he could do to stick around. Lived a long time. But nobody can be there forever.
Whose world is it now?
I say it’s yours. Take it and run. Or don’t run, that’s not what I mean. Do what you want. Settle in and make something that lasts. Make something whole and real for yourself. Don’t screw it up. Forget the boat.
I mentioned it’s hot here, correct? Well just now I got the window open, and guess what? Hotter air came in, felt like I stuck my face in an oven. But as I was saying.
I had a rough time a couple months back. Got into a situation I should have known enough to stay away from. Bad people. Bad places. Bad results.
The girl I was with, the actress, she dropped out on me right quick. I can’t say she was wrong to do it. Storm clouds were rising and she wanted to keep out of the wet. Au revoir. But she took something with her that wasn’t rightly hers. Probably figured it was payment for services, something like that. The spoils of our wars. But it was a wrong move.
I spent some time looking but I didn’t find her. Tried for too long, got stuck in place, and that’s never good. To get out I had to do something pretty grim. Yes, even for me. But it got me out, and in some ways I was in better shape than I went in. Though I’m not in very good shape now.
I stopped writing for a bit there. There was a guy at the door, a little pale fat man looking for Mr. Clements.
“Clemons, like lemons?” I said.
“No no,” he tells me. “Clem-ents, with a t.”
Had to say no. No Clements here.
After he left I went out to see if there’s a motel in town with working a.c. Couldn’t find one, it’s the busy season. I got back here all sweaty and disgusted, and the schmuck at the front desk asks if there’s something wrong—if he can help me. Slim chance you can help me, pal, I think, but I tell him anyway. It’s ninety-nine degrees outside, and there’s no room in town with an air conditioner that works.
“Oh, we have one,” he says.
I couldn’t believe it. “Since when?” I asked him.
He tells me it’s been available all day.
I asked him why, if that’s the case, I’ve been sautéing my ass for hours in Room 329.
You ready? Because I didn’t ask for an air conditioned room, he says. There’s a goddamn sign outside the place that says “Air Conditioned” in pink neon letters a foot high, and he tells me I didn’t get a working a.c. because I didn’t “specify” my preference for this feature.
He has no idea how very close he came to being jerked across his little salmon-colored counter and introduced to some very unforgiving asphalt. I’ve been sweating off some weight today, as you know; I’m in fighting trim.
Which reminds me. Remember the guy in the supermarket lot that day? The one who nearly ran you down as we came out with the groceries? That was a long time ago, but I remember. And I bet he does, too.
But I’m getting off the subject. I’m in a cool room now; the a.c. is happily chugging along. Probably blowing asbestos fibers straight into my lungs, but what the hell. That never stopped my old man, tearing into those old buildings, hauling out all that shit. He knew what it was, too, after a while. They told him, the doctors and everyone else. “If work is going to kill me,” he said, “I guess I’m ready to die.” Then he started coughing up blood and he got scared, but it was too late. I’m glad I got out of there a few years before that came down. Seeing the old man scared can’t be good for anybody.
The actress I mentioned wanted to have a baby. She was really upfront about it, told me almost right away, once we realized there was something good happening between us. So we tried. It seemed like the thing to do; it seemed right. I thought, I had a few good years once, I’d been good for people. This could be a way to finish what I’d started then, a ticket back to the golden days. But it didn’t work.
So we had a great few months, anyway. I’ve only been with one woman longer, so I’m coming off a bit of a personal high now.
Which of course makes it a long way down.
What got me was, I’m a creature of habit. I figured the best way to keep things good was to have some cash, and I am not, when it comes to work, my old man’s son. There’s a city near Chicago called Cicero, and if you know your American history, you know what kind of a place it is. I went there and did what I do, and in this case it didn’t go well. I got back to Chicago a little banged up, and she got scared—went crazy on me. She screamed and threw things and demanded to know what happened, and I told her. I had a fit of honesty and showed her the stuff I’d brought back from the job, too, which turned out to be a mistake.
I didn’t just let her go, as I’ve said. I looked for her, and I stayed too long. People came looking for me, and I knew they’d find me before long and her, too, if we were together. So I stopped trying to find her and I got noble. I took off, after telling a guy I couldn’t trust worth a damn that I still had what I’d taken from Cicero. He made the call, and I almost didn’t make it out of town. I hope she’s far away from Chicago now.
My escape was less than clean, as I’ve said. It was bad. But I left with the money I sent you, added the ragtop for my troubles, and lit out for the territories. Actually, honest to god, I deliberately headed for the ocean. I wanted to see the open blue. Color me romantic.
And now reality intrudes. The fat insurance salesman looking for Clements has had time to earn his coin and company is expected, so I need to wrap this up. The money is yours to keep; don’t even think of objecting on moral grounds, because this is the most moral thing I have done in my life.
Think about it. The two people I care for in the world now have it in their power to enjoy their lives if they invest wisely and stay good. I’m not sure if that’s the most a man can hope to achieve in his time, but it’s certainly better than I ever had reason to expect.
I’m going down to the ocean now. I’ll drop this letter at the Post Office I saw down the block when I drove in and take a nice walk on the sand, feel the sun on my face. It’s not long until sunset, and if I’m lucky, I can sit and watch the waves a while—look out over all that blue, all that space, clear into forever.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, or appreciated it, or whatever the appropriate word might be. I want you to know I’m sorry for what I’ve done wrong. I hope the best for you. And I’ve no regrets, really, that I left you and your mother when I did. Staying would have been worse.
Look out at the Pacific for me sometime. The oceans connect, you know, so you’ll be looking back this way, and you might think about me then. Believe I’ve thought a lot about you.
Well. Places to go, people to see. Time and the tides, they say, wait for no man.
Henry Marchand’s fiction has appeared in The Laurel Review, Rosebud, Cleaver Magazine, The Seattle Review, Penduline Press, Review Americana, and elsewhere. His nonfiction publications include essays, reviews, and commentary in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Common Dreams News Center, and The International Herald-Tribune, among other newspapers and magazines. A New Jersey native and longtime resident of northeast Ohio, he now lives in northern California with his wife, Lisa, and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Monterey Peninsula College (http://www.mpc.edu/Creative-Writing-Program).