Asa sprinted now, but the turbulent foam around his knees nullified his forward progress. He made his dive just as the wall of water initiated its violent collapse, and he went under millimeters ahead of the thunderous crash. He had slightly misjudged the wave's volume, he realized too late. The breaker caught him by the ankles, flipped him belly up into the racing geyser and hurled him at the shore. He landed rump down against the sandy bottom, swallowed a mouthful of brine and then felt himself being sucked seaward, end- over- end, by the undertow. He turned over quickly, found bottom with one foot, jettisoned above the surface, spat sea, gulped air and then let the next wave lift him high and fling him onto the wet sand. He sprang to his feet, scampered to the dry shore, and quickly turned around to watch and grin as the next giant swell thrashed like a frustrated beast at the very spot from which he had just escaped.
Asa had begun each of the last five days in this manner: taunting the cold, angry ocean, daring it to try its mindless might against his intelligent will. He found his towel, put it around his shoulders, mopped his face with one tail and then blew the brine from his nose with the other. He smiled. "I love you, anyway!" he called out as another twenty- footer rose, peaked and then destroyed itself against the beach.
On the second such morning, Asa realized he'd carried along insufficient fresh water, especially if he wanted to rinse the residue of sea from his body. He immediately gave highest priority to the dug well outside the bungalow. The pump hadn't worked in many years. He'd have to pull the head and fix it. He'd had enough sense to bring a blow torch and always kept a can of penetrating oil in the truck's toolbox. But he hadn't chosen the correct pipe wrenches for this job. When the ill- fitting teeth slipped, he skinned his knuckles. And he skinned them twice more before the frozen threads creaked and finally surrendered the pump head. He cleaned out years of corrosion and glop, made sure the intake valve operated freely, and then, appropriating a finger's worth of axle grease from the front wheel of the Chevy, lubricated the pump's wrist pins. By midmorning, the crank and piston were, again, movable objects. "What to use for priming?" he muttered in the direction of the canteens with his woefully short supply of drinking water. He glanced at the sea, smiled and then shouted. "You'd love it if I ruined my well with you."
He set out with buckets in search of fresh water. While exploring, he mapped the locations of wild berry bushes and fruit trees from which, later in the season, he'd be able to supplement his larder.
About four hundred yards from his camp site, hidden in a cedar grove and guarded by sentinels of poison ivy, he discovered a pond whose water looked adequate for priming but not dangerous for drinking or bathing. He found a safe path to the banks, filled his buckets and lugged them back to camp. When his second haul failed to prime the well, Asa used his hatchet to fashion a hasty yoke of driftwood, which he padded with his extra pair of pants. But by excursion number four, blisters ringed his neck and shoulders. Lunch time was near, and he decided take a short break. He fixed a crude Spam sandwich. The white Silvercup bread quickly absorbed the oily dirt and bloody sweat from his fingers. He settled for the greasy meat, extruding it from between the ruined slices of bread and manipulating it into his mouth with teeth and tongue, "Just like a hungry dog!" He took a short swig from a canteen, rinsed his mouth, spat, took a second pull and slowly let the water trickle down the interior of his hot, aching throat. The ocean looked placid from the distance. He half smiled at a brief fantasy of, after running out of drinking water, going mad and trying to extract the one necessity the sea ironically could not give him.
He smeared Vaseline on his neck and shoulders, planed smooth the underside of the yoke, carefully balanced and re- padded it and set out again.
On the first bucket of his seventh trip the pump offered resistance. Quick, quick! In with the second bucket. And pump, pump, pump pump! The spout gasped, then belched and finally coughed up a frothy aqueous suspension of silt. The silt became muddy; the mud became rusty water; and, as he furiously pumped, the water faded progressively through tans and straws to clear. He retarded his pace and, continuing to pump with one hand, ducked into the cold cascade to baptize himself. But the final test was yet to come. He rummaged a dipper out of his gear and filled the cup. Before trying an experimental first sip, he fortified himself with an encouraging rationalization "Well, no matter what, at least I can wash." Then he deliberatively imbibed and swished the draught around the inner surfaces of his lips and cheeks and back onto his tongue. He grinned, deferentially raised the dipper to the well head and slowly drained the cup.
He pumped another cupful, took it to the porch and eased his sore body to the ground. He searched with the small of his back until he found the cinder block used as the lone step to the porch, and he relaxed. What would be an appropriate feast on this evening of triumph? He'd barely asked himself the question when the next thing he knew a swarm of mosquitoes were feasting on him. It was the dead of night. Half conscious, he dragged himself onto the porch and into the comparative safety of his sleeping bag.
In the morning, stiff and sore, he went into a near panic when the pump again demanded priming, and he realized that he'd not filled his buckets and canteens while the cascade o'plenty flowed. Which meant at least one more excruciating excursion to Poison Ivy Pond. He almost passed up the morning dip. But a ritual, if broken too soon, may never recover. And he staggered down to the beach and dutifully offered himself to the morning sea. The surf unlimbered his muscles and spirit sufficiently to get the pump reprimed.
After that, habit took hold and gave musical momentum to his routines. On this, the fifth day, as he staggered up the beach, the options between work and play were like the alternatives: butter pecan or maple walnut?
He'd not taken the Journal with him, nor any books or even paper for calculations. If he wanted to draw a map, a carpenter's stub pencil and a brown paper bag would have to do. He slept each night through without awakening and without conscious recollections of dreams. Sleep had become so delicious that he inculcated the habit of digesting lunch with a long nap in the shade beside the noonday sun.
His preoccupation became nails and kindling wood and copper screening and band-aids. His precautions were not to step on rusty nails; not to slip and skin his knees on the red shale blocks of the rubble mound breakwater; not to fill his mouth too full of brads; not to leave food for the thief of a raccoon. Not accidentally, anyway. His anticipations were whether the fishing line would bring in flounder or red snapper. His moral judgments were whether to smoke out the beehive for its honey when his sugar ran short or get in the Chevy and make a trip up to the general store. And pick up some toilet paper while he was at it, too.
He forced himself to depend increasingly on the sea. As a result, he discovered facts about it that were totally new to him, and he acquired knowledge he'd had neither the necessity nor the inclination to possess before now. He dug clams, trapped crabs, harvested seaweed, scraped mussels, captured squid. Hewn driftwood fueled his fire. Evaporated brine seasoned his food. Surf- polished glacier stones became his bricks; pulverized sea shells and sifted beach sand reinforced his mortar. Sun- bleached clam shells surfaced his footpaths. The sand replaced the dish pan. The churning surf did his laundry, tethered to a line. Gulls and sea life disposed of his wet garbage. But Asa loved the sea too much to insult it with durable refuse, for which he either found a use or laid to rest in a deep grave.
The bungalow had been constructed in steps by a succession of owners of unequal talent, training and imagination. Originally designed as a one- room cabin, with an large sleeping porch, the chimerical building had progressively transmogrified over the years. Tampering with the creator's vision, a later occupant had erected interior walls of 2- ply wood, then papered and painted and papered and painted over these. Asa ripped out the fake walls. He tore up strata of worn out linoleum and discovered a hand- rubbed hardwood floor. Comparatively new, and almost deferentially installed book cases, he left in place. Outside, with the claw of his crowbar, he relieved the windows of a wooden adventitia of shutters made for decoration, not for opening or closing. Back inside, he dismantled the stovepipe, took its disarticulated segments outside and scoured them outside and in with sand. Cleaned, polished, restood upon its bowlegs, the nickel- skirted stove seemed designed and built by someone wise in the thermodynamics of driftwood. But Asa found his lamps insufficient to light the interior. Therefore, he cooked outdoors and slept on the porch.
His father and brother visited him on the third Sunday. "Started getting curious," Elwood said. Raymond had his tackle box with him and went out on the breakwater to try (unsuccessfully) for rockfish. Elwood walked around the bungalow, percussed walls, raised and lowered windows, opened and closed doors and inspected the foundation. He crawled under the porch with a flashlight. "I'd put some extra bridging right under here": thump! thump! he pounded up with the handle of his hammer. The back door was a little sprung, he allowed, partially unscrewing the top hinge, inserting perfectly but almost instantaneously whittled boxwood shims, and, "Try 'er now." A rear window could use a little planing, but he thought Asa could handle that himself.
"Say," Elwood said, carefully wiping off and putting away his tools, Raymond thought he'd like to try the cheese ravioli at that there Italian restaurant up on the highway. Would Asa like to put on a shirt and come along? "How are you, son?" Elwood finally asked.
"I'm all right, Poppa," Asa replied. Then Asa called his brother and the three went to supper.
Elwood declined dessert (even though, "It comes for free with the meal, sir.") but thought he'd have another cup of coffee (even though it didn't come free with the meal). Asa tried the spumoni. Was it all right to have pistachio and spumoni, Raymond wanted to know. It, of course, was.
"I was talking with your grandfather just yesterday about you, Asa," Elwood said, but paused while the waitress set down the desserts and coffee and asked if everything was okay. After she left, Elwood continued. "He doesn't believe you can gain much more from high school. Believes you'd do well to think about college, maybe even start this summer." Asa looked down. "Just a thought to ponder, son" Elwood added.
"Say," he quickly shifted to talk about a new contract. "Big job. Army. Barracks. Lots of 'em. Take a first rate crew." In fact, Brothers Leroy and Park and half his nephews was coming out to join him. Of course, the old timers "shun anything army." Too bad, too. Because they'd cut fifteen to twenty percent off the time of the job. "Raymond'll be staying at the Overfield's. Incidentally [a word Loretta often used], I may be hard to reach at times." He took a scratch pad from his back pocket, moistened the point of his pencil stub, "Here's the address and telephone where I'll be boarding." He paused now and looked into Asa's eyes. "In case you need me, Asa."
Back at the trail into the campsite, Asa asserted that trying to back a truck around in the bad light would be too risky, that the soft sand was worse on a tire than spring mud. And he insisted that he'd walk in from the road. He was sorry about the rockfish, but maybe the next time he'd show Raymond how to bait with squid. Asa kissed Raymond and Poppa and got out of the cab. He watched and waved until his father's truck vanished up the road. Then he turned and headed into the almost- black woods.
The trees shaded out the day's remaining light, and Asa had to rely on the textural differences between the dirt shoulder and shell surface to assist his memory of the trail. Funny, he thought, how the memory usually needs prodding. Yet from only an occasional crackling percept, his mind could reconstruct the entire trail and tell him precisely where he was.
As he broke into the clearing and saw the shadow of the Chevy's cab, a round orange moon, hovering just above the black ocean, summoned his attention and interest. He hastily started a small fire and lit a few sticks of punk to discourage the mosquitoes. Then he sprawled on the ground, one forearm propped on the cinder block porch step, and he watched the sea's tantalizing lunar gem. If he could reach the horizon, he could jump up and grab the edge of that moon. And that was just what the night sea wanted him to believe. And which he almost did believe.
A shift of the wind brought new sounds into the young night: wave trains of music from a dance pavilion perhaps a mile down the road. What was it like to dance? Could he even learn? In all his life, such a silly question had never once entered his mind. Silly? It didn't seem silly, not at this moment. Asa thought of Anita. He wondered if dancing with pretty girls in Angora sweaters and shampooed hair and going for slow walks and holding their soft little hands and taking them to the movies and buying them ice cream cones and salt water taffy on the boardwalk related in any way to the fineness of his life during these past wonderful weeks. He wondered if just letting life up and happen was how the species was supposed to live. Life without abstractions. Life free of the eternal search of a purpose and a meaning that may not exist; and a chase after truth that may not be true in the first place. Life unconfounded by reflections upon reflection. Life uncomplicated by circumspection about circumspection. Life hauled off at and just up and lived as it came along. And before it went away. Like other creatures. "Like...like other people." He tried to grin at the spirited little fire. But tears blurred his vision. He'd philosophized himself into a hell. "And here I sit philosophizing on that very fact." He sprang to his feet. "Well little fire, I'm going to put you to good use while you're still alive and aglow." He bounded to the porch, rummaged out a full box of marshmallows and spent the rest of the evening roasting and eating them and thinking of nothing else but how good they tasted when the cracked brown crust was just so.
Asa had awakened several times with the tang of dream in his semi- consciousness; he'd had enough sense not to crawl out of his sleeping bag and wander into the uncertainty of the night. But now the pre- dawn chirping of birds made the return to sleep utterly impossible for him. "Don't blame them," he muttered.
Nor could he bring to the verbal surface the proximate cause of his unease. And when he realized that he was struggling just to keep his eyes shut, he got up and roamed down to the almost dark beach for an arm load of drift wood. By the time he returned and got the coffee water started, the daylight was sufficient for a dip. He undressed and returned to the beach.
The air was already pleasantly warm. The surf, exhibiting unusual calm, seemed like a recently defeated champion. Low swells broke casually and gently patted the shore in the manner of a reassuring friend, then ebbed lazily and rewound for the next easy cycle.
Asa suddenly flung off his towel, ran at top speed and, at almost flat trajectory, dove. Surfacing almost as he hit the water, he whipped the wet from his hair with a single violent flick, turned face down and powerfully sprinted up- and- over, up- and- over, up- and- over the oncoming swells, away, away, away from shore, toward open sea.
The water was cramping cold, and Asa turned to swim back. But the undertow proved stronger than the combined efforts of the landward thrust of the waves and his most powerful strokes. For every push in, the tow gave a pull- and- a- half out.
The sea has finally tricked me. Yes it has. The sea has learned something new: how to entice and beguile and lure the veteran fish into fatal complacency.
Mistake? No! No! This was no mistake. He knew the sea too well for that. Knew it as a chest knows to inhale without the conscious intervention of the will. Even his id knew that once beyond the breaker line no swimmer alive could regain this shore on any day. He was willfully here. He had thrown himself away. And if this is what I truly intend, then all I need do is NOT think. Resist reason, repress knowledge, let the primitive self assume command. And the sea will do the rest. Stroke frantically toward the land until exhaustion or cramp or panic or all sum together to take fatal hold. "And the sea will do the rest," he screamed. "God will do the rest."
But Asa Zook turned belly to the air and floated onto his back. Paddling for just enough displacement to remain high in the water, he let himself be carried seaward until the undertow petered out. Then he rolled over, set a course parallel to the shore and slowly stroked in the direction of a public beach a mile to the south. There, he again floated supine, found a good wave and rode it into shore.
A surf fisherman in waders frantically waving his arms ran down to help Asa from the water. "Mother of Jesus," the man said blessing himself, "When I seen you out there I didn't know if I should run for help or what." The fisherman removed his oilcloth slicker and put it around Asa's shoulders. "I felt absolutely helpless." The man was crying. "Are you okay kid?"
"Yes sir. Thank you."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," the fisherman's sobs transformed to laughter. "You're bareassed naked." Asa laughed, too.
The fisherman offered to give him the slicker. Asa thanked him but declined and draped himself in ropes of dry seaweed.
On the way back along the beach, intense hunger suddenly seized Asa. He walked down to the waterline, waited for a wave to retreat, and watched for the momentary telltale bubbles over the breathing holes of cherry stone clams, which he dug up, cracked open and devoured live.
Back at the bungalow, he restarted the fire. Then he rinsed his body in the well's icy cascade and put on dungarees whose worn- out legs, some time ago, had been amputated and converted into grease rags.
The goose- pimply ablution made him wish the well had a cistern in which his prospective bathing water could warm up. He didn't have the equipment or materials to construct one. Maybe, instead, he could erect an elevated holding tank, which would serve the same basic purpose. "Of course!" I can mount a hose to the pump and fill the tank once or twice a day. Wait! He could probably fabricate a shower head from a discarded tin can and rig it to the underside of the tank. But wait again! Could he realistically pump such volumes by hand? And specifically how high would the tank have to be? He used a bucket to measure the flow per thrust. Then he went to the porch, found a paper bag and attempted the calculation with algebra. But he had to make too many unacceptable assumptions. Clearly, he'd have to phrase the problem as a differential equation. He soon ran out of paper. He'd have to drive up to the general store for a note pad and some decent pencils. "And some orange juice while you're at it."
It was mid- morning when he returned, and he went out to the far end of the breakwater to fish for dinner while he calculated.
Almost as he wrote the equation, he realized intuitively that his plumbing project was impractical. But he went ahead, anyway, produced a solution to the equation and carried the calculations to numerical completeness. "I'd be doing little else but pumping water," he told the sea. He carefully inspected his work for the hint of a mistake. Then he went non- verbal again as he started the calculations from a different approach.
Finally, he admitted that he was merely..."Playing?" Prolonging the..."What? Pleasure?" No he wasn't playing, nor was pleasure the appropriate word for his feverish mental state during the calculations.
Then he realized that his fishing line was gone. "And the day has almost vanished, too. And I haven't even been hungry."
He returned to the bungalow, fixed a one- pan supper and gulped the last of his milk. Then he invented another mathematical problem. And just before plunging into the calculations, the nature of the state he was approaching occurred to him: "A trance," he paused long enough to say.
The trance persisted until every bit of paper bore pencil marks; and the heaven showed all its stars and he was too exhausted even to find his way into the sleeping bag; and...In the morning he packed and headed home.
Asa stopped at the general store for a dollar's worth of gas. Two soldiers were leaning on the Coca-Cola cooler drinking Mission Orange. "Say ole buddy," the taller of the two called to him, would he happen to be going anywheres near Fort Monmouth? Asa said he was and offered them a lift. The tall soldier squeezed in next to Asa and the short one sat with one elbow jutting out of the passenger window.
As they rode, the breeze dislodged the tall soldier's cap. Asa started to crank up his window. "Naw, that's okay," the man said. The salt air was "Jes what I need to wake my sorry ass up." He removed a flat pint bottle of Corby's whiskey from inside his blouse and offered it to Asa. The smaller soldier objected. Asa said it was all right. He did not drink whiskey. The soldier with the bottle said, "Name's Robert Pryor," and he offered Asa his hand. Asa scrunched around and accepted it. Robert came from Cleveland, Tennessee. Had Asa ever heard of it? Only on the map. Now, Robert wasn't talking about that there Ohio Cleveland. That was someplaced else. Asa said that if his recollection served him, Robert's town was north of Chattanooga. "Bygod, that is right." Say they was mighty glad for "thisshere liff." And "Ooowee," did they have theirselves "one wildassed pootang hunt lasnight." Asa know what pootang was? (He didn't.) They'd already "missed reveille. But ooowee, was it worth it."
The short soldier said "Like so much horse dick." He began coughing, his face turning purplish red as he continued: "And the fuckin' prick first sergeant's gonna bust our e- living butts back to the fuckin' infantry"; on top of which he bet that bleach blonde cunt give him a dose of the bulldog clap to remember her by; and he was fuckin' getting out of the motherfuckin' army as fuckin' soon as his hitch was up, "And that's for fuckin- A certain, bygod."
Robert Pryor chuckled softly, put his arm around the other man's shoulders and urged the bottle of whiskey on him. "Me and ole Frisco here is azehole buddies. Ain't that right Friss?" Friss emptied the bottle and tossed it out the window. Robert Pryor and the other man talked for a while, but Asa did not listen to what they were saying.
Asa stopped to let them out at the gate. Both shook his hand. Robert told him to "come on by" if Asa ever got "down around home." After the two men got out, Robert walked around, leaned into the passenger window and silently stared at Asa for a moment. "You take care now, you hear," Robert said. He turned abruptly and ran to catch up with his companion.
The afternoon would be warm, Asa judged as he wheeled into the driveway. Except for an unusual stillness, the farm seemed unchanged. Asa listened for a moment. Poppa must have sold off the pigs and chickens. And he could not hear the horses.
The back door was unlocked, but the windows were shut, and the kitchen air, several degrees cooler than outside, seemed a few days stale. Asa went upstairs.
His room looked exactly as he'd abandoned it, except that someone had expertly remade the bed. Portfolios, Manila folders, unshelved books, uneven stacks of index cards, pages stripped from magazines, items clipped from newspapers, reprints of scholarly articles piled right where Asa had set, pitched or laid them.
The shadow from the window created rows and columns of rectangles on the bed and adjacent floor. Asa went to the bed and sat at the far end so as not to ruin the rectangles. He looked about his room. It was significantly larger than the cabin. "A whole family could live in here." How I love this place. Oh Poppa! Poppa!
Book shelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling where there were no doors or windows . Asa could remember the wallpaper on the original bare wall. Poppa had built the book shelves by sections, the first to the far left from where Asa now sat, and tailored to accommodate the junior encyclopedia. Those first shelves had severely unbalanced the visual harmony of the room and had seemed very uncharacteristic of Poppa's work. But now the first section constituted a coherent visible beginning of the room's definitive internal pattern. Asa's memory plotted the metamorphosis from the bedroom of a boy to the work place of a scholar. His father had anticipated Asa's needs "Long before I did," he declared.
Poppa had recently fitted Asa's desk with an out- sized, kidney- shaped top. The top imperceptibly inclined away from the leg well, and when sitting at the desk, Asa could write without bending over. Shelving complemented the contours of the desk, and Asa could reach the lower tiers without rising. On these he kept the current volume of the Journal and his word- reference books. To the right of the desk, on a stand by itself, sat an unabridged dictionary. A hundred and eighty degrees around the spindle of an armless oak swivel chair stood a standard Underwood typewriter, flanked by deep bins in which Asa kept his research files. "Poppa, Poppa!"
Asa's bathrobe still draped over the back of the swivel chair. He stood, walked to robe and found the spiral note pad in its breast pocket. The pages were folded back, and he read the last cryptic entry, "Why no Hegel?"
Why no Hegel? For an instant, Asa could not recall the significance of the note. He had not yet read Hegel's original works, had deferred the assignment to improve his German and had estimated that it would be some months before he could give the objective idealists the same attention he'd given the Greeks and the French. Of course, he knew about Hegel from his history of philosophy textbooks. But wait!
He bounded to the junior encyclopedia and took down the volume, H. "Hedgehog...Hedin, Sven...Heidelberg...Heine..." He paused. "But no Hegel!" He replaced the H, found Thilly's History of Philosophy and opened to the chapter on Hegel. He muttered the Hegelian doctrine: "Thesis, antithesis, synthesis." Surely that wasn't too complicated for the junior encyclopedia! He gauged the thickness of the section on Hegel with his thumb and index finger. Then he made similar estimates of the passages devoted to Locke and to Aristotle. From the comparative size of Thilly's treatment, clearly, Hegel was one of history's greatest philosophers. How could Hegel be missing from the junior encyclopedia?
"That's why the 'No Hegel!'" He suddenly recalled precisely why he'd jotted the note. 'No Hegel' concorded with an entry he'd made long ago in the Journal: "Our most valuable knowledge seems to be that which adults try to set beyond the reach of children." The editors of the junior encyclopedia in some way feared and had censored out Hegel, Asa had surmised when the thought struck him. And he'd planned to figure out just what they feared on the night of...
"But not now!" he commanded. He replaced the precious Thilly and gave it a pat. "I am very hungry," he announced and bounded toward the door. But then he paused, walked slowly back to the junior encyclopedia, and, running the flat of his hand along the lubricious microlayer of dust on the use- worn spines, collectively addressed the volumes , "Dare I trust you any longer my dear old childhood friends?"
That night, before Asa Zook crawled into the muslin comfort of his own safe bed, he logged one brief entry into his Journal: "My childhood belongs to the deep."
Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved. May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.
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