Neptune is Dead
It had been three days. That’s around 250, 000 seconds, close to a quarter million victories, and with each tiny conquest I felt myself moving closer toward defeat. At the splintered edge of that third day I was beginning to feel desperate, tight-chested and gutless, waiting for the arrival of the nameless dread that had been scratching at my windows and snuffling at the door frame. I distracted myself by wandering aimlessly from one meaningless task to another. I resolved to just stay busy, pecking away at the piles of unfinished work that crowded my writing desk, committing to chores that didn’t need doing because they had already been done. I cooked enough food to feed twenty people, chopping and boiling and mixing with a fractured focus that only seemed to compound my agitation. I ironed, I vacuumed, I did laundry. It was when I started dusting my vertical blinds that I started to worry.
And then the phone rang. “By the Seaside” sauntered across the Harold Arlen standard I had playing in the background. It was crawling up on midnight, which would make it nearly 3:00 his time. Not good. Nothing positive ever comes out of a 3:00 a.m. conversation.
But, irritated by the guilt of ignoring him yet again, and desperate for distraction, I tapped the green button.
A wheezy sigh. Yeah, it was going to be one of those conversations full of auditory traffic jams and delayed responses. By now those neurons would be too banged up to coordinate the 70 or so muscles it takes to form a single word. And a 3:00 a.m. call meant many words. This was not going to be pleasant.
I took a deep breath and tried to sound casual.
“What’s going on?” My hands were already sweating.
I could see him sitting at that old kitchen table, a hulking mass of knotty pine, rough and unevenly planed, that he had picked up at a yard sale. Years ago after he retired, he had hammered his Budweiser into the table, told me half-jokingly that he wanted to build his own his coffin out of the table. His callused fingertips had worn the insignia smooth after years of tracing the contours of the eagle and the trident, years of remembering that which could not be forgotten. He would perch himself like an old, sick vulture in a straight-back chair, peering over that beak-like nose of his at the dirty floor that he had told himself every morning he would sweep by day’s end. That floor hadn’t been swept in five years.
“Got some good news today from the folks down at the VA hospital.” Another pause for a dose of the old medicine to taxi along the gizzard. “They’re gonna take me off the blood thinners tomorrow. Won’t have to give myself shots in the stomach anymore.”
My turn to pause while I weighed the consequences of reminding him that he had read off of that cue card nearly a dozen times over the past month. This was the part I hated, the fucking rigmarole. But, as always, I stuck to the script.
“That’s great.” I couldn’t even manage an inflection. It was the best I could do.
“Yeah.” Neither could he. We had drowned pretenses a long time ago, were now just tiredly rowing back and forth across a scummy basin that continuously contracted and yet grew deeper. The act didn’t have to be convincing at this point. It just needed to be done until there was no room left to row. I figured he would let me know when that time had arrived. “Figure I can finally get some work done on this old place.” The metaphorical possibilities of that sentence nearly threw me into a fit of caustic laughter. “Maybe do some sight seein’.”
My eyes followed my hand as it ascended toward the cabinet above the stove, brought it down just as my fingertips made contact with the cold, brass handle. I wasn’t sure if I was up to rowing tonight.
“Hey, ’member that old mining pit we found lass year?”
“The one out by Lovelock. Yeah, I remember.”
He didn’t say anything for a few moments. I almost thought we had lost the connection until he continued.
“Yeah. That was som’thin else.” I looked at the cabinet defiantly. Fuck you. “Was thinking that I’d drive out there tomorrow. Poke around a bit.”
I felt something uncoil in my chest. Something warm and spiny. The clock on the stove read 11:11. And suddenly there were tears in my eyes.
I slumped forward and let the oars slide slowly from my hands. “Dad, you know I love you, right?” Folded up on the wooden sternsheet he gazed into the brackish water that clung to the hull, his hands folded in his lap, one bony leg draped over the other. He was wearing that wry smile of his, the one that he only shared with me. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, his brittle chest barely filling the loose flannel shirt draped over his emaciated frame, and his smile broadened. “You won’t be needing that anymore.” He nodded to the sheaf of paper in my hand.
When he opened his eyes they were sparkling blue. Those same eyes that assured me everything would be alright as the doctor set my arm after my biking accident when I was seven. Those same eyes that told me how proud he was when I made the JV football squad. Those same eyes that apologized when he explained why he had to leave me and my mother. That shed tears during my wedding. That gazed into the eyes of his first grandson. That stared into my mother’s eyes as she took her last ventilated breath. That assured me everything would be okay after the accident that would leave me without wife and without child. The depths those bright blue eyes had plumbed, the fathoms they had traversed . . .
“Yeah. That was som’thin else.”
My hand was moving up toward the cabinet now with purpose. Not now. Not like this. It was too soon. I wasn’t ready. Wasn’t ready!
I had the bottle in my hand.
“Son.” The word was gentle but strong. A firm hand on the shoulder, a warm embrace.
“Dad . . .”
“Son. I need you to do something for me.” His voice was clear now, resonate with a hardened conviction that could only last but a few moments. I was momentarily stunned into silence, my grip on the bottle so tight I thought I would snap the neck right off.
“I need to take a rest. Get my strength back. Yup, figure that ‘ole mining pit would be good to see again. Lots of history there. Nice an’ quiet.”
“Dad, please . . .”
“Son,” his voice wavered. “Son, I need you to dive deep. Deeper than you’ve ever gone. You’ll find it. You will. But don’t drown yourself like I done. Breath, son. Just breath.” And just like that he slipped over the side and was gone.