Winter 1992, Volume 9.1
The Half Ship
Kate Lahey (J.D., U of Utah) is the Director of the Legal Writing Program at the University of Utah College of Law. Her short play, "Air Guitar," was produced by TheatreWorks West in 1991. She is currently working on a novel.
I woke up late in the afternoon, stumbled down the hall to the living room, and stood there for a while, watching Carolyn sip Drambuie from a teacup. After a few minutes, she ducked behind the long white curtains, pulled open the sliding glass door, and stepped out on the balcony.
I started to follow her, but I knew it wouldn't do any good, so I pushed off from the doorframe and wandered out to the kitchen, where I poured myself a glass of milk and piled a plate with some fried chicken a neighbor had brought over the day before. I carried the food back to the living room, and I sat there in the semidarkness, listening to the shuump-shuump-shuump of the freeway traffic, watching the curtains belly out like a sail.
My mother called me a week before she died. "It's your father," she said. "Another goddam woman." Her voice rose. "I told him I couldn't stand it any more, he'd have to leave. And do you know what he said? He said all right, if that's what I want, he'll go."
She started to cry. "Sweet Mother of God, Daniel, what am I going to do with a man like that?"
I promised to give my father a call; I said I'd ask him to think it over. But I kept putting it off, and four days after talking to my mother, a man called and said he was a friend of my father's. There had been an automobile accident, he said, and my parents had been killed. I can't remember the rest of the conversation. It was as if I had been sound asleep and a tremendous explosion had hurled me out of bed and slammed me up against the wall.
I flew into Los Angeles that night, a Wednesday, and my sister Carolyn arrived the next day. The funeral was held early on Friday morning. Some people came to the house afterwards, but none of them seemed to know each other very well, and there was an awkward hour before they began to gather up their purses and coats and move toward the door, murmuring so sorry . . . call if there's anything . . . terrible, terrible.
Carolyn swept back the curtains and shut the sliding glass door, closing out the sounds of the Santa Monica Freeway.
"Daniel, do you think he was drunk?"
"You heard me."
I took a sip of milk and held the cold glass against my forehead. "The doctor at the hospital said no."
"You asked him?"
"Yes," I said.
Carolyn picked up the teacup and swirled Drambuie around on the sides.
"I asked him twice," I said. The last few times I visited my parents, I thought my father had been drinking too much, and I worried about his driving.
Carolyn drained her Drambuie and banged the cup down on the coffee table. "God, this stuff is strong. Do you want some grass?"
"You brought it with you?" I asked. "You got that phone call and you just automatically packed a little dope in your suitcase?"
"Go to hell," she said affably. "Do you want some or not?"
"I guess," I said. "I think you're depraved, that's all."
She shrugged her shoulders and sauntered down the hall with her arm held languidly above her head, her middle finger waggling back in my direction.
She ducked into the bedroom and I heard the latches on her suitcase snap open. She strode back into the living room, dropped onto the couch across from me, and pushed her hair behind her ears. I watched as she slid the wrapper from a Tampax, and extracted a small cotton plug and two neat rolled joints from the cardboard tube.
"Great hiding place," she said.
"Who were you hiding it from?"
"I worry about those dogs."
Carolyn looked at me, the burning match almost touching the end of the joint. "Those drug-sniffing dogs they have at the airport."
"I've never seen any dogs," I said. "I think they just say that to scare people."
Carolyn took a drag, held it, and passed the joint to me. "There are dogs, all right. Maybe it'd fool them if I wrap it in plastic."
I thought about it for a minute. "Nah," I said. "If you're feeling paranoid, why stop with ordinary dogs? I think if you're going to postulate drug-sniffing dogs, you should have the courage of your convictions, and postulate drug-sniffing dogs with plastic-penetrating noses."
Carolyn gave me one of her drop-dead looks, but her heart wasn't in it. We passed the joint back and forth, and she curled up in the corner of the couch. She leaned her head against the cushions. The light was fading and I couldn't see her face.
"Who will you miss the most?" she asked.
"Maybe you're wrong," I said. "Maybe it happened a different way."
Carolyn forced the air from her nostrils, dismissing this idea impatiently.
"How else could it have happened?" she cried. "He was drunk, he had to be drunk!"
My parents' car had been driven off the side of the road and plummeted into a ravine. This is what the police officer said when I talked to him on the phone. "The vehicle plummeted into the ravine," he said, as if he were reading it from a report.
I handed Carolyn the last of the joint. "He was usually a pretty good driver," I said.
"Maybe he did it on purpose."
"I can't help it." She leaned forward, and her pale face with its broad cheekbones emerged like a moon from the shadows.
I wanted to go over and sit next to her on the couch, but I was stoned and my legs felt like bags of sand, so I stayed where I was.
"Are you crying?" I asked.
I sat in the dark room and listened to Carolyn cry. Even when we were little kids, it had troubled me to see her cry. I had never been able to think of anything to say, or I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, so I would just hunker down next to her and feel miserable. Her nose would run and sometimes she would send me for Kleenex.
Carolyn pulled a Kleenex from her pocket and snuffled into it. She pushed herself off the couch, crossed the room and knelt in front of the hi-fi cabinet. I could hear her open the record compartment and flip through the records.
"There's something I have to tell you," I said. "It's important."
"Mantovani! I forgot about Mantovani. Hey, and the 101 Strings." Her voice sounded far away.
"What do you want to hear?" she asked. "Is 101 Strings all right?"
I heard the record slide down the long spindle and then the scratch of the needle settling into the groove. Violin music seeped into the room. Carolyn stretched out on the couch and closed her eyes.
"I'm so tired," she said.
"Do you remember the Half Ship?" I asked. "By the cottage?"
"By the where?" She spoke so softly, I had to strain to hear her over the violins.
"By the cottage on Lake Huron. There was half a ship in the forest."
She didn't answer for a long time and I thought maybe the 101 Strings had put her to sleep. But then she said, "I can just vaguely get a picture of it. Was it gray? And wooden?"
"It was gray, but I think it was steel." I knew it was steel. I could remember the sun-heated metal against the palm of my hand. You could cut your fingers on the small sharp edges of the blistered paint.
"Mmmm," she said and rolled over on her side. She settled her head on the cushion and in the failing light, her red hair seemed to spread like a stain.
* * *
On a hot sticky afternoon in August when I was about six years old, my father came home from work early. He carried bag after bag of groceries into the house, put them into cardboard boxes, and loaded the food back into the car. He told my mother we were going on a vacation.
"A vacation? Where?" She was standing in the kitchen, her arms folded across her chest.
He said he had rented a cottage on Lake Huron for two weeks, and we were leaving this afternoon. We had to hurry up and get packed.
"All of us? Right now?" my mother asked.
"Yes, of course right now! Let's go!"
An hour later, we climbed into the car and I watched our house, our street, our neighborhood slide away in the distance and disappear. I had never been on a vacation before and I didn't understand where we were going. Carolyn and I sat huddled together in the back seat, pressed in as much by the airless heat as by the piles of clothes and the prickly slats of the picnic hamper.
For miles, nobody said a word. But finally we were out of Detroit and there were hardly any houses, just trees and fields. My father stretched his right arm along the top of the front seat. He threw us a grin and said, "Well, kids, what do you think? We're on the road!"
My mother looked at him and smiled. The sound of those words, "on the road," was so exhilarating, so reassuring, that I bounced in my seat and laughed out loud and yelled, "on the road, on the road, on the road!" until Carolyn slugged me in the arm and my mother had to hand thermos cups of lemonade over the back seat to keep us quiet.
It was night when I woke up in the car. We had turned off the paved highway and were jolting down a gravel road hemmed in on both sides by the biggest fir trees I had ever seen.
"Listen," my mother said, leaning her head toward the open window.
I could hear the gravel crunching sharply beneath the tires and the wind soughing in the trees. And another sound, stronger, and more insistent: the sound of waves surging and crashing against the beach. The car pulled into a clearing, and the crunching of the gravel was suddenly louder, then silent.
I opened the door and slid out of the car. The air was clear and smelled like Christmas trees and rain. Stretching out in front of me for as long as far as I could see, from horizon to horizon, was the lake. Miles of dark water, rushing toward me, gathering and falling, over and over, under a black sky that swarmed with a million billion stars.
I had never seen anything like it. My father rested a hand on the nape of my neck, and I felt that only the weight of his hand kept me on the ground—that without my father's gravity, I would have spun up over the waves and reeled across the sky like a meteor in flames.
* * *
"Hurry up, Daniel, or it'll be dark." Wisps of red hair had escaped from Carolyn's braids and flickered around her face. She tugged me by the hand and I stumbled along as fast as I could. The crotch of my swim suit was heavy with sand, and I had a stitch in my side, but I knew if I complained, Carolyn would ditch me right there in the middle of the forest. We were headed for the Half Ship, the front half of a gray container ship docked in the forest near the edge of the lake. My father once explained why the stern of the ship had been sliced away, and how the ship had come to be surrounded by trees, hundreds of yards from the beach, but I've forgotten the story.
We skidded around a bend in the sandy path and saw the Half Ship in the clearing, its decks open to the air like the exposed rooms of a partly-razed hotel. Just as we were about to sprint across the clearing and board the ship, we heard voices. Carolyn yanked me back into the shadows and we squatted, breathless, in a clump of chicory and Queen Anne's lace. I leaned back against the scaly truck of a balsam fir and felt the pull of resin on my bare back.
"Look!" whispered Carolyn. "Look who it is!"
My mother and father stepped from the interior of the ship onto the sunlit middle deck. They strolled along the deck, talking. They didn't look out into the clearing, or even at each other.
Carolyn jumped up and motioned for me to keep quiet. She took a deep breath and nestled her hands against her chest as if she were going to recite poetry. "Some enchanted e-e-evening," she sang, her small voice warbling and swooping on the last word. "You will see a stra-a-anger. . . "
Carolyn waited expectantly, but they hadn't heard her; they didn't even glance our way. My father was leaning toward my mother, speaking with an urgency that was completely unlike him.
My mother was tall and slender, with her dark hair pulled into a knot at the base of her neck. She wore a light summer dress and her shoulders were pink from the sun. She turned away from my father, and moved closer to us, closer to the edge of the ship. She was looking in our direction, but she didn't see us.
"Korea!" she cried, her voice singing out into the clearing.
Carolyn pulled back into the shadows.
"Milly, it won't be forever. How long could it last?"
My mother gave a little snort of exasperation. "You could get killed, Frank. This is crazy! They don't need you, you won't even be called up."
"Milly, look at me." He lifted my mother's chin and turned her toward him. "I think this is what it will take. Oh, come on, Milly, say yes."
My mother tried to pull away. "You promised to choose, Frank. If you're going to stay with us, it has to be here. You can't go away."
I turned to Carolyn, looking for an explanation. "What is she talking about?"
Carolyn chewed on the end of her braid and didn't answer.
My father held my mother's chin, he wouldn't let her look away. He leaned close and said something I couldn't hear. I thought she would cry out, she looked so frantic, but in the end it was my father who pulled back. His eyes never left my mother. She stood perfectly still, staring ahead at nothing.
"Milly!" he pleaded, but she didn't move. It was so quiet. A purple finch dipped across the clearing and into the firs. Its raspberry-colored breast flashed like a signal and then it was gone.
My father seemed to lose his balance. He stumbled backwards, his hands groping behind him. He leaned against the peeling bulkhead and closed his eyes.
Finally my mother turned to look at him. "Oh Frank," she said. She went to his side and slid her arms around his waist. She nestled her head against his shoulder. He opened his eyes and stared straight ahead, his jaw tilted back at a strange angle.
"You'll stay?" she said, "you won't go?"
My father drew his finger along my mother's chin; he tucked a strand of hair into her chignon. "No, I guess not, if you're so set against it. But Milly—"
"What?" Her voice rose high and sharp.
He shook his head and put his arm around her shoulder. "Nothing," he said. They turned and left, descending the spiral staircase to the lower deck.
I looked at Carolyn. She was huddled in the shade of the fir tree, her arms around her knees. She ran a fingernail across a resin blister on the base of the tree, and we watched the sap ooze along the bark. She stood and brushed the needles from the backs of her legs.
"Come on, Danny, we'd better go back."
Carolyn took my hand and before I had even stumbled to my feet, she was dragging me through the forest again, along the twisting sandy path. I looked back over my shoulder, but the Half Ship was hidden by the fir trees and the light was almost gone.
* * *
Six months later, my father went out to the garage one evening, held a gun to his forehead, and fired a bullet into his brain. All that autumn, all that winter, I had been waiting for something to happen, and when my father tried to kill himself, I felt I finally knew what was wrong.
He didn't die. The bullet sliced cleanly between the furrows of his brain and lodged in the fissure between the two hemispheres. He lay in a coma for ten days, but once he regained consciousness, the doctors predicted he would recover completely.
At night, when my mother returned from the hospital, she would wander from room to room, talking to herself in a voice too low to hear. Except for that first terrible scream when she rushed into the garage, those jagged whimpers when she knelt on the oil-smeared concrete and leaned over my father's body, her hands fluttering in the air like birds, I had not seen her cry.
One afternoon a few days after my father came home, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, drawing pictures of ships and bombers on a large piece of manila paper. My mother stirred her coffee with a spoon and stared out the window at the mottled sky. It had begun to snow. I could hear Carolyn in the next room, humming softly under her breath as she built a papier-mache volcano out of strips of newspaper and a paste of flour and water.
My father was upstairs taking a nap. We'd spent the afternoon playing Chinese checkers. He sat across from me on the bedroom floor in his plaid bathrobe and seemed perfectly happy. Once he even scooped up a handful of colored marbles, cupped them in the palm of his hand and held them up to the winter light. He saw me watching him and he smiled. "Isn't it something?" he marveled. "They're so beautiful!" When my mother came in and told him it was time for his nap, he didn't complain. He tired easily, and the seizure medication made him groggy.
I watched my mother swirl the silver spoon around and around in the coffee. She lifted the cup to her lips.
"Will Daddy go to hell?" I asked. In the next room, Carolyn's humming stopped.
My mother stared at me. She set the cup down unsteadily in the saucer. "Who told you that?"
"No one. But I thought—"
She pushed her hair away from her forehead and leaned across the table. "Never mind what you thought. Daddy only wanted . . . ." She turned her head and rubbed the back of her neck. "He just wanted to get away from it all."
I picked up a black crayon and drew a thick coil of smoke curling out of each airplane. The crayon rasped loudly on the rough paper.
I looked at my mother. "If he wanted to get away, why didn't you let him go to Korea?"
The spoon clattered against the table and my mother lifted a hand to each cheek. Her eyes looked as black as my crayon.
"Oh," she said. She bent forward and hunched her shoulders. A strange sound came from the back of her throat.
Carolyn rushed into the room. "Shut up!" she hissed, her face clenched with anger. She cradled my mother's head to her floury chest and glared at me.
"I only wanted to know." My voice quavered and I was afraid I was going to cry.
My mother looked up. She put out her hand and drew me to her side. She touched my lips with her fingers.
"Of course you did," she said. "You wanted to know how a man could just, just spurn his family and leave them behind." She tightened her grip around my shoulders and when she looked up at Carolyn, her eyes flashed.
"No," I said. "That's not it."
* * *
As soon as he was feeling better, my father quit his job at Ford and made plans to leave Detroit. He had hundreds of resumés printed up and he showed Carolyn and me how to staple a light blue sheet of paper to the back of each resumZ so it would look professional and make a good impression. We sat around the dining room table for hours, stuffing and stamping mountains of envelopes, and Carolyn and I felt it was partly through our efforts that he landed a job as the quality control manager for a tool and die plant in Los Angeles. The night he got the offer, he took us out to dinner and said we could order steak if we wanted to. He said we would sell the house and give all the furniture to the Goodwill. He told my mother she could buy new furniture as soon as we got to California.
The first time I saw this house, the sun had gone down, and the sky was a deep clear blue, the color of the ink we used in our fountain pens at school. Silhouettes of palm trees and lattice-based billboards sank below the horizon as our car coasted off the Santa Monica Freeway and onto the deserted streets of the subdivision.
Carolyn and I scrambled from the back seat and ran up the steps to the porch. My father unlocked the front door and ushered us in.
My mother's new furniture had been delivered earlier in the day. Everywhere we looked there were angular chairs with detachable cushions and narrow wooden arms, coffee tables shaped like surfboards, and long skinny couches that slunk close to the ground and brushed against our ankles like hungry cats.
"Isn't it stunning?" my mother asked. "It's teak!" My father glanced over at Carolyn and me, lifted his eyebrows and pursed his lips in a silent whistle.
"We're making a fresh start," my mother told us. She skimmed her fingers along the surface of the new dining room table. "The slate is clean."
* * *
Her breathing was slow and steady, and she didn't answer. I made my way across the dark living room and out to the garage. I flicked on the switch and stood in the doorway, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light. The garage looked bigger now that the car was gone.
My father's Air Force footlocker was in the corner, next to a stack of National Geographics. I lifted the dark green lid, and as always, the smell that drifted out reminded me of the basement of our house in Detroit, a damp mousy smell of cinderblocks and laundry detergent.
The top compartment of the footlocker was stuffed with odds and ends. I found my father's Purple Heart, sleek and solid on its grosgrain ribbon, a set of gold cufflinks engraved with his initials, a plastic laminated card that listed the seven warning signs for cancer, and a framed eight-by-ten black and white photograph that had been taken in Egypt at the end of World War II. The photograph shows my father standing in front of the Sphinx with a dozen other Air Force officers. His arm is thrown around the shoulders of the officer next to him and he is smiling broadly, his eyes squinting in the desert sun.
I lifted out the top compartment. In the bottom of the footlocker, next to an expanding file stuffed with tax records and clippings about the tool and die industry, was a neatly folded pile of khaki uniforms.
I unfolded one of the uniforms and draped the tunic over the lid of the open footlocker. I held the knife-pleated trousers to my waist, considering, and then I unbuckled my belt, pulled off my jeans, and slid my legs into the cold khaki pants. I zipped up the fly. They fit fine. I was still a little stoned, and I felt self-conscious, standing there in the middle of the brightly-lit garage, wearing a pair of pants my father had worn more than forty years ago, but there was a kind of offhand intimacy about it that pleased me, like sharing a beer on a hot day.
The fluorescent lights made my eyes ache and the cement floor was chilly against my bare feet. I was standing in the garage, but in some part of me that seemed too real to be only a memory, I was climbing out of the airless Mercury into the cool night, and seeing the wide dark lake for the first time—the waves gathering and crashing against the beach, the black fir trees rising up on either side of the road, and behind us the small cottage with its knotty pine walls and plastic curtains at the windows.
I remember everything so clearly. The sound of Carolyn's steady breathing, the prick of the balsam needles against the back of my thighs. My mother, who seemed so insistent and sure of herself, so determined to have it her way. And my father, unwilling to say what he wanted, unable to make any choices, and choosing, finally, to get away from it all.
He had often told me that he was a lucky guy, that he could always trust his luck, but even he could not have counted on the crazy dispensation of that bullet tunneling into the safe place in his brain. And later, my father's cheeriness, his jaunty moods, his sudden decision to leave Detroit, and his confidence in our new life in Los Angeles—nothing fazed him then. What could he have felt but a sort of dizzied relief, an obligation to test his luck?
I took the photograph and set it on a shelf next to a row of paint cans. I stared at the picture of my father smiling in the Egyptian sunshine, and I felt that if I studied his face long enough, I would be able to understand how things had turned out the way they did. But there was too little to go on, a few memories and clues, circumstantial evidence about the sort of life my father made, about the sort of man my mother held onto for all these years. She was a serious woman, my mother, fierce in her affections and so absolutely sure of her opinions that my father often claimed that she would rather die than lose an argument.
I hitched up the trousers and tapped my feet on the cement floor. The door to the kitchen swung open and Carolyn stood there, her hair wild and fiery under the fluorescent lights.
I smiled. "Have a good sleep?"
"Tell me the truth."
"I was just looking at some of Dad's things," I said.
"Here's that picture of him by the Sphinx. Look how skinny he is."
I held the picture out, but Carolyn didn't move.
"She was driving, wasn't she?"
I put the photograph back into the top compartment and closed the lid of the footlocker.
"Yes," I said. "Of course she was."