Driftwood

— William Francis Deverell

It rained so hard, the police showed up. Two cars, four officers, blue lights flashing through the rain. They stopped cars coming down the mountain, herding them all to the shoulder with rough waves. A native Hawaiian officer with a wispy goatee and a cheap tape measure in his left hand stood in his yellow slicker, measuring the clearance from the asphalt surface of the road to each car’s chassis. I thought it was funny at first, and I smiled inanely as he squatted at the driver’s door.

“This isn’t a joke, sir,” he said sternly. I read his mind. Tourists. Jesus.

“Cars get washed off this mountain when the floods come, and I might just be saving the lives of all of you right now.” My apology went unacknowledged, the policeman’s eyes flinty against the rain.

We did not pass the tape measure test.

“Not enough clearance. Turn around,” the officer ordered. I saw his name pinned to his chest I.D. tag: “Kohola” in yellow letters. I would have preferred not to do as Officer Kohola demanded, and I was tempted to protest. I heard the words come together in my head, could feel them travel to the back of my mouth, awaiting form on my tongue. But I was resigned. I drew in my breath and nodded my assent.

“It’s a monsoon,” I said.

“Yes, sir. Please turn around. Drive back uphill,” he said. “Find a place to pull over, find a wide, firm shoulder, or, if you can, just keep going up and wait the storm out. After it stops raining, wait another hour for the water to flow off, then you can try to come back down.”

I couldn’t help it. The metaphors and allusions leapt into my head as I processed Officer Kohola’s instructions. Can’t pass the test. Doesn’t measure up. Find solace and safety on a shoulder. Keep moving up, if you can. Wait, then try your best to make it. I looked a few seconds too long at the officer, wondering if somehow he had seen into my soul. He waved us on, impatient with the pause I gave to misapprehended metaphysics.

The rain mocked us and came down harder. I did what I was told. I turned around and drove uphill, the rain draped across our car the whole way, water smacking off the roof and windshield. I had never believed rain to be so audible, to have such voice, but here it was, yelling at me. First the police scold me, now the rain, I thought. The windshield wipers cooed at the water’s rage — whoosh, whoosh, whoosh – doing little to remove the rain or its anger. I squinted out a path in the center of the road atop the yellow stripes, moving uphill at ten miles an hour.

After about thirty minutes, we reached a mountainside hamlet. A grassy field doubled as a parking lot near the single stop light.

“There’s nothing here,” said Emily. “Can we please turn around now?”

“Can’t we just go back to the hotel?” pleaded her brother, not knowing that our hotel sat far below us in the storm, near where we had been tested and found wanting.

But his complaints ceased as soon as he jumped out to follow me, slamming the car door with a child’s show of force. The same was true for Mary and Emily. The rain washed them happy.

We rushed into a plywood shed with a corrugated tin roof, maybe fifteen feet by fifteen feet. Not big, but dry. We moved under the roof, dripping wet, a bit self-conscious and touristy. On the poured concrete slab floor sat a heavy kiln; grayed metal, looking fierce and old, a giant pewtered box with fire inside.

A fellow probably in his late twenties stood in the center of the room, and he welcomed us with a smile. Tattered surfer shorts, a burgundy t-shirt, obligatory sandals, his long sandy hair pulled back under a black bandanna. He held an iron rod about five feet long. It looked like a super-strong fishing pole. Given the kiln, I knew that it was a glassblower’s tool. Wrapped around its end was a glowing blob of molten glass. “Annealed,” I thought to myself, a word I knew to be about glass, but a word suddenly made logical in my life. In my head, it sounded like “I’m healed.”

He spun the rod expertly in his palms, like he was rubbing his hands together – his end of it wrapped in black tape that bulged out an inch or more as insulation from conducted heat as the glowing red glass rolled into an orb. He conversed with the laws of nature, fluent with gravity and centrifugal force.

He worked, he said, on a kiln of his own design. It had a track in the floor – ingenious – so that he could roll the glass and his wand into the heat while sitting on a wheeled chair that fit into the track like railroad car. We stood entranced, our clothes steaming a bit as they dried in front of the roaring fire.

As we watched, he made a grinning glass skull, molten and remarkable. Translucent crania seemed to be mementoes of Hawaii for someone other than me, someone with more tattoos that I have (none), someone with a motorcycle, someone with a past. It grinned at me. I grimaced back.

I bought an eight-inch whale for twenty dollars. Icy blue, it leapt from an imagined sea, body twisting. I thought it alive, sort of, a tiny glass thing bluer than the sea it symbolized. The whale made me smile, and it felt hefty and true in my hand.

The rain let up, and we wended our way back down the mountain. The kids took up their books and their phones.  Mary and I prepared for dinner. A date night, hotel babysitter soon to arrive at $15 an hour. But she didn’t show up. At 7:00, the front desk said she’d be delayed by the rain. The hotel had no one else. Mary calmed me and said all would be ok. Why didn’t I go ahead, hold the table, and she would come once the Tommy fell asleep?

The restaurant was just a few hundred yards down the beach. Mary said she’d be right along, and when I saw the heavy eyelids of our son, I believed her. I told Mary that I would go ahead. I’d have a drink and wait to order until she arrived.

When I got to the restaurant, the pretty Hawaiian hostess couldn’t find our reservation. I spelled out my full name — Linden Beech Eglin — but it did not help. Without a reservation, the wait might be ninety minutes.

“But I called,” I said plaintively to her smile. “Maybe I spoke to you?”

“I don’t think so, but I will do what I can, Mr. Eglin,” she said. She suggested that I wait at the bar.

The bar was as expected, Early American Nautical. Laminated maps of the Pacific atop tables, oars, netting hung from the ceiling, that sort of thing. I sat at the center of the bar, paired tourists either side of me. A German couple to my left, a young American couple to my right, drunk and giggling, four flip-flops askew at their feet.

The bartender was warm and just short of obsequious. He wore the expected resort employee’s Hawaiian shirt and chinos, but they seemed to suit him. About my age, I thought, though it was hard to tell. I am practiced at bar patter, but it became clear that this was somehow different, portentous even. He looked at me straight. Another word came to mind unbidden. “Beseeching.”

I ordered a beer, and as he moved down the bar, I thought of the bartender as a sentry, taking everything in, a keen observer. Something wasn’t quite right with him. Nothing glaring or obvious. Something was off. He might have been a stutterer. He chose his words carefully, speaking slower than you would expect from someone tending a busy tourist bar. Nothing most people would even have noticed. I saw it, or more accurately heard it, but I doubt that anyone else at the bar saw what I saw, heard what I heard.

We chatted. Vacations and bars loosen my tongue. I learned his name. Elijah Fiske.

“There can’t be too many Elijah Fiskes in this part of Hawaii. Or any part of Hawaii?”

“You’re right. That’s an accurate insight,” he said with a kind of studied chuckle. He stumbled on the second syllable of “accurate.” It came out as “acc, acc, acc u rate.” He was a stutterer.

“Where do you come from?”

“Right here,” Elijah Fiske said.

“Maui?”

“Fifty yards from right here.” He tapped the shellacked bar twice with the knuckles of his left hand. “I grew up in the house next door.”

I wanted to know more. But I was also a little wary of myself, afraid to pry. Aren’t the customers supposed to pour their stories to the barkeeps?

I finished my beer. “My name is Linden. What should I drink here, Elijah?”

“We make the best mai tai in on the island, probably the best in Hawaii. No one makes them like we do. Most bars ir ir ir irep irreparably ruin them.”

“Really?”

That seemed a stupid reply, but irreparably? “How do they ruin them?”

“A thousand ways, all having to do with sugar. Or worse, syrup. Too much sweetness is a mistake; the flavors need to fight inside the glass. The ice tries to keep the peace, but the sugar should always lose.”

I’d never heard cocktails described as struggle.

“A mai tai is meant to be bitter.”

“Like life?” I said and immediately regretted it. Bar talk, cheap irony.

“I guess so,” Elijah said, and I thought I could see sadness in those eyes.

I ordered a mai tai. It arrived, sans umbrella, darker than I would have expected, a chunk of pineapple snuggled hard against the ice.

It was bitter all right. Lime juice, yes, but something else, too. It went after my eyes first, which teared up instantly, and I wondered if Elijah Fiske had played a joke on me, barkeep retribution for my dumb line about the bitterness of life.

He’s looking at me, but his eyes and mouth betray nothing. The sour drink lines my mouth and drops into my throat, but then the taste recedes as the rum rises in warmth and just the right amount of sweetness. The combination is instantly heady.

I sense redemption from my faux pas. “Intoxicating, truly. Not like any other I’ve had. So how does a man named Elijah Fiske end up in Maui?”

I should have minded my own business. But my curiosity was real, the mai tai was remarkable, and I was in my element.

“At the risk of caricature,” he said with a faint smile, “it’s a long and complicated story.” Only he said it as “it it it it is a lon lon long and complicated store story.”

“I’ll have another one”, I say.

The drunk couple to my right slid their feet into their flip-flops. The man put two fifties down for a $47.00 bar tab as they left. The Germans finished their drinks and were shown to a table. It was just me and Elijah Fiske, or so it seemed. He filled drink orders, but he did so with dispatch gained of experience. We talked more. When I told him that I was from New Haven, he said that his family came from the Connecticut coast.

“I am named for my great great grandfather,” he said, “and everyone in between.”

Bitter mai tai in my right hand, I count generations by bending the fingers of my left. It takes all of them.

“You are Elijah Pine Fiske the Fifth?” I say.

“That’s me.”

“That’s a lineage.”

“He was a whaler,” Elijah says.

“He was a man at sea,” I say. I worry that I’ve shot my mouth off again. But Elijah does not signal insult. I think of his ancestor. Bearded, that’s a given. New England pea jacket, heavy boots. Laconic.

“Forty-one years at it,” Elijah says, as he pulls another beer from the tap. “They say he was –” he sets the beer down and lifts his fingers up in scare quotes — “the g g g grea grea greatest, wh wh wh whal whal whaler of all ti ti ti time.”

“Who calls him that?” I ask.

“The Encyclopedia of New England Whaling,” Elijah says. “He has a whole ch ch ch chapter to himself.”

“What makes him the greatest?”

Amidst the busyness, Elijah turns serious. He tells me that the conventional metric is a simple one: time on the water. Elijah the First sailed from his Connecticut berth aboard the Delight 15 times in his career. He always came back, two or three years later. Once he was gone six years. He held his first captaincy at twenty-two, and came back from his last voyage at sixty-three.

It happens again. “A man at sea,” I think to myself, and I know I am right. Like me, though I’m neither whaler nor sailor and never will be.

Elijah Fiske V takes the measure another way – greatest whaler means most deadly. Elijah Fiske V has made a study of the whales. He’s researched the Delight’s cargo each of those 41 years. He thinks nearly 500 whales were taken. Taken in brutal pre-Civil War whaling fashion. Going for the calves, drawing the mothers in, killing them all, stripping the blubber while the whale, dying in agony, is lashed to the whaler. Boiling it down, rendering it into cask after cask of whale oil. Lighting, heating, and lubricating pre-petroleum America, enabling the Industrial Revolution, and pushing a beautiful mammal to the edge of extinction.

My third mai tai is bitterest of all.

 

Mary arrives. I am pleased and a little disappointed. I want our dinner to pull me out of the water, but I also feel like I could sit with Elijah for another hour. My ambivalence fades over line-caught mahi mahi and light conversation about the children. Mary looks beautiful, her eyes deep and dark (“limpid,” I think, trying to channel Melville out here in the Pacific, thinking of Elijah the First).

Mary’s eyes looked mysterious, even after twenty years of marriage. I am living the dream, I tell myself. We talk, we laugh, and, on the way back to the hotel, we hold hands like we did when we first met. It feels good. “I love you, Linden,” Mary says to me at the door to our room. “Take care of yourself,” she says out of nowhere, which makes me want to cry.

I stayed up after Mary fell asleep. Puttering about, I took my whale from its box and began to wrap it for travel home.  I had some bubble wrap from the glassblower, and I used it with exuberance, enveloping my whale over and over again, and strapped down with tape for good measure. The hotel bar fridge yielded three little bottles of rum. I drank two as shots and lingered over the third with one ice cube.

Drunk at midnight, I walked down to the ocean under the Milky Way, inexplicably bringing my wrapped whale with me. It felt good in my hand, heavy and proud. As I stood in moonlight, I peeled off the tape and the layers of bubble wrap, put those in one pocket of my shorts, and the freed whale in the other.

I want to say I was happy drunk, vacation drunk. Carefree drunk, even though I could hear myself correcting the assertion. You drink three toy bottles of rum precisely because of cares, not because you are free of them. But I was on vacation, and I told myself, at least I was a contemplative drunk. I thought of Mary, of our eldest as babysitter to her brother, of Elijah the First and Elijah the Fifth, of the three Elijahs in between, of Hawaii, of our trip and of our trip home.

I thought of my life as a melancholy piano solo, fading here and there, sustained in echo, cascade of pathos, lonely but connected all at once. Not so sad, I thought to myself, and I believed me.

Drunk talk, I guess, especially once I felt the tears come to my eyes. Bitter? No. “Not bitter!” I say out loud, with an encouraging smile at mouth’s edge, thinking of Elijah and his claims on the power and the meaning of bitterness. Sour? No, not sour, and I wonder where and how does bitter give way to sour, and where do they both capitulate to sad? No slurry of words for me except for the smiling “not bitter!” exclamation, steady on my feet, sharp enough to know that driving this night would be a bad idea. “I didn’t drive here, officer,” I say aloud. And I add, even more ridiculously, a “Kohola” coda. I stand as darkness and silence crossed over one another and became one, save for the tide in whispers and rhythmic lapping.

I sat on a concrete bench yards above the tidal apex. Stars fell into the ocean at the horizon. I thought of bartender Elijah, and then I thought more about Elijah Fiske I. I sighed, heard myself do so, and added an audible “hmmm.” Two, three, sometimes four years out at sea, his only obligation to kill whales and bring what was left of them and his crew back to New England berth. I thought of his wife pacing to and fro on a widow’s walk atop some Mystic home long gone, looking east out to sea, wondering about her husband 5000 miles in the other direction, another ocean.

“Lydia,” I said in stupor. “Her name could have been Lydia. It was Lydia.”

“Widow’s weeds,” I said, thinking atop that Mystic house. “Bonneted.” And I feel a smirk tug at my lips as I try out “Be-Bonneted.”

I remember curling up on the cold bench, my arms wrapped around me in a cold hug, I drifted off, and then I was awake.

The moon now nearly at moonset, about to take its turn at dipping into the ocean. I slide my feet out of my sandals and dig my toes into the sand. The waves do the same, tiptoeing to shore in the waning light, pattering softly as they lose the energy imparted them by the dying moon. The sound is soothing. I’m still drunk, and I think I might nod off again.

Wait. But there’s another sound, and I slowly come more alert as I puzzle over it in my stupor. A gull? Not likely at this time of night. A kind of machine sound, high-pitched, whistley. What is that? It’s coming from the ocean itself, and I think it might be a dolphin or, I wonder, is a fish caught on a fisherman’s line tied to some driftwood stuck in the sand? No, I tell myself, fish don’t vocalize. I’m waking up. The whining sound is constant, metronomic. It’s almost a wheeze, not loud, but drawn out, mournful. It tugs at my eyes the same way that first mai tai did. I hope that I’m dreaming, though I know I am not.

There, in the last vectors of moonlit splitting the sea into rays light and dark, a person? Half lost in darkness and half in water. My eyes adjust. I see him. The backlight of the moon shadows his profile. I have a sudden wakeful confidence.

A man is in the Pacific Ocean.

This is eerie, but I am not frightened. I am on shore, and he, whoever he is, is in the water. Another man at sea, I tell myself, a smile at my lips. He cannot be a real threat, standing in the ocean, arms raised above his head. I see him. He cannot yet see me, as his back is turned to the shore. He isn’t bathing, he isn’t swimming.

It dawns for me. He’s moaning or crying. That’s not quite it. He is keening. The sound lifts up and out, deeper and bolder. I realize with a start and a shiver that it sounds like whales communicating – high, erratic sine curves of mammalian acoustics and sounding, haunting, rising up, coming down, otherworldly, incessant, beautiful.

That thought, and now the noise itself, scares me. The man in the water, silhouetted and backlit by the barest of moonlit, starts to look more like a ghost, fading in and out in the barest light. I hear myself mumble, more of a whisper now, “app app apparition,” and I know now that it is Elijah Fiske who stand waist deep in the Pacific Ocean before me. But I wonder, is this Elijah I or Elijah V? Is this 2015 or 1840?

 

Giddy, dizzy, and now stricken, I sleepwalk into the black sea. It has begun to rain, light and soft. I feel the paperweight heft of my glass whale in my shorts, and then a roguish little wave hits me at mid-section. I struggle to stay upright, soaked and clumsy. The weight in my pocket gives way, and my whale is resigned to the salty ink of the Pacific. A whale at sea, the crystal leviathan at home, and it feels somehow right.

“Swim, whale,” I say to the water and to my little talisman.

Of course. It is Elijah V who stands in the Pacific Ocean with his back to me.

“The unaccountable Elijah,” I hear myself say. I know what he is doing. He is grieving the whales. Decade after decade, dead whale after dead whale, killed, eviscerated, boiled in this very water. I don’t know what comes over me. With no rudder, I’m suddenly in the ocean, fully clothed, now not so drunk to blame what I am doing on to rum.

“Linden,” Elijah shouts. “I knew you would come.” He does not stammer, and I notice that.

It has come to this. Me and Elijah Fiske V, up to our bellies in saltwater, saturated by the past and by the Great Ocean, an hour before dawn, one hundred and seventy-five years after the first Fiske commenced the slaughter. There is no stutter to Elijah’s weeping. It is fluid and lovely. It is perfect, and I follow suit, comforted by the homonymic redemption that I feel as the past makes its inevitable connection to the present. Arm in arm, our tears falling with the rain into the ocean, baptized in shared anguish, wailing until the dawn carried us to the day.

 


 

William Deverell is Professor of History at USC and Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He has published stories in Exposition Review and Angel’s Flight—Literary West.  His 2016 story, “Evangel,” was nominated for the PEN-Robert Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.