A Short Story
At the beginning of the pandemic, Russell Pym had been indulging a new reading obsession, “all things flu.” The possibility of sudden, arresting lung failure, of drowning in his own fluids, of dying at age 27, all of that worked like a steel rasp grating away at the soft pine in his fear centers, in those corners of the soul where sink holes reside next to clowns with razor teeth. He began telling his friends case stories of horrible flu deaths, sparing no mucous, blood or tissue-rot along the way.
So when Covid actually broke out, Russell was more than ready to embrace every glove, mask, shield, surface disinfectant and life change proposed, even though, before all of this, Russell was not even a mild germaphobe. He was a boyishly attractive video production type, something of a wizard, with a reputation for getting the product out quickly. His puppy-like curiosity and concentration had earned him the affection of more than one winsome young woman. He climbed mountains; he surfed; he went on long horse camp rides to unplug. He was normal, in other words.
But human beings sometimes seek, and are sometimes overtaken, by new ideas and fears that have a way of re-shaping their vision of the world. Such was the case with Russell. He knew he was changing, and being changed, but the intellectual and habitual pattern of the thing had a kind of monkish merit all its own. He felt the holiness of denial. After months of isolated living, limited travel, studious distancing, he had settled into a new kind of self, a judgmental kind of self – the sort of self that sits on the far exterior corner of the outdoor patio restaurant, making note of Covid violations and insisting we talk through mask and visor at a distance of 12 feet, more or less yelling at each other.
Our story begins here..
“I’m a friend of your father’s,” I said – raising my voice to be heard. It might have been awkward in any other setting, but the last guests on the patio dining area were leaving. We were alone.
“That’s what you said,” Russell said, “How do you know dad?”
“I’ve known him since he was a baby,” I said. “We go way back. I was around during high school, college, the army; I was there the day you were born.”
The waitress brought out a club sandwich, double wrapped in cellophane, and a diet coke. Russell opened the visor obliquely, lowered his mask, took a bite, and then covered himself back up again.
“He’s worried about you,” I said.
“Why’s that? And why can’t he tell me?”
“I don’t think he knows how. He just worries about you. Take my word for it.”
Russell saw something he didn’t like on the table in front of him, took out a disinfectant wipe, and cleared it away.
“Well,” he said, “Why couldn’t this be done over the phone? No offense, but it seems a little weird.”
I looked at his visor, the mask, the surgical gloves on Russell’s hands.
“It is more than a little weird,” I said.
Russell must have sensed something judgmental in the tone of my voice. “It’s a pandemic,” he said. “Precautions are in order.”
“It must be fatiguing,” I said.
“All the sterilizing routines.”
“When you consider the alternative, coughing up snot and blood into a ventilator, it seems like a small price.”
A family walked into the courtyard and was shown to a table just out of ear-shot.
“Nice work, pops,” Russell said, looking over at the parents. “Walk through the entire restaurant without a mask on.”
“And that there,” I said. “Is what’s worrying your dad. He thinks you’re getting obsessed.”
Russell did another visor lift, took another bite of his sandwich. “I love my dad,” he said, “but that’s just more Boomer weirdness. How many times do we have to say it? People are dying.”
“Any of your friends?”
Russell paused. “Friends’ parents, grandparents. A co-worker.”
“Sorry to hear that. It must be tough.”
“I wasn’t close to any of them, but that’s another thing that bothers me. We’re not supposed to care about this until death walks right up to our cage and gives it a personal rattle?”
“Maybe it’s the lack of bodies in the street,” I said.
“I mean, in other words, it’s not like a medieval plague. Millions of people die every year, but the only focus this year is Covid. We haven’t ever gone into lockdown for, say, the flu. We don’t call each other with flu death stories. We don’t collectively fear diabetes.”
“Whatever. Looks like we see this thing differently. Is there something specific my dad wanted me to know?”
“Well. He wants you to be strong enough to..”
The distance that Russell demanded, as I said, meant that I was yelling, and I didn’t think I could go on with what I had to say at that volume.
“Do you mind?” I asked, “if I sit a little closer?”
“I guess what I mind doesn’t matter.”
I edged in a little. “Your Dad. Let me back up. Your dad is 75 years old, Russell, and the last time I talked to him, he was chopping firewood. He had two chords of the damned stuff piled up at the cabin. Barely breaking a sweat. He still swims that big pond up there, in APRIL. I can’t imagine how cold that would be. He’s practically breaking ice. Did he tell you he got in a fight over at Smitty’s?”
“No,” Russell said. “Wait. Vaguely. What happened?”
“..knocked a biker to the ground, so hard his friends backed off and went to the men’s room. Your dad, listen to this: he broke the thick end of a pool cue over the guy’s head.”
“The guy was slapping his girlfriend around.”
“Sounds about right. But what does this have to do with—”
“Isn’t it becoming obvious?”
“Russell, your mother is gone three years now. Your sister, no offense, but..”
“Right. I get it. So what am I supposed to be strong for?”
“He wants the old Russell back.”
“The horsemanship. Those pack trips you take. The surfing. The commercials you produce. He’s got a wall of honor. Pictures of you all over his basement study. He wants grandchildren, Russell.”
“So he sent you to.. what?”
“He’d probably be happy with ANY Russell. Old or new. And He didn’t exactly send me. I started talking about producing a commercial and he gave me your card.”
“Even more weird,” Russell said, actually pulling off his visor to breath. “So what is this?”
“Russell,” I said, “when you hear a man’s prayers, when you see a strong man broken with worry, where I come from – you have to do something.”
“How is it,” Russell asked, “I don’t even have the slightest memory of you? You know about the cabin, my mom, my crazy sister, my job, but why don’t I even remember your name?”
“Your dad was born in 1946. He went to McKinley Elementary, graduated third in his class from Westridge High School, earned Congressman Little’s appointment to the Point, served two tours in Vietnam, prospered after retirement, married Lauren Mills, had two children late in life…”
Russell sighed. “You can look that shit up anywhere these days. Who are you??”
“You should probably brace yourself,” I said.
He shifted in his chair.
“I know things, Russell. I know that when you were a little boy and you had bad dreams or someone picked on you, your mother had a habit of holding the rim of your t-shirt collar in her fingers, rubbing the seam in a circle, to calm you. She’s the only one in the world who ever did that.”
Russell coughed on something. I continued..
“I know you broke one of your father’s cameras. Dropped it. Put it back on the shelf. Never fessed up. I know you left $1800 in a friend’s locker – Haydn Turnbull’s locker. He was worried about his old man’s health insurance, and you paid it, and you never told anyone.”
Russell’s eyes widened. I went on.
“I know that you put rice in your sister’s shoes. I know that you hated peas. You begged your mother not to put peas in anything. I know that on the top of a ridge, out there on a pack trip, alone, by yourself, you were so depressed you thought about taking your own life.”
Russell sat back in his chair. He began looking around, as though for air, or escape routes.
“If you’re like most people,” I continued, “you are fighting off a little panic; you are wondering about schizophrenia right now. You’re wondering about that acid you tried at Coachella a few years ago, and you’re thinking it might be another trip. You’ve been alone for the last 10 months, and you wonder if you’re losing your mind. You’re about to stand up and walk out of here as though I’m not here, right?”
Russell stood up, waved at the waitress for a check.
“But, see, Russell, I’m not leaving. I’m going where you’re going.”
In Russell’s car, ten minutes later, I took the passenger seat, removed my mask and visor, and fastened my seat belt.
“You’re not here,” Russell said.
“You didn’t go on that last pack trip to unplug,” I said. “That’s what you told everyone, but it wasn’t true, was it?”
Russell gritted his teeth, rolled down the window, threw his mask in the back seat.
“You went on that pack trip to be away from every other human voice on the planet, right? You were seeking ultimate, final solitude right? You thought it might be easier, or explainable, out there in the cold, right? And you were thinking about Bailey.”
Russell hit the steering wheel a few times and then sighed. He appeared to know he was in for something.
“Bailey,” I said. “A woman almost too good to be true, right? Remember those sweaters she used to wear? The little pearl buttons? The knap of the wool? That milky embrace of hers? Hunting down dinner ingredients in the grocery store after work? Holding a lock of her hair in your hands, on the couch, her head on your knee?”
Russell’s eyes were moist. “Stop,” he said. “Please stop.”
“You have to hear this, Russell. Everyone loved her. Your dad loved her. Your mom loved her. Your friends loved her. YOU loved her. She was perfect, wasn’t she?”
“Why are you torturing me?” Russell asked.
“Wrong word, Russell. Not torture. Healing.”
I remained in the car when Russell reached his apartment, and then startled him, a few hours later, as he was pouring whiskey into his coffee in the kitchen. He nearly dropped the bottle on the floor.
“Sorry,” I said. “I should announce myself.”
Russell stared at me as though he could will my disappearance. He closed his eyes and re-opened them.
“Still here,” I said.
The next morning I caught up with him in the park. He shuddered and tried to out-walk me, but I kept pace with him and grabbed his arm when he nearly stepped out into traffic.
“I’m on your side, Russell.”
A few nights later, he was glued to a Covid news update on television and when the reporter cut to an epidemic expert, I played the part of the expert, dressed in a white lab coat, braying away about case counts and recovery rates and double-masking.
“You see, Russell,” I told him the next morning, as he ordered a mocha, “your problem isn’t Covid. It’s life.”
He walked out to a park bench. I followed him.
“Bailey,” I continued. “It wasn’t the same after that, was it?”
“Russell. Please. You’re insulting me.”
“Yes. It’s hard to even name, isn’t it? It’s so ugly an act, such a raging abomination, we hate to wrap it up in a word. We hate to dignify it with language.”
“A man and woman,” I continued, “who love each other can make it through many trials, but the death of a –”
“What–” Russell interrupted. “What do I have to do to make this go away?”
I stood up and walked off. “You can start,” I said, “by not killing the messenger.”
A few days later, Russell was taking a zoom meeting. Production issues. A new face popped up in the matrix. Mine. Russell looked up at the ceiling and shivered. One of his colleagues asked him, “what’s wrong, Russ?”
I repeated that question to him, over dinner that night. “What is wrong, Russ? You’re not eating as much. Look at that. Pitiful. One cup of sautéed mushrooms. Is that it? Is that all you can get down?”
“What do you care?”
“I care,” I said. “A lot. I was out there on the ridge that night. I jammed the gun. I got you back to camp.”
Russell pushed the mushrooms away, got up and took the last of the whiskey off the shelf.
“The look,” Russell said, “on Bailey’s face. I can’t. I just can’t shake it.”
I got up to leave.
“Where are you going?” Russell asked. “You’re leaving NOW?”
“It takes time,” I said, “and hurt.”
I left him alone for a few weeks. He tried to throw himself into his work. He increased his Covid vigilance. He had a single, awkward call with his father – small talk that made it all worse. Colonel Pym, Russell’s Father, proposed a deep sea fishing trip and Russell skirted it, blaming work and Covid.
“Work’s one thing,” his father said, “but it it’s this damn Covid bullshit–”
“Don’t start, Dad. Sounds like a super-spreader event. Twenty Five guys on a boat for 36 hours together, no one wearing masks. Don’t ask me what I really think.”
A good conversation, a wise man once said, is a gift from God, but a good conversation between father and son can be a kind of miracle. Between these two, however, over the years, there had been a wealth of miracles. Colonel Pym hadn’t picked any particular course for Russell, seeing the child’s strengths early on, and trusting his judgment. He could set expectations for Russell without hovering, and in Russell’s case it paid off. Russell was a fast study, a hard worker, and so it was easy to sit back and watch him collect trophies. They took whatever common interests they had – technology, the outdoors, whiskey, politics – and ran with them, instinctively avoiding religion and philosophy and family.
So when Covid came along and Russell entered the virus monastery, Colonel Jack took to Smitty’s a bit too much. He missed his son. Even phone calls were getting weird. Smitty’s Bar was on a back road in a friendly rural jurisdiction. They opened up a tent for show and went right on serving drinks inside. It was a place for old men to ponder billiard tables, old flames, and the teetering American empire, winding down with Frank or Van Morrison on the juke box.
“He says he’s doing it for me,” Jack said, “this Covid lockdown shit.”
I knew what was coming next, and I agreed, so I remained silent.
“Two weeks, fine, four weeks maybe,” he said, “but who agrees to wrap themselves in plastic-wrap for the duration, with no end in sight?”
Jack surveyed the room and shook his head. He tapped his beer glass for another round.
“Takes the wind out of the sails,” I said, “watching fear take root in the young.”
“That might be it,” Jack said. “I can take a lot, but there’s something about seeing depression and caution in people under thirty that flat-out unnerves me. And so many of them. Mass surrender.”
He whispered. “Even these kids here at Smitty’s. These losers give me solace. At least they’re alive. No masks. Girlfriends.” He paused. “Except for that little dirt-bag over there. I swear if he pushes that girl one more time..”
And we know where that went. It is, as I said, a friendly rural jurisdiction. Everyone confirmed Jack’s version of events and no arrests were made, but spry old Colonel Jack went home that night and cried out to the Lord, for the first time since Vietnam.
“So your son produces commercials?” I asked him, a few weeks later, knowing the answer already. He gave me Russell’s business card–but you probably know by now I didn’t need that to find him.
I caught up with him on a tree lined street, lined with carob or jasper trees, one of those neighborhoods people should thank their ancestors for having the patience to imagine. The canopy of shade, in the late sunset, the parquet of lawns, the modest, gentry tastefulness of the architecture – Tudor and Craftsman and Greek Revival – felt quietly monumental. A child, in the distance, was wildly over-watering a patch of daisies.
Russell sat in the driver’s seat. He was startled when I opened the passenger door, but he appeared reconciled to conversation. He looked beyond the magnificent, cedar-shingled structure next to the car, towards a two-story cottage down the driveway behind it.
“She had a knack for this sort of thing,” he said. “Finding bargains to live beyond her means.”
“Her kitchen,” I said. “Amazing for a granny flat in this neighborhood.”
“It seemed to me,” I said, “something like a Victorian green house kitchen—mullioned windows, cast iron skillets, old world tile and all of it up there in the upper reaches of the avocado trees. Magic stuff.”
“Music,” Russell said, “and cooking. That’s what we were about..” His voice trailed off.
“Oh, no,” I said, “more than that, Russell. MUCH more than that. That’s just the savory seasoning. What you and Bailey were about? That was promise. That was possibility. The shrew-bitches of your era sell men short. We take comfort in what the eye offers up, but when you’re cooking a meal with a young woman like Bailey, there’s a part of you that is reaching forward. Yes, when she brushes by you and giggles, and you feel that tingle, it’s not just about the bounty of the maid and the summer light. It’s about all the summers you could have. It’s about sixty years from now, telling your grandchild a story by the fire. There’s a kind of eternity buried in a summer romance.”
Russell wiped his cheek and bit his lip.
“She had this way of making the end of the work day a kind of festival.”
“Of course she did,” I said.
“I was an ass,” he said.
“Of course you were.”
“I never gave her any reason not to do it,” Russell said, “I let her make up her own mind. I got the sense she wanted me to make the decision, she wanted me to make the counter argument.”
“Of course she did.”
Russell sighed. “It’s all so obvious to you, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is. The big truths are obvious to anyone not doing their level best to run away from them.”
Russell drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “And, then, after that, it all went to hell. The cooking and the music and the beach runs weren’t as light anymore. Everything got very heavy and grim.”
“That’s what happens,” I said, “when you make a mutual compact with death. It’s like a big iron cloud that never leaves.”
Russell took off his mask.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked. “Aren’t you afraid of a ventilator?”
“You’re not real,” he said.
The next morning, Russell got a big dose of real. He was logging video footage in his apartment when his cell phone rang – an unknown number – for the third time. He picked up. It was his father.
“Russ,” he said, “Thank God. I don’t have my cell phone. I’m up in the mountain community hospital. I was having trouble breathing. Lost my sense of smell a few day ago. I can still taste stuff though because this food is for shit.”
“Dad?” Russell asked.
“Doesn’t sound like you.”
“I’m a little hoarse. My throat feels like a camp fire right now. I just wanted you to know in case you call my cell and I don’t pick up. I’ll call you back. Kind of winded. I’ll call you back.”
The line went dead..
Given what Russell had just been told, I decided to knock this time, instead of startling him.
“You,” he said, opening the door.
“Me,” I said.
“This is the kind of idiotic shit we’re dealing with,” Russell said. “People not taking the pandemic seriously. If they did, my old man wouldn’t be struggling for breath in two-stripe hospital.”
“Right,” I said. “If everyone wrapped themselves in plastic and agreed to die of poverty, we could reduce the Covid numbers.”
“Go to hell,” Russell said.
“There isn’t much time for that,” I said. “Things are going to proceed a little more quickly from here on out.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Bill Speck and Wayne Borowski,” I said. “Those names mean anything to you?”
Russell paused. “Army buddies of my dad’s?”
“Right. This is where I get sorta real. Remember the things I know, Russell? They made a pact a few months ago, your dad and those two. If any of them got stuck in a hospital, over this Covid thing, they would break them out. It was a booze-driven promise, but there was some merit to it. They all agreed to die on the ocean, fishing for albacore. Your phone is about to ring. It will be Borowski.”
In the car a few minutes later, Russell was furious.
“No,” he said, talking on his cell to retired Major Bill Borowski, “it is NOT okay by me. I’m heading up there. I’m the closest family member. No, you will NOT get my blessing on this. Are you trying to KILL your friend; is that what this is?”
Russell hung up.
“Just curious,” I asked. “Now that your father is on death’s door, are you re-thinking your Thanksgiving decision?”
“Your dad wanted to grill a few steaks and steal a round of twilight golf, and you claimed family gatherings were not a good idea.”
Russell didn’t answer.
“Happy about that? Happy about turning down the tennis match? Happy about missing his birthday party at Smitty’s?”
“He probably CONTRACTED the damn thing at Smitty’s. If there is any justice in this world that dive will be shit-canned by the county.”
“So decisive,” I said.
“Pretty amazing how decisive we can be when we can blame things on someone else.”
It was a long night and a long drive. Colonel Pym’s friends were very resourceful, and they arrived there before we did. They claimed military privilege, authority to transfer Russell’s father to another hospital, and they bamboozled the night staff into releasing him. He wasn’t on a ventilator, just fevered, and Bill Speck had some oxygen issues himself, so they hooked him up on Speck’s rig and drove him off to the port. A few hours alter, when Russell arrived, his father was on the road, long gone. After scolding the hospital staff, Russell got another call from Borowski in the parking lot.
“Russell,” Borowski said, “I’m texting you our location. We’re all going for bluefin. You can come along or not. You have three hours.”
At the port, two hours later, Russell ran from boat to boat, looking for any sign of his father. It was about 1 AM at that point and several of the boats had already cast off, so he appeared relieved to find Borowski in negotiation with two women on the dock.
“Only if you bake butterscotch cookies,” he told the women.
“We’ll bake anything you want,” one of them said.
“Russell!” Borowski yelled. “These ladies are short order cooks. Should we take them along?”
Russell bent over, put his hands on his knees, and lifted a visor long enough to breath. “My dad,” he said. “Where is he?”
“Below deck,” Borowski said, “Asleep. Don’t wake him up.”
Russell and I boarded the boat. Behind us, Borowski continued negotiations.
“Personally,” he said. “I need counseling. Someone to listen to me. Are you good listeners? Do you like board games?”
Russell shouldered his way past a dozen fishermen drinking beer on the top deck and found his way to the bunk room, where, contrary to Borowski’s report, Jack Pym was reading something on his cell phone.
“Russ!” he said, coughing. “You made it.”
The skipper, over the intercom, announced a departure in ten minutes.
“Just in time,” Russell said, “to get you off this thing.”
“It’s not that bad,” Jack said. “I’m breathing. Watch this.” Jack took a deep breath, held it, and then coughed a little. “I couldn’t do that yesterday. They wanted to keep me another four days, but I told them to go to hell.”
“Um,” Russell said, “you don’t see 36 hours with three dozen dudes in close quarters, out of cell phone range, at the mercy of a charter boat captain, five miles off Mexico as a kind of problem in your condition?”
Just then one of the women Borowski had been talking to leaned her head over the hatch and giggled.
“Fantastic,” Russell said. “Call girls too. This is a Covid triple nightmare. If you don’t leave with me, I’m calling 911.”
“Russ,” his dad said, working his way out of the bunk. “Don’t be an ass. Stay or go I’m going.”
Russell paused to think.
“And they’re not call girls,” Jack said. “Don’t be stupid.”
“What are they?”
“Some of the captains let the guys hire locals to work the galley and make drinks. That’s it.”
Jack adjusted his visor and looked up the stairs. “Okay, listen, dad I think this is, in the history of all bad ideas, right up there. I think you should let me drive you back to the cabin, or the hospital.”
Russell took a deep breath. “Then I’m out of here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Out on the gangplank, I held Russell back for a minute.
“What if he does die out there?” I asked him.
“I can’t help it if my old man is mule stubborn.”
“Think forward a couple of days. Imagine being called back here to claim the body and talk to his friends. You would have missed your dad’s last 36 hours on earth.”
“What if I die?”
“Russell, you are 27 years old. You aren’t dying of Covid.”
“What if I give it to them?”
“Does it look like they care? There isn’t a mask on that boat.”
Out on the dock, the ship’s horn blew. They were about to cast off.
Russell sneered at me and turned back to the boat.
A few hours later, he was sitting on a bench just outside the galley, watching the sun come up, with the Coronado Islands somewhere in the distance. The swell of the water and the thick smell of bacon on the grill hit him by surprise and he lunged for a five gallon bucket.
“You may want to just stow that mask and visor for a while,” I told him.
Russell pointed to a Covid sign on the galley wall and distance markers on the deck.
I laughed. “Seriously? Does it look like anyone cares?” A few fifty pound blue fins had come up over the side already and the guys were shoulder to shoulder on the rail of the boat. We hit another swell and Russell very nearly didn’t get his visor up in time. After he took care of business, he took off the mask and the visor and took a deep breath.
“Sea air,” I said. “Salt and bird feathers and kelp and little specks of star fish. Breathe it all in.”
Jack Pym took a seat next to his son. He cracked a beer and the yeasty belt of the brew sent Russell to the bucket again, but he came up dry.
“No one agrees with me,” Jack said, coughing, “but beer gives me sea legs. I get more sick when I’m sober.”
The drink girls — Brie and Bannon — were taking orders.
“Are you sure,” Russell whispered, “they’re not…I mean, they aren’t dressed for fishing.”
“I know,” Jack said. “Isn’t it grand?”
Jack smiled at Brie in the distance.
“Deep sea fishing,” Jack continued, “is one of the last places on earth a toxic male can be good and toxic, but, no, those are nice girls. I know the skipper.”
Brie walked by.
“Hey darling,” Jack said, “Maker’s Mark for Russell here.”
Russell looked unsure at first, but he took the drink when it arrived.
“She,” Jack began, looking at Brie, “reminds me of..”
“Who?” Russell asked.
They both went quiet thinking about Bailey. Russell took a drink.
“Sorry,” Jack said.
Russell looked around. “Is there some place I can wash this thing out?”
Bannon, the other girl, sat down on the bench next to him. She had dark blue eyes, big flaxen hair, black leggings and a tight black sweater. “I’ll do it for you,” she said.
“No,” Russell said.
“Happens all the time. I’m used to it.” And she was off just like that. Her boots looked too big for her, Russell thought, or maybe they were just the only part of her that wasn’t absolutely form-fitting.
“What a sweetheart,” Russell said.
“You thought they were hookers,” Jack said, “but they might be angels.”
Borowsky and Speck wrestled a big fish over the side, unhooked it, and joined the company.
“Whatever happened,” Bill Speck asked Russell, as he sat down, “to that girl of yours. Bailey?”
“Complicated,” Russell said.
“We don’t talk about it,” Jack said to Bill.
“She tried,” Russell said, “to commit suicide.”
“No!” Borowsky said.
“Got interrupted by her landlady. Kind of a miracle. She had the rope up around a beam. She was climbing onto the chair when the door opened.”
Everyone fell silent, and you could tell Bill Speck was looking desperately for something else to talk about, but Russell kept going.
“After that, she got some help, but she disappeared, and she let me know she didn’t want to be found.”
“Okay,” Borowsky said, “well, I’m so sorry, Russell. That just sucks. That’s awful.”
“My fault,” Russell said.
Russell finished his drink. “Sorry,” he said. “I wouldn’t normally confess all that, but, dad here getting sick, and mom’s passing, and Bailey disappearing. And Covid. And work drying up. And my sister in and out of rehab. Can I just say it? It’s been a shitty three years.”
The group fell silent.
“I think I remember what I was going to say,” Bill Speck said.
“We need another round.”
The fishing was good. The day mellowed out and heated up a bit; the sea got a little glassy. Brie put on some music. Some of the fresh-caught fish went on the grill, and the afternoon rose up above the morning’s sadness. There was lemon and butter in the air and the smell of Bannon’s perfume as she danced. She had pulled Russell up off the deck bench and close to her. He had a bit too much, to be certain, but the confession left him feeling a bit lighter, and he let his Covid-controls ease off. He could feel Bannon’s breath on his neck as they slow danced.
“First dance,” Russell said, “for me since Covid.”
“You’re kind of a sad one, aren’t you?”
“You might as well wear a sign around your neck,” she said. “Bad week?”
“Something like that.”
He was feeling all talked out, but he registered a longing he hadn’t felt in some time: he didn’t want the dance to end. They circled around the deck a few times, a few good twirls, a hug or two. Russell closed his eyes and allowed himself a micro-sleep. He was startled to hear her voice again.
“Okay, cowboy,” Bannon said, “time to release me. Music’s over.”
The older men chuckled.
For an hour or two, Russell let himself drink, and sing and dance. His father took a turn around the dance floor with the girls, and the ship made a wide swing around the islands, in search of more catch. When the sun went down, Russell found himself a bunk below deck – a stretch of hot green vinyl, likely teaming with Covid. He grabbed a blanket, curled up, and slept like a child after a long day in the sun.
A few hours later, something gnawed away into his dream, a sound of hissing and panicked voices. Russell woke to see Borowski and Speck, standing over his father’s bunk, trying to get the little portable oxygen machine working. Russell swung out of his bunk.
“Can you turn it up?” Borowski asked.
Jack’s mouth was gaping open. His color was unnerving.
“There,” Speck said. “Try that.”
“Much better,” Jack said. “Much better. Leave it like that.”
“What happened?” Russell asked.
“He was wrestling with a fish, and then he had trouble breathing.”
“I’m fine,” Jack said. “That’s perfect. Perfect. Let me talk to Russell, guys. I’ll see you up on deck.”
The two looked at each other, then climbed the stairs.
“I told you this wasn’t a good idea.”
“Yes, you did.”
Russell slid down to the floor, his back to the bunk.
“You said something about Bailey,” Jack said, “I’ve never heard before. You said it was your fault.”
Russell took a deep breath. “I think it was.”
Father and son were silent for a moment. There was some truth in the air that felt too delicate, and personal, to reveal in detail, and then Jack broke the silence.
“Was it?” Jack asked.
Russell coughed and took a deep breath. “It’s been driving me crazy. I have a special friend these days. A visitor. A bad dream or something. I’m losing my mind. He tortures me with Bailey, with the memories, with the abominable act I never protested. She was looking to me for some sign of direction, some – you know – indication that we were long term. I went AWOL. She went through with it and I don’t think she had any idea what it would do to her.”
Jack was quiet. “Safe, legal and rare,” he said.
“I’ve never told you this,” Russell continued, “obviously. But that last pack trip. I was out there on my own and it kept hitting me: there are good things in this world, unspeakably good things. Bailey’s daily adventure. Cooking and dancing with her up in that treetop kitchen. The way she made mom laugh. I took that..”
“And I broke it.”
Jack appeared to consider a protest, but he just took a breath.
“Out there on that ridge,” Russell continued, “the only thing that came between me and eternity was a dirty clip. The gun jammed.”
Jack coughed and caught his breath. “Russell. Russell. There’s something you can’t know until you’re a father, but I was going to try to tell you. I can remember – you must have been eight or nine – and you saw this rock tumbler in a store. Every time we went back there, you kept running to that aisle to see if it was still there, and then your birthday came along and I bought it for you and you started smoothing out agate and hematite and amethyst and anything you could find and I got to thinking ‘he didn’t get that from me; I’m not into shiny rocks,’ but Russell, seeing that, the light in your eyes, the joy it gave me..”
Jack closed his eyes, grit his teeth.
“I knew,” Jack continued, “you would always be okay, because you were alive. You were interested. Curious. I’ve never had any doubt about people who had interests, who were curious. I never worried about you. Far from it. What you just said? There are incredibly good things in this world? You were my good thing.”
“..and then Bailey left. You had a cloud over you. I could see it. I didn’t have a good feeling about that pack trip. And this Covid shit came along, and I haven’t seen you for 10 months and I’m not ashamed to say it, I got down on my knees.”
Russell shifted on the floor. “What did God say?”
Just then, Wayne Borowski came barreling down the stairs. “Hate to interrupt, but we have a problem. Skipper says the bilge pumps are shot, all three of them. We’re taking on some water. They want us up on deck.”
Russell had been watching a seam of moisture near the wall growing in size as they had been talking, but he didn’t think anything of it. He stood up.
“Dad, can you make it up the stairs?”
“Think so. I haven’t been using the oxygen for a few minutes.”
When they got above deck, a crew member was counting heads and life vests.
Russell did a slow 360 visual. It was dark. He didn’t see a light anywhere on the horizon, except for some haze in the sky near Tijuana or San Diego.
“Not good,” he said to himself, under his breath.
Bill Speck was studying his phone and looking worried. “We’re at least 8 miles from shore,” he said, “and I’m not seeing any other charters out here. I thought that was SOP: these guys go out in groups of two or three.”
“Standard Operating Procedure.”
“I uh,” Wayne said, “got a look at the engine deck. Not good.”
“We can’t be more than 20 miles from San Diego,” Jack said, taking a seat on the bench. “This has to be heavily travelled water.”
“I’m not getting any bars on my phone,” Bill said, “Just the GPS.”
“Me too,” Russell said.
“Not to be a drama queen,” Wayne said, “but the first mate guy, the guy in the straw hat, said they were having radio trouble. I think they had some sort of weird electrical surge. There was a pop and a flash while you were asleep. I’m wondering if they can even get a May Day out.”
As we were considering all of that, the ship’s horn began roaring and then failed, as all the lights flickered and then died. Someone on the far side of the boat punctured the silence with the words, “now it’s getting fun.”
The skipper came out on the deck. “Stay cool, guys. We got a May Day out. There’s an expedition ship with our coordinates.” He pointed towards the stern. “Keep an eye towards San Diego, there, a notch or two above that haze.”
The first mate positioned himself on the stern rail with a flare gun. Bri came down behind him with a cardboard box, and ripped it open. They began launching them every two minutes or so and passing out hand-held flares.
“Is it just me,” Russell asked, “or is there a tilt to the deck?”
“Right,” Bill said, “we’re listing a little.”
“Radio’s back!” The captain yelled. “We’re looking for the Paramela. Research vessel. 160 meters. She’s got a Zodiac launch.”
“I was thinking,” Wayne said. “If it all goes to shit, we lash two of those big coolers together, put Jack on top, and the three of us raft him.”
“You’re serious,” Jack said.
Bill and Wayne started in on the project, as though to prove themselves, but by the time they had secured the two coolers together, worked out their knots, someone spotted a light on the horizon.
“Three miles,” Jack said. “That’s about when you can see a ship appear on the horizon. She’s got to do at least, what, 20 knots. She’s maybe ten minutes away.”
They fired another flare, and within a few minutes someone with binoculars could see the Zodiacs being launched.
As rescue ships go, you probably couldn’t find a much better vessel than the Paramela. She was Dutch registry, contracted out to a Canadian university, flush with climate change funding and vastly over-crewed. The largish cafeteria deck had been rushed into service with socially distanced seating and the charter boat refugees were all given clean blankets, double-masks, visors, a bottle of water, and a little package of rice cakes and carrot sticks. A woman who looked like she could have been Greta Thunberg’s older sister addressed them with a hand held microphone.
“Welcome,” she said, with only the hint of a German accent, “to the Paramela. My name is Birgit Fischer. I a member of the Paramela’s health care team. We are sorry for these circumstances. We are now working with the authorities in San Diego to return you home as quickly as possible. However, since the Paramela operates under United Nations standards for Covid safety, for the safety of our crew, we will be administering a rapid-result Covid test. We appreciate your help in getting this completed as quickly as possible.”
Borowski shifted in his seat. “Oh, for shit’s sake.”
“What happens,” Bill said, “if we test positive? Do we get to go to Easter Island too?”
Ms. Fischer didn’t appear amused by the question.
“With respect to your own positive tests,” she said. “You will of course do as California public health directs, but the test in this case is for our crew’s benefit. We will face different protocols, on board, should any of you test positive. So we ask that you please cooperate with the medical team as they arrive momentarily.”
I leaned on a wall next to Russell. Jack was sitting near him, dozing off, wrapped in his blanket, the little oxygen machine purring on his lap.
“I’ll talk,” I said. “You can listen.”
Russell looked over at me. It wasn’t quite a smile, but he appeared content to be next to his father and out of danger. The doors opened at the end of the room and three medical team members walked in, dressed in full PPE gear. They were all carrying nothing but tablet computers.
“This is just the preliminary question round. 42 People on the boat. Ten minutes of medical questioning. Three workers. That’s more than two hours just for the preliminaries.”
Bannon stood up, tightened her blanket and walked towards Russell. She slid a chair next to him and gave him a shoulder bump.
“Young lady,” Ms. Fischer called out. “Please observe social distancing.”
Bannon scooted her chair a few inches away.
“Two meters,” Ms. Fischer said. “Thank you for cooperating.”
“The German,” I said, “is lying to you, Russell. This won’t be quick. You’ll have two hours of questioning about where you’ve been the last few days, your temperature, your breathing patterns, and then you’ll have a two hour round of testing, two hour round of waiting, and then, since this became sort of international, some actual TSA stuff before the ferry comes out to take you back to San Diego. And that’s only if Jack doesn’t have a temperature.”
The evening wore on. Russell was out of cell phone battery. He had nothing to read. The rice cakes were flavorless, the Covid test annoying, and the one thing that gave him any comfort, Bannon wanting to sleep on his shoulder, was quickly policed and terminated, twice, by Birgit Fischer. Towards morning, a new team of PPE-clad nurses came in, made a bee-line for Jack, and gave him a temperature check. One of them was rolling a wheel chair.
“Mr. Pym,” one of them said. “We need to take you to sick bay.”
“No,” Jack said. “I’m fine.”
“You have a temperature of 100.2, Mr. Pym. Your test was positive. Protocols require..”
“Listen,” Jack said. “I know you’re trying to do your job, but I want to get on that ferry and go home. Understood?”
“Colonel Pym,” Birgit said, “we’re holding up a $70 million dollar research mission to properly evacuate. We don’t want this to go on any longer than you do. We can’t transport you, positive and symptomatic, on a ferry with the other rescuees.”
“Mother of—,” Jack said. “Okay. On with it. Let’s get this damn thing over.”
Russell stood up to follow.
“I’m afraid,” Ms. Fischer said, “you’ll have to stay here or get on the ferry.”
“What?” Russell asked. “I’m his son.”
“Covid policy requires –”
“He’s my dad.”
“I know how you feel.”
“No, you don’t know how I feel. You made these people sit for eight hours, AFTER AN OCEAN RESCUE, just to satisfy your protocols. And now you’re isolating my father. How could a soulless fuck like you know how I feel?”
“Sit down, Mr. Pym. We don’t want to have to call security. We can force you off the ship with the others if we have to.”
Russell gritted his teeth and made a fist in his pocket. He was counting to ten. Bannon threw her arms around him, in a way that was half comfort, half restraint.
“Please no hugging,” Ms. Fischer said. She didn’t turn around, or unlock eyes, until Bannon released Russell and stepped away from him.
In the distance, Russell’s father was being wheeled away and the door shut behind him.
An hour later, a ferry from San Diego pulled up next to the ship and the bluefin deep sea revelers prepared to leave. Bill Speck and Wayne Borowski were glum with apology. Brie and Bannon gave Russell long hugs.
“Hang in there, sad man,” Bannon said, and kissed him on the cheek.
“I’m glad,” Wayne said, “we Shanghaied you into coming. Your dad has a wing-man now.”
Russell stood on the deck, in the mid morning, as they all left. When the ferry pulled away, a deep loneliness settled over him. It was real, but comic and bizarre at the same time. Why was he longing for odd little band of merry-makers?
I took a place next to him on the rail. “It’s strange,” I said, “isn’t it, that a fast and furious friendship, over pickles and beer and dance and peril can be as poignant almost as an entire century with family.”
For the next three days, Russell had to endure visits every three hours from Birgit Fischer. The ship was on the move again. No, Russell couldn’t visit his father. Yes, they would find some port from which they could both return home. Yes, everything was being done to help his father. No, he could not visit him. Russell was given a cramped state room and thoroughly bland, thoroughly healthy vegan food. The Covid routines of the ship were an exponential version of the Covid routines he had set for himself, just a few before days before, but they didn’t feel holy anymore, or productive. They piped an image of his sedated, intubated father to him over a flat panel, and they appeared to be extraordinarily proud of their humanity for arranging this.
“Can’t I just go sit with him?” Russell asked.
“For your safety, and the safety of the crew,” Birgit said with her acid compassion, “we have to say no.”
“He was alert,” Russell said, “even combative, when you rolled him off and now he’s sedated, too fragile to transport?”
“You and I don’t make these decisions, Mr. Pym. Experienced medical professionals with years of training make these decisions.”
The ship’s culture, as near as Russell could tell, was dominated by a grinding routine of best-practice pandemic response. The tuna boat rescue (referred to in shipboard communication as “the incident”) had exposed the crew to 12 Covid positive tourists, one of them symptomatic and now in sick bay. Meanwhile, Russell was in a kind of law-of-the sea administrative stranglehold, with no advocate and nothing to do but wait. It felt, frankly, like a kind of criminal sentence for his own Covid zeal, and watching the “incident” give missionary fervor to these delicate climate Puritans, well, it worked a complete cure in him. He began laughing at the twice-daily Covid reminders, and wishing he could get his dad’s take on all of it.
Somewhere off the coast of Panama his father died, and Russell was given the news; arrangements were made to fly them both home. Russell quietly settled the estate, took up residence at the old cabin, and took long walks in the woods. He became something of a regular at Smitty’s.
I left him alone. He was up to something. The sacrifices has been made, the pain felt and confessed. It was a bit like planting a new seed in the ground. You just had to see whether it would sprout.
So picture this two years later: three people are playing twilight golf, against the rules, racing to stay away from the course night marshal and the irrigation crew. They are laughing their way back to a wood burning stove in the woods. You’ve never met Jack’s sister, but she has a room there. It’s summer. Corn on the cob. Filet Mignon. Wine. Music.
I come out of nowhere.
“You,” he said, smiling.
“Me,” I said. “Didn’t I tell you I was on your side?”
“You did.” Russel sighed. “Thanks for rattling my cage.”
He walked off into the kitchen, where good things were happening. Sometimes even I get emotional. Russell was rubbing his wife’s big belly.
“Love you, Russ,” she said.
“Love you, Bailey.”