Father’s Day

The Thinker by Rodin

This original work of fiction was first written in 1981 for my mother, long before I met my wife or had any idea I would be a father. I was all of 24 when I wrote it. It has been revised a few times since then, most recently in 1993. I know one grown man who said it made him cry. It may be the best work of fiction I have every written. I should write more fiction. Enjoy. (c) 1981, 1988, 1993 by mark@occams-razor.info.

His vision was breathtakingly real.

His heart pounded. His heaving chest, anxious for more air, throbbed in furious pace with his heart. He felt the bite of cold metal bars sear his hands. A crisp Fall wind on his face felt like a peppermint in his mouth. He was hanging, hanging from parallel bars. His hi-topped monotoned sneakers fell like deadweight toward the wrinkled blacktop of the playground below.

Suddenly he was up to his ankles in water. He walked slowly up a sparkling brook bounded by grassy knolls. A lock of his dark curly hair swayed back and forth in front of his eyes as he walked. He looked through the water and found his feet were tightly buckled inside a pair of black galoshes. They carried him slowly upstream, disturbing sediment and minnows where he walked. A powerful undertow made his every step slow and laborious. He raised a boot to move forward but the current nearly made him lose his balance.

Now the brook vanished. His heavy eyes cast a sleepy glance over a windy and snow covered suburban street. His torso was warm despite the arctic weather, thanks to a new wool sweater beneath his husky overcoat. But his uncovered head offered no comfort from a savage northerly wind which flowed through his hair. “Crimeanetties! It’s cold!” his boyish voice said. There was nothing he could do but stumble forward with both gloved hands buried deep into his coat pockets. He wondered how long he could negotiate four heavy textbooks in the crock of one arm before they spilled onto the snow. He forced himself forward again. If only he had remembered his stocking cap! A tear involuntarily emerged with the full force of another gust on his face.

He was in school and inside it was gloriously warm. Even so he found himself pressed against a radiator grate. Its heat desensitized him to the frightful noise from his arriving classmates. A cold, half opened eye noted his fourth grade teacher, Miss Devonshire, hunched over her desk grading papers. He glanced out the window. Row upon crooked row of townhouses wound around the nearby hills like a terraced garden. Virtually all of them put out a trail of white smoke into a frosty blue morning sky.

A cry from somewhere … shrill … insistent. He turned away from his class, only for a moment.

It was too late. They had grown. Their half-innocence, their soft-as-cottonball faces were supplanted by long chins and studious expressions. Their hair was much longer and unkempt. But it was their clothes which really seemed strange: bell-bottom trousers for the boys and tightly wrapped miniskirts for the girls. And beads, lots of beads draped around the neck. The boys had long and powerful legs with huge bony feet stuffed inside suede shoes. Their legs flopped out from beneath their small desks and into the aisles.

It was incongruous to keep hearing this muffled but insistent crying…

So he stepped back.

For an indefinite moment he was delicately suspended between two worlds, both real. Each had the firmness of a cobweb. In one world Mary Alice Jordan was fiercely scratching her leg above her sandal strap. In the other an unfocused eye dimly read a luminous dial saying it was just before two in the morning.

Someone next to him was slowly turning in bed. From far away a shrill cry was piercing the silence. His wife was turning in bed again. Her semi-conscious hand fell comfortably over his shoulder.

The crying was continuing, distant but still insistent.

“Honey. It’s your turn.”

Snap! The cobweb gave way. He was sitting on the edge of their bed, his two bare feet apathetically but dutifully planted on the floor.

—–

Gary Howell had no intentions of settling down. He had dated many women but he felt both intimate and distant with them. For the most part his dates were satisfied with simple things like heartfelt whispers and passionate embraces. They never mentioned the word “love”, which suited him fine. He had plenty of school ahead of him. He had no time to fall in love.

But there had been special moments. One had been a moonlit summer stroll with a coed named Wendy along a quiet wooded path close to campus. His third date with Evelyn Offenbach recalled only the heady rush of manliness he felt when he rushed around the front of his car to snatch her door open. Once, for one fleeting and terrifying moment, he believed he was in love with Evelyn. But the feeling passed.

His first date with Sara Ann Coughlin had been an afterthought, a way to pleasantly unwind after concluding a tedious project at the lab. Sara struck him as an over-average sort of lass, and therefore an ideal date. Fun to be with, but no fuss. Her jet black hair was inordinately curly. She had a lean frame, deep sunken eyes and a too pointy nose. And Sara Ann had absolutely no taste in clothes. She preferred muted colors, rumpled sweaters and clogs (when they were in season.) Perhaps it was her consistently dismal apparel that made him think she was at the brink of poverty. That or the way her heels had become so worn she stood crooked.

During the dinner one of her false eyelashes made an unexpected appearance in her salad. Gary found himself trying to restrain a laugh and not succeeding. Sara gasped then threw her arms up in mock dismay at her horrible faux pas, much like an actress of the silent screen. Then she smiled sweetly, straightened herself and deftly removed her other eyelash. “Gary, you’ll have to forgive me. I will never be very good at being pretty. And I keep swearing I’ll never wear these things again. This is why, in case you’re interested!”

On their next date they journeyed to the cinema where they shared a large bucket of popcorn and each other. Their buttery fingers inadvertently found each others in the darkness. Instantly Gary forgot the movie. All he could think of, all he could feel was the joyful press of her hand in his. It was small and delicate hand and somehow familiar. Like Sara herself. It seemed impossible to remember any time so fantastically far in the past that she had not been there.

Their dates were riotous fun. They joked, they poked each other in the ribs, they pigged out on ice cream cones at Baskin Robbins, they talked, Lord they talked! But not often in words. A thousand lovely and delicate feelings were spoken from a mere sideways glance or a broken sentence. Some part of him was infuriated with Sara for causing this elation within him. He was a confirmed bachelor, dammit. He was studying for his Masters Degree, and it was good that Sara was graduating so he could concentrate on his studies. But a day apart from her was an eternity. A few minutes between classes doing something as dopey as holding hands sent him overflowing with energy and his spirit soaring.

How could it be that he could be so enamored by a woman, such a plain woman, as Sara Ann? So swiftly she grabbed hold of his heart yet so gently that he was hardly aware it was happening. The girl of his dreams was supposed to be tall and intellectual and refined. Sara Ann was none of these things.

He was not in love with her.

Oh god yes he was hopelessly in love with her.

In time his feelings did lessen slightly as familiarity set in. But they never went away. And one day he was surprised to find himself saying that he loved her, and she smiled shyly back and said she loved him too. He knew of no reasons to marry her except that he loved her and wanted to always be with her.

And even after a marriage and a child nothing really dimmed their magic.

—–

Until he discovered his mortality.

His death was something he had always been intellectually certain would happen someday. But he did not worry about it because he had never felt old.

There had been warning signs. Getting married was in itself a sobering experience. It had been very strange to suddenly be referred to as “her husband”. When Sara announced she was pregnant he spent the better part of a week trying to accept the fact that he was capable of something so fantastic as reproduction. Adolescence had clearly come to an end.

But this feeling was altogether different. It was so powerful it caught him in mid stride as he ambled down the boardwalk by the lake. For a terrified moment he thought he felt his heart stop. Then it began to race abnormally. An involuntary shiver shot down his spine. His prescription bag spilled onto the dock. He stood for one long and painful moment hardly able to move with one hand cupped over his palpitating heart. From his brain the message was urgent and insistent. You are getting old, Gary. And you are going to die.

This is silly, he thought. I am still young! I am only twenty seven! But the message was overwhelming. You are getting old. You will die someday.

On a bench overlooking the lake, amid the squawk of the ducks and the splattering from the fountain, he grimly forced himself to do the arithmetic. He had lived over a quarter century; a full third of his life was over and unrecoverable. What he could remember of his past seemed squeezed into his brain with the brevity of a Fox-Movietone newsreel. The lesson was obvious: the rest of his life would fly by just as fast, maybe faster. And there was nothing he could do. He could not even slow it a bit.

“I’m not getting old,” he decided uncertainly. He stumbled forward, almost forgetting to retrieve his prescription. Alone in his living room, sunk deep into the loveseat, he stared blankly out into the cluster. The room was quiet although he was dimly aware of the chirps from the birds behind the open window. He was alone. God, he was so alone. He wanted Sara’s caresses on his cheek, he wanted to be held tightly and told that he was special and he was loved and especially that he was not going to die. But Sara had gone with their daughter Vicki to the pediatrician and would not be back for hours. And he also knew even Sara could not really help him. Nothing was forever, not even Sara.

His heart continued to race for a long time. But the utter terror of that moment would never completely go away.

—-

“Gary. Please. The baby.”

With considerable effort he got on his feet. One hand firmly clasped the nightstand to secure his balance. With a conscious lunge he moved through the darkened bedroom and hallway and into his daughter’s room.

He cautiously lifted his child into his arms, subliminally aware of the press of her hot and vibrant flesh against his. He stroked her on the head while she continued to cry. “Don’t fuss. Bottle’s coming soon, I promise. It’s okay. It’s okay.” With his free hand he found her formula and placed it in the microwave. The timer rang. He tested its temperature with a dollop of milk on his hand. Just right. Into her tiny mouth. Her crying finally abated into grateful swallows.

Now they were in their darkened living room. Vicki was cradled in his arm busy swallowing her formula. There was a delightful pattern of moonlight on the carpet, otherwise the room was as dark as it was quiet. What little light filtered through the trees seemed as soft and gentle as his daughter’s suckling. She was then as he would always remember her: close and snug against his chest. In the dark room she was mostly hidden deep in the shadow, yet there were hints of her angelic appearance. He could make out faint impressions of her tightly sealed eyes and her small pouty lips. She hugged the bottle so gratefully.

And — how sweet! — she placed one hand around his small finger. She knew him even at six weeks: the man who gives her food, the kind gentle man who hold her bottle so steadily, the man who loved her so dearly: her father.

Father. He expected for a moment this thought would again unleash the terror of his mortality, but it did not. The gentle press of his daughter’s impossibly tiny fingers overwhelmed this morbid reflection.

It was two-fifteen in the a.m. and time had finally frozen. Just my daughter and I, he thought. The silence was as beautiful as a symphony. The oddball hour was curiously invigorating.

And as he sat nursing her he suddenly felt the warmth of his Mother’s arms and the moist, half-forgotten press of her lips on his cheek. How many years had that been? How long since she had died so suddenly? He was not sure; he knew it did not matter. Mom was here now. He sensed her gentle kiss again, now on his forehead.

He withdrew the empty bottle from Vicki’s mouth and gently smothered his daughter with his own gentle embrace. She reached forward and pawed at the stubble on his cheeks, but his abrasiveness did not seem to frighten her. Suddenly she was full and wanted to yield to instant sleep. She did not want to be put over her father’s shoulder. She was oblivious to her own burping and the stream of saliva flowing onto her bib. She fell asleep in mid pat.

At length she was back into her crib. He gave her a gentle kiss on her forehead. Would she someday remember too?

“Gary? How is she?”

“She’s fine.” Their words were swallowed up by the silent walls.

“Umm, did she take her formula?”

“Uh huh.” He slipped between the sheets again and unconsciously snuggled up to his wife. Oh! The press of her warm flesh against was still lovely to feel!

The silence and her warmth yielded to sleep.

And slowly he felt the cobwebs of the other world again and he had returned.

If Aubrey fought Hornblower, who would win?

The Thinker by Rodin

Ah, the heroic British Navy captain, circa early 19th century or so. Back then, at least depicted in fiction, British sailors were real men who lived extremely virile lives at sea. Sailors survived on weevily ship biscuit, endless amounts of salt beef and salt pork and, when necessary, rats. In command was their heroic captain, always sailing under admiralty orders. Much of naval life back then apparently consisted of dreary tasks like blockading the coasts of England’s many enemies. But occasionally it involved engaging an enemy ship in fearsome battles that often left many dead and gruesome numbers of wounded.

As popularized in modern fiction, readers can enter this world principally through two authors. The first was a gentleman named Cecil Scott Forester who wrote eleven novels about the indefatigable Captain Horatio Hornblower. Forester’s books chronicle Hornblower’s adventures from lowly midshipman through his final posting as an admiral in the Caribbean. More recently the British novelist Patrick O’Brian wrote a total of twenty books from 1970 through 2000 that chronicled the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and, perhaps more importantly, his best friend, ship surgeon and secret British intelligence agent, Stephen Maturin.

As you might expect both Hornblower and Aubrey were written as brilliantly strategic fighting captains who frequently won fearsome battles against superior forces. In temperament though, they could hardly be more different. Captain Horatio Hornblower was remote and insular, very much a “stiff upper lip” type. He was both deeply private and deeply conflicted. He carried around with him a lot of hidden baggage and rigorously masked his inferiority complex. As Forester depicts him, Hornblower was certainly respected by his men, although it is hard to understand why. A captain that shuts himself up in his cabin, does not confide in his officers and trusts only his own judgment is not usually successful officer material. Hornblower was anxious to be perceived as brave and wholly unperturbed even though inside he continually fought cowardice. I have to wonder if Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry modeled Spock after Hornblower, rather than Kirk. Kirk is more like Jack Aubrey.

Captain Jack Aubrey, on the other hand, was gregarious and popular with his men. His relationship with Steven Maturin was rewarding and helped him grow as a person. Unlike Hornblower, who could not allow his imperfections to be witnessed by his men, Aubrey knew when to let his guard down. When off the ship his behavior could be reckless. Unlike Hornblower, who was typically unlucky when it came to prize money, “Lucky Jack” kept his pockets and the pockets of his crew flush with their share of captured possessions, and could squander much of his fortune on land.

It is pure speculation of course, but I sometimes wonder if Hornblower and Aubrey were on opposite sides fighting each other, who would be the victor? My guess is that in the end Aubrey would win. He would win because he related to every member of his crew. They fought for him because they genuinely identified with him, and he earned their genuine respect and loyalty. Hornblower certainly had a soft side but he found it difficult to show it. Above all else he felt he had to project the image of an ideal captain, even at the cost of his own well being. If he lived today, Hornblower would need to spend many years with a good psychotherapist. At its root, his bravado was a mask, as he ashamedly admits to himself. He just did not know how to escape his own identity crisis. Instead he concentrated on adding to his own mystique. It is not even clear if he ever completely bared his soul to his great love and ultimate wife, the Lady Barbara Wellesley. Aubrey, on the other hand, was dopily devoted and emotionally expressive with his wife Sophie. Hornblower barely interacted with his children. If he did it was in a stiff and Puritan-like manner. Aubrey delighted in his children and was engaged in their lives when he was on shore.

Which series of novels is better? My opinion is that it depends on what you want from such a series. If you delight in obscure naval terminology, historical curiosities, intrigue, finely drawn characters, dialog and detail, then O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels are the ones for you. To my mind, the ship surgeon Stephen Maturin is far more interesting than either Hornblower or Aubrey. I read the Aubrey-Maturin books mainly because I want to experience more of Stephen Maturin’s world. I care little about Jack Aubrey. However, I should warn you that his novels could be challenging to read. While I’ve met some Patrick O’Brian fanatics, I think they overlook serious problems with O’Brian’s writing. If you want a well plotted story line with tight, crisp writing, stay away from O’Brian. His novels meander into areas that fancy his whim at the moment but are likely to leave you bored or skipping pages. The dialog is almost overwhelming and much of it wholly unnecessary. His novels needed to be severely edited and tightened up, but I suspect he would not let his editors do much in the way of wordsmithing. On the other hand, when O’Brian is at his best, his prose is overwhelmingly excellent. I read the “off” novel just so I can enjoy the “on” novel. Generally one book is okay but the next book is much better. For me (and I am down to the last few novels in the series) Desolation Island is O’Brian at his best. I would almost suggest reading it by itself to appreciate O’Brian, except I cannot imagine reading it without first reading the five novels before it, which fully flesh out his characters.

On the other hand if you want to read consistently engaging naval action stories that are finely crafted and that keep you eagerly turning to the next page, the Hornblower novels are for you. A purist would suggest starting with the first book in the series, when Hornblower was a pimply faced midshipman. I would say read them in the order they were written, and then go back for Hornblower’s early history. Start with Beat to Quarters (Book 5), a short and crisp novel set in the Pacific where Hornblower first meets Lady Barbara. It is impossible at the end of the book to simply put it down and not read the next in the series. You simply have to find out if he manages to win the Lady Barbara’s hand (not an easy thing to do since he is technically married at the time). I doubt I will reread the Aubrey-Maturin books again, but I keep coming back to Hornblower every few years or so. The older me now recognizes that Forester is projecting his own masculine insecurities into his Hornblower character. Yet I do not care too much that Hornblower is so darn remote. Forester’s writing is generally a delight and wholly engaging. Whether Hornblower is being harassed as a midshipman or commanding a fleet through the Baltic Sea, it is almost impossible not to be sucked in to his stories.

So if you have the choice, read the Hornblower series first, then try the Aubrey-Maturin novels on for size (starting, of course, with the first book Master and Commander). If nothing else, the Hornblower books are far more accessible to us landlubbers who have a hard time telling our gibs from our staysails. I bet you will find the Hornblower novels hard to put down, but you may find O’Brian a bit too eclectic for your tastes.