[Editor’s Note: The following was contributed under disturbing circumstances by Detective Helen Tame of the New York City Police Department and in her capacity as self-appointed literary executrix of its author.]
[Contributor’s Note: The title of this work is derived in a singular manner. Although no title is written in Writer’s hand affirmative steps were seemingly taken to title the work as below. As indicated previously the body of The Ocean was written in the margins of a ravaged TV GUIDE (one that displayed John Forsythe on its cover and wondered how long he could continue to resist various evil machinations). Said magazine always began by listing the reader’s televisual options for the ensuing Saturday. Here, one of those options was a film called you guessed it and these two all-caps words are blatantly circled. The above story then follows and sorry if you disagree but The Ocean is its title. Regarding what may be objectors’ primary objection, note that Writer displayed zero reticence about reusing others’ titles as will be apparent to the discerning reader upon further development. Lastly, also singular is the film itself. Specifically, no other record exists of what is identified as this 1932 black and white motion picture and the people involved and I mean none; as in there is nothing you can click so don’t bother and, yes, this is true in twenty-first century America. In short it’s as if it never happened. As if no showgirl on the lam soon discovers the true depths of the sea’s loathing of mankind.]
This is a stop at the beach, not a beach outing. Difference is with an outing Skye will collect the girls (four, six, eight) and everything they require and these appurtenances will be assembled near the door at the appointed time so that really his role will amount to nothing more exertive than going to the beach himself and, of course, before that, giving his terse imprimatur to Skye’s idea of going to the beach as a family. So this is a mere stop and he is alone.
He is alone with Professor Stephen Tenrod, another way of saying Professor Tenrod is alone and a statement that is undeniably true and so because of a decision, really several decisions, made by the professor. And Tenrod is the kind who thinks the “p” in professor should always be uppercase even when not being used as appellation but because he does not herein control it isn’t and won’t. Back to the decisions, Professor Steven Tenrod decides to stop at the beach on his way home from the university because, well, truth is there is no prominent reason for this decision. Instead he finds that the luxury automobile slides effortlessly, as promised, from main highway to exit to somnolent side street of forgotten seaside village. Just as easily he finds that the vehicle orients not towards its popular areas but rather is inexplicably parking in the most desolate area of what is already a fairly desolate beach.
Consequently when he removes his clothing and lays it on the damp sand there is no reason to take the universal therefore wholly ineffective precaution of wallet in shoe nor is there any problem with removing even the final sheer barrier that separates the clothed from the unclothed before entering the frigid water. And he is a distasteful task increment by increment type so this initial entry is followed by a pause and substantial exhale then ensuing steps become a demonstration of will until a partial eternity later he is in from the waist down with everything above dry as dust. From there, his body halved into pain and future pain, his hands suspended at varying levels, he is reduced to sensation and its immediate afterthoughts. The life of the mind extinguished by overflooded nerve endings.
He turns, submerging maybe another inch as a result, to look at clothes on a beach; the lumpy collection of fine garments he has placed on the sand, how they combine to form a layered mountain yet manage to retain individuated definition. So he is looking at that, taking slight backward steps, when really the first wave to register slaps his back to form a U of water around him and compel his hands into a hug. This is new pain and the body recoils from it. All the greater now that newly wet skin is beset by an insistent evil wind he had not heretofore sensed. The only solution then is to go ahead and sink up to his neck, his face the only segment still undisturbed by sea.
Now he sees that sun is reflecting off the face of his watch to form a focused line of light that reaches the one on his shaking body. The watch is on the clothes and the watch is expensive although he never really liked it until The Dean, who does like watches and therefore can speak of them intelligently, indicated without ambiguity that this specimen was tremendous; since that he loves the watch. To Skye he always loved the watch and its lyrical engraving referencing the constancy of Time even if inconstancy, in the final analysis, was really what surrounded the object.
Inconstant as in the way that increasingly Skye looked almost grievous, like something had been lost when far as he could tell it was nothing but gain for years. Gain like when he became the youngest professor to attain the distinguished honorific at his university or the many others he subsequently researched. Or when their primary six bedroom was paid off and they were able to rather easily purchase the shore house currently responsible for his naked immersion in the vast ocean. Or how, most recently, he had accomplished what Skye seemed most fervent about and so come fall April would in fact be attending the prestigious Walstaff, he thinks, Academy. Again, these were clear gains yet each met with a barely perceptible but undeniable sense that a diminishment had occurred and that’s the loss that somehow registered on Skye’s face until he began to maybe feel it too.
His clothes are the only thing on the beach. No, that’s an oversimplification. There are other disturbances as well. There’s been a contest on that beach. A Third Annual Ball Park Frank SandSculpture Contest has been held according to a banner on the distantly brown picket fence. The contest means people, twenty-first century people, have come and built complicated structures on sand despite presumably knowing what sand is and its futile relationship to the imminent water.
Sand, he knows, is essentially finely-degraded rock. Degraded by Life plus Time and if that formula can work this on that imagine it on the less sturdy. To build on sand is to deny all that in a deluded way. To build properly and for posterity use concrete. Concrete as in The Pantheon with its eighteen hundred years and counting. No less a personage than Brunelleschi saw that and largely followed suit to create art like Il Duomo that centuries later allows people like our professor to center their lives not on emulating him but on discussing exegetically what he produced.
No one will be discussing the sculpted sand in front of him but he now thinks he detects something like beauty emanating from there and so begins to make his way to the fragile creations that he may either confirm or dispel. In addition he sees that someone has unmistakably, using indentation, written on the sand and from his current angle it is impossible to discern the message. There’s a message he feels. Someone has attempted communication in the strict sense of the word. The sand letters seek to extend up into their airspace and in that manner commune with their reader.
He wants to be that reader so the feet go up and forward, up and forward, and he gets closer he thinks but maybe not, in fact definitely not he realizes so he abandons walking and begins to swim in the exaggerated head nodding negatively manner of the merely competent swimmer. When he stops he has not covered a distance aptly commensurate with his effort and he is not big on physical effort so he decides to instead stay and stare until later doing what’s required to reach shore.
The water is no longer cold although its temperature is unchanged. What has changed is the body in it, lowering to harmonize with nature. The sculptures he now feels he can do without but the writing is another matter. He longs to read it. He cannot from where he is stuck. He cannot ask anyone for help because there is no one who can help. He also sees now that the letters are enormous and numerous. What this means is that even when he later stands on the sand he may not, even then, be able to read the message from sand level. What he would need then is an aerial view.
How he sees it is that if there were a God and, further, you were He, you would look down and see emptiness interrupted but minimally. The competing sculptures, the clothes, and the writing you would doubtlessly read. The only movement is water spilling over sand then hastily retreating, again and again. And this water is not travelogue aqua it is practically black and the sand white meaning what you would see in constant repetition is Black encroaching on White, Dark on Light, Night on Day; Death, ultimately, on Life.
Maybe someone has the vantage point of God but none of his purported power. This someone looks down to see all and within this all is Tenrod immersed in kinetic water, his feet gripping unsteadily the sandy bottom. But the prospect of a flawed someone observing him unsettles the professor and makes him want principally to exit that water and clothe his body.
There is no such person he decides and as if in response the water moves him more palpably than before; pushes then pulls him, impels him forward before sucking him back in, closer to land then farther from it. Whether there is someone above, he supposes, is a form of speculation. That there is no other person in his visible vicinity is not, it is verifiable fact. He turns to look out at the water and sees the truth of what he already felt, there is no one out there either. Truth is nothing is out there. There is no boat or craft of any kind, no buoys or other flotsam, no objects. Instead the water just flattens out as you move away from land until it forms, at a final distance, that paradigmatically sharp yet somehow still blurry line.
The line fills him with dread, always has. The seeming finality of the line undercut by its almost imperceptible curvature is maybe what does it. The enduring silence of infinite space is the phrase his mind quotes or misquotes when he sees that. It was a mistake. Everything that began with two hands moving the rounded apex of a wheel ever slightly to the right was mistaken and how terrible it then seemed to him that he was not Brunelleschi; that he did not build those structures, concrete structures that will endure as every living thing around them is erased.
It is no longer a question of desire he simply must decipher what is written on the sand. And it is not his imagination that he is farther from the writing than before. He tries to walk forward and finds he cannot. “Riptide,” he says aloud and the sound of a human voice, even his own, piercing the silence troubles him. He is suddenly conscious of his breathing and unable to make it autonomic again. He must resume swimming only now he’s tired. Fortunately a wave rises up behind him just as he begins. It lifts and propels him and there is a moment where he feels weightless, supported and borne up by the very universe, ascendant in his safe return to solid footing.
But the moment passes, the wave that first lifted him now sluices under his body and continues on without him. He watches it reach sand as his feet touch down only to immediately slide back in rejection. He is still sensing his every breath and they are more plentiful than before. He is not a strong swimmer. “Riptide,” he says again and tries to remember everything he knows about them. He’s certain the solution involves the word perpendicular, or is it parallel? He often gets the two confused. Also horizontal and vertical. And when he needs to put something in alphabetical order he kind of still sings the song. He is naked in the ocean being taken deeper and thinking things like that.
He must rest. Gather his strength. If no one comes he will have to swim with great urgency to overcome the tensile water. It is water that has arrived here at long last from the remotest reaches of the globe and it now intends to flow back whence it came and begin anew the relentless cycle. The professor is no obstacle. He says all that aloud. He is floating on his back, drifting out and talking to empty air. He says the word riptide a few more times until it no longer seems to make sense; it can’t be the right word, can’t even be a word period its sounds are so funny.
Soon he will swim but is there a point if nobody comes? He calls for someone to come. If someone comes the whole thing becomes laughably easy but he knows no one will. He calls for someone to come. He is not yelling because he cannot. The sun is almost fully interred now. It will rise and fall, rise and fall, like a bouncing yellow ball and it will never stop. His shriveled skin looks simultaneously aged and fetal with a hint of subcutaneous water. The dying hair on his head is sporadic and matted down to its skull. The lips are blue. The water is not as flat out there as it looked from the sand and his body undulates up and down so it takes strength to keep his face above water and it takes another kind of strength to keep thinking when thoughts no longer endure to completion.
The ocean is vast. What we call the world is just limitless ocean occasionally slowed by land and the people on it. The word distinguished is senseless too it seems. He is made in large part of water so water can’t hurt him. If it happens what happens is you swallow and swallow until it swallows you. The ocean is rocking him like an infant, bringing him closer then taking him farther. The closer water feels warmer. Each star in the sky contains the remains of a person once swallowed and their dolorous light would illume the earth even in our absence. There are more of yesterday’s people in the water than today walk on land. The Halstaff, yes, Academy is no better than the second best academy. Someone will come if only he’ll keep asking. He is closer and hears someone. He is farther and there is no one. He has not built anything, concrete or otherwise. There is something in the water. It floats. There is no moon. Anything holding it will float. Stars but no moon. He will reach it he sees. The watch will be back on his wrist, phone in his hand. He will call Skye, appeal to Skye. He moves purposely now, acting not acted upon. He is moving so he must be alive. The sky is never empty but below it often is.
When he reaches it it is a shirt. It was always a shirt. It was always his shirt, swallowed by the water when the tide rose in reaction to the moon that wasn’t there. The invisible moon was there all along, raising up the unceasing waters to cover the sand in forgetfulness and envelop his defenseless possessions. The writing, never read by a soul, has been obliterated; the sculptures have collapsed in on themselves. The shirt is there but it is nothing, it cannot help. It has a high thread count and Egypt is somehow involved. He lays back. He has to conserve energy until he swims. He will swim to shore. On his back he still moves, the water moves him. He is moving so he must be alive. His movement takes him closer then farther. Always the same. Closer then farther, closer then farther. Always. Closer. Farther. Again. The same. Closer then farther then less closer and farther still, less close then more far, less close than far, farther than closer, far farther. Then farther and farther and farther.
Sergio De La Pava is the author of the novel A Naked Singularity.