Salt & Vinegar

by Albatross & Bluebird, July 2018


Hotel California faded out, and his hand reached for the tuner as the radio station’s call sign faded in. He hated the commercials. He scanned past “collusion” this, “stock market” that, and a DJ snarling “TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP” in a way that was surely a joke, but made him grit his teeth and shut off the radio all the same. With a long exhale, he settled into the sound of his new sand-friendly tires on the soft gray asphalt.

Chuck Petrel loved his truck. He loved his dog too, but she died two winters ago and he hated the thought of replacing her. His third love was Hemingway, and that’s why he’d moved to the Florida Keys the Thanksgiving after the last election. He’d stood up in the middle of dinner with his extended family, got in his truck, drove down the coast until the road ended, and hadn’t spoken to any of them since.

The roads are especially dark in Florida and in the post-radio silence, he concentrated on his vision, and tried to take in every detail visible in the headlights. He was on his way home through the Everglades and made a game of spotting every animal he could. The alligators were his favorite, so ancient and powerful. He was not a violent or cruel man but he did not hate reading about the occasional gator bite in the news. They try to keep to themselves, he’d think.

The string of bridges between the Keys softened his face, and he eventually turned the radio back on, and was singing along to Lynard Skynard by the time he pulled into the driveway. He cooked his nightly dinner of rice and beans on the electric stove, with shrimp and pineapple on the charcoal grill. He slept fitfully in the cot that was a little too small, in the shack that was a little too hot.

At sunrise, he was up and unhitching the new boat from the back of his truck. It was a one person catamaran, but he hated all the colors it came in, so he’d been waiting on his custom order for several months. The boat that now sat in his driveway was beautiful, and he took a step back to admire it. The hulls were a dark, deep blue, and a fine hammock net to match stretched between them. The sails were a bright sky blue with gold embroidery of the constellation Sirrus, to match the name of the vessel. Seeing it next to his dark blue truck with single bright blue side-stripe, he felt the pang of love in his chest one more time.

In the weeks that followed, Chuck learned to sail. He didn’t bother with books or instructors, just pushed himself a bit further every day. He learned to feel the wind on his face, carefully studying how it filled the sails. He trained his body to the lean of the hull, the impact of the waves. Once he was comfortable with the boat, he went to work on his lungs. He started with fins and goggles, tethered to the boat, staying underwater a little longer every day, searching for lobster antennae poking out of small holes in the reef. Slowly he phased out the fins, then the goggles, then the tether.

One muggy evening, he set anchor and slept on the water. He hadn’t found any lobsters that day so he sailed home for rice and beans in the morning, but he couldn’t stop thinking about how restful the sleep had been. There were no fits, no sweaty sheets, no dreams. He decided to do it again, and again, and after a fight with the grocer who special ordered his preferred brands of oversized rice sacks and dried beans every month, he decided he was done coming home at all.

After mourning the loss of his boat’s vehicular twin, he was truly free. Gone was his phone, his truck radio, any vestige of his family. He did not know or care what became of his shack and its modest bills. Sure, he appreciated the times those things had made him happy, but he knew they were not worth the suffering. He could now read the wind, commune with the animals, and sleep. He’d even rigged a very clever tarp tent to fend off sun and rain.

He dove so expertly. Any time he was hungry, he could pluck a lobster from the sea and find some seaweed to wrap its meat, all in a single breath. He cracked its shell and extracted the flesh in a gesture of impossible grace. He was able to swim from and return to his boat with full confidence it’d be where he expected.

It was the truck radio he came to miss first, to his surprise. He told himself he hadn’t heard a surprising thing on the radio in a decade, and for a while he could entertain himself with impressions of scanning the dial. He’d laugh over his versions of Adele and Coldplay, of all the idiot DJs. He’d sing heartfelt renditions of Neil Young, always. He even incorporated snowy radio static into his repertoire. Sometimes at night, he’d hear that sound and be unsure if it was in his head, coming out of his mouth, or if his ears had attuned to the universal background radiation for the first time.

He did not account for the New Moon. He was just swimming for pleasure, not searching for food, though he hadn’t seen so much as a minnow lately. The water was still and lovely, and he was floating on his back with a gentle flutter kick, looking at the stars and pondering the vast emptiness. He remembered his childhood longing for the discovery of alien life. He always hated the thought we were alone in the universe. He let his mind wander, he let himself feel the sadness, just for a while. He thought of lonesomeness, and as he sat up, he saw his sky- and water-colored boat had disappeared into the horizon, which itself was blurred in the calm mirror of the dark ocean.

A panic seized him. “I am alone! A speck in the vast ocean!” He thrashed and spun, searching the darkness, but neither the mast nor hull of his boat blocked the mass of stars hanging like sky’s eyes that watched him with indifference. The panic had tired him and he flipped onto his back, floating in the night. Tears rolled over his cheeks and into space. The drift from here to there washed over him.

The sun reached down a fiery hand and smacked him awake. He sunk for a moment and burbled up out of the saltwater. Buildings and trees were a haze at first, but he realized slowly that he was floating just off of the land. In a burst of energy he made for the shore, paddling with technique learned in his youth: one, two, three, breathe, one, two, three, breathe. The surf lurched beneath him and he was nearly there. He saw bathers on a crowded beach milling about on the sand. He could make out traffic creeping along the A1A, and the sounds of engines firing, barking, the loud radios bumping a "THUMP THUMP THUMP" and suddenly, he was no longer swimming toward the shore.

The sway of the surf rolled him in and out, and he felt a disturbance in the water. An aggregate of manatees slowly rolled around him, their shining billowy forms surfacing and sinking. His trained lungs pulled the air and he dove down into their company. The hefty tea party swirled sluggishly toward an estuary, and he moved among them.

“Why hello there my stout sir. Mind if I join you?”

“A landlover! How wonderful! Of course you may. We are on our way to freshwater teatime. You may join us if you can keep up with those silly legs,” one of the manatees replied. He danced a slow dance through their plump forms. These manatees need the air and water just as I do, but they live awash in the seas! Why couldn’t I simply float as they do, just away from that sandy time warp? Here, time is thick, the motion is slow and life waves in fluid ways, and everything sways with the other. There is a weightlessness and a quiet that will become heavier and louder with each sandy step into the air.

“Yea, I think I’ll try to keep up,” he bubbled out, and they chatted up a whirlpool of manatee gossip.

He did manage to keep up and he thought to himself, how impressed the manatees must be. The group bobbed forward through the currents, under bridges and past boats at dock, moving ever farther away from the salty shore. He chatted up a storm.

“I don’t need these awful humans! Look at them, eh?” he said, nudging a manatee with his elbow. “How ridiculous, their wasteful lives. I was like that once — driving, working, wasting, arguing, listening to the nonsense day after day. But I’m done with all of that now. I’ll live like you do. Who needs them? All that noise! Who needs it? You sure don’t. Look at this joyous crew. You all move with the oceans, with the tides. You pay no attention to those people and what they’re doing. What a life I’ll lead! A sea mammal! I’ll eat the sea creatures. I’ll dive and haul in food. I’ll find a piece of wood to support me while I float and sleep. The first of the humans to move back into the sea just as your ancestors did ages ago. Why not!?”

“Wow! Do all humans talk as much as you do? No wonder you want to get away from them,” replied a nearby manatee. “If I could get a word in, we’re at our freshwater spot now.”

The manatees surfaced gleefully and with large open mouthed gulps they drank from the freshwater source. The hose outside of a bayside home created an arching stream that poured into the brackish water next to a boat-filled dock. A veritable umbilical cord. Chuck could see people with cameras flashing, taking pictures of the manatees as they crowded around the hose.

“What is this?” he cried. “This is your freshwater teatime!? A hose!”

“The people in Florida set up hoses for us. A little freshwater for us and they get to take photos. It all works out for everybody. And we love our teatime. At least there’s no motor boats taking our backs off. You should’ve seen what happened to Tim last week. Poor guy.” said a manatee, jostling toward the hose.

“You’re manatees! How do you know what Florida is? Or photos for that matter?” asked Chuck despondently. He sunk down sadly to the sand bed. Of course, he thought. You aren’t talking to me.

A few moments later the guests of the Greig house were incredibly surprised as a bearded, chapped, and very surley salty man arose from the waters where they had been taking photographs of the manatees. He had been lost at sea, he said, shockingly, and asked if anybody had a phone he could use.