Water, Television, Ghosts



I was not myself...I was...I was not myself. I was everywhere in the city, a stone, a spider web, the depths of the ocean. Somewhere a messenger climbed a hawser. An intense longing drew me. Armored men and women pushed aside children everywhere in the city. I was rowing away from shore toward the vast ocean. In the center, someone handsome posed. The coast was rocky, the air cold, the people dressed handsomely, a small European port city. I was the wall above the quay. Mossy cables from the ocean reached ships and the skiff rowed strongly away from shore. The city was frozen timeless beneath me. An owner rushed the sun's rays broken clouds, piercing green water. I was not myself, I was a matron beside the central well; I approached the powerful pull through the clouds and through the gates would pour hostile soldiers. Someone in armor stalked a beggar. The beggar was my student Lief. A man in black pierced the water. Someone approached the well was the powerful pull and haul of the ocean. A beggar opened the gate to the hostile soldiers through the dark green swell. The beggar was Lief.

 I could see beneath me the walled city, web of streets, hawsers. A messenger rose toward a blind mirror. The matron struck the beggar with a green bough. A woman who gave her name for love and the haul of the ocean. A man in black and the haul of the ocean. Dangerous rolling swells like glaciers through the city. Pride did something she should not. I could not take my eyes from her. The woman in love dropped her book, turned to her lover over and over like clockwork. Through rolling clouds she struck the beggar, struck the capstone from the well. I forgave the messenger. The matron, proud from her horse turning, lifting her skirts, touching her face with one hand, the sky filled with dark gusty clouds. The woman who had given up her name for love in the web's center, handsome, handsome land side stone quays, gaily dressed people lifting their skirts, not myself. I was pierced to the water. The water resisted my passage. On a side street a gaily-dressed man refused, read stone, lifted wellcap; the gaily-dressed man was Lief, my student. Inside the web with one hand, the land side, the stone quays, the sky filled with dark gusty clouds was a web, a gay port city, and the sea others, mossy hawser drew ghost waves.

 Mel Hodge woke with the flitting sensation of something beautiful and frightening. And the need for action. He had just seen something and he should do something, but it escaped from him as he went from sleep to waking like water draining away in sand. Then for a moment he could not understand where he was. The world where Mel Hodge normally woke was a large bedroom with flowered wallpaper and casement windows and the familiar, slightly heavy form of his wife. He was in a narrow, windowless, whitewashed room with a vaulted ceiling, in a narrow bed with a young woman, almost a girl, and looking at his foot wrapped in bandages. He had twisted it the day before when a wave from the sea had jerked the boat just as he came from the water. The girl, woman, Tracy, snored gently. She had brown hair and a simple, human face. It was the sixth morning now he had slept with her. Grey dawn light came from a small window under the vault. A table, chair, Tracy's suitcase open, Mel's closed, and a stack of books and journals almost filled the narrow floor space. His crutch leaned against the door.

 He slid his feet to the floor. Tracy did not move. She looked quite childlike, like his daughter. Her eyes were moving under her lids; Mel wondered if she were dreaming or feigning sleep. He felt fond of her and guilty and frightened because of his marriage. The afternoon before, the hostess, that outrageous woman Sandy Somerset, had demanded Tracy's room for an incoming guest. Hence Tracy's suitcase on his floor. So the secrecy was gone.

 For a moment the pressing need to act passed up from Mel's dream again to his consciousness, then it dissolved. He dressed and hobbled into the courtyard. The guest rooms were arranged around a courtyard like a cloister. A wild growth of dahlias filled the open space, and at its center was a well with bad water. Mel had know Sandy Somerset years before in college, now he taught Mesoamerican archaeology and had come to her establishment in Guatemala when he learned that a site lay in her property.

 Mel hobbled to the bathroom then through double doors at a corner of the cloister to the main house. He went along a short tiled hall to the kitchen. He liked to make breakfast for his work crew himself. The kitchen was scaled for a hotel. Indeed the hostess had told him the other day that when her finances were down she'd considered turning her house into a hotel. The cook was washing dishes from the night before, and his helper was bringing in trash. Sandy also employed a cleaning woman, a gardener, and a handy man, all of predominantly Indian blood, with the aquiline but heavy faces and short, almost frog like build he saw on the old figurines. Artists make what they see. The center of the ranch was the 50- x 20-foot living room. It was always in disarray in the morning, and the help was picking up dirty dishes. The room had a 20-foot ceiling most of the length, but the hostess looked down from a spacious sleeping loft at one end.

 Mel liked to make breakfast for his crew. The kitchen help knew his ways and they exchanged greetings. He began to mix the ingredients for pancakes. His crew: they were Tracy, his girl now, he supposed; Lief, Sandy's son; and his buddy Hank who was Mel's protégé. Lief was a wiry dark young man, Hank heavier, blond. Mel and Hank had come for two weeks the summer before. No one had been at the ranch then. Now they were going to work all summer. The site was under about 15 feet of water in a sheltered cove. Mel was trying to understand the geologic events that had flooded it. In a month they had mapped the outlines of a middle-sized temple complex. Mel loved to question the site, what sort of temple was it, had there been commercial activity, where had the seashore been, had it been a port? He could not keep his mind off it; he dreamed about it; it almost questioned him.

 A television set without a tube stood on a low table in the living room. The nearest station was over 100 kilometers away. Mel had brought two Polaroid cameras with him to record his work. Sandy had commandeered one of them. She took color shots of people doing outrageous things. Often someone mounted them in the blank eye, or blank mirror, of the dead TV set. Last week someone had mounted a picture of Sandy and Hank fucking. Among the figures they brought up from the site were several with the characteristic Olmec frankness about the body. This week one of them, a warrior fucking a jaguar, occupied the hole.

 The crew came in one by one; Tracy bright, affectionate; Lief with a narrow swagger, his animal cool; Hank heavier and athletic, an anchor. They ate in easy sleepy silence. Then they went out to the jeep standing in the fenced yard and started for their site. Five miles of dirt road took them to an exquisite small blue inlet sheltered by a sand bar. They stopped at a corrugated metal shed they had built which housed their equipment; some was expensive and fragile. They pulled the skiff out of the shed, changed their clothes, loaded the gear into the skiff.

 As they rowed (to avoid damage to the site from a motor) to the spot where they had stopped work the day before, Hank andLief began to talk about a mutual friend. He had been a drug dealer, a man a little older than they, apparently someone they admired and felt concerned for. Now he was living on his savings somewhere in the Keys, drinking beer and watching television, not doing anything. Hank asked Mel what happened to people like that. Mel tried to think of examples. "They go crazy, I mean they are locked up, or they go into some system, AA or EST of the Church or...or you just never hear of them."

 "Is there anything you can do?" Hank asked.

 "Yes," Mel said. "People...you can do things but it means taking a lot of responsibility, spending a lot of time with them, living where they do..."

 They fell silent considering what that would imply.

 They carried on board a laser-sonar range finder. With the laser in the boat it was possible to locate themselves within inches in terms of points they had already established on shore. The sonar measured the depth of a reflector held by a diver.

 While Hank was over the side and Tracy was handling the oars, Lief turned to Mel and asked, "Were you making it with Sandy when you knew her before?"

 Mel always assumed Lief knew all about his mother, and the question flustered him. "Yes," he said.

 "Can you tell me about it?" Lief said. Suddenly Mel felt very much on trial. Mel saw Lief as an uncompromising foe of bullshit and felt adrift and uncertain how much of his mind was bullshit. Mel saw in his memory the scene when Lief was five or six and asked Sandy to play bridge with the grown-ups. His mother had patiently explained that the rules were complicated and he was not old enough to learn them. Lief said then they should play a game he could play. Sandy laughed and said, "When you grow up you can tell you children they are not old enough." Screaming tears had come to Life's eyes and he had shouted he would rather die than live like that.

 "I don't really know if I can," Mel said, "it was a long time ago. I was fucking around, you know..." They laughed good naturedly.

 "I remember the first morning I met you," Mel said to Lief. "It was at breakfast." Mel blushed slightly; he felt embarrassed before Tracy. "You must have been about three. You ate your cereal without speaking, then you went to your room and got a toy baseball bat. I stood up when you came in. I must have sensed something, and you swung and hit me in the balls as hard as you could. I can remember the pain."

 Hank laughed.

 "Why didn't you and Sandy stay friends?" Lief asked impatiently.

 "Why do you think we are not friends?" Mel made a hand movement that vaguely took in the boat, the shed, their work, all things that were possible because he cooperated with Sandy. Then Mel watched Lief, imagined him saying, 'But what about the twenty years in between?' but Lief did not speak. Only a small smile curled out of his thin lips. Mel saw the smile cutting through the bullshit like a wire knife.

 "She wanted to go away. All the time we were going together she would have other guys, and that was cool. Your mother's outrageous, you know. She would pick up fraternity boys in the bars and I would come in in the morning and we would make it clear I lived there and we would enjoy their discomfort together. But she wanted to go away. She was involved with a guy...Kurt Markheim, do you know him?"

 "I heard her mention his name."

 "Well, she wanted to go away with him and I could not bear the thought of her leaving. I pleaded with her to stay, on my knees." Mel blushed again. "When I pleaded I said I loved her. I'd never felt I could. That was sacred."

 Mel paused a moment to gather his words. Tracy asked, "Did she go?"

 "Yes, she went, but that was not it. I felt I had betrayed myself. I felt she had driven me to it by going away, that that was what she had been trying to make me do all along, make me say I loved her...she wanted to drive me past my limit...and I felt, I felt I had really outraged myself, humiliated, ashamed...that's why I could never...be comfortable with her again."

 "You must have been a nice guy," Tracy said. Mel couldn't understand what she meant and felt irresistibly caressed. When she spoke he felt he had gotten through Life's questions, but Lief continued.

 "Why does she do that?"

 Mel searched his mind for an answer. It was like trying to understand what had been going on in the city beneath them or trying to recall the dream of the morning.

 "I think I know the answer, but I can't find words." He turned to Tracy. "Can you."

 "No," she said. "I feel about it just the way you do." When they were working they would take turns, one or two people over while one kept the boat in place and the other worked the range finder. Mel was staying in the boat because of his foot. He could swim okay, but he could not climb back into the boat.

 When Lief was over the side for the first time Tracy asked Hank what he was going to do when his girl Sally came. Hank had been going with Sally except for flings and breakups since they were in high school. She would arrive the next day, and Hank had been sleeping every night with Sandy.

 "Do you think she cares about that?" Tracy said.

 "Shit, Tracy, she must have seen what would happen," Hank said.

 A reading came up from Lief. "I can't say to her, 'You can't have me any more,'" Hank said. "You can't utter things like that to her, to him either." He gestured with his head to his buddy underwater.

 "What are you going to do?" Tracy asked.

 Hank turned to Mel. "Listen, could you make her understand?"

 "It's not understanding," Mel said, "she understands well enough."

 "Well, could you talk to her? Lief says she respects you."

 "I could try," Mel said. As they continued to work on the outline of plaza or building he began to frame the conversation in his mind. 'Listen, you have to go easy on the kid, you have to give way to Time,'...He could not imagine what Sandy's answer would be. Lief came up. The inlet was turning a little rough. Lief almost slipped on the gunwale the way Mel had done the day before. Struggling for a moment between the air and the water he appeared to be a dangerous being with his soaked dark hair falling in streaks across his face. Tracy went over and Mel continued to try to work out the conversation in his mind, 'If you won't consider them, you must give way to Time.' Dare he say: 'I know having Lief around makes you feel old.'?

 A thundershower was blowing toward them. When Tracy came up they rowed to shore. When it began to rain they crowded in the shed cleaning objects. They were eager to imagine the life of the site. The young people asked their teacher, had it been a port? Where had the coastline been? Had there been trade or a residential community, or had it been merely a religious site? Mel scanned each object, each point on the chart, heard the questions, felt the chart questioned him.

 After a while they decided it was going to stay rough all day, and they set out back for the ranch to store and tag objects. When they came up the road to the ranch gate they saw Sandy arguing with a man in uniform. She was a short woman, in blue jeans and a flower shirt, wiry, with black hair like Lief, her face raised to the military man, shouting. Her Spanish had a heavy accent, but it poured out. They couldn't hear what she was saying. Mel could see she was drunk. The officer seemed to be trying to decide whether to take her seriously or not; if he took her seriously he might have to arrest her. Mel thought the Guatemalan authorities treated the private lives of the tourist rather as Americans treat ghosts. If they do not make themselves noticed we ignore them, but we project a lot of fantasy and fear on them so that when they appear to us we turn primitive and try to contain or exorcise them. They would let Sandy live however she wanted, as long as they did not have to see it. Now she trod the edge of visibility. But she turned away. When the jeep reached the gate Sandy opened it for them, climbed in, hugged Hank and Lief together and cried, "Hi, guys, what are you up to?"

 That evening Mel and Tracy felt restless. He thought of the favor Hank had asked him, and of the dream, and he did not know where to begin. They decided to go to dinner. They went to a fancy tourist restaurant several miles away in the town. There they spoke for the first time about their future at the university.

 "I feel scared when I think of it," Tracy said. "My friends there, they are all swell kids, but I donut respect them. It makes me feel lonely."

 "I don't think my children feel that way about their friends," Mel said.

 "And angry! And bitchy!" Tracy said. "They don't know what they want and so I get bitchy and pick at them and pick at them."

 "I don't think I can go on being your lover there," he said. "I couldn't with Gillian."

 "That's what I thought," Tracy said. "I don't think I would like you if that weren't true."

 She did not say 'love'. 'Love' would have been a protest against the passing of time. They drank a good deal and held hands, sad, transient.

 Hobbling past the living room when they came home, Mel recognized the music of Der Rosenkavelier. He remembered that the heroine forsakes her young lover. He felt again he had failed to speak to Sandy, and hoped that music was an omen, hoped that she was listening. Then he thought of Baron Ochs in the same opera, a vain rogue making a fool of himself over the hero disguised as a maid, and then of Herod in Salome, tearing apart his world for his wife's daughter, and tearing her.

 Mel woke to a convulsive, humping movement. For a moment he thought he was in the ocean of the dream on the morning before, but then he realized it was Tracy heaving. The smell of puke filled the air. Mel thought he must have been sleeping deeply. Tracy was leaning over the side of the narrow bed. The gray light of early morning pearled faintly in the high narrow window. Now her heaves were dry. You can’t talk to someone like that, it's like orgasm. Mel pushed the light switch. Nothing happened. The generator was off again. He found a candle and match. The chewed, soured fragments of their meal spotted the tiles. She kept the bed clean. He admired that. He hobbled out to the service closet in the courtyard and brought back a bowl, a mop, and a bucket. He cleaned the floor. When he was done she finally spoke.

 "I guess I et something I shouldn't."

 "Is there anything I can do," Mel asked, "get you?"

 "Or remembered something, or said something, or didn't say something," she said.

 She seemed terribly vulnerable to him. Her needs open to him like the palms of hands. He wanted to shield her. He put his hand over her shoulder; it was cold, soft, clayish.

 "I think you'll have to do without me today," she said. She smiled up at him.

 "Ill make breakfast and then look in on you. Do you want some tea or soda?"

 She shook her head. She took his hand in her clayish one and kissed it. He lifted hers and kissed it.

 Mel was in the kitchen making omelets when Lief came in. When Mel saw the hard arch of his back he remembered his dream and told himself he had to speak today. But the heavier form of Hank followed almost immediately and Mel was embarrassed to speak in front of Hank. He told them Tracy was laid up and would not work today. Lief said he was not going to work today either. Mel asked if he were going to do anything special. He put his hands in his pockets and said maybe he would.

 "Listen, Mel," Hank said, "you can’t work alone, but if I stay with you till about two we can make it to town in time for Sally's bus."

 "I'd appreciate the help," Mel said. "I'd appreciate something else, too. I'd like the chance to speak with Lief alone for a couple of minutes."

 "Why should I talk with you alone?" Lief said. "Hank's my friend. I have no secrets from my friends. Say what you have to say."

 "It's not a matter of secrets," Mel said. "You can’t talk in front of someone else the way you can alone."

 "I've never wanted to be intimate with you," Lief said. "You have Tracy."

 "Please, Hank," Mel said. Mel felt when he asked Hank to leave he had used one of his life's three magic wishes.

 "Excuse me," Hank said, "Ill go take a look in on Tracy."

 When he was out the door Mel told Lief he had dreamed about him the night before. "There was some stuff I don't remember clearly," Mel said, "then I was in a city or I was floating in the ocean above it. I was not myself...I was...uh...some kind of messenger. I think it was a medieval city on a Celtic seacoast. Someone at the heart of the city was doing a terrible thing that would cause the ocean to flood it. It was being done to you. There was a woman, like a witch, and you begged her to stop, but she was too proud to stop."

 "What does it mean?" Lief asked, very boyish for a moment.

 "It's a warning," Mel said.

 "You mean I shouldn't dive today?" Lief asked.

 "I mean you shouldn't make it with Sandy," Mel said.

 "You asshole!" Lief said. He stood and walked out of the kitchen. Mel was alone. He felt he had blown his chance, but he consoled himself that he could not think of a way to do better. 'Spirits with faces but no names heard us from year to year,' he repeated to himself. He stood and went to his room where he kissed Tracy good-bye. She seemed better.

 "Lief's going to do it," Mel said.

 She nodded. "It's not your fault," she said.

 Seven hours later, a little after two, Hank and Mel left the site and drove to town where they picked up Hank's girl, Sally. She was heavyset like Hank, a healthy girl with thick brown hair; they sat in the back of the jeep with their arms about each other talking in low tones. In retrospect Mel thought he noticed that the people of the town looked at them a little as if they were ghosts.

 When they drove through the gate of the ranch, Mel saw at once that it was deserted. Two other vehicles were usually parked in the yard, a donkey cart and a luxurious Landrover; both were gone. They climbed out of the jeep and went into the open door of the main house. Muddy footprints on the tiles of the veranda led everywhere. It was silent. The disarray in the main room was not the usual disarray. The television set was empty. They called out to the servants; no one answered. They felt cold and weird. They looked in the servant's rooms. They had packed and gone. They looked in the guest room. The only remaining luggage was Hank's and Mel's. A note from Tracy was tucked on Mel's luggage. It gave her address and said,"Write me." He showed it to Hank and Sally.

 The three went back to the living room and Mel climbed to Sandy's sleeping loft. Her personal things were also gone. A black and white Polaroid picture was lying in the middle of the rumpled bedclothes. It bore a witch-like woman Mel did not recognize at first. Then he realized it was Sandy. She was sitting in the yard looking stoned, playing with some empty Coca Cola bottles. She was wearing a muumuu Mel had often seen, which was brightly colored in life. She lifted her features mindlessly to the attention of the camera. The glare of black and white ravaged her face. It horrified Mel. He climbed down the built-in ladder and showed it to his companions. Hank began a long explanation of who she was to Sally. Mel did not want to embarrass him by overhearing that; he hobbled back out onto the veranda. A soldier with an automatic rifle was standing by the gate.

 Mel went back to the living room and told the others he thought there was trouble with the authorities. He told Hank to get his passport; he hobbled back to his room and got his own and about $700 in local currency. He took the money half to keep it safe and half in the expectation of paying bribes. It that region the embrace of the law is beyond the law. Mel told his companions to stay on the veranda and hobbled out toward the armed soldier. As he approached him, a sergeant approached from a grove of trees. When they met Mel asked in his correct but heavily accented Spanish where Mrs. Somerset was. The sergeant asked him to identify himself. Mel answered that he was a scientist using Mrs. Somerset's house as a base for archaeological operations. The sergeant asked for his passport and asked the whereabouts of the rest of his group. Mel said they were in the house looking for Mrs. Somerset. Lief and Tracy would have to look out for themselves, he did not want to shelter them with the name of science until he knew more. The sergeant led him into the house where he found Hank and Sally sitting in the living room; he inspected their passports and then asked where their scientific equipment was. Mel told him it was at the beach. The sergeant instructed them to drive there. The five went in Sandy's jeep.

 The sergeant poked around the equipment and asked questions in slow Spanish so he would not have to repeat himself. He asked if Mel thought it would become a tourist attraction. Mel replied that being underwater would be a problem. He asked which was the most expensive piece of equipment. Mel felt confused. He could offer a bribe now or lie, but he needed to save his money for higher-ups and...he concluded honesty was the best policy. He pointed to the laser-sonar range finder. The sergeant ordered the private to carry it to the jeep. Then he instructed Mel to drive them directly to town. They parked in front of the all-purpose municipal building.

 The sergeant conducted them to the police desk, told them to wait, and disappeared into the interior with the laser-sonar range finder. They waited about an hour. During that time Mel felt alert, on his toes. He felt he had just wakened from the dream of the other morning. He would get them out of this. He was worried about Tracy, Lief, Sandy,...the others who had been there (he could not recall all their names), but he did not feel the worry deeply; he was detached from them now.

 When the sergeant reappeared he asked Mel to come into an inner office where the captain was sitting behind a desk. Mel had met him once in a bar with Sandy. He looked at Mel's passport and asked for the passports of the others. The sergeant brought them. He asked why Mel's passport said archaeologist and the others said student. Mel said they were student archaeologists. He asked some questions about the operation of the laser-sonar range finder. Mel took the opportunity to ask what had happened to Mrs. Somerset.

 "She's been deported," the captain said.

 Mel felt relieved she was not in jail. "Why?" he asked.

 "Political activity," the captain said. "She attempted to influence our life-style, that is political activity and violates the terms of her visa. She has been deported." Mel wanted to ask about Tracy, but felt suddenly reticent. Then the captain asked if Mel smoked marijuana. Mel said he had tried it a couple of times in the States. The captain asked how stateside marijuana compared to the local variety. Mel said he didn't know since he had never tried the local. The captain said something Mel didn't quite understand but took to mean he should use hearsay evidence.

 "I've heard it's stronger here," Mel said.

 "Oh, I don't believe that," the captain said. "Only Americans say that."

 Then he asked some questions about the site and importance of the site. Mel exaggerated a little, then he asked, "Why do men and women change clothes without separating before you dive?"

 "You've been watching us," Mel said.

 "Only what you do above water," the captain laughed insinuatingly.

 "It's nothing like that," Mel said. "It's just easier."

 "I don't think that's very scientific," the captain said. "Maybe it's political activity."

 Mel wanted to say men pissed on the main street in town, but he said, "We didn't mean to bring ourselves to anyone's attention."

 The captain asked Mel if there might be any publicity on television about the find. Mel shrugged. The captain asked if there was anything remarkable about the life of the city, had they been a war-like race or performed colorful ceremonies? "I don't know yet," Mel said. He sensed the captain, like himself, trying to work out the life of the city. Would it be sensational? Mel took his roll of bills from his pocket and laid it on the captain's desk. He was certain it was the right thing to do, yet felt awkward because his conscience pricked him. He hoped his awkwardness did not frighten or anger the captain.

 The captain regarded the money without expression. Mel spread it so he could see the denomination of each bill.

 "You will have to find other accommodations than Mrs. Somerset's ranch," the captain said. "The ranch..." he used some legal phrase Mel did not understand.

 Mel named a woman who kept rooms where some friend of Sandy's had stayed.

 The captain asked if it might be possible to dam the bay and the sand bar and drain the site. Mel said he thought that would be very expensive, but it might be possible to build a museum with a model and some objects lifted from the bottom.

 "I will have to keep that," the captain gestured with the flat of his hand to the laser-sonar range finder.

 "It would be difficult for us to continue our work without it, slow at best," Mel said.

 "When you leave, return to your scientific work in America, you may apply to have it returned," the captain said. "Perhaps you can obtain another in the meantime?"

 "I do not have the power to do that," Mel said.

 The captain shrugged. "I have to have a guarantee you will behave scientifically," he said.

 "OK," Mel said. The captain put the money neatly in his desk drawer. "You are free to continue your work. You can have access to the site by the road from town and the equipment in the shed is still available to you."

 "What about the objects and equipment at the ranch?" Mel asked.

 "We will deliver them to you when you have informed us of your new residence," the captain said.

 Mel thanked him. The captain called to the sergeant who led him to where Hank and Sally sat, looking frightened and disheveled. He smiled at them. Mel felt drained, but at the same time calm. No one would go to jail, and they would be able to continue useful work. That was enough for this summer.

 Copyright © 1981 by Dirk van Nouhuys: All rights reserved.

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