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Image by Richard Lund

Slack Tide
by Mackenzie Cool

The summer I turn twenty-six, I am summoned home to Massachusetts by a phone call from my mother, who no longer lives there. Someone should be with him, she says over the line. I don’t disagree with her.

My father picks me up from the airport. The cab of the truck smells of stale seawater and cigarette smoke. In the center console is a blue plastic lighter, an old paper coffee cup, a frayed length of rope. We pass places from my childhood on the drive home: the pirate themed mini-golf course, the trailer park off 28, the beach store with the sun-faded inflatable orca hanging out front. The sign in front of the pizza place has lost a letter: JO-Y’S, it now reads.

We do not discuss why I have come, and already I can feel us slipping into our old routine, conversation an uncharted territory between us.

In the living room that night my father asks me what work I have lined up. SportsCenter is playing on the television and my suitcase is sitting in the hallway, not yet unpacked. I tell him I’m still figuring it out. They’re looking for help at Joey’s, he says, and I tell him that manning the deep fryer isn’t the type of work I’m looking for. I feel an incipient, long dormant annoyance begin to percolate, tingling along my spine. Work is work, my father says, nothing to be ashamed about, and we silently agree to leave it at that. Are you coming out tomorrow? he asks. I say I will; we both know I have no other plans. We leave at a quarter past five, he tells me, as if I don’t already know the drill.

We set out before dawn with the coastline behind us, my father at the wheel while I fill bait bags. Wind cuts my cheeks; the smell of herring and diesel fuel in my nose. The air is sticky with salt. By noon the sky is scrubbed clean of clouds, light catching off the crests and the boat dancing as we haul up lines and pick traps side by side. We’ve gone through these motions together enough times that speaking is not required, which suits my father just fine. The lobsters eye me as I band their claws, accusatory. Lunch is chicken salad on rye, a recipe my mother used to make. My father starts up coughing and won’t quit, so I let him finish my can of Sprite, his eyes watering. He watches over my shoulder as I replace a rusted hog ring, offering a grunt when he sees I can still do it right. In four months he will be dead, but for now it is almost like nothing has changed.

At the end of the day we sit on the dock nursing Miller Lites and watch the boats bob up and down with the current. He asks if there’s much work for writers here in town, and I answer truthfully that there isn’t. So you’re just planning to mooch off me all summer, then? he asks, as if I am putting him out by being here, when we both know tomorrow morning he will knock on my door to wake me up and a lunch will be packed for me in the cooler. We watch as the waves flatten out and the sailboats moored across the harbor swing themselves perpendicular to the current, a stillness settling over the water. “Slack tide,” he says, and I nod my agreement.

My father is not a religious man, but he has always lived by the sea, and I don’t just mean geographically. He believes in the parallels between the flow of the ocean and the movements of life, the cyclical nature of it, that there are moments when the tide will be high and just as reliably moments when it will be low. When I tried to talk to him after my mother finally left, he told me that there were also times in life that were like slack tide, the current neither coming in nor going out, and this was just one of his. The tides would turn again when the time was right. No sense in trying to rush it. A man can’t change the current of the ocean, now can he? he said.

At the doctor’s office he doesn’t let me come into the room with him, so I sit in the waiting room and imagine the cold press of the stethoscope against the pale flesh of his back, the rattle of his lungs when the doctor tells him to take a deep breath. There is certainly a fluorescent light humming overhead, the biting scent of disinfectant, the crinkle of paper as he shifts his weight on the exam table. When he comes out he shakes the doctor’s hand the way he would with someone whom he’s just made a business deal.

In the car on the way home he rolls down the window and lights a cigarette. I consider leaving him be, but I can’t help myself.

You shouldn’t smoke those things, I say. He is looking out the window, away from me.

Don’t think it’ll make much of a difference now, he says.

The days pass like this: mornings out on the water, afternoons at the house finding projects to do, evenings in the living room watching whatever sports coverage is on. My attempts at meaningful conversation — about his illness, about the future, about the past — are met with practiced resistance and evasion. Instead, my father remarks on the weather, on the catch, on the neighbors down the street who’ve moved away, as if this is a routine visit. He points out the seal bobbing in the waves a few yards from the boat, the squirrel with no tail that’s made a home in the Maple out back, the new house going up on Loring Ave. We go for dinner at the pub in town, a dimly lit place with widescreen televisions above the bar and Miller on tap. In this one way my father is a changed man. As long as I have known him, eating out was reserved for special occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, sports championships. But now here we are, two, sometimes three nights a week. I suppose dying’s a sort of special occasion, too.

One night we run into Dennis, an old buddy of my father’s, whom I haven’t seen in years. It is evident from the way they greet each other, from Dennis’s casual comments about the price of diesel and the increase in tourists, that he does not know.

Dennis’ boy is out in Alaska crab fishing, my father says to me.

King crab, Dennis says, clarifying.

Just like Deadliest Catch, my father adds. He is visibly excited about this, grinning. It is the most animated I have seen him since I arrived. He asks Dennis to recount a story his son told him from the ship — he keeps referring to the fishing boat in this way, “the ship” — and throughout the retelling he glances back and forth between Dennis and I, gauging my reaction.

What about you? Dennis asks me. You still up in the city? He means Boston; “the city” is always Boston.

New York, I say, and he whistles.

The Big Apple, Dennis says. How’s that going?

Really good, actually, I say. Great. I make direct eye contact with him, nodding, to prove that this is the truth.

And you’re a writer or something?

Or something, I say. I wonder if you can still claim to be one when you’re no longer being paid to do it. I have discovered that the line between writer and unemployed is a blurry one. Next to me, my father is back to sipping his beer, his eyes fixed on the screen above the bar; he has lost his glow.

We’ve put off fixing the rotted out step off the back porch, the one that’s been going for years, but now we make time for it. I get to ripping out the old one and checking the other boards for signs of rot while my father cuts the new wood and sands it down. The plank crumbles as I work out the nails, and I can smell the damp of it, like wet wood and earth. My father is behind me, working the saw and the electric sander. I memorize the sounds of his boots moving through the grass, the practiced brush of his hand across wood as he feels for jags, the tune he whistles, familiar but unplaceable. The presence of him, there, even when I can’t see him.

We have a beer each while we wait for the paint to dry, the sun warming our backs, and I bring up what he wants for you know, after — because even I can’t bring myself to say when he dies. He shrugs me off. It’ll work itself out, he says to me, and I wonder out loud exactly what he means by that. These things don’t just “work themselves out”. Surely he knows that someone — that someone being me, his only son — has to make decisions, has to make arrangements. He’s fiddling with the tab of his can, flicking it with his forefinger so it makes a tinny, plucking sound. He doesn’t offer up any real answer, but says he trusts I’ll make it nice. If it comes to that, he adds. He heads inside before I can demand anything more from him, leaving me out there with the scent of fresh paint and the birds chirping up in the trees.

The next day out on the water is a calm one. No swells, enough cloud cover that you don’t have the sun screaming down on you: my father’s favorite type of weather. Sometime after lunch I show him a runner that’s going on one of the traps.

Seen it on a few of them, I say. They’ll make it through this season, but we’ll have to replace them before next year.

My father leans down to take a closer look, inspecting it for longer than is strictly necessary. He doesn’t look at me when he says: Go to Forestdale’s for that. In Sandwich. Fisherman’s Supply is a rip-off.

Right, I say.

And don’t let them try to upsell you on those new buoys, he adds. The ones we have are fine. He finally looks up at me then, squinting into the sun. But you already know all that, he says.

I can feel the back of my throat constricting, so I just nod at this, blinking a few times. He motions for me to get the trap baited and dumped, and then my father turns back to the wheel, angling us towards the next buoy, the next trap, the next string.

Seven months from now, after the house and the boat have been sold, I’ll take a Friday off from work at the newspaper and come back for a weekend. I’ll go down to the docks at low tide with a sixer, and I’ll open two. It will be winter, gray overcast and the sea dark as slate. I’ll watch as the water stills, holding its breath for a moment, and wait for the tide to start coming in again. 

Bio

Mackenzie Cool is an emerging fiction writer and poet. When she is not writing, Mackenzie spends her time working for an international climate change non-profit. Mackenzie is originally from Massachusetts and lives with her partner in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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