No one knew of the fault until the tiny earthquake, little more
than a buckling of the knees to the standing, a tap of the brakes to
the driven. A rockslide here and there. A graveyard collapsed and
decades of death were spirited away into the heart of the Earth.
Worse for me there were the little travesties that surfaced much
later. Things you never noticed were been broken by the event. Take my
house. The quake threw it out of square. Summers, when the door
expanded and the strays were in full force, I spent more time building
more portable portcullises or anti-cat fences to rig within the jamb
than I like to think. But better to build stopgaps than redo the door.
Martha was happy if the cats didn't get in to claw the furniture
or pee on our rugs. Philip and Lisa liked to throw sawdust at each
other while I cut various lengths of wood.
With a little work, I made everything fit together.
Through the burdensome charity of a coworker I came to possess
four passes to the Christmas show of A Prairie Home Companion at
Shea's the night before we were to leave as a family of four for my
brother's cottage in Maine.
Martha and I had at one period spent years of Saturdays on the
isthmus of our bed in our small apartment in Des Moines where we lived
while she finished her degree and I washed dishes at a café. Keillor
had remained more or less the same since we left Iowa and returned to
Buffalo to establish a family, but two decades of marriage had
marooned Martha from me and me from her and my idea of us from what I
had thought it was all was supposed be like.
Was this providence or another in a long list or inconveniences? I
wasn't sure what I wanted. Of course we cared still. Things weren't
bad like that. But we'd each seemed to nonverbally agree that none of
it was about us anymore.
When Martha walked she listed left, her breastless side. She had
put on weight in other places. I'd gone bald and developed bad breath,
couldn't weigh in. By the time of this trip it was not worth the
breath -- bad or good -- to get into any of that.
I herded Philip and Lisa into the Caravan and made it to the city
with time to spare. I had driven west against angry snow bands, and
made a small victory.
The show began and whatever frostiness of neglectful silence had
settled between Martha and me since some indefinite moment in the past
eased, and after, as we drove home with the kids snoring in the back,
it was us of old. Nearly midnight, us laughing, singing bits of song
or saying lines as we remembered them, we shared the ride home.
It didn't last. I overslept the next morning. Hadn't packed. We
got on the road to Maine at noon, pegging our arrival, considering pee
breaks and dinner, a salty 90 and wrathful Lake Effect bands chasing
us, somewhere on the wrong side of midnight.
We didn't fight. Martha said nothing. Of course we didn't fight.
Instead the ride was diminished in fun. Last night's laughs were
As I drove, Philip and Lisa's games of Punch Bug, License Plate
and Person, Place or Thing were as tonic. Mollifying, spontaneous. I
watched them through my mirror. I was a father relying on his Middle
School-aged kids for happiness.
Around Syracuse I found a rebroadcast of the show on an NPR
syndicate. We listened until the signal crackled to nothing then
Martha switched the station.
"I don't like classical," Lisa said.
Martha reclined her seat and closed her eyes. "It's what we're
Later she was asleep and I switched it off to Lisa's mimed
applause. I smiled at her through the mirror.
"Ew," Lisa said.
After frigid bathroom breaks at lonely rest stops in Albany and
Springfield, and a desolate dinner at a diner in Newton we made Maine
by midnight. Lisa and Philip were energized by the new state and sang
the rest of the way.
We pulled into Paul's driveway in Kennebunkport after one. I
turned off the engine and there were 0001 miles on the tripomoter.
When had I last reset it?
Paul's light was on in his room. More popped on in a slow trickle
down the three story house until the back door opened and out came
Paul to meet us.
Martha and Lisa went instantly to bed. I stayed with Philip to get
the bags. Paul assisted. After we toted everything in Philip went
downstairs to bed but I stayed up with Paul for a drink and a talk
then at twoish we both turned in. In bed Martha slept on her
breastless side facing away. I slipped silently into the cold Queen
and shut my eyes.
Two days later I videotaped Christmas so we could rewatch it
during dinner. Paul had a big projection screen. I spent most of the
day hooking the camera up to it but we ate in the dining room and the
screen was barely visible through the doorframe from where I sat at
the end of the big slab of a keel Paul had salvaged and fashioned into
the conversation piece to end all conversation pieces. Most of the
architecture and design had a nautical flare. The doorframe had a
Pacific patina. That was what he told me once.
Paul was a shipwright. He owned a boatbuilding school and often
went diving around the world. May, his wife, illustrated children's
books. They had two children, Evan and Nicole. May's daughter Larissa,
had recently moved out but was back for the holiday.
After dinner we watched a movie on the vast monitor but everyone
went to bed when it was over.
Paul and I stayed up for another drink and talk while my home movie played.
During the week the girls of the families spent time in town,
shopping and doing touristy things. Evan was the oldest of the cousins
and worked most of these holiday days. I went around with Paul so
Philip ended up staying in most of the time. I tried to get him to
come out with us but he had discovered Paul's library in the basement,
and was content in his studious hermitage.
Paul had built the shelves himself. He'd filled the walls with an
extensive collection of maritime tomes, most with male-centric and/or
introspective titles. There were books on sea astrology, nautical
histories, records of pirates and naval battles and sunken ships. I
think in this week Philip read half of the collection, sitting on the
leathery sofa, under a salty quilt bordered with a rimy line from some
Philip emerged for meals reciting lines of jaunty poetry, no doubt
penned by some pipe-puffing, beparroted peg-leg. He rattled off names
and dates with ease. As our vacation neared its end and his separation
from the trove of knowledge grew direr, and while the inevitability of
return returned to Martha, Lisa and me like a letter–bearing bottle
that drifts back in with the tide, Philip seemed the most content of
any of us.
The last night Philip was unresponsive to repeated calls for dinner.
"I'll get him," I said. We were all at the table but I could feel
Martha bristling, not looking at me even as we sat side by side.
I rounded the last bend of the spiral stair, gripping the glued-on
sea-stone on the banister. Philip slept in the chair by the hearth, a
book on his chest. Avast, Sea of Knots: A Visual Dictionary For, and
Complete History Of, The Nautical Knot. His mouth was open as he
He swallowed and woke. "Dad."
Philip reached his hand from under the quilt and grabbed my wrist.
His palm radiated heat. The warmth of this roiled my heart and my face
became a frieze. Then he fell asleep with his hand on my wrist.
He looked like he'd been reading day and night.
"You keep asleep," I said, surprised, despite myself, at my
impromptu agrammatism and music. "Dinner's ready when you want it."
I put his hand under the quilt and composed myself by watching the
fire in the hearth. Picked up a cool conch from the other side of the
room and lay it against my forehead.
Upstairs I explained Philip was resting. Martha said nothing as I
sat. Somehow it was my fault. But everything was one of our faults. At
worst she was half right.
Philip didn't decave until morning, when we were packing the car,
almost ready to hit the road. I was determined to make good time,
prove to Martha I was at least a reliable driver for our family.
Driving west could at least salvage that part of our trip.
While we stood in the driveway for our goodbyes Philip asked Paul
if he could keep the book until he was done.
"I'll give it back," Philip said, clutching it.
"You can keep it," Paul said, frizzing his hair.
Philip beamed. "I'll make you a knot, uncle Paul."
He hugged the book and dove into the Caravan, reading.
All bade one another farewell and we were off. Martha's goodbyes
were tinged with knowing. May squeezed my hand harder. Paul gripped my
shoulder above the handshake, like a salutary tourniquet, longer. Last
night's talk had been the longest and wettest of a week of saturated
and drawnout nights.
"There's no way it won't happen," I said.
"There's a way for anything to unhappen," Paul said, staring into
the amber liquor in his Moroccan tumbler. He drank. He set the tumbler
mid-ball and held it with both hands. "Even iron rusts."
I held up my finger. "But gold?"
"Rust is an inward process. You don't always see it."
I finished my glass and considered things. "I never see what's
wrong with anything."
We made great time. Back by three after decamping at dawn. Philip
finished Avast by Albany and talked about it the rest of the way. Lisa
wanted them to play games but he'd have none of it.
For the next few weeks Philip talked of nothing else.
"Do you stop to do your homework?" Lisa asked one night at dinner.
"If you think about it," he said, "this is homework."
"So no," Lisa said.
"I do do what they assign," Philip said. "It's just that I know
At any open interval in a conversation Philip launched into an
oration on the histories of navies, their contributions to the
mythology, history and theory of the nautical knot. Which knots he
liked, and why. What knot he dared attempt with his shoelaces, and
what happened. Whether certain knots were still viable. I began to
tire of his upstart fixation.
For his birthday I bought Philip a length of rope, another book on
knots and a book about locks. I had hoped to divert him to a more
The lock book was a hit, and soon I was taking Philip on weekends
to locksmiths for cheap locks I could buy him, keys, whatever. He
favored combination locks for their reliance on complex codes. Philip
deconstructed locks in his spare time, toyed with altering their
Other kids collected cards, novels, CDs. My son collected locks and knots.
As winter waned Philip's fixation intensified. The frostiness
remained within the house, however, in our room, behind our closed
door at night, between our closed hearts. Nights I only knew Martha by
the dim percussive beat told by my pillow. Like I tracked her across
some neolithic caldera. Tracked or fled from.
Philip and Lisa showed no such semiotics beyond Philip's pursuit
of the lock and the knot. Which I did not want to think was because he
had picked up on the high-level deterioration in which he was growing
Closest I came to knowing was one dinner a month after his birthday.
I asked Philip what he was working on.
"I have a theory," he said, between swallows of potatoes, "that I
can build what equates to a self-sealing lock. Pass the peas."
Lisa withheld the bowl. "You couldn't do that."
"It's a theory. Peas, please."
She shook her head. "It's not a lock if it can't be opened. You're
talking about a rock."
"There would be a combination," he said, tabling his fork. "But
I'm thinking there's a way to make the lock's owner forget the
combination. Or you enchant the lock so that after a certain amount of
time goes by they don't want to work to remember the combination."
"Any dope can forget numbers. This has nothing to do with building
a lock." Lisa pounded the table with her fist. She was too weak to do
much damage to the table, but the salt shaker, which had apparently
borne an invisible crack since some dumb dark moment in the past, was
played its magic chord and ruptured, cleaving majestically to reveal a
pyre of salt grains.
"Lisa," I said. "Give your brother the peas."
"Now clean this up."
After Lisa swept the spilt salt into a baggie and trashed the
split ceramics she returned to her seat with a grumble. "It's still a
waste of time," she said.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Philip's dumb lock."
"It would be my time to waste, though," Philip said. He grinned
and looked up to me. "Right Dad?"
I made a face and continued eating. The kids followed.
Philip scooped a burm of peas beside his mountain of potatoes.
There were distinct strictures of space on his plate. The boy knew
what went where. From whom had he acquired this trait?
It was Philip's night to do dishes so Lisa and I left after
clearing the table for him. She zoomed off to the TV room. I headed to
my study, where the machine showed no new messages.
Almost ten: a new record for either Martha or me to happen to have
a long day at work.
I closed the door and sat on the two-seat sofa in the study. In
the darkness mitigated by dim floodlight spilling through the blinds,
and the respiratory red digits on the machine, I made out the stacks
of books in our little library. I rose and hit the light.
Dust spun on the old neglected spines. How many years since I
looked at these titles? Who I had been when I bought them, stacked
them. The people these objects represented, the skeletons behind the
My old records too. Did the old discs still spin? What stylus
would accept them?
The people who'd made these books and records.
And, next to mine, Martha's -- all these concerns but one layer
more removed was I, that much more distant from all the minds in the
world, of all its time, out there at the end of some arm on a twisty
spiral and me, here, at the center of everything.
Or it was me at the end and everyone else was clustered in the center.
If they saw me it was looking up, wondering what my old fading
light meant to their present.
I plucked a novel from the shelf. An old book, bought during the
bed-spent days of Des Moines, whose leaves' scent triggered the old
animal to rise and roar briefly, before fading as if taken by a wind,
and I blew the dust off the tanned cover then reshelved it.
Mites stratified in Venetian order.
"Most couples these days separate," Paul had said. "You and Martha
had twenty good years. That's more than most can say. Be thankful."
Later Philip knocked on the door.
My son had come for me. I wasn't stranded.
"Come in," I said, rising.
He tried the knob. It rattled in the lock bed. The door wasn't yet
expanded and the frame shouldn't stop him.
"Try it again," I said. Like I was teaching him to bike, shave,
throw a football.
Philip worked the knob harder but still it didn't take.
"It's locked," he said, a mixture of professional engagement and
fatalism in his voice. "This's something I can't fix."
"No no no," I said, striding to the door.
I was ten feet tall.
I was the Dad who could make things happen.
"I'll get it." He was probably twisting it the wrong way.
The knob was tepid, spongy like oxidized blackened brass. It spun
freely, catching nothing within the lock.
No. I was myself.
Philip knew more of locks than I ever would. If he couldn't fix it
I released the knob. The only way out was to break through the
door. Push past the jamb.
Spines, skeletons, stars. Locks and knots. They were with me. They
were mine. The stylus always outlasts the vinyl until there's nothing
left to play.
"Dad?" Philip asked. His voice sounded older through the door.
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know, Philip," I said. "It should be open."
But I did know. I'd answered a question he had yet to ask. There
was no uncertainty now. I aimed my shoulder at the molding.