Matthew may have been near ignorant when it came to sailing, but it didn’t take a yachtsman to figure out he had forgotten the part where you insert the drain plug before putting the boat in the water. It had been late, he’d been tired, and he wanted to motor out a little way just to piss off his father. It didn’t help that he’d been drunk. After cutting the engine, he stretched out on a padded transom bench and fell asleep. He had no idea how long he’d been out before he awakened with sea water lapping at his feet and the sky a solid roof of cloud cover, the ocean an endless black expanse. It took him a long time to figure out what was happening as the boat sank and he clung to whatever he could find by sense of touch, until he wound up clutching the bow rail with all but a few feet of his father’s precious sloop underwater, somewhere off the coast of Florida, in darkness so thick he couldn’t see a damn thing. He figured someone would find him once the sun rose, whenever that would be. It would make a good story.
Then again, his father might finally throw him out of the house, which he’d been threatening to do for the last five years, ever since Matthew dropped out of Florida State midway through his first semester—but he didn’t think his mother would allow it. She believed in him. He’d never made enough money to live on, but everyone said he was the best looking bass player in South Florida. That was more important when you came down to it than how good you were. It was the bass. It wasn’t all that complicated. When he was shirtless and his hair soaked with sweat, he was the one all the girls were looking at, and they didn’t give a damn if he wasn’t an especially talented musician. One day he’d find the right band, and his father would eat every stupid word he’d ever said about him. For now, he had to ride out this darkness and wait for sunrise. These had to be some of the busiest waters in the world. Soon as the sun came up, someone would find him.
Jules couldn’t make out a word Trish was saying even though the girl was shouting in her ear. She glanced down at her phone to check the time—it was almost 2 a.m.—and noticed Trish snatch her own phone out of a glittery clutch. A second later her phone lit up with a one-word text: “Smoke!” She looked up to see Trish showing her the face of her phone, smiling, and pointing to the exit. Jules glanced back at the band, which she could hardly see through the sweaty press of bodies gyrating to a deafening wall of sound pierced in that moment by a whining guitar solo. She turned back to Trish, nodded, and the two of them squeezed and pushed their way through the crowded bar until they were on the street amid a gaggle of barely dressed girls and a few boys in blazers over tees. Trish retrieved a pack of cigarettes from her clutch, withdrew a couple and handed one to Jules before trading the cigarettes for a cheap lighter and holding it up to Jules’ cigarette as Jules leaned in to her.
“You think they’ll show?” Trish exhaled a thin line of smoke toward the clouds.
“Who the fuck knows? They’re both dicks.”
“True, but they’re hot!” Trish laughed her contagious cackle. She was dating the lead guitarist in Sunshine Abyss, and Jules was dating the bass player. The guys were gorgeous but also notorious skirt-chasers. They were supposed to meet up to see this band play, but so far, no sign.
Both girls checked their phones.
“They could at least fucking text,” Jules said.
Trish said, “It’s not that late. Mickey said he might get hung up at work. Give them another hour?”
Jules looked over the roofs of the surrounding buildings to a sky thick with dark clouds. It was another hot South Florida night, and she was wearing a brand-new black blouse open to her belly button, black high heel sandals, and her favorite faded jean shorts, the ones that looked like they’d been torn to shreds by a pit bull. “Why are guys always such assholes?” she asked Trish.
“Because they’re guys,” Trish answered. She took Jules by the arm and led her back into the swell of noise.
It would be one thing if the kid—and he wasn’t a kid anymore—took it seriously, took anything seriously for that matter, music, or anything else, but the basement smelled like a pot dispensary. And sleeping till mid-afternoon most days and playing video games with his assortment of dropout, druggy, and poser friends—none of them as far as Paul knew held a job. And this morning, that girl wandering up into the kitchen in panties and bra and high-heeled sandals, throwing him a coy smile before pouring herself a cup of coffee and sleepily descending again to the basement, all without a word, with only that coquettish smile as he sat at his own kitchen table in his own house reading the New York Times on his iPad while he ate the breakfast he made for himself because Nancy was out with Catherine at the farmer’s market where the two of them spent the morning before dropping off their haul at Catherine’s and going out to lunch together—and now he was the bad guy.
“All I’m saying is that we’re not helping him.” Paul, seated on the stationary bike in the corner of the bedroom, looked across the room to Nancy, who was in bed with the covers pulled to her chin. At forty-nine, she still looked youthful as a teenager. “By supporting him—”
“You’ve never supported him!” Nancy interrupted, raising her voice. “That’s the issue here. You never wanted him to move back in with us—”
“To move back in with us? How long was he away at school? Five weeks?”
“You think he doesn’t notice that you spent a hundred thousand dollars plus on Catherine’s wedding, in addition to the two hundred thousand plus to send her to Rice—but you begrudge him the little it costs to let him live here? You think that doesn’t hurt him?”
Paul gripped the bike’s handles and leaned into them like a racer. He bit his tongue. A splatter of rain smacked into the balcony’s sliding glass doors, followed a moment later by a burst of wind. A summer squall, it would blow over quickly.
Nancy looked past Paul to the balcony. She closed her eyes and when she opened them again, she said, entreating, “He’s still young, Paul.”
“Please, Honey. He’s twenty-five.”
“And twenty-five’s not young?”
Paul got off the bike and sat on the edge of the mattress. It was after two in the morning and he’d been going back and forth with Nancy since dinner, when he’d told her he thought they should give Matthew money for his own apartment and a couple of months’ rent, and tell him after that he was on his own.
Nancy sat up, propped a pillow against the small of her back, and answered her own question. “Twenty-five is still young.”
“At twenty-five,” Paul said, “we’d been married for three years, you had two children, and I’d started my own business.”
“That’s us. It’s not him. It was a different time.”
“Is it too much to ask,” Paul said, “that I can have breakfast in my own house without his latest sauntering up into the kitchen in her underwear? Doesn’t that bother you? It’s a new girl every week with him.”
“It’s a different generation. Their attitudes toward sex are different. They hook up like we used to go out on dates. Besides,” Nancy said, a mix of smile and smirk lighting up her face, “I saw that girl. I doubt you suffered too much.”
“He gets high,” Paul said, straight-faced, solemn if not angry. He put his feet on the bed and rested his head against the foot board. “He sleeps with lots of girls. He hangs out with his friends. That’s all there is to his life for years now, and he can get away with it because we foot the bill.”
“I’m not putting him out of the house,” Nancy said, and she slid down under the covers again. “We can have a talk with him. Maybe we can set some deadlines. But I’m not putting him out of the house before he’s ready.”
“Deadlines . . .” They’d set deadlines when he dropped out of school, and again a year later, and neither made a bit of difference, nor did he think for a minute that the kid took them seriously. Paul looked at Nancy looking back at him, peeking out over the fat tufts of a lightweight quilt. “You know,” he said, “at heart, I don’t think it’s even about ambition or responsibility. Where’s his curiosity about life? His questioning of things? His interest in the way things work? I’ve never seen him open a book or express an interest in politics, in culture, in anything beyond satisfying his own needs.”
“You mean like Catherine, your darling?”
“Okay, sure,” Paul said, angry now, “like Catherine. I’d love to see him working for a nonprofit, like Catherine, trying to make a little difference for the better in the world. I wouldn’t even mind supporting him under those circumstances. Is it really too much,” he went on, unable to keep himself from raising his voice, “is it really too much to want more of him than to hang out with his friends, play video games all day, and get laid? Do I always have to be the bad guy for expecting more than that?”
“He’s not Catherine,” Nancy said, crossing her arms over her chest. “And he’s not you, Paul. He is who he is, and you’re going to have to accept it.”
“I don’t think so.” Paul, angry enough that his stomach was roiling, got up and left the bedroom.
From behind the closed door, Nancy yelled, “He’s still young!”
In the kitchen, Paul stared at nothing through a black window and listened to the rain, which was coming down hard inside a wind that whipped around the house. He massaged his temples and tried to think but wound up instead listening to wind and rain, lulled by the sounds of the storm.
Catherine lay in bed listening to the rain and watching the play of light and shadow on the ceiling, her husband Liam sleeping beside her silent and motionless as the dead. In a minute she’d get out of bed and go down to the living room and the book she was reading on dark money in politics. She was tempted to pinch Liam’s nostrils. It wouldn’t wake him, but at least she’d know he was alive when his head jerked slightly and he opened his mouth to breathe. She’d slept with several men and one woman before marrying Liam, and no one slept the way he did, like he was comatose or in some state of suspended animation. They’d been married a little more than a year and in the last few months Catherine had come to understand that she didn’t love Liam—if she had ever really loved him to begin with. The realization came to her slowly. It began after only a few months of marriage when she started to find him at first mildly boring and eventually unbearably boring. He was a beautiful man and it still gave her some pleasure to see the looks of envy and jealousy in her girlfriends’ eyes when they were out together. But eventually she had to return home, where he never said anything that remotely interested her, where he drove her crazy by sleeping peacefully through her endless nights of insomnia. She used to find him interesting. She used to find him charming. She thought she loved him all those months leading up to the proposal and the excitement of the marriage, all those months of planning and making arrangements and then the glory of the day itself, which was glorious; followed by the honeymoon in Hawaii, the long days on the beach and nights in bed; sending endless pictures home to her family and friends; and then back to a house of their own, where she spent months buying furniture and decorating every room exactly as she wanted.
Month after month working long hours and coming home to a man who had nothing to say. Who went to bed every night after the ten o’clock news and slept soundly until the alarm went off in the morning, when he got up and did it over again.
She got out of bed and went down to the living room, where she sat a moment on the coffee table and looked out the bay window at rain splashing on the front walk. She was going to have to do something but she couldn’t imagine what. She and Liam pretty much stopped having sex six months into the marriage, but there had been one night a little over four months earlier when they’d made love outside, in the yard, under the purple blooms of their jacaranda tree—and that had been enough. She hadn’t told Liam yet, nor anyone else. She seriously considered having it terminated, but the months went by and she hadn’t and now here she was, sitting on the coffee table, watching the rain in the middle of the night, exhausted and unable to sleep, her house even with the noise of wind and rain silent as a mausoleum.
What does wind think of the tents on North 7th under the overpass as it riffles the bright blue nylon, blows through the work shirts hung from a length of rope, through an outdoor closet, through the hair of a young man head bent outside his tent in a light rain, through the seams of an entry flap, around a chess set on a wobbly coffee table inside an old ridge tent? What does wind know? How easy it is to say nothing. To say wind knows nothing as it sweeps sheets of newspaper along the avenue. The headlines say fires in the West, say pandemic, say men with AR 15s in the street, say youths in black setting fires, say a father and son drown crossing the Rio Grande trying to make their way to America, say the rise of this and the fall of that, say billionaires on their yachts, say children in cages. We say wind knows nothing as it drives fires like blowtorches scouring the land; we say the rain inside the wind knows nothing as mud flows swallow houses, as houses fall into the sea, as floods push through cities, as the ocean reclaims land. We say wind and rain know nothing, we say the virus knows nothing, we say there’s nothing to do, there’s nothing to be done, the wind in our faces the rain in our hair, our eyes turned toward the heavens see nothing.
Matthew swallows sea water, spits it out, gasps for air, tells himself it’s a squall and will pass, all he has to do is hang on, pelted by rain, tossed by waves, clinging to the bow rail. How stupid to take the boat out unprepared, not even a life vest and he can barely swim beyond a dog paddle, beyond kicking his legs and waving his arms. He berates himself. He rages at his father. If he hadn’t gotten so angry with his father he wouldn’t have gotten drunk and if he hadn’t gotten drunk he wouldn’t have taken the boat out, he’d have gone out with Mickey as planned and probably be getting laid this very moment instead of doing his best not to drown. If not for the occasional bolt of lightning, he might as well be blind. He knows he’s in the ocean, he knows he’s clinging to the bow rail of his father’s sloop, he knows he’s caught a storm and the rain and wind are kicking up waves, but he can’t see a thing except for those moments when lightning quick casts a spotlight on the blackness that surrounds him like a blanket shaken or whipped by wind, salt in his mouth, clothes pasted to his skin. Again and again he tells himself it will pass, the storm will pass, it’s a summer squall, he repeats it again and again, as if it were a prayer offered to himself from himself telling himself it will pass, the storm will pass, and as soon as it’s light, as soon as the sun rises, he’ll be found.
Jules drifted toward sleep, deliciously tired. Trish had left with some random and Jules considered doing the same, but something within her was fixed on Matthew and instead she went home alone, read an early Toni Morrison novel for a while, took a shower, and got into bed. In a few hours the sun would be up and she had promised her mother she’d visit and help bake cookies for Andy, her little brother, who was turning ten. The weekend felt like it was flying by, the way weekends always flew by. She had hoped to spend Friday night with Matthew and was disappointed he never showed. She had spent two weekday nights with him and she thought there might be something there, something happening between them more than a random hookup. Something tender about Matthew opened something tender in her. She had made the mistake before of thinking she saw things in boys that were only in her head, but this felt different, this thing with Matthew, and she was disappointed. Later she’d bake cookies with her mom and stay for Andy’s party but her hope was that Matthew would call and she’d see him again that night.
Jules turned on her back and looked out her bedroom window at the row of dark windows in the building that faced her, lit up by a streetlight. It had rained hard for a time but now it was only a drizzle, a soft patter against the windowpanes. Matthew was beautiful but it wasn’t just the good looks, it was the lost boy under the punk rock act, the pretend nihilism, the burn-it-down cynicism. She reminded him of Andy, her mom’s third child by her third husband, each husband contributing one member of the family and then leaving shortly thereafter. Her own father lived in Norway, in Oslo, married to a woman several years older than him and breathtakingly beautiful. He was a writer. He wrote essays on politics and culture that were published in newspapers and journals, and collected in books. Andy’s father taught literature at Michigan State, where he continued his long struggle with depression, a problem Andy had inherited. Her mom had met Andy’s dad at a conference—she too was a literature professor—and they’d married weeks after she got pregnant. It didn’t last a year. Matthew reminded her of Andy in that they both had surfaces that were acts and underneath they were lost. She wanted to hug them both, the boy and the young man. When she saw either, her first impulse was to hold him close.
Jules turned onto her stomach and pushed her head into her pillow. She worried that she made a mistake the last night she’d spent with Matthew. He had asked her to bring him a cup of coffee and she asked if he wanted her to make it and he told her no, there would be a pot already brewed. She didn’t think about it at the time. She often set her own coffee maker to automatically brew a pot in the morning so that it would be waiting soon as she got out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen. But he must have known his father was up and had brewed a pot of coffee because there he was at the kitchen table, reading on his iPad, and it looked like a morning ritual. She could have turned around upon seeing him but on the one hand she didn’t want to act as though she were ashamed of having spent the night with his son and on the other hand her lacy bra and sheer boyshorts left her pretty much naked, and—it was early; she wasn’t really thinking—she wound up throwing him a quick smile, pouring a cup of coffee, and retreating to the basement without saying a word.
She considered that it might be a father-son thing. Was Matthew showing her off? Or did he want to piss off his father? When she’d told him his father was in the kitchen, he’d shrugged as if it were no big thing. Then they got into it again and it was good and they both fell asleep and slept till noon. She went home to shower, leaving through the basement entrance. She worked the late shift at Starbucks. She figured she’d work there another year and then go to grad school. Her grades from the U of M should get her into Stanford, which was her first choice.
Then, quickly as a cloud passing over the sun changes the look of a day, Jules’ thoughts shifted to grad school and her future, and left Matthew behind.
Outside rain kept coming down, soft but steady.
When Paul finally slipped back into bed with Nancy, he was surprised to find her still awake. Once he was settled on his back, hands folded over his chest, she turned on her side and kissed him on the cheek.
“I’m sorry for saying you never supported Matthew.” She propped herself up on an elbow, leaned over Paul, and kissed him on the forehead. “I know you only want what’s best for him.”
Paul slipped an arm around Nancy’s shoulder, and she settled her cheek against his chest. He kissed the top of her head. “I’m sorry for getting so upset,” he said. “I know we’re both trying to do the right thing.”
Nancy kissed his chest by way of a reply. She took a deep breath, wrapped her arm around his waist, threw a leg over his leg, and made herself comfortable. A few minutes later, her arm twitched in a way that told Paul she was sleeping. It amazed him, it had always amazed him, how quickly she could fall asleep.
Outside it was still raining lightly, and the patter of raindrops against the window was soothing. Paul closed his eyes and drifted swiftly toward sleep. He thought he’d take the sloop out in the morning, maybe get Matthew to join him. They had argued earlier that evening about the girl, and Paul said things he regretted. He called his son a slacker and a spoiled child. He berated him about bringing girls into the house as if it were his own little brothel. When Matthew asked him what the hell a brothel was, Paul shouted “a whorehouse!” and Matthew stepped toward him, as if he might throw a punch, before gathering himself, shaking his head as if Paul were impossible, and then leaving the house without so much as grabbing a jacket.
In the morning, Paul would apologize for blowing up the way he had. They’d have a talk and he’d explain his concerns—again. He hoped Matthew knew that he only got as angry as he did because he loved him. He never said that to him directly, but he hoped Matthew understood. In the morning he’d do his best to make himself clear.
On a whim, Catherine went out into her yard dressed only in a nightgown. It was still raining and within minutes the gown clung to her skin, dripping rainwater. She sat under the jacaranda tree and stretched out on her back and looked up at a sky thick with dark clouds. The only light in the yard came through the kitchen window, where it cast a sharp rectangle over the neatly mown lawn. Catherine folded her hands over her belly, over the slightest bump. She closed her eyes and lay quietly in the rain until she felt as though she were floating, drifting wherever wind and rain pushed her. Soon, very soon, she’d have to tell Liam. And then her family. Her parents were about to become grandparents and would be thrilled. Matthew was about to become an uncle. He’d also be thrilled. At his core, he was a sweetheart. And Liam . . . Liam would be beside himself. He’d wanted children from the start. Everyone . . . Everyone would be happy.
On her back, in the rain, under the jacaranda tree, Catherine tried to think of others, of her family, of Liam’s family, as she floated under a black sky, drifting, acquiescing to the pull of earth and sky and weather.
In endless worlds scattered through time, in uncountable voices raised to the darkness, what is it that nothing knows? The planets in their orbits, the galaxies swirling, the infinite black spaces. What is it that nothing knows? Why or when or how the wind shifts the rain comes down the seas swell the earth opens up the madman lunges the woman screams the child cries for help the child sleeps in her mother’s arms a boy falls into a well never to be found a boy is rescued the neighbors cheering as he’s pulled into the light a young man is put into the ground as neighbors dressed in black weep while a crowd cheers a soccer goal the president throws out the first pitch—all wrapped in the same infinite dark. How easy it is to say nothing. How difficult it is to think otherwise. It’s a quiet afternoon in my book-lined study. Outside my window a squirrel is perched on a chestnut tree as Matthew clings to his father’s sloop, as Jules dreams of grad school, as Trish wraps her legs around a lover, as Paul and Nancy in each other’s arms sink into sleep and Catherine lies under her jacaranda tree in the rain, her hands folded over her belly. The planets in their orbits, the galaxies swirling.
After the storm passed, the clouds moved on, the sea calmed and the rain stopped, the sloop sighed and sank like an arrow aimed at the ocean floor. Matthew, confused, held tight to the bow rail until the fog in his brain cleared and he frantically kicked his legs and flapped his arms, his eyes turned upward toward the surface, or what he thought was upward and he thought was the surface but couldn’t know, enfolded as he was in the surrounding dark, and didn’t matter because his lungs soon demanded air and when they found only water his body convulsed and thrashed until the dark was inside him and he was part of it, and what remained descended slowly, gracefully, drifting in a deep current.
Above Matthew, only moments after his eyes were blind to it, the sun rose over the horizon, burning quickly through a thin layer of clouds as it ascended, casting its light over the quiet surface of the ocean.
Ed Falco is the author of a dozen books, including novels, short story collections, and poetry collections. His most recent book is the poetry collection, Wolf Moon Blood Moon (LSU, 2018). His novel, Transcendent Gardening, is forthcoming from C&R Press, and his poetry collection, X in the Tickseed, is forthcoming from LSU. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech.
Art by Dave Gregory