Only ever look to the present, you said. The past and the future are useless.

            I was twelve and you were leaving mom for no reason at all, and that was the advice by giving me you cursed me to ignore. After that you were in cities, Tucson doing metalwork, Toledo doing woodwork, San Jose wiring houses. And down  through the summers I was on your couch, wandering the boring streets of those towns, feeling I was making friends with the nation.

            Mom seemed like her hands were always in the dishwater. Her face aged in time lapse. She never brought another man home. She was shrewd and had a beautiful glint to her eye, but it’s hard to keep faith in men once you’ve seen one’s heart drift away.

            Always buying a little boat when you were near the water, convincing me to paddle out onto the lakes with you where we would sit rocking slightly until dusk, catching no fish. And always you went on about the ocean, about a catamaran and no land in sight, but never did you follow through, your holy journey always on a far horizon.

            My college years, I had my own sea to sail. I couldn’t stand to see you. Then I met April, and didn’t feel like your son anymore, and that was a good thing. I landed a job and moved into her place. I bought a blender, a sofa, a laptop computer. I hung paintings on the walls. We picked out curtains.

            April was a sort of church. She had a calendar full of events, and we spent time in restaurants like I’d never known as a kid. She told me I could be a doctor, if I wanted. I almost believed her. We bought a cat. I did prerequisites. I did sit ups. We ran together in the mornings. I got to know the ballet. I bought a washer and dryer. We talked about baby names. I bought a ring.

            Before I gave it to her I had to see you, to see if your itinerancy was hiding in me somewhere, so I drove eight hours up to your cabin on the Klamath, but you weren’t there, and there was nowhere else I knew to look. So I held the ring. I couldn’t give it to her just to watch it tarnish in the sink, couldn’t think about her staring out the back window pretending something worth watching was happening out there.

            In the year I waited she aged five. Then I got the call. You’d left your driver’s license out on the table, and contact information for mom and me, but still they needed me to come ID the body. The manager of the little motel in Fort Bragg said you’d paid three months up front, and was relieved when I declined his offer to refund me the balance. Pneumonia. Jesus, you could have just seen a doctor. Instead you died hundreds of miles from anyone who knew you.

Now here we are, what’s left of us, on the heave of the waves in a rented motorboat, tasting the salt just by breathing. You’re in an urn in the crook of my elbow. And as I stare out at a horizon that feels like the end of everything, the world unsteady beneath, I know your way of life is no less desolate. I wait until there is no land in sight to lay you on the wind. You’ll drift and drift. Ashes don’t die but still you may never make it back to land. It makes no sense that anyone could hear a voice call across that lonely ocean and turn away. Yet here we are, Dad, pilgrims on the water.



Ethan Chatagnier is a new dad, a good husband, and a writer. His fiction has previously appeared in Necessary Fiction, Hot Metal Bridge, the Northville Review, Fringe, and Umbrella Factory.

My first writing professor told me to write about what I couldn't stop thinking about. This piece has been on my mind, and in several longer drafts, for years. Turning away from someone, from a marriage and a family, for seemingly no reason is something that happens all too frequently (and especially with men, I think), and I wanted to explore that through the eyes of a young man who sees the absurdity, who wants to avoid it, but feels he is destined follow his father's example. I think it's very common for people to view their parents' character as their own destiny, which in this story becomes a self-fulfilling trap.



Copyright 2009