On the Shore of a Dry Sea
To the untrained eye, Jacob looked and acted alive. His eyes shone bright, he kept a half smile convincingly attached to his lips, and his movements were as fluid and precise as if he were a ballet dancer or a boxer. Apparently, no one in the line at Wal Mart where he stood to buy a new hammer was trained in life sciences, since not a man touched his shoulder, not a woman screamed and not a child pointed a finger and shouted, “mommy, mommy, look!”
So Jacob kept moving ahead, mouthing Ovid, “militat omnis amans, et habet sua castra Cupido,” unmolested all the way to the cashier. Despite his mullet, the cashier sensed something. His jaw tensed. His hands curled into fists. He stared at Jacob until the men and women in the line started to shout What the Hell and Move It, and a baby did what the babies do best: projectile vomited. The cashier shook his mullet and lowered his eyes, Jacob handed him $9.99 and the transaction commenced.
This was a good thing. The splintered handle of his old hammer gave Jacob too many painful memories, and he needed to fix the fence on the border of his property. As it stood, the neighbor’s bull Honkey would charge through it as if it were made of matches.
In addition to the old hammer, Jacob owned a 12-gauge shotgun, a snowmobile, a broken jukebox, orange hunting overalls, ten baseball caps, including one with a Yankees logo, and another with the words “Bullshit Happens,” two pairs of boots—one for everyday wear and one for church. He still kept a CD with Bizet’s “Carmen” from his previous life, and he listened to it when he was alone.
He met Pam two years before. She had been the only one of the waitresses in the “La Corrida” bar in Boston who ran to help him with a bandage, rubbing alcohol, and a cup of fresh coffee when Jacob’s buddy and colleague, Professor Peter Norton, broke his nose. Peter had claimed that Ovid had completely re-written his Metamorphoses during his exile in Tomis, on the Black Sea shore. What a nerve the guy had! To claim that Metamorphoses was anything less than perfect and needed editing? And to say that in front of the cutest sophomore Jacob had ever seen? And after too many beers and too many vodkas? So Jacob punched him. And Peter punched Jacob back. Except that Jacob missed and Peter scored.
Later that night Jacob found that Pam was good in bed. Unlike the college girls he slept with, she opened her eyes and her mouth wide with admiration when he told her that Ovid was to elegiac poetry what Virgil was to epic poetry. She also said, “Like wow.”
When Jacob arrived in West Carthage to meet his future in-laws a few weeks later, the smells of manure and freshly run-over skunk hit his nose like a stone from a passing truck. Three cars rusted on cinder blocks on the lawn, and a crow perched on a basketless basketball pole. A burly man and an oversized woman stood by the door of a barn in their faded overalls, their hands in their pockets, their eyes glowing coals under the visors of their caps. As inevitable as the laws of physics, they had to be Pam’s parents. And they were. A barbarian outpost on the shore of a dry sea, Jacob thought. I’d rather die under a Boston bus. “Don’t go, Jacob,” Pam said, holding onto the car’s door handle with her muscular hand when he attempted to re-enter his Saab, “Stay with me, love. I’m begging you.” He looked into her eyes, blue as the May sky on a postcard in the general store, remembered that he had given her the word of a gentleman, and dropped the car keys. A gray mutt with a broken tail and a missing ear grabbed the keys with his teeth and took them away. Later, they became friends and Jacob found out that his name was Happy SOB, and that he was neutered. A month later, when the priest asked Jacob, “Do you take this woman as your lawful wife?” he was about to say no, but met Pam’s brothers’ watchful eyes, all four were big as bulls, and nodded. Several weeks after the wedding, Pam called him and asked, “When are you coming back, Jacob?” “I don’t know,” Jacob said, watching a bunch of college girls crossing Commonwealth Avenue from his apartment window. “Soon. Sometime. Maybe never. Never for sure.”
He wore a tie and a white shirt he couldn’t wear in West Carthage without being taken for a space alien, and he was happier than a puppy that had just escaped from the house to the backyard and chased a squirrel up a tree. “Please come now,” Pam said. “I’m pregnant.” I’m 36, Jacob thought. I’m a gentleman. She’s my wife. I like rustic air. And Norton will be dean soon. I can’t work under Norton. He imagined a smiling, bubble-blowing baby boy and sighed. A month later, Jacob left his job at Boston College. Pam and he bought a two-story house with missing roof shingles and a perpetually flooded basement on five acres bordering a prize bull farm. Jacob now taught English, Sex Ed and American Sign Language in the local high school while Pam bowled, cooked eggs and bacon for breakfast, and ordered pizza and wings for Sunday dinner. When he tried to tell her another juicy tidbit about Ovid, she stuffed a wing or two into his mouth. Her pregnancy turned out to be a fairy tale. One night, when Jacob planned yet another escape, Ovid, in denim overalls and a baseball cap, violated his dream. “Give it up, Hon,” he said. “Blend in.” Jacob had never had a spiritual experience before. Well, maybe once. There was that dream of climbing a mountain. When he had reached the summit, a man clad in white told Jacob in Mandarin, “Everything is bullshit.”
Waking up after Ovid’s visit, Jacob traded in his Saab for a flatbed Chevy truck, and adorned it with stickers: “Keep honking. I’m reloading” and “Your college sucks. Harley-Davidson.”
Shortly after the encounter at the Wal Mart, Jacob stood at the fence on the border of his property, beating nails into the rotten posts with his new hammer. It didn’t help much.
Ain’t do me no good, he thought.
He paused and asked himself aloud, “What kind of language is this, professor? You’ve become a redneck, didn’t you notice?”
And then he answered himself, “Shut your trap.”
After that, Jacob worked in a thoughtless silence. Broken posts stuck out of the clay like bull’s horns. Cold drizzle painted his denim shirt black and slipped into his jeans. Gray clouds moved toward Boston, dogs barked from all directions, and his mood sank like a tired rat in a keg of beer. In an hour or so, Jacob was exhausted, and then he hit his thumb with the new hammer. He shook his head and spit on the ground. The thumb was swelling rapidly and Jacob stuck it into his mouth. Now he had to go to the doctor and shell out the good bucks he had stashed away to buy a bed liner for his truck. Pam would be pissed, too. He grunted and scratched the graying beard he had begun to grow when he moved into those longitudes.
He sat on a fallen post, took an ancient CD player from his pocket, put headphones over his baseball hat, and played “Carmen.” Happy SOB mutt, run over by a bulldozer, was buried somewhere nearby. Worms, obscene as big city punks, wiggled next to Jacob’s boots.
Pam liked to listen to music, too. Their home radio always stayed tuned to the local station that played Country songs and gave out free recipes.
Of course, she has a lot of redeeming values, he thought. Fidelity for one. Beauty. Compassion. Good in bed. Smells nice. He scratched his head and added, likes music.
When Jacob saw the bull Honkey sprinting toward him, it was too late to run. Calling for help was out of the question; the neighbor’s house was half a mile away. Jacob had two choices: he could die with dignity or die retreating.
Jacob squeezed the hammer’s handle firmly and straightened up. A hammer, sure. He could have been armed with a measuring tape, and the results would have been the same. Where was his gun when he needed it? A shotgun wouldn’t do anyway. He needed a bazooka. As Ovid used to say in a similar situation, “call no man happy till he is dead.”
At this moment, he felt as if a switch flipped inside his head, and as if the gray veil he’d worn for two years disappeared. He saw everything much clearer now. He stood on the shore of a raging sea. The thing in his right hand was no longer a hammer. It was a sword with a thin blade and an ornate hand guard. Jacob had a red cape about him, a vest, a short, open Andalusian coat, tight-fitting satin knee breeches, silk hose, flat shoes, and a beret with tassels on each side. Handsome knots decorated his shoulders, and he held a muleta in his left hand. He stood in the middle of an arena; ten thousand people shouted Ole and threw flowers at him. Picadors scattered like kids bolting away from a bully.
Jacob draped the cape around his left hand and stepped forward, meeting the bull’s bloody eyes with a sharp glance of his own. The arena held its collective breath. The bull was on him, smashing whatever had been left of the fence as if it were made of chopsticks, and then Jacob saw Newbury Street in the end of a tunnel, with its stores and cars and a boisterous crowd, and it smelled heavenly, of cappuccino, and beef Wellington, and a gorgeous girl holding a rose beckoned him. The rose opened up and covered his entire field of vision with glowing crimson.
Mark Budman's fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are about to appear in such magazines as Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine, McSweeney's, Turnrow, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim. He co-edited the anthology You Have Time for This from Ooligan Press; a new anthology is forthcoming in 2011 from Persea Books. He judged several flash fiction contests.