Thursday, July 6, 2017

Art Man - A Short Story By David Eccher





His father surfed.

His mother swam competitively.

But he sank like a stone.

The first time his mother took him to a pool, as an infant, all done up with cap and goggles and lotions and floaties and such, he started screaming as soon as she entered the water. Not he entered the water, mind you. She was still holding him above the water as he let loose a continuous scream of the most horrific noises later described by YMCA members as the sound of 1,000 bunnies passing kidney stones. . No matter what she did, he would not be calmed until she took him out of the pool building.

Every activity that even hinted at putting him in a body of water larger than a bathtub ended with the similarly disturbing results. 

He grew older, and the terrified cries turned to terrified paralysis. 

His parents didn’t push him, but his father always asked.

J-Man, want to paddle out on my board with me?

The pain of not being able to muster the courage to hold onto his father and paddle out into the beautiful waves was too much, so he stopped going to the beach, preferring the safety of books upon dry land, far away from the source of his embarrassing fear.

At 10, his mother decided therapy was the way to go. A very nice man in a very nice office would talk to him. That’s all they promised. Just talking. No water. Nothing like that. Just talking about things.

The very nice man talked while J----- was supposed to imagine what he talked about. He called the sessions “visualization exercises”, and they induced panic attacks in J-----.
So the very nice man switched him to art therapy. J----- enjoyed this much more, but no one was all that happy with the results: a poorly drawn comic series of “J’AquaBoy”, a half-human, half-jellyfish super-hero that always ended up lying dead on the bottom of the ocean before the resolution of the adventure.

In some ways therapy was fun for J-----, but after much money spent and little more than cartoons to show for it, his parents stopped the therapy sessions.

High school in a coastal town was a misery. So many excuses to be written for so many field trips. Every year, a new round of assessments and doctor’s evaluations before he was permanently excused from ever having to enter the natatorium. All the girls there were swimmers or surfers or sunbathers, and he would just as soon tell them he has a bed-wetting serial killer as explain why he couldn’t go to a pool party. J----- ended high school an undated, unkissed, unswimmer with a perfect attendance record. 

College was his opportunity to move to a landlocked city. Free of the ever present anxiety caused by seeing water, being asked about water, being invited to water, or thinking about opportunities missed because of water. And yet, now with his mind free during the days to focus on literature and art, beautiful words and beautiful paintings and beautiful buildings, his nighttime-mind went another direction. 

His dreams became immersed in water. They weren’t nightmares, necessarily. He dreamt about the same things anyone might have dreamt of: being late for class, dead relatives cooking bacon, not being able to find where Genghis Kahn hid the keys. But now, as if it were normal, every scene took place under water.  No one was drowning, no one was swimming, no one even noticed. It was just dream-life submerged. 

He grew to be at peace with these dream scenarios. That, plus the fact that there were really pretty girls in his classes talking about spending their time traveling on cruise ships, motivated him to try therapy again. Also, it was free with his tuition, and otherwise he couldn’t have afforded it. 

This nice therapist didn’t care about exploring the whys and the trauma or the dancing around with things that weren’t the fear. 

Her therapy approach was to focus on goals. He wanted to be on cruise ships with pretty girls. How could he get on cruise boats with pretty girls? 

1. Overcome fear
2. Get money

Two not so easy steps. Her approach was direct and to the point.

What do you fear?

Dying.

Do you fear dying when you are in a car? 

Well, yes, but not as much.

So, it’s not the dying. What do you fear?

The water?

Do you drink water? Do you bathe? 

Yes, but..

What do you fear?

I don’t know.

Do you fear what you don’t know?

Almost always.

Do you know how to walk?

Yes.

Do you know how to walk on a flat surface?

Yes, of course…

What is the deck of a cruise ship?

A… flat… surface?

And that, eventually, is how he came to be able to walk about on a ship so large he could barely tell it was on water. Walking on flat surfaces became his go to thing. He walked everywhere, imagining he was on a huge ship. He drew cartoons of “J-Walker”, a hero that could walk on any flat surface, even up the sides of skyscrapers.

Now, about problem number two: money.

The therapist was no help there, but it turned out boats were. They needed interns for various tasks aboard cruise ships. These monstrosities were essentially huge office towers turned on their side and floating. If he could get one of those internships, (embarrassingly named InternSHIPS in the literature), he could sail for free – room, meals, some free time – in exchange for being not paid to do menial tasks. And there would be pretty girls sunning themselves on the deck!

He knew he had been accepted to the program when the response letter came in the form of a large packet of information. Unfortunately, his assignment was not the sun-drenched, bikini-clad, pretty girl paradise of his imagination…

…though it was frighteningly peaceful to sail amongst the glaciers. The deck had heated pools and hotter tubs, where the paying customers could lounge in ridiculous comfort while scanning the beautiful horizon for whales and icebergs. J----- didn’t know if they actually saw any. Whales were as rare as pretty girls on this cruise designed for the, um, mature set. 

He spent most of his time strenuously avoiding looking in the direction of the sea. Shuffleboard pieces always needed to be reorganized. Bingo cards were left to be collected. The many, many, many dining rooms always needed sweeping, mopping, dusting, or anything that resembled staying busy indoors. 

Luckily, there was a painter on the ship. Not a customer, but an honest to goodness paid artist who could sell the passengers views of what they didn’t see in real life. He was a smooth talking old man with hands like a surgeon and eyes like an eagle. He said his name was Mr. Artdarin Symphysodon, but since no one could pronounce that, people should just call him Art. 

After J----- offered to unbox and hang all of his paintings in the display room, Art took a liking to him.  Art knew he had been assigned to do it, but the way J----- sheepishly walked up to the old man as he stood staring at all the crates and the bare walls and said "Hi. um, can I help you with some of those?” was endearing. J----- would fetch him supplies he had left in his cabin, or a drink if he was sitting in the sun. The old man even started incorporating him into his painting and sales sessions. The artist would stand in the middle of the room, which was actually a large alcove, open to the view of the sea, working on a new painting and spinning tales of past trips that resulted in the magnificent waterscapes, breaching whales, and classic icebergs that were depicted around the room. J-----’s job was to listen for a lull and toss out a planted question that would get the artist’s audience buzzing.

“That must have been incredibly dangerous!”

Or

“Was she the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen?”

Or

“The Sultan owns how many?”

To which the old man would chuckle, pause dramatically to gather his audience’s attention, and reply:

“Always from the safety of my canvas and brush, young man.”

“Until this cruise, I would have said yes…”

“There is no way to say, but now is the time for you to start catching up with him and have the d├ęcor of your own sultan’s palace.”

With Art’s talent, charm, and salesmanship, the sessions were crowded and sales were brisk. Until the night an actual iceberg suddenly appeared off the starboard bow. It seemed to come from nowhere, appearing during the revelries and sales pitches of a clear, cold evening. Passengers and crew alike swarmed the railings to get a firsthand look.  J----- tried moving the other direction, but he was holding a large painting of a whale that had just been sold, and the swell of people, mixed with his own politeness, and his awkwardness in attempting to protect the large framed canvas, pushed him toward the railing.

The air was suddenly filled with a piercing screech, like the sound of a thousand eagles dragging their talons across a chalkboard while screaming. The hull of the ship had caught some unseen portion of the iceberg, and the boat lurched suddenly, sending J----- tumbling over the railing along with a few dozen other passengers. He matched the screech with his own screams, a sound he had not made since his mother tried to take him into the pool. But, in the chaos, it was a sound never heard.

Alarms rung. Rescue equipment was deployed. Heroic crew entered the water. All were saved. All but one, as the only sign they could find of J---- was the large, painted, framed canvas he had been holding.

The first sensation was pain as he slammed against the water.

Then silence. The canvas, which he might have used for floatation, had flown from his hands as he fell and screamed. He sunk quickly. All sound was gone as he sank, lying flat on his back, a position in which a person should float, but not him. 

The water was icy, but he didn’t feel cold.

Above him were visions of legs kicking rhythmically as other fallen passengers tread water while he sank.

The long-feared suffocation, the gasping for air, struggling for a last breath, never came. Maybe he was dead already. Maybe the fall and the shrieking had killed him. This didn’t seem real. Not lifelike real. It felt like his college dreams, extremely normal as he was sinking steadily. The things he could see looked real: water, the bottom of the ship, the iceberg’s dominating presence to his right, and fish. 

Why are fish swimming in my afterlife?

After a while, he felt his backside hit bottom. He lay on his back for a long while, paralyzed with uncertainty. Could he move? If he could, should he? If he were dead, why should he? If he were not, well, that would just be really weird. Something that looked like a festive sombrero floated by his face. J---- recalled reading about these bioluminescent, deep sea jellyfish. It was a beautiful creature, but it moved out of sight.

Dead or not, laying around was getting boring, so he stood up and started to walk around. There was a lot of “life” down here: swimming, crawling, plants waving in the ‘wind’ of the water. It was a remarkably flat surface, so walking was easy. He couldn’t see very far, certainly not to the surface, but in the few meters around himself, he managed to see enough to navigate. He eventually found a monstrous plant with stalks that went far up into the darkness, and without thinking he started to climb. He had never been able to climb the rope in high school gym class, but this was much easier. His body felt much lighter. 

Probably because I’m dead, he thought.  

He imagined there might be giants at the top of this stalk, but instead found that it ended at a vast sheet of ice. 

Is this the bottom of an iceberg, THE iceberg?, he wondered. 

Seeing no way around the ice, he inverted himself to start climbing back down. Instead, his feet hit the smooth surface on the underside of the ice and he found he was able to walk. Being upside down in water was almost the same as being right side up. He just walked along until he came to the edge, then found he could also walk up the side. He walked, underwater, like 1960’s Batman and Robin on the side of a Gotham building. The light become brighter at the surface.  The vertical turned into a gently sloped, submerged section of the iceberg that jutted far out into the water. He could see the ship from here, beginning to glint in the sunrise. He was still well below water as he started walking the slope.

As the ship sat still, pressed against the iceberg, the deck was a flurry of activity. First aide, hugs, and amazement at the adventure. Unfunny Titanic jokes were repeated endlessly. Every passenger was busy doing something, except old Art, who sat holding the soaked, ruined canvas that had been fished out of the water. He was covered in blankets and watching the iceberg. Others came to console him on the loss of his friend. There was still hope they lied to him. He smiled, and nodded, accepting their words of sympathy.

As the sun rose, he spotted something on the ridge of the iceberg. A movement below the water. He watched for minutes on end, unsure of what trick the sun and water were playing, but studying it for the canvas he was painting in his mind. Slowly he stood and walked toward the railing. The crew tried to shoo him back, trying to keep people safe in case there was another lurch when the ship backed away from the iceberg. But more people began to join him. Curious, disbelieving eyes followed his gaze into the water.
  
What is he looking at?

Something is moving out there on the ice under the water.

It looks like a sea creature. 

“No,” the old man said, “it is a person.” 

It can’t be a person.

How is it breathing? 

Why isn’t it swimming?

Finally, “it” emerged above the waterline of the icy outcrop. It looked around, found the direction toward the boat, and started walking. Its head disappeared below the water once or twice as it walked the ice, then re-emerged as the water became shallower. It climbed the last stretch, and was pulled aboard over the rails by the ship’s crew. 

J----- and the old man walked toward each other and embraced.

“We are really going to sell some art, my friend.”


This story appears courtesy of David Eccher. You can and should follow David on twitter at @DaveEccher



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