FICTION: Oceans and Rivers by Andrew James Talbot

Natalia Kugawai could forgive her father-in-law for many things – his too-short tracksuit pants that reveal lurid rings of pale ankle flesh; his habit of making multi-coloured machine guns out of her son Jonas’ Lego – but she could never forgive him for being so alive. Not when his son was not.

“Sure,” he says, his eyes investigating the rear-view mirror, “that broomstick looks pretty fast, but you remember the Porsche 934 turbo? Now that was a car – built like a tank that could fly.”

“He’s eight,” she tells held hands, “and under his invisibility cloak.”

“Exactly why he needs to know all this,” he unnecessarily whispers. “I mean, I saw him going into school today. Looked like a puppy about to cross the freeway.”

He had a point. Jonas had forgotten his books again. Just carried an empty backpack. Although he had, as always, remembered to take ‘Jonases List of Top Seven Films I have ever Seen’, seven of which were Harry Potter. After his teacher Ms. Carol had phoned, (“I’m thinking we should just go and put your number on speed dial, Ms. Kuu-ga!-why?”) Natalia remembered just how far back kids start. When she pointed at the animals in the picture books they used to read, Jonas would just stare at her finger. According to Ms. Carol, he had spent most of last week’s biology exam trying to design a magic wand.

“Now I know you ain’t going to like this one iota,” he continues, “But you look at all history, or you look at all Shakespeare, which is the same goddamn thing, you’ll see that if there’s a power vacuum – bang! – that’s when danger bursts right in.”

He had fought as a pilot in World War Two. Marooned on the heel of Italy, a place so wondrous he never lets an opportunity pass without comparing it to the rest of the entire, sub-standard universe (“This pizza is ok but…”, “I don’t think I ever saw more beautiful vistas than when I…” “The standard of your average stainless-steal garlic crusher you find in Salento…”). He lives in a one-bedroom apartment and fails to grow oregano on his windowsill. Her apartment-size house is on a street between the suburbs and the city. Depending on the website they are ordering takeout from, she can live in different neighborhoods. Natalia always chooses the city side. It makes her life feel still young.

“With Silvio gone, well, there’s a giant space, a giant masculine space in his life, and, well, I’d like to fill it. I know I’m old and drive you crazy and Jonas and I don’t have a lot, well, in common. But I will pay the rent.”

3 pensions – one public, one military, one private – means he clears $50k a year. And spends about $8 a month. He drives a 1980 Camaro at 30mph. Downhill.

“Stop looking at the dash, Nat? Why’d I want to go any faster? I want to stay in this car for as long as possible! You think I actually want to get to the supermarket?”

“All I’m saying is that there are faster bicycles than us.”

“I know,” he says, the sun reflecting of his smooth head, prescription sunglasses hanging on the end of his nose, “Reminds me of all the Vespas I used to drive past. Now they were great. Waddya say? You don’t have to tell me you’re struggling. There ain’t no shame here, just life, real life. You’ve been doing a grand job, no doubt about it. But, yeah. Daily time with Jonas for the rent all covered. Deal?”

So this, she realises, is what it feels like to have no choice.

“Deal. I guess. But there has to be boundaries, ok? And we’ll need to get you some new clothes – when you sit down, I can see your knees.”

“Done! But you ever need anything else, you just gotta let me know, ok? Whatever it is. Don’t be afraid to ask. I lost my boy too, remember? Now, how about we all go down to Johnny’s and get ourselves burgers with all the thrills. It ain’t a spot on the burgers we used to feast upon down in Italia but still…”

So Nat (alia), took the check (a whole year of stress gone) and gave him a spare key (and got a whole year of different stress). To celebrate, once the groceries had been sufficiently homed, she went and locked herself in her bedroom. Sitting on the bed, she felt her soul begin to crack. Splinters grew down every side. Deep breaths were her cheap glue. She shook her head and let out a silent laugh. In the dresser mirror she saw what was, somehow, still her: circular face; the hair the colour of dark chocolate; eyes set back behind once-fashionable frames. Pulling her hoodie hood over her head, she sees a shard of diamond light slash the greying walls. Her engagement ring still on strong. Life suddenly felt stretched, as if she was falling forwards yet staying still. Her fingers leap to her hair for support, pulling and separating and examining each end, like a checker on a never-ending factory line.

Jonas was at school and would be enthusiastically bullied via the medium of judo practice until six. Tonight’s dinner would be yesterday’s dinner with added heat and not-completely-frozen peas. A 45-minute Homework Hour would follow, the two of them on the floor coloring in maps of the Amazon or drawing Roman commanders. A 90-minute TV Hour was usually next – Jonas would sit on the sofa and re-re-re-re-re-re-watch a DVD, mouthing the words with the characters until she ran his bath. Book Hour until the second he fell asleep, his closed eyes panicking under impossibly thin lids, the day being played back to him at super-speed. A glass of wine. One bottle every four days. She often woke around 2am; a lost ghost, the sofa the aftermath of an epic wrestling match between pillows and blankets.

When she officially awoke, Jonas was always awake, busy updating his film list before the public transport voyage to school. Once left alone with the shadows and silence of her suddenly still house, she tried to make every room look less like a hurricane had stayed the night. At eight twenty two, she walked three blocks to Johnson, Johnson, and Jones, where, as a highly qualified legal secretary, she was just a P.A with a secretary’s salary, and flawlessly accomplished the same long-list of menial tasks she had been doing since the second year of law school. At lunch, she has an organic sandwich and fresh fruit juice. While walking home, she imagines herself in other people’s lives, the everyday strangers returning home from hard yet satisfying work to a family full of tired, strong love. She knew she was alive. Because her husband was not. But how alive was another matter.

Due to Lucia – his ex-wife, the only ever negative thing about Italy – any Latin-based names were out. And due to residual war issues, kanji complications, and the fact that Natalia didn’t really like any, Japanese names were gone too. Her parents were too old and too distant to influence proceedings, anyway. Jonas sounded strong and was, with any luck, unlikely to be shortened (Natalia had got used to only slightly hating ‘Nah’, which, she had given up explaining, was just like being called a lazy form of ‘no’).

“Jo! Pack your bag with books! Time to go to school! And put down that can!” He shouts from the driveway, MOR classics slurring from the opening front door, his bent body struggling to find a good angle to exit.

“But it’s full with spells!”

When his own son passed, he just drove. He stayed in his Camaro for a week, a change of clothes squeezed into the glove box. Now he lectures on processed sugar and triglycerides.

“But everyone else in my class can drink soda, why can’t I?”

“Because the rest of your class can’t run!” He shouts while offering over today’s Breakfast Smoothie (Kale, Ginger, Banana, Mango, Coconut water).

They meet halfway on the scratchy lawn. Skipped generations face to face. Innocence against experience.

“Tell me,” Jonas says as he unbends an aluminum foil wand from his pocket, “Are you familiar, Sir, with the wrath of wizards?”

He gives Jonas a look that says he understands that he has to understand.

“We leave in two minutes, Jonas! We’ll put your spells in the trunk.”

This was everyday now. And night. Natalia knew he only wanted to help and, worse, was. Jonas would now bring him all homework that involved numbers. Addition. Subtraction. Distance = Speed x Time. Carbon Dioxide and the air we breathe. Oceans and rivers. A photo of his Dad stood by his bedside. There was one in his bag with creases like veins in old hands. The fridge had not been updated yet – when un-sucking its door, Natalia avoided his eyes in case her own again broke.

“I know Dad isn’t coming back. But where is he?”

They are watching commercials. Almost-empty plates sit on the front room floor, waiting for their nightly soak in the sink.

“He is in your heart. And mine. And many others, safe in our hearts forever.”

“And Harry Potter’s”

“Yes, and Harry Potter’s.”

“Maybe Dad will be in the next film?!”

“Maybe,” his Mother said, tears swooping.

On the sofa later that night, holding an empty wine glass with both hands, she wondered about the difference between being remembered and being missed. His Dad was missed. This Dad would be remembered. She should be nicer. For him, Jonas aside, most future experiences were negative – there was, after all, little good to come. But how much responsibility did she owe the past? More than the present or less than the future? What if you can’t tell the difference? Yesterday she had watched a mother help her obviously very – what was the right word? – handicapped son walk down the road and she hated herself for thinking ‘thank God this was not that.’ Jonas had spoken in animal sounds until he was four: roar = yes; bark = no; hiss = that!; meow = more Cheerios. She kept searching her past for signs, clear events that might explain why this was what her life had become. She found no narratives, no themes or twists. She also found no next act.

“Y’know, Nah,” He almost-shouts from the kitchen, actually wearing an apron, “I wish all the energy my ol’ body spends on growing hair and nails and all that stuff could be switched off. And put elsewhere. Like cooking. Like vacuuming. Y’know?”

No reply. He turned towards the quiet. Natalia was on the sofa checking for split-ends.

When they called, she dropped her cup. But it didn’t break. After returning from the hospital, she threw the cup against the wall with all her leftover strength, leaving the shattered remains to drown in puddles of colding coffee. She watched people miraculously manage to walk past her window without collapsing in screams. Only one neighbor, an impossibly thin Brazilian woman with long dreadlocks as thick as her long legs, had stood on her front yard waiting for Nachaleee to come out.

“I am sorry about your husband, good man. He work, he pay, he care for your boy. Mine? Don’t know, can be anywhere. Drink? Maybe will help.” She said, as she offered her a strong sweet lemon cocktail.

“Thank you. I was just taking the trash out,” Natalia said, as she stared at her empty hands.

Natalia sat down; what grass there was felt like hay. She was surrounded by plastic toys that trapped tiny lagoons of last week’s rain. To the left buzzed a city full of rush and plans. To her right, the silent hulk of mountains she knew she would never climb. The wind that whipped through the garden reminded her what air was made of.

“You want more, call me!” Her neighbor called, as she hummed back into her house, leaving the door open, the sound of her TV coming through like a secret conversation.

Natalia drank. Later, she woke up on the sofa with a blanket over her legs and a bulldozer in her brain. Jonas was watching a muted TV, eating toast they had to call from then on bruschetta. She went back to sleep and woke up in her bed strangely calm. So, she thought, he came back. Everything is going to be fine. Why had I worried so much? And then she woke up the next day and Jonas was watching TV in the same clothes and there was nothing to eat that could be called food.

It was just a fall but a month later the Camaro was sold and they had a brand new (Italian) stove. The spare bedroom he stayed in was now the bedroom he lived in. There were three meals a day waiting for Natalia and Jonas. They ate out on the weekends. Sunday was Cinema Night (but the list never changed). Promotion (in title only). Jonas quit judo and started drama classes. Finally, the fridge was done. Her parents visited, much to everyone’s surprise, and left a week early, much to no one’s. Life ran on. Soon she changed her phone screen-saver to just Jonas. Income tax. Faulty plumbing. Cable TV subscriptions. Forgotten recycling. Half a book a week. Two bottles. The verdict-less trials of everyday life. Then, the anniversary.

“If Dad is in all our hearts, why do we have to go to the church?”

“Because that is where all the best memories are kept. And you can speak to him. If you want?”

“And will he speak to me?”

“Of course. In your head. And heart.”

“Why isn’t he coming?” Jonas whispered, nodding towards the steaming kitchen.

Since he sold the car, it was too embarrassing to be driven anywhere. Instead, it took him all morning to walk the five-minute drive to the supermarket. He said he liked the air. And it was good for his now-bad back. He used to walk forehead first. It reminded her of a helicopter attacking.

“Are you ready? Why aren’t you bringing your bag?”

“I don’t have any spells that work with Daddy.”

Before she shattered, the doorbell rang. It was her neighbour, a wide smile on her face and a large oven dish held by two shaking hands.

“Hey! I think that today you not want to cook! For you, typical Brazil plate.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Natalia said, putting her hair up.

“Thank you!” Jonas smiled beside her.

“And you are good, little man?”

“We are going to see Daddy.”

“Great!” The neighbour replied while watching a bird sweep through the garden and soar on towards the mountains, before losing its flight in the bruise of the horizon.

“Hey! Hey there! Listen, thank you kindly for all the food, I’m sure it’s real nice, but I’ve already gone and done a few traditional Southern Italian dishes for today, if you see what I mean?”

The sound of people not knowing what to say.

“But we will take it,” Natalia finally admits, taking the dish from her relieved neighbour, “Thank you very much. It will make a nice change from always pasta, pasta, pasta.”

“Is nothing! Please, take care. I am here if you need?”

But she didn’t yet turn. No one knew who should leave first.

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Andrew James Talbot

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Andrew James Talbot was born in Norway but raised in England and has travelled extensively, living in Japan, Russia, and Argentina. He now lives in Brazil with his young family.

If you enjoyed Oceans and Rivers, leave a comment and let Andrew know.

You can read Andrew’s previously published short story Best Foot Forward here.

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