Benthic Zone

I published “Benthic Zone” in summer 2012 in Thunder Sandwich, but never posted it to this site, so I thought I’d reprise a version of it here. 

You say, “Hello, Thomas, I haven’t heard from you for so long. Lydia and I were worried.”

I pause, thinking how strange your voice sounds. As if the underwater communications cable had a leak. Your words gargle.

“I’ve been very busy, Dad,” I hear myself saying, wondering if my words, like yours, sound like mouthwash. I try to think of the next thing to say, but it doesn’t come to me. I let the background noise fill in the time. A long moment passes.

“Well. So you’ve been busy,” you answer, as if you needed to remind me.

My brow furrows. “Yes, too busy. I’m finishing up revisions for my latest book—the publisher wants them yesterday—and getting ready to go to Munich for a workshop.”

“Ah, the life of a famous novelist.”

“Well, novelist,” I say. “Don’t know about the ‘famous’ part.” I’m satisfied with my modesty and I smile.

“And how is Paula?” you ask. I think you ask this as a demonstration, but perhaps your care is genuine.

“Fine, fine. She’s been busy too.” I pause, wondering, as I always do, how much detail to go into. You are not someone who has spent time trying to understand contemporary art. I leave it at this: “She’s got a new exhibit opening in Düsseldorf next month, and she’s been rushing around like crazy getting everything coordinated. She’s a little frazzled.”

“Ah-hah,” you say, which irritates me since your tone suggests discovery or understanding. I think: you do not discover, much less understand.

More time passes. I imagine benthic creatures—lanternfish, bristlemouths, viperfish—inhabitants of the deepest part of the ocean, neighbors of the submarine communications cables that multinational corporations have spent billions of dollars laying and maintaining. Are the creatures eavesdropping on our stilted words as they cross back and forth along the ocean floor? Do they feel the same pressure I feel when I talk to you? Do they know—do they care—what would happen to them if they floated up to shallower zones? Do they think how the change in pressure would kill them as they move up the layers of the water column, away from their refuge of deep-water cold where light does not penetrate? Away from where they live off the organic matter that sinks down from upper levels?

“Lydia is fine, by the way,” you say.

“Alright.” I say this purposely. Not “good” or “glad to hear it,” but just “alright.” I make a point of saying as little as possible about Lydia. In fact, I try not to speak her name. I say, “your wife,” for example, when I talk to you, if I have to bring her up at all. You’ve stopped reminding me she is my stepmother. Forty years ago you left mom to marry that woman. So you live with her, and you leave me out of it.

“It would be nice if you at least sent her a birthday card,” you say. I let the benthic creatures speak for me. Why would you bring this up again in a trans-Atlantic telephone conversation? Probably because I haven’t seen you for ten years, the last time you visited Berlin, with that woman, the last time you were healthy enough to get on a plane and fly overseas. You feel you don’t have many chances to remind me there is a minimum standard of civility I ought to observe.

“Look, son, I have something to tell you. Important news. I wanted to discuss this with you face-to-face, but since that’s impossible…”

Did the lanternfish swimming along the cable now cast its light on our words? Could that light travel along the cable just as our vowels and consonants do? Should I shield my eyes?

“I know you vowed never to come back,” you say. I should take this as a mild reproach, nothing more. I’ve heard it so many times. But I’m reminded of something more serious, Zola’s J’accuse.

I say nothing. I keep my words to myself, or between me and the lanternfish. Summer 1968. The summer after the Summer of Love. After they killed Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. After Chicago, the convention, the beatings, the Yippies. After the Tet Offensive, which shocked Americans into realizing that the Vietnam War could not be won. The violence, the draft, the drugs, and the bleeding soldiers and peasants on the CBS News. After Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, because he had lost Cronkite, and that meant losing Middle America, and that part of Wisconsin you still live in, where I once lived with you and mom, my real mom, the one whose funeral I missed. The one you abandoned, divorced. It has been that long, and I have kept my vow, despite your anger, then your silence, and then our slow, miserable reconciliation of sorts, and your three trips to see Paula and me here in our comfortable apartment in Berlin’s Rudeloffweg. And my absence, which I once wrote about in a novel, a novel you have not read, I hope, entitled The Absence. The reviews were good. Not great, but good, at least for a political novel, which is not to everyone’s taste.

“I’ve had to make a tough decision,” you say. My God, just say it, I think. I’m a busy man, and the water pressure in the benthic zone is unbearable for all but the most stoic of creatures, like the bristlemouth, the Marcus Aurelius of the deep-water world.

“I’m ninety years old,” you go on. “People ask me how I feel and I say ‘ninety’.”

There is a pause. Should I chuckle? Are you trying to lighten the mood? To what purpose? You were always a joker.

“The long and the short of it, Thomas, is this.” Another few seconds pass. Or are they hours? Are you trying to increase the narrative tension? I hear no waves of background hiss, no crackles or clicks of indeterminate origin. No gargling. The connection is as clear as it can be, a marvel of global communications, with no interference from my friends, the bottom feeders, and the even deeper feeders who don’t glide a few inches above the ocean floor but burrow underneath it, waiting for their prey. I read that once a whale got tangled in an underwater cable. I told you about it. To fill in the conversation.

“I’ve decided not to have a certain medical procedure done.”

A certain medical procedure. Had one of my students written that, I would have made an annotation: Vague. Be specific.

“Well, don’t fix what isn’t broken,” I say. I rue the words as they come out of my mouth. Given all the time and sweat I have devoted to avoiding clichés, to writing authentic words, to being authentic, complex; and I say something like this. Yet it reflects my disdain for you, doesn’t it? I take your speech (and therefore your thought) to be trite, mundane, superficial. You never swim in the benthic zone. You never reach the deep. You stay in the shallows. My words are an insult to you.

You don’t take it that way. Without pause, you say, “Well, normally I would agree with you there, son, but in this case, we already tried to fix it and it worked for a while. But no more. I’m not going to have another surgery.”

I think, surgery? Which surgery? You had heart-bypass surgery, but that was years ago, and everything was fine. Wasn’t it? What other kind of surgery? I remember: colon cancer. You had chemotherapy.

“You mean for your colon?” I say.

“No, no. That’s all okay.”

I think: Well then, for Christ’s sake, what?

“It’s for a problem I didn’t tell you about,” you say. Now you are irritating me. You’ve kept a major medical problem from me, and I am in the dark. I may choose to live in the parts of the ocean where the light never reaches, but that is my choice. You, however. You do not keep me in the dark.

“Okay, Dad,” I say. “Tell me.”

“Three years ago. I had surgery for bladder cancer. Then chemo. It was tough, I was in a lot of discomfort, feeling like I’d lost control, had to take pills for the depression. Lydia pulled me through. I couldn’t be on my own without her.”

I stay on guard with my silence.

“Funny, isn’t it? What I just said,” you say. “I couldn’t be on my own without her, but that means I’m not on my own. I’m with her. And dependent on her.”

“Yes.” I think of Lydia, the woman Paula calls “Tammy.” Because she looks like Tammy Faye did. Lydia, the woman about whom I published a short story, a runner-up for the Pushcart Prize more than fifteen years ago. A woman with a southern accent, mile-long eyelashes, too much Bible-Belt churching. Who pursues a happily married man, and gets him. Or is he so happily married? If he let Lydia, or rather Jolene, the character in the story, seduce him, then how happy was he? That’s the point. You don’t know how happy he was. You only know he is unhappy now, after Jolene turns out to be a sister of Iris, a harpy, mythical snatcher of food and men, torturer. Yet it appears my dad is happy, and thankful. And Lydia has done what a faithful spouse should do, namely care for her aging partner. So who was the story about?

“You still there, Thomas?”

“I’m still here, Dad. I had no idea you had bladder cancer, or surgery.”

Or did I? Do I recall a weakness in your voice over the phone a few years back? A brief but distinctive catch as you spoke? A hesitancy in your response, which I took to be old age? Senility. Had I just not wanted to pursue an intimation I had that there was something more?

“It’s something I didn’t want to discuss. But that’s over. The cancer has spread now, well beyond the bladder, and the prognosis isn’t good. They gave me an option, laid out the odds, and I’d rather die here at home, God willing, than on an operating table. Or in a hospital room where they’re constantly sticking and probing you.”

Now comes the time when I have to ask how long you have. Right? Since I’ve never had to ask this question before, to use precisely these words, what tone do I adopt? Mom’s death was sudden. Paula and I were in Uzbekistan, of all places, at a time when communications were thin at best, before I had a cell phone, before Gorbachev, and I didn’t hear of her death until two days after the funeral. No decision necessary. So how do I ask the necessary question? Paula tells me I need to let my heart speak more. It would improve my writing. Yet that option, like more surgery for you, has been off the table for some time. My mind will have do the talking, even if it feels waterlogged.

I flail ahead. “How long do they give you, Dad?” I’m happy with the tone, but disgusted I am thinking about how I sound to you, how I’m coming off, as you face death.

“Oh, hard to say. Probably two, three months. It’s all guesswork. Important thing now is pain regulation. Lydia sees to that. And I let the rest just take care of itself.”

You are not worried about how you sound. Your voice has a calmness to it that seems genuine even though it comes from thousands of miles away. Even though it has been transmitted underwater, through a deep-sea world that we humans know almost nothing about. Uncharted territory. You have made a decision, and you have no second thoughts. I admire you, and hate you. You don’t need my “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand” help in determining how or where you will die. No response necessary. I am the superfluous son. Bystander. The un-son. Sauve qui peut.

Again I think of how clear the connection is. As if we were next-door neighbors. As if I had come over for a beer on a cool summer evening in the small town in Wisconsin where you have lived all your life. As if we are sitting on the screened-in porch, hearing the birds settle in for the night, the faint rumble of the Interstate in the distance. I wonder if you still have that screened-in porch. Or have you remodeled? Do you still sit out there? With Lydia? I think of the many summer nights we didn’t have. Those conversations we never had are as clear as this submarine fiber-optic connection. Startlingly present in their absence.

The doorbell rings. I know who it is. Before she left the apartment in her flowing green dress and sandals, Paula reminded me her agent was coming around today, delivering important papers for her exhibition.

“Dad, I want to talk more. But I have to take a special delivery and talk over some details for ten or fifteen minutes. For Paula. It couldn’t be handled by e-mail or cell phone. I have to be the middleman. I’ll call back as soon as I’m done.”

You are impressed. I never call. You are the one who calls me. Now I have promised. “Good, Thomas, good. I’ll be waiting here by the phone.” You know I would hang up if Lydia answered. Or maybe this time it would be different.


            I sit back at my desk. The agent who smells of cigarettes has gone. I’ve done my job, listened to the instructions, and it all took no more than five minutes. Before I call you back, I open my laptop. I made a decision while the agent still chattered. I type into the search box at the upper right of the screen: L-u-f-t-h-a-n-s-a. The pressure is immense as I float upward.