The Odd Sea (Frederick Reiken)

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  Almost two years after Ethan vanished, we found his shoe. More specifically, his left pond sneaker--a canvas Nike trainer with a large hole in the toe. Halley discovered it in mid-April, while she was raking out a long-neglected patch of ivy, under a lilac tree that stands close to the end of our gravel driveway. Holding the sneaker by its rubber toe, she carried it straight up to my bedroom, where she placed it on the floor. We knew we shouldn't really touch it, so we just watched the thing in silence. I leaned down close and looked inside, although not sure what I hoped to see. The inner sole was black but had some sort of white fungus growing out of it. I recall staring hard at this fungus, all the while feeling as if I were gazing at some visible, living form of Ethan's absence.

Before dinner, we took the sneaker downstairs. Dana immediately started bawling. Mom bit her lip and a few tears fell down her cheeks. Dad left the room and telephoned the police.

Several officers spent the evening searching the ivy. They turned up a dozen or so old tennis balls, a worm-eaten Nerf football, and a blue catcher's mitt I lost when I was eight. Dwight Hurley, the state police investigator assigned to Ethan's case, was with them. He was a large man with incredibly large feet. Dwight was the one who took the sneaker, then two weeks later he reported that no blood or hair or useful evidence had been discovered. He called to say that the ongoing investigation would continue, but that the sneaker had not provided any new leads.

Mom's insomnia kicked in. She began spending her nights baking and reading novels in the kitchen. She would spend hours standing out with the stars. She became withdrawn and basically unresponsive, as if some literary/baking/star-loving zombie had inhabited her body. I took to waking very early, so that sometimes I could sit with her in the kitchen. I would read comic books while she baked. There were times when I'd come down only to find her passed out facedown on the table. One morning I found her asleep and drooling on the pages of Moby-Dick.

Two mornings later, when I came downstairs, she was not in the kitchen at all. Rain was still pounding away on our house's corrugated steel roof, dripping in parallel ropes of water down the gutterless metal eaves. I also noticed that there was mud tracked all over the kitchen floor.

I searched around downstairs and found more mud, including what seemed like a small wallow in the TV room. When I looked closer I saw this was in fact Mom's muddy blue jeans Iying on top of the dark green rug. Her muddy sneakers and socks lay there as well.

I ran outside at that point. In the flat dawn light I spied my mother Iying half naked in a flower bed filled with daffodils. I sprinted over, touched her shoulder, and tried eliciting a response. I said, "Hey Mom, what's wrong? You're out here Iying on the ground."

My mother lay on her side, knees to her chest, shivering. When she looked up, she moaned something that resembled the words "air mail." She started crying after that, the whole time staring at my face. I suspected that she was trying to tell me something, but she kept crying. No words came out.

I said, "Don't worry, I'm getting Dad." I pulled a leaf from her cheek, caressed her head once, then raced inside and woke my father. I told him Mom was Iying out in the flower bed. He looked confused for about a second, but the next instant he was darting across the bedroom in his underwear. He ran outside in the pouring rain and lifted Mom from the crushed daffodils. Then with a firemen's-style carry, he brought her in and quickly got her under a hot shower.

As we'd eventually learn, Mom had spent part of the night searching in the ivy patch where Halley had found the sneaker. She'd come inside after that. While she was inside she drank vodka, took four Valiums, and had started to undress in the TV room. Then she went out again with plans to go and drown herself in Baker's Bottom Pond. Somehow she wound up Iying in the flower bed.

As the sun rose behind clouds on that late-spring morning, my father drove her to a hospital in Greenfield, where in the years since Ethan's disappearance, she had consulted with a doctor about her ongoing depression. At one point he had put her on medication, but the side effects proved intolerable and she stopped taking the pills within two weeks. This time they had to pump her stomach, hook her up to an IV, and monitor her heart for a few hours. By early afternoon, she was in the clear and sleeping like a baby.

* * *

The first time we went to see Mom in the hospital, we all played hearts in the first-floor lounge room, which had windows that looked out over a wide meadow. Dana creamed everyone, as usual, and Mom kept staring out the window, unaware that she kept showing us her cards. Each time she took the pile she would smile timidly. I'd smile back, then understand that she was not seeing us. It didn't take much to recognize the emptiness in her eyes. Dad sat beside her, rubbing her neck and telling jokes to fill the silence. After the visit, we went for dinner at a nearby train-car diner. Dana, Halley, and I all ordered milk shakes, which we drank as Dad explained that our mom was not crazy and how we had to think of her depression as a disease.

I was jealous when Dana went off to a six-week intensive basketball camp in Connecticut, and of Amy because she never seemed to be around. In the first weeks after Mom's hospitalization, Halley and I had become insomniacs. We'd walk around all night and fall asleep during our school classes. I once got kicked out of Algebra II for snoring. Then school ended for the year, but the insomnia only seemed to be getting worse. Sometimes we'd spend half the night in Lou Brown's pasture, or else we'd wander around Baker's Bottom Pond. There was a beaver lodge on the far side, and on one full-moon night we sat out watching beavers until dawn. They kept appearing on the surface of the water outside the lodge, gliding around with their wakes visible in the moonlight. Sometimes they swam so close I could have reached out and touched one with my foot. The beavers seemed not to mind our presence, yet for some reason this made me feel invisible, and afraid.

Mom had begun taking the drug known as Pamelor, a member of the tricyclic antidepressant family. We had no idea what this meant. All we knew was that the drug was not supposed to work until she had been on it at least three weeks. And that the side effects Mom felt were recurring dizziness and fatigue. She said it also made everything taste like copper.

We kept visiting her regularly, eating our dinners at that same diner, and always wondering when they'd let her leave the hospital. When we returned home on clear nights, Halley and I would sometimes stand out with the stars. That was the summer we decided we would learn the constellations. For six dollars we bought a star chart at a toy store in Northampton, and pretty soon we could find Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle.

One night in late June Dad returned from work excited. He came inside and yelled for Halley and me to come downstairs. It had been about six weeks since that strange morning I'd found Mom out in the flower bed. We both assumed he'd tell us Mom would be coming home.

But when we came downstairs we both learned otherwise. The "good news" was about his carpentry. Our dad explained that he was changing things, that he would soon be doing what he wanted with his life. This was to be the summer he pledged the rest of his working life to the ancient craft of timber-frame construction. At first we worried he was losing his mind too.

That week Dad purchased several timber framing books.

He talked a lot with Uncle Cliff and then consulted with a friend who made handcrafted cellos and violins. Saturday morning he went out and felled two dozen hemlocks in the woods behind our house. Using Lou Brown's tractor, he dragged all of the logs back to his shop. Then piece by piece, without a buyer, he set about the task of building his first frame.

He took to waking at dawn, and if we heard him Halley and I would get up too. By then we were both sleeping a little better, but it seemed any little noise was enough to wake us. We'd head downstairs and find Dad making coffee in the kitchen. He'd have the sports section out, so we would usually talk about the Red Sox. That was the summer I learned the names of players such as Jim Rice and "Dewey" Evans. We also talked about Wade Boggs, the young third baseman who that year had become the team's surprise rookie sensation. To me it always seemed that we were talking about Ethan, in a way.

Then Dad would hole up for an hour or two inside his garage wood shop. Before he went off to a standard Shumway Homebuilders job in Windsor, he'd reappear on our front lawn, where he would stack each hand-hewn beam under a blue vinyl tarp. Sometimes he'd crouch out there, beside the beams, staring at them and touching them. And as the sultry summer breezes blew, I'd sometimes see my father's lips moving. From a distance it looked as if he were saying "pshawww . . ." all of the time. Or else it looked as if he were mimicking the wind sounds. Once I got Halley and we watched him through a window. I said, "I'm not sure what he's doing." Halley kept staring until Dad rose, walked to his pickup, and drove off. Then she turned back to me and said, "I think he's praying."

* * *

A timber frame is held together only by wooden pegs and gravity. Each beam is carved with protruding tenons at its ends. These are inserted into specially shaped holes known as mortises. To build a timber frame requires the same skill necessary to craft a fine piece of furniture. There is a purity and a deep spirituality to this art, and as I watched my father day after day that summer, he seemed to move in and out of a kind of trance.

Sometimes, when he worked outside, I'd see him standing atop a fresh-cut log, scoring it with a felling ax. Chips flying around his knees, protective goggles over his eyes, he'd bring the ax down on the rounded surface of the log, stroke after angled stroke, until a rough and relatively flat surface emerged. Occasionally his ax would become embedded in the wood, and he would gracefully jiggle the ax handle until the blade came loose.

And always, while watching him, I would sense that he was lost. Lost in the grain of each beam he shaped. Lost within his own sea of longing and despair. He'd swing his ax with fervent strokes, as if carving each log a soul. Then it made sense to me, finally, that Ethan possessed such poise when he played guitar. It made sense that Amy saw things with such penetrating vision, that Dana's intuition could seem practically clairvoyant, because my father struck those logs with a strange, emotionally driven grace, a compassionate equilibrium, which I knew he could not have learned or understood.

He needed special short-handled axes for hewing scored logs into smooth, square beams. These are called broadaxes, named for their unusually wide cutting edge. There are several shapes and sizes, including the rare "goose-wing" blades, which can be worth thousands of dollars.

At all times Dad kept his broadaxes razor sharp. With a broadax he could hew surfaces so smooth they looked as if they had just been planed. But this would take him a lot of time, and once I asked why he didn't use an electric planer. He shook his head the way he would anytime we missed some point he considered obvious. Then he said, "Philip, this is art--the art of building without hammer, nails, or electric tools. All you need is strong arms and a little patience, and you can give rise to a structure that will last for generations. What could be more satisfying than that?"

That summer Dad also took to chewing wads of tobacco. He hewed his beams on a vertical, and to test the plumb of his work, he'd spit a brown gob of saliva along the hewn face. He'd watch the spittle dripping down--checking to see that it dripped exactly vertical.

Dad also used a tool called an adze, with which he gave the four hewn surfaces of each beam their final touches. Adzes are still made today, but they are more often found lying around in old barns or cellars. Dad got his first adze from Lou Brown, who believed the adze was some sort of hoe. For years Lou had been using the adze to chop ice off his driveway.

Dad used other hand tools as well: mallets for pounding and a corkscrew-like auger for boring holes. He would use handsaws, hatchets, and a marking gauge known as a "combination square."

But clearly his most important tool was the chisel. His greatest joy came from using his many chisels to square mortises, pare beam shoulders, and bevel the ends of tenons. Chiseling was the most refined work of the process, and while it would have been possible to get away with one good chisel, my father felt compelled to collect chisels of every shape and size available.

Most hardware stores carry butt chisels, which are seven or eight inches in length. For timber framing, these are worthless. A good chisel, for his purposes, was a foot and a half long, with a blade at least a quarter inch in thickness.

There are long chisels known as "slicks" and special "corner chisels" with a folded, right-angled cutting edge, used to clear wood waste from the corners of a mortise. While a straight-edge chisel can be used to do the same work, the ingenious beauty of the corner chisel led my father to own six. And as with all his timber-framing tools, my father wanted only the best, most authentic, antique specimens. During that summer he accumulated almost three dozen chisels. All were purchased on weekend day trips he made with Halley and me. I recall these as pleasantly strange excursions, which even then I understood, at some level, to be his own way of searching for what was lost.

That summer Amy became a ghost. Home after her freshman year at Boston University, she worked days as an intern for Dick Tuttle, a senior partner in the Northampton-based law firm Hendricks, Tuttle & Pike. We never saw her at the hospital, though Mom said Amy would come to visit on her own. Nights she generally spent with her long-term boyfriend, Ned Southworth, who was managing Southworth Landscaping for his father.

In July Halley began baby-sitting most evenings. I spent the days volunteering at the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, where my duties ranged from guiding small children on bird walks to unclogging stopped-up toilets. Halley had just gotten her driver's license, and she would drive me there each morning in Mom's dying two-door Toyota.

At the time we were each involved in a relationship, the prime directive of which was to find a good place to neck. Halley's boyfriend was Mohawk Trail's star lefty pitcher, Dean Milner. Dean would go on to ruin his left elbow setting all sorts of Massachusetts high school pitching records. Meanwhile I had begun dating a sweet-seeming but secretly enraged girl named Joyce Caruso, who claimed to like me because I was the type of boy who'd keep her out of trouble. Joyce had a very perplexing dark side. For instance, she once confided to me that she and her older sister Gloria were the arsonists who'd set fire to Lou Brown's barn in July of 1977. When I said, "Jesus fucking Christ!" she sort of smiled and said it had been Gloria's idea. Still Joyce admitted she'd liked watching as the fire squad put it out. She claimed it made her feel both powerful and wicked, which were two things she had been taught never to feel.

Joyce was, in her own words, "a failed Catholic," though to most she seemed as chaste and innocent as they come. Her full name was Joyce Marybeth Marina Faith Caruso. In Halley's estimation' Joyce wore "prissy dresses" to school, and Sunday mornings she and her eight siblings would dress like "prisses" to attend a Catholic mass in Pittsfield. Often she'd walk over to my hoUse right after church, although by then she'd be wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt.

With Mom in the hospital, the Toyota was constantly available. Whenever Halley wasn't baby-sitting, she, Joyce, Dean, and I would spend dhe evening cruising around the Hilltowns.

Sometimes we drove down into Pittsfield, where we'd hang out at the local Dairy Queen for unbearably long intervals. We ate soft ice cream and smoked cigarettes until we all felt sick enough to leave.

But on clear nights the drive back to the Hilltowns quickly erased the sterility of that red plastic Dairy Queen booth. Five minutes east of Pittsfield, the earth and sky start to transform. The woods grow thick and the air grows cool and then you realize you are climbing. Soon you begin to see farmland, sloping meadows and wide pastures, which on full-moon nights glow silvery and ghostly, so that the sleeping cows turn blue-gray and take the radiant shapes of wild things.

There is a boundary where the city light of Pittsfield ends, where suddenly night is deep and dark and stars twinkle beckoning you to rise, which you do. You start to float out there, beyond things, without light to obscure the dusty river of the Milky Way. As if slipping through a doorway, the passage into these hills creates a sense of being far-flung, lost in some old and still untamed place, where you could easily disappear.

For a while there are no towns. Then after miles of forested hills and empty meadows, a pointed steeple will pop up. You pass the church, a school, the fire station, town hall. But then as quickly as towns appear, they dissolve back into thick conifer stands and maple forests and rivers.

Once we were safely within those hills, Halley would turn onto some dirt road and drive until we found a decent spot to park. Halley and Dean would start necking in the front seat. Joyce and I necked in back. There was something oddly safe in the whole arrangement, though at times it could prove confusing. Even while necking, Halley and I seemed to keep watch over each other. Sometimes I'd look in the rearview mirror and find her blue eyes staring into mine.

Later she'd say something like, "Philip, you know Joyce keeps her eyes closed when she's kissing."

I'd say, "Well Dean unhooks your bra with the grace of a baboon."

She'd say, "Joyce looks like she's trying to bite your lip off."

I'd say, "Well Dean looks like he's trying to eat your tongue."

But there was only the Toyota, and only Halley had her license. Dean and Joyce didn't mind, and it was summer; we were afraid. Our mother was a patient in a mental ward. Our father was building a strange house on our front lawn. Dana was playing basketball in Connecticut. Amy was miserable and Ethan was still part of the Odd Sea. More than anything, Halley and I needed to be together. And so it really didn't matter what we were doing.

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Excerpted from The Odd Sea by Frederick Reiken. Copyright © 1998 by Frederick Reiken. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.