Across the flat horizon: only blue, no sign of other boats, of anything at all.
“Row row your boat, row—”
“—this goddamn thing.”
The line and anchor had become entangled with something below.
“Pull like this,” Oliver said.
“Nope,” his father said. “Tricksy widget. Snake charmer. Battle slug.”
His father yanked back and forth on the line with an older-man’s violence, unsteady on his feet. His father’s dog, Crappy, yipped encouragement at his heels.
“Sit down, I’ll do it.” But he could not free it either. He looked again for sign of police, or sign they weren’t so alone.
“Nobody’s out there,” his father said. “Trust me. Here, have a nip.”
“I’m going to have to dive for it.”
“Of course you are, you fappy hucker. It’s got my goddamn logo on it.”
“You think someone’s going to find it?”
“Weirder things happen.”
“And if they did—”
“Certain jail time. I don’t make the rules, I just break them.”
“You are a cliché machine.”
“Don’t bother with that ugly face nozzle, it’ll take you thirty seconds, down and back. I can see it right there.”
“You can’t see it. You see the rope, it goes into nothingness.”
“Over the side with you, lout fish.”
“Just need my fins. Stay above me, right? I don’t trust you with an oar.”
“I was born to oar. I’m ad-oar-able. I will oar-rate to you while you fish that thing out.”
“Just stay seated.”
The plunge over felt like entering a planet’s atmosphere. The bubbles floated past like little stars, sparks and ash, aswarm with insects. And the sound—ten million molecules all sung together with a concussive white noise.
When the bubbles cleared he made his way down, his snorkel gripped tightly between his teeth, his breath tight in his lungs. The reef swam about him, brilliant and colored—displaying more colors than the cone-cells in his own eyes could detect. He was a stranger here; an alien creature, not biologically well-equipped. Unlike his father.
He scanned about. On dry land, they lived in two dimensions. But in the reef, danger came from any angle, above or below.
It was his father’s growing incompetence that had ensnared the anchor. Drunk and sudden and impulsive. He had studied his father for signs of dementia; a hobbling thing for a man so ruthlessly independent. As he finned further down he glanced back to see the otherworldly silhouette of their small boat’s hull above, where inside, like the meat of a nut, his father hummed some dirty ditty to himself.
At fifteen feet down he held his nose and blew, to clear the pressure in his ears. At twenty five feet they ached again, but he was still not close enough.
At thirty feet he could see the anchor in the foggy blue light of the bottom, nestled into an indentation between patches of coral, but the pain seared in his head and he was out of breath.
“Oh hey, it’s Oliver,” his father said. He had settled down into the bottom of the boat, his dog Crappy curled in the crook of his arm.
“Thanks for your help, you sonofabitch.”
He clung to the edge to get his breath back.
“What help could I give?—I was staring into the sky, you were diving into the ocean. Here, have another drink.”
“I couldn’t make it. It’s fallen into a hole.”
“The hole at the bottom of the sea, dee-deee-de.” The song ended in a deep cough, like wet sand sloshed about the bottom of a tin can.
“What should I do?”
“What do you mean what should I do? Go get it. Get back down there. Without it we will be forever adrift. Like wee bits of pollen floating on the ocean, colonizing undiscovered lands, et cetera.” The ‘et cetera’ ending in a wet cough that continued for several moments.
“OK, old man.”
“Have another nip. Fortitude.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“All right—but watch. In case I get to drowning I don’t want you falling asleep up here.”
“What would I do?”
“Dive in and pull me out, I suppose. Aren’t you the master at all this?”
“I’m half blind. I don’t know struggle from hello. It’s the sharks I’d worry about.”
“These ones just bite you and spit you out. Taste test. Nobody gets eaten.”
“Like I said.”
He lowered his snorkel back to his mouth and then tore the thing off his face; it was useless if he only dived straight down.
“Maybe don’t lower your goddamn anchor into the reef again?”
His father shrugged.
Sometimes it felt like gliding through a child’s crayon drawing in which turquoise had been over-wielded. He was here to spend some time with his father, the master diver, the expat. But instead found him as drunk and as belligerent as always. If not for the anchor, they would be on their way back, taquería-bound.
He scanned a moment too long for the movement of sharks. Tiburónes. He knew how their gray skin merged with the deeper blue of ocean distance, so that it appeared a shadow pursued you, a blue ghost. His father was afraid of no shark.
By the time he made to the bottom of the reef canyon— one reef wall a collage of vibrant oranges, pinks, maroons, the othera deadened white—and within view of the anchor—his air was finished. The anchor rested on a circular shape, three-four feet in diameter, tangled with some other bit of metal there. It was not part of the reef, and his first thought was: Some old ship has sunk here.
He turned and fled, kicking hard through the dim blue into the bright.
As he raced toward the surface he saw clearly that something was being poured out of the boat, its watery contents making a queer snowflake from below as they hit the water. He wondered if in the interval his father had had second thoughts about a life of drinking.
But as he came closer he saw instead that his father stood at the edge of the boat, pissing over the side.
“You’re such a prick. I’m in here!”
“Hey, don’t rock the boat!” His father produced a low chuckle. “It’s all fluid. You think they don’t shit in this water too?” His father pointed at the sea.
He maneuvered to the far end of the boat. “Anyway.”
“Let’s pretend you got the anchor.”
“It’s tangled with something.”
“We will put it in the boat and make our way home, under the glorious sunset.”
“There’s something else down there. Like a ship or something.”
His father zipped and sat. “There’s no wrecks under the reef. It’s another anchor. Pull that up too.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can.”
“They ask: How do you dive so deep? You dive deep. That’s how,” his father said.
“You goddamn do it then.”
“You’re already wet.” His father stood again to look over the side, then took another draught. “You need to learn it.”
“It’s not my life calling, you know? I’m not ever going to be as good as you.”
“Learn it anyway.”
“If we just cut it, they’ll see both anchors, think a storm took them or something. I’ll buy you a new one.”
“Too late for that. I want to see what other son-bitch is anchoring up on my reef.”
First, to super-oxygenate his lungs, he hyperventilated, then he took an enormous breath and dove. He was stronger this time, and on the way down his ears hurt less. He’d gotten the lecture before. How he lacked inner fortitude, the ability to withstand pain. You’re as soft as a goddamn jelly fish. You’ve got no grit. Instead of following his father’s renegade path further into the remote and the wilds, he’d become a magazine writer and lived in a city. He married, had children (his father declined to visit); all of whom remained at home while he visited his father deep along the Central American coastline. By every normal measure—if you did not count his father’s opinion of him—he was successful. But it was hard to remember this, in his presence.
An enormous gunwale-gray fish passed across his vision, taking its muscular time, blotting out color, so that his descent experienced a hiccup of forward motion.
Within reach of the anchor, his feet dangling toward the surface,his head seeking further down, he grabbed the other metal first, which turned out to be something other than metal. Stone, or bone, or he wasn’t sure; it was covered in a slippery film of algae, which when scraped away revealed white. It was not an anchor, but a large looping handle that curved into the sea floor. He pulled hard and dust rose around the circular area where it lay. Like a plastic ring you might acquire at a carnival, he thought, only enormous. Its face sat against the sea floor, the girth of the stone handle that of his wrist. He gave another pull with all his strength and felt it give the slightest budge. The monstrous fish swam above him now, casting him into shadow. He thrashed away at an angle and shot for the surface, where he could see the shimmery image of his father leaning over the side of the boat. His lungs began to crush inward and then he breached into sunlight.
“You came back. Started to worry about you.”
“No, not really. I started to worry about my anchor. And that I might have to get out of this goddamn boat.”
“I saw a huge fish.”
“He won’t hurt you.”
“And there was a handle. It’s attached to a circular thing, like a big portal fallen off a ship.”
For a moment, his father’s eye caught on the horizon, but he himself could see nothing in the direction he looked.
“I said there was a sort of handle.”
“I heard you. Neverthelesset, is there or is there not an anchor.”
“I’ll get your anchor.”
His father nodded and sat heavily in the boat.
Oliver grabbed hold of the edge and pulled himself halfway up the side, so that he could dangle and rest his legs. The bottle was empty in the bottom of the boat. His father leaned slowly backwards, but then he swung forward and began to shout what may have been a song, if his father had anything to his voice but pea gravel:
“The hole at the bottom of the sea!
You’ll find it and that’s all there’ll be!
You’ll find it when you’re old and cannot see!
No one knows!
What’s inside the hole
in the bottom of the sea!”
His father leaned all the way back in his seat now, so that his back lay across their gear and his head wedged in an uncomfortable position at bow.
“What the hell was that.”
“What you were talking about. The ocean’s plug. I heard tell it’s around here somewhere.”
“That makes no sense.”
His father closed his eyes. “El agujero en el fondo del mar.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
As he kicked downward with his flippers, his body felt eleven years old, to match the age his mind became in the presence of his father. His adolescent muscles frantically flailed with defeated inefficiency. But as he got deeper, his adulthood slowly returned, and his strokes downward became stronger and more self-assured.
The enormous fish made tight, sentry-like turns along the bottom of the sea floor, between the coral canyons.
The fish would not hurt him, his father had said. Still, they were two there in the space near the anchor, two consciousnesses, two planetary entities. The fish clearly the larger of them by several factors. When it swam in his direction, he did his best to acknowledge it by looking it in the eye and giving it a grim smile. A single bubble escaped from the corner of his mouth. The fish’s eye tracked its rise, and then it resumed its sea-floor pacing.
The idea of a plug for the ocean was preposterous. A ship’s hatch, a chucked-overboard he-didn’t-know-what. Did his father think it let the ocean out or let it in? If the ocean drained out, where did it go? Into the center of the Earth? And who put such a thing there?
This time he wrestled with the anchor, whose rope had tangled with the handle of the thing. The old man did not have many years left, and he worried that the plug was more evidence of his father’s slipping grasp of reality. You should go see him, his wife had said. He wondered if any of this mattered to his father; if they were closer for it.
The fish brushed too close for him, and the anchor would not come: between the rope and the anchor, it had looped about the handle a few times, as if someone had wanted them there. Around the anchor were the remains of the coral it had broken off as it descended and scraped. The dead coral peppered the sea floor, the ocean’s gravemarkers. His chest began to throb and pull for oxygen. He pushed off with his feet and shot like an arrow for the surface.
As he came alongside the boat he heard the sound of his father’s snore.
“Old man,” he said. In sleep his facial muscles were slack. He looked terribly old. His face wrecked by sun and sea. He looked away so as not to see his father’s face any more, nor to be caught looking while he slept. “Hey, I’m working here.”
His father awoke into song: “Working nine-to-five. What a way to make a livin’.”
“I can’t get your goddamn anchor.”
“Of course you can’t.
“City boys can’t dive.”
“Lay off, man.”
“Going to have to row back in the dark. You know how to navigate?”
“Case and point.”
“It’s caught on that thing, tied around it.”
“I ought to sink this boat, make you swim in.”
“OK,” Oliver said. “Seems like you might have a little more to lose than me there, but go for it.”
“I’m tired of waiting here!” His father stood unsteadily in the boat and glared down at him. “I’m drunk and I’m bored.”
Oliver snorted, and in the process inhaled seawater, so that he spent a moment self-consciously coughing.
“You get back in the boat, I’ll go down.” His father put his diving goggles on, so that he looked like a mad aviator.
“I’ll go with you.”
“Whatever you want, jelly fish.”
His father leapt from the boat’s bench seat and arced into a dive, all of the rotting muscles and slack skin finding sleek purpose in the sudden transition to water. Once under, his father did not surface for air.
Crappy barked at his master’s disappearance and ran between sides of the boat.
Oliver took a breath and followed him down, feeling the exhaustion of the previous dives in him.
He swam through the turquoise, glistening with the slivers of exotic fish, and down into the dim world below, where the enormous fish continued its lonely swim near their anchor. His father’s feet, gnarled and calloused, receded into the distance, and he wondered how the old man swam so fast without fins, as drunk as he was.
By the time he caught up, his father stood on the sea floor, the strange handle in his hands. In the current his father’s thin hair stood loose and undulated like a groping bit of seaweed.
His wife had said: The reason you go see an estranged parent is to not be like them, and he understood what she meant. His job was to reacquaint himself with the peculiarities of his father, to check those against his own, to figure out which had been blooming unbeknownst within him, passed down silently from generation to generation; a sly violence, a desire to be left alone, a way of poisoning conversation, every compliment loaded with barbs.
His father ran his hands along the handle, clearing the slick of sea sludge from it, which revealed the bone-white underneath. Then he looked up at Oliver and grinned.
Oliver’s air had begun to run out, and his father pointed them back to the surface, and then passed him on the way up as well, his body half-seal, carving between the molecules of water.
That they had not fetched the anchor meant more deliberation, and at least one more dive down to discover whatever it was that lay below. He wished only to be rowing home.
With one arm gripping the side of the boat Oliver leaned his head against the side and let the ocean’s movements jostle him for a moment. He was exhausted.
His father’s face was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Oliver thought: this will be the moment he has a heart attack.
“Ho! It’s the goddamn plug. It’s the hole in the ocean.”
“You didn’t get the anchor.”
“Other fish to fry, peckerwood!”
His father hoisted himself halfway up and rummaged around in the boat. “You drink the rest?”
“You drank the rest.”
“Son of a bitch,” he turned to wink, ever-enjoying the curse’s claim upon his ex-wife.
“Listen—it’s too dark to be doing this. Let’s mark the spot. We’ll row home.”
“You don’t understand what I’m saying.” His lifted his goggles up, baring the red pressure rings around his eyes. He gripped Oliver’s bicep with one hand, his other hand held the boat. His eyes bulged wide: “It is the hole in the ocean.” A sputtering of sea-salt spittle followed.
“What does that even—?”
“I don’t know yet, boy!” he released Oliver’s arm and tapped his own temple. “How will we know until we open it?”
His father’s head disappeared below the water, leaving Oliver alone for a moment to sigh and cuss. Then he dived after him. But his father was not ahead; there was no sign of him. He glanced toward the surface and saw his father’s legs on the other side of the boat. Oliver doubled back.
His father rummaged about in the thick layer of detritus at the bottom of the boat—”I’d chuck this shit overboard if you weren’t along.”—Socks, fishing line, beer cans, old plastic bags from long-eaten snacks, and the fish they’d speared, having breathed their last breaths. From it emerged a half-drunk bottle of Rosé.
“You sure that’s still good?”
With the cork off his father took a healthy pull off the bottle, and followed it with an uneven expression.
“It’s gone bad, hasn’t it.”
His father scowled at him. “Wine doesn’t go bad.”
“Pretty sure it does. That one started bad. Can’t have improved much in the bottom of the boat.”
“It’s a little bit bad.”
“Can I just talk some sense into you for a moment.”
“Here—” His father re-corked the wine, and then disappeared below the surface again, and reappeared next to him. “Have a drink.”
Oliver measured the partial drunk his body already worked, alcohol and exhaustion and sun all laying their claims upon him. The sun sat just above the horizon now. The turquoise below him had dimmed. He took a drink anyway.
“A fine vintage. Sparkling nail polish remover.”
His father laughed and slapped him on the back. “Snob!” He was clearly having a good time now, and Oliver was loath to interrupt it. The two of them companionable in the golden light, each with an arm on the boat, smiling at each other as they floated above some strange new discovery in the waters below.
“That is the largest goddamn Grouper I’ve ever seen.”
“— that fish?”
“That sonofabitch knows something. Where’s my diving light?”
After his father disappeared below the water, Oliver dipped his head below the surface to watch him descend, until he could see him no more. Crappy ran from edge to edge of the boat, as he did every time the old man went below.
“Hey Crappy,” he said. “That’s enough.”
To his surprise the dog calmed and stared down at him in the water. Perhaps the dog did not worry, with his small frantic mind, but only performed the duty he’d been taught, and having been excused of it he was free to ponder other things. It was hard not to apply the analogy to himself. In an unsettling moment of introspection he wondered how many of his own habits were simply his replaying back the chords he’d been taught.
He very much doubted there existed such a thing as a hole in the ocean. To ponder it was to upend reality. Did humans put it there? He could not imagine why or how they could. The hole’s existence implied some other’s intention. Amidst all of the slow, wild processes, here was something that was a fabrication. It suggested he lived in a playground, a test bed, a Petri dish. Where the light of the lab might be turned off at the end of the work day.
What was a hole in the Ocean for? It seemed more akin to
The knot in a balloon
The cork in a bottle of wine
The pin in the grenade
It was no finishing touch on some design, it was the kill switch. A terror crept into him. He felt incredibly small, a tiny, insignificant dot, treading water above the opening, in a wide, open sea. At the moment, he did not know in which direction land lay. The sun lay half in the ocean, half out. He lowered his face into the water to search out his father and saw a glow deep down.
Lifting his head up he said: “Crappy?”, and the dog perked up. “When given a choice, I have only ever known him to take the worst one.”
The dog barked his agreement.
He turned and swam hard for the light. The water’s turquoise hue had gone, leaving a murkiness with hints of large creatures at the edges of his vision.
Following the anchor rope he passed the coral canyon walls, now ominous objects in his periphery. Further down, the dark form of the grouper paced in the narrow box over the portal, and he swam hard to miss its trajectory. The diving light sat at the hatch’s edge, the anchor remained tangled with the handle. There was no sign of his father.
His air dwindled and Oliver flipped and swam hard for the surface, bursting into the air as the last tip of the sun hovered at the water’s horizon. He called out and the dog answered, but his father did not.
He gulped another, insubstantial breath of air and then dived again, wishing he’d not left the diving light on the sea floor. The panicked breath did not hold. He floundered mid-way between the sea floor and the surface, scanning frantically, and then returned to the dwindling light. Without the iron will of his father there, the sea felt endless. It was not only his father’s safety that crossed his mind.
This was how his father would go, he thought. This was the only way. His father brought him down here specifically to disappear into the wild, down some hole, to lose himself even further. And Oliver was here to clean up whatever mess he left behind.
He held onto the boat’s edge and panted. As the sea darkened, the diving light below shone more brightly. He knew then he would have to open the ocean’s plug and peek inside.
“Crappy,” he said.
The dog whined in answer.
“Fuck knuckle,” he said, hoping to divine some part of his father, “shit nozzle. Crutch sucker.” Then he took the proper breath and dived again, using the anchor rope to hand-over-hand his way into the depths and toward the light.
He retrieved the light and trained it on the grouper above him, who continued its relentless pacing across the space. The fear was burning all his oxygen; his breath was finished and so he rose.
At the surface his exhaustion pummeled him. He tried to strap the diving light to his wrist while he treaded water and could scarcely keep his head above the surface.
“Dad!” He yelled out into the dusk, and the old man’s dog answered with a reciprocal yelp.
There was no time to waste. With the diving light on, he dove again, pushing his worn muscles hard to reach the bottom. He knew what he must do.
He gripped the bone-white handle and pulled. The hatch was heavy and did not move. He braced his feet and pulled harder. Stubbornly it swung toward him until it was fully open.
But what lay below it was only sea floor. A shellfish skittered away; something retreated further down a small, rough hole. His chest had begun to convulse but he ignored it as he searched the circular indentation left by the hatch at the bottom of the sea, hoping somehow his father might manifest where there was no space to do so. He swung his light in an arc, but no body floated unconscious at its periphery.
Then with deft, brute force he freed the anchor and swam hard for the top.
He clutched the edge of the boat and heaved. He’d swallowed some water, and it came out of him along with the Rosé and Tequila and whatever other crap he’d put down there over the course of the day: Central American convenience store fare, packaged in small neon-colored bags, which his father had purchased for their outing. With the diving light he continued to strobe the water, below and above, but there was no sign of the man.
“Crappy,” he said, but the boat was quiet.
He wearily pulled himself up the side and there found his father passed out at the bottom of the boat, his small dog asleep next to him.
“You sonofabitch,” he said. He pulled himself the rest of the way in, vaguely aware he emitted a low groan, the sound of an exhaustion. Once in, he began to haul in the freed anchor.
“You selfish drunk bastard,” he said. “You selfish sonofabitch.”
His father made no response, other than the buzz of his snore.
After the anchor was onboard he sat and stared down into the water. The night was still.
He realized suddenly he could not leave it there.
His reasoning was difficult to parse out. It would make his father angry, to see the thing that had so stalled them in his boat, and there was some impetus there. But his desire to remove it contained elements of their lifelong petty war, over what you keep and what you throw away, what you guard and what you leave to wreak havoc. He himself was a sort of throwaway. He vowed that thirty-five years hence, when his two small offspring were grown and thought of him, their own father, there wouldn’t be a hollowed, rotted acorn in place of their hearts, their real ones having been left abandoned at the bottom of some ocean.
But he also just wanted it, a massive souvenir from the ocean’s floor.
He untied the anchor from its rope, lowered his goggles, and turned the diving light back on. Then he slipped over the side into the water, trailing the rope down into the darkness with him.
His arms ached with every stroke.
This time the grouper seemed to stop and observe him, its enormous black eyes reflecting the glow of the light, its behemoth undulating body paused.
He had all the breath in the world now. Or perhaps time had stopped without his knowing, the universe paused to observe this unexpected act, to see what would happen next. He heard little in the dark movements of the reef, the sea calm above, the boats all gone home but one. He looped the anchor rope around the handle of the fallen hatch and tied it fast. Then he swam for the dark surface, following his own bubbles in the diving light for cues to direction.
“You got something on the line?”
“Your ocean plug. Hauling it out.”
“But what if—anyway, what you want that for.”
His father sat up and lent a hand. They both strained against the line until the object surfaced, heavy and metallic. The weight of it pulled the edge of the boat lower.
“Cut it,” his father snarled. “Let’s get out of here.”
“It’s coming with us.”
“What the hell are you going to do with it?”
“It’s my business.”
“It’s my business,” his father mocked.
They heaved and pulled the heavy disk into the boat. Crappy barked and ran to the far end. After the exertion, they panted and did nothing for a moment.
“Don’t anchor your fucking boat on the reef again,” Oliver said, “or I’ll cut your balls off.”
His father did not reply, and the comment stayed over-harsh in the night, a bit of venom from the younger snake, taking cues from the older. Instead his father lay back in his seat, and a few minutes later he heard his snore again.
“Please,” he whispered much later, too late for his father to hear it, uncomfortable still with the harshness of his request.
Crappy came to sniff what they’d pulled from the sea, and then returned to sleep next to his master.
“At least he loves you,” Oliver said, not sure whether he referred to the animal or the man. But the bitterness of it instantly faded. He would fly back tomorrow to his own family, where the subject of love was not a question. He put the oars in the oar locks and began to maneuver the boat in the direction he believed to be land, caring less about getting there by night’s end than he expected.
As he rowed toward his father’s home, the stars filled in the black canvas above.
The moon rose, slivery and delicate, a dark yellow hook at the Ocean’s edge, which he pointed his prow toward. And in the dim light, he watched the cargo of the boat gently rock with each oar-stroke, the old man, the dead fish, the small dog, and the glistening hatch that had covered the hole in the bottom of the sea.