By Charles Deemer
From Northwest Review, Summer 1970
Roll of Honor, Best American Short Stories 1971
In grade school the teachers always asked us what our fathers did, and I had learned to reply simply, "My father is at sea." Annually I recited the explanation, "My father is at sea," at times saying this when Father actually was home on leave or, more rarely, serving a brief shore duty before returning to the sea from which he came. Because his visits never lasted long enough to remove the anticipation of his leaving, I seldom thought of him is being home at all. Even when his physical presence brought him into the world I shared with Mother, his frequent reminiscences of the sea and of foreign countries pushed him out again, so that he often was more distant when he was near and more fondly regarded when away. Above all he was a sailor, and it was difficult for me to comprehend, in the summer before my twelfth birthday, that Father had retired.
I remember how strange it was to see him morning after morning in civilian clothes. He would rise, the sea-sun bronze on his brow and a habit of waves still giving his gait a seaman's swagger, to wander around the house as though he were a stranger in it before finally settling exhausted in front of the television set, where he would sit out the day. As a Captain in the Navy, he had had little time for his family, and I suppose it was the novelty of being together for more than a leave's or shore duty's moment that made those first months of his retirement so difficult. I was close only to Mother and, sitting with her at the kitchen table while Father watched television a room away, I would hear her confess that his uneasiness disturbed her. I could sympathize with my mother without allowing sympathy to distress me. I was used to Father's absence, and the prospect of his continued presence at home provided only a vague, inarticulate hope, and no guarantee, that anything would change between us. Mother was my parent.
As the early months of retirement passed, Father, like a Captain adjusting to a new command, began to make his presence felt in less ominous ways. He ripped out a section of the rear patio to plant a garden, and he bought Mother an electric organ. He began playing ball with me, too, so that occasionally we were able to let the vague discomfort we felt in each other's presence hide behind more concrete, immediate joys.
I had asked for two things for my twelfth birthday: a chemistry set and an All-Star Baseball Game. Mother gave me the game, and as I opened the heavy wooden box containing Father's gift, I sadly realized that the box was too small and square to hold he chemistry set I had hoped for. I found in its place a strange instrument of wood, metal and glass. Father announced that the gift had traveled with him through the Orient and the Pacific; now, as he had long planned to do as soon as I was old enough, he was giving it to me. The gift was a surprise to Mother, who was touched enough to cry. Father said, "Well, pick it up, Bobby. It's a sextant."
That afternoon on the patio Father showed me how to use it.
"What a sextant does," he explained, "is to measure the angle above the horizon of any object in the sky." He chose the top of a nearby telephone pole to demonstrate. "Look at the horizon through the telescope," he explained. "Now swing the arm like this until the top of the pole appears in the mirror and seems to be right alongside the horizon." He explained how the mirror on the movable arm of the sextant reflected the top of the pole onto a second mirror, which was fixed alongside the small telescope's field of view. "You read the angle of elevation on the metal arc here," he pointed.
I found the sextant fascinating. Reaching around me from behind, Father coached me in holding the instrument properly, then showed me how to find the horizon in the telescope (our horizon was a rooftop) and swing the arm to bring in a treetop beside it, and finally how to read the vernier scale for a precise measurement of the angle of elevation. I measured the angle of every treetop in sight while Father watched and corrected my errors. But I made few mistakes.
The sextant occupied me for the rest of the day. Even after Father went back into the house, I stayed on the patio to measure angles: of the treetops again, to do them all independently; of telephone poles; of birds perched on wires; of television antennae; of the mountains to the north and of clouds to the south. There was a marvelous magic in the way the two mirrors worked together to reflect an object in the sky into the horizon. When I measured the angles of elevation of everything above my horizon of rooftops, I began over again and was still using the sextant when Mother called me in for dinner.
Over dessert I learned more about the sextant. By using it to "shoot the sun," Father told me, a navigator could find his position at sea. By a similar principle, one could determine the height of a tree with only the sextant and a book of trigonometric tables. I listened intently, hoping Father would teach me how to use the sextant to find the heights of trees. Trigonometric tables! The words alone excited me, much as Mother's claim to know the language of algebra had once intrigued me so much that I gave her no rest until she taught me a bit of that language, too. In public she often bragged that I knew my arithmetic tables long before I entered school. When Father asked if I wanted to learn how to use the trigonometric tables, I enthusiastically told him that I did. Father promised to begin lessons the next day, and that night I went to bed feeling extraordinarily close to him.
I was surprised at how easy it was to use the Book of Tangents. Father explained the science of right triangles to me and showed me how, by stepping off my distance from a tree and multiplying this figure by the tangent of the treetop's angle of elevation, I could derive the tree's height. I picked up the method quickly, enjoying the magical power of being able to measure a tree's height without climbing up to drop down a carpenter's rule. Only after days of determining heights (I charged a dime to measure a neighbor's tree) was the magic of the method lost in the increasingly dull routine of performing it: I put down the sextant and picked up the other gift, the All-Star Baseball Game.
Soon my friend Johnny and I began a Summer World Series, choosing permanent teams from the paper disks representing the best players in the big leagues. Each disk, having a rectangular hole in its center, fitted under a spinner, the equivalent of "Batter Up!" A disk's circumference was divided into thirteen numbered arcs, each representing a different batting possibility at the plate, and a feature of the game was that from player to player these arcs varied in size so as to correspond to a player's lifetime batting average. Though impressed by the mathematical precision that went into the manufacturing of each disk, from the beginning I still kept my own detailed batting records in a spiral notebook.
We were four days into our series when Father asked, coming to our ballpark at the patio table, if Johnny had seen the sextant yet. He had come inopportunely, like sudden rain. With three victories each, both Johnny and I were eager to win this rubber game and take the series lead. It was the fifth inning, and I was threatening to eradicate Johnny's three to nothing lead: I had Musial on third, Mantle on second, Kuenn on first and Campanella at the plate. Nobody was out.
"Why don't you show Johnny how to use the sextant?" Father asked.
The question found my finger cocked over the spinner, ready to strike it into motion to land, I prayed, in the fat arc numbered "1," which was a home run. Father's question, like a change of pace pitch, upset my timing and my finger jerked and lightly struck the spinner.
"Show Johnny how to determine a tree's height," Father said.
The spinner, after several revolutions, stopped on "10." Johnny immediately cheered, "Strike out! Come on, Whitey! Bear down, Ford!"
Johnny's enthusiasm seemed to whet Father's curiosity, for he began to show an interest in the game and asked, "Who's ahead?"
While Johnny bragged, I placed the disk of Gil Hodges under the spinner. Again I hoped for a home run, that precious "1" at the top section of the circumference. I struck the spinner and it whirled audibly as Father, Johnny and I waited in silent anticipation to see where it stopped.
"Double play!" Johnny screamed when the spinner eased past "1" to come to rest on "2." With the dramatic emphasis of a sport's announcer he continued, "And the score after five complete innings of play . . ."
Father stayed to watch, and angrily I anticipated defeat. Though Father mentioned no more about the sextant until the game was over, he was waiting, I felt, to repeat his earlier suggestion and so I expected it. I listened for it. Soon I lost all interest in the game, as though to hope for a rally would defy Father's presence. Johnny won handily and after the final out Father said, "You should have put in some pinch hitters, Bobby." As I began to put away the game he asked, "Are you going to show Johnny the sextant?"
"I don't feel like it," I said and started for the house.
In the following weeks Father fell back into the listless behavior with which he had come to us from the Navy. It was as though each of his three attempts to get interested in civilian life had failed: the seeds he had planted in the garden failed to grow fast enough for him; the electric organ ended up in the living room beside the television and the two were forever challenging each other; and the sextant remained on the floor of my closet. And so he renewed his habit of wandering about the house, though in time boredom itself came to bore him. Father tried again to enter the civilian world: he got a job.
The three weeks he worked was a time of rare pleasure for me. The tense atmosphere given the household by his restlessness lifted like a fog, and our existence as a family found a new unity. Since Father had to rise early for work, I began to rise early also, in order to watch him leave the house. Slowly, with the habitual seaman's swagger, he would make his way to the garage, carrying the small briefcase in which were the bottles of window cleaner, a variety of brushes, and other household items he sold from door to door. When he returned late in the afternoon, often he greeted me with a playful jab at the shoulder or with a messing of my hair, and sometimes in the evening after dinner we would go to the ballpark. When periodically Father returned from work sullen and tired, I let him alone. But I had no idea he disliked the job until the morning I rose to find him still in bed.
"He's not working at that job any more," Mother told me. "Let him sleep in."
Mother gave me no further clues. She sipped her coffee silently, her expression strained. I hounded her to know more.
"He's going to get a better job," Mother finally explained. She did not look up when she said this, and I sensed she did not believe it. I left her staring into the coffee cup and went outside.
When I returned from Johnny's for lunch, I found Father using the sextant on the patio. He paid me no mind as I walked my bike to park it by the table, and I ignored him as well. I was not pleased that he had taken the sextant from my closet without getting my permission, and I went into the kitchen to tell Mother so.
"You didn't seem to be using it very often," she said in Father's defense.
"I have to ask permission to use his binoculars," I complained. At this impasse we stopped, and I took lunch, a sandwich, into the front yard, angered by the injustice I was suffering. Not until Johnny came over later did I feel up to trying to get the sextant back. We found Father still on the patio.
"I want to show Johnny how to use the sextant," I told him. He was standing with his back to us in a pair of denims and a Navy blue shirt. He stared into the sextant's small telescope, which was pointed at a telephone pole.
"He's measuring the angle of elevation," I told Johnny. To Father I repeated, "Johnny wants to try it."
Father lowered the sextant and turned around, and even before he spoke I knew, by the tautness of his bronze jaw, his meaning.
"Maybe later," he said. "I'm busy with it now."
"You didn't ask permission," I said. When he turned away I added angrily, "I have to ask you if I want to use the binoculars!"
"You're not old enough to have the sextant," he replied calmly. "I made a mistake."
"Not yet," Father said. He spoke with a flat finality that drove me running into the house to complain to Mother.
"But he can't!" I kept insisting, though it was clear that he had. I demanded to know why.
Mother fidgeted a long while at the sink, but I took a seat on a kitchen stool, ready to wait no matter how long her answer took.
"Your father's a man who has to be at sea to be happy," she said in time. "Really happy." For a while she stared down at her veined hands. When she glanced up again she asked, "What do you care about the sextant?"
"He gave it to me," I told her. "It's mine."
"He used it on ship for many years. It has many memories for him. The sextant and his uniforms and his medals and the letters of commendation and ..."
"He said he was saving it for me," I interrupted her.
"His memories are important to him, Bobby," Mother said. "The sextant and the other things, the memories--they're very important to him." She turned away and for a moment we were silent. As she wiped off the drainboard, I waited on the stool.
"Why did he quit his job?" I asked.
"He's happiest at sea," Mother said, as though she were no longer talking to me, but to some invisible witness in the room. And then she was speaking to me again, turning and drawing her face into an expression that begged me to understand. "Please try to forget about the sextant. You liked the game better anyway, didn't you? Forget about the sextant."
For a few days after taking back the sextant, Father devoted himself to it: he took it apart, spread the pieces across the patio table, and meticulously cleaned each with a cloth and polish. But once clean and together again, the instrument disappeared, and Father returned to his habits of pacing and of watching television while Mother, afraid to play the organ as long as he was in the living room, worked in the dining room behind a sewing machine. Father was at sea again, I imagined, and my early habits let me accept this without conscious distress. Another month passed without changing the daily routine: the garden grew weeds, the television set remained on throughout the day, and I spent as much time as possible at Johnny's house, where we continued our Summer World Series. Then the summer ended, with me winning the series 20 games to 17. Harvey Kuenn had won the batting championship with an average of .458, and Johnny's Ted Williams had hit the most home runs with 18. I put my spiral notebook of statistics into a drawer.
Happily I entered the seventh grade. Once more I told my classmates, "My father is at sea," although this was no longer the fact, as some of my classmates knew. But Father, inert in front of the television set or pacing the house, was as distant as China, and Mother, forever anxious, was no comfort to be around. I spent the days at school.
I had forgotten about the sextant until reminded of it by a class assignment. Mrs. Rogers had asked each pupil to share a hobby with the class, and although the All-Star Baseball Game came to mind, so did its companion gift, the sextant, which was more impressive than anything else I could bring to class. Since it was my nature to want to do well, even to impress, I asked Mother where the sextant was.
If she knew, she refused to tell me. I shrugged off her suggestion that I ask Father for it and resigned myself to sharing the baseball game with my classmates. I took this as a defeat, which Mother may have observed, for later she approached Father in my behalf.
I do not know anything about that confrontation. The day after Mother told me her intention to help me, I returned from school to find Father on the patio with the sextant. Ignoring him, I went into the house.
For three days we played this game: returning home from school, I would find Father on the patio with the sextant, aloof and serious, a Captain shooting the sun, and I would go into the house without greeting him. Then, on the fourth day, he asked, as I parked my bike, "When is your assignment due?"
I stopped and, without turning, made the sound that meant I had not heard.
When do you want to take the sextant to class?" he asked.
"Tomorrow." I turned to discover that he had walked across the patio, stopping only a few feet from me. I could smell the stale odor of cigarette smoke on him.
"That doesn't leave you much time, does it? Can you remember how to use it?" He pushed the sextant at me and, after a moment of hesitation, I accepted it.
"Well, try the telephone pole over there," he pointed.
Nervously I aimed the telescope at the base of the pole and swung the sextant's arm until the pole's top appeared alongside my horizon. I locked the vernier scale.
"What do you read?" Father asked.
"Thirty-one degrees," I read slowly, "eighteen minutes and ... about ten seconds."
To himself Father repeated the same angle I had read. "Good," he smiled, looking up from the scale. "Don't let anyone play with it at school, okay?"
"And you might as well keep it in your closet."
Father dropped a hand to my shoulder and then, as the slight squeeze of his fingers streaked through my entire body, he laughed and said, "You'll get more use out of it than I can." He pointed at our horizon of rooftops, still grinning. "At sea the horizon can be the clearest, straightest line you've ever seen. You wouldn't believe it. But trying to get your bearings with a horizon like that--well, it's impossible. It just can't be done." Releasing his grip, he made an addition I was glad to hear. "The horizon will do for your purpose, Bobby, for measuring trees. But it's no good to an old salt like me," he laughed. "With a horizon as distorted as that, I'd get us lost quicker than you can say Jack Robinson."
"Jack Robinson," I said and we both were laughing.
"We'd start out for Hawaii and end up at the North Pole," he kidded. And when our laughter subsided he said, "The sextant's yours."
For a long moment we looked at each other. Then Father turned away, saying, "You have homework to do, I think." I wanted to call him back, to grab him and send the streak through his body that shortly before he had squeezed through my own. But I said nothing since, I began to understand, this was not our way. I watched him return to the house, thinking I saw less fatigue in the seaman's swagger, a little less fatigue. Then I raised the sextant to shoot the sun.