Bodies of Water

by Lauren Eyler

My grandfather kept a book by his recliner. The book’s cover was a picture of a map. Its land was the cream color of things faded. Its water was a blue sullied green by sitting too long. Across the top, in black bold letters, ran the words, The English Channel. I never saw him touch it. Never once in the summers I spent in Kansas. When I finally screwed up the courage to ask him, at the age of twelve, what the English Channel was, he didn’t take his eyes from the television. He sat unmoving and I thought he hadn’t heard me. When I turned to go, too scared to interrupt him again, he spoke.

“It is just another body of water I did not drowned in.“

*****

My grandfather, John Henry McVicker, never owned such a book. He never spoke the words I have him speaking. He never once, in the 23 years I knew him, mentioned this body of water, which rests between southern England and Northern France, which is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean, which is the smallest of the shallow seas that surround the Western half of Eurasia. The Channel existed in the parts of my grandfather’s past that he would not talk about, that my mother instructed me not to ask about, because the subject upset him. This part of his past, the unspeakable part, was World War II.

*****

He could have never dreamed this, his sitting in a jeep, which is sitting on a boat, as he stares off into dawn. There it is in front of him, the sun coming up. There it is coming up, its light stretching over the water, both covering and uncovering it at the same time. He is from Kansas. Talmage, Kansas. This makes him an expert at watching the sun break open over wheat fields, not water.

*****

The truth is I made my own body of water from 19 to 28. It was not an ocean, lake or channel. It was not something I could cross. It was an alcoholic morass that I carried around inside of me, a veritable swampland that extended from ribcage to ribcage that I never took the time to log, to drain. So the rats multiplied and their bacteria compounded. I had breakouts of fevers. I yellowed from the inside. Leaks of blood sprung in my lungs. I was an internal flood.

*****

He hadn’t considered it until he stepped onto the plank and heard the ocean’s current slapping against the cruiser’s side. If he was going to die over there, he’d thought the cause would be a bullet, not shrapnel or a grenade: a bullet that would pierce the skin of his forehead and burst his final thought into thousands of fragments. Drowning. It hadn’t occurred to him. He hadn’t thought not knowing how to swim would be a serious concern. He hadn’t thought going to Europe, some vague pink mass on his school’s globe, would be a possibility. He tried to shut the noise of the water out.

*****

I saw my grandfather cry more than once. The first time it was disturbing, seeing the tallest, the largest man in my life, openly weeping in his armchair. My grandfather rode a motorcycle, fixed cars, and buses, came back from work smelling of oil and metal, dwarfed my four feet. And there he sat, tears running down his face, his emotion so heavy that it made his voice thin, high-pitched. He was imploring me to be nice to my mother, his daughter. To be kind to her. I chalked this up to his parents dying when he was three. It was a simple cause and effect, which worked for the 10-year-old I was.

*****

Once they were in the middle of the Atlantic, hundreds of miles from New York, New York, on their way to a place called Great Britain, called England, his pal from training, Joey Marzano asked, “Don’t the wheat fields look like waves. What is it—and he sings—like amber waves of grain?”

John Henry glanced out and saw the sun falling on top of the lurching blackness that stretched forever away from him. “No. They look like wheat fields.”

“You’re some poet,” Marzano said.

*****

My grandfather was not a poet. He was practical. He was a mechanic. He was a deliberate man, who could disassemble a carburetor and then put it back together with his eyes closed. He learned this from his paternal uncle, Buddy, who had learned it from his older brother, my grandfather’s father, Claude. This practicality managed to find its way into my mother’s veins, into my sister’s, both of whom would become preschool teachers. My grandfather said, a year after I graduated, four years after I had taken to drinking to assuage the anxiety which swam frenzied inside of me, “You should study to become a schoolteacher like your mother, your sister. I sat at the dinner table while he spoke, looking at a reproduction of Millet’s The Angelus, which hung upon the wall facing me. I stared at the two French peasants, heads bowed in a potato field, knowing that the McVicker practicality had skipped me, was perhaps overrun by the Eyler. Staring at the iteration of the iteration of two people marking the end of a day’s work, I knew that I was no more a mechanic than a schoolteacher, no more a schoolteacher than a French peasant.

*****

By Marzano’s standards, John Henry thinks, the boats must look like tractors. To John Henry, they look like metal, like magic, a human construction of how the laws of nature work. The boats somehow stand on the water, are stacked on top of foot after foot of it. Well, they don’t stand, but float and such a verb translates into something important out here as dawn shivers into day. Float means something to him as he sits and shades his eyes from the daylight and waits for all the troops—amongst them his friends Marzano, Orris, Leyser, Samms— to pile on a different ship he is not on because he is in charge of the tanks, the jeeps, the trucks. Today, that is his duty.

*****

A year after our conversation at the dinner table, I enrolled in Boston College as a graduate student in their Masters of Teaching program. I tried to believe that this was what I was meant to do, tried to tell myself that I could be satisfied teaching sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds Toni Morrison and George Orwell, tried to have faith in the idea that changing just one student’s life would give my life meaning. I stayed in school from August 17th until October 13th, until I could no longer take riding the T home at 9:15 at night, the temperature already in the twenties, the streetlamps a half-hearted attempt to chase away the darkness, my isolation. By mid-October, the alcohol I consumed could no longer allay the emptiness I felt while typing up lessons plans with their learning outcomes in bold letters across the top, a worksheet on similes and metaphors from Hamlet, article abstracts on disability and secondary education.

So I picked up the phone after drinking a six-pack of Becks. The green bottles lined up in front of me on the kitchen cabinet, I told my mother I was dropping out. I had to leave or I was going to drink myself to death.

*******

There is salt in the air and he tastes it as he licks his lips. He thinks about the Christmas turkeys the mess sergeant threw out because the orders to cross the Channel had come down. He is looking at the water, but what he sees is his parent’s living room, the brick fireplace his father painted white. There is the Christmas tree, decorated with his mother’s prized ornaments, which are made of glass, a silver glass, and are the shape of tear drops. He conjures up a picture of himself from last year, leaning against the mantle, foot propped up on white bricks, singing carols with his family. He tries to draw the memory of himself, his bones resting inside of his skin, khaki wrapped around most of his six foot, four inch frame. There are his hands, his fingers, relaxed. But he can’t recall his face. Its lines and angles, its eyes, have been thrown out with the Christmas turkeys. Sorry boys. By order of the General.

******

Only a seven-year-old would think that swimming in the middle of January in one of Kansas’ bleakest winters was a good idea. A coat, a sweater over my teal one-piece, I scrambled out of the car and rushed to the metal doors of a building that looked like a gigantic, white bubble. It never occurred to me, at the time, that the trek my grandfather, mother, and I made to Abilene’s indoor municipal pool was anything out of the ordinary. I didn’t know we would not ever come again, and until I understood the role the English Channel had in my grandfather’s life, I wouldn’t understand the significance.

I went to the bathroom and when I emerged ready to sprint to the edge of the pool and belly flop in, I saw my grandfather standing in the shallow end. The foam green water hit him just below the hips. The upper part of his body, all three feet and four inches of it, towered above the surface. His skin, brown from the passing of so many summers contrasted with the passive color of the water that surrounded him. He just stood, his fingertips grazing the surface, unmoving. Moments later, he walked up the steps and out of the water, out of the building.

******

He thinks the Channel, the English Channel, should be a station on the radio. The station that comes before the station that plays the Grand Ole Opry, the station after the station that carries Dick Tracy. But the English Channel is the means by which he will arrive in France, just a leg of the journey, an arm of the expedition. This is what it is now, as dawn passes into morning.

********

Often, I wonder if he was disappointed in me. He knew I dropped out of school, moved back to Washington, D.C. and got a job as an administrative assistant. I like to believe he was too busy at the end to reflect upon whether or not I was successful. When my mother called to tell me he was in the hospital, I sent him an email. It was Veteran’s Day and I thanked him for his service, his sacrifice. I wrote that I was proud that he was my grandfather, that he had enlisted and had earned a Purple Heart fighting in France. My grandmother printed it out and hung it on the wall next to his hospital bed. It was hanging there when he died.

********

Then the rain starts, falls, leaves drops trailing down his windshield. From somewhere behind him, headlights shine, catch the beads as they trickle down, turning them a yellow that reminds him of waking up late. In his ears, the rain ticks against the glass. It bends the sky gray. To kill or be killed in a place called France. This is your circumstance, John. To kill or be killed in France, on France. It will be death or watching other men die. It begins to rain harder. There is something about rain falling onto the ocean, he thinks, that makes the world seem hopeless.

*******

While my grandfather was alive, I was always aware of the questions that I could not ask him. My love for history grew as I got older, enough for me to throw off my Theology major and Classics minor in the summer before my junior year so that I could major in History along with English. As I read the primary sources, the diaries of soldiers, the letters of generals, the memos of President Roosevelt and his counterparts in the Axis Powers, I recognized that the primary source I was closest to would pass away without my so much as asking what France was like in the 1940s, without so much as asking to see the Purple Heart my grandmother informed me he had. This is how I understand what the phrase ‘being so close, yet so far away’ means.

******

The LST lands on the beach, the jeep’s tires wheel through the sand followed shortly by the crush of his steps. On his way to collect his orders, he bites down and feels, for the first time, what its like to have grains of sand stuck in his teeth. Nothing like grains of wheat. With the grit clenched between two back molars, he takes a cup of coffee from a man who offers it to him. He stares down the beach and it is black, the beach that is the coast of France. France, he says out loud. And he kicks the sand with his boot and thinks of Marzano, asleep on the troop transport, sleeping like a rock, or something like that. He wishes he was there with him, his eyes shut, warm, with his jacket balled up beneath his head for a pillow.

******

What I learned about my grandfather’s crossing of the English Channel on Christmas Eve of 1944 came to me in bits and pieces like history comes to an historian. After he died, I began to ask my mother and uncle questions. The answers led me across the Internet, to the websites of veterans, to their self-published books, to that early morning’s events. What I know for certain is that the SS Leopoldville sank and that my grandfather was not on it. The majority of his division, the 66th infantry, was, many of his friends, with whom he had trained, were, but he was not. A man who could command other men saved him. A man, who in my imagination, has an index finger that is six inches long. A man who pointed to my grandfather and then pointed at the Landing Ship, Tank, and said, “You go there.”

*******

He is eating when he hears the news. C-rations that taste worse than usual because the air is wet and salty. He spoons in a mouthful and waves off a second cup of coffee because there is no sugar only ersatz sugar and ersatz sugar looks so much like the sand that he can’t get out of his mouth. He shovels in another spoonful and that’s when he hears a man to his left say the Leopoldville went down. A torpedo hit it. And it went down. And nobody ever gave the order to abandon ship.

*******

Eventually, I would turn to writing at my desk at work. I began a novel. I banged out sixty pages. I decided this was what I wanted to do with my life. But this is not writing saved me, because I kept drinking. Even when I quit my job, moved to a place where I could afford to write, to read more, I kept at it. I graduated from eight beers a night to four dirty gin Martinis in an hour, into I’ll never drive my car drunk to driving it blacked out. The night I careened into the fence at the biggest intersection in the city, I’d been writing before I drove over to a friend’s house and poured a bottle of lemon liqueur down my throat. Writing was not my savior. It was knowing, after I called my parents from the county jail, that if my grandfather were alive, he would be disappointed. It was wanting to act like a McVicker more than wanting to feel the differences. It was walking into my first meeting and admitting that I was an alcoholic. It was draining the swamp to uncover the practicality and owning the practicality and applying it to the Twelve Steps.

*******

For a minute, everything seems lucky. He’s alive. Then, there are the other minutes that follow. These minutes contain guilt, embody guilt, are guilt themselves. The guilt of the survivor. He has arrived at a place where there is more guilt than he could have possibly imagined, could have possibly dreamed of existing in the years to which God has assigned him. The quantity, John Henry thinks, is an assault on the notion of healing. He will feel this guilt into the future, less often in the future, but the guilt will never lessen.

********

After the war, my grandfather returned to Talmage, Kansas. He had been offered a place at Yale, free room and board, but he had a little brother to raise. With the intention of studying on his own, he purchased an oak desk built some time in the 1920s. He stripped the wood, sanded it down and stained it a deep cherry. I do not know if my grandfather sat up late at night poring over the classics he would have read at an Ivy League. My gut tells me that his marriage, the ensuing birth of his daughters, would have rendered this as otherworldly as the construction of metaphors.

Three years into sobriety, I sit at his desk in my office, staring at my computer. There is a voice living inside of my rib cage, telling me, reassuring me that what I do is like changing the oil in a car.

Φ

Your love brings you three books and asks you to make a selection. You decide to base your choice on the most intriguing first line. Which one pulls you in?

It started with a tickle in his chest, almost like an itch, until the feeling grew.
A week after her mother died, Alice bought a jellyfish.
In my fantasies I’m always walking downstairs in my sensible flats.

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