Wednesday, January 27, 2010
GOING OUT WITH THE TIDE
I met him twenty-six years ago.
Josiah Eldredge lived by himself in a shingled house that was built when James Monroe was President of the United States. When Josiah himself was born in this very same house, William McKinley defeated Williams Jennings Bryant and moved into the White House, pushing Grover Cleveland out into the January cold.
Josie, as everyone called him, used to fish for a living. As a very young man he walked the beaches as one of the early “surf men” of the U.S. Coast Guard, walking from station to station in foul weather on the lookout for ships grounded on the shoals.
When I entered his kitchen I could see that Josie was riding the outgoing tide. He was ninety-something now, and was dressed in his signature matching khaki pants and shirt. People said they never saw him wearing anything else. There were pens and pencils his pocket, a white t-shirt showed in the V of his open shirt, and a cluster of keys hung from his belt. His grey hair stood up in a short military crew cut.
His kitchen was more like a shop. His table more like a workbench, complete with a vice bolted to one end. There were jars of nails and screws next to the pepper and salt. Tide charts, a picture of him holding a fifty-pound bass, and another of his fishing boat, the “Vineyard Belle,” covered the walls. The clock was set into a lighthouse. It rang ship’s time.
“After my wife died in sixty-seven,” he said, his voiced tailing off, “Well, lets just say I’m not baking pies in here like she used to.”
Josie was dying. He didn’t know from what. No one did.
“Jesus, what difference does it make?” Josie said, shuffling around the kitchen, “I’m going to shit myself to death, that’s all I know. You want some tea?”
He was thin, ashen, and looked as worn down as a man can look.
Josie had said “no” to all tests and treatments. He didn’t seem at all frightened by the prospect. The prospect, of course, was death, and Josie didn’t dance around that word like many of us do.
We talked about tackling the problem of the diarrhea, and I agreed to bring him some adult diapers that we had in the office. He wasn’t happy about that idea, but he knew the alternative. He had a bucket of soiled clothing and sheets in the bathroom.
“Bring ‘em over,” was all he said.
He spoke like a captain who just got word that his big marine diesel engine was blown and needed replacing. It was equipment that he couldn’t afford to buy. However, it was also equipment that he couldn’t afford not to buy. A captain needed an engine to get to the fish. A captain needed fish to pay the bills.
In the middle of my visit, somewhere between taking Josie’s blood pressure, calling the doctor, and looking at his swollen legs, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small coil of dark string. He held it out, reaching across the distance between us.
“Here, take this,” he said, “It’s twine for mending nets. I always keep some in my stern pocket. Comes in mighty handy.”
He placed it in my hand. At once I noted its smoky odor, like pine tar soap. The twine was coated and smooth, like candlewick, and had a chocolate color. It seemed to possess an inherent strength.
It was such a touching offering. Perhaps Josie did not have the skills to speak gracefully about his feelings. I can imagine Josie did not travel in Jungian circles. I assume he was not in touch with his inner child. A teary-eyed “thank you” was probably as far from Josie’s repertoire as the sun is from the earth.
Net mending twine was Josie’s simple offering. I have kept it on my desk for all these years, and it still speaks to me as powerfully as any eloquent, perfectly put together bouquet of words ever could.