A Short Story by Michele Malinchak
My father ran his house like the ships he sailed on—tight and tidy. His rules were simple: three minute showers, lights out at ten, and everything in its place. A minimalist by necessity, there was no clutter to speak of, so the task of clearing out his house after he died was fairly easy. Now only a few odd items remained, among them his mammoth dictionary, a painted decoy I had given him from the Chesapeake, and a pair of ancient binoculars.
I noticed there was something odd about those binoculars the first time I picked them up. They seemed to possess a strange energy I couldn’t explain, almost like an electrical field, maybe because they’d sat in the sun for so long. Why he saved them remained a puzzle since he wasn’t sentimental in any way. He owned another pair of Nikons, far superior and lighter which we had already packed to take home. The clunky old metal ones weighed a good five pounds and were used on his early voyages as a merchant marine. The paint was worn down from years of use to the bare metal and the rubber eye pieces were cracked and brittle. He’d replaced the original leather strap with a rope, so he must have used them every so often. I pictured him on his ships holding them steady in his large hands, gazing at the watery world that surrounded him day and night and wished that like some early camcorder, they could have captured all the wonders he must have seen.
My father moved to the West Coast after my mother died and built his redwood home perched high on a hill in the wine country. Surrounded by majestic California oaks and vineyards, it was the last holdout against encroaching developments.
Distance was nothing new to us. For 30 years, his job took him clear around the world for months at a time. He was the father I never knew but longed to. His letters home arrived on tissue-thin airmail paper that rustled like leaves as my mother read them at the kitchen table.
To me his death was just another journey. I half expected him to walk in the door at any moment, scolding me for rifling through his things. Even his eulogy in the Marine Officer journal sounded like he was on a pleasure cruise—“He sailed to distant shores at age 82…” His, along with the obits of other departed marine officers appeared in the section called, “Finished with Engines.” Their deaths were also glossed over with euphemisms such as, ‘he broke free of his moorings,’ ‘he climbed the gangway to the great beyond,’ or, ‘he steamed into the hereafter.’
My husband always referred to his father-in-law as “The Captain.” Both of us knew The Captain could be difficult and ornery more often than not. He was plagued by a near fatal head injury from an old motorcycle accident in Italy that caused him to stutter and spawned angry outbursts as unexpected as squalls at sea. His crew also noted his erratic behavior and learned to stay away when they heard classical music blaring from his cabin.
Looking up from taping a cardboard box, my husband said, “I’m starting to get hungry. How about I grab some hoagies or cheesesteaks from town.”
“Good luck with that,” I said. “We’re in the land of tofu and sprouts, and I believe they’re called grinders here, not hoagies.”
“Ha. I’ll surprise you. Be back soon.”
Taking a break from packing and cleaning, I took a seat in the sunroom where my father spent many an hour reading the paper. The sun was now doing battle with the heavy fog that settled in the valley below, slowly devouring it as it did by noon on most days.
Across the room on a table, the dictionary and the binoculars stoically awaited their fate. Limited by how much we could take back with us, I decided it would be best to donate them to the local thrift store.
Rising from my seat, I picked up the old binocs and could still feel their peculiar energy. Opening the sliding screen door to the deck, I thought I’d take one last look through them. A California oak grew out of an opening in the floor boards and the arid air smelled like sun-baked wood. It felt good on my face, almost like a sauna. As I aimed the binoculars towards the valley below, a jackrabbit scrambled in the brush and a black-tailed deer foraged on the grassy hillside. Odd, but the air suddenly cooled and the dryness disappeared. My skin felt wet and misty. Could the fog be back?
I scanned the valley below, adjusting the lenses, but couldn’t find the familiar landscape. For what used to be the valley was now—no, something was wrong here. The view through the lenses was grainy like one of those old silent film strips and strange crackling sounds accompanied it. I kept trying to focus, thinking my eyes were playing tricks or maybe this was some kind of joke. The vision finally cleared and shock waves shot through me as I tried to make sense of the scene before me. The land had somehow been replaced by water, incredibly an ocean. I knew the Pacific was at least 30 miles away, so what could explain this?
An approaching vessel cut through the fog and as it crept slowly into view I could see it was an old freighter, much like the ones my father sailed on. The name was obscured but as I squinted harder I could just make it out—E-X-C-A-L-…Excalibur! I recognized it from an old photo my mother had saved years ago. My father’s first ship.
Hands shaking, I abruptly let go of the binoculars and at once, the sun drenched valley returned before my eyes. Did I dare look through them again? I felt I had no choice. Something compelled me to search for a sign or an explanation for this madness.
As I picked them up again, the ocean returned and now I could hear the slapping sound of waves against the ship which was drawing nearer. I could make out a few figures on deck who were all dressed in white uniforms, and one in particular seemed to be looking straight at me. He was also holding binoculars and as his gaze met mine, my skin tingled when I realized it was him. It had to be him. My father was looking at me from some ghost ship on an imaginary sea. He then lowered his binoculars and slowly lifted his hand as he saluted me, a rare smile stretching across his face. I waved back and then in an instant he was gone. The ship, the water—it had all vanished as eerily as it had appeared.
The front door slammed shut as my husband announced, “Two Italian grinders coming right…” The look on my face stopped him dead in his tracks as I tried to explain what had happened. To this day I’m not sure if I was looking into the past or my father was seeing me in the future. Perhaps I witnessed his final journey, but no matter what I saw, during that magic moment we connected in a way that almost made up for all those years we lost.
The binoculars now rest on a table upstairs, completely landlocked in our Pennsylvania home. Every now and then I’ll look through them, hoping to find my father once more, but no vast ocean ever comes into view. Part of him is always with me now, and whenever I hold his binoculars I can almost hear the sea calling. Like the soft whisper from a shell held to one’s ear, it’s a longing sound from far away, a sigh from distant shores.
Michele Malinchak is a freelance writer for Bucks County Magazine whose articles have included gardening and area artists. For several years she worked as a graphic artist before becoming an instructional assistant for special needs students. Now retired, she enjoys tending her own garden and oil painting. Recently she won first place in the Pennwriters Annual Writing Contest in the category of Novel Beginnings. The award has motivated her to complete her novel, “The Healer of Geistville.” Michele and her husband live in rural Haycock Township in a 120-year-old house.