Keith Onstad

 

Knee Deep in the Hao

1.

Knees locked. Eyes straight ahead. Watching and listening. Two weeks before Jeremy Grantham forgot to ring the bells three times, once for each holy, and we had been making fun of him ever since. Half the audience, the congregation that is, probably did not even notice--more than half--but every acolyte in the building instantly fell into one of two camps. The first, the kinder, resolved to tease Jeremy as soon as the service was over. The second intended to comfort Jeremy, to tell him that probably no one noticed, to reassure him that no one expected him to be perfect, to offer to drill him on the requirements of an Episcopal acolyte, to sit in the front pew and discreetly signal him when it was time for him to do something, to outline the entire service in notes that he could tape to his wrist, to offer to talk with Father Giles and ask that Jeremy be demoted to one of the candle carrying acolytes who did not have to ring the bell, carry the cross, or hold the bible during the reading of the Gospel. Two camps with one goal.

I fell somewhere between the two camps. Not nice enough to restrain myself to simple teasing, but not a good enough actor to convince anyone that I was actually concerned about Jeremy Grantham. I hated Jeremy Grantham, but don’t attach too much importance to that fact—it will not play a large part in the story that follows. Jeremy was a childhood enemy, and this story takes place, for the most part, long after Episcopal Sundays, teenage angst, and the intimacy that only occurs between enemies had all long since been left behind.

Knees locked. Eyes straight ahead. My right hand on the brass bells. Time passes. Vision starts to blur. The world does not fade to black, but everything gets dim. Gets gray. The edges creep in towards the center until the center disappears and all that is left are edges. When I open my eyes the other acolyte on my side of the altar and Phil Smythe, the lay reader, are both looking down at me and trying to get me to wake up. The service does not stop. Everyone tells me later that the congregation probably did not even notice, that everyone faints from time to time, and that no one expected me to be perfect. Mr. Smythe helps me to get on my feet, and out of the sanctuary into the small dressing room where the acolytes put on their robes and the cross and candles are stored between services. Mr. Smythe makes me sit down and then pushes my head between my knees to restore the lost blood. He asks me if I am okay, and then slips back into the sanctuary before anyone even notices he is gone. I rest my arms on my legs, feel the blood return to my head, and try to imagine that it never happened.

2.

The promised fast-forward appears at this point, and the story switches to the present—to the here and to the now. Jeremy Grantham will never be mentioned again. There will be two more quasi-flashbacks dealing with fainting episodes, but if you are counting on me to spell out the meaning of any of it I am afraid you will be disappointed. There is no meaning to fiction, anymore than there is meaning to life. Any meanings you find in this story, or in any other, or, indeed, in your own life, are purely of your own invention. Enjoy them, but don’t blame it on me.

I don’t faint in the present.

There are no scenes of the grown man I have become swooning in the drawing room. There is no doctor hovering over my head with smelling salts ready to rush me to the sanitarium. There are no melodramatic hospital rooms where concerned family members gather in silence to pray that I will pull through after a near fatal fainting spell.

3.

My daughter doesn’t believe I ever fainted, but don’t attach too much importance to that fact either—my daughter doesn’t believe anything I say. Her mother tells her that I can’t be trusted, and it is probably true, but that is not why my daughter does not believe me—she does trust me. The difference between trust and belief is subtle, but a cornerstone of our relationship, and the cornerstone of the relationship between reader and writer. This story is not true, although it did happen; you don’t have to believe me to read the story, but you do have to trust.

4.

CT and HT were walking next to the Hao River, and CT looked into the water.

“Wow, look at the fish darting in and out among the rocks,” said CT, “That is what fish really love. Sun, and rocks, and shadows, and light.”

“How do you know what fish love? You aren’t a fish. You can’t know what fish love.”

“I may not be a fish, but you are not me. You don’t know what I know.”

“That does not change the fact that you are not a fish. You have nothing in common with fish. You can’t know what they are thinking.”

“Let’s go back to the original question. You asked how I knew what fish think, so you already realized that I did know. As for the way I know—I know by standing here beside the Hao.”

5.

I met Stephanie Miller, Claire's mother, before I fainted in church, but after I fainted while cleaning trout, and long before I fainted on the runway of Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. I met Stephanie Miller before either of us became acolytes. I met Stephanie Miller when she still dressed like a boy, and played like a boy, and hit like a boy. I met Stephanie Miller the summer when we both were ten.

Stephanie has always said that she does not recall meeting me, not the first time, and I believe her.

I have always told her the same thing.

She knows it was the summer when we were both ten, because that is the summer that Stephanie and her family moved into the house where Jason Grange lived before his father lost his farm and had to move to Seattle so he could get a job.

She knows that by the end of the summer her parents were good friends with my parents. She knows that I had showed her how to catch crawdads in the stream that ran, year round, through the woods on our property and down to the lake. She knows that she had given me one of the three Chinese throwing stars that her brother had made for her in metal shop, and we had spent hours throwing them at a stump near our fort and pretending that we were David Carradine in Kung Fu (who never, by the way, used throwing stars, and was not really Chinese). She knows that we had gotten into a fight with the Evans brothers and both come home with bruises that we tried, unsuccessfully, to hide from our parents.

Stephanie has always said that she does not remember meeting me. She remembers the time before we were friends, and then she remembers that we were joined together, but she does not remember the process by which it occurred.

6.

The first time I saw Claire she was twelve years old. Her mother, Stephanie, had accepted a position teaching at Santa Monica Community College, so they moved to California and into my life. Stephanie said that Claire was curious about her dad, wanted to meet him, wanted to know him. She said I didn’t have to meet Claire if I didn’t want to, that I didn’t have to get involved.

7.

When someone hugs you they are making an agreement with you without your consent. They are breaking the zone of privacy that surrounds you, that surrounds all of us. They are forcing a level of intimacy on you that you may or may not be comfortable with, and there is nothing that you can do about it.

You have to hug them back. It is one of the rules upon which society is based, and must therefore be followed.

“Hi Dad.”

There was a long moment of silence, and then the number seven, from the “27” on the door of my apartment, fell to the ground, bounced once, and landed on the toe of my hiking boot.

“You know, Dad, you should nail that number to your door so it doesn’t fall down again.”
She bent down and picked up the metal number.

“Here is your seven, Dad, do you think the two will fall?”

I told her that I didn’t think that it would.

“It probably came loose in an earthquake. There are lots of earthquakes in Calilfornia, Dad, but we aren’t scared.”

I agreed that it was probably an earthquake, and then invited Claire and her mother into my apartment.

Stephanie had sent me Claire’s picture when she told me they were moving to Los Angeles—when she told me I had a daughter—but Claire didn’t look like her picture, and she didn't look like Stephanie. Well, she looked like Stephanie when she smiled. She looked like Stephanie when she raised her eyebrow and told me without words that she did not believe what I was telling her. She looked like Stephanie when she winked, and when she told me that she loved me before she even knew what I was like. She didn't so much look like Stephanie as much as she acted like Stephanie.

She looked like me.

8.

Rainbow Trout, in the modern world, live a doomed existence. That is to say, to be a Rainbow Trout is to know that at some point you are going to be yanked out of the river, pond, creek, or lake where you live. To be a rainbow trout is to know that at any moment it is very likely that whatever it is that you are eating will contain a sharp, barbed, metallic hook. To be a Rainbow Trout is to be marked from the moment of your birth for destruction.

There are no Rainbow Trout, or, indeed, any fish, or aquatic life, or life of any kind at all, in the water at Disneyland. The raging river that encircles Tom Sawyer's Island is barren and lifeless underneath the surface.

When I was six my parents made us go to Disneyland. We drove down from Washington, stopping at every historical landmark on the way, and stayed for three days in a Motel 6. The motel did not have any air conditioning, and it was hot. The animals at the park--the mice, and the ducks, and the bears, and the dogs--all refused to say a word when my parents made us talk to them.

Halfway through the second day my parents made us get on the "It's a Small World" ride, and as soon as the boat moved inside the Small World building I could feel a breeze sweep over me. I let my hand hang in the water over the side of the boat, and enjoyed the respite from the heat. I hummed the "It's a Small World" song under my breath, and splashed water on my forehead. I relaxed.

When we got off the ride my mother slapped my face, dragged me into the women's bathroom, scrubbed my face and hands with soap and water, and told me never to reach outside any of the rides again.

9.

When Stephanie and I got married I did not have enough money for a real honeymoon. She was going to community college and I wasn't. I was working at the Snoqualmie River Dairy Farm. My job was to get the cattle in and out of the automatic milking machines safely, but I did a little bit of everything. If there was a broken fence I fixed it. If there was hay to be stacked, I stacked it. I cleaned every piece of equipment in the milking barn. I knew each of the more than two hundred cows by name—I knew them by the names I had given them.

10.

When I looked up Stephanie was standing in front of me with a wet paper towel dripping in her hand. I still don't know how she got away from her parents, how she got out of the church, how she came to my rescue, but she did.

"You're such a dork. I don't believe you fainted."

It was not the first time I had fainted—I never told Stephanie about the first time. She saw me faint in the church, she was watching, and she saw me faint on the hot concrete runway at Pease Air Force Base, but I never told Stephanie about the first time I fainted.

The first time I fainted I was eight years old. The rule was that if you catch the fish you have to clean them. You have to cut them open. You have to stick your finger in the fish and scoop out the insides. You have to cut off the head.

My father has always insisted, when someone else brings the story up, that it was a hot summer day and I was dehydrated and I was tired and I had been in the sun all day long and I had cut myself while whittling and had bled all over the place and I had been drinking creek water during the entire camping trip and in two months I would have my tonsils out and was probably already ill and I had fallen out of a tree earlier in the day and it was not my fault.

And it was not his fault.

11.

"If you fainted all the time when you were a kid, how come you never faint now?"

I don't know why I even told Claire that I ever fainted. I love her like she was my own daughter—she is my own daughter—but I don't know how to be with her. I don't know what to do. I don't know whether Jason Timberlake is cool, or lame, or hot, or over. I can't wait for the Saturdays we spend together, but then her mother drops her off and she sits on my couch and we watch TV or I take her to the zoo or the mall or the Los Angeles County Fair or the Long Beach Aquarium or the La Brea Tar Pits or to see the California Poppies when they are in bloom or to the Griffith Observatory or to the beach or to a thousand other places that neither of us want to go.

And then her mother, Stephanie, picks her up late in the evening. Claire hugs me, says, "I love you dad," and then gets into her mother's car and waves out the window while her mother drives away.

12.

There should be a moment, at this point in the story, when I confess to cheating on Claire's mother. When I tell about the time when I was on a remote tour in Sicily and the only girl on my shift was on duty with me and we had sex. When I tell about the moment that the only girl on my shift told me that if she wanted to she could fuck a different guy every day of the week from the time she arrived until her DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Over Seas), but the truth is that it never happened. Kendra, the girl on my shift, did offer to sleep with me, but we were both tired from working twelve hour shifts, I had been masturbating every night with a copy of penthouse I bought at the BX, she had been sleeping with almost every other guy on our shift, and it was late, and when we tried we could not do it. I could not do it.

Stephanie and I did not break up because I cheated on her or because she cheated on me. Stephanie and I broke up because when I was in Sicily she was not, and when she was in college I was not. Stephanie and I broke up because when she was alone on an Air Force base in New Hampshire, thousands of miles away from her family and her friends and her husband, I was alone in Sicily thousands of miles away from my family and my friends and my wife. Stephanie and I broke up because that is what happens when people stop loving each other.

13.

I didn’t make Claire go to Disneyland. Claire wanted to go, and so did her mother. Claire was too old to run around collecting signatures from the animals who live in the park, but she did it anyway. She laughed at the people laughing at her because they thought it was sad that a twelve-year old girl was still collecting cartoon autographs. She laughed at the people smiling at her because they thought it was cute that a twelve-year old girl was still enough of a child to collect cartoon autographs. She laughed at me when I didn’t want to buy her the autograph book. Sometimes, when she laughed, it was as if she was laughing for no reason at all.

14.

The story of CT and HT is adapted from the Chuang Tzu, and is one of the fundamental teachings of the Tao. When you are learning to translate from Chinese to English, when you are learning to extract meaning from obscure picture-like characters that were in use thousands of years before Walt Disney put pen to paper, when you are learning to pretend it is possible to understand something written in another language, in another time, by people with thoughts you can’t even imagine, the story of Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu walking next to the Hao river is the first thing you translate.

If fiction had meaning, if the point of a story was to teach a lesson, then I might use the story of Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu walking next to the Hao as an allegory. I might tie it in to the story of Claire, her mother, and me. I might bring it all together in the end and explain the meaning of life in a single profound paragraph. I might answer questions that can have no answers.

But, what Chuang Tzu was really saying, of course, is that we don’t learn what we know from books, or college, from the mouth of a child, or the wise old grandfather who passes on the wisdom of the ages on his deathbed. We know what we know by standing next to the Hao.

15.

The last time I fainted Stephanie and I were still married. I had not yet been sent to Sicily. We were still in love. We were still joined together, and, at the time, would never be separated. I was standing on the runway at Pease AFB, at attention, for more than an hour. When I remember the incident I was standing, in formation, at a ceremony marking the change of command. I remember that there were hundreds of us, standing in the sun, waiting for a man we had never met, who had complete control over our lives, to pass that control on to another man we would never meet. I remember that most of us had showered in our t-shirts, socks, and underwear before putting on our dress uniforms, our dark blue jackets, and the ties around our necks. I remember that we packed ice in washcloths and put them under our hats before we marched out onto the concrete. I remember that when we marched onto the runway we had to march past a line of ambulances, some from the base and some borrowed from the local hospital, all waiting to treat those of us who fell after standing for hours on the concrete under the August sun.

16.

Claire wanted to go to both parks, the old Disneyland and the new California Adventure Park. I tried to tell her that we could come back in a couple of weeks and that it would be better to do one park completely and then move on to the next. I tried to tell her that we wouldn’t be able to do everything in both parks, that she would miss the jungle cruise or the haunted house or the Tarzan tree. I tried to convince her that it would better to have a system, to have a plan, to prioritize and hit every ride in order of importance.

She laughed at me and said that she didn’t want to hit every ride, just the fun ones.

17.

I am not sure how Stephanie made it from the bleachers to the ambulance where a doctor was telling me that I shouldn’t have fainted. I don’t know how she was able to pick me out from a field of one thousand other men and women dressed in exactly the same uniforms. I don’t know how she figured out which ambulance I was in. I don’t know how she knew that I fainted. She has never told me, and I never asked.

When the doctor finally let me go Stephanie was sitting on the ground leaning against the tire of the ambulance.

“I can’t believe you fainted. You’re such a dork.”