Giving Thanks: ‘Old Men at Sea’ by Andrew D. Cohen

Old Men at SeaPresented here is an essay we published back in our Spring 2016 Issue that we feel displays a sense of tenderness and empathy appropriate for this Thanksgiving holiday. We hope you’ll enjoy reading “Old Men at Sea” by Andrew D. Cohen in its entirety:

I’m driving my sons, nine and almost six, to their small, alternative private school here in Portland, Oregon, a school we send them to for the same reason we don’t let them watch television or use the computer—to keep back the world and its anguish for a few more years— even though some part of me, I confess, considers the school, the city, the simple lives they live, a bit too precious, too protected, because, well, they’re boys, and, old-fashioned as it sounds, I worry they won’t be tough enough to handle all that anguish when it inevitably comes knocking at their doors. I’m driving them along when Reuben, my younger son, still a baby, really, taut little body, round cheeks, wispy, soft hair, twisting a paper clip he grabbed off the kitchen table before we left, says, “Papa, how do you think the Eskimos took home the whales once they caught them?” and I pause for a moment, trying to figure out what he’s talking about so early in the morning, vaguely recalling a book we read weeks ago, when Ezra, my older son, lean and lanky, worrying as he does that we’ll be late for school, pushes up his glasses, and says, “I think they just towed them to shore with a rope,” which seems like a fair guess, a reasonable theory, until I remember The Old Man and the Sea, a book I loved back in college—for its adventure and excitement, its sheer feat of storytelling—and we’re still ten minutes from school, and my kids love a good story, so I say, “You guys ever heard of Ernest Hemingway?” which, of course, they haven’t, since neither of them has gotten through third grade, though I’m tempted to say something my father, a short-fused and hard-nosed businessman who believed our childhoods were too protected, would snarl: “What do they teach you in that fancy private school of yours anyway?” But I’ve worked much too hard trying to be a different kind of father for these two boys to veer so wildly off course, my high spirits notwithstanding, so I just say, “He was a writer, a great writer,” leaving out the part about his drinking and his lying and his misogyny, his boorishness and his obsession with this idea of manhood, and, of course, his suicide because these boys are too young for all that. Instead I tell them about Santiago, the old sherman from Cuba, and how he’s had terrible luck lately, hasn’t caught a fish in weeks, months maybe, such bad luck people won’t even talk to him. “But he’s tough, doesn’t give up easily—his luck is bound to change—and one morning when it’s still dark out he climbs into his little boat and rows and rows and rows out to the deep waters far off the coast where the big fish swim,” I say, looking in the rearview to see Reuben still pulling at the paper clip, fashioning it into some fabulous creation as he does, and Ezra, no longer worrying, just listening now, staring out the window with that dazey-gaze he gets while listening to the Mariners on the radio (our concession to the outside world), like he’s actually seeing it happen in front of him, everyone settling in, relaxing, even the sun making a rare late-winter appearance.

In this uncertain sea of fatherhood, you could say I’ve caught a good wind.

“So he tosses in his line,” I continue, pressing the gas, “and he sits there, bobbing on the waves, waiting, patiently waiting, thinking about his hero, the great Joe DiMaggio,” who my boys know all about because of the hordes of devoted Yankee fans in their family from New York, including, at one time, their own father who, to the profound disappointment and genuine befuddlement of the rest of the clan, finally couldn’t abide by all the money, the sense of entitlement, the sheer injustice of it all, even if he occasionally still reads the box score, “when he feels a tug, and not just any tug, but a huge tug, never felt a tug like this in fifty years,” I say, and Reuben looks up, wide-eyed, and says, “Is it a whale?” and I shrug, widening my own eyes for effect. “Whatever it is is so big Santiago can’t possibly pull it in. Instead, he has to let the line run and run until he’s got no line left, and then the fish, this thing, starts pulling him out to sea,” I say, feeling that same rush I felt reading the story back in college, and I wonder why everyone is always ganging up on Hemingway, another Dead White Male, whom I myself admit feeling a little abashed to teach. Say what you want about him: the guy could tell a great story.

Always get the last word.

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“Now and then,” I continue as we round the last corner to school, “the fish seems to slow down, like maybe it’s getting tired, and Santiago tries to pull him in. But just when he thinks he’s got it, the fish dives again, pulling him out farther still, farther and farther, so far out he can’t see the shore anymore. And meanwhile his hands are getting cut up, and he has to put the line over his back just to hold on. But Santiago isn’t giving up, no way, not now, he just keeps holding on, telling himself to be patient, talking to the fish, telling the fish how much he loves and respects it, but how he’s going to catch it anyway,” I say, looking back again at the boys, all tucked in back there, hanging on my every word (“Big Papa,” they sometimes call me when they snuggle me) like they’d follow me off a cliff, and I feel that terrifying ache of just how desperately I want to do right by them, to be a good father, a real father, whatever that means, even as I sense that I’m failing them—in my shifting moods, my endless guilt and chronic sense of doubt—that for all our efforts to protect them from the world it’s me they need to worry about.

“For three days, Santiago wrestles that fish,” I say, and Ezra, disbelieving, says, “Three days?” and I say, “Three days, his back straining, his ngers torn up, running out of food, water, knowing he could die, but slowly, slowly wearing the fish down,” I say, pulling into a parking spot a couple of blocks shy of school, so we don’t have to rush, because I don’t want to ruin the story, and they unbuckle themselves and grab their lunch bags lled with organic this and raw that and sprouted whatever, “until he nally, nally, pulls it in, this huge marlin, like a swordfish, with a big sword on its nose, the biggest fish he’s ever seen, maybe the biggest fish anyone has ever seen, so big he can’t even get it onto the boat. Instead, he has to tie it to the side, which he does before putting up his sail and turning his boat home,” I say, locking the car door, and Ezra looks up at me over his glasses, and you have to understand how beautiful he looks, how hopeful and innocent and deliciously tender, and this despite the myriad faults of his father. “Is that the end?” he asks, and I smile and kiss him hard on his cheek: “Not even close.” Reuben takes my hand as we cross the street. “So there he is, exhausted, bloody, starving, but feeling good, he did it, thinking about the good price he’ll get for the fish, wondering whether he should sell it, it’s so incredible after all, but anyway, just feeling good, knowing he’ll be home again soon, when he looks up and sees a giant shark coming his way,” and when I see the ash of concern on Ezra’s face, I have my first moment of doubt—maybe I’ve made a mistake—though it’s so fleeting, and we’re having such a good time, I push the thought aside. “And that shark comes swimming up to the boat and”—I make my hand into the shape of a jaw—“Vroomp! Takes a chunk out of the marlin,” and Ezra says, “Oh, no,” and even this I dismiss with a quick wave of my hand. “Remember,” I say. “Santiago is tough. He’s not giving up, and besides he has his harpoon,” and Reuben, intrigued by all things sharp, says, “He does?” and I say, “Of course. All fisherman have one,” like I know the first thing about fishing. “And when that shark comes up to the boat again, what do you think he does?” and Reuben says, “Sticks it,” and I say, “Right,” and then there’s the awkward silence that surrounds us whenever we and ourselves in the uncharted waters of killing and/or willful harm, and I pause, as usual, unsure what to say before I do what I always do: keep going. “The thing is,” I say, “the blood from the marlin is streaming into the sea and soon another shark is coming.”

“Why doesn’t he just pull the fish on board?” asks Ezra, voice laced with urgency, as we pass the playing fields where a flock of geese are chewing the grass. “It’s too big,” Reuben reminds him, and I say, “Right. So here comes this other shark, and this one, too, Santiago sticks—except this time the harpoon gets stuck and he loses it,” and now I can feel myself losing steam—no more denying this will end badly—though, of course, we’re too far gone, there’s no turning back, no slapping a happy ending on this one, so I press on: “He still has plenty of fish left, of course, I mean, it’s huge. But more sharks are coming, lots of them, and though he tries to fight them with his oar, there’s only so much he can do. He’s an old man. And they take bite after bite and when he finally gets back to shore all that remains of the marlin is its skeleton, its head, maybe its tail . . .” I trail off, looking up in time to see Ezra’s face absolutely crumble.

“That’s a sad story!” he says, bursting into tears, as Reuben, still young, maybe a different kind of sensitive, spots a friend and walks ahead to chat.

“You’re right,” I say, and I’m staggered by the depth of his reaction. I put my hand on his back, scrambling to do something, anything to make this right. “It is a sad story.”

“Then why did you tell it to us?” he says, his hand over his face now, not just upset by the story but at me for having told it, for setting him up, which, of course, I did, right in front of school, and for what—some arcane notion of manhood? Some shortsighted desire to toughen him up?

“I don’t know why,” I say, smiling weakly at a few parents passing by now, hand-in-hand with their kids. “I really don’t.”

As he continues to cry, hurt, confused, no sense of why, I’m tempted to talk him out of it, to say, “Don’t you see, partner—it was worth it. He caught the fish. He stuck with it.It didn’t matter what happened afterward. He did it.” But I’m not sure I believe it—that the heartache is worth it in the end—and, besides, I’ve obviously said enough for one day. So I just stand there, rubbing his back, watching the geese mill about the eld, until he finally gathers himself.

“You all right?” I ask, as he wipes his face, and he nods and then looks up like he’s remembered we could still be late.

“Let’s go,” he says, pushing me aside, and, collecting Reuben, I follow him up the stairs to his locker, where he stuffs his jacket before tolerating a kiss from me and getting in line to shake his teacher’s hand as they do at this little school each morning. Then he heads into the classroom, puts down his lunch, and, with another quick wipe of his eyes, joins his friends at the radiator. I watch him, thin and soft, hovering on the outside of their conversation, trying to find his way in from where he’s just been, until something makes him laugh, and that does it: he breathes out the remains of his upset and joins in the banter, talking, debating, carrying on with the others, making it all too clear in the process that he knows plenty about handling the sorrows of this world—and, what is more, that after heartbreak comes more life still, a lesson that I, standing helplessly in the hallway, am still trying to learn.

(Andrew D. Cohen’s essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, and The Missouri Review as winner of the Editor’s Prize in Nonfiction. He lives in Portland, Oregon.)

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