21 May 2007

Serenity in the Sea


One young man stood outside during a wild storm, despairing over his life, when something glinted in the sand...
By Arthur Gordon

Some people in this world have a marvelous gift. It’s hard to say exactly what this quality is: a serenity, an inner strength, a generosity of spirit. Whatever it is, when you’re in trouble, or have some aching problem, you turn to these people instinctively. Something in them draws you like a magnet. I have a friend like that. So, the other night, when something was weighing on my mind, I telephoned him.

“Come on over,” he said. “Alma’s gone to bed, and I was about to heat up some coffee.”

So I went over, and at the end of an hour—just as I knew I would—I felt a lot better. The problem was still there, but somehow it didn’t seem so frightening. Not with Ken sitting in his old swivel chair, feet up on the desk, hands locked behind his head, not saying much, just listening...and caring.

Suddenly the gratitude and affection I felt seemed to need expression. “Ken,” I said, “when it comes to smoothing out wrinkles in troubled minds, you’re wonderful. How do you do it?”

He has a slow smile that seems to start in his eyes. “Well,” he said, “I’m a good deal older than you.”

I shook my head. “Age has nothing to do with it. There’s a calmness in you that goes very deep. Where did you get it?”

He looked at me pensively for a few seconds, as if trying to make up his mind whether to tell me something. Finally, with the toe of his shoe, he pulled open one of the desk drawers. From it he took a small cardboard box. He put it on the blotter. “If I do have any of this quality you’re talking about,” he said, “it probably comes from this.”

I waited. On the mantel a clock ticked.

Ken picked up one of his blackened pipes and began to load it. “You’ve known me for...how long? ten years? twelve? This box is a lot older than that. I’ve had it more than thirty years. Alma is the only other person who knows what’s in it, and maybe she has forgotten. But I take it out and look at it now and then.”

The match flared; the smoke curled, blue and reflective, in the lamplight. “Back in the ’20s,” Ken said in a faraway voice, “I was a successful young man in New York. Successful as hell. I made money fast and spent it faster. I was the golden boy, able to outthink or outdrink anybody. I married Alma because she was pretty and decorative, but I don’t think I loved her. I don’t think there was any love in me, really. The closest thing to it was the very high regard that I had—for myself.”

I stared at him in amazement. I found it almost impossible to believe this brutal self-portrait.

“Well,” said Ken, “as you’ve probably anticipated, the day of reckoning came. And it was quite a day. It’s hard for people who didn’t go through the Wall Street crash to know what it was like. One week I was a millionaire—on paper, anyway. The next I was a pauper. My reaction was predictable: I got drunk and stayed drunk for three days.”

He gave a short bark of a laugh and stood up, running a hand through his wiry hair. “The place I chose for this little orgy of self-pity was a beach cottage that we owned—or, rather, had owned before the bottom fell out of our gilded cage. Alma wanted to come with me, but I wouldn’t let her. I just wanted to get away from everything and drink myself blind, and I did.

“But the time comes when you begin to sober up. For an alcoholic—and I was close to being one—this can be a ghastly experience. You’re overwhelmed with self-disgust; you’re choked with despair. I looked at my face in the mirror, the bloodshot eyes, the three-day beard, and knew I was looking at a total failure. As a man, as a husband, as a human being, I had made a complete mess of my life. The thought—no, it wasn’t a thought, it was a conviction—the conviction came to me that the best thing I could do for Alma and for everyone else would be to remove myself from the scene, permanently.

“I knew, moreover, just how to do it. A half gale was blowing outside. The sea was wild. I would swim out as far as I could, past the point of no return. That would take care of everything.”

Ken’s pipe had gone out; he put it on the desk. The old chair creaked as he sat down. “When you’re driven to a decision like that, your one thought is to get it over with. So I wasted no time. I stumbled down the porch steps and onto the beach. It was just after dawn, I remember; the sky was red and angry; the waves were furious. I walked straight to the edge of the water. As I reached it, something glinted on the sand.” He opened the box. “This.”

In the box was a shell. Not a particularly unusual shell; I had seen others like it. A narrow oval of fluted calcium, pale, graceful, delicate.

“I stood there staring at it,” Ken went on. “Finally I picked it up, wet and glistening. It was so fragile that the least pressure of my fingers would have crushed it. Yet here it was, undamaged, perfect.

“How was this possible? The question seemed to seize upon my mind, while all around me the wind shrieked and the ocean roared. Tons of seething water had flung this shell on the hard-packed sand. It should have been smashed to splinters, utterly destroyed. But it wasn’t.

“What had kept the shell intact, unbroken? I kept asking myself this question with a kind of frantic urgency—and suddenly I knew. It had yielded itself to the awful forces crashing around it. It had accepted the storm just as it had accepted the stillness of the depths where it had had its beginnings. And it had survived.

“I don’t know how long I stood there, but finally, when I turned away from the sea, I took the shell with me. I’ve had it ever since.”

I took the box from my friend and lifted out the shell. It lay in my hand, untouched by the years, exquisitely wrought, featherlight. “Do you know its name?” I asked.

Ken smiled that slow smile of his. “Yes,” he said. “They call it an angel’s wing.”

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