Today they had both red and green grapes, corn, broccoli and huge zucchinis someone had donated from their garden. Luke displayed the produce with the plastic trays slightly tilted so the masked people in their cars could see what was on offer. They spoke to him as little as possible through half-shut windows.
He began volunteering at the food pantry in December, then in March the pandemic arrived, and everything changed. By April, instead of the families coming inside for groceries, they drove around to the back of the building for pre-bagged staples. Then they moved their cars forward to a bread table, produce, the proteins. He would hustle to bag everything and stuff it in their trunk, reciting to himself what they’d asked for so he wouldn’t lose track. Still, he missed one of the bags for a car with a mother and three kids, was bummed when he found it beside the table after the woman drove away.
Right after she came through, the guy with the BMW arrived. Luke wondered if he would have the nerve to ask for free food driving one of those, which was completely out of line with what he believed, and the food pantry’s mission to give food to anyone who needed it. Plenty of people on the Cape had lost jobs. Yet the feeling had risen in him, as if only certain vehicle makes and years would be humble enough to ask for sustenance.
At noon the clients were gone; they put away all the food that was still good. No matter how much they gave out and donated to other places, people, horses, goats, pigs, there was still waste. The hardest part of the job was stuffing a cart full of bread and taking it to the dumpster. So much in one place, too little in others. The universal problem.
After working, Luke drove to the pier. A half dozen people were fishing for bass, the filet mignon of the sea. He sat in his truck with a number one pencil, which had a slower drag than the number two on the shiny yellow legal pads he wrote on. Last year he had started working on this story, then the pandemic arrived, and it had to be addressed. Like right after nine eleven, when no one could write fiction without referencing the attacks, the virus had to be acknowledged, or the time of the story had to clearly place it as pre-covid19. The date of the story he’s working on appeared in the third paragraph. His writing group assured him it was soon enough, via their virtual sessions where they met now like the rest of the world. They had also agreed to try to shake some assumptions by changing the sex of their characters. His were female now; he was surprised so far at how little difference it made.
Luke checked the mirrors—no cops— reached into the knapsack beside him for a warm Guinness, a bottle opener, and for the fuckteenth time began editing his story—
Charon Breaks Your Heart
Jaws hadn’t ruined the Cape Cod waters for Spense. She had been told by people from the marine institute in Wood’s Hole that the waters were too cold for great white sharks. But years of bounty-free living had multiplied the seal population into a tsunami of sweet flesh and eventually, from their homes thousands of miles away, the great whites came. Then, last year, in 2017, a man was killed by a shark on its east coast.
Spense is way around on the other side of the cape, on the bay where so far no whites have been seen. She shouldn’t think about sharks. The stand-up paddle board requires concentration, micro movements. Demands she stay in the present. This is her second summer on the SUP. She is now able to flick the horseflies from her legs with a scrape of the paddle without losing balance.
A motorboat chugging up creek is not keeping to the allowed wake of five miles per hour. She points the bow into the swell, drops to her knees before she’s dumped. Kneeling, she paddles into the lush marshes and gassy mud. Some worried nesting plovers pipe at her. One takes flight, crying, trying to draw her away. Spense rises to her feet slowly one foot, pause, the other, straightens. When she’s steady, she paddles off, feeling the warmth from a blister forming at the base of her thumb as she strokes against the tide. At the mouth of the creek, where it meets the bay, she stops. Here braver paddle boarders ride the ocean waters just beyond the break line.
Spense is procrastinating with purpose today instead of hanging around the house pretending to write. She has just bought Seamus Heaney’s translation of book six of The Aeneid and is hopeful that it will motivate her own work, although she grabbed the mail on her way out, brought the package with her, and hasn’t even opened it yet.
Spense had come to The Aeneid years before through a college classical literature course which commenced a few days after they buried her father. It was probably too soon to be back at school. She felt like a molting bird, exposed and wobbly, a perfect state for her heart to be tap-tapped by the poignancy and heartbreak of book six, when the hero goes into the underworld to find his dead father. Three times Aeneas tries to encircle him in his arms and is made weak with corporeal yearning, cruelly teased by the whispered sensation of his father’s vaporous shape.
She had felt attached enough to Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Aeneid to keep her battered and inked paperback through two cross country moves, and when no projects had come to roost after she finished writing the last novel, she had decided to force one to take shape. In reading The Aeneid again, looking for inspiration to become form, she went straight to book six and was moved in a new way by the character of Charon, his miserable eternity spent dragging the ferry filled with endlessly arriving dead, from one side of the Styx to the other. A figure so terribly unloved that tears came to her eyes as she read of Charon’s swollen heart. He sees the golden bough, which the Sybil has given Aeneas for safe passage, and he becomes animated, his misery vanishes. Through this unexpected emotional portal, Spense felt herself drawn again to the world of Aeneas.
The tide is with her as she paddles back up the creek. The breeze barely stirs. It’s like walking on water. She glides along trying to absorb the physical mechanics. Being here now. The more self-conscious you are, the better chance for a fall. She thinks of her friend Julia, her love of aphorisms. She’ d probably say— Let go and let gravity.
Later that evening, after paddle boarding, Spense is seated at the last seat of the bar where Julia works. The restaurant used to be a church. The bar is concealed behind a carved oak screen that separates it from the dining room below in the nave. Three stained glass apostles look down on the adjacent lounge of club chairs, side tables, and a baby grand piano.
“Procrastinating?” Julia places a cocktail napkin in front of Spense.
Since they met in a workshop three years ago, they have been encouraging, cajoling, sometimes bullying each other through the creation of their novels. For the fantasy she is writing, Julia has drawn intricate graphite and watercolor maps and genealogy charts. “You owe me pages.” She places a glass of water in front of Spense. Julia produces several pages each day starting at 5 am before getting her kid out to school and going to her first job.
Spense says, “There’s a diagnosis in the DSM for people who can’t stop writing.”
Julia pours her a glass of Barolo. From the lounge issues a piano medley of smooth jazz riffs blending Dylan with Sinatra.
“I’m having a crisis with the book,” says Spense; “Fucking Charon.”
“Remind me who he is.” Julia digs in the back of the refrigerator. Someone’s ordered a non-alcoholic beer.
“You know that Heaney book I told you I got for inspiration? Well, it’s different than the translation I’ve been reading since college. That one made Charon so tragic and relatable.” Spense finds her hand drifting toward her sternum, still feeling a simulacrum of pity for the poor ferryman.
A waiter puts a large order in for the lounge. Julia turns on the elaborate frozen drink machine she had earlier cleaned for the night. “Please,” she implores the painting of St. Michael over the bar, “let these be my last pina coladas.”
When she got back from paddle boarding, Spense had looked at the disappointing Heaney translation. The book was hard cover, barely a hundred pages and lay flat on the table so she could read it while she ate. But as she did, she slowly began to feel her face flush and a looseness in her stomach that wasn’t from the food. Heaney’s words made her cringe. Far from the figure of pathos that had helped Spense begin writing her new novel, Heaney depicted the ferryman Charon as a colossal grump.
Having lost her appetite for scampi she put it aside and went online looking for Robert Fagles’ translation which she had been meaning to order. She wanted the hard cover version, but the IRS now considered her writing life a hobby so she’s watching expenses. Spense bought the e-version, went to the lines about Charon, found that Fagles depicted him as heaving with rage at the sight of the hero Aeneas, bellowing — How dare the quick come to the place of the dead, when once before he let in the sons of gods and they did blasphemous deeds.
Spense looked at the Latin side of Heaney’s translation, tried to decipher meanings, searched a few online. Was tumida the culprit that transformed sympathy to grievance? A word that can mean confidence, pride or yes swollen. And Mandelbaum alone had decided on the last. A maverick choice compared to the other two authors’ translation of a less complicated Charon—a lumpy grump, who because of Mandelbaum, became for her swollen with tragic tears and heartbreak.
That she had found a project by a wayward word-in-translation had flooded Spense with a disproportionate sense of shame. It was probably fitting because she had always felt hubristic, attempting to fictionalize a masterpiece of the Western canon. Because of this she has been vague when asked about the current book she’s working on, says it’s about the ancient world.
So, she finds herself at The Cloisters for a second night in a row, looking for encouragement to go on with the novel or permission to stop. “Now tell me again,” says Julia, “what is your excuse for not writing?”
“The Aeneid is a macho story, Charon’s an ass, and I started a project because of an eccentric translation.” Spense is surprised to see she has drunk most of her wine. “Besides the world doesn’t need another paean to men and war.”
“I thought your book was about what leads up to war.” Spense shrugs. Takes the last swallow.
Julia removes the wine glass, puts it in the washer. “How ever you saw Charon, it made you write eight chapters and do all that research. I think that’s good, and it needs to be— trusted.” Julia begins emptying the ice chest into a large plastic bucket. “If you parse everything too much, you squeeze the guts out of it. Especially with words. Like this morning, I found a name for my blue wizard — Tesserae.” Julia’s hand describes a graceful unfolding in the air. “You know what it means? Tiles. From the Greek.”
“Oh great, the Greeks again,” Spense says. “And I feel guilty watching you work,”.
“Then go home and write. And remember— the over-examined life is not worth giving.” Her mouth tilts in a half-smile.
Later, Julia texts her, says she’s found the perfect quote for Spense’s dilemma of words that explain Charon, one from Borges — “The original is unfaithful to the translation.” Julia includes an emoji of an elf.
Luke stops editing Charon. Puts pad and pencil into his knapsack. Starts to think about what he wants to eat for dinner.
It’s humbling a mother had said, two kids in the back seat, tears in her eyes above a red bandanna. For me too, Luke had whispered as he bent to bag the lettuce, not wanting to embarrass her.
You don’t do for others so that they can thank you. You don’t make people prove their worth; you offer them love. His personal code says this, but the primate brain pushes out certain chemicals that make it all about survival. More for you is less for me. Love and charity seem like different things. The first implies an open, unconditional heart, one-syllabled—the agape of the New Testament; while the other has a Dickensian whiff of required worthiness, ensuing condescension. To expect gratitude tarnishes the grace, the gesture of charity.
Luke watches the diving ducks for a while, counts off the seconds they stay under. He leaves the pier, stops at a fish market, puts on a mask to go inside. He’d like to think he’ll never take for granted again the privilege of being able to choose his own food; but he probably will. Inside the store he heads straight for the sea bass.
Diane Bonavist’s novels are Purged By Fire: Heresy of the Cathars (Bagwyn Books) and Daughters of Nyx. She was Editor in chief for Tiferet Journal. Her fiction has appeared in The Milo Review, Fable Online, RavensPerch, Linden Avenue Literary Journal and others.