Water is the Wage of Sin
He parted a chain-link fence just south of the Highway 17 junction and stepped onto the frontage road, the morning sky yet to find its color. He took a moment, smelled the air. Every hometown has a smell that takes you back nearly to the day you were born, and this one smelled of seaweed and chimney smoke. For Dan Eidlebach, the connection was two-fold: not only was he born here, but he’d nearly died here as well.
A Sheriff’s cruiser passed him on the frontage, did a U-turn, and slowed to a quiet roll. He’d sparked the interest of law enforcement many times in his troubled youth, but this time he suspected a different reason for it.
The driver window descended, a middle-aged deputy with a gray mustache.
“Don’t mean to stare,” he said. “But you look just like Eidlebach’s kid.”
Dan faced the deputy, cinched his duffel on his shoulder. He recognized the face. One of his father’s old drinking buddies. Posner was his name. He had a wheezy laugh and an obsession with the Oakland A’s. Dan remembered how he’d come to the house and he and his father would finish a can of Old Milwaukee at the end of every inning—and how one night, in extra innings, Posner got so drunk he fell off the couch reaching for a bowl of Funyuns.
“Eidlebach,” said Dan, playing coy. He squinted as if combing through a catalogue of faces in his mind. “Wouldn’t be Chuck Eidlebach, would it?”
“That’s the one.” Posner raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know when I’m being toyed with, Danny. I recognized you from a block away.”
Dan set the duffel on the road, pressed his tongue into the fang of his eyetooth. Down on the highway, a pair of logging trucks roared southbound, loaded with redwood lumber. He felt the road shudder as the trucks passed. “You know where I might find him?” he said, finally.
“Your father? I sure do.”
“Feel like telling me?”
“I’m guessing you stopped by the old house first.”
Dan nodded. “Looks like the Wexlers live there now.”
“You aren’t planning on causing trouble with the old man, are you?”
“Now why would you ask me a thing like that?”
“Just that you’re kind of a ghost turning up like this, Danny.”
The word ghost struck Dan funny and made him look at his own hands as if he might see through them. His hands had scars and calluses. They’d gotten older since he’d caught a bus straight to anywhere but here. Ghosts didn’t age. Their knuckles didn’t bust on rough-running car chassis in greasy auto shops the way his had.
He told Posner so.
Posner gave him another once-over and hit the thumbswitch and the cruiser doors unlocked. He pointed his chin to the passenger door. Dan climbed into the front seat with the duffel in his lap and they sped down the frontage road toward midtown, past smoke shops and warehouses, past the high school where he’d barely graduated. The town hadn’t changed much. Maybe the traffic lights looked new, and there could have been more of them. Maybe the trees on the boulevards had grown a few feet taller.
He read the street signs, Beach, Ocean, Water, Bay.
The strange thing about growing up in a beach town is that you could go months without seeing the water. Dan found this hard to explain to people he met across the country, people who often teased him about beach blondes and surfer dudes. You go from place to place, you build a routine. Work, home, the corner market, your girlfriend’s house up the hill. All the while, half the earth’s water sat just beyond the next block, or maybe a block beyond that, but it was there, like a call you forgot to return. A nagging thought. It loomed.
Posner hooked left at the Arco Station and pulled into a parking lot, flicked his finger at a decrepit dive bar called “The Ol’ Watering Hole”.
“Chuck’s in there.”
“He starts drinking this early?” said Dan.
“Well, sometimes he does. But he owns the place now. Took it over when your mother—well, after he sold the house on Cabrillo.”
Dan had the car door open already, the stink of the bay now richer than ever. It gave him an uneasy feeling, made his breakfast churn in his stomach. “Thanks for the ride,” he said.
“I’m staying close. Keep it civil, will you?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Let me ask one more thing, Danny.”
“Why’d you come back? Honestly, now.”
He took a deep breath, flipped his hands as if he didn’t have a ready answer. “I was thinking about starting a business here. Maybe meeting someone, settling down. All the usual reasons.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth. There were a few loose ends that weren’t going to tie themselves.
“Your old man’s had a rough ride, you know. Go easy on him.”
“I told you I don’t want trouble.”
As the cruiser rolled off to the main road, Dan shuffled toward The Ol’ Watering Hole, each step heavier than the last. He paused, touched the rusty minimum age sign on the door. Cobwebs hung in the cone of a security light, husks of dead moths. The sour feeling in his stomach grew.
Inside was the man who’d named him and raised him.
Inside was the man who tried to kill him and left him for dead.
Fifteen years ago, Chuck woke him before dawn, the old pickup sputtering in the driveway. It had been three months since his younger brother rolled the family SUV packed with drunken high school kids, and about that long since his father had said a sideways word to him. Harlan was the golden child. The debate king. The one with hypnotic blue eyes and a near-perfect SAT score. Even his corpse made it out of the gully in better shape than the rest of his friends. An overachiever till the end.
Thing was, Dan had bought the bottle that got him drunk.
Dan the stoner, the college dropout. The unemployable bum.
Yet suddenly, Chuck wanted to take him fishing.
Just like the old days.
Dan thought maybe his father wanted a fresh start. Maybe he wanted to fix what was broken, if only for Mom’s sake. They’d been fishing up and down the bay in the family boat called “Bay Spirit” ever since he was old enough to cast a line. On some weekends they caught enough rockfish and salmon to feed the whole neighborhood. He drank his first can of beer out there in the gray fog-smothered waters with the old man. Laughing, listening to ball games on the radio.
Only this time, no one laughed.
They were three miles out when Chuck backed his son against the transom, took him by the collar and told him how it should have been him in the car, how the whole town wished he’d died instead.
“I’m going to tell everyone you left town,” Chuck quietly growled that part, as if anyone could hear him from shore. “It’ll be easy that way. They’ll never know a thing.”
Dan remembered the snarl in his voice, the booze on his breath. The way his eyes sparked with every word. Even though his father shook with some kind of electrified rage, he still tried to reason with him. He promised he’d leave for good, that he’d never show his face again. He warned about the toll it would take on Mom’s sickly heart if anything happened to him.
Chuck wouldn’t back down.
“If I’d done this sooner, your brother would still be alive.”
Then came a right hook, a hard shove.
The water never felt so cold, never tasted as salty as it did then.
He watched his father throttle back to shore, the Bay Spirit slipping into a fogbank and out of sight. He shouted until his voice broke, pleading, then sobbing. Still, he knew there were no magic words to turn the boat around, any more than he could steer a bullet once it left the barrel of a gun. This wasn’t some hard lesson between a father and son: Chuck had committed an act of murder and fled the crime scene.
He wasn’t coming back.
Years later, when Dan told the story to a girlfriend in Phoenix, he explained how his instinct was to fight hard, to swim for the shore with everything he had. To survive at all costs. Maybe he believed it. But on boozy, lonely nights when his mind wandered back to that dark patch of the bay, he’d remember the cold truth: how his first thought was to give up, to slip beneath the waves and plummet to the bottom of the sea. The weight of his father’s hatred would take him all the way down, he was sure of it.
No chime sounded when he opened the door.
No music played, no day drinkers bellied to the bar.
The place smelled of stale beer and Pine-Sol, the only ventilation coming from the open back door. It was the kind of dive where tobacco stains had built up on the ceiling from several generations of barflies. Pie plates and baseball pennants and other American kitsch hung on the walls. The old jukebox looked as if it were built for Merle Haggard’s discography alone.
He heard a clatter of glass bottles, the slam of a dumpster lid. Then the back door darkened and an old man shuffled down the hall with the gait of an arthritic hip.
Dan leaned on the bar as if waiting for a drink.
“Be right there.” Chuck’s voice sounded raspier than he’d remembered, as if he’d spent the last decade and a half at the bottom of a bottle. Maybe he had. He certainly looked that way—face swollen and red-veined. Slippery, opaque eyes like a pair of pickled onions. He stood at the register, winded from taking out the trash. “What’ll you have, young man?” But his voice trailed off when he said it, tapping his shirt pocket for his eyeglasses. A fixed expression like something carved in wood.
“Got any Old Milwaukee in a can?” said Dan. “For old time’s sake.”
Glasses on, the old man worked his jaw silently the way dreamers do. When he finally spoke, it came out in fragments. “I don’t,” he said. “It’s not—”
“Second thought, maybe we need something stronger.”
Chuck, exasperated: “It can’t be.”
“I thought you’d be surprised. Sometimes I’m surprised myself.”
“It just can’t,” he repeated, voice cracking.
“Yet here I am.”
“You really want to know?” said Dan. He took a clean pint glass from a nestled stack on the bar and reached across to fill it from the tap. “I swam for hours out there, Chuck. I’d swim, float awhile, swim again. I gave up sometime in the afternoon, just floating on my back, watching the fog break apart. Waiting to die.” He told his father it’s true how the mind clears in times like that, how it’s as peaceful as they say. Then he told him about the boat that came by—another fishing boat just like theirs. Only a different kind of family aboard, one that wanted him to live. “They pulled me out of the water and brought me to shore, radioed ahead for an ambulance. Second-degree sunburn, dehydration. But I made it. Then I got out of town just like I said I would.” Dan took a sip of beer. “So how are things with you?”
Chuck drew a sharp breath as if he’d been holding it the whole time.
“Get the fuck out,” he said.
“I think we should talk about this, Chuck.”
“They take attempted murder seriously around here.”
“Is that why you came back? To threaten me?”
“No, that’s not why.”
“To extort me? You want money, is that it?” Chuck went to the register and pounded the cash button. He yanked out the till and dumped it over the bar, coins scattering every direction, clattering on the linoleum floor. “Take it and get lost. I was doing fine without you screwing things up for me.”
Dan took another sip. “You mean you were better off thinking I was at the bottom of the bay.”
“I’ll put you there for good this time, I swear it.” He came around the bar with his hands balled, that caustic blend of fear and anger working its dark alchemy. “You killed Harlan. You don’t deserve to be in this world if he can’t.”
“I didn’t kill him, Chuck. He was reckless. And you put too much pressure on him. I think there’s enough blame to go around.”
Chuck didn’t like this. A few quick steps and he was yanking Dan off the stool, trying to throw him to the floor. Dan resisted, the two of them grappling and stumbling. When they toppled, they fell halfway out the front door, Chuck on top with his hands in a chokehold, pressing down on Dan’s throat.
Dan had intended to ask his father if he had any regrets about what happened between them, if being alone for so long had triggered any soul-searching. But they were way beyond that now. The hatred never left, that was clear. The growling, the hot eyes, the boozy breath—just the same as that day on the boat fifteen years ago.
He could have fought back, but he didn’t.
There was something inside that wanted to know for sure. Not ninety-percent sure, but a full hundred-percent. He wanted to feel his life slip again at his father’s hands, to study the act from the inside. Objectively. Conclusively. To be absolutely certain there was nothing left of him to save before he made his next move.
A cold tingle in his fingertips.
And there it was.
In the hospital, Dan remembered how Posner’s boots sounded running across the parking lot, his crazy panicked voice as he grabbed Chuck by the wrists and pulled him away. He remembered the euphoria he felt when the oxygen hit his bloodstream again—the smell of the bay, the cold air and chimney smoke. He described it all the same way to Posner and the Sheriff’s detectives. To the DA. They even let him narrate the surveillance video of the whole ordeal at the trial, line by line. And when the judge allowed testimony from the family that plucked him from the bay waters all those years ago, he remembered how two of the jurors openly wept and Chuck’s court-appointed lawyer folded his arms like oh shit.
Not all the regulars returned to the tavern, though. It took a full year to really make a living at it. Nobody questioned why Dan would want to run the place, at least not to his face. Besides, most of the newcomers were younger college types who never knew his father and wouldn’t care if he were doing a nickel for felony assault and attempted murder. Between the pool tournaments, eighties nights, and the pop-up breweries that came through, he found comfort in the pace of it all.
On one of those busy nights, he met a liquor distributor who had gotten lost trying to find the tavern. He remembered her from grade school, a woman named Emily Salazar. He recognized her eyes first, then her laugh. But there was something else he found familiar, something that told of deep scars—of finding her way back from something terrible.
After small talk, she apologized for the late appointment.
“I was looking for ‘The Ol’ Watering Hole’ and just kept passing it,” she said.
“Easy mistake,” said Dan. “I changed the name when I took over.”
“I like ‘The Bay Spirit’ better. It’s more original.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. I like that it can have more than one meaning.”
“It does. There’s a whole story to it for sure.”
She studied him very intently, and Dan thought maybe she’d recognized the same thing he’d seen in her. “Maybe you can tell me the story some day,” she said.
“How much time you got? It’s kind of a tough story to tell.”
“Fine with me,” she said, still sorting out whatever unspoken connection they had. “I have a few of those myself, you know.”
He walked her out, business card in hand. She’d written her personal cell on the back. Coming out of the bar, the night felt cool, with a steady offshore breeze that swept the briny air back into the bay. He watched her wheel onto the main road and disappear somewhere beyond the traffic lights, and for a moment, the past didn’t feel so jagged.
For a moment, the ocean didn’t loom so large.
C.W. Blackwell is an American author from Northern California. He has been a gas station attendant, a rock musician, and a crime analyst. His passion is to blend poetic narratives and pulp dialogue to create evocative genre fiction. His recent work has appeared in Down and Out Books, Shotgun Honey, Gutter Books, and Rock and a Hard Place Magazine.