Oliver drinks deeply, a long cool rich hoppy draught, and leans back, actually nodding a little to himself. Maybe old Rich Phurst is actually right: Betty will never know what he, Oliver, has done, and to tell her would be to make her hurt where she didn’t hurt before. Telling the truth here would be indulgent, exculpatory for him, maybe, but a further wrong against his wife.
Except now—gahhh!—Eye or no Eye, even if there is no One to see—no God, no Over-Oliver, no Anybody—the scene of Oliver #2, ignorant cuckold, in bed with the wife who’s suffering through excruciations of guilt in order to sustain for him the illusion of innocent bliss is still somehow grimed over with a stinking slick black muck that ruins the whole thing whether Oliver 2 or Anyone Else knows it’s been ruined or not. Oliver’s fist comes down on cheap wood, sloshes a bit of beer on his forearm. It would be ruined, he knows it would be. Who cares if no one knows or sees?
Oliver scans the dimness for Dick Phurst but still can’t spot him. The wind’s begun to whine out on the street, is that—yes, a sailor’s cap has taken flight, swoops past, no bare heads to be spotted though: someone’s out of uniform tonight. Humidity tinged with sudden chill. Oliver looks out over the dark water sequined with variegated light. The morning after next the Tirante will return to sea for one last northward patrol before setting course for Honolulu’s Pearl Harbor, and after that, back home….
Not a month’s passed since the night Oliver and his crewmates waited in vain off Oniki Saki to receive radioed response from the U.S.S.Trigger, with whom Triante’d been ordered to rendezvous, a ship on which many of Triante’s crewmembers, Oliver included, had served only last year. Verbatim from the one printed eulogy he’d managed to get hands on: With surface ships there are survivors, messages, bits of wreckage, bits of memory to be stitched into cohesive last narrative; with submarines there is only the deep, the silence.
And what had it been like, Oliver wonders, to feel the impact of that depth charge, torpedo, or mine, to feel the collision-alarm’s siren-shriek knife through you, ship upending instantly, air pressure increasing, loose gear precipitation from what used to be below, eyes locked on the depth gauges even as needles yield to wheeling mania, the rushing floodwater’s roar, the groan and creak of Trigger’s caving frame, the pounding and the futile cries of eighty-nine doomed men… down, down, down, until the steel shudders and crumples in on you, the last few meters of consciousness almost too heavy to bear… and what would he see in those final seconds—what would he want to see? Beauty? Truth? God? Love? Nothing at all? Once more he envisions their relative positions switched, for a moment: suppose it were her dropping in the doomed sub, him safe at home in Manhattan, lonely during the long hours operating his elevator car in the Empire State Building, rising and falling gently through another day’s listless wait, one more crossed-off calendar square, crossing his fingers against every newswire.… If Betty Lou were the T-M,3C, what would he want her, falling through those final darkening seconds, to see?
What Oliver decides is as clear and bright to him as the colored glass twinkling from the surface of his pint, and he knows, when his ship returns to port, if he does make it home, if he’s ever granted another evening in the little candle’s flickering glow, husband and wife together again in their tiny quiet sacred space, well, he knows how he will choose.
Jonathan Callahan’s first book, ‘The Consummation of Dirk’, won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and was published by Starcherone Books in 2013. Callahan grew up in Honolulu, studied fiction at Sarah Lawrence, and taught writing at SUNY Purchase for a year. Currently, he lives and works in Fukuoka, Japan.
‘The Witness’ is taken from Jonathan Callahan’s collection ‘The Consummation of Dirk’, with permission from the author. It first appeared in Unsaid, Vol. 5 (2011).