New Day Rising

Throughout their marriage Ford drank. Initially, Emily made light of it. She’d give him nicknames like Cowboy and say things like, “Slow down, Cowboy.” But on nights when Cowboy didn’t slow down, she’d ditch the pet name and remind him of a pending work deadline, or insist he was going to wake Bailey, or lambast him over the fact that it was a fucking Tuesday night.

“Is this really how you want to spend the rest of your life?” she once asked.

“It’s how I relax.”

“No, it’s how you mask,” she said.

“How I mask?”

“Your work. Our marriage. Everything,” she said. “You aren’t happy. I’m not happy. And we’ll never be happy. Not here. And not if you keep this up.”

Near the end of their marriage, she began lining his previous evening’s bottles in front of the coffeemaker, requiring Ford to move them aside each morning to brew a pot. He ignored the signal, treating it instead as an inconvenience, mumbling that if she hated the mess so much why not just take the extra step and throw them away herself.

His drinking worsened once they split. And worsened still, when Emily began seeing Timothy Warwick. Timothy was a lawyer. He and Ford were formally introduced at one of Bailey’s surfing competitions. Timothy had these watery blue eyes, half-concealed by droopy eyelids that looked like coagulated wax.

Timothy didn’t cheer much that first day. A couple nervous claps at most. But over the ensuing months he grew comfortable. Until finally his support found voice. Once it did, Ford spent most of his son’s competitions watching this strange man shout his boy’s name. A shark’s upper jaw isn’t fused to its head; that’s what allows it to open its mouth so wide. And that’s what Ford pictured every time Timothy cheered. He looked like a shark devouring some invisible prey.

Early on, Ford tried not to pry into his ex-wife’s new life. But on certain nights, when the headlines read dull and the commercials kept rolling and he’d scrolled past every desperate status update from every desperate old high school pal, he’d succumb.

At first the spying reassured him. On Emily’s feed there was no mention of her new shark-jawed beau. Clearly they weren’t that serious. But quickly Shark Man’s absence made Ford uneasy. What if, unlike all the others trying to post their lives into meaningful existence, Emily and Shark Man didn’t need the sort of desperate online confirmation?

Ford’s fear was briefly mitigated once Shark Man did start appearing. Clearly, they were miserable. Who else shares an entire album of bowling alley pictures? The problem was, once Shark Man did appear, Ford couldn’t put him away. He tried laughing off most of what he discovered. Shark Man was not merely an attorney but also the shoeless frontman of an acoustic, middle-aged, three-piece rock band called New Day Rising. Ford acted (for his own private benefit) like it was an accident when he clicked the link to New Day Rising’s Myspace page. Pictures appeared that he hadn’t anticipated. Emily and Bailey off to the right of a small coffee shop stage, smiling as New Day Rising performed their latest set. All the while, Shark Man’s vocals came through Ford’s computer speakers in pants and moans—a shameless, albeit failed attempt to sound like Bono. His lyrics were what drove Ford to close out of the site .  . . your beauty like a rose, sweet darling / your soft petals, my milky way.

Ford’s drinking intensified once Emily and Shark Man married. And intensified still, when Emily and Shark Man’s first kid arrived. But he didn’t hit rock bottom until the Warwicks left Dania Beach, moving three hours north.

Several months after their departure, Emily invited Ford to speak at career day. He arrived to the middle school tipsy. He checked his eyes in the rearview mirror, as he folded a piece of gum into his mouth. Across the parking lot, he spotted Shark Man’s Volvo (with its goddamn New Day Rising bumper sticker). The thought of Shark Man in the audience infuriated Ford. He considered leaving. Instead, he took another swig, infusing whiskey into his stick of peppermint gum.

“You must be Mr. Carson,” a woman’s voice called as he entered the classroom.

Ford didn’t respond. He focused on Emily, who sat alone in the back row. The swig had improved his outlook. He was ready to stare Shark Man down. But now there was no Shark Man. Just his ex-wife. And she refused to acknowledge him.

“Mr. Carson,” the same voice called out. “Please join us.”

He turned toward the speaker. The teacher smiled and waved him forward. Only then did Ford notice Shark Man seated among the presenters. Shark Man nodded quietly in Ford’s direction. Ford spit his gum into the trash bin and proceeded to the front.

Shark Man played opener. He spent the first five minutes discussing his law practice and the second five minutes promoting his band. He must have said New Day Rising fifteen times within that brief window. Near the end of his talk, he surprised the class with burned copies of the group’s latest home recording.

Ford watched in horror as Bailey smiled, nodding at a classmate knowingly. Did his son actually like New Day Rising? Did he think Shark Man was anything more than just a sad middle-aged wannabe Bono?

“Fucking bullshit,” Ford muttered.

“What’s wrong with you?” a fellow presenter chided him.

Ford turned to the offended woman. She wore a white lab coat.

“It’s ridiculous,” he insisted. “This is career day. Why should we have to suffer through this guy’s pipe dream?”

“That’s somebody’s father,” the woman said in a sharp whisper.

“No,” Ford said. “That’s the best part—he’s not.”

The woman turned away from Ford, ending the conversation.

After the music was distributed, Shark Man held up one of the CDs and waved it in the air. “This,” he said, “is important. And I say it not because it’s my music. The reason I offer you this is because I think it’s essential to remind children that you aren’t defined by your profession. I’m not merely Timothy Warwick, the lawyer. I’m also Timothy Warwick, the musician, the gardener, the grill master, the husband, the father, and maybe even the guy who can’t say no to chocolate.”

The class laughed like a well-trained studio audience. Even Bailey got in on it. Shark Man ate it up, smiling and looking out onto the crowd.

“But in all seriousness,” he continued, still holding the CD above his head. “Even if you don’t like my songs, keep that message in mind. Because it’s your passions and how you share these passions that count the most. That’s my spiel. Thank you and rock on.”

The class applauded. Ford glared at Emily. Had this been her ploy the whole time? To force Ford to drive three hours north to listen to her husband’s beaming outlook? The clapping continued as Shark Man made his way to the back of the room. Emily gleamed with pride. When the teacher called Ford’s name, he didn’t respond. He couldn’t look away from Emily and Shark Man. The two spoke and nodded and waved to Bailey before exiting the classroom together.

“You’re up,” the woman in the white lab coat said, shooing Ford away.

It took a handful of guided questions to get Ford going. Even then it was a distracted talk.

“Well, Mr. Carson, maybe you could tell us the hardest part about owning a business,” the teacher suggested.

Emily stepped back into the classroom. Ford’s pulse quickened. He waited for Shark Man to follow, but Emily closed the door gently behind her.

“The hardest part of owning a business?” he repeated the question aloud for Emily’s benefit.

The teacher nodded.

Emily sat down. For a brief moment they made eye contact. She offered something like a smile. Perhaps taking pity on what must have appeared an unqualified speaker. Within that split second Ford imagined a bizarre universe where they were still married. And while certainly not a perfect marriage (not even in the bizarre version), she’d come to watch and support him on career day.

“There’s a lot of sacrifice,” Ford said.

Bailey dragged an eraser back and forth across the surface of his desk. He hadn’t been that way when Shark Man spoke. He’d listened.

“You have to sacrifice,” Ford repeated, practically shouting the words at his son.

Bailey continued to grind away his eraser.

“I, of course, inherited the business,” Ford continued. “It was my father’s. And that’s something that’s often misunderstood. People assume inheritance is the equivalent of a gift. And now I’m not going to stand here and deny that all together. Certainly you’ve got a leg up when you inherit a business. But there are downsides. Just like with everything in life. The truth is, nothing comes easy. That’s something I think is worth noting. When you’re young, people try and sell you certain narratives. Do this, that, and the other and everything else will fall into place. But that’s never the case. There is no place. No equation for life.”

He paused, frustrated with Bailey, who had yet to acknowledge his presence. “See, I surf. A lot like my son,” Ford said, pointing at his boy.

The class turned their heads in unison to study Bailey. At first, Ford thought they didn’t know Bailey surfed. A short-lived theory. Behind Emily, hung a framed newspaper article about Bailey’s recent first place finish. Ford stared at the article, while the class continued to stare at his son. Ford understood then that they looked toward Bailey out of confusion. They hadn’t realized Ford was his father.

“My name is Ford Carson,” he shouted. “Bailey Carson is my son.”

“Well, thank you Mr. Carson,” the teacher said.

“I’m not finished,” Ford insisted.

All the kids’ heads snapped forward. Even Bailey briefly looked up. Emily stared Ford down. He stared her back, before continuing.

“It’s like I tell my son when we’re out there on the water. Life is the ocean. I mean you’re talking this massive body of water with waves coming at you. And these waves you’re seeing—that’s only the half of it. Underneath the surface is an equally strong current thrashing you about. And beneath that and farther out there’s an entire history of shipwrecks and sharks and oil spills and lost treasures. You’re swimming among the living and the dead and the deadly. And that’s the thing with a business. There are so many unseen variables. It requires—”

Emily stood, making her way toward the door. Only then did Ford notice her slight bump. Everything slowed as he stared at her profile. Was this why she’d invited him? Had this been the plan all along? Or had she not even thought to tell him? Had he become that much of an afterthought?

The subsequent thought nearly broke him: he was now officially outnumbered. Shark Man would have two kids to his one. And Ford’s one was more like a half. He looked over at Bailey who had returned to dragging his eraser across the surface of his desk. Shark Man was making Ford irrelevant.

“My best advice,” Ford said, quickening his words to reach Emily before her departure, “would be to not have children. If you really want to make a go at what you want to do, don’t get yourself locked in. Who knows what we could have been? Maybe I could have been something good. Hell, you could have been a writer.”

Emily turned around, throwing her hands up in disbelief. Why? she mouthed, why?

“Not that kids are a bad thing,” Ford said. “That’s not what I meant. All I mean—”

Emily walked out the door.

“That’s it,” Ford told the teacher. He nodded at the woman in the white lab coat. “You’re up.”

“Well, thank you Mr. Carson,” the teacher said. “Let’s—well, yes—let’s give Mr. Carson a round of applause.”

A few of the kids obliged. Bailey continued erasing his desk.

Ford left the classroom, expecting Emily to accost him in the hall. But she wasn’t there. He made his way to the parking lot, thinking maybe he’d find her outside. But the parking lot was empty too.

That evening, Ford sat alone under the Dania Beach pier. It was where he and Emily first met, years ago. High school sweethearts. They’d spent the afternoon wandering the shoreline in search of sea glass. By day’s end, they sat in silence, watching the pelicans nosedive.

Ford removed his shoes, digging his toes into the sand. They should never have made it past high school, he thought. He unbuttoned his shirt. But Bailey, he remembered. Yes, Bailey. Ford unbuckled his belt and slipped out of his pants.

Naked, he eased into the still water, dunking his head into its cold body. He swam out until he couldn’t touch bottom. Relaxing, he floated on his back. His eyes locked in on the half-moon. For a moment he imaged the shipwrecks and sharks and oil spills and lost treasures that existed somewhere beneath him.

“The waves are cwaashing daddy, they’re cwaashing,” Bailey had called out to Ford, years ago.

“They are,” Ford agreed, looking at Emily for guidance.

She smiled.

“Why are they cwaashing daddy?” Bailey asked, staring out onto the water.

“They just do,” Ford said.

Emily rested her head against Ford’s shoulder.

“Where do they go after they cwaash?”

“They go back into the ocean and become new waves.”

Emily locked her arms around Ford’s waist. Bailey pressed into his father’s leg. Ford rested his cheek against Emily’s forehead and ran his fingers through Bailey’s hair. The three stared out onto the water.

Something grazed against Ford’s leg. His pulse quickened. Instinctively, he lowered his body into the water, treading. He’d drifted farther than he’d realized; the shore was a good fifty yards in. He waited, anticipating serrated teeth, a thrashing bite. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Half a minute.

When nothing came, he forced his body to relax. It was the only way he’d make it back ashore. Once again, he lay parallel with the water. He was fine, he told himself. Nothing could harm him now. And nothing did. And it felt awful, knowing this about himself.  

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