“The Soul of the Sea” is a short story I wrote back in the 80s. It came to mind this morning in a Twitversation about Nancy Reagan and the things she scolded us about back in the day. Given that I took anything Nancy Reagan said as emitted from an Opposite Day Vortex of some kind, I Just Said Yes to Drugs in my gloriously misspent youth. This story grew out of that.
The Soul of the Sea
by Bill Cameron
I don’t know. I guess it’s music. I can’t hear too well. It sounds like a jazz piano, you know? Down the beach. Miami beach is wild at night. The hotels and condos are all lit up, but the light doesn’t get down to the beach much. Just enough to see where the water starts. I don’t know.
Dwight is gone — he’s dead. Damn, that’s silly. He isn’t dead. I know he isn’t. But I get these thoughts and I don’t know why. He’s at the van, which is parked way down the beach at the end of the line of condos. Probably stuffing his face — how in hell could he eat like that? I know it sounds stupid, but when I’m tripping and there’s food in my mouth I think it’s turning into bugs or something. Dwight says he likes to feel food in his mouth but it kinda disturbs me, ya know? I guess you have to eat though, but I have eaten for a couple of days, except tons of vitamins. So what? It’s my vacation, you know? Dwight is dead.
I walk along the beach. I told this guy, back home, like man, I’m going to trip on the beach. Stars drip into the ocean, pouring onto lighted boats anchored offshore. Waves boil at water’s edge like dark green and ivory neon. My felt melt into the sand as the surf bubbles. I wonder where Dwight is. It’s wild.
But there’s that music, you know? Fierce. I look for my feet. I know they’re down there. It’s silly, me thinking I don’t have any feet. Sure, I saw them melt and all, but your feet don’t just melt. I’m tripping, and I know I have feet, but I can’t see them or feel them and it’s pretty hilarious. I guess I laugh because I’m amused, my feet being melted. But I’m also kind of afraid to pick them up because what if they aren’t there? It’s pretty dark so maybe I just can’t see them. Dwight could tell me. I wish he was here, but he’s probably freaking out somewhere on a mouthful of french fries.
There’s this rock and I pick it up. It kind of sighs and blinks its eyes. It’s white so I can see it real clear in the light the water gives off. It’s not making the music, but it’s big, like eight inches around and heavy. I notice my stomach hurts and I feel like I’m going to get sick. I figure I can go into the ocean and throw up though. I take the rock, but I guess I already have it, and walk up the beach. That music is a real trip, you know?
Dwight is probably just sitting in the van staring at the dashboard. He was always getting into staring matches with dashboards and table tops and boring stuff like that. Man, the ocean, that’s cool. I wanted Dwight to be there to see it with me. The music gets louder. It’s wild the way the ocean rolls back from the sand and leaves little bubbling holes. I notice a bunch of people up the beach. Little kids or something and they’re laughing and running. I can’t see them, exactly, just dark moving blobs. But I can hear them real well and I can hardly hear the music. But it’s okay because I kind of like to hear little kids laugh.
This kid shows up, you know? He appears out of nowhere, practically. Out of the beach, kind of. It’s wild. “Hey, you.” I guess he says that. I can’t see his mouth move. “Hey, you.” I guess he’s talking but I don’t know.
“Can you talk?” he says. Sure, I mean, like, I can talk, but I want to laugh, because how could he talk? What with his bizarro little kid’s head ’morphing around like a sponge doing the hula. Wild, that head.
“Yeah, I can talk,” I say, and I laugh. He laughs too, and is that wild. To watch, you know.
“Whatcha got?” he says, and sticks out this arm at my rock. His arm looks gross, like it’s crawling with ants. Dwight would probably try to eat it. I think I must be hallucinating, but that arm looks like something out of this world. Maybe the kid’s been watching too much Star Wars.
“Is that a rock?” Dumb little kid. What kind of question was that, you know? I mean, sure, it’s a rock. I look at it and it blinks at me with these tired old eyes. I feel kind of bad to see them, like maybe the rock is sad about me thinking the little kid is dumb. To make up for it, even though the little kid doesn’t even know, I kind of laugh. I mean, actually it is kind of funny.
“It’s the soul of the sea,” I say. I don’t know why. It’s just in my imagination and all. I guess I think the kid will get a kick out of it. I do stuff like that all the time, make stuff up and all. Dwight eats.
“What do you mean?” the kid says.
I smile. “Look at the ocean, man.” I point out and it’s wild. The water kind of glows. “Tell me that ocean don’t have a soul.”
This kid’s eyes get real big. “Is it really in that rock?”
“Why not?” I look at my rock, and smile when it smiles sleepily at me. Some older dude shows up out of nowhere.
“Peter, leave that boy alone. Come back and play with your brothers.” I don’t know why he called me a boy. I’m twenty. I can’t see him too well but I think he’s kind of funny. Stern, commanding voice, like a drill sergeant or something. What kind of guy takes his kids to the beach at night? What’s the beach to a kid without the sun?
The little kid walks back with his dad. I guess it’s his dad. Some sand pops up and scampers after them a little ways and I laugh. I walk on down the beach past them and I can hear the music real good now. I remember that I don’t have any feet but when I look down there they are, fine and all. I wonder where Dwight is. I mean, I kind of miss him now that the little kid is gone. Just to walk with, you know? We’re a long way from home. A thousand miles for a lousy vacation of the beach. I wonder where the sun is.
Damned Dwight, but then he gave me my first acid. That was cool, I suppose, but he’s always going off to stare at stuff when we’re tripping together. I mean, that kind of bothers me, you know? Not that I get lonely or anything, but I kind of like somebody around, to talk to and stuff. Like that little kid. That was kind of a wild kid, you know? What kind of dad brings his kids to the beach at night? Weird. I mean, I had to come at night so no one would see me tripping. I don’t know. Sometimes I think that being on acid is like being at the bottom of a hole that only one person can fit in. You know? I’m glad I have the soul with me.
I see this old dude on the beach and damned if he isn’t sitting at that jazz piano. Dwight is really missing something, sitting off by himself stuffing his gullet with junk food. He’s probably slicing his throat or something, just for the experience. He always talks about doing that, even when we’re straight. It was kind of a joke, him slicing his throat. I guess I laugh at it there on the beach but then I get kind of worried. Acid kind of freaks me out sometimes, you know?
That music is wild. I mean, it’s great. Who ever would have thought a jazz piano would make good tripping music? Not me, man. I go up to the old dude and I can still hear that weird family too. Who takes their kids to the beach at night? I’m feeling pretty amused.
“What are you laughing at?” the old guy says. Miami Beach is sick with old people, roaming the streets like worn-out androids. He stops playing the piano and it’s pretty strange because suddenly there is the sound of the ocean and nothing else. Even that family has gone quiet. Just the ocean. Ever listen to the ocean? Yeah. It’s pretty fierce. it’s big as hell, you know? Wow, like how big is hell, I guess, and that’s how big the ocean is. I laugh because that’s kind of funny. I guess I’m getting kind of disturbed though because it’s so quiet without any of the piano music. It reminds me that my stomach hurts. I must have been staring because that old dude asks me what’s so funny again. He doesn’t sound mad though.
I want him to start playing again. “I was just liking your music, man. Could you play more?” It doesn’t hurt to tell a mother her baby is pretty, huh? I’m pretty amused by that thought.
“Sure, son.” He smiles and starts playing again. It’s wild, because you can hear the music bounce off the waves and come back. Those kids are laughing but they just fill in the music. Cool. I stare up at the hotels off the beach and it’s like I’m swimming in music.
“Why are you carrying that rock around, son?” He’s still smiling and playing. I look at the soul. It’s asleep now. Kind of nice. That old piano must be a lullaby, you know?
I kind of laugh. “It’s the soul of the sea.” I’m amused, but then the thing is there sleeping in my arms.
The old man chuckles. You know how like me and them kids laugh, but like an old person chuckles? This old guy chuckles. Dwight, he cuts his throat. And damn if my stomach doesn’t hurt something fierce. “Son,” the old guy says, “you been drinking?”
It’s kind of friendly, the question and all. I laugh. “Hell, no. I mean, alcohol is bad for you, which is true, I mean.” I wonder if that made sense. Damn, because the old fart is going to figure out what’s going on, me tripping, you know. I stroke the soul, and it stirs nervously in its sleep. The music goes on and on. I want to change the subject.
“Why do you sit out here and play that thing?” I know that makes sense. I can hear it.
He shrugs. It’s wild. “What else does an old man have to do?” He stops playing. The piano is a trip, heaving around under the empty sky like a junkie.
I don’t know. Dwight is dead. “Who’s around to listen, man?”
Damn, this old guy is a trip. My stomach feels like a bonfire. “You are,” he kind of bubbles. Stuff is coming out of his mouth.
I shake my head. It feels like it’s about to fall off. “I’m only here tonight.”
“So I play for the Jaquin family down the way.” He runs his crazy fingers across the piano keys and his shoulders ripple like you can’t believe. I’m worried his head will topple off or his chest will split open and let something out. I feel pretty sick.
“So what? Are them kids Cuban or something?” The old man stops playing again. “I mean, what kind of a man takes his Cuban kids to the beach at night, when there’s no fucking sun?” I feel like I’m about to throw up.
I guess I shouldn’t have cussed. He looks kind of mad, you know. My stomach is messed up. Dwight is gone — still dead or whatever. He doesn’t even care. I feel like crap.
“Mr. Jaquin works nights,” the old man says. “He must sleep in the day. He works hard and supports his family. He has only one night off each week. He—”
I get kind of pissed off. I’m sick and this old fart has quit playing so he could bitch at me. I look at the ocean and it’s seriously cool. The soul grows restless in my arms. I can’t believe how visual this acid is, even if it is kind of freaking me out. The ocean look like electricity. But I’m sick. It hurts, like, in my stomach. I guess I should have eaten, but I kind of wander off. I walk out into the ocean. Oh, man, that’s wild. I’m afraid to look because I know the waves are washing my legs away. I can feel big hunks fall off. My stomach feels like I swallowed a ball of burning hair. I’m sick, you know? My girl, she never took acid. She stayed in Ohio. I wish she was here, because she would just kind of hug me, you know? Lousy Dwight. I feel real bad. I really messed it up with that old man. What a fucking idiot. He had been playing real nice, but like a dumb acid-head I messed it up. I hug the old soul and go a little bit deeper. I don’t know. The sand is some pretty wild stuff under my feet.
Dwight might have just walked with me, you know? But it’s like I couldn’t find him anyway. I don’t know. I remember this night when I woke up from a dream and couldn’t get back to sleep. Not that it was a bad dream or nothing, but I reached over to my night stand and flipped on the radio for some sound while I sort of thought about the dream. A Beatles song was playing, one I hadn’t heard before. It was wild. I listened, and stared at the fluid shadows of my hanging plants cast by the moon through the window. I think I must have been about thirteen. The song started slow and melodious, but it quickly picked up. I kept on listening, curious about the sudden turn the song had taken, but still more interested in the shadows and the dream. I felt peaceful, floating there on my bed. Never-never land. Everything soft as dew. Then the song changed again, now into something breathless and moving and soulful — Lennon singing without words. But he was really crying — and my unencumbered ear heard it — crying aloud about something you can never stop crying about. And as I listened — the violins, the wordless tune, wrapped in moon shadows, the voice in the dark — I felt a shiver up my back and a sudden hole in my gut. For a moment all I knew were those sounds that I had never known before. They reached inside and struck a chord that was to echo within me again and again for years to come. And suddenly, there in the dark, I realized that no matter how many times I heard that song afterwards — and it would be thousands of times — it wouldn’t be the same. That moment was gone. I couldn’t give the song back, couldn’t un-hear the music.
And it’s like I still feel that way, you know? Standing up to my ass in the ocean, but I’m really standing in a hole no one else can fit in, just me, and I can see people, but I can’t reach them. I just want to find someone. Dwight maybe, or the old man, or that wild little kid. Anyone who might just sort of be with me. But I’m just a dumb acid-head, alone, wishing I could go all the way back and un-hear the old man’s music and never walk down the beach and never realize that I was in some lousy hole and nobody could get me out.
I throw up. But nothing comes out. I haven’t eaten in days. Man, I’m stupid. I drop my rock and my gut heaves so much I think I’m going to break apart. My head feels like cracked lead. Ever see a jackhammer? There’s one in my head. Jesus. I kind of look around and, you know? I can’t see the lousy beach. I can hardly stand up. Ever taste salt water? I think I took too much acid. I mean, I know I did. Damn, I’m stupid, but it kind of disorients me. Going days without eating. Acid. The waves wash up over my head once but I start not to care, since I can’t find anyone anyhow. Like I couldn’t find my feet that time. I mean, I don’t know. What happened to the soul, you know? I wonder if I’m ever going to come down off of this shit. The soul, damn. It can’t breathe under the water. Like someone is squeezing your chest with giant pliers. I should have told Dwight where to go when he gave me this acid. What a lousy trip.
That old man. He’s strong. He drags me to the beach. I couldn’t find it, you know. I don’t have any legs. I’m kind of disoriented. But he found me, you know? I don’t know how. I mean, I guess he’s not tripping. He tells me how stupid I am for swimming when I am drunk. Mr. Jaquin tells me what a disgrace I am to the human race. He says I should learn how to act. Dwight, man. I guess I cry, but nobody cares. I mean, how did that old guy find me in the ocean? He pats me on the back but I’m in a hole. I feel kind of depressed. I let the old soul drown. I look at the ocean and it isn’t like electricity anymore. It’s just kind of dark. The old soul out there.
Oh. It was the soul of the sea. I guess it’s okay then. But I don’t know. Someone told me once it takes ten years for a rock the size of the soul to move twenty feet up the beach by wave action. The old soul had finally made it to land and I tossed it back again. I wonder if it will remember me or that freaky kid. That old man. I hope so. That would be something, at least.
I wander up the beach. It’s so dark. But I imagine, just to pass the time, a day when it’s sunny and I’m out on the beach with that kid, and we find the soul again. It’s cool. I mean, I did find my feet when they were gone. They were there all along, you know? I guess I should quit taking acid, though. I mean, I’m kind of disoriented. It takes me an hour to find the lousy van.