Dad took his last steps off of dry land two weeks ago. He was constantly going out to sea. His long raincoat was yellow and his beard was grizzled and stiff with salt, a peppery-white plume protruding from his chin. Ancient and dauntless, his skin was nutmeg brown and his face was shriveled as though the salty air had diffused every drop of moisture from his body's surface.
Most locals knew him as "Old Bean", I just called him Dad. He wasn't really my Dad though. As a white kid, the racial difference made it fairly obvious, but he was more of a role model to me than my real father ever was. He never let me go fishing with him. He told me that I was too young, and it was too dangerous. At sixteen, I was only two years away from the age that he had deemed I would be ready. He told me that a few months ago, I remember the night vividly:
We were outside of his shack, sitting across from each other in old wooden chairs, roasting a pair of fish for dinner that he had caught earlier over a weak fire. All of our wood was damp. We piled it on anyway and it burned, hissing defiantly. The flames emanated a soft orange glow instead of the bright golden shine that you'd get with good lumber. The smoke shot up in a straight line, dispersing into a muddle of indistinct clouds that hazed the stars. Dad sat in his old chair, poking at the embers absently with a stick as I turned the spit with our fish on it.
"You're getting big now," he muttered, staring into the flames in deep cogitation. "When you gonna be ready to go out on the sea, boy?"
"You know the answer to that," I said with a mild laugh.
"Yeah, I suppose I do," He admitted. "But I ain't gonna live forever, and I sure as hell ain't gonna sell my boat. She belonged to my father. You know why I don't let you go out yet, don't ya boy?" I nodded in affirmation.
"It's 'cause I care about ya. You the closest thing I have to a son. The ocean ain't no place for a boy."
"I know, I know," I replied with a mild annoyance. I had heard this speech before.
"I've been thinking, though." He said. This was new. "I can't keep you on land forever. After all, someones gotta fly the ol' Bean flag once I'm gone. I'll take you out fishing on your eighteenth birthday. Y'know, show you the ropes." A smirk came across my face. This was by no means a short amount of time, but the way I figured it was at least a date I could look forward to instead of always wondering. Now, I had been on the boat before, but never on a serious fishing trip and certainly never in the deep ocean.
His concern for my life didn't come as a surprise however, Dad was a man of convictions. Uneducated but shrewd. Mild and placid yet fastidious in his work. A thinker. Even when he wasn't fishing he turned a pensive eye toward the sea. A savage but generous entity that he revered and was evidently terrified of—although he never would have admitted that.
The ocean was the only source of sustenance he knew—our food was ensconced in the jagged waters both figuratively and literally. The sea was more menacing than usual on the day that he left. Cutting wind and overcast sky made for a violent blanket of marble, ready to swallow any careless sailor in its ruthless jaws.
I remember the night when I began to doubt his return: three days after his departure. I had been waiting by the pier like always but I had to go home early due to the severe weather. It wasn't quite evening yet but already the sun was invisible. The sky was sheathed in shades of gray and black, thick charcoal dust hung in the sky. Then came the rain. It started off as a light sprinkle and progressed in intensity until it seemed as though the heavens themselves had opened up to touch the earth with a billion wicked tendrils. They struck the ground and the water alike with terrible ferocity. The docks and houses banged with a rhythmic clamor and the smoky sea appeared to be alive with sporadic ripples. Every so often a bright crack of lightning wreath the coastal panorama in fleeting daylight. I could still see the scrutinizing gleam of the lighthouse through the soaked glass panel in our shack that served as a makeshift window.
He usually comes back by the end of the day—only once had he not, and even then he was gone only for two days. He was the greatest fisherman in the world, and he was invincible—until four days ago. I had come out to the harbor in the morning like I had the previous ten days to wait for him. I offered my salutations to the dock workers and walked to the end of the longest pier I could find. The shore curved inward toward the center of the cove, so I could see the beach closing in on either side. I kept my eye on the horizon as always, but something on the embankment caught my eye.
I looked at the beach to my right. I could see the curling turquoise waves massaging the sandy incline in a gentle legato, and out of the foam, something brown stood out. I had the sudden urge to jump into the water and swim over to it, but I decided against it. Instead I hopped off of the pier and walked around the shore over to it. I reached a grimy hand into the churning brine and closed my fingers around a rough brown cylinder.
Out came a long wooden dowel with a ragged sheet of fabric hanging onto it by a few threads. I waved it through the water a few times to clean off some of the sand. The clumps dissipated into mocha clouds and I pulled it back out. On the very edge of the torn fabric was stitched an awkward bean shape—Dad's insignia. I tilted my head down sullenly and dropped the ruined flag back into the sand.
I then gazed back up toward the lighthouse. The towering edifice squinted and examined. Its brilliant beam scanned the harbor, cutting through the formless gray. A single, salty tear rolled down my cheek.