The Harbor

April 10, 2018

Kim Alan Pederson
Key West

Harbor Pic  courtesy K. Pederson

 Have you been down to the harbor lately? I know you haven’t. I can tell by looking at you that you haven’t. Why not? What’s keeping you from it? What better things might you be doing? What thing, anything, might you be doing? You never say.

I went to the harbor yesterday. I went today. I go every day, every morning. I time my visit to arrive at the precise moment of high tide. But you know that already. I’ve told you, what, a million times? You know I go out on Pier 4. You know I take a jackknife with me. A single-blade Spyderco Delica4 with a black handle. You can open and close it with one hand, not that that’s important for what I do with it. It’s small—blade length 2.87 inches—but small is fine. The handle has bi-directional texturing for “nonslip use with improved ergonomics.”  That part comes in handy.

I’m boring you with this, aren’t I? You’ve become averse to details ever since…. I find comfort in them, though, the details. I find distraction, a sense of confidence that I know at least one thing solid, unchanging, reliable. This knife will always be 2.87 inches long. The handle texturing will always be bi-directional, nonslip, ergonomic.

  You know I sharpen the Spyderco before I go to the harbor. Every day. I don’t use one of those stupid electric machines. I use a grindstone, a flat one. An EdgeTek Dual Flat Pocket Stone. I put a little oil on top of it and, unlike some, I move the blade in a clockwise motion at a precise angle to the stone. Ten circles, no more. Since I do this every day, that’s all I need to do. Then I turn the knife over and do ten more strokes at the same precise angle, this time counterclockwise.

  You know I hold the blade up to the light. You’ve seen me do it even if you pretend not to be watching. You know that if I don’t see any flat spots or nicks, I’m done. You know that, just to be sure, I drag the blade lightly across my thumbnail. If it slides around, it’s still dull. If it catches, there’s a nick I didn’t see. If either happens, I start over. When neither happens, I’m done.

  Then I go to the harbor. I walk to the end of Pier 4, past the rust-bucket shrimpers. Sometimes I see the crew members leaning against the deck rail, smoking. Sometimes they wave. Sometimes they say something in Spanish or Portuguese or Chinese or Tagalog. Sometimes it sounds friendly. Sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t answer back. I don’t wave back. I just stare straight ahead and walk past everyone and everything until I reach the pier end.

  I stop there. I check my watch. If I’m on time, I have a minute or two to spare before the tide peaks. If you’re curious, high tide this morning occurred at 10:55 a.m. It was 1.18 feet. That height is the rise of the water level above the earth’s geoid, the shape the surface of the oceans would take under just the influence of earth’s gravity and rotation. The tides happen because of the sun’s gravity and the moon’s gravity. Even a puddle has tides. Did you know that?

  Of course, you know that. I’ve told you a million times or more. I’ve told you all of this over and over. I repeat myself until I’m blue in the face and still you won’t go to the harbor, see how things are, see what’s happening.

  Here’s something I haven’t told you. I set an alarm on my phone every day to go off at high tide. Today, I set it for 10:55 a.m. If I get to the end of the pier before then, which I usually do, I stand and wait for the alarm to go off. As I wait, I stare out at the water. Sometimes the surface is blue and flat like the walls in the nursery we never used. You keep saying it was baby blue, the nursery, but that’s stupid. A blue baby is the last thing anyone would want to see. You of all people should know that. No, it was a somber, solid blue called something like Dark Night. Neither one of us liked it much so we painted gold stars on it. They glittered a little in the light and glowed just a little bit when the lights were off. They still do, glitter, that is, and glow, just a little. Or I imagine they would if we ever opened the door and turned the light on. I don’t anymore. I don’t imagine you do either. You don’t, do you?


  On other days the water is gray and angry. What’s that line? “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore?” That’s how it seems. On those days, standing at the end of Pier 4, I think things like I’m glad the ocean doesn’t have arms, hands, and fingers. If it did, it would reach up and grab me and shake me until my molecules fission apart and I disappear in the fireball of a small thermonuclear explosion. Pier 4 would be gone, too, and so would the shrimpers and the smokers on their decks. All our component parts boiled down to fierce atoms roiling about, surging upward until the wind catches us and carries us away to land somewhere, sometime in some unknown new configuration—maybe a better one, maybe not.
But the ocean doesn’t have arms, hands, or fingers.

  When my alarm went off this morning, at 10:55 a.m., I was ready. I was kneeling near the left-hand piling at the end of Pier 4. I had my Spyderco, blade open, in my right hand. I had my other hand on the piling to hold onto as I leaned out to look down at where the water intersected the green, algae-festooned wood pole attached to the dock. I reached down with my right hand and cut a notch in the piling right there, right at the water line. There were no notches above the fresh one. There have not been since I began marking the high tide three hundred forty-two days ago, ever since….

  If I peer down into the water, I can see the line of previous notches marching down the piling, small accusatory gashes, wounds really, telling a story no one wants to hear.

  Do you want to know why I do this, why I go down to the harbor every day, and mark the piling? You haven’t asked. Anyone watching me—and they do watch me, the smokers—probably thinks I’m some aquatic version of a tree hugger. That I want them to notice that the high tide keeps getting higher, that there’s this slow inexorable encroachment on our lives, our existence, that needs attention.

  But it’s not that at all. I go down to the harbor, I mark the piling each day because I’m too much of a coward to cut myself. Think of the wood pole as my left arm. Think of me slicing a small stitch on it every day since…. Think of the notches climbing my arm, getting closer and closer every day to my heart, never descending, ever ascending. There’s only one place where this can end.

  Unless you stop me. Unless you come down to the harbor with me. Unless you reach out and grasp my right arm as I lean down with my Spyderco toward the water’s edge and say, “Enough. Enough.”

  You didn’t come with me today. I used to ask you to. I don’t anymore. After that, I thought maybe you would go down on your own sometime, out of…curiosity if nothing else. That you would walk to the end of Pier 4 and look down at the piling and see me, see what’s happening to me. But you haven’t, have you? I know you haven’t. I can tell by looking at you that you haven’t.

  Maybe you will tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow…until there isn’t.