Leaving the Sea

Stories

by Ben Marcus

Leaving the Sea

Hardcover, 273 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 | purchase

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NPR Summary

A collection of life-affirming tales includes the dystopian "Rollingwood," in which a divorced father struggles with employment while caring for an ailing infant; and the title story, in which a narrator's marriage and sanity unravel in a single breathless sentence.

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The Loyalty Protocol

The phone call said to come alone, but he couldn't just leave them. Perhaps they'd been called, too, and didn't remember the procedure, which would only figure. His father was not good with instructions. Worse, his father was fatally indifferent to what people said. Other people spoke and the man's face went blank, as if any voice but his own was in a foreign language. Perhaps his father had not heard the phone. Or maybe he mistook the message for a prank and hung up.

Later, his helpless parents in tow, Edward could explain the mistake, if necessary. By then it'd be too conspicuous to leave them stranded in the road while everyone else left town.

Owing to the roadblock that would be set up on Morris Avenue, Edward parked at Grove and Williams and trekked through muddy backyards to the apartment complex. He cursed himself, because he'd have to lead his parents back the same way, down a wet slope where his car would be waiting. In the many configurations they'd rehearsed at the workshop, somehow he had not accounted for this major obstacle: herding his parents in the dark down a steep, wet slope.

His father was awake and packed already, wandering through the apartment. When Edward walked in, his father started to put on his coat.

"Where's Mom?"

"Not coming, I guess," his father said.

"Dad."

"You try. I tried already. You try if you want to. I'm disgusted. I'm ready to go. Do you know how many times I've had to do this?"

"Did they call you?" Edward asked.

"Did who call me?" His father was on the defensive. Had he even slept? Had he been up all night, waiting?

"Did your phone ring tonight?" Edward asked, trying not to sound impatient. There were cautions against this very thing, the petty quarrels associated with departure, which only escalate during an emergency.

"I don't know, Eddie. Our phone doesn't work. I'm ready to go. I'm always ready. We're down there almost every night. Why not tonight?"

Edward picked up the phone and heard an odd pitch. More like an emergency signal than a dial tone.

"You don't believe me?" his father said. "I tell you the phone doesn't work and you don't trust me?"

"I trust you. Let's get Mom and go."

His mother was in bed, sheets pulled over her face. It felt wrong to sit on his parents' bed, to touch his mother while she was lying down. Standing up, he could hug and kiss his mother with only the usual awkwardness, but once she was prone it seemed inappropriate, like touching a dead person. He shook her gently.

"C'mon, Mom, let's go. Get dressed."

She answered from under the sheets, in a voice that was fully awake. Awake and bothered.

"I'm too tired. I'm not going."

They'd been told that, at times like this, old people dig in their heels. More than any other population, the elderly refuse to go. They hide in their homes, wait in the dark of their yards while their houses are searched. Often they request to die. Some of them do not request it. They take matters into their own hands.

But there were a few little things you could do to persuade them, and Edward had learned some of them in the workshop.

"Mom, you don't know what you're saying. You really don't want to be here, I promise you."

"See what I told you?" said his father from the doorway. "Tell him to shut up," said his mother.

"You shut up," his father barked. "Don't ever tell me to shut up."

"Shut up," she whispered.

They waited in his parents' room, where he'd come and snuggled as a child, a thousand years ago, and he couldn't help siding with his mother. It would be so wonderful to fall back asleep right now. If only.

"Mom, if you don't come with us, who knows where you'll sleep tonight. Or you won't sleep. I can guarantee that you won't like what will happen. It will be horrible. Do you want me to tell you what will happen?"

He could hear his mother breathing under the sheets. She seemed to be listening. He paused a bit longer for suspense.

"I could spell it out for you. Would you like me to do that? I have to say I'd rather not."

Something wordless, passing for surrender, sounded. Edward left the room to give her time and it wasn't long before she joined them in the front hall, scowling. She'd thrown a coat over her nightgown and carried a small bag.

"Okay?" said Edward.

They didn't answer, just followed him outside, where the streets were empty.

"Where's your car?" his mother grumbled.

He explained what they'd have to do and they looked at him as if he were crazy.

"Do you see any other cars here?" he whispered. "Do you know why?"

"Don't act like you know what's going on," his father whispered as they trekked out. "You're as much in the dark as we are. You have no idea what's really happening. None. Fucking hotshot. Tell me one fact. I dare you."

When they reached the hill and had to navigate the decline, his mother kept falling. She'd fall and cry out, landing on her rear end in the grass. He'd never heard her cry in pain before. His father was beside her holding her arm, but she was the larger of his parents and when she stumbled his father strained and couldn't hold her up. He lost his temper and kept yelling at her, and finally, softly, she said she was doing her best. She really was.

"Well, I can't carry you!" he yelled.

"Then don't," she replied, and she stood up and tried to walk on her own, but she went down again, with an awful cry, sliding through the mud.

In the car she wept and Edward felt ashamed. This was supposedly the easy part.

Excerpted from Leaving the Sea, by Ben Marcus. Copyright 2014 by Ben Marcus. Excerpted with permission from Knopf.

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