Wednesday, November 18, 2009


This week's story gives me two reasons to be happy. Not only do I get to show you a well-written, multi-layered narrative, but I also get to promote another very cool area of the author's life. Travis S. Rave is the head of Coast to Coast for Hope, a non-profit that organizes cross country bike trips in order to raise money for cancer research. In addition to running this fantastic organization, Travis works at Nickelodeon as an associate writer and producer. He has ghostwritten two books and his personal work has been published in 400 Words and other online magazines and blogs.

By Travis S. Rave

Masts weren’t supposed to break. Or at least, that’s what Harold’s father had told him all those years ago. “That’s the thing about sailboats,” he’d said. “Ya can’t flip ‘em and ya can’t sink ‘em. Go ahead, Skipper, try. Push that mast, knock her over.” And try Harold had, with all his twelve year old might, and yet the boat held strong, didn’t even creak. “Told ya, Skip. You’d need an ax to take that thing down.” He could still see his father smiling, thick arms patting his boat with pride in the morning sun.

He’d died a year later. Philip Masterson was his name, though that name had never meant much to Harold. To him, it was simply Pop. The funeral was held at a local graveyard. It was nothing fancy, just close friends and family. The total was only around ten or so. Harold was never sure of the exact number. Despite his mother’s urging, he’d refused to leave the car, only glancing briefly through tinted windows. He was mad at her, blamed her for what had happened. If she hadn’t kicked Philip out, he’d not have been living on the boat; he’d not have drunk a bottle of scotch; he’d not have slipped while trying to piss off the side; he’d not have drowned with his pants down.

A fellow boater, Mr. Langhorn, found Philip the next morning hanging upside down off the side of the boat with his pants at his ankles and his foot tangled in the safety lines, his head submerged just past the chin. Langhorn had attempted resuscitation, but Philip had been dead for several hours. According to the coroner’s report, Philip had twisted his knee when the rope caught, tearing several ligaments. Though he had apparently fought viscously, the tears had prevented him from reaching his trapped foot. Strained muscles in his abdomen and scratches on his thighs bore testament to a fierce struggle. Though he never mentioned it to the family, the coroner surmised that the death was likely painful and slow; the physical torment surpassed only by the mental anguish that must have accompanied it. As he saw it, by using his stomach muscles and grabbing at his thighs and pants, Philip had been able to keep his head out of the water for some time. What really killed him was fatigue. There must have been a point at which Philip realized that his strength was fading, that he couldn’t win the battle; a point at which he simply lowered his head into the water and let himself die. The coroner dreamt of this moment for several nights, though it was he who was hanging from the boat, while Philip stood on the dock, genitalia swinging gently, shaking his head and repeating, “It’s not gonna happen, Doc. It’s just not.”

The following year was rough for Harold and his mother, Meredith. She’d never been a particularly cheery woman and Philip’s death certainly didn’t help. She had, after all, kicked Philip out and indirectly caused his death. It was not easy to forget and Harold only made it worse. For the first year after, he brought it up at every opportunity, accusing her in the grocery store, in front of friends and family, calling her a home wrecker and a father killer. She cried a lot that year, lost weight and lost friends. As Harold’s grief dulled, he began to realize what he was doing to her, the pain he was causing her. Though he still blamed her, he lessened his outbursts and made a conscious effort to forgive her. But time moved slowly and healing was tough. Meredith tried on occasion to actually explain things to her son, to make him realize the difficulties or her marriage, of marriage in general, but he would turn away from her, shut down, at the slightest mention of his father. This, too, was painful for her. She needed to convince him, to convince herself, that it wasn’t entirely her fault, that she hadn’t killed him. She wanted to tell Harold that there was a time before he was born when they’d been happy, when they’d danced and drank, when he’d kissed her in a barn and called her Merry. She wanted to tell him that those times had ended long before she’d kicked him out, long before he’d bought that damn boat. But how could she? How could she ever tell her son that his father was impotent, that he’d been cruelly depressed for years, that in his desperation he’d spent a week on his boat with a high class hooker and a case of whiskey? He blew through half their savings in that one week, for Christ’s sake. What choice did she have? He’d come back drunk and even more depressed than before. She couldn’t keep it hidden from her son much longer. People had already begun to talk. So she kicked him out. Let him go back to the boat, let him destroy himself without destroying his son, without destroying what was left of her.

But, of course, Harold did find out about five years later, during the summer before his freshman year at college. While his relationship with his mother had improved somewhat over the years, she had not. As time passed, she grew frail, tired. On the first anniversary of Philip’s death, she toasted to his memory with a bottle of shiraz, the same wine they’d had on their first date, the same wine that he had hoarded and stored in their basement for special occasions. It was a sweet, sad ceremony that she took alone in her room, gazing at pictures and crying as she thought about the time he’d dribbled wine down her neck as she’d laughed and wiggled. But as time passed, annual turned to weekly and her thoughts and moods turned dark. By the time three years had passed, her commemorating rarely included fond memories, centering instead on her embitterment, his betrayal. Who was that bitch who took their savings, who beguiled and deceived a desperate man? Had she done it? Had she managed to do for him what she no longer could? The shiraz soon ran dry, which only saddened her further, distancing her even more from their former happiness. Refusing to buy more, she turned away from wine and began drinking whatever was on hand. Trips to the grocery store now included a stop at the liquor store, where she’d stock up on vodka and tonic water.

Five years after his father’s death, Harold came home to find his mother sitting on the floor in the corner of her bedroom, her wild eyes darting between a smashed picture frame and the half empty bottle of scotch in her hand. Harold had noted his mother’s decline for some time. At first he was impassive, coldly assuming that it was something she had to go through, that she would pull out of it on her own. The fact that it was wine, his father’s wine no less, had somehow comforted him, had made it seem much more harmless. But standing in the doorway now, at age eighteen, watching his mother whimper and moan, he could no longer bring himself to turn away. Perhaps it was that her nightgown had slipped off her shoulder, partially revealing her nipple, or perhaps it was the bottle of scotch, the drink that had defeated his father, or perhaps it was just time, but Harold suddenly felt the need to act. Sighing, he walked to his mother, knelt down, and adjusted her nightgown. She recoiled from his touch, glaring at him, red eyed.

“It’s alright, Mom,” he said, petting her head.
She nodded, breaking free a fresh tear. It held momentarily on the edge of her lashes before sliding down her stained cheek.
“Come on, Mom, he wouldn’t have wanted this. I miss him, too, but this isn’t…”
“Your father? Your FATHER?” She pushed his hand away, face contorted. “You think this is for him? Ha. HA!” Her chin quivered, but her eyes were steady. “No no, Harry, I’ll never cry for that man again. He wasn’t even a man, just a cheating bastard with a limp dick. You want some money for college, huh? Well you’d have better luck with that whore than with what he left me. All I have is that damn boat, that goddamned whore’s nest! And you, godammit, you. And what good is that? What good is that, Harry?”

Harold pulled the bottle from his mother’s hand and stood. He looked down at her crumpled form, fighting anger, fighting tears. Her thin shoulders shook slightly as she cried. The nightgown was slipping again. He shook his head, turned and walked to the door.

“I tried, you know. For you, I tried…I...”
“I know,” he said and began to close the door.
“Don’t let it ruin you.”

He closed the door.

Harold graduated from college four years later and got a frustrating job as an administrative assistant in a nearby city. He and his mother hadn’t spoken since he left that summer years prior. After beginning school, he had emancipated himself from her, refusing to return home for holidays or summers. Through financial aid and student loans, he was able to put himself through school. During the summers, he would stay on campus doing research with various professors and working as a janitor. When he graduated, he’d become so used to the comfortable structure of academia that he felt suddenly lost. Alone now in this new city and without professors to cling to, he began to seriously think about his parents for the first time in four years.

His father and their cherished memories no longer burned so bright, but they were still present, tarnished but not banished. As for his mother, Harold could think only of her nightgown, her bottle, her anger. He’d received a present from her one Christmas. A toaster – four slices, adjustable temperature, shiny. Attached was a brief card with a quiet scene of their hometown painted on the front; a suburban house with a garden in front and a tree lined lake in the background. He took the toaster out of the box, plugged it in, and slipped the card inside. He turned the knob to Crispy and pressed the lever. It clicked and glowed red, the paint melting slightly before the paper went up.

Resentment was foremost in his mind, but as time continued to pass, pity began to take its place. Two years after graduating, he’d gotten drunk after another failed tryst with a coworker and almost called her. He lifted the phone, but didn’t dial. He fell asleep with it clutched to his chest. A year later, she died.

With no real ties to any extended family, Harold heard about it from his mother’s lawyer. Apparently, the funeral had already been held. It was arranged and taken care of by a distant cousin whose name Harold didn’t recognize. The lawyer apologized for not having contacted him earlier and informed him that he been left everything in her will: the house, a modest savings, and a boat named Angelica. Harold felt sick, but managed to thank the lawyer and arrange a meeting. A week later, Harold gained legal custody of all his mother’s possessions and received information on her generous cousin.

He contacted her later that day and flew to meet her on the following. She’d heard of Meredith’s death from a concerned neighbor who had her listed as an emergency number. After apologizing profusely for not having contacted him – the only number she could find was for the university and they had no forwarding address or number to give her – she briefly explained the situation. She’d had his mother cremated and had yet to spread the ashes, but had held a small ceremony at his father’s grave to commemorate her. Few people showed. Harold cringed, but thanked her for her kindness. She gave him the ashes and he returned to his childhood house, heavy and alone.

That night, sleepless and sullen, he wandered through his mother’s house, his house. He ended up in her bedroom, standing in the doorway as he had those seven years ago. But this time it was him crying, it was him walking to the dresser and picking up the half empty bottle of scotch, it was him sitting in the corner.

He drank. He drank and he thought about his mother, about his father. His deceitful father, his embittered mother. What had happened? They’d hidden everything so well. If only he’d known, if only he’d asked. If only he’d talked to her. Don’t let it ruin you, she’d said.

The flames reflected beautifully on the still water. They swirled and mixed with prismatic traces of gasoline, as the water gently lapped against the boat’s now smoking frame. It had gone up in mere minutes. The gasoline had helped, of course, but the fire had grown strong and now spread unassisted, reaching from the cabin, groping its way up the mast. Among the pops and flickers came a sudden crack. The rotting mast shuddered and broke. It crashed onto the deck, ripped through the safety lines and landed half submerged. The water hissed and spat. Silhouetted against the tree filled shore, he stood, watching as it slowly slid from the deck, helplessly releasing its final bursts of steam and fury. He spread his mother’s ashes.


  1. Interesting piece. It was heartfelt and powerful. I'd like to read more

  2. Hi

    I found this piece to be quite engaging and soon after I began reading, found myself relating to the different characters and what they were going through.

  3. I love your style of writing and you do a great job of bringing these characters to life. Keep up the good work! I hope to read more from you soon.

  4. Though I found my self saddened and disturbed by the subject matter, I was compelled to keep reading. Great work.

  5. Well polished short piece. Focused and affectively engaging. Takes some all-too familiar subject matter and looks at it in a fresh way, preventing it from being cliche. Good stuff.

  6. Glad you all liked it as much as I did. I agree that the characters really make this piece.

  7. What a haunting story! The regret is really palpable. Beautifully written.

  8. Thanks, everyone! I'm glad you all liked it

  9. Thought provoking.