THE WATER MASTER – Peter Selgin

Prologue: Cape Canaveral, Florida, 2012

Three weeks ago I watched a star explode.
It was two o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t sleep. I’d wandered into my son’s room—he’s in graduate school now—and sat gazing through the telescope I’d bought him for his sixteenth birthday, when I noticed the blue dot high in the eastern sky. At first I thought it was an airplane or maybe a satellite of some kind. But the way it stood there, perfectly still, rendered those possibilities impossible.
Suddenly the blue dot burst apart, splitting into a dozen stars of different pale colors. They danced around a blue nucleus before shooting off in all directions. One especially bright star shot straight down to earth, where it exploded, lighting up the horizon with an ice-blue, camera-bulb flash.
The next morning I was walking Mr. McDog, my black Labrador retriever (so named in honor of his enthusiasm for a popular fast-food chain’s golden French fries), along a stretch of shore known as the Space Coast, when we came upon an unusual bit of flotsam, a cone-shaped object the size of a big furnace, a giant’s hat made of pale bluish material. Melted, intestine-like wires and cables spilled out from under its scorched brim.
McDog and I are dedicated beachcombers, ever on the lookout for the tide’s unusual offerings. You’d be surprised by what washes up on these shores. Last year the Atlantic’s capricious but generous currents delivered a sperm whale, eighty-five feet long and categorically dead, to our sandy front doorstep. Despite repeated dustings of quicklime, for seven days the whale’s rotting corpse claimed the entire beach with its apocalyptic stench. In the end the county had to hire a tugboat to drag it out to sea.
There have been more than a few inorganic offerings too. Since Mr. McDog and I started walking here three years ago, not a week has gone by without our encountering some surf-scoured, wrack-robed testament to human ingenuity or folly. We’re not talking about the usual maritime rubble—waterlogged hatch-covers, beached bell buoys, and so forth. We’re talking space junk: charred heat-deflection shields, spent rocket boosters, an occasional G.E.M. (that’s Graphite Epoxy Motor to you earth-dwellers)… They don’t call it the Space Coast for nothing.
Here’s the thing: that cone-shaped object on the beach? Forty-seven years ago I came upon the very same object, or one just like it, on a trail in the woods of Hattertown, Connecticut, the town I grew up in. That exploding star I saw three weeks ago? It, too, had its coequal forty-seven years ago—at two o’clock one morning in May of my thirteenth year, the year I met the Man in Blue.
What follows are my memories of those days as compiled by a sixty-three-year-old man who happens to share his young protagonist’s DNA along with his name: Leopold Napoli IV—though to his friends he was simply “Half.”
This is Half’s story more than it’s mine, that of an ordinary adolescent boy who, like so many ordinary adolescent boys, longed for things out of this world.

In Half’s case, he just happened to find them.

Chapter One

When I was nine years old, my father gave me some rare advice, or tried to.
“Son,” he said, bobbing a marshmallow over a campfire we’d built. “I’ve got three bits of advice to give you.” He swigged from his ever-present bottle of Rock & Rye. “The first bit of advice is: Never stick anything in your ears. The second is: If you’re going to build a rope swing, use a thick rope. The third is—” My father paused. “The third bit of advice… The third bit…”
He gazed into the campfire. His eyes lost their luster. He chewed his bottom lip, pulled his nose, wrinkled his brow, nibbled his tongue, scratched the short gray hairs on the back of his neck.
We were watching the Crofus & Corbet hat factory go up in flames. One of the principle forms of entertainment in our town back then was watching hat factories burn down. Dad would seek out the best vantage point high on a hill in that town of many hills. On cold nights sometimes he would build a bonfire, a small blaze to mirror the inferno soon to rage in the gully below. While roasting marshmallows on twigs, we would take in smoke, flames, and the whirling lights and wails of fire engines. If the view was accessible by car, we’d sit side by side in Dad’s cream-colored Studebaker Champion, his features burnished orange by the light of the flames. Dad would sip from his bottle of Rock & Rye, while I munched Cracker Jacks from a box, just like at the drive-in theater.
The hat factories burned gloriously, their marmalade-colored flames licking utility lines, shooting up sparks that joined the constellations, or forming their own. When the wind changed direction suddenly, we would cover our mouths with damp rags my father prepared for the occasion, knowing that the smoke carried toxic fumes from the chemicals used to turn raw rabbit and beaver pelts into felt. Once a flurry of burning, half-finished hats swirled up into the twilight, miniature flying saucers of flaming felt. One nearly landed on my head.
“Now that’s something!” my father said, slapping his knee first, then mine, his outburst as singular as the event itself. My father was a man of very few words.
Some wondered how it was that my father always seemed to know in advance when a hat factory was about to burn. A few even insinuated that he set the blazes himself. This I refused to believe. Dad was a crude man, uneducated, inarticulate, reeking of hat-factory fumes, bristling with bad habits. My mother had once told me the only reason she married him was because he was a good dancer and could make her laugh. “Your father was the price that I paid,” she said, “for having a sense of humor.”
But Dad was no arsonist.
Still, however he came by it, when it came to predicting hat-factory fires, Leopold Joseph Napoli III was possessed of a Promethean foresight.
At last, with a bony arm around me and a heavy sigh—his breath a blowtorch of fruity booze—my father said: “Sorry, son, but I forgot what the third bit of advice was.”
He burst out laughing then until a coughing fit seized him, ending one of the longest conversations he and I would ever have.

We went back to watching the hat-factory fire, letting its tongues do the talking for us.

*

That same night I dreamed that I was drowning. It was a recurrent dream. I had fallen into a lake or some other body of water, or been pushed. In the dream I gasped and groped toward the pale light of salvation, but couldn’t reach it. Still gasping from my nightmare, I opened my eyes to see my father, an oblong darkness framed by my bedroom doorway.
“Dad?” I said, catching my breath, propped up on one elbow.
His silhouette swigged from a bottle.
“What gives?” I said. “What are you doing?”
“I remembered the third bit of advice.”
I waited.
Follow your fears,” my father said.
“What?”
“Your fears. Follow your fears.”

Then he was gone. A patch of dawn filled the space where he had stood.

*

My father died on a Wednesday afternoon. My mother was working in town, at the office of Mr. Stevens, the optometrist. Dad had smoked like a burning hat factory all his life, but long before his lungs gave out he suffered headaches, fatigue, shyness, depression, irascibility, vertigo, shortness of breath, sore throats, and tremors so violent there were times when he couldn’t even tie his own shoes—all symptoms of hydrargyria or mercury poisoning, known also as Mad Hatter’s disease. Or, locally, as “The Hattertown Shakes.”
Everyone who worked in hat factories back then was exposed to some mercury, but none more so than the so-called Back Shop workers, those who processed the raw pelts of rabbit and beavers into felt. Though they stopped using mercury shortly after World War II, by then my father had breathed in over twenty years’ worth of the stuff. He’d worked in hat factories his whole life, since he was old enough to reach the pedal of a blocking machine—as had Leopoldi di Napoli II, his father before him, and his father, Leopoldi di Napoli. Like them, and though the official cause of death was listed as “lung infection,” my father died of “the shakes.”

Hats killed my father. I had just turned ten.

*

With my father’s death all the colors seemed to drain out of the world. Trees didn’t talk to me, birds didn’t fly or sing. The sky was a gray wall over my head. Nothing inspired me. The bitter taste of a tarnished penny filled my mouth and flavored my days. I felt the vague, empty longing experienced by many a young boy, but with a sour, dark, disconsolate twist. I yearned—for what exactly I don’t know. A spark, a flame, a glimmer of hope or transcendence or redemption, a guiding light, a Star of Bethlehem, a cosmic hat-factory fire to brighten up my gloomy world.

So it remained until the summer of 1963. The summer I followed my fears. The summer I met the Man in Blue.

Chapter Two

The Man in Blue walked.
Past woods, swamps, fields; past homes, shops, and factories; along winding back roads, down highways, through parking lots. He used a walking stick and carried a canvas rucksack. He walked in all kinds of weather, in sun, snow, and rain.
Nobody walked in Hattertown, at least no one who was old enough to drive a car and whose license hadn’t been revoked, who wasn’t poor or crazy or otherwise impaired. For sure they didn’t walk around in blue coveralls with a gnarled walking stick, a canvas rucksack, and a scruffy beard. For a grown-up to walk the streets of Hattertown, Connecticut (“The Town that Crowned America”) alone in broad daylight was as good as wearing a sandwich board saying I’M A WEIRDO GIVE ME THE FINGER.
He spoke to no one—assuming he could speak at all, which we doubted. Wherever he walked, the air around him turned blue with suspicion. In the homes he passed, louvers and drapes parted stealthily. Vehicles swerved by, stirring up eddies of dust that soaked into the fibers of his blue coveralls. And though he never broke his stride, the Man in Blue must have sensed the supreme effort with which the drivers of those vehicles resisted running him down.
We called him the Man in Blue. He had a real name, more than one, it turned out, but none of us knew that then. All we knew was that he walked all over town gathering things in his rucksack—what things we weren’t sure. Nor did we have any idea how long he had been there, in our town. We knew only that his presence was as inevitable as it was mystifying, that he was as much a part of the landscape as the brick smokestacks of crumbling hat factories.

Though we knew nothing about him, still we were prepared to believe anything.

*

“I bet he’s a spy,” obese Victor offered. “A Commie spy.”
“He’s probably queer,” Skunky submitted, peering through a cardboard tube. “You can tell by the way he walks. Only queers walk like that.”
“I wonder where he got that limp,” I said.
“He probably broke his leg parachuting out of a spy plane,” Victor conjectured.
“I bet you he has a venereal disease,” said Skunky, whose nickname had been earned by the white streak in his otherwise jet-black hair.
“I bet he’s got more than one,” Victor said. “I bet he’s got them all.”
Zag, our short, muscular, adamantine leader, said nothing. He chewed the end of a horsetail fern while clenching and unclenching his fists.
“I bet he escaped from Willoughby Hills,” Skunky speculated, referring to the state psychiatric facility eight miles away, in Newbury.
“I bet he’s a murderer. I bet he murdered a bunch of people,” said Victor. “He’s got a cave somewhere deep in the woods where he drags their dead bodies. He cuts them up into little pieces and eats them with boiled skunk-cabbage leaves.”
Skunky spit a thick loogie over the cliff side.
Uhn haah dah,” said Gordon, my stepbrother.
“I bet he practices black magic,” said Skunky. “That walking stick? It’s got talismanic properties. Wherever he taps it on the ground, poisonous mushrooms sprout. If he pees on a tree, the bark turns black just like it got hit by lightning.”
“Whatever you do,” Victor warned, “don’t ever look him straight in the eyes. It could permanently stunt your growth.”
“I wouldn’t let him spit on you, either,” Skunky added. “If he spits on you, the acid in his saliva will burn a hole clear through your clothes and skin down to the bone.”
Uhn haah dah,” said Gordon.

A deaf dumb commie queer spy lunatic murderer black magician. The Man in Blue was all of those things and anything else we wanted him to be. As children believe in dragons, Santa Claus, and the boogeyman, we believed in the Man in Blue, if only to pity, fear, and despise him.

*

We called ourselves the Back Shop Boys, since all of our fathers once worked in the back shops of hat factories, before they got sick or died or the hat factories went out of business or burned down. There were four of us: Larry “Zag” Lengyl, Wade “Skunky” Stravos, Victor Szentgyorgyi (pronounced Saint George), and me, Leo Napoli—or “Half,” as they called me, since I had only half my middle finger left on my right hand, the other half having been sacrificed during a Fourth of July mishap.
Then there was Gordon, my stepbrother. Gordon who, though only a year younger than me, was still in second grade. Gordon whose thick glasses and red Boy’s Club baseball cap failed to hide his bulging eyes. Gordon whose nose never stopped running, whose plaid shirt-sleeves (when nobody rolled them up for him) were constantly encrusted with dried snot, whose bony forearms (when someone did) were glazed with the stuff as if by a coat of shellac. Gordon who spoke a grand total of three words. Gordon who, back then, wasn’t “intellectually challenged” or “mentally handicapped” but mentally retarded. Or, as we said, a retard.
Not that my stepbrother cared what anyone called him, as long as we let him tag along with us, and as long as nothing stood between him and his Magic Hot Dog: the optical illusion of a free-floating bullet of flesh formed by touching the tips of his index fingers together and gaping at them cross-eyed—easy for Gordon to do, his eyes being permanently crossed.
The three words that Gordon spoke were “a hot dog”—or, more precisely, “uhn haah dah.” He said them over and over again, always with the same tone of amazed discovery, as if witnessing the phenomenon for the first time. Sometimes he’d try to eat the thing, earning a pair of bitten fingertips for his trouble. At first we found this amusing, but like all of Gordy’s tricks it got old fast. In time, seeing him about to make a meal of his own flesh, I’d box his ear—which also made him cry, but not as hard chomping down on his own fingers did.

Gordon. My cross, my curse.

*

We sat there, at the summit of Cheese Hill, watching the Man in Blue limp his way across the Caxton-Dumont hat factory’s parking lot below, headed toward us. The cliff pitched forward like the prow of a clipper ship. We called it Cheese Hill because the limestone broke off in crumbly, pale yellow, cheese-like chunks that we’d hurl onto the corrugated tin roof of the hat factory’s reject shed, enticing the grizzled old security guard out of his wooden shed to shake his bony fist up at us, which gesture we’d meet with stiff, out-thrust palms and shouts of Sieg heil! and Heil Hitler!
From Cheese Hill we could see most of the town. Beyond the Caxton-Dumont plant was the town’s main thoroughfare. To the left: the railroad and fuel storage tanks. To the right: the middle school, its copper cupola crowned by a fierce-looking lightning rod. Slithering snake-like through the view was the aptly named Brim River, since every few years its threatened to flood the town. On the back door of the Caxton-Dumont plant hung a yellow Fallout Shelter sign.
Lording over the landscape were a dozen smokestacks: twelve brick middle fingers thrust up into the Connecticut sky. From the top of Cheese Hill we could read the names of the hat-manufacturing companies they had once stood for: MALLORY, LEE, HOYT, KNOX, DOBBS, SUTTON-DEXTER, DALTON, BENTON, HOWES VON-GAL, CROFUS & CORBET, DUNLAP, MERRIMAC. Once those smokestacks had darkened the sky with soot and prosperity. But by the summer of 1963 all but one had gone extinct.

As for the other eleven, only their shadows still darkened things—long black shadows sliding across playgrounds, slinking through parking lots, slithering over car hoods and convertible bonnets, gliding over back yards and front porches, slipping past the minutes, hours, and seconds of each day like the hands of a huge gloomy clock.

*

The Man in Blue approached, limping across the oil-splotched parking lot. It must have been a Sunday morning. Church bells tolled. A lukewarm April breeze, the pale buds just starting to bloom on the elm trees lining Felt Street.
We kicked our sneakers (“P.F. Flyers make you run faster and jump higher!”) against the cliff face. As the Man in Blue stepped into range we snapped and gripped new cheese bombs in our fists, casting each other defiant looks. Skunky spit another loogie. Victor wiped sweat from his pimply forehead. Zag clenched and unclenched his fists. Zippo—his beagle-mix dog-pound-refugee mutt—barked. We sat coiled like springs, hearts pounding, mouths dry, breaths held—except Gordon, who stared at his fingertips.
Uhn haah dah,” said Gordon.
The Man in Blue drew closer. His rucksack bulged. The mysterious objects inside it made tinkling sounds. We gripped our cheese bombs.
“Someone throw!” Victor implored.
“Darers go first,” Zag reminded him.
“I know. Let’s all throw at once!” Skunky proposed.
“Good idea,” I said. “You first.”
“On a count of three,” Zag instructed. “One, two—
A solitary cheese bomb—mine—arced through the air, its pale-yellow color shifting in flight: dark against the bright blue sky, neutral against the dull brick, pale where it burst apart just inches from the tip of the Man in Blue’s walking stick. The skittering fragments painted a chalky star on the black asphalt.
The Man in Blue stopped walking. He stood looking up at us, the blue sky mirrored in the round glasses he wore. His face was the red brown of fired clay, of hat-factory bricks. He didn’t shake his fist or yell or say anything—how could he, being deaf-mute? He might even have cracked a smile—it was hard to tell with that scruffy beard. He stood there for a good ten seconds. Then he hoisted up his canvas rucksack and continued on across the parking lot and out of sight.
“We need to get the goods on him,” Zag decided once he’d gone. He unrolled a pack of Lucky Strikes from his sleeve and lit one. “It’s our civic duty.”
“Should we try and follow him, do you think?” said Skunky.
Zag shook his head. “Too conspicuous. This is a one-person job. Any volunteers?”
We all looked at each other.
Uhn haah dah,” said Gordy.
“We’ll have to draw for it.”
We followed Zag down the path to the bottom of Cheese Hill, to Bum’s Trail, a trail through the woods bristling with horsetail ferns. Zag picked three ferns and held them so we couldn’t tell which was the longest.
“The short fern investigates and reports back to the rest of us.”
Each of us drew a horsetail fern. By the feel of it I was sure I hadn’t drawn the shortest. At first I felt relief, then disappointment. Behind my back, before we all showed each other, I snapped my horsetail fern in half.
Follow your fears.

Author’s Statement

1963. Hattertown, Connecticut, once the hat-manufacturing capital of the Eastern United States, has fallen on hard times. Men no longer wear hats. Leo “Half” Napoli mourns his hat-factory-worker father while dreaming of being the first man on the moon and taking part in “something of the infinite.”
Meanwhile, Half and his fellow Back Shop Boys (their fathers all worked in the dangerous, mercury-fume-laden back shops of the hat factories) seek to uncover the identity of the reclusive Man in Blue, who wanders the town collecting things in his canvas rucksack. Elected to spy on him, Half instead develops an odd friendship with the mysterious Man in Blue, during the course of which he learns not only what “Jack Thomas” has been collecting in his rucksack and why, but also of the extraordinary circumstances that led to his fugitive existence—an odyssey with roots in a forgotten yet astonishing postscript to World War II that stripped him of every last trace of his former self.
The story is told by Half as he looks back from his retirement as a Fuel Technology Specialist for NASA (“a gas station attendant for the Space Shuttle”).
A coming-of-age tale touched with myth, magic, and nostalgia, The Water Master is also about one civilization giving way to another, and about the places in life where the mundane and the miraculous meet.
No, Half never made it to the moon; he never partook of anything of the infinite. Or did he?

 

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. He has published a novel, three books on the craft of fiction writing, a book of essays, a memoir, and a children’s book. His stories and essays have been featured in The Missouri Review, The Colorado Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Essays. His most recent book, The Inventors, was chosen by Library Journal as one of the best books of 2016. He teaches at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, and is an affiliate faculty-member of Antioch University’s low-res MFA Creative Writing Program in Los Angeles, California.