Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine

BOOK: Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
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Log of the
S.S.
The Mrs Unguentine

By Stanley Crawford

WITH A NEW AFTERWORD BY BEN MARCUS

 

 

A captivating short work almost beyond description.


T
HE
N
EW
Y
ORKER

“Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas...”

So begins the courtship
of a certain Unguentine to the woman we know only as Mrs Unguentine, the chronicler of their sad, fantastical tale. For four decades, they sail the seas together, alone on a giant land-covered barge. They tend their gardens, raise a child, invent an artificial forest—all while steering clear of civilization.

Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
is a masterpiece of modern domestic life, a comic novel of closeness and difficulty, miscommunication and stubborn resolve. Rarely has a book so perfectly registered the secret solitude of marriage, how shared loneliness can result in a powerful bond.

Stanley Crawford was born in 1937 and educated at the University of Chicago and the Sorbonne. He is the author of
Some Instructions to My Wife, Travel Notes, Gascoyne, Petroleum Man, A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm,
and
Mayordomo:
Chronicle of an
Acequia
in Northern New Mexico.

 

 

 

DALKEY ARCHIVE PRESS CHAMPAIGN AND
LONDON

Cover art: Nicholas
Motte
& cover design: Danielle Dutton

Copyright © 1988
by
Stanley G.
Crawford
First
published by
Alfred A. Knopf, 1972
Afterword copyright
© 2008
by Ben Marcus

First Dalkey Edition, 2008 All rights reserved

Crawford, Stanley
G.,
1937–

Log of the
S.S.
The Mrs. Unguentine / Stanley G. Crawford. -- 1st Dalkey ed. p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-56478-512-1

 

 

Table Of Contents

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

AFTERWORD

 

 

 

 

For Rosemary

 

Log of the
S.S.
The Mrs Unguentine

I

The name is Mrs Unguentine. I was
not the one born with it, he was. We were married by telephone when the great cable was laid across the ocean floor well before the weather turned so foul; it was the thing to do then, the thing to do indeed. Some high priest on a party line made us man and wife or at least did consecrate the phone line, the electrodes, or whatever. And made me drop all my names, maiden, first and middle, the result being Mrs Unguentine.

II

Forty years ago I first linked up with
Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas, but Unguentine—now dead after a bloody eventless life—turned out to be a ferocious bastard who beat me within an inch of my life everywhere we sighted land, not because of me, not for land, but for drink, he with his bent for alcohol up to the very last moment when his grey lips touched the blue sea for the final time, moment of his death. Suicide. So I sailed that ship, I sailed it every nautical inch of our marriage.

III

What’s worse, as he went overboard,
bottle clutched to his lips and probably already dead of a rotten liver as he toppled into the froth, what did I see in his hip pocket? The pocket that concealed a flabby backside? What did I see? All our navigation charts rolled up, and so down they went with him to the bottom and there I was, left alone in the middle of a nasty squall far from all land. He beat me one last time before he died, though limply. I should have known. Not a scrap of land in sight. And now I wonder why I even bother, this three-thousand-and-no-doubt-somethingth-time it must be, with Unguentine, ferocious bastard, catamaran, alcohol, beating, blessed seas, suicide, the sails, the how and the where, for why multiply anything any more and heap it all higher, heap and clog?

IV

Yet the thought for example that the
miseries of my life with Unguentine might have been brought on by myself as in catamaran, lonely seas, wife, the first and fatal swig at the bottle, and so on. Yelling at him across the wind as he leaned against the tiller, pipe or cigar or baby’s rattle clenched between his teeth, for all he wanted was the sea and the depths while I cried for company, my old and dear and so long-lost friends, while I poured him another drink and he drank himself into visions of forever setting sail across oceans unbefouled by man and where women knitted sails or nets or clothes, and sang, not talked, sang with the wind and with the slicing of prows through aqua glazes. Unguentine was a man who grew nauseous upon land, he could not walk upon a solid, unmoving surface without trembling at the thought it might all crack and crumble into bits and drop into some great hole with the dust of beaten mattresses. His terrestrial asthma.

And no wonder, for what was then called land, that shambles, was a sorry surface unfit for the conduct of anything but a harrowing traffic. But I kept him on land, I forced him to skip rope. He did. Our last vessel was a barge, a barge such as is used to tow garbage out to sea with. It was the only way I would go to sea again, I said. We got the thing for a song, garbage and all, rot, stink and a flock of squabbling seagulls. We had the garbage covered with earth and planted trees and flowers, and there was a great canvas with brass fittings to cover it all up from the wind and the waves, and thus we set sail upon a course that kept us to temperate zones, for the sake of my plants. And many times we were halted by hostile navies who had never seen such a sight; once we were claimed by an impoverished government which sought an island cheap by virtue of confiscation. While I watered my plants, Unguentine drank. On some equator or other I added dogs and a cat who ate fish and provided fecal matter for my garden which came to flourish to such a degree that it grew impenetrable in places, while vine-reinforced leafy boughs overhung virtually the whole barge and we could go for days on end without seeing each other, amused at our respective ends by visitations of uncanny birds. I deceived myself into thinking he was happy. Was it not, after all, the year he cracked the Joke? And that was even the year he said he’d rather not do much talking. I had the cat and the dogs, remember. I was not listening very attentively. His unfortunate end therefore took me by surprise two days later, and right after the plunge—the same, bottle, grey lips, frothy seas—immediately after his plunge I rushed to the pilot-house in the interests of keeping the barge on a true course despite my grief and against the possibility of some scuttling going on. I had never visited the pilot-house before. My surprise and shock can then be imagined when I flung open the door and stumbled inside and grasped the pilot wheel and peered through the windows ahead or aft or fore or whatever, forever confused by those silly nautical terms and hating the hairy men who used them, smirking. But of course nothing was visible through the windows but the thick vegetation of the garden, that is, Unguentine had been steering all these years with no idea of what he was steering towards; and as I was now. The motto of his death was simple, as inscribed on a business card tucked between the glass and frame of the window before the pilot wheel: ‘Fundamental Ship and Boat Repairs Performed.’ That would be his touch, Unguentine’s touch, deliberate, thoughtful, and devastating. I knew it. He would have saved that business card from years before for precisely that moment. Our barge most certainly needed no repairs, however. Not one.

V

Unguentine, suicide
,
the business card,
the barge, alcoholic’s leap into the sea, bottle, grey lips, boughs dragging in sea currents. So goes the sequence, the awful chain, and between my despair at not knowing how many times I have told it and whether I shall ever finish telling it once well and decently, I do wonder about that business card, Fundamental Ship and Boat Repairs Performed, and what if in fact it had nothing to do with his death? Coincidence? The business card inserted into that gummy little gap between the glass and varnished wood frame of the pilot-house window on our ocean-going barge, inserted there casually in the summery sub-equatorial January eleven months before his death, November it was, with no connection whatsoever? Possible? For if so, then it means that my Unguentine with his flowing white hair and yellow beard that ringed his mouth like a cloud in late afternoon, it means that he left me with no message at all, no last words, no final touch other than the act of leaving itself. Can I say he died with no personal touch at all? Not even no toppling overboard with bottle to lips, navigational charts in hip pocket? Perhaps then there would be no telling what, no watery punctuation to that eventless life of his, no noise, no error; only his silence.

Sometimes when I am weary of seeing things in that flat, three-dimensional manner once so much boasted of, two plus two, and all the rest, there seems no longer to be any precise moment when old Unguentine vanished from my life, it seems rather an almost gradual process that went on over many years and as part of a great rhythm, as if, through some gentle law of nature, his disappearance would be followed by his gradual re-emergence, that he would come back, so on, so forth. And in fact when I dared venture into the pilot-house that day I knew he would be gone, I knew my hands upon the pilot wheel would do whatever they had to, that all those carelessly listened to remarks about charts and stars and buoys and lighthouses, anchors, piers, waves, swells and so on, all would fall into place, and there I would be confidently sailing our barge towards the luminous brown clouds of some foul but splendid city, there to be forever free of those wanderings. But as I say, there were no navigational charts to be found anywhere on the barge, which is why I assume he took them with him if in fact he had ever used such aids to sail with at all—though here I suppose that if one is to sail anywhere out of sight of land one must carry maps and charts. The point being, since there were no charts, at least I could spare the garden which completely obstructed the view from the pilot-house and made any sort of steering impossible—and here it strikes me that, in practically unbearable truth, my first response to the discovery of Unguentine’s death was to cut down the garden. And so I must ask now, so many years later, so far distant from the scene, whose garden? Here, the loveful mourning that casts the prized possessions of the dead upon the pyre? Here, in glee at last the garden unprotected? Whack? Whack?

The former. For the garden on our barge was none other than the famed Unguentine Gardens which have been watered in celebration by the fireboats of all the ports of call that have them, for more than thirty years. How have I presumed to call the gardens ever mine, the great Unguentine Gardens, cherchez la femme? True, I have known jealousy. I have watched the gardens grow from tiny seedlings and limp cuttings into cantilevered banks of blossoms of a brilliance such that ocean liners have deflected painstaking schedules to angle for a closer look, and applaud a fragrance a mile off; and trees that have won prizes from councils of men accustomed to viewing nothing less mobile than dashing horses and thundering elephants, in that blood-clogged conspiracy of mammals I used to hear so much about those days. The great Unguentine Gardens, yes, who has not heard of them in their heyday of long ago when the weather was so much better than now, and now when the gardens are fallen and gone, gone in that manner too which time will prevent me from telling their story, piddling story; things grow, things die, is it. And it was Unguentine who planted the trees, forty years ago, in my flower garden on the barge at a particularly sunny latitude, in his quiet manner, before breakfast, at that dawn time when most of us are checking out our joints and searching over our bodies for the lesions and abrasions we are convinced a malign sleep has inflicted upon us, just like that, snap of the fingers, he planted a score of saplings between starting up the powerful steam-engine and weighing anchor, mending even a hole in the standard. He could be a fast worker. And did they ever grow, his trees, under the subtle guidance of brilliant feats of navigation that in the space of a year sought out four springs, four summers, four autumns, four winters, in over sixteen seas and oceans and bays and inlets north and south, in such manner that his trees grew four times faster than what was going on on land, as our barge traced upon the map a course to be envied by a winged insect in its witty feints and dodges amid swallows. Their trunks, stout and plump and shapely, in that way that comes only through sea-going cultivation; their leaves, tinted with variegated greens, spangled and iridescent, marks of their outlandish vintage through springs and autumns of a multitude of latitudes. But where his trees flourished upwards in an orderly manner, sprouting leaves, then letting them go, things were not so easy with me and my flowers, not nearly as hardy against the incessant changes of climate. For months on end I was up all night. One can imagine. Some of the more delicate varieties I had been cultivating for years would bud, bloom and blow in less than an hour and a half, in crises of photosynthesis as we passed from precipitous springs into sudden summers, temperatures into the hundreds even at midnight. With rake and hoe and pruning shears I would scurry about to pull up wilted flowers one minute, plant more the next, and rush back and forth to my enormous compost heap, seeming end-product of all that frenetic generation and watered with my tears, my sweat, with my arms flailing away at the swarms of foreign bugs often so thick that even seagulls kept their distance, until dawn and beyond, until I might wake up to find myself blundering around our barge-garden carrying a flashlight at high noon, tool of some last night’s emergency of pollination.

BOOK: Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
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