The Practical Navigator

Stephen Metcalfe

August 5, 2016 
The following is from Stephen Metcalfe’s novel, The Practical Navigator. Metcalfe wrote the production drafts for Pretty Woman, Dangerous Minds and Mr. Holland's Opus, among others. His stage plays have been produced in New York and at theaters throughout the US, Europe and Japan. He is an Associate Artist at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and has been an adjunct professor in dramatic writing.

The ocean never sleeps. The ocean is ever restless.

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It is early morning, Southern California, a winter swell and the surfers are out. They dive as they paddle out into the white cresting water. They sit, bobbing like ducks on a turbulent pond. A wave rises, arms churn, a quick hop and crouching, two of them move forward, down and across the face. At the bottom, they cut frantically away from one another, one falling, the other moving up the wall of water, only to reverse course at the top and descend again. Up, down. Rise, fall. As the wave tumbles and breaks, the surfer bails out in a haze of spray, man and board jettisoning free. Water crashes on rocky shore. Green sheen on dark sand. Sucking foam.

Michael Hodge hangs deep beneath the water, naked, vertical and still, as if unaffected by the surge. His eyes are open. He is bemused to find himself here. How odd. Water above, water below, opaque and translucent, fading into shadow. How did this happen? How did he get here? He doesn’t know. It just is. He looks up to see the flash of a board overhead. He did that once. No more.

It is peaceful here. Michael could close his eyes and drift till he just faded away. And it is with this thought that he realizes—or is it that he remembers?— his head is bleeding, copper tendrils in too clear water, and that he is drowning. He starts for the surface— and goes nowhere. He flails, panicking, rubbery legs kicking, hands clawing. He might as well try to climb through air. Bubbles gush from his open mouth. Michael tries to pull them back, watches them slip through his fingers. Drowning and reaching, drowning and reaching—

—to come awake with a stifled cry, lurching up, twisting at the tangle of sheets.

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It takes a moment to realize. It was the dream.


He forces himself to breathe. He listens to his heart as it slows down. When all is quiet and working properly, he settles back. And hits his head sharply on the headboard. Even in his own bed, a man has to be aware of danger. He is awake now. He tosses the sweat- soggy sheets aside and rises. Michael Hodge still has the broad shoulders and long smooth muscles of a swimmer. A swimmer who is afraid of the water.

In the bathroom, he pees and is reminded that the toilet bowls in the house are in need of cleaning. At the sink, he douses his face with water. His mouth tastes like a birdcage. He squeezes some toothpaste onto his tongue, chews and swallows it. He rinses and spits. He looks at himself in the mirror. Something’s increasingly different and it’s not becoming.

The kitchen is as he left it. Dinner dishes in the sink. Pots and pans on the stove. A trio of beer bottles on the counter. He’s got to do better than this. He notices that the answering machine on the counter is blinking. He vaguely remembers the phone ringing last night in the middle of some inane cable show about zombies. He almost never answers the house line anymore. Anyone worth talking to gets him on the cell. He hits the message button and turns to get juice from the fridge. Penelope Hodge has the remains of an English accent.

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“Michael? This is your mother. I do wish you’d answer your phone. Michael, I just wanted to tell you, the tests came back from the doctor’s and it’s official. I don’t have Alzheimer’s. Love you, darling.”

Michael ponders this. Tests? Alzheimer’s? What the— Beep!

As he drinks some juice from the carton, the second message plays. “Michael, it’s me. Guess what, sweetheart? I don’t have Alzheimer’s. Oh— and happy birthday, Michael.”

Michael doesn’t feel happy. Not happy at all. He presses the erase button on the machine and turns to address the dishes in the sink.  


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* * * *

The bundle under the quilt has been awake for a while. Michael has heard the murmurs, the muted whispers, and the silence as the prospect of facing the day grows closer. Michael enters the bedroom and sits on the edge of the bed. He lightly places his hand on the part of the bundle that is a shoulder.

“Jamie. Time to get up now.”

The quilt, bedecked with Minions— small yellow cylinder- shaped creatures— lowers and Jamie looks at him, the blond hair like a haystack, the eyes deep and green.

“I don’t have to go to school today.” The voice is a soft monotone.

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“Yeah, you do. Mrs. McKenzie is going to be waiting for you. C’mon, big hug.”

Jamie rises to his arms, all little-boy smell. He puts his arms around Michael’s neck. “Hold me,” he whispers. “Hold me tight.”

* * * *

In the kitchen Michael fries eggs, knowing Jamie won’t eat them but hoping he might. For a while it was all he ate. Then he stopped eating the yolks. Then he ate the yolks but not the whites. Now he’s stopped eating eggs altogether.

It’s frozen fruit that he likes these days, blueberries, rock-hard strawberries, and wedges of precut mango. Michael’s teeth ache at the thought of it. Before eggs and frozen fruit it was oven- heated fish nuggets for breakfast. Soon it will be something else.

Jamie is at the table, playing with a small plastic toy soldier, shaking it, holding it close to his face, intently focused on it.


Jamie quickly puts the plastic toy into his lap. He spoons some icy fruit into his mouth. “Sleep well, kiddo?”

“I’m eating.” The voice is insistent and just a bit annoyed. One thing at a time, it demands.

“Me too,” says Michael. He eats the eggs directly from the pan. One less plate to clean.

* * * *

They come out of the house and move across a wide, wooden deck that is silver with age. A large pepper tree grows from a hole in the middle of the deck and its rain of pods and slim, dark leaves is incessant. Michael goes through a push broom every six months. The one- story house, once just a summer bungalow, has been added on to and expanded piece by piece over the years. Rumor has it that it was once a retreat owned by the film actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Michael knows this. He started the rumor. Beyond the deck and across a small stamp of grass is a head-high hedge of privet and juniper that provides some small privacy. Michael is in neat khakis and a faded chambray shirt. Jamie wears cargo shorts and a T- shirt, the labels removed, always. Michael holds Jamie’s knapsack. In it is his Power Rangers lunchbox. In that, slices of Gouda cheese and whole wheat bread, green cornichons, each in its own separate plastic bag, again, always. Jamie still holds the plastic soldier. The wooden gate bangs shut behind them and Jamie skips into the small driveway.

“I want Mrs. Mc Kenzie to miss me.”

“Climb aboard, little man.”

“I want her to miss me!”

They get in the pickup, a five-year-old white Ford F-150 that has never seen the inside of the closed garage. HODGE CONSTRUCTION is written in black letters on the side door, a contractor’s license number below. Michael starts the truck up and they pull out of the short drive. Many of the adjacent houses on the street fill their small lots completely. Big, strapping bodies put into small clothes. It wasn’t always like this. Birdrock used to be a neighborhood of working people— day laborers, teachers, and surfers four to a house sharing rent. But it’s a quick jaunt to the beach and if you get high enough up on the hill, ever- growing, non-indigenous trees permitting, you can see south all the way to the Coronado Islands, and so, over the past ten years, people have bought, torn down, refinanced, and rebuilt, Michael working any number of the jobs, first doing the grunt work, digging foundations, sawing boards, and banging nails, then graduating to masonry, tile, and cabinetry work, picking up both Spanish and craft from the illegals, most of whom have forgotten more about carpentry than Michael will ever know. He sometimes wonders where those men are now.

Turning, they drive north on the boulevard. The traffic is slow moving. All the old beach communities have changed: fast food franchises, chain drugstores, personal workout centers offering bargain fifty-dollar massages. The mammoth Vons supermarket sells everything from fruit smoothies to birthday cards to organic endive. There’s a Brooks Brothers in the village now, presumably shilling preppie clothes to transplanted financial consultants from the East Coast. In Michael’s youth, the biggest retailers were surf shops. The most popular restaurant was a waffle shop.

Michael lucks into a parking place just down the street from the elementary school and walks Jamie to the entrance. Jamie lags and Michael waits. There’s no rushing him, he’ll just go slower. At the open gate, with the playground beyond and the children running and shouting, they stop and Michael kneels. Jamie’s head is down and his mouth is a thin line of anxiety. His hand is tight in front of his face, not so much flapping as vibrating.

“Nana will pick me up.” It’s a question as much as a statement.

“Doesn’t Nana always pick you up?”

“She will pick me up.”

“And I’ll pick you up at Nana’s. What else?”

“I won’t run to look for you.”


“Because even if you’re not there, you love me.”

“How much?”

“To infinity and beyond.”

“You got it.”

Michael looks up. Beyond the gate, a tall, middle-aged woman in a long dress is approaching across the playground. Michael hands Jamie his knapsack. “There’s Mrs. McKenzie. Go on now.”

Jamie doesn’t move and so Michael nudges him. Nudges gently again. Jamie finally turns and hurries forward through the gate to meet his teacher.

Seeing him advance, Karen McKenzie stops and waits. Once he’s in front of her, she looks down her long nose at him with mock formality. “Mister Hodge. Are we ready for second grade today?”

Jamie briefly meets her eyes and then his head bows and he studies the ground. There is a small smile on his lips. “Are you having tuna for lunch?”

“Yes, I am. And I am sharing it with you.”

A murmur of pleasure. A single word. “Okay.” All is now right with the world. Karen McKenzie throws a quick reassuring look to Michael, takes Jamie’s hand, and they turn and move across the playground together. Michael fights the urge to call Jamie back. All too often, he feels that he is sending a lamb out into a world of wolves. Thank goodness there are shepherds. On the way back to the truck, his cell phone rings. The day has begun.


From THE PRACTICAL NAVIGATOR. Used with permission of ST. MARTINS PRESS. Copyright © 2016 by Stephen Metcalfe.

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