photo by Louis Vest
The Plimsoll Line
I was eight when Dad stenciled the hieroglyph on our Alumacraft canoe: a circle with a line through it, like the silhouette of a ringed planet. He explained this mark as the invention of an old Brit named Plimsoll who’d wearied of frigates sinking like coffins in the high seas, swallowing crews right down to the last ship’s boy. Dad had calculated the maximum load and placed the symbol extra low on the hull because, he added, by the time you realize you’re past the limit, it’s too late.
I absorbed this story unblinking. Never mind that the neighborhood pond was only three feet deep. Have fun, he stated as the life vest descended over my head.
Always the tape measure at the ready and a zoo of gauges and scales. We kept tires below their posted pressure. Extension cords were shunned. When he capped our lights at 60 watts, Mom rolled her eyes in the dark.
At elevators Dad tallied the weight of bodies, sometimes ushering us out. The footings at the playground were deemed unsound. On the front porch a gadget of tubes whistled whenever the wind picked up. At the municipal pool, while kids pointed, he knelt on skinny knees and dipped strips of litmus in the shallow end.
Oh brother, Mom muttered.
After his company closed, he stayed home and stopped shaving. The oven vent was ruled insufficient, so cooking meant an open window, even in winter. On Fridays we tested smoke detectors (one in every room). Next to the thermostat a thermometer appeared (just to be sure). The barbecue stood in the middle of the backyard, a garden hose dribbling next to it like a dying snake.
I stopped inviting friends over.
The January I turned twelve, he arrived at the pond during pickup hockey, armed with a drill. Chips of ice mounded as he measured the thickness, yelling for us not to bunch up.
Who the hell is that, a kid said.
Meters with battery backup measured gases in the house. A weather radio startled awake whenever the sky darkened. The piano descended to the basement, where the floor was something you could count on.
He put a set-screw on the water heater, locking us into lukewarm showers. Mom’s jaw tightened, and it wasn’t just from the chill.
You wanna get scalded? he said.
Two years later I left for college. A package came and my dorm-mate opened it, hoping for cookies but finding instead: a voltage tester, a surge protector, a knotted rope in case of fire. Rudy laughed, so I laughed, and we dumped the goods in the hallway garbage. Though later I retrieved the rope and hid it under my bed. The next day I bought a smoke detector.
At home, alarms on windows made cooking impossible. He had purchased a gun. In the car, a buzzer sounded at 56 miles per hour—which maybe explains why Mom didn’t take it when she left.
I didn’t see that coming, Dad said.
Maybe it was time to act? But I was starting my job. And moving in with Susan.
The drinking began. His belt had more holes than it needed. In the early morning floodlights blinded the paperboy during his approach. Indoors, plastic labels with embossed letters barked orders: TURN OFF WHEN DONE, FILL TUB TO HERE, FEED DOG TO THIS LINE, DON’T TOUCH, LOCK WHEN LEAVING.
Who were these for? He was the only one there.
With the arrival of our baby, the deluge of parcels began: monitors, cupboard latches, stairway gates, outlet covers, window locks, a toddler leash, a tracking device—always with long letters of instructions. He called at night, a slur in his voice. Come and visit, he’d say. Please. But don’t put her on a plane. Cars are even worse. Please. Conversations trailed into silence.
When the end came, I was surprised and not. There’d been signs. The cargo had increased. I’d watched the water rise toward the gunwales. But what was the limit? There’d been no Plimsoll line. And when he sank, I fought against the tug of suction, like a ship’s boy paddling alone on an errant plank.
About the author:
Scott Carpenter teaches literature and creative writing at Carleton College (MN). The author of Theory of Remainders: A Novel (named to Kirkus Reviews “Best Books of 2013”) and This Jealous Earth: Stories, he has published in a wide variety of journals. Visit him here.