Old Man’s Best Friend


By Marcy Dilworth

Body ablaze, Henry chokes and the ship lurches, throws him onto his side. Rogue waves strike like an open hand to the back, and a chunk of something rubbery and foul flies out of his panting mouth. He puzzles over the murmur of a TV game show and the icy disk pressing first on his chest and then his back. Echoes of crackles and bubbles fill his body. Falling back onto a bed softer than any sick bay bunk he can recall, he sinks into a murky doze.


His tenth year at sea. Henry patrolled the North Pacific in a rare period of calm winds, fair skies and no enemy sightings. Shore leave and his beloved Marie glimmered on the horizon; the stars lit the night watch while flying silver fish kept him company.

A welcome trickle of cooler air swept past. Seconds later, the commission pennant billowed and snapped, the sea plunged and broke, and granite clouds descended like a stage curtain. Torrents of salt-tinged water buffeted the crew.

The captain bellowed, “All hands on deck,” as twenty-five footers, thirty footers, rocked the ship. And all new recruits, cocky until that midnight, glowed gray-green in the scant light, and clung to the rails, and drooled in advance of the vomit to come.


The ship judders and Henry writhes. He tries to suppress the bile, doesn’t want to retch in front of his fellow sailors, but the wild sea keeps up its assault. He heaves. Someone tilts him up, someone strong and steady, and pats his back as the liquid contents of his stomach empty into a container snugged against his chin. 

 From far off, he hears Marie call, “Henry, I’m here.” Her soft cool hand feels real on his feverish forearm. His thick lungs smother each next breath and he panics in his battle to rise from the deep, desperate to open his eyes to see if Marie has somehow appeared, against all regulations, against all reason, in the sick bay. A prick to the arm, another round of chills, and he goes under again. 


 “Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” Henry’s dad knew what the crimson dawn meant and also knew better than to row out of the harbor and into the ocean in his paint-chipped dinghy. He stopped to take swigs from his bottle, and laughed when Henry complained that they’d gone too far, that the rough waves scared him. “Sink or swim,” his dad said, then pushed anew against the swelling sea. White-caps swamped Henry’s feet, his ankles, his knees, and jagged rain drenched his frayed flannel shirt. Through the ropes of rain he couldn’t see three feet in any direction. At age eight, Henry realized that death might be a thing that could happen to him.

By the time the Coast Guard showed up and dragged him into the cutter, he was too cold to care. While he thawed under a pile of blankets and his labored breathing eased, his drunk dad slugged a Coastie and shouted, “You’ll never get away with this! I’ve got friends in high places!” They tightened his dad’s handcuffs and left him to the sleet on the open deck.


As a deep-throated creak rouses Henry from an uneasy sleep he catches a glimpse of his father and recalls his meager legacy—echoes of someone else’s wisdom. His father’s old-age refrain reaches him, “pneumonia’s an old man’s best friend,” and Henry struggles to rise from below, to gulp a mouthful of oxygen. But his chest squeezes tight and his breaths wane, turn to ripples, until the exhale from his nostrils scarcely moves the air. He lays spent, washed up.

Henry feels Marie’s soft lips on his forehead. He opens his eyes and drinks in one last look of her beautiful, wizened face as the tide recedes.


Marcy Dilworth is a recovering finance professional finally pursuing her love of writing. Her fiction is forthcoming or published in Typehouse Literary Magazine, Janus Literary, Blink Ink, and elsewhere. Oh, and she has a couple wonderful kids. You can follow her on Twitter @MarcyDilworth. 

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