Author / Speaker














Chapter Three
Cheeseheads





   The eight divers were from Green Bay, Wisconsin, men in their fifties, who, back when they had hair and incaution, were fraternity brothers. Given a choice Cedar preferred women divers, but diving, generally for the worse, remained a man’s sport. Women paid attention to what they were doing and listened to instructions. In ten years Cedar had never had a woman jump in without a weight belt or a mask. Over the same ten years she’d seen men do both, and far worse, on a daily basis. Men competed on every stage, and a dive boat captained by a woman elevated the chest bumping to near hysteria. Too, there were few more testosterone-addled arenas than diving, with all the gear and the manly song of the sea. Every man was a Navy Seal until he realized his wetsuit was on inside-out. The other dive boat operators made fun of their customers behind their backs. She did not. Let the one without ego cast the first stone. Still, men generally made her job harder, and this included stifling smiles.
   There were degrees to this testosterone tempest and the fraternity brothers fell on the tepid side. They clambered on board, toting the normal amount of gleaming, never-been-wet, state-of-the-art gear, and one of the men was so hung over the bags under his eyes resembled coagulated tomato soup. But they shouted Cheesehead at each other and made jokes at their own expense, and they stowed their gear neatly under the benches.
   Justin moved about the deck, passing a clipboard from man to man. Each man scrawled something before passing the clipboard back to her son.
  Her divers always signed their waivers at the dive shop before they boarded the Wendell Holmes. Perusing the waivers ahead of time allowed her to see the divers’ experience, although most men lied about that too.
   When her son passed close she said, “What’s going on, Justin?”
   Justin handed the clipboard to the next man.
  “They’re placing bets.”
   This man immediately made a quick notation.
   “Don’t need to be Stephen Hawking this time around,” he said, handing the clipboard back.
  “Bets on what?” Cedar asked.
   The next man resembed a chubby-cheeked cherub.
   “First to chum,” the cherub said. “We are from Wisconsin, not known for its seafaring types. Everyone tosses ten dollars into the pot; winner take all. My money’s on Alex,” he scanned the paper, “and, surprise, I’m not alone.” He consulted his watch. “In cases of an obvious front runner, we also bet on time.”    
    Turning, he smiled at the tomato-eyed man seated beside him.
   “Don’t let me down now, Alex. I’ve got you at seven-thirty, and I have two boys in college.” The cherub held out his watch for Alex to see. “That’s three minutes, in case you aren’t quite here in the present.”
   “I’d sooner swallow it down than see you win,” said Alex.
   “If you aspirate yourself can I have your dive knife?”
   “Fudge you,” said Alex and Cedar liked him instantly. They were just words and her son knew them all, but still.
   Justin stood, embarrassed, before Alex.
   “It’s okay,” Alex said. Taking the clipboard with a shaky hand, he wrote his name in big block letters. “Always believe in yourself, young man.” He gave the cherub a waxy smile. “Seven thirty-one, loser.”
   They were tied to the dock, the engines slowly throttling. On a breezeless tropical morning the diesel fumes had nowhere to go.
   A passing skiff set the Wendell Holmes rocking.
   Cedar saw Alex go grayer.    
   “Give me the clipboard, quick,” said the man on his other side.
   “Up yours, legal beagle,” said Alex.
   Thrusting the clipboard into Justin’s hands, he turned and puked over the side. The water made his voice echo slightly.
   “Wendell Holmes,” he said. “I hope it’s the poet. Lawyers make me sick.”
     
   


   Today the South Pacific was smooth as glass. The Wendell Holmes skimmed across the surface like a skipping stone. Cedar was happy for the Wendell Holmes and Alex.
     In calm seas it took forty minutes to get from Koror harbor to Long Drop-Off Reef. They could make the trip faster, but she had Ernan hold the throttle back. The price of gas kept going up as fast as Santy, the fuel dock owner, could add.
   Usually Cedar joined Ernan up on the bridge for the first half of the trip. When Long Drop-Off was about fifteen minutes away, she would come down the ladder to hobnob with the divers. Conversation helped calm the nervous ones. If Justin didn’t have schoolwork, she had him visit with the divers while she was up on the bridge. He was already better with people than she was. He was genuinely curious about everything and he had his father’s charm. Sometimes her son’s ease with strangers amazed her.
   She backed down the ladder carrying a Tupperware container and a photo album. The brownies provided a jolt of energy; the album provided a test.
   Alex ignored the brownies, but not the album.
   He looked much better after thirty minutes of fresh air.  
   “What’s that there?” he asked.
    His inquisitiveness made her smile. It would be a black day when curiosity died.
   “No peeking at the photos,” she said.  
   “She might let you see them if you weren’t breathin’ three week old garbage,” cherub cheeks said.
   “Even those breathing fresh-baked brownies don’t get to see the photos until after the dive,” said Cedar, placing the album on the camera table.
  “She didn’t even let Heidi Klum see it,” said Justin.
   This called the fraternity to order.
   “Heidi Klum was on this boat?”
   A man in too short shorts moaned.
    “Gaaaawd almighty. She’s probably the only person in the world who looks good in a wetsuit. Got shots of Miss Klum in there?”
   “I run a dive boat, not a modeling agency.”
   “Cruel fate to miss her,” said the man in the shorts.
    “She could have signed your belly, Arve,” said Alex. “After she wrote out the Declaration of Independence.”
   “I’d bet she’d rather sign my belly than watch you puke.”
   “You already lost one bet today,” said Alex.
    Cedar said, “All you need to know about Heidi Klum is she had excellent buoyancy control and she paid close attention to the dive master. Help yourself to the brownies.”
  “We can’t see the photos?” asked Alex. “Just so we know what’s down there?”
   Most dive boats showed their divers photos of what they might see. Cedar eschewed standard procedure. She wanted her divers to feel the first shock of loveliness in the world where it belonged. Almost always, though, there was someone who tried to steal a look at the photos. This little game let her know who might require closer shepherding below the surface.
     Ernan cut the engine. Suddenly everyone’s voice sounded louder.
    Arve rubbed his belly as if it might bring him luck.
   “We need to know what we’re gonna see,” he pleaded.  
    “If I knew what we were going to see, I’d show it to you,” said Cedar.
     She nodded to the unopened water bottle in Alex’s hand.  I should have stayed below and watched him, made sure he was drinking on the way out.
   “Drink that bottle. Dehydration increases the risk of decompression illness, and you’ve lost some fluids.”
   “Alex Steiner performs the stomach serenade,” said Arve.
   Ernan maneuvered the Wendell Holmes up on the mooring buoy. Ernan was the best captain she had ever had. He was only twenty-two by his own best guess, but as a street orphan in Manila, he had grown up fast. What he lacked in a birth certificate he made up for with street sense and mechanical ability. It was as if he had been born inside an engine. Personable when he had to be, he preferred to keep to himself. He only left the bridge to do work down below.
   Sprawled flat across the bow, Justin reached out with the gaffe and hooked the mooring line.
   Cedar turned to Alex.
  “You know what to do if you feel like you’re going to be sick underwater?”  
  “Puke in Arve’s alternate air source?”
  It was a shallow dive. Cedar was willing to put up with a little joking. But she put on her serious face because bad things happened in shallow water too.   
  “If you’re going to be sick, keep the regulator in your mouth. Everything goes straight out through the exhalation valve. You might want to make sure the first breath after you get sick is a light one, just in case there’s some small semblance of leftovers.” She lowered her voice. “And you don’t have to dive at all if you don’t feel up to it.”
   “I prefer to puke where it’s cool,” Alex said.
   His tone was deferential. His eyes still bled, but his hands ably checked his gear.
   “Fair enough,” she said. “It won’t get wasted down there.”
   She looked at the other men. Their faces were sufficiently sober.
   She knew the spiel by heart, like a David Bowie song, but she made sure she never sounded rote.
  “Listen closely, please. It’s an easy dive. We don’t go any deeper than forty feet because that’s the top of the reef. We’ll stay pretty much right under the boat since that’s where the cages are. But you still need to keep a close eye on your gauges. When you get to 700 psi, signal me and head up. There’s almost no current right now, but that can change, so everyone goes up the mooring line. No exceptions. And I still want a safety stop, three minutes at twenty feet. As for the magic while we’re down there, wait for my okay sign before you handle them. Once I give you the okay, please be very gentle. They’ve made an ascent that would kill us and they’ve existed longer than we can imagine, but they’re still fragile. Handle with loving care.”
   “Honeymoon night,” someone said.
   “This will be better,” Cedar said.
   She smiled, but she meant it. The sight of Earth’s prehistoric past always filled her with joy and hope. A timeline unbroken.
   But there was something else too and she felt it again as she stood, geared up, on the swim step. It was a feeling less in the heart and more down the spine, a buzz so faint she could almost discount it, a whisper from the end of a dark hallway.
   The hiss of primal warning.
   She didn’t go in afraid. But she always went in aware.
   Pressing her mask to her face, she jumped.  




   I know what happens on the boat. If I may be immodest for a moment, the interminable years have allowed me to develop skill sets beyond the pall. What was once impossible first become possible with tremendous effort, then a bit of concentration, and finally it is something I can do in my sleep, although I don’t sleep. The best explanation I can think of is this. Imagine yourself standing in a dark room without distraction. Through the wall, you hear conversation. Some words reach your ears as a mumble, but you decipher the words that matter. And words, they are character. Sometimes they are actions. Standing in that dark room, with practice you can paint a crystal clear picture of what is transpiring on the other side. I still get things wrong, but not very often. These days, more often than not, you might as well be shouting inside my head. It is not a one way street either.
    My skills are not confined to your species, but your species is far and away the most challenging and fascinating to decipher. Roaches, as you might suspect, have elemental motives. I can predict their actions as you can predict the sunrise. But man… well, what a trunk of tricks and sleights of hand you are. I place my ear against your proverbial door as often as I can. It is entertaining, enlightening, and sometimes quite moving. It can also be terrifying. There are things far worse than monsters in the deeps.
   You might call it clairvoyant or telepathic. I prefer a simpler explanation. I see behind the curtain.
   I hear each diver’s plunge, raindrops evenly spaced. She enters first so that she may watch the others. She falls lightly and breathes easily. The boy is last. Despite his youth, he is already more finely attuned than his mother. He is a rare find. Every time he enters the water, I feel a surge of hope.
   I stay well out of sight, but I remain close enough. I trust the woman and the boy, but if the years teach you one thing, it’s not to assume anything. As I said, of all Earth’s species yours is the least predictable. Hunger nudges me too, but I control myself. Survival is about control. Taking only what you need.
  As they play atop the reef, I drift just beneath the swath of gloaming light.
 Below me it is black. I do not look down.  
Monsters don’t like darkness. Darkness is just as lonely for us.





   After the dive, everyone was quiet. The fraternity brothers sat apart in the sunshine with their thoughts.
  This was the part Cedar relished. It made her believe in mankind again.