On my way out of Key West, I stopped and picked up a few groceries. It took a while to decide what to buy. So many small decisions had to be arrived at on dry land. There were complexities here that did not intrude when I sailed alone in deepwater. Out on the ocean, life was supercharged with simplicity and consequences.
Now the boat was tied to a concrete pier at the shoreline of a trailer park on Stock Island, north of Key West. Turkey buzzards and black vultures continually circled Stock Island. Doubtless somewhere in the mangrove jungle, among the wrecked cars and nautical flotsam, something dead or dying could always be located.
I slept all night and part of the next day, woke up with more choices chasing me.
I lay supine and stretched full length, waiting for a feeling that the time was right to sit up straight. When it came, I waited for the instant to stand. Each choice seemed crucial to the moment. The greater my desire to act, the more anxious I became, the more time elapsed before a moment of decision arrived. Sailing alone in deepwater, safety and certitude were a function of patience, always waiting beneath a clutter of memories and imagined outcomes, doubts of myself, and fear of the ocean.
Without the wind and sea conditions to compel me, without a destination to navigate for, my purpose seemed vague. The meaning and significance of each breath and heartbeat crowded reality. All coincidence demanded interpretation. Either everything mattered completely, or nothing much mattered at all. I couldn’t make up my mind.
Five days had passed since I left Mobile, Alabama, to sail the Gulf of Mexico; 24 hours had gone since I landed in the Florida Keys. Everything that had happened offshore seemed to crowd around like an audience waiting for the show to conclude. I sat under the skylight of the boat’s main saloon and stared at my battered hands and ragged fingernails. I was both apprehensive and drawn to the spiritual intensity of another deepwater passage.
The boat wanted a list of repairs and preparations for getting underway again. My body felt strong, rested, ready to go.
I waited to know what to do next.
“Sit here,” said the voice.
Finally, I asked, “How long do you want me to sit?”
“All day, if I say so.”
The domineering tone triggered resistance.
I determined to stay put, but a desire came over me: if I could hear the Voice, I wanted to see the Face, presuming, that if God were speaking to me, and I was not insane—which I dreaded could be the case—at any rate, if I was important enough to speak to, my asking for visual confirmation might not be out of line. All I wanted was a glimpse.
Nerves dancing with anticipation, I climbed off the boat.
A dusty coquina road led away from the dock, following the coastline of the island. Here and there, in a sun-blistered poverty of shade, cheap houses and house trailers hunkered on swatches of waterside real estate. In the side yard of one, a wooden picnic table had been turned on edge so as to dry quickly after it rained. Behind it was a brilliant light.
It was ten or fifteen yards away. It emerged into my consciousness. I did not see the light come on. I was not surprised by it, nor was I drawn to move closer to it. My sense was that the picnic table shielded me from seeing something that I was not ready, or equipped to absorb, or understand, something terrible. A streak of fear shot from my throat to my groin. I could not have been more terrified if I had seen my own corpse.
I walked quickly past. In my peripheral vision, along the up-turned edge of the picnic table, a halo persisted.
I felt shame for not having the courage to face God. It seemed frivolous of me to have desired a glimpse.
But as soon as the terror subsided, I wanted more than a halo.
I looked at the sky, and there were buzzards above me.
The coquina road turned away from the waterfront, entering the shade of the mangroves. The house trailers were sheet metal insects surrounded with yard art: cement Hummels and plastic flamingos. How could anyone expect to see the face of God here?
I went along kicking rocks, dejectedly.
Internally, I heard my own voice clearly state, “Look down.”
In the road at my feet lay a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can, crushed flat.
In the colors of the can, in the dusty, flattened, shiny aluminum, there was the astonishing face of God.
Then I looked up, where dangled the cream-pink flowers of an orchid tree.
High above, I saw buzzards in flight, as graceful as angels.
Everywhere I looked was what I was looking for.