Once Upon a Time

by Ron Gorence

It was dusk, and the computer screen glared brightly in the dim room. The monitor was blank except for rows of dots and a few words at the bottom, scrolling across the page:

". . . carefully steering due North, the wind and current set was Westerly; drift, three knots. All courses need adjustment . . . ."

The periods chased the words across the page making them disappear one at a time at the right margin and reappear on a next line. Conny Shawn's grey head was resting on his right forearm on the desk. He snored gently. His left thumb had pushed up his bifocals until they reflected the bright light back into the screen, and the little finger of his left hand rested on the Del key and tirelessly transmitted decimal points.

He was dreaming in the way that only old men can dream: slowly and carefully choosing images from the past and processing the scenes at the speed of light. Children dream of flying above the earth or of being chased by monsters, but old men have already flown to the limits of their ability, and monsters are just old memories, easily suppressed.

Sara's waist was still so small that he could touch his index fingers together in the small of his wife's back, and nearly touch his thumbs in front. Then, like in a movie, the scene changed: Sean Connery was pouring red wine into a crystal goblet held by a dark-haired child, when an older Sara appeared and yanked the glass from the boy's hand saying, "What are you doing? You know you're not allowed grown-up drinks!" She was scowling at both of them.

Sean protested, "It's only a sip; it's good for his blood."

But the lady's face changed and she suddenly floated up to the sky and dangled a can of beer, held in sharp claws, just in front of the pursuing child, "You can't touch it until you're twenty-one." She cackled with glee as the boy fell to his knees and sobbed, and she turned into naked Eve, eating an apple.

The front door slammed shut, and Conny snorted. He moved slightly, but did not come fully awake until he heard the business-like clicking of his daughter-in-law's heels on the hardwood floor. He straightened his glasses, brushed back his hair instinctively, and tried to act as though he had been wide awake. He heard her go straight into the kitchen, and heard the refrigerator door close.

"Dad? Why's everything so dark in here?" She burst into the den, flicking light switches, and collecting beer cans.

He clicked his mouse and reduced the dotted screen, "Hi Lee. Just gabin' with the guys; don't need to waste electricity for that." He was on his feet now. "Want some coffee or something?"

She stood facing him with her hands on her hips, "Sara called me, and said you'd been on the phone-line all day. Couldn't get ahold of you. I told her I'd stop by and tell you she's working late, so she'll meet us all at Tio's at seven." She turned away and started dumping pipe ashes into the trash can. "You fell asleep on the internet again didn't you?"

Before he could answer, her son charged in through the front door. "Yo gramps, got any Coke?" Danny headed straight for the refrigerator, and then came into the den, put his head on Conny's belly, and gave him a hug.

"Hey birthday-boy, let me see if you've got any grey hair like me."

"I'm only ten, grandpa." He shoved Conny gently back onto the sofa next to the computer desk, crawled up on his lap, and poked a forefinger into Conny's stomach, "Kids don't have fat bellies and grey hair. Can I print my Virtua Fighter moves on your computer?"

"I'll print 'em for you later," Conny called after him, as Lee grabbed Danny's hand and left as quickly as she'd come in.

A round of drinks came after they'd eaten the birthday dinner that evening, and Conny's son, Dave, talked to his business partner about golf clubs, the ladies chatted about food and sensible diets, and Danny played his video game until the waiters gathered to sing Happy Birthday. Conny sang along, but was soon back to swirling his beer around and thinking that the women ought to take up golf, so they wouldn't have to memorize carbohydrate contents. . . and if the men counted calories, they wouldn't have to waste time looking for the balls they'd just banged with a stick. Finally, Sara jabbed Conny in the ribs, and the waiter put the bill in his outstretched hand.

When all the requisite protestations over the bill had been deflated, Dave's partner, Bud Something-or-Other, who'd called his grandson Denny instead of Danny all night, gestured across the table to Conny, "So what do you do Mr. Shawn?"

Sara was much quicker with words, so she answered for him, "He watches that Stock Market channel all day, and talks to his internet pen-pals. He's retired." One of Conny's black brows lifted slightly, but he had no chance to say anything because all around the table erupted comments about the price of Dell and Cisco stock, profits at Amazon, and sure-thing IPOs. His eyes happened to meet Danny's gaze and he winked. Danny winked back.

Bud said to the group in general, "I wish I had time to play the market. I think I could make some real money." They all nodded in apparent agreement.

Conny tilted his head downward, lifted both brows and his shoulders in unison, but when he opened his mouth, Bud continued, "Be careful on the internet. Lot of perverts and scammers out there, looking for old folks to take advantage of." Danny was still watching his eyes, so Conny just smiled at the condescending advice. Like the ones who'd sold this guy a Beemer commensurate with his position?

"No," defended Sara. "His only buddies on the web are a bunch of old submarine sailors reliving the past. And he does good with his stocks - he loses a lot - but we always seem to come out ahead." But I keep my stupid job, just in case, she didn't say.

"Submarines? You were on submarines? I don't think I could handle that," said Bud.

Everyone nodded, and Dave said, "Next time we're at the Nineteenth, I'll tell you all about it. I've heard war stories since I was a kid. A thousand tons of Japanese ships sunk."

Turning toward his dad, he asked, "Was it a thousand, or a hundred-thousand tons, Dad?" And without waiting for an answer, "Did some pretty hairy stuff before the big bomb ended it all."

Conny frowned, but saw little Danny frowning harder, so he simply said, "Wasn't in the War, son. I rode the boats in the fifties." He knew it had been his own fault, and he remembered with regret that every time a young Dave had asked something simple like which ocean is the biggest, Conny had droned on with a geography lesson. The kid had learned early-on how to avoid lectures.

"Boats, Ships. . . whatever," shrugged Dave as the conversation lost momentum. "Enough about the good old days, Cheers to the Birthday Boy."

On the way home, Danny nuzzled his head under Conny's arm and said, "How come they're mean to you, and never let you talk, Grandpa?"

"They're not mean. They're just bored with old, old stories." He squeezed his grandson.

"Well, you never told me about submarines. I wouldn't get bored."

When the van pulled up in front of Sara and Conny's house, Conny squeezed Danny, and promised, "I'll tell you all about my adventures someday."

When they were in the house, Conny told Sara that he needed to update his core portfolio and print some game rules for Danny; he'd come along to bed shortly. Actually, he intended to sit down and write a few lines for his grandson as he'd promised.

He booted up the computer, and stared at the screen. Conny opened his word-processor and tried to think of something to write - without introducing a ten-year-old to sex and booze. The best years of my life, and I can't share them with a kid who loves me. Thoughts raced through his brain, but none reached his fingers. Nursery rhymes and fairy tales begin with, "Once upon a time . . . ." it was an old Submarine saying, ". . . but sea-stories begin, "This Is No Shit . . ." TINS. . .

Everything Conny could remember was in the TINS category, so he forced himself to type, "Once upon a time, there was a handsome young lad from San Diego . . ." He left the words on the screen, curser flashing, while he got a beer from the fridge; he drank a few more and gawked at the curser.

Finally, Conny decided to log on, skim his favorite submarine-site for a couple of TINS to relay to the printer, and go to bed. Tomorrow would be soon enough to see if anything came out that was appropriate for Danny to read.

The screen saver brought up an American Flag waving over New York, and as he turned out the lights, the printer whined and hummed. Leaves of paper floated down and scattered around the desk.

The expandable file was open to QUOTATIONS. . .

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the LORD, and HIS wonders of the deep. (Psalms 107:23-24)

Punching holes in the ocean . . . . Seduced by saltwater . . . . Deadly cold anger of the North Atlantic . . . . (Web AB: Armstrong-Hemming)

Same thing, just needs a little sorting, Conny thought, as he stapled a few sets of printed pages together and put them under

"Danny's stuff - Later - Teen yrs."