The Sea and the Small Boy
Author of My Name Is Aram, My Heart’s in the Highlands, The Human Comedy, and The Bicycle Rider in Beyerly Hills, WILLIAM SAROYAN has been writing since he was thirteen years old and has published more than thirty books plays. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1939 for The Time of Your Life but refused the $1000 because he “already had $1000 at that time, and because commerce has no right to patronize art.”He accepted the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the same play. “because there was no money invoiced, and because I knew some of the critics and wanted to meet the others at the free dinner. He lives in Malibu, California.
by WILLIAM SAROYAN
FROM inside the nouse I noticed the sea, and it made me glad. It made me so glad I left the inside and went outside, to the front porch. From the porch I went to the back stairway, then down the steps, one at a time. At length I came to the last step, and then to the sand.
Upon the sand I went to the edge of the sea, to the black rock there which is directly, or almost directly, in front of the house.
I climbed the black rock, which is about three times the size of a big car. The sea gulls hovered above the rock waiting for me to get down, so they could alight there again. I looked first at the sea, and then back at the house, not more than thirty yards from the rock. This is the life, I thought. Then I got down, the sea gulls alighted again, and I went back up the stairs.
When I got to the top of the stairs I heard a small voice say, “Oh, man.
I looked across the properly line of this house, and there on the front porch of the neighbor’s house I saw a small boy, a boy not yet two years old.
He came quickly to the edge of the porch and began to climb the fence around it, put there for his protection by his father.
“Oh, man,’he said again.
Now, this is the point: the sea made me glad, and so did the small boy.
I stood in the living room, feeling this gladness. Who wants to write? I thought. What’s more, who wants to read?
I opened a book on my desk to see if I wanted to. I read about half a page of a book I seem to have written. It happened to be there. I would have been just as willing to read half a page of a book somebody else had happened to write if the book had happened to be there, but my own book had happened to be there. I read, “Why does a man smile all his life? Why is he forever smiling and looking to be smiled at?”
I considered this, and then said, “I don’t know. Why?”
I closed the book and let it go at that. I felt glad about having asked those questions, though.
“Oh, man,” I heard the boy say again.
I went to the window to make sure I had heard him again, to see if he was still there on the fence, He was. And I had heard him again.
Well, should I go out and try to talk to him? He doesn’t know more than six words. Should I go out?
I had been up since daybreak because at the sea you get up at daybreak. I had been glad from the crack of dawn to the fall of night, about two hours ago. It’s night now, and while I don’t mind saying I’m still glad, I want to know what good is it?
Here was a whole day of gladness, from six in the morning to six in the evening, and what came of it ? What art came of it, for instance?
Early in the afternoon when I went upstairs to the garden, I saw that the gopher had moved from the tomatoes to the eggplants. I moved away the freshly pushed-up earth, enlarged the hole, set the trap, slipped it down into the hole, put grass over the top of the hole, and then looked at what I had growing in the garden.
I’ve got a sloping garden in front of the house. I’ve got a few feet of topsoil there, washed down from the hill across the road, about fifteen by fifteen feet of it. A month ago I cleared this garden of weeds, dug and turned the earth, threw out the rocks; and I went to a Japanese nursery and bought a dozen each of tomato, bell pepper, and eggplant plants, thirty-five cents a dozen. I planted these plants, most of them took hold, one each of the eggplants and the bell peppers died, but the rest of the plants took hold, and then the gopher showed up, a little to one side of one of the tomato plants. I went to the hardware store on the highway and bought a gopher trap for half a dollar. I set it and put it in the gopher hole. When I went back a couple of hours later the trap was sprung but the gopher wasn’t in it. Well, this afternoon I tried again. What happened? The trap got sprung, but the gopher wasn’t in it again. I admire that, just as I admire the weeds that, are lighting back in the garden.
I’ve no idea how the gopher’s going to make out, whether the trap’s going to get him, or whet her he’s going to go somewhere else to be an admirable pest.
At any rate, I looked at what I had in the garden.
I tried to imagine the red ripe tomatoes on the tomato plants. It wasn’t difficult. I imagined them very red, very ripe, very large, and I imagined eating them straight from the planl, with a little salt, it was great. If I never get one little tomato from any of the plants I’ve planted, imagining this afternoon that I got very red, ripe, and large ones, and ate them, will be enough for me.
I looked at the small tree I found growing among the weeds. Seeing this bravo little tree, an apricot most likely, also made me glad. I had put a stick into the earth beside it, and I had tied the tree to the stick, so that it would grow straight and strong and put forth all kinds of fine freckled apricots. That, won’t be for three years, most likely, but you’ve got to give an apricot tree a break the minute you notice it needs one.
I did a little imagining about apricots too: they tasted fine. Apricots do taste fine, but finer than ever when you get them off your own tree that you didn’t even go to the trouble of planting, that you happened to find while you were clearing your land of weeds. (I see no harm in calling it land. If it were 640 acres, the principle would be the same — 640 acres is a section of land. That’s a little too much for a writer, I think. Certainly too much if he expects to do all the work himself.)
AFTER the apricot imagining, I went back into the house. There wasn’t anywhere else to go. I put coffee into a cup, drank it, and smoked a cigarette.
If my teeth were good, I thought, I’d be in pretty good shape for a writer my age, but my teeth are shot. Well, you can’t have everything. I’m still glad of course, but I wish to God I hadn’t remembered my teeth. It began when I was nine or ten or eleven. They began to go, I mean. The dentists began to fall on them. I still have most of them, but what’s the use kidding, they’re shot. I had to remember them because while I was drinking the coffee I couldn’t help feeling where the silver filling had come out of one of them two weeks ago. When it happened I made up my mind to go to a dentist the following day and have a new silver filling put in, but I haven’t done it yet. I don’t know a dentist around here. I understand there’s a Seventh Day Adventist dentist somewhere near-by, who is supposed to be pretty good, but I haven’t got his name and address, and I’m not sure that even if I had it I would hurry over and have him go to work. I’m afraid to hurry over because I know he’s going to take a look at my teeth and tell me there’s a lot of work to be done if I’m not going to lose them. (What business is it of his? He’s always telling me that.)
Now, I go back to my desk to see if I want to put it. in order. I find that I don’t. It’s not that it’s too much trouble, it’s just that it doesn’t do a writer any good to get his desk in order. It doesn’t help. After he gets it in order, if he’s going to write, he’s still got to write. Getting his desk in order doesn’t get any writing done.
I notice six very small pieces of green glass on my desk. My daughter gathered them from the sea instead of pebbles or shells. A green bottle had gotten itself broken and the sea had washed up some of its pieces and my daughter had found them and had brought them home. That was three weeks ago. Every weekend when she comes back she says, “Where’s my greenies?” I show them to her. She takes them and examines each of them very carefully. Remembering her examining them made me glad, too.
The mail — is anything more important, to a writer? At last the little roadster of the mailman stops at the box at the edge of the garden, and after a moment I bring a bundle of stuff to my desk. A book by a friend of mine, sent with the compliments of his publisher. A book by a South African writer, sent by the publisher. Two sets of proofs of a story, one to revise and return, the other to send to England. Something with foreign stamps. The stamps say Ceskoslovensko.
There is no money in the mail, but that’s all right. I once dreamed a fortune came to me in the mail. And then another time I dreamed that fame did. They were fine dreams, but terrible. They were depressing.
After the mail, I went up the front steps to the garage, got out the shovel, the rake, and the hoe, and went to work, planting seeds of various kinds, following the instructions on the back of each packet: watermelon, easaba, okra, zucchini. Pretty soon I’d have stuff growing all over the place, and I’d harvest the stuff, look at it, and eat it.
Working in a sloping garden isn’t easy, though.
You’ve got to be careful not to slip, and slide under the house, which is built on piling. After this work I went down the steps and began to walk on the beach. Now, the people who live in the houses on this beach, when they go for walks, wear shorts or swimming sails, which is sensible, but when I want to walk I don’t want to bother to change to shorts, so I go out the way I am. I pick up driftwood every time I go out because that’s all I burn in the fireplace. Picking it up and bringing it to the fireplace is good exercise, and besides I like the idea of burning fuel that I get for nothing. I gathered six or seven good pieces, and brought them home. On the way home I got an idea for a story. The Business Man on the Beach, hah hah.
During the walk my shoes got muddy, so I took them off and polished them, and then three other pairs: all the shoes I have.
And I went right on being glad: about the sea, the house, the piling on which it is built, my shoes, the small boy next door, the driftwood, the fire, my daughter’s greemes, the garden, and the gopher.
I sat down on the sofa to read the afternoon paper and noticed my son’s sandy footprint on the black leather, from yesterday. Seeing it made me feel lonely for a moment, but only for a moment, and then I was glad again. It was a fine footprint. It was where it didn’t belong, but I was glad he had put it there just the same. I read the afternoon paper, and then it was time for supper. This was a pot of tea, French bread, and white cheese. A hue supper, the tea brisk and refreshing, the music over the radio excellent: piano and orchestra.
I was glad the whole day, and I still am, more or less, but what comes of gladness? If a writer isn’t sick, if he isn’t mad, if he isn’t in despair, what can he say? The things that I’ve been saying.”What good are they? What do they mean? Well, man, let’s not get any of this wrong. They don’t mean anything. But the small boy next door— you’ve got to admit that what he said means something.
I know he didn’t say it because he sensed I was glad. He said it because man is a glad animal and wants to share his gladness, wants to pass it along, and would do so long alter he’s two, if he could, if there were only some way to bring something good out of gladness, something half as good as what comes out of sadness or madness.