Sinking in Amsterdam

William Musgrove

Skinny brick homes with rounded roofs crowded the sides of the canal like fuel-less rockets. Shades of gray and blue blended in the sky. Over the intercom, the captain told his passengers Amsterdam was sinking. The old trading city, built on rotting wooden piles, would one day collapse.
          Henry looked out the tour boat’s fogged-up windows and imagined everything descending until there was only water. Across from him, a twenty-something woman in a denim jacket rubbed the back of a man swallowing over a paper bag. She caught Henry staring, so he pretended to read the safety instructions printed on the stern.

          A finger tapped his knee. “Where you from?” the woman said, brunette hair framing lean features so her face resembled a doorway.

          “The States.”

          “Us too.”

          “Your husband?”

          “Him?” she said, giving the now vomiting man a pat on the back. “He wishes.”

          The man, spitting into the paper bag, flipped his wrist upward as if saying hello.

          “I think you make a lovely couple.”

          The woman frowned, looking at the man, then back at Henry.

          “Where’s your special someone, matchmaker?” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. 

          “Suzan? She passed on a couple of weeks ago.”

          “I’m sorry. If you don’t mind me asking, how did she die?”

          “I prefer the term passed on. She had an aneurysm.”

          “Are you here to scatter her ashes?”

          “No, she’s buried. Though I don’t really care for that term either. Our daughter just graduated from college. This trip is a celebration. She’d want me to come still, you know. Suzan’s like that.”

          “Sounds like she was special.”

“         “She is.”

          Since Suzan’s passing, Henry spent most of his time sitting on park benches creating happy backstories for passersby. He’d find a sunny spot, unfold the day’s paper, and peek at people around the inky edges. A winded jogger had won countless marathons. Teenagers carving swear words into picnic tables were artists. A homeless man panhandling was a scientist conducting a social experiment on generosity. The can at his feet brimmed with bills.

          Now, Henry was far from home, doing the same.

          The tour boat crept up to a floating motorhome. Henry told himself the woman and man were pranksters. They feigned resentment to see if anyone could glimpse their true love underneath. Of course, Henry could.

          “Thousands of people live in houseboats along the canals,” the captain said over the intercom.

          “Wouldn’t it be fun bobbing up and down all day?” Henry said to the woman, causing the man to gag. “Once everything sank, you could just pull up anchor and sail away.”

          Inside the houseboat, a curtain slid back, and a tan man with hair like a dried dandelion stuck his head out. The man cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted: “This isn’t a zoo. Don’t stare into my home.”
          As the other passengers giggled and waved, Henry gave the man a second life. He grew up loving the ocean and worked as a diving instructor, where he made enough to live but not so much he forgot to dream. He married a woman whose imperfections made her beautiful and they had even more beautiful children. He started his own salvage diving business, unearthing sunken treasure after sunken treasure. The tan man, like a stage actor, relished the attention of gawking tourists. Once he slipped his head back inside, he’d say to his wife: “I sure gave them a good show, dear.”

          Henry smiled. A life safe from grief.

          The tour boat finished its trip around the canals and docked. Henry thanked the captain and departed. He strolled down a cobbled street, stopping at a cheese shop. He didn’t care for much beyond cheddar and mozzarella, but Suzan had pushed him to be more adventurous. Inside, he sampled Boerenkaas, Limburger, and Maasdam. When the woman behind the counter handed him each sliver skewered with a toothpick, he told himself she lived on a pristine country farm with cows and goats. She ate cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, never tiring of it. At an ancient church, with the taste of cheeses he didn’t like on his tongue, the sorrowful song ringing from the bell tower was about joy.

          “This country is full of beauty,” Henry whispered.

Before he left for the Netherlands, his daughter Penny had called him on the phone, sobbing. 

          “Don’t cry, honey,” Henry said.

          “She’s gone, Dad. You can’t keep acting like she’s not.”

          At the funeral, another term Henry didn’t care for, Penny yelled at him for telling knock-knock jokes, for refusing to look at the casket. When she finished, Henry shrugged, not knowing what else to do.

          “She’s not really gone. Ready for our big trip to Europe?”

          “I already told you I’m not going. Mom’s dead.”

          “Passed on, and she’d want us to go, to enjoy ourselves. You know your mother. She isn’t happy unless everyone around her is happy.” 

          “It’s okay to be sad, Mom would understand. You don’t have to go.”

          “I love you,” Henry said, then hung up.

          The next day he waited inside an airport. All the jet-lagged travelers were on their way to a dream vacation. He was on his way to a land of such history, the people there could live forever. He got on a plane and flew away.
          Henry walked toward Dam Square. When he reached the giant stone monolith at its center, he noticed the tan man from the houseboat sipping a beer alone outside a bar.

          Henry circled the square and circled it again, his head tilted toward the man, getting closer with each rotation. He wanted to ask him about the loot-lined ocean floor, about the riches he’d unearthed. He wanted to know how to submerge oneself into oneself and still be able to come up for air. Eventually, he passed within inches of the man, turned, and took a seat next to him.

          “What’s the most remarkable thing you’ve found?” Henry said.


          “While salvage diving, what’s the most remarkable thing you’ve found?”

          “What are you on about?”

          “Your business. How you afford to live on the water.”

          “I’m no salvage diver, bud.”

          “You are. You save things, make them alive again.”

          “Man, I hate you, tourists. You come here and get all hopped up. Screw off.”

The man headed for the bar, leaving Henry to confront reality. 

          The dam inside him cracked and crumbled. He was sinking. I never knew him, Henry thought, flailing his arms and kicking his legs in the hope of staying above the surface. He saw the pigeon shit on the statues and monuments, the cracks in the concrete. A couple argued next to the bike rack, kids complained to their parents. Henry’s head dipped. Bubbles tumbled upward from his lips. He’d been treading water for so long, but his grieving limbs were tired. He was going under, he was drowning.

          “Oh god, she’s dead.”

With Amsterdam still standing, Henry dropped his face into his hands and wept.

Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in trampset, Rejection Letters, Versification, Unstamatic, (mac)ro(mic), Ghost Parachute, Tiny Molecules, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021