"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Some things from below: Two stories by Philip Fracassi

Readers unfamiliar with "Sacculina" and "Altar" may prefer to read the below only after reading the stories.

*   *   *


    "We ain't paddlin' out of this, fellas. We ain't no way getting away from whatever the hell this is. It's like the ocean farted something wicked, and we're sitting right on her asshole."

Captain Ron, "Sacculina"

Jim Lowell lives at home with his dad, doing programming. Widower Henry, the dad, seems content to sleepwalk through the time he has left. Oldest son Jack, as "Sacculina" by Philip Fracassi (2017) begins, has returned home after six years in prison. These are three men who lost all connection to the vital heart life when they lost mother and wife.

Though none has ever had an interest in fishing, they decide to celebrate Jack's homecoming with a daylong fishing trip off the California coast.

*   *   *

Joined by Jack's boyhood friend Chris, the Lowell trio sets out on Captain Ron's twenty-foot fishing boat Not A Chance

     The captain let the boat idle, making the fumes and exhaust even worse than before, no longer whipped away behind them, but now settling over the deck like a pungent, poisonous gray cloud.

     "Well, okay, it's rough, yeah," he barked from the open standing shelter that housed him. "So, here's the deal, it's too rough to fish where I'd like, too rough for you boys, for sure. So, okay, there's a piece of real estate about another, oh, hour or so out."

     Jack and Chris shared a quick, wary glance. Another hour? Jim swallowed, lifted his shirt over his mouth and nose, tried not to think about his stomach.

     "Yeah, about an hour," he continued, as if they'd asked the question out loud. "But, but... it's deep. Real deep. More than six thousand meters if you can believe it. Cold and dark and still, well, more still than this. Lots of fish. Albacore, Yellowtail, maybe even Barracuda. That'd be a story for your friends, eh? So, that's my plan. Any objections?"

     They all looked at each other, stupid and sleepy and sea-sick. No one spoke. "Right," the captain said, pulling off his grimy cap to finger his bald pate, scratch at the long white hairs surrounding his wide dome like an encroaching serpent army, "that'll be that, then. On we go."

But their luck at the new location does not hold.

     They heard it first. Or, more accurately, felt it.

     A rumble of sorts. The kind of low, vibrating sound you'd get from a subwoofer. They all froze, glanced nervously at each other, at the boat, at the water.

     No more than fifty meters away, the waves went flat and there was a rippling in the water. A circle in the sea, the breadth of a football field, took shape.

     As they watched in fascination, the mammoth disc of restless water rose into several broad, sphere-like, but translucent, bubbles.

     "What the hell?" Jack said, but no one answered.

     The bubbles rose, some ten meters high at their peak, the bright sunshine glimmering along their surfaces in an oily rainbow dance.

     And then, one-by-one, they silently popped.

     The ocean returned to normal, the waves picked up, and a massive gust of sulfur swept over the boat, making Jim gag and hold a shirt over his mouth and nose again until the breeze carried it away.

     "Well, I'll shit," the captain said, and went back to his controls.

     "Maybe an underwater volcano," Henry offered, and took a bite from his sandwich.


I half-expected part of the sea floor to surface, dotted with altars and dagons. Alas, for Captain Ron and his passengers, Philip Fracassi has something more unpleasant in mind.

     When Henry screamed, Jim sprang across the boat to his father, who he saw, for a split second, was bent over the side, khaki ass in the air, only the toes of his white sneakers sticking to the grimy wet floor. As he continued screaming he flung himself backward, crashing onto his ass, his head bouncing off the edge of the red cooler.

     Jim landed on his knees next to him. "Dad!"

     One of Henry's hands was clutched into the opposing elbow of his windbreaker, hidden from sight. His eyes were squeezed shut, his glasses askew, his face bone pale.

     "Ah... Jesus..." he stammered, eyes remaining shut tight, his mouth contorted into a grimace.

     "Dad, what is it?" Jim said, gripping his father's shoulders, feeling their frailty beneath the blue jacket, almost wanting to pull them away, forget how much the old man had lost over the years.

     Jack and Chris stood over Jim. The captain yelled from the wheelhouse. "What the hell happened!"

     "Dad..." Jim said, and finally Henry opened his eyes. He looked up, his light blue eyes feverish, tearing with pain. He looked down at his folded arm, slowly pulled out his hand.

     Stuck to the side of it, as if they'd been growing there for months, were two jet-black, acorn-sized barnacles.

     "Jesus, Dad..."

     Jack bent down, grabbed Henry's forearm, studied the crustaceans. "What are these things?"

     Henry shook his head, then whined and shut his eyes once more. "I was reaching down, trying to grab one of them... off the boat... thought... water splashed up, a wave hit me, and there were... uh... something was in the water, like little jellyfish..." He screwed his eyes open, looked down at the crustaceans on his hand. "They're pulling my skin, Jack, they're eating my hand, I think."

     "Fuck that," Jack said, looking around the boat for something, anything. A knife, a weapon.

     Chris put his fingers on one of the crustaceans, tried to squeeze it. Henry screamed in pain.


     "Gotta pull it off, Mr. Lowell," he said, squeezing harder. "Fucking thing's like a rock."

     "We need fire," Jim said. "Like a tick. We'll burn it."

     "I don't think so." It was the captain, standing behind Jim now. "I have no idea how those things got on him. It's not possible, takes months for the things to secrete the shell like that. Weeks at the least..." He paused, his face a blank. He pushed the rim of his trucker cap up, scratched his forehead. "Ain't right." He looked hard at Henry, almost with suspicion, as if he were to blame for the oddity. "Ain't natural."

     "How do we get them off?" Jim asked, ignoring the captain's cryptic tone.

     "Well," he said, thinking, "I usually have to scrape 'em off the boat, or the pier, with a shovel. If they're on the engine, we, well, we use a jigsaw, yeah?" He positioned his hands as if he were holding a jigsaw, a similar position one might use to hold a machine gun. "But uh, here, well, that won't do."

     "No," Jack said, his voice contemptuous.

     "See, like I was saying earlier, they use cement, on their heads, like," the captain patted the top of his hat. "Then they secrete that shit that becomes a shell. But they don't just stick like that... takes months," he said, sounding more baffled than concerned. "If they stick to a whale, like I said, they pull the skin up, you know, like into themselves. That way," he paused, tugged at an ear, "that way they're harder to get off."

     Henry nodded. "I can feel it—oh god it hurts—I can feel them pulling my skin, they're tearing my hand up, boys! Get them off, please... Jack, get them off me."

     Jack nodded, turned to Chris. "Pull it."

     Jim felt the pinging bells of alarm in his head, but he said nothing. He watched his father's eyes go wide with terror.

     Chris pinched two strong fingers onto one of the barnacles. Henry's face flushed. "Wait..." he said.

     Chris pulled. Like one might pull a Band-Aid that had been superglued to your skin.

     The thing came off with a puckering squelch, and Henry threw his head back and screamed.

     Chris held the thing up, showing them. There were thin strips of flesh hanging from the base of it. From the crown, where it opened slightly, fiber-thin tentacles were wriggling, reaching. Just like the sea bass, Jim thought.

     "Get rid of it," Jack said, his voice steady.

     Chris tossed the thing over the side into the water.

     Henry, still screaming, kicking his feet, his body lying in a half-inch of dirty sea water, held his hand high into the air. They could all see the blood trickling down his arm, the quarter-sized hole left by the thing's removal—a wet, bright red fleshy wound that emptied blood down his arm and to the deck of the boat in trickling spurts.

     "Jesus..." the captain said, a hand over his mouth. "I'll get the first aid kit."

     Jim sat down, put his arm around his father. Henry collapsed into him, rested his head on Jim's thighs, all but weeping openly, his hand a bloody mess.

The barnacles from the deep, and more loathsome bottom-dwellers, quickly immobilize Not A Chance and begin turning it into a floating reef. And they do not stop there.

*   *   *

Fracassi is a sharp and economical stylist.  His depiction of a father and sons facing the last in a lifetime of crises is deftly told, not overdetermined with emotionalism. The three Lowells are just that cut off from themselves and each other. 


If "Sacculina" nips and tucks its emotions, Fracassi's "Altar" (2016) digs into fears and frustrations aplenty via family romance experienced by two boys. 

"Altar" takes place during one crowded summer hour at the public swimming pool. Gary accompanies Martha (his mom, but don't call her mom) and big sister Abby. Younger Tyler Lippon is forced by his mom to suffer the indignity of water wings. Neither boy knows the other, and neither interacts at the pool. Each has his own trial, faces his own mundane nemeses, and then Fracassi's anti-mundane Nemesis.

Like "Sacculina," "Altar" features an enemy erupting from below. But unlike "Sacculina," the danger is both physical and supernatural. After contending with bullies and rapists, Gary and Tyler each face a sucking hole that has cracked open the floor of the pool.

My thought as a reader, when the first crack appeared, was Is Fracassi really going to make this turn? And he does make it.

     Gary watched blankly as the funnel in the pool fell open into a black abyss. He saw the willowy underwater forms of two kids get simultaneously sucked through the dark drain of the whirlpool and disappear. He looked up at the lifeguard, who stood rigid, motionless, his mouth slack and open.

     What had only moments ago been slowly drawing children toward it, creating a whirlpool effect, had torn completely open, like someone had punched a hole in a bag of grain, emptying its contents in one great vacuous, volcanic downward expulsion.

     Gary could only look on in numb horror as a pretty blonde girl held tightly to the buoy-lined dividing rope. The rope—as old as the pool itself, Gary imagined—frayed, then snapped. The pretty girl yelled something to someone, a last torrent of words he could not hear, as she and the end of the rope vanished. The rest of the long rope quickly followed, the buoys slipping down into the funnel like a long centipede burrowing with naked speed through a hole into the earth.

     The air filled with the smell of thick, rancid sulfur, and Gary could not turn away as several more bodies struggling in the swirling water were simply sucked away. Down, down into nothing. 

     The waterline was getting noticeably lower. The opening was now the size of a small car. Gary heard horrible cries from around him and someone knocked him down. He hit his head on a step of the hard white metal pole that held the lifeguard stand aloft and a flash-bulb popped like a pistol-shot in his brain.

     Lying on the ground, he forced his eyes open. Blood from the cut in his forehead slid into one of his eyes, turning the world a blurry crimson as he tried to blink it away.

     A wave of nausea swept over him and it felt like some invisible force was squeezing down on his chest. His eyes rolled back into his head and he felt his body lift off the ground, rising into the air, higher and higher, shooting like an arrow into the sky. Or was he falling? The earth and the sky had switched places, and Gary wasn't sure which direction he was looking anymore. Up at the pool, now so very far away? Or down at the stormy, dark gray clouds, rushing up at him from below?

     He tried to tilt his perspective, look down at the pool. He saw it now as a bird would, the entire blue rectangle, a cancerous hungry sphincter wide and open in its middle, sucking everything down into it. He watched tiny bodies disappearing into the dark. In the next instant, the hole doubled in size, devouring everything within its reach, including Ted, who went down screaming.

     Gary continued to watch from high above and, as the mouth widened, his vision sharpened. He could see, miles below the surface, a large stone slab, rough and stained. The bodies of children were splattering against it, and crouched down in that darkness was a creature, a large black beast with stiff limbs, each long and bent but quick. The creature's elongated, twitching head danced atop its insect-like torso as it skittered from one end of the slab to the other, gathering the broken bodies of the children as fast as they were falling, enwrapping them, keeping them alive, keeping them for its own sake.

     Some of the bodies the thing caught before they struck, some he caught as pieces. Others, Gary felt sure, it was somehow pulling down from the surface, ethereal tentacles reaching miles upward to claim fragile souls.

     Gary's stomach lurched and bile roiled into the back of his throat. He felt cold rain on his skin and felt something shaking him savagely.

     He heard his name, "Gary!" and tried desperately to open his eyes, to focus.

     His mother's drawn face filled his vision, her expression a mask of terror and pain, madness. She clutched him to her, and he was limp in her hard, bony arms. Over her shoulder he could see the hole had doubled yet again, the waterline of the pool visibly lower as the water was swallowed, suctioned down and down into the earth. He watched as two more bodies slid away down the funnel. Some of the kids, those in the shallow end especially, were now standing on dry ground, their parents or the parents of other children holding them, clutching them tightly, lifting them out of the pool.

     Gary's mother pushed him to arm's-length, looked at his face.

     "My god, you're bleeding!"

     Before Gary could respond, she shook him, her eyes wide, her hair falling wildly. He noticed her suit had broken at the strap and one of her breasts was exposed. He wanted to be back in the sky.

     "Gary, where's Abby? Where's Abby?" his mother yelled, right into his face, shaking him again.

     Remembering his sister and the events that had transpired prior to this new madness, he turned and looked toward the locker rooms.

     Abby was walking toward them.

     Her dress was gone, but her suit was still intact. She was limping slightly, Gary noticed, and she had a large smear of blood on her leg and a cut on her face that leaked even more blood down her cheek and neck.

     "Abby!" Martha screamed. But Abby kept walking, calmly, her head held high. Gary thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. The rain spattered against her skin, the wind rippled her hair. She continued on straight, determined, taking no notice of her family or the chaos around her.

     She walked until she reached the pool. At the edge she paused, took in a deep breath. She looked downward into the maelstrom. Then, softly, she turned her head and looked right at Gary. Met his eyes.

     "Abby," he said.

     She smiled crookedly, and gave him the Wink. Then she jumped head-first into the pool.

     Gary heard Martha's scream but couldn't see if Abby had actually made it to the hole or just hit the bottom.

     He yanked himself free of his hysterical mother and, kneeling, looked down into the hole. Abby was gone.

     A few feet of water remained, and now many of the kids still moving around inside the basin had stopped, breathing heavily where they sat or stood, their parents yelling, beckoning.

     One younger boy dangling at the edge, who had been desperately holding on to his mother's hand, appeared to simply... let go. As the churning water carried him, he turned to face the hole as he slid toward it, and then he lifted his arms. Like a waterslide, Gary thought.

     The boy disappeared feet-first.

*   *   *

"Altar" is about half the length of "Sacculina," but its macabre focus is perhaps sharper. Both stories, dealing with an inexplicable eruption sundering already fraught family cohesion, may presage larger society-wide crises. 

Fracassi swerves from a larger canvas at the end of these novellas, but intimations suggest the worst is yet to come.


9 August 2022

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