Voice on the Water

Fiction
Louis M. Abbey


“How can you say you’d like one? You don’t know anything about boats,” I said. My father sat on a kitchen chair, a Time magazine on his lap.

“Don’t know exactly, but I feel it,” he answered, distracted. The Red Sox were on the radio. The commentator’s staccato monotone crackled over the hoarse breath of the crowd.

“Feel it. What do you mean by that, Dad?”

“I feel it, David, right here,” he punched the center of his stomach. “When Williams smacks a homer, he doesn’t feel contact, his gut just knows. Same as me about a boat, I know I’d love one—you would too, holding the wheel, wind in your hair, it just feels right, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know, Dad, I sometimes feel…”

“Hold on, Dave. Williams’s up, bases loaded, Detroit just changed pitchers. Listen to this.”

He upped the volume. “This one’s down the pipe,” the announcer’s voice rose. “And Williams swings, connects. It’s way out there, going, going, gone! There you have it, the Kid’s 17th career grand slam, and 4 more RBIs. You just can’t stop this guy and it’s only July.”

“Way to earn your salary, Kid!” Dad slapped the magazine in his lap. Then he picked up the can of beer beside the radio and took a long pull that bobbed his Adam’s apple. Wet rings intersected on the table. I smacked my left fist into my right palm and swung an imaginary bat.

“Pay for a bat, Dave. That’ll win it for ’em this year. Pay for every last homer. Highest salary in the majors.”

“Bet he could afford a boat,” I said.

“Sure he could. He’s over a hundred-thou-a-year now. It’ll be a million before you know it. A million bucks and you can do anything. A steady job’s all I ever wanted. Boy I could’ve used money like that before you were born. Look at this.” He turned the open magazine around, pointing to the picture.

It was a whiskey ad he’d shown me before. A Concordia Yawl in a stiff breeze, rail buried, sails bellied. A mustached skipper in blazer, white ducks and yachting cap grips the helm with one hand and holds a glass of Canadian Club in the other.

“That’s the life,” he said.

“Dad, it’s just an ad, maybe a fake boat. How can he stand there and drink whiskey in a wind like that?”

“It’s gonna happen, Dave—someday. We’ll work hard and get that boat. This cook job of mine, ‘chief cook and bottle washer,’ it’s all going to lead somewhere, I just know, right here.” He slapped his gut again.

I’d heard more than a few of his dreams in my fifteen years. He’d draw on his cigarette and with smoke-muffled voice, tell me about a deal he’d found on a new Ford. Next day he’d be on his back under the old car, making it last another year. He had a way of falling in love with his intentions.

“I know, you just feel it,” I said and drifted outside in the July afternoon.

*

The next summer, I was sixteen and took a job bussing trays at Shelter Point Inn (known locally as The Inn) on the Rhode Island shore, my first summer away from home. The shingled three-story ark crouched on a spit of land beside a saltwater pond separated from Block Island Sound by sand dunes. Behind The Inn, large cedar-shingled cottages looked out on our world from bayberry-covered hills keeping their own counsel. Narrow, rutted roads connected the houses to the paved road that snaked past The Inn and the yacht club next door.

At work in the dining room, I loitered beside the large windows to watch the local kids sail their Beetles, Blue Jays and Comets between the club’s harbor and the cobalt pond where, far out, they became gliding white triangles, without apparent guidance. In the late afternoon, I would stare, mesmerized by the liturgy of lowering, folding and reverently bagging the sails. On windless days, crews tipped boats up on their sides to wash, varnish, and paint the beautifully curved hulls to gleaming. It all looked so easy. An invisible pull from inside me winched tighter by the day. It wanted to draw me through the windows toward those boats. I didn’t understand it beyond the feeling that I belonged there on the clam flats at low tide.

Apparently the club’s member families sired more daughters than sons. So one day on the beach, the girls invited us “Inn-boys” to a Saturday-night club dance. Several of us went.

In my frayed oxford shirt and sunburn, I laughed and talked with feigned urbane confidence. I added nothing to the boarding school shoptalk and pre-race bravado. Scratchy songs tumbled from a portable stereo. I danced with Calley, a barefoot redhead in madras shorts and her father’s old shirt. She sang the words softly while gazing over my shoulder.

“Will you crew for me on my boat Sunday afternoon?” she whispered.

Whatever she said blended with the verse of the song and I didn’t answer.

“Well, David…will you?”

“Will I what? What did you say?”

“Will you crew for me on Sunday?” softly insistent.

“Yes!” voce robusto. Message received. Heads turned. She wouldn’t have been my pick, but it was a pass through the dining room windows. She said we could meet at the dock at noon, then broke away and trotted back to her friends. Noon was my work time.

Sunday morning I invented nausea and stomach cramps that made me unfit to work.

“Too damn much partying,” said the maitre d’.

“If you miss another day, you can kiss the job goodbye… and I better not catch you outside that dorm!” the manager shouted. The dining room crew lived in two eight-room shacks on stilts adjacent to a salt marsh behind The Inn. The girl’s shack was theoretically separated from the boy’s by the parking shed.

All morning I tried to ignore the off-duty bellhop, Dan, and Carol, a chambermaid, in the room next to mine. I studied a picture of a boat like Calley’s in a sailing book I’d found in one of the other rooms. Underneath the picture it said, Blue Jay—an open, thirteen-and-a-half-foot sailboat with main and jib sails, a centerboard and an outboard rudder. Terms ran together making amusing confusion. Another diagram explained step-by-step how to tie a bowline. Mental images of Dan and Carol interposed themselves between the drawings. My stomach twisted itself into a perfect square knot. The yacht club kids wore scuffed Sperry Topsiders. My wardrobe boasted Converse All-Stars, so I opted for bare feet. It was almost noon.

At 11:50 I tiptoed past Dan’s room. His deep voice penetrated the door, “We can both keep a secret, can’t we, skipper?”

“Sure thing, Dan,” I croaked over my shoulder, “Sure thing.”

A moment’s hesitation, then I slipped out the rear door and down an embankment to the salt marsh at low tide. Keeping below the bank I got well away from The Inn and crossed the road to the club out of the sight line from the dining room.

I bounced onto the dock and tiptoed between skippers and crew unbagging sails; surely someone would ask why I wasn’t at work. They joked loudly in a nautical vocabulary. I heard “…traveler amidships…” and “…jib fairlead…” and began to question my ability to take orders. Calley sat on the end of the dock, back toward me, tying a knot while one foot held her Blue Jay, Squall, against a piling. She hadn’t noticed me.

I stopped, frozen like a pilgrim, and stared. This first boat I would ever sail was my shrine, the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on. Dark-green hull, her cockpit flashed layers of whiskey-amber varnish. The heaven-pointed mast was square, not round like I thought it would be. I inhaled her light, oily perfume, mahogany mixed with the tarry pungency of marine hemp. Squall was a glass full of Canadian Club, and I had just downed the whole thing. I wouldn’t have cared if Calley had morphed into the maitre d’. It was irreversible. I was hooked, foolish, head-over-heels in love with a sailboat.

Calley looked up. “Don’t just stand there, Dave. Come aboard and bend on the main. I’ve got the jib.” She shoved a folded sail into my outstretched arms. That term, “bend,” searched for a match in my memory. A quick glance around at what others were doing suggested it involved attaching the mainsail to the mast and boom.

I fingered the surprisingly stiff sail fabric. All the activity around me shifted into slow motion. I discovered fasteners along one edge of the sail and fumbled them onto a track attached to the mast. Calley had already linked the jib to the forward mast support, mounted the rudder over the stern and adjusted the tiller.

“Watch it, Dave, you’re upside down,” she said, and grabbed the sail. She slipped fasteners onto the track from the other end so fast it made me realize I wasn’t deft with anything, especially on a sailboat.

“I’ll get the jib.” I lunged, nearly sprawling in some coils of line on the cockpit floor. The boat rocked violently,

“You don’t know much about this, do you?”

“Well, if I could just…”

“No, I mean really.” Calley said with a grin. “The main goes up first.” And with several hand-over-hands, she’d raised and cleated the mainsail.

I glanced up to the dock to deflect her amused frown, or perhaps for rescue. My raised eyes encountered scuffed Topsiders out of which sprouted tanned, hairy legs attached to a tall, square-jawed boy about my age, in wrinkled shirt and baggy shorts.

“Oh,” said Calley, “David, this is Bronson. He’s going to crew for me ’cause his crew went home this morning. Thanks for helping, though.”

I untangled my feet from the line and Bronson gave me a hand up on the dock.

“Looks like a nice one out there,” I said. “Good luck.” My sunburn heated up.

“Thanks for the help, man,” He grinned and grabbed my shoulder. Bronson’s grip molded my weakness into relief. Then he hopped aboard Squall.

I sprinted back to the salt marsh. On the slippery mud between grass hummocks a profound fever for sailboats spread through my body. It helped me shed my morning illness in time to work the evening meal.

I sailed a couple of times that summer, once as passenger and once as crew. At home, the beginning of September, I told my father about my sailing adventures and the Blue Jay, leaving out the Calley-Bronson affair.

We were in the kitchen. I grabbed a straight-backed chair and sat down, the portable fan blowing in my face.

“See, Dad, this is what it feels like sailing into the wind. The boat starts to tip, you lean back over the rail so far your head skims the water,” I leaned back over the chair seat into the breeze. My hair dragged the floor. In my throat, I made the soft gurgle the water makes against the hull. “That’s what it’s like, Dad.”

“They’re pretty small boats, you know, unstable, dangerous.” He always downplayed small boats. “You’ll never catch me in one.” He had the same old car and still planned to get a new one.

*

Over the next twenty years, I built models of sailboats, went to college and got married. My new wife, Gigi, and I actually went sailing together on a long weekend in Maine. We fought and argued through two hours on a rented boat, but when it was over, we were on the same side.

Boat fever flared again in the doldrums of Piedmont, Virginia, two hours from the ocean. A new job, new house, a year-old daughter, Molly, and we were ready for sailing. The nearest water was either class-ten rapids or a twenty-acre artificial lake with a forest of tree skeletons and submerged stumps.

That fall, for diversion, we took Molly to the “Virginia Boat Show” in Richmond. We’d agreed before we walked in that it might be time for a “small” sailboat, if we came across one.

I asked one of the dealers why there weren’t more sailboats.

“Let me tell you something,” he said, moving his hands together prayerfully. “On land, you want to go some place, you hop in the car and go. You look at water like it’s a liquid road. It’s that simple. And I can put you in the driver’s seat of a water vehicle you can drive anywhere you want to go at any point in time. Power, man, that’s it, power that’ll work for you.”

Our Volkswagen Beetle could never have towed the few Winnebagos with sails that we did see. We took a wrong turn looking for the exit and ended up beside another couple staring at a small booth. Meet the Mac Dinghy, the sign said.

She was all fiberglass and extruded aluminum, far from the wood of Calley’s Squall. She offered the penetrating odor of monomer and the “tink tink” of halyards on a metal mast, but she was in our price range. Ten feet long, dark-green topsides bonded to a fat white hull, she conjured up the image of a bathtub. Nevertheless, propped on Styrofoam blocks on a carpet of fake grass, she projected a cheerleader’s perky self-assurance.

I turned to Gigi and explained that the boat was probably too small for the baby and us. She floored me when she pronounced the Mac maybe a good place to start.

“Besides,” she said, “By the time you learn to sail her solo, Molly’ll be old enough to stay with someone on shore while you teach me.”

“Green topsides remind me of the hull on that Blue Jay I almost sailed in Rhode Island, remember?”

An impatient smile, a roll of her eyes—Gigi continued bouncing Molly, who acted like she wanted to nurse.

Eagerness stares a few seconds too long. The salesman, a stocky weathered guy in jeans and plaid shirt, was out of his deck chair and beside me before I could reconstruct my disinterest.

“Sealed, airtight compartments, she can’t sink. Hundred pounds all up. The name’s Roy Waller, what’s yours?” He slapped the Mac’s quarterdeck.

“Uh… David Becker,” I said, casting my eyes down toward his knees while I extended my right hand. Roy grabbed and pulled like I’d thrown him the end of a dock line.

He reached over and handed me the main halyard, “Try this, man, internal halyards. See how easy that main goes up.” He threaded the mainsail’s rope luff into a groove in the aluminum mast (no track and slides). The twisted tan halyard looked familiar but lacked the smell of marine hemp. I gripped the line and pulled. It felt oddly slippery so I suspected a Dupont pedigree. It did glide up easily.

After I’d snugged up the halyard, I worked the stiff Dacron sail fabric between my fingers. Roy tapped me on the shoulder. His right hand balanced the varnished mahogany dagger board on the floor in front of his scuffed Topsiders. I took it from him, pressed it to my nose and inhaled the perfume from Squall’s cockpit. The slick gel coat and bonded deck of the Mac began to blur. I thought, Could I just buy the dagger board? Gigi fussed with the front of her shirt in a seat off to the side of the booth.

A few more minutes and I was hooked. Molly slept in her mother’s arms. My helpless expression drew a resigned but genuine smile and a nod from Gigi. A little more negotiation, a down payment and I was set to pick up the Mac at Roy’s Newport News showroom in a week.

When we got home, we celebrated our new status in our customary way as parents of a one-year-old. The three of us, Molly in her high chair, sat around the table and dug into big bowls of Neapolitan ice cream.

“And have you thought about how we’re going to store our boat?” Gigi asked. I gazed out the window at our twenty-by-forty-foot back yard. Molly mashed her fingers in the vanilla and smeared it on her face. My parents would be visiting in a couple of days and could babysit while Gigi and I picked up the boat.

Two days later, at dinner, I poured wine and lifted my glass. “Dad, Mom, Gigi I want to raise a toast to our new sailboat. To a fair wind and prosperous voyages.”

Dad almost disappeared into the broad grin that took up half his face. He didn’t say anything memorable or unpredictable that evening, and Mom kept asking if we could afford it, and how we could sail it with the baby.

To fill in the time, Dad and I fashioned a rooftop carrier so we could bring the Mac home on the Volkswagen. She was only ten feet long. We sanded and varnished the wood frame and made secure fasteners to which we could attach rope to tie the boat on. We decided to mount the hull upside down. It was Dad’s idea to build in a special arm that would hold the mast on one side and the boom on the other. We finished. Dad ran his hand over the smooth frame surface. I could tell he was back between the covers of Time.

Pick-up day was a clear blue October Saturday. My mother was too tired to babysit. Gigi volunteered to stay behind with Mom and insisted I go with Dad to get the boat. I didn’t argue.

During the drive, we laughed and remembered the old baseball game afternoons and the whiskey ads. We found the yard. Disappointment surfaced briefly when they wheeled out our Mac with maroon topsides instead of dark green. Roy said he’d order green, but it might take a few months. Impatience ignited the check for the balance in my pocket. It would be maroon. Dad slid his hand over the deck and smiled. Roy rigged her and raised the sails. I couldn’t believe it, my first fully-equipped sailboat materialized. I just stared and Dad kept smiling and rubbing his hand along the gunwale. He was aboard that yawl.

Roy must have seen my preoccupation. He had me rig the boat again myself. My own arms lifted the twenty-pound mast, tightened the gooseneck, threaded the main rope luff into its groove, and hauled the halyard. I inhaled the varnished mahogany aroma rising from the dagger board. The final act was raising the jib with its sewn-in wire forestay, no romantic rake of bronze fasteners. I cleated the halyard correctly on the second try.

Roy Waller pocketed my check. Dad and I lifted the hull onto the rooftop rig. Roy stood back and shook his head.

“Sure glad I’ve got that check in my pocket,” he said.

She fit. We tied her down and took off heading back the long way, beside the York River. It was easier to stop in case something needed adjustment.

There was a light breeze. The late afternoon sun made everything stand out in sharp relief along the river. I turned into a car park within a few feet of the water to check the load. We got out and walked down to the narrow strip of sand. It was high tide. A quarter mile out from shore, a crabber gunned his growling diesel every few seconds moving from pot to pot, the only sound except for the occasional swish of a car.

Dad’s hair blew in the breeze, and he looked at me like we were living in one of those magazine ads. He glanced back at the boat on top of the car, then out at the water, then over at me again and caught my eye. We nodded without a word and dashed back up the bank. After what seemed a few seconds, a flurry of untying knots and pulling line, we had that dinghy in the shallows with the mast and boom rigged. Moments later her sails were up and I was fitting the kick-up rudder.

“Go on, get in,” he said and steadied the Mac. I banged my knee on the gunwale. There wasn’t space for him, and he muttered something about no damn room on these small boats anyway.

He shoved me off the sand. I floated free, sail luffing gently. I turned and looked back at him on the beach—bent at the waist, bracing his hands on his knees and grinning the way he encouraged his little kid to push plastic boats in the pond that formed in our backyard after rain. Then her sails bit the breeze, filled and I was on my way up and out into the river.

I turned quickly when I heard him shout. He’d rolled up his pants and waded into the water up to his knees, jumping and cheering, letting out whoops that rang off the nearby trees and slowed cars on the road. He yanked off his T-shirt, soaked it and whirled it around over his head, hollering at the same time. The Mac just perked along making a little gurgling sound where the lee hull met the water. I raised my hand and waved back, going fine, getting closer to the crabber who’d stopped to watch the whole scene.

A couple of minutes and I tried to come about. Dad still whooped every so often. I’d head the Mac up into the wind, luff, but she’d fall off. After my third try, an electronic announcer voice, like at a baseball game, blared from the water behind me, “Head up and keep that rudder to lee,” it said. “She’ll come around.” That’s all it ever said. I obeyed and she passed through the wind onto the opposite tack. The crabber gave me the horn when the Mac bit into her new wind. I waved at him, but kept my eye on dad, how small he’d gotten that far away, and how he looked whirling that wet shirt over his head, glistening in the low sun.
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“I am a retired Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology. I taught at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry in Richmond, VA for thirty-five years. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU and have published both fiction and poetry in literary journals such as Georgetown Review, Indiana Review, The Macguffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Literary Review, among others. I currently live and write in Revere, MA.”
E-mail: lncabbey2004[at]yahoo.com

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