I worked my way through this story in 2006-7, a few years after I lost my best friend, a year after my dad passed. I was a wreck. One of the first stories I wrote about our time sailing together, if obliquely referenced. Maine through the Cape Cod Canal…I recall we stopped there once, pulling out of the main channel into a small clam shack not too far in from Mass Bay. Eating fried clams and boiled shrimp in the shade. Funny what you remember. The day before we had been sailing from Boothbay Harbor to Boston and we ran across a small whale all tangled up in gill nets. I called it in then dove in, cut a bunch of it free. Guess that made it into another story.
One comment on this story at Literotica asked if this story was ‘true’ and, in a few minor ways it is. I’ve sailed the sounds in NC a few times, Beaufort and New Berne were favorite haunts of ours.
Oh, the little guy above? He dropped by one day last winter, tired as could be, near death’s door as far as I could tell. I fed him, got some water down too, then picked him up and carried him to one of the vacant bird houses I have near the porch. He hung around ’til summer, then was gone. Called him Spud, and I’d like to think he knew the score.
Oh, yes, River Man. Title comes from the song by Nick Drake, one of my all time favorites. If you’ve not heard it before…ahem…it goes with the story pretty well. Duncan Sheik’s She Runs Away does too, as does his Rubbed Out. Never heard of Steven Wilson? Try Drive Home and The Pin Drop, from The Raven That Refused to Sing. These all go along nicely with this story.
Hope you enjoy this rewrite. Cleaned up, a little more detail in the finish.
Betty came by on her way
Said she had a word to say
About things today
And fallen leaves.
River Man Nick Drake
I’m not sure when it hit me; this was almost the same trip we’d made the year before, but really, when does one journey end, and the next begin?
Then – as now – I had spruced up the boat, loaded her up with fuel and provisions. Then – as now – I’d left Down East Maine and sailed across Massachusetts Bay, bound for the Cape Cod Canal. Then – as now – we sailed south onto Buzzard’s Bay, then across Long Island Sound to Hell’s Gate. Waiting for a good tide, then – as now – I recalled how we motored under a vast parade of jets landing at LaGuardia, and eventually, ran the slack tide and slipped into the East River. Then – as now – I’d wanted to stop in New York City, but frankly, the place scared Ruth. Everything scared me now. Life, love…all of it.
A year had passed, and this was a different trip. No, trip isn’t quite right. Journey? No, not the right word at all…too open ended. Too many memories to make on a journey, and I didn’t like that past. There are too many unexamined corners in the darkness on the kind of journey we’d shared, too many choices best left undisturbed. So not a trip, not a journey. What the hell do you call running away from memory?
Nothing comes to mind, really. Kind of a void waiting for me in there.
Anyway, with Manhattan behind me I slipped into the Atlantic, made the quick sail down the Jersey coast to Cape May; we cut through the Onion Patch that guards Delaware Bay and Ruth and I fought jig-saw tides to the C&D Canal and sailed into the Chesapeake – passing Baltimore and making our way to Annapolis a few hours later. After a rest in that cloistered harbor, we sailed up the Potomac to D.C., and all-in-all that part of our trip was just as we had imagined it might be. Full of so many places we had been to before, seen now from a radically different perspective. When you approach a place from the water for the first time, even the known becomes a very different place. You can’t take anything for granted.
This year was – in some ways – no different than the last, but then again everything was different. Life on board was different now, and in so many ways that every little routine felt odd – it was as if I felt out of place – like time was – now – somehow an old, foreign land I had been to many times before, yet I was a trespasser – now. It wasn’t the boat that felt different – no, this was my world, my unmoved mover. Yet the one constant in my universe was gone, my North Star had vanished. I was adrift in a sea of stars – I couldn’t recognize. The patterns I saw in this sky were obscure; I looked at everything and saw nothing, and I now felt very, very small.
It was, you see, my first trip without Ruth.
We’d made that first voyage together almost a year ago, finally getting a taste of the life we’d scrimped and saved for, starting a new journey years in the making. To sail, to cruise, to explore all those hidden byways we’d always passed by – to keep one step ahead of memory, for as long as we could. Together.
I’d have to say now, and this is just a guess, but all that wasn’t meant to be.
We were walking from the Gangplank to the Smithsonian on a hot July morning, walking to stretch our legs, or so I thought. I heard her say ‘oh’, and that was it. She fell to the ground in silence. Someone, a physician I think, told me a few hours later she’d had a massive stroke. One minute she was alive, holding my hand as cars crawled by, frazzled commuters drumming fingers on steering wheels, and then in an instant she was gone. No goodbyes. No tears. Just a lightning bolt out of the blue, and that was that – Ruth was gone. Gone. Unimaginably gone, a forever type thing. Very seriously unfair, but I seemed to be the only one that cared.
When I left the Potomac that next September, she had been gone five weeks. I don’t know, maybe I should have sold the boat but it was our dream; I didn’t want to turn my back on our dream. I didn’t want to let her down but I returned to Maine, to our little hideaway outside of Camden. And I hid. From everything.
Somehow I started again, late that next summer. The Cape Cod Canal, the East River…all of it. I found it wasn’t too hard to sail alone, but I was lonely. Once I left New York City I understood if I stayed out to sea I would have to make changes in the way I rested, would have to remain diligently on guard for ship traffic, so as a practical matter I decided to keep to the Intra-Coastal Waterway as much as possible, to the rivers and canals that lead from the Chesapeake to the Texas-Mexican border.
The plan I had in mind was simple: I would stop at night in dusky river channels and drop anchor, or pull up small town docks and tie up for the night. Maybe a marina from time to time, in order to do laundry or make a grocery run. Eventually, after the hurricane season ended, I would – if all went according to plan – slip across the Gulf Stream from South Florida and head to the Bahamian Out Islands. Maybe venture further south. Who knew, really, what I’d do, where I might end up? Did anyone besides me care? Hell, did I care?
No, I sure didn’t. And it surprised me to realize that I simply didn’t give a damn about anything anymore.
I made my way from Norfolk, Virginia through the Great Dismal Swamp Canal and arrived in North Carolina just in time for the first cold front of the season. The temperature plummeted from the high 80s to – perhaps – the low-40s or thereabouts overnight. As I rubbed my dry white hands I tied up at the town dock in Elizabeth City and swore I’d try to take it easy for a day or three.
Because I’d been moving down the coast quickly. Why? Why so fast?
What was I running from? Why couldn’t I enjoy myself, enjoy this precious time? This time I’d stolen from Ruth. What was the point of making this journey if all I did was fly by life in a blind rush, if I didn’t get out and explore those hidden creeks and little out of the way places we’d always passed? Would I spend the rest of my life in all the dark corners I was, apparently, so afraid of? Could I accept that their was purpose in my life beyond that which had been given to us, to the time beyond what Ruth and I had, by mutual consent, shared?
So, guess what I figured out, all on my own? Well, it’s hard to ask these kinds of questions when you know the answers don’t matter anymore.
There was a boat next to mine at the docks, and I heard a man and woman talking as I stood in the cockpit of my boat. I was coiling lines, wiping down teak, filling the water tanks. All the little things Ruth and I used to do together.
“Listen, I don’t care anymore! I’ve had it with you, with you and this silly goddamned boat! I’m going to my sister’s; you do what you’ve always done, you do what you goddamned well please, because I don’t care anymore…”
It sounded a lot like a one-way conversation to me.
“Tell you what, Hank. I’ll have my lawyer call your lawyer. Maybe then you’ll say something…maybe someone will even listen…”
More rumbling down below, then I watch as a suitcase flies up and lands in their little cockpit with a sobering thud; this followed by footsteps and the emergence of a truly mean looking woman.
“What the fuck are you looking at, asshole!”
Really, I hadn’t been aware I was looking at her. Usually I don’t like to look at such profound ugliness, but by that time I noticed there were a few dozen people gathered ‘round the docks, looking at all her commotion. I gave her a polite smile and looked away. She jumped down on the dock and the whole structure shook and thundered from the impact, then she wrestled her bag off the boat and walked toward the ramp.
I think I heard a collective sigh of relief as she walked up and disappeared from our lives.
I heard more sounds from the boat next to mine. “Hallelujah and goddamn it all to hell! Free at last…free at last…God almighty, free at last!”
I heard dancing over there. I swear to God I did.
After a while a head popped up through the companionway hatch and looked around. It looked just like a turtle, but it had on eyeglasses. I stared at the apparition mutely for a moment, in shock really, as the turtle-man scanned the dock for signs of his recently departed – dare I say – friend? Surely not wife?
“I think she’s gone,” I finally said. “You can come out now.”
Turtle-man turned to the sound of my voice. He blinked slowly, took in my form, working out in his mind, I suppose, if I was a threat or not.
“Fuckin’-A. Uh, sorry, man. About that bullshit.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “C’est la guerre,” I had managed to say; the Turtle-man blinked again, lost. Then the man walked out into the cockpit of his boat and stretched, walked over to the lifelines and leaned over toward mine.
“Hi. Name’s Hank Peterson. And thanks.”
I stood, took his hand. “Hank? Nice to, uh, meet you.”
“You gotta name, by any chance?” he asked.
“Yes, Hank, I do.” I smiled at him. He looked expectantly at me as I sat back down in shade of my awning. I picked up the tea I’d just fixed and took a tentative sip.
“Man-o-man,” this Turtle-man said, “it’s a little early in the day for scotch, isn’t it?”
I turned my back to the guy, hoped he’d get the message and move on.
“Well, I gotta run into town and pick up some groceries. Need anything, just yell!”
“Will do, Hank. Have a nice time.”
I slipped away a little later that afternoon and walked into town. There was a little museum, a couple of nice little knick-knack shops among the usual commercial storefronts, but I just wasn’t into it and walked over to what looked like a wine and cheese shop. There was a nice looking woman behind the counter and I picked up some Riesling and cheese and was walking the two blocks back to the docks when Turtle-man appeared from behind a row of buildings, walking my way.
“Hey, ship-mate! Find the wine store?” He stopped, clearly expecting me to as well.
With a newspaper in hand I walked right by him and never said a word. I think I heard him laugh a little as he faded away.
I got my stuff down below and into the refrigerator, then hopped into the shower. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d showered, and I thought if I was slipping like that maybe it was time to check-out the local funny farms. I looked at myself in the mirror, didn’t like what I saw so put on fresh clothes and shaved, just generally cleaned myself up a bit, then moved to the galley. I opened up the wine I’d just bought, sliced some cheese, then set the stuff out in the cockpit and took a seat as afternoon gave way to evening, and sat there feeling kinda like ‘all dressed up and no place to go’ was playing on a jukebox somewhere on the far side of my gorgeously blazing sunset.
“Hey partner! Man, you sure made some kind of impression on that lady at the cheese shop!”
I turned, looked at Turtle-man. His almost bald head really was kind of turtle-like, I saw, and the sudden impression was instantly hysterical. I choked on some wine and tried to regain a smattering of composure as my eyes watered, but it was pointless, futile, and I broke out laughing.
“Hey, buddy, get a hold of yourself, wouldya?! I told her you were in the boat next to mine and she got all interested, asked if she could come down and meet you. I said ‘why not’! She’s going to be here in a half hour or so.”
“You know something, asshole? You really should mind your own fucking business!” Suddenly as pissed off as I could be, I grabbed my bottle and my cheese and ducked down below, slamming the companionway hatch shut and sliding the barrel-bolt in place.
There, I was safe now! Just like a turtle, in fact, slipping back into his little armored world. Man, did I ever know how to run away.
I woke the next morning and tidied up the boat, went into town to pick up some new charts and a newspaper, then came back to the boat and fired up the diesel. As the engine warmed-up, Turtle-man poked his head out his hatch and it looked at me.
“You taking off?” he asked.
“Yes, Hank, I am. Sorry.”
“You headed south?”
I grunted nonsensically while I cast off my lines and backed out of the slip, then moved off down the Elizabeth River. I looked back once to see Turtle-man working on his boat, and suddenly felt happy to be free of the guy.
Free at last, indeed. God almighty.
The Waterway south of Elizabeth City crosses open sounds and traverses swamp and marsh land as it arcs south and west across North Carolina. Rivers traverse the waterway; the rivers have to be constantly dredged to keep them from silting up the channel, and storms can always be counted on to drop trees into the water. These things tend to lurk just beneath the surface, where your basic, happy wanderer can run afoul of invisibly jutting stumps and soggy limbs.
Which is exactly what I did about three hours after leaving the dock in Elizabeth City. I felt something bang up against the keel and corrected course back toward what I thought was the center of the channel, then heard the prop smacking something quite solid; as the boat shuddered from the impact I felt the keel knifing into nice thick ooze.
I had run aground. Right where my chartplotter showed a nice, solid nine foot depth; I was stuck in what had suddenly become less than five feet of chocolate-coffee colored water. Then, just to make things more interesting, the water alarm from the bilge pump went off, indicating that there was a leak down below.
Oh, yippee! This was why I bought a boat, wasn’t it?
I jumped below and whipped open the bilge inspection port and saw a nice healthy flow of that very same chocolate-coffee colored water now running into my boat. I ducked into the engine compartment and saw water running along the propeller shaft, and traced the flow back to the shaft packing gland; I slipped a wrench around it and tightened it up; the water slowed to a trickle, then stopped altogether.
Good. Problem one solved. Now on to number two.
I poled around the boat with a boat hook and felt solid mud from the middle of the boat forward, and open water behind me. Good news there, too. Now all I had to do was back out into the channel, assuming the propeller was still in good shape.
I restarted the engine and put the boat into reverse. Nothing happened. I retried the process, and once again the engine turned up – and nothing happened. Either the transmission was damaged, or the prop had come off the shaft. Knowing the waters around here were full of alligators – and an interesting variety of truly foul snakes – I wasn’t about to go in and take a look, so I inflated the Zodiac, mounted the outboard, and ran out with some line and began to pull on the boat – see if I could dislodge it from the mud.
It didn’t budge. Not one bit, but you already knew that, didn’t you? But, and this is interesting, who do you think popped into view right about then?
Yes. Turtle-man. The one and only. I was the one running, wasn’t I? And here he came, slow and steady, like a tree under the surface.
“Looks like you’re having some real fun this morning,” he said.
“Yes indeed, Hank. A fucking blast,” I managed to say, wondering where my beta-blockers were.
“Need a hand?” No guile on his face, just a steady hand.
“It wouldn’t hurt.” Ah, this rabbit’s gonna get his comeuppance today, isn’t he?
Hank dug around in a locker and pulled out a huge towing bridle and coiled it up.
“Here, come run this to your stern,” he said as he stood up and moved to the rail. I motored over and picked up the bridle, then moved over to my boat and rigged it up.
“Alright!” I yelled across the water.
“You pull in that direction,” he said as he pointed off to my right. “I’ll pull in that direction,” indicating my left side.
I motored over to the indicated angle and looked back at Turtle-man; it really was amazing, the guy looked just like a big brown turtle as he moved behind the wheel of his sailboat. He looked over to me as he drifted away from me, then…
“You ready!?” he shouted, and I gave him the ‘thumbs up’. I twisted the throttle and felt the back of the inflatable dig into the water as the tow-line went taut, and I looked across the water to see the water behind Turtle-man’s boat churning away. After a few moments I felt we were making headway, and sure enough my boat popped free of the mud, and I raced over to keep it from flying across the narrow channel and running aground on the other side. Turtle-man moved along side too and I tossed him a line. Soon we were rafted together, making way slowly down channel.
“What happened,” he yelled across to me – shouting to be heard over the sound of his motor.
“Hit a stump, ran aground. Something wrong with the prop!”
“What’s it doing?!”
“Put it in gear, nothing happens!”
“Transmission linkage! Did you check that?!”
“Not yet! But I had a big leak from the stuffing box!”
“Go check the linkage; I’ll hold us in the channel!”
I went below, squirmed my way into the engine compartment and with my flashlight in one hand felt the link with my other. Seemed intact to me, but I knew it would have to be checked under power. I backed out of the cramped space and went back up into the light.
“Seems tight!” I yelled, but then I noticed we were drifting quietly in mid channel. “Maybe I should try again.”
“Don’t bother. I can see your strut and shaft; the prop’s gone. Got a spare?”
“Yeah, but Hank, these waters are full of big-bad monsters, if you know what I mean.”
“Well, Belhaven ain’t too far ahead; I can tow you there.”
“You headed that way?”
“Yeah, come on, let’s hook up a tow line. Maybe we can get to the marina in time for someone to take a look at it…”
We did just that, too. It turned out the prop had indeed come off, something very rare indeed. Probably corrosion on the retaining nut, the mechanic said. We mounted my spare prop and checked the transmission linkage, and the mechanic adjusted that, too, after he tweaked the stuffing box again. We were back in the water by sunset.
Hank was already tied up in the little marina, and I motored over and tied up beside his boat. He had his charcoal grill set up on the stern rail of his boat and was grilling steak.
“Did they get it done?” he yelled out.
“Yes indeed. Thanks again, Hank. Couldn’t have done it without you.”
I looked at him for a second, realized I hadn’t eaten all day and was indeed very hungry. The steak smelled good, too, goddamn it! “Sure.”
“Well, I got two steaks on, and a salad ready to go. Come on over.”
“Yeah, well, thanks Hank. Let me wash up. Can I bring anything?”
“Got any more of that Scotch?”
“No. No Scotch. How ‘bout some iced tea?”
“Well, if that’s all you got…”
I laughed and went below, came up a few minutes later with a pitcher of tea and some ice.
“You got ice?!” he cried when he saw my little ice bucket.
“Hell yes, Hank. There are some things you can live without. Ice ain’t one of ‘em.”
“You put away all that Scotch the other night?”
“It was tea. Sorry.”
“No shit? Well, like your steak about medium?”
We sat in his cockpit and put down a pitcher of tea with the steak and salad, talked about the day’s fun and games, and I thanked him once again for the helping hand. We talked about his wife – he wanted to talk about her, as it turned out – and about the commotion she’d made. Then he asked about, well, me.
“So, you traveling alone?”
“No.” I could feel myself tightening up, bracing for the inevitable.
“Ah. When did she pass away?”
That question rattled me; not just the question itself, but the prescience behind it.
I looked away.
“So, I got some carrot cake at the grocery in Elizabeth City. Want some?”
I shook myself back into the present, looked around, remembered where I was. Hank was clearing dishes and climbing down below. He came up a few minutes later with a bottle of rum and a couple of shot glasses, then poured a couple of stiff ones.
“Here. Try this,” he said as he tossed back the glass. I looked at him and did the same. It burned, but it felt good, too. He poured another, and another. Pretty soon I couldn’t feel my feet. The knees went next. I think.
“So, what’s your name?”
“Oh, yeah. We never got around to that, did we? Uh, Ghent, Martin Ghent.” I held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Yeah. Likewise.” We shook hands. Again. “So, when did your wife die?”
I guess I was drunk enough by that point to not give a tinker’s damn. “Not quite a year ago,” I managed to get out, but with that admission the dam broke; I started crying. Hanks response was to pour another drink, which he slid over to me.
“Might as well get it out of your system tonight, Marty. It’s like poison, it’s killing you.”
When I woke up the next morning my head felt like a latrine. My eyes burned and my teeth hurt. God, rum is vile stuff, which is of course why I drink it – on occasion to excess. The night before must’ve been one of those occasions.
I was in my boat, and didn’t have the slightest idea how I got here. I like those sudden epiphanies. Very good way to get the eyes open.
I put on some coffee, moved forward to take a shower, then went up into the cockpit to eat some fruit and look over the weather charts before the day’s run.
“Ah, It lives!” I heard Hank say from the dock beside me.
“What the hell did you give me last night?” I asked as he stood there in the sun. “Battery acid?”
“Nah, nothing so tame. Just some rum, then a little of Mr Cuervo’s finest.”
“Oh, God! Not Tequila! How much did I puke?!”
“I don’t know, Marty,” he said as he pointed at the side of my boat, “but I’ll bet the fish around here were pretty well fed.”
That wasn’t an altogether happy thought. My stomach was still rumbling as I leaned over and looked at the garp all over my otherwise pristine hull.
“So, where you off to this morning,” he asked, obviously still impressed with last night’s performance.
“New Bern, I think. Want to hole up there before this weather blows through.”
“What weather? Oh, you got a weather-fax in there too?”
“Yeah. Tropical depression moving up the coast. Might strengthen.”
“Shit. I was thinking of hanging here for a few days, but not if something like that’s brewing. New Bern sounds like the best place for that. Mind if I tag along.”
“Hell no, Hank. I’ll buy you a steak tonight!”
I beat Hank there by an hour or so, and tied up at the huge marina that belonged to nice looking waterfront hotel, and the marina there was filling up with folks looking for a secure spot to ride out the approaching storm. While I was signing in, I asked the harbormaster if there was room for one more boat.
“How big?” he asked.
“I think it’s an Island Packet 29.”
“Yeah, right there by the pool. It’ll be tight, but it’ll be fine for a 29.”
“Well, let me sign him in. There a good place for a steak around here?
“Well, the hotel is good, and you don’t have to walk far!’ he said with a sly grin. “They’ll even bring it down to the boat – you know, like room service!”
As I was walking back to the boat I saw Hank’s boat coming under the big highway bridge, and jumped down into the cockpit and flipped on the radio.
“Hanky-Panky, this is Liebestod , go to 23.”
“Marty? That you? This place looks full?!”
“Come on in. I got a slip for you; just turn in the breakwater and come down this first pier to the right – right past my boat. I’ll wait for you by the spot, have your lines ready for a starboard side docking.”
“Ten-four, Marty! Thanks!”
“Hey Marty, hope you don’t mind, but I called that woman in Elizabeth City. She came by last night, wanted to meet you.”
Marty had docked his boat and thanked me again, and grabbed his shower stuff and ambled off to the marina’s shower facilities without so much as a peep. Now I knew what he was up too, and I was a little angry.
“Listen, Hank, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not ready for that kinda thing just yet, and I don’t need anyone pulling this kinda crap on me, okay?”
“Yeah, Marty, whatever you say. She’s bringing a friend, too, so don’t fuck this up for me, OK? Been a long time since I got laid, alright?”
I shook my head, let slip a little laugh as I walked back to my boat while I wondered just what the hell he’d gotten us into.
There was a knock on the side of my hull.
“Martin! You there?”
I trudged back up the companionway. The sky was full of dark, menacing clouds.
“You got that weatherfax on? Guy up on the dock said that storm has been upgraded to a hurricane.”
I looked around. No women.
“No, I’ve had it off all afternoon. Come on down; I’ll fire it up and print one off.”
“No, that’s alright,” he said, then turned when he heard someone calling out his name. I looked down the dock and saw two women walking our way. “That’s them,” I heard him say. “Come on, Marty,” he whispered conspiratorially.“Please, don’t fuck this up for me!”
I climbed up into the cockpit in time to hear raindrops falling on my cockpit awning, and looked up to see the women running the final few yards toward the boat. Shit! One of ‘em was wearing high heels! Not on my teak decks! No!
That’s what I remember thinking! Their shoes killing my decks!
“Shoes off!” Hank yelled as the women pulled up short. “Shoes off and hop on!”
We were sitting down below. I had the weatherfax on and the VHF set to NOAA channel one. The hurricane, now a Category Two monster – and building – was predicted to make landfall somewhere between Myrtle Beach and Cape Hatteras tomorrow, about noon. We were right in the middle of the bullseye, so to speak, but in a well protected spot if ever there was one. Not much to do, anyway, but warp out some extra lines in the morning and lay out all my fenders.
“Isn’t this exciting!” Susan Cooke said. Susan was Hank’s date. “Mine” was one Betty Hutton, and she hadn’t said much since coming aboard. She just looked around at everything like she was taking inventory. Very weird, very disconcerting. Very paranoid.
“Yeah? I’ve never heard hurricanes being described as exciting!” Hank said. “I would think coming from this area you might have been through one or two.”
“I’m new here,” Susan said.
“I’m hungry!” Hank said.
“And I don’t want to go out in the rain!” Susan said.
“Oh hell, Susan, it’s not going to hurt you!” This from Betty Hutton.
“Well, there’s always Room Service!” I said, and everyone thought that uproariously funny. “Uh, no, I’m serious. We’re guests at the hotel, and they have room service. The guy at the harbormaster’s office gave me a menu, and we’re hooked up to the hotel’s phone system”
Everyone looked at me like I’d just grown another head. It was beginning to look like this was going to be an evening for wine, so I went and fetched a bottle from the fridge and popped the cork.
“Ooh, I love Champagne!” bubbled Susan, but Betty looked at her with motherly concern.
“It’s not the best in the world, but it’ll do,” I said as I poured four glasses. I went back into the salon and passed around the glasses. I watched as the women took a sip.
“Nice, very nice,” Betty said appreciatively.
“Ooh, I love it,” Susan said as she tossed it down. “Could I have some more?!” Betty winced as I took Susan’s glass and walked back to the galley. I didn’t hear Betty get up and follow me.
“What is that, Martin? Dom Perignon?”
She looked at the bottle and gasped as I poured Susan another glass, this time filling it to the rim.
“Don’t do this. Don’t do this, Martin.” I saw Betty’s mouth moving, but I heard Ruth’s voice.
“I bought it for an anniversary. Won’t be needing it anymore, so just let me get rid of the stuff, okay?”
Betty turned – clearly exasperated – and walked back to sit by Susan, and I saw Betty whispering in Susan’s ear as I returned with the full glass. Susan’s eyes went wide, and she frowned as I put the glass down. I put some music from the fifties on the CD player, and sat back to watch the festivities. The Moonglow Theme from the movie Picnic – one of our all time favorites – filled the boat with overwhelming memories, and I sat back and looked at the ceiling as my eyes filled with tears.
I heard people leaving the boat; footsteps on wet teak – then the companionway hatch sliding open, followed by a blast of warm, storm-driven air – and they were, I assumed when I heard the hatch slide shut, gone.
“Sorry Hank,” I said through my tears to the emptiness grabbing me by the throat. “Sorry to let you down like that.”
“Oh, somehow I think Hank and Susan can take care of themselves.”
I jumped at the sound of her voice. ‘Ruth? Ruth? Is that you?’
I looked around the boat; the lights were now turned down very low, music continued to play softly – Dianne Reeves singing I’ve Got My Eyes On You – and I saw Betty sitting there in the gloom, right where she had been all evening. She was looking at me. Looking just like that physician who told me Ruth was gone.
“Tell me about her.”
I heard her voice, but she wasn’t real, this couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be happening…
“Martin, listen to me.” It was Betty again. “Hank’s told me a little bit about . . . about your wife, on the telephone. You can’t hang on to this stuff. At some point you’ve got to let go.”
I looked at the woman – this stranger, really – telling me what I needed to do, about how I should handle my grief, and all I wanted to do was show her the way out, be rid of her, be alone with my memories of Ruth. Oh, Ruth! Why?
“Listen, uh, Betty. I don’t really feel up to this tonight, you know, so, if you’ll please just excuse me.”
“Martin, sit down.”
I could see this wasn’t going to be easy. I remember thinking I probably looked like her Sugar-Daddy savior, come riding through town on his yacht-yuppie sailboat with big bucks in his back pocket and just ready to carry her away to the bright lights of her favorite big city.
You know, after jumping to conclusions so many times those past few days, you’d have thought I was getting kind of tired by then.
No way. I had a couple more lessons to learn.
And little did I know I had just run into the teacher.
Once upon a time, when I was an impressionable young man and still in college, I had been an unconscionably optimistic person. I believed in people, in the joy people were capable of feeling in the company of others, and in the joy I was capable of passing along to others. I had, again – once upon a time – taken a philosophy class. Now that in and of itself is no crime, though of course I know a strong argument can be made to the contrary, but in any case, my motives for taking the class were pure in the extreme. The prof was a total babe.
Fresh out of graduate school, she was an untenured radically hip-chic that half the guys on campus had the hots for. Her classes were packed with jocks and all the other Big Men On Campus who were out to drown her classroom in testosterone and Aqua-Velva; pretty soon it was apparent that while Hip-chic (kind of) enjoyed the attention she was getting in class, she wasn’t interested in guys that came to class wearing big gold chains around their necks and drove around campus at fifty miles per in their orange Corvettes – still in first gear, mind you. Just too many people moving around in circles, I suppose, and she was a straight down the middle of the road type.
Her name was Ruth Jorgensen, and seven years after I took that class we got married.
She used to talk a lot about the geometry of the heart, about the diametric opposites that define how humans experience the, well, the human. These opposites insured, she maintained, that human affairs tended to the cyclical, that humans moved from one experience to it’s polar opposite in endless cycles. Intellectual progress was almost impossible; as a species we were and always would be locked in a tooth and nail struggle for dominion over other humans because, she said, people couldn’t learn from their mistakes. We were narcissists through and through. Egoists to the bitter end. In a Freudian sense, we were so blindly consumed with the playing out of our own death wish we couldn’t make out the broad contours of the effects our lives cycles had on others. People everywhere, and endless profusion of intersecting cycles, never ending collisions. Being and becoming. The endless enigma, running through our lives like a river.
Now I know when people start quoting Freud it’s time to run screaming from the room, but there was something about this professor’s hopelessness that touched me. I went to her office in the faculty building one day after class was over, presumably to ask her a question about a point she had made in that day’s lecture, and as it happened no one was waiting in line at her office door (and I think it reasonable to add here that by mid-semester the jocks had given up all hope of nailing her, and so had dropped the class).
She looked up when I knocked on her door, and seemed surprised to see me.
I think I asked her about rule utilitarianism – or some such deontological bullshit – and that really threw her for a loop. I think by that point the poor girl had been propositioned by every pretender on campus, and I watched her eyes blink a few times as it registered that I was (shock! gasp!) actually asking her a question about – holy shit – something we’d covered in class. I’m not saying the girl fainted dead away, but you could have heard a mouse fart in that office for the next thirty or so seconds.
Anyway, we talked for an hour or three and, to make a long story even longer, after a while she chided me about being overly optimistic about human nature. I asked her if it was possible that she was being – again, possibly – overly cynical. Again, a flatulent mouse floating air muffins would have made either of us jump in the silence that followed.
She pointed to a framed poster behind me on the wall, and asked me to turn and read it.
The poster was a photograph of Friedrich Nietzsche, with one of his more delicate aphorisms nicely printed along the bottom, under his nicely scowling face. It summed up her point of view quite nicely: ‘In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence, and loathing seizes him.’
When you really get your head around a saying like that, you can kinda see why the Nazis had such a thing for Nietzsche. And see, the thing is, I married this girl.
Anyway, I wasn’t buying it that day, and after thirty years of marriage, I still didn’t buy into it.
Only after Ruth sighed ‘Oh!’ and dropped dead to the asphalt like a sack of rocks did I buy into it; only then did Nietzsche become my patron saint.
As we sat in the darkness below, the storm drew strength from the chaos of life on earth and an ill wind began to moan in the rigging. It’s almost a cliché, I know, but unless you’ve heard wind in the rigging before, you really have no idea how deeply rooted that sound is in our – all too human – consciousness. And like the wind, as I sat down below telling my story to Betty Hutton, I drew strength from the chaos of my life, and the song of my sorrow bathed the womb of that night in tremulous decrescendos.
Ruth continued to work in academia for twenty five more years, and we met again, quite by accident, when I came home from Vietnam a few years later, just before I started flying for Braniff. We lived in Chicago most of our lives; even after Braniff went bankrupt I got on with a small airline, and eventually, with United. We had a boy, he loved to fly and followed my footsteps into the Navy.
He managed to get killed flying a peace-keeping mission in Somalia.
It’s those little ironies that give Nietzsche his punch. Take my word for it, would you?
We worked hard after that, worked hard playing our roles. Me, the perpetual optimist, Ruth the cynic who had turned her back on the basic assumptions of her life when she said ‘yes, I’ll marry you.’ As we grew into the reality that life did in fact go on, as we accepted the basic preconditions of living in a completely absurd state, we decided to go after the one shared dream we had both harbored for many years.
We’d buy a sailboat and explore our world. It was audacious, and we knew it, but it was our shining beacon. That dream kept us alive. One day, the dream became our shared reality, and we held it close.
Then my wife, the one love of my life, let go of my hand as she said ‘Oh’ – and that was it. That was me, in a turtle’s shell.
When I finished my tale I looked over to see Betty Hutton in tears. Quiet tears, quiet sighs of understanding. She knew where I was, what I was confronting.
She told me she had never been married, never experienced having a child. She had worked in D.C.; worked for her uncle. He happened to be in Congress – had been for as long as anyone could remember, too. She’d gone to Georgetown Law and straight on her uncle’s staff; she had managed her uncle’s one very unsuccessful run at the White House, and had remained on-board long after all the political hacks and wannabes had moved on to greener pastures. Her uncle had passed away a few years ago, and the old man had left her more than a little money. She took some of it and opened up an antique shop in Elizabeth City, and when that didn’t work out, she opened up the wine and cheese shop. She had wanted, she said, to live a quiet life near where she had grown up, and never wanted to see Washington, D.C., ever again.
Many of the people who frequented her shop were sailors passing through on the Waterway, and frequently she asked these patrons about their vagabond lives. She found these stories fascinating, and had recently begun to think about buying a boat of her own, about maybe taking a trip or two on her own now and then.
She said when I walked into her store that she knew in an instant our lives had intersected. All things, she said, happen for a reason.
She was, she said, an eternal optimist. There was, I saw, a lot of lightning along the southern horizon.
The wind continued to build through the night while Betty Hutton and I stayed up talking, and I think it fair to say we were creating a little storm our own.
“So, why do you think you feel this connection?” I asked her at one point.
“I don’t know.”
“Fair enough. What do you want from me?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t think that’s the right question, Martin.”
“Alright. What’s the right question?”
“Why did you walk into my shop the other night?”
“I don’t know. I wanted some Riesling?”
She smiled at that. I had to give her that, she was tolerant of my warped sense of humanity.
“You’re being obtuse, Martin.”
Another smile. This time I smiled back. Was I flirting with her?
“Sun’s coming up. Did you say you needed to do something with the lines?”
I stood and walked over to the chart table, tapped the barometer: 28.82 and falling. Not good. I cued up the weather-fax and waited for the query to load. A moment later the paper started to roll from the machine and a map of the weather system dropped into my hand. The hurricane looked like it was going to come ashore right over Cape Hatteras, much less than a hundred miles from here, and it had been upgraded to Category 3. Still, the forecast said it looked like it might weaken as it drove north during the morning and I looked at the clock: it was seven in the morning! It should be light out, I said to myself, but it still looked like it was pitch-black outside.
It was time to go up for a look see, so I put on a jacket and headed up the companionway steps. I stepped out into the middle of a maelstrom. Rain whipped my face, and I saw a couple of loose lines flaying about on the boat next to mine, banging my teak decks as they danced around. I ran to secure them when I saw it.
A waterspout. Oh…joy.
The sky was purple-black and pewter-green, yet the waterspout looked like a pale white snake writhing in the air as it danced along the water. I couldn’t say for sure, but it looked as though it was headed right for us. I tied off the errant line and ducked below, turned on the radar and waited impatiently while the unit warmed up.
“What’s wrong?” Betty Hutton said.
“Here,” I said as the radar came alive. She moved over to me while the glow from the radar screen filled the space around us with red and green shadows. “A waterspout. I want to get a track on it.”
“Isn’t that like a tornado? Where is it?” She sounded more than a little alarmed.
“There,” I said as I pointed at the screen. Right on cue a Civil Defense siren went off. “It’s about a half mile from here, headed up river.”
“Is it going to hit us?” Now their was some tension in her voice. I looked at the screen, held a little transparent ruler up to it and watched it for a moment.
“No. It’s going to hit on the far side of that bridge,” I said with more confidence than I felt.
“You seem so sure of yourself. Do you get that from flying?”
“Hmm? Oh, no, I got that from being married to the biggest pessimist that ever lived.”
After the waterspout moved away from the area, I went back up and began to lay out extra lines to every cleat I could find on the dock. I – like every one else now moving about frantically on the dock – assumed that the breakwater and dock would keep the storm surge away and hold us securely in place. I figured if the surge was so bad it might swamp the marina we’d just make for the hotel and have a margarita or two. Hell, it was just a hurricane!
I walked over to Hanks boat; still no extra lines out so I knocked on the hull, called out his name. A couple of minutes later Hank’s turtle head popped up from the companionway.
“You alright down there?” I asked him. Hell, who knows. Maybe I was grinning.
He smiled and flashed a thumbs up. “How ‘bout you?” he said, eyeing me with concern.
“Better get on up here; I’ll help you lay out some lines. You just missed all the excitement.”
“Yeah. Waterspout just blew by, right there by the bridge.”
Hank’s eyes went wide and he dropped from view. I heard some bumping around down below, and a moment later he popped back up the companionway and jumped onto the dock.
“Got any extra line,” he asked.
“You gotta be kidding me!” I said, the disbelief in my voice clear. I went back to my stern locker and pulled out two extra anchor lines I kept in reserve and moved to help him tie them off to the pier.
“Betty still with you?” he yelled as a strong gust whipped through the marina.
“Yeah. That other one still with you?”
“Yeah. Miserable bitch!”
“Maybe we can talk about this later,” I yelled over another particularly vicious blast. “Better get below!” I patted him on his wet shoulder and ran for my boat. When I looked around, he was still out there looking at the sky. I swear to God he looked more and more like a turtle with each passing day.
I turned on the sailing instruments and looked at the wind speed. Unfortunately, the gauge topped out at a hundred miles per hour, and the needle was pegged at the maximum. I flipped on the VHF and listened to NOAA weather radio. Wind speed at the Cape was one twenty and rising, but the storm was moving rapidly now to the east, moving rapidly out to sea.
“I think we just dodged a bullet,” I said to Betty. I had a chart out and began plotting the storm’s center. Once she saw what I was laying out on the chart she grasped the implications immediately.
“Do you think we could go to bed now?” she said, a twinkle in her eye.
“Surely, Ma’am, not on the first date!” I said with feigned outrage dancing across my face.
But that’s exactly what we did. Several times, as a matter of fact.
Then as the winds outside subsided in the afternoon, she got dressed and left. She didn’t even say goodbye, but that wasn’t entirely unexpected. Not in my little corner of the darkness.
So, two hurricanes in one day.
One hurricane moved out to sea; there wasn’t even any storm surge in the marina the rest of that day. All of us moved around the piers that evening clearing up the tangled mess of dock-lines we’d stretched all over the place that morning (in our frenzied desire for security), and it was all very fun. A sense of community builds after shared experience that intense, and there was almost a party atmosphere in the evening that followed. But not for me.
For you see, I had had a close encounter with Hurricane Betty.
She came to me in my hour of need and – like a hurricane – completely tore my world apart. I went to bed that evening – exhausted from the effects of her winds – and slept so soundly I didn’t dream. And that may have been a good thing; I’d probably have only been able to dream of Ruth, yet I already felt guilty enough for having enjoyed Betty so. I didn’t need that much guilt in my dreams, I reckoned.
We had – Betty and I – walked our own geometry of the heart through that day, experienced our own diametric opposites as we moved from our first tentative explorations to what had felt like sybaritic abandon. She was indeed a skillful interrogator, and pretty mad in the sack, too.
I woke the next day to a world sunny and cool; there was an autumnal snap in the air, and the rains and winds had swept the world clean.
Hank was on the foredeck of his little Island Packet running some sealant along a hatch.
“Hey partner!” he called out when he looked up and saw me. “Did you sleep through the party?”
“Yeah, up by the pool. Started about eight, went to God only knows how late. Hell, everyone in town was here!”
I just looked at him blankly and shook my head.
“What the hell happened between you and Betty?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It was nice, and . . .” And what? How could you describe what happened?
“She came over, seemed lost. She and Susan took off about four.”
“Did she say anything to you?” I asked. I wanted to know. Really. Hell, maybe I needed to know.
“No, not really. Like I said; she just looked lost. What happened?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, Hank. She ripped my world apart, then just walked out.”
“Hey buddy, I may not know up from down most days, but I’d say if anyone’s world was ripped apart, it was hers.”
“Yeah? Well, what are you working on?”
He looked at me for a second, then down at the hatch he was working on. “I don’t know, man; something came down on the plexiglass and whacked it. Nice hairline crack in it. You think silicone will seal it?”
“Well, it’ll seal it until the first time someone steps on it, then it’ll split and leak again.”
“Nothing for it but to replace the thing, especially if you plan on going offshore.”
“Bahamas,” he said.
“Gulf Stream,” I said. “Come on, we’d better head up to the store and see if we can find a replacement. If not, you’ll have to call IP.”
“Yeah, guess so. Let me grab some shoes.”
We walked up the pier to the harbormasters office and went in to get directions to a marine supply store. There were a couple in town, and we got addresses.
“Ah, you Mr Ghent?”
“Got a note for you here,” the man said as he dug an envelope out from under a pile of papers on his desk. “Woman dropped it off here yesterday afternoon.”
I took it from him. The envelope was hotel stationary; the handwriting unfamiliar. I slipped it in my pocket and Hank and I walked out into the afternoon, looking for a taxi.
As the sun set, Hank and I finished installing his new hatch and I invited him over for his steak. I did it, I called Room Service and had them bring down a raft of t-bones and shrimp cocktails and – well – a bottle of Dewars. I set the CD to play Ella Fitzgerald in the cockpit, and put up the cockpit table just as the white-jacketed waiter rolled our cart to the side of the boat.
We – Hank and I – sat in the afterglow of a really magnificent sunset and wolfed down shrimp and steak, then picked at cheesecake for a while as we sipped Scotch.
“So, what happened with that – er, with you and Susan?” I asked as the night settled in around us.
“Oh, you know . . .” he said quietly, and his voice trailed off into the night.
“No, I don’t know. That’s why I asked, Hank.”
“Oh, well, I think it turned out she wanted a go at you and was kinda pissed off at Betty for moving in on you so fast.” I looked across at Turtle-man – not the best looking guy to come along, that much was certain – and I felt kinda sorry for him. “So, you never said, how was Betty? She work out OK for you?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, Hurricane Betty. Yeah, Hank, she’s something.”
“Was that letter from her, the one from the harbormasters’.”
“Shit!” It was still in my pocket, unopened, and I reached for it.
“You haven’t read it yet?!” Hank asked incredulously.
I pulled out the envelope and held it up for him to see.
“Prick,” I think he said.
‘Martin,’ the note began. ‘I know we shared something special, maybe even something beyond special, but I don’t know if you’re ready to face the consequences of the moment yet. You have a choice to make. Let me know. I think I love you. Betty.’
“Seems I have, according to her, a choice to make.”
“Very serious, this one is, Hankster. Very serious indeed.”
“My advice to you? Run like the wind, Marty. Turn and run like the fucking wind!”
Maybe life is that simple for some people. Find someone, and like a bee in a forest of petals, land and spread your seed and move off into the breeze, toward the next flower, always moving toward that next epiphany. Always moving…never satisfied…always…lonely and looking.
You have a choice to make.
It’s always about choice, isn’t it? Forget about right and wrong, good and evil; those aren’t relevant or even helpful constructs to hold onto when confronting choices dripping with implications of fate and destiny.
Like Nietzsche said, there is no objective right or wrong, only what men choose to make right.
You have a choice too make.
I could leave the marina in the morning, head down the river to the ICW, and make my choice there.
Turn right, head south, away from Elizabeth City and Betty Hutton, or turn to the left and return to her, see what future I could build in that woman’s arms.
Is that what I wanted? It always boils down to being and becoming, doesn’t it?
Did I want to fall into the arms of the first woman I ran into? Wasn’t that emotionally childish? Did I really feel an attachment to her, or had she simply read me like an open book, understood my need and acted on it? She was a lawyer, right?
And just what can you say about a woman who claims to have such a profound understanding of the future that she can divine a connection between two people?
Do you mock that? Walk away from an assumed gift?
Or do you respect that person’s gift, as incomprehensible as it may seem to you in the moment, and follow her intuition?
“What about you, Hank? Was that woman causing all the ruckus in Elizabeth City your wife?”
He looked down at his feet. “Yeah. I’ve been running from her all my life, Marty. I used to think I loved her, but you know, it’s hard to love someone so mean it hurts all the time.”
“So, why did she leave?”
“I guess she thought if she had me trapped on a boat, in such a confined space, she could murder my soul one inch at a time. When that didn’t work out, when I started in on her, I guess she decided she’d had enough. Serves the bitch right!”
I looked at Turtle-man as he said that and for the first time in my life I knew what it felt like to really pity another man.
“Oh? Why would she want to do that, Hank? Murder your soul, I mean?”
“She’s evil, Marty, an evil, blood-sucking hell-bitch!”
It wasn’t too hard to see it, in the end. Two people diametrically opposed in want and desire, locked in endless struggles for dominion over the other, each never bothering to understand the impulses driving the other until in narcissistic rage they pummeled each other figuratively to death. Nothing in common, in the end, but hate for one another. That was all too human.
How many people settle for that? Settle for such easy dominion when there is so much beauty out there waiting to be explored? Yeah, I know. My hypocrisy is boundless, isn’t it? Me, speaking from my dark little corner of hell.
Hank would continue to search for another woman just like his wife, for another woman to bully, and who would bully him, until they self-destructed again and again. So futile, yet so human. Round and round we go. But why pity the man? He’s just running through his program, the lines of code written eons ago.
Had Ruth and I not done the same thing? Was Turtle-man just a mirror of my soul?
Hadn’t Ruth and I been diametrically opposed in outlook? Why, then, had we ultimately been so compatible? Had we been secure enough in our own world-view to accommodate the other’s? To turn away from bludgeoning the other with our own singular truthes?
What was there in Betty, I wondered, that made her so like Ruth. I wasn’t conscious of anything, but if I held to the view that people make the same mistakes in their relationships over and over again, then surely there was something similar, something fundamentally the same about Betty and Ruth.
Is that what Betty saw? Was that the connection she touched in the air between us?
Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?
Even a Turtle-man like Hank? No, I didn’t pity him. I had to admit, even, he was growing on me.
The engine was warming up the next morning while I coiled dock lines and stowed shore-power cords; Hank was up on deck admiring his new hatch, dreaming of all the far-away places he could, no doubt, or even run to. Well, walk to, or whatever turtles do.
“So Marty, where you heading? Made up your mind yet?”
“Oh, hell Hank. I never know what I’m doing from one minute to the next. What makes you think I know what I’m going to do about that woman?”
“Man-oh-man! If you don’t know, then who the hell does?!”
“You have a point, Hank. You have a point. How ‘bout you? Still going south?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna stay inside all the way down to Florida; maybe November or December I’ll slide across the stream to Grand Bahama.”
“What are you gonna do about your wife?”
“She wants a divorce, so by all means I’ll let her do it!”
“You’ll probably lose your boat, Hank.”
“Not if they can’t find me, amigo.”
“Hank, that’s the wrong thing to do, and you know it.”
“Yeah, well, I tried the right way all my life, and that didn’t work out so fuckin’ great. Time for something new.”
“Your choice, amigo, and your life, but if I were you – if that’s the choice you’re gonna make – you better leave the country now, and don’t plan on coming back.”
He looked at me thoughtfully for a minute, then shook his head. “Yeah, maybe.”
That was all he could say.
Maybe that was what separated the Hanks of the world from me, from people like me. Maybe he didn’t have the courage of his convictions, the courage to face his own shortcomings, or worse still, the courage to accept his desires and act on them.
“Well, Hank, keep it slow and steady. Who knows, you might get there.”
He looked at me quizzically while I backed out of the slip and drifted into a turn; I slipped the transmission into forward and gave the beast some throttle. I looked at Turtle-man standing on the deck of his little boat, alone, running and afraid of his future. That was no way to live, running never is.
The boat arced out into the river and turned downstream; I had several miles to go to rejoin the Waterway, a few hours to think about the choice that lay ahead.
The sky was still clear, not a trace of the hurricane remained and the cool breeze out of the north was already stirring up a few whitecaps on the river. There would be a tough headwind back towards Elizabeth City, a hard ride to return to Betty Hutton if that was the choice I made.
I unfurled the headsail and sheeted it in, and as I pulled the main out from the mast the boat took off like a demon possessed. She kept pulling to weather, moving to the north, like she knew what course I should steer. A gust slammed into us and she heeled over, and with the wind deep in her now we slammed into wave after wave; soon we were rolling along at close to eight knots, and I was burying the rail as I drove her hard abeam to the wind. We were charging into a newborn swell, huge walls of spray erupted as I buried the bow in them, and I yelled as the exhilaration of the conflicting forces overtook me.
Oh, yeah baby, we were running now…
I am running…now…
Running, still. Always. Becoming.
Then, I could see the channel buoy ahead that marked the waterway – that marked the locus of choice. We were making incredible speed over the ground. Ten more minutes to decide. Ten more minutes to challenge fate, to acknowledge Betty’s sense of connection, or to keep running, running…
One mile to go…a half mile…a quarter mile…then I stood by as we passed the red buoy marking the channel intersection.
Left, right…what would it be…?
Left, right, left, right, the ticking of a clock, the beating of one human heart. Yes, no, yes, no…
I hate to paraphrase Nietzsche, but to forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.
Of course I turned to the south, of course I turned away from Betty Hutton. But please, let ole Fred Nietzsche speak for me again, if you’d be so kind: ‘To predict the behavior of ordinary people in advance, you have only to assume that they will always try to escape a disagreeable situation with the smallest possible expenditure of intelligence.’ Come to think of it, didn’t I mention somewhere along the way that I was now the apostate eternal optimist? So let’s just dispense with all talk of an assumed native intelligence from here on, okay?
So, yes, I turned toward Beaufort. In order to see the truth, you need to listen with your heart.
And no, that’s not Nietzsche.
That said, I set my course for Red Nun Number 2 at the entrance to Adams Creek, and as I looked over my shoulder I vowed to never look back. The main channel turned south then west, then south again, and narrowed to a width little wider than necessary for two boats to pass. The miles passed as the sun arced overhead, and with each passing mile my heart began to ache a little more. No sense of the ironic…that’s always been my problem…
So no, I didn’t listen. Not with my heart, anyway. Maybe with my ass, but that conjures up all sorts of unpleasant images I don’t want to deal with. Maybe I wasn’t any good at listening anymore. Take it for granted – I wasn’t listening to my heart; I wasn’t listening to Turtle-man, either. And I hadn’t listened to Betty Hutton. Why should I trust her? Why?
Couldn’t, not really…
No time now, gotta run…
Any number of excuses running through my mind, always running…
Another hour passed and I was at Core Creek, then the Newport River, and as I passed a little airport I turned left down a narrow channel and waited for a bridge to open, then motored into Beaufort. During that last stretch, before I docked on the waterfront, I watched as the engine temperature began creeping up and I hastily shut it down right as I pulled into the slip the dock-master indicated.
Fine. So that’s the way it was going to be. Even the boat knew I’d made a great choice -and now it was pitching a hissy-fit. What the hell, she was Swedish. What can I say? My boat knows me better than I do.
So, I hopped off the boat, trudged up to the Harbormaster’s to pay dockage, then asked where a good diesel mechanic might be found. There was another fellow in the office putting a business card on the bulletin board by the door, and the Harbormaster indicated here was my man, that he was the best in the area. I walked over, detailed symptoms. He listened attentively, looked intelligent. Name was Sven. Hey, is that instant karma, or what?
“I can get to it in the morning if you’re in a hurry. Or I can wait ‘til Monday. Save you on the overtime that way. Mind if I come down now and take a quick look at it?”
“No, not at all. Ready when you are.”
“Which one is it?”
“The white Hallberg Rassy down on the end. Liebestod is the name.”
“Holy shit, a Wagnernite. Don’t see that name around much these days, you know. Pretty fatalistic, don’t you think, for a boat.”
“It was my wife’s idea.”
“Oh, she down on board?”
“Only her ghost,” I said as I slipped out of the Harbormaster’s Office. Just like a ghost, I was getting pretty good at this slipping away thing…
The mechanic clunked and thumped around in the engine room for a few minutes, then came up topside for some air.
“A Volvo diesel? Don’t see many of those anymore. Everything these days is Japanese.”
“Swedish boat, ya know.”
“Yeah. What is she, forty, forty-two feet?”
“Forty three. A little over a year old.”
“Pretty wood down there.”
“Well, it’s my home now. I didn’t want to live in a Clorox bottle.”
“Know what you mean. Well, I think I know what’s wrong. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to fix. See ya first thing Monday.”
“Well, we’ll be here.” The mechanic took off and I went below and turned on the heat. After a quick shower I steamed an artichoke and fixed some Earl Grey, then pulled out a cruising guide to the Carolina coast and flipped through the pages before settling on the section detailing the area around Beaufort. Where was the section on running away from your destiny?
But…doesn’t your destiny always catch up with you…?
I was reading when I heard a familiar knocking on the hull.
“Marty? You down there?”
Oh, JOY. Not exactly what I had been hoping for…
“Howya doin’, Hank? So, you decided to head south too.”
“I was about a mile behind you when you cleared the second bridge, and holy shit, Martin, your boat took off like it had been shot out of a cannon. Man, ain’t you ever heard of reefing the main? I never seen a sailboat on it’s rail like that!”
“Some days, Hank, you just gotta say ‘what the fuck’; this was one of ‘em.”
“So, no Betty Hutton for you, huh. Kinda surprising.”
I looked down as he said that, wondered why his talking about it bothered me. Actually, thinking about Betty made me hurt inside, and that’s when I finally realized I hadn’t been obsessing about Ruth for most of the day.
“I’m still not sure what I’m going to do about that, Hank. I had a temperature problem, you know, with the engine, show up, and thought there’d be better mechanics down here.” I hated the lie, but there it was. I was making excuses, covering my ass. Hank looked at me knowingly.
“Sure, buddy. You had dinner yet? Smells weird down here.”
“My God in heaven; you trying to poison yourself? There’s a great, I mean great burger place up the road a piece. Good honky-tonk music, too.”
“No way, Hank. Not tonight. I got way too much sun today.”
“Really? Too bad, cause you’re coming with me.”
“Shit, Hank, what is it now? You found more women?”
“One in every port, Marty. One in every port.”
We walked into town and found Hank’s honky-tonk, and I sat with him and had a beer while he ate his cheeseburger. The place was quiet, and I could see an air of quiet desperation on Hank’s face. Alone only a few days and he was desperate. I could just imagine: he and his wife hadn’t touched one another in years, and from what I’d seen and heard I couldn’t blame him, but that’s the trouble with making snap judgments like that. You never know until you hear both sides. Again, ole Fred said it best: Judgments, value judgments concerning life, for or against, can in the last resort never be true: they possess value only as symptoms, they come into consideration only as symptoms – in themselves such judgments are stupidities.
The trouble with being a cynic, I was learning, was how totally stupid I had become.
But, I digress.
I called Betty later that night, after I walked a dead-drunk Hank back to his boat and made sure he found his way down below without breaking his neck. It was late, and I hoped I wouldn’t be waking her, but I figured by this point I owed the woman at least an explanation of my recent movements. She picked up on the third ring.
“Hello?” Her voice sounded tired, anxious, sleepy.
“It’s me. Martin.”
“Where are you?”
“Beaufort. Engine trouble.” I wanted to get that out there before I changed my mind. Anyway, I figured it would ease her sense of rejection.
“Yeah. Mechanic will fix it Monday morning.”
“Uh-huh. So, what are you doing after that? Headed for South America?”
“I’ve been thinking. You said you were curious what it’s like, what it’s like to live aboard, go sailing. Did you mean it?”
“Yes, I did.”
“You want to come down next week? Spend some time here, maybe go out a couple of times and get a feel for it?”
There was a long silence. Too long.
“I don’t know, Martin. Let me think about it, would you?”
“Sure thing. Take your time.” I hung up the phone, disgusted with myself.
I woke up the next morning feeling completely stupid. I was a total Nietzschean now, if the way I felt was an accurate indication of my new station in life. What did he say about women? Ah yes, women: They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent. I reckon he said that after getting the clap from that hooker in Köln. Wonder how high he got with that one?
The mechanic was true to his word and was there first thing Monday morning; I had coffee going when he tapped on the hull, and invited him down for a cup before he got started. We sat in the cockpit as the sun rose over the dockside buildings and talked about sailing for a while, then Turtle-man stuck his head out of his shell and squinted at the world before he walked on up into the light of day. He saw me sitting in the cockpit and waved, then walked over.
“That coffee? Got any more?”
“Sure Hank. Help yourself?”
“Where you keep the cups and stuff?”
I excused myself and went below – fuming as I went – and fixed another cup for Hank, then went back up and handed it to him.
“You gonna head out today, Marty?”
“We’ll see what the doc here says, then figure out the next move.”
“Oh, you’ll be good to go by ten at the latest.”
I heard my phone ringing; it was down on the chart table so I ducked back below and flipped it on.
It was Betty.
“Martin? You there?”
“Ah, yes, I am.”
“You planning to stay in Beaufort?”
“Ah, yes, for now.”
“Could I take you up on your offer?”
My heart skipped a beat.
“Ah . . .”
“Martin, I know. I’m sorry. You reached out to me and I hurt you. I’m sorry, alright?”
“You don’t have to apologize.”
“Well? I want to join you for a . . . Look, I’ve got someone looking after the shop for a week, a close friend. Could we try it for a week?” The reception faded for a moment while she talked, but it came back strong.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“And I see you.”
I turned and looked up to the boardwalk above the docks; there between a host of radio antennae and sailboat masts I could just make her out. She waved at me, and my heart about leapt from my chest.
“Excuse me,” I said to Hank and the mechanic as I jumped from the boat, and I walked hurriedly toward the gate by the Harbormaster’s Office. She watched me, then started to walk toward the gate, and we met there and I kissed her. I kissed her hard.
“Stuff’s in the car,” she said when we finally came up for air. “I didn’t bring much. Hope that’s okay.”
“You’re here. That’s all that matters.” We held hands as we walked. We walked for what felt like hours. All truly great thoughts are conceived when walking.
“Hey, y’all,” Turtle-man said as we walked up to the boat an hour later. “Mechanic said you could pay his bill at the harbormaster’s office; he had to take off. I think he finished all the coffee, too.” Funny how you can tell someone’s lying – you know, the way they can’t make eye contact, the way they look somewhere else – and not at you – when they lie.
“Yeah, thanks, Hank. Hope you enjoyed it.”
He hopped down to the dock and scuttled away while I helped Betty board.
“So, where you wanna go?” I asked.
“OK, well, how about Tahiti? Bermuda? Maybe the Sandwich Islands?”
“Never-mind. I promise, you don’t want to go there.”
“Well, think in terms of a week.”
“Well, we could duck outside, sail around the Outer Banks and up to Norfolk, then come down through the Dismal Swamp, back to Elizabeth City. You really ought to see the docks from the water, if you haven’t already.”
“Sounds good to me, Martin. Could we leave the car here?”
“Don’t see why not, but I’ll ask up at the office. What kinda clothes you bring?” We inventoried her stuff. She had everything but offshore foul-weather gear, so we ran up and bought her some basic gear, then stowed her stuff below. We had to re-park her car, but that was it – that was all she had to do to cut the ties that bind us to land and that sense of place we take for granted.
And yet, I think she found that disconcerting.
By noon we backed out of the slip and sailed from Beaufort and regained the Morehead City Channel, taking Fort Macon to the right and Shackleford Point to our left, and with that we turned around and looked at land slipping away like memories we both no longer needed, or wanted.
You can question the wisdom of taking someone who’s never sailed before into the waters off Cape Hatteras all you want, but if you pay attention to the weather it’s not all that bad. The waters near shore aren’t terribly deep, and consequently quite rough; not so if you plot a course well offshore and steer northeast past Ocracoke and the Cape itself, then head north along Currituck Sound overnight until your radar turns it solid mush. Confusing? When the radar goes wonky you know you’re close to Norfolk; as you approach these waters every naval vessel on the east coast turns on it’s radar jamming equipment, and you keep a steely-eyed watch out for mammoth-sized floating islands called aircraft carriers as they lumber in-to or out-of Chesapeake Bay via the Thimble Shoal Channel. Quite a sight, really. Unless you get in their way.
With the weather perfect, this would make a decent introduction to sailing for anyone.
We covered all the basic stuff, trimming sails and how to steer, and she seemed to enjoy herself as she walked the boat over swells and danced her across mounting waves as the afternoon passed and the breeze picked up. She began to take a beating from the wind and the sun so I lathered her up and cooked dinner while she steered us into our first evening at sea. I set up the cockpit table and carried chow up and we ate as the sun set.
I was looking ahead – thought I could just make out a hazy speck on the northern horizon – then I watched in horror as the speck grew insanely fast into flaming streak. I just had time to say ‘watch out’ when two Navy jets went silently by a few hundred feet off our right side, then their sonic boom hit.
It hit like a physical blow. The boat – all 45,000 pounds of her – heeled over sharply to port as the concussion slammed into us. Food flew off plates as we listed, and I grabbed Betty as she slipped from her seat toward the water. The boat righted itself after a moment, and I cussed at the now invisible jets. And there, about a mile behind us, I saw a U S Coast Guard cutter steaming towards us. Oh, this was just ducky!
“Liebestod, Liebestod, stand-by to be boarded. Liebestod, this is the U S Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, please acknowledge.”
“Coast Guard, this is Liebestod. Understood.”
“Roger, Liebestod, maintain present course and speed. Out.”
Presently a huge inflatable boat with about five or six uniformed – and heavily armed – sailors began to crash through the swell on it’s way to our position, and as they pulled alongside I opened the boarding gate in the lifelines on the left side of the boat and stood back as the first of four armed coasties jumped on board.
“Just stay where you are and keep your hands where we can see them!” the first one aboard said.
“Not a problem,” I said to the hawk-faced young man. His eyes flicked about the boat, taking in possible threats as he did, but his hand never left the sidearm he carried. “What can I do for you men, today?” I said.
“Just shut up, sir.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Just shut up! We’ll ask the questions!”
“I see. Could I speak to your Captain, please?”
“Just move out of the way, sir, while we search the boat.”
“Help yourself,” I said as politely as I could manage. Hawk-face ducked below; another machine-gun toting lad followed. Two more remained on deck; one of them walked over to me.
“Sir, hope you’ll excuse Cargill. He’s just out of Academy, takes things a little too seriously, if you know what I mean.”
I looked at the two on deck; they were sweating and looked ill-at-ease.
“You men like a Coke or something?”
“Not allowed, sir.”
“Fun job, huh?”
“Has it’s moments, sir.”
“Captain!” came the call from below. “Need to examine ship’s papers!”
I went down the companionway, but not before asking the sailor to keep an eye on the helm. I slid into the seat behind the chart table and pulled out my papers and Ship’s Registry, and passed them to the young officer. He flipped through the pages quickly, then passed the books back to me. He, too, looked hot and sweaty.
“Can I get you and your men a Coke?” I asked.
He looked around furtively, said ‘yes’, and I went to the icebox and pulled out a couple and tossed them to his men.
“How ‘bout the men topsides?” I asked.
“Hardesty! Miller! Grab a Coke, but keep ‘em outta sight. The old man will scream if he see’s ‘em!”
“Yessir!” came the topsides reply, and I tossed up a couple more.
“We’ll need to go over your safety equipment, sir, then we’ll be gone.”
“What were those two jets doing out here, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Couldn’t say, sir. Need to see your man-overboard gear now.”
I took the officer and his men around the boat and showed them the requested items. The officer seemed genuinely disappointed that he couldn’t uncover a safety violation.
“Nice boat, sir. We’ll be off now. Appreciate your courtesy.”
“Right. You might keep in mind that people out here would appreciate a little courtesy too, now and then. Good day to you, too, by the way. Keep safe.”
The men jumped off as quickly as they’d come, and buzzed off in their inflatable.
Betty looked pale and upset.
“Martin, you’d better sit down before you have a stroke!” she said.
“What . . . why?”
“Martin, you turned as red as a beet when that young officer popped off at you.”
“Shoulda thrown his ass overboard!” I said.
“Glad you didn’t,” she rejoined. “Hate to spend the rest of our first trip sailing this thing back in by myself.” She smiled as she said that, but still looked ill-at-ease.
“Yeah, well, how ‘bout you? Want a Coke?”
“Sure. I could use one.”
I went back below and reached into the fridge. No Coke left.
That felt about right. Just ducky, as a matter of fact.
We got the dinner mess cleaned out of the cockpit and I brought up some fresh fruit just as the sun dropped below the horizon. I could just make out land on the radar, out at it’s maximum 24 mile range. Occasionally the radar would fill with pencil line beams as some destroyer or aircraft jammed every radar signal in the area, then just as quickly it would clear. All very weird.
I opened a bottle of port and we had a glass, and I began to settle down. The air cooled down after the sun disappeared and we put on jackets, then I steered by the soft red glow of the compass. By that time I cared not one bit about malignant Navy jets or disingenuous Coast Guardsmen. I could only listen to the music of the spheres and wonder at my place in scheme of things. And…Betty’s place with me.
But those kinds of questions could wait. The wind picked up, a large swell too, and suddenly the night looked very long indeed.
We slept the next night at a marina in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, and we slept the sleep of the dead . . . Oh, we were tired, but Betty seemed right with things.
We had raced a line of thunderstorms into the Chesapeake, then taken refuge in the first marina we could duck into as thunder and lightning rumbled and crashed all around this harbor full of aircraft carriers and weary looking warships. Too tired to cook, we had showered and slipped under the sheets even though the sun was still up.
I woke sometime during the night. Betty was sleeping with her back to me, and the world below decks was a smooth pastiche of gray-shaded memories, each calling me back to Ruth. I lay looking at Betty’s neck, the smooth line of her shoulder, the curve of her neck. There was a taste of the familiar in those lines. Were they too familiar, I wondered?
It was as though I could see Ruth floating over the scene, looking down on me – and Betty – as if she was taking stock of all my recent choices. Here in these shades of gray, the morality of chance was an ambiguous construct, but Betty didn’t seem to believe in chance.
Was it too soon, I thought once again? Too soon to embrace the company of another woman, another future? Or does one simply hold on to love when it finds it’s way to your heart? Is love – true love – really that precious, truly so rare?
What was this, this affair with Betty? An infatuation? La forza del destino? Un voyage du coeur? Still, the more I thought about her the closer to the precipice I grew. Was I really ready for this leap of faith, or had I found myself in a slow-motion act of contrition? Had I crawled on my belly to the edge, only to stare down into an abyss?
When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. So sayeth Fred, anyway. Maybe we face the truth in that moment, or perhaps we just make amends. The guilt is always there, no matter what you tell yourself, no matter how you sugar coat your lies.
Love is an endless enigma, an exploration of the workings of the head and the heart, certainly, and as such beyond the understanding of mere mortals. I woke up with that thought piercing my skull, and it left me feeling unsure of my footing all that next day.
We refilled the water tanks, then motored across the harbor to a fuel dock and topped off the tanks. We were going to take the Great Dismal Swamp Canal today and tomorrow, so it would be necessary to motor the next two days . . . an unnatural activity for a sailboat, but one all too often unavoidable in a world so divided into parcels of ownership and outposts of oblivion. In this world, sailing becomes a metaphor of avoidance.
Topped off, we made our way down the Elizabeth River to the Deep Creek cut-off, and as we left behind the suburban sprawl of Norfolk and it’s environs we entered another world. A primeval world. Reptiles of every kind swam in the iron-colored water beside us, and none seemed friendly, or gently inquisitive. Trees hung over the water as we approached the Deep Creek Lock, and we motored slowly, reluctantly in. Once inside the lock, we were as held captive in a mysterious world cut off from the normal freedoms of the sea, we would be held in the embrace of a world distinctly out of the normal ebb and flow of time.
The gates shut and the water began to rise, and as we bobbed and shook in the rising flow my sense of isolation grew.
What was it? Could it be that I was now completing the first circle?
I had not two weeks ago transited this very lock, headed into this very same canal. The lock-keeper came alongside as we entered the confined space, and he looked at me strangely, like – ‘what are you doing here again, mate?’ – and as I tossed him a line, he eyed me suspiciously.
“Weren’t you just here last week?” he asked. “Headed south?”
“Oh, well, just wondering.”
Yes, me too.
Most voyages are circles – in one way or another – just as life tends to the circular, just as human history is cyclical. How do we keep focused, I wondered, within the ever changing music of repetition?
Against boredom, even gods struggle in vain. Eh, Fred? What’s that you said? Surely you weren’t thinking of me when you said that?
Shades of gray?
Betty Hutton was a contradiction in terms.
In terms I could barely comprehend, too, as it turned out.
A lawyer, living in the political world – what I knew as a world of lies and false promises -and now she was running, too. Running from the ruins of her own shattered illusions, staking her claim with a chance inheritance – and finding the need to keep running from her past now an undeniable need.
She steered the boat with pure concentration, like her life depended on the precision of the course she held. I looked at her as we exited the lock and motored down the canal, her hand holding the wheel tightly, her eyes squinting into the morning sun. She seemed to want to be in my element, wanted to impress me. It was a funny feeling, really, that she wanted to fit in, wanted to belong to these nomadic wanderings.
Was the calling she heard last week, this chance voice she stated had connected us, really so strong she felt compelled to join me? Had the past unravelled her present so completely? Leaves floated from trees like snow that morning, and…
…we drifted through time, into that afternoon, perhaps drawn by an urge so primitive it was beyond comprehension. My past dissolved into hers as dying leaves coalesced in our wake, and in this weeping dissolution came a union – or was it reunion? That’s the thing with eternal returns. It’s hard to tell what is from what was, but it’s there if you look for it.
Somewhere in that time we came to rest deep in primeval forest, fast in the grasp of denial and understanding, and she came to me. Birds flew overhead in dense overhanging limbs now bare of leaves, and dark shapes slid silently under the black water. Betty found her way to my need again, as we met within nature’s womb – and we kissed within leaves as they drifted by – and somewhere in that darkness I told her that I loved her.
I looked into her eyes; there was only love, sweet love, in that moment. She let go in my arms when she heard those words, tension dropped from her as words drifted over her, through her, and she climbed on my lap and dropped into that comfortable union that now felt so much like home, so much like the love I had known in years past, and as afternoon gave way to evening once again we rocked gently in those waters, her face on my neck, her tears on my soul.
Maybe, I thought, maybe when we run away from things . . . maybe, just maybe . . . are we running towards something? Maybe something unseen and undefinable, but forever real nonetheless? Are we running from emptiness, running from the emptiness that will too soon claim us, running to find love and hold on to love – and in the end – to know love as the respite it gives our soul?
What were we without love?
Falling leaves, waiting for the touch of earth?
We pulled up to the town dock in Elizabeth City just before noon the next day, and Betty jumped ashore. I told her that I loved her, again, and she said she loved me. I watched her as she said those words, but she never looked at me as she spoke them, and she walked away without saying another word. Without ever turning to look at me.
I took a hose and washed the tobacco-stained water from the hull, and rinsed sea-salt from the decks of the boat while the sun beat down on the warm teak, and I thought how empty my world felt without that woman beside me. Was it really so simple?
Is life really so simple?
Without union, must life really feel so pointless? Like salmon swimming upstream to spawn, all life pointless without the moment. And in that blinding revelation, do we only then to pass into night?
After an hour Betty hadn’t returned. I felt anxious.
Two hours later, and she wasn’t back.
Then three hours. Four hours.
I walked to her shop. The door was locked, the sign said they were closed.
I walked back to the boat, to my home, and suddenly my world was truly empty again. She was gone. I went below, cooked dinner for both of us, but she didn’t come back. I knew she wasn’t coming. Not all returns are eternal.
As the sun set that evening, I felt as bereft as I had only months before. I knew Betty Hutton had decided against our future. Decided against her own voice. Her own counsel. I turned the oil lamps down low and the boat below was suffused in honey-warm glows that I hoped would keep the chill from my heart, and I listened to music as I drifted into dark, familiar corners.
This honied world, her illusion of permanence had all felt so real. Maybe that was what drew Ruth and I together. Maybe we had created an illusion so strong, so enduring, that even time couldn’t rip it asunder. But maybe we can create illusions so powerful, so compelling but once in this life.
The song changed, and I heard Nick Drake’s River Man join me in the fading warmth…
Had Betty come to me in a word, as hope wrapped in a promise of the new? Hadn’t she believed? Believed in her own perception? Oh, what had we lost? In the end, wasn’t she bound to the illusions she had crafted throughout her life, just as I was bound to mine?
Had she unable to connect? Connect, to that geometry of our hearts, to the geometry of chance, and in the end unable to accept that my dark skies might blow away?
Another time, perhaps? Another man . . . another River man, perhaps . . .
“Oh, how they come and go . . .”
Maybe Turtle-man had been right: maybe I should have run.
I guess it’s what happens when you hate Nietzsche, but find yourself living in his world, or at least in the world he hated. There’s just no getting past the cycles that come to our lives unbidden. Do they intrude, or are we not then joined in forever spreading ripples in time? Joining in the chaos of becoming, never the oneness of simply being.
Drake’s song echoed in my head that night.
What had I missed? Had Betty been so damaged by her years working with her uncle in the political world? Had she had lost faith in herself – in her premonitions – or had she seen something new – some new insight, perhaps – while out on the water with me?
Had I done something wrong? Had the Coast Guard encounter been so disconcerting? Had she constructed a romantic’s longing for a dream – only to find the reality far less interesting to her? Or had she been seduced by my dream, felt compelled to make it her own?
Can you find satisfaction in the dreams of distant dreamers?
We had made such beautiful music together, so why had that connection so easily discerned, which had grown so palpably in our hands, dissolved so easily?
Indeed, had it?
Where was she? And why was she running? If there is something to pardon in everything, there is also something to condemn. I know that’s true, cause Fred said so that night.
Yeah. You heard right. Nietzsche – that bastard – joined me in my quest to find the truth. I found his appearance very disconcerting. What can you say to a man who’s been dead for over a hundred years.
‘Hi! How’s it hangin’?’
No, I didn’t think so either.
So, anyway. What had I missed about Betty?
And why the hell wouldn’t that old bastard let me sleep???
I walked back to her shop the next morning. It was still closed, or so said the unturned sign inside the door. No lights on. No one working in the shadows.
I returned to the boat and – now feeling completely despondent – cast off my lines, backed away from the dock and drifted into the channel. I unfurled sail and let soft breezes from the north carry us where they might. Carefully, quietly, I sat and watched sails as they filled and luffed in the capricious breeze; I worked them softly, squeezed as much speed as I could from each passing eddy. Fred sat by me in the sun, feeling free, I suppose, after being dead for a hundred years, but mumbling in German all the while, and looking very irascible.
Soon our morning gave way to a higher sun, and I found I was forgetting her. I was losing myself in the constant dance of being and becoming, wondering why I had consented to play this game again. Wasn’t I too old for this nonsense? Hadn’t I had my one great love? Was I being a little churlish to ask of life that I might have another great love? Or was I indulging in a contradiction in terms?
A few hours later we passed the spot where I had run over the stump and subsequently run aground, and I kept a wide berth as I passed the spot, and all the while Fred and I talked about Hank and the vagaries of friendship. I felt a branch run along the keel, not a subtle warning that failing to heed life’s mistakes often only leads to a none-to-subtle recurrence.
Clearing the spot, I eased sail and we cruised along happily through the afternoon. As the sun set, I saw a full moon clearing the eastern horizon and decided to push on through the night. Fred – him being dead and all – didn’t seem to mind, and we stayed up through the night talking about Wagner. Take my word for it – that was one weird night.
By morning I was predictably exhausted as we drifted into Beaufort, and I saw Turtle-man walking down the dock from the showers toward his boat. He looked up and saw me, gave me a little wave and walked down to the space next to his and took my lines as I slowed to a stop neatly in the slip.
“Didn’t think you’d make it here ‘til this afternoon,” he said as I furled the main into the mast.
“Ah. So I was expected?”
“Yeah. They came down last night, picked up her car.”
“Left a note with me. For you. She said you’d probably get here today, so I figured you’d get in tonight. You made good time.”
“Full moon. Sailed all night.”
“No shit! In the Waterway?”
“Was erwarten Sie von einem Idioten zu erwarten,” Fred said, and Hank shook his head in disbelief.
“You had breakfast yet?” he said.
“No, not yet. You?”
“Let me get some shoes on. Then I’ll let you buy me breakfast.”
Ah, yes, just what I’d been hoping for. All night with Nietzsche, and now – breakfast with a turtle.
We walked up to a diner that had a nice breakfast menu and sat in an old booth with a worn formica top and greasy red vinyl seats, and two cups of strong, black coffee magically appeared before burned bacon and runny eggs. Hank seemed quiet, unnaturally quiet, really, as he sat there – his head just out of his shell – basking in the mid-morning sun that slatted through dusty blinds. After a while he handed me Betty’s note.
I looked at the crumpled paper on the old white formica. The paper looked full of malevolent purpose sitting there, like the paper knew it was destined to cause pain, and even relished the thought.
Wit is the epitaph of an emotion, Fred said to me with a smile on his face, his eyes focused on the letter. What was there left to do now but read Betty’s note, then toss out a witty aside to cover the useless expenditure of feeling.
‘Martin,’ her note began, ‘I wanted to thank you for an unforgettable five days. I will never forget them, nor your generosity of heart. I will never forget you, and will love you forever, and would stay with you as your friend and soul-mate if it was in my power to do so, but it is not. Please don’t ask me to explain. Love, B.’
I felt numb inside as I looked at the paper. There was one piece missing from this puzzle, and it filled my heart with dread to even consider the possibility.
“Hank, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, Marty. Fire away.”
“You said, when she came to pick up her car, you said ‘they came.’ Uh, Hank, who’s ‘they’, do you think?”
“Betty and her husband.”
Ah. Yes, that had to be the missing piece, right?
Fred was laughing so hard he almost spit out my coffee.
Hank told me about him. How it was apparent he knew what had happened, told me about the bruise on her cheek, about her black eye. How her husband had wanted to wait, to wait for me to get there, no doubt to give me more of the same. I was devastated. The betrayal sat in my heart and filled my soul with grief. I didn’t feel witty at all. Fred backed off, too. No pithy comebacks were needed now.
This just couldn’t be, I told myself, but all the pieces I had now fit comfortably together with solid precision. Fred just looked at me now, cracking his knuckles. Fucking philosophers.
How could she have done this? And why? But, what would he do to her now? How much more could he do to her?
Swallow your poison, for you need it badly, Fred reminded me once again.
Why would you say such a thing, Fred, to someone so confused. Didn’t you love someone, once upon a time? And did Betty deserve this, did she warrant this husband of hers . . . what could she have done to deserve such abuse?
Is it really any of our business? Fred looked at me with black, pinprick eyes.
No. No, a million times no. But here we are…this is one of those big life moments. Isn’t it?
Which is precisely why I walked back to Liebestod and filled her water and fuel tanks up, coiled her lines as I backed out of the slip, and set my course for Elizabeth City.
I never looked back. Not even once.
Fred did, though. He looked back almost the whole trip, yet he remained quiet. I’d even go so far as to say he was ignoring me.
If I’d asked him, maybe he would have told me about Hank talking frantically on the dock to a woman, then he might have related that he watched them as they ran to Hank’s boat and backed out into the channel. I might then have noticed that they were following in my wake, and that Hank was pushing his little boat as hard as he could to keep up with me.
Really, you never can tell about these things.
But Fred? No, for once in his life he kept quiet.
Down through Carolina’s sounds – and up again, without sleep – in the course of a couple of days was an insane undertaking, and I was by this point exhausted. I powered up Adams Creek Canal once again; I think I turned my head once to check for other traffic but didn’t notice Hank and the woman back there among all the other traffic.
I think Fred was napping in the sun, bless his heart.
I navigated through buoys into the Neuse River, and turned northeast toward the Pamlico, then northwest toward the Pungo; as the afternoon sun burned my shoulders I turned into the Pungo River, then the Pungo River Canal. By that time, as far as I knew, no one trailed me; there was no way Hank’s little 29 footer could have kept up with my 43. Out into the Alligator River, finally, and one last mad dash to Belhaven, where I tied up in the marina and collapsed in my berth.
I left Fred to take the night watch, which is why all my rum was gone the next morning. The dead are such drunks.
Sometime in the middle of the night I felt someone jump on deck, and I reached for the little Walther P5 I kept handy for such encounters, and I went into the passageway between the aft cabin and the companionway and listened . . .
“Marty? You awake?”
“Fuck, Hank, you trying to get yourself killed? What are you doing here?” I opened the bolt securing the companionway hatch and trudged up into the cockpit, and I saw…
…Betty, standing beside Hank in the glaring light of a full moon. I couldn’t tell in the gray shadowed moonlight, but it looked like her face had been beaten black and blue, and she wore a weary face over her tattered clothing. I stumbled when I recognized her, and they both reached out for me, kept me from falling back down into the boat.
“What the,” I managed to say.
“Hey, dick-head!” Hank bellowed. “Anyone ever tell you to keep your goddamned radio on?”
“We’ve been calling your sorry ass for about the last twelve or so hours, hotshot! God damn, but this mother fucking boat of yours is one fast-ass mother fucker!”
I had been sailing all day without my radio on? Shit, I’d been more tired than I realized.
“Say, Marty,” Hank said as he looked at the pistol in my right hand, “you gonna shoot me with that thing, or maybe put it away somewhere?” I think Fred coughed a little at that one, as he pointed at the VHF radio by his side.
“Fuck, sorry!” I put the pistol in the binocular rack by the wheel as I turned to look at Betty. I held her face, examined it as best I could in the pale light. “You alright, or do we need to get you to a doctor?”
“Martin, I’m so sorry…” and in an instant she was crying, clearly now a lost soul. Or a soul, lost in the moonlight.
“Hey, Marty, I don’t know about her old man. He was chasing her back toward Beaufort when she got to the marina. I think I saw him running out on the docks as we cleared the turn to the bridge. He’s probably checking ports for her, looking for her.”
“Have you called anyone?” I asked. “I mean, what happened, Betty?”
“We got the car,” she said between alternating fits of tears and stuttering shock, “he followed me, said he’d kill me if I tried to do anything but drive home. We stopped for gas and while he was in the rest-room I took off. He’s like gone completely crazy, Martin, over the past couple of years. I didn’t know what to do? Where else to run…”
“Yeah, well, we can talk about this later. What about the police; have you called them yet?”
“No, Marty,” Hank said, “she’d just got there, just as you were pulling into the channel. Two minutes earlier and she’d have made it to your boat.”
I was shaking my head in a blind rage, as now – finally – all the pieces of this puzzle were sliding into place one by one, and I didn’t like the emerging picture one bit. Fucking Fred, why hadn’t he said anything?
“We’d better call the police,” I said. “Betty, does he have a gun? Did he threaten you with a gun?”
“He said he’d kill me, and yes, he’s got at least one.”
“What kind of car is he in; do you know the tag numbers?”
I went below for my phone and dialed 911. A State Police dispatcher answered, and I filled her in as quickly as I could. She told me to stay where we were, that a Trooper could get to our location within about a half hour.
“Hank? Stay up here, keep an eye out while I put on some coffee.”
“Yeah? Lot’s of cream and sugar for me, huh?”
“Betty,” I said aloud, trying to sound annoyed at Hank despite the laugh I felt brewing, “come on down. Get out of this damp air.” Fred walked up behind her, clearly interested now.
She walked down the steps, Fred right behind her, down into the warm honied glow of my nether world, and she sighed as she sat on the settee.
“Oh my God, Martin, you have no idea how good it feels to be back down here. With you.”
“Listen, Betty, I don’t know if I can filter through all this now, okay? Let’s just take it one step at a time.” I moved to get the coffee on.
“I know, Martin. I really messed things up again, I know I have. I’m sorry, but there’s an inertia here I can’t understand anymore.”
Why did she keep apologizing? And Fred? He was looking at me with his narrowest, most serious eyes, and I could see he was trying his hardest not to speak.
The water heated and soon the smell of coffee filled the boat. I poured her a cup and she held it, let the warmth flow through her hands as she smelled the brew, and I handed a cup up to Turtle-man.
“Car coming.” he said a few moments later.
I tensed, remembered the pistol in the cockpit, and went up to get it.
“Think it’s a cop,” Hank said, and I could see outlines of overhead lights on the patrol car in the marina parking lot and relaxed a little. “Marty!” Hank said as he watched me with pistol in hand, “put that thing up, would you, or you’ll get us all killed!”
I ducked down below and returned the Walther to it’s resting place, and soon heard the trooper walking down the wood planked marina toward my boat.
“Y’all call about a disturbance?” the trooper asked.
“This is the place,” Hank replied. Then: “Martin? The cavalry has arrived!”
I came up into the cockpit, flipped on the cockpit lights and indicated the way up for the trooper. Bless his heart, he saw my teak decks and almost took his shoes off! He climbed up, handing me his clipboard as he negotiated the lifelines, and came into the cockpit.
“What’s the problem?”
“Let’s go below?” I said as I dropped down the companionway hatch. “You want some coffee?”
He followed me down, and turned to see Betty. He whistled when he saw the bruises.
The Trooper took the information for his report, asked if she wanted paramedics to come look at her wounds, and finished up by taking pictures of her face and arms. He radioed in Betty’s husband’s information, and we heard an all points bulletin go out a few minutes later. He thanked me for the coffee, told us to be careful, and walked back out into the night.
We were alone again. Naturally.
“Alright, gang,” I said – suddenly sounding a lot more on top of things than I felt. “I guess we take off at first light. Head back to Elizabeth City.”
“You want company?” Hank asked.
“Hell yes, Hank. You’re a part of this now. Couldn’t do it without you, buddy.”
He puffed up a little at that, gave an ‘aw, shucks’ look while he examined his bare feet, and he nodded in the affirmative when I asked him if he needed some shut-eye. I told him to go forward and get some sleep, then sent Betty back to my cabin to sleep. I took the Walther back with me and went up into the cockpit. I looked at the moon for a while, before it hid behind the western horizon, and I felt sleep chasing me again, felt my head nodding, my eyes closing…
I heard tires crunching on gravel, jerked up to see the first rays of the sun shooting between amber-orange morning clouds. Then I saw Betty’s husband’s car inching into the marina parking lot – with it’s headlights off – and I watched him move slowly to a parking space. He got out of the car, walked down toward the line of boats berthed at the tiny marina, and walked over to Hank’s boat. He looked down into the little boat, then jumped on-board and poked his head down below. Satisfied no one was aboard, he looked around until his eyes fell on me.
“Hey there,” he said as he walked over, “I’m looking for some friends of mine. They were on that boat there yesterday. Know where they might be?”
“There was some kind of a ruckus with them,” I said, “and the police came. They went with them to give a statement.” I could see the man’s eyes turn to steel; he was turning something over in his coat pocket.”
“Which way you headed,” the man said.
“Oh, south, probably. Down Florida way.”
He looked me over, and his eyes walked along the lines of the boat.
“If you want to leave a message, I think the marina office opens soon.”
“No, no thanks. I guess I’ll be going along. When you headed out?”
“Oh, me? I was just about to, soon as I finish my coffee. Wanna help me with my lines?” But he didn’t answer me; he turned and walked back to his car.
I started the engine, and let it warm up for a while, then let slip my lines and began to back out of the marina. The man stood by his car all the while, and I waved to him as I put the transmission into forward and motored back into the main channel. I looked down below for the first time and saw both Hank and Betty huddled at the base of the companionway ladder, and I held my hand out slowly and mouthed ‘stay’ to them. Betty nodded.
I looked back. The man was looking at me through binoculars. Suddenly he threw them into his car and jumped in; he backed out in a hail of gravel then tore out down the road.
Had he seen my hand signal to Hank and Betty? Fred was watching the man; clearly he didn’t like him much.
I watched as the man sped down the road toward a waterside park; there was no other way out of the channel than to go right past this park. His car left a cloud of white dust as it careened down the road, and he turned into the park. He was about a half mile ahead of us now, off to our left.
“Hank, better get on to the Coast Guard and give ‘em a sit-rep. Ask ‘em to call the State Police for confirmation of the assault.”
“Don’t talk like that. We’re not on television.” He looked sheepishly at his feet as he slipped behind the chart table and flipped on the VHF radio. I heard him talking on the radio for a minute or so as I watched the man up in the park. He was out again, now standing by the open door of his car with the binoculars at his eyes, looking right at me.
The channel widened a bit by the park, to maybe three hundred yards, so I cheated over to the far right side of the channel. I guess that clinched it for him. He slammed the car’s door shut and walked toward the water; I could see a black pistol in his right hand.
“Stay below!” I said to Hank. “He’s got a gun out, and walking for the bank.”
“Should I tell that to the Coast Guard,” Hank asked as I slowed the boat down and threw her into a slow turn.
“Ah, yes Hank,” I said, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice. “Do that, would you?” The man knew I was stalling, and started to run down the riverbank towards us. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep out of range, but I kept moving back toward the marina in slow circles. Soon I could hear the thump-thump of a helicopter in the distance – the man heard it, too – and he brought the pistol up and shot at the boat. Once, twice, three shots…
“Hank! Tell the Coasties that the bastard is shooting at us!”
I felt the rotor blast of a huge helicopter as it thundered by overhead, and by the time I looked up and saw the huge orange striped beast slowing near the far side of the channel, I also saw the man running to his car, then driving back down the road for the main highway. The helicopter hovered overhead for a moment, and I heard Hank telling them that we were alright, and they took off after the car.
“Alright, y’all can come up now,” I said as I swung the boat into a one-eighty. I steered for the marina, and docked where we had laid not a half hour ago. Hank helped me with the lines, and I could tell he was rattled by the way he was chattering away.
“I think I’m going to go change my underwear,” he said after a brief pause in his diatribe.
“Not a bad idea,” I said, then looked up as two State Police patrol cars came tearing into the parking lot. The officers jumped out of their cars and jogged down to us on the pier.”
“Y’all alright?” one of them asked.
“So, the guy shot at you?” the other asked. This one had taken the report earlier that morning.
“He did at that,” I said.
“Did he hit the boat?” the first one asked.
“You know? I haven’t looked?” I jumped aboard and leaned over the left side of the boat. Didn’t see anything, though.
“Here it is,” the second officer said, digging with a pencil at the teak coaming surrounding the cockpit. I looked at the impact point, guessed that the angle the man was standing relative to us when he fired. If the bullet had been a few inches higher he would have hit me. I felt dizzy, and sat down.
“Well, well,” the officer said as he dug the radio out of the holster on his hip, “we got us an attempted homicide!”
“I think I need a fucking drink,” I said to no one in particular. Fred was laughing now, but he turned to look at the sunrise.
Betty never left the inside of the boat that day. I think she was terrified her husband would show up at any moment, though I don’t know what staying below would have done to help that. I began to put pieces together again, and began to understand that Liebestod and I must have come to represent safe harbor for Betty.
I didn’t know a lot about battered women back then. That would change over the next few days.
A Trooper came ‘round later that day and told us that Betty’s husband was still at large. He didn’t know what had happened, only that police had lost him in a crowd of people out on the Cape somewhere, and that they had recovered his car. It was assumed he was still armed. I heard Betty gasp down below, and walk back to the aft cabin.
I looked at a map. He could hitch a ride or steal a car, be here inside of two hours if he was resourceful enough. There was now no doubt the man was crazy enough to try anything, and I wondered just how the hell Betty had gotten involved with such a character. She seemed pretty intuitive and insightful about people, so I assumed something had changed. But what had gone wrong? Me?
Whatever, we couldn’t stay here, couldn’t stay linked to land whatever we did. I looked at charts of the surrounding area and saw a million places to hide, literally an infinity of anchorages where we could hole up and wait for this thing to blow over, but I thought about Betty and her face, how I really should get her to a medical facility and get her jaw x-rayed, and to check her left eye. The white was streaked with blood, and a hard black ring circled it now. Maybe the orbit was fractured?
We could go back to Elizabeth City, but that might not be comfortable for her. We could head to New Bern, where we had ridden-out the hurricane. Or we could return to Beaufort, which had a nice hospital nearby. That was my choice, and I went below to ask her what she wanted to do.
She was huddled up in the aft cabin, sitting in a corner with her knees pulled up tightly to her chest, and she was staring blankly into nothingness, rocking back and forth to a forgotten lullaby.
“Betty?” I said. Nothing. Not even a flicker of recognition.
I sat by her on the bunk and put my hand on her shoulder; she flinched, drew more deeply inward and began to shiver.
Alright, I said to myself. That’s it. Time to move.
I went up and rousted Hank, and we got both boats warmed up, our lines cast off, and we backed out into the channel again. We motored side by side at a sedate four knots until we cleared the tightly packed buoys marking the approach channel, then I yelled across for Hank to take the lead, that we’d retrace our route back to Beaufort and get Betty to the hospital there.
It was mid-afternoon now, but we’d all had at least a little rest so Hank and I decided to keep moving together through the night. I opened up the hatch in the aft cabin while down below – to let some fresh air in – and could just lean over the cockpit coaming and look down into the stateroom; Betty was still balled-up on my bed, staring into the abyss.
“You need anything, Betty, just call out, OK?”
Nothing. Not a flicker.
Fred leaned over and looked down at her, too, then just nodded his head. He understood all there was to know about where she was. He’d been there for a hundred years, after all.
We sailed downwind with a light norther at our back all through the night; Hank and I had separated a bit to avoid bumping into each other, but I kept him ahead of me all through the night so I wouldn’t lose him again. At one point I set the autopilot and went below to help Betty go to the bathroom, and I brushed her teeth as best I could and helped her get under the covers. She closed her eyes and went right to sleep while I rubbed her head, and when her breathing grew deep I returned topsides and resumed steering by hand for a while, looking at the stars in their courses. So many circles…
I kept thinking about one thing Nietzsche said once: All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth comes only from the senses. I had, Fred seemed to be reminding me now, to trust my senses on this one. I could see his scowling face sitting by me in the cockpit, and I could hear a voice – his voice? – telling me to trust my senses. I could fill in the blanks later, he told me, but there wasn’t anything devious about Betty that he could see or feel, and I had to trust him on that score. She had somehow gotten herself into a mess, he said, and had been looking for a way out when I’d come along. The question then became a simple one. Was I a victim of circumstance – Betty’s circumstances, really – or had Betty indeed reached out to me, out of a real sense of connection. If the former, then Betty was an opportunist, and I was her mark; in the latter case she was the victim, and I had come along when I had for a reason. She was reaching out to me, and something had guided her. Helping her reach out, for her very survival. I could feel Nietzsche in the air beside me – coaching me, reassuring me – and I could feel it in the way he looked at me, feel it in the dialectic collision our lives represented. He was, really, an interesting old fart, and as I thought of that an image of Ruth rained down on me.
Sometime the most important moment of your life comes at you in moments of brief insight, and perhaps we’re lucky enough to grasp those fleeting ideas as they dance in the air in front of us. Precisely the faintest whisper, the softest, lightest sigh, a lizard’s rustling under dry leaves, a breath, a flash, a moment – a little flash makes way in the night.
So little light.
It takes so little to see love for what it is. An asking, an offering, a sharing of hands in the night, two lost souls, reaching…
It takes so little effort to hold onto someone who reaches out for you.
And hadn’t it been easy to run away from her, too? Fred said this as he laughed out loud. I wanted to hate the fucker, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
After sailing through the night, we turned down Adams Creek once again, just as the sun slanted through the trees, and we made our way south towards the final canal before entering Beaufort. It was all downhill now, I thought to myself. I poked my head down below, heard Betty bouncing around down there, then I saw her walking on her own to the head. A minute later she came out into the light of day.
“Howya doin’, sport?” I said as she popped out of the open companionway.
She jumped at my voice, then looked up at me. She smiled, and I knew then it would be alright.
“Thirsty,” she said. “I’ve got cotton-mouth.”
“Well, help yourself. I can’t leave the wheel right now.”
“You want anything?” she asked, nodding her head, understanding our need.
“Oh, yeah, some cold water sounds good. Maybe an orange.” She nodded and padded off in her bare feet toward the galley, and a moment later popped up and passed a glass up to me. Some more thumping down below and she came up with an orange and sat next to me in the cool morning air. She peeled the orange and handed me a slice, and I took it from her fingers with my mouth and lingered a bit, kissed the tips of her fingers.
She smiled, accepting my love. Not running, not running away from me.
Oh! Is there hope? Fred sighed, a little too sarcastically.
The channel was wide here, still maybe a few hundred yards wide as it narrows towards the canal, but once in the canal proper the waterway narrowed to a hundred feet, or less, and the way was lined with thick trees and intermittent rolling farmland. After an hour of motoring down the straight confines of the waterway, I made out the overpass that marked the end of the canal. It was sixty five feet up in the air, and an occasional car rumbled over. The canal was a hundred and twenty feet wide as it went under the bridge, and a grim industrial gravel pit lined the way there.
And I saw him.
Standing at the crest of the bridge, looking down on us.
“Hank! Hank” I yelled, and I saw Hank react to the man on the bridge by shutting down the throttle and turning hard to port. I was too close behind him, as he turned in front of me, and I evaded by turning toward the riverbank on the right side of the channel, and in a nauseating instant I felt the boat slice into thick, soft mud. The bow of my boat was then crunching up through thick grass and trees, and came to a rest hard on the gravel banks of the canal, and I started cussing as I saw Betty’s husband take off at a dead run down the bridge toward our side of the canal. We had maybe a quarter mile between us – five minutes at most in this terrain – before he would reach us.
Betty looked at the man on the bridge with detached dread registering on her face, and I dropped below to get my Walther from it’s hiding place. I came up just in time to hear Hank’s towing bridle to slam down aft of the cockpit; he was backing down on us, indicating I should tie off and start to back out of the mud. I jumped to secure the lines, dropping the Walther in the cockpit as I did.
I was tying the bridle on the port side aft mooring stanchion when I heard Betty moan, and I turned around to see him thrashing through the brush above us on the canal walls. His eyes were full of black hate, and I saw him looking right at me. He jumped the last few feet and landed on the bow of my boat, the gun in his right hand pointed right at me, and then he smiled – at me.
I watched that smile form on his face even as I watched his finger tighten on his gun’s trigger. It would be a close thing, this whole living and dying thing.
I ducked just as he fired; I heard the round sizzling through the air above my head, then heard Hank screaming that he’d been shot, and I heard him hit the water beside his boat.
The I heard another shot, then another, and another, and I heard a body falling on the deck in front of me. I stood and saw Betty standing in the cockpit, my pistol in her hand, and I saw her husband lying on the foredeck of my boat, a vast open wound in his forehead spilling blood all over my decks. Fred looked stunned. The abyss had, what? Blinked?
I turned and looked for Hank; I could only see a red slick on the water and dove in. I swam around under water for a moment, then felt him and pulled him to me and swam for the surface. We burst into the light and I dragged his inert form to the bank; I could see his eyes flinching in pain, and he gasped for breath in ragged bursts; I tied him off then jumped for my boat and ran to the radio.
I saw then that Betty was down below, too; she was bleeding from a gunshot wound in her belly, and was now very pale – breathing in quick little gasps.
The Coast Guard and State Police had roped off the crime scene, and had taken both Hank and Betty by helicopter away from the canal. I remained on-board Liebestod – still stuck in the mud; we weren’t going anywhere, and the authorities hadn’t let me leave the scene. They needed witness statements, and paperwork always takes precedence over human misery and suffering, doesn’t it?
I recounted what I knew, even drew a little sketch for the police, and eventually a bright yellow tow-boat pulled me from the mud. A Coast Guardsman remained on Hank’s boat and steered her in to Beaufort, and I took Liebestod on to the town docks and berthed her where she had been not so long ago. A State Policeman came by wanting even more information, and kindly drove me to the hospital where Hank and Betty had been taken, and we talked about the incident at length before finding that both were in surgery – and would be for hours – and he drove me back to Beaufort.
I’d heard rocks and stumps tearing into Liebestod’s belly during her grounding, and called my trusty engine mechanic – Sven – to come down and assay possible engine damage before moving her to a shipyard for examination. He arrived a few hours later.
“So all that stuff up on the canal was you, huh?”
“Yeah. None other,” I said.
“Been all over the news. Did you know she was married?”
“No. No idea. She told me – told me she never had been; didn’t wear a ring, either.”
“Whoa. Man, you sure got lucky.”
Now that was an odd bit of irony, I thought as Sven watched me. Just how, I wondered to myself, had anything about this situation been – lucky? That I’d lived? I’d flown jets all my life, walked away from a few landings that would have made most folks piss their pants, but I’d never once considered calling that luck. Skill, training, not losing your cool; maybe all those things – but luck? What role had luck played here, in this amusing series of misadventures.
Is there really such a thing? And if Luck is a real thing, if life is indeed shaped by something as ephemeral as Luck, after all was said and done, had I really been – lucky?
And what was I going to do about Betty? Assuming she lived, that is.
Indeed, Betty was alive, if only just.
I called the hospital later that evening, wanted to get an update on both Hank and Betty’s condition, and learned that both were out of surgery. Hank was stable and in ‘guarded’ condition, while Betty was in ICU and was listed in ‘critical’ condition. I gave the person my telephone number and ask that I be called if there was any change in condition, then I fell into bed.
And I dreamed that night.
I dreamed I was flying again, flying a 777 from O’Hare to Tokyo like I had so many times before, watching the sun set over the North Pacific like I had a thousand times before, and I felt nauseatingly bored out of my mind as waypoint after waypoint slid by as the miles reeled off behind us. Off the Russian coast warning lights flared, and unreal noises erupted from behind me. Fire warning lights, hydraulic systems failures, losing altitude, watching the cold sea reach up through the clouds for me . . .
And there was Ruth, sitting beside me in the cockpit, watching me as I hit switches and adjusted power, all to keep the airplane in the air where she belonged. I was losing control. Losing control.
And Ruth sat there, watching me, a soft smile on her face.
“I’m losing control,” I said to her.
“It’s not funny, goddamn it! I’m losing her, losing her, I’m losing control!”
“You can’t control everything, Marty,” I heard Ruth say. “All you can do is keep trying, keep doing what you know best, then trust in yourself, Martin, believe destiny and fate aren’t just words. That only your belief in yourself will see you through all this.”
“I don’t believe in all that horse-shit!” I yelled over the screaming engines. I could see the water below now, could see the waves cresting clearly as they reached out for me. I turned to her as the jet slammed into those black waters, and the last thing I remembered seeing was her smile, but then I heard her as she said “Oh!” once, and my world turned black again, too, as we slid beneath those black waters.
I rented a car the next morning and drove to the hospital, managed to find my way to Hank’s room. He was up, staring wide-eyed at the television, and his wife was there, too. Why was that not surprising, I thought. I said hello to her, asked how Hank was doing, but she seemed coarse and ugly, didn’t want to talk to me. I looked at Hank and he just shrugged his shoulders and winced.
But he winked at me when I said I’d look in on him later.
Betty was up, and conscious, when I came to the ICU and asked the nurse to see her. She gowned me up and put a mask over my face and led me into the suite. Betty was indeed awake, and she looked at me knowingly as I came over to her.
“Is he…did I…is he dead?” she asked.
I nodded my head and she began to cry, softly at first but then more painfully. Tears ran down her face, her nose was running…
“Oh, Martin,” she said inside a long, breath-like sob.
“It’s over, Betty. Over.” I held her hand. I knew inside, however, that things like this never go away, they never just leave us in peace.
“Oh why, God! Why? Why? Why?”
‘She hasn’t heard yet, has she?’ Fred said to the room as he stood by my side. ‘God is dead.’
“God is dead?” I asked the room, and Betty looked up at me, the question in her eyes plain to see.
“Why would you say that?” Betty said between gasps.
I didn’t have an answer to that question, but somehow, I knew it was true.
Hank’s wife left again a few days later, though Hank said he thought someone had ticketed her broomstick in a handicapped parking space out front. Turned out she wanted him healthy enough to sign a divorce agreement that gave her everything; Betty looked it over while recouping in her room and told Hank to tell the bitch to go to hell, and told him she’d represent him if he wanted – for free.
I got Liebestod straightened up, and worked on Hank’s boat some when I could. I was surprised at how messy I found his boat, then realized he had spent that last week running after Betty and myself, in more ways than one trying to save our collective asses from death and mayhem. I asked Sven to come down and give me a hand getting her cleaned up and get some long overdue maintenance done on his little ship’s systems. I even dropped in a new chartplotter and weather fax; now Hank could keep himself away from danger, at least while out on the ocean. He’d have to stay away from Betty’s old flames to avoid getting shot again, I reckoned.
Sven and I picked him up at the hospital on a chilly November morning and we drove him down to the dock and helped him back on his boat. Of course he saw all the improvements we’d made right away, and Sven gave him a run down on all the new toys he had at his disposal. I could see that Hank was touched by the gift, by the way, I guess, his head popped up out of his shell.
It was December before Betty was cut loose from the hospital, and she asked if she could move aboard with me. She put her shop up for sale, and took care of Hank’s legal troubles in short order. Once she made it to Beaufort she spent her days at the town library, her evenings with me, and as she got better we tried to do some sailing now and then. We put up a little Christmas tree down below, and I managed to cobble together a few presents to put under the tree. The three of sat around the tree on Christmas Eve, the cabin all aglow in reds and greens and a strange kind of acceptance. We had a supper of crab bisque and cheese fondue; not really a Christmas thing but there was something kind and warm about that night. One I’ll never forget, anyway.
Hank took off after Christmas. Haven’t seen him since, but heard through the grapevine that he’d managed to get arrested down in the Bahamas. Something about making too much noise – in the middle of the night. I like to think of him getting it on hanging upside down from the top of his mast just as the mounties pulled up to his rail.
Somehow I know the turtle-man will keep at it – slow and steady – while my life will fly by at an unreconcilable pace. Maybe God died, for me anyway, when Ruth died, but I don’t know anymore. I really don’t. Maybe I’ve been given a second chance to make the dreams Ruth and I had about exploring the world come to pass.
Maybe this is the way she’d want things. Maybe it’s what God would’ve wanted.
As winter’s chill moved to the rivers and islands around Beaufort, Betty and I talked long into many nights about where we might pick up and go. She’d never dreamed these dreams before, so all this was all kind of new to her. Turns out that was how she spent her days up in the library; she looked through old books, read about faraway places told by dreamers who had long ago passed into the night, and she saw that world as my world. And it was her’s now too.
She was ready to let go. Ready to let go of the nightmares, the blank stare that held her still. If Ruth’s dreams had been mine, Betty was now a part of a new triptych. The three of us were united by a desire to wander away the remaining hours of our lives. It really was as simple as that.
Hard as I tried, I couldn’t forget Ruth. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to, for like the memories of my boy she had been a part of me. The best part, I have to say.
Besides, Fred wouldn’t dare let me forget those first few minutes, when I first walked into Ruth’s office. He’d brought us together, after all, and he’d been having way too much fun, or so he told me, to ever let us go.
(C)2007-2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com
I don’t remember when I first read this story, but it’s been a while. Another great one. Especially bringing in ‘Fred’ and his visions of human existence. Remarkable.
I used to cruise up and down the ICW, especially through the Dismal Swamp/Elizabeth City area, almost every year. I think I dreamed up this story sitting by the tiller one night. Fun memories, too.