On the morning we went to the marina, a vicious argument had erupted between my parents. It would be their last, though I don’t believe anything about that morning—a mild Saturday in April—suggested last things, or a new beginning, or relief of any kind. My father had clipped my ear on his way outside. “C’mon, let’s get some fresh air,” he said, with harsh emphasis on fresh air, implying a much-needed escape from the stale egg-scented air of my mother’s kitchen.
Had they argued over something so trivial?—my father’s eggs insufficiently cooked, “slimy,” then my mother’s hoarse tears, and then a wild swatting match as I sat slumped and carefully expressionless even as, all at once, my mother’s nose began to bleed? Had she then hurled a plate, which he ducked just in time? Perhaps that was another morning, but certainly there were shouts, grunts, the scraping of chair legs. I followed my father down the back porch steps, through the still-wet grass to his pale-blue Pontiac Bonneville that would take us to the marina.
I hadn’t looked at my mother on my way out of the kitchen, though she’d stayed by the sink, panting, a dish towel held to her face. I knew to keep my eyes trained downward and to show neither surprise nor displeasure. But I couldn’t have imagined that they would not argue again, that somehow we were just hours from the end.
Things were cheerful at the marina. That’s what my father always said. Things were better there. You could breathe fresh air, and hear yourself think, and watch the barges and boats and skiers out in the water. Or you could fish on the U-shaped pier for $1.50—this was the mid-1960’s, nothing cost much then—though that morning my father didn’t want to fish. “Let’s get away from the madding crowd,” he said as we drove up, jerking his head toward the half-filled parking lot. This was to be the first really warm day of the season, temperatures climbing into the 8O’s by late afternoon. Now it was nine A.M., and watery sunlight streamed into the car. I shrugged, it didn’t matter to me; there were plenty of things that we could do.
“What about the Andersons’ boat?” I said, not looking aside. We were on the winding oiled road that snaked along the shoreline. He wasn’t talking much and had forgotten to say where we were going. From the corner of my eye, I could see the familiar bulge in his jacket pocket, but he hadn’t reached inside. He’d stayed in his bedroom all morning, until just before breakfast. Though we’d rolled our windows down, his rank sweetish breath filled the car.
He said, “They might be using it today. It’s such good weather.”
“Not this early,” I said. “Mr. Anderson likes to sleep late.”
One of the six Anderson kids was in my class, and I’d slept at their house before; their father was an eye doctor who worked long hours. I saw Jeff every day at school, but since my father quit his accounting job (his employer was next door to the Medical Arts building where Jeff’s father worked), the Andersons hadn’t been over for dinner, and I didn’t think my parents had gone there, either, because they never went anywhere at night. They stayed home, either arguing or saying nothing at all.
“I don’t think so, Curtis,” my father said. “I don’t feel up to that—not today.”
“Up to it? Up to what?” I said. This wasn’t back talk; I sounded mildly curious.
“Fiddling with the life jackets, steering the damn thing— any of it,” he said. “If you want to fish, we could go back to the marina.”
“That’s all right,” I said. I’d always disliked fishing, but I enjoyed going out in the Andersons’ motor boat: I loved staring into the hard wind, and the way it pressed my face, eyes, eyelashes like a wild force of gravity. I was pleased that it blew so hard, and I didn’t fall over; it was even sort of easy to stay upright. Whenever we slowed down, I could hear my heart pounding.
I wasn’t the kind of boy who whined or begged, so I knew the boat was out of the question today. Also, my father seldom used words like “damn,” and I’d heard a melancholy bitterness in his voice. Looking sideways, I saw that his beautiful slender white hands kept flexing on the wheel.
We did stop at the pier where the Andersons docked their boat, but I could tell that he hadn’t changed his mind. Even though the key Mr. Anderson had given us lay in the glove compartment, bright and shiny. My father walked to the end of the pier, not even glancing at the boathouse. He stood with his toes at the edge, hands in his pockets, squinting into the misty blue horizon. The sun glinted in small ripples all over the lake; in the distance we saw an outboard and skier, the motor a faint drone to our ears. I’d followed my father awkwardly along the pier and now stood watching him: a tall blond man in his late thirties, looking boyish in jeans and a windbreaker, the set of his face mild and almost wistful.
He was saying, “And then, along comes a day like this, just to prove that you’re wrong about everything.” He spoke more slowly. “About every single thing.”
“What?” I said, but he didn’t turn around; he hadn’t looked in my direction since we left home.
“No,” he said, “I don’t feel like steering any boat. I’m not pilot material this morning.”
“That’s all right,” I said. I saw that I had, without meaning to, put my hands in my jacket pockets, exactly as he had done; we were both rocking back and forth in our sneakers, heel to toe. It looked as if he might tip forward and be lost over the edge of the pier, though there was no real danger. My father was an excellent swimmer.
I withdrew my hands and splayed them and began flapping them at my sides, senseless as any 12-year-old. Though I was much older, mentally, I often found myself impersonating a child of exactly my age. I rolled my feet sideways, standing on the outer edges like Jeff Anderson and other guys at school. I had heard someone’s mother say that this was a good way to ruin tennis shoes.
“Why don’t we go back to the marina?” I said. “We could fish for a while.”
A long silence. His toes were just over the edge, but he’d stopped the rocking movement.
“You’d like that?” he said vaguely.
“Sure,” I said, and I started jumping up and down on the pier, making a racket. The railings shook, the boards clattered. Now he glanced over. Now his eyes did meet mine. I was grinning like a small kid. Snickering.
“C’mon,” I said.
He followed me back to the car; as we drove back around he seemed livelier, more talkative, though I still wasn’t sure he was talking to me. His hands kept flexing on the wheel.
“Boats, you know, require a great deal of maintenance. Not to mention insurance. Not to mention docking fees.” He laughed, and so did I. “If you’re not careful,” he added, “one little boat could eat you alive.”
I said, without really thinking, “Mama doesn’t like boats, anyway. She’s scared of the water.”
“On the other hand,” my father said, “it’s rather princely of Anderson to take note of us—of such a one as me. To trust me, you know. With his precious hunk of fiberglass and steel.”
“I’d rather go fishing,” I said, kicking my shoe against the passenger door. “We can get some minnows. Let’s don’t use worms.”
“To extend such a favor to me” my father said, with a bark that resembled a laugh. “To my humble and supplicant self. . . .”
Now, in the front seat beside him, all at once I felt very frightened; I wanted to curl up in a ball, like a much smaller child, or an infant. To raise my knees to my face and rock back and forth, a soothing motion. I’d felt like that the other night after I went out to the kitchen and found my mother, bent over a cup of hot milk. She was a petite, once-pretty woman with red-rimmed eyes, and looked as if she’d been sitting there for hours. The oven clock said 3:18; my room was just off the kitchen and I’d wakened to the sound of clattering pans. The milk bottle sat near the stove, unstoppered.
“What is it?” I said. “What’s wrong?”
For a moment she looked mild and sorrowful, as if she couldn’t bear to tell me. Then she said, “It’s too late, I can’t protect you any more. Can’t protect you from the lies.” “Lies?” I said. “Or maybe you know, already,” she said, her hands circling the cup. (How many nights had she sat out here, like this? Nights when I had not wakened?) “Know what?” I said, my bare toes curled on the cool linoleum. I’d moved to sit down next to her, but now I stopped. I waited near the doorway.
She said, “Do you think your father resigned? Do you believe this foolishness about starting a business, about his creative powers being “stifled,” as he puts it?” She winced as though she wanted to spit, or cry. “But you’re such a smart kid, much smarter than either of us,” she said, almost fondly, “so maybe you do know. Maybe you knew before I did.” “Knew what?” I said. But then I said, “Because he drinks? Is that why?” She said, “First thing when he got to work—that’s what Stokely claims, anyway, and I might as well believe him. He didn’t get a C.P.A. by drinking in the morning.”
Stokely was my father’s boss—his former boss, I mean; my father said he was unimaginative, a company man.
“So what’s he going to do?” I said.
“That’s right,” she said. “What’s he going to do. As opposed to what we’re going to do, you and I.”
I stood there. “I’m going back to bed,” I told her.
“You want some milk?” she said. “Curt, honey, are you—” I went back to my room and shut the door.
When the car stopped, I didn’t want to open the door. I saw myself in bed, just like that night, curled up into a ball and rocking, rocking. Could I roll my balled-up self down the length of the fishing pier and over the edge and be lost? No, there were safety railings. There would be people all around.
My father and I opened our doors at the same moment. Outside, my father stretched his arms and said, “Fishing! Sunlight! Ah, your typical day at the marina.”
I said, “It’s Saturday.”
“But it could be any day—any day at all. We could come on Wednesday morning, or Friday afternoon.”
“I have school,” I told him, with the gravity of a much smaller child.
My father seemed excited and happy. “C’mon,” he said, “let’s go.” He took the wrinkled brown sack from inside his pocket and drank a long moment, then tossed the sack through the opened front window of the car. The smell had seemed sickly-sweet and pleasant inside the car, but as we waded through the knee-high cool grass, so fragrant and damp in the breeze blown off the lake, the memory did not seem pleasant, and I was bothered that it could change so quickly. I must have been frowning as I followed my father’s heavy tread along the cedar planks, out to the U-shaped fishing pier and concession. We went inside the screened room where they sold bait and refreshments. My father paid three dollars for us to fish, and since we hadn’t brought our poles, we had to rent those, too. That was another two dollars, and a styrofoam jug of minnows (we had to return the jug) was fifty cents. My father paid all this money cheerfully. “A bargain!” he told the concession-keeper, a shriveled and dark-tanned old man who’d lost most of his teeth. “Yep, they’re bitin’ today,” the old man said, and I remembered that he always said this, no matter what you said to him. “Good, good!” my father said. I could smell his sweetish breath but didn’t think the old man noticed. There was no one else inside.
We went out to the pier and got one of the good corner spots. There were just a few other men along the pier, my father’s age or older. No women or other boys. We’d been told before that there was brush along the lake’s bottom around the pier, to attract the fish, and that it was particularly heavy at the corners. Sometimes you thought you’d hooked a big one, but you’d just snagged on a piece of the brush. I hated that. Fishing usually made me feel disappointed and a little depressed, even on days when we caught a few. I disliked their ogling eyes as my father took them off the hook, and I particularly hated the sight of their dark swirling bodies inside the small metal drum where they stayed until we transported them home, and my father gutted them. We hadn’t brought the drum, either, so I didn’t know what we’d do if we caught anything. But it didn’t really matter, I thought. Today I was glad of the fishing. It was such a mild, clear morning, and the marina wasn’t crowded yet, and once we’d gotten our lines baited and had settled onto the wooden fishing stools, side by side, everything seemed very peaceful. My father seemed to calm down. Now and then he whistled a little, or made one of those jocular remarks that I only half-understood, but the smooth lake and mild weather seemed to relax him. When a teen-aged kid steering a small Evinrude outboard came skirting close to the fishing pier, waving, I was surprised when my father said, “Look at the fun he’s having—we should have gone out in the boat, shouldn’t we?”
“This is fine,” I told him. “I’d rather just fish.”
We were both watching the kid in the outboard, and I was wincing a little because of the noise. He kept circling back toward the marina, close enough to the fishing pier that the waves made our corks bob dramatically. It was against the rules to bring your boat this close, but none of the men on the pier seemed to mind. They were leaned over the railing like my father, smiling, as if wishing they were having fun like the teenager in the boat. For my part, I watched him jealously; I knew that he was just showing off. He was 15, 16, tanned and muscular, his swim trunks the same bright turquoise as the outboard. He wore no life jacket, which was also against the rules. He grinned maniacally as he steered the boat with one hand, waving at everyone on the pier. The men waved back, calling out hello’s over the buzz-saw screaming of the outboard. The boy couldn’t hear, of course; it was enough that he had an audience. He steered the boat through some neat figure-8’s, doing the tight loops at high speed, the boat half on its side. White water soared upward from the boat in dramatic sprays. Several of the men on the pier applauded the figure-8’s. My father was applauding, too.
“Look at him,” my father said. “He’s having a great time, isn’t he?”
“But isn’t that dangerous?” I asked, using not just the words but even the disapproving tone my mother would have used. “Shouldn’t he—”
“Look at that!” my father cried.
I looked and saw that the boy was turning the boat in tight circles, the front of the boat upraised and bucking as it slammed against its own churning wake. He lifted one arm in the air, as though taming a bronco. “Ride ‘em, cowboy!” one of the men yelled. Glancing aside, I saw that even the old man from the bait shop had come outside to watch.
When the boat hit an especially hard wave and the boy slid off his seat and into the water, I could feel his lips form that grim smile of satisfaction my mother sometimes allowed herself, staring at my father’s unconscious form sprawled in his easy chair, or on the sofa. A split-second later my heart pounded in fear and shame. The men on the pier were crying out, for the boat continued to circle wildly in the water, bucking and falling, the motor blades glinting fiercely in the sun. They were yelling because the boy, instead of swimming away and letting the boat run out of gas, had begun scuttling back toward it, reaching out a flailing arm as though to grasp one side of the boat and climb back on board. I glanced at my father in the boyish expectation that he would do something, but his face had sagged, his eyes whitish and helpless as a fish’s eyes. The men around us were yelling— “No! Get back! Don’t try it!”—but my father looked incapable of speech. His white hands gripped the railing as if his own life were in danger.
Out in the water, the boat kept circling senselessly. When the motor spun away from him, the boy lunged forward and clutched at the side of the boat, provoking cries of angry protest from the men on the pier. I knew that the boy could not hear them; and if he heard, would not have paid attention. When the spinning motor blades whipped toward him, the boy would lunge backward just in time. Each time he grabbed at the boat, I expected to see the blades fling out a ghastly foam of blood and tissue, but with each pass the boy escaped. This happened four times, five times. From the pier we watched helplessly, our stomachs churning as if to the rhythm of those terrible motor blades. Then for a moment the boat slowed a little, and the boy managed to get a firm grip on the fiberglass and hoist himself inside. He looked scared and winded, but he quickly grabbed the wheel and tore the boat out of its circling motion and headed away from the marina.
He kept on going, and didn’t look back. The men on the pier gaped after him, dully.
There was some uneasy laughter, and a few words muttered here and there, but then a grim melancholy silence overtook the pier. I felt that everyone wanted to leave, but only my father and I did leave. I could feel the other men watching from the sides of their eyes. My father had said nothing, but clasped my shoulder in a way that I could interpret. We lifted our poles from the water, and my father took them and the left-over minnows inside the bait shop. On the way home, he didn’t speak. He stared straight ahead as if mesmerized, his cheek sagging. His hands looked vague on the wheel, as if they could easily fall into his lap, useless. Though the sun still was not bright, he kept blinking his eyes.
We pulled into the driveway, parking in the usual place beside the back porch; I’d gripped the doorhandle before the car came to a stop. My side of the car faced the house, and I could tell from the darkened screen door that my mother had opened the main door to let air inside the kitchen. Probably she’d opened the windows, too. My fingers itched on the door handle, but when we stopped my father said, in a choking voice, “Wait a minute, I want to—”
He didn’t say anything else. Instead he opened his own door, struggling, and bent over like a man preparing to dive. I watched his heaving back and listened to his retching, which went on for several seconds. The noise was loud, the smell terrible. I pulled the handle quietly and left the door standing open. I hurried away from the car.
I knew he couldn’t follow, and even before I heard the car’s engine start again I sensed that he had vanished as a presence of any real meaning or authority in our lives. Somehow, on this ordinary April morning, the fate of our family had descended, cutting the strings attaching my father to us, sending him outside our natural family circle where he would flail in a helpless orbit that was relieved, during his remaining half-dozen years, only by the rare visits my mother allowed, and by alcohol and dogged hope and perhaps a vestigial love, a refusal to relinquish whatever blind force had first brought us together.
This instinctual knowledge is surely what inspired my sudden heartless joy as I ran away from his car and toward the porch. By this time my mother was waiting in the doorway, behind the screen. Her form inside the darkened kitchen looked vague but reassuring. My sense of relief was almost overwhelming. I didn’t slow or look back as I took the porch steps two at a time, rushing toward the screen door that in a dreamlike fanning motion had opened wide.