Archive for the ‘adventure’Category

Chapter 16 The Dory

Jake’s new project towards sailing solotransatlantic is building the dory.

A dory is a small rowing boat that was first used down river near Quebec, then migrated with fishermen out to the North Banks. If you’ve ever seen the Winslow Homer painting of a man with a large fish in a rowboat, that’s a dory. Jake says he is going to make his own sailboat to cross the Atlantic, so he is going to start by making a rowboat capable of crossing the North Sea.

He has found ancient directions that have him start by cutting out a boat shape for the floor in pink fresh cedar. Next, I hold the yellow waxy oak ribs while Jake drills and chisels and screws them together. Then, using cardboard forms, he works out the sizes of the side planks. Jake takes me with him to the lumberyard. I become his second as we accrue boaty sawdust secrets on how to crack the dory code. The old timers say the toughest wood for the side planks will be mahogany. The lumberyard man is happy to see me in my work gloves, loading our boat with five hundred and sixty-two dollars worth of mahogany boards.

“What’s your son’s name?” he asks my father. I freeze with a plank clutched in my gloves, and cringe into my t-shirt and Wranglers. I look up at Jake, standing on the dock above me, and wait for him to answer. Jake makes a gesture to me, inviting me to answer the man, who expects me to say “Greg” or “Mark” or “Lionel.”

“Son?” The man is now leaning forward, as if to help me speak.

“Stephanie.” It comes out of me, a dry husk, barely audible as I look at the sawdusty toes of my ugly cheap sneakers on the lumberyard dock.

“Oh,” says the man, and I sneak a look up quickly enough to see a shadow creep under his smile as he stares a little hard at my father. Jake laughs, and they wander away to discuss the next phase of the project while I keep loading the boat with wood, hoping that the tears dripping on to the planks won’t ruin them.

On dories, the stern and bow are very narrow, but the middle part of the boat is wide. Now we must curve the mahogany sides around her ribs. We cut the mahogany to match the cardboard forms, and then put the cut planks to soak in the river, tied to the dock for a week or two. We pull the bottom plank out wet, then screw the first end to the stern. Then I watch while Jake forces the wood to curve to the first rib. To force the wood to the second rib, he runs up the hillside by the house with a steaming teakettle, holding it like an ugly biting octopus, then runs steam all over the mahogany. Then Mom and I hold the wood down while he screws in the next set of one-inch brass screws to hold the wood in its new position against the next rib.

My father embodies the British Empire with his delicate to-ing and fro-ing of teakettles and his bullying of exotic wood. He is great, and I am proud of our work, but I am lonely. More than ever, I want to walk around the shore to the Nadlers. I watch them all the time this year, padding up and down between their dock and their house in bare feet and wet swim trunks.

Now that I’m eight, I’m allowed to play a little outside the yard. Most of the time, I imagine that I am Bevell the Wolf Girl. Bevell has been raised by wolves like Mowgli, and lives alone in the forest with her beautiful wolf companion. To practice being her, I run barefoot along our rocky shoreline, planting my feet precisely on the sharp shards of lichen-covered granite. When I am Bevell, I don’t make up stories about her, I just am her, running back and forth, from the dock, around the shoreline, cutting up, across the rocks, to our front gate then back again. Like a dog on a chain, or a wolf in a pen, I circle around and around practicing my footwork for some future foray into the forest.

When the dory is finally done, Jake chooses the color—iron gray—and her name: Loon. We launch The Loon, just us, Mom, Jake, Rufus, and me, with a little ceremony. Right after the ceremony, Jake shows me how to row her. And as he gives me permission to row The Loon around the harbor by myself, I know that now I have a way off the island without having to go to any neighbor. It would be very far, and dangerous for an eight-year-old to row four miles to town, but, technically, I can do it. Still I won’t. Slowly, instantly, yesterday and forever, I am part of his creation. He is creating his family, people isolated with him, who respond to him with fear and yearn for his positive attention. We are his prisoners but he is our savior, only he can give us permission to leave.


05 2010

Chapter 14 May

I am outside at Bluff Island, behind the house, and as my mother comes up the stone steps with a wicker laundry basket under her arm, I think how much I like the bones in her face as they tilt up in the light.

I know her ankle is still tender, so her smile confuses me. Then I see that my mother is wearing the most beautiful flower I have ever seen in a tiny vase pinned to her jacket.

“What is that?” I ask, looking closely at the yellow-centered red flower.

“It’s a red columbine,” she says proudly. She puts down the laundry and pulls out her wild flower identification book and shows me a perfect picture of the very flower she is wearing. Then she returns the book to her pocket and walks past me to start pinning up the laundry.

“Where did you get it?” I assume she picked it herself, and will tell me the spot.

“Your father gave it to me.”

“Oh.” He’s been so mean to her for so long, I don’t know what to think. All I know is that I am pissed. This—this giving of a flower—is a violation of the rules of the family. Everyone barely tolerates mom. We can love her, but we have to be a little mean to her or she will start taking care of herself. This thought comes into my head, and I don’t know from where. I had no idea I thought like this. Even so, it is not right that she has a flower and I do not. I had assumed my father liked me better. He should’ve given me the flower. The delicate red petals swoop back from the yellow center. I am indignant.

“Can I have it?” I ask. I expect my mother to give me anything she has, she always does, “No,” she answers.

“Mommy, I want it.”

“No,” she says.

“Where’d he get it then?” I’m determined to have one. I must level the playing field. I want to steamroller my mother. I’m going to get one of those flowers; I am going to straighten this out!

“I don’t think there is another one,” she says. “I think they are very rare.” I am surprised to notice that I take satisfaction that the bounce in her step has diminished somewhat from my push to take her gift. My mom has been unhappy for so long, I always imagined I wanted her to be happy. But maybe I thought it would be me who would save her.

She is almost done hanging the clothes. I can tell she wants to go back inside, get away from me.

“Well I’m going to find one myself.” I tell her, and begin by looking down at the rocks at our feet.

Amazingly, I find one almost where I am standing.

“Look Mom, here’s one. I guess they’re not so rare.” Her face falls as I hold up the flower. Now I point to the little bud vase on her coat.

“Oh Mom, do you have another one of those?”

“No sweetie, sorry.”

“Well, can I use yours then?”

“No,” she says. “That’s my pin.”

“Don’t you have another one?”


“Okay, so you should let me use it.”

“No, I said no.”

“I should get a turn.” She turns to walk away from me. “But I picked the flower, what’s going to happen to it?” She looks at me like I’m a retard.

“Put it in a jelly glass,” she says and slams the back door behind her.


04 2010

Chapter 2 Treasure Island

“Remember this moment so you can tell your grandchildren.”

My father and I stand on the veranda, looking out across the water, back at the mainland.

My grandchildren. It is a funny thought that tickles me deep inside, but it seems unimaginably far away, like the long line of admirals that he always tells me we come from.

“Family is the most important thing,” he says, and then steps to the old wooden wheelbarrow.

“Get in,” he tells me, and once I’m in, he runs down the narrow path as fast as he can, and I bump all the way back down to the dock, my breath still on the veranda.

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!  Sing it, sing it out!” I don’t really want to sing about a dead man’s hairy chest. He sees me hesitate.

“It’s a work song,” he tells me as we load the barrow, and when he starts to sing it again, I join him, and we bring the barrow up the narrow path, singing all the way, and start to unload it on to the back porch.

“Wait,” he says, “smell.” I pause in front of the screen door, puzzled for a minute. “Go in, go ahead, just remember the smell,” he says. I push against the screen, and then I smell it: cedar—an overwhelming rich, wooden welcome—binding me to this place more surely than a blood pact.

Here is Mom, waiting to put away the first boxes of groceries that we bring her. Just to the right of the door is a huge restaurant-style black Garland stove, with six anvils, two ovens, a grill and a separate broiler. On the next wall to the right is the three-foot-long wooden sink, lined in copper. The most modern thing in the room is a greasy black wall phone, hanging by the eastern window.

My father pulls a can off the red chunk of a six-pack on the round oak table and grabs a glass.

“Come on.” He beckons me with his loose shoulders. I follow him past the bags waiting to go upstairs, outside again to the veranda, where he pulls out a folding chair with faded webbing. While he arranges the chair, he sets the beer and glass down on a broad yellow table whose buckling wooden surface makes the beer’s perch precarious. I gently touch the veranda railing, and the brittle paint pops off more satisfyingly than any scab.

“Blub, blub, blub,” says the beer as my father carefully pours it. He takes a first sip, and gets foam on his lip. Looking south, back at the mainland, back at the rest of America, he smacks his lips and says softly, into the gentle constant breeze.

“This—this right here—this is the best place on earth.”

Then he hands me the beer can. I love the warm feeling I get from my little sip. It’s the warm feeling of being just like my father. After a few sips, he gets up to take down the plywood boards protecting the windows against the winter. I walk past him, to the far western end of the veranda where I can look out across a little harbor to see a small modern looking house. There are kids jumping off the dock into the water, they are hooting and hollering. They are having fun.

“Look, Daddy!”  I have discovered my new lifelong friends, but when I turn to him, he is scowling, and grumbling. “What’s a matter?”

“First of all, they shouldn’t be there. Jack Cutler wasn’t supposed to build right where we could see. Then to go and turn around and sell it to a bunch of rowdies…” He trails off in disgust, shaking his head, continuing to pull down the boards.

“What are they called?”

“The Nadlers.”

The name echoes, like the name of a mystical golden kingdom. I decide I like seeing them, giving each other towels, shivering and grinning.

“Can I go play with them?”

“No,” he says. “No way.” His voice is clear: they are a blot on the perfect panorama.

He turns away and walks back down to the other end of the veranda. I stick to my spot, staring west. One of the kids waves at me. I wave back.

“Bring me another beer,” he says over his shoulder, but I don’t hear him.

“Bring me another beer!” he roars. I jump out of my Keds. “Come on dreamer, look alive.” I run back to the kitchen. I am useful. I am his assistant. Those kids might be having fun, but I get to assist.

I go back to the kitchen and my mother has made me a peanut butter sandwich.

“Have a seat,” she says.

“Daddy wants another beer.” She hands me the red can that gets me back to the front porch. When I come back with the beer, he is sitting down, holding a worn brown book on his lap.

“Remember that song, ‘sixteen men on a dead man’s chest’?”


“Well it’s in this book here called Treasure Island.” He takes the beer.

“Just like this island?”

“Well, a little different—but they’re both islands. Here, I’ll read it to you.” He refills his glass with the new beer, and hands me the nearly empty can so I can take my second swig as I settle onto the porch near his feet to listen.

I love learning about this pirate place—the place we go together to escape. I love my mother. She is musky, she is earth. When she’s not mad at me, she washes my face with a warm wet washcloth. But today, my father, smelling of cedar and beer, reads me the first chapter of Treasure Island before dinnertime.

Part 1 Chapter 1 June

Now that we’ve crossed the country, it’s clear:  my father hates every inch of America—including my mother—

except for this place, this water that has been gleaming in his eyes since last summer. This water drives my father to bring us from Missouri in a stinky purple VW van, to this place, here at the northern jagged edge of New York State. After five days of driving, we’ve made it here at last, to Mercer’s Marina, on the St. Lawrence River. When he was in University on the shores of Lake Ontario, newly arrived from England, my father first discovered the freshwater islands of the St. Lawrence once inhabited by whiskey runners, muskrat hunters, and scouts during the French and Indian War. He fell in love, and when he started to work downstate, he knew he needed to come back to this place, so he asked his father for an early inheritance, and his father helped him buy part of an island in the Thousand Islands the year before I was born. And now—even though I vaguely remember coming here in earlier years—this is the first time things are clear.

I am lying on my stomach, in a dark boathouse that smells of motor oil and cobwebs, looking down into the moving, green water that picks up light from the outside and glows. Next to the empty boat slip, the Mercers have put the black wooden runabout my father bought along with the Island. He has named it The Pelican. He’s in her now, wiping off her dipstick. The light from the water reflects off his glasses. Like his name—Tim—they are perfectly pitched to his role of trim, 1960s intelligentsia. He went on from Business Week to write for Newsweek, and now he teaches magazine writing at University of Missouri. I want to see the world through his glasses, but I am learning to be content with looking at what he tells me to.

Aleta, my mother, walks into the boathouse, squinting through the thick cat-eye glasses she never used to wear.

“It’s cold in here.” She is always cold now because the only thing that fits her any more is the sleeveless maroon wrap dress that expanded infinitely as my brother Rufus grew inside her. Now she is holding his tiny four-week-old body against her full one. My father is busy pouring a can of black liquid deep into the Pelican, so he doesn’t look at them. My mother pauses for a second, staring at him, then at me, with my short light brown hair and bright eyes. My heart is pounding inside my life jacket, just hoping they don’t say anything to each other that will start another fight.

Last night we were all in the last hotel room of the trip, and she was so excited because we had a color TV to watch. She flipped the channel to show a beautiful round lady with elaborate hair singing: “California Dreaming…”

“Who’s that Mommy?”

“Mama Cass.”

“You look just like her Mommy!”

“Not for much longer I hope,” said my father with a little laugh.

“All the leaves are brown…” Click. My mother grabbed me by the neck of my pajamas and dumped me between the strange hotel sheets.

“You promised you wouldn’t talk about it anymore.” She started crying, “I told you I can’t help it.”

“Oh, Christ!” he said, making a funny face and mincing around on his toes. “Of course you can help it!” I started to giggle, but stopped when I saw Mommy’s wet face.

“You shut up,” she screamed at me. He grabbed his coat and the keys.

“Daddy, daddy!”  I held my arms out to him, crying because she was mad at me and he was leaving.

“Don’t worry,” he told me.

“I want to come.”

“Shut up you,” interjected my mother. He opened the motel room door and looked down on me.

“I’m just going out for a beer, I’ll be back in a little bit.”

In one step, he was out, closing the door hard enough to make the chain beside it swing. My mother and I looked at each other as we wiped the tears from our eyes.

“Stop looking at me,” she said.


“I’m fat, that’s why.” And she started to cry again. I dove deep under the sheets and turned away from her. I held on tightly to my teddy bear and thought about the Island, this place that we had been driving to for the last four days. That’s what my father always tells me when I feel bad: “Think about the Island.”

Like brown paper packages wrapped up with string, there’s the Island, and at last we’d see it tomorrow.

The water in the boathouse smells clean and fishy, so it makes sense when a fish family of five, floating just above the silty bottom, move out from the dock to where I can see them. They hover together, then all make a left turn at exactly the same time; they are connected. I drop a chunk of gravel on them, and they scatter, but come back together in an instant.

Now my father has loaded The Pelican with boxes of canned corn beef, and tanks of water and our bags of clothes and he is holding his hand up for my mother to step down into the boat like she is a princess. Except it’s not because she’s a princess, even though a year ago, she looked like one.

“Be careful of my son,” he says, just to be clear.

My parents used to make each other laugh all day, all the time. Aleta would start snorting she laughed so hard at what Tim would say, and he would stomp his foot at what she said, and I would laugh with them just because they were happy. But now, I don’t think he likes anything she does anymore. Before we left Missouri, she threw my favorite plates at him, until one shattered on his hand, and he was bleeding everywhere, and we all ran up to the bathroom and the sink was full of blood, and I could see the flap of skin on his hand in the water. Then they started laughing about it, because they still laughed about things and she wrapped his hand up in a big bandage.

Now that Rufus is in Mommy’s lap there is no room for me. Last year here at the river, I can hardly remember it, but I know it was just the three of us, and Mommy looked like a princess. I want things to be the way they used to be.

When I am told, I untie the boat, step onto her, and then I sit myself on the rumbling inboard motor. I stuff my feet below the tops of the grocery boxes to hold myself in because now we are moving. My father is expert with the wooden steering wheel; turning us around to head into the river. He shouts out, exuberantly.

“Here we are people, we’re on the River!”

We are all happy because he is happy. I watch the small town of Clayton and the waterfront businesses, like ragged dark teeth over the water, get smaller and smaller. The wind blows the wisps of hair left on my father’s head, as he calls me over to sit on his lap. I pick my way through the bags and boxes. He has me steer for a moment, which is when he points forward and talks right into my head.

“There’s your Island.”

I can see it. At first it is a green bump I can cover with two fingers, but The Pelican is fast, and soon the Island and the house on it are looming above us as we slow down for our first good look of the summer. The front of the house has a huge veranda, supported by wide pillars of stones that rise up from the rocky bluff. Pine trees, their branches perpetually blown east, grip tightly to the shore.

Between each pillar is a long horizontal stack – cement arch on the bottom, a narrow line of green porch in the middle and creamy railing on top. Even from down in the Pelican I can see the paint peeling off of all of it.

“She looks good.” My father nods and smiles to my mother, shouting over the engine and the water. Now he is turning east. He gives me directions as we move past our shore.

“Go grab the stern line and get ready to bring us in.”

I’ve never done this part before. So I pick my way back through the luggage. Then I do what I am told: grab the line and wait. Then suddenly, I’m looking at our dock, or more accurately, what is left of our dock. The first winter after we bought the Island, the boathouse was blown down by a storm and dragged away. What the ice left is just a rickety jumble of disgrace. I cannot tear my eyes away from the splintery holes across it as The Pelican’s motor revs into position. I can see what he needs me to do. If no one jumps out onto the crumbling dock as we get close to it, the wind will blow us back out of our slip. Mommy used to do this, but now he needs me to hold the boat in place while he finishes bring the Pelican in, and then he can jump out himself.

“Get ready to jump.”

I climb up on the seat in the stern and balance on the varnished edge.

Below me, black boiling water swirls in the three-foot gap between The Pelican and the dock. I look at the broken barren dock for a safe place to land, but I don’t see any. I feel queasy. But before I can think about it another second, he yells,

“Jump. Jump! JUMP!” I push off the Pelican into the air and sail over the black water.  I am flying. I am flying away from the milky warm armpit of my mother, into the wide broad adventure of my father’s world.

My feet end up on solid dock and I am keeping Pelican where she needs to be. I am on Bluff Island. I stare at the green forest across the harbor. My father jumps out with the other line.

“Well done,” he says to me. And I am proud. He takes the rope from my hand and kneels at my feet to make the stern line fast. I look over his shoulder at my mother. I think she might get madder at me because I just took her job. I look at her arms, fat outside of their sleeveless holes, holding my brother, and I look at my father, standing up now, holding out a hand for her hand to help her out of the boat. And now I can see, he’s holding out a hand to a stranger, a woman different than the woman he married, a woman different than the wife he was sleeping with even six months ago. As we head up the path to bring down the wheelbarrow, I look at the scrunched up face of my little brother, staring into the space behind my mother’s shoulder.

Still, I’m hopeful. Maybe now that we’re here, on the Island, I think, maybe we can have a happy family.


03 2010

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