S. D. Stewart

Posted on June 25, 2012

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The Boat

Dale stood resenting his father in the backyard. A fine mist hung in the cool air, forming tiny water beads on the lenses of his glasses. The beads bothered him and he rubbed them off on his sweatshirt.

“Good fishing weather,” his dad remarked.

Dale stared at the boat stored beneath the deck. There were spiders in that boat for sure. Every spider around knew there was good living down there under the deck. The entire place was infested.

“Well, time’s a-wasting,” his father said.

Dale breathed out hard as got down on his hands and knees. He crawled under the deck with care, cringing each time his hands touched wet leaves.

His dad peered in at him. “Ready, son?”

“Yeah,” Dale replied.

He pushed and his dad pulled and the boat slid out into the yard, off the rotting boards it had rested on since last fall. Dale crawled back out and stood up, rubbing his hands together to get the dirt off.

“Okay, let’s flip it over,” his dad said.

Spiders, Dale thought. He gripped the two sides of the boat’s bow as his dad grabbed the handles on the back of the stern. They flipped the boat and Dale dropped the bow fast.

“Careful, son,” his father said, frowning.

They surveyed the boat’s speckled blue aluminum interior. Dale watched for movement. A daddy longlegs skittered across the front bench seat. Dale ground his teeth but kept a straight face.

“Looks like she survived another winter under there,” his dad said.

Dale nodded.

“Why don’t you spray her out with the hose while I go pull the car up out front? After that, start filling the drum.”

Dale turned the water on at the spigot and pulled the hose over to the boat. He aimed the stream of water at the spot where he’d last seen the daddy longlegs. Next he focused on the dark out-of-the-way spots he knew that spiders liked. He made sure to reach under the seats with the nozzle and sprayed viciously into the corners he couldn’t see.

When he felt satisfied that the boat was spider-free, he set down the hose and pulled the 55-gallon plastic drum out from under the deck and began filling it with water. Soon he heard his dad calling him so he stopped and walked around to the front of the house. The station wagon was parked out front and his dad was in the garage cursing. Dale meekly approached.

“Help me get this motor out back,” his dad grumbled.

His dad had bought the old black motor for $75 from a newspaper ad. It weighed a ton and had a surly disposition. Dale had gone with his father to answer the ad and listened as his dad tried to talk the man selling it down to $50. The man wouldn’t budge, claimed he wasn’t in a rush to sell it. He said he had three other people coming to look at the motor later that day. Dale’s dad was skeptical and kept on haggling, but in the end he paid the man what he was asking. Dale wondered why his dad hadn’t looked for another used motor to buy instead. Surely there were many old boat motors out there for sale at bargain prices. He’d even flipped through the want ads himself and seen a few listed. But if he’d pointed this out to his dad, it would’ve turned ugly. So he kept his mouth shut.

They hauled the motor to the backyard and mounted it on the reinforced rim of the 55-gallon drum. His dad finished filling the drum with water as Dale stood shivering in the early spring air. His dad topped off the fuel and pumped the primer a few times before yanking the starter. Nothing happened. He pulled out the choke and gave the starter another few tugs. The engine coughed a few times. Dale allowed himself a quick look at his dad’s face: flashing eyes, lips a hardened crease. He looked away.

His dad primed the motor a few more times and pushed in the choke. On the eighth yank of the starter, the motor sputtered and hacked its way to life. He adjusted the choke and the throttle, and let it run for a few minutes before cutting it off.

Dale stared in doubt at the motor. It may run now, he thought, but what about when we’re in the middle of the lake?

His dad wiped his hands on a rag. “Alright, let’s get it in the car. We’re losing good hours.”

He and Dale lugged the heavy motor back out front and laid it down in the back of the station wagon. They packed the rods, tackle, and the rest of the gear in around the motor and shut the doors. Finally, they carried the boat out and set it on top of the battered roof rack, where his dad secured it with a ridiculous system of ropes tied with arcane knots.

The sun began to burn through the morning fog as they turned out of the driveway and drove up the street. A wedge-shaped shadow from the boat fell across the faded green hood of the car. Dale stared out the window at the passing trees and at the sparkle of the lake ahead, visible for a moment before they turned left and began the steep descent from their neighborhood.

His father spun the radio dial, the speakers spitting out an erratic tapestry of talk show hosts, mariachi tunes, hard rock guitar, and easy listening jazz. Dale picked at the cracked vinyl of the dashboard. As the car filled with fumes from the boat motor, he began to feel nauseous. He rolled his window partway down and gulped in fresh air.

The road followed the slow curve of the lake. The trees had yet to leaf out, and Dale gazed through their spindly limbs to the old amusement park below, perched on a narrow finger of land jutting out into the lake, the wooden roller-coaster track rising into the sky like the skeleton of some ancient dinosaur. Dale had always been too scared to ride the roller-coaster as a little kid, and now the park had closed for good. Dale’s dad had told him a developer bought the park and planned to tear it down and build condos on the land.

Soon they reached the public boat launch, across from Dale’s old elementary school. Dale’s dad took the speed bump at the entrance a little too fast and the boat shifted on top of the car, scraping against the rack. Dale winced as his dad cursed under his breath. The sun now shone bright above them. It was late now, Dale thought, too late for good fishing.

His dad parked the car. They both got out and began the painstaking chore of undoing the knots tying the boat to the car. As he struggled with the bulky knots, Dale watched as a sleek new pick-up pulled in the parking lot and eased its boat trailer down the slanted boat launch. A man in his early forties, blond and muscular, jumped out of the driver’s side and took a quick look at the trailer before climbing back in the truck. A lanky teenage boy, also blond, leaped out of the passenger’s side and slammed the door. He stood alongside the launch and signaled to the man to keep backing up. When he put his palm up, the man got out and the two of them slid the boat off the trailer and into the water. They tied the boat to the dock, unloaded some gear, and the man parked the truck. The entire process took less than ten minutes. Soon Dale heard the boat’s engine rumble to life and he watched as the boat headed out into the open water of the cove.

After they finished untying the knots, Dale and his dad lifted the boat off the roof rack and carried it to the launch, where they set it in the water. Dale’s dad pulled the boat with a towline alongside the dock and secured the line to a mooring ring. He backed the car down closer, and they wrestled the engine out of the station wagon and onto the back of the boat. Dale stashed their gear, put on his life jacket and cinched it tight. His nausea had faded into a fluttering sensation in his lower gut.

His dad reappeared on the dock after moving the car. “Ready?” he asked.

Dale nodded. They climbed in the boat and pushed off. Dale’s dad fitted the oars into the oar locks and rowed out beyond the dock, before turning his attention to the motor. After a few yanks, it caught and they were suddenly off, skimming across the waves away from the dock. Dale sat up front, facing forward, the spray spattering around him. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad this time, he thought. Maybe things would work out for once.

His dad steered toward the northeastern side of the lake where there were some good sheltered coves for fishing, accessible only by boat. They’d been there before, although Dale didn’t like traveling that far from the launch. He preferred to stay in sight of it at all times, but his dad liked to explore and insisted on traveling to the most obscure areas of the lake.

They reached the center of one of the coves and Dale’s dad killed the motor. The boat drifted further in, toward a marshy area close to shore. His dad dropped the anchor and they got out their rods. Dale rooted around in the tackle box for a sinker. His dad picked up the old coffee can he kept his night crawlers in and shook it. A few kernels of soil popped out of the holes poked in the lid and landed on the seat next to Dale. He stared at them, thinking about the aquarium in the garage where his dad kept the worms. One time they’d come home to find a raccoon sleeping in the aquarium. Dale thought that was funny, but his dad got mad and chased the raccoon out into the night with a broom.

His dad plucked a wriggling night crawler out of the can and pierced it through with his hook. He handed the can to Dale before casting his line far out over the placid water. Dale peered into the coffee can. He hated touching the fleshy, squirming worms. Why couldn’t they use lures, he’d asked his dad once. His dad replied that he didn’t think lures were as effective as worms, at least not for the type of fishing they were doing. Dale had accepted the answer without thinking much about it. He figured his dad knew more about fishing than he did, or cared to, for that matter.

His dad reeled in and cast out again, looking over at Dale.

“C’mon, son,” he said. “Bait your hook. The fish aren’t going to catch themselves.”

Dale closed his eyes and pushed his fingers down into the warm earth filling the can. He felt around until his fingers grazed a worm. Opening his eyes, he pulled the worm out and fumbled with the hook, barely sliding it through the worm’s thin membrane. He cast his line out on the opposite side of the boat from where his dad was fishing.

“So, how’s school going?” his dad asked.

“Okay, I guess.” He reeled in his line and cast out again.

“Your mom said she’d heard from your English teacher about that poem you wrote. She said it showed real promise,” his dad said.

Dale didn’t respond. He’d written the poem about their dog Suzy who had died the year before. Her death had crushed him. He sort of hated the poem now for making him think of Suzy and didn’t even think it was good. He couldn’t understand why his teacher made such a big deal out of it.

“Son?”

“Yeah, Dad.”

But his dad didn’t say anything more. They fished through the quiet still of mid-day. All the fish were elsewhere but Dale didn’t care. His dad opened the lunch bag and handed Dale a peanut butter sandwich. Dale took it and munched in silence, staring out at the swaying reeds that flanked the shoreline like restless soldiers.

After they ate, Dale’s dad pulled up the anchor. He said they would try another cove before heading back. Dale’s stomach clenched as his dad’s hand gripped the starter and pulled. The motor belched and fell silent. His dad fiddled with the choke and jerked the cord again. Nothing happened. The boat drifted closer to shore. Dale looked over the side and saw rocks looming near the surface. His dad tried the motor again.

“Uh, Dad?” Dale said.

“What?” his dad spat. “What is it, Dale?”

Dale took a deep breath. “Well, it’s just that it’s pretty shallow right here.”

“Well, push us out then! For Christ’s sake, I’m not the only one on this boat,” his dad yelled.

Dale grabbed an oar and pushed off the bottom, now only a foot or so below the boat. He picked up the other oar and rowed out past where he couldn’t see the bottom anymore. His dad began violently yanking the starter. His face reddened and sweat shined on his forehead. Dale dropped the oars back into the boat and shrank into the bow. He faced front and watched a bass boat move in a clean line toward the next cove over.

The motor caught and his dad set the throttle to idle as he wiped his face with a large blue handkerchief. Soon they were scudding across the low waves again. Dale’s dad passed the cove now occupied by the bass boat and veered into the next one. He pitched the anchor overboard with force, the yellow rope slithering at Dale’s feet, the coil of it shrinking down to almost nothing. Here they fished for another couple of hours without a single bite.

When Dale’s dad finally pulled up the anchor, the sun was well into its descent across the western sky. Dale watched with unease as it sank lower. Soon the air filled with the snap of the starter cord punctuated by grunts and curses. Dale closed his eyes and tried to fill his mind with white noise.

Suddenly the hum of a powerful motor breached Dale’s wall of noise. He opened his eyes and saw a boat approaching. He recognized it as the boat he’d watched the blond man and his son launch earlier. The man waved as he pulled closer and shifted the boat into neutral.

“Need a hand?” he asked.

Yes! Dale screamed inside. Yes, we very much need a hand! Please help us!

“No, we’re fine,” Dale’s dad growled. He dismissed the man with a wave and turned back to the motor.

“Are you sure?” the man asked. “We could tow you back to shore if that thing won’t start. We’re headed there now.”

“We’re fine!” Dale’s dad shouted.

The man put his hands up, palms out. “Okay, alright,” he said. “Well, good luck.”

The man’s son stared across the water at Dale as his father began to guide their boat back out toward the mouth of the cove. Dale looked away from the boy’s gaze and down at his hands. The rowboat rocked gently in the larger boat’s wake. A breeze lifted up and across the water, raising the hairs on Dale’s arms.

“The nerve of that guy,” Dale’s dad muttered.

He let the motor rest for a few minutes as the water smoothed out again. Dale watched the orange sunlight spread out in streaks across the silver water. A small flock of geese honked overhead. Dale looked up at them and pressed his hand to his aching stomach.

Dale’s dad braced his sweaty left palm on the transom. He wrapped the fingers of his right hand around the black plastic starter handle. With all his strength he jerked the cord out as far as it would go. The motor coughed and ground to life. Up front, Dale’s jaw relaxed and the pain in his gut dulled.

Dusk crept in around them as they pulled up to the launch. Dale’s legs felt weak as they hoisted the boat onto the roof rack. He sat in the car as his dad tied the knots. Out the windshield, Dale saw the dock lights begin to flicker on around the cove, the bright dots connecting to form a glowing horseshoe shape. A sudden longing filled him as he looked around at the empty parking lot, the boarded-up snack shop, and across the road to the deserted playground beside his old school.

They drove home in silence. His dad fiddled with the radio again, never settling on one station. When they got home it was almost dark. Dale struggled with the boat, almost dropping his end, as they slid it back under the deck. But his dad stayed quiet.

Inside the warm house, his mom asked how the fishing had been.

“They just weren’t biting today,” his dad replied. He picked up the newspaper and sat down in his chair.

“Well, at least it was a nice day to be out,” his mom said.

His father nodded absently, rustling the pages of the newspaper.

“Supper will be ready soon,” his mom said. She smiled at Dale and returned to the kitchen.

Dale went to his room and closed the door. He thought about Suzy. If she were there, he would walk her to the top of the street. There he would stand in the orange glow of the streetlight as she sniffed where all the other dogs had been before. He would kneel down and bury his face in her warm fur, and she would let him hold her until he was ready to go back home.

***

S. D. Stewart reads and writes in a cramped city, even while his mind roams open spaces. Whenever possible he walks in the woods and watches birds. At other times he works as a librarian. For more information, visit http://www.thoughtworm.com.

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