I’d started swabbing decks for Ken Jacobs at the beginning of the summer. I’d moved on to teak work by June, but that was really just a fancy kind of cleaning. Eventually I was allowed to take on the general work of the boatyard and was making eleven dollars an hour for it, which was two more than what I’d started at. In that time I’d managed to save up enough to buy a Buick from my mother’s boyfriend, Glen, who said that if I paid him twelve hundred for the car instead of the grand I’d offered, then he wouldn’t tell my mother about my expulsion from the community college last spring. I agreed. But now I was second-guessing the decision. The transmission was on the fritz, and Glen would probably tell my mother anyhow.
I turned the corner onto the gravel road that led to the boatyard and downshifted into second. The car hiccupped to a stop. There, waiting for me, leaning against a dock piling with his arms folded over his chest, was Truitt Bland. He was large, with a boxer’s hunched shoulders and a face that looked as if it had been smacked around and needed putting back together. A red mustache covered his top lip, which made a kind of mystery of his mouth. When he spoke, it always sounded like he was holding his nose shut. It was Truitt who first showed me the way of things at Ken Jacobs yard. My first day, Truitt had said, “I’ll show you the ropes, kid, but it ain’t my fault if you hang yourself with them,” then burst into laughter, smacking me on the back and burping me like a baby until I was compelled to laugh along.
One of Truitt’s lessons involved helping a young woman climb from a boat deck to the dock. “You want to give her a chance to fall,” he explained while guiding the woman over the lifeline. “That way you might have a chance of catching her on the way down. Save the day, be a hero.” The woman stepped onto the dock and proceeded impassively toward the clubhouse. Truitt said, “More fish in the sea, kid.”
Other times he showed off ways you could convince the boss you were working when really you were napping or watching sunbathers out on the bay. Truitt said he had once napped for two whole hours in the V-berth of an Australian’s catamaran, insisting later to the Australian and to Ken Jacobs that he had been in the engine compartment repairing a valve leak—never mind the rumpled sheets. Another time, when fixing Ken’s F-150 (a side job Ken Jacobs sometimes threw our way), Truitt had rolled the dolly beneath the truck, tied his hands to the chassis with coiled-up electrical tape to give the impression he was under there tooling with the gas line, and slept with his hands tied up for over an hour. Or so he’d said, tickling me under the arm until he’d coaxed another chuckle.
The other guy working that summer was James Hunt, a tall black man with a serious face who was rumored (mostly by Truitt) to have done time in prison.
He came hurriedly down the dock as I stepped out of the car.
“Little late, aren’t you?” he said.
I started to explain about the car.
“You don’t want to get on Hunt’s bad side,” said Truitt, taking his place beside James. “I knew a guy got on his bad side once. Real tough mother.” Truitt looked at James. “You remember, don’t you?” James nodded as if he shared with Truitt a secret, solemn knowledge. “Earned himself a free ride to the morgue, if memory serves.”
“I told him,” James said. “I made myself clear, like I always do. Nobody touches James Hunt’s tape deck.”
“You told him, all right.”
I took the bait. “But you didn’t—” I began. “You didn’t really—”
Truitt and James Hunt ripped into laughter. They’d been planning the set-up since they’d heard the Buick turning the corner onto the beach road.
“I sounded that jalopy scratching the pavement ten minutes before you showed up,” said Truitt. “We had your hook baited so long we could have reeled you in yesterday!”
James Hunt, after the laughter died down, said, “Boy, oh, boy, you sure are easy, kid.”
And Truitt said, “Like one of those Muppets. You fit a hand up his ass, he’ll do anything you want him to.”
There was an English family who’d been docked at the marina since before I was hired. Truitt said they were a handful, always complaining about the water pressure at the public showers and the dead power outlets on the docks. The man was thin and bearded with prominent cheekbones and a brow full of shadow, a face that should have been etched on a coin. Truitt said he didn’t trust the guy, said he gave off an odor of marijuana and patchouli. That was enough to make Truitt suspicious.
The wife was boyish and narrow, with cropped hair. I would have guessed she was a lesbian if James and Truitt hadn’t overheard her below deck with her husband one night ululating like a hoot-owl. “Woot-woot, woot-woot,” they’d mimicked. Then Truitt put on his best British accent and said, “You know what they say about English ladies, don’t you, Burt?” I said I didn’t. “They don’t come,” he replied. “They arrive!”
The English couple had a daughter. She was eleven years old and dressed most mornings in a blue-and-white sailor’s outfit. In the afternoon she put on jean shorts and a tank top. Her parents said they were home-schooling her, and the uniform helped her separate “school-time” from “home-time.” She carried around a conch shell she must have picked up somewhere in the islands.
Truitt and I were on a water break one afternoon when she came onto the docks with her shell. Truitt asked her about it, and she brought it to her lips and blew into its crevice to show him how she played it.
“I won a contest in Key Largo,” she said. “No one could blow harder than me.”
“Is that so?” said Truitt, shooting a wink in the direction of anyone who would receive it.
“That’s right,” she said.
Truitt squatted on his haunches. “They call me Truitt,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Darla,” she said, peering distractedly into the dark chasm of the conch shell.
“That’s a funny name,” Truitt said, and the girl looked up.
“Not to me, it isn’t.”
I said, “I’m Burt,” but the girl looked down at her shell again and started running her fingers along its contours. I held my hand out to shake. She pulled back.
“My dad says I can’t talk to you,” Darla said.
“Can’t talk to me?” I said. “Why?”
“Not just you.” She took a moment, then she looked up at Truitt. “You either,” she said.
“I guess that’s smart,” I said.
“Strangers,” the girl explained.
“I reckon that’s fair,” said Truitt. “But we’re friends now. You can talk to us.”
“Okay,” she said, and Truitt said, “You’ll show me how to make a sound out of that thing sometime?”
She shrugged. “Sure, but you’ll have to get your own. I don’t want you spitting all over my things.”
Most days passed that summer in the languorous and seamless manner of the season. One day’s events flowed indistinguishably into the next, and certain incidents and features that might have imbued the period with various meanings seemed, at the time, merely customary and routine.
Often, Truitt played with Darla on the docks. It was known around the yard that the girl couldn’t swim, and so Truitt would make a game of dangling her over the edge of the pier and threatening to drop her in. She’d squeal, and Truitt would place her back on solid wood and say, “Okay, you win this time. But next time, lass, it’s to the plank with you!”
James Hunt said the girl was too old for that kind of horseplay, or too young, he wasn’t sure. But Truitt shrugged the warning off. He and the girl would play tug-of-war with the dock lines if they wanted to, and to hell with James Hunt for saying otherwise. He’d reel Darla into him and then hold her there, mussing her hair before turning her loose. He’d pick her up by the ankles and shake her upside down so that coins fell from her pockets. The hem of her sailor’s dress would fall over her head, exposing her white underwear. James would tell Truitt to put her down, and Truitt would say, “Spoil sport, spoil sport!” and then Darla would join in the taunting. “Spoil sport, spoil sport!” they’d both be yelling.
It became an issue between Truitt and James, and there were many days that summer when they would not speak to each other, or else make it late into the afternoon before breaking their silence.
One day we were all rerigging a J-boat. Truitt had climbed the mast in order to run the sidestay through the spreader. From his perch he accidentally dropped a half-inch socket wrench onto the deck. James dodged it just in time and it clanked off the fiberglass. He must have believed Truitt had dropped it as some means of retaliation.
“The fuck you do that for?” James said. “I ought to come up there and beat your sorry ass!”
Truitt called down to him. “Sorry!” he yelled. “Honest mistake!”
Then Truitt put one hand to his brow like a visor and looked across the yard, his other arm around the mast—Washington crossing the Delaware. It was Darla’s mother, walking across the lot in a tank top, a bandana covering her head, khaki shorts above her knees like a little boy might wear.
“I can see how a certain kind of man might like a piece of that,” said Truitt.
“I prefer them with curves,” James said from the deck.
I picked up the wrench and tossed it up to Truitt, who caught it in his free hand and went back to fastening the sidestay, watching as the woman crossed the asphalt to the gravel and onto the pier back to her family’s sloop.
“You know what your problem is,” Truitt said to James later that evening. We were all three sitting on the deck of a trawler raised on stilts, dangling our legs over the edge and watching the last slice of afternoon tear across the harbor. “You got no imagination. You see things too straight.”
They clanked beer cans, and that seemed to restore something elemental between them.
For my part, the days always began with a prank or an errand, or sometimes both and the same. That is to say, the prank was on me. It was worse when I was late, and I was always late—because of the Buick, because of oversleeping, because bad timing seemed to be a condition of my life at the time. Glen was always banging on the basement door to wake me. That morning he’d said, “Shit, boy, if I didn’t know better I’d think you’d died down there.”
Truitt and James were up on the deck of a 48-foot Sunseeker when I finally showed up. The boat was suspended above ground on six padded steel stilts, almost ready to go back into the water. I approached and knocked on the hull as I often did to let them know I’d arrived. The sun was bright, and I had to squint to make out the figure of James Hunt leaning over the railing and peering down. James’s enormous collection of keys, clipped like a badge to the outside of his pants, was shimmering in the light. James held his arm out for some reason. I could not see what he was holding. Then I realized, just in time, that he was holding a full soda can over the side and was about to drop it on my head as a practical joke. I held my hands out beggar-style and caught it before it exploded all over the ground.
“You’re late,” James said.
“Had to get his beauty sleep!” Truitt called from the foredeck. “Wouldn’t want our baby getting cranky, now would we?”
“What’s the work today?” I said, ignoring him.
Truitt came abaft, where James Hunt was standing. James Hunt looked down, disappointed, it seemed, that the soda hadn’t either clobbered me in the head or busted wide open on the asphalt.
“Here,” he said and dropped a pillowy white package down to me. It was a paper suit. We were scraping fiberglass.
The day turned hot for early June. Truitt and James Hunt and I were peeling fiberglass out of a sportfisher cockpit, and I thought I might pass out from heat stroke and fiberglass dust in my lungs. We’d been in our paper suits since morning—it was three o’clock now—and we were only halfway through with the job and sweating through our outfits. Truitt and James were starting to slow down. I had been trying to keep a good pace since James had accused me of slacking off. He had said that if he didn’t think it would stress her bunions, he’d just as soon have his grandmother on the job. Truitt had added, “Yeah, or my grandmother.” We figured he’d misheard the joke.
“Tell you what, Burtie boy,” James said, pulling his respirator down around his neck. “What say we take twenty?”
The boat was near the end of the first pier. The final slip was empty. Truitt walked to the end of the dock and unzipped his white suit and began peeling it off. He had nothing on underneath but white briefs held up by a frayed elastic band. He looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching, then stripped the briefs to his ankles and stepped out of them and into the bay. He disappeared underwater, then resurfaced a minute later, shaking his head like a Labrador.
James pulled the paper suit down to his waist and sat bare-chested on the end of the dock. He placed a cigarette between his lips and tried to light a match, but Truitt splashed it out.
“Knock it off,” James said, striking another match.
“Or what?” More splashing.
“Or nothing. Just knock it off.”
“Bad, bad Leroy Brown over here,” said Truitt. Then he relaxed into a leisurely backstroke. “Jeesh!” he called out.
James got the cigarette lit and took a drag. I was just standing around, unsure of what to do with my time, maybe waiting for instruction.
“You must be the only fool in the world doesn’t know what to do on a cigarette break,” James said after a minute. He fished another cigarette from the soft-pack inside his suit. I took the cigarette and bent down for James’s light. “Didn’t you go to college or something?”
I said, “Sort of.”
Truth was I had endured a long, embarrassing meeting with the dean two months back in which I was reprimanded and then expelled permanently—a fact that Glen was still holding over me at home. Dean Nichols had leaned over his desk and positioned himself on his bare elbows, his shirtsleeves pushed up to his biceps, and said, “We take academic dishonesty very seriously at this institution.” It was a roadside college that shared an industrial park with a tee shirt wholesaler and a medical documents warehouse. Dean Nichols was full of himself, I had decided. “Are you listening to me?” he said. “You don’t steal someone else’s work and say it’s your own. Not at this school.” And then, out of nowhere, I blurted, “Your breath smells like eggs, and if you’d quit talking for one minute, you’d hear that I didn’t copy anyone’s paper.” A classmate had copied my paper, and that was the truth, but Dean Nichols didn’t want to hear that version. He stuck his pinky in his ear and fished out some wax and wiped it on his trousers. I left the office without closing the door behind me.
“Well, anyway,” said James, “sort of sounds close enough. Now go find yourself an activity. I’ll be here catching my tan.”
This was a joke James Hunt liked to make. I had laughed at it once, and James had glowered at me as if I’d just busted up laughing at some redneck’s nigger joke. This time I kept quiet.
I collected the orange plastic Gatorade tub from the end of the dock and carried it across the lot to Ken Jacobs’s office, where there was a cooler full of cold spring water that was available to us whenever Ken wasn’t around. The tub could have been filled at the dock, but the water there tasted like iron, and Truitt insisted that whenever Ken wasn’t around, the tub should be filled from “headquarters.”
I climbed the stairs to Ken’s office. It was on the third floor of the building, offering a generous view of the yard and the harbor. The other spaces were leased to a sailmaker, some yacht brokerages, and various limited liability corporations whose offices no one had ever seen anyone exiting or entering. Ken had given Truitt a key to the main foyer for use of the phone and access to the slip registry. Truitt had passed the key along to me, and I slipped the key in the lock and gained entry.
I filled the plastic tub under the water cooler. The cold air made my skin cinch up into gooseflesh. When the Gatorade barrel was full, I screwed the lid back on and turned to leave. But I noticed that Ken’s door was ajar, and I heard a rustling. I put the barrel down, stubbed the cigarette out on my heel, walked across the carpet, and pushed the door open. A senseless little gesture in itself. But one of those things, looking back, that amounts to a degree of significance.
There she was. Marianne. Ken Jacobs’s wife. She was looking out the window, her back to the door.
She turned, buttoning her shirt just above the center of her chest. In a chair beside her was a gym bag, tennis racquet, sports bra hanging over the side. She was tall, with sharp features and dark hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. I caught myself staring at the flesh above where she’d just buttoned her shirt. She resembled my ninth-grade homeroom teacher, a woman named Daphne Morris, who used to sit on top of her desk and cross one leg over the other as if she were auditioning for something. Marianne was probably the same age then as I am now, but on the occasions when I think about her, I fail to realize that fact. I am forever a quavering little boy in the presence of her memory.
“Can I help you?” she said.
Ken had been out of town for a week now, and I had gotten used to going up there for water, or sometimes just to kill time and cool off. I didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t you speak?” she said.
“Sorry, Mrs. Jacobs. I didn’t think anyone was up here.”
“Marianne,” she said.
“Marianne,” I repeated.
She waited for me to go on. “And now you say your name.”
“Burt,” I said.
“Is there something you’re looking for, Burt?”
“What?” I asked her.
“Is there something you need? Something you want?”
I tried to turn and leave, but Marianne caught me by the shoulder.
“What’d you come up here for, Burt?”
“To fill the water,” I explained. I gestured to the orange container out in the hall. “And then I saw the door was open.”
“And you decided to enter.”
“I’m sorry to intrude.”
“Then speak up next time,” she said. “Or else I might think you want to catch a peek at the boss’s wife in her next-to-nothings.”
At first Marianne seemed too old—more like my old schoolteacher than a possible lover, of which I’d had only one, and only the once. But that feeling emptied out quickly and made a hole inside me that needed filling. While lying on the carpeted floor of Ken Jacobs’s office—completely naked, the air-conditioner zapping the sweat from our skin—something would start gnawing at me. Almost as soon as we were done, I’d have to start in on her again.
Her husband had been in China since just after I was hired. He hoped to persuade some boat manufacturers to begin building custom yachts for a business he was starting in the States. He would call Marianne with occasional reports. The folks in Taiwan seemed receptive, but he couldn’t tell if they were a little reluctant, or if it was just their culture. He said they were hard to read. His trips grew longer, and Ken Jacobs’s absence made it easy for us to go together. When Truitt and James took their lunch breaks, I would say I was going to make a phone call or read the paper, and then I’d meet Marianne in Ken’s office and make love to her for half an hour before returning to work.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend your own age?” she said one day.
The answer was no, but she seemed to imply there should be an excuse for that answer. It wasn’t normal not to have a girlfriend one’s own age. I didn’t think it was odd. I’d never had any girlfriends at all.
“I must have twenty years on you,” she said. “That doesn’t bother you?”
I turned onto my side. I put the back of my hand on Marianne’s cheek. I brushed it up to her hairline, clumsily. I took her ear between my fingers—they just seemed to have landed there. I dragged my fingertips down her jaw line. For no reason that I could understand, I remember sticking my fingers into Marianne’s mouth and brushing them around her teeth and gums and tongue and lips and the insides of her cheeks. She didn’t stop me. She lay on the floor, opening her mouth wider. I kneeled over her. Through the shades, the midday sun cast bands of light across her body. She put her arm around my neck and pulled me closer. Her mouth seemed just a little wider than a normal person’s, and I continued worming my way around inside it, feeling almost giddy with curiosity for what I might discover there.
Like the summer’s other routines, this one found its course, and it soon came to seem as familiar to the day’s order as staining decks or changing fuel lines. But fuel lines and barnacle removal were still most of what went on that summer.
One afternoon, the assignment fell to me and James Hunt to prep an antique wooden trawler for the Travelift. The vessel hadn’t seen water in a decade, and no one could say for sure it wouldn’t sink once it was back in the drink. Truitt had given up working for the afternoon and was at the docks with Darla. They were throwing a foam football back and forth, or maybe a Frisbee. Her parents had ridden their bicycles into town for groceries and left the girl alone.
“She’s not a boy,” James had told Truitt earlier in the day. Truitt and Darla were skipping stones off the pier. “I don’t know why you think she wants to play like one,” James said.
“What am I, some kind of moron?” Truitt had said. “Go mind your business.”
James was now in the cockpit of the Travelift, working the gears. He threw the transmission into reverse, and the big blue box lurched backward.
“How am I?” he called to me. I was guiding him from about ten paces back.
“Good,” I said. I slipped the straps across the hull, fitting them on either side of the keel of the old boat. “Keep it coming!”
James parked the lift, then pulled the lever to raise the straps up to the hull. The boat began to rise from the stilts. A hydraulic whining emitted from the machine. Then James said something, but I couldn’t hear him over the droning. He was looking out toward the end of the docks. He put his hands around his lips and called out again.
“What’d you say?” I asked. “I can’t hear you!”
He pointed down the docks.
Truitt was standing there at the end of the dock, frozen.
The girl had disappeared.
James stopped the lift and climbed down from the control box and started across the lot. I raced after him. Before we could reach the dock, we saw Truitt diving into the water in all his clothes, his boots kicking at the surface as he swam below.
He came up some time later with the girl on his arm, his other arm paddling in place. James got on his stomach at the edge of the pier and reached down and took the girl’s arms and helped lift her to the dock. Truitt pushed her up by the butt and climbed up after her.
“Are you okay?” James said, pulling her onto the dock and setting her gently down. He laid her out, and she wheezed, unable even to cough.
Truitt climbed onto the dock. He pushed James aside. He put his hands on the center of the girl’s chest and pumped several times.
“You’re not doing it right,” James said. “You’ll bruise her.” But Truitt wasn’t listening.
I asked if I should get help. I was pushed aside.
“I’ve got it,” Truitt said. “Give me space.”
Finally, the girl spat up water and began coughing. Truitt wiped her mouth with his palm.
“Darla?” he said. “Darla? You okay, honey?”
She coughed some more.
“Mr. Truitt wants to know if you’re okay,” said James Hunt. “You’re okay, aren’t you, sweetie?”
Truitt lifted her up so she was standing on her own. He put his hand on her head and brought her to his waist.
“You okay, honey?” he said.
She nodded again. Then, as soon as she was able, she ran off down the dock toward the public showers.
James Hunt and I went back to lifting the trawler off its stilts. The boat was still hanging there in the hammock of the Travelift. We were lucky the straps hadn’t busted while we were gone.
Truitt walked to the end of the dock by himself, where he sat looking out the rest of the afternoon.
Later on, James Hunt and I seated ourselves on the office deck, watching the sunset. I asked James if he thought Truitt was all right. James didn’t answer the question.
“Want a beer?” he said and pulled the tab on a can of Miller Lite and handed it to me.
You could see the whole harbor from where we were perched. A tugboat, still a half-mile off, was pushing a barge of oil drums into port. The sailboats were furling their sails, idling in clusters in the middle of the harbor at the end of the night’s races. The progress and activity stirred something in me, and I spoke.
“Seriously,” I said. “Do you think he’s okay?”
I squinted happily at the shimmering bay. The sails, the last light of day, the shrimp boats returning to port.
James looked at me. “Define okay,” he said and handed me another beer.
The girl’s parents caught wind of what happened and approached Truitt the next day, or maybe a few days later.
“Darla would like to say something,” the girl’s father said. “Go ahead, love.”
“Thank you for rescuing me,” she said to Truitt, like a politician rehearsing a prepared statement.
Truitt squatted down. James and I climbed down our ladders and stood nearby to watch.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Anybody would have done it. I’m glad I was there, honey.”
“We’ve tried to teach her to swim, you know,” the mother said. “She just won’t learn. Terribly sorry to involve you.”
“Really, it’s nothing,” Truitt said. “She’s a sweet girl. Aren’t you a sweet girl?” he said. “And she’s fine now. You’re fine now, aren’t you, honey?”
“Yes,” she said.
Truitt stayed squatting. He brushed the girl’s hair behind her ear. The mother pulled her back.
“Anyway, we wanted to give you this for your trouble,” the father said. He reached into a canvas bag and removed a bottle of scotch and held it out for Truitt.
Truitt stood up. He examined the label, turned the bottle around for James and me to see. “Thanks,” he said.
“So, that’s it,” the father said. “We’re square now, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“For your help, that is. We’ll be fine on our own. You can go about your business.”
Weeks had passed since the girl had gone overboard, which meant weeks since Truitt was of any use around the yard. He left most of the hard work to me and James. In fact, he left practically all the work to me and James. I resented him for that. Truitt’s absence made it harder for me and Marianne to sneak away. And over the weeks I decided I loved Marianne Jacobs, at least a little bit. I would sit with my mother and Glen in the TV room after work, staring off beyond the police dramas my mother liked to watch, replaying our last meeting in my mind. One night Glen caught me staring at the wall, daydreaming about the carpeted office where we made love, the way Marianne sometimes maneuvered me marionette-style until she was getting what she wanted.
“Snap out of it, son,” Glen said. “You look like some kind of mongoloid, staring off like that.”
I didn’t respond.
“Uncle Glen is speaking to you,” my mother said.
“Christ,” Glen said. “You’d think there was a pair of tits on that wall, the way that boy’s gawking at it.”
I would let myself imagine certain scenarios in which Ken Jacobs died in a tragic airplane crash returning from Taiwan. He would have left Marianne with the boatyard, his house in Crestview, the GMC Suburban Marianne drove every day. There would be a brief period during which Marianne would have to make a show of grieving. I would keep my distance from her during the mourning. This would last no more than a week or two. And then Marianne and I and everyone else would forget about Ken Jacobs. And Marianne’s love for me would enjoy a public showing of some sort. And I would be in charge of Marianne, the yard, of Truitt, of James, of everyone.
As it happened, Ken Jacobs returned from Taiwan during a heat spell in the beginning of August. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and most days the temperature climbed to the nineties by noon. I looked forward every day to meeting Marianne in the cool office on the second floor. But those days were fewer and fewer.
Ken Jacobs knocked on the hull of the sportfisher we were working on. I came above deck and stood at the railing, looking down at him.
“How’s tricks?” Ken called up from the pavement.
James came around the side and took his gloves off and stuffed them in the pocket of his jeans. He wiped his brow with his forearm.
“Good,” he said. “Just finishing up here.”
James said Ken Jacobs was always insisting he’d started out doing deck work himself. But a workman’s attitude fit him like a bad suit. His shoulders were tight. He never seemed to let his arms hang free. I had once asked Marianne if Ken had ever really worked for a living, and Marianne had said, “Don’t be mean, Burt. He’s a sweet man. That’s all he needs to be.”
Later that afternoon, I was getting into my car to go home for the day when Marianne stopped me.
“Ken says we’re going bowling tonight. He wants you to come.”
I looked around, as if Ken might be hiding behind a shrub somewhere, maybe with a camera and a telephoto lens. He was creepy that way, I’d decided. Always sneaking up on people, always where he didn’t belong.
“Why me?” I asked.
“He said he likes to be friendly with his people. That’s how he said it. ‘His people.’ I don’t remember him ever spending much time with the other guys, but that’s what he says, so . . . ”
“Is that a good idea?”
“It would be worse if I made a stink about it.”
“You think he knows?”
“No,” Marianne said. “Or maybe he does. In any case, I don’t want to give him a reason to start guessing.”
I looked around again, squinting against the flat afternoon glare. Out on the water the night’s races were just getting started. An umpire boat was idling by the first marker. A gunshot echoed through the harbor. Down on the docks Truitt was on his hands and knees peering into the portholes of the English couple’s boat. He rose to his feet when he saw that I’d seen him. Then he walked to the end of the dock and sat down and looked out at the races, as if that had been his plan all along.
“Don’t you need special shoes for bowling?” I asked.
“They give them to you for free,” Marianne said. “Or rather, they rent them to you. Look,” she said, “if it’s about the money, I’m sure Ken will cover you.”
She kissed me quickly on the cheek. I leaned in for more, but she turned and walked back to the offices and skipped up the stairs.
Ken Jacobs had his own red-and-gold bowling shoes, a matching wrist guard, and a marvelous blue ball with his name engraved on it. I selected a black ball from the racks. It was lighter than I’d expected, seemed small, and, turning it over several times, I discovered that its finger holes had been plugged.
“That’s a duckpin ball,” said a girl’s voice from behind me. I turned. It was a girl I vaguely recognized from St. Catherine’s. She was picking up her own ball from the bottom row, a neon pink orb that caught the light in a way that made it flicker with silver specks. “You want one of the big balls,” she said. “Unless you’re throwing duckpins. Are you throwing duckpins?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Do you need a wrist guard for duckpins?”
“Not unless you’ve got a hurt wrist,” the girl said. “Have you got a hurt wrist?”
“Then you want one of the big balls. Green’s the heaviest. That’s over there. Let me see your hands.” I rested the small black ball on its rack and held my hands out, palms up. “You’ve got big fingers, too, so you want to make sure you get a ball with holes that’ll fit them.”
“How do you know so much about bowling?” I asked.
“What else is there to do around here?”
“I guess that’s true,” I said.
The girl said, “Okay, bye,” and marched with both hands around the dazzling pink ball to a lane where a group of girls were sitting around the scoring station sucking the helium out of a bunch of red balloons.
Ken and Marianne Jacobs were good bowlers. Ken could manipulate the ball so it went in one direction, then spun around in the other before knocking almost all the pins down. Whenever I threw the ball, it was luck and nothing else that kept it from careening into the gutters. Ken gave me some pointers. “Keep your wrist firm. You’re turning in the middle of your stroke and it’s going all wobbly.” But his advice wouldn’t take, and eventually he gave up trying.
I turned around from another high-arching lob down the lane. I didn’t even wait for the ball to reach the pins before turning. Ken had gone to the bar for another pitcher of beer. Marianne was sitting by herself at the scoring table.
“What happens now that he’s home?” I asked.
“You know those girls?” she said.
One of them had waved in my direction.
“What? No,” I said. “I don’t know, maybe.”
“You should say hello,” said Marianne.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“They’re about your age, I’d guess.”
“What if he finds out?” I asked.
Ken returned. Marianne stood and grabbed her red ball from the rack. She held it in front of her chest, her right arm bent, her bicep flexed.
“Watch how it’s done, Burt,” she said over her shoulder. Then she proceeded to the dashed line, where she took three perfect steps and let the ball rip down the lane.
“Nice roll!” Ken said. He put the pitcher of beer on the table. “Good form.”
Marianne kissed him on the cheek. Then she placed her hand on Ken’s thigh and squeezed.
I picked up my green ball from the ball rack and heaved it down the lane. It wasn’t my turn yet. The gate hadn’t come up, and the ball crashed against the metal. The automatic changer stuttered to a stop. The people on the next lane looked over. An employee in a polo shirt came running from behind the front desk and sprinted down the gutter to lift the gate. The lane suddenly seemed enormously long, and the bowling alley employee looked tiny at the end of it.
“Well,” Ken said. “I’m sure you’ve got other talents.”
I turned around. Ken and Marianne were seated on the bench in such a way that her legs were draped over his.
“Has he got other talents?” Ken said.
Marianne looked me up and down. “How should I know?”
I didn’t see Marianne for some time after that. She kept her distance from the boatyard and wouldn’t answer my phone calls. I started coming later and later to work until eventually I gave up going altogether. Glen would knock on the basement door, and I would tell him to fuck off. “You want to come upstairs and tell that to my face?” Glen would say, and I would lie there in bed and admit that, despite everything, it was nice of him to keep his promise—he still hadn’t told my mother about what happened with Dean Nichols at the community college.
But summer was ending, and soon I’d have to tell my mother something.
I would spend the afternoons watching Glen’s television until Glen came home, at which point I would move from the recliner to the ottoman and watch whatever it was Glen wanted to watch. Lately he’d been interested in shows about animals.
“Look,” Glen said. This routine had been going on two weeks now. It was the end of August. “I don’t mind your company,” he said. “Hell, there’s worse people I count in my own family. But one of these days you’ll have to get off your ass and get out of the house.”
Glen and I were watching a show about a dog that trained other dogs. A guy with a whistle was following the pack leader around giving him commands, but they downplayed his role so that it seemed as if the dog was making all the decisions. Glen muted the program with the remote.
“I’ve been nice about it so far,” he said. “And I’m happy to stay that way. Makes no difference to me what you do with yourself. But give your mother a little peace of mind, why don’t you. I don’t want her worrying she’s got an idiot on her hands.”
A pack of German shepherds marched across a concrete lot. At the end of it was a moat, a short chain-link fence, and then a grassy hill. They had to figure out a way across. The lead dog was going to show them.
“You hear what I’m saying?” Glen said.
I nodded. Glen turned the sound back on. Now the dogs were just treading water in the moat.
The next afternoon, I drove across town to the boatyard. James Hunt and Truitt were standing at the far end of the lot. Maybe I had plans to get my job back. Maybe I wanted to see Marianne Jacobs again.
I started toward James and Truitt.
Then I noticed the cop. He was standing beside them, hands around Truitt’s bicep. James Hunt had his hand on Truitt’s shoulder, as if he were holding him in place, as if he didn’t want to let him go. The cop separated James from Truitt with some force. I saw then that Truitt’s hands were manacled behind his back.
At the other end of the lot was a squad car with its rear door open. Darla was sitting on the seat. Her father was kneeling in front of her. Another cop—a woman—was kneeling with him. She had the girl’s hand in her own. She and the father were nodding solemnly as they listened to the girl speak. At some distance, the mother was pacing. She whipped the bandana from her hair, wrung it in her hands over and over again like she was drying a washcloth.
I thought about turning the Buick around and leaving, but I saw Marianne coming down the stairs from Ken Jacobs’s office. She had on a tan dress that, from a distance, almost made her look nude. I parked beside James Hunt’s Dodge and jogged across the lot to catch up with her.
“What’s happening?” I said.
“What do you want, Burt?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “What are you dressed up for?”
“We’re having dinner,” she said. “My husband and I.”
Ken started down the stairs after her. He caught up with us at the bottom and put a proprietary arm around his wife. He was dressed in khaki pants, a white dress shirt, a navy blazer with gold buttons like the ones Catholic boys used to wear.
“I’m glad I ran into you,” he said. “Listen, Burt, you know the routine in winter.”
“No,” I said.
“The other guys know the drill. If you want to come back, I can only offer you half-time. Of course, given all this”—he gestured toward the squad cars—“we might have more if you want it.”
I had thought I might like to come back. I had designs on seeing Marianne again. I thought he’d like to start making money again. But I hadn’t really thought it through. Now I said the only thing I could think to say.
“I don’t want anything.”
Ken made a sort of cock-eyed scowl. “You’re a weird kid, Burt.” He shook his head. “And rude.”
Marianne looked down at her watch, and then up at Ken. “We should be going.”
“Yes,” he said.
Together they turned to leave. I grabbed her waist and spun her around.
“Is there a problem?” Ken said.
I looked into her eyes. She responded like a stranger, or an Alzheimer’s patient. She did not even blink.
She said, “No. Burt was just saying goodbye.”
Truitt was escorted across the lot. He had a police officer on either side of him. The woman cop was holding him by the elbow. He looked in the direction of Darla, who was walking with her parents down the dock, back to their boat. James Hunt stood leaning against a blue stilt, watching as his friend was marched off, and then as he was folded into the squad car, and then as the door was shut behind him and he turned to gaze back through the rear window. You could see his head bouncing as the car drove off, a blue strobe spinning on top.
James wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He crouched down and collapsed into a heap of himself. A wailing could be heard from across the lot.
I almost approached him. I wonder sometimes why I didn’t. Instead, I just stood there, doing nothing, only thinking about an afternoon we’d all shared, an afternoon I still think of often. We’d been working on a trawler that was out of water. The plan was to have it prepped and ocean-ready by the end of the week. The owners had friends coming from out of town, and they wanted to take them up to Cape May for a night. There had been some electrical problems, and an anchor motor had given out. But the bigger issue was a faulty bilge pump. In repairing the pump, James Hunt had discovered that the bilge lining had a tear in it. Then he found a leak in the hose. James and I were in the process of swapping out the whole bilge.
I was down below, feeding the discharge hose through the hull to where James was looking through the hole, waiting for the tubing to come through. No one had seen Truitt in over an hour.
A sulfurous smell came through the discharge passage. James called to me through the hole.
“What’s going on down there? Everything all right?”
“Yeah, you don’t see the hose yet!” I yelled.
James climbed the ladder and stood on the top rung and leaned over the railing and took in a big whiff of air.
“Can’t you smell that?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “The fuck is it? You fart or something?”
“No, I thought you did.”
Then I saw it. Truitt coming out of the head, wiping his hands on his pants, rich with satisfaction. The door to the head slammed shut behind him, and he climbed up the companionway steps into the cockpit. He sat down on the bench and tilted his head back as if he were about to take a nap.
“The fuck are you doing?” James said to him.
“Did you just take a dump in there?”
“So what if I did?”
“There’s no plumbing, asshole. Who’s gonna clean all that shit up?”
I came through the companionway to join them.
“Asshole took a dump in our dry bilge!” James said to no one in particular.
You could really smell it now, like a dead rat trapped under the floorboards.
James sat down in the cockpit and put his head in his hands. “Fucking fuck,” he said. “You were down there the whole fucking time? And we didn’t even see you?”
After some time, Truitt said, “You know what I heard? I heard Tom Cruise took a shit in a set toilet once. No one knew for like a week. You want to know how the movie did?” We waited. “I heard it was a stinker!”
James stood up. He clasped his hands behind his neck and sighed. He shook his head. And then it came out. A hearty, billowing laugh. He couldn’t stifle it. Soon we were all three laughing, doubled over and howling. We couldn’t seem to stop. We were in the cockpit of a trawler on stilts, twenty feet above the ground, on a hot summer afternoon just like yesterday and tomorrow, with a dry bilge on our hands and an enormous mess to clean up, and we couldn’t stop laughing. Until finally James slapped his buddy Truitt on the back and said: “You, my friend, are no Tom Cruise.”