Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Matt Domino dusts off an old short story.
Tires were always fun to burn in the night. Ray and I would sneak behind the auto shop and roll a few of them out. We’d push them through the reeds to the little dry field that stuck out along the harbor. On the green and sand-colored grass, we would stack them and look at the water. To the right, you could see the backside of Shore Deli and the little cove with the ducks that sat next to it. To the left were the boats in the harbor. Those boats sitting so ignorantly in the water while the tide shifted around them. I hated those boats for some reason. Seeing them with their blue hulls—the bold writing on the stern, the brown paneling on the sail boats, and the bulky, black powerful looking engines on the motor boats—made me nauseous. So as the red flames lapped, climbed, and melted the tires in the darkness, I would stare at the boats, as firelight illuminated their shapes on the black salt water.
It was the end of August. The wind was swaying the trees from side to side, leaves were falling, and some of them were even starting to change colors. I was wearing pants and the air smelled like the beginning of school, which smells like hot chicken cutlet, wet grass, and hot pavement. Ray and I were both slurping on the bottoms of our half and halfs from Shore Deli while we poked at our tire rubbish. Dark circles marked the tan grass; they looked like a giant stamp had come from God’s hand and marked our little patch. A motorcycle revved its engine in the distance behind us on Main Street.
“That was one of our best, huh?” I said to Ray. “I bet they could see that up on the bluffs. Over by the Gregors.”
“I always wished I was older for her.”
“Who? Anne Gregors?”
Ray nodded and licked his lips. I spit onto the sand.
“You’d have no shot.”
Ray passed a slick piece of scorched tire between his hands, dropped it, shrugged and picked up a rock. A crow cawed and Ray skimmed the rock across the water. I followed its splash and saw Mr. Robinson in the distance walking onto the floating metal dock by the harbor house. You could recognize him by the tilted navy cap he wore on his longish grey hair. The hat made him look like an old sea captain on a schooner; like he was going to catch Moby Dick when all he was going to catch was a sandwich at Shore Deli.
He walked over to his boat. I knew his boat so well and hated it the most. Thirty-two feet long. Old Poquott written in simple black letters on the stern. The symmetrical diagonal blue stripes that reached up and met at the bow’s point. The boat was sharp white and clean like printer paper. So white that the orange life preserver on the starboard side stood out like a mosquito bite. And then there was the cabin. You could barely make it out through the shade of the tinted glass, but two summers ago I was walking by the docks, trying to flip an old flattened Busch can with my foot, when I saw it open a crack. I saw the wood paneling, a flash of gold from somewhere within and then it was closed off to me, the sun, and the dirty smushed aluminum.
Ray slapped my pant leg with the scorched strip of tire. It left a black slash on the knee of my jeans.
“What the hell?”
Ray lit a cigarette. “What’re you doing? Staring at old Robinson?”
I nodded and took a cigarette from him. The wind blew the reeds and our puffs of smoke.
“Why do you sit and look at these stupid boats,” Ray said, his voice muffled by exhaled smoke.
I stood there for a moment watching the grey ash fall to the grass. The sun felt good on the back of my neck and the sky was a perfect blue. I couldn’t believe that school was starting the next day. That I’d be stuck in the dank hallways with the smell of fried food, body odor, and old books. I took another drag and watched as Mr. Robinson pulled up his anchor, the rope passing from water to boat so easily in the distance. Something inside of me was warm.
“I want to try and steal one.”
Ray didn’t say anything. He just took a pull of his cigarette.
“We have to do it tonight. Before school starts, before this whole new year starts.”
“Which boat are we going to steal?”
I pointed my hand and cigarette towards the harbor house and dock. I liked the feeling of my outstretched arm.
“Robinson’s?” Ray asked.
“You’re crazy, man.”
Mr. Robinson’s boat passed through the harbor towards the distance, the wake from the propellers bubbling and churning up a salty froth. Past the bluffs the sound would open up, then it would be the Atlantic once he was there, it was only up to Mr. Robinson to decide when to stop—him and no one else as he drank wine or champagne on the open sea.
“That’s the one to steal.”
We both ashed our cigarettes and slurped at our half and halfs next to the reeds.
That night the moon was almost full. It shone on the water, which was smooth and looked like silver. Ray and I walked down Manor Road towards the bend where the little beach looked out across the harbor. Underneath the lone streetlight I could make out Mr. Robinson’s boat sitting away from the docks.
We moved silently from the pavement onto the sand. It was a moist, cool night and my sneakers moved easily on the compact sand. There’d be no one out on the water.
“Are you sure these kayaks aren’t locked up?” Ray asked from behind me.
“Positive. Costello told me that he uses them all the time. He lives right up Birch over there.”
I continued walking towards the kayak rack. We were going to use the kayaks to get out to Robinson’s boat and then try to either wire it or, most likely, unanchor it and drag it out to one of the small sandbars where we could smash it. I hoped that Ray’s story about how he and his brother had hotwired a car in the parking lot of Wendy’s was true.
At the rack, I rolled up the sleeves of my sweater. I felt the rust on the rack. I tried to lift a kayak up—it was locked. Ray grabbed a red one. It didn’t move. I pulled at another yellow one. It stubbornly moved from side to side making a chafing plastic sound. I could feel sweat on my forehead and in my armpits. Maybe Costello had been wrong. A goose honked somewhere out on the water.
“They’re all locked.” Ray said. He pulled out a cigarette. “Let’s just go home. Maybe we can get some vodka to drink tomorrow. These tools keep pulling my pants down anyway.”
“Don’t smoke. We don’t want anyone to see the cherry.”
“I don’t think that scraping the kayaks on the rack helped.”
I frowned and looked next to the rack. There were a few kayaks strung together by a black rope-lock up against some low reeds. I yanked at the first—locked; the second—locked. The third and the fourth were locked too, but the fifth—a blue double kayak—slid right out with a smooth zip across the sand. It wasn’t really strung on the lock but placed there to look like it. It was almost too good to be true.
“See, Costello wouldn’t lead me wrong,” I said. “Let’s get this to the water.”
We each lifted an end and took it down the beach. The water lapped on the sand. We slid the kayak in and Ray got on first; I would do the steering.
“Remember,” I said. “We stay quiet from this point on. We get there, get on and make a quick move. If you can’t wire it, I’ll get the anchor and then we’ll just drag it. And if there’s an alarm…”
“We get the hell off and make it to the tire spot.”
“What if we can’t drag it?”
“Then we take our paddles to it.”
He looked at me for a moment. The light from the moon filled the boat. It was so bright that I thought someone from shore might be able to see us. We’d be screwed. There was another goose honk from the water. I remembered all the open space beyond the bluffs. I shook off my insecurity. Ray smiled.
“Or we could burn it.”
I shrugged but was a little startled by the sound of his voice and I could picture him with the scorched tire in his hand. There was something strange about the way he suddenly said things.
“If it comes to it,” I said.
We set the boat off quietly through the water. I was impressed at how easily we passed across the harbor. Little drops of water fell from the paddle onto the thigh of my jeans. It wasn’t a bad kayak at all. The support on my back was fine and I felt comfortable and was surprised by my lack of nervousness as we approached Old Poquott.
As we edged towards the boat, there were swans drifting along. They looked odd to me for some reason. They were so natural in their movement, everything slender and simple black and white. With their orange legs concealed by the water it was if they were pulled or moved by an invisible force, something only they could feel. I wanted to get near to them, but I didn’t want to get so close that they’d attack. Besides drawing attention with noise, they could kill us; stamp us out with the beating of their wings.
“Slow down a little so we keep quiet,” I whispered to Ray.
Ray listened and our glide slowed. We moved past most of the swans and steered our way through the first boats. I felt warmth from my stomach again. Their white sides had a brighter shine in the dark. Their railings seemed enchanted, but the hulls seemed bulkier, more imposing. We passed one with Daddy’s Girl written in maroon. It had to be about forty feet. The writing seemed too bold, as if it and the entire ship itself were announcing their importance to the night and to the swans as if either cared. I certainly didn’t care. Another drop of water hit my pants and the hair on my legs stood up.
“There it is,” Ray muttered. “Old Robinson’s.”
And it was right in front of us. Old Poquott and its bow with the blue stripes on the edge. We slowed our pace so that we barely made a sound or ripple. Against the silver water, the boat was tremendous. Even though it wasn’t the biggest, it seemed to say the most into the night. Its immaculate sides shouting its presence and some kind of history. It was a proud ship, not bulky or showy. Within all that white and gleaming pride was some sparkle of gold, and I wanted to see it for myself.
I took deep breaths to control the burn inside of me.
Ray turned back. “You ready?”
I nodded and dipped the paddle in deep to give us a sharp turn towards the boat. Ray amazed me with his skill in manipulating the kayak close to the side but without brushing the hull. We came to the stern and I took out the thin rope I’d been carrying in my pocket and gave it to Ray. I watched anxiously as Ray moved soundlessly from the kayak and began to tie it to Old Poquott. His agility made me wonder if he’d ever robbed someone before. I realized that I didn’t know him that well, so I wouldn’t have doubted it. Once the kayak was tied, he pulled it in close. I balanced myself and managed to get off quietly.
We both stood tall and admired our perch above the water. I inhaled the salty night air. I had a quick vision of driving the boat out into the sound on a hot bright day. I’d steer out into the mist, to the open, where I and the boat would disappear from sight. The vision passed and I focused and tapped Ray’s shoulder. He moved to the front of the boat where the steering and ignition were.
I kept to the back near the anchor in case Ray couldn’t hotwire it. I heard the clinking of the tools he’d brought. An alarm hadn’t gone off yet and I as I stood, I grew curious. I stared at the dark glass of the cabin door. I approached it and saw my reflection in the glass: my balled green sweater and jeans, my scruffy longish hair, even the stubble above and below my lips. Something told me that I had to open the door and for some reason I knew it would be unlocked. I pulled, and it was.
The inside of the cabin was dark. A little of the moonglow slanted in along the floor underneath my legs. I was tempted to turn on a light. I wanted to see the inside perfectly, but I didn’t want to scare Ray before we had taken the boat. I stepped forward and felt a bump beneath my sneaker. Then, I slipped and hit my back on the wood floor.
“Fuck,” I said and saw the dark bottle beside me.
I heard Ray’s footsteps outside along the side and then saw his shadow. As I moved to get up a light came on. I looked up and it was Mr. Robinson in a big tan sweater and shorts, his cap pushed up on his head.
“Shit,” Ray said from behind me and ran. I heard the sound of the kayak against the water, the splashes of paddling, which was followed by a plastic thud. He’d thrown my paddle on the boat. What a considerate friend.
Mr. Robinson held a large brown bottle in his right hand and didn’t get up from his seat. He just watched me as I slowly stood up. He crossed his feet, which were in worn brown dock shoes. His calves looked bulky and unnatural. I didn’t know what to do. The cabin was silent. Finally, I decided to look around. There was a green beer bottle at my feet and my head had just barely missed the ledge of a small kitchen counter. The cabin had upholstered seats running all along the sides, but Mr. Robinson was sitting in a brown recliner chair that seemed to have been dragged onto the boat. His feet rested on a table that had gold corners. He snorted and took a drink from the bottle. All of the walls were glossy wood. Their sheen was exactly as I’d imagined it.
“I’m not gonna call the cops,” Mr. Robinson said finally.
I stood up slowly. He must’ve seen my hesitance because he jumped out of his chair. I flinched and he laughed at me. I felt my cheeks grow red as he reached over onto the wall and ripped out a black radio box from its wiring. Then he threw it past me. It hit the sink and the box landed with the sound of breaking plastic.
“See,” he said. Then he collapsed in his chair with a sigh. He readjusted his cap. “So what did you want coming on my boat? Were you going to steal it?”
I didn’t know what to say. His voice sounded tired.
“Or were you just looking for booze?”
I shook my head.
“Not a talker? Maybe you want a drink?” He held out the bottle and little bit of liquid swished out of the top. It smelled like whiskey. Mr. Robinson smiled and urged the bottle towards me. “Take it.”
I moved towards him and grabbed the bottle. It was wet around the neck and felt heavy in my shaking hand. I turned to the sink and looked for a glass. I wanted to pour it quick to please him. I wasn’t sure what he would do in the exhausted state he seemed to be in. There was a ledge across from the sink with some glasses. There was a beautiful golden vase on the ledge too. It looked very old but well kept. I quickly groped at one of the glasses and placed it next to the sink. I began to pour. All of a sudden, I felt all of Mr. Robinson’s tired weight rise up from behind me.
“No! Not that one! Who told you to use that glass?” Mr. Robinson shouted and ran towards me.
As he ran, his left leg seemed to give out and he fell against my side pushing me into the sink. The glass fell out of my hand and crashed to the floor, the brown whiskey seeping under and around the clear shards. I looked down at Mr. Robinson and he was crying. His hat had fallen off and I noticed that the spot where the band had rested on his head was marked with red. A little spot of blood trickled over the lines on his forehead.
I looked above him and at the rest of the cabin. Behind the recliner there was a small hallway with an open door at the end. There was a bed with papers all over. I looked back at the recliner. It was very worn and on the seat was a picture frame. Mr. Robinson had been sitting on it. I looked back down at him, he didn’t seem to care that I was there anymore. He clutched a large piece of the glass. On it, there was part of an inscription written in gold.
“I’m sorry.” I said. It was all I could mumble.
I stepped over him and out into the moist night. I walked along the starboard side and grabbed the orange life preserver. I took it and stood on the edge. The swans were in the distance, floating white beyond the boats. I leaped off and into the water. My clothes were heavy but I held onto the preserver and started paddling.
I looked back once more at the light from the cabin. The faint sounds of Mr. Robinson’s moans followed me. As I moved towards the shore and away from the great open space beyond the bluffs, I was scared, scared in a way that Ray would never know. I whimpered and wondered for the first time what my mother would think of me as I swam in the darkness amid the boats.