Afternoon of the Sassanoa

Jacob had never in his life seen his father or grandfather call for help while on the water. He had been thinking of his mother's shepherd's pie, but now he saw what he should have seen before

(The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.)

JACOB'S father had business in the city that afternoon and the next morning. "Go with him," Jacob's mother said. "You two can spend the night, and you can sign up for pre-season soccer tomorrow morning. It will save me having to give you a ride down."
Jacob agreed to go, even though it would take him away from the island and would involve a trip across to the mainland in the skiff and a seemingly endless hour's drive on the highway. Not bothering to grab a change of clothes, he jumped off the back porch and followed his father down to the island dock.

The fetch between Heron Island and the mainland darkened as Jacob's father, in the stern, thumbed tobacco into his pipe. After a few attempts he gave up trying to light the pipe in the wind, and as if this failure tumbled him toward another, he pushed away from the dock and started to row. Jacob was in the oarsman's seat, and his father, rowing this way, had difficulty keeping the leathers from popping out of the locks. The bags under his father's eyes looked even heavier than usual, and a thin line of blood traced across his freshly shaved neck. His shoulders bunched as he reached forward, his round face growing red and puffy after only a few strokes.

"You take it." His father pushed the oar handles toward Jacob. Even though it was not far to the dock on the mainland, they would blow downwind, toward Robinhood Cove, unless Jacob pulled as hard as he could. As a way of not looking at his father's face, he gazed through the Townsend Gut, the narrowest point between the island and the main, where the water funneled in and the wind whipped between the columns of tall pines, kicking up rows of chop.

"It's the best day for sailing we've had yet," his father said. Jacob shot a glance at the Sassanoa, riding high on her white hull above the water. Her nose pointed into the wind, and she jumped up like a thoroughbred against her mooring tether.

"Let's go for a short sail, just once across the bay, and then I'll still have time to get to town."

"I thought you had to be there by four. We might not even make it if we start now."

"By five, five-thirty. I just have to meet a guy so he can sign some papers and then have someone take them over to the courthouse before it closes."

Jacob didn't say anything. He had already said enough to his mother about not wanting to go to town. He wanted to play soccer, but he hated anything that took him away from the island. Also, he and his father would be alone for the night, and then Jacob would have to hang around the house on Woodmont Street the next day, waiting for his father to finish work so they could drive back to the island.

He wondered if it was a good idea for his father to leave so little time to get his client to sign the papers, and he knew that when his father rushed, he always drove too fast, and sometimes got a ticket in the speed trap where Route One met the main highway. That would put him in a foul mood for the whole week. Jacob didn't want to say anything about not sailing, didn't want to screw up his chances of taking the boat out alone the next year, while his father was at work, when he could sail by himself down the Maine coast to Five Islands. The tourists there, eating lobsters and clams, would look at him as though he had stepped into their lives from a past century. The year before, his father had said he could take the boat out when he was twelve, the same age at which Jacob's grandfather had let his father go out alone, but this year his father had changed the age to thirteen. Jacob wasn't sure he would ever be old enough at this rate.

"We'll just go across the bay and back," his father said, and nodded in the direction of the Sassanoa. Jacob pushed harder on the port oar and swung them around. The day was indeed good for sailing. The pines swayed; the breeze was southerly but cool. Jacob started to row for the island dock. His father's hand shot forward and wrapped around the starboard oar, shoving it into Jacob's chest so hard that it knocked the breath out of him.

"What about the boat bag?" Jacob asked.

"We're just going across the bay once."

His father looked away, apparently realizing that he had accidentally been too rough. Jacob wasn't going to argue about the boat bag. Even his grandfather had gone without it on short sails -- just to spite the yacht-club guys and their overprecautions, he would say. Jacob's father opened his briefcase for the cell phone, unfolded the mouthpiece, and pushed POWER, bringing the clear buttons to life with yellow light. He dialed and held the phone to his head, reaching out with the other hand to grab the Sassanoa. Frustrated, he handed the phone to Jacob.

"When your mother picks up, tell her we're just going across the bay and back before we head into town."

Jacob took the phone. His father rested his briefcase on the deck of the Sassanoa, balanced himself precariously on the seat of the skiff, and pulled himself up. Both Jacob and his mother hated having cell phones on the island, where they came to escape such things, and his mother was already upset about his father's rushing to the city three days into his late-August vacation for an emergency meeting.

"You don't have your windbreaker," his mother said, after Jacob told her what they were doing.

"It's warm out."

"Tell her we're not going to be out long."

Jacob's mother heard her husband. "So call me from town tonight," she said. Jacob didn't know what to say. He said good-bye, his mother said good-bye, and he put the phone in the briefcase.

JACOB couldn't remember a time when they had not come to the island in the summer. Now that his grandmother was too old to stay on the island, Jacob came with just his mother and father. Jacob often helped his mother to scrub clothes against the washboard behind the cottage, using water they caught from the sky and stored in a large tank. Jacob's grandfather had been the pilot of Portland Harbor and his grandparents had lived on the island year-round, without insulation and many other things the cabin still didn't have -- things that Jacob wished their house in Portland didn't have either. Sometimes in the fall, after returning to Portland, Jacob refused to use the phone, lights, or running water, as a way of pretending he was still on the island.

As if they were trying to escape, or as if the rush that Jacob expected on the highway had already begun, his father tugged frantically at the sail ties, pulling out the boom crutch and tossing it carelessly under the foredeck, whereas Jacob had been taught to lash it forward to keep it from banging around once they were under way.

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