Gus has barely gotten home and filled up Philip’s water when he hears a knock on the side of his boat. “What a day!” he says. He peeks out the window and sees blue pants and white Keds. The Commodore. She’s earlier than he’d expected.
She steps onto the boat as if she herself is ready to set sail in her crisp white shirt and her blue scarf with gold trim.
“Come on aboard, Commodore. Have a seat.” He gestures toward the plastic seat he superglued to the deck.
She doesn’t sit down.
“I’ve come because, Gus, as you know,” she pauses, “you are a problem.”
He puts on a sad face and flutters his eyelashes. “If you’re told enough times, you start to believe it.”
“Don’t be fresh.”
For a second, he cowers like he used to when one of the nuns in grade school scolded him. “Listen, I’m sorry about all the hullabaloo last night.”
“Things happen.” Her stress on the word makes Gus wonder whether his initial gut instinct had been right. Maybe she had started the fire. “But that’s not what I’m here about. I’m here because this morning you made a—how can I say this delicately—an inappropriate gesture to someone who is considering joining the marina.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t recall.” He says this to buy time. He doesn’t like this lady, but he does respect her. She’s sharp.
Without taking her eyes from him, she lifts her middle finger, elongated by her painted nail, and holds it out at him.
He’s impressed. “Oh, that gesture. Yes, I recall.”
“This person would be a coup for us. He has a lot of money he’s willing to invest in this place, and his one request is that if he joins, you, in no uncertain terms, are gone. He has children, and he doesn’t want you near them.”
That one stings, but he tries not to let it show.
“I have a proposition for you, and if you’ll listen for a second, it might be of some interest. We know you have a lifetime deed, but as you well know, we’d like you to leave, and the board has decided that we’re willing to pay you to do it.”
“You had a board meeting today? Already?”
She raises an eyebrow above the frame of her sunglasses, as if daring him to question her further, and she continues. “You can tell us where you’d like to go. Any marina on the eastern seaboard, and we’ll find a way to get you there. If you don’t remember how to drive your boat, we can arrange for a refresher, maybe even a crew, if it comes to that.”
He crosses his arms, walks toward the back of the boat, and looks out at the water to keep the Commodore from seeing the emotions this offer has stirred up inside. The water gently undulates beneath him. He hears the rigging of a distant sailboat clink against a mast. Living on a boat has made him aware that nothing in the world is ever static. Everything is moving, alive.
He feels equal parts excitement—this could be his break!—and fear. Where would he and Philip go? How would anybody be able to find him? He takes a deep breath and, for effect, strokes his chin. “I’m going to need a few days to think about it, Commodore. This would involve a big life change.”
“I know it would, Gus. Take the rest of the week. You’ve certainly had a rough 24 hours.”
She pokes her head into the cabin to inspect the damage. When she looks up at the ceiling, the loose skin on her neck folds and spires like the body of a screw. “A paint job will probably do the trick,” she says.
Gus thinks that more than a paint job would be needed to fix that neck. Why, he wonders, with all her money, doesn’t she get a little tuck? She’d look 15 years younger. He feels the urge to tell her about his operation, and how it made him feel 15 years younger. But now is not the right time.
He straightens his shoulders a bit, proud of his restraint.
As she moves to leave, she takes his hand and gives it a hand-crushing shake. “Give it some thought. Our only stipulation is that you’d be gone by the end of the month. Think seriously about what you’d need to make this happen, and we’ll do our best to help you with it. Anything. Within reason.”
“A little going-away party could be nice.”
She takes a deep breath, holds it, and says goodbye again. Then she steps onto the dock and pulls her right leg out of the boat just as Philip zeroes in on it.
“Little devil,” Gus says, and pats Philip on the head.
Gus immediately goes to the boathouse to call his son. He lets it ring and ring, but no one answers, so he picks up a Hingham Marina postcard and writes him a note: “Dear Bradley, Almost died yesterday. Might be heading out of town soon. Want to make amends. Love, Daddy.” He reaches behind the front desk, peels a stamp from the roll, and puts the postcard in the mail basket.
That night he puts his obituary under his pillow in case he wakes up in the middle of the night with any kind of inspiration. If he’s going to take the Commodore up on her offer, he needs to have the thing already written before the end of the month. Now he has a deadline.
For the next four days, he calls his son morning, noon, and night. No one ever answers. On the fifth day, he is informed that the line has been disconnected. As he hangs up and his coins plunk into the pay phone, he feels a disconnect deep in his stomach. He’s not exactly sure why, but he feels he can’t make a decision on the Commodore’s offer until he confers with his son, maybe because this moment feels as important in the grand scheme of things as the day Bradley was born.
Thirty-one years ago this June. Remembers—like it was yesterday—when the nurse came into the waiting room to tell him that he had a son, and he’d grabbed her and kissed her on her big, neon-pink lips. How can he explain it except to say that those lips were the closest receptacle for his joy. Joy!
But then, somewhere in the next few seconds, somewhere between that kiss and the walk down the corridor to see his boy behind the window of the nursery, that joy had changed to something in the neighborhood of fear. The nurse with the neon lips, which were now pinched in a frown, picked up the boy and carried him toward the window, so Gus could get a close look. The boy was in motion, feet, arms stretching; his face was a splotchy red, his thin lips were a white, quivering frame around his gums. To Gus, the boy’s cries were terrifying.
He took a step back and became aware of the diamond-shaped, shatterproof wiring within the glass pane, the kind he had installed at work until he hurt his back. Gus sighed and at that moment he realized that he felt more comfortable right where he was, observing from behind the window. And this, essentially, was how their relationship continued. He kept his distance. (Eventually, when he won the boat, he kept an even greater distance.) He could more easily watch his son at a baseball game from behind a chain-link fence; more easily be an anonymous spectator in the crowd of the Little League parade; more easily watch him from behind the lens of a camera at his first communion, at his confirmation, at his high-school graduation, at his wedding.
Maybe this was why his son wasn’t calling him back in his time of need. Maybe Bradley, too, had grown more comfortable with the distance.