He wakes up early the next morning with chest pains and calls for an ambulance.
“You again?” It’s the dispatcher with the whiny voice. “Isn’t this your fourth call this month? We’ll send ’em over because we have to, but you’re a bit trigger-happy, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“Come over tonight and I’ll show you how trigger-happy I can be.”
The line goes dead. Screw her. He calls a cab. Maybe it wasn’t a heart attack anyway. Maybe it’s just fatigue. Maybe it’s nerves.
He scrambles around trying to get ready, and he sees the light on in the Commodore’s office. He decides to tell her that he’ll accept her offer.
She opens the door just as he goes to knock and they startle each other. She’s wearing a baby-blue bathing cap with a yellow flower over her left ear, a purple bathing suit with a red skirt, and, of course, Keds. The ensemble is all wrong for her. He’d heard that she does early-morning laps in the freezing-cold harbor, but he’s never believed it until now. He follows the long line of her cleavage and begins to wonder what her breasts look like. He is surprised that he can feel a little something so early in the morning, and after experiencing chest pains.
“You’re a bit early to come knocking,” she says.
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m in a bit of a rush. The ambulance should be here any minute.”
“Are you dying?” she asks.
He thinks he detects a tone of hopefulness, which he resents. “No such luck, Commodore. No such luck.” He becomes distracted by a thick vein, raised and alive, climbing up her leg. Her legs are thin, but the aged skin purses and buckles. He wants to press on one of the bulges to see whether it will bounce back up. The smaller blue veins on her calf look like shattered glass. It’s mesmerizing. He could look at her legs all day long. He feels the pad of her finger and a little dig of her nail under his chin, and he brings his attention back to her eyes.
“Focus. What are you here to tell me?”
“I’d like to accept your offer, Commodore.”
She raises her voice so he can hear her over the sound of the ambulance sirens. “Wonderful. I’ll be by this afternoon to iron out the details.”
The ambulance and the cab are both waiting for him in the parking lot. He blows a kiss to the ambulance driver and gets in the cab. “Take me to St. Anne’s,” he says.
“To the church at the end of the street?” the driver asks. “Dispatch told me it was a medical emergency. You sure you ordered this cab?”
“I’m the one, ol’ boy,” Gus says.
Today, the church is empty and smells of incense. Its whitebrick, low-ceilinged entryway reminds Gus of a waiting room. He finds Father Neil in the confessional closest to the altar, and he hits the ground running. “Father, it’s been a terribly long time since my last confession.”
“You were here just last week, Gus.”
“Yes, Father. But you know how often I need to come.”
And he begins. He tells the priest all that’s been bubbling up inside him, all the lies he told last week, all the hateful thoughts he’s had about Christie and her new boyfriend, his unclean thoughts about Smiley at the ice-cream parlor and this morning, to his surprise, about the Commodore. He tells him about the fire, and his son. And he tells the priest about his realization that only people who don’t know him take him seriously. It occurs to him that he’s been there for half an hour, and he hasn’t even gotten to the good stuff, to where he’s going.
During the next three weeks, Gus stays up late memorizing the nautical charts all the way up the coast to Cape Ann. He figures out where he’s going, how long it will take, how much fuel he’ll need. Mechanics come to fix his carburetor. He also gets a new interior and engine out of the deal. He cautions the guys who install the new sink and stove to lift with their knees. He feels a little like he used to when he was managing the construction crew. He’s pleased to get a job done, to see a finished product. Volunteers pull up the boat and inspect the hull. They scrub and scrub the siding, and the boat’s name emerges from under the scum. Saint is still intact, but Anne’s seems to have been eaten away by the salt and grime. Kids come by and give Philip a bath. They stock Gus’s cabinets with dog food, canned goods, and plenty of insulin (one of the members, conveniently, is a vet). Then they throw him a Bon Voyage, Gus! party, with little beer—no, soda—cozies as party favors.
The night before he departs, Gus presses an envelope into the Commodore’s hand and asks her to put it in a safe-deposit box. He gives her special instructions on what to do with it if she should hear that he’s been lost at sea.
“You’re not planning on it, are you?” She seems genuinely concerned. Over the past couple of days, he thinks he’s seen the Commodore soften toward him. In another life, they might have been friends, maybe even lovers.
“No, no,” he says. “I don’t have a death wish.”
“Do you want us to help you set up at a new marina?”
“I don’t know where I’m going to settle,” he says. “I’m going to be looking for someone for a while.”
On the day of his departure, everyone on the dock waves at him as he backs out. Philip sits by his side. Like an old pro, Gus maneuvers around the other moorings. His departure is exactly as he’d imagined it would be, exactly as he’d written it.
After a week, Gus finally finds what he’s been looking for: a busy fishing dock, boats coming and going from Gloucester, where no one asks any questions. It’s perfect. Close to a vet, where Philip can get their insulin, and close to a public library, where he can search the Web. Every day he scours the news on the Internet, the local paper from Hingham, the Boston Herald, The Boston Globe—everywhere he told the Commodore to submit his obituary. Eventually, someone will realize that he is unaccounted for. Eventually, someone will send out the search party. The anticipation of the headline gets him out of bed each morning before sunrise. He can’t wait. When his obituary is finally published, he knows his son will read it. He believes his son will be moved by the story of a man who was lost at sea, a great man, a man who was brave and true to the ones he loved.