Photograph by Ray Mortenson
Gus doesn’t know for certain what started the fire on his boat last night, but now that he’s had a cup of coffee and a smoke, and his mind has cleared a bit, he’s about ready to relinquish the possibility of conspiracy. He knows the Commodore wants to kick him out of the marina, but nothing about her is deceitful, aside from her pure-white Keds. For the life of him, he can’t figure out how she keeps a pair of shoes so clean.
But most likely the fire had nothing to do with her. Most likely one of his cigarette butts got friendly with his beer cozy, the one shaped like a neoprene life vest that his ex-girlfriend, Christie, gave him for his 50th last year. He remembers when she held it up to her cheek, brushed pink for the occasion, and said: “Isn’t this the cutest beer cozy you’ve ever seen? It’s even got a real zipper!” That was Christie for you. She could muster genuine enthusiasm for the littlest things. He even remembers starting to believe that that beer cozy was the cutest thing he’d ever seen, and he feels a little remorse knowing that all that’s left of it are a cluster of orange flecks near the ashtray and a scorched zipper.
Last night, after he’d finally convinced the Hingham Fire Department that he had everything under control, Gus lay in bed, looking at that zipper long and hard. Only the metal tab and slider remained. The paint had melted off, and when he pressed it against his thumb, he could see its imprint, the letters YKK, on his skin. After he blinked a few times, the imprint disappeared. He stared and stared at the zipper, trying to force it into some sort of symbol of lost love, but he couldn’t get the metaphor to fit before exhaustion overtook him.
Now, with the spring sun warming his shoulders and reflecting off the bay and into his eyes, he needs to focus on the task at hand. He is determined to follow through on the promise he made to himself last night.
First he writes his name, GUS GEASEY, in capital letters. Next will be to write where he is “from” or a “longtime resident of,” and that is where things get complicated. He writes “eastern seaboard” and decides he’s going to have to revise. Writing an obituary is going to be harder than he’d thought, but he wants his life on record. Doesn’t need a will—doesn’t own anything but the Wellcraft, which he won at a St. Anne’s raffle 20 years ago and which is now charcoaled and seems to be floating a little closer to the surface of the harbor—and he doesn’t know anyone who would want it, anyway. But he does want people—his son, Bradley, in particular, and Christie, out of spite—to know when his time comes. It could very well have been last night. He tries to focus. He writes “Geasey is survived by” and pauses. Again, stumped. The usual suspects wouldn’t want to be identified.
Pondering this, he looks up just as a skiff carrying the Commodore and three blond adults in orange life jackets motors by. Predictably, they wave. Predictably, he stands up and flips them the bird. Their faces flash at one another, at him, at one another, at him.
Gus laughs. That trick never gets old. No matter how many times. If Christie were here, if she weren’t off sleeping with her new male-oncology-nurse boyfriend, she’d have told him that he has issues with authority. And she’d have had a point. He knows he’ll get a call from the Commodore. She’ll tell him he’s at risk of losing his place in the marina if he doesn’t change his behavior—This is a place for families. You’re only here because we don’t legally know how to get rid of you—and then he’ll tell her how he’s fully recovered from his penile-implant procedure and how he’d like to have her over for dinner. She’ll hang up on him.
He places the fire extinguisher—thank Christ he’d had it on hand—on the edge of his obituary to keep it from flying away. He’ll have to finish it later. Too much to do before his doctor’s appointment. The cab should be here any minute, and he hasn’t showered or given his Rottweiler, Philip, his insulin shot.
He ducks into the cabin. The place still reeks of smoke, and the ceiling is now covered by an angry brown stain. The fire had been close. Awful close. He can hear Christie lecturing him about smoking. “Screw it,” he says, and lights up. He takes the insulin from the fridge, pulls the syringe from the cabinet, and measures a double dose. “C’mere, Philip!” He opens the door to his bedroom. Philip is sprawled on the bed, black paws crossed over his brown snout. A circle of drool pools on the sheet beneath his head. “C’mon now, buddy. I know you were scared last night, but you’ve got to fight your fears. Come here now. You know it’s for the best.”
As he flicks the needle with his fingers, he feels a little bubble of emotion rise inside him. Philip saved his life. He was the one who first smelled the smoke. Philip had woken him up. Gus sinks the needle into the flesh behind Philip’s left shoulder and rubs his forehead with his thumb. If only people could take a shot in the scruff as well as Philip, he thinks, the world would be a better place. Then he pulls the needle out, checks the level, and injects the remaining insulin into his own arm.
He hears the cabbie laying on the horn. “I’ll see you tonight, Philip.” He pats the dog on the head, and Philip lets out a whimper. “I’ll leave the door open for you, but no humping the Commodore. Remember, you gave it up for Lent.”
He chuckles as he climbs into the cab and tells the driver to head toward Boston. As the driver takes him up 93 and nears the city traffic, Gus gives his own Lenten sacrifice some serious thought, but he keeps coming up cold, so he starts to think about what everyone else he knows should give up. Christie should give up her nurse and come back to him. It’s only right. The Commodore should give up frosting her hair. It makes her look older than she is. His ex-wife should stop pretending he has money to give her. His son, Bradley, should not only give up giving him the silent treatment—the trial had come and gone!—but he should also give up trying to have children. At this point, his poor wife has gone through so many in vitros that she must be feeling like a pin cushion. Plus, Gus could think of many other good uses for all that hard-earned money.
Gus arrives early, so he goes into the ice-cream shop across the street. He eyes the help—one is Sturdy, the other Smiley—and lets an old lady step in line before him. “Go right ahead, ma’am,” he says. “I just can’t seem to decide.”
“It’s awful hard sometimes, isn’t it,” the woman says, and shuffles in front of him.
He wants Smiley. She is new, so new she hasn’t figured out how to put on enough, but not too many, jimmies so that they aren’t clumps of wax. This also means she won’t know who he is.
She blows a wisp of hair out of her eye and asks how she can help him. He wants to tell Smiley any number of ways she can help him, the thought of which gives a little life to his dick, but he tells her he’d like a hot-fudge sundae, whipped cream and marshmallow, and nuts.
“Cherry?” she asks.
He can barely stand it. He shrugs his shoulders and asks if he can possibly ask for two.
She smiles. “Here or to go?”
“Oh, it’ll be to go. It’s for my wife. She’s at the hospital up the street. They said she could have an ice cream after her surgery.”
“Aw,” she says as she digs out the ice cream and curls it into the cup. He can see down her blouse. She’s putting her whole body into it, which causes her breasts to bump up against each other like hogs in a crowded pen. “Aren’t you nice,” she says. “Sure hope I can find a husband who will bring me ice cream when I’m sick.” When she turns to put on the whipped cream, he admires her behind—it’s ample, it’s got bounce. By the time she seals the cover, presses it flat, and gives it a swift pat, he’s nearly ready to blow his wad.
Now it’s time to deliver. He acts uninterested in the ice cream. Doesn’t even look at it. Then he pats down his jacket and feels around in his back pockets. “You know what,” he says, and lets out a little snort. “I feel like a real jackass.” He pats more frantically. “I must’ve left my wallet up at the hospital.” He goes through the interior pockets. “Ha!” he says. “That’s a real laugh. Might as well leave my wallet up there for how much those goddamn doctors are milking me for each night.”
The girl looks over her shoulder toward the back, where Sturdy is safely out of sight.
“I’ll just shoot up the street and I’ll be right back down. I can leave the ice cream right here. Don’t let anyone take it, OK?”
She pushes the ice cream across the counter. “Just take it to her now and bring the money on your way home.”
“Aw, thanks, doll. I’ll be back in a flash. Thank you. Bless you.”
He turns to leave, and a woman behind him in line is shooting needles at him from her eyes. He wonders how he knows her. He wonders why she clearly doesn’t like him. Must have been something he said.
He walks out the door, takes a deep breath, and sits down on the closest bench around the corner. He licks the ice cream all the way around the rim of the cup. He feels the whipped cream melt against his upper lip and lets out a sigh. His sugar level is going to shoot through the roof, but he doesn’t care. By ice cream, not by fire, would be an acceptable way to go.
When he checks in at Dr. Fador’s office, he remembers how he knows the lady who’d been giving him the dirty look in the ice-cream parlor. She is the doctor’s secretary, and her head and her perm, visible through the reception window, remind him of a Muppet in a picture frame. She slides the glass pane open.
“Surprised you could make it here so quickly after bringing your wife an ice-cream sundae.”
“What can I say? If a man needs an ice cream, a man needs an ice cream.” He doesn’t tell her that he legitimately thought he was going to die last night, and he figures if he’s going to die soon, he might as well get a free ice cream.
“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Shame is not in my vocabulary.”
“Is that the problem?”
He is relieved when his turn finally comes. Dr. Fador looks tired. He is the smartest and kindest person Gus knows. After all these years, the doctor still talks to him, still takes care of him. That, he knows, says a lot about his character.
“Doc,” he says, “I’m not well.”
The doctor sniffs the air. “Is it smoke inhalation?”
“Yes, that’s part of it,” Gus says. He tells him about the fire.
“How did it start?”
“I think it may have been a cigarette,” he says sheepishly.
“I thought you quit.” Dr. Fador warms the stethoscope by rubbing it on his palm and places it on Gus’s back.
Gus doesn’t miss that small act of kindness. If he were to write Dr. Fador’s obituary, he’d add that small compelling detail, something he’d done out of pure thoughtfulness for another human being.
“Well, your lungs seem okay to me. How has your blood-sugar level been?”
“Actually, thanks for reminding me. I need some more of that fast-acting insulin. Seems I’ve used the stuff up.”
“I just prescribed you some insulin, Gus. Where’s it going?” The doctor snaps his folder shut and shakes his finger at Gus. “You’ve known me too long for this. I don’t know what you’re doing with it, but I can’t overprescribe. Take another doctor for a ride. Not me.”
“All right, Doc. You caught me. I’ve been giving it to my dog.” He thinks the doctor will appreciate his generosity.
Dr. Fador isn’t amused. “Then you’ll have to see a vet.” He snaps a glove onto each hand and tells him to stand up.
Gus coughs on cue. He feels the pressure, and it’s over.
Gloves off and in the trash, Dr. Fador is back to taking notes. Back to business. “How has your recovery been from the implant?” he asks.
“Life has never been better, Doc.” The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. So far, things had only gotten worse.
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.
The day before Gus has to give the Commodore his answer, he doesn’t leave the bedroom. He curls his knees as close as he can to the fetal position without pinching the nerve in his back. He’s never felt so sorry for himself. He misses Christie. He wishes he could talk to her about what is happening in his life. As he thinks of her, he reaches down to the pump between his testicles. There it is—a reminder of her. He presses on it and his penis inflates. He doesn’t think he’ll ever find love again. Christie was it. Then he presses the deflation valve, the fluid returns to the reservoir, and his penis deflates. Unconsciously, he begins to pump and release. Again and again. Pump and release. It is oddly soothing, oddly not-at-all-arousing.
Early on Saturday morning, he wakes up to someone yelling his name.
He jumps up in a panic, hoping he won’t find another fire, and smacks his head on the door frame on his way out to the deck.
His son, Bradley, is standing on the dock, wearing a blue suit, a white shirt, and a red tie. Slap some white Keds on his feet and he could work for the Commodore, Gus thinks. He rubs his aching head with one hand, rubs his eyes with the other, and says, “Quit calling me by my first name. I’m your daddy. Show me a little respect.”
Bradley steps onto the boat. His suit hangs perfectly. It seems not to be touching any part of his body. “Put some clothes on, please,” Bradley says. “You’re going to get yourself arrested.”
Gus goes inside, and Bradley raises his voice to speak to him through the door. “I know you’ve been calling. I’m here to tell you that Penny and I are moving.”
The news gives Gus pause, one pant leg on, one off. “Congratulations, son. Where are you moving to?” He runs to the bathroom and splashes some water on his face and begins combing his hair back.
“She won’t let me tell you.”
“Seems a little harsh.”
He comes outside still brushing his teeth and spits off the side of the boat. “I hope you helped your mother sell that house for a good price. You know I bought that house.”
“Yeah, I know. You took us to court over it, remember?”
How many times did he have to tell Bradley that it wasn’t the house, but the principle of the house that made him go to court. He felt the courts should decide. They had. And not in his favor. So why couldn’t everyone just move on? “Listen, I was hoping we could begin to put that behind us, what do you say?”
Gus nods. He’ll take what he can get. He gargles some mouthwash, spits it into the harbor, and watches little fish come to the surface to eat from it.
He turns back and sees that Bradley has disappeared into the cabin. When he reemerges, he is brushing soot from the shoulders of his suit. “What happened here?”
“Just a little fire. Nothing much. Everything’s fine.”
“Doesn’t look fine. Looks like you torched the place. Glad you’re still alive.”
Gus lets that statement hang there for a few seconds. Philip, who has just woken up, walks straight to Bradley, who scratches him on the brown spot above his rump. Gus smiles as Philip’s left hind leg starts pawing at the air. The big guy’s in heaven.
“Well, I appreciate your coming by,” Gus says. “Keeping me in the loop enough to know that I’m out of it.” He fidgets with the superglued chair, but it doesn’t move. He doesn’t know what to say, so he says, “Did I ever tell you that you were a mistake?”
“More times than I care to remember.” Bradley forces a laugh and looks up at the sky. “You continue to be my measuring stick of how not to be a father.”
This is it. Before he loses his son’s attention altogether, he needs to say the thing he’s been thinking about for the past few days. He needs to explain why he’s been calling. So he just jumps in. He tells him that the Commodore has made him an offer he doesn’t think he can refuse. He explains what it will involve, how he’ll be leaving, how he doesn’t know where he’ll go or whether he’ll be coming back.
“You’re getting the boat fixed up for free?” Bradley shakes his head and starts pacing. His buzz cut seems to be standing on end, straighter than it was a moment before, as if reacting to an electrical current. “You’re unbelievable.”
Gus wants to tell him it’s not about the money. He wants his son to stay calm. He doesn’t want this to escalate into an argument. “But hear me out for a second. I have some real reservations. This fire last week really has me thinking a lot, and some things are worrying me.” Here goes. “What happens if I die? How will you know?”
But Bradley is still frustrated. “I read the local papers.”
“So you’re not moving too far away?” His son looks at him, and sees that he’s slipped up.
“Besides, I’m not worried about you dying, Dad. You’re never going to die. You’re too much of an asshole to die.” He looks at his watch and tells Gus he has to get going.
The conversation has failed to go where he wanted it to go. He’s now realizing that he wanted his son to give him a reason to stay, a reason not to take the offer and disappear from his life, but his son is not making this argument.
To keep from getting choked up, he asks another question. “Where are you going all spiffed up on a Saturday morning, anyway?”
“My son’s baptism.”
The news hits Gus hard. “You have a son?”
“Almost forgot.” He hands Gus a photograph of a newborn in a blue hat.
“What’s his name?”
“Listen, Penny says I’m not supposed to tell you. I’m going to catch some flak for taking that photograph out of the house. She has a nose like you wouldn’t believe.”
He turns to leave and then turns back. “By the way, what happened to that woman you were with at the trial? She seemed to be standing by you. Can’t she take care of your so-called funeral ceremonies?”
“She got cancer. Had to break it off.” This of course is not at all how it happened, but he couldn’t very well tell his son that he’d been dumped. He couldn’t very well tell his son that he could not satisfy the loveliest woman he had ever met.
“You don’t mean that,” Bradley says, and he challenges Gus by looking at him steadily. “You can’t possibly mean that.”
“You’re right,” Gus says, but doesn’t offer an explanation.
His son reaches out his hand and wishes him good luck. It’s a formal departure, but Gus will take it. As he walks off, Gus notices that, like him, Bradley wears out the soles of his shoes on the outsides first.
He lights a cigarette and stares at the photograph for a long time. The boy’s eyes are wide black peas, and his bootied feet are drawn up in the air. He is reaching. For what? For whom? Gus dares to think that the baby is reaching for him. He has a grandson.
Philip lumbers over and drops his enormous head on Gus’s lap. “Look at him, Philip,” he says. He flips over the photo. “Says here he was six pounds when he was born—weighed about as much as your balls.” Maybe Bradley’s wife was right. Maybe he shouldn’t know where they live. He might mess the kid up.
And then he realizes something. Here, right in his hands, is everything he ever needed. A blank slate. An audience. He retrieves the piece of paper from under his pillow and scratches out the whole thing. He’s starting over. He’s been going at this obituary thing all wrong.
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.