The Midwest |

How to Sink a Boat

by Grady Chambers

I read once about twenty-foot swells in the middle of Lake Michigan, about some North Shore lawyer who went out sailing one Sunday afternoon, strayed too far from shore, the wind picked up, the sky turned black, an end-time wave rolled toward him like a tanker, and his body joined the remains of the great shipwrecks down there at the bottom. I thought about that story every spring, when it would begin to get warm and my dad started talking about heading to Michigan to go sailing. It’s not that those days on the water ever ended up being anything so terrible—if I could see the shore I wasn’t scared, and I liked lying down and looking up at the huge sky and the white gulls sometimes flying across my vision. It's the 5 a.m. panic that got me, that hour before actually getting out of bed, when all I could think about were the million things that could go wrong—the boat sucked out by an undercurrent or my dad misreading the wind, the shore growing smaller, the light going dark. When I was little I’d been given a picture book about black holes. It had these illustrations of different objects entering the hole—a mouse, a beam of light, a planet—and what would happen. There was an image of a castle that on one page was showed whole and on the next page flat as paper. I always thought about that those mornings—how this little black pit the size of a coin could swallow a whole solar system, how easy it’d be to no longer be here.

But getting the boat had been my idea. It was a thing you say in passing and don’t actually mean. We were driving down Lake Shore Drive, and I was looking at all these sailboats just sitting in the harbor. I hate the sun and water scares me, but my dad hadn’t been saying much, so I sort of said offhand it would be cool to have a boat, to spend weekends just drifting around on the lake. Two weeks later and we’re in Michigan at grandad’s lake house, and I’m looking at a brand new boat, a beautiful motorless thing called Ugly Penny, its deck so white the sunlight coming off it made it hard to see. Dad couldn’t stop telling me about why this one was so great, so goddamn top of the line. He sailed boats a little as a kid and then kept doing it in college. He could go on forever about knots and how to tie them and how to read the water to know the direction of a coming wind. All that stuff I couldn’t really care less about. He was going on about the oak hull and how to raise the damn sail, and I was just standing there feeling the sun burning on my neck, thinking how heavy that boat must be, like if it dropped on your foot or tipped over trying to get it to the water and you were underneath—what that would feel like—and I was pretending I was happy.

I think I can think what you’re thinking: some rich kid’s dad buys a boat and the little shit’s ungrateful, but it isn’t like that, or not entirely. Mom got so sick so fast she passed before anyone decided on a treatment, and overnight we had our house in Chicago with her green car in the garage we didn’t want to get rid of, her dad’s place on the lake she’d been trying to sell and couldn’t, and a little pile of money we didn’t want either but that we hadn’t had before. I know: kid with new boat slips in dead mom to explain away ungratefulness. Let me try to explain it this way:

She used to make this pasta dish—she gave a fancy name to it, but to me it was just hamburger meat and angel hair and red sauce—it was my favorite meal. After she died, dad came home one night with all the stuff to make it. The Bears were playing the Lions and he flipped on the game—he wanted it to be a good night and it was a good night, it was winter and we both liked watching games in winter when snow was falling on the field, and snow was falling, the Bears were losing but they always lose, he seemed happy, and he almost got it right: what he handed me though was a metal salad bowl the size of a cauldron. Inside was everything—I mean three pounds probably—a pound of beef and a pound of pasta and a gallon of sauce all thrown in together, like he’d robbed the buffet at Olive Garden. I was laughing on the inside but the next day I was standing in the kitchen in the morning and he came up and made this little laugh and told me he woke at 6 a.m. thinking about that huge silver bowl he put down on my lap. I mean he apologized—he said he couldn’t stop thinking about the red pile of food in there, like he should’ve known to serve it in a different way. Do you understand what I mean? I don’t cry but I wanted to. We were still learning how to be together. Most dads would’ve paid for sailing lessons at the pond. My dad bought me a boat.

It was spring, or almost summer, Memorial Day weekend—everyone wanted to be outside. The sun felt new, hotter; the air smelled like rain and tar, and it made me think of the feeling you get when you’re lost. We’d been going up to the lake most weekends and I’d spend the week trying to convince my friends to come with. I liked it when they were there. Dad would leave us alone about taking out the boat. Instead, we played baseball in the yard. At night, we sat out on the dock. If it was clear you could see the pink glow of Chicago on the lake’s far side. When it wasn’t you could still look down-shore and see the lights of Indiana factories burning as long as the night lasted, huge stacks, tall as rockets, quiet as winter seen from so far away. You wouldn’t know it but we were at the meeting point of three different states: the land was flat and covered in woods and sand and it all looked the same, but there were factories and people teeming on every side. I liked that you could look in any direction and see signs of something. It made it feel never lonely.

We were sitting on the dock watching the black water move in and out and the boat bob along on top. Tyler had stolen a pack of Parliaments from his mother’s purse. We were smoking and I was tossing burning stubs onto the hull of the boat like maybe the thing would just burst into flames. Truthfully I had visions of destroying the thing all the time. They started out simple, maybe untying it in the middle of the night and watching as it ambled away. In my vision, it traveled farther and farther until it got swallowed in the blackness, and thinking about it my Sunday morning panic would fade away all together too. But then the image of the boat would turn into a cow wandering idly in his pasture, chewing on bits of grass and staring at me curiously, and I would laugh. And the destruction of the boat wasn’t supposed to be funny. So then I would think of the epic battle scenes from Patton and Apocalypse Now, and picture that white hull blasted into a million tiny pieces, charred black from the dynamite blast. Then I could get some sleep in the morning instead of imagining the bad things that would happen to me and my dad if we took it out.

I threw the cigarette and watched it burn out on the boat. It got light and the guys took their shirts off as the sun came up, and they waded out neck-deep into the water while I collected the Coke cans and picked the cigs off the deck and threw it all in a bag and sat on the sand until they came back in, the boat leashed to the dock like a dog. I felt selfish for hating the thing.

The way I see it, the problem was that I liked my dad, but I worried he didn’t know it. When we were driving sometimes with my mom, listening to a sports game, he’d sometimes reach over and turn down the volume knob and say,

“You know, I almost played professional baseball,”

and I’d say “Really?”

and he’d say “Oh yeah,”

and I’d say “Really?”

and he’d say “I was a pitcher, this close,” holding his thumb and pointer an inch apart, “the Yankees were interested till I threw out my shoulder.”

And I’d say “No way” and he’d say “It’s true!” and I’d say “I don’t believe you,” and then he’d flex his arm and nod at my mom and tell me he’d show me his fastball sometime. The next week he was almost the quarterback for the Bears; then he was a downhill skier; then, he said, a professional bowler, making a motion with has hand like he was rolling something heavy. “This close.”

With mom and me and him it was the three of us, it was easy, she was like a battery he and I were on either side of and together we all worked, but when it was just me and him it was like the quiet outside of us moved inside and lasted so long that anything that was said sounded strained. That February the school had made each eighth grade kid come in with their parents for “bonding”: one night; the whole grade; everybody’s mom and dad were supposed to come. Someone hung streamers on the cafeteria walls like the whole thing was something fun and lined the tables up like a prison visitation table, kids on one side and parents on the other. There was lemonade in glass pitchers and hard plastic glasses to drink from. We were given a minute and thirty seconds to tell our fathers all the things they did that we appreciated, and then there was a turn to tell our mothers. I was nervous. A whistle blew. I opened my mouth. There were so many things I could say. I looked down my row and it was like runners after the gun but it was mouths moving, nice things being thrown from one side of the table to the other, so many people speaking at once you could almost see a wind moving between the young mouths and the old faces. Next to me Jenny Streff kept flexing her plastic cup as she spoke. I looked back at my dad. I was going to speak but it was hot and I said so—“It’s hot”—it’s all I could think to say—and then the cup broke in Jenny’s hand and I looked back and my dad was saying it’s okay, except he kept repeating it and he was speaking to me. I knew it was okay. I wished he’d stop saying so. It made me feel like it wasn’t. I was nervous. It was so hot the windows had beads. The whole thing was dumb and I said so. It was hot, and when I looked over Jenny Streff’s left hand was bleeding.

It was almost the Fourth of July. We were back at the lake house, just my dad and me, for three days. Tyler had stayed in Chicago because his girlfriend’s parents were out of town and they had a house to themselves, and Manny stayed because Tyler stayed, and I didn’t want to ask Ricky to come to the lake if the other guys weren’t coming as well, because I always got nervous around just one other person, worried they weren’t having fun. The night before we were supposed to go sailing, after my dad passed out on the couch, I went into the little wooden shed that sat at the foot of the stairs leading down to the beach, and I took out one of those industrial looking wrenches, the kind you might see lying at any roadside construction sight, or hanging in the backyard shed of a Vietnam vet in some old war movie. I hadn’t planned exactly what I was going to do, but the wrench had heft—it felt like a heavy bat in my hands—and it looked like it could do enough damage to begin to let the water in. I had this old flashlight with me that I always used when I was a little kid and didn’t want to go to bed when my parents made me. My mom was always looking under my door to see if the light was on, so I always brought the flashlight under the covers with me and read books or looked at my old comic books, or just sort of sat there with the light on not doing much of anything.

I brought it down to the dock with me, and it was a good thing I did because the night sky was so high and clear it was like staring up into the dome of a huge church with all the lights turned out and if the angels and sayings usually painted up there had been covered over in black. Anyone living in the Midwest knows that it’s actually lighter on cloudy nights if you’re anywhere near a city. The thick clouds catch the city light and reflect it back, so if you look up in the summer in Chicago on a cloudy night the whole sky looks like one big pink blanket with lightning sometimes writhing around inside it. I walked down the dock in the dark, the silver water sloshing when it hit the pylons underneath. The boat looked kind of bare without its mast and sail, kind of lonely just nodding there beside the dock.

In hindsight I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with that wrench. I guess I had visions of swinging away at the hull until a hole opened, but the hull was fiberglass: I bashed it once with the wrench and almost howled: my hands were ringing like bells. I gave up on that plan and went down into the cabin and opened up the hatch that led to the bilge. I knew there was a pump down there that sucked up water if the boat took it on and spit it out through the hull. With the latch propped up, I shined my light down into the damp darkness, the muddy film of water on the floor and the mess of tubes from the bilge pump and the backup. I didn’t think it then, but now the thought of those tubes makes me remember how my mom looked in the hospital, all hooked up to the machine beside her, knobs and dials and little lights blinking like a motherboard on a spaceship. When I think of that room, that knot of tubes protruding from my mother’s chest like tentacles, I think of the color of the sky above Magnolia just before thunderstorms in summer, the shade of green I now associate with dread.

What I did was unscrew the hose from the bilge pump from where it connected to the hull, leaving an open hole the size of a silver dollar between the bilge and the water. It was like a spigot had been turned: water started pouring in. I leapt up and shut the hatch to the bilge. Disconnecting that hose, I didn’t really know what it would do, how much water would end up coming in. But I’d read that even a drip a minute could sink a boat over time, and this was more like someone pouring out a drink, except the drink was botttomless. I grabbed the wrench and flashlight and jumped back onto the pier, and for a while I just sat there with the flashlight off, looking at the boat and at the stars and the empty beach and the way the galaxies up above looked like fog, or spilled milk. And that next morning, I woke up for the first time since we’d gotten the boat without feeling a dread like I was only hours away from a test. Before I put the hole in the boat, I used to stay up until the early hours of the morning trying to keep the dread away, watching an old movie I loved or listening to the first Faces album that I had bought, called Good Boys When They’re Asleep. One night I stayed up till almost four in the morning burning that album to my computer, and then burning it onto a blank disc, except that I added one song to it—“Ooh La La.” The album was almost perfect, it just needed that one song. I was always doing things like that on nights before we went sailing. I never could figure out why, but I always felt that maybe it would be the last chance I would ever have to listen to that album, or watch a favorite film. When I thought of sailing, I was so afraid of all the ways I could die. And after the night I put the hole in the boat, I didn’t wake up with that feeling.

That next morning, my dad got me out of bed real early, before the sun had even come up completely. He liked to make these giant breakfasts before we would go out, the kinds we used to eat every Christmas morning, with eggs and bacon and a big bowl of fruit in the middle of the table. I didn’t eat much, I just kept thinking about the boat and hoping he wouldn’t be able to fix the thing too easily. It was quiet in the house, no music playing or anything, and I just sat at the table and watched my dad walk around the kitchen, washing all the pots and pans. He had on these brand new boating shoes, and the rubber on the soles was so goddamn fresh and sticky there was this loud squeaking noise every time he took a step, like new sneakers on a gym’s wooden floor. They were really low cut and he didn’t wear any socks with them, and they were so brand new I could almost hear the brown leather creak each time he took a step.

My dad loved to look the part, and every time we went sailing, he would sprawl out on the deck, always crossing his legs at the ankles, wrists turned outwards and elbows propped on the deck behind his back to support his weight, his face pointed up towards the sun. He was always wearing some purple or yellow long-sleeve polo, unbuttoned at the chest so you could see all these wispy strands of grey and white hair, and he would stare off into the lake like he was in a magazine ad, like I was some kind of photographer snapping away at him from ten different angles. I made fun of him sometimes and instead of getting mad, he’d put his hand up above his eyes like he was giving a salute, and look off far into the distance, like he was dreaming of the future or looking for land. It always made me laugh. It was times like these that the nagging panic would kind of go away for a while.

After breakfast he bagged us a couple lunches and filled up a little cooler with a few beers and three of four bottles of water. I grabbed the cooler and the lunches and we walked out into the backyard and down the wooden steps to the beach. The early morning air was cold, but there wasn’t a single cloud anywhere in the sky, and all I could think was I wished I’d put on sunscreen before we went down there. We walked along the pier towards the boat, and I got more and more nervous as we got closer. At first, it didn't look like anything was wrong. But as we neared my dad started walking a little bit faster, and I could see the boat was floating at a strange angle, like something was underneath it, pulling at it really hard in one direction. My dad started jogging down the pier towards the boat. I still had the coolers and the lunches piled up in my hands, so I sort of staggered along behind him, trying to balance everything.

“What the fuck.” He said it real soft and sounded all bewildered at first, like he couldn't figure out what was going on. He got closer and said it again. The boat’s nose was raised in the air, and it was keeling over toward the right, away from the dock. The way it was leaning like that with its nose out above the water made it seem almost human: I thought of a man I’d seen in a movie I loved gripping his side where he’d broken a rib, and raising his hand for help. The thing was nearly tipping over. I dropped the lunches and the cooler I was carrying and rushed over to the boat, trying my best to look really surprised and concerned. All that water started running all over the place, getting into our shoes and all over my dad’s pant legs. We were both on our hands and knees, yelling and scooping at the water, looking like we were in the middle of some crazy prayer ritual, his brand new boating shoes soaked through.

“Will you quit standing there and grab a goddamn bucket or something?” I jumped off the boat, and it rocked back and forth so my dad had to grab on to the boom to keep from falling over. I turned and started jogging down the dock toward the beach. It was windy and the pier moved up and down with the waves, and I could hear my dad splashing around behind me on the boat, muttering and cursing, and getting his pants even wetter than they already were. It was pretty hot and the sun felt good on the back of my neck. It was drying off my wet t-shirt and keeping me warm, so I took my time getting over to the shed where the buckets were.

“Jimmy will you get that goddamn bucket already? This fucker’s filling up with water! I bet it was those goddamn kids from down the beach, the fucking Wolenskies!”

I found the bucket outside of the shed. It was filled with sand and leaves, and I had to flip it over and damn near put a hole in the bottom of it with my hand before all that sand and dirt and leaves came out. By the time I had run back down the length of the pier to the boat, my dad looked like he had been swimming in the lake, not sitting in a boat. His pants were fully soaked and his shirt had come un-tucked, its light blue linen turned dark from the water, all the way up to his navel. He looked at the bucket and then down at the nearly foot of water that had filled the base of the boat. It was useless. We weren’t gonna get all that water out, and it was clear we weren’t going sailing. It didn’t feel as good as I thought it would.

We both sort of looked at the boat for a minute, not really saying anything, and then we hopped off and tied the rope dangling off the bow to one of the metal poles that lined the dock. My dad grabbed his cell phone and started pushing all the damn buttons, making sure it hadn’t broken or anything when he threw it across the pier. His pants were all rolled up at the ankles, and he sat down on the edge of the dock with his legs dangling off the ledge, emptying out all the water that had collected in his shoes. He just kept shaking his head and cursing the Wolenskies.

I was standing there and nodding. I could hear the door of the shed swinging on its rusty hinges, going back and forth in the wind and moaning like a gull. I started walking down the pier, thinking I would push it shut, but I turned and saw my dad had gotten back into the boat. He had the hatch to the bilge up, and had his head and arms and torso all the way in there, so I could see only his soaked pants and his shirt hanging off him like a tail. I called to him, but he didn’t reply. He was still, like he had found something he was looking for and was examining it. He poked his head out and looked at me like he was about to ask a question. His mouth kind of half opened and then he stopped. He looked at me for another second and went back to rummaging around in there. Finally he pulled himself out of the bilge, got back on the dock, and walked right past me on the pier without saying anything at all.

It was warm and still early enough in the afternoon and I was feeling restless. My dad had been quiet since we came back in and he was doing this thing he did where he was in the room with me but not doing anything at all, not saying anything and not eating and not looking at the paper and not even pretending he was interested in something. He was just sitting in a chair he had pulled from the table and pointed towards the window. He was breathing, and he had his hands pressed flat on his thighs.

 “Any sign of the Wolenskies?” I asked.

He shook his head, side to side, and he did it slow, like someone stretching a hurt neck. His eyes were closed, his feet as flat to the ground as his hands to his thighs, and even through his loose shirt I could see the way his shape was loosening too, more skin now than muscle, the puds of his nipples pushing through the shirt, bunching up the fabric around his chest. Do you know that sadness that makes you want to tell someone you love them? I think that’s what the sick feeling was in my stomach.

Instead I asked him did he want something from the general store. His shook his head no. I asked him how long it would take to fix the boat, praying for weeks, months even. Maybe they would have to order in some parts from some factory in China. He said only about a week though. Then I asked, since it wouldn’t be long till it was fixed, if we’d be coming up the next weekend. He looked at me, then looked away. Then he said things were pretty busy back in the city, and maybe he wouldn’t be able to come back up for a month or so, maybe not even that summer.

I walked outside, lifted the kickstand with my toe, got on my bike and started riding. The road was lined by endless trees and little else except for clearings ten-feet wide that gave way to paved driveways winding back deep into the woods. As I rode I wandered down each one until I came to the house at its end. I didn’t really have anywhere to be. On the fourth or the fifth driveway that I turned down, I kept riding only to find it didn't lead to any house at all. It just kept going on and on, splitting off into different directions, like the labyrinth in the story with the dragon chained at its center. It’s so intricate the prince who built it gets lost trying to bring the dragon food, and that’s the way they die, the prince and the dragon, lying down on opposite sides of the same thick wall. When my mind came back to where I was, I couldn’t remember which road was the path back.

I looked around. I was looking for something familiar. I breathed deeply like my dad said he did when he couldn’t sleep. I got off the bike. I was in this big clearing in the middle of the trees. The ground was dusty except for fallen branches, dead from old age or the wind. It got cold as the sun kept sinking. The sky still had light, but the spaces through the trees seemed to thicken. I looked for houses, lit windows, but there was just the woods and the dark air. That didn’t scare me so much as the thought of what my dad was doing. He was probably out in the backyard right then, cooking up some feast for just the two of us. He liked to pretend he didn’t worry, but I thought if I wasn’t home in an hour or so he’d be looking at that watch of his every ten minutes. I just hoped he didn’t come looking for me. We’d probably pass each other without knowing and then he’d be out here in the woods and I’d be the one standing in that kitchen, alone with that table full of food.

I sat down on the dusty ground. I thought about yelling but I looked around and there wasn’t anyone who would hear. I yelled my name anyway, and the way it sounded soft in those dark woods scared me more than anything. I counted to ten, ticking off the seconds by pressing the tip of each finger against my thumb until I felt resistance, then let each one flick. At zero I started naming all the things that I could see. The sky turned from this really deep blue to a mix of yellow and purple, and when it started to get darker, so that I couldn’t see all the trees around me anymore, I started thinking about this old gothic church at the end of our block back home. I was using my hands to collect two big piles of dust and sand at the heel of my sneakers, and I was thinking about all the things that scared me.