I came across a love of moving water, an ebbing tide parting on the plumb bow of an old boat, and the sea passing swiftly along the waterline carried bits of seaweed, the body of a dead bird, a dark brown leaf, and a love that seemed necessary to me, to be near that abrasive current, the green swell and nascent gurgle. I thought I'd never be able to love anything again, anything other than the memory of my husband, and so I felt ashamed and queer kneeling there on the dock, my bag over one shoulder and a kitten inside my coat, looking down into the water of Portsmouth Harbor, and feeling for a moment, not sad. He'd died at Christmas, nine weeks earlier.
The kitten mewed and, using my skin as a boarding net, tried to crawl up between my breasts. I reached for him but didn't take my eyes from the water till I had him nose to nose, round pupil to narrowing pupil, and said to him, "We'll stay here for a while: I'd found him at a rest stop in West Virginia and hadn't named him yet, though I was leaning toward Peytona Pawtucket, two small towns near my home: PP for short. Jonah never liked cats, and at the roadside it suddenly occurred to me that I could rescue this kitten without any recrimination. It wasn't the kitten's fault that Jonah had died. It was, I realized, his dumb luck. But perhaps this kitten had somehow killed my husband so I'd save him from his miserable abandonment. Maybe Jonah had died so I'd rescue the kitten. If Jonah had been there at the rest stop I wouldn't even have considered...well, it was another strange hallucination of my rage. I was still mad at my dead husband for dying. I like to lay blame and it seemed as if something as huge as Jonah's death ought to be someone's fault.
I tucked the kitten's angular tendon-taut body away again, and stood up, walked back in the March cold to my car. I'd driven east till I beached at the ocean and then splashed north along the coastline till I decided there wasn't any reason to turn away. We indulged ourselves that first night, the cat and I, and stayed at the Portsmouth Sheraton in a room that looked out over a monumental pyramid of salt to the river, the tide-wracked Piscataqua, whose mouth was the old harbor. I'd asked an old woman on the street what all the salt was for. I learned later it was simply road salt. But that afternoon she looked at me sadly and explained, "Why, dear, when the rains are heavy and too much fresh water flows down to the sea, we add salt back to the ocean so the fish won't expire."
I came across a love of moving water kneeling in the current of Caudel Run, the small creek behind our home in Kentucky, whose waters were as dear and cold as my fear, falling over black ledges of slate, gathering in white sluices of anguish, numbing my feet, blueing the skin. I could hold the water in my hands and bring it to my mouth.
By morning I'd changed the kitten's name to Piscataqua. He'd scratched up a few carpet fuzzies and taken a dump under a chair. After I cleaned it up I hid him in the bathroom and ordered room service: eggs and milk. We ate at the window and watched the working of the gulls over the river, trailing behind a boat. It was warm in the room, but I could tell it was cold beyond, cold on the street below and colder still at the water. So I bundled up and put Piscataqua between my shirt and sweater, where he dropped to my stomach and soon fell asleep. When I reached the sidewalk it dawned on me that there was nothing I had to do. There were things I should have done and things other people wanted me to do, but nothing necessary beyond breathing.
I felt as if I'd escaped. I hadn't called it that before, but an escape it was, through a tunnel, over walls. I'd left home with a wad of cash, to avoid using my credit cards to buy gas or food so I couldn't be tracked by the bills. I felt guilty. I'd left my parents a note saying I was just getting away for a few days, but I knew at the time that I had no intention of returning permanently. I'd even contacted a real estate agent to list the house. I'd call Mom later, I thought. It wasn't fair to Mom and Dad, because I wasn't running from my parents, but from his, Jonah's, the Montagues. If I told my folks where I was, I knew Richard and Mary would somehow find out. They were ravenous, and I no longer had the strength to fend them off. Jonah was their only child, and after his death they fed off my memories. I'd seen them every day since the wreck. They drove the thirty-two miles from their home to mine to keep me company, but I soon realized they were scavengers and I was their last hope for food, the only carcass on an endless stretch of desert, and that they wouldn't leave me till my bones were hollow and bleached. They seemed to have no memory of their own. Mary washed all of Jonah's clothes, even those that were already clean, going through the pockets in search of a scrap or seed that might be explained by some story I could tell. A ticket stub from a movie was a mine to her and in her grief she'd torture me asking question after question: "How was the movie? Did Jonah like it? Did you have popcorn? Where did you sit? Did he laugh? Tell me where he laughed. We could rent the video and watch it, the three of us. You could tell us where he laughed" I found Richard in the attic reading my letters to Jonah and Jonah's to me. I left the day after Mary, blowing into a cup of coffee, her eyes on the cup's rim, said, "There in the hospital, before he died, when we knew he was going to die, we should have had the doctors take the sperm from his testicles. We could have frozen it. You could have had his baby yet." I left. I loved him too.
I looked over my shoulder, Richard and Mary weren't behind me, and then walked up the street into old Portsmouth. I'd been here before as an undergraduate, attending an archaeological field school at the Isles of Shoals, five miles off the coast. I spent two weeks uncovering the foundations of a seventeenth-century fishery. The ferry to the islands left from Portsmouth, so I had frequent opportunities to roam the streets and waterfront of the city, to visit Strawbery Banke (Portsmouth's original name and now a museum collection of early houses near Prescott Park), to sit in the many restaurants and cafés, to browse the used and rare bookstores and antique shops. But most of my spare time was spent with my eyes on the water, simply watching the tide and the boats. That's what I'd come back to. And although I knew I should have begun to search for a place to live, my feet carried me back toward the piers on the river. I wanted to see the sun's reflection off the water. I crossed Market Street in front of the Moffat-Ladd House, passed through a small garden to Ceres Street, eighteenth-century warehouses turned twentieth-century gift shops on one side and tugboats on the other, climbed up along Bow Street, more waterfront brick warehouses that were now restaurants and boutiques.
Portsmouth seems to be washed with age, worn by touch and breath. Its streets, like animal paths, lead down to the river and then mimic its banks. The city is comfortable here, relaxed, as unconsciously nestled in this point of land as the last bone in my finger. What's brick is red and what's wood is white and what's stone is gray granite. Cobbles and sills are footfall worn, cupped like waiting palms. The glass of many mullioned windows flows toward the river, distorting interiors. The shops and cafes are small and eclectic, with merchandise-weary walls and light-poor corners. Layers of old patina, layers of faded paper over horsehair plaster, levels of plank flooring, all seem burnished like the head of a cane. Behind the counters, in between sales, clerks read with cats in their laps, dogs at their feet. Above them, copper dormers modeled to frame a human face look out to sea. Slate roofs, rust streaked, widow's walks and witch's peaks: the skyline crouches under the lighted steeples of old churches.
I whistled past St. John's Church with its sidewalk-level burial vaults, and finally crossed Daniel and State Streets to Prescott Park and a clear view of the river. This city is so close to the sea it's hard to put your hand in the water.
When I was here before, during the summer, the streets of Portsmouth were thronged with tourists, but in early March at eight in the morning I was alone in Prescott Park. Wind came in from the sea and down the mouth of the harbor, blowing patterns in the bare branches of the trees above me and rasping the surface of the river. I leaned on a railing at the seawall and looked down into the green but bright water, looking through shards of light and scattered leaves on the surface to the current beneath, the tide coming out of its slackness. Lobster buoys, lolling with broken necks and then swinging uptight, began to take the strain. Boats tugged at the lines holding them to the dock below, and the dock itself with rusty groans moved as far seaward as its pilings would allow. All the water was being pulled from the river. It happened, high tide and low, every six hours or so, this great back and forth, the earth shuddering, a slow shake of cleansing, over and over. Here the tide was particularly strong, the current as fast as six knots, the rise and fall as much as nine feet. I never knew a more active environment, as if the skin of the world was loose as a cat's. If the creek behind our house in Kentucky turned around and raced uphill as fast as it coursed down, and rose and dropped eight or nine feet in the process, if it did this just once, the entire human species would come and sit on its banks in hopes to see it happen again.
The sound of steel on steel came across the water from Seavey's Island and the navy yard. There were submarines flanking each side of a pier. Men stood on the rounded black hulls, pulling lines, gesturing. They seemed to have purpose.
A lobster boat puttered through the gut between Pierce Island and Prescott Park past me to a buoy on the edge of the main current, just off tiny Four Tree Island. A man in yellow bib overalls turned the bow of his boat into the ebbing tide and adjusted his speed to match the current, leaving the boat at a standstill. He reached down, picked up a buoy, and wrapped its line around a small winch. Spray flew, and soon a green rectangular metal cage appeared alongside, and he stooped over with gloved hands and pulled it aboard. He reached inside the cage and brought forth a lobster waving semaphore and then, to my great dismay, chunked it overboard. He proceeded to throw away three more, rebait the trap, and drop it back over too. I thought, perhaps lobstering is not only a business but also a sport. The smell off his bait rose to me on the wind that moved against the tide and I walked away along the railing.
The gangway to the Portsmouth Public Landing led down to a dock. Entrance was allowed only to boat owners and guests, but the small guardhouse was empty, so I crept down the aluminum incline to the green lumber of the dock. Most of the slips were empty. Two small sailboats nested near shore and further out a lobster boat was backed into its berth. I walked past Elizabeth Ann II to the end of the dock, kneeled down, held one palm under the weight of the kitten, and plunged my free hand into the water. It was colder than I could believe, colder than ice cream in the sinuses, so cold I jerked my hand back and hit myself in the face with my already blue knuckles. It didn't seem to me that anything could live in such extremes and that perhaps the lobsterman had been throwing back dead, frozen lobsters. I smelled my fingertips after rubbing them dry on my coat. It was a precise smell, thick, pungent, like moss or loamy soil but not those, more like the worm itself, like fur and skin and pee and death and rocks, but beyond all of these, on top of and suffused through them, was a sense of cleanliness. I took a handful of water, bearing the needles of pain, and saw it dear, unlike the body of the river, clear and without movement, as clear as the whorls and lines of my palm, as if it didn't exist at all without the rest of the ocean and so I threw it back.
There was a shrill peep and I looked up to see two tugboats nosing a huge ship around Henderson Point on Seavey's Island. I'd read in a guidebook at the Sheraton how the big ships came up and down the river at slack tide, when the water was at its deepest or shallowest. A loaded ship came in at high tide so her bottom would clear the rocks and an empty ship left at low tide so her superstructure would clear the bridges. As I watched the tugs push the ship around the tight corner, a great blast from the horn on Memorial Bridge lifted me an inch off the lumber of the dock and brought Piscataqua alive between my shirt and sweater. He crawled, marsupial-like, up the front of my blouse to my neck, peeked out at the collar of my coat, and so we watched the show together. After a moment or two, gates dropped in front of the traffic on the bridge above us and the center section slowly rose on steel cables. The tugs, alternately whistling and tooting in their spare, plaintive language of air, guided the ship with what seemed like inches to spare between the twin towers of Memorial and on up the river to meetings with the two other bridges that cross the Piscataqua between Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Kittery, Maine. The ship was out of Venezuela and didn't seem to have a soul on board. I couldn't conceive of what might be in its hold, but thought myself blessed to welcome it after such a long journey.
I rose and turned back up the dock, gazing into the cockpits of the lobster boat and sailboats as I passed to see if there were any secrets there. I walked to the north end of the park and watched, for at least an hour, the tide backing out from underneath a restaurant, the Smarmy Snail, perched over the river on pilings. The receding water left mudflats and shallows, blanched barnacles, tires and splintered lumber, the remains of two wire traps, and still the water fell, revealing a tattered nylon fishing net clinging to the pilings like a forgotten web, a fragmented Styrofoam buoy and plastic bottles caught in its filaments. I could think of no word to weave in my web that would have saved him.
Another dock led out from the Smarmy Snail's deck, a private float where two larger boats were tied. I'd explored that dock the evening before. I entered the glass-enclosed dining area of the restaurant, ordered a cup of hot tea, and sat with my face to the sun looking down on the boats. Downriver was the old prison, a stone Victorian edifice now used for storage by the navy, but whose prisoners once must have looked forlornly out to sea. It was warm here, and Piscataqua began to purr heavily. I dropped two dollars on the table and carried my tea out on the restaurant's deck. One of the boats alongside the dock was obviously a work boat of some kind. There were coils of rope on board, buckets and plastic bins, nets on a huge reel. The boat across the dock was an old motor yacht, perhaps fifty feet long, varnished mahogany gleaming in the sun. On the sternboards: Rosinante and Palm Beach, Fl. There was an even older woman on board, in bright orange galoshes and jacket, hosing down the deck of the boat. As she moved around to one side, bending over with a sponge to wipe woodwork, I saw a small sign leaning on the sill of one of the many windows of the raised cabin. At first glance I thought it read, BOAT FOR RENT, but it clearly became, ROOM FOR RENT. I hadn't seen the sign the evening before because I'd been down on the dock next to the boat. This sign was intended to be seen by patrons of the restaurant. I thought for a moment, and then somewhat awkwardly yelled, "Room for rent?"
She didn't hear me. Maybe the sign meant she had a room in her house for rent. Maybe there wasn't a room on the boat at all. I looked for more evidence that the boat was a live-aboard. Electrical lines leading from the dock plugged into an outlet at the base of the cabin. There were curtains behind all the windows and portholes. A small air conditioner, similar to one on a motor home, sat on the roof of the raised cabin. Weathered clothespins hung from a stretched line like dead sparrows.
"Room for rent?" I yelled again.
She rose up slowly from the deck and looked up at the railing of Memorial Bridge, thirty or forty feet above her.
"Over here," I yelled, and for some reason held my tea high in the air.
She looked at me, and cupped her ear while she walked with the running water hose. If it was possible, her skin was whiter than bone, so translucent it seemed glazed like ironstone. Then I realized her face seemed brilliant because her hair was like the soft blue glow of a television in a house across the street. I could make out the bones in her hands, even at that distance, and the blue veins tracing over them. She walked all the way around the cabin with her mouth open and turned off the water. Then she screamed, "What?" at me with such force the hot tea sloshed over onto my wrist.
"Room for rent?" I said again, gesturing toward the sign. "Do you still have a room for rent?"
"Yes, yes" she nodded, "There's the sign."
"I'm looking for a room."
"Well, come have a look," and she swept the sky with a hooked arm. I put the cup on the railing and walked down the ever-increasing steepness of a gangway in an ebbing tide. The dock itself rose and fell with the water, sliding on iron hoops around pilings, so the boats and the dock were always at the same level. The gangway rolled on rubber wheels farther out on the dock as the tide rose, lessening its angle, and back toward the restaurant as the tide ebbed, increasing its angle. There was a set of steps for boarding the boat and as I moved up them the old lady held out her hand. I took it as gingerly as I would a bird's wing, and put the sole of my shoe on a brass step plate that said, ELCO. I felt the boat move under my foot. It was hardly perceptible, but the boat gave when I stepped on it, as if it were alive. It made me tremble. I stepped down to the deck, looking for handholds. Still grasping my hand, she tapped the back of it three times with her index finger, and asked, "Honey, can you swim?"
"Yes" I said.
"Should have asked you before you stepped aboard. Life jackets are in the deck lockers forward and aft. Fire extinguishers in the main salon, engine room, galley and under the awning aft."
She was thin, her nose so fine it seemed brittle. Her skin wasn't loose but relaxed, as if it were thinking of something other than skin.
One of the intrusive and particularly rude habits I have acquired as a result of my work is my interest in teeth: overbite, underbite, caries, fillings, etc. This old lady was missing both of her upper canines, the dog teeth. These teeth are frequently missing in archaeological specimens and are often found in trash pits. They have only one long root. Her teeth would leave a telling bite. I thought if she were a vampire, she'd pulled the evidence.
She slid open the door that led into the many-windowed salon, and stepped over the high sill. "Bilge pump switch is here. I leave it on automatic." She pointed to a toggle next to the ship's wheel. The cabin, or salon, was the only living area above the boat's deck. A settee filled one corner, behind a table mounted on a brass pedestal at eating height. "OK, that's the safety drill. Room's below." I followed her down a flight of five mahogany steps past a bathroom and the door to the engine room, to a cabin that filled the rear third of the boat. There was a bunk on the port and the starboard, and a dresser at the stern with a large mirror above. A closet, or hanging locker, stood at the head of each bunk. The room was paneled in a rich red mahogany.
"You'd share this cabin with Chloe. She's at work now. You'd get this bunk, half this dresser, this locker, and use of the head of course, and have galley and salon privileges. The galley is forward of the salon, down the companionway, and my cabin is forward of the galley."
She demonstrated how a curtain could be drawn between the two bunks to provide some privacy.
"No smoking is allowed on board. The rent is fifty dollars a week. If you're prone to seasickness, this isn't the home for you. We do get some wake at times from the speedboats. If you're religious, that's fine, keep it to yourself. Do you drink?"
"No, not really" I said.
"That's a shame; I do. Do you use profanity?"
"It's welcome on board," she said. "Sometimes it gets cold or hot. Do you complain a lot?"
"I've got a sweater."
"Do you have the two hundred a month?"
"Yes, I can manage that."
"Do you want to live here with Chloe and me? We're good people. Chloe's some fat and inclined to inquisitiveness, but she's all right. She's been here for three months and likes it fine. She pays two hundred a month too. I pay eight hundred a month to keep the boat here so it's a good deal for you. I wouldn't try to cheat you."
"Oh, no," I nodded. "It sounds fair." I could hear water gurgling around the hull and feel the bumping of the fenders between the boat and the dock.
"Men" she said, but didn't continue.
"What about them?" I asked.
"You're young," she said.
"Yes, but I'm not..."
She'd already turned, hadn't heard me. "Aren't they pleasant?" she said, and she turned back to me smiling. "Just try to keep it down past eleven, and remember: this is a boat. It rocks."
I wrote her a check for a month's rent on the table in the salon. Her name was Grace. As I stepped out onto the deck, going after my suitcases, I asked, "What happens when you go out on the boat?"
"Honey, Rosinante hasn't left this dock in four years, not since Sweet George passed away."
I paused. My eyes whispered the name.
"Sweet George was my husband," she said, and turned away again, stepping down the companionway into the galley. I dosed the door behind me and trembled again over the six inches of falling space between the boat and the dock. It was the next morning before I realized I'd written her a check, and by the time I offered Grace two hundred in cash for its return, she'd already deposited it. I didn't want to make anymore of it, afraid that she'd be suspicious. Instead I sent a change of address to my bank, asking them to keep this information confidential. I'd asked my mother in my note to pick up my mail but I knew there was a possibility that Richard and Mary were waiting for my postman to intercept what information they could.
I was, on that afternoon of moving aboard Rosinante, as happy as I'd been in two months. I'd hoped to find an apartment close enough to walk to the river, but hadn't even considered living on the water itself. I took quick short hops, interspersed with frantic searches for Piscataqua in my clothes, back to the Sheraton, packed my soft bags, threw them in the trunk of my car and raced back to Prescott Park as if I'd lose my place if I didn't hurry. Piscataqua barely had time to establish himself on the car's headrest before I was tugging his sprung claws free from the upholstery again. I shouldered all three of my bags and my knapsack but decided to leave my box of tools, trowels, brushes, and dental picks in the car.
The car itself would be my biggest storage problem, I thought. I'd have to find a place for it. I agonized over the quarters the meters would cost me and over the price a garage might charge for a permanent space. I still wasn't used to having money. Jonah and I had struggled from month to month to pay the mortgage on our old farmhouse and the twenty acres around it, not to mention car payments and the usual bills. Ironically his death left me financially comfortable. Jonah's health insurance had a twenty thousand dollar accidental death rider and insurance at the bank not only paid off both of the cars, but the remainder of our house mortgage. I had assets totaling over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, thirty thousand of that in cash, and didn't owe a penny to anyone. I just didn't have a husband.
For the moment I filled the parking meter and then thumped my way down the wooden sidewalk that led around to the Smarmy Snail's deck and on down the gangway to Rosinante. I tapped lightly on the pane of glass in the door. When no one came, I let myself in, almost tripping over the coaming. I found I couldn't go down the narrow companionway with all my bags and so pitched them below one at a time. I pulled back the curtain partitioning the cabin and set about filling my three drawers in the dresser, and hanging shirts and one dress in my locker. There were more drawers under my bunk that I put papers and notebooks in, and a bookshelf above my bunk, beneath a row of three windows, where I put field manuals and a few cherished texts. The bathroom, or head, had the smallest toilet I'd ever seen, a porcelain doll's throne with a mahogany seat. There was a tiny brass corner sink with four small shelves above where I put my soap and toothbrush behind low railings. I opened the door leading into the engine room but found only a huge diesel engine there. I was looking for a bathtub or a shower and was beginning to worry that I'd be walking to the local Y every day for the next month. I walked back across the eighteen-inch hallway to the head, closed the door and latched it, unbuttoned my pants to sit down, whereupon Piscataqua fell to the floor. I was sitting on the cool mahogany, watching Piscataqua's ears flit about when I glanced up and saw the shower head in the corner near the ceiling, pointed directly at me. This was the shower too. There was a drain set into the floor between my feet. To say the least I was surprised. I searched for the toilet paper and found it wedged under the rim of the sink, the only place in the room where it would avoid the spray from the showerhead. As I spread my legs to wipe, I bumped one knee into the sink drain and the other into the inward curve of the boat's hull. There was hardly enough room to pee in there, much less turn around while showering. It didn't take me long to appreciate the efficiency with which space is used on a yacht. When I stood up and turned around I had to hold my arms at my side like a tin windup soldier. There was no obvious flush handle on the tank, because there was no tank. A long brass arm protruded from the toilet's base though, with a shiny knob at its end that looked like it had been rubbed by human hands for good luck. I pumped on this, slowly once and then more quickly as I felt the suction, and this seemed to do the job. The bowl emptied and refilled. It would be hard to explain the satisfaction this gave me.
I wanted to explore the rest of the boat so I left the kitty in the head and dosed the door. The engine room was large but with a low ceiling since it was directly beneath the raised salon. There were electric lines stapled to the walls, a bank of huge batteries, a generator in one corner, a tool chest in another. The center of the room was occupied by the engine itself, a gray brooding behemoth with a shaft leading out toward the stern of the boat. And although I could tell the engine was pristine because there was no rust or oil or grime of any sort, I could also see that it probably hadn't been used in years. There was a thick coat of dust on its upper surfaces and limp cobwebs swung from the engine to the floor. The belts were cracked and dry.
The floor, or sole, as Grace corrected me later, of the salon was covered with hooked rugs: sirens on a rock, a forested island, a sailing ship, all from the thirties and forties. Blue vinyl covered the corner settee. The curtains above were also blue, but lighter, faded and stained, a watercolor sky. The windows themselves slid in tracks; every other one could be opened. On the left side of the salon hung a mahogany ship's wheel about two feet in diameter with a big brass compass and other instruments between it and the flat, vertical windshield. Two control levers were clearly marked FORWARD/REVERSE and THROTTLE. It seemed simple enough. The only things that looked complicated were three modern instruments mounted on the ceiling over the compass. One was clearly something like a CB radio, another had the logo SEALORAN and the third was a radar. What looked like the original brass key, worn smooth but dull from disuse, was in the ignition. I wanted to run my hands over everything here to come in contact with some of the experience. It was such a tiny room to contain so much possibility. I felt it was coming and going at the same moment that it had arrived.
Stairs on the right front of the salon led down in an L turn to the galley, which surprised me because it was completely modern. The sink was almost full-size; a microwave hung from an upper cabinet; a three-burner gas stove with oven and a small but modern refrigerator sat below a tile counter. All of the upper cabinets were fronted with stained glass.
As I poked through the cans in a lower cabinet, and just as I spotted three large bars of chocolate, I heard a muffled something, a squelched...something, a snore or a gurgle, but surely a sound made by a living creature other than me. I thought I was the only one on the boat. Grace hadn't come to my knock and I hadn't heard a sound till that moment. I stood up and stepped forward. Another head to starboard and a large locker to port. There was a door between this area and Grace's cabin, but it was wide open. I stepped in. Two bunks, one above another, to my left; a small desk and chair and another built-in dresser to my right. There weren't eighteen inches between the back of the chair and the bunk, and the aisle narrowed forward. I stopped here and listened. I could hear the cries of gulls outside, intermittent and sharp, sounding more like warnings than anything else at that moment. Occasionally I heard the faint murmur of water against wood. Perhaps, I thought, I had heard only the groaning of the dock against one of its pilings, or the compression of one of the fenders that protected the boat. But then I heard the sound again and I was almost unnerved. It was a guttural choking, a gasping futile rush of saliva, a slick wheeze of viscous air. There wasn't anyone in either of the bunks. No one beneath the desk. Four portholes, two on either side of the cabin, let in stark shafts of light that veiled the far end of the room and a short narrow shutterlike door that led forward to the bow of the boat. The space beyond it couldn't be very large, I reasoned. The door itself wasn't more than a foot wide. Its brass knob was worn bright. I crept forward, stepping through the shafts of roiling dust motes, my hand trembling toward the knob. I felt like a great cowardly boob. As I held my hand inches away from the door I heard the snuffle again, lips sliding grotesquely over toothless gums, a dozen straws sucking out the last lick of blood in a paper cup. No light exited the slatted door.
"Is there anyone there?" I said, my voice breaking.
The snuffling stopped. There was instead a brushing sound of wire over wicker and then a muffled thumping
"I'm the new boarder, Charlotte" I said. "Are you OK?"
No answer. I touched the doorknob.
"I'm coming in, OK?"
Nothing, but the now persistent brushing and then a snort or a fart, air over mucous. I couldn't get the movie reel out of my head, the one flashing, "Perhaps Sweet George isn't dead." I turned the knob, opened the door outward a crack, and held it with a stiff arm in case someone tried to rush me. Then I pulled lightly back on the knob and let the door swing open. I leapt back to the far end of the cabin, even though I knew that anyone beyond that door had to be near death. It was dark in there. At first I couldn't see anything, but after a moment I made out a large coil of what must have been anchor line, a few old life jackets and some cardboard boxes. Then, from just inside the doorway, from the height of the door latch, a red satin pillow about a foot and a half square dropped to the sole with a dusty thump.
"Hello?" I said.
No answer. Then I heard a great rousing of a body, asthma ridden, corpulent. There was a groan, a flash of something white and hairy. I uttered a faint but crisp gasp, as if I'd just swallowed a bug. The spit slathered, strangled gatherings reached a new more awful level and I was on the verge of bolting, and vomiting as I bolted, when I came to the realization that the hair was in many ways similar to the shape of a dog, an obese pug-faced dog, a bulldog. He had jumped down off a locker and now sat on his satin pillow trying to look past his nose at me.
His upper lip was too short to cover his teeth and his teeth couldn't keep his tongue in his mouth. His nose was so high it had to drain into his eyes. There was drool. The fur wasn't actually white but sallow, like a nicotine stain. He shifted his rear haunches and suddenly I could see between his legs two inches of an unsheathed and almost fluorescently pink penis, glistening beneath the roll of his distended stomach. Before he could move again I rushed forward and slammed the door on the beast. I'd never been more disgusted by a living creature in my life. If I had to live like that I'd simply do away with myself. I'd excavated dozens of dog graves in my work, but none of them approached the horror of this dog's simple act of breathing, and when I thought of the possibility of his sneezing or drinking from a bowl of water I could only shudder. I closed the door to Grace's cabin, closed the door to my cabin, and tried not to think of the sounds on the other end of the boat.
I laid down on my bunk, little dry silent Piscataqua on my chest, and listened instead to what my life in that room would be like. It seemed as though I were lying upon another living being who was as mindful, as tense, as I was. The boat had been alive, of course, constructed as far as I could tell entirely of wood. It reacted to the slightest change in both the wind and water with movements I could feel in the same way I could tell when Jonah moved beside me in bed. There was a floating sensation, as if I were being rearranged or adjusted. When the tide ebbed Rosinante was pushed up against the dock, tubular PVC fenders protecting the hull, and held there with, I suppose, the force of several tons of pressure. When the tide flowed, the boat went taut on the lines stretching to the dock's galvanized cleats. I could hear these lines creaking and the slow groan of the boat's timbers, each fastener taking its turn to moan. Some form of friction was constant. The current sliding off the hull, perhaps four inches from my head, gurgled, shushed, and occasionally popped. As I lay there a small electric motor turned on somewhere beneath me, beneath the sole, and I heard a stream of water falling into the river outside the hull. It lasted for perhaps thirty seconds and the motor shut off. The boat had peed. It was silly, but it made me smile.
Across the compartment, on the foot of my roommate's bunk, was a mound of dirty clothes, mostly blue jeans and T-shirts, but also a huge bra, pink socks with silver stars on them, and a pair of leopard panties, a really large pair. There were a couple of snapshots jammed into the woodwork near the head of the bunk: one of a rather scraggly young man in beard and overalls, and one of diminutive figures on a stage far, far away. Probably a rock band. I thought about looking into her dresser drawers and her locker but I didn't. There was very little else of a personal nature in the cabin. No books or magazines, posters or letters. Perhaps she knew Grace was showing the room and had cleaned up. I didn't think much more about her because I thought I'd meet her that evening after work. The only thing that worried me was that Grace said she was inquisitive, and I wasn't particularly in the mood to disclose the history of my anxieties at the time.
I'd left home, quit my job. I was the only person on the planet, outside of Grace, who knew where I was. It felt safe. I'd left at least some of my grief a thousand miles away. Another delusion, another pretty thought, shimmering above my head like the reflection of light off the water that entered through the windows of my snug cabin, my constantly shifting home.
I put Piscataqua back in the head after a while, with a dish of water and some food. I hoped he wasn't going to be a problem. I hadn't intentionally kept him a secret from Grace; I'd simply forgotten about him. I'd have to set up some kind of litter box so he wouldn't stink the place up. It was still too cold for him to live outside.
Before I went up to the restaurant for lunch I walked Rosinante's deck. There were doors leading out both sides of the salon. Stanchions with lifelines ringed the boat. I walked up two steps to the raised forward deck. The roof over the galley was curved slightly so water would run off. There was a stained glass skylight over the forward cabin that I hadn't noticed from below. At the bow, over the lair of the dragon, were two anchors, a big Yachtsman and a smaller Danforth, and a capstan to help lower and raise them. I couldn't have named these anchors at the time. I picked up the nautical terminology from Grace over the next few months; she actually grimaced if I called the head the "bathroom" or the bow the "front." The roof over my cabin was curved also; storage lockers and a life-raft canister were mounted on one side and there was a bench that resembled a church pew on the other. A canvas awning on brass standards extended over all this and six ten-gallon propane tanks bolted to the deck. The afterdeck was flat, with a hatch leading below. A ten-foot dinghy or tender hung on davits off the transom. It was a varnished shimmering jewel, this little boat, with lapstrake planking and an undeserved name, Dapple, Sancho Panza's donkey, in gold leaf on the mahogany transom. All of the woodwork on Rosinante was varnished as well, but most of the brass railing around the stem was dull, although its surface hadn't yet weathered to verdigris. The forward half of the deck was fiberglass, painted white; the stern was decked in natural teak. She was a beautiful old boat. The understanding that she was sound as well would come later.
I went forward as far as I could, leaned on a stanchion at the bow, and looked up and down the river. What made Portsmouth so interesting, beyond its picturesque colonial homes and history, was its working harbor. It was small enough that I could watch the whole of the port and not feel overwhelmed. I could follow individual lives moving back and forth, going out with the tide and coming back in, scooting between the islands and up into the estuaries, gunkholing along the riverbank, arriving for work at dawn or dusk and going home. I had no other desire for the next few months than to do the job of this scrutiny. I was spying, of course, in the safety of my aloneness, behind the veil of my unhappiness, whispering secrets to myself. I thought, at times, that I missed Jonah so much that I was gone too. What brought me out of this misconception was the ability to experience a pain beyond that present one, to know that pain comes to you in levels of understanding, that your mind won't let you proceed to the next level till you're comfortable with the present and accumulated anguish. I came across a love of moving water, and thought it would heal me with its simple movement, substance and time under the bridge, its persuasive argument of endless beauty. But I found that you have to drown before you can be saved. The water below me moved constantly, was never stagnant. Living this close to it, I hoped I wouldn't be either. The very briskness of the water, current and cold, made me feel clean. I whistled at a gull that swept under Memorial Bridge and beyond me toward the sea. I waved at a boy on a boat across the bay. And I wept down into the tide, and whispered names into the depths.
Part of the reason my mother-in-law's last suggestion upset me so was I did want to have Jonah's children. But it was his argument that we should be ready for them, fiscally responsible. I came to tears many times over the years with Jonah, but never more so than during our arguments over children. "We have to be able to afford them, Charlotte" he said. "It's not them" I said. "They usually come one at a time. We don't have to have the baby's full college tuition in the bank the day it's born" "Soon" he said. "Please, let's not put ourselves in a place that we'll regret. Please give me some time to make a home." And I'd relent. I let him have his way. Over and over. I don't know what I would have done if I'd known he was going to die. I mean, if he'd had a terminal illness rather than the accident. Perhaps he would have let me become pregnant then. Perhaps I wouldn't have wanted to. At any rate his death seemed to leave me terribly alone and terribly conscious of the things that could have been and the things that would never be. I don't know why we love people who refuse us things, but my love for Jonah was uncontrollable.
I knew at the time that I was turning, spiraling up or down, but when you're in the eye it's hard to tell the direction you're taking and therefore impossible to know which way you'll be facing when you spin slowly to a stop. I tried not to think of the future or the past, especially not my past, but concentrated on the rush of the present, the quick skid of the moment in and out of my peripheral vision. I relied heavily on bodily functions, letting my hunger, my bowels, and my weariness tell my mind where to move next. There was an odor of chowder from the restaurant above and suddenly I wanted a cracker so badly I'd have fought for it. I thought about a saltine, dimple stippled with unleavened undulations, the piquant and instant satisfaction of salt crystals, the flaky matrix of flour that softened between tongue and tooth, and finally of the broken perforations of a cracker's borders and the poignancy of the complete holes in its center, an artwork of food, a perfect bite. I bolted from Rosinante, felt her shy when my sole left her deck, and took two steps at a time up the gangway to the Smarmy Snail.
"A bowl of chowder," I told the waitress, "and crackers, lots of crackers, don't hold back on the crackers:' She looked down at me quizzically as she left; there was no way that she could know I was indulging myself, having the world just as I wanted it, if only for that moment.
Grace walked by the windows of the restaurant as I ate, carrying a bag of groceries and apparently talking to herself. I couldn't hear her of course, but her lips moved as if in the midst of a virulent quarrel, point and counterpoint. She looked down as she walked and spoke, so I wondered if there weren't someone under the restaurant in a boat. She kept up the argument the length of the sidewalk and through the empty tables and chairs scattered on the deck. As she stepped onto the gangway she turned and pulled a small chain across the entrance, and then, I'm sure of this, nodded her head in a quick thrust of disdain to someone, something, directly behind the chain she'd just latched, a nod that somehow completely vanquished whatever apparition that had the audacity to argue with her. This was somewhat unnerving for a new boarder. Immediately after her nod she seemed to focus, saw me in the window, smiled broadly, and pointed to her sack of groceries mouthing the word, "dinner." Her face was once again the unstrained, composed model of septuagenarian grandmotherhood I'd met that morning. She held her coat closed and shuddered mockingly, gesturing kindly to me about the weather, and then with a quick wave turned to Rosinante below. My smile in return fell away to a slack jaw, open mouth, lip drool that I soaked up with my last cracker. My teeth came together with the realization that I was soon to spend the night with two people I didn't know, on a boat in a town where no one knew me. Grace and her boarder could have popped me into the Piscataqua at midnight and no one would ever have been the wiser. My mind took wide swings at that point in my life. As I paid my bill, I told the waitress, "I'm moving into the old boat at the dock. It's my first night. I was just wondering what time you open for breakfast?"
"Seven," she said.
"I'll be here," I said, and tried to smile, as if I were looking forward to my return. "7 A.M.," I said. "Look for me."
"Right," she said.
"It's nice to have a restaurant so close to my new home down at the dock below."
"Yes," she said, somewhat desperately, anxious to get back to her tables.
"And your name is?" 25
"Melissa, see you in the morning. I'm Charlotte."
"Good-bye," she said.
"Bye bye," I replied, looking directly into her eyes, and burning my impression into them. If she didn't remember me in the morning, I thought, I'd beat her with a stack of their heavy laminated trifold menus.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon conducting new business: opening a checking account, renting a post office box, and acquainting myself with the stock of the two used bookstores on State Street. I wanted to fill the bookshelf above my bunk in a random order and then spend the next few months reading them from right to left. As I finished each one I'd date and initial the last page to show I'd been there, passed that way, a literary Kilroy. I bought a book at each store, and managed to tell the clerks my name, that I was new in town, and that I lived on Rosinante below the Smarmy Snail.
I didn't want to hide from the city I'd run to. I wanted to not only live in the landscape of Portsmouth and the river, but also to be a part of it, to establish myself. I'd never lived in a city before, or even a town of much size. I grew up on a small farm outside of Parksville, Kentucky and went to school in Danville, five miles from home, at Boyle County High School and later at Centre College. Jonah and I lived on the outskirts of Lexington in an old farmhouse on just enough land to call it a farm. I'd always driven a car to buy groceries, mail letters, to do any sort of errand, but here I was within walking distance of almost anything I desired. I found a small newsstand on Market Street and resolved to buy a newspaper there every day rather than subscribe. I made mental notes of places to get my hair cut, places to sit and read with a cup of tea, of benches, water fountains, public restrooms, and even of the location of a tattoo parlor. I had the thought that a little silver trowel on my ankle might be cute. I imagined relationships with shopkeepers, policemen on the beat, waitresses. I'm Charlotte: I'm one of you. There goes Charlotte with her Portsmouth Herald, down the sidewalk of Congress Street, waving at Freddy in Mows sub shop, standing at the river's edge to watch the ferry Thomas Laighton slide under Memorial Bridge. I wanted to leave an archaeological layer in Portsmouth to be known later as the Charlotte strata, bits of my hair, skin, and nail, the broken dishes and other byproducts of my existence: enough trash that I'd be recognized as a culture, a unique and once thriving way of life. People had lived on this point of land for perhaps twelve thousand years, most thickly for the past three hundred and seventy, and I was now one of them. I wondered if Portsmouth had a brick-buying scheme as part of its preservation-funding efforts: donate ten bucks and your name is impressed into one of the bricks that pave the streets and sidewalks. I'd splurge for a dozen and press my thumbprint into the soft clay for good measure. I'm here. I'm Charlotte. You don't know that my husband is dead, that I've been too sad lately almost to speak. But I've changed the subject. The subject is me alone, beginning again, setting up a new life, reading my own story out loud as it happened. On my walk back home I bought a bouquet of cut flowers for Rosinante's salon table.
It was almost dark by the time I stepped back aboard the old cruiser. A passing boat rolled over a wake that rocked Rosinante at her berth, and I had the same queer sensation that she was alive when my foot touched her deck, that I'd stepped on something that breathed. The windows of the salon were fogged, but a dim light still shone from within. Heat and a faint smoke issued from the stack over the galley and was blown upriver. I pushed down on the brass lever with my free hand, and let myself in as quietly as possible. The mahogany table in front of the settee was set with silver, china and crystal, cloth napkins. Above the table an oil lamp that I'd thought merely decorative was burning. From the galley there was an odor of chicken and onions. The door to my cabin was closed, but there was a bar of light issuing from beneath it. I'd unbuttoned my coat and stepped toward the door when Grace spoke to me from the galley. I couldn't see her.
"Hello." I waited.
"You didn't tell me you had a cat, dear."
I froze. I couldn't tell if the electrical hum of her tone was one of annoyance or teasing. If I were to say simply, "I'm sorry," it would sound as though I'd meant to deceive her. I hadn't. The table was set for three. Grace hadn't come up the companionway to face me. I said, "You didn't tell me you had a dog, either, Grace. He's adorable."
Silence. The stirring of food.
"Fair enough," she said. "Chloe has already fallen in love with him anyway. Dinner in a few minutes."
"It smells wonderful," I said, and knocked on my cabin door. I'd been holding my breath since I stepped inside and thought I might faint. There was no answer. I knocked again. Still no answer. I opened the door slowly and crept down the stairs into the cabin. It was brightly lit with electric light. Chloe was lying on her back, in her bunk, eyes closed. A Walkman plugged into her ears. I could hear the tiny voices of the tiny band in the photograph above her head. Piscataqua was sound asleep, cradled between her breasts. When I dropped my books on my bunk, Chloe shot up, pulling the earphones off her head and sending the cat spread-eagled out into the center of the cabin.
"Oh, oh, oh," she yipped, dropping to her knees. "I forgot all about him." She stroked Piscataqua's arching back. "I'm sorry, kitty. Did stupid Chloe throw you across the room?"
"Hi" I said.
She looked up at me, almost cowering.
"It's OK," I said. "He's had much worse tumbles than that. Has he been much trouble?"
"Oh, no, not at all. Well, he pooped the cutest little turd you've ever seen over there in the corner, but I cleaned that up, no problem. He's a doll."
She stood up, holding Piscataqua in the nape of her neck.
"I'll get him a litter box tomorrow," I said.
"Sure. But when he gets older we'll teach him to go over the side, like Pinky."
"Grace's dog, Pinky. He just backs up to the gunwale. No mess, no bother. Grace says Pinky wouldn't know what to do with a patch of grass. He's always been a boat dog."
"I met him earlier. I thought he was dying," I said.
"No, not yet. But it's something you have to get used to. I mean, Pinky's existence. But he's a sweet dog. Grace took him from another couple on a boat when they thought he was dying years ago. It's just that his packaging isn't all you could hope for. I understand him because my package isn't all it could be either. I'm Chloe." She held out her hand.
"Charlotte." Holding her hand was like grasping a link sausage before it's cooked. Her legs were proportioned to her height, but her torso was oversized, almost blocky. She was very young, perhaps seventeen, and her face, although pudgy, was beautiful, glowingly pale with patches of peach in her cheeks. Bright green eyes. Unfortunately her hair was in a crew cut, dyed blond over a quarter inch of brown roots. Her ears were as tiny and bunched as a baby's fist. She wore faded overalls over a yellow T-shirt. The arms protruding from the shirt were thin but muscled. Hers seemed to be a body built of spare parts. I couldn't help but wonder how differently her parents must have been modeled, a Laurel and Hardy union producing Chloe, light limbed, heavy bodied, angelical face.
"It will be great to have some company in the stern quarters" she said, smiling, her teeth white and as evenly spaced as the rows of tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery. I couldn't see any caries, filled or otherwise, and the third molars, or wisdom teeth, hadn't yet come in. The third molars are genetically unstable teeth that may erupt at any time from age eighteen till death.
"How long have you been on board?" I asked.
"Since I left home, about three months." She looked down at the sole when she said this, and handed Piscataqua to me. But after only a moment of silence she turned back up, smiling her marble memorial smile.
"Do you like it here?" I asked.
"It's great. I'm close to work. It's cheap. I mean you can't beat a hundred dollar a month waterfront apartment, can you?"
"I couldn't," I said.
"Dinner, dinner, dinner," Grace chanted, banging in time on a black pot with a wooden spoon.
We sat down to settings of antique flow mulberry stoneware, the Eastern Birds pattern by Davenport. Staffordshire potters produced it from about 1830 to 1850. Mulberry can sometimes fool you because the color can range from a light purple to almost black, and many of the patterns were also done in flow blue. The crystal was recent K-Mart and the flatware by Towle, the Paul Revere pattern. We each had a cut glass open salt of the Victorian period, and a linen napkin with corners of hand-sewn lace. Each piece was set off by the dark red grain of the varnished mahogany table and the soft oily light from the lamp above. In the center of the table, on a crocheted doily, was a mangled and burned pot holder on which sat a huge black steaming cauldron. I set the flowers next to it.
"How nice. Help yourselves," Grace ordered.
Chloe bowed her head and rushed through, "God is great, God is good, let us thank him for this food."
"No religion at the table, Chloe," Grace said.
"Oh, now," Chloe snipped. She took the big wooden spoon, stirred the contents of the pot and scraped chicken, broccoli, onions, carrots, and celery out onto her plate, and I followed her at Grace's nod. There was some garlic in the stir as well. I believe it was the best meal I've had in my life. The chicken was braised till it was almost crisp at the edges, and the broccoli snapped off with a clip of the incisors. Chloe drank milk while Grace and I drank a white wine of uncertain vintage. The Smarmy Snail had given Grace several bottles that had lost their labels.
"It's warmer in here than it was this morning," I said.
"Heat's on now" Grace said. "We've got propane heat that Sweet George installed before he died. I try to conserve during the day."
We didn't speak for a few moments. There was only the clink of forks against the heavy old plates, and the wind buffeting the windows of the salon.
Grace put down her glass, tilted her head slightly, then said with some nonchalance, "Oops, I've let the stink bird fly."
I stopped in midchew, a slice of carrot saved momentarily from the crush of molars.
"Mildred" Grace added.
Milk began to dribble out the corners of Chloe's mouth. She pressed her lips harder together and little jets of milk sprayed out across the table. I smiled, still holding the carrot in abeyance. Grace now smiled. Chloe lowered her head, opened her mouth and what was left of the milk drained onto her plate, which allowed her finally the relief to gush with laughter, to pinch her nostrils closed with one hand and to touch the middle of her forehead with her hitchhiking thumb. After this, still holding her nose with the one hand, she pointed at me and said, "You ate it."
"Did not," I said, looking from one to the other of them.
"Did too," Grace said. "Chloe clearly beat you. You ate it."
I decided not to argue but did choose to pinch my nostrils. In a few seconds Chloe tested the air tentatively and nodded an "all's clear" to me.
"Are there any other rules I should know?" I asked.
"A boat's concentrated," Grace explained. "When you birth one you own it, and must give it a name. It gives the rest of us a chance. When you go number two, always light a match afterwards."
"I'm still learning" Chloe said. "One of my favorites is, 'Never load a gun on board with the barrel pointing down.'"
"I'll remember that if I ever get a gun," I said.
"It's not just rules" Grace added. "It's a way of life, living on the water, and you'll have to adapt. Over at Strawbery Banke there's a family of sparrows that hop from grille to grille of the cars in the parking lot. They enter the grille, and come out fatter. They're eating the insect roadkill off the cars' radiators. They've adapted, making themselves a rich easy life off a parking lot. Here, on Rosinante, you'll learn to conserve your movements, to live in a smaller world, but it has its rewards."
"Shorter trip to the fridge," Chloe said.
"I love the water," I said unblinkingly.
"It smells bad sometimes," Chloe said.
"Me too, I love the water too." Grace slid about half of her food back into the pot. "Just not hungry," she said.
"You need to eat more than that, Grace," Chloe whispered harshly.
"You eat it." Grace poured herself more wine and called, "Pinky, Pinky, Pinky baby."
I swallowed quickly. "Why Pinky?" I asked.
"Oh," she said, "It's just an obscene reference to his pistol. He never has been able to keep the thing sheathed." Grace put her plate on the salon sole and called again, "Pinky, plate on the sole."
There was a sickening, bowel emptying Slush of air over tongue from the companionway as Pinky flushed over each step. He reached the salon, paused to rest with a great asthmatic gasp for breath, sneezed once and again, and then finally stumbled toward Grace's dish as if he were falling off a cliff. I even looked to see if he had all four of his legs because his walking seemed so uncoordinated and painful.
"Pinky's a little past his prime," Grace whispered.
"He had a prime then," I said.
"Oh, he was at stud for a couple of years. Won shows."
"Really?" I said. I felt at that moment something horribly akin to being groped, listening to the simple act of a dog licking a plate. It was one long unbearable slurp with gaseous ejaculations of dog pleasure at its beginning and end.
"Gross, hunh?" Chloe said, her hand over her nose and mouth.
"He can't help it," Grace cooed and bent down to stroke his flaccid skin. Pinky looked up at her then and I saw, unmistakably, absolute love in his eyes. I was immediately humbled. I apologized.
"He's beautiful, isn't he, Grace?"
"Of course he is. He's Pinky." She wiped his chin and jowls with her linen napkin. "You can go back to your pillow now, baby."
Pinky turned, took one heavy step back toward the galley. And paused. Piscataqua was in his path.
"Piscataqua," I whispered. But it was too late. He arched his back, hissed and spit at Pinky twice. Then he freaked, bounced off the ship's wheel, the settee cushion, clawed his way up a curtain, and finally leaped across a third of the cabin and landed in Grace's blue hair. He dug into her scalp with all claws sprung and held on for fear of a slow-moving dog. Grace calmly uttered a fifteen second screech of pain, like a siren in the distance, and reached up, pinching the loose fur of Piscataqua's neck. He released his grip and allowed himself to be put in my lap. Pinky had never moved from where he'd paused when he first saw the cat. Once Piscataqua was in my lap, the dog continued on his mizzling fall back to his pillow.
As Chloe poked through Grace's hair, looking for wounds, I apologized. "I'm so sorry, Grace. I guess Pinky's the first dog Piscataqua's ever seen. Or maybe another dog traumatized him. I'm sorry."
"That cat's going to end up in the middle of a river in more ways than one," she said. "Out of my hair, Chloe."
"I'm just trying to help," Chloe pouted.
"Well, the damage is done. Raking my hair won't improve things."
Chloe continued to dig through Grace's blue wisps while I held the cat. I could see Grace's face reaching a boil. Her eyes narrowed; her lips worked themselves up under her nose; her nose began to whistle.
"Lean over into the light, Grace," Chloe said, and she tugged at her hair as if it had burrs lodged in it as well.
Grace reached for the big wooden spoon. She yelled, "Girl, you're about as deep as a cookie sheet," and whapped Chloe on the back of her hand, and then whapped her on the hip, and when Chloe rubbed her hip Grace took advantage of her and whapped her on the shoulder.
"Stop it, you crazy old woman," Chloe screamed, and ran to the far side of the table.
Grace held the spoon at her side for a moment, then dropped it back into the pot. "I'm not crazy," she said.
And quickly, too quickly I thought, Chloe answered, "Of course you're not, Grace. I'm sorry."
"Did I hurt you, Chloe, honey?"
"No, of course you didn't."
"I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Well, you didn't, and that's all there is to it, Grace."
"I try to keep all the demons off the boat. They usually don't follow me into the water," Grace said.
"This wasn't a demon, Grace," Chloe answered. "It was a person pissed off at another person. It happens to lots of people. Lots of people get mad at me. I annoy them somehow. I don't do it on purpose. But I'm deeper than a cookie sheet. I know what's going on. I'm at least as deep as a saucepan." Chloe parted her lips enough to show a single row of tombstones, sheepish privates and corporals.
"The hardest part is understanding what's happening to you," Grace said. She was looking directly at me. "If you went completely senile at the snap of a finger it would be all right. Little harm done. But when it's gradual, when you slip in and out, when you lose moments, that makes it hard. I'm always trying to remember something I've forgotten, trying to resurrect a little death, to make myself immortal by the power of my memory. It's all very humbling."
"Grace is an artist," Chloe said.
I noticed the remains of food beginning to dry on our plates, a momentary flicker of the oil lamp.
"Really?" I said, turning from Chloe to Grace and back to Chloe.
"She paints things that are so real they fool you."
"Like trompe l'oeil?" I asked.
"I used to do faux work. You know, grain painting, painting a baseboard so it looked like marble or a different kind of wood. I worked on some of the houses at Strawbery Banke. But now I've gotten into Harnett: dollar bills, ticket stubs, more detailed things."
"But she doesn't work on canvas much, Charlotte," Chloe said. "She paints on walls and on tables, on sidewalks, stuff like that."
"The best way to fool someone is to paint something they want to see: a twenty dollar bill protruding from a street grate works because almost everyone expects to be lucky someday. Why else would they play these lotteries? Another way is to paint something they only see peripherally, such as a light switch. You paint a switch, you paint a smudge around the switch as if it's been used, then you go back in a year or two and if your work is good you'll find the painted smudge replaced by a real one. I want to paint a puddle of water on a street, with a nickel in the middle of the water. I want to paint it so persuasively that people break their knuckles putting their hand in the puddle going after that nickel. Water -- that's the hardest -- getting water down just right. You have to know it's there but still be able to see through it."
"There's a window on the side of a brick building downtown. But when you get close enough; I said, "it's just the brick wall."
"Grace did that," Chloe said.
Grace nodded. "How close did you get before you knew?"
"I don't know. Six or seven feet, I guess."
"If it had been good work, you would have bumped your forehead on the masonry trying to see inside," Grace sighed. "I had a lot of trouble with that wall. The brickwork was so uneven it cast shadows."
"But isn't it great that she can make a living at something she likes to do?" Chloe said, looking at me. "She gets offers all the time to paint people's entrances, their kids' rooms, all kinds of stuff."
"What do you do, Chloe?" I asked.
"I work up at Small World on Market Street. We sell all sorts of cheap, funky gimmicks: windup penises, toys, environmental bags and books, sandals, posters of Marilyn Monroe. We get lots of tourists. I'm just a clerk but I try to make it interesting by asking the customers questions, taking polls."
"She asks the same question of everybody for a whole day, and keeps track of their answers in her journal" Grace explained.
"I just try to get a consensus" Chloe said.
pard"What do you ask them?"
"All kinds of things. I ask them when they check out, so my results are sort of skewed. I mean, the only people in my polls are people who'd buy the things we sell, and it's not run-of-the-mill stuff. I mean, there's no Polo or Mattel logos. We sell a lot of breast coffee cups, the kind where you drink from the nipple. A lot of it's from overseas."
"Well, do you ask them who they're going to vote for, or what?" I asked.
"Oh, no, nothing like that. For instance, one day I'll ask everyone what their favorite color is, or if they believe in angels, or if they think there could be any reason their house might be burning down at that instant. A different question everyday. It keeps things interesting."
I nodded, stared down at Piscataqua.
"Where do you work, dear?" Grace asked.
With each moment that evening I better understood the compactness of a boat, how you were always squeezing by someone. I didn't want to lie to them. I wanted to continue listening, to hear how other lives worked.
"Well," I said, "I'm not working anywhere right now. I just moved here from Kentucky. I quit my job a couple months ago after my husband died. I was, I am, an archaeologist. I worked with the University of Kentucky Anthropology Department as an excavator on digs."
"I'm sorry about your husband" Grace said, and she slid her palm across the table and touched the back of my hand.
"Do you have family here?" Chloe asked.
"No. To tell the truth I came here to get away from them for a while."
"We're the only people you know in Portsmouth?" Chloe asked.
"Well, yes, so far."
"Maybe you can get work at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, or maybe at Strawbery Banke. They do some archaeology," Grace suggested.
"I think I'm just going to take it easy for a while, I said.
"Sure," Chloe said.
"How long were you married?" Grace asked.
"And his name?"
"Jonah," I said.
"Sweet Jonah," she said.
My eyes began to burn, but I looked straight at Grace and said, "I'm sorry about George."
"Yes, me too," she said, smiling. "I'm sorry to say it won't get much better for you, I mean if you miss him. I'm almost dead and I still miss George."
"Grace and her husband were sailing Rosinante from Florida to Prince Edward Island when he had a heart attack," Chloe said. "She's been right at this dock ever since. They'd sold their house to buy Rosinante when he retired, so Grace just decided that this would be her house."
"You don't know how to drive the boat?" I asked.
"I was first mate, cook, and deckhand. I might be able to get the engine started, but I wouldn't know what to do next. I like it here. I feel like George is still on board."
"I wish you wouldn't say that, Grace," Chloe shushed. "It gives me the creeps, ghosts and stuff like that."
"He's a good ghost, though," Grace insisted.
"This old boat creaks and groans too much already, Grace. I don't want to hear another word."
"Even so, if you ever hear anyone on deck at night, especially during the middle watch, that will be Sweet George, protecting the three of us."
"Grace," Chloe almost cried, "I'm going to bed, right now."
"He wore a soft rubber shoe," Grace Said, "so it sounds like a mouse squeak against the teak."
"That's it." Chloe rose with her dishes and carried them to the galley. Grace and I followed her. I offered to do the dishes but she wouldn't hear of it.
"It's late. You go on. It's your first night on board. You'll sleep like a baby. No better sleeping than on a boat. Besides, if you chipped my Mulberry I'd have to sic Pinky on you."
I followed Chloe to our cabin and closed the door behind us.
"Do you really only pay a hundred dollars a month, Chloe?" I asked.
"Yes, but I think my father pays her more. Grace won't admit it, but I think he does."
She sat on her bunk and blew air between her teeth. "Well, I was living in sort of a bad place when I first left home. My folks knew about it and didn't like that part of my life either. I left home because they didn't like my boyfriend. But anyway, in walks Grace at work one day, and wants to put up a room for rent sign. I snapped this place right up. After I moved in, I remembered my father talking about Grace. He's got a lobster boat. I guess he met her somewhere. Anyway, after I paid Grace once I saw a deposit slip for two hundred sticking out of her wallet the next morning. You're paying two hundred, aren't you?"
"My folks and I fight a lot, but they worry about me. It's part of why they're so mad at me, because they have to worry. I tell them not to. It's not my fault that they worry. It's my dad's way of caring for me."
"Why aren't you in school?"
"I've graduated. I took summer courses and got out in three years. I wasn't very happy in high school. You know, fat gift in a skinny-gift world."
I smiled because she was smiling.
"You didn't have any children?" she asked.
"No" I said. "We were going to. Someday."
"Maybe it's good that you didn't," she said. "They would have missed their father."
I didn't know what to say to her, so I said what I thought most people wanted to hear, how Jonah died. "He was killed in a car wreck. His car went off an embankment. He drowned in a shallow creek. He was coming home."
"You and Grace are both widows," Chloe said. "But you can start over."
She said what she said with such sincerity, such openness, that it was hard for me to feel that she was intruding. I didn't believe there was an insensitive bone in her big soft body. She seemed to be glaringly honest. I nodded at the sole and began to undress.
"Do you mind, Charlotte, if I pull the curtain to? I'm sort of shy."
"Of course not. I've undressed in front of so many people I forget it's not the norm. Out in the field there's not much privacy. Come here, Piscataqua."
Chloe slid the curtain across our tiny apartment and I finished pulling on my flannel pajamas. I crawled into my bunk, dragging the cat with me, and after a moment Chloe opened the curtain again. In the split second it took her to reach for the light switch I saw her blocky form shrouded in floor length white chiffon, then there was darkness. I heard her situate herself in the bunk with many sighs of satisfaction.
"Have you ever heard Sweet George?" I asked.
"I don't know. Once I thought I heard someone on deck. It was very late and I'd awakened from a dream about my boyfriend. It sounded sort of clumsy for a ghost, so I think it was my boyfriend."
"Is he the guy in the picture?"
I tried not to sound provisional when I said, "He's cute."
"My mother thinks he looks like an ax murderer," she said. "Did your parents like your husband?"
"They said they did."
"What does that mean?"
"It means they said they did."
Light oozed in through the portholes on either side of the dresser mirror, a viscous industrial light from Memorial Bridge. As my eyes adjusted, I could make out Chloe lying on her back, only the blanched oval of her face above the blanket, as if it floated on dark water. Occasionally cars thrummed over the steel grating of the central section of Memorial.
Copyright © 1995 by Joe Coomer