As the tide rolls out, Cuthbert Pye jumps off of his boat and into the water. Harvey watches from the dock, shaking his head. Pye founders about to gain a foothold on the bottom of his slip.
“What in the hell are you doing, now?” Harvey asks.
“Checking for worms,” is the strained reply, as Pye rubs his hands down the hull feeling for the telltale holes. He splashes about like a great turtle.
The commotion brings Zelda up on deck from out of the boat. Hands on hips, she hollers to Pye, “Lunch in five minutes, with or without you.” She looks at Harvey and shrugs.
“Worm check,” he says.
“Oh, but of course.” Zelda disappears back down to the galley and turns off the oven, hoping the pizza doesn’t turn into a brick. And on second thought opens the oven door. A little extra heat wouldn’t hurt.
Though it is officially Spring, you couldn’t tell except by the calendar. Chilly breezes still swoop down from the north and the dampness of the water only makes the cold cling to your bones all the better. Pier after pier of shrink-wrapped boats wait to emerge from their white world. Anxious boaters prowl the marina, inspecting their boats’ faring of the winter and sharing tales not yet lived.
As Zelda rinses the dishes from the previous night, she glances up at the window and screams. Bowls shatter. At water level, smushed up against the glass is a face.
“You asshole!” she shrieks. Moments like this really make her wonder why she puts up with Pye. Goddamned fool. Ought to be used to it by now, old girl, she tells herself.
Dripping silt and slag like a creature from the deep, Pye cackles as he clambers up onto the plywood work platform floating behind his boat, not without major difficulty for a man nearly as round as he is tall.
“Damn, but that water’s cold,” he says.
Harvey reaches down to give his neighbor a hand. “What’d you do that for?”
“Had to check for the worms, I told you.”
“You know what I mean. You could give somebody a heart attack that way.” Harvey backs up on the dock and lights a cigarette.
Pye stomps the muck from his sneakers and jeans. “Oh, don’t worry about her. She’s a tough one.” Little splats of slime encircle him.
“If you say so.” Harvey takes another step away.
“Anyway, at least now I know I don’t have to worry about the Ark. She’s plenty sound.” Pye shivers in the wind.
“Ought to bottom coat it, you know. Can’t let stuff like that go. Next thing you know, you don’t even have a hull to paint. Actually,” Harvey drawls ever so slightly, “you ought to just sell the thing. Get yourself a real boat. Fiberglass.”
Plodding along the finger pier, Pye takes a surprisingly agile step up onto Cutty’s Ark and disappears down the hatchway long enough to grab an old towel. As he comes back on deck, drying himself, he says, “No way. There’s nothing like a wooden boat. Besides, I’m going to give her a good sprucing up this year. You’ll see.” The smell of pizza almost lures him back down to the galley when he sees a weather worn bay boat cruise into the harbor.
“Hey, Harv, look. It’s Charlie and he’s got another mate. Must be that nephew he was talking about.”
Harvey drops the hot ash of his smoke into the water and tucks the filter into his pocket. “Tell me all about it. I’m going to have a little lunch.” His wiry frame disappears quickly around the far side of the boat docked next to Pye’s.
The taste of homemade vegetable soup has been on the tip of his gourmet tongue since he helped Natalie get it started yesterday before he left for the restaurant. Every time he thinks of the Lazy Whale, he’s pleased with himself for having made such a good investment. So good, in fact, that he was able to buy his forty-six foot motor yacht outright. Another good investment. Cheaper than the condo he used to keep to hang his clothes in before he met Nat. And the marina fees are no more than maintenance fees, the way he sees it.
Pye has already come off of the finger pier and is trotting himself along the dock like the proprietary little watchdog he thinks himself to be. When he reaches the fuel dock, Charlie has already tied up and is pumping diesel, his engine chattering away all the while.
“Hey, Charlie,” Pye calls over the drone. “Howya doin’?”
Without looking away from the numbers rolling on the pump, Charlie says, “You still here, Pye? Heard you done froze to death.”
“Nah, just the car. Damn thing wouldn’t budge for a week.”
“So, what’d you do?”
“Had a party. What else could we do?”
“That’s just exactly what I would’ve done in that situation.”
As Charlie replaces the nozzle on the pump a boy just shy of his sixteenth birthday scuttles out of the glassed-in kiosk and comes over to the boat.
“Prompt little bugger, ain’t you?” Charlie says, handing the young man the money.
Counting out the bills, he says, “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Hey, kid, what’s your name?”
“Lemme give you a piece of advice, Jake-sir. If you find one man in your life that’s worth being called, ‘sir,’ then you’re doing real good. Especially if he’s your old man. Remember that. And for God’s sake, take a good look at this face. Don’t you go calling me ‘sir,’ again. Name’s Charlie. Got it?”
“Yes, uh, Charlie.” Jake cannot wait to get away from this guy. Sounds like one of his dad’s poker buddies, late in the game. He’s grateful to go hide out in the hut, as he thinks of the kiosk.
Pye cackles, and his face bunches up into a pleasantly wrinkled moon. “Kids.” Pye fingers the change in his pockets and rocks back and forth, almost in sway with the old dead-rise boat below him. “Say, didn’t I see you have a mate on board?”
Charlie is fiddling with his umbrella rigs, securing chartreuse sassy shad to the single hook above the treble hooks. “Yeah. Got me a good one this time. Bob is a fine mate.”
A short-haired blonde wearing a green knit cap and overalls pops out of the forward cabin with a trayful of assorted cut bait–peeler crabs, clam snouts, and squid strips.
Pye nearly rocks himself right off of the dock. That ain’t nobody’s nephew, he gasps to himself. What he sees is a pixie face with big brown doe eyes. But with a sturdy look about her. Enchanting, he’d have to say, if asked.
“This here’s Bob,” Charlie says, barely looking up from his task. “Damn.” He runs a good-sized hook into his finger and yanks it out.
Bob smiles and waves before setting about the baiting of her set of hooks.
Wiping the blood on his multi-stained jeans, Charlie looks up at Pye and says, “She’s a mermaid, you know? Yep.” He nods. “Caught her off the coast of the Carolinas last Fall. And she’s just too damn big to throw back.”
Bob has the bait set and is untying the forward line to the pier when Charlie sees her.
“Gotta go,” he says, and puts the heavy diesel engines into gear from the outside station. With that, Bob throws the line onto the pier and waves to Pye. And they’re off in a cloud of diesel fumes and cold water spray.
“Damn.” Pye shakes his head, watching the pair head out of the harbor and into the river. He’s got to give it to old Charlie, not only is she easy to look at, but useful, too.
As Charlie’s boat hits the open currents of the early Spring river, it gives a bit of a hop before settling into its heaving ply upriver.
Pye wanders back to the Ark, nodding at the other boaters milling about. A flash of copper catches his eye in time for him to see Zelda getting into her car.
“Hey,” Pye calls, and bounds over to where she’s parked. A bit out of breath, he says, “I thought you wanted to eat lunch.”
“I did,” she says, and turns over the ignition, tightening her lips into thin lines so she doesn’t laugh at the picture he makes standing there, looking pouty, afraid he won’t get anything to eat. She has her own forever five-year-old.
“Well, then, be that way.” He stares at the ground and turns to leave.
“Try looking in the oven,” she says, before shutting the car door and driving towards the exit of the parking lot.
With a light step, Pye fairly skips off to his lunch.
As Nat washes a few bowls and spoons, she asks Harvey, “What was Pye doing in the water earlier?”
Harvey lowers his newspaper. “Brace yourself for this one. He was inspecting the hull for worm holes.”
In mid-wipe, Nat says, “Don’t they usually pull the boat out of the water to do that?”
“Sane people do.”
Nat turns to look over her shoulder to where Harvey is sitting in the saloon, a dozen feet from the galley. “Is he sober?”
Nodding, Harvey replies gravely. “I’m afraid he is. Sober as a judge.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Hmmph. Well, what was Zel screaming about?”
Harvey folds up his paper and raises the footrest of his lounger. He starts chuckling in spite of himself. “Pye shoved his face onto the window in the galley and nearly gave her a glimpse of Eternity.”
“Sheesh. I don’t know how she stands it. You never can tell what he’ll get up to next.”
“Tell me about it,” Harvey grumbles. “Remember Halloween? He about scared those kids to death when he was running around with that pig mask on, dripping ketchup and squealing that way. He’s just a laugh a minute.”
Nat flips the dishtowel over the clean dishes draining by the sink and joins Harvey in the saloon. She stretches her long legs across the sofa. Laughing, she says, “You know you like him. That’s why we got this slip, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes. But it isn’t the same as when I just saw him on weekends or whenever I took out the little boat.”
“But he is a good neighbor. He’s always ready to lend an hand. Especially since he’s been living on his boat for years and knows all that stuff we didn’t. At least I didn’t. I thought it’d be like an apartment on the water.”
Harvey gets a beer out of the refrigerator and looks to Nat, who nods. He slowly pours a local micro-brew into two tall glasses and sets them on their coffee table. “It is, sort of. Except in an apartment you don’t have to worry about the head freezing solid.”
Nat laughs, a high and musical sound.
“I don’t know if we’re cut out to be live-aboards, hon. I mean, just about everything we own is in storage. And even though this is a good-sized boat for trips and all, it sure does shrink during the winter. Even now, I can’t wait to get outside just for the sake of someplace larger to sit.”
“Well, maybe we’re just too far north. I’ll bet it’d be different down in the Florida Keys or someplace.”
“Oh, that’d be different all right.” Harvey sips on his beer for a minute or two. “Though it would be rather difficult to run the Lazy Whale long distance. Tough to check out the produce, let alone the seafood from a thousand miles away.”
Nat sips at her beer. “Isn’t that what Lloyd is for?”
“He is the best manager I’ve ever had, but I’d be a fool to turn over the entire operation to anyone. A surefire recipe for bankruptcy.”
“Mmm.” Nat stares out the window, watching the gray-green water chop at the side of the boat, enjoying the slight roll. As a former world-class insomniac, the movement of the boat which makes so many retch is sleep heaven for her. Until last summer, she couldn’t remember the last time she slept through the night. Her mind wanders from place to place, all warm destinations. “Hey, why couldn’t you just sort of move the business?”
Harvey smiles paternally. “Honey, it just isn’t that easy. And, after all, it is all a matter of location.”
“What, people in Florida don’t like steak or soft crabs?”
“I’m sure they do. It’s all very complicated.”
Nat knows the conversation is over and turns her attention to her beer. The last thing she wants is for Harvey to think she’s a nag. Then he might spend all his time at the Whale. And she’s spent enough time alone to know that a little goes a long way.
After Pye changes into dry clothes, he wolfs down his half of the pizza, and sees from the saloon windows that someone is walking up and down the finger piers on either side of the Ark. Curiosity propels him up to the deck.
“How you doing, buddy?” Pye calls, reaching into the cooler for his first cold one of the day. He does a quick mental check to make sure that it is indeed past noon before popping the top. He offers one to the stranger, who declines.
“Is this your boat?” the man asks. He’s wearing a captain’s hat, and sporting a grayish mustache, which he’s twirled up at the ends. His navy blue windbreaker has a multicolored life ring embroidered on the left breast.
“Sure is. Why?” Pye sets his beer on the cooler lid and takes a step closer to the man.
The stranger extends his hand. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Elliot Wingate.”_@
Pye steps down to the finger pier and takes Elliot’s hand. “Cuthbert Pye.” He nearly adds, “Commodore, Grace Harbor Yacht Club,” but he’s wondering which other club sent over this spy.
“I was wondering if you’d be interested in selling your boat. You see, I’ve been looking for one just like this and having one devil of a time. Most I find in chop piles behind sheds. This one has such potential.” The color in Elliot’s cheeks has risen, along with his voice. “But, I’m sure you are already quite well aware of that. At any rate, I’m prepared to make you a most generous offer.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Elliot. Cutty’s Ark just ain’t for sale.” Pye puffs out his chest in defense of his craft.
Elliot pulls a card from his jacket pocket along with a pen and writes a figure on the back of it before handing it to Pye. “I certainly can’t blame you. No, not one bit. I wouldn’t want to part with her either, if she were mine. Should you reconsider, you have my card.” He manages a thin smile.
Shoving the card into his back pocket, Pye says, “Sure thing, Elliot.”
Again, Elliot extends his hand. “So nice to have made your acquaintance, Cuthbert.”
Pye flinches and forces a grin as he takes the thin hand into his own fleshy paw. He watches as the other man clips his way along the dock and into the parking lot.
Harvey appears on the finger pier between their two boats. “Who was that?”
So startled that he nearly loses his balance, Pye catches himself and only spills a little bit of his beer. “Damn! Don’t sneak up on me like that.” He goes back up on deck and Harvey follows.
Pye tips his beer and drains nearly half down his throat. “Some joker from another club. Who has the colored life ring insignia?”
Harvey thinks for a minute before shrugging and helping himself to a beer. “What’d he want?”
“Says he wants to buy the Ark. Right. I’ll just bet you that bunch from the Point sent him down here to make sure I didn’t get her all fixed up. Because then Old Rat Nose wouldn’t win the antique boat ribbon at the Fest like he does every year.”
Harvey snorts. “From what I’ve seen, he wouldn’t have anything to talk about, then.”
Pye sucks down the last of his beer and pops open another, pacing on the diminutive deck. “You know what I ought to do? I ought to give him a run for his money this year. Slap on a coat of paint topside, polish up the stainless and redo the rails. You know, just like I’d planned. Only better. Yeah. And some new canvas. And I’ll get a flag made up with the club insignia. And–”
“Wouldn’t it help if she ran?”
“The pump’s on order. It’ll be here any day now.” Pye sips on his beer and continues pacing.
Harvey sits down in one of the faded canvas deck chairs, enjoying his beer and staring out at the water. The wide-openness of the river, and every body of water, makes him feel anything is possible. Even for Pye to win that ribbon.
A very tan man with a salt-and-pepper ponytail bicycles towards them, with a fully loaded pack on his back. When he reaches the boat, he stops. “Don’t you people ever go anyplace?”
“Well, well. If it isn’t the infamous Davis Keyes, returned from the Seven Seas,” Pye sings.
“Hello, Keyes. So, what was your latest port?”
“It must’ve been one hell of a trip. Haven’t seen you all winter.”
“After I ran the Express Cruiser down to Marathon, I decided I could go a winter without seeing snow. Just for a change.” Keyes puts one foot on the pedal and balances himself. “You know, there’s an awful lot to see in this world. And even more people to meet.” He winks and rides on down the dock to where his old wooden thirty-six foot power boat is waiting for him.
Harvey looks at Pye. “He sure is a happy sort.”
Nodding, Pye says, “Yeah. And I can’t wait to hear about this trip. Bet he hooked up with a couple of those blonde beach babes they have down there.”
“Who’s got blonde beach babes?” A man in his early forties is standing on the dock with his sixteen year-old son, both armed with fishing poles and tackle boxes.
“What do you say, Floyd? Pete?” Pye tosses down a beer. “Ain’t he old enough to drink, yet?”
Pete looks hopefully at his dad.
Grinning, Floyd says, “Someone has to drive home.” He takes a drink from the can and scans the marina. “I see Keyes is back. The Jolly Roger is flying.”
“That was quick,” Harvey says. “He pedaled by not ten minutes ago.”
“Well,” Pye says, “just like him not to waste a minute.”
Pete fidgets on the dock, dying to go down and see Keyes. But he knows he’s not allowed. And has no idea why.
“Bet he has some tales to tell,” Floyd says. “Well, better go see if we’re having stripers or pizza for dinner. Thanks for the beer.” He tosses the empty back to Pye.
The duo go back up the dock and head for the second pier in, where their runabout is tied up. Floyd throws the lines onto the pilings as Pete fires the outboard to life and takes the helm. On their way out of the harbor, both admire the gulls as they clip and dive to the choppy waves, fish shining briefly in their mouths.
“Look at that!” Pye bounces to attention and points towards the river where a lengthy motor yacht is approaching the marina. Bright-work gleams sharply in the late afternoon sun.
Harvey stands to get a better look. “Whew–that baby looks like a million dollars. Literally!”
“Wonder what they’re doing at this marina.”
As the maroon and white craft approaches, two men come out on the deck to secure the lines. A man wearing a navy captain’s hat waves as they pass and the man at the wheel expertly berths the cumbersome vessel into a slip several piers away. Having moored, three of the men disembark and make their way to the parking lot.
“Looks like we’ve got a new neighbor,” Harvey says.
“Be pretty tough to live on one that size, huh?”
Pye says, “Bet you could cross the Atlantic with her. Hey, let’s go ask.”
“Give the guy a break. He just got here.”
“We got to be neighborly, don’t we? Come on.” Pye hops down the step to the finger pier and waves Harvey on, who follows, two beers in hand.
As they walk down the dock, Pye says, “We never had one that big in here before. He must be loaded. I mean filthy, stinking rich.”
“Yeah. That sure is some toy.”
As they reach the boat, a voice booms from the deck. “Ahoy!” The man with the captain’s hat smiles broadly and waves. His sunglasses are neon pink mirrored wrap-around style, and below his khaki-colored shorts are his sock-clad feet wearing sandals. His thirtieth birthday is a fresh memory.
Pye and Harvey look at each other, both figuring his father must own the boat.
The first to speak is, of course, Pye. “Hi, I’m Pye and this is Harvey.”
“I’m Max. Welcome aboard.”
Pye and Harvey board and join Max on the immaculate deck.
“Is she new?” Pye asks.
“She sure is,” Max beams. “Fresh from the factory. We picked her up in Baltimore this morning.”
Remembering the beers he’s holding, Harvey offers one to Max.
“Thanks, man, but I’ve got a whole boatload in here.” Max snickers as he lifts the lid on the cooler which also provides generous seating for two. “Got plenty more in the fridge.” He pulls out three bottles of imported beer and offers them to his guests, who accept. Using the built-in bottle opener, he snaps off the caps.
“Man,” Pye says, “you sure know how to live. This is the good stuff.”
“Yeah, ain’t it great,” Max says. “Life is good.” He raises his beer and takes a long swallow.
Pye and Harvey follow suit.
“Really nice boat you have here,” Harvey says, setting the beers he brought on the cooler lid.
“Thanks. Really, I ought to thank my Uncle Marvin.”
“Oh, is this his boat?” Pye asks.
Laughing, and nearly blowing suds out of his nose, Max says, “Hell, no. He’s dead.” Recovering himself, he continues. “Sorry about that. No, he left me a fortune. Never even knew the tightwad had a damn penny. When he’d come over for Christmas dinner, he brought us kids oranges. Like it was some big deal. But since I just happened to love ‘em, those big navels especially, it was okay with me, and I got everybody else’s.” He shrugs. “And he left everything to me.”
“Wish I had a rich uncle,” Pye says, and savors the brew which his budget denies him.
“Come on in and take a look around. This is the deluxe package. It’s even got a built-in entertainment center. And the bathrooms are really cool. It has two.”
“Don’t look now,” Harvey says, gesturing with his head towards a bald man with a beer belly which wiggles as he walks along the pier.
Pye takes one glance in that direction and says, “For God’s sakes, let’s go below. Now.”
Max lead the way to the enclosed bridge and opens the mahogany door leading down to the spacious saloon. It’s the sort of room usually found in a hotel suite: walnut walls, glass-topped tables, plush love seats and a sofa.
Quickly closing the curtains, Pye says, “Boy, that was a close one.”
“I’ll say,” Harvey sighs.
“What’s up?” Max asks.
“Well,” Pye shakes his head, “we just saved your life. That walking bowl of human jelly is Albert Ross. The Albatross. He knows everything about anything and he lives to share his knowledge with us poor witless morons.”
“All you have to do is say hello to him and you can kiss the next four hours good-bye.”
“Never, ever shuts up,” Pye adds.
Almost breaking into a grin, Max says, “So, why don’t you tell him to drop dead.”
Harvey and Pye exchange weary glances.
Pye says, “Doesn’t work. Believe me, it doesn’t work.”
Max sinks into an overstuffed chair by the cabin wall. “So, you guys just hide from, what’s-his-name?”
Nervously, Harvey and Pye sit on the edge of the expensive sofa facing Max. “The Albatross. Yeah, pretty much.”
“Damn,” Max says. He drains his beer and offers another to the duo, who both smile and nod. When he opens the refrigerator, the other two see that he wasn’t kidding about having plenty of beer. There is nothing else in the standard-sized refrigerator in the spacious galley.
Accepting the beer from Max, Pye says, “So, what, do you live on beer?”
Max sits Harvey’s beer in front of him, on the smoked glass topped coffee table. Harvey wishes he had a coaster. If he had a handkerchief in his pocket he’d use that. He tries to let it go.
“Uh, well, I’ve certainly tried. But, what are you talking about?”
Pye says, “Your fridge. No room for food. Or do you just do carryout?”
“You got to eat sometime. How can you live here with no food?”
Max shakes his head. “Live here? No way. I’ve got a condo. Who lives on a boat? That shit went out with the hippies.”
“Can you dig that, Moonbeam?”
“Far out, man,” Pye says to Harvey.
His eyebrows shooting up to his thinning hairline, Max says, “You mean you guys actually live on your boats? Like, all year?” As the two nod slowly, he says, “Hey, I didn’t mean anything. It’s just that it’s so. . .uh, unusual these days.”
Pye asks, “Have you spent any time in a marina?”
“No, not really.”
“How long have you been boating?”
“So you don’t even know how to run this thing?”
“Not yet. But, I’m going to take lessons.” Max’s voice rises.
Harvey offers, “Maybe you should have started a little smaller. Something this size can be a bear to dock, if you can even find a slip.”
“Yeah,” Max says. “You know, I did have one hell of a time finding this, um, slip. There’s plenty down the bay, but I wanted to be at the head of the Chesapeake.”
“I see,” Harvey says.
Standing up, Pye says, “We’ve got to get going. Thanks for the beer.” He drains the bottle and sets it on the coffee table.
“Sure thing. Any time.”
Harvey sets his empty on the carpet, next to the sofa leg. “Thanks for hiding us out. And for the beer. The Albatross should have flown away by now if he couldn’t find any fool to corner.”
Pye takes a quick peek out of the curtains. “Yep. The coast is clear. Better make a run for it.”
Max walks them up to the bridge and out on deck, where he waves as they leave before going back down to his living room and cranking up the jams.
“Guess we better get used to it,” Pye says. “Another month and all of the idiots will be here. But, that Max guy just takes the cake. A classic case of more money than brains. All that boat and he’s not even going to live on it.”
Harvey keeps an eye peeled for the dreaded Ross. “Well, I guess he can afford a captain and crew.”
“Yeah. Must be nice.”
“I wouldn’t mind trying it,” Harvey agrees.
“What’re you talking about? You’re loaded.”
“Oh, yeah, Pye snorts. “Everybody owns a restaurant. And pays cash for their boat. Uh-huh.”
“Hey, I just know a good investment when I see one.”
When they reach their boats, Pye invites Harvey to join him on the Ark for a drink.
“Thanks, but I’ve got to go check on Nat. Make sure the galley isn’t on fire.”
“There’s always carryout,” Pye offers.
“Yeah, good idea,” Harvey says. “I could get one of the busboys to run something down here. How about some crab cakes? You guys come over around six, okay?”
“Sure thing. I’ll bring the dessert. Zel just made a chocolate cake.”
“Sounds good. See you then.”
Dinner rolls along like many others since Nat and Harvey came to live at the marina. Since the last summer, it’s become almost a weekly event that the four of them get together over the weekend and spend an evening eating, drinking, and generally making merry. Laughter can be heard drifting across the water until the earliest of hours. Sometimes they play cards, or one of Nat’s innumerable board games. Mostly they just make fun of the world and their lives and everyone else’s. And when their cheeks and ribs can’t stand any more, Pye and Zelda go home to their boat and smile in their sleep.