“A Drowning at Snow’s Cut”
[Originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 2011. Also presented as part of EQMM's podcast series in March 2012. ©Art Taylor 2011.]
Even though I’d driven down from Northern Virginia late the night before, my father still insisted on getting to the marina just after daybreak on Friday.
“The water is smoother early in the morning,” he explained. “We’ll get an early start — a full day to enjoy.” Emphasis on the word full. After nearly 40 years, I catch the nuances.
But he was right, at least partly so. As I lugged my overnight bag and a cooler of drinks and sandwiches, I saw the serenity in the morning haze: boats moored in their slips, seagulls hopping along the dock, a sway of marsh grass, the Bogue Sound like a sheet of glass. A couple of the marina’s workers were prepping for the day, but even their voices and movements seemed soft and easy — the calm before the storm when a clamor of boaters rushed in for gas and supplies and help with the lines.
Dad came up beside me. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” I said, but the word turned into a yawn before I could catch it.
Dad stiffened, the lines around his eyes growing tighter.
“I hope you’ll like the new boat at least,” he said curtly and walked down the dock. A duffel and a camera bag hung from his shoulder. He squeezed hard on the new lengths of rope he carried, the veins popping up on that hand. On the other side, he carried a worn leather satchel with his thick Waterway Guide and a couple of John D. MacDonald novels. I’d already gotten on his bad side about those too. When he told me he’d been rereading some of the old Travis McGees, I reminded him not to get his expectations up. Our own little boat trip wouldn’t have the action or the women.
But even as I’d said it, I’d heard Mom’s voice in my head: Don’t start anything with him. And my own conscience nagging me: You’re all he has now. Remember that.
Then Dad turned down a small side dock, and I saw the boat for the first time. “Wow,” I said, not just pretending. It was a knockout, thirty feet or more, dark blue along the hull, the deck a bright white, and teak trim running the length of the topsides. The lines were sleek. The fiberglass gleamed. I Dream of Doris was written in script along the stern.
“It’s a Back Cove,” Dad said. “Yanmar engine. 380 horses. A couple of years old. Used, but I like it.” He sounded like the salesman he’d been — manufacturing equipment in his case, big companies, big contracts, but still the same patter: the history of the company behind the boat, a legacy of quality, a friend who’d had a similar model. Then his voice faltered just slightly. “After your mother,” he began, and then stopped. He seemed to be scanning that fiberglass and that teak as if he was seeing it for the first time himself. “I needed something to… to look forward to, something to be excited about,” he said, and then reddened slightly, embarrassed by his own words.
“Well, this sure is something to be excited about,” I said. Stay upbeat, Mom might’ve cautioned me, but I hadn’t needed that nudging. For a few seconds, I simply forgot that long history of bickering and harsher arguments and forgot all those more recent phone calls — tense, brittle conversations with nothing to talk about except the weather and what each of us had eaten that night for dinner and then the weather again. Then those few seconds passed.
“A boat like this makes you wish you were making more than a reporter’s salary, huh?” he said, coming to himself once more. “Get one of your own?” He laughed, the smile edged.
“Good to be back, Dad,” I said with my own edge, remembering again all the times he’d encouraged me to get a real job. No profit in newspapers, he’d told me before. Profit is important. Or asking Is there room for advancement at that paper of yours? I hadn’t mentioned yet about the cutbacks, of course, about me being laid off. Maybe it would’ve been easier just to tell him and get it over with. But it was the principle of the thing. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
I started to step on, then held back. “Permission to come aboard?”
“Want me to get a picture?” he asked, fumbling in his camera bag — another new toy, a little digital point-and-shoot. But I didn’t wait.
“Nah,” I said. I tossed my bag on deck.
“Don’t forget that when you step on board, you use your right foot first,” he said. “And be sure that you’ve got a firm grip.” And so the lessons continued. “Do you remember how to tie a bowline?” he asked as I stored gear in the cabin, nowhere near a rope. “How about a square knot? A cleat hitch? We’ll get the lines out later and run through them again.” And then later, “Red, right, returning from sea or… when else?” He seemed to be hoping I’d get them wrong so he could set me right.
“If I flunk the test, can I go home?” I finally asked. He looked hurt, but at least he stopped.
By the time we eased the boat out of the slip, some of the morning haze had burned off, but the day was still gray and the sky overcast. Clouds seemed to be gathering and settling.
The waterway was mostly quiet. Late May, a weekday — the season had barely started. Dad had taken the helm to guide the boat through the tight, shallow channel that led away from the marina, but once we were on the waterway, he offered me the wheel: “Get it up on a plane, son. It’ll do almost 24 knots if you push it, but I think it’s better to keep it around 2200 rpms. Above that, it burns too much fuel too fast.”
I leveled it out about 2600 RPMs, cutting the water at a fast clip. I could see him eying the tachometer, but to his credit, he didn’t say a word — still sore maybe. He did take a picture this time: his son at the helm. I wondered what my expression betrayed.
Talk to him, my mother would have said. That’s all he wants. Someone to talk to.
“Smooth,” I said to him, above the roar of the wind.
He nodded, started to speak and then didn’t.
Each of us left it at that.
We were heading south — Morehead City, NC, to Southport, a single night docked at a marina there, and then back the next afternoon. A short trip because I needed to get back to work, I’d told him. And that was half-true if you counted emailing out resumes to newspapers that weren’t hiring or scanning the Internet for possibilities on some unseen horizon. Long empty days, little in the way of prospects. It had already been two weeks since I was laid off. A short trip with anyone else might’ve done me good, but I already felt the need to rush through this one, rush back.
The markers flew past, red and green alternating. The Intracoastal Waterway thinned and broadened. Along some sections, houses with grassy yards stood on the edge of water, wooden docks jutting out toward us, boats tied up and bobbing lightly in the current or else hoisted up on simple lifts. Other stretches of our trip were just sand and marsh and those windswept oaks, and an occasional sailboat or power yacht. Lone fishermen stood along the shore here and there. Elsewhere a couple of guys tossed lines out from a small skiff. We passed the quaint old fishing village at Swansboro and then the old Hatteras Yacht plant, and then cruised through the training grounds at Camp LeJeune, the signs warning boaters not to anchor, not to come ashore. Dad snapped photos of all of it, each landmark, each little patch of scenery.
Every time we’d slow for the No Wake Zones near marinas or at any of the numerous bridges that dotted the channel, Dad asked if I wanted a Coke or a pack of nabs or tried to strike up a little patch of conversation. But trouble lurked around the edge of each question.
“Working on a big story these days?” he asked.
“Same old, same old. You know how it is.”
Later he tried again: “Everything I read says that the newspaper business is on the downswing these days. You OK?”
“Holding my own,” I told him — one of his own old phrases, tossed back his way.
As soon as each No Wake Zone ended, I pushed the throttle ahead quickly, drowned out any potential for those questions to go much further, and drowned out the memories of old fights and of new failures.
We anchored for an early lunch along Snow’s Cut, a thin canal that leads the ICW west toward the Cape Fear River. The canal was thin, barely 100 feet wide, with just a few slivers of beach and a couple of stretches of tall cliffs. Dad brought out some sandwiches — chicken salad. There was a small dinette just behind the cockpit but we sat down on a couple of chairs on the lower back deck, enjoying the sun. Not far from us, a pair of fishermen sat glumly on a small boat, their lines hanging slack in the water. On our other side, a cruiser had stopped for lunch — a man, a woman and a couple of small kids. “Who wants hot dogs?” said the woman. A chorus of yeses followed.
“Sandwich OK?” Dad asked.
I nodded, chewed.
“Your mother’s recipe,” he said. “I knew it was one of your favorites, so I dug it out. Tried my best to do it like she would’ve, but….”
I hardly remembered that it had once been a favorite, and would never have recognized it as hers. But he’d surprised me, and I was moved again by the way his thought trailed off and that faraway look.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “I wish she was here with us,” I told him. “She would’ve loved to be out here.”
Dad came back from wherever he was. “Well, not here maybe, ” he laughed. “You know how she was about boats.”
“Oh, she could hold her own,” I said, dropping my hand off his shoulder. I remembered her at the bow as we shoved off from the dock, or taking the wheel while Dad checked the charts, or the two of us laughing as we dodged the seaspray when Dad cut across the wake of a larger boat. “She was a pro.”
“She was a good sport,” Dad corrected. “But she never cared for it, even from the beginning.” Something sparked in his eyes. “Did I ever tell you about the first time we went out on a boat? We were just dating then — a couple of teenagers on a little Boston Whaler we’d rented. I loved it. Man, I was on seventh heaven. There was a little bit of choppiness on the water, but I just gunned the engine and cut right through it. On top of the world. And then I turned and saw your mother clutching the rails and her feet pressed hard against the hull. She was almost green — seasick right out in the middle of the channel — and she begged me to take her back to the marina. And I did, of course, and after that, I swore to her that I’d never make her go out again, not another time, not ever.”
“There’s a promise that didn’t last,” I said, taking another bite of the sandwich, then talking through it. “I can’t remember when we didn’t have a boat, and I think I could count on one hand the times she didn’t go out with us.”
“The boats were her idea, her insistence,” he said, bristling a little. I hadn’t meant it as an accusation. “I loved her enough to give up everything for her, and she loved me right back — and that meant loving what I loved, I guess. And for a while there, a big supply of Dramamine, too.” He shook his head. “But if she’d ever asked — once — I’d have given it all up.”
Over at the other boat, the kids were throwing little pieces of hot dog bun into the water. Seagulls had already begun to swoop in. “Stop that,” called the mother, laughing. “They’ll be all over us.” Dad shook his head, watching the birds gather. For a few minutes neither of us spoke.
“Remember that storm we got caught in?” I said finally. “I think I was eight or so. Remember how dark it got, and the rain and the waves? I was scared to death, but Mom just kept smiling, talking about what an adventure it was, telling me how you were keeping us safe.”
“She was scared to death herself, and gave me hell later,” Dad said. “But she never let it show, did she?”
“She was a good sport, like you said.”
“A good woman,” he nodded. “We were lucky to have her.”
Laughter echoed across the water, as the gulls swooped and cried. Boats passed along the channel, their wake rocking us softly. One of the fishermen stood up and began to reel in his line, then slowed and stopped, sat down again. Soon we finished our sandwiches, pulled up the anchor, and headed off again.
After that, I kept our speed a little slower — not quite coasting, still not talking much, but not rushing the way we had. Dad offered me a beer and then cracked it open for himself after I shook my head. At one point, he put his hand on my shoulder, the way I’d put mine on his. There was thought and effort behind it, but the weight felt odd.
It must have felt odd to him too. After a few seconds, he let it drop.
By 5 p.m., we’d made Southport and taken a quick walk around the town — an old fishing village turned into a couple of cross streets of shops and restaurants and sleepy cottages. Back at the marina, Dad settled down for a while on the long chaise at the stern of the boat, reading a dog-eared copy of one of those Travis McGees, A Tan and Sandy Silence. While he read, I slipped down to take a shower, and as I dressed, I heard his voice through the hatch, talking to someone else. “Just the night,” he said, and “Down from Morehead” and “My son’s a big-city reporter and a fine one.” I pulled on my shirt, stepped up on deck.
“And here’s he is now,” Dad announced as I came up.
In the slip beside us was an older boat, as big as ours but nowhere near as sleek, though Dad would praise it later as a classic. A woman stood on deck, maybe 10 years or so younger than Dad, chatting amiably across the thin dock.
“Phyllis Stackley,” she told me, with a little wave. She had that distinguished look that some older women get: confident, almost regal, but wearing it easily. To the manor born, to the manor settled. Her skirt was a swirl of pastels, and she wore a white top. Casual, but elegant. “And this is my husband Dennis,” she said, and a man emerged at her side. I hadn’t noticed him before. He’d been just inside the transom — stocky and stern where his wife seemed thin and playful. He was graying at the temples, and he gave a curt nod.
“Won’t you two handsome men come join us for a cocktail?” asked Phyllis.
“Only if we can bring over our own drinks,” Dad said before I could wave off the invitation.
“It’s a deal,” she said brightly.
“Are you sure?” I asked, directing my question at Dennis. I thought I’d glimpsed a reaction from him, something a little sullen or sour. But he greeted my question with a smile. “Certainly, certainly,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a party without guests.”
“That’s what I always say,” said Phyllis. “We’ll get some cheese and crackers. Come over when you’re ready.” She disappeared into their cabin. Her husband gave a quick look our way — that same look I’d glimpsed before — and followed behind her.
“Maybe we shouldn’t intrude,” I told Dad, already up at the bar of our own boat. “Just a drink and then we’ll come back and make dinner.” He was pouring us a couple of bourbons. Woodford Reserve on the rocks. “Too good to mix,” he explained and gave me a generous pour.
“One’ll be enough, if that’s the way you’re making them,” I laughed.
“Never skimp,” he said. A lesson there too. I didn’t mention that it contradicted another of his aphorisms: “Everything in moderation.” We stepped across to the other boat — right foot first for balance, I remembered, just in time.
Don’t skimp overruled everything in moderation as it turned out. One drink wasn’t enough. But Dad was having a good time, and I hated to spoil it.
He and Phyllis had really hit it off, and they sat at the stern talking and laughing. She kept encouraging her husband to keep everyone’s glass filled, and Dennis topped off Dad’s drink with bourbon from their own bar — “No need to keep stepping over to your boat,” he said — and made his wife one vodka tonic after another.
“He puts a new wedge of lime in for each round,” she said. “That way we both always know how many I’ve had.” There were four curls of lime in her glass already.
“My wife was always two drinks, never less, never more,” said Dad, already on his third. “She always liked to keep her wits about her, and speaking of wit….” He told a story then about one of Mom’s April Fool’s jokes: something about clocks and calendars and the previous day’s newspaper. He’d already been talking about Mom, and beaming all the while: how they’d met, how long they’d been together, how much she loved crosswords and books and gardening. Despite his gray hair and the creases in his face, he seemed boyish and spry. At one point, I’d stepped over to our boat for a jacket and to “check my messages at the office” — really just seeing if any bites had come back on my resumes before the end of the week — and when I came back, Dad was talking about how proud they had been of me, too. He even mentioned a local award I’d won, one that I was surprised he knew about.
Through all of it, Phyllis listened with rapt attention — laughed and sighed at all the right places, sincerely it seemed to me. It reminded me of something Dad had told me: You’ll always be remembered as a fine conversationalist if you let the other person do all the talking. Tonight he was holding court, enjoying the attention and even opening up a little. When he talked about Mom’s cancer and how it had devastated her, how it had devastated both of them, he talked about it with a frankness and emotion he’d never shared with me.
“You poor dear man,” said Phyllis, putting her hand on his arm.
Dennis had stayed quiet beside me through all the talk, but as his wife touched my father’s arm, he let off a little grunt and shifted in his chair.
“You say you’re from Delaware?” I asked, trying to pull him into the conversation.
“The real Wilmington,” he said with a brisk little laugh, and then Phyllis jumped in.
“Dennis is an old sourpuss,” she said. “Don’t mind him. He always makes that joke, every time we come through here.”
“You come here often?”
“Winters in Florida,” he told me, “so twice a year, once on the way down each fall, and then again on the way up in late spring.”
“Since Dennis retired,” said Phyllis, “we’ve become nautical wanderers, following wherever the current draws us.” As she turned back toward my father, a little of her drink sloshed out on the deck.
“Honey,” Dennis said, a quick caution.
“Oh, Dennis,” she said. “It’s fiberglass. It’ll wash easy.” She leaned toward Dad again. “I have to admit, I never enjoyed boating, and this wasn’t how I imagined retirement at all. No, I saw travel in Europe and Asia, not salty air and seasickness. And don’t get me started on what the humidity does to my hair.”
“Seasickness,” Dad said.
“The worst,” she said. “I’m bad in a car, so imagine what being on the water does to me. But Dennis loves his boats, and I love him, so….” She stood up and gave a little dance, just the smallest little shimmy, holding her arms out wide and shaking them. “Now,” she said. “I can take the rolling waves and the curves, and I can sleep through the whole night no matter how the boat rocks….”
Watching her, I thought of a gypsy dance — something about that word wanderer maybe, and that skirt she wore, muted but still colorful. If she’d had bracelets on they would’ve jangled, but thin plastic bands clung to each arm instead, the ones that people wear for some charity or cause. Dad and I had worn them ourselves — the breast cancer that had taken Mom. Our bracelets had been the color of Phyllis’s, and I wondered if Dad had made the same connection.
Dennis himself didn’t seem to soften when his wife said, “Dennis loves his boats, and I love him.” He just stared at the spot of vodka tonic growing sticky on the deck. But Dad clapped lightly as she danced. Still, even though he gave a broad smile, I could tell that something hid behind it. The moment was bittersweet at best.
“Your wife’s quite a charmer,” I said to Dennis, trying to draw him into the conversation again.
“Yes, she is,” he said. “Always some damn scene like this.” He took another sip of his drink.
Phyllis had finished her dance as we talked and plopped back down beside Dad, both of them laughing. Neither of them had heard her husband.
Dad showered while I pan-grilled a couple of steaks on the cooktop. Dennis had gone down into the cabin of his own boat after our drinks, but Phyllis stayed on deck. “Smells good,” she called out about the sizzling steaks.
“Come join us,” I said, but I think she could tell it was just idle politeness on my part. She waved off the invitation.
“We’ll just see you tomorrow,” she said, and then she stood, weaving slightly, and moved unsteadily across the deck toward the hatch that led down into their cabin. En route, she paused to grab the bottle of vodka, and raised it toward me, as if tipping a glass my way — warm and cheerful. But a couple of moments after she’d gone below, I heard different tones, she and her husband talking. The conversation wasn’t loud, but I thought I detected an undercurrent of anger. Fortunately whatever was happening there stopped before Dad came up from his shower.
While we sat on the dinette and dug into our steaks and talked about the plan for the next day, Dad kept looking over at the other boat, longingly it seemed to me.
“A beauty, isn’t she?” he said at one point, out of nowhere.
“The Bertram,” he said, and I thought he blushed, but it may have been all he’d had to drink. “That boat is a true classic. You wouldn’t believe it, but it probably cost nearly as much as this one. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
Not just longing, but that loneliness again too. Wistful, appreciative. I realized for the first time, awkwardly, that he would probably date again and might someday find someone else, and I wondered what she’d be like, how similar to Mom, how different. I was glad again that the voices on the other boat had died down.
Soon, the alcohol and the big steak took their toll. While I cleaned up our plates, Dad stretched out on that long chaise at the stern again, trying to read under the lights from the dock. But every few moments he’d nod off and then jerk himself awake. “Tough to see out here,” he said finally. “I’m gonna go down,” and he took his book back to his berth.
There was a bar just across the small harbor and sounds of a big crowd echoing across the water, and I went over for a while to see who I might meet. No one waiting for me back in Virginia, after all, no one serious at least, so why not? I did end up talking with a couple of women, but when they asked where I was from and what I did, I realized my heart just wasn’t in it. After two drinks, I headed back for the boat and sat out on the stern under the stars, listening to the lap of the waves and to the small ripples of conversation from the other boats docked throughout the marina. From down in the cabin, I heard an occasional snore from Dad.
Another memory came back to me: Dad and I arriving home after a fishing trip, returning with a cooler full of spot and croaker, and then me standing beside Mom in the kitchen while she cleaned them. “Did you have a good time?” she’d asked, and I’d shrugged. I hadn’t. “What did you boys talk about?” And another shrug from me.
“Dad told me I wasn’t baiting the hook right,” I said finally. He had kept trying to show me what to do and how to cast the line right. We’d both ended up frustrated. “I just couldn’t do it.”
“Well, maybe there’s a lot your father doesn’t know how to do either,” she said, after a moment. “Sometimes he tries, and he doesn’t get it right either. You think he might’ve been trying to do something he didn’t know how to do very well?”
But I just shook my head. “No,” I said. “He already knew how to do it all.” When he baited the hook, he’d done it just right, and he’d cast out his line with the perfect flick of the wrist. There had been a time when I’d been in awe of everything he could do, but that day I’d felt suffocated by it, and soon after I’d begun to resent it.
Mom had the bigger picture. Most days, even now, I still couldn’t see it.
When I went down to bed, I saw that Dad’s book was still stretched across his chest and his mouth hung slightly open. As quietly as I could, I converted the galley table into another berth the way he’d shown me, but it took awhile for sleep to come, and even then it was restless, thinking about Dad and his life and what was ahead for him, and then about me too and my own uncertain future.
About 6 a.m., barely daybreak, I thought I heard a voice again from the Bertram beside us, and then I definitely heard someone cranking it up and pulling it out of its slip, heading back toward Delaware or at least somewhere else. Our boat rose and fell slightly with the wake from their boat, and soon I drifted back to sleep.
Dad was eating cereal when I got up, almost to the end of the book he’d left open on his chest the night before. I poured my own bowl, and as we sat together, I caught him a couple of times looking at the empty slip beside us, but he didn’t say anything about the boat being gone and neither did I.
When it was time to head out, he handed me a credit card to go settle up with the harbormaster. I took it — no need for an argument — and just planned to use my own, same as I always did when he offered. Dad began straightening things around the boat, prepping for the trip home.
In the office, two young men — college-aged kids working summer jobs, khaki shorts and polo shirts with the marina’s logo — huddled over a VHF radio. I caught the tail end of the words on the other end, “no attempt to resuscitate,” and then a squawk and dull static.
“Man,” said one of the kids, shaking his head. He had a scruffy beard.
The VHF squawked again, another staticky voice: “Closest dockage is Oceana Marina. Give me your ETA and I’ll—”
The other, clean-cut and well-tanned, had caught sight of me and turned down the volume, then stepped up to the counter. The first looked disappointed and leaned his head down lower toward the speaker.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“One night’s dockage,” I told him. “The blue boat there. I Dream of Doris.” I pointed through the window. Dad had brought out his camera and was snapping a few photos of the docks.
“Yes, sir,” said the kid behind the counter. His nametag said Patrick. “It’s a dollar seventy-five a foot,” he said. “What size is your boat again?”
I realized I didn’t know. Thirtysomething, I figured. “33,” I said — the age at which I’d gotten the job I’d just lost.
“$57.75,” Patrick said, and I started to hand him my credit card, but the thought of being jobless made me suddenly cautious. Practicality won out over principles. I reluctantly handed him Dad’s instead.
“Dude,” said the bearded one, standing up. “Vodka and Dramamine.” He shook his head. His nametag was upside down. Billy, it said. “I mean you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know you’re not supposed to mix that stuff, do you? Not that much of it, I mean, and especially old people.”
“You shouldn’t mix it at any age,” said Patrick, and then under his breath, “and you can’t call our customers old.”
“They were old,” he said. “That’s just a fact, Jack.”
“The boat that was docked next to us,” I said. “The Bertram. Is that who you’re talking about?” I glanced out at Dad again. He was looking up at me now through the window. I gave a quick wave, held up a finger.
“There’s been… a drowning,” Patrick said, aiming for a solemn tone and respectful pause. He sounded like a TV anchorman.
“Vodka and D is just not a mixed drink,” Billy said — to me this time. “But you know, I wonder. If you mixed vodka and Dramamine and Red Bull if it would all counteract itself?”
“How did you hear about this?” I asked Patrick.
“We’ve been listening to the Coast Guard, and I have a buddy from school who’s working at the state park up at Carolina Beach. He’s been following the whole thing.”
“How did it happen?” I asked — going into reporter mode. Who, what, where, when, why?
“It’s effed up,” said Billy and then caught sight of Patrick’s glare. “I mean screwed up — the story that’s coming across the radio. The Coast Guard said the people had been drinking all night and then they were out on the waterway early this morning and they got into a fight and then the boat turned and the lady—” He made a movement with his hand like diving off a diving board. “They should’ve just stayed here until they sobered up.”
See you tomorrow, Phyllis had said. She hadn’t expected an early departure.
“Why did they leave so early?” I asked.
“Dude said they were getting an early start,” said Billy. “He came in late yesterday just before we closed and prepaid, said he wanted to make sure they didn’t miss us, said he liked to settle his debts. I told him we opened at 7, but he said he might be gone before then.”
“They left about 6,” I said. “I heard them.” Him, I thought. Dennis. And then I saw that sour look of his and heard that snarl in his voice — “Always some damn scene like this” — as Phyllis laughed and leaned into Dad. A fight, Billy had said. About what? About last night? About Dad? My first urge was to dig deeper, find the story behind the story. But then I remembered I wasn’t a reporter anymore. And anyway, I was letting my imagination run away with me. She’d been drinking heavily. She’d admitted to seasickness. Sure, her husband was a jackass, but it was a leap from there to anything else, and what would be gained by testing that leap? And then I thought about how relaxed Dad had seemed the night before, and about the look he’d given the empty boat slip this morning, and about how much he’d already lost. Practicality? Principles? Maybe a little of both this time.
“If you step down there before we go,” I told the boys in the office, “don’t mention any of this to my father, OK?”
They nodded, a little confused but agreeable. I signed the credit card receipt, thanked them for their time.
Dad snapped a photo of me as I came back to the boat. I tried to smile.
“What took so long?” he asked.
“Credit card machine,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”
Not far out of Southport, I asked Dad if I could take the helm.
“Sure,” he said, “And remember, we’re heading North now, but we’re also heading into port, so….” He raised an eyebrow at me.
“I got it,” I said, but I caught myself smiling this time. It wasn’t just pity.
I kept us at a slow pace, not a crawl but certainly slower than the way down. Snow’s Cut wasn’t too far ahead of us, and I wanted to give the Coast Guard time to get that Bertram into the marina before Dad and I crossed paths with the drowning.
Dad puttered with some of the instruments and relooped a couple of lines, and then turned on the VHF radio. Before I could come up with a reason for him to turn it off, the chatter had already begun: “Two Coast Guard cruisers at Snow’s Cut” and another voice asking “What’s the trouble?” and then the answer: “Not sure, but looks big. Suggest keeping your speed slow, no wake.”
“Sounds like we should steer clear of that,” I said. “Want to take the scenic route?”
“All scenic, isn’t it?” Dad said. “But I don’t think there’s another route — at least not an easy one.”
“We could cruise up the Cape Fear a little. A side trip? Let them work out whatever the trouble is?”
“Nah. Let’s just take it through. You need to get back, I know, and I’m interested to see what’s happening up ahead.” He reached down to adjust the squelch knob.
Just as he did it, the next words came through: “Nice-looking Bertram. I heard someone went overboard.”
A puzzled look. “You don’t think that’s…?” Dad let the question hang.
“Dad,” I said, reluctantly. I pulled the throttle back and let our own boat slow, the wake from behind us catching up and bobbing us up a little as we came to a drift out on the wide, open water. “I have to tell you something.”
I told him — all of it, everything I’d heard.
“Dammit, son,” he said. “If you’d told me before.” He pushed me aside and took the wheel. He shoved the throttle ahead. The boat nearly jumped out of the water. I grabbed the bench to keep from being thrown back, and just barely managed to right my balance.
“What are you doing?” I called out over the sudden roar of the wind.
“There may still be time.” The tachometer was quickly racing toward the red line — 3100 rpms, then 3200 and 3300 — but he didn’t pull back. “C’mon,” he said. “C’mon.”
“She drowned, Dad,” I called out. “She’s already….” I couldn’t bring myself to say the word.
“I heard you the first time,” he snapped. “But we have to nail that smug son of a bitch that did it.”
“He was a jackass, Dad, but there’s nothing to say he killed her.” I didn’t want to stress all the drinking again, didn’t want to make it sound like her fault, but I did call out “Dramamine” again.
“What kind of reporter are you?” he asked — bitter, angry. His words didn’t come through clearly over the wind and roar, but I heard him say “an eye for detail” and “pay attention!” and then “wasn’t taking Dramamine. No need.”
“Her seasickness,” I said. “I got that detail. Did you?”
He shook his head, pushed the throttle a little further. “Doris,” he said. “Doris didn’t need—” The spray swept around us, cold and cutting.
“She’s not Doris,” I called out. “It’s Phyllis, Dad. Phyllis. You try to pay attention.”
He shot an angry look my way. “I know who she is,” he shouted — the words clear this time. “I’m not senile, son.”
Whatever distance we’d bridged between us was gone, and gone too Dad’s openness the night before. He shut down and shut me out as he focused ahead. I was glad to return the favor.
The veins on his hands rose and fell as his grip pulsed against the wheel. He passed several other boats, pushing past them, leaping their wake as we left the shipping channel and swung through the twists of the ICW leading toward Snow’s Cut. He cut tight by the markers, even pulled briefly out of the channel a couple of times — reckless, hurried.
“C’mon,” Dad said again — to the engines, the boat. It was as if I wasn’t there.
Soon, the entrance to Snow’s Cut loomed — those tall cliffs rising ahead, the channel narrowing abruptly. We struck ground briefly, the depth finder letting out its shrill alarm, a brief tug at the bottom of the boat. I hoped the propeller wasn’t damaged. It certainly didn’t seem to be. Dad never slowed down.
Just before a bridge that spanned the waterway, we sighted the Bertram, anchored outside the channel. A Coast Guard boat was pulled up alongside, its light flashing and swirling. Another Coast Guard boat kept a slow patrol nearby, barely pushing through the water, marking a perimeter. Like an accident on the side of the interstate, I thought, and same as with the highway, other boats were bottlenecking the scene. Dad just swerved around them.
“Slow it down,” someone shouted as we sped past, that boat rocking heavily in our wake.
From another: “Are you blind?” “Gotta slow down,” I told Dad, but he barely pulled back the throttle. The second Coast Guard boat saw us, turned on its own flashers and spun to intercept.
“Slow your vessel,” a voice boomed through a loudspeaker, echoing against the walls around us. “Slow your vessel now. Do not approach.”
Dad slowed and then began to wave his arms, beckoning them near. It was unnecessary. The Coast Guard boat was coming whether we wanted them to or not. Beyond them, the Bertram and the other Coast Guard cruiser bobbed as the wake from our boats reached them. An officer stood at the Bertram’s stern, looking down at his feet. Was there a body lying there? I was glad we’d been stopped where we were.
“She didn’t fall in,” Dad called out as the Coast Guard boat pulled alongside. “He pushed her. Her husband. He had to.”
The officers on the approaching boat — blue uniforms, close-cropped hair, one taller than the other — looked at him warily. The shorter one had his hand close to his sidearm, too close for my comfort. The other looked confused.
“You know something about the drowning?” that second, taller one asked.
“We just got here,” I said. “We didn’t see anything.” I tried to look apologetic, didn’t know quite how to signal them that I wasn’t responsible.
“Did he say she fell in?” Dad asked. “Is that what he says? She’d been drinking? What, all night?”
“Yes, sir,” the taller of them said.
“Hell, she wasn’t taking Dramamine,” he said. “She was—”
“You know the deceased?” the other asked.
“We met her last night,” I said. “We only just met her.” I turned to Dad: “Dad, she said she was seasick.”
“She used bracelets,” he said. “She didn’t need Dramamine, because she was using motion sickness bracelets. That’s what she showed us last night. Don’t you remember?”
The dance, the gypsy dance, the bracelets that didn’t jangle because they were plastic. What kind of reporter are you? Where’s your eye for detail?
“We saw the Dramamine, sir,” said the taller officer.
“Don’t worry,” said the other. “We’ll do a full blood test to make sure.”
“And you’ll find it,” said Dad. “She’ll be full of it.”
People were watching us now, the boats rubbernecking our scene as much as the Bertram before. Dennis had stepped out onto the stern of the boat. He watched too.
“But, Dad,” I said, worried again. “You were just saying the opposite — that she wasn’t taking Dramamine.”
“Who made the drinks?” Dad said. “He did. He was making them. She wouldn’t have taken Dramamine herself. She didn’t need to.”
The officers exchanged glances with one another. One of them opened his eyes wide, an “Oh, boy” look.
“We’ll handle it, sir,” one of them said.
“Just look,” he said. “Look to see if she’s wearing them now. If he’s trying to cover his tracks, he would’ve taken them off of her. He would’ve known he’d have to. Call them. Call over there.”
The taller man shrugged, went over to his radio. He turned away from us as he talked. The shorter man stood watch over us, his hand still close to his gun.
Movement over at the other boats — someone on the cruiser moving toward the Bertram, the officer there leaning over to talk. Dennis stood at stern of the Bertram and stared our way. I couldn’t see his face clearly, not from this distance, but I wondered what his expression was. Grief? Worry? Did he have a reason for the latter? Had Dad been right?
The officer on the Bertram turned and knelt down. The body was indeed down there — Phyllis lying across the stern there where we’d had drinks the night before. Dennis glanced down, then back to us. The officer on the boat stood up, asked him a question. I thought I saw Dennis shake his head. Then his questioner pointed down. Dennis shook his head vigorously then, threw his arms out as if exasperated, pointed to himself. The officer held up his hand, a calming gesture. Then Dennis pointed our way, angrily, jabbing the air.
“I don’t think she was wearing any bracelets,” I said.
“Of course not,” Dad said. His tone was still clipped, impatient. “He took them off. He was trying to cover his tracks. I just hope he threw them overboard.”
“Because if they can find the bracelets on board, he can claim that she took them off. But if he threw them overboard, he has to claim that she never had them.”
“Our word against his.”
He shook his head. “I’ve got a photo. When you went back to our boat to check in at your job. Dennis took it himself.”
The radio squawked on the Coast Guard boat bobbing next to us. The man answered, and then called up to us.
“He says his wife wasn’t wearing any bracelets. She didn’t have them on this trip.”
I glanced over at Dad, looking for that “gotcha” look of his. But his features were grim and showed no sense of triumph.
“I’ll get the camera,” I said. I patted his arm before I headed to find it, and I thought I felt him, just for a moment, lean toward that touch.
The rest of the cruise back, we kept an easy cruising speed, enjoying the relative peacefulness of the sun and the salt air and the easy breeze. We were running later than scheduled at that point — given the statements we needed to make to the Coast Guard and then to the police — but it seemed wrong to rush.
“Want a beer, Dad?” I asked as I steered us around a turn.
He shook his head, his eyes downcast. He was sitting right beside me, but seemed worlds away.
“Wanna pull over and dock for a while?” I asked later. “Get some lunch?”
He didn’t even answer that, and so we cruised along further — marsh and oaks and water and that distance between us.
Talk to him, son. That’s all he wants.
“I lost my job,” I said finally.
“What?” he asked, as if he was waking up.
“I was laid off,” I told him. “Two weeks ago. A lot of us were. Cutbacks everywhere. The paper was just bleeding money.”
He squinted his eye at me. “You were laid off,” he said, but it didn’t sound like a question, despite the confusion in his look. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why’d you tell me you had to get back to work?”
Keep it light, Mom would’ve said, but I told it to him straight — no bitterness, just honesty. “Because I was afraid you’d say exactly what you said. What kind of reporter am I? And I’ve been wondering myself. If I was better, maybe they would’ve kept me on.”
Dad surprised me. He didn’t react, but just nodded softly. “I was wrong to say that. Sometimes I don’t… think first. And—” He hesitated, as if thinking now. “I should’ve known better, because I— well, I wondered if something like that might have happened. I check for your articles everyday. Online. And I noticed the paper hadn’t published anything lately. I’ve been wondering, but I just— I just didn’t know how to ask.”
I shook my head. He’d known all along. As usual, he was one step ahead of me and right about everything. And then more words came back to me: You think he might’ve been trying to do something he didn’t know how to do very well?
He placed his hand on my shoulder then, loosely, easily. “You’re a great reporter, son. Don’t worry. I know you’ll land on your feet.”
A boat passed, and the driver waved our way. Dad hadn’t noticed, but I raised a hand in return.
“And you’re a good detective,” I told him. “I guess those Travis McGee novels are paying off, huh? A job for your retirement maybe?”
He shook his head slowly, looked out beyond the bow of the boat, somewhere at the next marker or maybe further beyond. Ahead of us, the channel widened.
“I’m fine to read them,” he said finally. “Not to live them.” But he smiled a little as he said it. “Just no profit in it, son. None at all.”