A Steady Hand - a short story about Personal Forgiveness
“Are you going out today?”
The skipper peered out of the Crowne’s front window and nodded his large bushy haired head. “Not much choice. Family gotta eat.”
“Family ain’t gonna eat if you go and get yourself drowned,” the bartender replied while dragging a semi-clean damp cloth across the nicked and stained bar top.
“Family ain’t gonna eat if I don’t neither,” the skipper said. “The squall will lesson up by the time I hit Barney’s Point.”
The bartender whose name was Roger White, but everyone called him Ken. He wiped one more time on the counter before throwing the rag into a small plastic tub by the sink. “Weather man says something different.”
“Ken, when have they ever been right about the weather?”
“Last year when the Nor’easter took out Louie’s Crab Shack. They knew about that didn’t they?”
The skipper, whom everyone called the Skipper, nodded. “Okay, once in a while they get it right but that old restaurant was bound to fall down with the slightest wind and rain.”
“Three goddamn days brought a lot of rain, Skipper,” Ken said. “Lost a lot of crab and lobster pots along the way, too.”
“It’ll blow through by noon.”
Looking up at the clock shaped like a wooden-spoked ship’s wheel, Ken shook his head. “It’s half past two already and it ain’t given up.”
“Better get going then,” Skipper replied while walking from the window and grabbing his oiler from the bent coat rack by the front door of the Crowne. “Put the drinks on my tab, Ken.”
“I wish you’d pay your tab,” Ken griped but then went ahead and scribbled a few new numbers on the Skipper’s ‘owe page’ in a battered old black leather ledger.
Normally it would take less than three minutes for Skipper to walk from the Crowne down to the docks where his Duffy 35 was tied up, but with the wind howling and the rain slanting at a forty-five degree angle into his face, the journey took nearly ten minutes.
“Maybe Ken was right,” said Skipper barely able to hear his own words. The wind was really ripping and the sidewalk was slippery beneath his Wellies as he made his way to the waterside.
Skipper had no family who actually depended on him going out on a day like this, to try to do his best to catch whatever was available this late in the season. Striped bass weren’t probably out on a day like this and the same with the black sea bass or even the Bluefin tuna, which was his favorite because it was the one he could always count on selling to the local restaurants which littered the historic downtown section of this small Maine fishing village.
Rowlings had actually become more of a weekend destination point for the millennials who ventured up the Eastern Seaboard looking for small venues to sip their expensive wine while tossing back plates full of crab, oysters, and any other crustaceans the local fishermen like Skipper could retrieve.
He’d fished all his life and his daddy before him and his granddaddy before him. It was all he knew – well that and the pain of losing the family he had once had years ago. The family he always told others that he was fishing for.
They were dead. Killed on the afternoon of Christmas Eve eleven years earlier while he was out on the water. He had not really been fishing, just out on the water. Lights had been strung around the early 20th century grey wood-shingled two story house where he had lived the past thirty years. Nineteen of those years had been with his wife Teresa and two small children Anne and Tommy. The old house appeared perpetually ready for the holidays. But though the lights were always up, they were never flicked on. He had never had the emotional energy to ignite the tiny multi-colored lights since the evening he had returned home and saw Frank Sanders’ patrol car in his driveway.
“Skipper – your family was killed while you were out on the water.”
It had been a simple statement from a simple man. Skipper thought nothing of the way the news had been delivered – it was just Frank’s way of saying things. Chief Sanders was a kind, God-fearing man whom Skipper had known all his life. The facts were simple – his wife and two young children had been killed in a car accident just three miles from their home. Seems as though Teresa had a blow-out on the right front tire while navigating a sharp turn, and then overcorrected, sending the Jeep Cherokee first into a tree and then down a sharp embankment into Smyth’s pond. Skipper wasn’t sure if they had been alive when the car went into the water but he hoped they had not – the thought of drowning was the last thing Skipper would have wanted his family to suffer through.
Being a seafaring man, drowning was a constant nightmare with which he lived on a daily basis. It hadn’t been the nightmare for his family but reality He hoped they hadn’t drowned but the damage on the car was limited so they probably did.
Lifting one heavy right leg over the gunwale Skipper steadied himself on a stay line that he had added years ago from the aft to the cabin door of the small enclosure toward the bow of the power boat. It was his own design, and now some of the fellow fishermen and even some recreational users utilized the idea. Step onto the deck in nasty weather and you could immediately hook up or simply use the plastic coated steel cable to find your way into the cockpit.
Opening the door to the small salon which housed the pilot seat for the thirty-five footer Skipper felt the immediate relief from the wind and rain as he closed the door behind him. The silence was nearly deafening, but within a second or two the ripping winds made their way into his sanctuary. Still, it was much quieter than a few moments ago. Quite enough to think.
It was foolish to go out on a day like this but he was determined to cruise for at least an hour out onto the bay and perhaps out onto the Atlantic itself. Why?
He had no answer so he reached out his right hand toward the instrument-laden console and lit up the Caterpillar diesel which gave the It’s Hard Work its heart. The 1986 Duffy came to life with a roar and rumble and Skipper tightened his oiler a bit more as he once more trudged out of the cabin and into the rain and wind.
He was glad he had installed the stay line, as he called it, on this foul day as he inched up the wet deck toward the bow and slid the rope off the port side cleat. Repeating the same he undid the aft rope and hurried back into the cabin.
With the position of Skippers dock the water was rather calm even with the wind above deck. There was a large wooden fishing commercial building hanging out nearly sixty yards into the small harbor giving most of the slips a comfortable wave resistance.
With the ease of an old experienced hand Skipper sent the dual levers up a titch and the fishing boat made way out of the slip and into the main channel leading to the bay.
No cover from the building gave Skipper an immediate understanding how turbulent the winds and water were. It would be much worse within twenty minutes as he passed the familiar landmarks on the port side. He sat back in his well-padded pilot seat and hung onto the wheel as the small ship wanted to heave portside while he demanded starboard.
The waves crashed up and over the bow so he put out more thrust knowing the boat would level itself even with the roller coaster ride ahead. Within a few moments the boat was handling the rough weather as it always did – like a pro.
A steady seven knots into the head wind made Skipper feel rather confident that he may be able to outride the storm which suddenly looked as though it was running out of steam. The clouds had stopped sending the steady stream of rain and now just a gentle shower was striking the boat as he made his way steadily forward. The waves themselves had lessened within the few short minutes he had been handling the boat and the speed was picking up also without making adjustments to the throttles.
At ten knots the ride was cleaner and his spirits picked up as he suddenly a small rainbow break loose like a shot to the port. A beautiful sight these rainbows. Skipper never got tired of witnessing the multicolor light show from the heavens over the blue of the Atlantic – today was no different.
He pushed himself hard against the Captain’s chair and then relaxed. His lower back muscle suddenly feeling much better and not so tight as it had a few minutes before when he worried so about the weather and if he should be out on a day like this.
That’s what happened when the Skipper worried – the muscles in his lower back bunched up causing him hell. He would stretch or like he just did, push against something like the seat as hard as he could and the tension would be gone. He wasn’t a medical doctor but knew what worked in those situations and worked it did.
He felt much better.
Elven knots and the water was relatively calm and no rain was falling. Thirty minutes and he’d be a mile or so out of the bay and in open water where, if he chose, he could drop a line or two. Today wasn’t really commercial time but more Skipper time. He needed to be alone – to be in the solitude of the ocean.
Memories of that Christmas Eve had welled up inside his brain over the past few days and he couldn’t shake the doldrums he was feeling. Of course, he blamed himself for the death of his family.
He hadn’t even fished on that Christmas Eve but simply headed out to the shoals and puttered around – maybe he did drop a line or two but he couldn’t remember. It wasn’t important if he remembered or not – they were dead and he wasn’t.
Or wasn’t he?
He sometimes laughed with the other fishermen around the docks. Sometimes have way too many beers and stagger home rather drunk. Even maybe go out to dinner with the few friends he had and smile and joke but when he made it back home all there was an empty home.
House really now – a home is where the family is and a house is where there is no family.
The sun was doing a peek-a-boo with the clouds and one moment it was sunny the next it wasn’t. Skipper looked out to sea and noticed that some of the waves were starting to grow toward the mouth of the bay. Not a good sign.
Perhaps he should spin the wheel and bring the Duffy back to dock. He increased the speed a bit and headed further out into the building sea.
“You don’t need to do this,” Skipper said aloud as the bow took a direct hit by a crashing wave and then another in the two setter. He almost fell out of his chair but by bracing his legs against the console he was able to hang on.
As far as he could see, the visibility was probably near a mile even in the current weather conditions, he didn’t see another boat.
“No fool would be out on a day like this,” he said. “Then why am I here?”
He had no rational answer but knew that rational thought had no business in his head – he was out there because he was out there.
Just like eleven years ago when he should have been home with his family – perhaps they would all still be alive or perhaps they, including himself, would all be dead. Drowning inside a dark car in a small pond on the outskirts of town.
He would have preferred that over this. He turned the wheel to port to avoid a side stinging high wave and took the punch in the face. The small boat shuddered, shook herself off and plowed ahead into the rest of the oncoming waves.
He was a confident seaman. Hurricane’s and the like frightened him but through decades of battling the devil he had gotten used to them. He trimmed the engines a bit and the Duffy rode a little higher and more stable.
He knew the waters, had been raised on the waters and nothing could dissuade him from the rough waters ahead. But something suddenly punched him in the stomach.
Looking starboard he saw an unexpected guest. A blind wave, many called them rogue waves, but seasoned sailors knew they weren’t rogue but simply there to test a sailors mettle. Skipper’s mettle was tight to the point of breaking but at this last moment he thought of his wife and that’s when the wave hit, cascading over bow and stern with ferocious velocity. The small boat nearly capsized as he gripped the wheel and the console with all his might.
The heavens still showed mainly blue and clear but Skipper knew that could be deceptive on the open sea. He realized believing in the heavens was a failure of most humans. In reality there was nothing but unexplored stars, constellations and the rest science proclaimed. There was no God waiting for those who believed – those who believed were simply fools on a fantasy wish for a heavenly existence after death. He knew of no afterlife. No god was going to be merciful to him. He would be worm food and nothing more in the future.
The Duffy shuddered again, rocked back and forth but finally settled on a northerly direction and Skipper knew it was time to tack around and head back to port. The clouds were no problem but the waves were pitching way too high for no reason. He grabbed the wheel and spun it in almost a hundred and forty degrees. Port needed to be reached and he was determined to reach it quickly.
Ten minutes later he was headed for the mouth of the bay and realized he had missed a bullet that afternoon.
Then he heard the sound no sailor wants to hear. An aft crashing wave that was not expected but happened.
Skipper spun around in the wheelhouse cursed and was taken over by a wall of water that had to be at least twenty feet tall. The Duffy took the full brunt of the wave in the aft section and Skipper grabbed for the chrome half inch safety grip around the console.
He didn’t find it.
With the lunge of a drunken bear Skipper staggered across the small enclosure of the wheelhouse and found himself falling to the deck as the Duffy skittered beneath the impact of the wave.
“This will hurt,” he heard himself say as the bulkhead reached up to him for a punishing blow.
There was nothing but silence – dark silence.
“You shouldn’t have been out at sea today.”
Skipper felt the wound to the left side of his face and knew that there was a gash which probably needed stitches and he had also heard a statement directed at him.
He didn’t reply but just laid on the deck in pain and confusion.
“You were always a quiet sort of guy.”
Skipper knew the voice.
“I had to be since you did most of the talking.”
“You never complained.”
“Nor would I ever had,” Skipper said from the prone position. “I loved you and loved the sound of your voice.”
He started to wriggle into a sitting position but stopped when the voice continued.
“Just lay still while the blood coagulates. You’ll be fine if you just ride out the next wave and then you can head back to dock.”
“But I want to see you,” he said. “I miss you.”
“You’ll see me and the children soon enough and we miss you but it is not your time.”
Skipper laid back as told and breathed easily. He wasn’t scared but happy to hear the voice of his wife. “Why not? I’m ready.”
“Is that why you went out today with a storm a brewing? You wanted to end it now?”
“You seem to know things – I’m sure you can tell me what I was thinking.”
“It’s not like that.”
“What is it then like?”
“I don’t really know,” Teresa replied. “I am just here – just now.”
“Where are you most of the time?”
“In your heart I presume.”
Skipper knew that to be the truth. His head strangely didn’t hurt and he could tell the wound had stopped bleeding but he had no desire to stand up. The boat was tossing to the throes of the waves but he was not worried about capsizing – the Duffy could take it. He just wanted to lay on the deck listening to his beautiful wife whom he had missed so much over the past eleven years.
He just wanted to lay there.
“You can get up now.”
“I don’t want to.”
“The bleeding has stopped and you should probably get back to the wheel and point your bow to the safety of the harbor.”
“I miss you.”
“And we miss you – Tommy and Anne talk about you all the time and can’t wait to see you again.”
“Are they here with you?”
“No – I’m not sure where they are but they are not here.”
“You don’t seem to know much about your current status do you?”
“It’s difficult that much I’ll say,” replied Teresa. “It’s like being somewhere comforting and familiar but not really knowing the exact location. Odd actually.”
“Sounds like it,” Skipper said while slowly sitting up knowing he should be at the wheel and not lying on the deck spread eagled.
He pulled himself up by grabbing the rail running along the front side of the console and stopped a moment to catch his breath.
“You banged your head pretty hard when you fell.”
“You saw it happen? Are you watching me from Heaven?”
There was a long silence. “No, not exactly but when you fell I saw it and then I was here – well that’s how it happened. I’m not sure I’m in Heaven but some place safe with the children.”
Skipper thought about that for a moment. “What do you do all day?”
“I don’t know – there’s really no time where I am, just a presence.”
“God?” Skipper asked as he regained his balance and sat down behind the wheel. There was no one in the cabin – just Teresa’s voice.
“I don’t know just a presence of peace and harmony. No pain, no longing, no sadness – just contentment.”
“And the kids?”
“Oh, yes they are with me – we’re all together.”
“In a house or an apartment?”
Teresa laughed. “Spin the wheel, Skipper – there’s a wave breaking a quarter mile out but you have time to run from it.”
He did as he was told and the Duffy easily drove back inside the breakwater of the harbor while the wave approaching dwindled. Clouds had given away to sunshine and the sea was very calm at this point. He had no idea how long he had lain on the deck but looking at the hours on the engines knew it had to be at least twenty minutes as the Duffy had made its way back to port with no one at the wheel.
“Was today a miracle?” Skipper asked, while once again looking around inside the cabin. There was no one.
“Every day is a miracle, my love. Remember that – each day is to be cherished and fought for. Days are limited but happiness is not. We are happy, and we know that one day we will all be together again.”
“When is that?” Skipper asked hoping the answer in return would be very soon.
“Not for a while,” Teresa said as her voice started fading a bit making it hard for Skipper to hear it above the slight breeze beyond the glass windows. “Not for a while.”
“I have to wait?”
“You must wait until it’s time.”
“I guess I can wait,” he muttered.
A small laugh emitted from within the confines of the small cabin. “You have no choice on that matter.”
Then, once again it was silent.
“Good-bye, Teresa,” Skipper said as he brought ‘It’s Hard Work’ gliding back to dock.
The engines off, Skipper sat while the boat bumped against the rubber guards and thought. It only lasted a few minutes until he pushed himself out of the Captain’s seat and went outside to tie the Duffy up.
Walking home he thought about stopping by the Crowne’s for a beer and tell Ken about his day but no one would believe the story.
It was dark, he was tired and he should probably check on the wound to his head even though it no longer hurt. He’d tend to it anyway.
He walked home, stepped up to the front porch, turned and stared up into the star filled sky. Opening the front door he suddenly flipped on the string of Christmas lights.