The Boat Bailer

Every summer when we arrived for the first time, there were chores to be done. All the dishes had to be washed before we could eat off of them. The house had to be swept, along with the stepping stones to the grass line. The windows had to be cranked open by hand. The car had to be completely unloaded and unpacked. After everything was done and we were given the all clear, we would skip out to the water line, flying over the stones we’d just swept. I always stood for a long moment with the water curling around my ankles and the salt air draped across my shoulders and let myself be alone with my old friend. We had catching up to do. 

That beach was the most forgiving place on earth to me. She held our summer kinship in the hollow of her hand. But like anything, St. Teresa had a dark side, a vastness that stretched out against the endless tide; a darkness that swept in unannounced. As quickly as a stripped palm frond could lean in the breeze, she could betray you to the dark side: her weather. In those moments, it was like a thunderhead grabbed the edge of the ocean and flipped it like a dirty welcome mat, taking the waves that had gently lulled a child along on a canvas float 10 minutes before and turning them into a steel gray chop that could toss boats like a discarded newspapers. I know a thing or two about the boats thing.

That first week at St. Teresa in July 1985 ushered in a storm with enough raw power to change the landscape for the rest of the summer. It was after midnight when the first rumbles entered my consciousness, trying to work themselves into a dream about escaped tigers. My eyes flew open at the first streak of lightning, as they almost always did. I laid there in my bed, pressed up against the front wall of the cottage, waiting for the thunder to follow. In the minutes after the flashes, my world would lay dark around me. The sounds of wind and the cadence of the storm filled the dead space as I waited for the next round. The lightning flashed again, electrifying everything around me with a sinister strobe, so that I could see with clarity all the things I was afraid of. The live oak trees raised their twisted branches like approaching zombies, crawling out of the darkness. Only when the lightning would flash could you see what you were dealing with. 

I knew the patterns. The storm would threaten, then rage, with cycles of fury from the sky. And then my dad would get up from his bed in the other room and go out in it. I hated that. I could hear him talking to my mom, followed by the commotion of him getting himself ready. And then, I heard the gentle squeak of the screen door hinges trailing him as he disappeared into the night.

I sat up in bed and rested my chin on the stone window sill. The blue nautical curtains whipped around my head as I tried to identify shapes in the blackness. There was no going back to sleep until my dad was back in the house and we were all in bed again. My grandmother’s snoring hummed through the weather when the storm paused to take a breath. I didn’t know how she was sleeping through it, but I was glad she was.

Just when I was sure my dad was dead and had begun writing tributes to him in my head, he reappeared, running deftly up the stepping stones toward the house. He was soaked to the bone and wore a look of misery. Whatever he had been through out there, it didn’t matter. He was back. And I flopped back against my pillow into a deep, relieved slumber.

The night was short and the relief was short-lived. I was awakened at 7 by three people standing over me, annoyingly not dressed for the beach. This wasn’t an invitation to water ski. Through the slits in my tired eyes, I could see my mom, my dad, and my brother dressed to commute for work. It was Monday morning and the storm was still pounding outside.

 “Morning, Miss,” my dad said. He was alive. A little too alive for my taste.

“Morning,” I groaned.

“We are headed to town and won’t be back until after 5,” he replied. OK, I thought. Soooo….? I just waited him out. I knew there was a punchline. “We need you to watch the boat.”

Oh, there it was. I knew it. I KNEW IT. I just thought the misery of last night was over. And contained to my dad.

“Dad, why? WHY? Aren’t there bilge pumps for things like this? This weather is terrible!” I was pleading.

“We don’t have a bilge pump,” he answered. Of course I knew this. “You are the bilge pump.”

He had to go and add that. In the next 90 seconds, I was given instructions about how and when to bail the boat and how to manage the tides. Sigh. My grandmother was standing in the doorway listening to the instructions with a wrecked expression on her face. She was clearly on my side. And without the slightest apology, the three business casuals walked out the back door leaving a 14-year-old sleep-deprived girl and a 75-year-old grandmother with a bum knee to watch after a bargain boat that was bouncing around out front like a tethered rubber duck.

I plopped down at the blue kitchen table to eat a can of Vienna sausages for breakfast. This was the kind of day it was going to be. A cold, blustery, canned-sausage kind of day.

I watched the hands of the kitchen clock like a dire prognosis and when 10 a.m. rolled around, it was time for the first boat bail. I was to go out as close to 10, 12, 2, and 4 as the weather would allow. The storm was nowhere near passing by, but seemed calm enough to navigate. I pulled on my suit and walked out to the front porch. The concrete was wet from a night of rain blowing in sideways. The world in front of me was the color of a bad dream–the dull green of overboiled turnips. I had to squint to see the boat, which was a bobbing white dot that rose and fell amongst waves that were taller than it was. My Mama joined me on the porch. I looked over at her with a sneer on my face.

“Please be careful,” she said. “I don’t like this.” She didn’t need to tell me twice.

I pushed open the screen door and leaned into the unrelenting green rain.

The rain that morning was cold and nefarious. It seemed intent on hitting me directly in the eyeballs as often as possible as I carefully zig-zagged down to the water’s edge. But the rain was not my problem. And the bailing itself was not my problem. My problem was the water between me and the boat. The water that was the color of charcoal and seemed to be disguising a world of dark magic that I was sure to encounter the moment I stepped in past my knees. The water that had to be deep because my brain had stopped absorbing tide information this morning when my dad was trying to teach me everything he knew in 2 minutes or less. That water.

I was scared.

I stood there for a couple of minutes in the rain, staring at the water, before I convinced myself that the imaginary danger was worse than the reality. I looked down at myself before stepping in, perhaps to take inventory of the strengths I was bringing to this task. What an ugly bathing suit. I hate this bathing suit. If I survive this, they are buying me a new bathing suit. Not a clearance one. Full price. I took one step and I was up to my thigh. This was bad. This meant I was sure to be in water deeper than I was tall before I got to the halfway point. Shoot. Debris from the storm was pelting my legs under the water as I scuffled along. I took four more steps and the wild water was up to my neck. I couldn’t plant my feet on the bottom anymore and I threw my arms into it and swam for my life. It didn’t take me long to reach the bobbing boat, but it was turned with its nose to the shore. There was no way I could get in from the front in water this deep. I swam sidestroke around to the back, determined to keep my face pointed toward the beach. I wondered if Mama was watching from the porch. Of course she was. She’d have called the coast guard already but we didn’t have a phone. If I drown here, it’s going to be awhile before anyone finds out. And this is the bathing suit I’ll be wearing when they locate my body. I grabbed an anchor cleat on the back of the boat and tried to get my leg up over the back. I couldn’t get a grip on anything and only managed to submerge my head completely. Fail. It took 3 attempts, but I managed to hoist myself up using one arm on the top of the motor and the other on the back of the boat. I flopped inside like a snagged fish and waved toward shore so my grandmother could see me, After a few deep breaths, I grabbed the crusty white bait bucket and began to scoop the water that had gathered in the boat since early morning. It’s not that great a boat. I’m not sure why we’re trying to keep it from sinking. But I do like to ski. I kept scooping. I don’t like people. I do like old people and babies. But I hate all other people. My arms worked like a hydraulic machine, getting the water down to less than an inch before I felt like I could call it done for this round. I stood tall to stretch my back and thought about the fastest way to shore. There had to be a quicker way back. I decided to do my best long jump from the front of the boat. I didn’t think through the force of my jump, because along with whatever distance I achieved, I sunk like a concrete block and never hit bottom. I kicked upward and surfaced quickly, thrashing my way back into water that would allow me to stand. I blinked the salt water from my eyes and moved forward.

Soon I was back at chest high water and slowed my pace to rein in my panic. I pulled my arms out of the water and tried to use them for momentum. Mostly I was flailing. At that moment, as I was just beginning to feel the weight of success, a streak of angry lightning started in the west and crackled east across the treetops. One second later, the thunder slammed out of the thick slate sky, chasing the last of the streak. I don’t know what happened in that moment. I can’t explain it. But I jumped out of the water like a cartoon and ran the full distance back to without touching ground again. I didn’t stop at the edge of the beach. I didn’t stop on the stepping stones. I didn’t stop until the screen door slapped behind me and I was safe on the wet porch. I leaned over against my knees to breath.

“Are you okay?” my grandmother asked.

“That was terrible,” I nodded.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a human move that fast,” she commented on my great escape.

“If we had jobs, this wouldn’t be happening,” I replied. “Let’s go to Panacea and see if they’ll put us on as bus boys for the day.”

“I don’t have my car,” she answered, as if that were they only thing wrong with my idea. We spent that day together inside, two unemployable beach bums. Reading. Coloring. Eating Vienna Sausages. I went out 3 more times to the boat, each time dreading it a little more than I had before.

When my parents walked through the back door that afternoon before dinner, my mother shook the rain from her umbrella and stepped inside quickly.

“Phew,” she said smiling. “It’s bad out there.” My dad stepped in behind her and looked toward my grandmother and me.

“How was your day?” he asked.

I squinted at him and weighed my response carefully.

“I want a new bathing suit.”

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