The Proving Grounds
The yachts still return in twilight to Georgetown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. With an outgoing tide, amidst the carping shorebirds, where the river narrows at the bend, I stand on a sand bar with my jeans rolled and soaked and wave to the crews on passing boats, but no one sees me.
From the wash, ripples bounce from the banks and crisscross again. And there he is: amid the blue vines and the downed, drowned trees, shadowing me in the seagrass, one foot on the shore, the other in the water, shoeless, faceless, and silent.
Back then I thought Dad was trying to kill us, as some sort of payback for the divorce. It was cheap psychology for a teenager, sure enough, but I was right, in a way.
I just had the wrong victims.
On late-night drives down to the boat, Dad would often doze off. Then he’d shake awake, slap his face, and mumble for caffeine. He would crack the window, and we’d all complain about the cow crap. As I recall one headlight was out because the cornfields on my side were dark as dead. When a passing beam caught the rearview mirror, I would notice the corners of his mouth sagging as if frowning was customary. His messy hair was still brown but turning gray and bushy, and parted on the left. His lean face was pockmarked like mine, too, like a smoky-gray truce of a no man’s land.
That night my little sister Mary Rose and I sat in the backseat. Her long blonde hair tied tight with red bows, bounced on her shoulders. She tapped her foot and whispered nursery rhymes. Even her topless Barbie danced on her lap. I deciphered the static on the radio that a cold front would bring relief from the heat. That’s when Dad then slammed on the brakes, tossing me against the seat. I asked: “What the hell’s going on?”
“We’re all right,” he told me. He thought a deer was going back out, but it was just a lawn ornament of a deer with its hind leg missing. I agreed he was probably seeing things.
My father gazed back. “Are you all right, sweetie?”
“I’m okay, Dad,” Mary Rose said. “How long until we get to the boat?”
“Pretty soon, doll baby,” he said.
“Daddy, do you know where my Ken doll is?”
“I’m only responsible for two,” he said. “Not three. Remember?”
Mary Rose then complained that she would miss seeing the fireworks with her mother. The next day was the Fourth of July.
“How about this, sweetie?” he asked. “What do you think of taking the boat to Baltimore tomorrow and having an adventure? I used to have adventures when I was a kid.”
“You promised Mom you wouldn’t take us that far into the Chesapeake Bay,” I replied. That agreement was three years old. We were no longer babies. I was almost a man.
“We’re men, right, Stu? Do you still have your mom check your ass to see if you’re clean? We’ll have fun. Like that time I built that coaster derby. Stu, you won first place.”
“It was second place.”
Earlier that summer the boat had been out of the water for repairs on the manifold. One of the cylinders blew, making a hole in the cylinder wall, causing all the smoke, but at least there was no more oil leaking into the crankcase. But by July it was docked at Georgetown.
His thirty-six footer was more cabin than a cruiser. After the divorce, he renamed the boat. The sun-bleached outline of The Sweet Sarah crept underneath the black letters of The Mary Rose. Before leaving Georgetown late Saturday afternoon, my father filled the tanks with enough gas to cover the distance. Just looking at the credit card paper made him bless himself and bite his lower lip. Was he asking God for help or forgiveness?
Cruising on the Chesapeake, I recall commanding the bow like a wooden figurehead. The strong wind, salty and hot, sweeping two hundred miles alongshore, as far south as Norfolk, did not carry the potential of danger, only the allure of the sea that I shared with Stuart Harding — my dad. On the eastern shore, a bleached glare veiled the familiar landmarks: the four columns of the white manor home, the red-clay ravine, and the gray trailer homes that clung to the bronzed cliff. The air reeked like sun-simmered kelp. On some days we could hear the military testing bombs on the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
Just after seven, we anchored safely in Baltimore’s harbor. I don’t remember the two hours before the fireworks. Maybe I read or listened to music or ached for girls in bikinis. But during the fireworks, Mary Rose snuggled with her daddy on the front deck. The fireworks reflected in her eyes. I remember that. It must have been one hell of a show. Just to rob them of their “moment,’ I told them it wouldn’t surprise me if some idiot sunk us. “Any one of these assholes could be issued a B.W.I: Boating While Intoxicated.”
He told me he wished I would lighten the hell up and enjoy myself.
Mary Rose asked about dinner. ‘’Are you still hungry?” he asked.
“Mom gives us more than chips and soda.”
He nodded, sweeping the hunger away without comment. I sniffed the wind. “Dad, do you smell gas?”
“Of course I smell gas!” he snapped. “Look at all the damn boats around us!”
After the Grand Finale, I dunked the anchor to shed the black muck. My father drove from the flybridge with Mary Rose by his side. On the bow, I looked for driftwood. Lights from the buildings, the factories, and cranes, and the Francis Scott Key Bridge provided plenty of sight markings, but soon the other boats disappeared.
The darkness deepened. I remember feeling a sense of urgency to grow up. As if I had to. Now.
Blinded, running only one of the two Chevy 357 engines, and unable to read his watch, he must have been considering how much gas he had burned. If he messed up this time, everything I hated him for would be confirmed. So I half-desired tragedy — as validation. After all, before we left the marina, I knew the gas gauge, corroded and rusty, warped from the sun and stained with mildew, was busted.
But I didn’t know about the gas leak.
He asked for the time. Pointing her cheap pink flashlight at her watch, Mary Rose said that both hands were almost praying. “This is fun. Isn’t it Daddy?”
Mary Rose asked if he heard thunder, but he remained expressionless tumbling away. Mary Rose insisted: “Daddy, that’s real thunder!”
The engine sputtered, jolting the boat. He thrust the throttle back and forth. The boat glided and then drifted, paralyzed. Cursing, I quickly climbed to the bridge. “What’s going on?”
“I have two engines, you know,” he said.
“I told you I smelled gas!”
“Please don’t fight,’’ begged Mary Rose.
“Help me open up the engines’” he said, climbing down from the bridge. “You got to be kiddin’ me.”
“Just hold the damn flashlight for me then!”
We lifted one of the heavy engine doors from the floor. Sweet noxious fumes filled the galley. Irritated, I shined my flashlight on the black engine. “I thought you said everything was fixed!”
“They said it was fixed!” he replied irritably.
“It’s fixed all right!’’
The water soaked his beat-up Docksiders. He licked his finger and cringed.
“You don’t know what you’re looking at either, do you?”
“Stu, just hold the flashlight still!”
“What should I do?” Mary Rose asked.
“Stay on the bridge and shine your flashlight,’’ I suggested. “Maybe you can keep the ships from running us over.’’
“What’s wrong, Stu?” my sister asked.
“We’re leaking gas,’’ I said. “And a storm’s heading straight for us.”
“Don’t tell her that!” he yelled.
“What’s so wrong with the truth?”
“Can I call home?’’ she asked me.
“His cell won’t work out here,’’ I replied as Mary Rose started weeping.
When he shouted to grow up and get out of the way, she cried harder, so he softened his tone. He often paddled in the tears of women.
Softly, I said: “You’ll get home fine. You don’t have to call mom.’’
“How did this happen?” Mary Rose asked.
“I’ll tell you what happened!” he ranted. “Those bastards at the marina! They cut my lines!”
“Why would they do that?” I asked.
“I raised hell last year with work they did on the carburetors, and . . .”
“Are you all right, Daddy?” Mary Rose asked.
“Just don’t light a match,’’ I said joking, pushing her away, “or he’ll explode.”
After closing the covers, he pulled the bilge pump to rid of some of the gas. He took off his shoes and washed his hands and feet in the bay. As soon as he cranked the second engine, at first mumbling, the tension was relieved. Everyone resumed positions. I stood on the bow as Mary Rose wrapped her arms around her daddy’s leg. She complained that her plain white shirt was now dirty with grease, but he didn’t say any thing. Suddenly a loud thud pounded the hull.
“What the hell was that?” he yelled.
‘’A deadhead, maybe,’’ I cried over the engine. “Driftwood.”
He hit the helm with his fist. “I told you to watch out for that!”
“I didn’t see it! I can’t see anything!”
Mary Rose clutched her life jacket. “Daddy, please don’t fight with him.”
“Just keep looking,” my father said. “If anything hits that prop, we’re sunk.”
An hour later, I sensed the rain. We were lost. Mary Rose shot her meager flashlight beam over the water, revealing nothing. The waves disappeared as the dull, metallic, dung . . . dung. . . dung of a red flashing buoy bobbed in the distance.
“Daddy, you don’t know where we are, do you?” Mary Rose asked. He looked away. Being lost on the Chesapeake just didn’t happen to Stuart Harding. He knew the Upper Bay well — like an inborn map. But something was different now. It wasn’t just the absence of the moon or the landmarks. He was breaking down. I clambered up close to him, holding the raised antennae for balance. “You’re gonna run us aground here!”
“I can’t see the Sassafras from the middle of the goddamn channel!”
“Is your depth finder working?”
He just stared over my shoulder — knowing I knew. “So you could be drawing shallow water?”
He spread his arms wide. “Plenty of water. Look around!”
We froze at a louder thunderclap. After cutting the engine to get his bearings, he climbed down from the bridge. Mary Rose tugged on his arm. “Daddy, it’ll be okay.”
I slipped into the galley ahead of him. “We’re lost in the middle of the shipping lanes. We have little light. No compass. We’re leaking gas. And it’s going to rain. We’re fucked!”
“Watch your language around Mary Rose!”
“It’s all right,” Mary Rose said. “I’m big now.”
“We’re fucked! We’re fucked!”
With a raised hand he lurched toward me.
“What are you going to do?” I asked smugly. “Hit me?”
Furious, he swung, but I stepped back and grabbed him by the wrist. I said: “Don’t try to hit me.”
Mary Rose cried hysterically, pleading, “Please stop.”
“All right!” he yelled at her. “Everyone! Just shut up! Do you hear me? We should all just shut up? Okay? Shut up!”
“Some father you are! Are you taking your meds?” I shot back as if to spit in his wounds. And that’s what I wanted then: proof; one final blow-up. He must have been surprised at my strength. One day, he must have thought, I would be a man. But how would he deal with me then? I turned my back to him, but then I kicked the stairs and declared, “You just want the kicks, right? Oh, I’ll be a dad when I want to be, uh? Now I know why Mom divorced you!” I stepped up the two stairs. Reluctantly, I turned around, cooling as I spoke, as if clarity was gradually zooming into focus. “I remember that hole you put through the living room closet. I was so scared then, but I needed to protect the family. You don’t remember that, Mary Rose. I told him to get out.”
“Can we please get home now?” Mary Rose demanded.
“Looks like I’ll have to get us home,” I said.
He stared through the cabin windows.
If even for a second, I could have found another way into his eyes and see the clouded world from below, to feel the pain of navigating without a compass, I would have recognized his silent and long struggle — and have shown empathy.
When I was ten, Mom told me that she had outgrown him and that she had to divorce him to save her own self, and perhaps, the family. And I believed her. So I freed her of all offense. Once, almost crying, a year later, Dad confessed to me that my mother wouldn’t even touch him after Mary Rose. She cringed at the thought of touching him. Said he made her sick. Said he was the type of man who would never leave but would make a marriage so awful that she would be forced to find comfort with someone else. So he forced her to leave. So when he was cut loose, he slept on my brother’s sofa and he thought of killing himself. He didn’t want to live anymore.
So young, I didn’t have the maturity to love both. So I clung to my mother. After all, my inexperience could never gauge the depth of a wound a human could inflict; my faith and fidelity kept me from fathoming two troubled oceans.
Mary Rose tugged at his shirt, repeating, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.”
Anxious to get moving, I asked about the maps. Mary Rose shined her pink flashlight into the cabinet as I rooted for the Northern Chesapeake maps. I pulled out a broken CB with loose wires, a water-damaged copy of Yachting magazine, a Playboy, two dingy life jackets, and a naked Ken doll, missing a leg.
“There’s my doll!” Mary Rose exclaimed, seizing Ken tight as if he could hear that her heart was beating still. “I forgot he was hiding.”
There was a map stuck on the bottom, soiled and crimped. I said something mean and then mumbled about getting closer to land. With a mouth sealed, he combed his wet and thick hair with his fingers. I like to think it was then that he knew he was incompetent. He nodded and stared through the cabin window at his reflection, the flashlight’s beam against the window. For a moment, his head floated on the water. Mary Rose’s desperate plea for help dragged him down as if fastened to an anchor.
“I’m really scared, Stu,’ Mary Rose told me.
“When you wake up, we’ll be home.”
“No, no, at the marina,” I said.
“I want to go home tonight,” she cried.
I thought I heard him murmur that we all wanted to get home again. He had turned to her, but she was with me in the lower helm. Lightning rolled through the clouds. After several false starts, as I pulled on the throttle, the second Chevy engine roared, the gas fumes drifting into the cabin. Having drifted, I wondered what direction we had been heading. Like driftwood, we had been tossed about directionless.
With the second flash of lightning, Mary Rose spotted the cliffs of Turkey Point, silhouetted for an instant against the sky. “That’s where we went hiking! Up there Dad! Remember we climbed down from the lighthouse and we almost fell down trying to get back up?” Of course, he remembered. It was a weekend camping trip two years ago. If that was Turkey Point, then we’d overshot the Sassafras.
“Are you sure you saw Turkey Point?” he asked.
“There it is again!”
“You’re not seeing things, are you?”
“No, Daddy, that’s Turkey Point! I remember!”
“Then I know where we are now.”
On the flying bridge, alone, except for the two dolls left on the seat, he steered The Mary Rose toward the Sassafras River. Below him, out of reach, my shadow lifted the shadow of his daughter through the front hatch. I refitted Mary Rose’s red life jacket after taking off her shirt. Perhaps he wouldn’t have recognized that the shadows were actually his children. We never seemed like his children. Only his last name was attached. His old girlfriend once told him he played a good dad.
Within ten minutes the subtle change in darkness meant that he had discovered the Sassafras. The lightning helped when it flashed, even momentarily. The rain hadn’t started. On the port side would be Betterton, now a run-down town. The water was choppy there where the two currents met.
For a while I stood with the bowlines, catching the rain. I was happy to see the glow of Georgetown. But then Mary Rose and I were thrown forward, and I caught her just before she tumbled into the river. The boat stopped suddenly, and I knew we hit a sand bar.
The rain clicked against the fiberglass. A lightning flash illuminated the skeleton of the marina — as if mocking us. He must have been crying out, but I couldn’t answer. I was gone. It was over. I would sit on the deck and wait to be rescued. I would wait for the tides to change. I would retie Mary Rose’s hair and keep her warm. I would laugh along with everyone else at my father. I would never step on his shadow again. I imagined him pressing his gut against the railing, searching the water, inspecting his baby. I could hear him. I could hear everything, but I never could hear what he wasn’t saying. And that was what could have saved him.
Mary Rose screamed that we would drown and that her daddy didn’t care. Perhaps her daddy should have screamed back that he did care, that he always cared, loved more than anyone could love, but it would take more than he could imagine. Mary Rose gripped the naked, amputated doll. Sitting with me, tightening her life jacket, her curls wind-straightened and drenched, Mary Rose hugged me close. With lips pursed like tasting something bitter, she remained quiet as I said we would get home after a long night on the boat — or until the tide came back. She wiggled the plastic head back and forth. She cried and ripped off his head. “Mary Rose,’ Dad called, “… Mary Rose… Mary Rose?” She didn’t answer him. She was gone from him too.
This much I know: we wrecked the prop on the sandbar and had to be towed back to the marina in the morning. The next day everyone at the marina had a good laugh. My father’s face fell as if he were already dead. My mother said we would never go out with him on the boat again, for as long as he lived, which happened to be a month after the fireworks.
On a night after work, perhaps to spend time with his last love, he drove down to his boat. It had been repaired with a loan from the bank. I know what it meant to him now. It was such a crappy boat, but it was all that he had. At two o’clock in the morning, my mother took the call; he swerved off to the right and landed in a cornfield, a few miles from the marina. It was an accident, they said. He might have fallen asleep. Even at sixteen, I suspected the worse, but I couldn’t say anything with out destroying the family. My mother said we were lucky we weren’t with him. But she was wrong. I was with him. I was always with him.
Perhaps we all were. At least I’ll admit that my guiding hand, veering right, was on that steering wheel all along.
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