Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jibe ~ a short short story

“Get Clay up and let’s go for a sail,” George says.

"There’s too much wind,” I tell my husband.

"It's perfect." He blinks at the sky. George tries to be the good stepfather, including Clay when he cares to be included.

Clay’s room is fragrant with the same nutmeg scent from when he was a baby, only stronger and sweetened with alcohol. He was out with friends last night, celebrating his last days before he leaves for college. Already I’m missing him. I perch on the edge of his bed and invite him to sail. He groans, rolls over, opens one eye, mumbles, “Sure,” as if he’d rather sail than sleep. I know he knows how important it is for me to spend time with him.

I tell him to meet us at the boat ramp and he grunts agreement.

At the dock, I watch the water froth with whitecaps.

“She has a bone in her teeth,” I say, a phrase I learned in a sailing course I took in Maine last summer.

“What does that mean?” George says.

“It means the wind’s really strong.” Our Widgeon is a two-person day sailer we trailer down to Lake Champlain, too small for such wind, but I help George set up the mast and rig the mainsail and jib.

“I’ll follow in the motorboat,” George says.

By the time we’ve got the boat in the water, Clay is there, hair all out of whack, sleep wedged in the corners of his eyes.

I take the tiller, even though Clay probably understands the wind better than I do from summer camps when he sailed a Sunfish on a small lake and he and his buddy would capsize and right just for the fun of getting wet. When I try to shove off, the line catches on the cleat and gets fouled. George untangles us and we’re off.

Sailing out of the harbor is a nice run until we get clear of the party boat at the end of the pier and I feel the gust from the north pushing the boat south. I prefer to go north, where there’s a beach, but we have no room to tack inside the breakwater. Clay hoists the jib and we allow the wind to take us.

Outside the breakwater, the waves are rolling high, and one washes over the side onto our backs.

“I’m wet,” Clay complains.

“Sun’s hot,” I tell him. I want to dry him off, as I’ve always tried to make things better for him, but I can’t take my hand off the tiller.

I can see the Adirondacks across the lake and think of the still afternoon we took the motorboat to New York for lunch at a dockside restaurant, and on the trip home Clay skied behind the boat while I kept an eye on him. I glance at him now, pale fluff on his jaw, his father's brown hair curling over his ears. He wears a hemp necklace some girl braided for him. Soon I’ll get glimpses of him on vacations, then he’ll be living somewhere else and I’ll have to think hard to remember even what he looks like.

The wind wrenches the mainsail, and I pull the sheet for all I’m worth. Clay leans toward starboard and I let out sail, but we’re slicing through two-foot billows.

Suddenly the bluster shifts, and our nose is into the wind. The sail luffs. We need to come about, but we don’t have enough steam. George is yelling at us to hug the shore—we’re too far out for these waves.

“We’ll have to jibe,” I tell Clay, knowing we might capsize, which would be more embarrassment than catastrophe.

“Whatever,” he says. He has faith in me, more faith than his father had. His father was no sailor—except when he hoisted the main and sailed out of our lives.

I tell Clay to watch out for the boom because it’s going to swing hard, and it does. Somehow we’re still upright and heading toward the shore, toward an island of rocks. I bring the boat about, concentrating to keep the sail full.

By now, my arms are tired, and I tell Clay to help pull in the sheet. He yanks the line and I take up slack. My sunglasses have slipped down my nose, and he presses them back onto my face. I think how good it feels to be with him, so good I want to stay in the Widgeon, to have my son all to myself and tack and jibe and then hand him the tiller for a while. I want the wind to keep blowing and the sun to keep shining and I want to sail on by the landing, past North Beach, all the way to Canada.

“You bring anything to eat?” Clay says. I laugh. My man-son still looks to me for nurture.

“We’ll stop at the deli on the way home,” I say.

Two more tacks and I manage her into the harbor. When we drift up to the pier, Clay grabs the cleat and ties her off.

“Nice job,” he says, which makes me proud, even though my legs are rubber.

“You worked the jib well,” I offer back.

George docks the motorboat and helps haul out the Widgeon. “It was too rough out,” he says, as if he has just noticed the waves.

“I thought we might lose it on the jibe,” I say.

“No way,” Clay says, and he steps onto the dock, runs a hand through his hair, just as his father used to do. I want to hug him, to bury my nose in his nutmeg neck as I did when he was a baby, but I know Clay the young man doesn’t like that kind of sentimentality. So I squint and hold him there a minute, the lake behind him, the wind billowing his shirt out from his back.

“What about the deli?” he says.

“Sure,” I say. And then I let him go.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Automotive Rehab

This is the creative nonfiction piece I'm thinking of reading at November's Spalding University MFA in Writing residency. These are actual letters I actually mailed a couple years ago, edited for length because I'm given only ten minutes at the mic. By the way, I never did receive a response from the police officer.

January 22
Dear Officer Gauthier:

This morning you pulled me over on Vermont Interstate 89 in Bethel for driving with excessive speed. So as not to keep you standing outside in the extreme cold (minus seventeen!), I was ready with my license and registration when you approached my window. Your demeanor was professional, and I appreciate the courtesy and efficiency with which you issued me the ticket.

I hope you will indulge me an explanation for my haste. As a writer and educator, I was on my way to Saxtons River Elementary School to consult with the principal about assisting with writing instruction. I could plead that I’m not quite used to the new car I’m financing so that I can make these trips around the state to visit public schools. The pure fact is that I was speeding and deserved the $140 fine.
In light of the circumstances, I wonder if you might exercise leniency and reduce the violation to a warning. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of observing speed limits, and I look forward to hearing from you within the twenty days before payment of the fine is due.


~ ~ ~

March 3
Dear Officer Gauthier:

Even though I have not received an answer to my January letter, I thought you might enjoy the repercussions of the speeding ticket you imposed on me. When I’m on a long stretch of road, I set my cruise control at the speed limit so that I’m not inadvertently tempted to press the accelerator beyond its legal limits.

Unfortunately, there have been drawbacks to my vigilance. Cars honk at me, ride my bumper, pass me at every opportunity, and flip me obscene hand signals. Two weeks ago a truck whizzed by me at 15 miles over the limit and kicked a stone, which hit my windshield and sent a crack across my line of vision. I had to pay a $100 deductible fee for the new windshield, which did not have the deicing heater that originally came with the car.

This is not to say that I have any intention of speeding, but I’m wondering why I appear to be the only person who observes the limit. Perhaps the state of Vermont could design a bumper sticker that says, “I have three points on my driver’s license, so back off.” I know your job is a difficult one, Officer G., but please be aware that it’s also difficult to be a good citizen. My best wishes to you as you continue your excellent work.

Yours truly,

~ ~ ~

July 15
Dear Officer Gauthier:

I’m not sure you remember me, but you issued me a speeding ticket back in January on Route I-89. I thought you might appreciate an update on my adherence to traffic laws since then. In early spring I was driving my husband to work along Route 116 when we found ourselves following a school bus going slightly under the speed limit of 50 miles an hour.

“Pass it,” my husband said.

“No,” I answered. “In order to pass, I’d have to speed.”

“Pass it,” he said. “Pass it, or I’ll puke.”

You should know that my husband detests the smell of school bus exhaust. He played hockey in high school and college and spent far too much time on school busses traveling long distances to games and eating stale cheese sandwiches, both of which made him nauseous. To this day, the nausea comes back when he smells school bus fumes, and I knew that his threat was not an idle one. He rolled down his window and stuck out his head.

“I’m about to puke,” he warned.

“So puke,” I told him.

To avoid a mess on my car, I slowed down, allowing the bus to get far enough ahead so that the exhaust fumes were not overpowering. But in so doing, I made my husband late for work, and he did not speak to me for several days.
I’d like you to know, Officer Gauthier, that even if it means the sacrifice of marital bliss, your admonishment that cold January day has had a lasting effect on me.

One last note—I found a narrow stretch between Route 7 and New Haven that has no speed limit posted. I suppose you’ll tell me that somewhere in the driver’s manual there’s a rule about how fast one can go on unmarked roads. But, as I’m not in possession of a recent edition of the driving manual, I will assume until otherwise informed that I have permission to go as fast as I care to on this mile and a half span.

I trust you will continue in your rectitude, Officer Gauthier, and I send you encouragement and best wishes.


~ ~ ~

September 30
Dear Officer Gauthier:

You might be interested to know that my Subaru had its 15,000-mile tune-up last week, and when I drove home on I-89, the car started screeching at 65 m.p.h., sort of the sound of someone pinching the neck of a balloon to make it squeal. I took the Subie back to the mechanic, but he found nothing wrong. On the way home, the screeching began again, and I had to slow down to 55 m.p.h. I guess whatever’s making the noise isn’t serious, but I won’t be exceeding speed limits—you can count on that. I’m just wondering—are you in cahoots with my mechanic?

Thanks again, Officer Gauthier, for your devoted efforts on behalf of Vermonters.


~ ~ ~

November 18
Dear Officer Gauthier:

As autumn’s chill clenches its jaws, I hope this letter finds you well and attending to your official duties. You may wonder why I’m addressing yet another missive to you. Simply, I’d like to inform you that, since that bright and crackling day last January when you stopped me for speeding, I have yet to accrue another traffic violation of any sort—not even for an expired parking meter. Such is the efficacy of your correction, for which I still am and evermore shall be grateful.

That is not to say that I haven’t been tempted to speed. In fact, just this past weekend, when my in-laws were visiting we took a trip to the Shelburne Museum, for which I was recruited to chauffeur. I wonder if you’ve been to the Shelburne Museum, Officer Gauthier? And I wonder if you’ve been there with your in-laws? If you have, you might understand my husband’s urgency in having the trip done with and his hounding me on the way home to “Go faster. Can’t you go any faster?” I was adhering to the speed limit, but, even so, the trip seemed endless with the in-laws complaining about aching feet and the blustery cold and my husband grousing in my ear, and I admit I was tempted to hasten the journey by pressing my weight against the accelerator. But then I remembered your reprimand, and I scolded my husband for coaxing me into lawlessness.

Today I came across the ticket you administered last winter, which may be what prompts this letter, and I’m wondering what the “P” stands for in your name. Shall I guess? Peter? Peyton? Parker? Patrick? Phillip? Pablo? Have I hit on it yet? I’m guessing Paul. Paul Gauthier. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

By the way, the screeching I mentioned in my previous letter was due to a gap in the adhesive around the replaced windshield, the repair for which cost me another afternoon at the shop.

Best wishes for a warm and restful Thanksgiving, Officer Gauthier. And thanks again for your service to Vermonters.

Your friend,

~ ~ ~

December 2
Dear Paul:

While my husband was home from work over the holiday, he fooled around on my computer and discovered the letters I’ve written to you over the past year. I thought he might be angry, but, instead, he suggested that probably you have hung the letters in the men’s room of the Bethel police barracks. I hardly think an officer of your caliber would stoop to such aspersions. Perhaps you’ve filed them away in case you need to testify as to my mental stability for handling a motor vehicle in the state of Vermont.

In any event, I regret to inform you that this is the last letter you’ll be receiving from me. One of the consequences of modifying behavior is losing touch with the rehabilitated. I promise to keep a close eye on the speedometer, but, should a peppy tune come on the radio and I lapse into my wicked ways, there’s a good chance that you and I will meet again on the highway. In the meantime, I wish all the teachers in Vermont the same success in the edification of their students that you have achieved with me. Best wishes to you, sir, and I hope you have a delightful New Year.

Looking forward to seeing you soon,

Louella Bryant