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.

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