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Drifting
 
By Harry Buschman
 
I work nine months of the year for a man some of you may know as Buster Silver. He is not an easy man to work for. In the first place he’s a comedian, and no one would laugh at him if he didn’t have an army of writers telling him what to say and how to say it. He’s got two shticks in his repertoire, one a sort of double take he stole from Jack Benny and the other a nervous fiddling with his necktie -- probably from Oliver Hardy. I’m on the staff of his weekly sit-com and it’s a labor of Hercules to keep him going for 15 weeks, as a matter of fact it takes nine months.

The rest of the year Justin and I get away from it all. We were companions, Justin and I, (I said were, didn’t I?) had been for three and a half years. It’s rare that such relationships last as long as that, but, like all the others I’ve had, it broke up in a bitter fight last night. Until then we rented a bungalow in Biddeford, Maine -- it’s a seaside village made up of people who pay no attention to each other let alone two gay men from the city. I was born near here, the son of a preacher and a browbeaten mother who learned to fear both God and my father in equal measure.

With Justin gone I decided to get out of the house and maybe go fishing for a while. It’s a good way to be alone. I ran into Frenchie Davenport, an old Quebecer who has a boat yard near the town dock.

“Fishin’ .... you? Y’wouldn’t be kiddin’ me now would’ja?

“Yes I’d like to go fishing. I’d like to take the afternoon off -- get out of that two by four bungalow I’ve been in all summer.”

“Just you, or you and what’s-his-name?” He was referring to Justin.

“He’s gone, Frenchie -- c’mon I need a boat and tackle, that’s what you’re in business for, right?”

“Striped bass are runnin’.” He was getting down to business. “I hear they’re all over Odiorne’s Point -- plan on usin’ worms or eels? I got worms. Fella over t’Biddeford caught a twenny pounder just t’other day on worms. How much time y’got?”

“If it’s all the same to you I’d rather use a lure. I got the rest of the day, that’s all. Look, Frenchie, I’m not looking to break any records,” I pointed at the sky. “I just want some sea air and sun.”

Frenchie filled his pipe slowly. When he does that I know he’s making a deal. 

“Tell you what. You top up the tank in the skiff over there, yeah that one, the ‘Porpoise’. There’s a rod and reel and some spinners in the aft locker -- whatever y’catch’ll be mine, see.” He struck a kitchen match on the seat of his pants and nonchalantly lit his pipe. It always amazed me how he could do that without the match going out in the wind. A drop of clear water appeared at the end of his nose and hung there suspended like a crystal bead. It would stay there until his pipe went out.

“The tank almost empty, Frenchie?” I knew what he was up to.

“Nearly full I’d say, just top it up at the dock pump.”

It cost me $67.50 to “top up his tank.” At two dollars a gallon that’s over thirty gallons. The decal on his tank said it held forty -- it was a Yankee stratagem that Frenchie knew backwards and forwards. It was a lesson I should have learned long ago, but maybe I could turn it to my advantage -- maybe I could use it in a skit with Buster Silver next season.

The “Porpoise” was a nice little skiff. It could hold two people comfortably and yet could be easily handled by one, and as I pulled out from the dock, Frenchie warned me .... “If yer runnin’ her at full throttle don’t shut down all at once, y’hear? Y’know about the stern wave, don’t’cha?”

“I know, I know, Frenchie -- I was born here, remember?” It was good he reminded me, I forgot completely about the stern wave. If you’ve ever been in a small boat with an outboard you’re aware that the prop sets up a stern wave that follows the boat at the same speed and if you shut off the engine without slowing down first, the wave will overtake the boat and roll right over the rear transom.

“If y’catch more’n six I’ll let’cha keep one,” was the last words I heard him say.
I ran at full throttle until I reached Odiorne’s Point then I slowed down to a crawl looking for a likely spot. If you know bass at all you know the bigger ones are found near the mouths of estuaries, they fatten up on eels and it’s not unusual to hook up with one you can’t lift into your boat. It was late morning by my estimate, not the best time for catching any kind of fish, but you never know -- you can always be surprised by a late riser. I snapped Frenchie’s rod together and fitted the reel, he had a nice collection of spinners so I picked out a shiny green one. A lazy striped bass might mistake it for an elver. I cast out fifty feet or so at the mouth of the tidal creek that drains the swamp at Odiorne’s Point and got a hit even before I took up the slack.

Within twenty minutes I had six striped bass, none under five pounds. I was exhausted.

Even though a bass is not a great fighter they resist being netted and dragged into a boat. I stored them in the insulated fish bin and disassembled Frenchie’s rod, I noticed I had drifted considerably north of the Point and I was thinking of starting up the outboard when I noticed the fog. It came rolling in from the east on a soft warm wind. It was undoubtedly the herald of a warm front and there was something heavy and ponderous about it.
It was still clear in my immediate vicinity, but I quickly lost sight of land. The rising sun, now rather high in the east, quickly dissolved into a pearly shadowless light. Slowly I lost sight of the horizon to the east and the fog settled in thick around me -- I was suddenly alone on the sea. I’d lost sight of land and couldn’t remember in which direction it was.

I was convinced that wherever the shore was I was leaving it far behind. I was sure wherever I looked was eastward, and that if the cursed fog ever lifted there would be no land to see at all. I would be lost on a boundless ocean in a rented skiff that was never made to brave rough weather. I listened for Whaleback Light but all I could hear was the monotonous slapping of the water against the blunt bow of the boat. Did this mean I was still making headway? Was I distancing myself ever farther from home? Why on earth couldn’t I hear the lighthouse!? Wasn’t it supposed to be there to guide lost sailors in time of trouble?

Was it growing dark, or was the fog growing thicker? What would happen if night should come and find me here?

Would the fog lift by nightfall? I tried to recall my boyhood knowledge of these waters off the southern coast of Maine -- the tides were swift and coupled with the westerly winds that normally prevail, they could drive a drifting boat far out to sea. Had the tide turned? I couldn’t remember. Careless of me! Yes, it was growing darker and whatever wind there was died to a whisper. Just the heavy lapping of the sea against the sides of the boat. I had no choice in the matter. I was condemned to wait in an open boat for a change in weather.

I consoled myself by thinking how much worse things could have been -- if the seas had been even moderately rough, the ‘Porpoise’ may not have weathered them -- or it could have foundered on the rocky coast and been at the mercy of a murderous surf. A sound off to my left startled me and just within my range of vision I saw a roiling of the water. In its center a dark shape emerged and then quickly withdrew, but the motion of the surface revealed the presence of something monstrous moving below me. Then all was still. Had it seen me -- would it come again -- and most of all, what had it been? I was at the mercy of a pitiless environment and all that kept me alive was this thin shell of a boat -- it was my universe. Until now I had trusted it to protect me from the dangers that lurked in the waters around me, but that protection could not stand up to a rough sea.

I felt as insignificant as I did as a small boy in Biddeford looking up at the night sky. Billions and billions of stars had looked down on me without caring a whit whether I lived or died. It was worse now, I was truly alone -- there was no friendly light behind me with the sounds of my mother in the kitchen. In this frame of mind I slid off the stern seat and put the flotation pads on the low after deck. I curled up on them, knowing that in this position I would be invisible to anyone or any thing looking at the boat from the water surrounding it. Better out of sight, I thought.

I tried to relax. I had been on the edge of panic for what must have been an hour. Now I was on the edge of despair, it seemed to me if I was to get through this I would have to pull myself together. It was difficult because I knew I was drifting .... drifting, and one of two things would happen; I would founder on the rocky coast of Kennebunkport and the thin shell of the skiff would be smashed and shredded, or I would be carried out to sea on the tide never to be seen again. I could see no alternative. The lifting of the fog was my only hope, and from my curled up position in the bottom of the boat there seemed to be no chance of that. Everything I touched was cold and clammy, wet with a residue of fog. I took off my coat and covered myself as best I could and I began to sing. It’s a habit of mine.
Whenever things overwhelm me I hum to myself, it turns off my fears and keeps the bogeymen at bay. I’m not musical and I can’t remember the words or the tune of the song I hum, but it rubs off the roughness of the outside world and brings back the recollection of better days. I began the habit the day my father caught Pamela and me in the cornfield back in Biddeford. We were twelve I think, and we hadn’t really got around to doing it but we were blundering along, well on our way. He was furious, “To think,” he shouted, “that I, of all people, have fathered a degenerate son.” He was a Presbyterian minister in Biddeford, and I think it was his fondest hope that I follow him in the ministry. He rarely spoke to me after the incident, and after mother died he didn’t speak to me at all. It ruined me for women -- although, who knows .... I might have turned out the way I am in any case. I thought of her again, Pamela I mean, and I remembered I hadn’t liked what I’d seen, and I wondered if she felt the same.

The humming, combined with the gentle motion of the ‘Porpoise’ lulled my senses. I tried to imagine myself somewhere, anywhere, other than where I was -- I chose a garden in Virginia I had visited last year. I recalled the magnolias and the sweet smell of new mown grass -- I must have dozed off, for I was suddenly awakened by the sound of surf breaking nearby -- I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was the shadow of a short mast on a rough wooden deck in front of me. I was no longer in the ‘Porpoise’ but in a rudely built boat in the shape of a coffin. I looked up into a cloudless blue sky! How could the weather have changed so abruptly? I sat up and looked over the side of the boat and saw the horizon, a sharp line against the sky, then I turned and saw the beach. It was not a Maine beach. A long white stretch of sand sloping up to a line of grass topped dunes and a gentle surf drew a frothy white line along the shore.

A man in a white beach robe stood looking at me. He walked down to the edge of the water just far enough so as not to wet his feet, and he stood there looking at me, shielding his eyes with both hands. I waved to him frantically and absentmindedly climbed over the seat to the stern of the boat intending to start the engine -- there was none of course, only a short stubby mast holding a ragged dirty sail which flapped lazily in an onshore wind -- it drew me inexorably towards the shore until the boat was caught by a breaking wave, then it tilted and picked up speed and turned broadside to the beach. I was about to leap out of the boat when the man, now standing knee-deep in the water lowered his hands and shouted at me. “You have no right! No right at all.” My God, it was my father! Dead now these fifteen years! It was the first time he spoke to me since mother died!
“Dad, it’s me! Don’t you remember me?”

He looked at me with no hint of recognition. “You don’t have a certificate. You have no right to be here without a certificate!” He waded out into the surf and turned the boat around so it headed back out to sea, then he pushed and ran after the boat until he was waist deep in the water. One final push and I was free of the surf and out into deeper water again. “We’re tryin’ to keep this place clean,” he shouted, “y’gotta have a certificate, that’s all there is to it.”

He continued shouting and his voice grew fainter and fainter until I could no longer hear him, and as dreams will shift from scene to scene without a bridge to bind them, I found myself in church trying to hear a Priest over the incessant rumble of thunder. It occurred to me that whatever he had to say was probably not important to begin with. Both images were replaced by the faint familiar sound of Whaleback Light -- I recognized it immediately -- one long -- two short at fifteen second intervals. No one born in Biddeford could forget the voice of Whaleback Light. Was I still dreaming? No! I was back in the ‘Porpoise,’ my coat still covered me and looking up I saw the aluminum mast sway gently in a rising wind. I raised my head above the port rail and turned my face in the direction of the sound of the lighthouse. It was faint -- more than a mile away, I guessed. The leaden gray of the fog had changed color, it was yellowish now. If I only had a compass I could have fixed the sound of the light, started the outboard and ran for home -- but I was sure I would never hear Whaleback Light over the sound of the engine. I opened the locker under the back seat and rummaged through it. There amidst the coils of rope, brass polish and empty gasoline cans was a boy scout compass. Apparently Frenchie did his navigation by the seat of his pants.

I shook the little instrument to make sure the needle floated and then, as best I could, aimed it in the direction of the sound of Whaleback light -- about two degrees east of north by my reckoning. I stuck the compass in my shirt and started the engine and under full throttle headed off on that bearing.

I kept my eyes open as I approached the lighthouse. Gradually I could hear the horn over the sound of the outboard. I didn’t want to pile up on the rocks that surrounded it. I remembered there was a buoy just south of the light and I hoped I might pass it close enough to see it in the fog. I missed the buoy completely, but the horn was louder! -- a regular pattern -- one long -- two short. It had to be the lighthouse! I was getting closer to the lighthouse!
The wind picked up and the sea grew choppy, there were restless swirls on its face, small whitecaps appeared and the bow of the boat pattered nervously on the surface of the water as I continued on my bearing. The fog was backing off to the east from a strong offshore wind. Suddenly I could see the little cupola on the lighthouse, and the light itself suddenly swept around me. I was almost on it! A rugged line of rocks, licorice black, became visible, remembering the stern wave I cut the engine and turned sharply west into the harbor.

How placid it was! How peaceful -- a haven of calm in a sea of trouble. I could see children fishing from the grassy banks as I had done many years ago. There were fishermen drying nets and setting out bait traps. I thought of my thankless career in television? How empty my life had become, I had no friends, no lasting attachments, there would be no welcome -- no warm dinner waiting for me at home. I had the feeling that maybe my father would appear at the dock and tell me to turn around and sail out again -- “You have no certificate! You can’t land here without a certificate!”

Instead, I saw Frenchie Davenport, he was sitting in a lawn chair on the landing raft talking into a cell phone, the black briar pipe jiggled in his mouth as he argued loudly with someone on the line. He caught sight of me, put the phone away and got out a package of Granger.

“What’cha say stranger, any luck?” He loaded the pipe carefully, obviously intending to bargain over the catch. I had forgotten all about the fish.

I threw him a line while both his hands were busy with his pipe and tobacco and he swore at me. “Dumb landlubber! Never throw a line to a sailor when he’s busy.” He stepped on the line and finished stuffing his pipe, then he picked it up and belayed it to a piling. “Throw me the aft line, dumbbell -- y’can’t tie up with one line. I thought you was born around these parts.”

“Sorry Frenchie -- I thought you might wait’ll I was tied up before you loaded your pipe.”

He grinned and scraped a wooden match with his thumbnail. It flared and subsided as he puffed his old briar back into life. Again, the little bead of moisture formed at the end of his nose and hung there like a crystal earring. 

“How’d the fishin’ go?” he asked again.

I got out of the skiff and stood on the landing raft next to him. Instead of answering his question I asked him about the fog.

“Did you have fog here this afternoon? -- Down by the point the fog’s so think you can’t see more than twenty feet.”

“No way. Look for y’self,” he pointed south and sure enough the Point was clearly visible in the distance. “Don’t get fogs here in the afternoon anyways. Come in the mornin’ sometimes, but they burn off by ten or so.”

“If it wasn’t for the foghorn I wouldn’t have found my way back.”

“Y’mean Whaleback?” he asked.

“Of course Whaleback. You have another lighthouse hidden up here?”

He cocked his head sideways then shook it. The little bead of moisture fell into the bowl of his pipe with a hiss. “Could’na been Whaleback -- dunno what you heard, but it warn’t Whaleback. Ain’t been a peep outta that ol’ light in twenny years, not since the keeper passed away.”
He looked from me to the ‘Porpoise,’ then puffing mightily on his pipe he stepped aboard to check things out.

“You sure you handled her nice and easy, huh?” He checked on the level of gas in the tank then opened the insulated fish bin. “Got six nice size bass in there, sonny. Catch ’em on spinners did’ja?” He opened the rear seat lid and pulled out a burlap bag. “Only six here, y’should’a stayed a little longer and caught one for y’self.”

The last thing I wanted was a fish. I was torn between what I’d been through and the facts of life, I didn’t want any reminders of this afternoon -- I didn’t need any.

“Not in the mood for fish, Frenchie.” I shrugged my shoulders and walked up the ramp to the wharf, then I headed back up the dirt road to the rented bungalow. There would be no one waiting there, no light in the window, cold ashes in the hearth, no sound of children. Something missing. A terrible emptiness -- coming home to a hollow house.

It was nearly dark when I got back, it had been a long day and I couldn't remember having lunch. I looked in the freezer and found a Hungry Jack meat loaf dinner -- that would do, I thought. While it thawed I mixed a scotch and water and went outside. The stars were very bright, very close, I could reach up and feel the heat of them on the palm of my hand.

But they didn’t care, they didn’t care at all -- and worst of all, I didn’t care either.
 
 
 
©Harry Buschman 2001


------
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.
Walt Whitman


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