Riverman

byAdrian Leverkuhn©

"Well, let me sign him in. There a good place for a steak around here?

"Well, the hotel is good, and you don't have to walk far!' he said with a sly grin. "They'll even bring it down to the boat - you know, like room service!"

As I was walking back to the boat I saw Hank's boat coming under the big highway bridge, and jumped down into the cockpit and flipped on the radio.

"Hanky-Panky, this is Liebestod , go to 23."

"Marty? That you? This place looks full?!"

"Come on in. I got a slip for you; just turn in the breakwater and come down this first pier to the right - right past my boat. I'll wait for you by the spot, have your lines ready for a starboard side docking."

"Ten-four, Marty! Thanks!"

_____________________

"Hey Marty, hope you don't mind, but I called that woman in Elizabeth City. She came by last night, wanted to meet you."

Marty had docked his boat and thanked me again, and grabbed his shower stuff and ambled off to the marina's shower facilities without so much as a peep. Now I knew what he was up too, and I was a little angry.

"Listen, Hank, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm not ready for that kinda thing just yet, and I don't need you pulling this kinda crap on me, alright?"

"Yeah, Marty, whatever you say. She's bringing a friend, too, so don't fuck this up for me, OK? Been a long time since I got laid, alright?"

I shook my head, gave him a little laugh as I walked back to my boat while I wondered just what the hell I'd gotten myself into.

_____________________

There was a knock on the side of my hull.

"Martin! You there?"

I trudged back up the companionway. The sky was full of dark, menacing clouds.

"You got that weatherfax on? Guy up on the dock said that storm has been upgraded to a hurricane."

I looked around. No women.

"No, I've had it off all afternoon. Come on down; I'll fire it up and print one off."

"No, that's alright," he said, then turned when he heard someone calling out his name. I looked down the dock and saw two women walking towards us. "That's them," I heard him say. "Come on, Marty," he continued conspiratorially, "don't fuck this up for me!"

I climbed up into the cockpit in time to hear raindrops falling on my cockpit awning, and looked up to see the women running the final few yards toward the boat. Shit! One of 'em was wearing high heels! Not on my teak decks! No!

That's what I remember thinking! Their shoes killing my decks!

"Shoes off!" Hank yelled as the women pulled up short. "Shoes off and hop on!"

_____________________

We were sitting down below. I had the weatherfax on and the VHF set to marine weather channel one. The hurricane, now a Category four monster - and building - was predicted to make landfall somewhere between Myrtle Beach and Cape Hatteras tomorrow about noon. We were right in the middle of the bullseye, so to speak, but in a well protected spot if ever there was one. Not much to do, anyway, but warp out some extra lines in the morning.

"Isn't this exciting!" Susan Cooke said to Hank. Susan was Hank's date. "Mine" was Betty Hutton, and she hadn't said much since coming on board. She just looked around at everything like she was taking inventory. Very weird and disconcerting.

"Yeah? I've never heard hurricanes being described as exciting!" Hank said. "I would think coming from this area you might have been through one or two."

"I'm new here," Susan said.

"I'm hungry!" Hank said.

"And I don't want to go out in the rain!" Susan said.

"Oh hell, Susan, it's not going to hurt you!" This from Betty Hutton.

"Well, there's always Room Service!" I said, and everyone thought that uproariously funny. "Uh, no, I'm serious. We're guests at the hotel, and they have room service. The guy at the harbormaster's office gave me a menu, and we're hooked up to the hotel's phone system"

Everyone looked at me like I'd just grown another head. It was beginning to look like this was going to be an evening for wine, so I went and fetched a bottle from the fridge and popped the cork.

"Ooh, I love Champagne!" bubbled Susan, but Betty looked at her with motherly concern.

"It's not the best in the world, but it'll do," I said as I poured four glasses. I went back into the salon and passed around the glasses. I watched as the women took a sip.

"Nice, very nice," Betty said appreciatively.

"Ooh, I love it," Susan said as she tossed it down. "Could I have some more?!" Betty winced as I took Susan's glass and walked back to the galley. I didn't hear Betty get up and follow me.

"What is that, Martin? Dom Perignon?"

She looked at the bottle and gasped as I poured Susan another glass, this time filling it to the rim.

"Don't do this. Don't do this, Martin." I saw Betty's mouth moving, but I heard Ruth's voice.

"I bought it for our anniversary. Won't be needing it anymore, so let me just get rid of the stuff, OK?"

Betty turned - clearly exasperated - and walked back to sit by Susan, and I saw Betty whispering in Susan's ear as I returned with the full glass. Susan's eyes went wide, and she frowned as I put the glass down. I put some music from the fifties on the CD player, and sat back to watch the festivities. The Moonglow Theme from the movie Picnic - one of our all time favorites - filled the boat with overwhelming memories, and I sat back and looked at the ceiling as my eyes filled with tears.

I heard people leaving the boat; footsteps on old teak - then the companionway hatch sliding open, followed by a blast of warm, storm-driven air - and they were, I assumed when I heard the hatch slide shut, gone.

"Sorry Hank," I said through my tears to the emptiness that possessed me. "Sorry to let you down like that."

"Oh, somehow I think Hank and Susan can take care of themselves."

I jumped at the sound of her voice. 'Ruth? Ruth? Is that you?'

I looked around the boat; the lights were now turned down very low, music continued to play softly - Dianne Reeves singing I've Got My Eyes On You - and I saw Betty sitting there in the gloom, right where she had been all evening.

_____________________

"Tell me about her."

I heard her voice, but she wasn't real, couldn't be real.

"Martin, listen to me." It was Betty again. "Hank's told me a little bit about . . . about your wife, on the telephone. You can't hang on to this stuff. You've got to let it go."

I looked at the woman - this stranger, really - telling me what I needed to do, about how I should handle my grief, and all I wanted to do was show her the way out, be rid of her, be alone with my memories of Ruth. Oh, Ruth!

"Listen, ah, Betty. I don't really feel up to this tonight, you know, so . . . If you'll excuse me."

"Martin, come sit down."

I could see this wasn't going to be easy. I remember thinking I probably looked like her Sugar-Daddy savior, come riding through town on his yacht-yuppie sailboat with big bucks in his pocket and just ready to carry her away to the bright lights of the big city.

You know, after jumping to conclusions so many times those past couple of days, you'd have thought I was getting tired by then.

No way. I had a couple more lessons to learn.

Little did I know I had just run into the teacher.

_____________________

Once upon a time, when I was an impressionable young man still in college, I had been an unconscionably optimistic person. I believed in people, in the joy people were capable of feeling in the company of others, and in the joy I was capable of giving others. I had, again - once upon a time - taken a philosophy class. Now that in and of itself is no crime, though of course I know a strong argument can be made to the contrary, but in any case, my motives for taking the class were pure in the extreme. The prof was a total babe.

Fresh out of graduate school, she was an untenured radically hip-chic that half the guys on campus had the hots for. Her classes were packed with jocks and the Big Men On Campus who were out to drown her classroom in testosterone and Aqua-Velva; pretty soon it was apparent that while Hip-chic (kind of) enjoyed the attention she was getting in class, she wasn't interested in guys that came to class wearing big gold chains around their necks and drove around campus at fifty miles per in their orange Corvettes - still in first gear, mind you. Just too many people moving around in circles, I suppose.

Her name was Ruth Jorgensen, and seven years after I took that class we got married.

She used to talk a lot about the geometry of the heart, about the diametric opposites that define how humans experience the, well, the human. These opposites insured, she maintained, that all human affairs were cyclical, that humans journeyed from one experience to it's opposite in endless cycles. Intellectual progress was impossible; as a species we were and always would be locked in a tooth and nail struggle for dominion over other humans because, she said, people couldn't learn from their mistakes. We were narcissists through and through. Egoists to the bitter end. In a Freudian sense, we were so blindly consumed with the playing out of our own death wish we couldn't make out the broad contours of the effects our lives had on others.

Now I know when people start quoting Freud it's time to run screaming from the room, but there was something about this woman's hopelessness that touched me. I went to her office in the faculty building one day after class was over, presumably to ask her a question about a point she had made in that days lecture, and as it happened no one was waiting in line at her office door (and I think it reasonable to add here that by mid-semester the jocks had given up all hope of nailing her, and had dropped the class).

She looked up when I knocked on her door, and seemed surprised to see me.

I think I asked her about rule utilitarianism - or some such bullshit - and that really threw her for a loop. I think by that point the poor girl had been propositioned by every pretender on campus. I watched her blink a few times as it registered that I was (shock! gasp!) actually asking her a question pertaining to - holy shit - an academic topic. I'm not saying the girl fainted dead away, but you could have heard a mouse fart in that office for the next thirty or so seconds.

Anyway, we talked for an hour or three and, to make a long story even longer, after a while she chided me about being overly optimistic about human nature. I asked her if it was possible that she was being - possibly - overly cynical. Again, a mouse passing gas would have made either of us jump in the silence that followed.

She pointed to a framed poster behind me on the wall, and asked me to turn and read it.

The poster was a photograph of Friedrich Nietzsche, with one of his more delicate aphorisms nicely printed along the bottom, under his scowling face. It summed up her point of view quite nicely: In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence, and loathing seizes him.

When you really get your hands around a saying like that, you can kinda see why the Nazis had such a thing for Nietzsche.

Anyway, I wasn't buying it that day. And after thirty years of marriage, I still didn't buy into it.

Only after Ruth said 'Oh!' and dropped to the asphalt like a sack of rocks did I buy into it; only then did Nietzsche become my patron saint.

_____________________

As we sat in the darkness below, the storm drew strength from the chaos of life on earth and an ill wind began to moan in the rigging. It's almost a cliché, I know, but unless you've heard wind in the rigging before, you really have no idea how deeply rooted that sound is in our - human - consciousness. And like the wind, as I sat down below telling my story to Betty Hutton, I drew strength from the chaos of my life, and the song of my sorrow bathed the womb of that night in tremulous decrescendos.

Ruth continued to work in academia for twenty five more years; we met again, quite by accident, when I came home from Vietnam, and just before I started flying for Braniff. We lived in Chicago most of our lives; even after Braniff went bankrupt I got on with a small airline, and eventually, with United. We had a boy, he loved to fly and followed my footsteps into the Navy.

He managed to get killed flying a peace-keeping mission in Somalia.

It's those little ironies that give Nietzsche his punch.

We worked hard after that, worked hard at playing our roles. Me, the perpetual optimist, Ruth the cynic who had turned her back on the basic assumptions of her life when she said yes, said she'd marry me. As we grew into the reality that life did in fact go on, as we accepted the basic preconditions of living, we decided to go after the one shared dream we had both harbored for so many years.

We'd buy a sailboat and explore our world. It was audacious, and we knew it, but it was our shining beacon. That dream kept us alive. One day, the dream became our shared reality, and we held it close.

Then my wife, the one love of my life, said 'oh' . . .

When I finished my tale, I looked over to see Betty Hutton in tears. Quiet tears of understanding. She knew where I was, what I was confronting.

She had never been married, never experienced having a child. She had worked in D.C.; worked for her uncle. He happened to be in Congress - had been for as long as anyone could remember, too. She had gone to Georgetown Law and straight to her uncle's staff; she had managed her uncle's one very unsuccessful run at the White House, and had remained on-board long after all the political hacks and wannabes had moved on to greener pastures. Her uncle had passed away a few years ago, and had left her more than a little money. She took some of it and opened up an antique shop in Elizabeth City, and when that didn't work out, she opened up the wine and cheese shop. She had wanted, she said, to live a quiet life near where she had grown up, and never wanted to see Washington, D.C., ever again.

Many of the people who frequented her shop were sailors passing through on the Waterway, and frequently she asked these patrons about their vagabond lives. She found these stories fascinating, and had recently begun to think about buying a boat of her own, about maybe taking a trip or two on her own now and then.

She said when I walked into her store that she knew in an instant our lives had intersected. All things, she said, happen for a reason.

She was, she said, an eternal optimist.

_____________________

The wind continued to build through the night while Betty Hutton and I stayed up talking, and I think it fair to say we were creating our own little storm.

"So, why do you think you feel this connection?" I asked her at one point.

"I don't know."

"Fair enough. What do you want from me?"

"I don't know. But I don't think that's the right question, Martin."

"Alright. What's the right question?"

"Why did you walk into my shop the other night?"

"I don't know. I wanted some Riesling?"

She smiled at that. I had to give her that, she was tolerant of my warped sense of humor.

"You're being obtuse, Martin."

"Thank God!"

Another smile. This time I smiled back. Was I flirting with her?

"Sun's coming up. Did you say you needed to do something with the lines?"

I stood and walked over to the chart table, tapped the barometer: 28.82 and falling. Not good. I cued up the weatherfax and waited for the query. A moment later the paper started to roll from the machine and a map of the weather system dropped into my hand. The hurricane looked like it was going to come ashore right over Cape Hatteras, much less than a hundred miles from here, but it had been downgraded to Category 3 and looked like it might weaken further as it drove north during the morning. I looked at the clock: it was seven in the morning! It should be light out, I said to myself, but it still looked like it was pitch-black outside.

It was time to go up for a look see, so I put on a jacket and headed up the companionway steps. I stepped out into the middle of a maelstrom. Rain whipped my face, and I saw a couple of loose lines flaying about on the boat next to mine, banging my teak decks as they danced around. I ran to secure them when I saw it.

A waterspout.

The sky was purple-black and pewter-green, yet the waterspout looked like a pale white snake writhing in the air as it danced along the water. I couldn't say for sure, but it looked as though it was headed right for us. I tied off the errant lines and ducked below, turned on the radar and waited impatiently while the unit warmed up.

"What's wrong?" Betty Hutton said.

"Here," I said as the radar came alive. She moved over to me while the glow from the radar screen filled the space around us with red and green shadows. "A waterspout. I want to get a track on it."

"Isn't that like a tornado? Where is it?" She sounded more than a little alarmed.

"There," I said as I pointed at the screen. Right on cue a Civil Defense siren went off. "It's about a half mile from here, headed up river."

"Is it going to hit us?" Now their was real tension in the air. I looked at the screen, held a little transparent ruler up to it and watched it for a moment.

"No. It's going to hit up on the far side of that bridge," I said with more confidence than I felt.

"You seem so sure of yourself. Do you get that from flying?"

"Hmm? Oh, no, I got that from being married to the biggest pessimist that ever lived."

_____________________

After the waterspout moved away from the area, I went back up and began to lay out extra lines to every cleat I could find on the dock. I - like every one else now working frantically on the dock - assumed that the breakwater and dock would keep the storm surge at bey and hold us securely in place. I figured if the surge was so bad as to swamp the marina we'd just make for the hotel and have a margarita or two. Hell, it was just a hurricane!

I walked over to Hanks boat; still no extra lines out so I knocked on the hull, called out his name. A couple of minutes later Hank's turtle head popped up from the companionway.

"You alright down there?" I asked him.

He smiled and flashed me a thumbs up. "How 'bout you?" he said, eyeing me with concern.

"Better get on up here; I'll help you lay out some lines. You just missed all the excitement."

"Excitement?"

"Yeah. Waterspout just blew by, right there by the bridge."

Hank's eyes went wide and he dropped from view. I heard some bumping around down below, and a moment later he popped back up the companionway and jumped onto the dock.

"Got any extra line," he asked.

"You gotta be kidding me!" I said, the disbelief in my voice clear. I went back to my stern locker and pulled out two extra anchor lines I kept in reserve and moved to help him tie them off to the pier.

"Betty still with you?" he yelled as a strong gust whipped through the marina.

"Yeah. That other one still with you?"

"Yeah. Miserable bitch!"

"Maybe we can talk about this later," I yelled over another particularly vicious blast. "Better get below!" I patted him on his wet shoulder and ran for my boat. When I looked around, he was still out there looking at the sky.

_____________________

I turned on the sailing instruments and looked at the wind speed. Unfortunately, the gauge topped out at a hundred miles per hour, and the needle was pegged at the maximum. I flipped on the VHF and listened to NOAA weather radio. Wind speed at the Cape was one twenty and rising, but the storm was moving rapidly now to the east, moving rapidly out to sea.

"I think we just dodged a bullet," I said to Betty. I had a chart out and began plotting the storm's center. Once she saw what I was laying out there on the chart she grasped the implications immediately.

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byAdrian Leverkuhn© 9 comments/ 13197 views/ 2 favorites

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