Babs calls for more coffee by clearing her throat, that phlegmy cathedral. A capable hired someone replaces old toast; Babs touches her hand, inquires about a sick sister. In the presence of strangers, she reverts to a neutered, geriatric queenliness—our plump, bighearted Mum with her new aortic valve.
Alone again, I remind Babs that a certain crucial putter-downer, Dr. Bisbee, is mackerel fishing.
“Maybe Dr. Bisbee could use him as bait,” quips Babs. “Maybe he could use him as a drag anchor.”
I understand what is not being said.
“To think of the money we wasted on schooling,” Babs sighs. “Best to cut our losses.”
Babs precision jams her toast. Her cobra neck de-bellows. I have agreed to nothing and yet. The threat of my insurgency, such as it ever existed, apparently has passed.
The sun crests the stone-and-mortar seawall of our home, what the happy haters in town have taken to calling Compound W (“If you can find the humor,” Babs counsels, “the joke is no longer at your expense”). My feet sweat but I do not kick him off. To him, no matter the weather, the world has always been experienced as a cold place.
“A burial at sea,” I suggest to Babs, who, like me, favors the emotional cover of a ceremony. I do not offer, because I know that she would want it: As proof, I will bring you back his heart.
In the boathouse I choose a shellback named Dunderchief (“If you can see the humor”), a dinghy built as a father-son bonding project by a father who was not me and a son who was not mine.
He stalks me around the boathouse, hews hotly to the back of my knee.
“Shall we,” I say, “pack a fishing rod?” He likes, not to eat the mackerel I catch, but to play with them on the floor of the dinghy until they perish of fun.
I wave the rod. He cowers in the shadow of a defunct generator.
I wave the rod again. He pees on the floor.
This makes me angry. Not because he still, despite the pricey advanced graduate degree he’s received in bladder control, cannot control his bladder. I am angered by his unfounded fear of me. I state it now: I have not once in his handful of spastic years on this Earth struck him. Rarely have I raised my voice, save those few times when we were in the field together, when I called his name and he failed to respond, and I grew worried that he’d been outsmarted, yet again, by a lesser creature that caught his fancy, a retarded woodchuck maybe, or a three-legged vole. Always I have protected him from Babs, who smelled the cowardice in him early.
A capable hired someone wheels Dunderchief to the boat launch. I load our gear (fishing rod, concrete block, rope). I slot my oarlocks and glide us past the dock, pretending this is any old day. He sits proudly in the stern and tries to eat the wind. I am forced to reflect on the time that he jumped out of Dunderchief, mistaking water for a surface you can walk upon and how, in my efforts to drag him back into the boat, we both nearly drowned. I am forced to reflect how, despite these blunders, his misapprehension of the most elemental things has always struck me as endearing. I am forced to reflect how it is possible that he, as Babs would contend, is all my fault.
Tiring of misapprehension, he retrieves from beneath the thwart a little American flag, a leftover from the Fourth of July parade, a synthetic rectangle of fabric stapled to a dowel. He holds the dowel in his mouth and the wind whips the fabric against his face, covering his eyes.
I pull us through the channel, rainbow-pocked with lobster buoys.
“What say we visit our island?” I say. The island is our foxhole. From its protective interior apocalyptic sunsets have been safely observed, enemy cocktail parties evaded, the ticking time bomb behavior of certain upsetting family members temporarily deactivated.
Why not give him one last taste of fun? I reason ...
After all, concrete blocks do not melt, not even in the new kind of heat for which I’m, to varying direct and indirect degrees, presumably to blame. If I decree it, we have time to kill first.
I struggle against the current at the cove’s narrow mouth—it threatens to yank us out to sea—and glide us aground. He serpents past, waits panting on the beach for me to throw something. But there’s been a full-moon tide and the beach’s rock pate has been sucked bald of hurlables. I grab his abandoned chew toy, detach the flag from the dowel and drape the fabric over an oar.