The first day of autumn! And the last day of sailing before leaving the island. I had one last chance to beat the club record before the end of the season. Bobby Parsons was the one who held the record and unless I could sail the course faster than his best time I’d never hear the end of it from my father.
The only sound on the breezy street was the rhythmic squeak of my bike chain as I pedaled up West Avenue toward the club. Already the neighborhoods of Beach Haven were looking like fall. Little kids on their trikes all gone now, driveways without cars, garages locked up, a fresh bite to the northwest wind that poured across Little Egg Harbor. The sunlight looked hard.
Why did it have to end so lonely every year? If the town was any indication, the club would be cold and empty too. Passing the tennis courts told the story. Gates locked, nets gone. It came to me that even if I could go out and beat Bobby’s best time, who would know it besides me? Would the fleet captain take my word on it? As I pushed my bike into the rack I realized I’d have to find somebody to hang around long enough to time me. By the snap of the flags on the club yardarm it wasn’t going to take long to make it around the course. The club’s handy man might be around. Maybe he could take enough time away from his work to click a stopwatch a couple of times.
I found him around back coiling up hoses.
“It’ll cost you five bucks,” he said. “I’ve got work to do.”
“Five dollars? That’s pretty steep just to click a stop watch.”
“That’s your problem. Your father is loaded. Get it from him.”
“It’s my last chance this season, Caleb. My father is working today. How about if I give you my wrist watch to hold until I get the money?” I snapped the watch off and held it out. Caleb leaned over to look at it like it was radioactive.
“I mean it! Take it, Caleb. Just until I give you the five. Then you give it back. Okay?”
He took the watch, slipped it over his hand and snapped the band closed.
“Fits perfect.” he said.
“But you have to promise that you’ll give it back.” I said. I handed him my stopwatch. “I hate to ask, Caleb, but you do know how to work one of these?” He looked at me.
“What do you take me for?” He shook his head and walked away. But he must have had second thoughts, because he turned and said,
“Just wave your arm when you start. I’ll time you all right.”
“I’ll be passing between the flag pole by the dock-house and the red number eight.” I pointed. “I’ll holler and wave when I think I’m crossing.”
As I tacked out to the starting line, I realized that as usual in the fall, the wind was stronger than it felt on land. It was going to be a fast circuit. If I can keep from going over, I thought. I noticed that despite Caleb’s reluctance he was standing on the float with a big smile on his face. He had the stopwatch in his hand. As I sailed by he raised his arm to show me. I saw him mouth the words, “Five bucks!”
When I waved my arm he made a show of pressing the button on the stop watch.
By the time I rounded the first buoy the wind had picked up. Maybe I should let Bobby keep the damn record, I thought. There’s always next year. It isn’t the worst thing to be second, despite the look on my father’s face when I told him that Bobby Parsons was ahead of me in the standings.
Except for an old cat boat away off I was the only one out sailing. Somewhere across Little Egg Harbor near the Tuckerton shore was my windward buoy. As soon as I rounded it I would be home free. I could slide back to the club downwind and slip across the finish line. I hoped that Caleb would be there to click the stopwatch. It was going to be his word against Bobby’s father, who was the official timekeeper of the club’s races.
When I cleared Duck Island the wind picked up even more. I saw the catboat, boom out, heading across the bay toward me. Somewhere along the line, watching the cat boat and moving fast, I must have gotten off course because before I knew what was happening my boat fetched up hard on a sand bar, stopped dead, and I was sailing out of the boat head first, arms and legs flying.
When I came to I was lying face up in the bottom of a boat with a coat over me. My head was hurting like anything. Above me, a big tan sail was flapping and somebody was looking down at me with snappish black eyes. All I could think of was how long and white his beard was.
“You’re back with us then? Good. The way you went flying through the air I thought for a minute there you was thinking you was a bird. You busted your mast up real good.”
“I thought I saw it snap,” I said.
I started to sit up but he put a cool hand on my forehead.
“No!” he said. “Don’t sit up. Not just yet. We’ll be nearing shore in a bit. That’ll be time enough.” He pulled in the sheet line and above me the sail filled out and water started to trickle past the boat close to my ear.
“I guess the current took me,” I said.
“Where you out from?”
“Beach Haven,” I said. “How did . . . .”
“From the yacht club, are you?”
When we sailed past the dock he let me sit up. Caleb and my stopwatch were nowhere to be seen. The old man spun the catboat almost in her own length and made a neat landing at the float.
“Are you feeling well enough to climb out?” he said. The black eyes snapped and he reached out to help me. By the time I clambered out of the catboat and turned to thank him he was already free of the float. I still had his coat over my shoulders.
“Your jacket. . . .” I shouted. The old man just waved. He said something I couldn’t hear and the next thing I knew Caleb was walking toward me calling my name.
“What the hell happened to you?” he said.
When I told him, he said,
“Where’d you get the old coat?”
“From the old man in the catboat,” I said, looking at the jacket for the first time. It was a worn-out plaid mackinaw with huge brown buttons on the front and patch pockets. One of the pocket flaps was torn.
“That one right out there,” I said, turning. But there was nothing on the bay except steely-gray white-capped waves as far as the eye could see - no boats, no sails. The old man had disappeared. Maybe around Duck Island, I thought.
“Whooey! You smell like fish!” Caleb said. He handed me my stopwatch. I felt my head. There was a huge lump on top.
“Listen,” I said. “I’ll go home and get the five dollars. If I can’t make it back today will you be around tomorrow morning? I’m suddenly not feeling so hot. I think I loosened my brain.”
“Forget about it, kid.” He pulled my watch off his wrist and handed it to me. “It was nice to feel like a rich man, even if it was only for a day.” Caleb’s face seemed to be swimming in and out.
I was about to make one of the best decisions I ever made. I thought of how my father would react when he saw Caleb with a gold watch and said, “You know what, Caleb? Put the watch back on! It’s yours. And wear it in good health!”
When I tried to mount my bike I nearly fell because I was too dizzy. So instead of leaving it at the club like I should have if I’d had my wits, I rolled it all the way down West Avenue to Nelson Avenue, its pedals turning slowly as I walked. By the time I got home the blurry vision had passed so maybe pushing the bike all the way home wasn’t so stupid after all. I hung the old mackinaw in the garage near where I keep the bike.
I’ll say one thing for my mother. When she heard what happened she wasn’t mad. She felt the lump on my head and immediately filled a plastic bag with ice.
“Here,” she said. “Put this on your head. And don’t tell you father what you did until I say so. You’re in no condition right now.”
After my father left for work the next morning I went down to the garage. In an inside pocket of the mackinaw I found a cork float with an old-fashioned iron door key dangling from it. There was also a tattered store receipt in the same pocket. I carried it over to a window and read it. Across the top, in faded-out printing it said “Billy’s Bait & Hardware”. Underneath, scrawled in pencil, I was able to make out the words,
Ephram Sayers, 24 Battersby, Tuckerton
1 Swiss Army penknife $6.98”
The rest was illegible.
I had just got my driver’s license that spring so I didn’t know whether she would do it, but I went upstairs and asked my mother if I could borrow her car.
“How’s your bump?” she said, handing me the keys. Then she hugged me. “Just be careful!”
When I reached Tuckerton I had to ask where Battersby Street was, I never would have found it on my own. It was a small dead-end street and there was only one house and a couple of outbuildings on it. The number “24”, carved out of wood, was nailed on the clapboard next to the front door. When I knocked and told the lady who I was looking for she peered at me through the screen door then asked me to come in. She insisted I sit on a little wooden rocker just inside the door.
“Can I get you anything? A cup of tea? I have some nice cookies.” she said. She was so old and slow that I felt like it should have been me getting tea for her but in a couple of minutes she managed to serve up hot tea in a tea pot and some really delicious home-made cookies on a little cloth napkin.
“Now then,” she said. “I don’t hear so well anymore so tell me again who it is you’re looking for?”
“I came to return something that belongs to you,” I said. “Let me run out to the car. I’ll bring it right in.”
When I went back in with the mackinaw there was another lady in the room.
“This is my daughter Emily,” the old lady said. I just nodded and handed Emily the coat.
“Where did you get this?” she said.
“That’s why I’ve come,” I said. “I wanted to return Mr. Sayers’s jacket. And his key.” I pulled the rusty key out of my pocket and held it up by the little cork float. "It was in one of the pockets."
When she reached for it her face was suddenly red. Her lips had all but disappeared and she was staring at me hard. I couldn’t imagine what I had done to get her so riled.
“I also wanted to thank Mr. Sayers for rescuing me yesterday when I ran aground out on the bay and knocked myself cold.” I said. I touched the lump on my head. “See?”
Instead of looking she stepped back.
“I think you should leave,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re trying to play at, but we don’t need anybody coming around here rattling up dead memories. My mother is old. She’s had enough pain in her life.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m not trying to play at anything. I just wanted to return Mr. Sayers’s coat and. . .”
Just then the old lady made her way across the room and lifted the jacket away from her daughter.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s Ephram’s. It’s Ephram’s mackinaw!”. She held the mackinaw up to her cheek and started to cry.
Her daughter glared at me. “See what you’ve done?” she said. “Please leave!”
I started again to explain.
“And have the decency not to say another word.” she said. She went over and pulled the door open.
“Now, if you please.”
On an impulse I pulled the old sales slip out of my shirt pocket and handed it to her. She stared at it then looked up to say something but I just walked out. While she watched through the screen door I climbed back into my mother’s car and drove out of the little street. I was completely bewildered. I didn’t even know how to begin to think about what had just happened in that little house. Or for that matter, about most of the events of the last two days.
When I got back across the Causeway to Long Beach Island I decided to stop at the club to put a notice on the bulletin board about my lost dinghy.
The club still had its abandoned look of course. I found a sheet of paper, scribbled a note about my lost boat and thumb-tacked it up on the bulletin board just inside the back door.
“What’s that for?” I jumped. It was Caleb, standing just behind me.
“My boat,” I said. “Maybe somebody will find it.”
Caleb looked at me funny. “Huh?” he said. Then he shrugged and walked away.
I went outside again and headed across the yard toward the car. I happened to glance through the fence where the small boats are kept and I stopped in my tracks. Something was out of order. All the boats were bottoms up in their racks, except one, which was right side up. I felt like my head was going to explode. It was my dinghy! And the mast and boom were in their customary places right next to it.
With shaking hands I opened the gate and went over and ran my hands along the varnished rail. After a bit I slipped the mast out from beside the boat and stared at it, sixteen feet long and straight as an arrow.
Then I saw it. Lying inside the boat on the neatly folded mainsail was a brand-new, bright-red Swiss Army penknife.
Suddenly more than anything I wanted to go home to where I knew my mother would be waiting. I left everything as it was and went out to the car and drove along lonely, empty West Avenue all the way down to Nelson, where it ended. I made my turn and pulled up into our driveway. Just before I went into the house I reached up to see if I had a lump on my head.
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