South of Oromocto Depths by Mitchell Toews

The kitchen was still except for the ticking of the Westinghouse range clock and a faint whirring sound coming from the back of the refrigerator. It was becoming light outside, but the birds were still quiet in the thick fog.

I padded silently across the cold floor, pulling a hooded sweater over my head. Surveying the scene, my hands on my hips like a construction supervisor, I shook my head slowly. The glass ashtray on the blue Formica kitchen table was jammed with white cigarette butts, overflowing. “Alpine” was printed in menthol green font and many butts were on the table. Black ash was mixed into spilled beer, the crummy remnants of a bag of Cheezies was in a large mixing bowl and orange bits also joined with the wet beer-ash mixture on the table.

The place smelled like bum. A single, long Alpine cigarette was planted in a round-edged pound of butter that rested on its unfurled aluminum wrapper. The cigarette stood proudly up from the butter – a lone palm tree on a deserted yellow beach. Evidence of a few taps of ash decorated the foil.

I heard steady breathing coming from the living room couch and could see my mother’s socked foot hanging off of the end, a fly walking along her bare shin like a mountaineer traversing a ridge between peaks.

Wiping the table, a damp dishrag in my cupped hand, I pushed plates, knives, forks, playing cards, potato chips, quarters and nickels, packs of matches and a BEER BELONGS bottle & can opener aside. I filled the sink with washables, and then piled the cards and loose change into a small wooden box with a green felt interior. Making steady headway, I gathered the last items from the table and dumped them into a frayed wicker basket on the ledge atop the pony wall that separated the kitchen from the living room, where Mom still slept. With a flourish of my rag, I scooped the last bits of noxious detritus from the now gleaming table and, in that same motion, stepped on the pedal to lift the garbage can lid and deposit the waste into the stained paper bag inside. An easy lay-up.

Outside, a squirrel chattered with annoyance and a crow cawed back, flapping up to land on the braided hydro line in front of the cottage. The bird nodded three times before taking off towards the lake.

I pulled open the fridge door and surveyed again as the sink filled with hot water, the pump rattling to life in the porch. The scent of Palmolive dish detergent temporarily cut the smell of bad breath, cigarette butts, and stale beer dregs. An odor like no other, it is certain.

A carton of white eggs, some leftover barbecued sausage, and a yellow onion now sat beside the wooden cutting board on the counter. Like a croupier at a Monte Carlo baccarat table, I used a large knife to slice out a soggy rectangle of soft butter from the end of the brick, taking care to exclude the Alpine cigarette crater and any residual ash. I plopped the pat of butter in the cast iron frying pan atop the mid-orange spiral element. It spat as it slid slowly to the low side, disappearing rapidly from the outer edges, leaving a lacy, white scum. I was concentrating on the pan, holding a large spoonful of chopped onions in readiness for when the last of the butter was melted. Suddenly, I felt my father’s bristled chin on my sunburned neck and simultaneously smelled his fetid rye whiskey breath.

“Two, sunny side up please.” he rumbled into my ear.

“OK, sure,” I replied, glancing at him as he wobbled back, turning to go outside. He stood uncertainly – a sailor on a gently rolling deck – and peed into an icy, gray snowbank that was the last of its kind, residing as it did in the day-long shade of the oil tank. With pouting lips, he squeaked back at the noisy squirrel, laughing at the angry response and then pulling up his fly with a shiver. I dealt diced sausage into the sputtering eggs and onions. Hash it was.

It was not long after the first clink of Dad’s fork hitting the plate — paired with the sinfully rich aroma of butter and fried onions — that my friends stirred and slowly shuffled out; scratching, stretching and yawning. Like my dad and me before them, they found places to stand on the back deck, saving a trip to the outhouse that stood across a moat of wet grass and rotted leaves. They came in one by one, rubbing their hands together and slapping their bare arms, stamping their boots off on the rubber mat by the door.

The tallest and thinnest was Dietrich. Narrow, bony shoulders, protruding Adam’s apple and clavicles, carpenter’s forearms swollen from pushing saws through wood and pounding nails. He was serious and burdened by propriety and the need to always put forward his best. Bound this way as he was, he loved to be around those who could not care less about what everyone else thought. Deet cared too much about appearances and saw it as the greatest freedom of all to be able to live without those cares. He envied those who could cut loose with abandon, his hazel eyes twinkling with delight as he watched.

“Roo” was Richard. Tall and raw, all elbows and angles he was a Lab puppy of a boy-man. He was the designated Mom of any road trip and always brought an extra pillow from home or remembered band-aids or hid a mickey of Southern Comfort in someone’s uncle’s hedge and found it just as the party was dying. He was a dangerous rebounder; leaping sinew and grit to get the ball, then flaring his elbows high and pivoting hard to leave purple bruises on biceps – friend and foe alike. I often thought he was the best of us, but that never would have occurred to him.

Last of our fishing foursome was Bradford. Unlike the others, he was kind of puny – though somewhat lean I suppose. He had buck-teeth and Jesus Christ Superstar, parted-in-the-middle hair. Elf-like, he had large, always dirty, incredibly smelly feet which he wore bare in his sandals from Victoria Day long weekend – this weekend – to as far into November as he could stand. As soon as he switched over to winter footwear, it was the cheap leather moccasins we had all worn back in grade six. Not warm, not stylish, but exceptionally well suited to bumper shining; the art of latching on to a car, truck or a School Bus bumper (the Rosetta Stone of bumpers) and sliding along on the icy road, before the sand trucks got out to ruin the fun. Bradford insisted on smoking Drum tobacco – “for effect – chicks love it,” he maintained. He had an annoyingly jaunty, affected exaggerated heel lift in his step and carried around a writer’s notepad to record inspirations and messages from his muses. Apparently his muses had taken some sick days because there was nothing in the book but a few random words, an old list of things to pick up for his mom and, optimistically, several girl’s names and phone numbers.

These three sat with my dad at the table and quietly reconstructed the previous evening as my mom murmured lip-flapping snores from behind the nearby pony wall.

Dad was sipping a Carling Black Label and tomato juice in a draft glass that I had stolen from a beer parlour. He chuckled softly as Deet recounted how my mom had insisted on ashing her cigarette in the butter. His face red from containing his laughter and keeping his voice down, Deet explained how he kept pushing the ashtray to her and she would persistently move it out of the way and continue to tap her cigarette into the butter.

“The thing was,” he intoned, his voice cracking, “that her cigarette was not lit anyway.”

We all laughed, which started Dad coughing loudly, and caused Mom to suddenly sit bolt upright on the couch, her head a car crash of tousled hair and deep sleep creases from the corduroy couch cushion embossing her cheek and forehead.

“WHAT!” she demanded loudly, in full alarm mode, after waking up from the noisy coughing and laughing.

Our laughter pitched up and she tended to her hair with her free hand, the other having reached up to regain her balance on the ledge. The squirrel scolded again from outside the front window and she got up and hurried to the bedroom and closed the door with a soft click.

After eating, we gathered our gear and began loading it into the homemade cart we had to take stuff down to the dock. Dad stood watching without interest, alternately cleaning the sleep from his eyes and buttoning up his insulated plaid shirt. He mumbled something and Roo looked at me and smiled a bit, indicating with his eyes for me to respond.

“What was that, Dad?” I asked.

“You going now?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Whatabout the fog?”

“S’not that bad.”

“Whatabout dead-heads?”

“We’ll go slow,” then I added, “Brad will sit on the front deck and look out. I know the way – been there a hundred times in the little boat.”

Dad muttered something and turned suddenly to go in, opening the screen door with a squeal of the spring-loaded hinges. The four of us loaded the cart and took turns making trips to the boat. “OK,” I told the boys, “It’s almost seven. Let’s get a coffee for the road and get going.” They agreed and we walked through the fog, parking the empty cart under the cottage.

Mom and Dad sat in the kitchen, each with a cigarette burning in the ashtray and glasses of blood orange beer and tomato juice in front of them. A bottle of Canadian Club had been opened and given over as fortification to the Bloody Marys. Mom had a pair of Dad’s pajamas on and sat with one bare foot hiked up on her chair, absentmindedly picking at her toenails.

“Stupid kids,” Dad murmured, a bit of a hard edge to his voice. “Going out in an over-loaded boat, in freezing water, in PEA SOUP. Stupid, stupid.”

“You got that right Mr. McAdam, sir,” said Roo, doing his best shit-eater Eddie Haskell grin and knowing that he could do no wrong in my dad’s eyes anyway. Then he laughed infectiously — just a big, happy kid — and the mood broke. We crowded around the coffee pot, Roo pushing his immunity by pouring a few shots of CC into the big thermos we were filling. My dad shook his head and blew a steady stream of blue smoke up towards the knotty pine ceiling, adding to the thick layer of nicotine stuck to the clear varnish.

Mom spoke. “You should not go up to the narrows in the fog!” Then she added, “What about other boats? It’s the first day of fishing, eh.”

We all looked down, except Roo, who smiled at Dad, as if to say, “Women!” or some such. But Dad also looked down and nodded his head, his shoulder muscles working as he did. I grabbed the thermos and we headed for the door, pulling on ball caps and taking toques from the shelf and pushing them into our jacket pockets.

“Stupid kids,” Dad said evenly, eyes straight ahead, looking out the kitchen window at the neighbour’s aluminum clothesline – which looked like a broken umbrella turned inside-out by the wind.

“Got your fishing licenses, at least?”

“Yeah,” we answered in unison. Boys choir.

“Life jackets?” Dad said, but before we could answer, Mom called in a reedy voice, strongly,

”And you better wear them too!”

“Yeah,” we sing-songed again, grinning self-consciously and feeling, reluctantly, like “stupid kids”.

We left, Dad staring out at the clothesline, which held many blackened clothespins and a single Red Wing Blackbird. The bird trilled while gripping the plastic coated cable stretched between the evangelically uplifted aluminum arms.

It took about a half-hour to get the boat going, all of us red-cheeked by the time we finally managed to turn over the 35 H.P. Chrysler. “This motor is too big to pull-start.” declared Deet, expressing exactly what we all had thought a hundred times.

“But it always starts,” I assured them. “It hasn’t run for a week and we should have got it going last night, but it was too dark when we got here. It’ll run good, don’t worry. Plus the battery should be charged now – so no more pull-starts.”

We let the motor warm up. It idled in baritone, gurgling as gray smoke rose up out of bubbles that popped on the surface behind the big white motor. Every half-minute or so it ran slightly faster, then vibrated, shuddering back down to the lower idle speed, sometimes coughing unexpectedly.

Deet was staring through the fog at the shore and had a worried look on his face. It was my dad. His plaid shirt was off and he wore a white t-shirt from the bakery, yellowed with sweat at the armpits. He was a big man in the chest and shoulders. He walked gingerly, his unlaced workboots adding to his already unsteady gait over the rocky path to the dock, intersected as it was with roots. He carried the 26-ounce bottle of Canadian Club loosely in one hand, two fingers collaring the neck. The bottle was nearly empty.

“Have a drive, drinker!” He called out, his eyes locking on mine. They were small and mean like those of a dog you had to watch. “If you’re gonna be stupid, be REAL stupid.” Then he laughed, releasing my eyes and turning his gaze onto Roo, who laughed too readily, showing his hand.

Dad stepped uncertainly onto the planks of the dock, his footfalls like hammer blows as he walked up to the boat. We were untied and Bradford sat cross-legged on the fiberglass foredeck of the 16’ foot speedboat, his hand resting on the steel pipe that stood at the end of the dock. He wore a wool newsboy’s hat, his rain poncho, an orange life jacket and was, of course, barefoot in his Moses sandals. A strand of repurposed, plastic-coated clothesline circled his waist and was tied to a chrome cleat on the boat. My Dad stopped, swaying slightly, and stared at Bradford.

“Don’t tell me,” he started, “You’re gonna toss this barefooted one out and troll with him, right?”

“Troll the troll!” piped up Roo, a freshly lit Export “A” clenched between his teeth.

“Bait for fish with poor taste!” Deet offered, smiling meekly.

“Troll this!” yelled Brad, grinning and gesturing lewdly from his awkward position on the bow.

We all laughed, including Dad who looked down – suddenly fondly – at us as we sat in the idling boat. We had packed our gear with care and the boat, while full, was orderly. “Shipshape,” Dad said, nodding and sticking his lower lip out. The engine was warm and ran smoothly, the running lights were on and would stay on as long as Deet’s electrical tape repair job held.

A loon called loudly – we could not see it because of the fog but it was close.

“Foghorn,” Dad said to himself, stumbling a tiny bit but catching himself in time as he stood thinking. All of a sudden, he bent over, pushed the bottle down at Deet, who put his hands up – no mas. Then Dad shoved it at me. I took the bottle, smelling the alcohol clearly in the still air. The loon sounded again, this time clucking to gather her chicks.

“Drink,” he insisted. I tipped the bottle back and swallowed the inch or so of sharp, hot-tasting rye. My eyes teared and I almost retched. He stood laughing, rocking back onto his booted heels. Roo shook his head, smiled and commented with a bemused tone, “Just another routine morning at the OK Corral!”

“Let’s go fishing!” I said, my voice wet sounding and deeper than usual.

“Yeah, GO!” Dad yelled. “Hundred miles an hour!”

Brad let go of the pipe, then re-gripped it and gave it an emphatic Wheel of Fortune tug to propel the small boat noiselessly, out into the fog.

“HUNDRED MILES AN HOUR!” Dad commanded, his shout echoing. The loon stepped up her clucks to a rapid warning warble that meant, “Come now!” to her brood. I heard Dad suck in a loud breath, then his footsteps retreated.

I slipped the gear lever out of neutral and into forward, the control cable catching and making a zipper-like sound as it rubbed against a sleeping bag’s nylon cover. Just to be sure it was OK, I turned the motor off and worked the gear shifter back and forth rapidly a few times. It was stiffer than normal but seemed to work. I rolled the steering wheel back-and-forth through 180 degrees. Even though the action was a little sticky and made a rough burring sound, the tall, upright outboard turned when I rotated the wheel so I supposed it was alright. I restarted the engine, idled it back and forced the shifter into forward. The motor clunked into gear with a shudder and I could hear the soft prop wash break the still surface behind the boat as we started forward.

“Don’t forget — HUNDRED MILES AN HOUR!” he bellowed from the shoreline, now pointing a finger north towards the narrows we would take to reach our camping spot.

I thought about gunning it for just a minute. I imagined Brad falling back against the windshield, his sandaled feet splaying out in front of him; of Roo howling; and of Deet grinning. I thought of my Dad’s face as he heard the engine roar and saw the gull-white wake shoot out behind the transom.

But, something stopped me and instead I advanced the throttle just enough to step up the RPM to the speed of a fast trot. It was speed enough to flap the little Canadian flag on the stern. It made a “slap-slap-slap” sound. I heard the metallic thrum coming – impatiently, it seemed – from the motor as the propeller pushed the boat ahead. A second later I could hear the shushing sound of the bow wake as water was pushed aside by the V-hull. We moved forward through the glassy lake, the boat sitting low in the water and nosing down because of Bradford’s weight and all of the gear stowed forward, under the bow deck. The boat was aimed at the neighbour’s massive wood dock – built of stolen cedar telephone poles and rough sawn 2X10s. We headed towards it at a good clip and I twisted to wave at Dad as I began to turn the bow out to open water. But the wheel was rigid and would not move. I yanked harder, then with two hands, but we held our course, rushing towards the thick, weathered posts. Brad turned half-way around and raised his eyebrows. “Ahoy, Cap’n, sir – Hard a-port?”

I looked down at the wheel for an answer. The bezel read only “Mayport 16 – Chrysler Marine”. I pulled the throttle back and again it resisted. Forcing it, I heard a fabric-tearing sound behind me, then the motor bucked as the gear lever jumped into neutral. The boat rocked fore and aft but still kept heading steadily for the dock, not losing speed. I turned the wheel and it spun emptily, making a plastic, rattling noise, now completely loose. Little Bradford was cursing, reaching between his crossed legs to grab the helmet-shaped light housing to keep himself from sliding off the slick, dewy fiberglass when we struck.

With the hulking dock looming ahead, I frantically pulled back on the shifter to put it into reverse, but it was jammed. Brad was struggling to get a grip on the housing when the boat abruptly jerked to a halt sending the open thermos flying and tossing Bradford forward, his wool-capped head plunging into the water and his feet disappearing beneath the surface.

We stopped at almost the same instant that:

  • my dad, wheezing, appeared on his knees on the dock poised to catch the prow of the boat with his hands like a punter taking a snap . . .
  • my mom screamed, “STOPPPP!”, from the foot of the path about 50 yards ahead of us, her mittened hands waving in the air . . .
  • the loonlet loose with a full-alert cry and could be heard flapping in a web-footed, running aquatic take-off in the fog behind us . . .
  • a loud, wet “SPLOOSH!” sound came from just behind the boat . . .

I hardly knew where to look first. Brad, my mom, my dad and the loon were all making noise, as were Roo and Deet who were doubled up laughing in the back of the boat.

I turned off the motor. Bradford stood blinking and sputtering; his eyes very wide and water streaming down from his soaked woolen cap. He was in no danger, though, having immediately popped up in the shallow-but-freezing-cold water beside the boat.

“Damage report Mr. Zulu,” Roo shouted uproariously, his hat knocked sideways and his face red with excitement and laughter.

The blue boat bobbed innocently beside the dock. My mom came running up and stood next to where Dad was on all fours, panting. Roo stood pointing at the taut rope stretched out behind the boat, angled down into the dark water. Deet leaned back in relief; his breath a puff of white vapour, the anchor rope coiled tightly around one hand. His face white, Brad slid himself back up into the boat and I sat rigidly gripping the useless steering wheel.

Roo began to narrate an explanation, thinking for a few seconds first to get the sequence right. His young voice rang out brightly in the damp air, “The control cables snagged on the sleeping bag ‘cuz we had squished it into the side compartment too tight. The bag ripped and that cloth got all bunched up in the cable pulley. That made the gear shifter stiff and also forced the steering cable to pop off its pulley. That’s why you had no steering at the end.” He paused, taking a quick drag from his smoke. “We were gonna ram that dock so Deet threw out the anchor.” He grinned, one-hundred percent triumphant. “Deet and I could see the whole thing happening in front of us. It was like an NHL slo-mo replay.”

We were quiet, resting like the engine which clicked as it cooled. Just then, we heard the whistling, staccato beat of the loon’s wingtips as it came back in, banking low and hard. Out of the fog came the distinct, rushing sound of the smooth landing on the waveless water. She then immediately began clucking for her chicks.

 

Mitchell Toews

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

5 thoughts on “South of Oromocto Depths by Mitchell Toews

  1. “The place smelled like a bum.” I love it. Last week I was re-reading H.s. Thompson’s Generation of Swine. It seems that people who are involved with cigarette boats warrant special watching. You’ve created another good read.
    L.A.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I have forgotten everything else about this whopper of a story of friends, folly and uncaught fish, I will remember the cigarette stuck in the butter and the representative loon and her chicks. Best wishes, June

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Mitch,
    Some stories are all about the story and some are about the journey and both when done correctly are a treat to read.
    This is all about the journey and it is a treat to read.
    I reckon this is crying out to be read out loud for others to savour and listen.
    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Liked by 1 person

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