Short Story | Doldrums by T.R. Schaefer
Scott had just finished his brisk early morning walk to the nursery and was back at his house looking over the yard. There was no coffee stop at Matilda’s café today as he often did, but it was a good walk nonetheless. It was early spring, and winter residue was evident everywhere: brown grass, scads of broken branches, and a scattering of stubborn leaves from the previous autumn. Winter hung on a bit, but he knew before long it would be time for the clean-up and planting new grass seed, filling holes, and straightening the foot lamps along the front walk.
He looked forward to the official end of winter and counted the days until the first day of spring with its earlier sunrises, much later sunsets, and the promises of summer fun not too far off on the horizon. Summer meant good times down the shore at “The Hook”, on the beach in Spring Lake, or at the lighthouse down on L.B.I. He liked to do the bookends of summer, starting it with a day at the shore on Memorial Day weekend and ending it with a day there again on Labor Day weekend. In between, any day on or near the water was a win!
As he thought about all this, he looked back up the street with its lovely long meandering dogleg to the left and all the fine houses on each side. He liked all the old trees, the well-landscaped and manicured lawns, and the spaciousness of it all. The homes in his neighborhood were all situated well back from the street on lots of an acre or more, so the landscape was one of vast open areas between homes, not like the more recent developments where the houses were practically on top of each other – so close you could almost smell what was going on in your neighbor’s bathroom. There were advantages to choosing to buy into an older, established neighborhood, but there were some disadvantages as well. He thought living was better balanced with more space, green, and privacy. He thought this neighborhood was a good choice.
His eyes came to rest on that one house that was different from all the others just diagonally across the street. He didn’t know who lived there and had only seen the guy outside a few times. The house was not like the others – it was always dreary despite the season, like an old forgotten dock that had succumbed to overgrown weeds, rotted pilings, and collapsed decks.
He wondered about this house and the people who lived there – his neighbors he had not yet met. When asked, his other neighbors knew little or said little about the family that lived in the lonely house where nothing changed much, as if asking was a bad omen and should not be tempted. He looked back again, and at first, it all seemed the same – the overgrown shrubbery, the two older cars parked in the driveway, and the strange palette of garbage cans of all different sizes and colors lined up along the garage.
He counted ten serviceable garbage cans, which seemed to stay the same. Other cast-off items litter the property – garden tools, patio chairs, and BBQ grill. At the edge of it all was the boat resting on its aging trailer cocked at an odd angle down the driveway toward the street. It was still there as it had been for the past three years, with the small Danforth anchor clenched at the bow, some of the standing rigging still in place, and the running rigging lines draped carelessly over the starboard gunwale. Nothing was adequately stowed or prepared for long-term storage; it was just hastily left undone. A tall metal ladder was set up at the bow, and a rusting wheelbarrow was just to the side. Perhaps there had been plans? Still, there it was – a sailboat that never seems to move – caught in the doldrums.
What a shame, thought Scott. It was sloop-rigged, about eighteen feet long, with an open cockpit. From a distance, it looked like it might be a Flying Scot or perhaps a Catalina 16. It probably cost about $10,000 when new – an excellent little daysailer for weekend family outings. Still, this sailboat had not kissed the water in some time and seemed as bad a condition as other abandoned boats he had seen at marinas when absentee skippers “forgot” they were boat owners to avoid storage, maintenance, and upkeep costs. Sadly, it happened more often than not. It seemed wrong to him, just as it seemed wrong to see the tennis courts he saw from time to time around town that were all set up for play but with no players – an empty court just standing there waiting.
The older silver-grey Toyota Prius beside the boat had no hitch and was not built for a tow. Had this craft ever made it to the water? The NJ state registration number was still evident on the bow. Its black block lettering and numeral sequence only slightly faded. There may have been a time, but how long ago?
Lots of questions and few answers. Then Scott looked again more closely and saw that something had changed and he had missed it. Everything about the boat appeared the same, but it wasn’t. The mast was down – it had been un-stepped and was now stowed as though ready for a road trip. On his walks, he remembered looking over at the boat, seeing that mast standing upright in the wind like a small obelisk or a lone marker, sturdy and defiant, a reminder of just standing there against the elements. Now, it had been moved, put in place as it should have been. Scott took his cap off and scratched his head – this was interesting, but what did it mean? He walked back toward his house, thinking about making his first cup of coffee. He always liked that first cup of the day because it was full of possibilities.
A week later, on Saturday morning, Scott was just finishing his walk again and saw the guy in front of his house at the curb messing with his mailbox. He was about average height, a bit thick in the middle, with a full head of sprawling gray curly hair and wearing wire-rimmed glasses. He wore crumpled khaki trousers and a pretty dirty sweatshirt that read L.B.I. across the front. Scott thought they could be close to the same age, but the man was stooped over and looked older. A meeting was unavoidable as Scott walked past, trying to figure out what to do – better still, what to say. He decided to go for it.
“Good morning. My name is Scott- I’m your neighbor. I live with my wife Karen just over there across the street. We haven’t had the chance to be introduced.” How lame to say that after three years in the same neighborhood. Why had so much time passed? The man said abruptly, “Sid” and nothing else.
Scott ventured and said, “Noticed your sailboat there in the driveway,” pointing to it stupidly as though the man (Sid) did not know where his boat was!
The man did not turn to look back at the boat and just eyed Scott for a long moment. His demeanor was severe, like that of a scientist or an undertaker. His deep-set brow reminded Scott of a war-weary soldier who had seen too many bloody battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was stooped and looked very tired but still strong and determined. “You spend time on the water?” he asked.
“Yes, some, mostly with friends, but I don’t have my boat yet. I plan to get my own and look forward to it one day. I hope to be out there.”
His thoughts washed back to the glorious days sailing with his friend Buck out in Long Island Sound aboard his magnificent 44 ft. Beneteau. Those were some great days on the water. It didn’t get much better than that, and the post-cruise cocktails back at the dock were not bad either. Nothing to do then but watch the sun go down and wish you could start the day all over again.
Sid was not impressed, but his shoulders eased, and he turned to face Scott. As he turned, he said, “Boats can be fun, sure, but they are much work. They can become an unwanted burden.” His thoughts seemed to drift off to a different time in a different place.
“Used to go out with my son Ben down to Barnegat Bay,” he offered. “Sometimes we would take the girls – my wife and his sister Hannah, and we would all go for the day, but most of the time, it was Ben and me out there on the water.”
There was a long, awkward silence. “Not anymore, not for some years now.”
He looked again over at the graying sailboat and continued. “Ben was a fine sailor, keen at gauging the wind, liked to sail close-hauled, and was not afraid to take her into deep water.” He was as at home on that boat as he was in any place in his life.
There was another pause that dragged slowly into an awkward silence. He said his daughter Hannah lived in Bergen with her husband and their son Billy.
Scott replied, “Sorry to hear that. You would want to get that boat back in the water?”
“Nah, not anymore,” the man said, turning back to look at his sailboat again – the boat that had been hurriedly parked in his driveway and cocked at the odd angle.
Scott moved a bit closer and said with too much enthusiasm, “I like working on boats and would be happy to lend you a hand on the weekends if you want to get her back in shape for the season?”
“No, I don’t think so. There is no wind in those sails anymore. Just can’t quite decide, you know – what to do.” He took a deep breath and held it for some time. Scott pressed again stupidly, “We’ll. Let me know if you need some crew to help you with her down on the Bay. It is usually a great time down there. I’ll take any opportunity to get out on the water. ”
With his last look, Sid frowned and said dryly, “Lost Ben to leukemia, same as his grandmother. It is a terrible thing for him to go so young. So fast and so young.” Scott hurried his reply, not taking reasonable time to process all this severe new information.
“I’m very sorry to hear that; I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for you…. “ Then his voice trailed off to his offering of silence. He felt himself backing up a few steps. Then he put his hands in his pockets and felt stone cold.
Sid slumped again and said, “Got to help my wife with her medications.” He turned and strolled back up the driveway toward his beached boat and to whatever darkness awaited him inside the house.
Memorial Day weekend that year was fabulous, and Saturday was an absolute stunner. Scott and his wife made the trip down the shore to spend the day at the Hook. The warm air and sunshine were the best tonic invented to forget winter’s ice and snow and cheer on the 100 days of summer ahead. When they returned and drove down their street, they relished the sea of green – all the trees filled out and waving in the breeze, excellent green grass across the expansive lawns, and flowers blooming radiant colors in their garden plots.
Scott parked the car in the driveway and thought about how best to tackle unpacking all the beach gear. He was hungry for a cold beer and would rather eat first, but best get it done. As he went around the car, he looked back down the street. It was such a welcome view, and he felt so fortunate to have had such a wonderful day. His gaze wandered over to the graying yellow house several doors down. What he saw was different, very different. There were just four trash cans in view, and they were all the same color and size, neatly arranged by the garage door. Nothing was around them – not like it was. No ladder and no wheelbarrow. No, nothing out of place. The Prius was parked in the driveway, but the boat and trailer disappeared. He thought it had been there that morning, but then he was so intent on getting gone that he didn’t remember.
Scott leaned on his car and thought for a moment. The old guy finally got rid of it. It was too much to hang on to and too much of a reminder of all that was lost. I hope it finds a good owner and returns to the water. That is where it belonged, after all.
As he finished this thought, Scott saw a gleaming blue Chevy Silverado pickup truck pull up to the curb in front of Sid’s house. A young woman popped out of the driver’s side. Sid and a young boy of about 7 or 8 years old popped out of the other side of the truck. The young boy was excitedly talking about a blue streak as he held onto Sid’s left hand. As they moved up the driveway, Sid saw Scott by his car. Scott could see Sid was wearing a Skipper’s cap straight out of Gilligan’s Island. As Scott looked back at him and started to wave, Sid slowly raised his right arm and touched the bill of his cap with a slightly cupped hand. Scott saw the salute, and his throat went raw, so he swallowed hard. In reflex, but with deliberate recognition, he touched his cap similarly.
Something as old as the sea passed between the two men. Sid turned and continued to listen to Billy as they made their way back up the driveway to the house. Hannah followed close behind, carrying a life jacket in each arm, one small and one large. Scott stared down his street and felt a joy he could not describe. No more doldrums! This was going to be a great summer indeed.