In The Water
by Sean Burke
The water was so cold he struggled to gather his thoughts. It took Hank a couple of minutes to piece together what had happened. One moment he was kneeling on the starboard side of the deck trying to twist the fuel cap open and the next he was clutching the boarding ladder on the stern, his left arm wrapped around the bottom step, his right arm hanging loose and worthless, wrenched from its shoulder socket. He supposed that when he went to stand and reach for the gas can he lost his balance and fell overboard. After he hit the water, Hank somehow flailed his way around the hull. He did not have a lifejacket on. Not even the kind that only inflates when you pull the tab which he promised everybody, because they all asked, that he always wore. He chuckled, grimly.
“Shit,” Hank said.
He tried to breathe deeper and slower. His mouth was already brined and sticky from accidental, panicked mouthfuls of water. He pressed the side of his face against the bottom step of the ladder, the wood smelled sweet and raw . He closed his eyes and tried to calm the thoughts racing through his mind. After a few more moments, the half-century-old C-130 pilot training kicked in and he began to run some calculations in his head. Water temperature a week before Thanksgiving in the Chesapeake Bay would give him about five minutes before he started to lose the dexterity he had left with one working arm. He probably had at least another thirty minutes of consciousness remaining. But that was assuming the gash that burned and stung over his left eyebrow was only superficial. Regardless, he had to get out of the water. He chuckled again at the notion. He wasn’t in bad shape for a seventy-nine-year-old, two-time cancer survivor but there wasn’t any way under any of the laws of physics with which he was familiar that he could imagine pulling himself up that boarding ladder.
Hank closed his eyes again to think some more. The ladder on the dock posed the same challenge. And, while he may be able to thrash his way thirty yards over to the shoreline he’d probably drown when he reached the sheer, stone block wall he and Nate had installed fifty yards in both directions.
“What a mess,” Hank said and then coughed water out of his lungs.
Yelling for help was no use either. Out on the little peninsula, there wasn’t another house to the north of them and the next closest property to the south was several hundred yards away. Besides, he could not remember ever seeing the Toronto couple who owned it after Labor Day. Hank and Nate picked this place in part because he was enamored with how remote it was. Despite the pain and the cold and the percolating fear, a quick smile crossed his face thinking back to the first time they saw it.
It was the year they both turned thirty-seven. Hank was flying for the airline by then and Nate had just been named full professor. They felt like they were working all the time and worried their youth was getting away from them. So, like any good American couple facing a few of life’s unanswerable questions, they bought something. The thirty-foot sailboat was a rash decision. It had been fifteen years since Hank handled a tiller or raised a sail but it was also love at first sight. Ten-foot beam, five-foot draft, teak deck, relatively new sails and an inboard, thirty horsepower Atomic four that gurgled and purred without complaint. They could tell the boat had been tenderly cared for by the retired pharmacist who was heart sick to sell her.
“She’s been around awhile but she’s still pretty and won’t let you down in the weather,” he told Hank on the phone when they made an appointment to look the boat over. They gave the old man his price, shook on it and told him to come sailing with them whenever he felt the urge.
“What’d we just do,” Nate said laughing as they pulled out of the marina lot. Hank could only smile, ear to ear. By the time they reached home, they had decided to keep the name the old man had given her, Now or Never.
Two days into their first big voyage, a week-long sail up and down the Eastern Shore, they passed the peninsula on their way to an anchorage in the Wye River basin. Nate was sprawled opposite him in the cockpit, soaking in the late afternoon sun except for where his baggy shorts and the book on his face were covered. He leaned across and gently shook Nate’s big toe to wake him.
“Babe, take a look at this place. It’s beautiful, right?” Hank pointed at the shoreline a few hundred yards away.
Nate lifted his head to squint over the side of the boat.
“Sure. Nice,” he said trying to feign interest before he eased down again to drift back into his nap.
It was a simple, two-story, white cottage but even from a distance, he could see it was a solid, well-tended home. Several stately pines lined the neatly-trimmed stretch of grass between the screened back porch and the breakwater. They were thoughtfully spaced far enough from the house so as not to be a threat in a storm while still providing shade across much of the yard. Alongside a starch-white tool shed, a small vegetable garden thrived. The sturdy looking dock had a Catalina tied to it just about the size of their boat and Hank wondered how deep the water was on the approach, imagining Now or Never docked there. He smiled picturing casual, cocktail parties on the lawn and late night, boozy conversations with friends around a firepit. As he stared back longingly, he lost the boat’s bow to the wind and the genoa started flapping.
“You alright, hon?” Nate frowned, one eye open.
Embarrassed, Hank pushed the tiller hard over to fill the sail again. “All good, just daydreaming.”
They anchored an hour later in a vacant cove and took a naked sunset swim, scrambling effortlessly in and out and around the boat to do back flips off the bow. They made love in the forward berth, bursting into laughter each time they bumped an elbow or a knee against the bulkhead. They dove back into the cove to wash themselves and float on their backs, silently watching the moon and stars reveal themselves. Burgers off the hibachi, 20-year scotch and a cool breeze from the northwest put them soundly to sleep. He thought of that cottage a few dozen times in the six intervening years. Then, on a random Sunday morning in November, as he and Nate shared The Washington Post on the sofa, fate came calling.
“Hey, hon,” Nate sat up, put his coffee on the end table, folded the paper and tapped Hank on the knee with it.
“Hmm?” he did not look up from the crossword, annoyed at being bogged down and interrupted.
“Look,” Nate tapped him again with the paper. “Isn’t that the house? Remember? That little house you love. The one you almost ran us aground mooning over.”
“What? I never ran us aground. What house?” He snatched the paper from Nate.
And there it was. For sale. For auction, technically. That afternoon.
“Shit! Baby! That’s the house. That’s our house. Oh my god! They’re selling it!” He was standing now and striding out of the room. “Today. Shit. Today! Get dressed, Nate. We got three hours.”
God, we were young, he thought, shaking his head, readjusting his left arm, now going all pins and needles. Thirty-six years ago, last week. He chuckled again and started coughing. He shook his head to clear it. The burn from his forehead gash and the lightning bolt of pain behind his eyes shocked him alert. How long had he been dreaming? His left arm was numb but he could still wiggle most of the fingers on his hand. He could not feel his feet. He had no watch on and was certain he left his cell phone on the back porch, nervous about dropping it in the water, again.
“Nate will come soon,” he said, “he’s already worried I’ll let dinner get cold.” But then, after a few moments, his hypothermic brain cruelly let his memory kick back in.
Three glasses of wine, a hit of pot and socks on the back stairs. Nate had been cooking all afternoon and went up to shower before their guests came over. Hank was at the far end of the yard cutting some wildflowers for the table so he had not heard the accident. There likely had not been much to hear though according to the coroner. Nate’s neck snapped when, after losing his footing, he must have spun around to try to catch the railing, missed and then tumbled and slid backwards and headfirst into the landing at the bottom of the stairs. Their guests, Tom and Stan, the other gay couple in town, arrived to an ambulance and two police cars filling the mustache-shaped, gravel driveway. They found Hank sitting on the breakwall, in shock. Months later they recounted to him that all he could do was apologize about dinner and for having no shirt. He’d stripped it off to put it under Nate’s head while he waited for the ambulance.
“Charlie’s coming. Charlie. Charlie. Charlie. That’s who I meant. Charlie will be along,” he said to himself.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to take deeper breaths. He couldn’t feel his butt or genitals or nearly anything under the water. Any movement of his torso resulted in white hot pain tearing from his right shoulder up into his skull. He unclenched and clenched the fingers of his left hand, burning now with the cold.
“It is Thursday, isn’t it?” he said.
Charlie came over on Thursdays. Charlie called him Uncle Hank but he wasn’t really. He was his cousin’s son and he ran Tom and Stan’s bed and breakfast now since they’d mostly decamped to Palm Springs. Hank got Charlie the job the summer after Nate passed. His cousin asked him to pick Charlie up at the rehab center about thirty miles south and drop him off at BWI for the flight home to California. But, when they got to BWI, Hank just circled through the departures and got back on 95 South headed to the Eastern Shore. Their two-hour conversation concluded in resolving that Charlie didn’t want to go home and Hank could understand that. Neither of them knew where he should go but taking some time to think about it seemed to make sense. A week later, Tom and Stan hired him as a handyman, room cleaner and gopher. Three years later, they hosted his wedding reception and another three years after that they turned over the keys. He saw Charlie every Thursday evening for a drink on the back porch and most Sundays at the bed and breakfast for brunch.
“Charlie is going to be so pissed,” he said. He’d been resisting the persistent encouragement from Charlie and his wife to come live with them in town. They promised to give him the separate carriage house and told him they’d clear out a spot in the garage for his car.
“I’m just waiting to come find you out here sprawled in the yard, broken hip, seagulls using you for target practice.” Charlie taunted Hank regularly with a long list of colorfully gruesome and embarrassing scenarios for his near demise that would result in a move into town anyway, albeit with far less dignity. Charlie had not come up with this one yet though. He laughed just before a swell lifted the water up into his nose and down his throat and into his lungs. He coughed it out again.
He closed his eyes, just for a minute he told himself. When he opened them again it was dark. His head throbbed behind his eyes. He could feel the ladder stuck in his left armpit but he had no sensation below his shoulders in either arm. The water lapped under his chin. The cold and the salt made his entire face feel injected with novocaine. He thought he heard an airliner overhead. He stretched his neck back and looked up and winced as the frozen muscles burned. No plane but a clear night. Maybe the same night sky he and Nate gazed upon in that peaceful cove so long ago. He smiled and tears stung his eyes and blurred the stars, glowing and gauzy. He sobbed once, deeply but he smiled again. He missed Nate. God, he missed him. It had been a really good life though, hadn’t it? Maybe he could just let go. He blinked his eyes trying to clear them. He’ll let go. Let go and see Nate. He blinked again and again and again, trying to clear his eyes to see their stars, sharp and bright. One more time. He closed his eyes. Held them shut. Just breathe, he told himself. Breath. Stop crying. So I can see our stars and let go. He took several deep breaths. Just as he resolved to open his eyes again, the flashlight swept across his face.
Sean Burke lives outside of Washington, DC with his husband and their grumpy French bulldog. When not writing, he works a day job to pay for a yard to grow raspberries and the slip fees on an old sailboat. Sean’s flash fiction piece, A Silver Maple, has been selected for publication in Fragmented Voices’ upcoming anthology, Hearth.