by George Mahoney
My father had collapsed at his office desk. The dry Kansas soil covered his casket the weekend before I flew back to the Green Mountain campus perched atop the gridiron of streets sloping down to the lake. Immediately after settling in my dorm, with a backpack stuffed with Cooper novels and trail mix, I biked down to the harbor and staked out a park bench. For a few weeks, after a load of morning classes, I wanted to sit here and fill the void gaping wide as a crater within me.
I felt this lake was mine. Now, as I read and gazed at its expanse stretching to the foothills of the Adirondacks, followed the sailboats moving silently in and out of the harbor, and relished the scarlet sunsets if I lingered longer, maybe I’d find some peace.
On the second day, I noticed him lumbering to the dock, indistinct in his baggy overalls and oil streaked t-shirt. The Hemingway face with a peppery beard and leather skin creased by a thousand rivulets caught me. I watched his fishing boat with faded paint flaking off its hull chug out of the harbor and return two hours later, dwarfed in the wake of luxury yachts. He passed by me with a few fins flapping in a pail and disappeared into the downtown traffic. At the end of the week, he stopped.
“Ye do a lot of readin.”
“Try to. Courses, you know.”
“Go to that there college.” A jagged finger pointed upwards.
“Yeah, my last year.”
“Nice place, I reckon. Walked around it once. Never had a head for learnin.”
“Maybe you’ve got a better deal here.”
“Well it’s somethin to pass the time.”
Brief exchanges and nods marked the second week. I wanted to catch the warm days before the autumn chill forced me indoors. That Friday he inquired, “Ever been out on the lake?”
“No.” I lied. I longed to go out now.
“Wanna ride with me tomorrah? I don’t want to take ye from yeur readin.”
“No,” I protested, “I’d like that.” I felt like a kid invited to his first circus.
The following noon with a soft breeze on the grey waters and cirrus clouds flecking an azure sky, we sputtered out in his craft with a trail of smoke following the motor. The fisherman grabbed the helm in the small top cabin. In denim cutoffs and college cap, I sat on the side bench.
“Reckon we’ll head to the middle. Got some bites around there.”
He steered out of the harbor and around Colchester Head into the open waters. I watched the tanned, stubby hands with hairy sprouts grip the wheel. Different from the tensile accountant fingers I studied spellbound as a boy. My father punched numbers into the keyboard like an accomplished pianist.
Picking up speed, we headed north. On the horizon, Grand Isle stretched like a drowsy cat. After turning off the motor, he pulled out two rods. Metallic lures danced on their lines.
“Sure.” I had travelled this lake but never dropped a line in it, or any other.
“Like this.” The burly arm snapped high in a short arc. I followed in his wake.
For the next two hours, we swung out our lines and hauled them back. He pulled in three before I got a nibble, then a bite. A small perch. Two more followed.
“Not bad.” His steel grey eyes applauded. “Don’t wanna overdo it.”
“I’m alright.” I didn’t want the afternoon to end.
“Another time. How about gettin in some more of the lake?”
The motor spurted. We headed west towards Valcour Island.
“I used to like to do this with ma boy.”
“Yup. He got the better of me. Could haul in pails of ‘em.”
“Is he around here?”
“Nope, left fer the big city, New York, maybe fifteen years now. Too quiet up here fer him.” The eyes receded to a distant time.
“Works on those tall buildins,” he continued. “Must be the Mohegan blood in us. They say the Indiuns are good on the tall buildins. Did ye know that?”
“No.” That explains the tawny complexion and sharp profile.
“Went down there once, me and the wife. His mom used to worry about him.”
“Does he come back?”
“Sometimes, never quite know now. More so when she was alive.”
“When did she die?” I noticed the gold band wedged into a calloused finger.
“Five years, about this time too.” I hesitated but wanted to know more.
“Was it sudden?” I finally asked.
“No, she lingered something awful. Wasted to skin and bones, she did.”
“Must have been hard to see.”
“I’d get all nervous, and she’d kick me out. ‘Go to yeur boat,’ she’d yell.” He turned towards me. “I wanna drop on the spot. No lingerin around fer me.”
“Don’t do it now, please.”
“I’ll try not to.” I caught a gleam in his rigid eyes.
We approached the island’s southern point, sticking out like a thumb. Boarded summer cottages speckled a cove. We entered the narrow channel where Benedict Arnold’s bloody defense delayed the British for a crucial winter. I spotted where divers discovered his sunken gunboat, now restored at the Smithsonian.
“They say a lot of history happened here,” he commented.
“Is that so?”
“Still a purdy spot.”
Further north we passed a jetty guarding a sandy beach with children splashing in cool September waters. In back of them rose a line of beige condos surrounded by mottled maples. Across a road, carpenters hammered into place another row.
“Lots of buildin these days. Sort of spoils things.”
“Yeah.” I pictured verdant shores long lost.
Moss-covered bluffs stood erect before the cup of Plattsburg harbor. Loaded barges and grey tankards slumped at the wharves.
“Not as purdy as our side.”
“No, not at all.” Our side, that feels good.
We circled round to Cumberland Point where a flat-bed ferry, packed with cars, crawled across the channel to Grand Isle. We turned south skirting the isle’s perimeter past its fishhook harbor. He curved around a clump of rocks.
“Used to be a lighthouse there. Some woman bought it and put it in a museum.” He pointed south.
“No need to do that. Nice where it was.” The bearded jaw tightened.
“Some changes are hard.” My mind wandered.
He steered homeward. Sailboats, catching the late afternoon breeze, whirled past us. The harbor stood bathed in a golden glow that floated up the hill to the college cupolas. Cocktail hour laughter drifted out from a yacht club bar. Early diners scanned menus at nearby tables.
I watched the veined hands steadying the wheel through choppy waters. I wanted to reach over and touch them.
“I might settle down here after graduation.”
“How’s that?” He seemed surprised.
“If I land a teaching job somewhere near.”
“Ye may miss home.”
“Need to make my own sometime.”
The hull bumped the pier. I coiled a rope around a wooden pillar while he tossed the anchor over the stern.
“We are going out again, aren’t we?”
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George Mahoney has had varied and well-travelled careers as teacher, priest, and consultant. His short stories have been published in The Storyteller, The Iconoclast, and here. He facilitates two literary groups at the local library in Englewood, FL.