by George Mahoney
By mid-morning, we finished packing the back of the pick-up truck with boxes of clothes, linens, books, and high tech gear. In faded red letters, Haley’s Garage stretched across the truck’s sides. I wanted to take the station wagon, but he insisted, “More room here.” I cringed at the thought of driving up to the campus green in this eyesore and unloading at Cameron Hall.
“That should do you for a while,” he concluded. “I’ll change and we’ll be off.”
At least he’d do that. I recalled my embarrassment during high school years, especially after earning my way through study and sweat into the honors class and onto the soccer team. I befriended classmates whose parents ran the sporting world around Lake Placid. Mine ran the local garage. He sauntered into all the parent meetings and to the sideline of the soccer field, in the same baggy overalls and grease-stained shirt. He might have slept in them. Usually tight-lipped, at the games he howled like a lone wolf on a mountain. I was torn, happy at his interest but wondering what the other dads in their Polo shirts and Ralph Lauren slacks thought. I once suggested a change of outfits.
“What’s wrong with this one?” he asked and shrugged. “It keeps a roof over our heads and food on the table.” I gave up.
We climbed the porch stairs. While he went inside, I sat in the corner wicker chair and peered down on the small, sandy cove circled by tall pines. Many summer afternoons I spent there with buddies. Once, as we played touch football near the waters’ edge, I saw the bird rise from the top of a tall pine, fly out over us, and disappear over Valcour Island. I wondered where. Later that day, tanning on the beach, I watched him glide back onto the same perch.
“That’s the one,” I yelled.
The others had vacant looks, as if they left their brains on a closet shelf at home.
“You know that bird, the osprey, at the museum. You know over there.” I pointed beyond the island to the other side of the lake. A few weeks ago, our eighth grade class crossed on the ferry for a biology trip to the college on the hill.
A few days later, from this porch, I spotted him again. I insisted on binoculars for Christmas. Then I watched that critter soar across the waters and pictured myself up there with him.
The screen door thwacked. They appeared. He in his new Wal-Mart dungarees and denim shirt (I should have known), and she with a plaid apron wrapped round her paint-stained blouse and jeans. A bandana covered her carrot curls. Rudy the Repairman and Rosy the Riveter.
“Well, how do I look?” He paraded around the porch like a fashion model.
I gulped. “Fine.”
“I was gonna get decked in Gucci, but it wasn’t on sale this week.”
“That’ll be the day, Hank,” she said. Her eyes were puffy. A trembling hand held a red cooler. “Here, that should be enough for the crossing. There’s something for later too. You shouldn’t have to scout around your first night.” I took the cooler.
“Sure you don’t want to come?”
“Easier this way.” Her calloused hand rubbed my freshly shaven cheek. She stood back and smiling looked me over in the plaid shirt and navy chinos she had pressed this morning. “You look real nice.”
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be fine.”
“I know you’ll be. It just will be different.” She wrapped me in a scissor grip. “You let us know if you need anything.” My jaw tightened as I nodded.
He looked at his watch and cleared his throat. “Hey, if you two keep this huggin’ stuff up, we’ll be wavin’ at the ferry.”
“Don’t be so fidgety, Hank. You got time.” She rolled her eyes and sighed before vanishing though the door. Another thwack.
The tires scraped along the gravel road past the other Victorian cottages with their wrap-around porches. Five years ago we moved up here from a mill house by the garage. The neighbors were polite, but we sensed a silent snub: Aren’t you out of your element? The last house on the bluff, a Bates Motel with shingles, shutters, and roof slates sliding off. We got it for a song at auction, what with Widow Rollins’ cadaver decomposing for two weeks on the living room floor before the police broke down the front door. Rosie and Rudy hammered and plastered it into shape. I was shuffled from one room to another as the sheetrock and paint brigade pushed on. For two years, house and grounds looked like an outlet for Home Depot. Nothing to complain about now. Even got some begrudging compliments from the snubbers. On a clear day, the view from the porch reached over the waters past the lumbering islands to the green hills below the towering peak of Mount Mansfield.
We veered onto the asphalt and curved down into the harbor. Cars and trucks bumped over the steel apron of the docked ferry. The attendant directed us into the reserve line behind a packed Chevy Tahoe.
“Holiday traffic. Big day at the park,” I commented. Today hikers would pack the trails of Ausable Chasm.
“Will you miss it?”
“Sort of.” I knew part of me would. For the last four seasons there, I hopped from clean-up patrol to tour guide. I saved every nickel for this move. Otherwise, I’d be destined to assist at the garage. I wanted something better. Then the day my biology teacher wrote ornithologist in big green letters on the whiteboard, Yes, that’s it, I thought. I’m going to study those awesome feathered creatures gliding above us.
“She’s taking this hard,” I said. “I mean it’s not as if I’m going off to Boston, you know.”
“She’ll get over it.”
“I could come back on the weekend,” I half-heartedly offered. Ever since that biology trip, I waited for this day to fly across these waters and settle on the Green Mountain campus. I let out one big Yes when the acceptance letter came. A small scholarship and a few student loans paved the way.
“You stay put.” He glared at me with his jaw as rigid as a Mount Rushmore carving. “Settle in.”
The attendant waved, and the line of cars tugged forward. Our truck rolled into place smack in the middle, behind the Tahoe. A girl with long, auburn hair as alive as the waters around us hopped out of the passenger side and glanced back at me.
As we headed to a side bench, the stack horn bellowed. An attendant pulled the chains across the back deck. Like a movie camera, I watched the choppy waters in front of Valcour pass by. I couldn’t picture life without this lake. Just going to the other side, I reminded myself.
“You’re happy I’m going, right?”
“Of course I am.” He folded his arms and watched a row of cloud puffs marching on the horizon.
“What is it?”
There was a long pause before he answered. “Just thinkin’ of somethin’. Don’t know why, but then maybe I do.” His eyes stayed fixed on the horizon.
“Well, are you going to keep me guessing?”
He sighed and turned to me. “There was a time when I wanted to do what you’re doin’. You know, small town boy. You ferry over to the big city and think maybe you could come here.”
“So why didn’t you?” It was the first time we spoke about his early dreams. He was the father I knew as garage owner and handyman, content in greasy overalls.
“Well,” he stammered. “The war came. Two of my buddies got drafted. I knew my turn would be comin’, so off I went.”
“Well, what about when you came back?”
Another sigh. “Well, grandpa said he could sure use me.”
“But you could have gone if you really pushed for it.”
“Let’s say the jungle took the college out of me.” One side of his mouth arched as he glared at me again. I changed the subject.
“You always were the top mechanic, huh?”
“Well, I knew my way around cars, you could say.”
In silence we munched our turkey sandwiches. Across from us, the girl stood by the front chain with two older people, all decked out in Land’s End casuals. A light breeze caught her wavy hair.
Flecks of clouds touched the blue sky like a painter’s brush. Behind the girl, a few sailboats glided into the open lake. Back of them, I spotted the fishhook harbor of South Hero. These waters flowed in my veins. Inlets and islands, we visited them all.
The memories came back like spring streams rushing down the Adirondacks into the lake. They floated in and out of my mind.
* * *
One spring day, the truck pulled up to the house with a shipwreck in tow: split mast and boom, warped deck, and hacked hull.
I jabbed, “Where did you dig up that heap?”
“Got it real cheap.” He beamed wiping grease-covered hands on his overalls as if they didn’t have enough already.
“I bet. The neighbors will really think we’re hillbillies now,” I added.
He snickered and scratched the side of his neck. “I know you’d prefer the Rockefellers, but you’re stuck with us.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.” He folded his arms and surveyed the boat. “You wait.”
He unveiled it that fall in the harbor, a 24’ Bermuda sloop, polished and painted, with a fore-and-aft rig. He raised the sails and brought us one evening to the middle of the lake to catch the sun setting behind Mount Marcy. Afterwards the invitations came to me unexpectedly, continuously.
One Saturday morning in spring, he shuffled to the breakfast table as I gulped down the Cheerios.
“You know about the salmon hatchery on Grand Isle?”
“Yeah.” My bio teacher had just showed pictures of it. “How did you find out?”
“Just googled it.” His eyes widened like a kid at the circus. “Come on.”
We zipped down to the dock and motored the boat through Valcour channel.
“Look, Dad, there he goes.” I had my binoculars to catch the osprey hovering over the water, with his massive, mottled wings spread like a royal canopy.
“He’s getting ready.” The bird plunged into the water and emerged with a wiggling trout in its talons.
“Awesome radar. He never misses.”
I sat on a plank on his right side. He steered the rudder with one hand and moved the rope of the sail boom with the other. A steady breeze filled the sails as he shifted them from one side to another. Birds darted in and out of the craggy nooks of Cliff Haven. As we glided into the bay outside of Plattsburg, he tapped my shoulder with the rope.
“Huh?” My jaw dropped as I felt the force of the wind on the rope.
“It’s time you learned.”
“Now? You could’ve given me a little warning.” My hands shook.
“What good would that do? Just shut up and listen.” He sat at the rudder and directed me to tack starboard, then portside. The wind filled both sails. We flew past Cumberland Head into the open waters. A barge heading westward out of the port moved in front of us.
“We’re gonna crash,” I yelled.
“No we’re not. Pull hard starboard and hold steady.” I doubled the rope around my hands and pushed my feet against a bottom beam. Every part of me felt sweaty. The boat turned and went parallel with the barge before it shifted north towards the mouth of the Richelieu. We sailed straight across to a dock below Grand Isle’s ferry slip. As the sloop bumped the pier, I groaned.
“I don’t believe we did that.”
“Okay, we had lesson number one. Now let’s find this place.”
Summer days, coaching and sailing. We navigated the passages by Isle La Motte and North Hero, and glided across the Quebec border into Missisquoi Bay. We cruised down the Vermont side past grassy fields and farm silos. I tacked while he sat silently. Soon I took it out on my own and bragged to my school chums.
His assaults continued. I heard the thump on the stairs before he knocked on my door.
“I’ve been googling about Ticonderoga,” he announced one morning like a preacher quoting the Bible. “You know all about it, don’t you?”
“A little.” I opened my history textbook to the star-shaped aerial photo of the fort.
“Same one I saw.”
“Maybe I should quit school and take up goggling.”
His lips smacked as he nodded. “It’d save us a heap of money, and I could whip you up some overalls at the garage.” I blanched as he grinned. “Figured as much. Let’s go.”
With an autumn breeze at our back, we sailed south. At Essex, the lake narrowed into the shape of an alligator jaw. Decked in those baggy overalls and a rumpled Yankees cap with his sandy locks sprouting about the edges, he surveyed the terrain like an Iroquois scout.
“There she is.”
The fort appeared like an eagle’s nest set on a mound guarding the bend at the end of the lake. We docked at its base. As we climbed the slope, he hooted, raised his wiry arms high, and danced in circles. I blushed.
“I feel like one of them Green Mountain Boys,” he shouted. When a park ranger frowned at us, I rolled my eyes and tapped a finger to my head.
We made a pact. I researched and he charted the course. Within the next month, as Lewis and Clark, we sailed to explore strategic mounts, historic homesteads, and restored gunboats.
One summer morning, as I read on the porch, he bounced up the stairs with big grin.
I intercepted him. “What did you google now?”
“Nothin’, wise guy. I wanna show you somethin’.”
We jumped in the truck and zipped down to the harbor. As he headed to the ferry line, I looked puzzled.
“No sails this time. Maybe another.”
On the other side, we turned south. We circled around a town green with a bandstand in the middle like a cake decoration.
“Hey where are you taking me?”
“Humor me.” He stared ahead as the truck rattled and bumped on a country road. “Don’t know why I didn’t bring you before now.”
After passing a covered bridge, we turned into a parking lot marked Shelburne Museum. We walked by a round red barn and a carousel packed with cherubic children. He glanced at the site map and headed down a path lined with white clapboard buildings.
“Been a long time,” he mumbled, “almost forgot where it was.”
On an open field, next to a squat lighthouse, a white passenger ship with three open decks stretched out. A black smokestack rose behind the curved pilot’s house. The gold letters on its front announced TICONDEROGA.
We stood in silence. I felt we were in a church.
“Isn’t she a beauty? Last of the big steamers that travelled the lake.” I was surprised that he didn’t ask me to research this hulk before we came. I sensed something different about this trip.
“You went on her?”
“Sort of. Come on. Tell you later.”
He led me up the passenger plank. We strolled along the polished decks and descended the grand staircase under a gilded ceiling. Touching the cherry and butternut wood panels of the stateroom and first-class cabins, he seemed lost in another world.
“Over here.” We climbed down metal stairs and stood before a massive furnace with its iron door open. Piles of coal filled three wooden bins along a side wall.
“Took a lot of coal to move this baby.”
We moved to an adjacent compartment containing three sets of bunk beds fastened by chains to the side of the ship. He examined each bunk and then turned to me.
“Your grandpa worked here. Shovelled coal back there, slept over here. That berth.” He pointed to an upper bed in the middle.
“Before the garage?”
“Yeah. Took me on the last ride of this bugger before they pulled it from the lake. I was an imp. Only time he ever rode as a passenger.”
He looked at me. “Shame he didn’t know you.”
I knew the story. As I was kicking in her belly, they dashed to the hospital. With a pocketful of cigars, he drove back to share the good news and stumbled over the body in greased work clothes on the garage floor.
* * *
A breeze caught his thick, sandy hair with its touches of grey, and for the first time I noticed the wrinkles sprouting from his eyelids like rivulets. He leaned against the steel railing framed by the sky and the waters. I realized the lake was part of me because he gave it to me. A chasm wider than Ausable opened inside me as I imagined life without him, covered with grease, fixing cars and boats on the other side.
“We’ve gone everywhere around here,” I said.
“And we’ll do it again.” I yearned to relive an adventure with him.
He folded his arms and raised his head. When the lower lip curled over the upper one, his chin stood out like the prow of a ship. Then he turned to me. “We did it at the right time. You have other things to attend to.”
“Well, I hope you won’t sell the sloop.”
His weathered face fell back laughing. “And we won’t rent your room out either.”
My hand reached out and held his veined wrist tightly. “I’m glad.”
The ferry passed the jagged edge of Colchester Point dotted with clapboard cottages. Children splashed near a sandy cove. The cup of the harbor extended before us with a row of restaurants and bistros lined up in back of the ferry slip. An amphitheater of streets draped behind them.
When the loudspeaker bellowed, we returned to the truck. She waltzed back from the other side. A smile came my way. As the chains disappeared, the motors rumbled. The Tahoe rolled over the apron and took off towards High Street, which curved up like a ski run ending at the towers of Cameron Hall. I followed.
“I guess she’s goin’ your way, son.” A hazel eye winked.
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George Mahoney has enjoyed multiple careers as teacher, priest, and consultant. His sort stories have been published in The Storyteller, The Iconoclast, and Flash Fiction Press. He facilitates two literary groups at his local library in Englewood, FL.