I should have known better. I should
have known evil was afoot. I should have burned that letter and
tied the ashes to a crow’s foot. I should have been strong,
but I wasn’t...
When I got this Messabout announcement with blood drops on the
letterhead saying bring a jacket and extra sails for a nice little
sail across the bay, I should have known that bay was the tip
of South America, vultures are gonna circle overhead and the crocodiles
are saying, ‘I’ve got the ketchup, bring me your buns.’
But when it comes to Messabouts, I’m a weak man.
And, then my wife opened the letter. That’s like a bad
‘Oh look, dear. Your friend Captain O’brien has another
one of his schemes to pay for his boat. It’s a thingie called
a Messabout. He must’ve seen your garage. It’s a mess,
you know. Have you seen it?’
See what I mean? I said, ‘It’s a boat shop. it's
not supposed to be neat. Ah yes, the smell of cut cedar, of varnish
on a rail, the splinters in my fingers and the boat tacks in my
shoes. Only a man would understand, love, and you’re not
‘I should hope not. You don’t have any hand towels
out there, no lotion, no little flowers in vases, I don’t
see how you work out there without doilies.’
‘Oh never mind. Here, this is the invitation to that, that
‘It’s a Messabout. It’s when a bunch of us
boat guys get together and analyze ourselves without coming to
‘You don’t decide anything?’
‘It would be too damaging. We might find out reality is
... I should have known better. But you know, a Messabout is
like a temptation from the dark side.. It’s like a free
tool. I just can’t turn it down even if there’s no
use for it. Swifty’s Messabout had a sailing seminar in
the morning, lunch over the brick fireplaces at the Marina and
then a sail up the river with Swifty’s ship to see what’s
there. I couldn’t resist. I know, I’m a weak man so
sue me. Before dawn I was there with my little skiff.
At sunrise in our neighborhood the sun peeked over the rooftops,
fingering light through the trees. A faint mist lingered till
the sun’s gathering rays whisked it away. I just wanted
to be by the lake when the mist left its last trace over the water.
After a week staring at my evil computer, I need the lake.
So I hitched my boat up and drove to the marina. With the sun
at my back, I was the first one here. I saw the last of the yellowing
mist disappear into silvery air, at once there and yet gone. With
my boat and trailer around to a prime location near the dock,
I then sat down.
Right now there was no one here but me. A few birds glided low
from a tree watching the water below. Not a ripple in sight, until
a turtle raised its almond shaped head like a submarine periscope,
curling a slender rift of water for a moment before it submerged.
I’ve always felt comfortable here when the only sight is
the feathering air stirring a tiny network of waves for a moment.
Something about this I just like.
Some of the guys now showed up. Charlie McBride brought his West
Wight Wail-boat behind his pickup. He got out dripping a biscuit
from his mouth. And there was Bobby Smith bringing his PD racer
with the little TV in it. He never misses a baseball game, even
if he’s sailing at the time. Then there was Sticky Bowman
with his two boys whom we knew would be all over everywhere, making
mischief. I felt sorry for his wife Alice. At least Sticky gets
to go to work leaving the boys behind. Alice, on the other hand,
has to deal with those two rapscallions every day. Maybe that’s
why she’s been seen roping the boys to a tree in their backyard
while searching for matches.
By now the sun was up gleaming masts and decks and the white
side of the Sorley Marina shop. The marina is full of small sailboats,
motorboats and a collection of dingys for kids to learn the art
of sailing. But a marina is a bit like a church on Saturday. It
needs folks to be alive.
I saw the masts of my buddy Swifty O’brien’s charter
ship beating toward the marina from a few miles away, where the
river comes out of the sea.
Joy Sorley then opened the front door to the marina store. She
was a tiny lady. The kind you could go cruising with if your boat
was less than 30 feet long. She could fit anywhere. She could
sleep in a bathtub as long as you don’t forget she’s
there. Joy’s the cuddly bubbly type, full of bright smiles
and always optimistic. She’s the only one in the state that
knows how a sextant works. When boys see the sextant in her marina
shop, they think you use it to launch peas at girls.
Anyway, Captain Sorley was wandering around the boats which await
repair off to the side of the marina shop. He wasn’t really
a captain but he had this neat Garner McKay captain’s cap
that April O’brien was always trying to steal. She couldn’t
get it because Sorley had a waistline like a watermelon, so when
she jumped up to grab the cap she just bounced off his belly.
She’d stand there staring at his cap, asking him what size
it was and where he was going to put it down. The old captain,
who we all called Tick—although I don’t know why—wouldn’t
tell April a thing. Then April would get this screwed up expression
on her rubbery face and say to Tick, ‘Would you turn around
and blow up, please?’
I couldn’t wait for the festivities to begin. Now everyone
was arriving in different states of mind. I knew Swifty and Connie
would be cheery and fun. April would be running around to find
some way to get into mischief and there’s no telling what
Bowman boys would do with glue and paint.
Arthur Whiddlestick, the Free World’s Greatest Cheapskate,
motored his houseboat up to the marina dock with a string of clothes
laying in the water astern. They were strung together like a giant
kite tail stretched out. We all knew this was his way of washing
clothes. Then he’d hang them up between two trees and let
Now Sid Rifter brought his three masted Black Skimmer up to the
beach. Two masts were on either side of the cabin, with the third
mast as a mizzen aft of the cockpit. Odd, but then Sid had an
honorary degree in weirdness. He then lowered the two main masts
down with tabernacles, to the beach. They were about 5 feet apart
and parallel. Then he put a tarp between them so he could slide
down the tarp from his deck to the shore. Clever stuff, I thought.
Sure beats jumping off your deck when your knees are older than
Now it was time to gather in the Sorley Marina Shop. The shop
had three rooms. One for books, videos and gear and one for the
kids to see a 19th century cannon. One was used as a meeting room.
A bunch of us were wandering our way toward the meeting room,
past the book racks when we heard Connie and April listen to Joy
talk about the books.
||‘Now little April,’ Joy began with
a stern warning in her eyes, ‘don’t ever touch
the nautical books—they’re dangerous for a young
‘Now little April,’ Joy began with a stern warning
in her eyes, ‘don’t ever touch the nautical books—they’re
dangerous for a young girl.’
April perked up. ‘I like dangerous. It’s fun.’
But Joy was firm. ‘Not this kind of dangerous.’
Connie held April. ‘What do you mean, Joy?’
Joy said, ‘It’s like the Sargasso Sea. Once a girl
enters the Nautical Section, she will never be the same. It happened
to me when I was a mere 17 years old. I could have had a different
life, but it happened.’
Now April and Connie were interested. April said, ’What’s
a Sargasso Sea, is that like a salad dressing?’
Joy leaned down. ’No dear, I wish it was. You see whenever
a girl enters the Nautical Section a divine mystery comes over
her, never to leave her alone again. Maybe it’s the books
with pictures of burly men in pea jackets smoking a pipe. Maybe
it’s the danger of being swept overboard—like love
itself. Whatever the poets say, the Nautical Section is a Roman
garden at night, a Parisian Left Bank, a 50’s Drive-In.
It is all these in one. Beware, a girl should never go unescorted
unless she’s capable of being taken, possessed, raptured.’
April looked up at Joy with glee on her face. ‘You mean,
‘Hush,’ Connie said to April and Joy. ‘Don’t
say that awful word.’
Just then the Bowman boys came in the Marina Shop. April wiggled
out of her mother’s grasp. She ran over behind the boys
and used her foot to trip them both. They fell in the sail gear
section, overturning the rack full of rope, which entangled them
both on the floor. Then she giggled and ran back to Connie and
Connie held April warmly, saying to Joy, ‘Whew, that was
a close call. Thank you for your warning. April’s life would
never have been the same without it.’
‘It was my pleasure to do the civic duty,’ Joy said
With that done, us men made our way to the meeting room. Decorated
in fish net, shrunken heads and spears from Kmart, it was a nice
place to talk sailing. Captain Sorley held forth as master of
‘All right now, swabbies, take yer seats, if you know what’s
good fer ya.’ He went over to a blackboard. ‘Now this
is a blackboard. Let’s get to the BS. We’re gonna
deal with some o’ your complaints you made at our last Messabout.’
Charlie, sitting next to me, said, ‘What’s BS? I
think I know, just making sure.’
Sorley said, ‘It ain’t what you think. It stands
for Boat Seminar. Let’s talk about Boat Issue no. 1. That’s
when you’re in your little garage dreaming about getting
a bigger boat than you can handle. It’s a malady that strikes
a man down in his middle years. It’s a subconscious thing.’
‘A what-conscious thing?’ Whittlestick asked with
that whine he’s got in his voice. ‘I ain’t never
been on a submarine.’
Sorley said, ‘Pipe down Arthur. This seminar’s free,
remind yourself of that. It’s subconscious. What that means
is, it comes from your wife and kids. You used to stand in front
of the bathroom mirror by yourself, deciding whether to shave
or not. Now your wife stands behind you sayin’ she needs
a wider mirror than she used to. Your kids come in and whine about
not havin’ nothing. So you naturally think you need a bigger
boat to get away. Well, swabbies, you don’t. So I have the
‘What is it?’ we all yelled at once.
‘It’s an inflatable supermodel. It’s Alexandra
Mall right here in plastic and hot air. You’ve all seen
her on TV, on those infomercials, in movies and stuff. Here she
He brought out this six foot inflatable resemblance to the famous
Alexandra Mall. We all cheered like we’d won the lottery.
And even inflated to six feet she was thinner than our bath room
mirror. Sorley might be onto something.
I said, ‘But I mean, my wife’s not going to take
to this. She’ll just puncture it with some letter opener
and say it was an accident.’
Sorley was ready for that one. ‘Not if you keep it on your
current boat. Your wife’s never gonna go on that boat, since
you’ve had it so long. She’ll be glad you’re
not standing in front of her bathroom mirror. And you’ll
be on your boat with your inflatable beauty. A boat where everything
is already fixed, painted, done and paid for.’
Now that was a rousing thought. No new engines to fix, no new
chainplates to tighten by hand, no new sails to buy and no payments
to make! Now that’s something we like. Everyone cheered
when Sorley passed out these little boxes with the picture of
Alexandra Mall on the side. She was deflated and folded inside.
Sorley said, ‘And it’s free to everyone who signs
up for the sail up the river.’
Well Arthur couldn’t wait. He had to inflate his right
away. So he broke into the box like a wino with a bottle. He stuck
the nozzle into his mouth and blew away, huffing and puffing.
His eyes bulging as Alexandra Mall gradually took shape, rising,
rising. We were getting excited. In fact no one thought about
getting a bigger boat—this scheme of Sorley’s was
working. We surrounded Arthur like we were celebrities gazing
at some looney Maharishi telling us the secrets of life he learned
from a cave. Every breath he blew into Alexandra brought out cheers
and ahhs from us.
Sorley said, ‘I’ll be selling these for $99.99 on
all the websites.’
Everyone cheered, leaping up on their feet like they’d
just discovered a million dollars.
Sorley had to say above the cheering, clamor and din, ‘Now
hold on men. This is gonna be big. Anyone who wants a piece of
this big-time money action just sign up and fork over your plastic.
All it takes is $99.99, which is cheaper than marine paint, anyway.
‘Now let’s go on to Boat Issue no. 2, the size of
Everybody looked at Arthur’s head since it was shaped like
a light bulb—all neck and no chin. A big bald head as smooth
as a bathtub.
Sorley saw that. ‘Naw, naw, not that head, the boat’s
head. You know the thing you use to go when you need to go and
you can’t leave since you’re on the water where you
can’t leave when you need to go. That thing. Now Boat Issue
no. 3 has always been the centerboard trunk is in the way and there’s no place to put the head. So we’re
gonna combine the two into one.’
Sorley then unveiled a drape from a wall where he had a large
sized page of the construction plan of the latest design, the
Heimlich 24, a shoal draft cruiser. With a pointer in his hand
he pointed up there on the oversized plans to a rectangular slot.
Someone said, ‘So where’s the head?’
Someone else said, ‘Yeah, and where’s the centerboard?’
Sorley smiled triumphantly. He pointed to that rectangular slot,
which appeared to be about 3 feet long by 2 feet wide by 2 feet
above the floorboards. ‘There it is,’ he declared
with a rising triumph in his voice.
‘What about the head?’
‘What about the centerboard trunk?’
Sorley would not admit any defeat. He had everyone in the palm
of his hand. ‘It’s both,’ he declared like he
was announcing the king is a fink.
Someone got it, in the back. ‘You mean the centerboard
trunk is the head? That’s the most amazing development since
we started using shower rings for sail track - amazing. But what
if the inside of the trunk gets..you know..messy?’
Sorley answered like Caesar defending his salad. ‘That’s
the beauty of it. When it gets messy, that’ll just keep
the centerboard from getting stuck. Kinda of a lubrication you
might say. When the board is down you use it as a head and use
a squeegee to push your remains down. Then you use this toilet
seat top as a trunk cap and seat. Nothing to this stuff.’
We were stunned. As the Bowman boys would say right about now,
what a concept!
Charlie said, ‘We’ll all right. So you’re a
genius. But what about them damned low cabin tops? You ain't’
supposed to build them tall enough to stand up in, but I don’t
wanna spend my declining golden years bent over like I was picking
up laundry all the time.’
Not even this could discourage Sorley. He pointed to the plans
on the wall again. ‘Now you see this (he pointed to the
cabin top)? This top ain’t laminated. It’s a baby
crib upside down. But when you put them over the cabin walls upside
down, you push the center up, so you’ve got headroom. Now
when you’re sailing, they naturally fall down by themselves
since they do that anyway. Then just shove the middle up and they
go up taller. Being a genius is easier than I thought,’
But then Charlie said again, ‘But what about the International
World Knot Problem?’
‘Yeah,’ several of us said together like it was a
I said, ‘No one’s ever solved that one, Mr. Genius.’
‘All right, all right,’ Sorley said. ‘Everyone
sit down and compose yourself. As everyone knows the problem the
whole world suffers under has gone unsolved for centuries. Noah
couldn’t deal with it. It drove him to drink and we know
all about that. When the Flood subsided and soaked the ground
till all kinds of seaweed grew on the hillsides, Noah had this
big boat with nothing to do with it, being on a mountainside in
Turkey. Not a lot of yacht racing on Turkish mountainsides. So
he had to pay for the thing. It drove him to drink. He planted
a vineyard and, well, you know the rest of the story.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Charlie said, ‘but wha’d
ya gonna do about it. How do we pay for our own boats, which ain’t
exactly an ark.’
‘Gather round, men,’ Sorley said in a secretive voice.
‘I’ve been to the mountain an’ I’ve come
down with the answer from on high.’
‘So? What is it?’ Charlie said.
‘Yeah, what is it?’ Sid said.
‘Gather round, men. Now listen up and listen tight,’
Sorley began in a low whisper like he’d stolen an oracle
from Sinai. ‘Now what was Noah’s real problem?’
‘Not enough water after the flood,’ someone said.
‘Too much to drink,’ someone else said.
‘Not enough to drink,’ someone else said.
‘Too many sons,’ a fellow in the back said. We knew
that was Bowman.
‘His problem was how to pay for the ark, now that the water’s
run back to the bays and the ocean. The boat’s stuck on
that mountainside, high and dry. So he racks his brain. Then the
answer comes to him like a lightning bolt...he had his revelation.’
‘Oh yeah, how would you know, Sorley,’ Arthur said
sarcastically. ‘You ain’t darkened the door of a church
since they stopped giving out free blueberry doughnuts.’
Sorley said, ‘Shut up Arthur. You’re so cheap you
think a Toyota Corolla is a Japanese cigar. Now sit down and quiet
down your soul. I’m going to reveal one of the secrets of
the universe which angels have begged to see but did not.’
Now sit down and quiet down your soul. I’m going to reveal
one of the secrets of the universe which angels have begged to
see but did not.’
‘What?’ we all said like the Greek chorus in a tragedy.
Sorley went to an easel covered with a brown cloth, heavy. He
dragged the easel out in front of us all. We knew behind that
cloth was the Secret to the Universe. But I wasn’t sure
I wanted to know such a thing. What kind of spiritual burden would
it put on me? Would I have the weight of the world upon my conscience?
This might be like hanging lead ballast from the top mast.
Just then we all got apprehensive. Charlie said, ‘Now this
gonna be one of your loony schemes like the last one? You know
that one where you painted your phone number on the starboard
side of Old Ironsides so when it left the harbor everyone would
see it? And then it left east so everyone saw the port side of
the ship. The sea washed the paint off, an’ you got nothing
out of it?’
Everyone laughed at that.
Then Swifty said, ‘Remember the time Sorley said his boat
was this famous 1930s yacht, The Hurling Dervish, owned by the
yachtsman Lord Carstairs and his wife. It was lost at sea years
ago, which Sorley just made up? And then that woman claiming to
be the real Lady Carstairs showed up, chasing Sorley around the
dock swinging her battle-axe purse?’
We all laughed at that.
Sorley had to say, ‘Now settle down, all of you. I know,
those were schemes that didn’t work out. How was I to know
there really was a Lord Carstairs with a stupid boat name like
that? What were the chances of that, and then that wild-eyed lady
with the blue wire hair running around?’
I was beginning to fear the look on Sorley’s face. No telling
what he was going to say next. So I turned to sneak out of this
and get home before something happened which was illegal, immoral
or fattening. But before I could get out of harm’s way,
Sorley did his sordid deed.
He threw off the brown cloth, revealing his secret to us all.
We gasped. We googled our eyes. We gaped our mouths. We flattened
our minds. What could this be?
‘This is the Secret of the Universe. It is the Coracle
I made for the door. Everyone else said, ‘The Coracle of
Charlie said, ‘You’re the quack, Sorley. Have you
got any answer to the World Knot of how to pay for a boat? I’m
not sure you do.’
But Sorley was in a sort of trance. It’s not the kind of
thing you see on a fellow who works in a bank or one of those
sourpussed loan companies. This was more like he’d seen
the real Alexandra Mall and she fell at his feet. Not that it
would ever really happen, but that’s what he looked like.
Now I had thoughts of some unnamed dread like breaking rocks
on a deserted island, petting hungry rats in my jail cell on Alcatraz,
spending the day at my wife’s beauty parlor waiting on her.
So I watched Sorley like a hawk watching an enchilada.
I stood my ground at the door, while everyone else leaned in
to hear Sorley out. He began slowly. ‘It’s known by
scientists that when a girl and boy date while they both hold
the tiller of a boat, they’ll get married and live happily
ever after. It’s all scientific. So here’s what I’m proposing. Each of you pays me for these Coracles of Love, painted
red as you can see with the little hearts and flowers on the side—which
my wife painted—and you take it home. You then charge high
school boys and girls to go out in your Coracle of Love to hold
hands on the tiller. They fall in love and they thank you for ever after.’
Well, that’s all I needed to get home. I got out the door
while the saps inside pulled out their bills for the Love Coracle,
$99 each. Sorley had his boat paid for, that’s for sure.
But I knew the scheme wouldn’t work. Anyway, heading to
my car I heard their cheers and acclimation for Sorley’s Coracle of Love. Not me, bubba. I got myself home.
And yet, it actually did work. A few months later several high
school kids were getting married on the roof of Sorley’s
Marina Shop, overlooking the harbor and their getaway honeymoon
Coracle of Love. Sorley even had an elderly accordion player from
the American Legion out there on the dock, playing Auld Ainge
Zein, which was his best number. Then the married couples left
for their honeymoon in their Coracle of Love, which they had bought
from Arthur and Sid and the guys—which paid for their boats—
pulled behind Captain O’brien’s ship. The old guy
played the only other song he knew, Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
So all the honeymooners were in their red Coracles, bouncing into
each other as Swifty’s ship towed them behind his charter
ship on their honeymoon.
What then happened that weekend on Swifty’s ship will have
to wait for another day. I have to admit, the couples all paid
Swifty, so his ship got paid for this year, too. I guess everyone
sailed off into the sunset happy, married, and paid….for