By Paul Austin - Dallas, Texas - USA  

The Messed up Messabout

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 omen.

‘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 a man.’

‘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.’

‘Without what?’

‘Oh never mind. Here, this is the invitation to that, that Messaround.’

‘It’s a Messabout. It’s when a bunch of us boat guys get together and analyze ourselves without coming to any conclusion.’

‘You don’t decide anything?’

‘It would be too damaging. We might find out reality is overrated anyway.’

... 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 them dry.

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 Fred Flintstone.

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 girl.’

‘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, like...boys?’

‘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 Joy.

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 proudly.

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 ceremonies.

‘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 cure.’

‘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 is.’

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 your head.’

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 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,’ he said.

But then Charlie said again, ‘But what about the International World Knot Problem?’

‘Yeah,’ several of us said together like it was a pep rally.

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 of Love.’

I made for the door. Everyone else said, ‘The Coracle of what?’

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 now.



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