"A Boat Story" was originally published by Quiddity International Literary Journal in 2015 where it was awarded the Editor's Prize for Prose. You can listen to a recorded version here, which originally aired on the NPR member/PRI affiliate WUIS.
We've paired this short story with a photograph taken by Dustin on a ferry in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015:
A BOAT STORY
His son came out of the house as David began to hoist the old wooden boat onto the flat spot of roof above the deck.
What’re you doing? the son asked.
I’ve got to get this thing on the roof, the father said through his teeth.
David pulled at a rope that was strung through a pulley set to a brace he had nailed to the roof. He gripped the rope and stepped off the deck into the driveway and as the rope tightened the bow rose into the air. The waterlogged boat was too heavy but there was nothing he could do about that now. He looped the rope around his waist and leaned against the weight so he wouldn’t lose any ground. I’ve to get this thing off the lawn, he said to his son. It’s been forever.
A trail of mud led from the deck to a black spot in the grass. The twelve-foot fishing boat had been there in the lawn rather than on it since before the boy was born and grass and weeds had grown around the thing like the body around a bullet in the flesh when it has to.
Want some help? the son said and wrestled his shirt off to match his father’s bare chest.
Get over here.
David stood against the weight of the boat as his son came off the deck. Set this way it probably looked like he was trying to use the boat to leverage the roof off of the house. The chest-high brackets on either side of the flat landing, which extended from below the sloped roof over the rest of the house, shook but seemed to hold.
The son moved behind his father and gathered the last few feet of rope. Father and son counted 1-2-3-go and drove away from the house deeper into the driveway. The bow was a foot off the ground and swaying back and forth, inches shy of crashing into the living room. David aimed all of his weight at the front gate, the street, the house across the street, the farm and laborers beyond that. He was aiming at the ocean beyond everything so he could get his boat on the roof and take his son to the beach. The tide was out and there was so much to see and he had promised.
They worked their way down the driveway and the boat went up a few inches and a few inches more. When the keel was about chest-high on the boy they moved back toward the house, gathering the rope they’d gained, keeping the bow in the air. Back at the deck David wound the rope around and tied it to a post. He stood up from his knot and stretched his back and cracked his knuckles. His son looked at his hands and said how the rope had burned him.
Everything needed something. The house was finished but the yard looked like shit. It had been seven years and his wife had stopped asking. She no longer picked out flowers to line the front walkway and the seeds he had bought for a vegetable garden were stale and bound like a spent deck of cards in a junk drawer in the kitchen. David had quit his job a year ago so he could get to the fence that ran the right side of the property and spit slats into the yard and to the wall on the left side of the property that was plaster on top of bricks and the plaster crumbled and the bricks crumbled too. He had quit so he could finish the yard and it was summer again, there were no excuses. His son was home all day to watch his father either work or not work.
David took the other rope, which ran up to the roof and down to the stern, and his son held the extra and stood behind his father. They counted and pulled but the stern was heavier than the bow and slammed against the deck after they’d gained a foot or two. Slower and steadier this time, the father said. They started again. They moved one of the father’s steps and two of the son’s at a time. They stepped back together and pulled. This was all about momentum. Like this, he said to his son and they slowly moved into the yard. There was less weight to lift with each pull.
When they reached the same depth in the driveway as they had before, they went back toward the house, gathering their rope and trying not to lose any ground. He tied the stern-side to another of the deck posts and they looked at the rope burns on their hands.
It’s good for you. It’s better this way, the father said. Once you get calluses you have them.
His son looked at his hands and rubbed them on his jeans and ran to the blank spot in the lawn. Time had moved both fast and slow. When he and his wife first moved in and everything was in boxes and the mattress was on the floor instead of the frame, the two of them climbed onto the roof and looked out over their new neighborhood and she said that this is what she had always been looking for. They heard the ocean through the fog but couldn’t see it. He asked her how far she thought he could throw a tennis ball he had found in the rain gutter and she wouldn’t say. So he told her how far and wound himself into a pitching motion, kicked his leg, and let it fly. The ball hit a far-off house silently. She laughed. And the kid was born and the boat sat. Invisible leaks grew and water filled the thing until it faded into the yard with all the other weeds and rusted tools. There had been window frames to sand and paint and waterlogged doors that needed shims so that the frames were plumb. There had been work all week and church on Sundays. There was yesterday. A friend’s truck wouldn’t start and wouldn’t take a jump so David had driven back and forth between the beach parking lot where the truck had quit and his garage for tools to help replace his friend’s alternator. When they finished they drank beer and looked at the waves and then it was dinnertime. So there was yesterday and the days before and here, finally, was today and getting to the old boat that held water in but not out. The boat where minnows moved in and out of sunken toy ships and navigated in and around his son’s other playthings. In the morning he had turned it over and let it drain. All that old water where GI Joe had slept so long with his legs extended blackened the grass and concrete. Now the boat was swaying above and dripping onto the deck and front of the house, and David doubted they would make it and went into the house for more coffee.
The morning fog was still. The father and son stood shirtless in Levi’s in the wet grass. The boat hung above the deck.
This time he left the rope tied to the post and lifted with his shoulder, basically standing up into the bow while his son slid a sawhorse under the gap. The boat pointed at the sky. His son smiled and smeared mud onto his face when he rubbed his eye. David gathered the slack and retied the rope and the two of them managed the same lift on the stern. Farm laborers across the street were sitting on their tailgates and eating lunch. The neighbor was spraying cut grass from his lawn mower and David and his son were looking at their dripping boat not waiting for anything except for themselves.
There would never be enough beers in the fridge and there were too many weeds to pull, but today he would see the ocean beyond the edge of his boat even if the water was more than a mile away. He came out of the house and set his beer on the railing and stood the ladder to the roof and climbed up.
I want to come up too.
Not yet. I want to make sure it’s safe.
But you’re up there. What can I do?
Just watch. Just watch your old man.
The boy was.
David stood below the eaves of the roof that broke just above his head. He leaned against the gable wall and looked out over his yard and past it at the artichoke farm, to the left the graveyard and the right the road that disappeared into the woods. The fog obscured the ocean. Always this morning fog that cleared in the afternoon and returned by night. Everyone waited for that happy hour sunshine. He was trying to make it.
He knelt at the rope that led through the pulley down to the bow and was tied off to the foundation of the deck. He tested the weight and let it go.
Pass my beer up, huh?
His son climbed half way up and David reached down and then stood and finished the beer.
He was either close or it was over. He told his son to stand back and the boy obeyed and sat on his knees at the top of the driveway and watched his father, his father who was red and callused from so much work outside and salt in the air, his father who could lift anything.
David crouched and took the rope and stood and pulled with one hand and gathered with the other until the bow was level with the roof. He lifted once more and pushed back into the house behind him and the front of the boat dropped into place on the roof. He swung around and pulled the nose all the way on and tied it to a beam that supported the roof above the house.
His son cheered and David smiled. The stern swung back and forth. The boat pitched toward the fog.
Is it heavy? the son asked.
Nah, not too bad. Go and grab me a beer, huh? But go in the side door, I don’t want you walking underneath this thing.
David looked around at the old view he hadn’t seen since they first moved in. His neighbor from across the street came to the edge of his drive and waved. David waved and stooped to check his knot. The other man pulled his tailgate down and had a seat.
His son passed the beer up and David drank some down and took the rope. His son watched and now the neighbor watched too. Muddy water slopped in the back of the boat. David lifted. He lifted past the point of pain or struggling with the weight of it, he lifted until he couldn’t think about anything crashing or landing or losing his grip. The water sloshed around. All that water that couldn’t penetrate because the wood was already full of the stuff. There was nothing to curse because everything was what it was and there was no one to curse but himself and he had said all that before. He grunted and he lifted. He was blinded by trying and he pushed back toward where he knew the house to be and the boat slid into place on the roof, he was there. Here was today.
The boy looked through binoculars and there was nothing he couldn’t see. He stood in the front of the boat and studied the islands that came up out of the Pacific just twenty miles beyond the beach.
Is that Hawaii? the son asked.
Probably, the father said. What do you think?
Yeah, probably, the son said and sat down.
The son leaned against his father, the binoculars in his hand, a beer in one of the father’s hands, his son’s right shoulder in his other. The fog was gone. They sat this way for a while and looked out. They sat this way until the boy stood and peered at the hills behind their house that broke into mountains and formed the backdrop to their valley. At the top of the ridge a solitary tree stood taller than the rest and the boy asked if that was where they had gone, where they hiked that one time. Yeah, we’ve been there, the father said. Remember the bay on the other side? That’s the San Francisco Bay.
The son said he couldn’t remember if he remembered.
It’s where the ocean meets the land, it’s a kind of in-between, a kind of pool that isn’t wild or deep, where nothing lives but only, hopefully, passes through.
The boy held the binoculars to his face. He turned and looked at his father.
Scary, huh? the father said.
The son laughed and adjusted the binoculars and laughed again. He crouched closer to his dad’s face and then backed away.
What’s it look like? the father said.
You look like the moon, the son said.
Like pictures our teacher showed us of the moon. You look kind of gross.
The boy turned to face the mountains. Can we go to the tide pools tomorrow? the son said over his shoulder.
Yeah, if the tide is out, we’ll go. Do you remember what that ridge is called? the father asked.
Yeah. There, where the tree is.
I don’t remember.
That’s Sweeney Ridge. I’ve told you the story.
I think so, the son said, but I can’t remember.
The first time the Bay was discovered, by a Spaniard at least, it was from the ridge and not the water. It was Portola who had seen and also not seen Monterey, which is what he was looking for and had found but didn’t know he had found. He had heard from a sailor what Monterey was like and when he saw the Monterey Bay for himself he said no, this can’t be it. That’s the danger of thinking too much about what you are looking for. The unknown is always bigger or smaller, better or worse, than what you think it’s going to be. It was only in missing Monterey that Portola made it to the Bay, to our bay.
His son could hear him but probably wasn’t listening any more. There was too much to see now. There were horses from the corral climbing the hills in the back of the valley. There were trails drawn in black and folds in the hills drawn in gray and the bay behind the ridge flowed that oily blue-black. To the north The Golden Gate Bridge spanned in red and to the south The Bay Bridge spanned in silver. There was a world around them and this was just a boat anchored to a roof in the center of a shitty yard.
The boy counted five horses winding the trails east of Portola Gate.
David still had more story to tell.
In the 1950s we put missiles on the ridge because we were afraid of the Russians. On into the 60s, we put missiles on the ridge because we were still afraid of the Russians. Are you listening? Maybe he didn’t have much of a story to tell.
His son returned his gaze to the ocean. Have you ever been out there? he said and pointed to the islands.
The Farallons? No, not exactly.
How long would it take to get there?
By swimming or by boat?
With a boat, I can’t swim that far.
A hour or two then.
Does anyone live out there?
You could but you’re not supposed to.
David pulled a beer into the boat. Even though he’d dried the floorboards water was soaking through his jeans. He sat back and watched his son look out. The fog was blowing in. The Farallons would be gone soon.
Just past the islands the ocean drops about 6,000 feet, he said to his son. That’s more than a mile. That’s where the ocean becomes the sea.
The boy sat down. He let the binoculars drop to his chest and he leaned against his father.
How do you know? The son leaned deeper into his father’s chest.
I fished there before you were born. That’s where the fish are, coming up over the ridge to shallower and warmer water. We’ll have to go out there some day, to the Devil’s Teeth, that’s what they used to call the islands.
But his son was asleep. His son had fallen asleep just like that in a boat on a roof in the fog. David drank his beer. This was the right kind of nothing.
She’s going to hate it, your mom is, he said to his sleeping son and to himself. He didn’t know why but he knew it was true and that he would rip the thing down tomorrow and dump it as he should have done today. He finished his beer and threw the can onto the lawn. He leaned back and extended his legs into the belly of the boat and lifted the binoculars from his son’s chest and looked out. The fog was over the ocean and soon it would take the beach and the first streets beyond the dunes. The gray would continue until finally they were gone too. He set the binoculars back onto his son’s breathing chest and dipped below the sides of the boat and dropped off to sleep.