Sweat dripped off my face, and my shoulders ached from pushing back and forth with the sanding block. I almost didn’t notice my cell phone gently humming from inside the boat’s cabin. I slapped my hands together and went to answer it. Grabbing a cold beer from the mini fridge, I seated myself on the bench I’d only recently re-upholstered. I looked at the caller ID and sat it on the counter. They left another message. When it rang again, I took a deep breath.
“Hello, this is Marvin.” I said, trying to sound happy.
“Mr. Bender, how are you? I’m glad I finally got you. This is Diane at Doctor Harris’s office. Can you hold for him?”
The phone clicked.
“Marvin, did I catch you at a good time?”
I looked around at all the unfinished tasks on the boat, took a deep swig of cold beer, and spoke. “Now is as good of a time as any.” I almost sounded dejected…trapped.
“It’s been six months. I’ve kept my word, but we have to tell her. She’s probably starting to see symptoms now.” He said.
I felt a sense of panic, somewhere deep.
I sighed heavily and propped my feet up on the counter. The condensation on the bottle felt sweet and cool as I ran it across my forehead. Anything to distract me from the issue at hand…no matter how brief.
“You know?” He echoed.
“Yeah, Doc…I know.”
“She has an appointment with me tomorrow at one. I want you to be here when I tell her. You must be here. Don’t you think so too?” He’d switched to a gentler tone.
I sat up, placed my beer on the counter, and rubbed my forehead.
“Ok. I’ll be there. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Marvin. I’m very sorry about all of this. Her body just won’t handle any further treat…”
“I know…I know. It’s ok. I’ll see you tomorrow, Doc.” I said, in near deadpan.
I heard him exhale over the phone.
“See you then.”
I ended the call and roughly tossed the phone onto the counter. Not knowing what else to do, I took another quaff of the beer and vacantly glanced all around the cabin. I had tools and materials everywhere. Almost every single portion of the boat was in a state of suspended animation. There was epoxy and fiberglass to repair a piece of the hull. Wrenches and dark gray nuts and bolts were heaped in a pile near the partially reassembled diesel engine. Bare wires hung down from more than one light fixture. The entire room was hot and muggy. The small A/C unit I stuffed into a small port hole last week was barely enough to cool the cabin. But, it did mitigate some of the strong oily odor.
I slammed the rest of the beer, pushed the partially repaired door aside and resumed my task of sanding chipped paint near the aft portion of the boat.
Think Marvin, think. Anything but Betty.
I shook my head and took in the beauty of my creation. When I bought this boat, it was a disaster. Now it was…it was still a disaster, but at least it was less of a total disaster. Before I got back in the rhythm of sanding, I heard the low rumbling of a truck park in the driveway. It was followed by the screen door slamming. I could hear muffled voices through the thin walls of our trailer house.
It was mostly unintelligible, but I heard it conclude with Betty saying, “Where do you think your father is?”
The screen door to the back porch slammed shut, and I soon heard the aluminum ladder rattle as he climbed it to the boat.
“Hey dad.” He greeted me.
He stood there on the ladder for a moment, just his torso exposed above the side of the boat. He looked around, seemingly to survey my progress.
“Hey.” I said.
Kyle climbed onboard and sat on the other side of the boat and looked at me, seeming to wait for my attention.
“Dad.” He finally interjected. His voice was slightly hoarse, as if he’d been shouting…or crying.
I stopped and looked at him. He had a slight redness around his eyes, and an exhausted look about his entire short, stocky frame. Even his choice of clothing, gray cargo shorts and a black t-shirt, seemed to transmit a message to me. We met each other’s eyes for a moment, but then I looked away.
“Dad, Mom’s doctor called me. Why haven’t you told her yet?”
“What good would it do? Telling her does…” I started to raise my voice, but then hushed myself and continued. “Telling her does absolutely nothing. It won’t save her. It won’t bring out some miracle. And it definitely won’t magically produce three million dollars for experimental chemo in the Philippines.”
Kyle stared at me blankly, but clearly not understanding. I rubbed the sweat off my face again.
“She has an appointment tomorrow, Dad. You should go with her.”
“Keith told me too. I guess he called you as insurance.”
Kyle raised his eyebrows. I took in a deep breath and forced myself upright.
“Do you want a beer?” I asked, slapping him on the knee.
He nodded, and I gestured him to enter the boat cabin. As he’d done before, Kyle looked around, cataloguing the work still to be done. I took two brown bottles out of the fridge and handed him one, along with a bottle opener.
As he sat, he asked, “How’s this thing coming?”
I rocked my head from side to side. “I’ve finished a lot since you were here last. I rebuilt the engine. I just have to put the last few parts on it.” I signaled towards the heap of dark bolts and such. “I have all the canvass stored below, along with about two months of MREs I got from the surplus store in Tulsa. Then…I have some electrical in here. I have some cosmetic touches, some upholstering in the bedroom, then I think it’s ready.”
Kyle raised his red eyebrows and pursed his lips. “Sounds like you’re getting close.”
“Well…your mom and I haven’t been talking much lately, so I’ve been able to get more work done out here.” I shrugged.
Kyle looked away.
I took a drink and said, “I don’t know what else to do. I don’t want to be moping around the house about it. At least out here I have the sun on my back and I feel productive.”
“Dad…I don’t think you should wait.”
I looked at him, confused.
He continued, “I don’t think you should wait to retire before you take the boat out.”
I wanted to agree, but something about his demeanor told me there was more to his suggestion. I said nothing, just waited.
“I think you should take mom with you. Who knows when she…when it will happen. I think she’d enjoy being with you at the end, out on the boat somewhere. Anywhere.”
His eyes misted slightly, and he took another drink of his beer…seemingly to hide it.
I nodded and bowed my head. I slumped my shoulders with my elbows heavy on my knees, then I spoke, as if to the floor. “If I quit work, or whatever, and take your mom with me on the boat, then I can’t afford our next mortgage payment.” I squeezed my lips and exhaled through my nose. “I already had to make arrangements with the bank for mom’s car. And the power company almost shut us off last week. We’re broke, son. I can’t take the boat out. I can’t take your mom. I can’t even afford to be sitting here or even working on the boat. It makes me no money. It doesn’t fix your mom. I just don’t know what else to do.”
An aching lump was growing at the back of my throat, and a large swig of the ale seemed to only make it worse.
Kyle sat his beer down heavily on the counter and leaned towards me. “Dad, let me help.”
I leaned away from him, my face incredulous. “How are you doing to help, Kyle? Do YOU have a couple million stuffed in your couch cushions?”
“Well, no, but I can help…somehow.”
“No, you just stay in school. You’ve only got a year left. Don’t worry about me and your mom.” I reached out and patted him on the knee.
After a brief silence, Kyle asked, “Dad, have you thought about selling everything?”
I looked at him, with my brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, sell…everything. If you take the boat out to the Gulf of Mexico like you always talk about, and you take mom with you, then what do you need here?”
I looked around, trying to answer his question.
“If mom…is gone, and you sail back home on your boat, you can come live with me and Dana. We have a spare bedroom and a nearly-vacant workshop out back. She’d love to have you there, and so would the kids.”
“How would I sell EVERYTHING?” I shrugged and looked around.
”After tomorrow, once mom knows, we can list the house for sale…sell your motorcycle and mom’s car. All you really need is your pickup, that, and the boat. We can move your entire workshop, all your tools, to the shop at our house.”
“I don’t know.” I answered, staring off into the distance.
“Think about it, will you dad?”
I nodded and started to change the subject when he cut me off. “Dad, I actually can’t stay. Dana has a double shift and I have to go pick up the kids from daycare. Do you want me to go to the doctor with you and mom tomorrow?” He placed a strong hand on my shoulder.
I just shook my head, doing my best to prevent my bottom lip from curling under and quivering. He pulled me into a hug and slapped me on the back.
“I love you dad.” He said.
I just nodded, as a solitary tear traced its way down my face.
“I’ll call you when we leave the doctor’s office.” I said in a tremble.
“Ok. Bye, dad.” He said, as he climbed back down the ladder and walked through the dusty yard around the house to his pickup.
I stood there, staring vacantly at my half-mended boat, and absent-mindedly sipping my beer. I reared back and threw the bottle at the cabin, and it burst into shards with beer splashing everywhere. I didn’t care. I slumped onto the fiberglass sides and wrapped my arms around my knees. Having no witnesses, I entered a fit of convulsing sobs. My eyes erupted with tears. I didn’t fight them.
By Josh Hutchins
image c/o Dejan Radeka