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“No Harm Done, Most Likely”
EARLY the next morning we drove to Patti’s, picked her up, and went on
to Captain Mac’s. He was going to make his last trip aboard Arcinella,
piloting her from the canal at the end of the street where he lived to
the berth along the quay on Bolotomy Road where she would reside as my
mother’s boat, and he had invited us to be on board for the voyage.
What a great pleasure it was to ride in my mother’s
old car through Babbington that morning. The town was calm and quiet,
but it was waking up, experiencing the moment of pause before great effort,
the moment of inhalation and expectation, like the moment before the weight-lifter
grunts and lifts, and all the people we couldn’t see as we rolled past
their houses were pulling themselves together, taking a deep breath, and
preparing to go about their business. The air was fresh and light,
cool and clear, but it held the promise of heat, and the thrill of possibility.
The memory of that early hour and its potential has made me prefer the
early morning to all other times of day. A time comes in life, unless
we are very lucky, when one day is likely to be much the same as any other,
and I have lived through too many days like that, days defined by what
must be done and what goes wrong and nothing else, but morning, particularly
the early morning, when most people haven’t begun the day, still holds
all of the promise that it did on that morning when we stepped aboard Arcinella,
a morning that seemed to hold the promise not only of a full and exciting
day, but of a full and exciting summer, and even of a full and exciting
It was a pleasant trip. Arcinella purred.
The captain guided her with a steady hand. The bay was calm and flat.
Picturesque ducks swam beside us for a while. Before we entered the
mouth of the Bolotomy River, Captain Mac said, addressing
“Well, old girl, this seems as good a place as any to say good-bye and
hand you over.” He throttled down, stepped away from the wheel, and
let Arcinella drift.
My mother recognized her cue. She handed the
captain a check for the balance due, and on the roof of the cabin over
the engine room he signed a bill of sale and certificate of ownership.
The boat was now Ella’s Arcinella.
“Who’s going to take her into her new slip?” he
asked, folding the check and putting it into his shirt pocket. He
turned a questioning look toward my mother, who turned it toward me.
I looked to Patti, who rewarded me with an expression of confidence, even
admiration, groundless, but probably based on some remarks I had let fall
into one of our rambling afternoon conversations, reminiscences of nautical
adventures I had never had.
“Would you like to take her in, Patti?” I asked,
“I wouldn’t have any idea what I was doing,” she
said, delivering the line that should have been mine. “I’d probably
wreck everything somehow.”
Clearly, I was going to have to be the one to wreck
“Here we go, lad,” said the captain, taking a grip
on my shoulder and steering me toward the wheel. “Let me show you
how to bend her to your will.” I went to the wheelhouse as to the
“Take the wheel,” he commanded, and I did so with
a muttered “Aye, Cap’.”
“This here’s the throttle,” he said, indicating
a brass fixture shaped like the outline of a wedge of pie that was affixed
to the bulkhead just to the right of the wheel. He nudged it counterclockwise
a bit, and Arcinella began to move forward, toward the bridge across
the bay, to the east of Babbington.
“Well, steer her toward town, lad,” he said.
I did. It was easy. The wheel was a pleasure to turn.
Its frame was brass, green and pitted, and from the frame radiated eight
spokes with wooden handles worn smooth and stained dark with use.
Turn the wheel to the left, and she went to the left. Turn it to
the right, and she went to the right. Nothing to it. I recognized
the mouth of the Bolotomy, and I headed toward it. The captain stood
to one side, but left me to do what I could on my own, and I began to puff
myself up with the thought that I was now the captain, and the old man
beside me was just a deck hand, someone who might very well have to take
orders from me.
“This lever,” he said, forgetting his place, “is
your gearshift handle.” He lowered his voice to a confidential whisper,
as if it were important that Arcinella not hear what he was about
to say. “The old gal’s got a few peculiarities, and this here’s one
of ’em.” Pointing to the metal pedal beside my right foot, he added,
“That’s another of ’em. That’s her clutch.”
“Ah-ha,” I said. He made it sound like the
kind of female detail we might be snickering about in the locker room.
“When my father installed the Champion engine in
her, he installed the transmission, too, so she drives her prop through
first and reverse gears. When you bring her into the slip—you’re
gonna want to bring her in bow first, I figure—”
“That’s what I thought I’d do,” I said, and though
I hadn’t given it any thought at all before the captain brought the matter
up, when I thought about it now I found that very little thought was required
to convince me that bringing her in bow first was likely to be a lot easier
than turning her around and backing her in.
“Well, then what you’re going to need to do when
you get a bit of a way out from the slip is set your throttle down so she’s
just kind of chugging along—”
I reached for the throttle.
“Of course you probably don’t want to do that now.”
“No, no. Of course not. I was just—um—checking
“When the time comes, you’re going to want to have
her just chugging along, but of course you won’t want to give her so little
gas that she stalls.”
“Uh-uh,” I said and chuckled along with the captain,
imagining the fun that would ensue if some nameless nitwit were to give
her so little gas that she stalled.
“Then when you’re at the slip, you’ll want to put
in the clutch and shift into reverse.”
“To retard her forward motion.”
“Oh, sure. Of course.”
“Ideally,” he said, drawing it out so that I would
understand that it implied a long life’s hard-won experience on the bay
and on the boat, “you want to slow her down enough so she glides on into
the slip sweet and easy and just barely kisses the bulkhead.”
He turned away for a moment. At the time,
I thought he was gauging the distance to the slip and the kissable bulkhead,
but if you were to ask me now I would say that he was hiding an irrepressible
He turned back to me, gave me a pat on the back
said, “Treat her gentle,” and stepped aside.
I judged that I was near enough to the slip to throttle
down, and so I did, turning the wedge of brass by degrees until the engine
had reached a speed that seemed just this side of stalling. So far,
so good, and a treacherous sense of confidence in my fledgling’s wings
swelled my little chest. I didn’t dare turn away from my work for
an instant to check, but I thought it likely that Patti and my mother were
watching me with admiring—nay, adoring—eyes.
Though I had throttled her down, Arcinella
displayed a troubling reluctance to retard her forward motion. Her
engine was turning over slowly, but her momentum carried her forward toward
the slip and that looming bulkhead with reckless haste. Time to shift
into reverse and calm her down, bring her in sweet and easy.
The clutch. It was a metal pedal projecting
through the floorboards in the wheelhouse. I put my right foot on
it and pressed. Nothing happened. It didn’t move at all.
Ordinarily, in a car, the driver would have been given some mechanical
or hydraulic advantage so that the effort of depressing the clutch pedal
was eased, but here all such landlubbin’ frippery had been stripped away,
deemed, I suppose, an affront to the masculinity of a clamdiggin’ bayman,
so that to depress this clutch pedal, I had to stand on it. This
I did, and with the clutch in, I shifted into reverse. Arcinella
raced on toward her rendezvous with the bulkhead. What was required
of me now, I knew, was to release the clutch in a smooth manner so that
reverse was engaged but Arcinella didn’t stall. This, I realized
as the sweat began to run into my eyes, I could not possibly do, since
I was standing on the clutch pedal, with all my weight employed in keeping
it depressed. I could remain standing on the pedal and allow Arcinella
to run headlong into the bulkhead, or I could step off the pedal and hope
that she would not stall despite the violence with which reverse would
be engaged. Better to do something than to do nothing, I thought,
and so I stepped off the clutch pedal.
She shuddered, seemed to hesitate for a moment,
as if trying to understand what had happened to her, then with a sound
like a sigh she stalled, and in the sudden silence glided smoothly, swiftly,
single-mindedly directly into the bulkhead, which she struck with such
force that all hands would have been thrown to the deck or perhaps even
overboard had not all hands seen it coming, watched, indeed with mounting
horror as Arcinella raced toward the impact. When she struck,
she shook herself like a wet dog, then rebounded in the direction of the
opposite bank, which she nearly reached before the captain managed to restart
With me standing glum and mute in the bow, ready
to take a line ashore when we were close enough, Captain Mac brought her
in sweet and easy, and this time her bow never even touched the bulkhead.
When we were all ashore, he turned to my mother
and with an unwelcome hand on my shoulder said, “There’s been no harm done,
most likely—but,” he added, in a lowered voice, “of course, I can’t say
for sure that there hasn’t, and I can’t take responsibility if there has.”