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PICADOR USA EDITION
|As you approach Babbington, note the large and unattractive water tower
rising from the center of town. Topped by a winking red light, this
tower serves as a beacon for ships at sea, much as a lighthouse would,
though God knows a lighthouse would have been much quainter and more attractive,
and one can’t help but wonder why, if a water tower had to be constructed
in the center of the town, those responsible for it could not have had
the good sense to disguise it as a lighthouse, or an obelisk, or a tree,
Boating on the Bolotomy
ANDREW LEECH lived alone in a shack under the water tower that dominated
the skyline of Babbington. The tower stood on four thick, tubular
legs, up one of which a small and fragile-looking ladder ran. At
the top, the tank, an enormous sphere, slightly oblate, rested on the legs.
Around its equator was a narrow walkway. The names of daring adolescents
were painted all over the sphere, those of more recent generations obscuring
those of boys who had long ago become men and, in some cases, legends.
Largest of all, still discernible in fat black letters beneath the newer
names, running all the way around the sphere, was
BLACK JACQUES LEROY
which Black Jacques had painted on the day the tower was dedicated,
August 13, 1905, when he was sixty-nine and probably should have been beyond
such pranks. Except where it had been painted with names, the structure
had gone unpainted, since there were no daring adolescents in the Babbington
Department of Public Works to climb the rickety ladder. The tower
had rusted to a ruddy orange, and in the setting sun it was a magnificent
sight, as magnificent as the sun itself. A boatman on the bay, when
the day was done and the desire to be at home and at rest became so tangible
that he could feel the cold glass in his hand, would see the tower above
the roofs of the town, burnished by the late sunlight, more magnificent
in its way than any cathedral—earthy, not ethereal, speaking of the simple
comforts of this life, of home, a shower, a comfy chair, a full glass,
a full stomach.
Raskol took me to visit Cap’n Leech one night when
he was delivering half a peck of chowder clams to him. Raskol’s father,
like many another clammy, sent the Cap’n a sack of clams now and then,
and once in a while a few dollars too. When he was younger, Cap’n
Leech had owned the boatyard at the end of the street where my big grandparents
lived, the boatyard that was now run by his son: Leech’s Son’s Boatyard.
“Cap’n” was an honorary title.
It was dark when we reached the shack. A dim
light showed through the one window. When Raskol knocked on the door,
the whole shack shook.
“Hey, Raskol, take it easy,” I whispered.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“You’re being too rough. Look—the whole place
shakes when you bang on the door like that. You’re going to knock
the shack down, and then we’ll be blamed for it. My father would
go wild if I ever got into any trouble like that. The police would
arrest us, and the whole story would be in the paper:
YOUTHS DESTROY HOVEL
BABBINGTON—Police remain baffled this morning as to the probable motive
behind the senseless destruction of the humble shack that was all Captain
Andrew Leech, retired, could call home. The Captain, discovered beneath
the rubble, was also at a loss to explain why two unidentified youths had
flattened his modest hovel. (Continued, with photos, on page 18.)
“Ye gods, I can see my father now, tromping up and
down the living room, waving the paper at me and raving:
“‘What’s the matter with you? Huh? Answer
me that! What’s the matter with you, knocking down a poor old geezer’s
only home and shelter from the elements! Just what is the matter
“And he’d never let me go on the boat trip—”
The door flew open, and a skinny old man in boxer
shorts, a sleeveless undershirt, and a blue cap stood outlined by the feeble
“Who the hell is out there?” he demanded.
“It’s me, Cap’n,” said Raskol.
“Oh, hello there, boy. Who’s this lunatic
you have with you?” He looked me up and down. I seemed to worry
him. I think he thought I might fly out of control and begin breaking
things. “Where are those little girls?”
“The Glynn twins?” Raskol asked. “I’m sorry,
I forgot to tell them that I was coming to see you.” The captain’s
face fell. “But I’ve got some clams for you, and Peter and I want
to talk to you about the trip.”
Cap’n Leech brightened at this. “I’ve got
your boat all built,” he cried. He cackled with pleasure and waved
at us impatiently, urging us into the shack. “Come on, come on,”
Inside, the place looked worse than it did from
the outside. If I had kept my room the way Cap’n Leech kept his hovel,
my mother would have thrown me out of the house. For furniture, he
had a few burlap sacks stuffed with what I guessed was shredded paper.
These served as chairs and beds. He had some packing crates here
and there. One was an end table, another a coffee table. Two
made a kitchen counter, on which he had a tiny gasoline-fired burner, a
small version of the one that Gumma and Guppa used when they went camping.
“Now,” the captain said, taking the clams and tossing
them aside impatiently, “let’s talk about the kind of boat you need.
It’s got to hold two boys your size—”
“—and their gear,” I said.
The captain and Raskol gave me looks.
“You know, food, tent, first-aid kit—”
“Yeah,” snapped the captain. “It’s got to
hold two boys your size and their gear. It’s got to be narrow enough
to squeeze between the banks in the upper reaches of the Bolotomy—”
“That’s right,” I said. “That’s why I was thinking
that a canoe—”
They were giving me looks again. I shrugged
and kept quiet.
“It must draw very little water,” the captain went
on, in a much louder voice. “It must be light enough for two boys
your size to carry around or over obstacles.”
Raskol and I waited for him to say something else,
but for a while he did nothing but giggle and rub his hands together.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving
behind the dying echo of his giggle. Finally, he shouted, “I’ve got
just the thing!”
He spun around and began throwing junk out of a
low pine box, about eight feet long, two feet wide, and two feet deep.
It was a rich mix of junk, but because socks, underwear, and torn shirts
made up the majority of it, I decided that this box must be his dresser.
The top of the box was propped behind it. Stenciled in a corner of
the top was
SHELTER KIT 6403
Merry Christmas Dad Your Son Raoul
was written across the top in red crayon.
“I’ve been saving this box to use as a coffin,”
said the captain, “but there’s no reason why you boys can’t use it in the
meantime. Grab hold, and we’ll bring her out into the light.”
Raskol and I grabbed the box by the ends and lifted.
He got his end up, but his face began turning red. I couldn’t lift
“Heave!” shouted the captain. Raskol let his
end fall to the floor with a crash.
“It’s too heavy, Cap’n,” said Raskol.
Cap’n Leech rubbed the gray stubble on his chin
for a bit, and then he climbed into the box and stretched out on his back.
“I’m pretty thin,” he said. “This is a lot deeper box than I need.
I’d say she’s a little less than two foot deep. Now suppose you cut
off about a foot from the top part of the box. That’d leave me about
nine inches depth, which should be plenty, because I don’t eat as much
as I used to, and by the time I need the box I’m likely to be thin enough
to just flatten right out in it.”
Raskol and the captain snapped a line around the
box, and we took turns sawing off the upper foot or so. The captain
made a watery chowder from the clams, an onion, and a couple of potatoes,
and we ate this from cups while we worked. When we finished, we had
a long shallow box that Raskol and I could carry, some spare lumber from
which the captain promised to carve a pair of paddles, and lots of sawdust,
which I swept through the cracks in the floor.