Someone will see his empty boat, and they’ll know. They might even see it in time to come looking for him. There was a crack at the back of his head, the shock of cold water gushing into his lungs. Stretching them out. The ocean flowing into his nostrils and rushing down his throat like his body had sprung a leak; like someone had torn the lungs from his chest. He gasped anyway, gurgling instead of breathing. The salt clawed his eyes, and he refused to shut them, panicked he’d not see his way to the surface. Panicked that, with his eyes closed, he could mistake up from down.
It was the moment half of Witless Bay had joked about for years: the fisherman who couldn’t swim, and how dumb was that. Dumber than a pilot afraid of heights, his wife always said. Back when Emily was still his wife.
He hit the water and the cold sea hacked his limbs off. He sank like a barrel. He grabbed fistfuls of water and pulled, like it was a rope he could climb. But he got the motion right. His head broke the surface, and he gasped his lungs full of air, and kicked and pulled his way to a buoy that was just out of reach. He wrapped his arms and legs around the thing like a spider sucking something dry.
His boat was too far away to swim towards. Not for a man who could swim, maybe, but certainly for him. Every wave in the ocean looked to be purposefully pushing his boat farther away from him: each wave an angry blue shoulder, nudging and nudging. But he thought maybe the boat would save him. An empty boat, that far from land, was as much a cry for help as a signal flare. But more subtle, solemn. It’s probably too late to help him, but we should find the body. A proper funeral.
His tired arms were getting convincing. It would be bliss right now to let go, and relieve his cramped and aching muscles. Five hours was too long to keep every muscle flexed; five hours was too long to hold on for dear life. Five hours of hearing the lull of an ocean, of rising and falling with it, had a way of pacifying him. What he thought of was simple, random: the heat on Emily’s side of the bed, when he’d roll over in the mornings to throw an arm over her, a leg. Nuzzle in. Slide an arm between her breasts, grab a shoulder with that hand, to pull her closer. She was a fire that didn’t burn.
He was cold now, in that ocean. He was fucking cold, like someone was squeezing his balls and pushing them up into his stomach. He was a caveman, entombed in blue ice. Again, he pictured himself letting go. He pictured his own wake: people there to be courteous, people there who couldn’t live without him.
If he squinted, he could still see his boat. It was green, Irish grass, with a candy-red stripe that had his daughter’s name emblazed on it: every last letter of the word Alexandria. An elegant name for a wreck of a teenager.
Alexandria was nineteen and married. Knocked up. And smoking anyway. Her mother had been as graceful as a symphony, but Alexandria was the sound of a record scratch. She was nails against a chaulkboard and she was a fork across a plate. In the end, his marriage couldn’t survive the train wreck of their daughter. Alexandria had been stealing things from them: bottles of scotch, bills left in wallets. And then it was Emily’s engagement ring, the one Gus had spent over a year saving up for. He’d had it custom-made by her high school friend, before that friend moved to Bangladesh. A month later, just as things settled down from that, Gus came home and found Alexandria pulling Emily’s hair; slapping her mother’s face like she was disciplining a dog. Emily had come home early that day, and found Alexandria and her boyfriend boiling magic mushrooms in the kitchen. She asked the boyfriend to leave, and Alexandria got so violent even the boyfriend called Alex crazy.
Gus had been lucky to have a woman like Emily, and he knew it. He met her at his bother’s wedding in St. John’s. She was the hired bartender, and Gus liked to drink more than he like to dance, so he was the only one plunked at the bar all night. He barely knew anyone there, and the longer he sat in that barstool, swiveling aimlessly, and sipping hardily, the chattier and more friendly Emily got. He liked the look of the girl, well-kempt, but not in that prissy, store-bought sort of way. Her clothes looked like they all came with a story about how she’d acquired them. And she’d tell a man to fuck off, this one. He liked that the most. She’d tell a man to fuck off, and she’d gotten a little drunk herself as the night rolled on. Every drink she’d finish made her a little more curious about this oddball man on the barstool in front of her. He wasn’t one to talk about himself, but she kept digging so deeply they were hardly strangers come midnight.
“What about after,” she asked him, crunching through a vodka-soaked icecube, tossing her head in the direction of the dancefloor. “Things are winding down here, and I’m up for another few drinks before calling it a night. Are you? There’s a proper bar in the hotel.”
“I dunno,” and he didn’t. “I gotta get myself back down to the southern shore yet tonight.”
“Witless Bay. We covered this, earlier, that I’m not from town.”
“Why. Why do you need to be back to Witless Bay come morning? It’s Saturday.”
He looked at her, curious, genuinely curious. “What do you want with a fisherman like me?”
“What does that mean, a fisherman like you?” She laughed, almost offended. “What the fuck does that even mean?”
“You don’t look like the kind of girl who wants to go for a drink with the only guy in the place not wearin’ a suit. That’s all.”
“Now I’m just offended. What I’m interested in, is a drink with the only half-interesting person in the bar. And you’ll do. The night is young. Your brother’s friends, associates, no offense, but I’ve got no time for blinky-eyed big tippers, who think the suit makes the man. And you’re the person I’ve been chatting with all night, aren’t you? The only friend I have in this whole wide hotel.” She winked, smiled; she had a look on her face he couldn’t understand. “I’m only looking for another hour’s company,” she said. “I won’t keep you out past your bedtime or anything.”
A city girl, see. He’d speculated all about them. He ended up in her hotel room that night, tearing the clothes off her, taking her demands. Slower, look at me, kiss me, slower, get that belt. A hand on his head, pushing him down there, talking him through it. Really, you’re kidding, you’ve never done this before? A boyish grin on his face for the first time in years. Both of them proud he at least tried. By four in the morning, they were spent from three hours of messing around. They were twisted up in the tangled bedsheets, sharing a smoke, despite the No Smoking signs.
He spent the week with her, and they only left her bed for food on her patio – in housecoats – or at a restaurant downtown. He went to leave one Monday morning, but ended up spending another night with her, before heading back to his life in Witless Bay. And that was that.
But she’d shown up a few months later, a hand on her potbelly, pregnant. She had a pie in her hand, something to eat as they chewed over where to go from here. I’m pregnant she kept saying, like she still couldn’t believe it. There’s a Goddamn human growing inside me! My blood is pumping through it, as we sit here to eat! She reached over and wiped some blueberry from Gus’s chin. He was staring at her belly, smiling at what he’d been lucky enough to do to this woman. In that regard, Alexandria was the best thing that ever happened to him. She gifted him Emily; twenty years worth of Emily. And then she pushed her away.
Emily had a fractured wrist the day she finally left Gus. Alexandria had pushed her over the stairs, climbed over her, stole their car, and got brought home for driving without a license. Emily left Gus for defending their daughter, every time. It’s just a phase, she’s flesh and blood, people can change. He couldn’t choose Emily over Alexandria, because Alexandria was a teenager, and that meant she needed someone, a parent, a father, if only for the roof over her head. Emily needed no one.
But now he was clung to a buoy, preparing to die, and all he could think of was Emily, everything about Emily, and not a thing about his daughter seemed to matter. He was thinking of the hairbrush that used to be by his sink, or the way Emily would hang her face over a mug of steaming tea. The heat, on her side of the bed. It’s not often – it’s never – that a man has five hours to just think. To let things soak in, float to the surface.
After Emily left, Gus let Alexandria’s boyfriend move in. He found out she was pregnant, and it seemed like the right thing to do. Alexandria and Billy couldn’t afford a house, and this way all three of them could pitch in with the baby.
Billy wasn’t a bright kid. Gus had tried to teach him how to play scat and gin one night, and the kid just couldn’t get it. Got frustrated, said cards were for old people. He didn’t laugh at comedies or cry at dramas, and Gus could never relate to a man so devoid of passion and emotions. Billy was crude in how he’d kiss and touch Alexandria in front of her own father, but he was not a bad kid. He wanted the respect of the company he was in. He’d shovel, help with the dishes, mention the compliments his mechanic boss gave him, so that Gus would know Billy was good at what he did for a living. Over time they’d settled on bonding over Crazy 8s. Billy could wrap his head around that one. Just, lay on the same kind? And Jacks is miss a turn? Gus waited a week or so before introducing the third rule of the game, about pick-up 2s.
It was getting darker out there on the ocean, scarier, and the blearing gulls had disappeared, and he wondered where they go. He thought about double lives, and wrong turns, and hindsight. His vision was blurry now, and his eyes dry as bone. He’d noticed they weren’t even blinking anymore. What he knew was this: if, two years ago, a man had kicked in their front door and started firing a gun at his family, it would have been Emily he’d have instinctively thrown himself in front of to protect.
He’d done his best to have a respectable baby shower for Alexandria. He made a sandwich platter, bought a tacky gold-foil banner from the dollar store, diced up some cheese and watermelon. Even then, as he hacked awkwardly and without confidence at the giant watermelon, he pictured Emily there beside him, laughing, taking the knife from him, doing it herself, doing it right. The watermelon would just come apart in his big hands.
Everyone knows everyone in Witless Bay. Everyone knew everything about everyone, and he hated that. Always had. May as well leave your curtains open in this town, Emily used to say. But there were perks to that. Some neighbourly women had a soft spot for a man struggling in the absence of a woman. There were women in Witless Bay who thought men couldn’t cook for themselves; there were women who thought in gender roles, still, in 2013. They’d drop by with casseroles, baked cod, scalloped potatoes: every female neighbour, he’d come to discover, had one specialty they were damn proud of. So he thanked them twice as much. And felt horrible the time his daughter smashed Clea Davis’s casserole dish after a fight with Billy. Women get attached to their baking ware; they think nothing else will cook their signature dish quite the same. He didn’t know where to go and buy Clea another baking dish just like the one his daughter had smashed. He had to hand it back to her in pieces.
“It was Grandma Mays’,” Clea said. “But that’s nothing. Don’t you worry about this.” Clea said it like she meant it, but that was the last he’d ever seen of her Sheppard’s pie. The whipped potatoes: crunchy on top, creamy below.
Clea had come by one day, by just after Emily left, and caught Gus hanging clothes in the backyard. She was laughing at his thick hands, struggling with dainty clothespins – they were like tiny chopsticks in clumsy hands. The way the sunlight struck her, and tugged her face into a new expression; the way the wind blew her skirt, it was enough to make him feel alone in the world.
“Here,” she said, and she hung the clothes for him. “Go put the kettle on for us. I’ve brought some date squares.”
There was no one left in his life who he could reach out and touch anymore, without shocking them. His daughter included. And the image of Alexandria batting his hand away was too much.
The cold water was cracking his bones – freezing them brittle, brittle enough for the push of a wave to splinter them. He thought back to the mystery of what had struck his head in the first place, and sent him tumbling out of the boat. It must have been one of those gulls, always diving into his boat for scraps of fish. He’d always sworn it was the same two gulls, and came to not mind them there. Almost trusted them, if that makes sense. Maybe it was the gulls, or maybe it was nothing at all.
He reached a hand out to feel the lump there, and be sure something had struck him. He felt the crumbling of caked blood under his fingers. He slipped off the buoy, and he thought about how if he did make it back to land, back to his life, he’d not be able to look his daughter in the eye. He’d track Emily down. She’s on her own, he’d tell her. She’s on her own, now, that one. But he’d never find Emily and he knew it. He’d heard she was in Ottawa. He knew that, even at forty-five, carrying the baggage of a failed marriage and a daughter like Alexandria, a woman like Emily wouldn’t have stayed single long.
That day at the clothesline, Clea had a hand held to her forehead, like a soldier in salute, to shield her eyes from the sun. A smirk on her face. C’mere she’d said. And she took the clothespins from his hand, giddy and giggling, sliding passed his body in a way he liked. “It certainly doesn’t help that these clothespins are dainty and foolish. I’ll come by tomorrow with a bag of normal ones. The wooden ones.” And she did. They shared some more date squares and cold milk and conversation. Until Alexandria barreled into the room, saying she needed a ride to the courthouse in St. John’s. Oh Clea said. I better go.