Waccamaw
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The Boat

                                    Chad Willenborg


Kernan rose at dawn from a troubled sleep. He had been staying in the small lake house since the divorce. It was late October, the morning delayed by clouds. Leaves lay beneath the trees like eyelids, curled and yellow.

He heard the speedboat’s motor while waiting on his toast to spring, and when he went to the window, it was still out there: an old I/O with a closed bow, circling tightly to port, turning in on itself, creating a rolling wake which, in turn, popped and twisted the boat into the air. It disappeared behind blankets of water, then reappeared, still going, the motor laboring. Grey waves sloshed over the shorewall at the property’s edge. He pulled his sweater on and went out the screenporch down to the water. Whiffs of smoke dispersed in that space where it had been. The wake subsided into soft lapping against the banks. He went inside and phoned the police.

They hauled it up with a crane on a square barge used for piledriving. Kernan lingered along the wall near three volunteers who sat catching their breath, their wetsuits unzipped, their masks beside them. They had found no body, no driver nor occupants. Kernan told them he hadn’t seen anyone in the boat. Did you see it go under? they asked. No, he admitted.

They seemed to despise him.

The crane lowered the dripping craft onto the barge’s deck, nose first, and it lay like a white-bellied whale. Aboard, an officer took photographs as the barge bore it back to the marina. Another officer clicked shots from the shore. She stood staring out onto the lake for a time, as Kernan had earlier, then turned and walked up the slope for her squad car.

They dragged the lake for three days, but found nothing more.

The boat was not registered with the state. In a week, they traced it to Canada, but the trail of owners ended with a Saskatchewan man who had died sixteen years earlier. His survivors remembered he did have a boat, but were certain he had sold it.


In winter, the lake was not as busy. The surface grew choppy and opaque. It settled in evening, however, and Kernan would uncork a pinot noir, don his barn jacket, and take a waterglass and lawnchair down to the dock to sit at the edge with his cigarettes. There was nothing there to mark the mystery and it fazed him like nothing else had. He watched several boats pass over the spot in the intervening weeks, back and forth like erasers clearing a board. He poked the dead butts into the bottle and sat until the air grew too cold. Once, before they were married, he and his wife had swum in this lake.

The cabin had a furnace, but the walls were thin. He had taken to wearing his jacket indoors. He kept the floor clean with a plastic broom and a cracked dustpan. He made lasagna, and, for a few days, was pleased to fire the oven to reheat it. When the first snow came, he spread rock salt over the gravel at the front door, where his car was parked. The lane to the main road stretched white and quiet through the bare trees. By new year, the lake had frozen over.

A heavier snow came. He went with the shovel to the dock and cleared it. Down the shoreline a quarter mile, the beach’s rickety slide rose over the ice. Children in nylon snowsuits were walking out to it in file. Their thin shouts carried the distance. They climbed the tall ladder and slid into the drift at its bottom.

Kernan used his shovel to uncover the ice at the edge. He stepped onto it and stomped. He cleared a path out to the spot, then he began shoveling a square patch clean, the shoveled snow banked around its edge. He shuffled back to the cabin, filled a thermos with wine, put a cold square of lasagna in a paper towel, and went back down to watch.

As he was eating on the dock, the children came to him across the frozen lake. They had made it half the distance when he saw them—five of them, the oldest no more than twelve. He lifted his hand in hello as they climbed over the mound and began sliding across the cleared patch. The tallest boy called to him. His face was red. His nose was running.

When you gonna fish on it? the boy wanted to know.


The girl at the hardware store found the saw the man at the bait shop said Kernan needed. She carried it to the register for him: like a medieval halberd, a pole with a row of sharklike teeth at the end. She surprised him when she folded it in half.

It’s got a hinge, he said.

It’s supposed to do that, she told him. You ought to think about wearing a life jacket if you’re going out on that ice, she said. I would.

It’s a foot solid, at least.

It’s your life, she said.

When he arrived at the cabin, he found the front door wide open. He rushed to close it, and, cursing, raised the thermostat to recover the lost heat. Bootprints, not his own, smudged the narrow hall. He looked at himself in the square mirror. In his periphery, a catfish lay staining his pillow in the bedroom. He listened to the furnace tick. He went back outside and gathered the saw, the lures, the sinkers. There were no other prints he could discern among his tracks in the lane.


He was no longer sure why he had come here, and now he wasn’t sure where else to go. Returned alone to his hometown, his parents dead, his sister moved, he couldn’t bring himself to call his few acquaintances. Going for wine, he passed beneath St. Bartholomew’s spire and figured if he were to stay long, he would be expected. He wasn’t sure he had the will to move away again.

He had taken a job in accountancy with the local grain elevator. When the woman who hired him casually inquired about his church, Kernan told her he had attended St. Bart’s as a child. He figured she knew. She explained her family was relatively new to town, but her own children were now students there.

That’s where we went, Kernan nodded.

Sure, she said. Welcome home. Then, nothing more, she stood, offering her hand across the desk.


The church was grander than he remembered, overwhelmingly warm: they could afford the utilities. Arrived early, he sat on the aisle. Coughs and sneezes echoed apologetically in the chamber, like Sunday’s hammers and saws. By the processional, he had been crowded to the middle of the bench. Latecomers shrugged out of their coats, their wet boots slicking the tiles.

He spied a checkered scarf like the one he had bought his wife—a year ago? two?—but it vanished in the rise for the gospel, disappearing as she herself had behind the paperwork, every signature a row of coats between them.

He unzipped his jacket. The reading was from Mark, where the waves worried them, and He came to them like a ghost with the intention of passing them by. The woman in front of Kernan wore a white wool coat trimmed with satin. Kernan was admiring it, when her shoulders rolled, subtly at first, then she began to list. She crumpled as if shot, her head knocking against his handrail. Those around her gasped and gave room. In their hesitation, Kernan sensed she had come alone—none familiar. A mother fanned the woman’s face with a missalette then handed it to her daughter as if the act were merely instructive, but the girl was stiffly noncommittal. An older boy beside Kernan looked to him for some cue, and, gospel coming to a close, Kernan bent over the pewback and gathered the fainted woman up. It was all a matter of seconds. He marched to the back of the church as they seated themselves for the sermon. Faces, pale and ruddy, tilted on dark waves as he passed.

An usher standing sentry at the vestibule opened the door, and Kernan took the woman out to the steps. In the sharp air, he supported her neck, careful not to let her white coat drag the wet pavement. A cattletruck crept down Third, lost on Sunday, too large for the neighborhood. The animals’ breath steamed out the side of the trailer.

She came to. He offered the water cup the usher had brought, and though the moment was awkward, her smile was sincere. She rubbed her head. He recommended she walk a bit before going inside, and so she minced a circle before the church for him, made a small display of a deep breath.

I’m okay. So sorry.

He escorted her in. She found a new space in a rear pew, the coat in her lap. Kernan stood with the usher and his basket. When the man faced him full on and winked, Kernan himself felt faint. He retreated outside and reentered the west door, idled there in the shallow transept. Before the opening chords of the recessional, he dipped his fingers and made his exit. He paced quickly to his car.


Forty feet of line ran into the hole. A navajo blanket covered his chair, was folded over his lap. He stared into the dark circle awhile, then out to the beach’s skeletal slide, risen like a gnomon over the bright expanse. Something was perched atop it. A large unmigrated bird? No. Dry snow whisked over the crust. He wedged the pole through the chair and set off across the lake.

A trashbag was hung in the handrails. He climbed the ladder, brought the bag down,  and carried it to one of the beach’s empty cans. He tore the liner on impulse and found it full of opened mail.

His mail.

Junk and bills. Short rejection letters. Cards from his sister. Dispassionate notes from his exwife about their things. Settlement correspondence. Mail he had discarded discretely over the past months, all here collected.

The lake was empty, the homes on its shores blank. He lit the sack with his lighter and left it burning.

Head down, he trekked towards his cottage, landing his boots in the pockets made coming. When he raised his face, she was there at the dock, waving in her white coat.

Tom? she said.

He lifted the ski mask.


In the kitchen they waited for water to boil in the saucepan. He turned the furnace up. She scanned the sparse rooms. You live here? she said.

Most of my things, he began. It’s all I need. I’ve got the lake.

They looked out the window. The white was blinding.

It’s pretty, she said. I’ve never been out here this time of year.

He poured water for tea, carefully, into mugs. The owners had a box in the cabinet, though he hadn’t thought to make it before she asked.

They told me you were staying out here.

They’re old friends, he explained.

I wanted to thank you again.

I’m glad you’re okay. Your head took a knock.

Where are you from?

I grew up here. Long time ago. In town. You’re a Power?

She nodded. Amy, she told him again. Though really it’s Grace.

He grinned as he sniffed his tea. Grace Power. They had high hopes, he said.

She smiled. Then she said: You could hide like this anywhere, Mr. Kernan. Why did you come home?

It took him aback. He nodded a few times to show it was a fair question. I suppose you’re right, he said. I thought it would be a good place to reassess.

Reassess what?

He rolled his eyes with self-deprecation. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m looking for who I’m supposed to be, here in the place I came from. If that make sense.

How hard are you looking?

I’m looking.

She blew on her cup. She asked if he was married.

No, he said. Was, he said. He thought she might be disingenuous. It’s good to have company. He pressed the teabag with his spoon and set it on the paper plate. At any rate, I hadn’t thought of this as hiding. Thanks for the perspective.

A man alone on a lake during the holidays. A lot of red flags, mister.

The lake’s frozen, he said.

She invited him for dinner at the steakhouse downtown. Afterward, they walked the sidewalk past the cinema, its windows papered over. Beyond the courthouse, the blue glass of St. Bartholomew’s steeple was lit royally through the trees.

I used to faint all the time. If I got too hot or I saw blood. Only seems to happen when I’m around lots of people. Which, she laughed, is embarrassing.

I was too slow to catch you, he said. He considered how no one had moved, really, the look the girl gave her mother with the missalette. I could see you getting wobbly.

You carried me, she said. Such a gentleman.

He looked away.

In high school, we had this retreat where, one of the things we did, you had to close your eyes, spread your arms like this, and fall backwards into the arms of your classmates.

She stood there, her arms suspended, eyes closed.

I couldn’t do it.

He felt warm watching her. What do you mean?

I just bent my knees. Wouldn’t let myself fall. One of the women eventually came over and kept her hand here as she, like, tipped me back. But I had ruined it somehow.

They haunted the corner bar’s window. The panes had been sprayed with canned frost, which sparkled red with the neon. College kids played foosball on the other side, still on winter break.

It was all supposed to be about faith, she explained.

Yeah? Faith in your friends?

Well, faith in God, you know?

Kernan nodded but kept silent.

But, yeah, in your friends, your community. I got it the next time.

She took his hand and kissed his cheek in the cold.

When he opened his eyes, he saw a couple his age in a car idling on the other side of the street. They were in evening wear, watching him, speaking. Amy turned to see what had his attention. She waved. The woman lifted her hand but left the window up. Her husband tucked his head out of view, and the car pulled away.

Who was that? he said.

She told him. The names, all their names, were familiar but meant little, like the names of places he’d been more than people he had known. He began to doubt his own questions.

What’s everyone saying about me? he asked, trying to smile.

Nothing that kept me from coming out this afternoon. You’re smart. That you were quiet. That you were a loner. She made light of the word.

There were shouts of victory behind the bar’s glass.

He took her hands. She was pretty. She was not young. She had surely been in love before.

Not that I was brooding? Or untrustworthy? Or dangerous?

No, she laughed.

Did you plan to live your life here?

I’m still living my life. I feel safe here.

Really?

Yes.
   
   
Weeks passed, most just as cold.

The bells over the door jingled as they entered the dim rectory. A plastic cover shrouded the computer in the secretary’s office, and there were vacuum tracks on the carpet. They felt compelled to whisper. Shortly the sound of someone moving came from above, and Fr. Goeckner descended the stairwell, his collar undone. He extended his hand. Please, he smiled. In here.

Seated, the priest explained the process to them. They asked few questions. He said it would take months. Near the end, she took Kernan’s hand.

Anything else? the priest asked.

No, Kernan said.

Amy paused. You should tell him about it, she said.

Kernan looked puzzled, then he shook his head sheepishly. Speculation, he said.

It’s quite alright, Fr. Goeckner assured him. I don’t always have answers, but sometimes I can help clarify questions.

Branches played notes on the sunlight through the window. Her grip tightened, then released, a pulse to get him started.

Last year, Kernan said, a boat went down on the lake. I saw it out my window.

You saw the boat go down?

No, he said. I did not see it go down. I saw it before it sank. And I saw it when they hauled it up.

I see. The priest studied him. Was everyone okay?

No one was found, Kernan said.

Goeckner shook his head. Was it someone you knew?

Who? Kernan asked.

The priest looked bemused.

There wasn’t anyone in the boat, Kernan said. That I knew of. It’s just been on my mind. If he had brought his cap, he would have put it on.

Amy stood to help Kernan make their exit. Thank you, Father, she said.

On the sidewalk, Kernan said, Why’d you bring that up?

You can’t sleep. You’re paranoid and depressed and you keep mentioning the boat. They reached his car. I’m sorry, she said. I want you to feel better. I thought it might help.

On the drive to the lake, she undid her belt and put her head in his lap in the dark. He stroked her hair behind her ear. The sun had gone early.

I won’t pay for an annulment, he said. I don’t believe in that stuff.

They’re not exactly paid for, she said, but then she said, I know. What do you believe in?

Billboards were lighted in the black fields.

Let’s move somewhere.

Why?

When he didn’t answer, she nuzzled him, a hand inside his shirt. Her fingers raked his ribs.

I don’t think I can stay here, he said. They’ll want the cabin in spring, anyway.

Move into town, she said. She looked up at his chin. We can find a place together.

We’d still be here.

You don’t like it here.

I didn’t say that.

She sat up in the seat. Do you love me?

They crept along the lane to the cabin. He drove slowly. Ravines cut through the trees down to the lake.

Yes, he said. I love you.

The door to the cabin was open again. All the lights were on.

They looked at a moment before she got out of the car and went in. When she came out, she sat in the car without a word.

He told her about the catfish and the sack of mail. He told her about silent calls he’d gotten at work.

You didn’t tell me those things, she said. I didn’t know how real your worry was.

I haven’t always been able to believe it myself, he said.

We’ll tell the police. She paused. They hung slipknots in your closet. There’s a whole row of them.

He remembered the boat, the woman with the camera staring into the air then leaving without a word. They didn’t do that, he said.

She could only hold her scowl off a moment. Get out, she said.

What?

Get out.

He left the car gently. She slid behind the wheel and put it in drive.

He was standing in the cold, his shirt still unbuttoned above the navel. He zipped his coat. Where are you going?

At first, he thought she was turning the car about, but she let it roll down the slope in the dark, steering to miss the trees. As she neared the dock, she accelerated. He called her name, trotting down the hill, tripping on fallen branches. Much of the snow had melted the week before, but the lake was still frozen. The car pounded over the boatdock’s broad boards and went right off the end without hesitation. The brakelights never came on. The car slid on the slushy ice. The tires spun. He jumped onto the lake and fell again trying to open the passenger side door. His pants were wet.

The car went out slowly. He was able to catch it and climb in. She looked intently into the scope of the headbeams, hunched at the wheel. She was working her way to the center. When she got there, she drove in circles, fishtailing. He braced himself between the ceiling and the dash. His breaths were so shallow he felt dizzy. At last she stopped. She put the car in park, and they sat there where the boat went down, listening to the heat blow.

What are you looking for? she said.

I don’t know.

Start thinking, she said. She began across the ice again, steering far away from the dock now, down past the beach, towards the distant end of the lake, which he could not see from the cabin. Lights were on ashore, embers in the darkness, left and right.

Look, she told him.

When she heard him weeping, she stopped the car. The moon shone like a bulb over the lake those nights before the thaw.


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