The tiller swung in short, jerky arcs. I braced a bare foot against the smooth teak surface, enjoying the subtle massage. The oyster scows crept past the line-up of the privileged, wraith-like with diesels muffled, cranked back to do-not-disturb.
The Hilton sat opposite, a ten-story monstrosity. The courtyard would still be empty, though the occasional frilly apron and blank servitude demeanors wafted through. Spoons needed adjusting. Not that anyone would notice … or care.
I debated lighting another cigarette, then caved. Filthy habit. My boy would later chastise and I’d acquiesce and not regret. But not yet. He was below, safe in the forepeak. Too early for the young.
Why the hell was I up?
The quay was a narrow sluice through mid-center Annapolis. Off to the north and west, you could make out the end of the bulwarked commons where the midshipmen patrolled in starched whites and their J-boats would round the curve on a tight tack, rolling off the Severn, heading for the bell buoy.
But not today.
This was a work day. Navy wannabees and citizens gainfully employed. I looked up and down the landscape of fiberglass, sails neatly furled and cloaked in jaunty blue or faded red. Halyards flapped in the wake, oscillating, a hard slap on pilings dampening to a soft caress.
I wondered if they’d mind me looking on. I had little to occupy but for loneliness and an ache that went unremarked, buried in long shadows and a promise of cloying heat.
I slipped on worn deck shoes and hoisted myself onto the dock, timing the jump as my lady nudged playfully against her restraints, testing the bumpers. The tide ebbed, releasing a pungent, rank odor of death and decay. Back then it was a working pier, not the idle playground for today’s admirers of quaint and vintage. The city lay tight, compact, her skyline unchanged, a time warp to the 18th century and all that was elegant, and man and his gods reached an uneasy accord.
I busied myself with the spring line, giving the old girl a bit more play. She hated the gagging and stretching when I’d been careless or lazy or heedless of the tables, misjudging the tide and making her suffer. She’d pay me back in spades. My pain for hers.
A fair trade, always.
I hovered near the scows, rusted out, slimy with their catch, snugged beam-to-beam, rocking as raw wood scraped and whittled away the remains of ancient paint. Working boats, old, worn, prideful.
The men worked quickly, handing over crates, muted laughter as a blue launched and skittered to freedom, a muttered patois of southern and Negro, unintelligible. I crouched at the edge, hopeful.
The tall man, grayed out, whip thin, sing-songed ‘sister’ and the others laughed and remarked at me—nut-brown, flaxen-haired—and bid me sit a spell. I scrambled and slipped, and a rough hand steadied and eased me onto the rail.
I took out my notebook and began to write.
From Choptank Blues and Other Stories
My alter ego, off the grid, living aboard a 30′ Grampian sloop on the Chesapeake Bay.
Here docked at Annapolis City Dock, c. 1974.