In the other boat, he’d sing the loudest.
Shanties and songs his father taught him. Blue-and-green crusted melodies learned in bars and passed on to children late at night with no consideration for school the next day. Iris would watch him get into the other boat despite her protests that the new boat was nicer and safer and could carry him home with certainty. She would watch as her husband of forty-eight years boarded the rain-stained craft--not much more than a dinghy these days--and sailed away singing “Sarah, Sarah, By the Sea” without so much as a wave back to her.
Her friends would tell her when she first met him that he was a heartbreaker. The way he’d slide a milkshake in front of her at the diner; his arm casually tucking around her shoulder before she even knew it was there. He had charm that was in short supply for a town as small as theirs, and even though she knew charm came with all kinds of calamity, she let herself believe that him bestowing all his charisma on her meant she was special.
Through all the years they were married, she never once heard he was stepping out on her. Even her most cynical friends had to admit that as far as monogamy goes, he’d been a stellar spouse. While their husbands were all caught walking out of the Brunshen Inn at various hours with either Stella Royce, or her sister, Peg, Iris never got any phone calls about Nick doing any such thing to make her look foolish.
A week after their wedding, he had purchased the first boat--then new as a box of shoes for a christening. He took her out on it one time and one time only until they found out she didn’t have the stomach for seafaring, and then his jaunts on the water became solitary fare. That was fine by her. A man should have his hobbies and so should his wife. While he had the boat, she had her Bible to study and her communication with Christ. The Bible had been handed down to her from her mother, who had gotten it from her mother, and so on, and so on. It came with instructions to its owner--
Do not preach to your husband.
The women who came before Iris kept their spirituality to themselves in spite of what some may think about the Good Word and how it should be spread. They communed in an isolated way, the same way Iris believed Nick must with whatever it was he found for himself past sight of shore. When the first boat reached a point of dilapidation, he bought a new one without hesitation, but he kept the old one right next to it. Iris never planned on questioning him in regards to whether or not he could afford a new boat or afford to be boating at all at his age, but she did ask why he didn’t sell the old boat for parts.
“It’s not the old boat,” he said with deep hurt, as though she’d insulted one of the many children they’d never had, “It’s the other boat.”
The new boat was taken out every day without fail for months. He would make his coffee soon after dawn, and scramble two eggs alongside bacon. By the time she was up, he’d already be going through yesterday’s mail deciding which bills he wanted to pay and which ones could stand another month of neglect before the phone would start to ring. These were the months she cherished. Something about the steaming coffee on the kitchen table and the smell of breakfast while envelopes with debt in them got tossed in the trash as though obligation could be as fleeting as attraction. She’d sit down with her chipped mug full of tea, and he’d kiss her on the cheek before heading out for the day.
When he got home, they’d put on a movie and he’d come over to her side of the couch to put his head in her lap like a little boy. After a few minutes, he’d fall asleep, and she’d pull out her Bible and whisper prayers over him. Prayers of protection and prayers of thanks. Around one or two, he’d open his eyes and she’d pretend she’d been sleeping right along with him. He’d pick her up in arms that were as strong as the day he carried her into their eighty-year-old house and take her up to bed with him while she tried not to laugh at how sentimental their daily routine had become.
Her last prayer before falling asleep each night was that it would go on like that forever.
The first time he took the other boat out after letting it sit dormant, shifting and bobbing in the water, he didn’t give her a kiss on his way out. She didn’t ask why he took the other boat that day, because she didn’t want him to know that part of her routine was looking out the window at him as he made his way down the docks. She studied him as though he’d disappear at any moment and she might need to describe him in detail to someone. His gait, his saunter, the way he unhooks the tethers or how he coughs right before the vessel he’s in departs.
On the day he took the other boat, and subsequent days to follow, his walk changed. It was faster. Rushed. His untethering was methodical, as though he were being supervised. It made her want to pull back from the window in case she was the inadvertent supervisor, but the strangeness of it all wouldn’t let her avert her gaze. When the boat pulled away, he didn’t cough, but instead, raised his hand as though waving to somebody. Was it her? She looked in the direction of where he was giving his goodbye, and there was nobody there. Meanwhile, on the stove, his eggs and bacon were burnt to near tar.
The next time he took out the other boat, she walked down with him to the docks. She felt this would bring about some inquiry on his part, but he said nothing. As he boarded, he began to sing a song she hadn’t heard since he was a young husband, the ring still glinting on his finger.
“Sarah, Sarah, by the sea…”
She had only heard him sing a few times in his new boat, and then the singing went away for good. Now here it was again, but louder. More boisterous. This was when she asked him to take the new boat instead claiming safety when really, she just wanted to hear his reason for leaving the more improved boat behind. No answers were forthcoming, however, just another verse of a song she had never really liked about a woman named Sarah who’s lost at sea like all the other women in sea shanties are--provided they’re not sirens or ghosts.
Every time he took the other boat out from that point on, he sang so loud, the walls in the kitchen rattled. By then, he wasn’t eating at all, and the coffee he made was so diluted with cream and sugar she was sure he was going to give himself diabetes from only one cup of it. At night, he’d be wide awake watching the television, and it was she who fell asleep first, her Bible untouched. Part of her wondered what would happen if she went over and lay her head in his lap, but the way he was intently staring at Clark Gable or Gregory Peck or any of the men in the movies they liked made her feel as though any sign of affection on her part would be interpreted as an interruption.
When she awoke on the couch, the ill-behaved sunlight of a new week’s morning was prodding her. Nick was already in the kitchen watching smoke come up in front of him as his food crisped. She got up and went over to turn off the burners.
Had he really gone up to bed and left her there?
The clothes he had on were different from the ones he wore yesterday, and therein was her answer. Unless he had sat with her all night only to go upstairs to change once it was time for him to head out. He drank his cup of coffee-flavored milk and then exited without so much as a word to her. She didn’t go to the window this time. What would there be to see aside from a man who looked just like her husband acting like a stranger?
Instead she found her Bible in the drawer of the end table next to the couch. When she went to open it, she thought she must have pulled out a notebook by mistake. There were no words on the pages. Not a single one. No inscriptions either. The lovely notes her mother and grandmother and so on had left with their thoughts on scripture.
How could this be?
Surely there was no way for someone to remove all the pages of the Bible and replace them with this nothingness? She had only just been studying yesterday morning and everything was as it should be. Even the cover remained the same, if also blank like the book it bound. Iris felt a sudden urge to begin writing down any prayers she could remember like a monk from medieval times trying to carry on the word of God.
That was the image held firm in her mind when she heard the song coming from outside--all the way from down at the docks--
“Sarah, Sarah, by the sea…”
It was the loudest she’d ever heard him sing.