Monday, November 12, 2007

Work in progress (II)

The first time he turned to look back towards the harbor, ten minutes later, he could make out nothing of the town except a water tower and a couple of derricks; a few minutes more and these were gone as well. A stiff wind and cold spray were blowing across the deck, and the ferry was rolling in the swells. He stayed out as long as he could; then, when the chill became too much, he went below decks and found the lounge. A scattering of passengers were sitting on the benches by the windows: couples, lone men, a family with two small, excited boys, and the woman in the yellow slicker, who was reading a newspaper. The snack bar smelled of grease and had limited offerings, but he was beginning to feel hungry and bought a sandwich and fries and sat down.

They were soon out of sight of land. The two boys had fallen asleep, one on his mother's lap, the other sprawled on the bench beside. Two men played checkers quietly in a corner, observed by a third who stood over them until he grew bored and went to sit by himself, nursing a cardboard container of coffee. The woman in the slicker had finished her paper and now sat motionless, her hands folded in her lap, sunglasses on.

He stepped outside to the rail and found the air warmer in the afternoon sun. He went around to the stern, where two of the crewmen were killing time. They nodded as he approached, then resumed their conversation. He climbed the stairs to the upper deck and back to the wheel-house again. The captain, standing at the controls and talking into the radio mike in his hand, gave him a friendly wave but kept an eye on him, as if deciding if he looked like a jumper. He sat down on a bench and began to feel drowsy; he had drifted asleep when he heard tapping on the window and looked up. The captain pointed off to starboard. At first he didn't see the pilot whales, then he spotted them, a dozen or more, swimming parallel, black and sleek, their heads breaching the water at every trough. They kept up with the boat for twenty minutes, then veered away.

As the afternoon waned they came by land in the distance on the port side, and the first fishing boats appeared. The ferry skirted the coast for another hour, then turned as night fell. He saw lights alongshore, and the blinking of beacons, as it slowed. There were hotels and homes on both sides of the dock, and people out walking, even in the off season. The captain reversed the engines and the ferry inched up to the landing and came to rest, rocking gently with the waves beneath. The crew secured it fast, then dropped the chains to let the cars go through. He saw the couple with the little boys pull away in a dented blue sedan, the boys jumping up and down in the back seats and peering out at the sights. The woman in the yellow slicker went ahead of him into the waiting room and was greeted, rather coolly he thought, by an older woman in a drab wool overcoat. They stepped out to the street, got into a waiting car whose driver he couldn't see, and drove off.

He found a bed and breakfast a few blocks from the water, a narrow three-storey brownstone with chrysanthemums in windowboxes. One wall of the lobby was occupied by a cage full of tiny finches; they hopped restlessly from perch to perch twittering while he registered with the white-haired man at the desk — the owner he supposed, retired from some other life. Most of the rooms were vacant, and he asked for one on the top floor in front so he could look out at the town. He took the key, climbed the stairs, and went in. The room was small and bare, but adequate. The mattress on the four-poster was a bit high up but not too soft, and the single cast-iron radiator under the front window appeared up to the task. As he stood by the window he suspected he would be hearing traffic noises through the night, but this seemed more likely to ease his sleep than to disturb it. The streetlights would be more of a problem, as the curtains were pale and barely met, but he would manage.

He locked up again and went out to the street in search of a meal. There was a dark bar with a neon sign and a dining room, and a fish and chips, but he kept going, walking the main drag until he came to an Italian place that looked tiny from the street but opened out into an ample room, now largely deserted, once inside. He was shown to a table looking out on the water by a black-vested waiter in his thirties who spoke gently and with barely a trace of a foreign accent. He ordered bread and soup and a plate of clams with spaghetti on the side, and a glass of wine, and ate slowly, in silence, finishing it all as he watched the few boats that were still moving at that hour and season tie up along the docks and unload. When he had paid the bill and exchanged an amicable buona sera with the waiter he stepped into the street again. There was live music coming out of a basement storefront a few doors down but he wasn't in the mood. He found a bench in a little park by the water, under an aspen, and sat for a while until the last of the stragglers from the waterfront had moved on and the chill was starting to invade his bones, then he retraced his steps, bid the man at the registration desk goodnight, and went up to his room. He undressed and lay down, turning his back to the window, and was asleep the moment he shut his eyes.

(Never completed.)

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