The Blue Dory
I am a ridiculous man.
I cannot see my feet.
My hair grows down to my waist.
I have stopped waiting for visitors.
Ninety-one, I am the youngest on the floor.
They turn out the lights here at 8:00.
I get up to check the man
in the hospital bed next to me
to see if he’s sleeping or dead.
He has not opened his eyes for days.
I sit in my wheelchair
by the window in the dark.
The dip of oars
far out on the bay,
the crank of oarlocks in the fog.
Seventeen, I still don’t have an outboard.
After a while, I stop rowing
and ship the oars.
I can barely see beyond the bow.
I feel the first drops
of rain on my face.
The girl, Katey Miller, my accomplice,
in a white tee shirt and pink shorts,
long legs and yellow-crayon hair,
lies sunny-side up stretched across
the mahogany seat in the stern,
her freckled forearm folded
lazily over her eyes.
When I was ten,
to the amazement of my siblings and me,
a nor-easter washed a storm-beaten dory
up onto the front yard
of our flat-faced house
on Patersquash Creek.
One month passed,
and after dinner on the 4th of July,
all of us were out on the porch
watching the fireworks
starbursting over Fire Island,
the dory still over on its keel
like a beached pilot whale on the lawn.
My father announced
the family had salvage rights
and gave the orphaned dory to me.
“It’s yours boy,” he said,
“If you can make it float.”
Katey Miller, I knew her since grade school,
summered in the white shingled cottage
up the block from the creek.
Her family, Scotch-Irish from Queens,
came out every year like clockwork,
end of May to September,
Katey and her bike,
her music-teacher mother,
two chain-smoking aunts,
and a tabby tomcat that hated me
and hissed when I knocked
on her screen door.
They had an upright piano in their
living room, the only one in town.
I never saw any men in the Miller’s cottage.
My mother called Katey “trouble,”
Truth was, Katey never did talk much,
but she was a hard worker
and laughed at everything I said.
She could do anything a boy could do.
She always walked three steps ahead of me.
July came, and Katey and I
painted the abandoned dory blue,
hoisted on a pair of sawhorses,
its curved cedar, shiplapped planks
the blue of the summer sky.
We scraped off the bottom barnacles
and painted the hull marine red
up to the water line.
We varnished the mahogany gunwales,
stem and transom and seats.
We painted the floorboard yellow,
added a new set of brass oarlocks
and a pair of white ash oars
from the hardware store.
My father said it was the most beautiful dory he ever saw.
For the next six summers,
Katey and I spent most days by ourselves,
rowing the blue dory up the creeks
and salt marshes of the Narrows
and Great South Bay,
swimming in the shallows off Fire Island,
scooping blue crabs in the waving eel grass,
on the edges of the sand bars.
Some days we just laid back
on the blue dory’s mahogany seats
and drifted for miles in the channel current.
In the summer of 66,
Katey didn’t arrive
till the end of August,
just her and her mother,
minus her chain-smoking aunts.
Though her hair was still cut
short like a boy’s, Katey had gotten prettier
and was now a half-foot taller than me.
One night, my sister had a birthday party
in our garage and Katey and I slow danced
outside by ourselves on the lawn
under the string lights.
She rested her face on my shoulder.
The next afternoon we rowed
the blue dory out across the channel
to Patersquash, a tiny tidal island
that belonged to no one,
between Fire Island and the mainland,
deserted except for a few deer
and an abandoned duck hunter’s blind,
its fine purple sand beaches
our favorite place to swim
or lie on a blanket listening to the radio.
We shored the blue dory
and put a blanket on the purple sand.
Then Katey and I kissed for the first time.
We kissed for the rest of the afternoon.
The sun was already setting
before we left Patersquash
and we were halfway home
when the fog rolled in
off Fire Island, the channel current
pulling us fast east towards Moriches Inlet
and the Ocean.
The tide changed
and the current stopped.
I could barely see my hands
and shipped the oars.
Katey wrapped herself in a towel
and crouched on the floorboards,
holding her knees.
Then it rained.
It rained hard and cold.
Later that evening, the fog lifted
and a search party from the marina
found us drenched,
sleeping on the floorboards
in each other’s arms.
My father in his Chris Craft
tied a rope to the blue dory’s bow
and towed us into shore.
The headlights from a dozen cars
were shining on the bay.
A crowd of curious neighbors
had gathered laughing on the dock.
My father tied the dory to the dock poles.
My mother yanked me
out of the boat by my ear.
Katey got pneumonia,
Two days later,
when I knocked on her screen door,
her mother would not
let me see her again.
When Katey and her family
left that summer, she did not say goodbye.
Sitting here in my wheelchair now,
looking out the window
at the night sky,
I still wonder why
Katey and I decided to kiss that day.
The next year was 1967.
All summer I looked for her
on the blankets at the beach,
at the bait shop where she worked,
at the ice cream parlor at night.
I passed her house every day
to see if her bike was in her driveway.
The last evening before I left
upstate to Harpur College,
I was walking to our dock,
oars on my shoulder,
to take the blue dory out
for one last evening row
on the glassy bay.
Katey, in a white tee shirt and pink shorts,
long legs and crayon-yellow hair,
was standing at the end of the dock.