The Wooden Kayak – Norman Birnbach
Bob used to like to go fishing with Eddie.
Dark haired and tall, Bob was born in New York City while Eddie was blond, shorter, and grew up near Stallman Street, named after Captain John Stallman, an early settler and an ancestor. They became best friends when Bob moved to the small New England town of Marblehead the summer before seventh grade. But they wondered if their friendship would survive going off to college next year.
They both loved to fish. So when Eddie texted Bob between classes about maybe going fishing after school on the Stallman’s boat, Bob jumped at the chance, even though it was Halloween.
“Do we have enough time? I want to make it to Mandy’s party,” Bob texted.
“U mean u want to make it with Mandy.”
“She’s going as a mermaid. Sea shell top & everything.”
“Keep your pants on,” Eddie responded. “We’ll go out for an hr or 2 & I’ll make sure we’re back in time.”
Bob knew that each year Eddie’s dad pulled the boat out by the first week in November (not because it gets too cold but because boater’s insurance requires it – otherwise any damage while in the water over the winter would be the Stallmans’ responsibility). This would be their last time fishing on the boat until spring.
“Kewl,” Bob texted. “But I’ll also need time to shower so I don’t smell fishy.”
“If Mandy’s dressed as a mermaid, she might prefer you that way.”
Bob picked up some bait and then some sodas and snacks (but not from the same store). It was a warm October night, temps in the low 50s. But Bob brought a down coat because the wind off the ocean could blow cold.
At 3:00 PM, when Eddie picked Bob up, they had about 90 minutes to fish before sunset.
Late in the season, if moorings were like tree branches, most of the leaves had fallen but there was a small percentage of boats still clinging on. After untying his family’s dinghy off Riverhead Beach, Eddie took about 10 minutes to weave in and out of the moorings and boats to get to the FisherKing, the family’s five-year-old Boston Whaler.
They unlocked the boat, took off the cover, transferred their poles, bait, and cooler onto the FisherKing, and turned on the forward and aft lights.
For the end of the season, the FisherKing was in good shape; even the bait station, where they prepared the bait and filleted their catch, didn’t look or smell fishy. Eddie’s dad made sure of that. The boat had seating in the bow and the stern, a center console with plenty of cup holders and six rod holders, a soft top roof, a head, a 30-gallon livewell, the latest instrumentation including a fish finder, and two Yamaha F175 motors.
“My dad loves six things: his wife, his four children, and his boat,” Eddie said, turning on the engines. “Sometimes I think the boat ranks higher than the kids, certainly than Joey.”
“If we’re talking about your brother, ‘higher’ is definitely the operative word.”
Bob unhooked the boat from its mooring and Eddie steered towards the ocean.
“Where do you think the fish are biting? Tinker’s Ledge? Naugus Head? Halfway Rock?”
“Doesn’t matter. Just nice to get out one last time.”
Before reaching Tinker’s Ledge, Eddie and Bob tested the waters around Marblehead Lighthouse at the mouth of the harbor; they had had good luck there three weeks ago, the last time they went out.
One of the things they both liked about fishing was being outdoors, the freedom to go where they wanted, where there were no roads. They also liked the distraction from checking their phones for the latest Instagram or SnapChat post. Only a few friends were avid fishermen so there was no point taking selfies while fishing…unless they caught something truly big. They could just relax.
“Here’s something I don’t understand: Sports that require gloves. I’m not talking about soccer goalies or skiing, when you really need gloves,” Bob said. “Do you really need gloves for golf? Ooh, I got a blister!”
“Hey,” Eddie said. “You need gloves in baseball.”
“Of course,” Bob said, opening one of the granola bars and handing another to Eddie. “But what about boxing gloves? You’re trying to beat someone up but you wear gloves so you don’t leave a mark? Seriously?”
One thing they didn’t talk about was that after next spring, after graduation, they would probably go to different colleges. This might be one of the last times they’d fish together.
After nearly two hours, they didn’t catch anything–but that didn’t matter.
“Here’s hoping you have better luck at Mandy’s,” Eddie said as they headed back.
The moon rose low in the sky, and the temperature dropped as the wind picked up. Bob put his down coat on over his hoodie.
As they neared the mouth of Marblehead Harbor, Bob spotted something floating in the water.
“Watch out dead ahead,” Bob said.
“Lobster trap?” Eddie asked, slowing down slightly and veering off.
“No–bigger than that–but don’t know what it is.” Bob grabbed a big flashlight from the storage unit in the center console because the forward light was more for showing the presence of the FisherKing than for illumination.
Bob shined the flashlight’s beam on the object: A wooden kayak. “A bit cold to be kayaking.”
“And stupid without some sort of light.” Eddie circled around to get a better look.
“Must be old—you rarely see wood kayaks anymore.” Bob kept sweeping the flashlight’s beam up and down over the kayak.
“It’s a real beauty. Its owner will be upset when they notice it’s gone.”
“No signs of blood–right? I wonder how it got here.”
Eddie cut the motor. There was a slight sound of water lapping the boat. But no cries for help or sounds of someone thrashing. After the sunset, the seagulls had gone to wherever they go at night.
All around them, in the dark beyond the flashlight’s reach, there was no real movement–they were still far away that the boats and buoys in the harbor were like shadows, softly illuminated every eight seconds by the rotation of the lighthouse’s white beam.
They called out – “Hello!” or “Anyone here?” – but got no answer.
“Guess we should bring it back,” Bob said.
“Yeah,” Eddie agreed. He turned the motor back on, and positioned the FisherKing alongside the wooden kayak.
“No tow rope,” Bob called back.
“The kayak must’ve fallen off a dock somewhere.” Eddie pulled out extra rope from the storage bin, and tossed it to Bob.
Because Bob was looking for a way to secure the kayak, the rope hit him on the butt. He leaned way over the railing, grabbed the kayak, and found a tied the rope around a cross-beam. He let the kayak plopped back in the water, and tied the other end of the rope around one of the rod holders.
“There’s a name on it,” Bob said, picking up the flashlight again. “Odell–at first I thought it said hell.”
“Old Patrick Odell died a few months ago. He was in his late 90s.”
“Doubt he was doing much kayaking. Think they launched it with his ashes?”
“Nah, my grandparents were friends. I don’t think he ever went out on a boat.”
“Then why live by the water?”
“Some people in town rarely go into Boston and some stay away from the water.” Eddie turned the motor on, and headed for the mooring. “He was proud that he still lived on Odell St.”
“Wait–I read a profile of him in the Reporter,” Bob said. “Must’ve been when he died. Said something about a boating accident when he was in college.”
“Maybe that’s why he stopped going out on the water.”
For about five minutes, everything seemed normal.
Then the engines started to sputter; Eddie pushed the throttle higher. Strangely, gunning the engines didn’t make the FisherKing move faster. “The steering’s getting sluggish. I’m having trouble steering around those lobster traps.”
The boat started listing on side closest to the kayak. Bob leaned over to check. The flashlight showed that the Boston Whaler logo, usually located above the water line, was now partly submerged.
“We’re taking on water,” Bob called up to Eddie.
“I think we’re in trouble.”
“Should we call the Harbormaster?”
Eddie picked up the radio, and tuned it to Channel 16, the emergency frequency.
“Mayday. Mayday, Harbormaster. This is the FisherKing at the mouth of Marblehead Harbor. We didn’t hit anything but we’ve got engine problems and we’re taking on water.”
The radio, at least, was working.
“Hello, FisherKing. This is Fitzie with the Marblehead Harbormaster’s Quarters. Are you in immediate danger of sinking? Do you have life jackets?”
Bob quickly dug out two life jackets, and tossed one to Eddie.
“Yes, we’ve got life jackets.”
“Do you think you could make it in?”
“Not sure about that. The engines were doing fine until–” Eddie didn’t think it was possible. He looked over at Bob, bailing water from the stern.
“This is gonna sound crazy,” Eddie said. “But we were doing fine until we came across a kayak floating just outside the mouth of the harbor. We didn’t hit it or anything but we found it floating, and we tied it up to bring it back to the owners.”
There was some static on the radio.
“What?” Eddie asked.
This time Fitzie’s question came over loud and clear.
“A wooden kayak? Does is say Odell?”
Bob stopped bailing. Eddie was so surprised he almost couldn’t breathe.
“How–how did you know?” he asked Fitzie.
“Listen,” Fitzie said. “Untie the kayak right away. Cut the line if you have to.”
Bob could hear the radio over the engines’ noise. He ran to the rod holder, tugged the rope loose, and tossed it overboard.
“Ok,” Eddie said. “We did it.”
“Get away from it as fast as you can.”
Eddie gunned the engines and almost immediately noticed the steering was more responsive. The stern wasn’t listing as much.
“It’s working.” Eddie spoke into the radio. “Thank you!”
But as Eddie steered the FisherKing back to its mooring, Bob called out. “Watch out,” he said from the bow, his flashlight sweeping the water ahead. “There it is again, at 11 o’clock.”
“The same kayak?” Eddie asked.
“Even if it’s a different but identical wooden kayak, I doubt it’s good news.”
“Is it less likely to have identical kayaks floating around or one killer kayak?” Eddie swerved to avoid hitting it.
“I know we’re making progress heading in,” said Bob, “but it’s in front of us again.”
“Can’t be. The same one?”
“That still seems more likely than having three identical wooden kayaks.”
Eddie turned the boat back towards the mouth of the harbor.
“What are you doing?”
“It clearly doesn’t want us to dock so I want to see what happens when we go in the other direction.”
“Eventually we run out of fuel and die. Don’t take navigational advice from a thing that’s trying to kill us.” Bob sprinted to the stern to check on the kayak’s position. He waved the flashlight. “It’s gone.”
After a moment, Eddie turned the boat around and headed back to the mooring, this time near the shore by the lighthouse. “Anything?” he asked in a low voice.
Bob sprinted to the bow. Holding his breath, he didn’t see anything. And then – “There!” Bob pointed to where the wooden kayak appeared again, blocking them.
“This can’t be happening.” Eddie turned the boat completely around; the kayak seemed to vanish.
“I really want to get back,” Bob said. “And not just because of Mandy’s party.”
“I’m trying,” Eddie said.
By twisting and continually shifting around other boats, Eddie maneuvered the FisherKing back to its mooring. They quickly cleaned up the boat, tied it up, gathered their things and jumped into the dinghy.
“No one will believe us,” Bob said, once they made it finally to shore, sweating despite the cold.
“We’ve got to thank Fitzie.”
“That’s right,” Bob agreed. “He’ll believe us.”
Stowed their gear in Eddie’s car in the otherwise empty Riverhead Beach parking lot, they drove to the Harbormaster’s. On the way, they could see little children in costumes, accompanied by their parents, walking behind them. The glare from street lights highlighted little ballerinas, ghosts, monsters and various characters from Disney or Pixar movies.
Eddie easily found a parking spot in front of the Harbormaster station, a wooden building that looked newer than the surrounding structures and overlooked the harbormaster’s boats tied to a long dock. The glass front door opened to a reception area with some brochure stands offering information about town programs, two chairs, a banner urging water safety, and a desk behind a glass partition, a buzzer located in what Bob thought looked like a tiny mouth carved out of the glass.
Eddie rang the buzzer. They were looking at the brochures when a man who looked like a former college linebacker walked in behind the desk.
“What’s up, guys?”
“We were fishing, and we ran into trouble. When we called in, Fitzie gave us advice that saved us. We just wanted to thank him.”
“What are you talking about?” His name tag said Assistant Harbormaster Demerest.
“We just want to thank him for saving us.” Bob looked at Eddie. They both thought it odd that Demerest didn’t understand them.
“There’s no one here but me, and I didn’t receive your distress call.”
Now Bob and Eddie had trouble understanding.
“But Eddie spoke with Fitzie for about five minutes.”
Demerest turned to Eddie. “You’re Bruce Stallman’s son.”
“You look like him.” Then Demerst did a double take. “Did you say, Fitzie’?”
Eddie nodded again.
“Fitzie died 35 years ago,” Demerest said.
“I spoke to him on my radio just 15 minutes ago.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” Bob asked.
“I’d ask you the same thing but you don’t look like you’re pulling a prank.” Demerest said. “Fitzie was the only person in the Marblehead Harbormaster’s Quarters to ever to die in service.” He opened the door, and walked into the room where Bob and Eddie stood.
“Fitzie was coming back from a patrol by himself, nothing wrong. His last transmission was from the mouth of the harbor. After that, he was never heard from again. He never made it back. There was no sign of an accident or wreckage. Nothing.”
“That can’t be,” Eddie said.
“When we built this new operations center,” Demerest walked to a plaque on the wall, “we named it after Fitzie. That’s how I know about him–35 years is a bit before my time.”
The boys stared at the plaque. It said: “James ‘Fitizie’ Fitzhugh Building.”
Bob and Eddie made it to Mandy’s party, and continued to be friends but Bob doesn’t like to fish much with Eddie anymore.