An Unwelcome Calm

In his seat, Quentin absorbed the pounding of the waves against the Verity’s hull. From the canopy’s shade, he squinted at the ever-widening wake behind the sport fishing boat. The first mate stood in the broad stern, his wide-brimmed hat bent with wind, his hand fast to the flying bridge ladder. Swaying, he draped his arm over the back of the fighting chair that looked like a throne.

The sun ascended morning sky and Bermuda became a gray line in the distance. Quentin glanced over at Beatrice. She hadn’t said a word since introductions at the marina when he turned to see the captain and first mate exchange smirks—ones that said, Yeah, if I could, I’d do her.

Nothing new, Quentin thought, they probably think she’s my daughter.

Now Beatrice looked miserable in the wind just beyond the shelter of the canopy.

She’s too hard-headed to move or say anything, Quentin thought. He always found himself concocting meanings for her silences.

She wore the faded red sweatshirt that he had insisted she bring along. The hood was up and pulled tight around her face. She stretched her arms over her head and yanked the hood down. He looked away. When he glanced again, the sweatshirt was off, and she was sitting there in a tight-fitting shirt, hugging her chest with her bare, tanned arms.

“Aren’t you cold?” Quentin shouted, pointing to the sleeve of his navy blue sweater.

She scowled and then answered, “I feel fine.”

In bed, he only used one sheet, while on her side she buried herself beneath down comforters. Her body required more than his: more heat, more alcohol, more specialized treatments, and always more attention.

“You’re covered in goose-bumps. Look at your arms.”

“Are you trying to tell me I’m wrong about the way I feel?”

He averted his eyes and feigned interest in the way the wind and light played on the water.

* * *

Twelve miles out, the captain idled the engines. Quentin welcomed the calm.

Gliding out from behind the steering wheel, the captain swept his blond hair behind his ears with his finger tips. “We’ll set the lines now,” he said.

Quentin watched him make his way to join the first mate in the stern.

After a couple of Google searches for “sport fishing Bermuda” or “Bermuda fishing charters,” Beatrice probably glimpsed his pretty face and booked his services. She just couldn’t resist, could she?

The captain and first mate knotted leaders, sharpened hooks. Each movement was practiced and efficient. They pulled line from the reels and adjusted the drag. They tied bullet-shaped lures with purple tentacles and bulging eyes onto each of the five fishing rods.

“Time for some fun,” the captain said, regaining his position behind the wheel.

Twin engines chugging, the bow lifted higher and higher. Quentin could feel the acceleration in the pit of his stomach. He grabbed the seat cushion to stop from sliding toward Beatrice. An apology for last night was in order, but he decided against saying anything. She’ll concede first this time, he thought.

* * *

For half an hour they trolled along the reef without a strike, the fishing lines glistening like spider webs behind the boat. The air heated up, and the captain handed out cans of ice-cold Heineken dripping wet from the cooler. After making quick work of hers, Beatrice requested another. Quentin nursed his beer and waited. He thought about how badly he’d reacted last night when she told him about her little surprise. He knew that the fishing trip wasn’t really for him. What words could he use to make her understand that his outburst had less to do with her and more to do with her father, Kimball?

Quentin had roomed with Kimball at Princeton and had known Beatrice her whole life. Four years ago, over drinks, Kimball made him promise that he would look after his daughter and, six months later, Kimball was dead of pancreatic cancer at the age of forty-five.

Quentin’s law firm managed Kimball’s estate. There wasn’t much money remaining after the medical bills, alimony and other debts were taken care of, so Quentin made up the shortfall in her college tuition, covered room and board, spending money, books. He paid for her spring break trips to the Caribbean and, when she was in town, he took her shopping and out to nice restaurants. She’d given him a sort of purpose and, at one point, he even wondered if he’d made a mistake not having a family of his own.

After graduation, she returned to Manhattan, wandering as a DJ and club promoter. Early one morning, a year ago, he received a text message. She was stranded in the East Village, could he come get her?

She told him about the debts, about all the failed promotions. He said he would help her. Why hadn’t she asked earlier? When she kissed him, he didn’t stop her. That was the night he decided she needed more guidance and, since then, the guilt of that decision weighed on him. Now, early each morning, as soon as he woke up and saw her, he thought, this isn’t what Kimball had in mind.

For a moment, Quentin forgot about the can in his hand and beer spilled on his khaki pants. Sipping the foam along the rim, he thought he’d better say something to her now and apologize. Before he could settle on the right words to use she raised her right arm toward the horizon.

“Look,” she said.

“At what?”

“Out there . . . see?”

“No, I don’t—”

He found it hard to focus with sky and water the only points of reference. Suddenly he discerned movement. A bird swooped toward the waves.

“Tell him to stop,” Beatrice commanded, gesturing toward the captain who was hunched over the steering wheel.

“You want him to stop for a bird?” Quentin said, shaking his head.

Beatrice glared back as if she’d recognized something hideous in him that she’d previously refused to acknowledge. The look of revulsion on her face startled him.

“Stop!” she shouted.

The captain jolted upright in his chair and spun around. His eyes darted to where she was pointing. A child-like grin grew on his face. As the clamor of the engines diminished to a purr, the boat slowed and pitched forward, settling into the waves. The lines slackened and the fishing rods straightened.

“It’s a finch,” the captain said, clapping his hands together. He bounded out to the stern with Beatrice following him.

The bird, its wings grazing the waves, labored toward them. “Come on!” Beatrice yelled, as if she were calling a dog.

A breeze pushed the bird along, narrowing the gap.

“Bird on board is good luck!” the captain said.

The boat dropped into the trough of a wave, and the bird cleared the side. It trembled on the deck, its wings spread.

Beatrice shrieked with excitement. Quentin couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her so happy.

Squatting down, the first mate cupped his hands and gently scooped up the bird. Its head poked between his callused thumbs. With formality, he presented the bird to Beatrice and said, “This is his lucky day.”

“Poor bugger probably got knocked off course by the storm last night,” the captain said. He turned, winked at Quentin, and then riffled through a tangle of lures in a bin, “Time to switch-up our offering.”

While scrutinizing the three of them, Quentin shifted in his seat, doing his best to project an air of complete disinterest.

The first mate carried the bird to the cockpit and eased it onto a shelf beneath the windshield. Quentin stood, advanced a few steps, and then leaned down to study the yellow body and black-capped head. Iridescent feathers twitched with rapid, shallow breaths. The eyes blinked.

“Cute little thing,” Quentin said, loudly enough for Beatrice to hear.

“You were fine with leaving it to die out here,” she responded, bracing herself against the fighting chair. Her long auburn hair was caught up in the wind.

“It would have been fine on its own,” he said, returning to his seat.

“Try and justify another one of your poor decisions—you always do,” she said, narrowing her eyes.

The captain and first mate, their heads down, busied themselves with the fishing rods.

“Now is not the time,” Quentin said.

“Am I embarrassing you? That’s one thing I’ve always been good at, isn’t it?”

He decided that he should just keep his mouth shut.

She let go of the chair and drifted toward the shade beneath the canopy. She sat down across from him, next to the captain’s chair, her back straight as if she were posing for an etiquette manual. A smile slanted across her face and she slowly removed her t-shirt.

He could see her nipples, dark and tight beneath the white bikini top. Extending her leg across the aisle, she flexed her calf muscle. Her skin gleamed.

“Beer please,” she said, pushing her foot up under his pant leg, brushing her toes against his hairy ankle.

The way she looked now made him wish he never questioned the relationship. Keeping his eyes on her, he bent forward, opened the cooler, and thrust his hand in. After digging through the ice he held a can out to her. He could feel the stinging cold in his fingers.

* * *

Minutes later the boat was up to speed, the tips of the fishing rods twitching nervously. Beatrice stood in the aisle, hovering over the bird where it rested on the shelf. Locking eyes with the captain, she said, “Thanks for stopping.”

The captain nodded from behind the steering wheel.

Quentin pressed his hand against the small of her back. She stepped backwards, toward the stern, until he could no longer reach her.

“I’m sorry,” Quentin said, forcing a weak smile.

She regarded him for a moment, “Exactly what are you apologizing for? I can’t keep it all straight.”

A high-pitched whine cut the air, and the first mate bellowed, “Fish on!”

Quentin spotted the bouncing rod, the line pulsing from the reel. The captain throttled the boat down.

The first mate plucked the rod from its holder and yanked it over his shoulder. “Hook set,” he said.

Beatrice scrambled out into the harsh sunlight and wriggled onto the fighting chair. The first mate offered her the rod and she took hold of it, plunging the end into a metal cylinder between her legs.

“Now that we have a bird, we have a fish,” the captain said, laughing.

Beatrice dipped down and then heaved her shoulders back, her thighs shaking—all the while cranking the reel.

Quentin made his way to the stern and watched from the side. Exhaust fumes tickled his nose.

Beatrice gained ground on the fish without much trouble. The first mate stood at attention, a long silvery gaff in hand. Then the rod doubled over and the reel screamed. Beatrice bobbed with the heaving rod and the chair squeaked.

“Thought it was a wahoo,” the captain said. “Could be something bigger that didn’t know it was hooked until it saw the boat.”

The line hissed back and forth slicing through the water. Beatrice’s arms shook. Sweat glided from her shoulders down to the small of her back.

“Tired?” Quentin asked. “I can take over.”

“Don’t need your help,” she said, her face etched with determination.

“It’s making another run,” the captain said.

Beatrice surged forward and bucked with the bending rod. It looked as if she were convulsing. Quentin expected the rod to break in two. How much more could it take?

Beatrice’s shoulders smacked the back of the chair.

“No!” she shrieked. “It’s off.”

“Keep reeling,” the captain said.

The first mate searched the waves, shielding his eyes from the sun. He plunged the gaff into the water. With a grunt, he held the front half of a pointy-nosed wahoo in the air. The fish slapped the deck, bounced and slid around the stern, blood marking its trail.

“Good size—too bad a shark got hold of it on the way in,” the captain said. “We’ll get another one.”

“I hope so,” Beatrice said.

“You seem to know what you’re doing,” the captain said.

“I used to fish with my dad.”

“It shows,” he said, nodding.

“Sorry,” Quentin said.

“For what?” Beatrice said, rubbing her legs. Her thumbs making fleeting white lines in the skin of her inner thighs.

“Well . . . all that effort for nothing—”

“I’m used to it,” she said, canting forward. Her hands followed the curve of her hips and then angled up along her back. She untied the strings and the bikini top came off. She balled it up, tossed it overboard.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“I don’t want any tan lines. Relax.”

Quentin could feel his face reddening, “Put your shirt back on!”

“No,” she said, her eyes as brilliant as the surrounding turquoise waters, but much colder. “You’re not my fucking father.”

A call from the CB radio crackled through the air. The captain dashed off to answer.

The first mate pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes and handed a yellow beach towel to Quentin. Quentin spread it open and hugged her, but she squirmed from his grasp. The towel fell to the deck, landing in a puddle of blood and water.

“I’m taking the next one too,” she said. “Get me another beer, will you?”

She sat back, closed her eyes, and lifted her face to the sun.

Quentin retreated to the shade. The captain was there, talking to someone over the CB radio about what was working at the other end of the reef. He had the boat going again. Shaking his flushed face, he stared back at Quentin as if to say, Wow, she’s a live one.

There came the high-pitched mosquito-whine of a reel, and the first mate yelling, “Fish on!” Quentin stopped himself from turning around. The captain tapped the throttle until only a gurgling sound came from the propellers.

There on the shelf, the bird lay perfectly still. The sheen over its once vibrant feathers had vanished. All the colors seemed muted now. It became important to him to remember this—the way the bird looked. Soon enough, he would be alone again. He closed his eyes and pictured himself walking through the slush of Manhattan, cold air filling his lungs.

The captain slammed the cooler shut, snapped the tab open on a beer and scurried past.

For Beatrice, Quentin thought.

He watched the bird very closely to make sure. It didn’t move. When he looked toward the stern, the captain and first mate were standing behind Beatrice, their backs to him. She was fighting another monster.

No one noticed when he stepped into the searing light, the bird dangling from his hand. He decided that when she got around to asking, he would tell her he saw it fly away. It would be easier that way.

1 thought on “An Unwelcome Calm”

  1. Hector the Injector

    Spoiled brat, he should have berated her hard in front of the sailors. Turn the table on the embracement.

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