I was ten when I found an old and broken, remote-controlled, wood boat in a garbage can down the alley where Mrs. Johnson lived. After that, I told my parents I wanted to be a garbage man.
My Mom said, “What?” She was aghast. I think it happened a lot. My Dad laughed.
My parents didn’t have anything against garbage men. Hard-working middle-class people themselves, they never looked down on anyone, but they didn’t expect me, or any ten-year-old boy, to aspire to be one.
“For God’s sakes, why would you want to be a garbage man?” Mom asked.
“You find good stuff,” I said. “Look, I found this boat.”
I held the boat in front of me, cradled against the front of my tee shirt, which now looked like a map of an unknown world drawn in anything I had gotten into that day. There were streaks where I had wiped grape jelly and dirt off my fingers, which looked like peninsulas. Splotches of grease and garbage gunk were like islands and continents. Mom stared beyond the boat in my arms at my dirty white tee shirt and winced, like she was wondering what invisible creatures crawled around on it, and what dosage of bleach it would take to kill them.
“Let me see that,” Dad said.
I handed it to him gently. It was a treasure.
“Hmm, well that is neat. A remote-controlled boat. Looks like a cabin cruiser.” He turned it around in his hands. “The motor’s missing, but it looks like it will still float.”
I was happy to hear the affirmation from my dad, but there was always a danger in it. He had a lot of boy left in him, often a mean boy. He liked to play sports with us when my brothers and I were outside and play board games with us when we were inside. The problem was he didn’t play with us as a guide or a teacher; he played against us to win. When he played football, baseball, or basketball with us, he used his strength and size to beat us down. When we played board games in the house, he had less of an advantage, so he cheated. When he was losing, he behaved like he was being picked on, and he would get angry and aggressive. My brothers and I would often end up in tears from his yelling and his dizzying smacks to our heads.
As my dad looked at the boat, I stiffened. I was hoping he didn’t suggest that we play with it together. Then, he handed it back and returned to reading the Riverton Gazette aloud. “Muhammad Ali was convicted for refusing the draft on appeal. He won’t be fighting for a while, unless it’s in jail,” he said.
On the front page I could see the headline, “Apollo 11 Returns to Earth.” I saw the splash down yesterday on the Walter Cronkite news. I wondered why they always landed in the ocean.
“I’m going over to John’s house,” I said. I had thought of a place to float my boat, and I was sure John would want to come with me.
John lived a block away on the corner in a green story and a half house. I ran across his yard to his front door and called his name. The kids in the neighborhood didn’t knock on each other’s doors. Our method was more direct. We called, or more like yelled, from the stoop for who we wanted. “Johhh-nnn!” I called, singing out his name over and over until he came to the door.
John was a year older than me but about four inches taller. He was skinny and tall for his age, which was strange because his mom, Rita, was short, and his dad, Elroy, wasn’t tall and he was kind of fat. Elroy had a crewcut and black plastic rimmed glasses. In a hurry, he used to drink his hot cereal out of the bowl and the corners of his mouth would get burned, then he would yell at his wife, “Rita, the cereal is too hot!”
“Eat slower,” she would say.
“I have to get to work,” he would say and stomped out the door.
This happened almost every morning when I stopped at John’s to walk to school with him.
John blew out the door, and his mom yelled, “Where are you going!”
“Outside to play with Mick!” he yelled back.
“Be home in time for supper!”
“I know!” He slammed the door behind him.
“Where’d you get the boat?” John asked. “Can I see it?”
I handed him the boat. “My Dad says it’s a cabin cruiser. I found it in the garbage next to Mrs. Johnson’s house.”
“Mrs. Johnson’s garbage?” John held it up to his nose and smelled it. He smelled everything.
“A house down from Mrs. Johnson’s.”
“Neat. Have you floated it?” John handed it back.
“No. My Dad said it looks like it will. We could go to Pammell Creek?”
“That’s too far. Let’s go down to Chut’s,”
Chut’s was two blocks away on the Mississippi River. The Mississippi had the main channel, which appeared to be blocks wide, where the barges and most recreational boats travelled, but the river also had numerous islands which created tributaries and sloughs; these were the backwaters where a lot of activity also occurred. Chut’s was a private boat harbor and landing on one of those tributaries that was as wide as a river itself. There were enough slips in the docks at Chut’s to accommodate about a hundred boats.
Sometimes we fished off the docks. One time when I was fishing through a crack in the dock, I hooked a seven-inch Sunfish. It was so big I smashed it pulling it through the crack. Scales pulled off and its delicate bones crushed, as I squeezed it through the planks in the dock. I wasn’t much of a fisherman, and after this I didn’t feel much like going again. My Mom didn’t like me down by the river anyway.
“I’m not supposed to play down by the river. I might get in trouble if my mom finds out,” I said.
“I’m not either. We won’t tell on each other,” John said and laughed because that would be crazy.
We ran all the way to Chut’s. It was the fastest way to get anywhere besides riding bikes. I never said to myself. “This is a great day.” But I felt the promise of fun and adventure.
There was a long-paved driveway down to the river, and a half a city block of stairs next to the driveway. The stairs had no landings to break a fall. It was scary to look all the way to the bottom. At the bottom was Chut’s store where he sold bait, snacks, and a sundry of other merchandise useful for boating and everyday life. Earlier that day my mom gave me a nickel to get her a pack of Bel Air. It was the cigarettes that had a picture of Cumulus clouds against a light blue sky. I was going to get a Snickers or Mallow Cup with the money.
There weren’t any boats coming or going right now on the driveway, so John and I walked down to the docks. At the riverbank, I set the boat into the water.
“Floats,” John said.
We confined to a manageable area of water. It was about ten feet from the riverbank to the first dock parallel to the shore. John got out on the dock. “Push it towards me.”
I pushed the boat. He pushed it back. We did this for a few minutes then became bored. Boredom naturally led to other ideas.
“I wish we could float it farther out on the river,” I said.
“Let’s take it out to the end of the dock.”
“It will float away. The current will take it.” It would be a tragedy to lose the boat the same day I found it. “We need some string.”
“Fishing line, we can use fishing line,” John said. “I’m sure we can get some out of one of these boats.”
We found a flat bottom fishing boat with an old rusty red tackle box. John cracked it open. There were hooks, sinkers, a couple of bobbers, and a snag of dirty old fishing line. John took the line, then put the box back. We ran to the end of the dock.
John spent a couple of minutes trying to untangle the line. I took over. I was fairly good at things like that. As I solved the puzzle of the snag, John wound the line I freed around his hand until he said, “I think that’s enough.”
John tied the line to a railing at the stern of the boat with multiple knots. I put the boat in the water, and John released the line. The boat drifted south down the river and away from the dock. John unwound the finishing to the end then handed it to me. The current pulled the boat hard, and the line almost slipped out of my hand. I wrapped it around a couple of times. The line dug into my fingers. It felt like the boat was struggling to get free.
“Let’s walk down the river,” John said.
So, we walked along the shore, allowing the boat to drift farther south, like we were walking a dog. We went as far as the Log. The Log was a big elm tree that had fallen from the riverbank into the river. It had been there as long as I could remember. It created a natural twenty-five-foot pier where a lot of neighborhoods kids would fish. The submerged part of the tree was a good habitat for fish to hang out.
I handed the line to John, and he walked out on the Log. He walked out fearlessly. I followed very cautiously. The boat was now over halfway across the tributary of the Mississippi River from where we were we could see the mouth of the tributary leading to the main channel.
I was watching John tie the line to a branch when the worn flat bottom of my tennis shoes slipped. My shin scraped the bark, and I fell backwards. I hit my head on a branch and fell into the water. I was seeing stars when I hit the water, so I inhaled, but as fast as I went down, I came up. John had grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me halfway back on the log. He held onto me, as I coughed out the water and clung to the Log. If he had let go, I would have fallen back in the water. My head was dizzy, and I couldn’t see anything but a flash of bright light. I had my bell rung before by a slap from my dad, more than once. I knew the dizziness would pass shortly. I climbed back onto the shore, where I sat to regain my senses. John didn’t let go of my shirt until I got there. His hand clenched the collar.
“You, okay? You almost drowned.” John was as scared as I was.
I felt like I was going to cry, but I didn’t. John wouldn’t have minded, but both of us were conditioned to suppress. “Babies cry,” we were told. Deep down we knew that wasn’t true. I knew he wouldn’t think of me as a baby, but I still fought back the tears. I took a few deep breaths, and the need to cry passed.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “But I’m wet. I can’t go home until I dry off.” An hour in the summer sun, and I would be almost dry. “Where’s the boat?”
John turned around and shaded his eyes with his hand as he looked at the river. I couldn’t see the boat. John spotted it. A flat bottom fishing boat had just driven by from Chut’s and headed towards the main channel. It must have driven over the line and cut the boat free.
“There it is.” John pointed.
My boat headed towards the main channel. It rocked in the wake made by the passing fishing boat. It would soon experience much more of this when it reached the main channel. There was a good chance that a boat or a barge would hit it and turn it to splinters.
Both of us knew the boat was gone forever, but John still tried to follow it by walking along the shore. We watched it for a long time, until it got so far downstream that we couldn’t see it anymore.
“Shit,” John said quietly.
I thought it would have been a tragedy if I lost the boat today, but right now I was glad I wasn’t the tragedy. “I want to sit on the dock in the sun to dry off,” I said. I was cold and my head hurt.
I took my shirt off and laid it flat on the dock. I laid down on my back and closed my eyes. The heat from the sunbaked dock began to warm me. Then I heard a splash. John had jumped off the dock into the water. He climbed right back out. He took his shirt off too and laid down beside me.
“The dock’s hot,” he said, as he shivered.
“Feels good,” I said.
“Yeah, we should dry off fast.”
“Want to sleep over tonight?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ll ask my mom when we go home.”
“Apollo splashed down,” I said.
“I saw it on the news.”
I dozed off for a few minutes and woke up to feel John’s hand holding mine. I looked at him.
“You feel asleep. I didn’t want you to roll off the dock.”
“Wanna go?” I asked.
When we got to the top of Chut’s driveway, John draped his arm over my shoulder. Being that he was quite a bit taller than I, I hung my hand from his shoulder. We unhooked when we got close to my house. We never understood why our parents yelled at us about this. John and I were best friends. Best friends keep each other close, watch out for each other.
Mike Sharlow is from La Crosse, Wisconsin, a small city on the banks of the Mississippi. In 2020 he moved to the Phoenix metro area in Arizona. His novel Welcome to the Ranks of the Enchanted is included in the William Charvat Special American Fiction Collections at the Ohio State University. He has over 40 short story publications in magazines and anthologies. A full bibliography of his work can be found at www.mikesharlowwwriter.com