Fiction

Bridge Appleton Buys A Boat

By: James W. White

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

On a sparkling day when the morning fog hung back along the horizon, a conversation interrupted Bridge Appleton’s concentration while he watched a sailboat make its way upwind. The boat danced from one direction to another near the Long Beach breakwater. It was May 1, 1950, the Pacific Coast yachting season’s opening day and Bridge observed the action leaning over the railing at the Long Beach pier.

The conversation tempted Bridge to look away from the boat. A grizzled fellow with long greasy hair tied in a ponytail and smoking a blackened meerschaum pipe was complaining about how hard it was to sell his sailboat. His partner, just as grizzled, nodded with a wry smile under his wool watch cap.   

“Did I hear you say you want to sell a boat?” Bridge interrupted the two while they grumbled over a tub of water filled with dead fish and beer bottles. Two fishing poles stretched out from the railing next to the men.

“That’s right,” came the reply. The men resumed their conversation, ignoring the interruption.

The water beneath the pier glistened in the warm, mid-day sun. Seagulls fussed and squawked overhead and a candy vendor walked by ringing a chain of small bells. Bridge leaned in close to the men. “Can I see it?”

Bridge had always wanted to sail, but his mother would never allow it. His only outlet as a boy and even now as a young man of 23 was reading Joshua Slocum and watching the sailboats in the harbor. The idea of defying his mother’s rule worried him, but while in the company of real sailors his anxieties disappeared over the gray horizon.

Ponytail sighed, looked up and blew smoke in Bridge’s face. “Hundred dollars gets you the boat, main and fore sails, rigging and an anchor all in fair condition. Ready to sail. You interested?”

Bridge’s eyes watered in the acrid cloud. He felt his heart race. He hesitated for an instant and then recklessly plunged ahead. Here’s my chance. A transaction done in secret. Mother will never know.

“I might be.” 

“It’s tied up at the end of C dock. Gate’s locked, though. I’ll have to take you. You sure you’re interested? I don’t want to make the trip fer nothin’.”  Ponytail squinted at Bridge with his one good eye and snarled.

Bridge took a deep breath and felt the relief of having made a decision. “If I like it, I’ll buy it. My name is Bridge. Bridge Appleton.”

The crusty character smiled a contemptuous smile and winked at his companion. “Call me Ross.”

Ross’ calloused, leathery skin scraped against Bridge’s hand. It felt like a sailor’s hand.

* *

Ross and Bridge stood at the end of C dock and stared at a weathered, neglected sailboat. 

“There she is. You can see the rigging is good and secure,” Ross said, pointing at the boat’s rusty metal fittings and bleached woodwork. “Tiller’s mountings could be tightened up a bit, but that’s minor. She could use a coat of paint. It’s been a coupla’ years. Do ‘ya want ‘a check her down below?”

“No thanks, I can see all I need from here.” Bridge was too embarrassed to ask dumb questions in front of a real sailor. Instead, he gazed at the boat and saw something that wasn’t there. Bridge saw adventure – forbidden adventure he’d only watched from afar. 

After ten long minutes, Ross spit and headed back to the gate. “Damned lubber,” Ross said loud enough for Bridge to hear. “Another waste of an afternoon.”

Ross’s words woke Bridge up from his floating daydream. He panicked, afraid his boat would be snatched away. “Will you take a check?”

*   * 

“Your boyfriend has purchased a sailboat,” Bridge announced that night when he met Deborah at the Club to celebrate their fifth anniversary going together. They sat at the bar, freshly poured cocktails glistened in front of them. Bridge handed her a hat box. “And I hereby commission you first mate along with all the privileges that befit the position.” 

Deborah cringed as she opened the box. “You didn’t.”  

She stared at a white sailor’s hat with an anchor stitched in the front.

“I most certainly did.” Bridge beamed. “She’s a beaut, and I’m thinking what a wonderful time we’ll have sailing over the ocean blue together. You and me. We’ll take in all the exotic ports of call, Istanbul, Zanzibar, Rio de Janeiro.” 

He set the hat on Deborah’s head and went about adjusting it. “Great hat, huh? I know you like hats. Let’s see how it looks…”

Deborah grabbed the hat out of his hands and dropped it in front of him. “My dear, sweet lunatic. I get seasick standing on a pier. I wouldn’t last a minute on your bouncy old boat. The very idea makes my stomach turn.”

“Once your stomach’s empty you’ll feel better.” Bridge fingered the hat’s brim. 

Deborah squeezed her eyes tight and balled her fists. “You wouldn’t like the looks of me vomiting over the side.”

Bridge shuddered. “Deborah, please.” He slid the hat in her direction.

“No. And that’s final.”  

“Now, be a good sport on our anniversary.” The condensation from Deborah’s drink that had collected on the polished oak bar stained the hat’s bottom rim.

“Have you ever been seasick?” Deborah hopped off her bar stool. “I’ll have you know I have endured endless hours in the company of happy, chatty people eating and drinking while I clung to a railing and prayed for death. It’s not a pretty sight.”

“The answer is no and that’s final.” She slid the hat back toward Bridge. “Keep your darn hat.”

* *

Bridge parked his Chevrolet Bel Air convertible at C dock’s gate and waited for his heart to stop pounding. It had taken him a week to build up his courage to approach his boat alone. He had told his mother he planned to watch more of the yacht races at the harbor.

The physical act of unlocking the gate and driving across heavy planks built up his confidence. The planks creaked and sagged under the weight of his automobile as he slowly made his way to the end of the pier. Other sailboats, tied up on either side of C dock, bobbed in the gentle swell, their rigging clanged against tall masts.

“Thar she blows,” Bridge whispered when his boat came in sight. He felt dizzy as the enormity of what he had done manifested into the boat sitting in front of him.

After setting the handbrake, Bridge took his time getting out of the auto, breathing in the salt air to calm his nerves.

He pulled out a chair from the trunk and found a spot that gave him an unobstructed view. It was a warm day and he sat with the sun high over his shoulder, illuminating the boat’s deck and rigging. Three mooring ropes that secured the boat to the dock moved rhythmically, alternating from slack to taut. The movement captivated him, but he didn’t see the long tentacles of seaweed that dangled down from each rope into the water. 

Alone on the quiet pier, with a thermos of rum befitting the occasion, the sun and booze soon lulled him into a languid stupor. He dreamed of lying with Deborah in his boat’s cabin while on their maiden voyage to Catalina Island. They were sunburned and salty. He licked her bare shoulder and felt her shudder under his touch. Outside, porpoises leapt alongside, and schools of flying fish flashed their silvery wings.

“Oh Bridge,” Deborah murmured, “I’ve never been so happy in all my life.”

A noisy flock of seagulls interrupted his dream. “She’ll come around,” Bridge said while he carefully approached the boat for a closer look. “Once I get her aboard.”

Don’t stop now, he told himself as he put one foot into the cockpit. The boat tipped under his weight, catching him by surprise. All the watching and studying he’d done from the breakwater hadn’t prepared him for his first encounter. He ducked when the boom swung toward his head, then he lunged for the cabin rail to keep from falling backwards. Embarrassed, he looked behind him, afraid of being discovered. “She’s as skittish as a thoroughbred,” he said to assuage his awkward attempt to board.

Sitting in the cockpit felt like an accomplishment and Bridge soaked in the experience. While he moved the tiller from side to side his confidence returned. The boat’s rocking became a comforting feel, like a cradle.

There are storage lockers in here, he noted while peering through the companionway that led into the cabin. I wonder what treasures await.

Loose rigging and hardware banged against the sides of the cabin as Bridge jostled into the tight space, banging his head against the low bulkhead. The lockers were filled with empty liquor bottles, used tobacco products and adult magazines. Patches of mold covered the dark recesses of the cabin’s interior. A couple of oars lay on the cabin floor. They might come in handy, he thought.

Bridge exited the cabin and tossed an armload of trash over the side. He beamed with the look of accomplishment. “It’s cozy in here!”

Back on C dock, Bridge stowed his chair back in the trunk. Satisfied his boat had been officially boarded and was ready to set sail, his daydream resumed, and saltwater fantasies fueled his resolve. “She’ll change her mind once she sees how beautiful my boat actually is,” he figured. “And after our voyage to Catalina I’ll have a hard time getting her back on dry land.” He chuckled, admiring his boat from the dock. “After all, how can she resist my charms now that I’m a real sailor?”

* *

A week later, Bridge brought his friends, Charles and Patsy, to show off. Deborah reluctantly promised to stop by later.

It was a damp, chilly morning when the three of them made their way along C dock. A fog horn blasted earnestly behind the cold mists that covered the harbor. Other sounds; bells, whistles and engine noises, took on an eerie, muffled quality, coming seemingly from out of nowhere.

Patsy held her coat tight around her and shivered. With her free hand, she clutched Charles’ arm. “Deborah told me he doesn’t know the first thing about sailing, despite what he says,” she said in Charles’ ear. She gave Bridge a quick glance, hoping he wasn’t listening.

When they got to the end of the dock, Bridge stopped and pointed. “Ain’t she a beaut! I bought it from an experienced seaman I met at the Long Beach pier. He hated to let it go and he assured me the boat was safe and fast! I saw a tear in his eye when I handed him the check.”

“Maybe he was crying for joy in anticipation of his next bottle,” Charles suggested while he tried to make sense out of all the ropes and junk that littered the boat’s deck.

The boat’s mooring lines strained against the wind and tide.

“About 20 feet long, wouldn’t you say?” Charles suggested.

“Big enough for all of us,” Bridge exclaimed.

Patsy shook her head. “Maybe with a shoehorn.”

The teak deck railings and tiller were bleached white and hung loose in their fittings. The few pieces of brass hardware were green with salt corrosion. The hull planking was cracked in places and badly in need of caulk and fresh paint. Below the water line, a thick coat of algae covered the boat’s bottom. 

Bridge pointed to the cabin. “That’s where Deborah and I’ll live during long voyages.”

Patsy looked at Charles and raised her eyebrows. “Do you think Deborah’s wardrobe will fit in there?”

“I’ll name her after the first person who falls overboard,” Bridge announced with a false air of bravado.

“I’m cold,” Patsy said. 

“Well, don’t just stand there,” Bridge shouted back. “Climb aboard!” 

“You go,” Patsy said to Charles. “I’m not getting close to that thing until it’s completely scrubbed clean. It’s filthy and smells like mold. You can play sailor if you want. I’m supposed to pick up Deborah in an hour. We’ll bring back cleaning supplies.”  

“And some lunch.” Charles added. 

“Wait a minute.” Bridge yelled. “Bring back a bottle of champagne, you never know when an occasion might arise.”

After Patsy left, Charles climbed into the boat and ducked as the boom swung again. It smacked Bridge on the back of his head while he waved goodbye to Patsy.

“I feel like I’m in a Keystone Kops movie,” Charles shouted, his voice high with excitement.   

“Sit down, you big ape.” Bridge shouted back. He held the back of his head with both hands and groaned.

Charles sat in a patch of green mold that covered the cockpit seats and felt his stomach give a lurch.  

 “You get topside and sort out those sails,” Bridge said when he saw Charles’ contorted face. “I’ll untie these ropes and we’ll take her for a test drive.” 

“Are you sure we’re ready to go?” Charles crawled and scooted his way across the roof of the cabin to the bundle of canvas. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” Water seeped into the seat of his pants.

“We’re never gonna know if we don’t learn,” Bridge answered back, raising his voice to cover his uncertainty. “We’ll just see how it feels and sail right back.” 

The fog was lifting, but the harbor appeared gloomy in the filtered sun. Bridge caught a glimpse of the breakwater’s line of jagged gray rocks far off on the other side of the harbor. Spray, blown up from waves on the ocean side of the harbor, cascaded over the top of the rocks.

With a brave huzzah, Bridge untied the last dock line.

Charles added an excited whoop, exhilarated by the feeling of floating free.  

Bridge grabbed the tiller and swung the long wooden handle from side to side. It wobbled loose in its mounting, but the rudder responded, churning up eddies behind the boat.

“Hoist the sail,” Bridge commanded as the boat drifted away from the dock, pulled along by an ebb tide. “I’ll steer.”

Charles clung to the mast with one hand and grabbed the bundle of canvas and ropes with the other. “How do you do that?” he said as the gap between them and the dock increased until they were beyond hope.

The canvas was encrusted with guano, wet from the fog. Charles rubbed his hand, sticky with guano, on his trousers.

“It’s simple,” Bridge shouted. “I’ve watched it done a hundred times. Find the rope that goes up to the top of the mast. Tie one end of the rope to the sail’s top end and tie the other two ends of the sail to the mast and the end of the boom. Then pull on the other end of the rope.”

The boat drifted sideways into the harbor and toward the channel that led out to sea.

Charles grabbed a rope that dangled in front of him. “What’s a boom?” He turned to face Bridge. “Maybe you should steer us back around?”

“No, dammit,” Bridge yelled back. “Get busy hoisting that sail.” 

Charles looked at the top of the mast and gulped while watching it sway to and fro. “Maybe this is it!” he shouted when he saw the rope in his hand led to the top.   

*   *

The boat was gone when Patsy and Deborah got back to C dock with lunch and cleaning supplies.

“That’s funny,” Patsy said as they looked around the empty marina. “I’m positive this is where we were.” 

Deborah pointed at a small boat bobbing in the misty distance. It was moving in the direction of the breakwater. Somebody was standing next to the mast and wrestling with a pile of canvas. 

“Could that be them?” Deborah asked. 

“By gosh, I think it is.” Patsy replied. “I told him not to do anything dangerous.” 

Deborah sighed. “I think we’re too late.” 

*   *

Charles tied the rope as best he could to a grommet he found in the pile of canvas. Forgetting the rest of Bridge’s instructions, and too intimidated to ask again, he clutched the other end of the rope and pulled. To his utter amazement, the bundle of canvas traveled up the mast. 

“I’m doing it,” he exclaimed. “I’m raising the sail!” 

“And not a moment too soon,” Bridge roared back. 

Pulling with enthusiasm, Charles hauled a corner of the sail up as far as it would go. The other two ends billowed against the mast and wrapped around the rigging. A small part worked itself free and  fluttered proudly in the wind.

“That doesn’t look right,” Bridge said. “Are you sure you got the sail attached properly?” 

*   *

Deborah pointed at a patch of gray canvas flapping in the breeze. 

“I wonder why they’re flying a flag?” she said. “Shouldn’t there be a sail? It is a sailboat, isn’t it?” 

Patsy nodded. “Maybe it’s a distress flag, you think?  Maybe we should call the cops, or the Navy or something.”

*   *

Charles tried to free the canvas from the rigging lines, but it was wrapped tight. “I can’t get ‘holt of it,” he shouted. “Got any other ideas?” 

Bridge watched the line of big rocks loom closer. He gripped the tiller with both hands until his knuckles turned white.

“Hold on!” He clenched his teeth and stared at the churning water around him. King Neptune appeared below the surface and shook his trident at Bridge in triumph.

“Ahoy there!” Charles shouted. A large motorboat approached them from another part of the harbor at high speed, its twin diesel engines emitting a powerful, rumbling sound. He waved as it drew closer and slowed down.

“Could you use a hand there?” A voice came across the water.

Bridge answered back with as much aplomb as he could muster. “Why yes. Hope you don’t mind. That would be splendid.” 

The motorboat’s massive bow and superstructure cast a long shadow over the rescue scene. Sounds of laughter and kitchen noises came through one of the portholes. A heavy rope dropped from the boat’s stern and landed at Charles’ feet.

“Tie the line to your bow cleat and I’ll tow you,” a man, standing at the back of the motorboat, shouted at Charles. 

“What’s a bow cleat?” Charles yelled back. 

The man shook his head and a loud laugh came from the motorboat’s pilot house. 

“The pointy end of the boat, young man,” came the reply. “Never mind the cleat, just tie it anywhere close to the pointy end, good and tight. Hurry now, you’re running out of room.” 

Charles wrapped the line around the base of the forestay and secured it with as many knots as he could dream up. 

“Hold on!” came the voice from the motorboat’s pilot house. The line snapped out of the water and drew taut as the motorboat roared to life.

Charles hugged the mast with both arms and as they twisted around and moved away from the breakwater. A scraping noise came from below the water as the little boat’s keel dragged across a submerged rock.

“Where do you want me to take you?” Came a voice from the motorboat. 

“Over there,” Charles shouted, pointing toward C dock and their girlfriends.

Deborah and Patsy stood on the dock waving frantically. 

“Looks like a good destination to me,” came the reply.

When they reached C dock, a tall man wearing a knitted cap and pea coat stepped out from the motorboat’s wheelhouse while Charles untied all his knots and freed the boat from its tether. 

The man had a commanding presence.

“You boys could use a lesson or two. I wouldn’t take the girls for a ride just yet.”

Patsy and Deborah stared at the man, open-mouthed, and tittered. 

“He looks familiar,” Patsy said. “Doesn’t he look handsome?”

“I know. And famous, maybe.”

“It’s not Marlon Brando, that’s for sure. And Rock Hudson’s too old. Robert Mitchum maybe?”

“Thanks for the advice,” Charles yelled. He waved as the man saluted and went into the pilot house. 

Another man, standing at the controls, laughed and spun the boat’s wheel.

The twin diesel engines roared again and the boat turned. It created a turbulent, rolling wake as it picked up speed and headed toward the harbor entrance in a cloud of exhaust. 

The name displayed on the boat’s transom was ‘Missy.’

Charles let go of the mast. He stood boldly, balancing on the top of the cabin and raised a hand in salute. “Bridge,” he yelled. “I think after a few more tries we might get the hang of this thing.”   

The motorboat’s wake caused the sailboat to pitch wildly, catching Charles by surprise and knocking him off his feet. He tried to grab something, but nothing came his way.

Bridge cringed helplessly as Charles toppled forward.

Charles twisted, trying to check his fall, but he landed with a splash on his back between the boat and the dock.

Patsy screamed. 

The unexpected fall and the sudden, numbing cold made Charles gasp involuntarily. He took in a breath of water as he went under. Shock, and the onset of hypothermia, rendered him helpless. All he could do was watch the dappling sunlight dance across the surface above him as cold water filled his lungs.

Patsy stood frozen, unable to move.

“We have to do something.” Deborah gulped and ran to the end of the dock. She lay down flat atop the wet, moldy planks and stretched her arm out as far as she could, but she couldn’t reach him. The tide was pulling Charles away. “Grab him Bridge,” she screamed. 

My boat’s got a name,” Bridge said as he leaned over the gunwale. 

Charles’ head knocked against the boat’s rudder.

Bridge grabbed Charles by the shirt collar and pulled his head out of the water. “Where do ya think you’re goin’?” 

Charles didn’t respond. 

Bridge struggled to pull him in the boat, but try as he might, Charles was too heavy. Exhausted, Bridge just managed to keep Charles’ head out of the water.

Charles coughed and choked. He took a ragged breath and looked up at Bridge, wide-eyed, in shock. 

“Fer Christ’s sake, Bridge. Pull him out of the water!” Both girls were shouting.

“C’mon Charles, help me out here. On the count of three, heave ho.” Bridge grabbed Charles under his arms and pulled with all his might. The boat leaned precariously as Bridge tackled the dead weight. 

Finally, Charles slid into the boat like a hooked sea bass.

Too exhausted to move, Bridge kneeled next to him, gasping for breath. 

Charles curled up in a fetal position, shivering and coughing. 

It was getting dark. The afternoon had never completely cleared up. The fog rolled back in and the temperature dropped. 

“Chassy!” Patsy shouted. “You okay?”

Bridge gathered enough strength to issue orders. “Fetch the blanket from the trunk of the car. Sure wish we had some brandy.”

Patsy returned with the blanket and tossed it with all her strength, but it landed in the water as the boat drifted away from the dock.

“The boat’s moving again, Bridge!” 

Bridge grabbed a handful of wet, mildewed rope. He held one end and threw the rest of it at Deborah. “Hold on to your end,” he said. 

Deborah recoiled as she looped the slimy rope around her wrists and tried to hold on as the slack played out through her fingers, following the drifting boat. 

Bridge gathered his end until the line held taut and the boat stopped drifting.

“Good girl!” Bridge shouted hoarsely. 

Deborah glared back at Bridge and kept hold of the rope. She forced herself not to look at her hands.

Charles raised his head. His chest heaved and he vomited seawater across the bottom of the boat. His tormented retching ended with an agonizing moan as he fell back on his side.

“For the love of God, Bridge,” Patsy bawled. “Don’t let him die.”

Bridge looked at Patsy’s distraught face and nodded. He gave the rope a determined yank and the sudden movement caused it to slip through Deborah’s hands. Green slime collected in between her fingers. 

“It’s slipping!” Patsy watched in horror. 

“What the hell?” Deborah grunted. She wrapped the rope in the hem of her dress and held on. Her exposed pink thighs flashed in what was left of the afternoon’s light.

Bridge hauled on the rope hand over hand until he was able to grab the edge of the dock. With all the strength left in him, he pulled the boat up alongside. A fingernail gave way as he clutched at the weathered, splintered wood. For a moment, the boat sat suspended between the dock and the sea, held in place by a single, fragile line. Nobody moved.

“Patsy, you’re gonna have to get him outta there.” Deborah panted. “Take him back to the car before he freezes.” 

“Duck when you come aboard,” Bridge muttered as Patsy approached the boat. His bloody finger waved in the air as he pointed toward the swaying boom. “Or that damn thing will knock you silly.”

Patsy nodded, took a deep breath and stumbled onboard. The boat’s filthy stench made her gag and the sloshing cockpit soaked her to the bone. She grabbed Charles and shoved him toward the side. “Come on, baby,” she whispered. Charles’ teeth chattered in response.

Charles crawled his way up onto the dock with Patsy pushing from behind. Once he was on the deck, Deborah let go of the rope and helped Patsy get Charles on his feet.

“Bridge, finish this,” Deborah said. She cast a withering stare in Bridge’s direction. “We’re putting Charles in the car before he catches his death.”  

Bridge took his time crawling onto the dock. He’s gonna be all right, he told himself. A close call, but King Neptune lost this time. He looked back at his boat and a thin smile crossed his face. “Okay Chassy, that’s your name.”

Patsy held Charles close as she led him to the car. She felt his cold body shudder against her wet clothing. 

“I’ll start the car,” Deborah said. “Get the heater going. He’s freezing.”

When the heater started running, Charles rested his head in Patsy’s arms and fell asleep.

*   *

The champagne. After tying up the boat as best he could, Bridge staggered to Deborah’s car and found the bottle of champagne in the back seat. He tapped on the driver’s side window. “Come with me,” he said to Deborah. “I need a witness.” 

There was no way to properly smash the champagne bottle against the bow like he’d seen done in the movies, so Bridge hurled the bottle toward the boat. The bottle shattered, spilling broken glass and champagne across the deck. The bubbly, yellow liquid dripped down the side into the water.

“Not very elegant, but I hereby christen thee the good ship Chassy.” He gave Deborah a weary wink. “I’d say that’s enough adventure for one day.” 

Deborah swept a lock of loose hair from her eyes with a muddy hand, leaving a brown smear across her forehead. She wiped her hands on her soiled dress, wheeled around and headed back to the car. “One day my ass.”   

###

Jim is a California-based writer of historical, literary and science fiction. He earned an MA in U.S. History. His professional career has included military service, teaching, research librarian and technical writing. Jim is currently serving as President of his town’s literary non-profit organization, Benicia Literary Arts. Jim’s stories have appeared in Datura Literary Journal, The Wapshott Press, Remington Review, and Adelaide Books. His short story, Kowbell Kafe, was published by Literary Yard in 2019.

Categories: Fiction

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