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Sean McCormick

Location: New York
Published in: WriteTimes


The motor coughs gently as we slip past the tethered hulks of moored boats and brush by the spit of beach that juts out into the harbor mouth like a fan. There is a crackling log fire on the beach, and in its light I can see the night fishermen with their rubber galoshes standing knee deep in surf. They are here for the schools of bluefish that enter the harbor at sundown every evening to feed on smaller fish. Every day at dusk the harbor erupts like a cloudless thunderstorm as fish in the thousands jump for their lives, throwing themselves into the air to evade the blues darting below the surface. By night the predators have turned to prey, and their bodies fill the buckets of the beach fishermen. Children run to see the fish in the buckets, flapping in their death throes, then dash back to watch the fire. We run the gauntlet of channel buoys, past the lighthouse and we are free, returned to the comforting womb of the ocean.

Once we reach some open water, my father steps out onto the foredeck while I kick the throttle into neutral and push the worn wooden tiller until Ulysses noses her way into the wind. The breeze whips the mainsail back and forth, writhing like a great beast as it snakes up the mast until my father cleats the line down and I pull the tiller hard towards me. Tropical night wind fills the sail and the boat leans gently to starboard as my father makes his way back to the cockpit. He reaches into the black interior and turns the engine key. The motor shudders once and is still, leaving us with only the hissing sound of water racing past us, and the gentle slap of waves against the prow. The land behind us is a dark and shapeless mass- uninhabited, unknowable. I sit and watch the wake trail out behind us in supple plumes. Jellyfish glow in ghostly greens and blues. My father reaches over to take the helm, and I take the opportunity to scramble forward, gripping the spidery shrouds to balance myself in the darkness. The smell of salty foam pervades everything. Looking over the prow, I want nothing more in life than to be Telemachus- standing beside my famous father on the deck of a sleek trireme. Winging over the wine dark sea in restless search of Ithaca’s craggy silhouette.

I walk further up until there is no further to go, just a metal pulpit and then the Atlantic. The wind picks up and with it so do the swells. Ulysses rears up and pounds down on the waves, beating rhythmically as a thoroughbred vaulting down the track. My feet are firmly set and I ride the bow, reveling in the spray that drenches with every downward pitch. The salty scum itches and burns. As I look out at the chop I feel a sudden surge of energy course up through my chest and shoulders, a youthful newness, as if I have just sloughed off all my worldly possessions and all their pernicious responsibilities and thrown the sickly skin into the watery chasm. It steams and bubbles in the dark, but I only hear it for an instant. Then we are gone, past it, sails unfurled and racing for the moonlit road that lights our way to Ithaca. Or Ilium, or sandy Pylos, who knows? There is still time for it.

The singsong voice of the flight attendant jars me awake. "Flight 114 departing for New York and making connections to Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Raleigh will begin boarding in a few minutes." I’ve been drooling on my jacket. I brush the spit bubbles into the fabric until there is nothing but a dark nebulous stain. The announcement blares again with the fuzzy unpleasantness of an alarm clock. As I walk over and stand in line to board with my canvas duffel bag slung securely across my shoulder I stare groggily out the window at the trim fuselage of the plane. I can see the ground crew loading bags, tossing great sacks filled with Starbucks coffee into the holds for the red eye flight. Amid the mumbling and shuffling of the other passengers making their way into the corridor, I can not turn away from the sight of the three thousand year old work going on out there in the darkness. Ghostly clipper ships filling with salted meat and hardtack, fleets of black triremes brimming with sealed jugs of mellowed wine, olive oil and ground barley rise out of the air before me. Then they are gone and there is only the plastic smile and manicured hands of the exhausted looking woman working the boarding. I hand her my ticket, clomp down the corridor and past the stewardesses into the plane. My seat is towards the back and by the window, and after climbing over a few fellow passengers I slump down into it and watch the ground crew until the belly of the plane is fully stocked and we begin to pull away from the terminal. Even before we taxi to the runway, I shut my aching lids and let my mind migrate, thought following upon thought, each one crying for a single scout to lead them, to untangle all the many giggling roads in my head and lead them only to water. To Ulysses and my father who is standing aboard and waiting for me. My body slides slowly into sleep and my fevered mind relinquishes one voyage for another one.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me

Aldonza was not my father’s first sailboat. He had owned a small rigger named Kitty Kat Bird before I was born, but he sunk it somewhere, the Chesapeake Bay. But Aldonza was my first boat. She was named after Don Quixote’s love, and the name fit well, for it required something of the wandering fool to overlook her many shortcomings. She was not a large vessel, no more than twenty-eight feet, and was made of wood through and through, which is codespeak for saying she was in a constant state of decline and disrepair. In truth, my memories of the old sloop are fleeting.

Of course, the one thing I remember clearly was that Aldonza had no toilet. Instead, we had a stinking old yellow bucket with a length of prickly rope tied around its thin metal handle. If you had to go to the bathroom, you took the bucket and reached over the side for some water while struggling to keep the rushing sea from ripping it out of your hands. Then, when you were finished, you tossed the contents over the side, taking great care to make sure the wind was with you. Unless we had guests, I usually skipped the whole business and just peed over the side. That’s about the only concrete thing I remember. Everything else is elusive and sensory- the cheap foam of the bunk mattresses, the smell of apoxy, a flash of sunlight against the deep blue of the hull.

That was the last time I truly loved sailing. Sitting in between mom and dad and holding the tiller in my little hands. Wearing my special lifejacket, a red zip-up job with white straps and a lion’s head emblazoned on the right breast and feeling my father’s gnarled fingers as they ran through my hair. Nights spent curled up in my down sleeping bag straining to stay awake while my father read me passages from the Odyssey or Moby Dick and the boat rocked gently at anchor. Then it changed. It wasn’t any one thing that soured me, no deeply scarring memory, although I have several. Rather, my love of sailing was simply overwhelmed by my father’s, and I could no longer keep up. My mother stopped going altogether by the time I was six. I held on for a few more years, but it was a losing battle. Finally, sailing became something else for me, like eating broccoli or doing the dishes or taking a nap, and the more my dad tried to recapture my old enthusiasm, the more I came to detest everything about it.

Where did a guy from Brooklyn whose only exposure to the ocean came from family trips to Coney Island and Brighton Beach pick up sailing, of all things? I couldn’t tell you, and I doubt he could tell you either. He never shared it with me. Somehow my father had stumbled across sailing and he reached out and clung to it. I never understood why, but I don’t question it anymore. Everyone cobbles their identity together from the strange things they invest their passions in, and there’s little rhyme or reason behind our choices. Whatever brought my father to the water, he embraced it and set about learning its intricacies with utter absorption. By the time my father heaved to and finally cast me aside, he had become an expert sailor. Of course, that knowledge was earned only slowly, and my overriding memory of sailing trips in my younger years was one of unremitting chaos falling down around my father’s head. Each outing was a new disaster. The engine broke down and was belching smoke, there was no wind, the chop was high and our guests were hanging green-gilled over the side. Somehow in addition to all this, we always managed to drift into a deep-water shipping channel and had a massive freighter or a barge steaming down on us full speed. Small boats get sunk in just this way, and not all that infrequently, smashed in two by maritime ships too high in the bow to see them. My father’s face would swell and distort, he would scream and yell and dash from point to point, fixing the engine, changing the sails, flagging down the ship on the CB, searching for the fog horn to announce our position. All the while, he would loose a continual verbal barrage on the incompetence and stupidity of everyone around him, my mother, me, the guests; no one was immune to attack. The boat was never run down, although there were some very close calls. I escaped each encounter intact but not unscathed.

My mother had neither love nor appreciation for the ocean. She was the daughter of Wisconsin dairy farmers, growing up among linear fields and unmoving landscapes. She loved the stillness of Wisconsin winters, white shrouding over silent dales, broken only by the reds and browns of distant barns and silos. She moved east after college in a fit of mistaken rebelliousness, eschewing mid-western hubs like Milwaukee and Chicago for New York and the Northeast Corridor. She met my father within a week and a month later they were married. In the frantic rush, she never had a chance to get her bearings or plant strong roots in such new and foreign soil. My father laughed at her misgivings, arguing that home is where you hang your hat, but she was a different sort of creature altogether and a sense of profound dislocation welled up in her and took up permanent residence. Perhaps she only needed some time to adjust, a chance to acclimate herself to the rhythms of the coastal waterways, but my father was not a patient man.

The first time my mother went out under sail she became violently sick. She retched over the side six or seven times until finally, from dehydration or sheer exhaustion, she collapsed in a pitiful heap. My father had never felt motion sickness, had no understanding of it really, and the sight of his new wife laid low by the bouncing waves very nearly unstrung him. By the time they tied Aldonza to her mooring and rowed back to the main dock, my father had managed to turn even greener than my mother was. In this way, he claimed, he came to understand seasickness. This was the story he would tell, with nary a variation, whenever an invited guest became sick. Of course, the poor wretch was too busy heaving his guts out to be an attentive listener, so that onus descended upon me for some reason. And I knew better.

It wasn’t any of that miraculous empathy that you occasionally read about, where someone simply imbibes the suffering of another human being and makes it their own. My father was overcome with nausea because in one moment he realized that his marriage was doomed. Somehow he had erred. He had misjudged her. Something would have to give, or else be abandoned. That something wasn’t going to be sailing. I was born two years later. When I was discharged from the hospital, the first thing my father did was swaddle me in blankets and take me to Aldonza. From that time on, there could be nothing but undeclared war between my parents, fighting over possession of my soul.

I can not rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone: on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. I am become a name;

When I was seven, my father sold Aldonza and bought a new boat, four feet bigger and made of fiberglass. She was fully equipped with six narrow bunks, a table that bolted into the masthead, an internal engine, a nav station, and at long last, a toilet. Her hull was the same deep blue as Aldonza, perhaps a shade darker, and the decks were painted white. The boat was of French design, built for speed and stability in rough seas. The previous owner was some crazy Norwegian dentist my father met at a boat show who had circumnavigated the globe five years ago and now was quitting his job and selling his boat to go walk across Africa. He and my father hit it off right away. The boat was called Cat o’ Nine Tails, but the name didn’t sit well with my dad and he changed it as soon as he had possession of the papers. He wanted something that conveyed a sense of yearning. Something that embodied the timeless allure of both the journey and the destination. He named the boat Ulysses.

For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known: cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all;

Ulysses drove the first rift between my father and I. My instruction on Aldonza had been unforced and lighthearted. I learned nautical terminology on his lap, bouncing up and down on his knee as he taught me that on a boat I should say port and starboard instead of left and right and fore and aft instead of front and back. He explained that any boat, no matter the name, is female. He showed me how to read a nautical map with its depth soundings peppered everywhere like blackheads and its tiny markings for lighthouses and channels and reefs. His big hands guided mine as I hitched up the jib and the mainsail. He taught me to cleat a line by wrapping it in a double figure eight. He let me use the CB to talk to the marine operator, and I giggled gleefully when I got to call mom and say "over" at the end of every sentence and finish the conversation with a loud "over and out."

But all that had been in play. Ulysses was no ramshackle vessel, and it was imperative to him that I not treat her as such. I needed to know how to sand fiberglass, proper painting techniques, the maritime laws- and of course, the long history of man on the water, the ancient seafaring of the Greeks and Polynesians, the far ranging Viking ships, the ever longer voyages of discovery. My father sought to impart all this to me. And the whole time there was sailing. Three days a week until school let out, then four or even five of every seven days out on the water. This went on without relent for almost three years. In the third year I began to get seasick.

My father thought I was joking, right up until my stomach convulsed and I loosed a clear and sticky bile that pitter pattered against the floor of the cockpit. He sat there, dumbstruck more than angry, as I panted and coughed and wiped a strand of saliva from my gaping mouth. Then something traveled across his face, some strange and nameless feeling that I had never seen before. He stared for a bit at the mess on the cockpit, and the longer he stared, the darker his face became, until it was as purple as if it he had smeared it with blackberries. Dad turned Ulysses around and set a course for the marina. We did not speak for the rest of the day-not on the boat, not in the parking lot, nor in the car on the ride home. We straggled in after midnight and I went straight to my room and flopped down on my bed. From there I listened as my dad slowly unloaded the contents of his burlap sack one by one into the old wooden sea chest he kept in the corner of the living room despite my mother’s many protests.

After my father recovered from his initial shock at my new condition, he brightened up a good bit and reached into his mariner’s bag of tricks. This malady was nothing that couldn’t be corrected with a steady diet of cod liver oil. So over the next few months, he would reach into the kitchen cabinet three times a day with a big smile and call for me to come over and take my "medicine". And just as routinely, the sight of the brown fishy-smelling bottle with its soupy white liquid would cause me to gag, throw my hand over my mouth and make a frantic dash for my room or the bathroom or anywhere else where I could close the door behind me and lock it. Once the bottles were drained to no effect, he decided that maniacal cheerfulness was the surest way to rekindle my old love. He would pop his head into my room in the mornings like some monstrous strange bird, crooning out that it was a beautiful morning and wouldn’t it be great to go sailing today? If I was older I might have sensed a danger underneath the smiles, a tautness fraying at its edges. As it was, I only covered my head with my blanket and prayed for him to leave me alone.

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

My mother was eager for allies in the waning days of my parents’ marriage and in the wake of my newfound freedom, I was happy to oblige her. The fights usually took place in the car, on the way to the boatyard or the marine store or wherever else my father was set on taking us. My mother and he would snipe back and forth in the front, unpleasant stuff to be sure, but nothing more than what had passed for conversation around the house for some time. But whenever I jumped in on mom’s side-that would be enough to set my father off. He would scream and rage, turning to spew invective this way and that with his foot planted on the accelerator as if in emphasis. Mom would sit and suffer it for a few minutes, then she’d simply tell my dad to pull over and stop the car. She would get out, push forward the chair and motion for me to follow. My dad would just sit there biting his lip, his face a livid red as he watched me, waiting for my decision. I never failed to disappoint. The moment I was out, even before my mom had finished closing the door, my father revved the engine and roared off towards the boatyard, leaving us to make our way to the nearest bus stop. Each time I thought that was it, he was gone -- dad was going leave us, just stock the holds and set off for the other end of the world. Back at home I would sit in the hallway and listen for the front door, out of sight from my mother who was inevitably pacing angrily in the kitchen. I was always more surprised than happy when I heard the key turn in the lock.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved

When I was fourteen, my parents divorced. I played no part in the proceedings. Part of the decision was that I would live with my mother, and I was glad of it. She was offered a job teaching at Case Western, so we moved to Cleveland. Our new house was small by any standards, but it had a back yard with enough room for her to plant vegetables and to grow a beautiful flower garden in the English style. That was enough to make her happy. My father left our old apartment and moved onto Ulysses. He lives there now. He has made expeditions, twice to Bermuda, occasionally up or down the Eastern Seaboard, once even as far as the Mediterranean, but largely the boat remained at anchor. Freed of his restraints, I fully expected him to set off on a solitary circumnavigation, to receive crumpled letters and postcards in irregular hiccups from all the ports of the world, but it never happened. Some mutinous spirit kept him shackled close to port. Instead, he lived a bachelor’s life aboard, driving to work and back, picking up takeout to eat above deck at night, zipping himself up in a sleeping bag and reading by the light of a kerosene lamp. Instead of postcards, I received a phone call every Saturday afternoon from the pay phone in the boatyard. In the end, perhaps the boat’s name was ill fitting. Perhaps not.

From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

I lived in Colorado for nearly five years before a longing for water began to seep into my fissures. I had graduated from college, gotten a job, then another one, met my wife and gone back to graduate school. Each step moved me further into the interior. There was no plan to it; I simply followed the current west until I broke against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Finding no ready path of egress, I settled there and remained for a time. My wife and I pooled our resources and bought a house and furnishings for it. She taught at the university, I at the local high school. We got a dog.

It did not come in a revelatory deluge, but rather in drips and drops that slowly beat against my mind. I started noticing the oppressive dryness of the mountain air. Just lying out in my hammock in the back yard flipping through the daily haul of bills and catalogues, my breath would go short and my chest would constrict. Each bit of paper I got bearing my name in this place seemed to scream to me that I did not belong there. Sitting in traffic on my way home and sensing my own panic, I would listen to the wind funnel through the low ridges and catch the sounds of wind vanes and tackle slapping against hulls. I walked barefoot over grass in search of crunching sand. I looked at road maps and saw only rivers and their tributaries reaching out with spindly fingers to grasp the cities and towns. I brushed my fingers against the paper, tracing the routes one by one. Learning through tactile contact. The pressure welled up inside me for weeks and months until one day I mentioned at dinner how much I missed the water. My wife suggested we get a pool. I guess I gave her a funny look, because she told me that I had never looked at her that way before and that she didn’t like it, not at all. I glanced down at my reflection in the silverware and recognized it immediately. The next day I made a reservation to fly east.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle-
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail.
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to the household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

Even before I open my eyes I can feel the dawn sunlight warm on my face. I sit up and admire the throng of bleary passengers in crumpled suits stretching their cramped legs and stiffened necks. My body is sore as well, but my brain is strangely becalmed. New York’s mighty concrete and steel topography grows large in the window. As we turn to make our approach, I can see Manhattan, the residential sprawl of Brooklyn and Queens, and beyond to Far Rockaway and the Atlantic humming softly.

There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me-
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads- you and I are old;

My gorge still rises a bit as I turn the rental car left off the main road and drive past the large brown National Park sign that stands over the entrance to the harbor. The reaction is reflexive, an old childhood scar on par with my scabby knee or my chipped front tooth. The road cuts a winding trail past rows of mulberry trees and thick fields of rippling marsh reeds that give way to the spectacular view of the bay. It looks like I imagine the Peloponnese to, with tree-lined hills gently cradling the moored boats from heavy winds, and the beaches melting into rock formations that belch surf at the harbor’s mouth. The failed condominium project on the other side of the inlet with its terracotta roofs might complete the Aegean illusion were the condos not painted hot pink. The condos had just opened the last time I stepped foot in the marina. Now a thin belt of moss and dirt rims the bottom half of the buildings, making them look like strangely like unshaven men loafing about in their undershirts and dark socks. As I drive past the chain link fence and into the expanse of the boatyard I see a cluster of familiar forms shambling towards the dilapidated tool shed that stands next to the central garbage dumpster.

Every spring and summer the boat bums cut paths through the marina. They are descendents of ancient water peoples. They are adrift in the endlessness of the American continent, stunned by geography and by the churning undertow of populations moving in every direction, stretching out to lay claim to the land. The tides of humanity push them to the coastal regions and pin them there, like kelp washed up and stranded on the beach after a storm. And so they collect here, in the boatyards and washed up along the nearby beaches, rubbing their callused fingers along the hulls of boats and shuffling their feet through the dirt and sand. Their eyes are always on the water.

I used to watch them on the summer days that I was roped into doing some manual labor, observing as I squatted under Ulysses with a brush, clawing distractedly at the flecks of black paint drying on my hands and face. They all looked the same to me, and they were all from the same stock. Each man wore the same battered white fishing hat, tattered jean shorts and tennis shoes turned the color of ash from heavy use. Some of them had gaunt frames, some were fat and fleshy as a pear, but they all had been turned a deep bronze by the sun. In the spring, when most of the boats were out of the water and up on stilts in the yard getting last minute touch-ups before being launched for the summer, they would hobble around aimlessly, looking like wandering Jews in search of Palestine. One after another, they approached Ulysses and struck up a halting conversation with my father, rubbing their balding scalps and asking what brand of paint we’re using this year, and if we know Jimmy Salvino down at the other end of the yard, he’s doing his bottom with one thing or another and they chuckled while I did my level best to ignore their presence altogether.

The conversation would meander along under the baking sun while I contorted myself under the massive fin, dabbing with the paintbrush to blot out patches of the old rust colored red with that year’s inky black. My father gave a lot of thought to things like what color to make the bottom paint. Why this mattered was altogether beyond me. After all, you only saw about three inches of it once the boat was in the water. But my father cared, and so did the shuffling vagabond mariners. As they talked, a dim resonance was almost visible humming between them, burning the air. In another time my father would have been sanding down the wooden ribs of a whaler, or perhaps a sleek galley or a trireme, with a crusty old sailor by his side pointing and laughing and giving gentle suggestions. Now he was sitting on a rusting beach chair and swigging on flat Diet Pepsi, grinning madly and yelling over the screech of power saws emanating from another part of the yard.

Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death causes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men who strove with Gods.

My father’s camaraderie never did extend to motor boat owners, whom he considered an affront to all things nautical. They were unwilling to grapple with the discipline of the sea. They did not belong there. They were like bathers who dip their toes in the pool but will go no further. It always pained him that powerboats dominate the central dock. They occupy every slip on either side of the walkway, loosing oily scum that spreads like a casting over the stagnant water, its rainbow reflection broken up only by floating debris and the occasional fish head that someone has tossed overboard. The boats are all positioned with their blocky rears jutting out into the main dock. Loud music- classic rock or pop- blares out from their interiors, and the air is hot from the miniature grills that are mounted on the back rails broiling up tuna and swordfish. And that’s it. The boats never leave. Whole families just sit in the aft and have loud conversations with each other across the dock, while adolescent children lie out on the fore decks, sunning their knobby knees. Fat owners sit in their swivel chairs with their shirts off, bodies shaped like boiled hams and slowly roasting in a hazy cloud of noise and smoke and heat. My father nods politely, but he quickens his stride, speeding us past this last obstacle before the wooden dock spills out into the open bay.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the paths
Of the Western stars, until I die.

Tonight the docks seem strangely quiet. They are as crowded and bustling as ever, but somehow I can not take it in, I am walking within a cocoon of silence and the only sounds that enter are the whistling wind and mechanical clucking of the wind vanes perched atop the spartan masts like birds in a winter forest. And the sound of the ocean. My father walks a few paces ahead of me, down towards the end of the docks where the dinghies are racked up with their oars tucked snugly underneath them. From up ahead I hear fragments of Tennyson- an old poem my father often recited to me in my bunk, the only poem he ever recited. "Push off and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows... "

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and ‘tho
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven: that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

My father rows with staggered strokes, left then right, and the awkward rhythm creates a steady stream of eddies that roll lazily off the oars and pinwheel by before dissolving back into calm. I watch the sun burn its way into the hills, reeling in the last of the daylight on its trip beneath the horizon. The air cools noticeably as we move closer to Ulysses. I dip my fingers in the silvery water and it pools around them in a liquid embrace.