The BoatSheldon Birnie
We were right wrecked the night we lost the boat on the highway, I’ll admit it.
The boat was Colt’s. Partly, anyhow. She had a 50-horse Evinrude and a 12-foot fiberglass frame. Colt and a couple of the boys bought her used in July, rode her plenty that summer. Night I’m talking about, we launched her just after work while we downed a case of heavies. Stopped a couple hours later for reinforcements, moored to a dead elm, scrambled up the riverbank to the vendor out back of the karaoke joint off St. Mary's. We were having a time, bud.
Me and Colt, we grew up not far from each other in the Parkland. Played ball together from Little League up through junior. I mostly rode pine, though coach’d stick me in the outfield if need be. Colt, though, he could play. He could work the mound or either corner. Decent short-stop, though he didn’t have the legs to chase down a long fly outfield. Got himself a scholarship down at state college in North Dakota, playing the pockets. Punched his ticket. Only sophmore year, fucker crashed a sled, liquored up back home for Christmas, buggered his shoulder up bad and that’s all she wrote. Moved to the city in the spring to work sales for an uncle’s ag distributor, and here we are, fucked up on the river as the sun set, late September.
It was a Wednesday, if I recall correctly. Weeknight, anyhow. We didn’t talk about baseball. We didn’t talk about girls. We didn’t talk about old times. We just ripped up and down the river, laughing and cracking jokes, shotgunning beers on the bow, smoking Roseisle red between keys of the devil’s dandruff.
When darkness fell we made our way back upstream, towards the public launch in the south end of town. Clunker though she was, the boat cut through the dark water like a deep line drive, moonlight shimmering silver off the surface while goldeye and river cats cowered in the depth. Boating with a buddy makes you feel glad to be alive. Like the glory days aren’t already in the rearview.
“Beats school eh?” Colt hollered over the engine. “Beats training camp, too.”
I grinned, though I was still in school myself. Had a test in the morning that I was bound to fail. But hell, I didn’t disagree. Shortly thereafter, still a good ways downstream from the launch, the engine sputtered to a halt. There was only one paddle in the boat. Colt tossed it my way.
“My shoulder,” he explained, making a face as though it pained him, both physically to paddle and spiritually to beg off like that. Then he pulled out his phone to use the flashlight and started fucking around with the motor.
“Fuel pump,” Colt grunted by way of explanation, as I did my best with the paddle, aiming us towards shore. Just as we were getting in close, the engine lurched to life. Haltingly, we made it back up the river.
At the launch, Colt plowed into the gumbo, river being a good couple feet below summer depth. She’d been easy to set off, but she was gonna be a bitch to haul out. That was clear as the mud Colt jumped into before scrambling up to the concrete ramp. I tossed him the rope, he pulled her in as close she’d get. Then I hopped off, barefoot, feet squelching deep into the muck as Colt raced up to get his Ford Ranger from the parking lot.
Knee deep in cold mud, I stared up at the stars, waiting, drunk, mind buzzing like the mosquitoes swarming my face, my neck, my arms. Eventually, Colt was back, weaving that homemade boat trailer back towards the crumbling concrete incline. Took a couple tries to line her up, but we got there in time, hooked the tow rope up to the winch and cranked her into place. Only when it was time to pull her out, the trailer’s wheels had sunk deep into the gumbo and I had to wade out waist deep in back of her to heave her forward as Colt rocked the accelerator of that old Ranger, willing the boat and trailer back onto dry land.
We got’er done, soaked from head to toe, slick with gumbo, teeth chattering in the autumn chill. Colt, he just laughed, ripped the knot off another baggie of blow and chopped up some lines on an empty jewel case. We hoofed ‘em back. I was still fuckin shivering, but now I didn’t really notice.
Making our way back up to the highway that cut through the city from the south, we passed the recreation park, where a dozen ball diamonds were all lit up, empty but for a maintenance crew prepping the grounds for winter.
“You miss it?” I asked as we hit the highway, headed north towards downtown, teeth clenched tight against the chattering. Even though I was never any good, I still loved the game, wished every year the Twins would make another run and couldn’t help feeling hurt when they failed. But I’d started playing slow pitch in the summer with a good group of guys and gals, and for me, it was the same as it ever was. I wasn’t ever gonna cut it with a senior squad, anyhow. But for Colt, it was different. “Playing ball?”
“Fuck no,” Colt said, gunning the truck to sneak through an intersection as the light turned red, eyes on the road ahead.
A crazy screeching sound come up somewhere behind us. Colt just kept pressing the gas. That’s when the wheel fell off the trailer, bearing all seized up with gumbo and rust. The boat, she crashed down onto the highway, dragging and bouncing along with the trailer until it all broke apart and she came crashing into the median, Evinrude bouncing off the concrete, sparks flying, igniting what gas remained in the tank into a burning heap of plastic, iron, and broken dreams.
But just before that, just before all that bullshit went down, Colt grinned, his eyes wild, license expired and truck and trailer uninsured, and said, “Baseball’s the past, buddy. I’m living in the future.”