He was half-in, half-out of a dumpster on Verona Street when we saw him, sockless feet in white Cuban shoes kicking arcs through the air, khakis rolled up over calf muscles like two scoops of ice cream. DJ’s first instinct was to pull him out, but I put my hand up.
“Wait,” I said.
There was something deliberate to the rhythm of his legs, as though he were a scuba diver, driving hard toward treasure. When he surfaced, landing solidly on his feet beside the dumpster, he held a metal folding chair high above his head. It, a trophy. He, triumphant. I lifted my camera and snapped a picture.“You missed my good side,” he said and turned, setting the chair on the asphalt, leaning on it as though it were a cane.
I stared, trying to figure out how old he was. There was something elegant about him, though it was the sort of sophistication you find in those paintings of poker-playing dogs. He wore suspenders and a purple button-down and a red ascot. His hair was grey and wiry, the kind you imagine requires tin snips rather than scissors to cut. It rose sheer as a mountain face from his forehead. When he stepped toward me and smiled, his bottom teeth were like a rotten coral reef.
“Rowboat Watkins,” he said, extending his hand.
“Abby.” I shook his hand. “And this is DJ.”
“You a photographer?” Rowboat nodded at my camera.
“Filmmaker,” I said, though I hadn’t made a film in a year. Sort of the same way DJ called himself a graphic designer, even though the only thing he’d ever designed was a T-shirt with a seventies song lyric printed on it in Papyrus. He told people he knew it was a terrible font, but it worked because he was using it in such a way that it was aware of its own mediocrity.
Sometimes I wondered how I could be with someone so pretentious. Sometimes I fantasized about being with an electrician, or someone who had to wear suits and carry a long title full of senseless commas and capitalization — Manager, Retraining, Employment, Community Service Division — or, at the very least, someone who thought papyrus was a bird.
“You make action movies?” Rowboat asked.
“Documentaries,” I said.
He nodded and shouldered the metal chair.
“You should do one on me.” He pulled a dirty white captain’s hat from his back pocket and balanced it on his hair.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Come on.” Rowboat waved us after him as he walked toward the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.
“This thing looks like it was built by Blackbeard and Oscar the Grouch,” DJ said.
Rowboat ignored him and helped me board a forty-foot barge that was tied to its slip with ropes made of what looked like braided parachute fabric. The deck was level with the docks and featured four above-deck cabins with walls built of mismatched plywood and hand-painted Spanish restaurant signs.
“I spent time in Mexico,” Rowboat told me as we crawled across an extension ladder laid horizontal between deck and dock. “Played banjo in the circus. I was no prodigy. Didn’t need to be. Mexicans had never heard New Orleans jazz before. That was enough to impress them.”
“Is that where you’re from?” I asked. “New Orleans?”
Rowboat looked at me, one eye squinted down to a slit, the other wide, as though I were being filtered back and forth between them, like sand in his hands. When he didn’t answer, I turned and looked at the rest of the barge. Because it was made of so much trash, and because it was the hottest summer I’d seen in eight years of New York living, I expected it to stink, but all I smelled was the harbour. A cargo net led to the roof of one of the cabins, where a chair was bolted down under the square of shade offered by a checkered tablecloth. A bicycle wheel operated a pulley system to hoist things up to the chair. A white dog, stretched out near the bow, lifted his head and looked over. At first I thought he was winking at me, but then I realized he only had one eye.
“That’s Lord Napier,” Rowboat said. “He’s friendly. Just don’t touch him.”
Rowboat said he’d found the dog two months earlier on a beach in California, lying at the waterline like a washed-up carp. Skinny and malnourished, pale and overheated. Rowboat tried to move him so he might die in the shade of a palm tree instead of in the sun, but Lord Napier bit him. Rowboat dropped the dog, bandaged his arm with his shirt, then went back to the barge and had a fevered dream in which the dog told Rowboat his name was Lord Napier. The next morning Rowboat came out of his cabin to find Lord Napier waiting on the deck.
“He had this look in his eye that just said, ‘This is love.’” Rowboat shrugged. “I’m gonna argue with that?”
“You sailed here from California?” I asked.
“No. That was a different boat. I’ve made dozens of the things over the years.”
“Where are they now?” DJ asked.
“Gone. I sail each one for a few months, then I give it away and build a new one.”
He said that when he was twenty-four, he’d read a book about how native song and nomadic travel informed each other. He glossed over the connection and told us the conclusion, which was that rent was the root of all evil. He started building barges from found objects and discarded items (what he called “the upchuck of others’ overconsumption”) and living on those because the sea was free.
“I feel like the guy who discovered you can make penicillin out of mould,” he said.
“Alexander Fleming,” DJ said.
“The guy who discovered penicillin.”
Rowboat looked at me. “You got yourself a university professor?”
DJ stood there.
“Anyway,” Rowboat said. “You’re welcome to come along.”
“Where?” I asked.
“I’m sailing to Belize in two days. You could make yourself a movie.”
“Dude,” DJ said. “Titanic’s been done.”
I looked him up online that night. There were a handful of articles, his own terrible website. A mention of three children and a wife. A picture of the five of them dressed in matching outfits, holding dirty, dented instruments. I was scared to think too hard about the possibility of a documentary, because what if the idea leaked out my ears, spilled into the streets, and found someone else? I was even superstitious about saying aloud to DJ that I was thinking of going.
“Going where?” DJ asked. He was sitting at the kitchen table, writing tiny sentences in a tiny notebook with a tiny pencil that was awkward in his too-big hand. His dark hair was tied back in a messy bun that looked nicer than mine did when I wore it the same way. “On the journey to the bottom of the sea?”
“To Belize,” I said.
“Same difference,” he said.
“He raised a family on one of those things.”
“And where are they now?”
“Good question. I’d like to ask him.”
“Well,” DJ said. “It’s your funeral. Or burial at sea, I suppose.”
“You don’t want to come?”
“Abby, I have a ton of orders to get out this week.” He gestured toward my office, where my camera lenses were buried beneath boxes of his T-shirts.
Since he’d staked a claim on half the space last year, right after I’d had some success with a short at a local film fest, I’d started working there less and less, and found myself daydreaming more and more about the West Village apartment I’d had before DJ and I moved in together in Brooklyn. I had a nostalgic affection for it similar to that which I reserved for ex-lovers, the good ones. On the walk home from my part-time job as a gallery attendant, I sometimes went out of my way to pass it, even in the rain. Like John Cusack in everything he’s ever been in, I stood, soaked, and stared up at its yellow window and thought about screaming, Who are you sharing yourself with now? But I never did because it would have been crazy, and anyway, I wasn’t mad at the apartment. I still loved it. I would have been able to find my camera lenses there.
“All right,” I told DJ. “Good luck with your orders. Shove off.”
“You’re the one shoving off,” he said. “That’s what I say to you.”
“Is it? Oh.”
Having been a landlubber all my life, I didn’t know what to take on a month-long sea voyage. Sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat seemed like givens, so I bought those and packed them in a duffel bag with shorts, a swimsuit, a windbreaker. DJ stuffed one of his screen-printed shirts in the bag for me. Still looking for that blue jean, baby queen, it said.
“It doesn’t make sense for me to wear this,” I said. “I’m not looking for any queens.”
DJ ignored me. He was cross-legged on the floor, wearing the men’s version of the same shirt.
“And when you wear it, it kind of makes me angry,” I said. “Because my ass looks fucking great in jeans, so who’s this queen you’re looking for?”
“I won’t wear it when I’m out with you.”
“You won’t wear it when you’re with me — ever.”
I know you’re supposed to pick your battles, but who can decide? They all looked good to me. I was annoyed by the small things, like the way his teeth clicked when he chewed soup, and the big things, like the way he coasted off those stupid T-shirts instead of making something new. To be fair, my irritation with him probably sapped his energy for work, the same way his thoughtlessness with me crowded out all the mental space I might have used to plan my own projects. It was a two-way street, and likely part of the reason he wasn’t appropriately dazzled by my denim-clad ass anymore. At the time, though, I blamed it on the apartment. Overpaying to share small spaces, you get overexposed to each other. I figured the landlords of New York owed it to the unhappy couples of the city to divert a portion of their profits to free counselling services.
“Hey.” I paused at the door as I shouldered my purse to go find Rowboat.
“Sure thing,” DJ said without looking up from his laptop, which was actually my laptop, but had become ours when his died.
When I got to the cruise terminal, Rowboat wasn’t there. Not him, not his barge, not Lord Napier. Instead, there were actual cruise ships. White and high and gleaming, with rows of round windows winking down at me. I found a tanned kid in a semi-official-looking golf shirt and asked if he’d seen the barge. The kid told me the terminal had kicked him out, that the pier was only for City of New York cruise ships.
“His wasn’t a real cruise ship,” the kid said.
“You don’t say.”
He told me Rowboat was moving toward Manhattan, getting tossed off piers as he hopscotched north along the river, snatching a free hour here or there. I followed the water most of the afternoon and finally found him at Brooklyn Bridge Park, where he’d tied up to one of the fences that keeps kids from falling into the East River. He was sitting on the folding chair he’d rescued from the dumpster, a can of Budweiser in hand.
“I’m coming,” I told him. “DJ’s staying behind, though.”
“His loss,” Rowboat said. “We leave at dawn. I’ll swing by the terminal to pick you up, but you’d better be waiting. We’ve had some differences of opinion, the terminal and I, so we’ve gotta move fast.”
When I got home, DJ said he was coming with me. At first I thought he was doing a noble boyfriend thing, being concerned for my safety on the high seas with a strange old man steering a junk barge to Belize. But when I went to my laptop, his email was open and I saw that some distributor had cancelled a massive order because DJ had refused to do a run of shirts in Comic Sans (the term “creative differences” was used). Whatever the reason, I should have been excited. All I could think about, though, was how this was going to hold things up because DJ wasn’t prepared.
I was right. He stayed awake all night packing, and I didn’t get any sleep because he was loud about it. We had to run along the pier to catch Rowboat after the cruise terminal chased him away like some shitty seagull.
“La-di-da,” Rowboat said as DJ boarded. “Look who decided to come after all.” Then he pointed to his captain’s hat: white, with a black brim and gold braid and an anchor patch at the centre. “This means I’m in charge,” he said, and we agreed — even though I could see Long John Silver’s embroidered on the side.
At the outset, I mostly followed Rowboat around, trying to blend in and film him, but it’s hard to blend into a crowd of three people and a one-eyed dog. Eventually I dropped the Discovery Channel act and nipped at Rowboat’s heels beside Lord Napier, who stopped growling at me, and, after a couple days, actually seemed to like me better than anyone.
In Atlantic City, I put on a bikini, bought ice at a marina, and made margaritas by riding a stationary bike Rowboat had rigged up to a motorless blender. That night, he turned on a string of solar-powered lanterns, played Glenn Miller on a hand-crank radio, and told us there was nothing he wouldn’t give up for freedom.
“I’ll either live like a bum or a king chasing it,” he said. “Nothing in between.”
DJ was about to say something but I put a hand over his mouth.
The next night, Rowboat pulled out a few beers and a Casio keyboard and played jazz standards while DJ and I danced on opposite sides of the deck. We came together around midnight, as the solar lights faded to soft sherbet shades of orange and blue. DJ pushed my hair back and tied it in a knot on top of my head, and it stayed because it was salt-stiff from swimming.
“That’s better,” he said, and kissed my neck, licked at it.
I kissed him back and thought about how much easier it was to love him in open air than it was in the stagnant city, and maybe that was our problem. Maybe we just needed to move to a small, tarnished town with a failed mid-century industry and cheap houses and a ton of space for the breeze to blow between us. We could lead a long, slow exodus to someplace that would be cool in ten years. Utica, maybe.
Rowboat dropped anchor and we floated in view of, but not quite among, the yachts and sailboats paying to dock at marinas along the shore on the way to Delaware. I unhooked my arms from DJ’s neck and got my camera.
“Maritime law!” Rowboat yelled, raising a hand to the other boats, in both greeting and defence.
Lord Napier farted at my feet while I filmed.
“I don’t think maritime law applies here,” DJ said.
“I don’t think you applied here.” Rowboat stretched and yawned. “I hired the filmmaker.”
“You didn’t actually hire anyone. Abby, you getting paid for this?”
“I’m the documentarian,” I said. “I’m not supposed to get involved.”
“You should take a page from her book.” Rowboat turned away from both of us.
After that, DJ went to bed, and Rowboat and I cracked open beers in the kitchen, where the cups and plates and spices sat on shelves behind guardrails so they wouldn’t fall over in rough weather. Rowboat told me it was a lesson he’d learned when his first boat got caught in a storm and his collection of chili powders spilled, effectively macing the cabin and his then-wife Donna.
“She was my first and last wife,” he said. “We had three kids together. They were with me in Mexico, part of the circus band.”
“Where are they now?” I asked.
“Phoenix, Tampa and Cleveland,” he said. “Working in banking, real estate and technology, respectively.”
He said it the same way that parents of drug addicts talk about their kids: With resignation. Concern. Some shame.
“Donna still sails with me for a week or two at a time on occasion,” he said. “We can handle each other just fine for up to fourteen days. After that, it’s a mess. Kinda like you and your boyfriend.”
“What do you mean?”
“You guys have been together a lot longer than fourteen days, huh?” he asked.
“That’s a long time to be with him.”
“You don’t like him, do you?”
“Some people just don’t get along.” He sipped his beer. “Same way some dogs don’t get along. You brush against each other and it gets your back up. From minute one, I knew I didn’t like the smell of his butt.”
“I could tell.”
“What makes you like the guy?” he asked.
His green eyes went momentarily soft and sorry, and he had this earnest look on his face, as though he were asking for directions to a bar. As though liking DJ were something he might be able to do if only someone could tell him how to get there.
“What makes me like DJ?” I repeated. “I’m not sure anymore.”
“Not a great sign.”
“Well, I think I fell in love with him because of how much he loved me — though I don’t know if that’s a good enough reason to love someone.”
“Beer?” I said.
“Beer makes you like him?”
“Beer isn’t a personal quality.”
I paused. “We’re pretty good on paper?”
Rowboat laughed. “Three strikes, beautiful,” he said.
“Aw, fuck,” I said, staring out the tiny porthole at the lights of some small American port town. “Take me out of the ball game.”
In the second week on the barge, DJ lost his tiny pencil — he got a hand cramp holding it, and it dropped and rolled overboard — and since that was the only thing he’d brought to amuse himself, he moped around like a child until Rowboat put him to work. Initially this seemed to appeal to DJ, who liked to think that, because he had a beard and knew how to roll his own cigarettes, he was the kind of man who could also innately do things like be a sailor. So he crawled up and down the length of the barge, hammering nailheads that had poked up from the deck under the ship’s creak and sway. He did that every other day for four days before he started complaining.
“You can’t have a million-dollar dream with a minimum-wage work ethic,” Rowboat said from behind the ship’s wheel.
“How is this anyone’s idea of a million-dollar dream?” DJ asked.
“Don’t sass me!”
DJ sat back on his heels near the railing, which was made of bed frames of varying heights. He put one hand on his hip and used the other to give a mock salute to Rowboat’s back.
“Aye aye, Craptain,” he said, and he caught me smiling and smiled back.
I looked at him, shirtless in the sun, with one of his stupid checkered scarves tied around his hair, and I thought maybe we’d have sex that night. Then Rowboat jerked the wheel and the boat lurched and DJ tipped sideways and rolled over the edge of the barge just like his pencil had.
When we pulled him out of the water, he stormed past me into the cabin, and I figured that instead of fooling around, we’d spend the night trying not to touch, which is tough to do in a hammock. When I followed him into bed later, he was quiet for a long time. I was almost asleep when he finally said my name.
“Abby,” he whispered, putting an arm around me. “I love you.”
Surprised into wakefulness, I said nothing. Then I took his hand.
“I love you too,” I said.
I listened to the barge creak. Instead of breathing, I waited.
“Can I ask you something?” he said eventually.
“Can you say, I love you instead of I love you too?”
“What?” I asked. “Why?”
“Your way sounds like you’re saying it out of obligation. It sounds like a responsibility.”
“Okay . . . I love you.”
“That’s great. Thank you.”
I didn’t say it because I agreed with him or because it was true. I was just tired and I wanted to go to sleep without yelling first. I actually felt pretty strongly that, without the too, the I love yous felt like two people standing in a room together, facing different walls. The too was what made them sound like they were on the same team. It created a closed circuit. It made for a call and response rather than a couple of independent statements, like bad graffiti scrawled in train tunnels on opposite ends of town. But I knew there was no point in arguing it, just the same way I knew that if I ever again said, I love you too, the too would hang in the air like artillery.
In the morning, I woke to a pattering not unlike the sound of cat paws dancing down a hall, only heavier. Like leopards and lions. I pushed open the cabin door and stepped out onto the deck into brilliant sun. I heard Lord Napier barking, but all I saw was a large dark shape in front of me until I put my sunglasses on.
Rowboat was there on all fours, with DJ on his back. DJ had one arm around Rowboat’s neck in a chokehold. His other arm waved wildly in the air, like he was riding a mechanical bull — if the bull were screaming over and over again, “I’m prepared to die!” like Rowboat was. And if the bull eventually bucked backwards, crushing its rider, both of them scrambling like turned-over turtles.
As they grappled, I looked in the direction Rowboat had been straining and saw the last beer — presumably what he’d been prepared to die for. The silver can spun on the planks beside an empty cooler. A small hole shot a fine spray of foam across Rowboat’s captain’s hat, which lay beside the can. I picked up both, put the cap on my head, opened the can and took a sip. It was piss-warm. I climbed the cargo net to the roof of my cabin and sat there and watched the two of them flop around until they burst apart.
“That’s it!” Rowboat stood and sucked air.
He put a hand on his jaw as if to reset it. DJ stood a few feet away from him, leaning forward, hands on knees, a cut on his chin.
“What’s that?” DJ asked.
“You’re off the barge when we hit Stumpy Point tomorrow.”
“Oh yeah? If I could swim to shore from here, I’d be off right now.”
“What’s stopping you trying?” Rowboat asked, crossing the deck and kicking open the gate.
I finished the beer, crumpled the can, made a silver puck of it and threw it at DJ’s head. It hit him in the left temple. He and Rowboat turned to look at me, surprised I was there.
“Shut up,” I said.
“She’s wearing the cap,” Rowboat said. “Listen to her.”
And they waited there as though I were going to decree something more important.
“That’s it,” I said. “That’s the only order. Both of you just shut up.”
They prowled around the deck a bit, walking back and forth and wearing off their energy. Then they retreated to their respective cabins and didn’t come out. I climbed off the roof and lay down on a vinyl lounger with Lord Napier and enjoyed the sun and the quiet and the breeze so much that I stayed there all night, the dog keeping me warm in the wind.
We disembarked the next day at a place called Dolphin Cove Marina. As he put his hand out to shake mine, Rowboat’s eyes were red and glassy, but that might have been because he’d recently discovered he was allergic to Lord Napier.
“You want a dog?” Rowboat asked me.
“We don’t have space for a dog,” DJ said.
Rowboat ignored DJ. “He likes you.”
“I like him too,” I said. “But I can’t right now.”
I kissed the dog and immediately regretted it. He smelled like canned tuna, and there was something damp in his fur. I stepped from deck to dock and watched as DJ and Rowboat managed to bump shoulders even though there was nothing but space on the deck between them. Then DJ put his hand on my back, as though to guide me toward land.
“Let’s go,” he said, but I just watched the barge. Its nylon ropes dragged in the water like psychedelic seaweed, in primary shades of red, yellow and blue. “Let’s go,” DJ said again.
It was like when we went to the movies and he wanted to leave but I wanted to watch the credits in case there was something extra at the end. And he thought it was stupid because “everybody does that now” and it’s old and tired.
“Fine,” DJ said, and he walked toward the marina store for cigarettes. He was almost inside when Rowboat yelled after him.
“Hey DJ, you rat bastard!”
DJ turned and looked. Standing behind the wheel, Rowboat pushed up the brim of his dirty white captain’s hat and opened his mouth, stubby teeth grinning.
“I know it,” he said. “She knows it. Even the dog knows it! How is it you don’t know it?”
DJ stood and stared.
“You’re gonna lose her!” Rowboat yelled.
DJ didn’t answer. He just turned and went inside the store, Rowboat’s laugh rolling after him in waves as the boat drifted slowly away. Rowboat looked at me and threw one hand into the air like a karate chop. I returned it. Up on the roof of what had been my cabin, Lord Napier chased his tail. I wondered how he’d gotten up there. I thought how I was going to miss that dog.
Originally published in The Feathertale Review No.24