Linda just plain wasn’t a water person.
She turned green when forced to take the Staten Island Ferry, and she would confess to crimes she had not committed to avoid going on any boat. She even jokingly claimed that she got seasick while taking a bath.
So she had no idea why, on that sunny autumn morning when she stood before the window of a ramshackle store that sold straw hats and saltwater taffy, she did what she did. In thinking back on it later, she concluded that she had been beguiled by the crinkles around the light blue eyes of the Captain of the boat. He was leaning against a sign that advertised his whaling adventure. Twelve people stood in line beside him, chatting amiably and waiting to buy tickets from a younger man with the same blue eyes.
Father. Son. Linda decided. Then her eyes met those of the sea captain. His sun battered face broke into a fleeting grin, and he winked at her. Instead of being offended, Linda laughed. He had such a nice, grandfatherly face. She turned to appraise the boat gently bobbing in the dock.
It was appealing, but odd. Not big, sleek, and new like the other vessels along the pier. But small, wood, and brimming with character. It reminded her of a movie. Mutiny on the Bounty? No. The Bounty was too big. But…that’s it! Captains Courageous. Spencer Tracy playing the kindly, heroic captain of a fishing schooner. Linda also seemed to remember that in the movie, the captain dies.
She shivered. Then she looked up. The captain of this ship…boat…vessel…(what was it!) was watching her again. There was a roguish glint in his eyes, and he jerked his head in the direction of his boat, as if to say, “Go on. Board her. You won’t be sorry.”
Linda studied his sign: CAPTAIN BOB’S WHALE WATCHING ADVENTURE. 3 HOURS AT SEA. LUNCH: SANDWICHES AND TEA. COST OF TICKET (LESS MEAL) REFUNDED IF WHALE NOT SPOTTED. WELCOME ABOARD!
It wasn’t that Linda disliked whales. It was more that she could not envision them as…friends. All her life, she had known only two intimately – Moby Dick, the Great White Whale pursued by a clearly lunatic Captain Ahab, and Mostro, Pinocchio’s nemisis who unceremoniously ate Geppetto and his cat!
Nevertheless, without questioning her motives or considering her antipathy to the sea, Linda dipped her hand into her purse, handed a few bills to Captain Bob’s son (who else could he be?), and walked aboard.
Even before the boat pulled away, Linda noticed how spotlessly clean it was. The deck planks glowed as if that very morning they had been polished with bees wax. The brass fitting on the thingamabobs (what were all of those knobs?) shone brilliantly in the sun. And the sea beneath Linda’s feet was as imperturbable as the shiny hood of a brand new limousine.
As a soft breeze ruffled the hair around her face, she leaned over the railing and gazed down at the water. For the first time in her life, she felt not a qualm. Without thinking, unbeckoned lines from “Dover Beach” popped into her head.
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair.
Silly to think of that now, she mused, because it was morning, and there was no a moon; there was a gently blazing sun. But the sea was calm. Calm, hypnotizing, intoxicating, and lovely, lovely, lovely. All of the passengers aboard, except for a scrawny, gray haired woman with puckered, unsmiling lips (Linda nicknamed her Madam DeFarge) seemed as deliciously mesmerized as she. They chatted happily with each other, their bodies bent over the railing, their eyes scanning the horizon for the sight of a whale.
“Did you see one yet?”
“Yes. Yes. There’s…nope. Wrong. It’s not a whale. Just another ship.”
There was laughter. There was song. Captain Bob’s son asked if anybody wanted to learn a sea shanty, and soon all were chanting:
A Yankee ship came down the river
Blow, boys, blow!
Her masts and spars they shone like silver
Blow my bully boys blow!
Minutes flew by. At noon, Captain Bob announced that lunch was served, and with a broad grin, he watched his passengers wolf down thick crusty sandwiches and gulp down invigorating cups of delicious, hot tea.
More minutes vanished. Then hours. One hour. Two hours. Two and a half hours.
“Did you see one yet?”
“No. Not yet. Did you?”
“Just my bad luck. Probably the only day the whales decide not to appear.”
Two hours and forty-five minutes. The boat turned around, followed by soft murmurs of not-quite discontent, tempered by an ineradicable undercurrent of the exhilaration that they had all just felt.
Until Madam DeFarge spoke up. “Not bad luck,” she snapped. Her voice was shrill. “A bad boat. As soon as we dock, I’m demanding a refund. So should all of you!”
Two hours and fifty minutes. Captain Bob had ten minutes left. That’s all. Then, despite the scrumptious sandwiches, the delicious tea, the mild breeze, the joyful shanties, and the perfect, perfect sea, he would have to return to his passengers the cost of the trip. His advertisement was his warranty, and not one of them had seen…
A voice sang out from the other side of the boat.
“Whales! I see whales! Oh, my God. They’re huge. They’re colossal. Three of them. I see three!”
In unison, everybody rushed to where Linda was standing, for it was Linda who had signaled the alert. As one, they leaned over the railing, shaded their eyes with their hands, and scanned the sea. Five minutes later, “Too late!” Linda sighed with sympathy. “But they were awesome. Magnificent!” Her eyes caught those of Captain Bob. “The sight of them positively boggled my mind!”
Five minutes later, the bow of the boat bumped into the dock. All of the passengers thanked Captain Bob and his son as they disembarked; they were soul-satisfied with their adventure. Sunburned, happy…replete. All, that is, except for Madam DeFarge, who hastily crammed the last sandwich into her purse and continued to mutter bitterly about a refund that she would never receive.
Linda was the last to leave. She, of course, had not seen three whales. Nor had she seen two whales, or even one. But had had a wonderful day. And she did not approve of Madam DeFarge.
She walked down the gangplank. Captain Bob was on the quay, waiting for her. Once again, his eyes had a merry, roughish glint. Linda stepped onto the pier and began to saunter jauntily away, singing softly under her breath, “A Yankee ship came down the river. Blow, boys, blow!” After she had walked about ten feet, she stopped, turned, and again met the sea captain’s eyes.
This time, it was Linda who winked.
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.
Copyright © 2010, Shelly Reuben