I was four when my father stopped shaving. A shadowy haze spread over his face. Within days, fuzz became bristles, slowly turning into a beard that looked out of place. One Sunday before church, he trimmed it with manicure scissors. I watched him peer into the mirror, snipping as if one hair too short would be a disaster. When he finished, a goatee remained—just a mustache and a tuft on his chin.
“I look different, don’t I?” he asked.
Except for the beard, he looked the same, but I nodded. He turned to my mother, seeking a second opinion.
“You look different,” she confirmed. He seemed pleased until she added, “It needs to be dyed.” His beard was light brown, not dark like his hair.
He looked back at me. “Do I look like the Captain?” I nodded again. There was a passing resemblance because of the beard, though not much else that I could see.
Few photos of the Captain survived 100 years. We had one, crinkled and yellow with age. He stared out from a small, gold-edged frame on the living room wall, a mostly bald man with a thick goatee and the hardened features of a ship’s master from Nova Scotia. He shared more than a beard with my father. Long before I knew what the words meant, I envisioned the Captain as resourceful, unyielding, and stern, like my father.
The Captain was Joshua Slocum. He was the first person to sail alone around the world, spending three years, two months, and two days away from home. He sailed 46,000 miles by himself, and then wrote a book about it. It had the descriptive, if uninspired title of Sailing Alone Around the World. Our copy had a red cloth cover faded to brown, embossed with two seahorses and an anchor, its white lettering almost worn off. It was dated 1900, the first printing in England by Sampson Low, Marston & Company.
My father read to me every night from that book, carefully turning each yellowed page, his voice rising and falling like the waves, harsh in the cold dead of night or whispering like the palms on the shores of Samoa. He stoked my dreams with sailing the mountainous seas off Tierra del Fuego in a howling gale, scarcely outdistancing savages led by the murderous Black Pedro, nearly dying in the surf after running aground, and sailing for 72 days without sight of land.
Every night until I was six, I gorged on my father’s tales of the Captain and his voyage from Boston in a small, oyster sloop; and then I tossed and turned and whimpered in my sleep. Sometimes my bed was shamefully soaked when I awoke, yet the bright morning beamed back at me from the mirror, dispelling what I thought to be the consequences of the previous night’s epic. I spent my afternoons in a cavernous barn next to our trailer. I played among wood shavings that my father planed from a keel, sweet-smelling, long curls of wood that cushioned my falls; or I hid behind boxes of secondhand tools and white pails of glue to watch him carefully bend strips of wood over frames.
“It’s Kauri,” he would say with pride, if anyone asked, “from New Zealand. It’s worth every penny. There’s no better wood for boat building. It’s strong, easy to work, and it won’t rot under water.” The brief lecture seldom varied.
By my ninth birthday, a sturdy yacht with a wide beam and a full keel filled most of the barn. It bore a marked resemblance to the Captain’s Spray despite modern devices, like a motor.
People chose their words carefully when his boat came up for discussion. The topic surfaced as inevitably as a whale comes up for air. Puzzlement or disapproval lurked behind even polite questions. My mother busied herself during such exchanges. It didn’t matter that he kept the barn doors closed; everyone knew he was building a boat; and every kid in my school called me ‘Noah Junior.’ Shame struggled with anger, but I kept my mouth shut.
+ + +
Only my grandmother, his mother-in-law, voiced opposition. My parent’s fifteenth wedding anniversary was no exception. It was a miserable night in December, the wind ceaselessly battering the roof of her Victorian cottage, the rain drumming behind my father’s words, loosened by champagne.
“It won’t be long before we leave,” he said suddenly.
“Are you seriously proposing to keep them on that boat for three years?” She was elegant and seemed fragile, like the cut crystal glasses that held their champagne.
“We don’t have a choice, Sarah.”
“There’s no need to do this,” she continued.
He looked at my brother and sister, both engrossed in the newspaper. His eyes, cold like the Atlantic, rested on me. He said nothing.
She sighed, pushing back a wisp of snow-white hair. “You could leave them with me.”
“That isn’t possible. Not now.”
“Of course it’s possible! Possible and sensible,” my grandmother snapped.
“I don’t know about sensible,” he murmured. “Congratulations by the way.”
He took the local newspaper from my brother and spread it out on the coffee table. Her photo was on the bottom of the front page, Outstanding Staff Person award from the Richmond School District. She'd intervened in a case of middle-school bullying, going out of her way to prevent it. The article named her three grandchildren, which delighted my brother and sister as much as it appeared to bother my mother. My father hadn't mentioned it until then.
She stared at him. “There’s no reason why they can’t live here.”
“There’s always a reason,” he said, his face almost hopeful as he glanced back at me.
“It’s mad,” she said, seeming suddenly tired.
Silence blanketed my grandmother’s sitting room. A log’s crackle in the fireplace sounded like a gunshot.
My father smiled and touched her shoulder. “Sarah, it’s good of you to worry.”
After that, we turned with relief to my grandmother’s crab bisque, veal and asparagus, and crème brûlée. When the storm ended, we gathered our belongings. My grandmother followed us out to the family van. Branches ripped from the trees covered the yard, and a garbage can rested against the van’s front bumper. My father dragged the garbage can back to where it belonged.
“There’ll be far worse storms at sea,” she remarked in her no-nonsense way. She looked professorial, her wavy hair caught in a tidy bun, prim reading glasses perched on her nose.
“Slocum survived them, and so will we.”
“He was a real sea captain,” she said factually.
“I built a real boat, Sarah.”
“It’s tiny, the size of a school bus!”
“A regular school bus is two feet shorter,” my little brother added cheerfully.
I hid my smile as my father glared at him. “Seaworthiness isn’t a matter of size. The Captain’s boat was the same size, and he didn’t have today’s technology.”
If he meant his motor, I’d watched him rebuild the rusty-blue motor he’d salvaged from an abandoned 1985 Ford tractor, learning new cuss words when he tried to start it. After three days, he gave up and called a mechanic.
“Our boat is much safer,” he went on. “If we run into a bad storm, we’ll heave to or use the sea anchor.”
“You can’t learn everything from books,” I said under my breath. I was almost a teenager, old enough to know not to say it aloud.
“And you won’t always be lucky,” my grandmother promptly added.
Before my father could reply, my mother interrupted. “Mom, thank you for a lovely meal. We need to go. I’m already late for my shift.”
My grandmother waved from the sidewalk as our van pulled away.
We never went home the same way. Sometimes, my father drove on suburban streets and we spied on rich peoples’ houses, weaved through the city, or used back roads, so it always took longer get home. However, he was so grumpy he stayed on Parham Road, and took I-64 to Norfolk, Virginia.
+ + +
That night, sirens woke me up, still far away, yet loud enough for me to distinguish between the wails of fire engines and the hee-haw of police cars. Half asleep, I wandered into the living room. Through the front windows, I saw an eerie glow near the entrance to Arcadia Park. Strobe lights lit up the trailers at the end of our lane. Suddenly, the front door flung open. My father stood in the doorway, breathing heavily, a jacket over his pajamas. Something about him terrified me.
“Close the curtains and turn off the lights,” he ordered. Mud covered his slippers, yet he stalked across the room, leaving a trail on the carpet and into the kitchen.
“Whose trailer is it?”
“The Masons,’” he snapped before checking the lock on the kitchen door.
My sister sometimes played with the two Mason girls. Their brother, Ryan, was 12, like me. We seldom spoke once he decided I was Noah, Jr. When they moved in, their last name was Mason. Their mom remarried soon after. Her new husband’s name was Walker, like ours. He’d lived at Arcadia Park for a month before he painted ‘Walker’ on his mailbox.
“Are they okay?”
He picked up the telephone and punched in numbers before he turned back, his face as pale as altar marble. “Walker got out. Get Ben and Jessie dressed. Don’t leave here, no matter what. Don’t open the door to anyone, and keep the lights off.”
“Just for once, will you do what you’re told?” he barked, hurrying into his bedroom.
I could hear him speaking on the phone, too quietly for me to make out words. He slammed a drawer and returned. Without warning, a roar erupted, rattling the windows, creating a brief and terrible daylight inside our trailer.
“Jesus!” I jumped involuntarily.
The tongue slip went unnoticed. “The van,” he muttered to himself on his way out the door. “It was parked next to the trailer.”
Mr. Walker had a blue Ford minivan like ours. Our neighbors came out to watch the flames leap into the night sky, the fire raging for an hour against the torrents of water gushing from the firefighters’ hoses.
+ + +
The next night began like most nights of the last nine years. My father came in from the barn, stopping to wash his hands at the sink. He was an assistant manager at the local Food King, a 24-hour supermarket two blocks away on South Military Highway. He assigned himself the sunrise shift and devoted the rest of the day to building his boat. He emerged from the barn only when it was time for dinner, thirty minutes before my mother left for the night shift at Norfolk General Hospital.
As usual, he smelled of varnish when he sat down to eat. What we didn’t expect came when he put down his fork. “I quit today,” he announced.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t talked about quitting before. A boat filled the barn, books about navigation and seamanship lay on the table, and boxes with labels like ‘compass’ and ‘windlass’ gathered dust in the closets. Like death, you knew it would happen, just not at dinner.
“We’re leaving here in two days,” he added as if he was saying ‘pass the peas.’
“Jessie!” my mother barked. My sister played with her pigtail, oblivious to fingers greasy from chicken. “You said next year, John.”
“Don’t have a choice, do we?” He leaned across the table. “We ought to leave right now,” he whispered to her.
My mother simply nodded. He looked at me. I shifted to avoid his gaze and forked the remains of my dinner into a mush of potato and beans.
“What about Christmas?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, Josh. We’ll have Christmas on the boat,” my mother said quickly.
“Is the boat finished, Daddy?” Jessie asked. She hadn’t talked much since the fire.
“Why don’t we stay here until it is finished?” I kept my eyes down.
He pushed his chair back and crossed the room to the Captain’s photograph. Eye to eye, goatee to goatee. “What we’ll save in rent is worth a little inconvenience.”
“Inconvenience,” my mother repeated, looking at the Captain’s picture.
I wondered again whether it troubled my mother that Captain Slocum’s first wife had been born Virginia Walker, her married name. I viewed my own name as no particular blessing—Victor Joshua, after the Captain’s first son, born on his father’s sailing ship, Constitution. My brother was Benjamin Aymar, after Slocum’s second son. My brother bore little resemblance to his namesake. Benjamin Slocum used a shiny tin can on a string to draw sharks to the stern of the ship so his mother could shoot them with a revolver. My brother read books, all books, any books. They named my sister after Jessie Helena Slocum, who was born in the Philippine Islands. The Captain’s fourth child gave his name to our Bengal cat, James Abraham Garfield: ‘Jag’ for his dark, jaguar spots.
“The sooner we decide what we’re taking, the better,” our captain continued. Easy for him to say. The only things he would take from Arcadia Park were his boat, his books, his music—hundreds of CDs of Russian composers—and his unwilling crew. “You can take whatever you want if you have space for it. There are two lockers under each berth. The things you want to save we’ll leave with your grandmother; the rest goes in the dumpster.”
“I’m taking the Britannica,” Ben announced. “We’ll need it for the trip.”
There were 32 thick, leather-bound volumes in the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Our grandmother had purchased it for Ben at a yard sale for less than the paper was worth. Ben’s expertise ended in 1989, the year it was printed. It drove me crazy; however, it was just the way he was.
“You just said we could decide what to take,” I reminded my father.
“Not the encyclopedia. It’s too heavy.”
“I’m taking it, even if I can’t take anything else.”
He returned Ben’s relentless stare. “There’s no room for things that aren’t essential.”
“I’m taking my guitar.” I was ready for a confrontation.
My guitar had belonged to his mother. It was old, with rich basses and pure trebles despite a small split in the Brazilian rosewood side. The ebony fingerboard was inlaid with tiny mother-of-pearl flowers. Inside, a label read ‘Ignacio Fleta e Hijos, Barcelona, 1961.’ Once, when I was tuning it, my father said he’d heard Segovia play it. I didn’t believe him.
“I should be thankful it’s not my father’s Hamburg Steinway,” he said.
“He played the piano?” I asked. There was no reply.
+ + +
On Tuesday morning, a huge crane and a long semi-trailer from the Chesapeake Bay Boat Transportation Company pulled up in our street. With all the mud in the yard, it took an hour to get the crane into place, and almost as long to line up the truck and the barn. Meanwhile, my father climbed up a precariously balanced ladder and ripped eight panels of roofing from the barn, sending them crashing to the ground, allowing the crane’s cables to pass through and lift his boat into place. From the outside, it looked finished, white with a blue stripe from stem to stern, where he’d painted ‘Spray’ in lettering that looked almost happy.
We followed the boat with a wide load warning strapped to the roof of our van. Neighbors waved us on, their bewilderment complete. Eight slow-moving miles later, we arrived at Pearson Brothers boat yard. Another crane lowered the boat into murky water after my mother, with a kind of grim enjoyment, whacked a bottle of cheap champagne against the bow. When Captain Slocum launched his Spray, he wrote ‘she sat on the water like a swan,’ a swan costing $553.62 for materials and 13 months of labor. My father‘s boat shared the same name, an ugly duck that cost $179,258.27, took nine years to build, and still wasn’t finished. I hated it.