Greg S. Johnson
The man, not yet as white-haired as most would remember him, put a hand through his unruly mop of frizzled hair and scanned the surface of Lac Léman. He could not detect a single ripple of movement all the way across to the French side; it was a mirror of the flawless blue sky. The late August sun, creeping over the tree line, warmed his cheeks. He closed his eyes.
He sat near the end of a long stone jetty covered in gull dung, its mid-point crook skeletal and akimbo. With little effort he could still remember the first day he set foot in Geneva. Those pinching, patent leather shoes he wore and how each step down the cobblestone streets made him wince and hop as if on the coals of a firewalker. Holding the hand of his father—who must have been younger than he was now, but who seemed ageless and towering and invincible at the time—they made their way through Old Town to find a bakery. His father, looking down at him through his pince-nez, scolded him for jumping about like a monkey.
A woman of about sixty approached and stood in front of him blocking the sun: ‘Loafing about again, I see.’
‘Bonjour, Professor,’ he said, opening his eyes and squinting to get a better look at her. ‘That’s all the French you’ll get from me. The whole of France shudders when I try to say even a few words. How long has it been, liebe?’
Marie shrugged. ‘A year, perhaps more?’ She nodded toward the wooden sloop tied to the stone jetty. ‘This is yours, Professor?’
She helped him to his feet. Her features were as stony as he remembered them: high forehead, blunt nose, lapis blue eyes that pierced falsehood like a needle through skin.
‘A pocket cruiser as these boating types say.’
‘Splendide! And the wood, what is it?’
‘Mahogany,’ Albert beamed.
‘It seems to me you are now one of these boating types yourself.’
‘They say there is an eternal arc to sailing, unfortunately I fear I’m a parabolic projectile launched into this strange, new world.’
‘And modest, non?’ she said. ‘Alors…where do you want this?’ She pointed to a large, finely embroidered carpetbag at her feet.
Tugging on the stern line, he brought the sloop close enough to step into; he took her carpetbag, then nearly dropped it in the water it was so heavy.
‘You’re building a house later?’ he asked with a wry smile.
After stowing her bag below deck, he let his gaze fall across the lake well to the south. Toward Geneva he saw a few ripples across the still surface. He looked up at the black vane atop the mast, which gave a slight twist.
‘There is not much wind just now, but it’s building, bit by bit. I think we can sail toward Chateau d’Yvoire on the French side.’
‘I’m in your hands, Capitaine.’
‘And I yours,’ he said, taking her hands and pulling her toward him into the cockpit. He rubbed his thumbs over her fingers and noticed how rough they were. ‘You are smart to wear dungarees. Do you know much about this type of rigging? They call it Bermuda.’
‘Less than nothing, I’m afraid.’
Marie eased herself onto one of the two parallel cockpit benches that stretched from the cabin to the stern.
Out on the bow he grabbed a line and brought it back to the cockpit. She watched him move smartly around the mast and straighten the rigging there.
‘Your enthusiasm…it’s almost contagious,’ she said.
He raised the main sail with steady hand-over-hand tugs of the halyard. Once secured, he repositioned himself at the helm and with some luck was able to catch enough of a south-southwest breeze to move them free of the jetty.
‘Have a go at the helm?’ he asked with a wink.
‘Would you like me to crash us into anything particular?’ Marie said, tilting a shoulder back to look at him. Often her face had the countenance of a statue so that when she smiled it was like sunshine peaking from under a dark cloud.
Albert laughed. “Here, come, let me show you.”
She slid into the helmsman’s seat, and he guided her hand onto the tiller. Her hands were large for a woman’s, but her knuckles were delicate as the nested heads of baby birds. Mottled with coppery spots and sores, they were the hands of an elderly woman.
Albert was surprised at how the wind had jotted up since they left the jetty. With a nod to Marie, he raised the foresail and watched it ripple, cobra-like up the forestay. The stiff breeze grabbed the white sailcloth of the main and foresail with such force that he had to ease the main sheet a bit to keep from heeling too far over. The wind was building almost to ten knots, which gave him plenty of lift, and he moved out on a reach that put them on a gliding line toward the distant beach at Hermance.
Albert leaned his back out over the water, hand once again on the tiller. He breathed in deeply, the uneven wind slapping his face then backing off, pushing then retreating. He looked around at the worn green hills and ashen cliffs that unfolded into this drowning pool of long retreated glaciers. How similar it must have looked to those early nomadic tribes, centuries ago, with their embers alight on the shores. Long before there was a Geneva. Long before those same tribes were forced to bow to Caesar.
‘Hungry?’ Marie asked.
‘I had nothing this morning. Sometimes eating is such…mühe.’
‘Come visit me in Paris. I’ll feed you chocolat and croissant, beef, and shellfish. You’ll shed your ambivalence.’
Off the bow to port he saw the foresail going slack. Wiggling the tiller back and forth, he tried to bladder it, will the wind into it. He looked up to see that the main sail, too, hung like a wet sheet on a line. The bow turned slowly to starboard, into what had been the wind. They were now facing due south.
‘Take the helm again, bitte,’ he said, and crept out toward the bow. The drop in the wind made the boat unstable, and he had to steady himself against the side of the cabin as he went. Gaining the bow, he grabbed the jib and luffed it a few times. They had moved too close to shore, and they were trapped in a windless calm, blocked by the mountains he had been admiring.
‘We seem to have stopped, haven’t we?’ she said.
Leaning out, he grabbed hold of the foresail and gave it a few shakes. Albert tried to lure a pocket of wind into it. His right foot slid out from beneath him, and he clutched the forestay just in time to keep from tumbling in.
‘Are you all right?’ Marie called.
Albert struggled to get his breathing under control as he stared down into the black water. He cursed his stupidity for never learning to swim.
‘Here, come and eat,’ she said, hauling her violet and crimson carpetbag out from below deck. ‘It’ll do you some good.’
From the bag she removed several pears, a few apples, some Brie, and a baguette. With an adept touch she sliced the bread and spread the cheese across several pieces.
He ate all that was offered.
‘I suppose we can always use the auxiliary,’ she said, taking a bite of sweet pear. The juice dripped onto her fingers and she fluttered them over the water.
Smoothing his bushy moustache from the center outward, he scanned the southeast shore, the lush, green hills past Chens-sur-Léman. His eyebrows coiled.
‘We can start the auxiliary, non?’ she asked, curious.
‘Did you forget?’
‘No, I didn’t forget. To hell with them!’ Albert’s face turned red. ‘They are noisy… abominations! They destroy the beauty of all of this,’ he gestured with his arms to the surrounding water. ‘The peace and the solitude and the…the quiet.’
Marie sat like a statue for a few moments and then couldn’t control it any longer. She put a sudden hand over her mouth and failed to stifle a laugh.
Albert looked like a child staring into the abyss of a fractured toy.
‘Non…non, Je…’ she said, sitting up straighter. ‘Oh, my dear, Je suis désolé. I didn’t mean to insult you.’
He shook his head and took a deep breath of fresh summer air. ‘It’s fine. Nichts. Nichts.’
‘Here, give me.’ She folded both her hands around one of his.
With his other hand he traced one of the large, damaged circles on her hand. ‘What’s happened here?’ he asked.
‘Nichts.’ She dropped his hand and looked away. Somewhere deep within, she knew it was the pitchblende, the metallic rock of radium and polonium that she had worked with for so many years.
Some swimmers bravely danced into the water at the beach in the distance and then came dancing right back out again.
‘Tell me, ’ he insisted.
‘Nothing I need to worry about. No one cares about these…ugly things.’ She turned back toward him showing her palms. Her heavy-lidded yet startling blue eyes caught him cold. ‘Certainly not you.’
Her gnarled hands trembled.
‘Did I do something? Say something?’
‘You won’t recall,’ Marie said. She rummaged through her bag, and in a few seconds pulled free a green bottle of wine. ‘When I told my friend Jacques about my sail with you today, he recommended this Beaujolais from a nearby vineyard.’
He looked at her in profile. Marie’s hair was a kinetic knot bunched up on the top of her head. It shielded the massive bluff of her determined forehead.
‘I don’t care for wine,’ he said.
Marie continued as if his voice was a stray puff of wind. She put the bottle between her legs and worked at freeing the cork with a pocketknife. ‘Do you remember that hike we took in the Alps some years back, me with the girls and you with your son?’
He shrugged. ‘Of course. We hiked for hours. It was a beautiful day.’
‘I thought so, too. But then I overheard something from a friend who was at one of your cocktail parties.’
He closed his eyes, sniffed for a breeze. ‘Marie, it was so long ago.’
‘Alors, you do remember. Tell me.’
Albert’s brown eyes sprang open, alive and furious. ‘What difference does it make!?’
‘You said, ‘She’s very intelligent, but has the soul of a herring.’
‘I did not!’ He stood up but nearly fell over backward. He grabbed the boom to steady himself.
‘What did you say then?’ Her lips were pursed, seething.
‘I couldn’t have said that.’ Albert pondered the deck of the cockpit where one of the slats was cracked. It would need to be replaced before winter came.
‘It makes no difference to you,’ Marie said. ‘Because you don’t have to care. How easily the conqueror embraces ambivalence.’
‘I’m afraid my wives have often bullied me for my temperamental tongue. It was some time ago. I’m sure I thought I was being funny at the time. You’ve always impressed me with your strength of character and your…tenacity.’
‘It’s so long past, Marie.’
‘Wars have been fought for less.’
As they drifted closer to the French shore, the calls of the gulls became more distinct and defiant. The jangle of the halyards and the tiny slaps of water against the sides of the wooden sloop made the silence even more galling.
‘I don’t suppose you have any glassware?’ she said, nodding to the suddenly open bottle of Beaujolais between her legs.
They both laughed.
‘Let me look,’ he said.
‘Don’t bother.’ Marie tilted the bottle back and took a healthy swig. She wiped a red bit of wine away with the back of her hand. ‘Mmmm. Demi sec. Try some.’ She held out the bottle, but he stared at it, unmoving.
On the morning of that hike, along the trail, her daughter was continually tripping over her hiking boots, and the laces were knotted like cobwebs. Marie pulled a knife from her satchel then used it to rip through the knot and re-string her daughter’s boots. There was no head patting, no ‘there, there, child’; she was matter-of-fact, quick to the point and resolute. After all these years, that was the most prominent memory of their hike. He shook his head as if to wipe it away.
‘It won’t bite you, mon ami,’ Marie said, finally.
Albert took the bottle and looked at the label, then gulped a quick shot.
They passed the bottle back and forth and listened to the rhythmic slapping of the water below and the halyards in the mast above. The air warmed as the sun reached its apex.
Marie finished the last of the Beaujolais and set the bottle on the deck of the cockpit. She rubbed her hands together.
‘Oh, Albert, we’re as stuck in ourselves as we are in this boat,’ she said.
He moved closer and attempted to settle an arm around her.
She tilted away.
‘I don’t understand you,’ he said.
‘What is it about men that makes them unforgiveable when they won’t see the most basic thing there is? The most…oh, sacrebleu! Forget it. Just…’ She shook her head, closed her eyes.
Albert stared up at the top of the mast; a feeble breeze fluttered the vane there. He looked again at the sole of the cockpit. He gazed across the flat water of the lake. Without looking at her, he reached for her hands. They were clammy and cold. He massaged them. Staring across the sun-dappled water, back toward the jetty they somehow needed to reach, he stumbled over a few words. A pained expression told him he was still far off, and then, as with a breeze that can build out of the clear blue, rippling the water as it takes on momentum, he regained his balance, braced himself, swallowed hard on his pride and offered her the apology so long deferred. AQ