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Blanche Tickle Girl
Book Two of the Full Sails series
Wes Boyd
©2012, ©2014

Chapter 4

Mary took a sip of her coffee, and stood up long enough to take a quick look around the gray horizon; how far they could see in the fog was hard to tell, but it wasn’t very far. There was nothing in sight, so she sat back down next to Matt and asked, “Ye were tellin’ me that your Dad doesn’t have much to do with ye. Is that the reason?”

“Probably part of it,” he sighed. “But definitely not all of it. I don’t know if I’m confusing some of what came after I got sick with what things were like before, but to look back at it, he always has seemed a bit distant as a father. He’s always been more interested in his work than he has been in his family, but I can’t imagine how finding out I wasn’t his real son after all could have made things better. That’s not saying he’s not interested in me, because he is, to at least a degree. What I can’t say is how much my not being his real son has affected things, or how much of it is just the way he is. We aren’t estranged in any way.”

Matt looked right at her for a moment and said, “The odds are that you’ll never meet my mother unless she’s waiting on the dock for us in Ireland, but Dad has a part in this trip, too. While he lets my mother think he goes along with what she wants, and often does, he’s actually helping helping me out with this financially. I couldn’t do it otherwise, but she doesn’t need to know that, because she’d pitch a fit at him.”

“It would sound as if your mother and father don’t quite get along.”

Matt furrowed his brow. That was a hard question to comment on, and he wasn’t sure he had an answer to give her. “I can’t really answer that,” he said finally. “There’s at least partly the fact that it’s convenient for them to stay together, but there’s a lot that I don’t know about and I could have some of it wrong. Dad, especially, is a pretty private person and it’s hard to figure him out sometimes. Hell, a lot of the time. But then, Mom has some funny spots too, so it’s hard to say. Uncle Jake figures into it, and there are places that I have to watch my step.”

“Aye,” she nodded, after seeking something to say herself. “Many families have touchy spots that people have to be careful around.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he agreed. “Anyway, most of that came later. For the moment, let’s just say that ever since then, Uncle Jake has been a second father to me. As far as I know, my folks and he agreed that he’d be ‘Uncle Jake’ to me right from the beginning, and I’ve always gone along with it. Anyway, to get back to the story, I gradually got better. I’m told that the turnaround was pretty dramatic, but I don’t remember any of it. I was still in the hospital with IVs and tubes and shit hanging out of me, but I was getting a little more aware of things. Finally, I got to the point where I could read a little, and I found myself interested in some of the sea stories that Uncle Jake had been reading to me. One day I asked him if he could find me some of those kinds of things to read when he wasn’t there.”

“That’s what a Newfie fisherman calls ‘settin’ the hook,’ b’y,” she laughed.

“Could be,” he smiled. “Although I think that came later. So the next time he came to see me he had three or four more books, all sea stories, sailing stories and the like. Anyway, this was all in University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There are a lot of used bookstores in town, and it turned out that he just scoured the places looking for stuff for me to read. Sometimes he’d bring me one or two, and other times a whole armload. It turns out that he talked some of the clerks in those stores into looking for those kinds of books and set them aside for when he came in to get them, and a few of those books are packed away in a locker below. Now, most of this stuff was written at an adult level, and at the time I was twelve, so some of it wasn’t the easiest stuff to for me to read, but it filled up my time. God, you have no idea of how slow time goes if you’re a kid in a place like that!”

“I’ve never had to be in hospital, but I’d imagine it can get pretty boring.”

“No shit,” he sighed. “About all there was for me to do at that point was to read or watch TV, and even a kid’s channel like Nickelodeon gets to be pretty damn dull after a while. I was still pretty much a prisoner in that bed, but once in a while one of the other kids on the floor would come and visit with me for a bit. Hell, I guess they were just as bored as I was. Like I said, we usually didn’t become friends, although there was one exception a little later, a girl about my age by the name of Laurel deGroot. We sort of became friends, partly because she was a little further along in remission and at least was able to show me that things could get better. She’d lost her hair from chemo. Well, I had too, and so had a lot of the other kids in the place, but hers was starting to come back when we first started to get friendly. We never got to be great friends, it was something to do with the atmosphere of the place, but at least she was a friendly face in a place where there weren’t a lot of them.”

“So she was your first girlfriend?”

“Well, sorta,” Matt replied uncomfortably. He was silent for a moment, leading Mary to think that there was more to that part of the story than he was saying. “Let’s just say we were friendly, maybe even friends, but not boyfriend-girlfriend, at least partly because we were still a little young for that, in spite of everything. Anyway, to get on with the story, she wasn’t the only one of a group of us who were a little bit friendly. After a while, I was better enough that I didn’t need to get read to, but Uncle Jake kept bringing me books, and visited, oh, for two or three days, and was gone for several days. Then, when he’d come, sometimes as many as half a dozen kids would gather, at first in my room, and sometimes in other rooms later on, and Uncle Jake would tell stories. He’s a great storyteller, and he sure had a bunch of them!”

“Sea stories?” she smiled.

“More or less,” he nodded. “In his case, more lake stories, though. It turned out that Uncle Jake, his wife, and his father-in-law run a charter fishing boat operation at Winchester Harbor, which is up in the northern part of Lake Huron, on the Michigan side.”

“Charter fishing boat?” she frowned. “I don’t quite follow ye.”

“I don’t know much about the fishing you do in Newfoundland,” he replied. “But this is probably pretty different. This is a deal where he takes sportsmen out on one of the two boats they own, the Chinook and the Coho. Both of them are bigger boats than this. It’s all trolling for salmon and lake trout, and people will pay good money to go out and try to hook a trophy fish. Uncle Jake and Aunt Rachel and her father, Nate, are pretty darn good at it, and they spend most of the summer doing it. When he’s not busy with that, Uncle Jake runs a marine fuel dock, motel, and small restaurant and store combination. But anyway, while some of his stories were about fishing, not all of them were. Some of them were just stories about the lakes, stuff like the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Carl Bradley, for example. He even knew one of the two guys who made it off the Bradley, so that made it even more real.”

“I’ve never heard of the Bradley,” she said. “But I’ve heard The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald all my life.”

“So the Bradley never got a popular singer to write a song about it, but it was no less tragic,” Matt shrugged. “Anyway, he had a lot of stories, and some of them were about sailing. He’s never made any big voyages, other than when he and Aunt Rachel took a twenty-one foot trailer sailer meant for inland lakes to the Bahamas and messed around there for a while. Sailing has always been a hobby to him, never part of his business, but he likes it and he’s good at it. For a while we talked about him coming on this voyage with me, but it’s just too damn hard for him to get away in the summer for that length of time. Besides, I wanted to do it more or less by myself.”

“B’y,” she sighed. “I was afraid I’d be ruinin’ somethin’ for you by comin’ on this trip with ye, and now I’m fearin’ I have.”

“No, you’re not,” he smiled. “Get that right out of your head. It’s a whole lot different to be on this trip with a pretty girl than it is to be taking it with a guy as old as Uncle Jake. More of an adventure, if you will. If anything, I’m just a little relieved you’re with me.”

“So long as you’re sure,” she shook her head dubiously.

“I’m sure,” he grinned. “It’s a totally different animal. Uncle Jake may be my real father and my best friend, but having you with me puts a different spin on things. If nothing else, you’re someone to talk to who hasn’t heard all this stuff; that makes things different right there. As far as I’m concerned, we’re going to Ireland together, unless you really want to turn back.”

“Ah, I think not b’y,” she grinned. “You seem like an interestin’ sort with a turn of stories to tell, an’ I’ve been lookin’ for the opportunity to see somethin’ besides St. John’s and the South Shore. If you’re willin’ to have me, I’m willin’ to go on with ye. But, Matt, I can see there’s more for ye to tell.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m only hitting the high spots,” he told her. “To get back to the story, I was in the hospital for months slowly recovering. While I had good days and I had bad, some of the bad ones could be really disheartening. It was on one of those days that Uncle Jake told me, in front of my father and mother, that when I got better that I should have them bring me up to Winchester Harbor, and he’d take me out and see that I caught a big one. After all those stories, well, that perked me right up. Because of the time of year and other things it was almost a year before I actually got to do it, and while the chinook I landed wasn’t exactly a trophy, it was mounted and still hangs on my folks’ living room wall.”

“It sounds like your folks and your Uncle Jake manage to get along pretty well.”

“Some,” he nodded. “There’s sensitive places there that we all know not to go, like I said earlier, but at least everyone is civil to each other even if they don’t exactly like each other all that much. Mom and Uncle Jake have managed to stay friends, if not real close friends. The three of them don’t get together very much, and even when I was in the hospital I rarely saw them together. I think there was a little coordination going on so they wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time together, but I don’t know. Like I said, Uncle Jake couldn’t be down at the hospital all the time, but he came down there on the average of a couple days a week and stayed with his sister and brother-in-law when he visited. Mom was there more often, but Uncle Jake was the more inspiring when he came. I think a little of it was because he led a lot different life than Mom and Dad.”

“More adventure, more excitin’?”

“No doubt about it. Especially more exciting to a kid who was stuck in the hospital like I was. His visits were pretty much the high point of my life for a long time. Like I said, Mom was there a lot, Dad less often, and I had a few sort-of-friends among some of the kids on the floor, although those friendships were pretty tentative. I mean, it was more an in-this-together thing than really being friends. We were happy when someone finally got to go home and sad when someone left us the other way.”

“Died, ye mean, b’y?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Even now it’s hard to say it, but there was a reluctance to make friends with someone who was running the same risks. It happened, and it happened often enough to be scary. I don’t know how to say it, and maybe it was just me, but that’s the way it was. By now, my friends from school had pretty much forgotten me and I only occasionally got a visit from one of them, and when I did there wasn’t much to say. They’d moved on with their lives while I was lying on my back in that hospital bed.”

“I suppose that’s natural,” she sighed.

“I’ve come to believe it,” he nodded. “But it hurt like hell at the time. Anyway, I eventually got well enough to go home for short visits, and as time went on they got longer and longer. Finally I got to the point where I didn’t have to stay in the hospital anymore, but had outpatient visits pretty often. If anything, it was more boring to be home, because by then I didn’t really have any friends left. Uncle Jake came to visit a few times, but those visits were always brief and strained, and you can imagine why.”

“Doesn’t take a great deal of imaginin’,” she nodded.

“No, it doesn’t,” he agreed. “I’m just glad he came at all. Anyway, fall rolled around and I got to go back to school. I’d been pretty well through fifth grade when I had to go into the hospital, and the school people were nice enough to let me go into the sixth grade, even though I’d lost the tail end of the year. To stay up with my friends who were now in the seventh grade was too much for them to swallow, and in a way I suppose they were right. So such friends as I’d had were now a grade ahead of me and in a different building, and I was in a class with a bunch of strangers. Worse, it was a bunch of strangers who knew about me and figured that they’d better not get real close to me or they might somehow catch what I’d had. You ever hear the phrase ‘alone in a crowd?’ That was me.”

“Aye,” she nodded. “’Twas much the same for me when I had to move to Blanche Tickle. It’s a very small school, only about twenty in the whole place, and all of them had known each other all their lives. I was an outsider and stayed an outsider in some ways all the time I was there. I never managed to get much more than friendly with any of ’em.”

“It’s not any better in a great big-ass school, which mine was,” he said. “Nobody knew me and there were times I was just as happy it was that way. It never changed much all the way through high school. It wasn’t made any better by the fact that I was small and weak for my age, which was a year to two years older than the rest of the kids in the class.”

“Ye mentioned somethin’ about bein’ weak when we were first sailin’,” she said. “Ye haven’t thrown it off by now?”

“No,” he shook his head. “Like I said, all that shit hit about the time I was going through puberty. The leukemia and the chemo and all the other stuff didn’t help me with that, and it came through, well, not right. I was dying when I should have been growing, and there are ways that I’ve never made it up. I told you that before I got sick I dreamed of playing football, and I’d been looking forward to getting on a team when I made it to seventh grade. Well, by the time I got there, there wasn’t much hope of my being able to be big enough or strong enough to ever do it. Kids a year and two years younger were ahead of me, and they pretty much stayed there. So another dream shattered. I can’t even stand to watch the goddamn game on TV anymore. In fact, I couldn’t do much of anything.”

“An’ it left ye feelin’ even more left out,” she nodded understandingly.

“Yeah, about all I had left was reading and watching TV. God, I must have read some of those books Uncle Jake bought for me a dozen times or more, and lots of other stuff, too. To get on with the story, the year I was done with sixth grade I was thirteen, and I got bored to tears just sitting around the house driving Mom nuts. I was still pretty weak but still getting healthier. Well, the next year wasn’t much better, and I don’t think Mom was looking forward to summer coming either. Besides, I hadn’t seen Uncle Jake much, and started bugging Mom into giving me a chance to see him. I don’t know who made the first suggestion, but somehow it worked out that I was invited to come up and stay with him and Aunt Rachel at Winchester Harbor for a while. At first it was just going to be for a week or two, but one thing led to another and I wound up spending the whole summer up there. It was the best summer of my life, at least up to that point, and there were ways it turned my life around.”

“Ye got out sailin’ a bit, I take it?” she grinned.

“That and a lot of other stuff,” he nodded. “I don’t think my folks even knew half of what went on and Mom would have blown a fuse at some of it. Uncle Jake is a wise man in a number of ways, and one of the things he saw right off was that sitting around on my dead ass all summer wasn’t going to help me out a bit. He and Aunt Rachel live in a very small house and at that time had a couple little kids, so they put me up in one of their motel rooms right outside their back door. Right from that, I was on my own in a way I’d never dreamed.”

“That must have been a huge change for you.”

“Oh, it was. Uncle Jake may have realized that I was weak for my age but he never treated me like I was sick. The big thing was that Uncle Jake gave me work to do, and useful work at that. I told you this morning that I’ve worked on a fuel dock. I started that summer when I was fourteen, and I’ve done at least a little of it every summer since until this year. That wasn’t all. He had me out on the fishing boats with him, not every day, and not just along for the ride, but crewing. He started out showing me how to steer one of the fishing boats on the lake, so he could spend time with the clients. By the end of the summer he’d have me up on the helm and taking it out the channel while he shot the shit with the customers. Really, it was a big responsibility and I could have fucked it up royally, but I never did and I really respected the trust he put in me.”

“Made ye feel grown up, it did, b’y?”

“No shit. There’s a lot that needs to be done around a place like that and someone has to do it or it won’t get done. I don’t think he started me out in the kitchen that summer, it all runs together, but by the time I was partway through high school I was a fairly good short-order cook, too, along with other chores, like making up the motel rooms. The important point about all this is that I was doing stuff that Mom never dreamed I’d be doing, she’d never dreamed I’d ever be able to do.” He let out a long sigh, and added, “To be honest, virtually all of it was the kind of thing Mom never dreamed that a kid of hers would stoop to doing.”

“You’re sayin’ that she thought ye were too good to work with your hands?”

“That, or too weak, or both. I honestly doubt Mom has ever held a real job of any sort. If she did, I’ve never heard about it. Her job has mostly been to raise me, keep the house, cook the meals and stuff, mostly to keep my dad happy. At that, she has people to come in and help with a lot of it, maids and like that. Dad has been able to keep us well off enough to do that. I wouldn’t doubt that some people would call my folks rich, and I don’t think they’d claim to be, but they aren’t poor by any means.”

“I thought ye had the air of a little money about ye, but not lots an’ lots, or we’d be sittin’ on a bigger boat. But ye still haven’t gotten near the story of how ye got the idea to sail across the ocean.”

“Well, at that point, and we’re talking when I was in high school, I really hadn’t,” he admitted. “Oh, I was aware it was the kind of thing people did and thought it might be fun, but I didn’t have a great driving urge to do it. You have to understand that by that point I’d pretty much put the leukemia and the year I spent in the hospital behind me. Now, I have to point out that I knew that I could never be all the way rid of the threat of the disease, there’s always the chance of a relapse, but that was at the back of my mind, and really, at the back of my folks’ minds, too. It was all just bad shit that had happened way back when and it was behind us. Then I got a real stiff lesson in the fact that it really wasn’t.”

“You could get it again?”

“Again isn’t the proper word,” he said. “It could flare up at any time, and if it does, it’s most likely going to be fatal. I’ve been told in so many words that the bone marrow transplant I got from Uncle Jake worked, but it can’t be expected to work again, and I could be dead in a matter of months if I have a relapse. That means I have a death sentence hanging over my head, but I don’t know when it’s going to happen. It might not, but the chances of my having a long life aren’t exactly what you could call good.”

“What are the chances you could come down with it on this trip?”

“As good as any other time,” he said. “I have tests done every three months or so, and so far they’ve come up clean. I had one just before I sailed out of Frenchtown Harbor, so we’re probably OK for this trip, but who knows after that. From what I understand, it will start slowly, but pick up more rapidly toward the end. Don’t get me wrong. Everybody dies, and that’s a fact. Some will die sooner than others, and that’s another fact. It’s just that sooner is more likely for me than it is for, well, you for example. In the next ten minutes we could have a trawler come out of the fog and run right over us, and we’d be just as dead. We have to accept that and take that risk.”

“I suppose you’re right,” she said. “After all, Pap died young at sea, and Mam died younger than she should have, too. And Albert, for that matter. It can happen.”

“It sure can,” he said. “And we don’t need to talk about a couple kids I went to school with who got drunk and died in a car wreck. The point of the thing, though, is at that time, late in high school, it didn’t really make that big an impression on me. Kids expect to live forever, I guess, and I guess I’d come to think that since I made it through once I was out of the woods. Then the truth slapped me in the face. You remember my talking about Laurel?”

“The girl that was in the hospital with ye?”

“That girl,” he nodded. “She was a little ahead of me in her recovery and it went quicker than mine. She didn’t live real close, but she was a pal and we’d talk on the phone occasionally. It was, oh, more a case of being in the brotherhood that survivors share. We stayed friendly, but nothing more. I actually didn’t see her for years. Well, when I was a senior in high school, I had a call from her. She’d had a relapse, and didn’t have a lot longer.”

“Oh, my. And that got through to you?”

“It did,” he sighed. “But it was even worse. Laurel was also a high school senior, and well, there were a few things she wanted to get done before she died. One of them was to go to her senior prom, you know what that is?”

“A big formal dance for high schoolers?” she nodded. “Aye, I do, although I never got to go to one. We didn’t have such things at Blanche Tickle. As I said, the school was too small, and it’s not a big tradition here anyway.”

“Right,” he said. “Well, Laurel wanted me to take her to the prom. Like I said, I hadn’t seen her for several years, but she wanted to go with someone who could understand what she was going through and not laugh at her.”

“An’ so ye did.”

“Oh, yeah, I couldn’t say no. Laurel was, well, she was well down the hill by that point. She’d lost her hair due to the chemo drugs again, and it wasn’t working, but they managed to pump her up with other drugs so she could be out of the hospital for a day or two. So we went to her prom. We had a good time, although she was weak and she couldn’t dance much.”

He paused and turned away to look out over the sea again. There wasn’t much to see, just waves and fog, but he was silent for a very long time, long enough that Mary put her hand on his arm and said, “Matt? Are you all right?”

“I guess,” he stammered as he turned back to her. She could see tears running down his cheeks. “Mary, I . . . ”

“Ye don’t have ta talk about it if ye don’t want to.”

“Oh, shit,” he sighed. “I want to and I don’t. I guess I better get it out.”

“If ye feel ye have ta.”

“I took her home,” he replied hesitantly. “Like I said, she was tired and weak, but her folks were glad to see we were back all right. Then right in front of her folks she said, ‘Matt, there’s another thing I want before I die. I don’t want to die a virgin, and this is probably my last chance. Would you help me?’”

“And ye did?”

“I couldn’t do anything else,” he said, seriously crying now. “I wanted to say no, I mean what with her folks and all, but they both asked me to do it for her. I mean they knew I’d been there too.” Again he paused before he went on, the tears still rolling, with an occasional sniff. “They helped me get her up to her room and left us. I had to help her get undressed, which included her wig. And yes, we did. I even spent the night with her because she wanted me to. I couldn’t say no. I did the best I could for her, and she said she enjoyed herself. I think she really did.”

Mary got up and went below quickly, coming back with a hand towel. She wordlessly handed it to him, then sat back down next to him, knowing there was more that he still had to get out. He dried his tears the best he could, then went on. “It really was her last chance,” he finally said, his eyes still dripping tears. “She went back to the hospital the next day and never came out alive again. She hung on for another three weeks, and was still conscious enough to know when someone handed her high school diploma to her. I wasn’t there for that. I would have been if I’d known about it.”

“Oh, God, Matt,” she said, feeling tears coming to her eyes herself. “It’s no wonder ye hurt.”

“She died four days later,” he continued slowly, with the tears still rolling. “I’d known it was coming. I went to her funeral, and finally stood over her grave. Mary, I promised her . . . ”

Again he was silent for a time; Mary just let him work it out, until he finally managed to gather the strength to say, “I promised her that I’d learn from her death. I told her I wouldn’t let the chance to enjoy living pass me by anymore.”

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To be continued . . .

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