What do you call an accordion player who’s broken up with his girlfriend?
“Wha …?” the kayaker groans. “Where’d that come from?” His next thought, more to the point, “Where am I?” On his back, drenched through multiple layers—life vest, spray skirt, paddling jacket, wet suit, booties, fleece undergarments—he’s looking up at a narrow rock ceiling, maybe 6’ up, 3.5’ wide.
“A tunnel?” His guess goes no further, the source of his first waking thought breaking his concentration, the muted cords of a squeezebox, faint as dusk. Listening, the kayaker can just make out the sound of a low-pitched, gravely voice wrapping soft words around the cords.
And e'en the rude bucket that hung in the well-
The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,
The moss-covered bucket which hung in the well
The kayaker closes his eyes, shakes his head to clear it, but the words, the cords, don’t go away. Two more shakes, no change. He grunts his way up onto his elbows, then forearms to a sitting position, his hands flat on the cold rock floor.
Straight ahead, just beyond his booties, dusky light filters through the tunnel’s entrance. A narrow strip of rocky beach fronts the entrance, his kayak flipped upside down on the pebbles, waves breaking ashore, nudging the kayak closer. No squeezebox, no vocalist.
The source of the music not in his line of sight, the kayaker turns his head, neck vertebrae popping. Turning only so far before he yelps in pain, the kayaker carefully rotates his torso, extends his field of view to the side and behind.
Standing a paddle length behind him is an apparition, pale and thin. An apparition pumping the sides of a squeezebox. “Can’t be real,” the kayaker thinks and rubs his eyes to clear out bay water. “I gotta be hallucinating.”
Hallucination or not, the apparition’s dressed in old-time garb, that much can’t be disputed. Patched canvas trousers—the patches miss-matched, materials and patterns—held up by a rope belt, the ends frayed; long-sleeved, wrinkled white pullover with frayed collar; wide leather suspenders, the ends, front and back, buttoned to the trouser’s top; scratched leather vest with multiple pockets and brass buttons; mid-thigh-length overcoat pieced together from the halves of two disparate coats; stovepipe boots reaching up to the apparition’s knees, trouser legs tucked inside.
Topping it all is a round, dented hat with a wide wrap-around brim, one side upturned. The hat’s sitting on a mass of gray hair above an old apple-doll face, wrinkled and brown. Except for two rheumy eyes and the tip of a veined and bulbous nose, the face is lost in a tangled explosion of yellow-white beard.
The apparition shifts its bulk from one foot to the other, quits the squeezebox, ends its sad refrain, looks down at the kayaker. There’s a movement of beard near where it’s mouth lays hidden. Movement but no words. The kayaker hopes it’s a smile that’s twitching those whiskers.
The apparition continues to rock from one foot to the other, back and forth, maybe smiling, keeps it up till the kayaker can’t help himself, coughs out a wet, “What!?”
Two more side to sides, then in a raspy voice, “Well now, laddie, ‘tis a fine mess you find yourself in, ain’t it?”
Seven weeks, that’s how long the kayaker’s been self-quarantining. Single, no family, a lonely and stressful time.
It was his misfortune to be one of the first to be diagnosed with the virus. Not really a misfortune, quite fortunate really, his infection caught out in its early stages, his hospital stay a single day, not multiple weeks on a ventilator.
Truth to tell, the kayaker would’ve self-sequestered for those 7 weeks in his tiny apartment even if he hadn’t been infected. Not that it makes much sense, but his paternal grandfather’s the reason why.
Doesn’t make much sense because he never met his paternal grandfather. When you come right down to it, the kayaker’s dad and his dad’s twin never met their father, either. Not that the fellow ran off, left his family. Nope, he didn’t run off. But he did leave his family.
The short story goes like this. The grandfather, a maintenance worker in a local hospital, is taken away in 1917 by the Spanish flu. He leaves behind three sons, his wife pregnant with two more. The wife raises the five boys by herself, a strenuous life made more so by the absence of electricity and indoor plumbing in their small family home.
That story of hardship follows the kayaker throughout his 73 years, its unspoken message coded into his DNA: listen to and heed the advice of medical experts The consequences of not following that advice downright daunting.
Now this viral pandemic, 100 years later. The medical advice is to shelter at home with family or long-term roommates, and that’s what the kayaker’s going to do. Shelter at home. Alone. He has no choice, it’s coded in his DNA.
No family, no long-term roommates, but he has friends, knows lots of kayakers, paddling buddies. The rules say you can’t meet in person, but there are other ways to meet face-to-face. The kayaker has a laptop computer with an Internet connection, all he needs for a meet-up. Zoom, HouseParty, FaceTime … lots of free apps to make it happen.
Setting up computer gatherings and making spur-of-the-moment calls, that’s how he’s been spending his time. Breaks for food, sleep, quick jaunts around the block (a face mask covering his nose and mouth), then back to his laptop. Day after day.
All that screen time adds up to an unexpected consequence: it zaps the kayaker’s energy, leaves him mentally exhausted at the end of the day. Physically exhausted, too, countless hours in a butt-numbing chair not designed for long hours of sitting.
Mental and physical exhaustion also conspire for poor decisions-making. That’s what the kayaker does, he makes a poor decision.
Wednesday afternoon of the seventh week of the stay-at-home lockdown, that’s when the kayaker makes his unfortunate choice.
The local lockdown showing results, the number of positive cases shrinking, the county’s offered up a minor reprieve, a small gift. Local residents can drive up to 5 miles from their homes for recreation. “Wow!” says the kayaker to his empty apartment. “I can go kayaking.”
He goes online to check the status of his favorite launches. He finds nothing but frustration, not a single site open for parking. So many out-of-towners have swamped his best put-ins, the interlopers driving beyond their 5-mile limits, the county’s banned all parking anywhere near those sites.
The kayaker knows it’s wrong, his DNA shouting at him not to do it, but he doesn’t listen. He knows a launch site he can drive to, and nobody will be the wiser.
Must’ve been 12 or 13 years ago, during the subprime-mortgage fiasco and ensuing recession, Marin County bails on a planned repurposing of San Quentin State Prison. The county purchases the property, disperses the prisoners to other California facilities. But the recession.
The planned transportation hub, shopping center, park, sports fields don’t happen, the prison and ancillary buildings left vacant. Also left behind is a fine small beach, a favorite launch for the kayaker.
No one else ever visits the beach. You’d think with the prison shutdown, people would flock there. But people don’t. The kayaker figures it could be a collective “monster under the bed” fear, a memory of the badest of bad guys and prison executions infecting the beach, covering it in a gray shroud, keeping people away.
Whatever the reason, the kayaker’s having none of it. Two hours before sunset, he car-tops his boat, drives to the deserted prison grounds, parks on the bluff above the beach, lugs his boat and gear down the rickety wood stairs, and shoves off into San Francisco Bay. He knows an old guy like him shouldn’t paddle alone. But times have changed.
“Well now, laddie, ‘tis a fine mess you find yourself in, ain’t it?” repeats the apparition. The kayaker has to agree, a real mess, indeed. What starts out as a laidback paddle does an unexpected Jekyll to Hyde, one moment calm water and no wind, the very next a monster wind and roiling waves bigger than anything he’s ever encountered on the bay. Then, no memory of anything.
“I watched the waves pound you and the boat, a maelstrom she were,” says the apparition. “The boat upside down, flippin’ and floppin’ in the white foam, you tossed around like a rag doll. Lady Luck were on your side, tossed ashore on my beach you were, the boat, too.” A pause, the apparition looking past the kayaker to the overturned boat on the beach, then, “Looks to be whole, your boat.”
The kayaker does feel like a rag doll, Maytag’ed and hurled on a rock to dry. Or is it to die he wonders. “I’m not dead, then?”
“No, you be alive,” says the apparition.
Eying the apparition, the kayaker thinks he can see through it, a blurry tunnel behind, the apparition’s body not entirely solid. “Are you dead, a ghost?”
What could pass for a chuckle, more a deep-throated burble, “To some I may be, but I consider myself much alive.” That said, the apparition takes up its squeezebox, resumes singing.
How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollection presents them to view!
The orchard, the meadow, the deep-tangled wild-wood,
And every loved spot which my infancy knew!
The song softly echoing in the tunnel, the kayaker tries to stand, but falls back on his haunches. The song stops, the apparition reaches down, grasps the kayaker’s hand with a wrinkled one, pulls him to his feet. “Gotta be a ghost,” thinks the kayaker, “I saw its hand touch mine, but didn’t feel it.”
Upright, a bit dizzy and unsteady on his feet, he asks, “What’s that you’re singing?”
“A poem my pa wrote, The Old Oaken Bucket. You may’ve heard of it.”
The kayaker has heard of it, but doesn’t know the words. “That was written by Samuel Woodworth in the 1820s, right?”
“Aye, when I was a wee lad, me, Selim Woodworth, that’s when my pa penned it.”
Could be fatigue from his upset in the bay or a sudden spell of lightheadedness, most likely a combination of the two; whatever, the kayaker’s knees buckle, and he staggers backward. Selim Woodworth, again, grabs hold of the kayaker with his weightless touch, steadies him.
“Laddie,” he says, “you be in need of a medicinal uplift, and I have just the potion.” Selim Woodworth pulls a dented, rusty flask from a vest pocket, offers it to the kayaker. “Drink, you’ll feel the better for it. Grog’ll cure whatever ails you.”
Surreal the entire encounter, the kayaker can’t think of a reason not to take a swig of the proffered rum and water. He does, takes several deep gulps. A burn down his throat, then a warmth in his stomach. His head clears, his legs find their strength and balance. He takes another swig, gives the flask back to Selim Woodworth.
Feeling better—heck, he hasn’t felt this good in years—he says, “Thanks, that was amazing. What’s gonna happen now?”
“What’s gonna happen now?” echos Selim Woodworth. “What’s gonna happen now is you’re gonna leave, paddle away. Red Rock’s my private island, and my hospitality only lasts so long.”
Not what he expected to hear, the kayaker says, “But I was hoping to spend the night in the tunnel you dug into this rock, let the storm pass.”
“Wasn’t me that dug this shaft. Was a buncha fools after my time that done it, wasting their energy looking for a worthless grade of mineral, manganese it was. They wore out my hospitality, and I sent ‘em packin’. I never been one for much hospitality since. Appreciate my lone time, I do. As for the storm, she’s passed. Now’s a good time for you to go.”
The night dark, moonless, the kayaker paddles away from Red Rock and Selim Woodworth. If he had his druthers, he would’ve preferred to spend the night in the tunnel, 200-year-old ghost or not. But Selim Woodworth’s “and I sent ‘em packin’” carries dark undertones the kayaker doesn’t want to test.
The night’s dark, but it can’t hide the way to San Quentin, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge leading back to the prison from Red Rock, straight as the gull flies. Paddle parallel to the bridge and Bob’s your uncle, especially in windless, calm water.
Freighters, tankers, and cargo carriers navigate the bay’s shipping channels by day and by night. Big as the ships are, they’re hard to see at night from the low vantage point of a kayak. The big boats’ bow lights are too high up, too far back to be seen. The hum of their big engines, when they’re near a bridge, are swallowed up by the sound of bridge traffic, almost impossible to hear.
A monster freighter, 700’ long and 125’ wide, is in the shipping channel, traveling at 10 knots and about to cross under the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Neither the northbound freighter nor the westbound kayak know they’re on a collision course.
Knocked out of his boat, the kayaker flails his arms, tries to cough out a mouthful of bay, gags on a length of metal (plastic? bay debris?) caught in his throat. His eyelids are heavy, won’t open; he’s desperate to track the freighter, wants to avoid those spinning props at the stern, a giant blender. But he’s blind in a dark sea.
Submerged alongside his panic is a low-pitched sound struggling to surface. The sound’s muffled, a trapped-in-a-bubble sound. When the bubble breaks the bay’s surface, it explodes, releases a high-pitched keening, a scream that roller-coasters through the kayaker’s head.
Another sound’s coming closer, of course there’s another sound, a hurried thump thump, blades on a turning prop slicing the water. The thumps rush at him, then suddenly stop. The high-pitch keening stops, too, its bubble burst.
“Dr. Woodworth!” shouts nurse Selim. “The patient in 402’s waking up.” Dr. Woodworth comes running, her steps as hurried as nurse Selim’s were when he first heard the alarm.
“Good lord,” says the doctor, “7 weeks on the ventilator and the old guy’s still hanging on. Can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like it. Up his drip of Propofol, put him back to sleep. I think this one’s gonna make it.”
“Yes, doctor,” says the nurse, and he taps a button on the machine next to the kayaker’s bed.
The kayaker’s eyes pop open, he sees the freighter’s giant blades rushing at him. In a last ditch effort, a Hail Mary, he pushes off the freighter’s hull with the paddle he’s still clutching, escapes the spinning props by the thickness of a paddle blade, bobs to the surface, watches the freighter’s stern disappear into the darkness.
Surprised and happy to be alive, he reclaims his boat, finds it seaworthy, and paddles back to San Quentin, all the time knitting together in his head the details of the tall tale he’s going to tell on his next Zoom meeting.