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Authority

The first rule at sea is don’t fall off; you never let go unless the vessel sinks out from under you. Most sailboats, like most marriages, can withstand more stress in heavy weather than the sailors or the lovers.

On the morning I set sail for Key West, the sky over Mobile Bay was dreary. Overcast, lumpy and gray, drizzling rain at first light, the wind was a northeast breeze, just what I wanted for running down south across the Gulf of Mexico.

At Dog River Marina I topped off, and said goodbye to the tough old lady who ran the dock. I think her name was Phyllis. She was easy to convince I didn’t need help with the boat. Coming in for fuel and water, working the helm and throttle, handling the lines alone, I looked like more of a sailor than I was. The experience I had was exaggerated by the equipment I could afford. Mysterion was the real deal, ready for the job; like the old dock mistress who handed me the fuel hose.

The other boat owners standing around were concerned for me because I was heading out alone, and the sky was dreary. I behaved as though storm sailing were a habit of mine. I knew the northeaster would be mild. Wearing foul weather gear, I looked ready for a storm, and I was going to find out if I was, for a little bit of wind and 500 miles offshore. I was scared full on, like I was under fire and praying full time, feeling in a bubble and nothing could touch me.

Two of the bystanders were a couple I had met who were cruising the Dog River in a houseboat, a banking executive and his wife. The banker had come around several afternoons, asking questions about sailing, curious to know my destination.

He and his wife had invited me to dinner one evening. They were nice people, steady, the kind who kept things running at home, the kids in line, all but one, the grass mowed by servants, the checking account balanced by a CPA. Cruising on a houseboat was a big adventure. They had been having sex by the look of the woman. They had children who were out of college and on their own. As mother and father they had been where Betsy and I were headed I assumed.

The farther into the experience I traveled, the more acceptable to general society I wished to appear, so that my child would not be shunned. Except these folks owned a houseboat that couldn’t leave the river. The old banker envied my deepwater vessel, the choice of destinations open to me, given Mysterion’s design. Listening to his fantasies of cruising the Mississippi, I felt superior to him; his wife reminded him that he still had a bank to run, that retirement was several years away. She wasn’t being bossy; it was obvious she was the navigator, that her word was final regarding the direction the captain would choose. And the captain, the banker, was only a little embarrassed. With me to witness his wife’s authority, he didn’t quite know how to take it. She was one of those you never see coming without flowers. He almost seemed to appreciate the guidance.

I was sad for him. I had some idea of the price he paid. I thought I would never know more than I already did from attending a pregnant woman.

I had never felt of more use as a man. It was my child Betsy carried. For that reason, I loved her. I had no idea of the killer I was dealing with, neither in Betsy nor in me.

The banker’s wife asked the old dock mistress, did she think I was wise to go alone?

I was insulted, because suddenly I wondered if I could be talked out of it.

The old dock mistress said, “Nah, you don’t have to worry about that one.”

It was like being crowned.

I paid for the fuel and cranked up the boat.

The old dock mistress offered to cast off the lines for me. She knew which to let go first, the bow and then the stern. “Watch yourself,” she said.

With the outflow of the Dog River, I was about to sideswipe the banker’s houseboat.

I gave Mysterion the throttle and got her away, then circled, waiting for the drawbridge to open.