Short Story

Hundred Miles an Hour

Lake of the Woods, Victoria Day weekend, some years past. The kitchen was still, except for the tick of the Westinghouse range clock, and a faint whir from the refrigerator. It was becoming light outside. The birds were silent in the morning fog.

I padded across the cold plank floor and pulled on a hooded sweater. Hands on my hips, I surveyed the scene and shook my head. The glass ashtray on the blue Formica kitchen table was jammed with white cigarette butts, overflowing. “Alpine” was printed in menthol green. Tobacco ash was mixed into spilled beer and the bright orange crumbs of Cheez Doodles.

The place reeked. A long white cigarette was planted in a pound of soft butter that rested on its foil wrapper. The cigarette stood proud, a lone palm tree on a deserted yellow beach.

Steady breathing came from the living room couch. My mother’s socked foot hung off the end.

Wiping the table, a damp dishrag in my cupped hand, I pushed plates, knives, forks, playing cards, potato chips, quarters and nickels, packs of matches and a bottle opener aside. I filled the sink with chili-rimmed dishes. Making headway, I gathered the last items from the table and dumped them into a frayed wicker basket atop the pony wall that separated the kitchen from the living room, where Mom slept. With a flourish of my rag, I scooped the last detritus from the now gleaming table and, in that same motion, stepped on the pedal to lift the garbage can lid. The waste dropped into the paper bag inside. An easy lay-up.

Outside, a squirrel chattered with annoyance. A crow answered back, flapping up to perch on the braided hydro line in front of the cottage.

I pulled open the fridge door and took stock. As the sink filled with hot water, the pump rattled to life from the porch. The scent of Palmolive dish detergent scrubbed at the foul stench of cigarette butts and stale beer dregs, an odor like no other.

A carton of eggs, some leftover sausage, and a yellow onion sat beside the wooden cutting board on the counter. Like a croupier, I used a large knife to slice out a soggy rectangle of butter from the end of the brick, taking care to excise the Alpine cigarette crater and any residual ash. I plopped a clean pat of butter into the cast iron frying pan. It sputtered and slid slowly to one side, leaving a lacy white scum trail as it melted. I held a spoonful of chopped onions in readiness.

From behind, a bristled chin rested on my neck. I smelled fetid whiskey breath.

“Two sunny side up, please,” my father rumbled into my ear.

“Okay, sure,” I replied.

With a wobble he turned back and went outside. He stood uncertainly in his socks, a landlubber on a gently rolling deck, and peed into an icy, gray snowbank that was the last of its kind, in the day-long shade of the oil tank. Lips pouting, he squeaked back at a noisy squirrel, laughed at the angry response, and pulled up his fly with a shiver. I dealt diced sausage into the eggs and onions. Hash it was.

Not long after the first clink of Dad’s fork hitting the plate—paired with the rich aroma of butter and fried onions—my three friends stirred and slowly shuffled from the bedroom. They stood at the rail of the back deck and peed. This saved a trip to the outhouse across a moat of wet grass and rotted leaves. They came in one by one, rubbed their hands together, slapped their bare arms, and stamped their feet on the rubber mat by the door.

Cornie was tall, a carpenter. Narrow, bony shoulders, protruding Adam’s apple and clavicles, and forearms swollen from pushing saws through wood and pounding nails. He was followed by Diedrich, or Drich for short. Tall and raw, all elbows and angles, he was a Labrador puppy of a man. Bradford, unlike me and the other two, was puny. He had buck teeth, lank hair parted in the middle, and large, dirty, incredibly smelly feet. Barefoot, he wore sandals from May far into November.

These three sat with my dad at the table and quietly reconstructed the previous evening. Dad sipped Carling Black Label beer and tomato juice in a draft glass. Cornie recounted how my mother had insisted on tamping her cigarette in the butter.

“I kept pushing the ashtray to her, and she kept shoving it away.” His face went red from containing his laughter and keeping his voice down. “The thing is, the cigarette wasn’t lit.”

From the nearby couch, my mother’s lips pattered, as if to murmur a contradiction. She was never drunk, not like the men.

We all laughed. Dad started to cough, and the cough went into his chest.

Mom sat bolt upright, her head a car crash of tousled hair. Creases from the corduroy couch cushion embossed her cheek.

“What!” she demanded in full alarm mode. Then instantly self-conscious, she hurried out of the room, a striped afghan wrapped around her middle. She closed the bedroom door behind her with a bang.

After eating, we gathered our gear and loaded it into the homemade cart we used to take stuff down to the boat. Dad stood on the porch to watch. He cleaned the sleep from his eyes and buttoned his insulated plaid shirt. He mumbled something.

Drich looked at me and smiled a bit, indicating with his eyes for me to respond.

“What was that, Dad?”

“You guys going now?”

“That’s the plan.”

“What about the fog?”

“It’s not that bad.”

“What about dead-heads? Lots in the spring.”

“We’ll go slow. Brad will sit up front and look out. I know the way. Been there often in the canoe.”

Dad muttered something and turned to go in. The screen door squealed on spring-loaded hinges. We continued to stow gear, eager to be on the open water.

“Let’s grab some coffee and get going,” I said. The crew agreed. We trudged up the hill to the cottage, trailing eddies of fog.

Mom and Dad sat at the kitchen table. Each had a cigarette burning in the ashtray and a glass of beer and tomato juice in front of them. A bottle of Canadian Club stood in reserve to reinforce the front line.

Mom had discarded the afghan, brushed her hair, and washed the furrows from her face. A clean robe drawn close to the chest gave her an air of respectability.

“Stupid kids,” Dad murmured. “Going out in an over-loaded boat, in freezing water, in pea soup fog. Can’t see a thing.”

“You should not go up to the narrows,” Mom said with authority. “What about other boats? It’s the first day of fishing, eh?”

We boys looked down, hoping the mood would pass. Dad nodded his head, his shoulder muscles working as he did. I grabbed the thermos, filled it from the pot. We pulled on ball caps and toques from the shelf and loaded our jacket pockets with gloves. We headed for the door.

“Stupid kids,” Dad said evenly, eyes straight ahead. He looked out the kitchen window at the carousel clothesline.

“Got your fishing licenses?” Mom called out.

“Yeah,” we answered in unison, a boys’ choir.

“Life jackets?” Dad said.

Before we could answer, Mom cut in, “And you better wear them, too!”

“Yeah,” we sang again. The door slammed like the final beat of the song.

It took a half hour to start the outboard motor. All of us were red-faced by the time we finally managed to turn over the Chrysler 35.

“This hunk of metal is way too big to pull-start,” declared Cornie, wheezing.

“Exactly what I thought,” said Drich.

“But it always starts,” I assured them. “It hasn’t run all winter. It’ll be fine, don’t worry. The battery is charging now, so no more pull-starts.”

We let the motor warm up. It idled in baritone. Gray smoke rose from bubbles that popped on the surface. Every half-minute or so, it ran slightly faster. Then it shuddered back down to the lower idle speed with a hoarse cough.

Cornie stared through the fog at the shore with a worried look on his face. It was my dad. His plaid jacket was off and he wore a white t-shirt, yellowed with sweat at the armpits. He was a big man in the chest and shoulders. Walking gingerly in untied workboots, he looked like a dancing bear. He carried the bottle of Canadian Club in one hand, two fingers collaring the neck. The bottle was half empty.

“Have a drive, drinker!” he called out, his eyes locking on mine. They were small and mean, like those of a dog you had to watch. “If you’re gonna be stupid, might as well be real stupid.”

Dad stepped with a wobble onto the planks of the dock, his footfalls like hammer blows, as he neared the boat. We were untied and Bradford sat cross-legged on the fiberglass foredeck of the 16-footer, his hand resting on one of the steel legs that stood at the end of the dock. He wore a wool newsboy hat, his rain poncho, and an orange life jacket. He was barefoot in sandals. A strand of clothesline circled his waist and was tied to a chrome cleat on the boat. Dad halted and swayed slightly. He stared at Bradford.

“Don’t tell me. You’re gonna toss this one out and troll with him for muskie?”

“Troll the troll!” piped up Drich, a freshly lit cigarette clenched between his teeth.

“Bait for fish with poor taste!” Cornie offered, smiling meekly.

“Troll this!” yelled Brad. He gestured lewdly from his awkward position on the bow.

We all laughed, including Dad. He looked down, fondly now, at us in the idling boat. We had packed our gear with care, and the boat while full was orderly.

“Shipshape,” Dad said. He nodded and stuck out his lower lip. The engine was warm and ran smoothly now, as if to assure him.

A loon called, loud and close but invisible in the mist.

“Foghorn,” Dad said to himself. He stumbled but caught himself in time. Then without warning, he pushed the bottle at Cornie, who put his hands up—No thanks! Dad shoved the bottle at me next. I took it. The sharp smell of alcohol cut the cold air.

The loon sounded again, this time clucking—a hen calling to gather her chicks.

“Drink,” he insisted. I tipped the bottle back and swallowed a burning slug of rye whiskey. My eyes teared, and I almost retched. He laughed, rocking back on his heels. 

“Let’s go fishing!” I said, my voice deeper than usual.

“Yeah, go!” Dad yelled.

Brad pushed against the dock with his foot, and we floated out into deeper water.

“Hundred miles an hour!” Dad commanded. His shout echoed. The loon stepped up her clucks to a rapid warning warble that meant, “Come now!” to her brood.

I slipped the gear lever out of neutral and into forward. The control cable caught and made a ratcheting sound as it rubbed against a sleeping bag’s nylon cover. The motor clunked into gear with a shudder. The soft prop wash broke the surface behind the boat.

“Don’t forget, hundred miles an hour!”Dad bellowed from the shoreline. He pointed a finger north towards the narrows and our camping spot.

I thought about gunning it, full throttle. I imagined my dad’s face. He would hear the engine roar and see the white wake shoot out behind the transom.

But something stopped me, Bradford’s perch on the bow maybe. I advanced the throttle just enough to step up to a fast trot. It was enough to stir the little Canadian flag on the stern. Flap-flap-flap said the maple leaf. Thrum said the firing pistons and I felt that through my boot bottoms.

We picked up speed. I could hear the fresh shushing of the bow wake, as the hull parted the water. We moved across the glassy surface. The boat sat low in the water, nose down because of Bradford’s weight and all the gear stowed forward, under the bow deck. The boat was aimed at the neighbour’s massive wood dock, built of cedar telephone poles and rough-sawn two-by-tens. We headed toward it at a good clip.

I reached down to steer us towards open water. But the wheel was rigid and would not turn. Two-handed, I yanked harder. We held our course, rushing towards the thick, weathered posts. Brad turned halfway around and raised his eyebrows.

“Ahoy, Cap’n, sir. Hard a-port?”

I pulled the stiff throttle back. It would not give so I forced it and heard the sound of tearing fabric behind. The motor bucked, and the gear lever jumped into neutral. The boat rocked fore and aft but held course for the dock. I tried the steering wheel. It spun and rattled, completely loose, disconnected. Bradford cursed. The boys huddled in the back of the boat.

With the dock ahead, I frantically pulled back on the gearshift to put it into reverse, but it jammed. The motor stalled, and the only sound was the hull cutting through flat water.

A loud, ropey snap came from somewhere behind me. I tried the steering wheel again. This time it responded. The bow veered away from the dock ahead and we came about, losing speed.

Dad stood on the end of the big dock in front of us. He panted, his face in a deep frown.

“Bring her in!” he called. “And get that fool off the bow!” Bradford untied himself and scuttled over the windshield as the rest of us paddled.

“Everybody out,” Dad yelled, his eyes moving over the engine and the cable sheaves that controlled steering and throttle.

We scrambled ashore. With the agility of a young sailor, Dad leaped aboard, his arms held wide for balance. He looked at me sharply.

“I’ll give her a check. You and your friends wait on our dock.”

He adjusted the throttle and set the gearshift in neutral. The motor roared to life with a little too much gas. Dad shoved it into forward gear anyway. The gearshift thunked into place, and the control cable made a metallic sound like a zipper. He accelerated smoothly. Looking aft, a mad grin lit up his grizzled face.

“Hundred miles an hour!” he called back to us. With that, he gunned it and disappeared into the fog.

We four stood on the path to our dock, transfixed. The Chrysler’s roar was muffled by the fog but we could tell he was making a big circle. Dad sat atop the seat back, his head well above the windscreen and as he cut through the patchy fogbank we could see his speeding form appear for a few seconds. He was running at full throttle, pissed off and half-drunk. As he completed the turn and came back to shore we heard the splat-splat-splat as he rode over his own wake. Then he emerged through the wall of mist. The boat bore straight for the neighbour’s dock, bow spray white and hissing.

We watched as he yanked at the wheel. His face was dead serious now. He stared down at the helm, then at the throttle and gear controls. His neck corded as he strained to regain control. It was the same situation I had been in, but at much greater speed. In desperation, face terrible and just as he was about to smash into the dock, he dove headlong into the stern.

The hull rose. One of the dock poles snapped. It drove through the smooth white underside of the boat and pierced it like a knife going into a pickerel belly. The motor cut out with a screech. The boat, impaled, issued a horrible groan.

Dad’s head popped up, eyes round and hair on end, like a painted wooden doll in a carnival toss game, the kind you swear must be rigged.

In the silence and stillness following the crash came the whistling, staccato beat of the mother loon’s wingtips as she came back in, banking low and hard. Out of the haze and confusion came the distinct sound of her smooth landing on the waveless water. She glided to a halt and began clucking for her chicks.

Hundred Miles an Hour” is published on TOEWS.IR by special permission of the author, Mitchell Toews, who holds the copyright.