The first time I saw the Blue Guitar, she was docked outside “Hot Crabs Cold Beer,” in the sparkles of a Carter-era summer afternoon. It was a fine, breezy day, so hot you could smell the dock boards baking in the sun above the river.
Men and women kept coming out of the crab house that afternoon, carrying bottles and cups of beer, crossing the asphalt to the Blue Guitar. The voices on board were loud – of an urgent pitch, it seemed – and although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I shared their excitement, sitting on the dock, kicking my feet in the water, enjoying our new home.
My father had brought us to Maryland the day before, giving up on Tennessee after nearly three months. He’d been hired by the marina to repair outboard motorboat engines, a job that would be different, he said, from the others. Riding up the piney coast roads into Virginia and Maryland, I listened to him talk about our new life and sometimes saw its promise the way he must have – glittering on the waters of Albemarle Sound, the Atlantic, the Chesapeake Bay. It was all about timing, my father told me: The marina was going to expand and as it did, business at the repair shop would boom.
That’s how we came to the summer of the Blue Guitar: believing that our past problems had been because of bad timing. I did not yet understand that whenever my father stayed in a place too long – when he spent too much time around other people – he got feelings that he couldn’t live with. I did not realize that although my father could repair almost anything else, he could never fix that part of himself that kept breaking us down.
I can’t say exactly why that summer became so important to me, except that it had to do with a woman named Mrs. Duval and the promise that, for a few weeks, seemed to be everywhere – in the crisp early voices of oystermen, in the briny gasoline breezes, in the sound of the juke box whenever the door to “Hot Crabs Cold Beer” opened.
For the first several days, I explored the marina, with its maze of plank wood docks, and the narrow, leafy shell roads that wound along the water, daydreaming about becoming a deckhand or a stowaway, sailing out of the marina to some faraway port.
It was very unsettling to find, after three or four days, that another boy also hung around the marina all day – a flabby, crewcut kid who always wore the same cutoff corduroys and an oversized white T-shirt. Once we discovered each other, it seemed, we were stuck: Everywhere we went, we saw the other – and he would scowl or smirk until I turned away.
The first time we actually spoke was an overcast, windy afternoon in July. He had been crabbing from the end of a dock, and I may have startled him.
"What are you always following me for?" he said, struggling to his feet.
When I couldn’t think of anything, his face tightened and turned red and he waited for me to walk away before he sat down again.
I began going to the other end of the marina after that – which he never seemed to visit – and that was how I came to discover the Blue Guitar again. She was in a slip on a long dock called Pier 11. Although I knew it had to be the same boat – a varnished-wood cabin cruiser with those words, “Blue Guitar,” painted in an arc across her stern, above an image of a blue guitar – she seemed much smaller among the giant sport-fishing vessels – and, I thought, sadder with no people on board.
I went to visit her each evening after that, as if she were a person, mostly for something to do, but also half-expecting that the excitement I’d found on our second day in town might somehow return.
I was sitting on the dock beside her one night, kicking my feet in the river, when I saw the shadows shift, and I realized that the other boy was there too.
"What are you doing?" he said. He had his arm around the dock piling as if it were his girlfriend.
“Waiting for Mrs. Duval?”
"What's your name?"
I told him.
"Crabcake," he said.
Up the hill a woman screamed – three shrill sounds, as if she were being attacked. The boy looked at me – the life draining from his eyes – and he turned and began to run, his bare feet thunking the dock boards.
I was still sitting there, watching minnows dart around a piling in underwater light, when a woman's voice said, "Hi there, handsome. Catching any?"
I didn’t talk much in those days – not at all, really; when someone spoke to me, my heart sometimes began to beat so fast that I worried I might be having a heart attack.
She was small, with dark, shag-style hair and a husky voice that sounded sexy, even to an eleven-year-old. I pretended not to notice, though, as she climbed onto the Blue Guitar, dressed in cutoff jeans and a tight black T-shirt.
“Hey,” she said, coming back from below deck.
She was holding a can of Budweiser.
“Wanna look at the boat?”
A small airplane flew overheard and I waited, hiding in its sound. What I suffered from back then was worse than shyness. It was fear – born of the things that my father had seen, that he knew were coming. I don’t remember answering her or even climbing on the boat, but I must have, because the next thing I remember I was sitting in a chair on the Blue Guitar, holding a can of grape Nehi, and the easy currents of the river felt sort of peaceful. She told me her name and then, as she sipped her beer, Mrs. Duval’s moist brown eyes lingered on mine, and I had to look away, at the sky and stars above the crab house.
“So, tell me: who’re you here with? Parents?”
I mumbled something.
“Can I guess your grade? Mmm, fifth?”
I couldn’t answer that one, either. I had not been to school in a while – more than a year, I think. My father wanted to wait, he said, until we got more settled.
The next time I looked, she was smiling at me, and I shivered with surprise.
“Sometimes, it’s nice just being quiet, isn’t it?” she said.
We listened to the breeze in the boat masts, and watched traffic on the Riva Bridge. And then, after a long time, Mrs. Duval spoke again. She said, “Maybe you’d like to come out with me on the boat someday. Just the two of us.” For a while, later, I would cherish the idea – it would become the best part of the promise that blew in from the Chesapeake Bay that summer. But when she said it, for reasons I wouldn’t understand for many years, I considered jumping into the water instead of answering.
“Would you like that?” she asked.
I shrugged an answer, the best I could do.
We lived in a two-room rented loft above the bait and tackle shop. My father slept in the bedroom some nights, and other times in the living room. It just depended on where he fell asleep. There weren’t any other rooms, unless you counted the bathroom, so I ended up wherever he wasn’t. That particular night, my father had fallen asleep on the sofa; I was in the bedroom when I heard the shouting – “Hey! Come on out or I’m
I walked to the bedroom window and saw Crabcake, standing out there in a cloud of mosquitoes beneath the street lamp. I pushed my face on the rusted window screen.
“Come on out or I’m coming in!” he said again.
I quickly pulled on my shorts and went out, tip-toeing past my father, who was asleep in his clothes, empty bottles of Carling Black Label all over the floor.
“I saw you were out on Mrs. Duval’s boat,” Crabcake said as I eased the screen door closed. His eyes seemed more hurt than angry.
“You heard me.”
I mumbled something, but Crabcake didn’t seem to hear. His T-shirt, I saw, was inside out. “What’d she say to you?”
“Nothing, huh.” His voice sounded choked, as if he was about to cry. “Next time you go on board, I’m going with you, okay?”
For the next few days, Crabcake stuck to me like a second shadow. Even when I went to the bathroom, he would stand outside and wait. He lived with his mother, I learned, who cleaned the floors and windows at “Hot Crabs Cold Beer” but used to be the manager of an oyster bar. Once, he had eaten seventeen crabcakes in an hour, he said, to win a contest in front of the crab house. What he didn’t tell me, which I learned later, was that he had thrown up afterward. When Crabcake’s mother wanted him home for dinner, she screamed several times at the top of her lungs and Crabcake went running.
It was late in July when everything about that summer seemed to change – the way weather changes at the end of a season and, as much as you want to, you can’t get it back. It wasn’t the weather that changed in July, though, it was my father, who suddenly stopped talking to me.
When my father stopped talking to the world, he was wrestling with it and – I now know – not winning. Everywhere we went, the same thing happened: my father would arrive full of plans and certainties and eventually he would stop talking about them; days would pass and then he would tell me that he was getting “screwed over” by someone. I knew to stay away from him when he got like that, because no matter what I did, it would make my father angry – as if I were partly to blame for whatever was happening to him, and maybe I was.
After he stopped talking, my father would drink between eight and sixteen bottles of Carling Black Label every evening, always sitting by the window screen, looking at the marina and the river as if it were no longer a place but the recollection of a place. I tried to stay away from the tackle shop until late, when I knew that he’d be asleep. I thought of many things in those days: of hitching to a place where you could fall asleep in the sand and eat fresh fruit all day; of signing on with a fishing boat and living out on the ocean. One time, I was down at the end of Pier 11 by myself, late, crabbing with some chicken parts I’d found, and I began to think that it might even be okay to become a hermit and live in the pinewoods alongside the river. It was a cool night. The stars were glistening, the breeze tasted of steamed crabs. There hadn’t been a sign of Mrs. Duval for weeks, so when I saw her walking up the docks, swinging a grease-stained bag from “Hot Crabs Cold Beer,” I started to panic, the way I did the first time.
“Hey!” she said, pleased to see me. “How you been? Looky here! Got more’n I can possibly eat myself!”
She stopped, close enough that her leg touched my arm; the warmth of her freckled skin on that summer night made my heart race. She was dressed, again, in cutoff jeans and a black T-shirt.
“I wouldn’t mind at all if a handsome young man joined me for dinner.”
For a long time, I sat on Mrs. Duval’s boat that evening, pretending at first that I was invisible. I worried about Crabcake, and wondered if he was spying on us, if he might come for me later. Mrs. Duval sang along with a tape of Bruce Springsteen – “Because the Night” and “Prove It All Night” from a concert in Passaic, New Jersey that she said was “the best live show ever recorded.” She danced and shook her head while heating up soft shell crabs and shrimp in a skillet on her propane stove.
All my father bought me that summer was Wonder Bread, peanut butter and Baby Ruth bars and I enjoyed the warm seafood – with potato salad and hush puppies – so much that I had at least three helpings of everything.
Afterward, as the air cooled and the night deepened, I began to taste something in the breeze that made me feel lighter – so light that at one point I imagined I could fly away from this place if I wanted. I stopped feeling nervous and enjoyed being out there on the water with Mrs. Duval, thinking that she was the sort of person I would have liked for a mother – if you could choose things like that.
“There’s a poem about this,” she said, after she had cleaned the dishes and lent me a sweatshirt. The music was off and we could hear the water on the sides of the boats and dock posts.
“Mmm hmm. About nights like this.”
Her eyes were turned from mine, toward the stars. I remember their cold, knowing reflection, how it gave me chills for some reason – reflection of things I couldn’t see, had never seen before.
“It was at that time that the silence was largest and longest, the night was roundest, The fragrance of autumn warmest, closest and strongest.’” She seemed a different person when her eyes returned to mine.
“Wallace Stevens,” she said.
We did not talk much after that, just sat there, listening to the wind and the water. I think I saw everything that night – the shapes and textures of the leaves, the patterns of light on the dock boards, the willful currents of the river – with a clarity I’d never known before. When at last she spoke again, her voice sounded different, too, softer but still husky. “So when are you and me going on our boat trip?”
I made a sound, indicating I didn’t know.
“You still want to, don’t you?”
“Good.” We listened a little more, and then she said, “Maybe we could even take it into the ocean, you know?”
“Mmm hmm. Why not?”
I gripped my soda tightly.
“Oh, anywhere. The bay’s right out there.” She pointed east, toward the Pier 77 Marina. “The bay goes into the ocean, the ocean takes you everywhere. We could go to – I don’t know, Spain, or Africa. Anywhere you want.”
“Okay.” In the next instant I felt the wind on my face and imagined that the night was opening a door – giving me a chance to journey to all the places my father would never take me.
Mrs. Duval and I sat for a long time out there that night, as the lightning bugs brightened in the trees and the air grew colder. It was very misty when she sent me off, and I walked back down Pier 11 feeling as if the world’s secrets were finally visible – all of its hidden meanings and pleasures at last available.
But early the next morning, urgent shouts woke me. I pushed my face against the screen window and saw Crabcake standing in the dirt. His face and his shirt were smudged.
“Hey!” he said. “Come on out or I’m coming in!”
I still wore the clothes I had on the night before, because my clean clothes were in the bedroom, where my father was sound asleep.
“What happened?” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were on the boat? We had a pact.”
I was sure he was going to hit me, so I kept a distance. But somehow I managed to tell him, in a shaky voice, the news – that Mrs. Duval would take us out on the Blue Guitar soon – “both of us” – and that we would be traveling not only into the bay but into the ocean, too – possibly even to Africa.
Crabcake just stared, and then he surprised me by smiling. “She told me that a year ago,” he said.
We looked at each other and I saw something in his eyes – a strange, naked look, a look I don’t think he let many other people see. This time, Crabcake was the one who turned and walked away.
My father grew worse in the cooler days of September. What he had was an illness without a name or a cure, and for the first time I began to sense that it might never get better. I was sitting in the old brown-leather easy chair, paging through “Treasure Island” one afternoon when my father came through the door with a scary look in his eyes. Whatever promise my father had brought to this place was gone now; his face was flushed, as if he had been running, and as he lifted me from the chair, and carried me into the bedroom, I smelled grease and beer and soiled clothes and dirty hair and the perspiration from his skin.
“What’s this about you and that woman?” he said, tossing me onto the bed. “Niki Duval?”
I began to shake as soon as he said her name.
“What are you doing with her that people are talking about?”
I saw the stains on his teeth and the wet marks under his arms.
“Don’t give me that shit, what are you doing with her?”
“She’s a sleazy little cocktail waitress, what’s the matter with you?” he said, and struck me hard on the left side of the face. Those words hurt much longer than the blow, because I had never heard them before, and had no idea what they meant. I waited for a second blow, but there was only the one, and then he went outside.
Looking back, I think that my father was probably just embarrassed about who he was, that was all. But at the time, I didn’t know what to think; I had no idea, really. I stopped going to Pier 11 after that, and did not think much about Mrs. Duval for weeks. At the end of September, Crabcake told me that she was gone.
“I talked to her,” he said. “She took the Blue Guitar and went south. She’ll probably end up in Florida.”
“For how long?”
“Huh,” I said, pretending not to care much. But I did.
A few weeks later, my father ran his truck off the road and broke his right arm. They needed nine stitches to close the cut on his forehead. We moved to Beaufort, South Carolina after that, because my father had heard good things about Beaufort. I told Crabcake and his mother goodbye before we left and his mother said we should come back and visit. We never did, though. My father couldn’t find work in Beaufort, except for a few days waiting tables in a restaurant. We returned to Tennessee in the spring, and he got a job as an attendant in a Sunoco station.
A few weeks later, I was reading “The Time Machine” in our motel room in Johnson City. My father had the cartoons on when he rose from his chair, hunched over as if he had a stomach ache, and went into the bathroom to throw up. That was 10:15 or so. At a few minutes past 2 o’clock, he made a strange noise and died, right in his chair. One of the doctors said later that his body just gave out.
I went to live with relatives in Maine after that, where I began to learn about automobile and boat engines from my uncle and to read the books that my aunt brought home from the public library – Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson. At 18, I was hired at a boat repair shop in a little town called Bernham, doing what my father had done. I enjoyed being near the water, and learning how engines worked. When Karen Feterholf, the woman who owned the repair shop, decided to open a small lobster stand a few years later, I became manager of the business and, eventually, her partner. Karen collects and sells antique clocks and once taught middle school English. In her library are rows of books, which have taken me to many fascinating places – away from everything and everyone. One day, paging through a poetry anthology, I discovered a poem by Wallace Stevens titled “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”
“They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, You do not play things as they are.’ The man replied, ‘Things as they are, Are changed on the blue guitar.’ Play you must, a tune beyond us, yet ourselves. A tune upon the blue guitar, of things exactly as they are.’”
Several times I read through it, my eyes brimming with tears, because the words took me right back to that summer, with certainty and with sadness. I remembered the nighttime taste of steamed crabs in the breeze, the easy way the dock boards felt on bare feet, the sound of the jukebox when the doors to “Hot Crabs Cold Beer” opened, the smell of my father’s skin, and the moist, dark eyes of Mrs. Duval, watching me. I was right there again, as I had been and never would be, gazing up at the blue heavens from the back of Mrs. Duval’s boat. And then I realized what it was that my father had wrestled with and, I suppose, what I had struggled with, too, that summer of the Blue Guitar: Things exactly as they are.
JAMES LILLIEFORS is a journalist and novelist. He has written for The Washington Post, Ploughshares, Art News, Art & Antiques, Runner's World, The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere. His books include Bananaville, America's Boardwalks and Highway 50. Lilliefors grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and now lives in Florida.