That evil phone rang. ‘Hello?’ I said. ‘You’re my dentist and I missed my appointment? How can that be, I wasn’t there so how could I miss it?’
But my devoted wife said, ‘You had a dental appointment yesterday, dear. Didn’t I remind you? Oh, well.’
So I said to my dentist on the line, ‘Did you operate?’
‘No,’ his answer was.
‘Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t, you might have done the wrong thing.’ I hung up. My dentist Dr. Whack Dat, well known for his laboratory coat and the smelly experiments he conducts beneath his office. Something about hydrochloric acid, diesel fuel, and lemonaide.
In any event my wife was her usual cheery self. ‘Imagine this, dear. You’ve got an invitation to Captain Swifty O’bunion’s boatbuilding school, the EGGNOGGIN BOAT SCHOOL,’ she said from the other room.
I was in my model ship room immersed in the latest DUCKWORKS BOOK CLUB selections—Dating Advice from Captain Nat, How to Color Boat Plans, and Hymns From Hangmen. I was immersed in these texts and their relation to existential man when my wife came to my door to say, ‘Did you hear? Captain O’bunion is opening a boat school in Eggnoggin. The invitation says, All those who wanted to go to Pirate School as a youngster but you’re mother wouldn’t let you get in first. All others must show evidence of hammer-smashed thumbs and steam-bent credit cards.’
I merely humphed, softly.
‘I think you should go,’ she declared like a pagan ruler dedicating a temple, ‘just to help Captain Swifty out with his new school. He always has some silly venture going to pay for his boat. Besides, you love boats. Look at them all,’ she said gazing around at my models like they were all idols of a South Seas squirrel. ‘I’ll make arrangements.’
I arrived at the EGGNOGGIN BOAT SCHOOL bright and early on the first day for enrollment. I saw next door to the school a tall, gaunt looking Gothic mansion with spires, gable windows, and a hangman’s knot dangling from the front porch. I kind of shivered. What an evil-looking place.
But then Captain Swifty, my old buddy, came out to meet me in his pea jacket with pea stains, wearing a purple captain’s cap, and carrying a boat hook with bologna on it. He must’ve seen the look on my face.
‘So you’ve seen the HOOKEMS BOAT SCHOOL AND DUNGEON, next door. Nasty looking place, ain’t it?’ He twirled his moustache as he always does when he’s not thinking about what he’s saying.
I had to say, ‘Another boat school right next door?’
‘They’re trying to run us out of town, out of business. Seems like everybody goes there. Old man Hookems has challenged us to a race around Whop Island.
‘What would you win?’
‘The loser has to leave town.’
‘Hookems is a desperate man. He wears this long black coat with poison tipped chisels hidden in the pockets, he’s got a nose like a hot dog, and a chin that could bevel steel. He’s always got a rope in his hand, twirling knots that can’t come loose. Look at the line of people coming to his school.’ Swifty pointed to a line of weekenders, all around the house.
‘How did he get all those guys there?’
‘He promised them fake beards.’
‘Fake beards? But why?’
‘It’s a state law that if you build a boat, you have to have a beard. It’s the state license for boatbuilders. The problem is they attract so many lice, the clouds of lice have become a visibility hazard on the coast. Out of staters think it’s only fog but we know it’s really the lice waiting for the weekenders to come out their front door. That’s why the cloud is gone by noon.
I said, ‘So he promised them fake beards so they wouldn’t attract any lice and still build boats. Ingenious, wickedly ingenious.’
Swifty agreed. ‘Exactly. And the police, the state government, the mayor, they don’t suspect a thing.’
‘Something must be done about such lawbreakers.’
Swifty’s eyes lit up. ‘We’ll simply have to build a fast ketch so we can win the race, and force Hookems underground where he belongs.’
‘Do you have a plan?’
‘I do but I ain’t telling you, not the way your wife talks to anyone.’
‘She’s not coming to the classes.’
‘You never know. Hookems has spies everywhere, even in the dry rot.’
That evening as the sun set in the west, the entire population of state hippies tried to remember in what tree they hid their beer. Some couldn’t remember what state they were in, some got knocked out when the beer fell on their heads, some just dozed off altogether.
All the students of the EGGNOGGIN SCHOOL met downstairs in the dining room of the school. Candles were lit by Mrs. O’bunion, the tablecloth was 1/8” plywood painted with hearts and little bears chasing miniature politicians, and all the chairs were set.
The scene was sentimental. The bay stood outside the window view, an overhanging moon cast its light on the water’s surface, and the evil spires of that other boat school pierced the night sky like shish-kebob, or something else.
Mrs. O’bunion brought dinner in, plates steaming with strings of spaghetti tied through the piles of Swiss cheese and clam chowder with whiskey still bubbling in it. Everyone sat.
First there was Aromont Dibbleflew, the young son of the wealthiest family in Eggnoggin. Then there was old Ed What, the bum who never had a job. He was always searching out some place to sleep, even if he had to enroll in the school to sleep under a dingy. He was in his seventies, he told the tallest tales of sailing the South Pacific as a boy under the tallest mast of a clipper in some avalanche storm that killed every hand on board but him. Then he washed ashore in Wisconsin, where the natives were so grateful for his bravery they made him governor. At least that’s what he said. Then there was Annabelle Whiddlebop, a young girl running away from her boyfriend who wanted to take her to the Gobi Desert, to photograph her. At least, that’s what he said.
. . .Well, you get the idea with those two. So the first class of the EGGNOGGIN SCHOOL sat for dinner with Captain O’bunion at their table. We dined merrily along, talking between spaghetti strings of their families, the old home town, who is having a baby and who is running away with whom when completely unknown to us the evil Snooker Hookems and his cohort Clotty Gingerham stood just out of sight behind their window, watching our happy proceedings at dinner. We didn’t know it at the time, but this is how it went.
‘I hate them already,’ Snicker snickered out the side of his mouth.
‘But you ain’t got to know them,’ Clotty said. ‘Of course, you hates everything. You hates doughnuts.’
‘Only the holes, clothead. Now shutup. I’s listening in on me secret listening device,’ Snicker said sideways.
‘It ain’t gonna work,’ Clotty advised. The device was a wire attached from one tin cup in Snicker’s bony hand underground to another tin cup attached to the EGGNOGGIN SCHOOL window. However, the local stray cat Tim Buck Too had dug up the wire, pulling the tin cup off the window, scratching inside for food.
Snicker heard the cat’s scratches loud and clear. ‘They’s plotting ag’in us, that’s what they’s sayin,’ Snicker surmised.
Clotty didn’t believe him. ‘What?’ he said listening in.
‘I t’ink they’s saying they’s gonna burn our school down,’ Snicker said, scratching his scabbard chin. ‘Well, we ain’t gonna stand for dat. We’ll burn dem down first.’
‘I’ll get the marshmallows,’ Clotty said.
‘Not just yet, I’s hearing more.’
Clotty went to the window sill. He saw the cat clawing the tin cup, he smiled sarcastically, turning up plots in his mind to pester Snicker. He wasn’t getting paid enough to burn some house down, and right next door, at that. It would be too obvious.
Just then rain fell over the state. Jagged streaks of lightning laced the sky overhead. Snicker now put his hot dog nose to the cold rainy window pane. He loved bad weather. Lightning lit up the sight of the EGGNOGGIN SCHOOL in his mind like one of Clotty’s giant marshmallows. He could just see it smoking, burning to the ground, O’bunion crying, all the students shrinking back to their homes. He giggled.
‘Not tonight,’ Clotty advised again, ‘let them have their sleep, just once.’
Snicker agreed. ‘You’re right, for once. Dat wouldn’t be neighborly.’
So we slept after dinner in the SCHOOL, with no suspicion of what lay in store for us. We slept warm and comfortable as the quietly steady rain came down, a gentle wind straying the storm out to sea for the night.
Clotty disappeared to feed the cat while Snicker paced in his secret room, imagining ways and means, with the drifting rain muffling his wicked laugh, again and again.
The next morning breakfast concluded to much merriment and conversation, so the captain had to remind us all we were here to build a boat.
‘Now that we’ve had our fill, let’s go down to the boatshed and learn lofting,’ he said.
However, Ed had other ideas. He was asleep under the breakfast table. Annabelle was in the kitchen with Connie and her daughter April, while I was with Aromont. The captain went outside to feed Tim Buck Too. And it’s a good thing he did.
Swifty saw the tin cup and the wire. He grasped the essentials of the situation immediately. A spy in our midst, he muttered. And of course he knew it was Hookems.
‘So, Tim, we caught him redhanded,’ he said to Tim, stroking his fur. ‘I wonder what we can say to him into this cup that’ll really mess him up. . .what’d you think? That there’s a skunk in trhe cellar? That the house is full of ghosts? . . That’s just the thing for that old rickety claptrap—his house is haunted by some ghost from the whaling days.’
Swifty took the cup from Tim, held it to his mouth, whispering, ‘I am the ghost of Captain Jedediah O’Shaughnessy who was murdered over the balcony with a hangman’s knot on Halloween Night. . .I have come back to search the house for new blood to suck. I must have a new neck bite—what’s your collar size?’
What Swifty didn’t know was that Clotty didn’t think this was funny, he believed the ghost’s voice in the cup. He ran down to the cellar where Snicker was torturing a dozen weekenders by roping them to chairs as he played a recording of Bimberbaugh’s 420 Laws of Boat Design—in its entirety. Now that’s evil.
But nothing could deter Clotty from whispering into Snicker’s leaf-shaped ear what he’d just heard from Captain O’Shaughnessy and the blood. Clotty shook, Snicker shook because he knew his own collar size. He turned Bimberbaugh off.
‘Don’t worry your little head, peanut-brain. I have a master plan, fool-proof and devious to the max. Untie these tragic souls, lead them into my dungeon until I’m ready to put them into action. My plan is so despicable, even I can’t stand it.’
‘What, what, what?’ Clotty jumped up and down.
‘Not yet, not yet, my dear little worm, for the light of day must never discover my plan and my devices. . ha ha!’
The next day, dawn’s early light came skittering over the quiet waters of the bay when we all woke at the school. I knew Connie would be already up in the kitchen with bacon and eggs, pancakes and hot tea and toast. Cooking airs lifted up to us all on the second floor, so we all came down early.
Annabelle came stumbling down in an Eggnoggin Is Rockin’ sweat shirt, blue jeans and bare feet. Aromont wore a button-down shirt with pearl buttons and his monogram. Old Ed wore what he had on last night—a 30 year old T-shirt with holes and a comb stuck in his stiff hair, somewhat like an antennae. He hadn’t washed his hair in so long university students took soil samples from his head. He was smiling that teeth-missing grin because no one had shaken him up in the night to make him move. Besides, when you’re sleeping under a lapstrake dingy, you have laps to hold when you want to get up. And then I came down last of all.
Connie emerged from the kitchen with plates of breakfast, warm and fragrant as only breakfast on a chilly morning can be. We all nearly ran to our seats at the table. All except Ed, he crawled. April came out of the kitchen after her mother, carrying hot tea and coffee and milk. When she smelled old Ed, she moved away from him. She came near Annabelle, since she thought Annabelle was cute.
‘Are you awake?’ April asked staring into Annabelle’s eyes from close range.
‘No, I’m not,’ Annabelle said, which was a feat since she yawned as she said it.
‘You look awake. . .well, maybe not,’ April decided. She put her plate down for everyone to select their drinks while they took hold of the bacon and eggs and pancakes and toast. Old Ed didn’t use a fork, they were a mystery to him. He just grabbed bacon and downed it, sometimes not all the way but close enough to shove it the rest of the way. He got enough milk on his face to be a snowman. Aromont watched this display of manners—which reminded him of the wolves in Oedipus Rex—from a distance. He’d always wondered how common folk ate, now he knew. He laughed at Ed. Then April laughed, and when she did everyone except Connie did, too. But then when Ed started laughing, all he had swallowed shook up, so Connie had to stop him. She gave him one of her looks, the one she reserves for the Captain.
At this point mischievous April thought she’d sneak under the table to tickle old Ed so he’d throw up, but she got the wrong person’s legs. When she tickled Aromont, everyone thought his giggling was just him being part of the gang.
Eventually the captain assembled the first class of the school in the boat shed, for the first lesson in lofting. He had before him a large table with plywood lying across it, with his boat plans unrolled. At least as long as he held them they were unrolled; then they rolled themselves back up. Little April loved this; she kept taking her father’s hand off the roll to watch them curl up again. She and Annabelle giggled at this. Ed dozed in a corner, his head down in a pile of shavings, so when he inhaled the shavings went into his nose, and when he exhaled they came out again. There was a certain fascination to watching this in-and-out parade of wood shavings which was not lost on Tim Buck Too. He kept pawing the shavings on Ed’s nose. Without waking up, Ed brushed his nose every so often, thus increasing the entertainment factor for Tim.
Swifty went on. ‘Now this is my design. We have three sails, one for each of you. It’s done in the lapstrake style with a nice keel and cabin and galley. But this is what is really important. This boat is fast. We can win the Whop Trophy in grand style.’
Aromont entered into the spirit of the race. ‘No factor must be compromised for the speed of our vessel. If that means I can’t have my own personal Jacuzzi on board, so be it. I am a willing volunteer for sacrifice. I expect all of you to enter into the same attitude of mind.’
Annabelle asked, ‘I do get my own bedroom, don’t I? That is okay?’
‘Of course, of course,’ Swifty said, beginning to wonder about these folks. ‘Now let’s get started.’ He unrolled a page of the plans. ‘You can see the planks,’ he said pointing to the laps.
Annabelle saw the shape of them, curved to the left and curved to the right, to be cut that way lying flat. She said, ‘They’re weird. They’ll never fit like that, they’re supposed to be straight.’
But Swifty comforted her. ‘When we bend them around frames, they’ll look just right.’
‘You mean we have to bend things—oh God—that, too? I thought we’d just tie them off at both ends with a nice cute little bow tie and then we can just sail away. You know, pink ribbons and a little lace for sails would be so cute. I like cute things.’
Swifty was remarkably patient, but then it was early in the day. ‘Actually, there isn’t much more to it than that. You’ll see.’ He laid a long batten on the plans. ‘Now, first we build the ladder on which to build the boat.’
Aromont said, ‘A ladder? I’m afraid of heights.’
‘Not to worry,’ Swifty said, ‘we’re going to build the boat upside down so you’ll be working from the bottom down.’
Aromont was relieved but Annabelle was not. ‘Upside down? That’s weird. You don’t build a house upside down, they didn’t build the Empire State Building upside down. Are you sure?’
‘Boats are built upside down, that way when you get to the top, you’re on the bottom, you see?’ Swifty said.
They all nodded heads, but I knew they harbored unbelief. In any event, Swifty nailed down one end of the batten.
‘Now Aromont, if you’ll spring that end of the batten there, we’ll draw the line,’ he said. Aromont held the batten down, bent it slightly and then he let it go. It sprang up, hitting him in the chest. He staggered like a man who just got engaged to a lady wrestler. He stumbled back, right over old Ed. That woke Ed up. Ed said, ‘Am I in heaven?’ When he saw Aromont, he knew he was a bit short of the Pearly Gates.
‘I. . I must change my shirt,’ Aromont said, seeing he’d fallen over dirty Ed. Aromont said his society mother always had her son bathe after every meal, so Aromont left the boat shed to bathe and change his shirt.
Swifty said, ‘Now that’s one way to spring a batten.’ His patience was not what it had been earlier. ‘But it’s not the right way. Let me show you—please.’
And so the boatbuilding proceeded all afternoon long, with much progress. The keel was put down, the laps sprung around frames, and things were going well by the afternoon. When Annabelle drove her first nail, she was as ecstatic as if she’d just left puberty. I began to think of the steam box as an oven with pine pizzas in it. Aromont actually formed a bead of perspiration on his forehead without his mother’s permission. He wiped it quickly before anyone saw. He didn’t want any rumors reaching the Dibbleflew Mansion. He couldn’t let his society set, THE SNUB CLUB, know he’d actually done ‘work.’ That would be the end of civilized life as he knew it.
While we were getting Swifty’s boat together, in the cellar of the HOOKEMS SCHOOL AND DUNGEON the tape of Bimberbaugh’s laws was on no. 319—‘So the hypotenuse of the transverse limber lock must be away from the internal member keel by 2% of displacement minus the square root of the center of ballast effort divided by the designer’s weight. So with that out of the way. . .’
From his dungeon window Clotty watched Swifty and me and everyone work away at the boat. I though he must envy us, since I’d seen their dingy. It had this plank stuck out the side, dipping below the water so the fool thing only went around in circles. How in the world Snicker thought he could beat Swifty’s boat, I don’t know. But they might have some scheme up their sleeve. Swifty said they always had some get rich quick scheme. Once Hookems was going to get the governor to outlaw the word ‘like,’ so all the teenagers would have to speak English or shut up. But something was always going wrong with Snicker’s schemes.
We saw Clotty look at Swifty’s boat in admiration. Just then Snicker came down their rickety old stairs to the dungeon where the weekenders were despondent, behind bars in their cells. No cell phones, no remote, no booger flipping allowed—sheer punishment.
‘Ha, ha,’ Snicker blurted out. ‘I love to see weekenders with nothing to do but watch walls. It warms my heart.’
‘Your heart’s the only thing warm down here,’ Clotty complained.
‘Just like I like it. You know in Maine the state symbol is frost, I like that,’ Snicker said, wringing his hands like a politician with a stimulus check. ‘And now for me plan. Listen up, come here, we got planning to do. About this boat school they got there. We need to burn it down. The only question is, do we wait for dem to build that boat an’ simply steal their boat and then burn the place down, or do we burn it down tonight?’
‘Now wait a minute, boss,’ Clotty began.
‘You think we wait? Well I think you gots a thing for the captain’s wife, an’ I do know I’m right. I seen you looking at her like a flea sees a mangy dog, droolin’ on da window an’ imitating how she walks. I seen that.’
Clotty giggled, he imitated how Connie walked, then he ran around the dungeon, arms flailing like a whirlwind. Love it was, and serious.
‘Now look,’ Snicker said grabbing Clotty by the shirt, dusty as it was, ‘I got something up my sleeve. Look here. I found this old boat. It ain’t nothin’ but a stretched tortoise, an’ we’re gonna train our weekenders to be pirates, and we’re gonna sail o’er there to set the house on fire, like Captain Morgan at Panama. Just da same.’
By now darkness came over this little world, and with it despicable men were on the loose. A felon wind fanned scarred faces where ships lay at anchor, and schemes came in with the tide. In a bad tavern where dirty light shone on crooked men, Snicker Hookems imagined he sat like a pirate surrounded by weekend cutthroats. Clotty put black spray paint under their eyes, he gave them scarves and bandanas and wood swords. They huddled around Snicker at his table, a lone candle burning sooty light. Snicker held a map under his arm, a pistol in the other hand. He wore an eye patch, which disoriented him, fluffy pants, and black boots.
He said, ‘Men, we got destiny on our side!’
They cheered, ‘Aye, Lads! Keel-haul ‘em! Whatever!’
‘And we strike tonight! Your treasure will be beyond your wildest dreams. You’ll be famous in Madagascar and across the Seven Seas!’
They cheered, ‘Aye! Lads! Smart as paint! Whatever?’
Snicker yelled, ‘You’ll be rich forever!’
They cheered that, too. ‘Let ‘em swing from the armpits! Turn the buckle! Avast the pinnacle!’
Then Snicker had to calm his piratical men down. ‘Now here’s me map. There’ he struck a nail down, ‘is our target. Eggnoggin. Highly fortified, patrolled night and day on the fortress walls by the king’s soldiers. But we have the advantage of surprise at night, ha ha!’
The weekenders cheered again, but not as much since Snicker mentioned soldiers. This made them twitter a bit.
‘Fear not, lads, we’ve got destiny on our side. They’re nothing compared to our forces, our bravery, our costumes and black paint. Now here’s me plan. We land on the beach underneath the fort, they’ll never see us in the dark. We establish a beachhead, then we set the fortress on fire and get back to our frigate before the screams come. Nothing to this piracy, it’s such fun.’
Now the weekenders were cheering again. ‘Aye! Topgallants forever! Chainplates ahoy! Whatever!’
‘And you know what? When we return here as free men, wealthy beyond our wildest dreams, finally, for once since the ages began, we will be free!’
Snicker knew he had the weekenders in the palm of his hand. But then he heard the most frightening sound his soul could withstand.
‘Heard it men?’ Snicker called low and ominous.
The weekenders halted right there. When they did Clotty was still running around the room. The weekenders knocked him down when they halted. Clotty knocked the candle down and out—Snicker fell down trying to find the candle in this pitch dark dungeon, his eye patch disorienting him so much he fell under the table—men scrambled with scuffling feet over each other. Only the moonlight through the window remained still. Cries arose, shouts, men groped each other, they laughed desperately like men about to hang, they lay there clinging to each other for all their life was worth.
‘Did you hear it, men?’ Snicker whispered again from under the table surrounded by his brave but fallen weekenders as they lay tangled in a heap under the table.
A few whispered something. Then one said, ‘I heard it. What is it, Captain, the dead rising, enemy pirates, our wives coming to torture us?’
‘No, no,’ Snicker whispered. ‘Worse than that, much worse, worse than anything you can imagine. It’s that damned machine still playing Bimberbaugh’s Laws, somebody turn that infernal thing off before it wakes the dead.’
But the weekenders said, ‘What about our wives?’
‘Okay, okay. I say and we’ll shake on it. If this caper works out, we’ll drive all the wives out of the state. What say you?’
The place erupted. Never have men felt so free—no wives, no job, just free men sailing the coast as God intended them to, since the beginning of time—ravaging foreign ships, hanging spies, chasing wives out of the state and running rum in.
Snicker found the candle in his shoe, lit it so light and order was restored to the dungeon. The men got to their feet, having withstood the greatest challenge so far. Now they were confident pirates, they believed in their leader, they were ready for destiny.
Snicker got up, rallied his men, then he led them out of the dungeon to the dock behind where his frigate, Tortoise of Tasmania, lay at anchor, awaiting a destiny. The ship was a massive sight with the moonlight laying on the spars, the masts, the complex rigging. It’s length—1800 staunch inches. 48 inches of resolute breadth, with plenty of ocean going rocker and tall fortified sides. A ship ready for action, speaking volumes of the men who manned her sails, her lines, her three decks. Her crew: 8 blood-curdling weekenders, her captain and first mate, Clotty. Just looking at them would frighten small animals. They marched to the dock to board their swift Sultan of Scourge, the Stallion of the Seas, the one, the only Tortoise of Tasmania.
They got in, all of them at the same time, which was not in the tradition of the sea. Some stumbled, the ship pitched with all its rocker, they grabbed the coamings, they tripped each other, nearly swamping the great Tortoise of Tasmania right there on the dock. But you see, this frigate can handle battle stations.
One of the weekenders shoved off, but too soon. The anchor line was still tied to the dock.
‘You nincompoops, untie the bow line!’ Snicker shouted from the stern deck where he had his arm on the tiller, a paddle decorated with the picture of a Mom. So when the bow swung around, the Tortoise of Tasmania finally to set out to sea. A moon hung overhead like a dead buccaneer, its face twisted as if in a noose. The great frigate with all eight hands rowing left the safety of the shore for adventure, danger, and destiny.
Snicker yelled orders. ‘Strike sails, shipmates, let’s chart a course for Caribbean waters where the treasure is! Put yer backs into it, pull lads, we have plenty of plundering to do before dawn!’
‘Aye, aye, ‘ they yelled out even though they were three feet from Snicker. It’s the tradition of the sea that pirates yell at everything. If you aren’t deaf when you go to sea, you become deaf just by coming about. So the square sail rose, popping full of what little wind there was.
The pirates fought over who would hold the lines, since the one with the sheets wouldn’t have to row.
‘All right there, mutineers! Enough of that. Save yer fighting for the enemy. We’ll be there soon enough. Now strike sail for this mizzen, here’ Snicker yelled out. With full sails up, Snicker knew he could alter course now for the EGGNOGGIN SCHOOL fortress next door. He studied his map, which was difficult with one eye covered, in vague moonlight on a rocking ship. ‘Thar she blows!’ he yelled.
Finally Clotty said, ‘Would you stop yelling? You might give us away, you know.’
‘Trim that mizzen,’ Snicker yelled out but not as loud. The ship turned toward the wind to dock at the EGGNOGGIN dock. ‘Now then lads, here’s our plan. When we get close to the fortress, we’re going over the side to hold the ship and swim it quietly to shore. They’ll never suspect us doing that.’
‘That’s because we ain’t doin’ it,’ Clotty said before any of the mutineers did. They mumbled something about the beer in the refrigerator at home but Snicker had World Conquest in his soul, he would have no mutiny now.
‘By thunder, you will, all of you sidewinders! Either you swim with me or you swing from the yardarm! I’ll have no deserters on this ship, or I strand you on a deserted island with the tide comin’ in fer ya! Now gird up yer loins, clench yer teeth, an’ get ready for battle!’ His voice rose when he said that, it was just what a crew of pirates needs to rouse them to their destiny and treasure.
‘Gird yer what?’ Clotty asked.
‘Shut up and swim, peanut-brain,’ Snicker yelled, shoving Clotty over the side first.
Splash! ‘Yikes,’ Clotty cried out when he hit the cold night water. He grabbed the side of the Tortoise, waving the water with his hands and feet. Then Snicker shoved the mutineers in the water with Clotty.
One of them yelled, ‘I can’t swim!’
‘Yer learnin’ now,’ Snicker laughed back. But he stayed in the boat. ‘Somebody’s got to steer. Now get over there, that’s right, we’re getting there, closer, to their dock.’
They got to Swifty’s dock. ‘All right men. You’ve done well. We’re here, the soldiers on the fortress wall don’t suspect a thing. Now, let’s get up the beach to take this place in the name of piracy and burning!’
But the mutineers were not rallying to his cause. Clotty said, ‘What if we get caught burning down a house? Eh? What then? And besides, there ain’t no treasure here, it’s just another wood house that’ll rot and splinter off, anyway.’
Snicker began slowly. ‘So, you’re the one, eh? You’re the one leading the mutiny agin’ ye old captain, yer ol’ shipmate? Allrighty then, I’ll confess the treasure I’s been talking about. This house cooking is just da diversion. The real treasure is in da boat shed, where they is building that ship. And do you know what that treasure is, matey?’
They all looked at each other like dumb men. They were mute, cold, dumbfounded.
‘Then I’ll tell ya,’ Snicker said quietly, screwing the silent tension tighter and tighter. ‘In that there shed is proof that our state is a different country than the rest. We ain’t like them other states, we’s free men.’
They tried to cheer, but Clotty was watching the EGGNOGGIN house for any lights. He thought he heard some rustling in the grass, but he saw nothing. The mutineers stared at each other, they whispered, they huddled, they conferred.
‘So,’ Snicker went on, ‘when we find the paper declaring us what I’m speaking, I’m declaring meself King of this here state, the ruler of all I survey, with my own mansion and roads named after me, and me own airport and TV show. I am King of Snickerville. And all of you is my ambassadors.’
Now that was something. Any man would love that, and the mutineers jumped for joy. ‘King Hookems! We are ambassadors! But what does that mean?’ They rallied to Snicker like men possessed. He hypnotized them, he had them in a trance and he knew that.
‘But men, we need to burn down the house for a diversion while Clotty and your present King, meself , search for the paper that proves we never joined the rest of the country. We ain’t with New York, them’s foreigners. So every man has a duty to yer king to take these matches, set ablazing to the house, an’ by daylight we’ll have our own motorcade. I’ll be king an’ you is ambassadors, one to Canader, one to Sweden for blondes, ont to Italy, one to Hollywood for quickie marriages. You’ll have yer own nameplate.’
They cheered every word, they leaped to his will, they yelled for a free state, they rallied round Clotty. They marched to their destiny with matches in hand down the dock to the house. Snicker and Clotty went to the boat shed, to pry the lock while the mutineers arrayed themselves around the foundation of the house.
In the dark night they lit matches. Unfortunately in the excitement of their destiny, they didn’t see curious little Tim Buck Too lurking at their feet. They knelt down to light the house. But these tiny matches fascinated Tim. Unseen in the dark, he pawed each one out. Then he went to the next one, pawed it out. Soon he had all eight pawed out, sniffing the wisp of smoke they made. Since Tim was a black cat, the mutineers never saw him. They thought a ghost did it, a ghost mad at them for trying to burn down his haunt. And in the middle of the night when ghosts need a little elbow room to roam. So when Tim meeoowwed, the still night and the water echoed his little sound until it seemed like the moaning of a huge angry ghost coming to torture them. Were there evil spirits all over this house, tonight, in this black darkness? Would they wander the coast forever, until they suck blood?
Tim spooked the mutineers. ‘Yikes,’ they all seemed to say at once. They skedaddled, down the dock to the shed. With Snicker and Clotty inside searching for that paper, the mutineers panicked—they set fire to the boat shed instead of the house. It burned with all that wood in it, the crackling burning flames awaking the O’bunion household, all of us.
I heard Annabelle say, ‘Where’s my little Tim?’
Feet scrambled down the stairs to the back porch. Annabelle came running down the planked dock in her bare feet. ‘My Timmy, where are you?’
I saw a dazed Aromont come out, looking for Annabelle. ‘What’s this, some sort of midnight barbecue?’
Then the captain, Connie and April, and I came down to the dock, too. By now the boat shed was in tall flames. A smoldering door was about to fall on Annabelle, who knelt to pick up Tim. Aromont, who had been watching Annabelle bravely run around the flames in pursuit of Tim, came stumbling down the dock to shove the door over till it tumbled into the water where it sizzled and floated away. He ruined another shirt, but he didn’t seem to mind. He looked at Annabelle while she held Tim. Aromont had saved Annabelle, who had saved Tim, who had saved the O’bunion house.
‘Oh my God,’ Annabelle uttered, ‘you’ve saved my life.’
‘God, just look at this shirt, another one gone,’ Aromont lamented.
‘Oh I don’t know, it looks just like one of my hippie shirts only without a smiley face,’ she cooed at him. To her he looked cute.
‘You must love kittens,’ he said, barely concealing his gaze upon her.
‘They’re, you know, so me,’ she purred.
‘My mother doesn’t approve of animals in the house,’ he said gazing at her.
‘She’s in the house, isn’t she?’ Annabelle had no idea she had just won his heart by insulting his mother.
‘God, you’re wonderful. Do you like Tootsie Rolls between your teeth?’
‘Oh I love them,’ she purred again. This was a girl who knew how to purr to a man.
Meanwhile Swifty got buckets of water on the boatshed, Connie called for the Fire Department, I said a little prayer for them all and Clotty came running out of the falling, crumbling shed—coughing but all right. Snicker was nowhere to be found.
But where were the weekenders?
And where was Snicker, the King? And what about the mysterious paper?
By the time the Eggnoggin Fire Department arrived, the shed had collapsed. Ashes lay everywhere. And yet a miracle happened in our midst. Swifty’s boat didn’t have a mark on it. The plans lay there, still rolled up although with smoke coming out the ends.
By this time Clotty had run away. They never found Snicker. The weekenders were back next door, calling their wives to come pick them up. When someone asked what they did, all they said was they learned Bimberbaugh’s Laws. Tim was all right in the arms of Annabelle, who was in the arms of Aromont. The Fire Department left just in time to catch the end of Yankee Workshop, on TV.
And when dawn fully came, nothing was left but a sift of smoke and a lingering moon. Swifty stood with Connie while the saw Aromont and Annabelle and Tim sail away on the Tortoise of Tasmania. When the outline of the Tortoise disappeared beyond the edge of Whop Island, Captain O’bunion knew they weren’t coming back. The current’s too strong out there.
A few days later I was at home in my model room. My wife said, ‘Did you learn all about boats at the school?’
‘I did. Had a wonderful time. Learned a great deal. Did you know you don’t blow into a horn timber?’
‘I never would have considered it,’ she said with a slaying lameness.
‘Wonderful place, the school,’ I said.
‘By the way, dear, did you see in the paper about this crazy man dressed up like a pirate drifting in the ocean on a door?’
‘A door? Never heard of such a thing.’