P.J. Combs was being stalked by a very determined speedboat. He didn’t like it one bit. Anyone close enough to P.J. could see the beads of sweat glisten on his forehead as he hurried across the sidewalk. But no one could miss the small floating speedboat that bobbed along behind him.
“Something bothering you, P.J.?”
“Looks like you’re in a jam there, Peej.”
“Maybe you should talk to someone, P.J.”
Each passerby on Weston Street had their two cents about the situation. All P.J. wanted was to get to his apartment, lock the door, and forget about the whole thing.
Sweat pooled in P.J.’s dollar store socks and his shoes squeaked on the pavement. The sound stopped abruptly when he reached a red light. His fingers tapped on his pants impatiently as he waited for the light to change.
A sharp pain struck him in the back.
P.J. turned to find the bow of the boat nuzzling his lower back like a sad puppy.
P.J. wasn’t a fan of dogs.
“Go on,” P.J. said. “Get out of here! Get!”
Speaking to a boat like a dog in private is dumb enough, but shouting at one in public made P.J. feel like he had gone tenth level looney. He didn’t even get to enjoy the stages between sanity and completely bonkers. No slowly starting to hear voices, no strange outfits made from mismatched clothing or kitchen appliances, and not even a stint off the grids in the woods somewhere in a hut made out of old toilet paper rolls. His madness took the form of a 2017 sporty white speedboat with teal accents and a big cooler in the back that said “gone fishing.”
“Going fishing, P.J.?” Mr. Gundy asked.
Mr. Gundy stood next to the driveway entrance of P.J.’s brick apartment building. P.J. had never seen Mr. Gundy leave that spot, or wear anything besides a threadbare sweater, khaki shorts, and a completely clueless smile.
“No,” P.J. said. The sharp tone in his voice could’ve cut through ten inches of steel.
“Looks like you’re going fishing,” Mr. Gundy said. “Mighty fine weather for it. Shorts weather, you know?”
Every day was shorts weather for Mr. Gundy. P.J. gave Mr. Gundy a quick and empty smile in a half-hearted attempt to be polite, then walked his way up the drive towards his door at the end of the lot.
The boat was right behind him the entire way. The thing had shown up just outside the office, and P.J. wasn’t sure whether or not he could lose it if he went inside. He decided there was only one logical thing to do.
P.J. faced the boat. He dramatically pointed behind the floating craft with a look of horror described only in H.P. Lovecraft novels and B-grade horror films.
The boat spun around to see what P.J. was so frightened of, and that’s when P.J. ran inside and locked the door behind him.
P.J. let out a satisfied sigh and dropped his bag on the crowded dining room table. Mail and flyers for used cars fell onto one of the two chairs parked at the wobbly table.
P.J. dumped the old coffee in the pot down the sink. A stain from countless half-finished pots grew around the drain like a rusty ring.
A new pot of coffee started to brew and P.J. tapped his finger on the counter. He lost himself in the rhythmic sound of his finger hitting the vinyl top. Each drumming sound taking him farther away from the moment and back to his day at the office.
Work that day had been just like any other. It was the type of day P.J. lived for. A normal day. But then lunch came around, and that’s when everything went to Hell.
P.J. sat at the far end of the break room table. It wasn’t officially his spot, there wasn’t a nametag or a plaque or anything, but his coworkers let him have that one little corner of real estate away from his desk.
The whole office sat at the table. Metal forks thumped against plastic Tupperware containers stuffed with leftovers. Fingers scratched at Styrofoam lids holding potato chips. The sounds of employees eating and avoiding each other.
A stack of brochures struck the table like a Bible nosediving straight for a sinner’s face.
P.J. looked up from his Styrofoam container to see Ross Welcher, his manager, smiling from ear to ear.
“Peej,” Ross said, “how often are you out on the water?”
P.J. stared back at Ross while he chewed and swallowed.
“You mean like swimming?”
“No, no, no!” Ross chuckled. “On a boat. How often do you hit the waves?”
P.J. never “hit” anything.
Ross flipped through a brochure in front of P.J.’s face like a blackjack dealer.
“Being out there with the open water, tunes on the radio, friends in your seats, and beer in your hand. You know what I mean?”
“Sure,” P.J. said. He didn’t. He had no idea what that was like.
“It would do you good to get out there, man,” Ross said. “Mastercraft has deals going on downtown. I just bought a new boat yesterday and they said there were only a few left.”
That’s when Ross gave a pitch about how if P.J. bought a boat within the next two weeks. P.J. closed his Styrofoam container, got up from the table, and marched into the men’s restroom on the third floor to finish his lunch.
The bathroom stall was clean enough for P.J. to get lost in his thoughts as he ate potato chips on the closed toilet lid.
How could Ross be such an ass? Who wanted to be bothered about leasing a boat by their district manager? And who the Hell needed open water, tunes, and beer to have a good time?
P.J. didn’t need any of those. He had his model planes, his apartment with the sliding glass door that looked over the duck pond, and his friends.
Well, he had a few friends. Some he saw more than others. And as he sat there trying to remember the last time he had actually spent time with his friends or had even had a beer in a social situation, a thought crept in the back of his mind.
P.J. hadn’t had fun in a very, very long time.
He finished his lunch, washed his hands, and stepped out into the hallway. The rest of his day went by in a blur. Just a hazy day of data entry and trying not to let the thought of his forgotten and long lost friends bother him. He did a good job of staying calm and collected all day, right up until he walked out the doors of the building.
That’s when the speedboat appeared.
P.J. rested his forehead against the streaked sliding glass door looking out over the duck pond. He let out a sigh that fogged the view around his face. He imagined that, from the other side, he must’ve looked like someone blurred his face out of existence. Like he was a faceless man in his own life.
P.J. had officially bummed himself out.
He walked over to his cell phone charging on the table next to his couch. Several minutes passed before he stopped searching through his contact list. The thought occurred to him that he could talk out just how sour he was feeling with one of his friends. They’d be able to cheer him up, take him out for a nice drink, and let him know that everyone gets followed around by a watercraft now and then.
But he didn’t have anyone to call.
P.J. closed the phone and tossed it on the couch. It bounced off the cushion, onto the floor, and clacked on the fake hard wood panels.
A knock came at the sliding glass door.
P.J. leapt back with enough force to send him through the roof and right into Mrs. Crabble’s living room.
The speedboat tapped the glass on the sliding door again, its mass taking up the entire view of the duck pond.
“You’ve got some nerve,” P.J. said. He pointed through the glass like a dog trainer fed up with a stubborn puppy. “Here I am, enjoying a nice, quiet day at home, and you’ve gotta stalk me like I’m a pop star. Fuck off!”
P.J. noticed the boat bob up and down a bit slower. He wasn’t sure if boats had ears, but they must’ve had feelings, because the boat tipped down its bow like a snout and lowered away from the glass.
P.J. reached for the door’s handle. He pulled his hand back, reached again, and finally slid the door open.
When he stepped out on the porch he expected the boat to leap out and surprise him. P.J. had seen enough movies, especially bad ones, to know that the weird thing is always waiting just around the corner to pounce at you once you let your guard down.
P.J. started to whistle nonchalantly.
Still, nothing happened.
He leaned over the railing and saw no sign of the boat. Just the duck pond, the uneven freshly mowed grass, and the white specs of paint from Mrs. Gunderson’s sprayed bird feeder projects on her balcony.
P.J. closed the sliding glass door. He was alone. The boat wouldn’t bother him anymore. It was exactly what he wanted.
He sat down on his couch, watching a TV ad for a local window company. The thought of how no one but the boat had visited his apartment in two and a half years crept up on him.
P.J. started to cry.
That night P.J. tossed. Then he turned. Then he kicked all the blankets off the bed and into the black abyss of his dark bedroom.
His heavy eyelids, puffy from tears, squinted in the dark to find the bedside lamp. He clicked it on, showing him the fresh stains of sweat on the sheets. He couldn’t stay in bed any longer.
On his way to the living room he stopped to pee. That was a terrible mistake. He caught his reflection in the mirror and couldn’t stop staring at himself.
He looked like the poster child for loneliness. Not only would he be on posters, but he’d star in the TV original movie and have a whole line of snack cakes based on him.
Lonely-Os, the only donut cakes filled with cream and regret. He could even picture the box with a big sad “O” on the front.
P.J. sat at his little dining table and thought about facing Ross at the office tomorrow. He didn’t want to live in a universe where his shithead manager was right, but he didn’t have a choice in the matter. It was true. P.J. had no friends.
There was a knock at the door.
P.J. shuffled to the front door of his apartment to find the boat waiting for him. He would’ve shoved it off, but he was just too tired to fight back any longer.
The boat tipped down on its right side, offering P.J. an easier access point to hop aboard.
P.J. climbed on board. His whole body wobbled as he tried to find his sea legs, something he’d never done floating three feet above sea level. Inside the boat, he found two bucket seats, a steering wheel, the throttle, a padded bench in the back, and more cup holders than he knew what to do with.
The radio on the boat sparked to life. A golden oldies station filled the air with sleepy tones.
P.J. settled onto the bench seat at the back of the boat. He was a little tall to stretch across the whole thing, but he made himself smaller by curling up into the fetal position like he used to on his single bed back in elementary school.
The boat rocked back and forth gently to the tune of the music. Each swaying motion sending signals to P.J.’s eyes to get heavier and heavier. Before he could question the logistics of a boat keeping time to music, or what his neighbors might think when they saw him curled up in a boat keeping time to music, he fell asleep.
The next morning P.J. was hungry. Not just hungry, but ravenous. He woke to find the boat already lowering to the ground, offering him a soft spot of grass to step out on. P.J. gave the boat a salute, climbed down, and walked into his apartment to make himself breakfast.
Halfway through frying his eggs he noticed he’d left the door open. And when he turned to look at the doorway the boat floated there, beeped its horn at him, and turned to its side to offer him a place to sit and eat his hot breakfast.
The small table on the boat had more than enough room for P.J.’s breakfast, coffee, and a morning paper. P.J. didn’t have a subscription to the morning paper, but there was one inside the boat when he arrived. He didn’t ask the boat where it got the paper and the boat didn’t mention it either.
P.J. arrived at work that morning and realized something was missing. That general feeling of malaise he carried with him to and from work like a small, wretched lunchpail was gone. His heart felt lighter. The air seemed crisper. Ross even seemed less annoying.
“Where’d you score the sweet sea master, Peej?”
P.J. filled his mug with hot water, letting it pour over the teabag tied to the handle.
“Just kind of fell into it, I guess,” P.J. said.
“Looks like someone’s moving up in the world,” Ross playfully pretended to punch P.J. in the stomach. “Watch out for this guy everyone!”
The entire office laughed politely. This kind of pity laugh often sent P.J. into fits of uncontrollable eye rolling. But not today. That Tuesday, standing at the window with his steaming cup of tea, P.J. felt like he deserved it.
The boat must have felt that way, too. The little vessel had flown all the way up to P.J.’s floor to float obediently by the window near his desk until the end of the work day.
Everything at the marina cost more than hospital equipment. P.J. watched his credit card slide through the reader at the dock shop for the fifth time that afternoon and felt a slight sting with each confirmation beep on the register. He could see the boat hovering outside, watching him with excitement as he carried a bag of cleaning supplies, food, and beer back to the dock.
He boarded the boat and set off for his weekend trip on the water. He wore fashionable shorts (according to the dock store) that were slightly too tight and a shirt that was billowy. He pushed off from the dock, sat behind the wheel, and headed out onto Lake Michigan to enjoy his new lifestyle.
P.J. drank five of the twelve beers he brought with him in under an hour. He sat in the chair behind the wheel, haphazardly steering the only boat out on the water. He looked out on the shore and saw people gathered on the sand. They piled wood in a big pit and stuffed the bottom with newspaper. He could see the fire they lit from out on the lake, and the orange glow reflected off the water as the sun went down behind him.
He looked around the boat at the empty seats around him. The radio sprang to life and the boat took control, steering them parallel to the shore as they cruised along the moonlit waves.
P.J. moved back to the bench and away from the wheel. He watched the group of men and women sit closely together. Their laughter carrying out over the water.
He opened his sixth beer, drank it down as fast as he could, and went to open his seventh.
It was just P.J. and the boat.