Last year they brought an old tugboat to the surface, refurbished it, and turned it into a bar. The inside is solid wood with heavy beams coated with multiple layers of antique white paint. A huge wooden figurehead hangs from the ceiling. Her chest arches over us, her dark eyes wide and mysterious. The bartender pours me a merlot and fills a bowl with salted peanuts. He asks how I’m doing, and before I can answer, he’s screwing a bolt on the underside of an old brass cash register.
These days I find it hard to relax at home. My daughter starts college in the fall and only speaks to me is when she’s in need of money. My wife nags me all the time about a cottage we saw upstate about three years ago. It’s in the mountains. The back deck overlooks a huge lake. A slow moving stream runs through the front yard and occasionally floods the basement. It’s been on the market for some time because no one wants to deal with fixing the crack in the foundation. My wife wants to buy it. She says we can figure out a way to repair it and redirect the water flow. It’s affordable because of the work one would need to put into it, but I have no interest in putting our money into something that’s not rock solid. Each time she brings it up, I remind her I’m not good with my hands, and even if I was, we don’t have the right tools to fix something that serious. She folds her arms across her chest, squints, and shakes her head.
I take my wine and peanuts to an empty table near an old copper light. A waitress asks if I want to see a menu. She’s petite with cropped auburn hair, freckles, and a tiny stud in her nose. I look up from my fog and swallow hard. My words stick.
“Cat got your tongue?” she asks.
“I’m good for now.”
She puts one hand on her hip, tilts her head, and studies my face.
“I usually don’t do this,” she says, “but I’m in the middle of a photo essay and in need of a middle-aged subject. I’m shooting tomorrow evening at my studio. If you’re interested, come on by, and we’ll see how it goes.”
She writes her address on the back of the bill and leaves it on the table.
“And if you regain the ability to speak and want to order something, just give me a shout. My name’s Jessie.”
The next day I call my wife from work. I tell her I’m going to the bar for a drink before coming home. The studio is in an old warehouse across from the docks. The door is a solid piece of wood with a heavy iron latch. Small track lights hang from rough-hewn beams and run the length of the ceiling. The lights are adjusted to illuminate her photos, which hang from the exposed brick walls.
“These are yours?”
“Yep. Shot and developed myself.”
The subjects are all burly, middle-aged men. Her manipulation of light spreads a subtle glow over their faces and curates a sense of calm. All the subjects are sitting in an old wood chair pushed against the wall of her studio. On the floor, next to her camera, is a haunting black and white photo of an elderly sea captain with a dog and a small boat. The subject appears to be in mid-sentence.
“Is this also yours?”
“Yep, it’s my dad. That’s the last photo I took of him before he died.”
“It’s a nice boat.”
“Our neighbors got divorced and split up everything. No one wanted the old boat, so I took it. I found a how-to book in an old nautical shop and refurbished it myself. We loved being out on the water together.”
She turns her head and picks up the camera. A flash of light bounces off her stud.
When I arrive home, dinner is on the table. I open a bottle of red wine and fill our glasses.
“Didn’t you have wine at the bar?” my wife says.
I reach into my backpack and reveal the how-to book. “This is for you.”
She squints, runs her hand over the glossy cover, and smiles.
“How ’bout we skip the news tonight and snuggle up with our new book?” I say.
“Sure,” she says. “If we buy the house, do you think we can turn the room with the view of the lake into art studio? I’ve been missing my sculpting. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a great idea.”
That night, I lay awake listening to the sound of rain falling on the roof. I remove the book from my wife’s chest and place it on her nightstand. In the distance, there is a crack of thunder. A burst of wind pushes through the open window, separating the delicate lace curtains. I recall the day’s events and wonder why she hasn’t pressed me about where the how-to book came from.