As I rowed myself and the old canoe dockside, I was perplexed by a woman in a long, swaying overcoat. She walked the dock in a halo of sunset. Her stride was nonchalant. With her back turned to me — perhaps unaware of me, perhaps thinking the sounds of my oars in the water to be the dapple of ducks — she let tufts of cigarette smoke run away from her.
She was, it turned out, not so clueless at all. As I withdrew my oars from the water and let the current float me easy to the dock, the woman spun and rest her foot with a dense thud on the side of my canoe. The figure wore a pair of two-inch leather heels, black as her overcoat and in need of waxing. My starboard lip fit well in the gap between heel and sole. I became tense. This woman had interrupted my sunset and should explain herself.
“Can I help you?” I rest my elbows on my knees and looked up to find a bronze face grinning, not yet at me but at some strange thing in the air. She wore eyeliner like wings, lines of it shooting at slants from her eyes toward the lines of skin above her ears. Her hair hung in loose maroon curls to her waist. Devil woman!
“I’m sorry,” I chimed. “I’ll exhaust myself. Can I help you?” A duck really did dapple now — a light splash somewhere far behind me as I bobbed there, this woman keeping a watery foot or two between me and the dock. “I just varnished this boat of mine. You scratch it with those heels, you’re free labor with sandpaper and a brush far as I’m concerned.”
“Ruin your varnish? As if I’d do such a blasphemy.” A curious way with speech — her voice was a low grovel, it chewed words like black licorice candy. Her grin turned toward me now. “As if I’ve never varnished a thing. This town is full of varnish, including mine.”
“Is that right?” I scanned the marina around us, ketches rising in the starry blue of a flooding tide and the harbormaster’s house sinking in tandem. “And I suppose one of the prettier of these is yours?” I gestured to the boats in their slips, and then to those on their moorings. Surely I would snag her there.
She just laughed. “Oh, no! No, no. I’ve my own canoe.” She leaned into her outstretched foot a bit as if to push me farther from the dock, though really she was peering into the belly of my craft. Two feet of tide ran beneath her long, suspecting leg, and I admit it was very muscular as the overcoat slipped from around it. Her quadricep seemed to want out of her leg, in fact — to be of its own spirit on the dock. “Actually,” she went on, “I think this is my canoe.” Her eyes found me. Play the game, they whispered, and ducks were dappling again.
I gave in. “Why, that is right! Yes, you’re very right. I’ve only dreamt of such a perfectly varnished cedar craft.” I was grinning now. “I’ll return it to you shortly,” and I snatched up an oar and set it lightly to the dock, shoving myself off in a gliding silence.
The devil woman gasped, nearly fell in splits to the water as I floated away. Quick as a water snake, though — and this was how I started imagining her, as a leathery, wonderful water snake — she wrapped herself around a piling, spun about it, then squatted and with immense finger strength grabbed the tip of my oar. I could drift no farther. The tide flooded five feet between us.
“Do you climb mountains?” I cocked my head a little, I tested her a little. “I mean, with the great strength of your fingers there, that veiny hand of yours. You must! There’s lots of mountains here in Salem, I know.”
“You don’t say? I haven’t noticed.” She flipped me off and mouthed a sarcastic, inaudible “Ah!” at her own poor manners. Her eyes twitched, her eyeliner quivered in what by now was moonlight rising. “No, I haven’t noticed. But I do like to shoot skeet. There’s a range not so far from here. Perhaps it’s the pulling of triggers you’re seeing in these hands.” She looked at them. “I find them rather wiry.”
Her grovel softened and she retracted her flippant bird. She went on. “Don’t you ever shoot?” Slowly, she pulled the oar — and thus the boat, and me in it — back toward her. The ducks lessened their dappling. A random fender lay nearby, and this she grabbed quickly and placed between me and the dock to pillow my arrival. “Just taking care of my varnish, you see.”
Silence played with us for a buzzing minute. Up on the concrete landing which routed the marina to the town, a dog arrived and went about barking at us — an obnoxious bark that sent the ducks scattering. The nearest souls otherwise were in the shadows of a slender couple, the light of their living room hazy in a window a hundred yards away, and they might have been dancing or trading spoons. I held my stare there for a while. The woman, the water snake, did not budge. She held her stare on my long cheeks. The dog became furious and paced the dock as he barked. I looked at him, and then at the water snake. I was still bobbing there, she kept me bobbing there, my canoe — my poor, beautiful, varnished half-moon of cedar wood — not yet made fast to a cleat. The tide was barely a foot wide beneath us and was finished flooding.
It was I, per usual, who spoke again. “Why are you here?” My eyes watered. I fixed them on the tails of the woman’s overcoat.
“I was out for a walk.” Her licorice tone stretched across the water. She brought her index and middle fingers to her lips and pretended to smoke another cigarette, blew imagined smoke through the part of my hair. Theatric! Devil woman! And she still had not explained herself, my interrupted sunset.
“You walk this dock often?”
“I do. You’ve never noticed, of course.” She pulled from her fingers again. “You’ve never noticed, never noticed.”
“I never notice. Is that your dog?”
“I don’t think so,” she sighed, and turned to look at it. It was jumping now — a shaggy, wild thing — and clanging its paws against the chain link fence which ran the marina’s perimeter. “Then again, I forgot this was my canoe. Don’t forget it is my canoe. Perhaps that’s my dog, too.” She looked back at me. “Unless, of course, he’s yours.”
I shrugged and tried again — less strongly, I confess — to push myself away. “It might be my dog.” Her eyes shook with joy, they asked that I keep playing. She held the lip of my canoe and let me float nowhere as she sat back on her strong legs with the overcoat beneath her knees. It kept them from grinding against a dock riven with splinters. Out of thin starlight the dog shut its trap, and ducks returned to the water somewhere near. I kept playing. “It’s almost certainly my dog.”
“Oh, no! Not your dog.” Oh, she loved contradiction. She laughed, leathery and mad, still puffing at unreal cigarettes. Devil woman! The whole of Salem could hear her. “I’ve seen that dog everywhere. All the town knows that dog! Remember, I’ve done a share of handiwork here, lots of varnish. I varnish, too. That dog always brings his nose by. I’ll be at a window varnishing the trim, or in a garage varnishing a chest of drawers — I swear that shag always sniffs around.”
“I apologize,” I doped. “I’ll leash the shag from now on, and I’ll lash him to a cleat.” With eyebrows raised in sarcasm I looked around us and got smart. “At the rate this is going, that mutt will have any cleat he chooses for his tether. It seems I’ll never lash my canoe up again. A wide open dock — lucky dog!”
“Oh, stop your bitching.” She sat up and smiled. It was the briefest, most ordinary movement. It was the closest to normal I had seen in her. I was mixed feelings about it. “It’s time we turn in anyway,” she added, and with that she unpillowed my canoe, setting the fender aside. The tide was ebbing in the space between canoe and dock, which I became fixed on as it grew again: two feet, three feet, four. She still held the lip of the canoe but was pushing me off with grace, presenting me to ocean and asking for its blessing. The water snake — she outstretched her body as far as she could without tipping into the sea, into the random reeds and weeds that floated in the marina, and then let go. This all happened under a steady moonlight.
I sat for a while like stone, looking at the woman and the marina sleeping around us, my craft drifting. Here was bliss. It ran moon strings on the water and splashed silently in its rest, and somewhere on the road into town it played an overnight jazz program on public radio and let the music wander out the car and along the sidewalk. I could have felt bewildered and alone. I felt neither way. There was tranquility there, and a strange aura to feel it with me, though I had no way of knowing what was trouncing through her head — her rangy head atop a rangy body.
Some minutes passed. When I was full of bliss I paddled back to the dock, and the woman did not screw with me this time. She made fast my two dock lines with the speed of an old, gray sailor. I rose from my seat and went to step out of the canoe.
“Ah, ah. No.” She held me in irons there, her right hand an inch from my chest, and with her left hand pulled a real cigarette from a box in her left pocket, and a lighter, and went about lighting it as she held my station. “You will wait here and watch my canoe while I leave.”
No look of confusion so rigid has ever found me again. I tilted my head, explored her bronze face. I noticed now her cheeks were smooth, shallow buckets. They could have cupped seawater and some moon-glow. Her eyes were a blue and obsidian interplay, but she — she really was done with our gaming.
“I will wait?” I sought confirmation.
“You will wait, with my canoe.” She confirmed.
“Mm-hm.” The ebbing tide had the pretty ketches sinking, and the harbormaster’s place rising again just inland. The light was out in the window where the couple had been trading spoons, or dancing. I looked for the wild dog — when had he quit his barking? — but he had long shagged away.
In vain I tried for conclusion. “Who are you?” My tone was simple, my tone was an arrow. It shot past the woman, just grazing her eyeliner and dipping into the shimmer of the ebbing tide. The ducks scattered again.
“You’ve a beautifully varnished canoe.” That was her ending. I replayed it for myself. “You’ve a beautifully varnished canoe.” That was her conclusion, nothing more. Devil woman!
“But isn’t this your — “
“Ah! Easy, there.” She turned and walked up a gangway to the top of the marina, turned back to me, whispered something. Then like a luminous, strange story she went into town, her cigarette stringing the air above her with smoke. A water snake gone to vapor, disappeared. A brush of warmth — embarrassment, maybe, or shy admiration — came over me, but the sun was not yet rising. It was dark still, and very still.
“You’ve a beautifully varnished canoe.” I muddled the phrase over and over the whole winding walk home. It never made more sense.
I’m not one for strange tales — for ghosts or haunts. I’ve never been much for love, either. Much of my life has been spent a bachelor, spent in solo rows and sunsets like peach skins to the west. These are the waters I chose to occupy. I’ve no regrets.
My sunsets, though, are forever interrupted. To date I ding my craft against the dock like an amateur, except that I’ve rowed for a decade at least since that night — the night a woman jammed my canoe in the gap of her heel. No one I’ve told this story to sees coincidence in the thing. I would enlist her to varnish my boat, but not a voice in the town knows where she went. They all know her, but they don’t know where she went.