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Old Sailors Never Die, They Just Get a Little Wherry

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-Maine; June of 1989-

Marko lives on a large wooded lot off Bangor Road, between Stockton Springs and Prospect. It’s a little over two hours’ drive from Portland. Bart likes to take Route 1 out of the city, see the small towns and their harbors, stop and pick up a bit of bric-a-brac for his sister. It adds half an hour to the trip, but it’s nice to slow down and remember that his whole world isn’t the inside of a nuclear submarine.

It’s the reason he flies into Portland, even though Bangor is so much closer.

When he pulls the rental car up to the cabin, Marko is already on the front porch, looking pointedly at his watch. “You’re cutting it close, Captain!” he calls as Bart gets out of the car.

“That’s what happens when you make last-minute plans, Captain,” Bart counters, stretching. He can’t help wincing as his back muscles twinge. He’s getting older, no doubt about it.

Marko meets him at the bottom of the steps, pulls him into a bear hug. If he holds on a little too long, or if Bart does… well, nobody’s around to see it.

“Let’s go,” Marko says at last, but he only pulls away to arm’s length, holding Bart still, eagle gaze scrutinizing. “It’s good to see you. You look tired. We won’t spend too much time there.”

“I’m all right,” Bart replies, and lets himself be steered to Marko’s old pick-up truck. “The flight was a little rough.”

“I’m thawing steak for dinner. Moose steak. My neighbor shot one last November. They hold a drawing for the hunting permits, did you know that?” Marko pulls out onto Bangor Road, heading north.

“Learn something new every day,” Bart says. “Still a no-go on the lobster, huh?”

“I’ve tried them, I don’t like them, and I will not cook any for you. It’s barbaric.”

Bart laughs. “Might be, might be. I’m not going to argue. How’ve you been?”

They chat as Marko drives, about how the winter was, how the truck is running, how he’s getting on with the locals after two years here. They’re friendly, for the most part. It helps that Marko’s accent tends more toward British Isles than Slavic. He says he’s from Europe, and won’t be drawn out further.

The Cold War looks to be ending, but sentiments will linger. They say the KGB still has a price on Marko’s head, too. Bart wouldn’t be shocked. Marko takes it in stride. Best to stay as vague as possible.

“Are you taking the most convoluted route there is?” Bart asks after a few minutes. The road seems to twist and turn nonsensically.

“It’s that kind of place,” Marko says with a shrug. “We’re almost there.”

Sure enough, he makes a final turn into a gravel driveway, and gestures off to the right. “There she is.”

The boat is long and sleek, with an upswept bow, bright white with a strip of navy blue below the gunwales. Bart squints. “Good lord, is that mahogany?”

“I thought I’d splurge in my old age,” Marko says with a wink.

They get out of the truck; the sound of the doors slamming brings someone out of the workshop.

“Mr. Reems, what do you think?” the man asks, gesturing at the boat. “The mast is inside. The sail will be here Tuesday.”

“She’s beautiful,” Marko says, admiration clear in his voice. “You’ve done excellent work.”

“Have you thought of a name yet? My boys’ll paint it on for you.”

“I will come up with something once I’ve put her in the water a few times,” Marko says. “You can’t name something you’ve never met.”

The man laughs. “You sure you’re not a poet, Mr. Reems?”

Marko smiles. “Sir, I’ve yet to meet a sailor who isn’t a poet, in one way or another. What do you think, Bart?”

“About poetry, or the boat?” Bart walks the length of the thing, about fifteen feet, admiring the graceful lines and the shine of the dark wood. “I can’t say I know too much about either, but this looks like amazing work.”

“Jack would be scandalized,” Marko says. “You don’t fish, you don’t boat, what are you even doing in this state?”

“Moose raffle,” Bart shoots back. “And seashell tchotchkes for my sister.”

The boatbuilder doesn’t seem to know what to make of them, but he smiles gamely at their banter. “Have you found a trailer for her? I do have that older one out back.”

“I’ve found one,” Marko says, “but my mechanic tells me I need a new trailer hitch.”

“Really?” Bart glances at the truck. “I’ll have a look when we get back, if you want?” He doesn’t know wooden boats, but he’s a metallurgical engineer by training, or he was, days and days past, before Submarine School and the War College. He still knows a stressed metal when he sees one. “Might not be worth it if the frame is rusting out.”

“You a mechanic?” the boatbuilder asks.

“Not exactly,” Bart says with a laugh. “Not even close.”

- - -

Bart takes his bags into the bedroom when they return, while Marko mutters something about a marinade and heads for the kitchen.

It’s a large cabin, a few hundred square feet bigger than what’s average for the area, with solid oak walls, well insulated for the harsh winters. The interior is a mix of Old World and New, finely hewn beams and mantles, a state-of-the-art sound system, and no shortage of maritime art. The US Government had been quite generous with its renumerations to the Red October’s officers, and they’d all taken full advantage. Marko had explored Montana, as a tribute to Vasily, but the rocky coast of Maine had called him back.

Marko’s bed is an oversized four-poster affair, neatly made, piled with Indian blankets he’d picked up out west. Bart puts his suitcase on the luggage rack in the corner, toes off his slippers – one Old World custom he can get behind – and sags back onto the covers. The room smells of cedar, with a hint of burning wood from the fireplace, and Bart closes his eyes at the memories the scents bring up.

He doesn’t realize he’s dozed off until he feels Marko nudging at his leg. “Get up, Bart. Dinner’s ready.”

Moose steak is not as exotic as Bart had expected, but much richer than anything from a supermarket. Marko knows how to cook, too, indulges in it; Bart is a most grateful beneficiary of his efforts. Besides the steak, there are broiled vegetables, a hearty bread, and blueberry cobbler for dessert. Objection to lobster aside, Marko has happily embraced the local cuisine.

After dinner, they sit in front of the fire, pressed close together, nursing glasses of scotch. Marko slides an arm around Bart’s shoulders; Bart leans into him, drowsy and loose-limbed. He doesn’t think he’s felt this relaxed since the last time he saw Marko.

“I’m thinking about retiring,” he admits after a while. “They’ve got me on the promotion track, but…”

“Rear Admiral Mancuso has a nice ring to it,” Marko says neutrally.

“I’m tired,” Bart admits. “I didn’t expect to be. There’s a good crop of officers coming up behind me. Young, but steady. Most of them aren’t, you know, buckaroos.”

Marko huffs a laugh at hearing Bart repeat his favorite moniker. “You believe they’ll be able to make the right choices?”

“The world is changing,” Bart says. “Peaceful revolutions against communism – who’d have expected that to work? And these guys, they’ve been training in de-escalation. Because of you, because of Jack, they’ve been training to make different choices than my generation. So yeah, I think they’ll do the right thing when the time comes. I think people on both sides will do the right thing.”

“And may their children forgive us for our mistakes,” Marko murmurs. After a long silence, he asks, “What will you do, if you retire? Where will you go?”

Bart can’t help the thrill of nervousness that shoots through him. “This moose lottery thing is intriguing,” he stalls. Another huff, a breath of laughter against Bart’s neck, and he shifts so he can meet Marko’s eyes. “I sort of thought I might come here… if you’ll have me?”

Marko regards him with a warm, pleased smile. “I’d like that, Bart. I’d like that very much.”

- - -

On Sunday morning, Bart crawls under the truck and decides that yes, it needs a new hitch. They drop off the truck on Monday, get it back on Wednesday morning, and go to the boat yard with the new trailer to pick up the wherry.

“I have name, I think,” Marko tells the builder as his sons secure the boat onto the trailer. “But you’ll have to paint it next week. I’m going to spend the rest of this week convincing Bart that he enjoys fishing.”

“Is it the fish you don’t like, or the water?” the man asks.

“Oh, it’s definitely the water,” Bart says, straight-faced. “There’s a reason God and the US Navy build their boats out of steel.”

“There’s always fiberglass for a happy medium?” is the suggestion.

Bart has to laugh at that. “Son, I saw a whale do a belly flop onto a fiberglass boat once. Guess which of them survived that encounter?”

The man throws his hands up with a smirk. “Fair enough. You’ve got your work cut out for you, Mr. Reems.”

“Ah, don’t let him fool you,” Marko says, checking that the wherry’s mast is secure. “He’s a sailor through and through.”

“I’m a sub driver,” Bart counters. “It’s not the same thing at all.”

- - -

The waves on Penobscot Bay are small but choppy. There’s a strong breeze, the tide is coming in, and the whole experience is a lot less serene than Bart was hoping for.

Marko is in his element, of course. He trims the sail efficiently and grins into the wind. His hair, much longer than when Bart first met him, blows across his eyes, but he doesn’t pay it any mind. He points out this spit of land or that hidden shoal, and all Bart can do is nod along, lost in the sheer joy of Marko’s enthusiasm.

“So what are you going to call her?” he asks as they tack shoreward. The sun is thinking about setting, and they don’t want to load the boat in the dark. “You never said.”

Marko leans against the gunwale, watching the sail fill. When he turns toward Bart, his eyes are wide and bright. “I think you can guess,” he says, smiling fondly. “A new boat, a new beginning…”

Bart never was into poetry, and he never was that kind of sailor, but he knows this one. It’s Marko’s favorite.

“And the sea shall grant each man new hope,” he recites.

“New hope,” Marko echoes. “New Hope.”

-end-