Sailors Take Warning by Michael C. Ahn

He asked me to go sailing with him, just as I would ask a girl for a date. It wasn’t just the words, but the way he looked at me. I felt a fleeting discomfort, and I dismissed it. Dismissing unpleasantries was a foible of mine, besides I’d never been sailing on the lake.

     I liked Jack McInnis. I first met him at the start of school last year when I lived in the fraternity house. I didn’t have a car and he’d go out of his way to offer me rides to campus. I accepted his friendship as a matter of course from a brother.

     That September in 1968, summer persisted with cicadas buzzing in the elm trees and the warm southwesterlies coasting into the evening. We’d just finished dinner and Jack was giving me a lift to my apartment in his new ‘68 Jaguar. He had the top down and the air scuffled my hair as he shifted into third. I adjusted the headrest and looked up at the sky, and with a deep breath closed my eyes. Jack first brought up the weekend forecast, and then he asked me about sailing.
     “How about asking a few of the other guys to go sailing with us?” I asked.

     “No, I don’t like a big crew, Grady,” he said, his eyes on the road. “I’ll pick you up nine sharp Saturday. We’ll go all the way up the lake and back. We can make it a two-day trip.”

     In grade school we made fun of them and used words like homo and queer. They were abnormal, it was said. Paul and Paula Rawlings were twins in Mrs. Berry’s class. Both tall and blond, they looked alike. But Paula had a bigger frame with broader shoulders and thicker muscles. Paul was fragile and demure. When we played kickball during recess, it was Paula whom everyone wanted on their team. She could boot the ball a mile high, but Paul didn’t want to play, afraid he’d get hurt. We’d whispered about Paul. Sissy, we called him and I remember asking if he was a homo. Like the others I wasn’t sure.

     Some of us definitely knew Jimmy Allen was a homo. Jimmy had willingly used his mouth on several boys in restroom stalls. The story spread quickly but no one knew quite how to respond. We whispered and giggled, told jokes. If the school staff also had gotten wind of it, no action was ever taken. One day after school, my friend Robby and I detoured to our local drug store for a Popsicle. We took a short cut through the back of the shopping center, and behind the waste dump containers we saw a handful of boys in a brawl. Robby wanted to turn around, but I convinced him we could watch unnoticed behind a parked truck. Closer to the commotion I saw it wasn’t a brawl, and I recognized Stanley Mitchell, the school bully who had a flat-top and the only kid with acne in our fifth-grade class. Everyone dreaded Stanley, who moved fearlessly with his gang. He had been expelled from school several times, which only emboldened him. Three others stood and watched. A boy was on his knees, head bent to the lot’s blacktop, screaming and pleading with his hands covering his head. Stanley was swinging a stick at him as if it were a baseball bat. With one hand shielding his head, the screaming boy looked up, his face covered with blood. It was Jimmy Allen. Stanley gave a final kick to Jimmy’s face, and his head flew back onto the coarse asphalt. When the mob left, Jimmy stood up, moaning and still writhing in pain.

     I felt like a coward. I was a coward. We didn’t go to Jimmy to see if he was okay, and afterwards Robby and I never talked about the incident. As far as I knew, Jimmy had never offended Stanley, and they didn’t even know each other, but Stanley must have heard about the bathroom incident. Still, what was it to Stanley?

     In 1965 the summer before college, I had had an encounter of sorts when I was returning to the States from Athens after a visit with my father, an embassy bureaucrat. I managed a three day stay-over in Rome, and to squeeze everything in I took the tourist route to the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and the Coliseum.

     Late in the afternoon on the second day, I stood on top of the Spanish Steps overlooking the city. Men were scattered below, some seated and others traversing the incline. Against the orange sky, St. Peter’s dome rose above the horizon. Next to me stood a tall man, lanky, middle-aged, wearing a tan suit. His perfectly trimmed hair was blond, not dirty blond but yellow like those you see in magazine drawings. He may have been a Scandinavian, German perhaps. He would glance at me and then quickly shift his stare to the city below. His eyes were cold blue and piercing, like a sea captain’s in a novel. I looked at him and smiled, curious.

     An Alfa Romeo zipped to the curve, stopping abruptly. The driver looked Italian—spectacled, balding and rotund. He got out and stood next to me looking at the view. “Beautiful.”

     “Yes it is,” I said.

     “You a American, si?”

     “How did you know?” I said, grinning.

     “Your a clothes, your a shoes, your a hair.”

     “It was that easy?”

     “You a like to see city in my car?” he asked, pointing to his convertible.

     “Yeah, sure.” It could be a nice change from walking.

     He shifted gears smoothly, and the Alfa Romeo sped around the Roman hill like a pinball shooting around the tracks. He looked at me and I looked back.

     “I like to ask a question to you,” he said. “Do you like a man?”

     I didn’t get it. “Yes, I like mankind.”

     “No, no. I mean a you like a man?” he said, cupping his stubby hands on my knee.

     Suddenly my faced flushed and stomach tightened. I felt trapped but I remained calm. “No, I don’t like,” I said, mimicking his broken English.

     “Why?” he said.

     “Because I like girls,” I blurted.

     He drove his car back up the hill. It was as if he made a mistake, and he accepted it. He remained quiet and inexpressive until we reached our origin.

     “I like a girl, too,” he said. “But I like a man—for variety, for variety. Ciao.”

     As I watched Jack push the gearshift, I thought of how Jack’s expression, and the German’s, and the Italian’s, were all the same. And maybe that was why I became uncomfortable when Jack asked me to go sailing. The look was not easy to describe—anticipation, apprehension, wistfulness.

     Jack was not your typical second year law student. He was active in the fraternity when no other graduate student socialized in the house. No one knew when he studied; law students usually buried themselves in the stacks, but Jack was often seen lolling around the house. And, he was rich. That in itself wasn’t unusual, but he was conspicuous; he had a 24-foot sailboat on the lake, a black Jaguar convertible, and always a wad of hundred dollar bills in his wallet.

     Jack had gone to Columbia as an undergrad, where he’d been a member of our fraternity. He showed up one day at the house and declared himself a Beta chapter member. Fraters saw him as a die-hard fraternity member, a lifer. Besides, Jack was conversant in almost any topic and also a master chess player, bridge player, and guitarist. He never discussed law.

     He had told me he was born during the war and never knew his father, who was buried in France. His father’s family had owned a large shoe store chain in the city—half of the eight million people in Manhattan purchased their footwear from McInnis Shoes. Jack and his mother had lived in a two-level co-op near Central Park in the Upper East Side, and she had enrolled him in all the right schools. A uniformed chauffeur was always on duty. In summers Jack attended camps in the Adirondacks where his mother followed him and waited in the big hotels.

     At twenty four Jack was already stout from too much beer and too many French fries. He had dark curly hair, long eyelashes and plump lips, the upper one coming to a point like a sparrow’s beak. He wore Brooks Brothers shirts, usually under cashmeres, and never a tie, but he often wore an ascot.

     Earlier in the month Jack had invited me to his apartment, a grand 19th century Victorian brownstone in town. The landlord, a Mrs. Greenwood, lived on the main floor and the two upper floors were modified into four separate units. Intricate woodwork framed the lead-lined windows and the walls were all walnut-paneled.

     “Mrs. Greenwood doesn’t allow any women visitors here, Grady,” he had told me, looking away. His comment seemed out of place to me. While people described Jack as affable, I sensed he held back, like a fortune teller.

 

 


 

 

The previous year, when I’d moved into the fraternity house, my assigned roommate had flunked out after his freshman year. I had the room to myself for the first few months, and Jack had often come up after dinner, sat on the empty bed smoking and telling stories. Thinking back, we had some laughs together then, and I remember I often looked forward to his company. When the next semester began, I was assigned a new roommate.

     “Grady, I don’t quite understand. Jack’s throwing a cold shoulder at me,” my roommate Gary had said shortly after moving in. “I don’t think I’ve offended him in any way.”

     Jack was frustrated, I reasoned, because we couldn’t have our usual time together after dinner, and he held that against Gary.

     That Friday, Jack called to tell me a low pressure system from the south was moving in. “Grady, there are possible thunderstorms on Sunday,” he said. “We’d better just make it an all-day Saturday outing. It should be a good sailing day—sunny, with light breeze. In fact, why don’t we get an earlier start and I’ll pick you up at seven.”

     All the better, I thought. I had exams coming up. Also, I had pondered the boat trip during the week, and the thought of sleeping on a tight sailboat with Jack made me uneasy. Then, I would discard my thoughts as unfounded or unfair to him.

     Saturday morning Jack was in his form. He had his pilot shades on, top down on the convertible, and was wearing his ascot. We bolted into the A&P lot to pick up meats, beer and ice; Jack was humming as he shuffled down the store’s aisles, giving me orders to pick up this and that. Back in the car, he was brandishing his knowledge of wind indicators—flapping of flags, grass movements along the road, and even waving patterns of women’s dresses. Jack was excited.

     The boat was docked in the town’s marina where Jack had a year-round slip. The sails were tightly sheathed, and the deck was immaculate with perfectly wound ropes. Jack was right, a perfect sailing day, the bright morning light shimmering across the quavering water.

     Jack had been sailing all his life on the Long Island Sound, where he kept a 42-foot Columbia. His movements on the boat were never jerky or quick, but rhythmic and deliberate like a seasoned pianist. He maneuvered the boat straight up the lake, and when the sails caught the westerly, we moved as if we were on a free-fall.

     Jack opened the beer cans and he slurped the foam, the wind stealing some. A gust bore heavily against my face, and I held a fixed smile to contain my exhilaration. The beer moved easily down my throat. We had beer for breakfast and lunch and ate salami pasted with mustard. In the afternoon I took off my sweatshirt when the temperature climbed, unusually high for the month. When the beer was nearly gone, I dozed off, lying flat on my back in the cockpit.

     The sun was low when a chilled breeze woke me, goose bumps on my arms and chest. I slowly opened my eyes and turned my head to find my bearings. Seated behind the helm, Jack was studying me. The boat glided slowly and the air seemed muffled, accentuating our isolation—all of which made his stare more uncomfortable for me.

     “Where the hell’s my sweatshirt?” I finally said.

     “You were out for awhile, Grady. We’re getting to the marina now.”

     On the way home Jack was more subdued, and neither of us said much. I had recurring images of him staring at me in the cockpit and wondered what went through him.


Later in the fall some of us were in the house living room drinking, and others were tubing. A group was hunched over a poker table. Jack strummed his guitar and sang a schmaltzy song he’d written about a farm boy and his dog. When he finished, people stopped to clap and asked for more.

     The evening stretched out and someone made a comment about drinking beer on a weekend night without dates. We weren’t tanked but we were loud, and I claimed I could get a blind date with any freshman out of the Pig Book—the photo manual of freshman names, with residence and phone number. Jack liked my grandstanding and joined in.

     “I’ll make you a deal, Grady,” he said. “If you can get a date from a coed that we select from the book, I’ll chauffer your date.”

     “Why would I want you to chauffeur us?” I asked.

     People stopped chattering to hear our volley.

     “Because I’ll chauffer you in a 1941 Packard 180. Because I’ll have chauffeur’s uniform, including a cap.”

     “A 1941 Packard 180?”

     “Yeah. It looks new. I have it stored in the city, and I’ll go get it if you win the bet.”

     Jack and the others combed the Pig Book and selected a Kristin Ainslee—Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania; government major; Balch Hall. No one knew her but they agreed on her photo—blonde, tall from the length of her neck, and probably bitchy. She was a perfect candidate. They were thinking that all her weekends were booked ‘til spring break. Actually, I was thinking that also.

     The phone on the coffee table was placed in front of me, and all waited to see me get shot down. More beer was passed. Jack was hamming it up for the larger audience, and he put down his beer and grabbed his guitar. “I’m back in the saddle again…” Texas accent and all. Others joined him.

     I was trapped, but all the same I figured I had a shot. Coeds accepted blind dates all the time. I thought about this Kristin, a freshman from the sticks. And the good-looking ones, the intimidating ones, don’t get asked out, I told myself. Probably never been anywhere beyond Scranton.

     When I dialed her number, I was told to wait. That upped my confidence a bit—Friday evening, and she was in her dorm. Kristin finally picked up the phone, her voice tenuous.

     I jumped straight to the point. “Kristin, my name is Grady Talbot and the truth is I’d like to ask you out. The guys in my fraternity and I were discussing campus dating, and the coeds having a three to one ratio advantage—well, the guys were complaining the coeds were snootier than coeds in other schools. I told them that just wasn’t the case.”

     There was silence, and then she began to giggle.

     “I’m not kidding,” I continued. “They actually went through the Pig Book, and selected you as a test case—the most attractive coed in the book.”

     The giggling turned to laughter. Loud laughter.

     “They dared me to call you to make a date. So, I’m asking you to go out with me next week. I’m a third year government major myself, and I can at least fill you in on the courses to take and avoid.”

     The laughter stopped. “Well, what do you have in mind?” she asked.

     “Saturday, we could flick out. 2001 is playing downtown and I’ll pick you up at six. Then we can get something to eat in Collegetown.”

     “I’m in Balch,” she said.

     “I’ll see you at six on Saturday,” I told her.

     All focused on me as I hung up, silent. Jack was silent also.

     He finally spoke. “Well, I’ll leave for the city tomorrow to get the Packard.”

     Jack did as he said, went to the city, and when he returned, he drove up to the front of the house and honked a distinctive blaring horn. House members came out for the show. The Packard looked as if it had rolled out of Detroit yesterday—dark cobalt blue, white walled wheels with a red inner lining, massive chrome grill with matching fenders. Jack said the 8-cylinder, 186 horsepower engine powered the car’s 4,000-pound body. The detailing was lush with thick burgundy carpets and soft leather. The paint reflected the dark trees against the sallow sky.

     On Saturday Jack donned an old fashioned chauffeur’s uniform—black tie, black Florsheim shoes, and a chauffeur cap. He even conveyed deference. It was as if he were rehearsing in a movie set, and I’m sure he had studied his chauffeur for years.

     I sat in the back as Jack drove to Balch Hall. His back sat stiff and straight, his gloved hands gently turning the mahogany wheel. Jack had insisted I also play the part, and so I was in a three-piece suit—subtle pinstriped Gabardine wool. A suit wasn’t out of place in Balch on Saturday nights.

     “I’ll get the door, sir,” he said as he parked. He got out, opened the door, and stood at attention. Coeds looked out the dorm windows, gaping at the limo and the chauffeur swabbing the hood with a plumed duster.
     
     Kristin stepped down the stairs, graceful like a dancer. She wore a neatly pressed dress with little lavender flowers. She was every bit as pretty as her photo. She extended her hand and smiled.

     “Have you heard about the limo outside?” she asked, her voice delicate. “The girls are saying someone has a date with royalty.”

     When I told her the limo was mine, her smile disappeared. She looked me over, her eyes shifting rapidly. As we walked, she pressed her dress with her hands.

     Jack opened the door, stoic. The ride to the theater was only fifteen minutes, and I made small talk of the government department and the faculty members. She was only partially attentive, as she studied the car’s upholstery, chromed ornaments, and mahogany panels lining the doors. She had a faint smell of lilacs.

     Kristin discretely scrutinized Jack as well. Jack didn’t utter a word during the trip. He and I made eye contact through the rear view mirror, but I couldn’t read his thoughts.

     “I’ll be waiting for you at 8:45, Mr. Talbot,” Jack announced, opening the car door.

     “That’ll be fine, Jack,” I said.

     Kristin seemed to be taken in by the movie, but she did glance at me occasionally, probably wondering to which robber baron family I belonged. On screen, HAL, the mad computer, played a game of chess with one of the astronauts. I turned to Kristin and whispered the truth about my masquerade into her ear, and she chuckled loudly enough to annoy the people in front of us.

     Jack picked us up in front of the theater, and then drove us to Johnny’s Restaurant in Collegetown. Kristin was relaxed and quick to smile. When she laughed, she tilted her head back, as if to look at the ceiling.

     She told me her family had been in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre area for almost 200 years. Her father was a Hopkins-educated pediatrician, who had returned to his hometown. She said she also would return after school.

     “What’s in Wilkes Barre?” I asked. “It’s got coal and cold weather.”

     Kristin laughed again. Her mouth was on the small side, slightly turned down at the ends, and didn’t quite fit her face. Her forehead was as broad as her eyes were large, making her appear to be steadily smiling. Her height only exaggerated her delicate build, and I imagined her chest had not changed much since puberty. She combed her blonde hair parted on one side with a brown clip on the other.

     She told me she had been to a few fraternity parties, and she’d dated several upperclassmen but also took her studies seriously and used the weekends to book. The weekends had fewer distractions in the dorms, she said. Lucky for me.

     Kristin only mentioned Jack to say that he must be a very good friend to spend a Saturday evening like this, even as a prank. “He played his role so well,” she said. I didn’t tell her he was the real robber baron.

     We began to see each other regularly and by spring exclusively. She became familiar with the brothers, and at date-night dinners, Jack often sat with us. They became friends.

     After spring weekend I was having lunch with her on campus. She was buoyant, recalling the events. It had been her first fraternity weekend party—a 48-hour, non-stop bash of banquets, dances, champagne brunches, lawn parties, and black tie dinners. Then she made an unexpected remark.

     “Grady, I don’t think Jack likes me,” she said.

     “What do you mean?”

     “He doesn’t like me. He puts on a nice front, but I sense resentment. On the other hand, when he looks at you, he lights up.”

     “What?” I said, my voice rising. “You’re imagining things.”

     “No, Grady, I don’t think so. I’ve seen him change, quite suddenly when he sees you. He’s like a peacock opening his feathers.”

     I didn’t like the reference and became silent—an angry silence that she sensed. She was implying Jack was in love with me. But so what? Why did I suddenly feel angry? She wasn’t being accusatory. Gary had said the same thing, and if Gary had made a peacock reference, I don’t think I would have been angry. But it was different with her.

     And was Jack in love with me? I could ask him, but to what end. If he wasn’t gay, it would only hurt him and damage our friendship, and even if he were, he might not admit it…or if he did admit, I thought only embarrassment could result.

     I didn’t see Kristin for the next few days as I continued to mull over what she had said. I couldn’t discard it or bury it. Jack came to the house for dinner and later asked me if I wanted a ride to my apartment. We ended up at the Alt Heidelberg, a student hangout in Collegetown, and also where Jack spent more time than the law library.

     “Jack, are you gay?” I asked after a long chug of my beer. I had toyed with a hundred different ways to ask this question, but there was no easy approach.

     He stared at his mug and then swished his beer as if the answer was lost in it. “Grady,” he said without looking up. “I’m what they call a bisexual.”

     “Have you ever been with a woman?”

     “No.”

     I wanted to pursue his answer but decided against it. His response may have been a defensive one, or his way of easing the revelation. I wasn’t sure. I almost said I wasn’t gay, but that would have been defensive and possibly insulting.

     He drank more beer and then started on a long discourse about his first encounter at a camp in the Adirondacks when he was thirteen, his clandestine affairs at Columbia, and living with his secret. As he continued, I could see he was becoming more comfortable and relieved. But when our eyes met, I saw a glint of despondence, perhaps knowing our relationship would change.

     Afterwards, when we saw each other, he was still pleasant but distant. At the house he would mingle with others, eat at a different table, and slip away from the house without a goodbye. I didn’t fully understand his new behavior, or why, but it wasn’t necessary for me to tell him his secret would remain so.

     I cooked dinner for Kristin in my apartment later that week, chicken legs and white rice. I even found a clean tablecloth for the table. I avoided the topic of Jack and I sensed she was in agreement.

     Like other evenings in my apartment, we studied after dinner, Kristin reading on my bed and me at my desk. I stopped typing to look at her. She was on her side, lost in her book. Her fingers combed her hair, strands freed from the clip. She looked up and smiled. I went to her and wrapped my arms around her and kissed her. Images of Jack appeared, like a tune in my head that refused to leave.




About the Author:
After receiving his degrees from Cornell, Michael C. Ahn joined the Apollo 11 program to support Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon. Subsequently he worked in research organizations, provided consultantship to governments, and taught college. In the past, he has had numerous photo exhibitions and written screen plays for local production. He has published papers for journals and periodicals, including book reviews for the “Washington Times” newspaper. He now reside in a small town in CA.

The above short story is from his just-completed book of short stories set in the 1960s.