We lived in Riverside, CT, on a point of land that reached out into Greenwich Cove, on Long Island Sound. Our back yard went right to the water, and at the end of the point, less than a quarter of a mile from our house, there was a small private beach with a pier to dive from when we went swimming. Ever since I’d been a little kid, Mr. Zeetzee and his wife had lived across the narrow street that went down the center of the point of land to the beach. He wasn’t like all the other men on that street who commuted to their work in New York City. He owned a jewelry store in Stamford. That made him different somehow. I liked him. He was always friendly to me.
One day, during a snowstorm when I was walking home from school, he stopped to give me a ride. I wasn’t surprised; he wasn’t the kind of guy who would drive right by a neighbor’s kid walking in a snowstorm. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember how glad I was to be riding instead of walking. He drove calmly through the peaceful silence that comes with falling snow, until two kids walking home from the elementary school stepped out into the road and he had to put on the brakes. The car skidded in the snow, but stopped well short of the kids. Nevertheless, he jumped out of the car and screamed at them. They ran away. He kept on screaming, his body shaking, even after the kids had stopped running, several hundred yards away. I was frightened enough to want to get out of the car, but I thought that would insult him, and I didn’t dare. Finally, he got back into his car. I could tell he was ashamed. We didn’t say a word to each other the rest of the way.
That temper got Mr. Zeetzee into big trouble on an August night a year later, the summer before my tenth grade year. My parents were away fly fishing in Maine and my friend John B was spending the night at my house. Even then, I was amazed at my parents’ naiveté to leave me and my older brother unsupervised. I suspect that John’s parents didn’t know that my parents weren’t home. My two younger brothers were away at a summer camp and my older brother was visiting a friend – which is probably why I had invited John. I didn’t want to be alone.
All the stars were out. It was warm and humid, the tide was high, and John and I, of course were restless, so around ten o’clock we walked down to the beach at the end of the point. There was a big sailboat, a yacht, at least forty feet long, tethered to a buoy several hundred yards away. It had not been there before. So, curious, we “borrowed” a canoe that was lying on the beach – maybe it was Mr. Zeetzee’s – and paddled out to it. With each stroke of our paddles, the phosphorescence in the water lighted up the night. There was no one aboard the yacht. We tied the canoe to the buoy and climbed up onto the deck. It was a magnificent vessel, with a commodious cabin. It was so big it had a steering wheel instead of a tiller. “You could go around the world in this,” I said.
“So, let’s us sail it around for a little while,” John said. I was dumbstruck. We stood there looking at each other. I can still remember the smell of varnish and the hemp of ropes. I knew if I said ‘yes,’ we really would steal that yacht and sail it around in the dark. Like so many times before, he had suggested something that I wanted to do, just as fervently as he, but I lacked the nerve. We already understood that one of the reasons for doing things others would never dare is to add to the collection of stories you can tell for the rest of your life. That’s powerful motivation for doing dumb things! But I knew we didn’t have the competence to sail so big a craft. We’d run it aground someplace and end up in jail.
I was tired of being the one who didn’t dare. I said, “I got a better idea. We’ll climb the mast and dive off.” Even he wouldn’t do that. It was much too dark.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s.”
It turned out to be easy. There were ratlines to climb. So up we went.
But the crosstree we stood on way up there was thin and hurt my bare feet. I was dizzy with the height, and it was so dark we could barely see the water down below. It would be like diving from a cliff with your eyes closed. “How do we know it is deep enough?” I said. “We could hit bottom and break our necks.”
“Yeah, maybe it’s shallow, “John said in his most matter-of-fact tone. I’ve never known anyone who was so good at keeping his expression blank. It was why his jokes were so funny: he never laughed.
“Well then, maybe we better steal this yacht instead,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Just dive straight out, not straight down,” and then he did exactly that, launching himself. He hit the water in an explosion of phosphorescent light and disappeared. I knew he was staying under the water to scare me into thinking he was dead, but when he finally surfaced, I started to breathe again.
I was more afraid of being ashamed of being scared than I was of gravity, so I dived too. And discovered how much fun it was. I don’t remember how many times we climbed and dived into that phosphorescent gleam before we quit and paddled home. I do remember it was magic.
Walking home, still keyed up with the excitement of the diving, I picked up a rock and threw it hard at a tree on the other side of the narrow street. I hadn’t noticed Mr. Zeetzee standing on the front steps of his house – until the rock missed the tree, hitting the steps he was standing on, then bouncing up and striking his leg. Unlike the purposeful trespass on the yacht, this was completely a mistake. Besides, the rock had lost most of its momentum when it hit his leg. But I knew of his temper, and I started to run.
It was too dark for him to recognize me, so, as we came near my house, I turned to John running beside me to tell him to run past my house so Mr. Zeetzee wouldn’t know it was me. But what I saw wasn’t John; it was a lighted cigarette, still in Mr. Zeetzee’s lips, cruising along beside me, and the next thing I knew I had dived into some bushes. He’d never seen me. He’d seen John who was wearing a white T shirt, while I was only in shorts. I watched John run down the street in bare feet, Mr. Zeetzee in hot pursuit, until they disappeared around a bend. Then I went into my house and turned all the lights out so it would appear that either no one was home, or everybody was asleep. I told myself not to worry about John. He could run fast. Mr. Zeetzee wouldn’t catch him.
But it seemed forever that I was alone in the house, and I began to imagine Mr. Zeetzee catching up to John and beating him up. Maybe killing him? Then through the living room window, I saw the headlights of Mr. Zeetzee’s car coming out of his driveway and heading down the road. Now I was sure Mr. Zeetzee had caught John, hurt him badly, then grown ashamed of himself, as when he’d screamed at the kids who’d stepped out into the road. So he was taking John to the hospital! Should I call my parents in Maine and ask, ‘What do I do now? Should I call the police?’ Either one of those actions would have been a sensible thing to do. Which, I suppose, is why I didn’t do either of them.
I waited, and waited in the dark of our living room, wishing my brother were home to tell me what to do, or, better yet, persuade me that John was safe. He was a whole year and a half older than me, and either was actually more responsible, or better at appearing to be – I still don’t know which.
It must have been near midnight when I heard a knocking at the back door. Someone had come to tell me that John was dead. Or maybe John had told, under torture, who had actually thrown the rock, and Mr. Zeetzee had come to kill me too.
But it wasn’t an enraged Mr. Zeetzee at the door, nor a bad news messenger. It was John, soaking wet. “You swam?” I said, my relief that he wasn’t dead replaced by envy. I never would have thought of escaping that way.
He shrugged as if swimming was the usual way to get to my house. “What have you got to eat?” he said. “I’m hungry.”
Over a monster sandwich and a quart of milk, he told me, with the same straight face he’d suggested we borrow the yacht, how much fun he’d had with Mr. Zeetzee. “He could never catch me,” he said. “He’s much too fat. I’d let him almost catch up to me and then I’d sprint.” John went on to explain that this got boring after a while, so he headed for the woods where he hid behind a tree and yelled Zeetzee, Zeetzee, Zeetzee. “I knew that would get him,” John said. “If I had a name like that, I’d be pissed too.” When Mr. Zeetzee, crashing through the underbrush like a drunk grizzly bear, got near the tree, John would slip away to another tree, calling, Over here, Mr. Zeetzee, Over here!
After a while, Mr. Zeetzee stopped chasing him. John was sure he was pretending to have given up and had gone home. John was too smart to fall for that one, so for the next ten minutes or so, he stayed where he was, thinking he was outwaiting Mr. Zeetzee, but then a car’s headlights were lighting up the woods. Mr. Zeetzee’s fury was so durable that it had lasted long enough for him to go home, get his car and drive it back so he could shine his headlights into the woods and find John.
“I stepped out from behind the tree, and said ‘Hi Mr. Zeetzee,’ and waved my hand like I was glad to see him again,” John told me, and went on to tell that Mr. Zeetzee jumped out of the car and came running toward him. John jumped sideways, out of the beams of light, and sneaked in a big circle back toward Mr. Zeetzee’s car. “After a while, I realized I’d lost him,” John said. “It was kind of disappointing. So I made some big whooping noises. I heard him crashing around in the bushes. He still didn’t know where I was, so I went the rest of the way to his car and started blowing the horn.”
“All of a sudden, he was right there in front of me, grabbing for me,” John said. “I guess I’d blown the horn a few too many times. He was making funny noises, like snoring and screaming all at once and I could feel how crazy I’d made him. So I yelled goodbye and took off.”
John ran, full speed now, not playing games anymore, out of the woods, across the road and an empty lot, where some college age kids were singing songs and drinking beer around a fire and dived into the water at the back of the cove, a good half a mile from my house. It took at least a half an hour to swim to my house. I imagined him calmly swimming under all those stars, and my envy, mixed with admiration, grew even more intense. “I knew it was your house because all the lights were out,” he said. “So I climbed up the sea wall and knocked on the door.”
So that was that. Two fine adventures in one night! How satisfying is that?
Two days later I saw the headlines in our local newspaper, Greenwich Time: RIVERSIDE MAN ARRESTED. And a picture of Mr. Zeetzee. The article told how Mr. Zeetzee had burst upon the college kids sitting around the fire, and proceeded to beat one of them up. I would never have seen the article if I hadn’t happened to offer to take a friend’s place on his paper route that day so he could he could go sailing with his parents. All of a sudden, he was punching me in the face, the article quoted the kid. I figured, in the light of the fire, like the light of the headlamps, he must have looked like John. The kid’s father was pressing charges.
After I finished the route, I kept one of the papers and showed it to John. I needed to know how he would react. Did he feel guilty? After all, he was the one who had tortured Mr. Zeetzee. Yes, I had started it all, but by mistake. John didn’t let on how he felt. I got the same blank expression, and a little shrug. After that, we never talked about that night.
But I was the one who’d known Mr. Zeetzee, and had liked him, ever since I’d been a little kid. Not everyone stops and gives rides to people walking in snowstorms. There was no way I would ever be able to look him in the eye again.
My parents came home a few days later.
The next day, a bright warm Saturday, when the tide was high, my father said, “Let’s go swimming.” I prayed Mr. Zeetzee wouldn’t be on the pier. But there he was, sitting on the bench with a towel around his neck. We had to walk right by him. Not having read the paper because he’d been away, my dad didn’t know about his humiliation. And of course, no one in our neighborhood would talk about it. But I saw Mr. Zeetzee’s shame when my dad said hello to him. He didn’t know my dad had been away. I said “Hi Mr. Zeetzee, but I kept my eyes away, and kept on walking, my eyes straight forward toward the buoy where the yacht was tethered no longer, and dived off the pier. In the water, I looked back and saw my father dive in. Behind him, on the pier, Mr. Zeetzee had already started to walk home.
That evening, I confessed to my father. I was desperate to get it off my chest. Maybe he’d tell me to confess to Mr. Zeetzee. I started at the beginning, telling him about John’s and my adventure on the yacht. He made it clear he disapproved, though mildly, for trespassing, and he was disturbed that I would take such chances by diving into water that might not be deep enough. “You don’t have to do something dangerous just to keep up with your friends.”
But when I told him about John and Mr. Zeetzee, and how I had started it by throwing the rock, and how I’d thought Mr. Zeetzee was chasing both of us until I’d seen his lighted cigarette and dived into the bushes, he started to grin. I felt a huge relief. Besides, it was fun to tell such a good story, so I told all the details. By the time I’d gotten to the part where John was blowing Mr. Zeetzee’s car horn, he was laughing so hard he had to sit down. When I went on to tell him about Mr. Zeetzee beating up the college kid and getting arrested, he stopped laughing. I’m pretty sure, he had as much sympathy for Mr. Zeetzee as for the kid whom he had beaten up. But I could see that, for him, that was a separate story, a whole other event.
So I didn’t have to feel guilty! My father wasn’t going to tell me to cross the street, knock on Mr. Zeetzee’s door, and when he opened it, stand there, look him right in the eye and confess to him!
Then why didn’t I feel satisfied? I’ve pondered that question ever since. My father remains for me the most upright man I’ve ever known. He never would have even considered stealing someone’s yacht.
On the other hand, he would never have gotten up the nerve even to climb that mast – let alone jump off of it.
Into the dark.