Ferry Tale
Sam Martone

As soon as he boarded, he went to the top deck to look off the front of the ferry, or what he guessed would soon be the back. Ferries didn't have traditional stems and sterns. They could sail in either direction. He didn't see her at first. He became frightened she had already left. There was a stenciled message on the white metal railing. He read it several times. NOTICE: WHISTLE MAY SOUND AT ANY MOMENT. Then he saw her, emerging from her car in the parking lot, wiping her eyes.

She walked to the beach and sat on the pebbly shore. He waved. She waved back. Pebbly wasn't the right word. They were smooth and round, but they were bigger rocks. The kind you could wobble on, get your ankle caught between if you stepped wrong. They looked like dinosaur eggs. Like something could hatch from them and one day grow enormous and hungry. They looked uncomfortable for sitting, but she kept sitting there. He kept waving, and so did she.

Sometimes other people came to look off the back, but there was nothing to see except land they'd soon leave, rows of cars one by one peeling off and onto the deck below. The other people always got bored quickly and went to look out across the sound. Still he waved to her waving. Then, the whistle sounded. The cars were secured, and the ferry began to move, tentatively. It almost seemed a mistake at first, like the ferry noticed the water was too cold and wanted to get out now. His arm was getting tired, so he switched which hand he waved with. He wanted to wave until it was impossible to see her. He wanted to wave even a little bit after that, but not too long. He didn't want other passengers to worry about him or find him strange.

The whistle blared again, loud in his ears. It sounded more like a foghorn than a whistle. This—the naming of things—was always so difficult. There had to be a reason they called it a whistle instead of a horn. The function it served, the shape it took. But he didn't know anything about that. He just knew that sometimes you had to call a thing something other than the thing it was. Sometimes you didn't know what to call it at all.

The ferry moved smoothly now. She was getting smaller and smaller. She stood up and waved, her arm higher in the sky the farther he went. The night before, they'd had sex in her family's summer cabin though she was on her period. They didn't know when they'd see each other again. They spent the rest of the night trying to scrub the sheets free of spots. Her family would be joining her there soon. When he was far enough away that her arms were hard to see, she began to bob back and forth like a buoy, a whole body kind of wave, and he did it too, in time with her, just like that.

The ferry turned, and he followed down the railing so he could keep seeing her. But then he couldn't see her. He didn't know what happened. He blinked and she was gone, disappeared behind the rotten wrecked timber of an old dock or hidden behind land that somehow shifted the farther you got from it. Land rippled and curved and grew when you sailed away from it, until it was so far you could see it like it really was, what it looked like on postcards and maps but never up close.

He went below deck, into the air-conditioned dining hall, where the ferry's movements felt unnatural and sickly. He was disappointed in himself for losing her. She'd offered to move to the city where he lived, but it was too far. It would take too much upheaval. It seemed easy to imagine a happy ending, but really it would be only the beginning.

In the arcade room, he put coins into the claw machine, but they jammed in the slot. A little girl came up and together they siphoned a small stack of quarters out with a bobby pin. She let him keep one, but it wasn't enough to play any of the games that still worked.

He climbed back up to the top deck. Couples were draped over all the benches, holding hands. One woman played a song that sounded like a love song on her phone. The sun was a brilliant red scorching the horizon. Everyone was looking at it, but trying not to look for too long, but trying not to look away. Off the opposite side, the moon was just starting to press itself into the sky, an orange smudge somehow dark and bright at once. Soon it would rise until it was hanging like it'd always been there, like it was screwed in. He tried to see the shore he'd come from, but the ferry had turned too many times in the water. He didn't know which way to look anymore.

Sam Martone lives and writes in Tempe, Arizona.

Detail of watercolor on main page courtesy of Levin Garson.

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