Day 20 in my novel-in-a-month adventure:

Chapter 19: Flotsam

 The term “wine” means any fermented alcoholic beverage that–

(A) is made from grapes or other fruit;

(B) contains not less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume and not more than 24 percent alcohol by volume, including all dilutions and mixtures thereof by whatever process produced; and

(C) is for nonindustrial use.

—Title 19, United States Code, Customs Duties, Wine Trade, Definitions

Every person who saw the boat crash occur – whether they were on the boats themselves or on the shore – was shocked. But no one was more shocked than Sam Adams.

No one’s expectations for the success of this firm outing had been lower than Sam’s. Having spent his career either as a lawyer or working at law firms with lawyers, he understood that Tom Paine’s effort to craft a family out of the Mansons was a long shot. Lawyers and their staff work hard, and often have next to nothing in common with each other besides the contract, will or deposition they’re toiling on together. To take them out of the office and command them to interact about any topic except work – it’s a fool’s errand.

Besides Sam’s extensive experience with lawyers generally, he also had before him the specific examples of dysfunction who populated the offices of Dedrick, Duckworth, Castro & Paine. In fact, if Adams had been a noveling man, this firm would be a rich lode to mine.

This firm, he thought, was especially unsuited for such an outing. The rancor that gripped the firm was matched only by the pleasure some members took in that very rancor. And the existence of that pleasure meant that they didn’t want to stop fighting. A boat ride on a stinky reservoir was unlikely to change that. Not even the presence on the boat of Drew Duckworth’s corgi Rufus – whom Sam found adorable – could change that.

So when things between Claude Dedrick and Ted Castro had begun to devolve this morning, Sam was not surprised. He was just pleased to be spending some time with Sarah Fujii, whom he had barely had the chance to talk to since the State Fair.

When the two name partners kidnapped the assembled staff and force them to be participants in a high speed race, Sam, again, was not surprised. He simply made sure that he sat down, lowering his center of gravity; he urged Sarah to do the same.

The poor judgment and inability to gauge distances exhibited by Dedrick also did not surprise Adams. Nor, ultimately, did the crash into the dock. For Sam, it was the foreordained ending to a cursed day.

But one thing that day did surprise Sam Adams – the moments at the height of the crisis when Sarah Fujii, never losing her composure, calmly reached over and saved Sam’s life.

“Reached over” might be putting it kind of mildly, Sam admitted. Sarah’s actions had been far more super hero-like than that, and far more muscular.

Sam had had no way of knowing it when he took his seat in the boat, but the spot he occupied was an especially dangerous one, given the acrobatic maneuvers that Dedrick was about to perform. Though Sam appeared to be no more in peril than anyone else, he was seated at the bottom of a pendulum that would whip around in a circle more quickly than anyone expected. Sitting on the lake soaked plasticene bench, with no hand grips, Sam was in the death seat.

As Claude Dedrick cranked the wheel hard to avoid a collision, Sam could feel his rear end leave the bench and begin to go airborne. In a flash, he dropped his gin and tonic and grasped for a hand hold. But there was none.

Sarah was next to Sam. Again, she had no way of knowing that the physics of the turn would cause her body to experience some G forces, but far less than those exerted on Sam. In her seat, she was able to stay grounded.

As the boat wheeled suddenly, she hunkered down to brace herself. Out of the corner of her left eye, though, she saw what appeared to be Sam Adams rapidly being launched from the bench into the air. Of even more concern, he was headed not straight up, but southwest, toward the dock, the pilings, and the parked Mercedes.

Without hesitating, she raised herself to a crouch and reached out for Sam. Keeping her stance wide to maintain balance, she grabbed him – by his upper arm and right thigh – and held fast. With a strength and calm under pressure that she could only have hoped that she possessed, she turned her body – and Sam the rag doll – to her right, instinctively using the rotating motion of the boat itself to propel Sam back onto the water craft.

This all happened in a few seconds, the few seconds before the boat made contact with the dock. As Sam lay on the deck of the Elsie Moore – with his savior wonder woman lying on top of him – he looked with astonishment at the spot directly behind his bench, the place where the small of his back would have landed had he not been snatched from the heavens. And in that spot was a jagged wooden piling, punctuated by four rusty lag bolts, each weeping iron tears for missing an opportunity to take a human life.

Sam let his head fall back onto the deck, and closed his eyes.

“Thank you,” he said, staring up at Sarah, who was framed by the sun and sky. Even then, he knew that those two words were pathetically insufficient in matching Sarah’s actions.

“No problem,” she said, smiling. “I’m just glad you’re OK.”

What followed at the scene was an odd combination of pandemonium and shock. People felt their own limbs and heads, seeking injuries, reassuring themselves that they had survived the boys’ drag race. Passengers gingerly climbed off the boats, carefully crept across the sagging wooden dock and past the upended car, and finally sank to the hard grassy ground that bounded it.

Once they had their bearings, many began to berate the lawyer drivers, both of whom looked abashed and embarrassed. For the first time in months, Dedrick and Catsro joined together in a shared heartfelt message, this one being “We’re so sorry.”

The staff, who almost to a person were subservient to the two men, might accept the apology through gritted teeth. But the words were weak sauce for others, such as the boat captain who had just swum to shore after being tossed overboard. And they were woefully inadequate for the four Tempe police officers and eight firefighters who came braking to a stop, called by joggers next to the lake.

Reclining on the grass, Sam Adams, Sarah Fujii and everyone else gazed at the tableau spread out before them.

The S.S. Michael Brag had its blunt rear end turned to face them, and it aimed it upward and outward, presenting like a proud but injured orangutan. It was taking on water and soon would be retired forever from the fleet of Tempe Lake Tours LLC.

Next to the Brag, the S.S. Elsie Moore floated lazily at an oblique angle. The debarking passengers had stepped quickly from its deck to the shore, neglecting to tie it up. It had already floated 20 yards away from shore, and there was no sign that its unpiloted escape was ending soon.

The Mercedes had sunk even further into the water, leaving only its rear bumper exposed. It would eventually require two tow trucks and a winch operator with ample patience to extricate the car from the reservoir.

Oil and leaking fuel from the boat and the car had formed a growing slick on the water.

The wooden dock was a total loss. At least half of it was in splinters, many of which were floating in the water. The smaller portion that was intact had been yanked violently from the concrete curb, rendering it unsalvagable.

Scattered over the entire scene was the remainder of a best laid plan for a pleasant firm outing. Bottles and plastic cups bobbed in the waves, alongside decorative plates and napkins chosen for the occasion. Prime rib and smoked salmon sandwiches blanketed the lake around the boats. Already, what appeared to be thousands of pigeons had descended on the scene, gorging themselves on a windfall feast.

The middle ground of the scene was populated by the firefighters, who were examing the car and boat for possible fire dangers. A few could be seen taking cell phone pictures.

In the foreground of the tableau stood Claude Dedrick, Ted Castro, Tom Paine and Bernie Galvez. They were surrounded by the boat captain from the Michael Brag – whose face was as red as his polo shirt – and the police officers. The three lawyers and Bernie looked as though they were engaged in the negotiation of their lives.

Off to the right of the scene, the other captain sat cross legged on the grass, elbows on thighs, chin resting on hands. He had no misapprehensions: He would be fired, without delay. But what a story, he thought. What a way to go out in a blaze of glory. Ever the optimist, he glanced sideways toward that Sarah girl – maybe she was impressed by the whole scene. She was talking a lot to someone else, but he was a patient guy.

So surreal and detailed and tragic and mundane was the scene that it could have been photographed by Gregory Crewdson, famous for his seemingly real but elaborately staged views of odd Americana. But Crewdson would have been wise enough to omit the dog in the wheeled contraption. That oddity would make any piece of fiction seem unbelievable and over the top. And yet there the corgi was, panting after a trip she enjoyed immensely.

The three senior partners and Galvez would spend many more hours speaking with the authorities, and contacting their own lawyers. Eventually, the firm reimbursed the boat company for its losses. More difficult was negotiating a settlement with the boat captain for his unceremonial ejection from his boat, with the Tempe prosecutors who ultimately filed misdemeanor charges – later dismissed – and with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which proudly touted publicly its first prosecution of a law firm for pollution of public water ways.

Staff watched a possibly firm dissolving event unfold.

“Our future is in their hands,” said one.

“But why is Bernie talking to the cops too?” asked another. “He didn’t cause this mess.”

Sam Adams spoke up.

“Bernie probably knows more law than most attorneys combined. He studied law eons ago, in Mexico, I think. Tom Paine is smart to have him involved.”

The remaining staff had no interest in sitting and watching those legal dramas unfold. Most got up and headed west to the parking lot.

“If anyone wants to relax and decompress,” announced Drew Duckworth to the backs of his colleagues walking away, “ Rufus and I are open to stopping someplace for a bite.”

“After all,” he added, “lunch broke up early.”

Most declined, saying they really just wanted to salvage what was left of their Friday. But a few signed on.

Sam and Sarah were in a strange netherworld. Sarah had saved Sam’s life, but she would have done that for anyone – wouldn’t she? Because they worked together and knew the risks, neither had expressed anything except the most circuitous interest in the other. And yet they each knew they were pleased to have an opportunity to talk together, without the burden of having to ask the other. Drew’s invitation was a perfect solution.

“I’d like to go,” offered Sarah. “Thank you, Justice Duckworth.”

“You’re welcome, Sarah, but only if you can that ‘Justice’ stuff.”

“Sure, Drew,” she laughed. “I’ll be happy to.”

“And I’d be interested too,” said Sam, hiding his smile when Sarah happily cocked her head at the news.

And then they heard, “Me too.”

It was the newly fired boat captain, who looked all of 20 years old to the three others.

Drew didn’t hesitate: “It’s good to have you aboard, mate. What be your name?”

“I’m Stew, Stew Shinblock. Nice to meet you.”

“That’s a unique name,” said Drew. “Are you related to – “

“Yup, Harvey Shinblock. He’s my dad. He used to practice law, but you probably know his story even better than I do. He sells hot dogs now.”

“Best in the city,” smiled Drew. “I always liked your dad. It’s good to know you.”

“So where should we go?” asked Sam.

“How about GreenVeg,” said Stew. “It’s straight up Scottsdale Road.”

“Sounds like it’s not exactly my usual fare,” said Drew. “But I’ve seen the place and I’m game for anything. Do they allow dogs?”

“Sure thing,” answered Stew.

“How about wine?” asked Drew.

“Yeah, they make their own lactose free gluten free cabernet. I think it’s OK.”

“Hmmm,” said Drew. “Why don’t I make a stop along the way, and Rufus and I will meet you kids there?”

When they arrived at GreenVeg, Sarah and Sam were immediately happy they had accepted.

The restaurant was a large space, painted in bright colors. Lining one entire wall was an art work constructed of the doors salvaged from Volkswagen Beetles. The precision of their straight and narrow bolted-on-the-wall procession was happily contrasted with their cockeye colors. Besides the many tables, a space on a raised platform contained two couches and a coffee table. Next to that seating area, a piano beckoned.

“Let’s grab the couch,” said Sarah, realizing too late that both Sam and Stew thought she was speaking to them individually. She added quickly, “for the group.”

They settled into the couches – the quicker Sam seated next to Sarah, with Stew facing her – and began to read the menu. By the time Drew arrived twenty five minutes later, they had ordered a wide sampling of almost everything. When they had walked through the door, they had still been in shock. Now, they were ravenous.

“What did you order?” asked Drew, setting four paper bags on the table, the squeak of Rufus’s wheels trailing behind him.

Stew read from the menu.

“We got some buffalo wings and samosas to start, and then some po boys: Argentine, mushroom, meatball, chicken parm, and their specialty, chicken with barbecue sauce.”

“And may I assume that none of that actually has meat in it?” asked Drew.

“No meat, no sir!” said Stew. “And better than that, it’s not just vegetarian, it’s vegan.”

Drew smiled.

“Well, why not? Here’s to trying new things.”

With that, he slid four bottles out of their bags and withdrew a corkscrew from his pocket.

“I selected a few wines that I think will go with anything.”

The three others surprised themselves by clapping spontaneously at Drew’s generosity and ingenuity.

They immediately opened two, a white and a red.

“What are they?” asked Stew, draining his glass.

“Well, the one you’re polishing off right now is a sauvignon blanc from Charles Krug. The other one is a zinfandel from Ridge.”

“I also brought a Beaujolais blanc, and an ll Frappato from Italy, kind of an Italian Beaujolais.”

“This is amazing stuff,” said Stew, sipping the red. “A lot different from the restaurant’s wine.”

“Better?” asked Drew.

“Way better,” laughed Stew.

As the food arrived, the four tucked in hungrily, each reaching into the others’ plates to sample something different. Drew ripped off small pieces of tempeh to share with Rufus.

“Wow,” said Sarah. “Olive would love this place.”

“Yeah,” said Sam. “So would Mum.”

Sarah raised her eyebrows and quickly reassessed Sam. Was he a man who routinely thought of his mother when he spoke to another woman?

“Mum?”

“Yes, Mum,” said Sam, smiling. “My daughter.”

Sarah leaned back.

“I thought you told me that you had no kids.”

“No,” said Sam. “Or if I said that it was a mistake.”

“A mistake?” asked Sarah. “A mistake about whether or not you have kids?”

“Yes, a mistake,” he responded. He could tell that a fuller explanation was needed.

“Remember how you said to me at the State Fair that you felt as though you were in a novel – “

“Yessss,” replied Sarah, the connection invisible to her.

“ – And that it seemed like the novelist had no plan, and just wrote willy nilly – “

“Yes, I remember.”

“ – like a moron, or a depraved idiot?”

“I don’t think I went that far,” said Sarah.

“ – or like a writer in way way over his head, making it up as he goes along.”

“Again, I think that’s putting it entirely too strongly. I’m sure she or he is a very good natured, well intentioned person who is doing the best she can. There’s no reason to attack the novelist.

“Yeah, OK,” said Sam. “But I’m just bugged because he – or she – wrote without thinking that I don’t have kids, and I spoke those words at the State Fair, as I was obligated to do as a character in a novel, and now it looks like I’m a bad dad for forgetting my kid, or like I was hiding something from you. But I feel like this all happened because of this novelist you were talking about.”

Sarah took another sip of the zinfandel and looked at Sam, steadily, for at least fifteen seconds. This was a deep and odd fellow, who bore closer examination.

“All right, fair enough,” she said. “Let’s start over and place the blame on the fates, or on the State Fair food, or on the ‘novelist.’ You have a daughter – named Mum?”

“Not really.”

“Now you’re just being annoying.”

“No,” he said quickly, “I do have a daughter, but her name really isn’t Mum. It’s Mia. But we call her Mum.”

“Because – ?” Sarah urged.

Her mom and I always loved a kids book about a character named Chrysanthemum –  “

“By Kevin Henkes,” Sarah said. “Olive and I love that book.”

“ – It is a great book,” Sam agreed. “But even in our youth addled state, we realized that name would be too big a burden for a kid. So we named her Mia. But we still call her Chrysanthemum sometimes, but usually just Mum.”

“How old is Mum?” Sarah asked.

“Eight,” Sam said. “And she’s packed with eight years of charm and personality.”

“I wish you could meet her,” Sam added, gazing at Sarah over the top of his wine glass.

“I’d love to,” said Sarah, “since you’ve already met Olive.”

Drew and Stew had been carrying on a conversation about Stew’s dad, but caught most of the exchange across the table. Drew smiled, but Stew grew resigned.

Sure, he knew he was too young for Sarah. He half suspected it when he heard her make some joke that morning about Newt Gingrich – whoever he was. Stew had no idea, but he sounded a lot like the know it all who wrecked the boat. But everyone in Sarah’s group had laughed, so Stew knew he’d have to step up his game.

But now, hearing Sarah and Sam talk about kids, and kids’ books, and the State Fair – yikes, he thought, that’s a world he didn’t want to occupy for some time.

So Stew leaned back in the couch and lifted his glass. He relaxed into a conversation with Drew, who was really interesting for an old man, and had once been some kind of judge. Stew even stopped trying to angle a way to see down Sarah’s blouse. He began to think that maybe he’d give his old girlfriend a call. Last he heard, she was in some sustainability program at ASU – maybe she’d like to revive and sustain an old flame.

Across the table, Sarah and Sam stepped up their own game. They decided to meet, with their kids, at that night’s First Friday in downtown Phoenix. The street fair and art event could be a great way, they agreed, to get to know each other better. They invited Drew and Stew, but Drew begged off, saying he felt achy and more tired than he expected he would. And Stew said no, thanks, but he was going to track down Rowena. Now SHE would be impressed by today’s boat crash.

CHAPTER 19.1 is next.

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