‘THE YACHT CLUB’
by George A. Romero - (Night of the Living Dead )
I write fiction. Fantasy and horror fiction, mostly for motion pictures.
I can't resist bizarre tales of the unfamiliar; the unexpected. I have a friend named Stephen King whose imagination never fails to amaze and whose dedication and craftsmanship inspire awe. Here is a thumbnail sketch of a story that Stephen might have written:
They were in The Yacht Club, where they had so often gathered for coffee or tea or brunch on a sunny summer Sunday. They only knew one another as "That woman" or "That man", "Club member, you know".
When they had left home that morning, all of them, that's where they were going. To The club. When they had arrived and taken their seats, the place seemed to be what it had always been, its blond woods and occasionally hung portraiture offering, as always, something more than was ever offered by family, by business firm, by church. Those institutions offered membership, but it came with strings attached . . . obligations, responsibilities. The Club offered both membership and privacy. One often went to The Club with family members in tow, or members of the firm or clergy, so the privacy was rarely absolute. But the promise of it, the idea that one had earned a place in this place, was enough. To know that if family matters got too sticky or if talk of some client or another became too political, one could escape to the lounge or the cigar room or the steam chamber, . . .to know that one was, by membership, automatically permitted to escape into those places . . . that was enough.
But on this sunny summer Sunday, things had somehow changed.
They hadn't changed yet when the members first arrived. They changed sometime after they had all taken their seats and placed their orders, sometime before the waiters returned with flutes and snifters and plates of finger-sandwiches perched, as if glued, on their silver trays.
The last thought the man had before he moved his chair was, "I wonder where all the waiters have gone?" There were no waiters, no waitresses, no grooms or valets . . . there was no staff . . . anywhere in sight. The man took the chair from its spot near the fireplace . . . normally he would have asked someone to carry it for him. It was a heavy chair. Not one of these modem things, plastic posing as wood, and the seriously embroidered fabric that faced outward on the seat and the back seemed to have been stuffed with some element that, while soft and pliable, must have either been as densely packed as lead balls in a shotgun shell or must have, each bit of it, weighed a ton. "God, I’m not strong enough to move this thing", he thought as he lifted the chair away from its spot and struggled to carry it toward the center of The Club's great room, He didn't blame the wood. In his mind he blamed the upholstery, and whatever device of science had created a substance which, while soft and pliable, weighed as much as "Fat Man" or "Little Boy" . . . (those were the names . . . the monikers . . . painted onto the casings of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The man who carried the chair had always been afraid of bombs, afraid of violence. He had always thought . . . dreamed . . . had nightmares about a day when he would come to a violent end, though there was not much chance of that ever happening. He was privileged. Though not anywhere near having cleared his first million, he believed it to be inevitable that he would clear that million, and at least two or three more after that. He believed it was his right, his duty, his fate. He hated all the things that he had to do in order to be a person. He felt that he had been born a human and that that should be the only requirement. Having been born, though that brought no particular distinction, ought to be enough to qualify a person as "A Person", he thought. But over the years he had found that more impressive credentials were required for inclusion in most societies. The societies he preferred were the so-called "Polite Societies" . . . Universities, Fraternities, The Club . . . but he found, as any aspirant finds, that he continually had to prove his worth. Pay the membership fee, pay the tithe, pay the alimony, pay the tax . . . pay the piper. (The club had once hired a piper . . . a real, honest to God bagpiper, fully in kilts. The man who now carried his own chair had paid the piper's fee . . . [$125-an-hour, times five hours], . . . because he was the one who had originally suggested the idea that a bagpiper be hired to honour The Club's dead . . . not lost to some war, but lost to squalls and wickedly swinging spars during The Americas' Cup.)
The Club was a Yacht Club. It's members were dedicated . . . or were expected to be dedicated . . . to the purity of boating as a sport. The man who carried the chair had never raised sail, never set his soft hands on a tiller, never regurgitated his caviar brunch over the rail in a gale, but, oh, how he wanted to do all of those things. "Some day", he thought, "some day . . . when time permits . . . when family, the firm, the church, have e had their way with me . . . when I'm finished . . . when I've retired . . . when I'm all used up . . . I'll take to the sea. Some day."
He wasn't old, at least he didn’t think himself old, though he was nearer his end than he was his beginning . . . (fifty-something, sixty-something . . . [could it be seventy-something?] . . . there were moments when he honestly couldn’t remember.) Years ago he had let his hair grow long, well down onto his shoulders, and he had defiantly let it remain at that length, cautioning his barber that there would be no tip if it were shortened beyond the tolerance of a child of the sixties. Over the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and on beyond 9/11, the same barber had dutifully complied, never allowing the blades of his shears to slice into the comfort zone . . . (it's all about comfort, isn't it? In the end?) . . . and in the end, the barber had always been generously tipped. The hair on the head of the man who carried the chair remained long, even after it turned white and began to stubbornly leave its strands on the lapels of the deeply black jacket that he always wore when he went to The Club on a sunny summer Sunday.
As he dragged the chair, that heavy . . . (why was it so heavy?) . . . chair away from the fireplace toward the center of the great room, he noticed that someone was looking at him. A man, not far away, sitting alone just as he, himself, was had planning to do.
The other man, the observer, was dressed in a gray suit and was wearing eyeglasses . . . very large ones.
(God . . . he looked like me. I couldn't see him clearly, he was too far in the distance . . . or maybe I wasn't looking carefully enough . . . but, from somewhere, I got the distinct impression that . . . he looked liked me!
He also looked like a friend of mine named Rob. But Rob doesn’t wear
big, obvious eyeglasses. I do.)
The observer was sitting in a chair which had also been removed from any sort of normal position. Sitting. And watching. Alert, as was no one else in the great room.
(He wasn't me, after all. He was . . . watching . . . me. No . . . not watching . . . watching the man with the long white hair who was struggling to drag that heavy chair to the place where he wanted it to be. Was I the man with the long white hair, or was I the man who was observing?
Was I involved at all? If so . . . why?
I questioned myself , yet I knew that I was. Involved. Strangely . . . involved.
The man with the long white hair struggled, without servants, to bring his heavy chair to the center of the great room . . . a room so familiar Eventually he placed it directly under the apex of the domed ceiling above him. And he sat, remembering that ceiling from all the years he had spent beneath it . . . all the years he had admired and wondered at its frescoes of angels and demons and damned souls. "Why", he had always thought, "The Club's ceiling rivals the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel."
But now, suddenly . . . there were no frescoes. There was nothing on which a fresco might have been tattooed. There was . . .
. . . nothing at all . . .
. . . no ceiling . . .
. . . just an open space . . .
. . . and above, up and beyond.
. . . a deep blue sky with wispy white clouds that seemed to dance like the Musketeers who once courted queens.
The other man, the one in the gray suit who seemed to look like me . . . who also looked like my friend Rob . . . never seemed to take note of the fact that the ceiling had somehow vanished. He simply continued to watch, continued to observe . . .
Why wasn't he amazed? The world was changing . . . at least the ceiling was changing . . . morphing into something that it had never been before. All that was once familiar had suddenly become unfamiliar. Why wasn't the man in the gray suit amazed by the transformation? Did he somehow expect that a change was coming so that, when it came, he was not perturbed by it?
Or was he . . .
. . . God . . . was he somehow causing the change?
Was he . . . or I . . . making The Club into something that it had never been?
Something that neither it or its members had ever intended it to be . . .
. . . yet something that all its members had forever wanted it to be . . .
. . . a place that imitates life, but is not life . . .
. . . a place where fantasies . . . whether they be of harems or whirling dervishes
or pots full of gold . . . come true . . .
. . . but only for "Members".
Why do any of us become "Members" of anything? For the sake of acceptance? Because we want to be included?
Is "inclusion" the beginning and the end? Is there someone out there, some unseen God, who wants to, needs to, insists on including us?
Someone to whom we are expected to be grateful?
Why can't we simple include ourselves in this thing called "humanity" . . . in whatever cause, whatever society, whatever Club . . . without obligation, but with a caveat that reads . . . "I'm with ya now, but if you disappoint me, I am so outa here!"
We pick our poisons. And The Club . . . anybody's club . . . is a sort of poison.
A sort of tribal confirmation . . . "I'll always be here, don’t worry that I'm ever gonna change, because I won't".
A comfort level.
Well, one sunny summer Sunday, the man with the long white hair realized that The Club wasn't nearly all that he had always expected it to be.
Suddenly he found it severely lacking. Sitting in his chair, the one he had struggled to drag away from the fireplace, looking up at a ceiling which was once made of plaster but was now non-existent, he had an epiphany. "I've been fooling myself", he concluded, "I've let myself be distracted by . . . expectations! Expectations don't materialize just because you want them to. You've got to bring them into being somehow. You've got to make them into something real. You've got to make them into . . . into your goal!"
Once the man had had his epiphany, the changes came much more rapidly. Suddenly there was water . . . all over the place . . . lapping over the members' shoes, coughing up onto the cuffs of their trousers and dresses.
No one seemed to notice. Except for the man who had carried the chair . . . and the observer with the large eyeglasses. Those two members noticed all of the changes that came. Though neither of them seemed particularly moved or effected. They showed no outward reaction, made no gesture that might indicate alarm or fright or even amusement. They simply sat in their chairs, appearing not to notice what was happening around them. Appearing utterly unconcerned.
Of course, all the others in the room seemed equally unconcerned. But that was because they hadn't noticed any change. Had the waiters, grooms and valets re-entered, no doubt they would have been unconcerned as well. Because they, neither, would have noticed any change. They would have carried on with the business of an ordinary sunny Sunday, confident . . . (while, at the same time, secretly disappointed) . . . that The Club was a constant . . . a never-changing, never surprising certainty.
But the two . . . the ones who had moved their chairs to abnormal positions . . . though neither showed any outward reaction . . . were fully aware of what was happening around them. They had expected, hoped, dreamed that some day the world would take an unexpected turn . . .
. . . and that "some day" had finally come.
It was like a dream. But they weren’t asleep. This was really happening. The older ones in the room sat in Captains' chairs, in arm chairs, some in wicker-backs around a dining table . . .
. . . while the younger ones sat on the benches of what appeared to be Atlantic-class sailing yachts.
There were BOATS! Real, honest-to-goodness sporting-schooners, sails billowing, gliding across what was once an oaken floor but had now been transformed into a salty sea. The man with the long white hair sat under the vanished dome and calmly inhaled the freshness of an ocean breeze. All of this seemed perfectly natural to him. All his life he had known that some day this moment would come. It had to come. It had always been peculiarly . . . expected . . . and privilege and wherewithal . . . membership . . . had always seemed to provide some sort of guarantee.
So he sat, quite relaxed, in a chair that he had moved into an abnormal position. Watching. Quietly pleased . . .
. . . while that other man . . . the one with the big eyeglasses, who looks a bit like me . . . a bit like my friend Rob . . . also watched.
That was not a Stephen King story, but one of my own invention, drawn purely from images that I observed in a painting titled The Yacht Club, by Robert Vanderhorst.
George A. Romero
by Robert W. Vanderhorst
The painting, ‘MOWITZA’ is a pictorial history of the Burgess family at their cottage on Lake Joseph in Muskoka, Ontario. Working from a description of a dream Mr. Burgess had envisioned and an extensive collection of old reference photographs from the family archives, some dating as far back as 1898, as well as photographs taken by Mr. Vanderhorst, the design for an extraordinary painting began to take shape. Antique boats played a substantial role in the Burgess cottage experience so highlighting the family’s involvement with Muskoka’s nautical past was to be an integral component of this composition.
Hidden away in a small bay at the north end of Burgess Island, history appeared to be taking an unexpected turn, at least as far as anyone outside of a young child by the name of Bruce Burgess would be concerned. Even though he was just a boy, to Bruce, this was a vision he’d had for more years than he could remember, perhaps even forever. This dream or hallucination or whatever it was, was something he’d been hoping to see played out at some point in his life, and now it was happening, just the way he imagined it would . . . maybe better.
It was the perfect late summer Muskoka afternoon. The water was beautifully calm creating a glass like quality to the surface, a finish that was usually reserved for the early morning hours or later in the evening when the winds would die down to barely a whisper.
Streams of billowing soft peach and grey coloured clouds were lined up across the sky. Leisurely drifting by from the southwest, they created shadows and slowly moving pools of light that made the islands of Baldy and the Three Sisters stand out from the mainland like buttons on a silver green blouse. Lake Joseph never looked better.
Tucked among a cluster of magnificent white pines, just far enough away from a boater’s prying eye to create a touch of mystery stands the old Burgess cottage. A stately structure built by Bruce’s grandfather, Fred T. Burgess in 1899 when Muskoka was just beginning to attract a distinguished collection of long term summer residents.
In 1914, Fred T. Burgess decided to add a new building to the property. That year, a classic Muskoka boathouse appeared in the small bay next to the cottage. Sheltered from the strong northwest winds by the tip of the island, this would eventually be the safe harbour for a new passion of Bruce’s father, Fred C. Burgess. It would house a magnificent mahogany launch commissioned from the Ditchburn Boat Works in 1929 and christened, ‘Mowitza II’, which loosely translated as ‘Little Fawn’ in native Ojibwa. Her name belies her true nature. There was nothing remotely demure about this craft. She was built for speed, a powerful, step hull Viking launch that in the 1930s would win several senior class MLA race trophies with Bruce’s father at the helm. Tethered at the dock is another gem, an exquisite Peterborough Royal runabout that Bruce’s father bought for him from Curry Bulmer at the Winter Boat show held at the Exhibition grounds in Toronto in 1956.
Situated far enough away from the boathouse to not be disturbed, Bruce’s Grand Uncle, Arthur Welsman, sits quietly in a 1920s era row boat, chewing on a thick cigar and contemplating the odd task at hand before him.
He is meticulously dressed in a soft tan coloured pin striped jacket and trousers, a mustard yellow and deep red stripped woolen scarf casually draped around his neck. Each pant leg is rolled up at the cuff revealing heavy woolen socks and sturdy leather boots. He is more than overdressed for the day, but considering the fact that he is out of sync with time and that this particularly odd moment in his family’s history was being seamlessly blended with moments from the future and the past, his attire is perfect.
As Uncle Arthur carefully leans over the side of the small boat, a thin and almost transparent veil of cigar smoke drifts past his eyes and glances off the brim of his felt Fedora. Unperturbed, he reaches down to gather up the large cue ball before it disappears. He wasn’t playing as well that afternoon as he had in the morning. The majority of his earlier shots glided confidently into the holes in the lake like water slowly circling a drain. But later in the day, most of his shots simply skittered past the water pockets and then with out warning, casually began drifting away into the air before he could catch up with them.
In the stern of the boat, a bizarre collection of vocal duck decoys, each with their own distinct personality were of no help either with their gratuitous chatter and opinions. A distracting air of chaos reins on board making it more difficult for Uncle Arthur to focus on maneuvering the small skiff to retrieve his errant billiard balls. Fortunately for the decoys, Uncle Arthur was a patient man. The decoys were not part of the game today. Rather than water billiards, duck hunting was often the pastime of choice on a beautiful morning in the early 30s and it wasn’t unusual for a decoy to be left behind if attitude or complaints became an issue.
In keeping with the peculiar nature of this moment, present day avant-garde violinist, Nash the Slash, stands in the shallows to the left of the boathouse entertaining the Burgess family with a nostalgic composition. As young children, Bruce and his older brother Fred Jr. and their Great Grandfather, Charles Welsman, stand a little further out in the bay watching intently as Arthur tries to ignore the peanut gallery in rowboat and corral his shots.
Knee deep and surrounded by a cluster of holes in the water stands another curious bystander, Bruce’s father. He is dressed in a khaki, one piece swimsuit circa 1920s and holds the family dog, Jippie, who is more preoccupied with the water droplets rising from the surface next to his master than he is with any of the decoys or billiard balls drifting by.
Peacefully floating directly behind Bruce’s father is the magnificent Ditchburn motor launch called the ‘Mowitza II’. The varnished luster of her deep mahogany deck and sides appear so intense that the reflections in her mirror finish could easily be taken for another reality. Behind the steering wheel sits Bruce’s mother, Launi Burgess. Even though there is barely a breath of air, her hair is flowing wildly. With her head leaning back slightly and her eyes tightly closed, Launi imagines Mowitza at full throttle and loves every exhilarating moment. Seemingly unimpressed by all the activity below, a Great Blue Heron quietly flies by. The bird’s wings gracefully slice through the air with only a hint of sound marking its passage. As history gradually returns to its logical path, this odd afternoon also passes by like a flight of imagination. But for Bruce Burgess, this transcending moment was more real than he ever imagined it would be. The beautiful memories of this very unusual day now linger in his cottage dreams forever.
Robert W. Vanderhorst