Kyle had been working the Bainbridge run for six months now, and the familiarity was beginning to poison his ability to create lives for the people he saw day in and day out. They’d begun to greet him by name, smile and wave and ask him about his life. By the laws of polite reciprocation he in turn learned many of their names and the outlines of who they were in the world.
It shattered the roles he’d so carefully created for them. And while outwardly he smiled and waved back and teased the Gundersons about the rust spot on their rear passenger door they’d never fix, beneath that amiable façade he felt the familiar sensation of depression slowly enveloping him, like a bank of thick fog wrapping around Wing Point to swallow him whole.
He enjoyed days working on the passenger deck the most, reveling in that moment when he lowered the mechanical gangplank and threw open the gate. The passengers rushing forth like immigrants into a wondrous new land fill of promise. Each morning he set them loose upon the city, eyes dazed with the remnants of last night’s dreams, fingers curled tight around coffee cups and umbrella handles.
He unclipped the rope barricade and motioned today’s crowd forward, setting them about their Tuesday. As the faces passed, he imagined where their busy days would take them. What would they struggle to overcome between the time he loosed them under the shadow of morning skyscrapers and their return down that gangplank in the day’s fading light? What would they accomplish, insignificant and momentous, in that same span? Would they return weary and subdued, or at peace with the day?
Kyle picked out a man at the middle of the crowd, forming a new story. The twenty something wore an out of fashion double-breasted suit his grandmother gave him as a graduation present years ago. He was on his way to a job interview with an architectural firm on Capitol Hill. He’d shaven hastily that morning in order to catch the boat in time, and now he rubbed his jaw line reflexively. Running his hands over the rough patches of yesterday’s stubble that he’d missed in his rush. He hoped the panel wouldn’t notice, wouldn’t perceive a lack of professionalism on top of a thin list of experience and rule him out immediately.
The man brushed past Kyle on his way to the sky bridge that connected the dock to the heart of downtown, lost in his thoughts.
He shifted his storytelling to a middle-aged woman near the back of the line, running her fingers through her long red hair as she waited her turn. She was overdressed for an average Wednesday at the office, long tan overcoat open over a blue Chanel that hugged her hips. She tapped her thumb against her wedding ring, a tic she that she always exhibited on the days she was to sneak away to meet Brian at the waterfront Marriott. Only 7:30 in the morning and already her thoughts were fixated on their tryst this afternoon. She would have to dive headfirst into her workload at the office, immerse herself in her projects from the moment she sat down. Otherwise, she knew, she would find herself wrapped up completely in her anticipation of their weekly rendezvous. How thrilling that after all these noontime trysts, she still felt a rush of excitement just thinking of having his arms wrapped around her. She knew their relationship could never last, but took a sad solace in the sense of adventure it had brought to her life, something her marriage hadn’t made her feel in years.
“Americano, two sugars, right?”
The question jarred Kyle out of his imagination. He turned his attention away from the redhead as she stepped off of the ferry, and found Paul Danes standing before him, a paper cup of coffee extended in offering. Paul, who Kyle knew worked at a small app developer in Ballard and had chatted him up a half-dozen times on the finer points of amateur ship building.
“Uh, yeah,” Kyle grunted, fumbling to take the cup. He managed a tight lip smile. “This is a nice surprise. Thanks.”
Paul grinned and gave Kyle a too-playful pat on the shoulder.
“It’s your birthday, right?” He read the confusion on Kyle’s face as if already prepared to explain. “Denny told me. Figured you didn’t want to make a big thing out of it, but I thought to myself, ‘What the hell? Everyone could use a little pick me up on their birthday!’ Right?”
Kyle only nodded, as if trying to assure Paul that he’d just expressed some universal and important truth.
“I only wish it had a little something stronger in it for you, bud!” Another fraternal shoulder pat.
He drifted back into the last trickle of departing passengers before Kyle could mumble a passing response. Kyle took a long sip of gifted coffee. The heat from the plastic lid fought against the sweeping cold from a bitter late spring breeze whipping down the bay.
The first few return runs to the island were always near empty, and Kyle was grateful now for the empty decks as he watched the city skyline slowly grow smaller in the morning haze. Paul’s jarring act of small kindness made Kyle painfully aware of the need for a change.
In the morning he’d ask for a transfer to the San Juans run out of Anacortes. The weather was slowly beginning to warm up, which meant tourist season was not far off. Kyle pictured the crowds of anonymous travelers from California and Canada swarming the docks on their way to whale watching adventures, kayaking tours, and the bohemian allure of the densely wooded islands. He smiled, picturing the throngs in their floppy hats and beach bags, a sunburnt fresh canvass for his ever-shifting masterpiece.