Folk Talk: Matchbox Stories: The Three Paddles

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Every old matchbox has a story . . .threeoars

Tom found the paddles behind the shed, wrapped up in wool blanket. There were three; pale blonde, the wood heavy and old, the blades solid. The handles were splitting, the wood more brittle toward the top, but still smooth. Held by a bevy of hands over the years, Leo would have said if he were there now. But where was the fourth? Tom wondered. He saw dark red spots on the blade of one, dried blood? The blood of an animal furiously swatted at, a brown bat swooping down on an old man dozing on the grass after a night row on the river, the man smashing the poor little beast, its tiny bloody organs staining the blade.

Tom had never cared much for water sports, or water in general, the sea to him seemed ominous, either too large or simply too arrogant. His uncle drowned as a child, his mother telling him how she stood and watched the current sweep him out into the waves, his little hands gesturing at her as he went under, his face showing resignation, defeat. The fourth oar reminded him of that, a lost prop swept out to sea like his uncle.

A dead weight at the bottom of the lake, threw in a fit of rage: young married couples out on the lake one hot afternoon, drinking and carousing in the late afternoon sun. One women flirting with the man in the next boat, she leans over, splashes him with her paddle and her husband swings his own paddle just above her head, ready to wop her, brain her good, he thinks and then toss her into the lake and get on his merry way. But he barely grazes her ear and she says, watch it, Tom! and laughs and the paddle lands hard just outside the boat, a great yelp on the placid surface.

And this weekend, Tom knows, will be full of miserable people he cares little for, a troubadour of the wounded, all singing their way to hell. Lev and Sally and Kip and that jackass Leo always brought and they’d drink, and fight and all the poets would complain, disheartened somehow by the nature surrounding them, as if the city were an appendage they left behind. And he imagined them at the center of the lake, the four of them, huddled together in canoes, lazy and drunk, throwing out dull quips: the light is stark, chilly––can light be chilly!? Dozing in the dry fields, slips of youth and dandies circling. All of them seething in some cagey anger, arms flung out, rowing in slow circles because they’re missing an oar.


Shelagh Power Chopra’s work appears in FRIGG, failbetter, The Good Men Project, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She runs the website, drunkonjunk.com: a fictitious account of a relationship gone wrong. She lives on Cape Cod and is working on a novel. More from this author →