I have seen a great astonishment: a shipwreck on a landlocked highway.
I thought I’d dreamed it, a hypoglycemic joke I told myself halfway home from Walmart.
But if light can be both wave and particle, sea and land can trade punchlines in Pennsylvania. Sure enough, I had been a witness to the wreck of the Smokin’ Lou.
This should not have surprised me. Ours is a world in which researchers pen academic articles on the world’s oldest pants. Poets persevere through labyrinths. We receive tomorrows at the bargain price of yesterdays. Geniuses engineer the next evolutionary phase of American cheese. Someone is sketching meerkats right now. Walruses are lolling and roaring and walrusing mightily under the strawberry moon.
It is only in the 20th percentile of peculiar for a 30-foot boat to crash on the highway median.
By the mercies of God, I was granted traffic sufficiently turgid for a lingering look. It was a boat alright, with a jaunty umbrella and a shining deck. It was clean and costly. It had sustained remarkably minor injuries from its fall. And airbrushed across its rear end, with all the intention of a dragonfly tattoo or a pair of “Juicy” track pants, were the words: The Smokin’ Lou.
The first time I saw her, I assumed the wreck had just happened. Be it a cat or a poem or Spike, the cactus in the window, anything named is loved. Surely the broken-hearted captain would come back for his Lou and nurse her back to health?
But two weeks later, there she was, dutiful orange cones guarding her honor.
Gordon Lightfoot had just died, and I imagined him playing a heavenly rewrite of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Unable to forget the cook’s dry-eyed observation: “Fellas, it’s too rough to feedja…fellas, it’s been nice to know ya”, the song had made me cry as a child. My mother had the audacity to subject me to this tragedy as well as to Acadian Driftwood, which made me want to welcome all free-roaming feral Canadians into my pink bedroom.
But I could no more save them than I could rescue the Smokin’ Lou, forgotten five miles down the highway. Her torment endured in silence, her captain halfway to Margaritaville by now.
I sipped my Cherry Zero sadly. What would become of the Lou’s legacy? I am a dedicated indoorswoman, but I have it on salty authority that boats are meant for memories. Had Lou bubbled with champagne or hosted flopping flounder? Had she been the deck for life’s unmitigated pleasures – the sound of Bruce’s Badlands or the exchange of dad jokes, coconut squiggles of sunscreen or orations to the new moon?
Or was Lou a “he”, lovelorn Luigi far from his tarantella youth?
Perhaps the memories were the problem, and shipwreck, the salvation. Perhaps there had been no bearded sea dog, but a Captain Carmella, doomed to glimpse her foul fourth husband on deck for eternity. She spit-cleaned the deck diligently, but his ghost stank like a mollusk. She spat his name into the ocean enough to raise sea levels and threaten glaciers, but still he pranced the planks. The Smokin’ Lou was his spittin’ image and his specter was sand in the pants of her days. There was only one option: The Smokin’ Lou had to run aground.
The Coast Guard in Pennsylvania has the vigilance of the bored, so Carmella knew better than to wreck Lou in a lake. It had been Lou’s way or the highway, so she would send him off with poetry. He had refused to meet in the middle, so he would become refuse on the median. “Fella, it’s been nice to know ya.” And so the Smokin’ Lou became a byword.
But even great astonishments can be made good. I hope Lou may reach kindly shores. If angels and insurance companies can reach an agreement, the airbrushed wreck could live gracefully yet. A vegan captain may catch only kelp, braiding it into vestments for walrus liturgy. Children will learn the lyrics of Springsteen and Lightfoot, tracing labyrinths in mollusk slime. Good men and brave women will eat cheese under the moon, sketching the evolution of human grace.
It’s an audacious dream.
But I have seen great astonishments.
As Development Director for a cat sanctuary, Angela Townsend bears witness to mercy for all beings. This was not the vocation Angela expected when she got her M.Div. from Princeton Seminary, but love is a wry author. Angela also has a B.A. from Vassar College. She has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 32 years, laughs with her mother every morning, and delights in the moon.