I was fourteen when Mom married Captain Hook. My dad had vanished six years earlier, and I knew my mom was lonely, but I didn’t think that gave her the right to wed the first one-handed swashbuckler who came down the pike. She’d started dating again when I was twelve, working her way through a commodities broker, a puppeteer, and an elementary school principal. Until the day she came home from work raving about the man she’d met while power-walking at the docks on her lunch hour, however, I didn’t really think I had anything to worry about.
“Some creep was following me, and out of nowhere this man swung in on a rope and landed between us.” Mom acted out the scene in the middle of the kitchen. “He grabbed the creep by the throat with his left hand, and he shook his right hand, which isn’t a hand at all but an iron hook, in the guy’s face. He said if he didn’t clear off, he’d eviscerate him. I’m sure Creep-o had no idea what ‘eviscerate’ means, but he ran for his life.”
Her rescuer sounded like a badass, but I couldn’t admit that to my mom. It had been just the two of us since I was eight, and although I no longer allowed her to cuddle me or tousle my hair, I secretly missed the closeness we’d once shared. I knew it wasn’t easy—raising me alone, keeping us afloat on what she made at the bank—but the thought of her getting serious about someone drove me up the wall.
“He asked if he could buy me a cup of coffee, and I let him.” She poked around in the refrigerator, pulling out leftover spaghetti and dumping the congealed, Tupperware-shaped blob into a Pam-coated frying pan. “We sat on a bench, studying the water and the gulls. He told me things about the ocean—what kind of creatures live in coral reefs and how the moon’s orbit controls the tides and what octopi do with their ink.”
“How’s he know so much about it?” I glanced up from the pair of battling armored unicorns I sat sketching at the kitchen table. A kid who lived up the street had gotten me stoned after school, and when I started the drawing, I thought it was going to be really mind-blowing, but now that I wasn’t so high anymore, I had my doubts. “Is he some kind of sailor?”
“He used to be.” Mom piled spaghetti onto two plates and headed to the table with a green cylinder of parmesan cheese.
I plunged my fork into the mound of pasta and twirled. “What about now?”
“He just passed the civil service exam. He starts at the post office next week.”
Six years later, my stepdad would harass me to take the same civil service exam, to get off my ass and do something with my life, to stop sponging off him and my mom—to grow up. “What’s his name?” I asked.
“Did he tell you what happened to his hand?”
My mom nodded. She used the edge of her fork to cut her spaghetti into bite-sized pieces, a habit that really got under my skin. “It was eaten by a crocodile.”
“No way! Was he trying to feed it?”
She shook her head. “The crocodile didn’t bite off his hand. Someone cut it off and threw it to the crocodile.”
“Jesus. Who cut his hand off?”
She gave me a sharp look. “A young boy. For years, James was consumed by the idea of revenge, but he’s recently realized what a waste of time and energy that was. He moved here to make a fresh start. He wants to live a normal life, and he’s working through his feelings with a therapist.”
I sensed that she wasn’t telling me something.
“Peter,” she said.
I looked up from my plate. “Yeah?”
“That’s his name. The boy who cut off James’s hand. His name is also Peter.”
There turned out to be a lot my mom wasn’t telling me about James Hook. For starters, he hadn’t been a mere sailor but a ruthless pirate, the captain of a galleon called the Jolly Roger, and the crocodile who’d eaten his hand liked the taste of his flesh so much he now followed the man everywhere he went. True, the crocodile had also swallowed a clock that, in defiance of logic, continued ticking loudly inside him, but that didn’t make the fact that he stalked us any less disturbing or embarrassing. The beast was always skulking in my mom’s rose bushes or the pines that bordered our backyard. Every morning, he slithered off in pursuit of my stepdad’s Toyota and hung around outside the westside branch of the post office until closing time. Twenty minutes after my stepdad pulled into the garage, the crocodile would come ticking after him.
Although he bore plenty of battle scars, Captain Hook was a good-looking guy, and he treated Mom like a queen. I can see now why she was so into him, but at fourteen, I was mortified by my stepdad, and it wasn’t just the crocodile. He was forced to wear the standard issue postal uniform during the week, but on his days off he dressed in knee-length breeches, stockings, a red frock coat, and a wide-brimmed hat with a plume. His hair was even longer than mine, and it curled into black ringlets. My mom never seemed to notice the things that set her husband apart from other people—she saw only the man who’d rescued her from a lonely, loveless existence.
He tried to hide it, but every time he pronounced my name, my stepdad flinched. The Peter who’d cut off his hand was the leader of a gang of boys who’d ridden roughshod over Captain Hook and his crew back in Neverland, the place where he’d come from. I couldn’t fathom how children got the better of grown pirates, and this became one of my favorite things to rub in my stepdad’s face. According to my mom, he was making great strides in therapy; little by little, he was letting go of his anger and obsession with the other Peter. So I did my best to remind him how disagreeable boys named Peter could be.
“Peter,” he would say, his left cheek jumping, “after dinner, why don’t ye help me with the dishes?” Once she married Captain Hook, Mom said goodbye to dishpan hands—he took over any household chore that involved splashing around in water. He would hang a lathered sponge from his hook and power through a sink full of greasy pots and pans in no time.
“Why should I?”
My mom’s lips would part, but my stepdad would touch her arm with the tip of his hook, assuring her that he had the situation in hand. “Because I asked ye to. We’re family now, son, and it’s high time ye started acting that way.”
“You’re not my dad.”
“Aye. And I don’t aim to take his place.”
“Good, because you can’t.”
“I’m not attempting to.”
“Well, you couldn’t.”
“Once again, that is not me intention.”
Although I was no longer my mom’s little boy, the ease with which Captain Hook had swept in and plundered her affection bothered me in a way I couldn’t articulate. Brimming with teenaged indignation, I would leap to my feet and shout, “If my dad was here, he’d tell you where to shove that hook!” or “At least my dad never lost a duel to a ten year old!” or “Screw you, handless!”
I would slam my door and hurl myself across my bed. The ticking of the crocodile would drift through the open window, informing me that Captain Hook was nearby. I could picture him standing in the hall, staring at my bedroom door, touching it with the tip of his hook and the tip of a finger, longing to make things right with a boy named Peter, but not knowing how.
The closest my stepdad came to family was Smee, his boatswain from the Jolly Roger, and when Captain Hook married Mom, Smee sat alone on the groom’s side of the chapel. Short and round with wire-rimmed glasses, a bulbous nose, and flaming cheeks, Smee wore a stocking cap, and his accent was even thicker than Captain Hook’s. Since he was my stepdad’s closest friend, I wanted to dislike him, but it turned out to be impossible not to like Smee.
Smee carried with him at all times the finest weed I’d ever smoked. He said it came from an unnamed island in the Caribbean. He picked pounds of the stuff every time he went ashore, and I tried to explain to him that if he set up shop under the bleachers at my high school, he could make a killing, but Smee wasn’t really profit oriented. Since Captain Hook had given up pirating, Smee had found work on another ship; however, it was clear that my stepdad’s retirement had been tough on him. During the wedding reception, Smee and I locked ourselves in the bathroom, shoved a decorative hand towel under the door, and lit up one of the colossal joints I later learned were the only kind of joints pirates ever smoked.
“Ye shoulda seen the Cap’n in the old days,” Smee sighed. “He’d duel two men at once while steering the ship, eating a sandwich, and cutting his toenails. Never was there a braver nor a finer seafaring man.”
“But he let a ten year old chop off his hand.”
At the mention of the other Peter, Smee’s blissful smile faltered. “That Peter’s only a boy because he refuses to grow up. If he wasn’t so tight with the Neverland Fairies, he’d be a man several times over.”
Smee’s lung capacity was astonishing; as he exhaled, smoke settled like pea soup fog over the counter, and I could no longer see a trace of myself in the three-way mirror. “Where is Neverland?” I asked.
Smee shook his head. “When it comes to Neverland, maps are useless. Even if ye’ve been there, ye won’t necessarily find yer way back. Most folks stumble on it by accident.”
A metallic banging rattled the bathroom door, and my pulse quickened. “Smee? Is that ye in there?”
Smee cleared his throat. “Aye, Cap’n.”
“I hope ye’re not doing what I think ye’re doing,” my stepdad said. “Others need to use the restroom, ye know.”
“Sorry,” Smee said. “I’ll be right out.”
After a moment, my stepdad spoke again. “Smee?”
“Young Peter’s not in there with ye, is he?”
My eyes begged Smee to lie.
“Nay,” Smee said.
“Good.” I thought I heard retreating footsteps, but Captain Hook spoke again, his voice a menacing growl. “‘Cause if he was in there doing what I think ye’re doing, it would be the plank for the both of ye.”
Whenever I got suspended or brought home a report card full of D’s or stayed out past curfew on a school night—all of which happened more often as I scraped through high school—my stepdad threatened me with the plank. I didn’t care about my education, however, and neither my mom’s tears nor his threats swayed me.
“Peter!” Captain Hook shook my shoulder, waking me from a nap. It was a Friday evening early in my senior year. He still wore his postal uniform, and his black ringlets were pulled into a ponytail. He held my latest report card. “How are ye ever going to get into a good college with grades like these?”
“I don’t want to go to college.”
“What are ye going to do with yer life?”
I’d given this question some thought and was sure of only one thing—I couldn’t imagine myself ever holding down some nine-to-five job just to make a mortgage payment every month. “I thought I might run away to sea,” I said.
My stepdad blinked several times. “Get up and meet me in the dining room.”
At the table, Captain Hook sat bolt upright. I slouched across from him in a pair of cutoffs and no shirt.
“Ye’ve never even been on a boat,” he said.
I shrugged. “So what?”
“As a heart attack.”
He nodded. “All right, then. Ye and I are going sailing. Pack a bag.”
Although I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of being trapped on a boat with my stepdad, I looked forward to getting out on the open sea. Whenever Smee had shore leave, he thumbed his way to our front door, and while visiting, he slept in the top bunk in my room. He’d told me countless stories about the pirating life, and it seemed to me ideal—no cares, fresh air, riotous male camaraderie, adventure, infrequent bathing, constant weed-smoking. I was eager to get my sea legs and, after tossing a Rush tour shirt, a battered pair of underpants, and a toothbrush into a backpack, I strode into the kitchen and saluted my mom, who’d just gotten home from the bank.
“Do you guys have to do this tonight?” she said, kicking off her heels and opening the refrigerator. “I was going to make lasagna.”
Normally I would have crawled across broken glass for a taste of her lasagna, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shed my landlubber status.
“Just promise me you’ll be careful.” She gave me a tight smile.
“Relax, Mom.” I bowed to kiss her cheek, which smelled of lilacs—a scent she’d worn for as long as I could remember. “I’ll be with Captain Hook. What could possibly go wrong?”
At the waterfront, my stepdad parked his Toyota and sat with his hook resting on the steering wheel, his deep blue eyes fixed on the sun that drifted like a flaming balloon toward the ocean, igniting its calm surface. I was about to suggest we get moving when I noticed a couple of tears creeping down his scarred right cheek.
Climbing out of the car, we heard a clock ticking and spotted the crocodile slithering up behind us. He followed us down a dock, past dozens of small watercraft. Captain Hook stopped beside a sport fishing boat with a high prow and an outboard motor, tossed our bags aboard, and in the most graceful move I’d ever seen him make, leapt from the wooden slats of the dock onto the boat deck. He’d changed from his postal uniform into his usual weekend attire—frock coat, stockings, plumed hat—and stood still for a moment, his buckled shoes spread wide, his arms akimbo, his nostrils flaring.
“Whose boat is this?” I asked as he helped me clamber aboard.
“She belongs to Jerry.” Jerry was one of his coworkers at the post office. Although he wasn’t the quickest at the counter, my stepdad had proven his worth behind the scenes, and a month earlier, he’d been promoted to mail supervisor. He could sort packages faster than a machine, using his hook to dig through string-tied parcels and fling them into their respective destination bins. He was also a master of paperwork, which the post office required in abundance—everything in duplicate and triplicate. Pink and yellow and white copies of invoices and work orders and reports hung handily from his hook.
“Why don’t you have a boat?” I asked.
“Boats are expensive, Peter. Sit ye down.”
I sat in one of the seats at the center console as he untied the mooring ropes. Stepping up to the controls, he ignited the engine and placed his hand lightly on top of the steering wheel. He depressed the throttle with the tip of his hook, and the vessel moved smoothly away from the dock. Once we’d cleared the other boats, he opened up the throttle. We skimmed over the sea’s mottled surface toward the sinking sun—a pinkish sliver lingering on the horizon.
By the time he slowed the boat to a stop, the sun had vanished, and the star-pocked night spread like a domed blanket overhead. As swells tossed the boat, I became aware of how small the vessel was, and how much smaller we were than the vessel. The vast silence was broken by a familiar ticking sound. Captain Hook shined a lantern across the water, and there was the crocodile, his snout and yellow eyes peeking up from the salty sea. The beast swam around the boat in a diminishing circle. My stepdad led me toward the prow, where a thin platform protruded. The plank was designed for deep-sea anglers and guarded by a handrail, but beyond the rail, the platform jutted several feet into empty space.
“After ye,” Captain Hook said, and I stepped onto the platform. Fear and exhilaration shook me. I held tight to the rail. As I inched forward, I heard waves slapping the hull below. The black surface of the sea threw back a wavering version of the firmament – winking stars, a tender crescent moon. When I reached the bend in the handrail, I turned and found my stepdad standing less than a foot from me. In the light of the lantern hanging from his hook, his scarred face looked cadaverous.
“I guess ye know what time it is,” he said.
I shook my head.
“I think ye do.”
“Plank time?” My voice was weak.
The ticking grew louder, and I looked down. In the dark water, I could just make out the circling eyes of the crocodile. Captain Hook indicated that I should duck under the rail to the portion of the platform that dangled unguarded over the open sea. I shook my head. He removed the lantern from his hook and brandished the hook in my face. In the four years he’d been my stepdad, I’d never seen him threaten anyone with the hook. I dipped under the rail and straightened up on the other side, my whole body shaking.
Captain Hook lifted the lantern. He sighed. “I know where ye’re headed, Peter, and I want to give ye the chance to change yer destiny. Ye remind me of meself, and it’s not just the long hair, lack of respect for authority, and disregard for personal hygiene. All the years I was at sea, I thought I was happy. In a way, I suppose I was, but not in the way that matters.”
His deep blue gaze pushed past me, into the darkened distance. A briny breeze blew my hair across my face, but I didn’t dare loosen my grip on the rail. The swells beneath the boat grew larger. I was acutely aware of the circling, tick-tocking crocodile.
“Do ye know when everything changed? The day I turned forty. I woke up that morning, and everything kind of hit me. I didn’t hate the other Peter so much because he cut off me hand—I was jealous of his ability to stay time. I thought about me crew, and I realized that even though we were aging, we were still living the lives we’d picked out as boys. I know at yer age this is hard to understand, but a man can only fill so many days with rum and swordplay and plunder. Me life didn’t really begin until I met yer ma, and knowing she waits for me at the end of each day makes the hook and the crocodile and the post office bearable. Given the choice between death, and life without her, I’d walk the plank without hesitation.”
I was an eighteen-year-old boy separated from a ravenous crocodile by a thin strip of wood, but I’d like to say that in spite of this, I was moved by my stepdad’s words. I’d like to say that his devotion to my mom touched me, that his attempt to steer me away from a life dedicated to depravity and vice was successful. But if I said any of that, I’d be lying.
“Peter,” Captain Hook said. “Promise me ye won’t run away to sea. Give college a chance.”
Shivering with cold and fear, I promised; I crossed my heart and hoped to die. As the disappointed crocodile continued circling below, my stepdad hauled me over the rail. I wanted to punch him in one of his deep blue eyes, to shatter his kneecap with a well-aimed kick, but I could only weep. As he hugged me tightly, a bitter concoction of humiliation and hatred seethed within me. Standing out on the plank, I’d pissed myself, and I vowed that one day I would exact revenge on Captain Hook.
I did give college a chance, but I spent my time making rum-bottle gravity bongs and building a scale model of a Spanish galleon entirely out of beer cans, so I failed out in my second semester. I moved back into the split-level ranch Captain Hook and my mom had purchased after selling the bungalow where I grew up. For two years, I lost one crappy job after another: busboy, bagboy, delivery boy, pizza boy. My stepdad was constantly after me to take the civil service exam and join him at the post office, and finally, fed up, I bought a stocking cap, stuffed my belongings into a drawstring duffel, and did what I’d threatened to do three years earlier.
Smee secured me a position on his ship, and on a blustery spring morning, I strode aboard the Starboard Suzy, my boots beating a satisfying tattoo on the weather-worn planks of the deck. I dropped my duffel, inhaled the briny air, and knew I was home. After six months at sea, you couldn’t pick me out of a grizzled, unshaven, foul-mouthed, stinking lineup, one filled with men who from sunup to sundown wallowed in their own filth, perversity, and carelessness. Even on duty, we caroused, guzzling spiced rum and smoking weed, and our leisure was interrupted only by occasional, furious bursts of looting, pillaging, and general badass behavior. There were women—working girls in need of transport who bartered for it with their flesh, and innocents we absconded with, many of whom became enamored of one of our filthy band and had to be disabused of their illusions. During my years aboard the Starboard Suzy, I got involved with several of these girls, but when the inevitable question came up, I consistently refused to turn my back on the sea.
I existed in the here and now, forgetting about life on land, and it was a shock every time I received a letter from Mom. She kept me posted on what was happening back home—who’d gotten married, who was pregnant, who’d died. My stepdad never wrote. My mom insisted that since they’d made him postmaster, he was just too busy, but I knew he couldn’t forgive me for embracing the life he’d turned his back on. Smee told stories about him to the younger crewmen, and with each telling, Captain James Hook grew more mythic. In the beginning, I scoffed at these tales, but as the years passed, I started taking strange comfort in the exploits of the young, reckless Captain Hook, and I requested them of Smee more and more often.
“Peter, I’ve got to talk to ye, lad.”
Technically, I was no longer a lad the day Smee pulled me aside and walked me toward the deserted aft deck. In the twelve years that had passed since I’d climbed aboard the Starboard Suzy, Smee had aged terribly. He weighed three hundred pounds and had lost most of his teeth. He was afflicted with a chronic, wet hack, one that could be heard in every corner of the galleon, and his sun-browned skin hung from him in flaps. He was no longer expected to loot or pillage—he’d become a ship’s mascot of sorts. I was sure he was going to tell me he was retiring, and in truth, I was relieved.
“I’ve had a letter from yer stepda.”
“Aye. He’s sick, Peter. The doctors give him very little time. He hasn’t yet told yer ma—he doesn’t know how.”
For the first time in many years, I was forced to grip the rail for support.
“He didn’t say it in so many words, but he needs ye, Peter.”
At the thought of home, of my mom and stepdad and the midcentury furniture that filled their split-level ranch, a wave of nostalgia threatened to drown me.
“Peter?” Smee’s eyes, cloudy with cataracts, searched my face. “Ye’ll go, won’t ye?”
“Aye,” I sighed.
When I arrived, Captain Hook was barely clinging to life. I heard a ticking sound and spotted the crocodile slithering through the yard, forlorn. In the front hall, my mom embraced me for a long time, then pushed me toward the downstairs bedroom. The room smelled of infection and inevitability, and my stepdad lay on a hospital bed, eyes closed. He was attached to machines, some of which beeped, some of which pinged, some of which flashed lime-green. He looked much smaller than he had when I’d last seen him, on shore leave six years earlier, and his face was deeply lined. His black ringlets had been replaced by patchy gray stubble.
I stood in the doorway until my mom gave me another push. At my stepdad’s bedside, I twisted my stocking cap nervously. His deep blue eyes fluttered open.
“Peter,” he said, his voice no more than a whisper, “ye came.”
His hand floated up, the nails overlong, the skin thin and papery, and I clasped it between my calloused palms.
“Ye’re no longer a boy.” He shook his head, and the stubble made a scratching sound against the pillow. “I thought ye’d be a boy forever.”
“You’re thinking of the other Peter.” I squeezed his hand. “The one who lives in Neverland.”
“Nay.” He shook his head again. “I know no other Peter.”
A couple of years earlier, I’d finally seen the boy who refused to grow up. Finding Neverland was as difficult as Smee had led me to believe when I was fourteen; in my years aboard the Starboard Suzy, we’d stumbled upon it only once. There, I’d seen not only the Fairies and the Redskins and the Lost Boys but also the other Peter. Whatever his actual age, he looked like a ten year old, and I was awed by the sight of him flying around on pixie dust. When he landed on the main deck of my ship, I showed him a picture taken at Sears not long after Mom married Captain Hook, a photo in which she and my stepdad and I wore matching sweaters. Peter’s freckled features twisted with something like envy, and he went on at length about my mom—how pretty she was and how nice she no doubt smelled and how very lucky I was to have her—but he claimed to have no recollection of my stepdad. When I explained about Captain Hook’s hand and the crocodile, Peter just shrugged.
“Sorry,” he said, binding me to the mizzenmast as his Lost Boys carted booty out of our cargo hold. “I’ve known a lot of pirate captains. And I’ve chopped off a lot of hands. It’s kind of my thing.”
In the downstairs bedroom of the split-level ranch, a coughing fit seized Captain Hook, and his body convulsed, twisting this way and that. Once he’d quieted, I thought I could see right through him. As my long-awaited revenge for the plank-time incident, I’d planned to tell him the story of my encounter with the other Peter. I thought he should know that the boy who’d stolen his hand, the boy who’d haunted him, the boy whose name he hadn’t been able to pronounce without flinching, had no idea who he was. Now, watching my stepdad examine his iron hook as though he were seeing it for the first time, my desire for revenge evaporated. He tugged on me feebly, and I bowed down until my ear hovered inches from his cracked lips.
“Ye smell like the briny deep.” He pulled in a rattling breath. “Don’t tell yer ma, but sometimes, I miss her still.”
Captain James Hook was buried in a double plot he will one day share with Mom. As dirt mounded over his body, the crocodile who’d swallowed his hand years earlier, the creature who’d been biding his time, patiently awaiting a second taste, lowered himself to the ground and closed his yellow eyes. The clock ceased its ticking. The beast was dead.
The house filled up with mourners bearing covered dishes and condolences. People who’d worked with my stepdad at the post office came, as well as his regular patrons, couples he and my mom had played bridge and taken vacations with, guys from his YMCA basketball league, fellow Elks, and the woman who’d taught him to play the banjo. I didn’t think any pirates other than Smee would show up, but a couple of crusty old marauders stumped around on peg legs, trying to blend in with the crowd.
“I can’t believe Hook wasn’t buried at sea,” one of them growled, shaking his bald head. I’d had the same thought, but hearing it voiced upset me, and I was tempted to defend my stepdad and his choices.
As night fell, I found myself standing alone in the backyard. I charted a course by the stars and imagined sailing away. Someone pulled up alongside me, and I knew without looking that it was Mom.
“I’m surprised you guys never took a cruise,” I said. “Or bought a boat.”
“I would have been happy to do either, but James never wanted to.”
“He loved you more than life.”
“I know.” She squeezed my arm. “Guess you’ll need to get back to your ship soon.”
I tried to picture the Starboard Suzy’s stout hull cleaving deep waters, but I saw only the other Peter standing on her main deck, studying the portrait of my family, his small face etched with envy. “Thought I’d stick around,” I said. “Find an apartment. Look for a straight job.”
“Are you sure?”
I wasn’t, but I stooped and kissed her cheek. It still smelled of lilacs.
“Wonderful,” she said. “I’ll go put on some coffee.”
I was used to constant motion, to adjusting my frame to the undulations of the sea, and I was having a hard time balancing on solid ground. I wondered how long it had taken my stepdad to adapt. I imagined Captain Hook in his plumed hat and frock coat, holding a spy glass and a sextant, standing in the backyard after my mom had gone to bed, charting courses by the stars, checking the direction of the wind, picturing it filling his sails. Maybe he’d never really turned his back on the sea. Maybe he’d tolerated life on land by fantasizing about it. Maybe it was this that had enabled him to walk the plank into the chasm of manhood, the plank that stretched before me now, the board upon whose surface my hesitant feet had just been set.