Captain J’s Glass Bottom Boat

Shoal Bay East, Anguilla – May 1998

A local man smiles up at me from a postcard. He waves from a small boat with a black and yellow striped awning. I turn it over and read: Captain J’s Glass Bottom Boat Tours. I look up at the man who is Captain J and hand the postcard back to him. “No, thanks. Not today.”

His face tightens. “No one has ever given it back to me.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “We don’t have the money. It’s a nice postcard, though. I’m a travel agent. If you want, I can take it with me and put it in the agency.”

His face brightens again. He hands the card back to me.

“I hurt his feelings,” I say to my mother, as I watch him walk back to his boat. “I guess I was expecting him to be pushy like the people on St. Martin. Like everyone is. I’m always expecting to be taken advantage of. Rather than be assertive, I prefer to push people away.”

“You’ve been taken advantage of by too many people. Of course you expect it now.” She shakes her head. “It’s amazing how different people are from island to island. On Saba yesterday, they were very nice, too. Maybe it’s because they have less tourists.”

Her observations make me smile. She’s wiser than she thinks. We stretch out on our beach towels and drink plastic cups of rum punch. We fall silent as we gaze across the pinkish white sand to the pastel blue sea.

A family of four climbs into Captain J’s boat. They head out to a reef not far offshore. The boat circles around and then comes to a halt. The family puts on snorkeling masks and jumps in. Every so often, the breeze blows their laughter towards the shore.

I have money for things like that now. Things that we were always told were unnecessary. Tourist traps, Grandma used to say. Only dumb people do stuff like that.

I won another sales contest at work – a week at a time share, two airline tickets, and a car rental. Anywhere in the Caribbean. I chose St. Martin, because it’s easy to take day trips to Saba and Anguilla. I wanted my mother to see some new places. Except for Canada and her honeymoon in Cancun, she’s never been out of the U.S.

“I’m happy that you’re here,” I say.

“Me, too. I hope I’m not getting on your nerves.”

I laugh. “Oh God, no. You’re the best person I’ve ever traveled with.”

The same meek smile. “Really?”


We doze for a while, lulled by the soft breeze and the reggae music that wafts from the tiny beach bar behind us. Warmth seeps into my winter-weary bones. The trees have only just begun to blossom in Michigan. The ground is still cold.

Captain J’s boat putters back to shore.The family disembarks.They wave goodbye with large smiles.

I get up. “Oh, what the hell.”

“Yeah, let’s live a little.”

I walk over to the little boat. Captain J is putting the masks and flippers in a small wooden chest.

“Are you closed for the day?” I ask.

He looks up, surprised. “I was, but I’ll take you out.”

“We can only afford a short ride. Is that okay?” I wave my mother over.

“I’ll take you out for free.”

“No way.” I shake my head firmly. I am not a mooch.

“Let’s not talk about it now.”


My mother climbs into the boat. We putter out to the same reef, which blooms in the window below us. The little boat rocks gently on the waves. I look back at the shore. While Saba is all cliff and no beach, Anguilla is one giant low mound of sand. My mother stares down through the window. “Remember the glass bottom boat that Grandpa took us on in the U.P.? He was so happy to show us that place.”

Sorrow washes over me. My grandparents took us on that trip so that we could get away from my father. He had just been released from the mental hospital, even though he would never again be totally sane. My brothers and sisters and I were too shellshocked to really enjoy anything. Grandpa tried so hard to make us forget, at least for a while. I wish I could have appreciated him more while he was alive.

Captain J turns off the engine and throws the anchor over the side. He hands me a mask and flippers. “Go ahead. Jump in.”

My mother backs away and shakes her head. “I just want to watch. I’m afraid of deep water.”

“Are you sure?”

She nods. “I’ll watch you from here.”

Captain J jumps into the water with me. We paddle around. A school of deep blue fish swerves out of our way, and then circles back. I lift my head. My mother smiles down at me.

“Mom, you really gotta see this. It’s easier than swimming in fresh water, because you float.”

She shakes her head. “I wish I could.”

Captain J’s head pops up out of the water. “I’m going to get her.”

She backs away. “No, please. I’m really afraid.” Captain J climbs into the boat and hands her a mask. He helps her put it on, and then jumps back into the water. She descends the ladder with shaky legs and white knuckles.

“Don’t worry. I got you,” Captain J says. “I won’t let you go.”

He holds her hand and leads her around the reef. After a few minutes, her grip loosens. I swim next to her, my eyes stinging with tears at her innocent wonder and at Captain J’s kindness. She is still so untainted after everything that life has thrown at her.

A gelatinous pink mass floats in front of us. It looks like a dainty handkerchief that’s been tossed carelessly overboard.

My mother’s eyes widen. Her voice is distorted by the mouth tube and the water, but I can still hear, “A squid!”

Three different laughs ripple and blend together. An underwater choir of joy.

27 thoughts on “Captain J’s Glass Bottom Boat

  1. I feel, see and you transport us to that same place you were, very good, your are a very good writer.

    Do I understand this…

    “She is still so untainted after everything that life has thrown at her.”

    Life is like that, but we must go on, I am glad your mom got to experience the beautiful life under the sea and the two of you had time to travel together…I try to travel with my mother every year.

  2. You take me back to remember…

    “Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”
    ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

  3. I can almost relate with the situation your mom was in, I was the same when I first went snorkeling 😀 ha! so nostalgic. Beautiful story as always J.

    btw, I am sorry if I am not able to reply to your comment on my other blog, mobile app does not allow me to do that, I have to log out from this acct. to be able to. Hope you don’t mind.

  4. Exquiste writing, Julie. I love it when you mesmerize me. Your relationship with your mother is delicately portrayed and conveys a lovely quality of sweetness. Great set up in this story for the revelation of mental illness and loss (or retention) of innocense. I have mental illness in my family, too, so I understand the trajectory. I also understand the regret that you expressed in hindsight about being unable to fully appreciate your grandfather’s attempt to provide some relief. All in all, a stellar piece. 🙂 Viv

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