Shafts of light tremble in the darkness between pilings. Patches of eelgrass loom, looking like holes in the bright, yellow sand. Foot-wide starfish quiver, as though painted on the underside of ripples. Moon-snails wander at the heads of meandering trails, a bulge of sand curling off each side like the wake of a steam tug chasing the scent of salvage. Sand eels shiver and coalesce. Schools, turning, disappear under the shadows of a flock of terns, Dah-Ta-Da, dee-te-dee. Overhead for a moment. Lost down the breeze. Sharp-pointed, sharp-crooked wings slicing into the fish below.
Joe C lies perched, bent over an engine block, half-in, half-out of the cuddy at the stern of the Nellie & Mary. A trap boat docked in a bit of open water under the fish house, nestled between draggers, crammed together three-abreast at the end of Railroad Wharf. The arc of Provincetown Harbor’s shoreline shelves gradually out to deep water. The wharf is nearly a quarter of a mile long. Spindly tarred-pilings rise a dozen feet out of the water on this falling tide.
Half upside down to get around the hot exhaust; its cast-iron elbow inches from his forehead; he concentrates on a hex-head bolt, turning a rusty wrench almost beyond reach. It slips. Fresh blood smears a swollen knuckle, tearing open old scabs.
He’s locked in an intimate embrace with mute iron. Hard, sharp edges, snaky cables, convoluted piping jab at him. He lays across the engine, spark plug to hip, chest to magneto, “Gohd damn you bitch…, I’ll get you yet!” Spitting out whispered threats through the gaps in his teeth.
Remembering the old two-cycle one-lunger, Cross between a cider-press and a giant treadle sewing-machine. That was a good’en! Bearin’s wore out? Manny pou’ahd new ones. Crankshaft broke? He welded it back togeth’ah. Scavenged what he cou’n’t make.
Damn old wat’ah-jack-it rusted out. Always ov’ah heatin’.
He smiles, Scrounged this sweet fo’ah-cylind’ah off’n a mot-a-cah. Not many out he’ah on the Cape. Ow’ah fi’st auto-mobile accident! Summ’ah-kid flipped it. Broke his neck. Family spent more than the car was wo’th on a casket to carry his body home… left the wreck behind.
Joe C wants this bit of maintenance out of the way before the crew arrives. Fisherman neglect their equipment. Always have. Focus on the job not the tools. This is different. His eyes linger on a gleaming valve-cover….
He’s reluctant to let anyone see this. Working the boat his mantle of command shields him. He spits and curses when things break. Splutters at his crew as often as at their gear or their catch. They can’t touch me!
This is different.
We might not guess at the roots of Joe C’s ruin; but the results are clear enough. Every detail of his past is known to everyone. His whole world circumscribed within a few miles of this spot. He’s tied to these pilings, under the drip of melting ice from the fish house. In ear-shot of the panting shunt engine, waiting for stacks of crates of iced Cod and Haddock, Butterfish and Whiting, barrels of brined Mackerel packed into a line of vault-topped box-cars.
Fish-house boys of twelve or fourteen, forty-five or seventy-five, armored in stiff, waxed-canvas aprons, sweat and freeze in ill-fitting rubber boots. Never free of the stench of fish-guts gone sour, hauling wire-basket loads from the boat-holds below, weighing and boxing and icing the catch. They wheel handcarts stacked with over-stuffed, rosiny-pine fish-crates. Slipping and sliding across a cracked, slick floor, to the loading dock and up a narrow ramp into waiting rail-cars.
Turreted-houses of retired whaling captains and merchants stand sheltered from the waterfront that’s been the source of their wealth. The measured tick of wall-clocks envelope them in serenity. Slippered feet pad on damask rugs. Tired eyes shielded from harsh glare by thick, alizarin-crimson drapes. High-line fisherman stride down the wharf under bowler-hats, black suits and high, starched stiff-collars. Meanwhile these fish-house boys toil under the glare of a green-visored foreman, keeping the count of weights and tallies.
With these as his only witnesses, Joe C can relax for a moment. Enjoy his new found fastidiousness. The drain-plug takes on weight in his fingers, slipping from its hole, “Ah. There it goes….” Blood-warm oil spurts between his fingers. Dirty-black, it runs fast, dripping into the bilge, taking the last of the engine’s warmth with it.
Out! Out! Good thin’ I run her first. Werth it! Werkin’ ’round a hot engine. Bett’ah ‘an huggin’ an icy block! His gaze rises up from the cool, deep shadows under the wharf. Runnels of oil, black-red, course down his forearm. Its mineral sharpness stings the wet-sores and line-cuts on his hands. He’s well used to its slippery warmth, “The’ah, y’a Bastahd!”
Quick results. A monumental success, “Got ’ya now!” Replacing the plug, wrenching it tight.
Pop… Pop! He levers the caps off a row of bottles rattling in a wire-bail rack. Fresh, golden oil arcs into a tin-funnel jammed in the fill-hole. He wipes dribble spilled on the head, So it won’t bern lat’ah. Imagining sharp, acrid-blue smoke rising off spilled oil, searing on the red-hot manifold.
He tosses his used rag over the side. It floats away, leaving a trail of oil-sheen running down the current. A slick broadens to leeward. Sunlight reflects off its smooth surface, refracting into sharp, clear, clean colors: reds and violets, indigo and viridian, rippling in time to the harbor chop. Spiky, jagged contours transform into a lapping, sinusoidal undulation. Ripples smothered by the oil.
“I’ll be Gohd-damned if I’m gonna pump the Gohd-damned bilges myself! Where’s that little son-of-a-bitch!” Rising up to his full five foot-three he clears his throat with staccato hacks and splutters, sending a wad of thick spittle after the oil slick. “His job to pump the boat!”
Wharves and boats attract flocks of delicate gray and white Herring Gulls. Along with an occasional Great Black Back they roost on every available surface. Mottled white droppings, topped with clumps of fish bones and mangled cartilage, are everywhere, grim reminders of their epic digestions. The boy has already cleaned the boat once after this morning’s trip.
Stevie half-slides/half-shimmies down the stern line from the dock above. Joe C snaps his head around at the slap of a bare foot somewhere behind him. A shadow of movement flickers across the floorboards and settles on the thwart in front of him. He catches himself. Swivels, leveling a stream of curses spat-out with a glowering look. His arm raised instinctively to guard himself. He transforms this awkward gesture into a cuff aimed at Stevie’s head as he passes. He misses. Stares after him, pointing a sharp, accusatory finger.
A lean, slight frame. A certain hardness in his look gives out mixed signals of his age and maturity. Dark skin, a ruddy mahogany after the long summer. His hair bleached by the sun over mousy brown roots. His green-brown eyes reflect the dazzle off the water and glimmer with a sharp wit camouflaged behind a quick and practiced deference.
Circling old Joe C, Stevie steps nimbly from stern deck to side deck, balancing on its inch thick coaming before landing lightly on a thwart. He drops with a thud to the floorboards, ducking his head into the cubby under the foredeck, reaching for his worn string-mop and cedar bucket. He gets on with his work out of range of any blows that might be sent his way. The neutral angle of his bent back, the studied speed with which he gets on with his chores, take the edge off Joe C’s anger.
After one last parting, spat-out curse Joe C’s attention turns to a clamor of footsteps echoing from the pier above. It’s two of his hands, Sammy and Josey, eyes betraying their rapidly dissolving smiles. Faces hidden, silhouetted against the afternoon sun. He can’t be sure. Joe C stiffens anyway, reacting to a half-remembered chuckle heard through the bustle coming from the fish-house.
Sammy is one of those large young men who still manages to be impossibly light on his feet. Over two hundred pounds, jowly. Baby fat already turning to a middle-aged double-chin. He swings his bulk around a piling as he prepares to slide down a spindly ladder ending in an abbreviation of missing and broken slimy rungs five feet above the deck. Deftly stepping over the edge, he twists, sliding down its rails, jumping, and coming to rest on the thwart right in front of Joe C.
His red and black plaid shirt open to the waist shows a tanned vee of skin on a not quite hairless chest. A bit of pale paunch peaks from a gap at his waist. Dungarees rolled up almost to the knee. His thigh clenches as he steps down onto the floorboards. The fabric shining black-green with a patina of wear and grime. Recognizing that towering five-foot ten over Joe C might not be the best thing, he steps down and forward, dipping and turning, mumbling, “Afternoon, Cap’n.” into his sleeve.
Josey follows. He might be Sammy’s twin without his vibrant vitality. It’s as if he’s made up of cast-offs and left-over scraps of his cousin’s physique. Their parents came from a village on the little island of Fáial in the Azores. The same age, they’ve been inseparable since childhood, running hoops along Provincetown’s boardwalk sidewalks, playing forts in the scrubby woods behind the cemetery. Sammy is sought-after as a hard worker. It’s just expected that any boss must take them on as a pair.
They have dark black hair. Sammy’s is prematurely peppered with gray, poking out from under his black knit-cap. His open shirt his only concession to the still-warm season. In Winter he’ll sport a heavier wool-shirt over the one he now wears. Neck still bare. The red tops of wool socks bulging above black rubber boots.
Joe C stares at his crew as they go about their chores. They, in turn, studiously ignore him. Only dropping a shoulder, mumbling, “Cap’n” as they move around the confined space.
Nellie & Mary doesn’t belong to old Joe C. Even such a rough and humble craft as this is beyond his means. The boat, the gear, the bottles of motor oil, and his greasy rag all belong to the East End Cold Storage Company, one of seven fish plants in town. It owns the traps, the pound-scows that build and service them. Its wharf lies about a mile away to the East. Its warehouse topped by a tracery of piping and metal tanks of its ammonia-condenser. Tons of frozen fish fill its vast concrete interior.
The company has one of the longest of a dozen wharves just in this end of town. They’re alongside Railroad Wharf to take delivery of a replacement net brought in on the noon train. A dark mound piled high above the dock by the tracks. Sepia brown layers of twine-mesh. A veil, weighing close to a thousand pounds. Sticky to the touch. Stepping on it on their way to the ladder, the boys felt the sharpness of its twine bite into their bare feet, leaving a crisscross residue of sticky tar. Creosote and copper salts stain their soles.
No one waits to be told what to do. All know what needs to be done. Space cleared. Gear stowed in preparation for lowering and flaking the net.
Joe C curses, Not here yet, “Damn ’im!” Thinking of Antone.
Old, almost sixty. A poor cousin to the plant foreman. Antone’s retired off a Salt Banker after her last voyage. Too old to get a berth on a schooner. Not welcome on one of the new draggers. He’s had no choice but to accept this place on a trap-boat.
A last corner of net runs through Sammy’s fingers. Josey and Stevie walk it into place, avoiding potential snags. They worry it past the ladder. Masses of barnacles and mussels encrust the lower reaches of the pilings. Joe C bends down, defending a clear space in front of his beloved engine. Ready to crank it to life as soon as they’re done.
Without the agility to attempt the ladder at this state of the tide Antone makes his way from the dockside to the fo’c’sle of a dragger, crossing its deck to that of its pair tied outboard. He drops over its rail with a huff, landing with a thud. Catching his breath, he accepts the last few feet of net lowered from the dock, folding it along with the rest. Brief nods of masked recognition pass between him and the rest of the crew.
Joe C ignores Antone’s arrival. Ducks into the cuddy. Opens the fuel petcock, the intake seacock, and checks the magneto. With a single sharp snap of the wrist he swings the starting crank. Lifting it away from the flywheel, he reaches for the throttle with his other hand, listening to the engine’s every sound as he adjusts its idle. Still warm and slick with fresh oil, it answers immediately. A couple of sharp backfires from its open carburetor are followed by a steadying Pup-pup-pup! Smoke shoots from its exhaust pipe angled aft under her stern. The noise scatters pigeons from their roosts under the fish-house. Echoes cross the water and reverberates between the pilings.
Sammy clears their dock lines with a pure animal grace. They arc down, one by one, as if he has gently placed them on the deck. Not dropped them a dozen feet. Forward spring, after spring, bow line…. He steps lightly down the ladder, the stern-line draped over his arm. No tension in it at all. Joe C steps aft from the engine house, shoving the shift lever into gear. A splash of prop-wash off her outboard rudder shoves Nellie & Mary away from the pilings.
The boat rests at the base of a U of open water between draggers tied two-abreast forward and three-abreast aft. She lunges into the narrow space between the prows of the boats ahead. Joe C reverses and gooses the throttle again. The boat stops, rearing up as the stern is pulled down. Two repetitions, back-and-fill, set the boat perpendicular to the dockside aiming for clear water.
They leave the soft gloom under the pilings, crossing angled shadows off roof peaks and high prows. Cross-trees and wheelhouses cut through the sharp sunlight of this Indian Summer afternoon. Dark, emerald green water, pooled in the shade, fizzes with ice green foam. They burst out onto a deep indigo sea flecked with pale cerulean. The short harbor chop reflecting a bright, warm sky.
Every departure, whether to the Grand Banks or to the nearest fish trap, produces at least a moment of peaceful contentment. Leaving the confines of this shadowy canyon satisfies. The labor of stowing the net is behind them. The departure itself is a distraction, freeing each of them from the weight of whatever ills they leave behind. Bright sunlight fills the dome of heaven. Fresh iodine strikes sharp in their nostrils. An vista opens ahead. Heading into open water they are held within the welcome embrace of the arm of the cape.
No-one talks. Joe C puts no more thought into maneuvering between the moored craft than he would crossing from his table to the sink in his own kitchen. Sammy and Josey recline on the front of the massive heap of netting, smoking. Sammy notes some chaffed gear on the bowsprit of a moored schooner as it rears overhead, smiling to himself over a remembered joke.
Josey, following his cousin’s gaze, smiles too with no thought to wonder why.
Stevie sits high on the pile, keeping Joe C’s face out of view behind a fold of netting. A purely instinctive defensive posture, If I can’t see him…. The old man’s shoulder comes in and out of sight as the boat jabs into a freshening chop. Little waves slap rhythmically against their bow. The boat’s motions exaggerated up here, It’s like riding a camel.
Turning his head he looks back towards the town, Stevie checks off a litany of familiar landmarks. His mind barely registers his inventory: the Universalist Church, the Water Tower, Town-Hall Clock. The crenelated stone pillar of the Pilgrim Monument rises above it all. To its right: the tall steeple of the Center Methodist Church, round-topped Mount Ararat, and beyond, staggered rows of pale cresting Dunes….