Twenty-four

 

 

The trap-boat Charlotte motors past Long Point. Stevie sits on the engine box. Thick overcast. Low cloud-bottoms rush past. A rain squall shuts off the view. A cold wind buffets his ears. Lulled by engine noise and vibration. Its warmth rises through the rough boards under him. His eyes water. The abrupt change in the season has left him unprepared for this first bite of autumn. He finds a cocoon of comfort, a modicum of rest, curled up into himself. Back to the wind, Almost straight over the bow.

His father’s Pea Jacket is wet through. Collar turned up. Rough against his ears. Warm wool carries the damp away from his skin. Protects him from the chill. Except where his elbows press against the house top. Wet fabric under his hip. Damp meets the rumble of the motor. The hull yields to the chop, falling gently into troughs. Pushed aside by larger wave-crests, rocking, A cradle. He draws solace from how the planks meet the rush of cold water. Displacement and inertia resolving themselves with a mathematical precision beyond calculation.

Hunger and the hour and the cold, the long-held routine, Wish I was anywhere but here. Remembering his warm bed, a meager consolation, Covers pulled up in a roll. Head deep in my pillow. Corn-husks settled just right. Bed-ropes sagging in all the right places.

A needle-sharp drizzle pricks at his exposed skin. Air saturated with a fuzzy damp. A fine aerosol mist rushes against his nostrils. Settles on the fuzz on his cheeks. An insistent wind strikes him everywhere at once: tugging at his hair, his face, whistling in his ears, flapping the ends of his rough scarf so that it slaps his side in a never repeating and forever improvised beat. The noise of the exhaust exhibits a steady, mechanical exactitude modulated by his mind’s inability to accept such precision. It fluctuates to the continual ebb and flow of his attention, the uncontrollable rush of taking it all in.

He wraps himself in his discomforts, Nothing can touch me. Carves himself a slim edge of comfort. Defends it within the narrow boundaries at the surface of his perception. The damp, the cold, and the noise beat against him. They can only enter his flesh so far. He shields himself from the voices of the others. Any intrusion from the world of duty and responsibility is too much. He sits aloof, Just let me be.

Guarded behind this armor forged of his discomfort. He exists within a neutral zone in a blissful monotony. His only task to balance the loss of body heat against the fires of his young metabolic furnace. Nothing else matters in this narrow, shifting margin between animal comfort and harsh surroundings. The border keeps shifting. It presses into the muscles of his back. He stops it in the bones in his shoulder blades, at the points of his elbows. It pushes deeper, reaching his costal ribs, into his spine at the nape of his bare neck. A fresh drip runs across the tender skin of his chest. He holds on dearly to the beat of his heart. The center from which his warmth radiates. This morning, this counts as the pinnacle of success.

Antone naps on a fold of net in the lee of the forward bulkhead. His back against the rough bead-board bulkhead. The edge of the coaming vibrates in his head. His chin pressed against the top button of his jacket. Knees bent. Elbows drawn in tight at his sides. His hands clasp his chest. Fingers buried under his arms. Eyes closed. Tears flow without significance, running down the tip of his nose to join snot dripping on the deck between his feet.

Sammie and Josey sit back-to-back at the front of the engine box sound asleep. Oblivious to all discomfort. Sammie dreams of last night’s town-hall dance. The touch of a girl’s hands in a rollicking line-dance. The thrill of contact, brushing against a rounded hip. The spark that tingled when he bumped against yielding breast-flesh, clasping her about the ribs, raising her high in the air. He danced with this girl three times. Brown-eyed, a dark-haired Mary. His forearm, his elbow, the backs of his hands hold their own memories of her. He brought them home with him, dropping off to sleep in a wine-y haze. He was late waking for their early morning start.

Josie’s nap resumes a briefly interrupted stupor. In the dark Sammie pushed him out of bed onto the floor, “Le’s go!” They jogged all the way to the wharf.
Josie staggered out of the heat of the dance, leaving the bright lights and raucous noise. Behind the hedges on Bradford Street he had his fill of aguardente. A pair of men off a Boston long-liner satisfied themselves, watching this overgrown boy make a fool of himself, choking and gasping after sips of their hooch. Laughing too loudly, falling. Hanging off them, turning and bumping, A puppy’s antics. Eager to impress, wheedle, and cajole another snort from their flask.

Joe C stands at the wheel. His glasses wet. Fogged by warmth rising off his sharp-angled face against the cold drizzle. See well enough. Know where I’m goin’. Seeking to fill that bottomless hole in his purse, he divides his time by a single criteria: Am I making money or losing money? Rare moments of satiety: a full trap, other boats lined-up behind him at the wharf to unload. The rest? All costs. Every expense a personal affront. The company’s money! But it’s my boat! He lies to himself.

A Sunday morning out beyond Long Point in this October muck feels harsh after a mild September. Joe C hunts for a schooner in need of bait. A schooner heading out early. Not waiting for Monday. A last haul of Tinker, Mackerel cloggin’ the traps. Cold-storage won’t take no more. If I can’t find a buy’ah this load’ll end up fertiliz’ah in somebody’s back ga’hden.

The skunk-trap off Beach Point was full again last night, Second load, fourth trip of the day. No place to unload. No more wheelbarrows trundled down the pier after the gift of a load to pickle or hang in a backyard smokehouse.

An early false dusk. Heavy cloud-cover rolled in. Sammie emptied the purse, raising his Kill Devil high above his head, pivoting the scoop net against a lifting-line running from the stubby mast down to where Josie and Antone held its weight. A shimmering pouch of shivering mackerel rising up and over the rail dumped around their legs. Stevie pushed and shoved at the spreading mass with a long-tined fork. Intent to fill every nook and cranny.

Joe C worked himself into a frenzy. Grabbing the ladle out of Sammie’s hands, “Gimme that thing!” He flung it onto the deck, “God Damn it! That’s enough!”
Caught Sammie off balance. Antone dropped the halyard and backed away, spooning behind Josie to share the load. Too late. The weight of the full Kill Devil lifted Josie off the deck. Swung him in a graceless arc over the mound of fish. The rope took a crossing turn around his wrist. The halyard snagged on his outstretched hand. He fell face down on top of the catch.

Joe C yelled, “Clean this Gohd-damn boat! Wanna get the Hell out o’ he’ah!” The crew preoccupied with Josie, “Jesus Christ! When’re you bastards gonna learn!” He kicked at a loose fish, banging his foot against the engine box. Antone swung the bight out of the line. Josie fell, splayed face-down on dead mackerel, pumping his arms, flexing his knees, unable to get a grip. Antone’s eyes turned to the little club he keeps tucked behind the seat stringer, Albacore? Yellowfin? I swat him across head! A trace of a smile lingered on his face.

Sammie came to his cousin’s rescue, pulling his primo to his feet, tugging a red kerchief from Josie’s back pocket, stuffing it into his spluttering mouth. Stevie kept his distance. Eyeing Joe C, he went through the motions. “Git that Gohd-damn net ov’ah bo’ahd a-fore it gits all to’ha’hn! Slip that paint’ah off that Sum-Bitch-In guideline!” His shriek cracked, “Do I ha’fta do everythin’ myself!” Joe C bent down to minister to his engine. His voice muffled by the engine box. Turning valves, touching his oil can nozzle to all its nipples, centering the flywheel, he spun it. Nursed the throttle as she spluttered to life.

The propeller turning, Sammie, Antone, and Stevie were frantic. Joe C popped out of the hatch; spun the helm hard over, arcing the boat in an accelerating turn. They careened through the Gate. Out of the Heart. Alongside the Leader their wake set weed-clogged netting pulsating. Undulations quickly falling away astern. Wave crests broken and strained through holes in the netting frothed into bubbling foam.

Normally they would ease out of the pocket. Sammie hauling them out, pulling on the overhead guideline, reaching up with a short, crooked gaff. Leaning back and pulling down, hauling the boat forward. Strain popping his shoulder, stretching, he would fully extend his arm before pulling down, hauling back again. At the Gate, Antone would adjust the brailing lines. Joe C would ready the engine. Only when there was no danger of fouling the prop would it be started.

Antone watched, shaking his head, Porcaria! What a mess! Stevie burned with the injustice. Blames us for nothing! And he pulls this stunt? Anybody else? He’d kill ’em! “I’ll never run a boat this way!” Sneaking a look at the others, Jeez! Why don’t they do anything? Asked of Antone’s solid back. Sammie ribbed Josie, hawking up tainted phlegm. Bent over the catch, jabbing at his cheeks with his handkerchief.

Stevie watched the fading gleam in the eye of a dying mackerel at his feet. Its miniature might ebbing away. A blood-smeared gill-cover pumping, grimly, with a fading determination. Struggling against all reason to stay alive.

*

A ragged bank of fog, drizzle, and rain showers smears a dull horizon. Stevie notices the dark bulk of a schooner, jogging under stay’sl and reefed main, Topmasts struck. Winter rig. Less than half a mile off. Sails luffing. She bears down on them, riding down the wind. A large flag ripples in the lee of the main, clinging soggy cotton hanging in semitransparent folds. Slanting red stripes meet and cross, Dark, almost black, at the front. Bright, bloody-wet pink, bleeding through the back side of a fold. The mainsail pulls taught to a shifting breeze. The flag rises in an eddy. Inflates, sending a rivulet of wet to splatter across the deck, Upside-down.

Joe C crows, “Gohd-damn it! Here’s sum’mi’t! SAMMIE! Git up on the box will ya! Wave at them Bastahds!” Ain’t nobody gonna sell ’em bait a’fo’ah me! A figure at the wheel waves back. A raised outstretched arm poking out of a rolled-up sleeve. Bowler hat. A dark vest chops a white shirt. Red suspenders visible at his shoulders. He makes to stand, leans down the companionway. Dark trousers ride high. A big, round belly over spindly legs. A head pops out of the hatch. Half-hidden figures clamber out of the booby-hatch onto the foredeck. The two craft close at an alarming rate. The stays’l drops. Quickly stopped in a few clumsy bights. With creaking blocks and measured grunts the crew hauls in the main.

Joe C throttles back. The trap-boat, caught in the schooner’s overtaking wake, surfs ahead. Settles into a growing lee. The schooner rounds-up. Joe C runs his boat alongside, matching their considerable speed. Looking up past rough, dark planks, water drizzles down from the schooner’s scuppers. Drips off a heavy wale. Heads line the rail-cap arrayed in silhouette, looking down. Sammie stands on the foredeck ready to toss their painter.

“Whe’ah’s the Goddamn Fend’ah! Stevie! Gonna chafe the rail right off-n-ah! Gohd-damn-it boy!” He ducks below to stop the engine. Antone wrestles a soggy mass of frayed hemp, a clotted mass of gray, spongy oakum. Josie sets his bulk. Pushes against the rising slab of the schooner’s side. They fall back. A curling crest wedges between them. Stevie drops the sodden tangle into this narrow gap. A froth of foam piles up. Green water pulses over his hands. Up his sleeves. None of last summer’s warmth left in it. It jolts him to attention. He ties the lanyard off.

Stevie wants so badly to ignore what passes for negotiations between Joe C and the schooner’s skipper. A miserable lump of limp, gray mackerel. Don’t reach the thwarts. Joe C thinks it’s a prize. From the schooner’s rail? Barely worth the trouble.

Joe C accepts a price, Robbed! Sammy and Antone kick and drag stray fish into the pile. Josie pulls a manure fork from under the side deck. Its tines ring. Heads rearrange themselves above. A line squeals downwards. A stiff square of oiled-tarpaulin hanging from a hook lands with a thump.

The scent of bacon and hot coffee drifts down the wind. Promise of a warm stove and a lantern’s mellow glow. Hot food and drink, all they can think of. They rush to get the last, half shredded little carcasses onto the tarp.

Done. No-one waits for Joe C’s permission. Eager to climb out of the monochrome shadows. Leave this dank trap-boat. Get aboard the schooner. Their crew begins to hoist. Stevie jumps on the load. Grabs onto its knotted line as it swings upwards. He vaults the rail. Four men hoisting don’t register his weight. The schooner’s hands, even her skipper, clap and laugh. Send up a cheer as he hits the deck.

Sammie steps from the thwart to the engine box, stretches a leg across the gap to the main channels. Grabs the lower shroud and walks up the side, pulling himself hand-over-hand. A skinny old fisherman offers a rope ladder made fast to the pin-rail. Josie holds it steady for Antone. Joe C splutters in a rage. Lunges at Antone, leaning back, his weight on its lowest rung. Antone spins. His look freezes Joe C. Antone arrives at the rail in a moment. Greeted by the schooner’s captain.

Josie takes the brunt of Joe C’s rage. Drops his head in deference and offers the ladder. By the time he breasts the rail there’s no one left but the skinny old hand to greet him.

Bright lamplight reflects off golden, varnished wood. The abrupt passage from the gray-green gloom is dazzling. Vivid colors: bright scarves, hats, beaming faces. The solid warmth of a coal-fired range. Lingering damp embedded in their backs brings out a final convulsive shiver even as dry heat soaks into their chests. Rich food, aromatic coffee. They’re drunk with good fortune.

Voices crowd in. The schooner-men bathe in the pleasure their visitors take in their hospitality, seeing their day reflected back at them with admiration. A high note in their week. The only thing better to arrive at Boston’s T-Wharf at week’s end with a fine load and a good price. Ready to march down the city’s cobble-stone streets with a high-liner’s swagger dressed in their best suits, heading for a warm saloon.

Stevie has only visited on a schooner a few times over the summer. On this cold, raw day, the trap-boat’s familiar routine grating on him, I’m gonna get on a Scallop’ah. Grown-up. He drinks in the schooner-men’s life.

Captain Carlos, “Charlie,” Costa is glad to see Stevie. The schooner’s boy is younger; but Cap’n Charlie can’t relate to his own crew outside the rigors of discipline. No formal rituals of command, no saluting, no ranks; but there are limits. His word absolute. His responsibilities grave, I must put them on fish and get them home. In return, they do what I say. Stevie is outside this, A fine boy… that little tyrant Joe C.

Cap’n Charlie and his wife have eight children. He’s rarely home and then only for a day. His warm nature doesn’t get much play aboard the Mary & Alice. Stevie is handed around the long foc’sle table. Seated at its forward apex. Fishermen stand back. Move aside. Their Captain takes a seat at Stevie’s right hand. The rest of their visitors squeeze in around the table. Joe C finds the last spot at the far-end by the ladder. Glaring and chewing on his cheek, Closest to the hatchway. Farthest from the stove. An occasional drip on his shoulder does little to cool his temper.

Voices are too loud. The stove is too hot. Griddle-fried potatoes peppered with chunks of salt-pork. A large platter piled high with deep-fried Cod Faces. Bony gill-plates flattened out to the sides, Golden brown. Frilly at their edges. Hollow eye-sockets. Pale, eroded marbles staring back at them.

A bottomless crock of corn-chowder. Forever augmented. Reheated whenever the hands make for the table, morning, noon, or night. Its rim coated in thickened, milky starch. Globs of white and yellow and brown stuff drip from its rim. This batch is fresh. Too thin and tasteless to a connoisseur, Much better after four or five days!

A heavy glass thimble tops a low-crowned enameled coffee pot crusted in dark rime. Runnels of brown cascade from its prow-like spout. A line of freshly-filled mugs on the table, vapor rising to collect under the deck-head. Clouds of steam wreathe a gleaming brass lamp, swaying just a little. Canting shadows, and the angled waterlines in mugs and bowls, are all that betray that they are afloat. Not gathered in some hall. A grand brotherhood celebrating solidarity and fraternity. Odd Fellows of the Sea.

 

Continue…

 

 

 

 

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