Hard by the Water’s Edge
Sword curses and promises to smack the next person who enters the Harborside Cafe and says, Good morning. There’s a nor’easter moving into the neighborhood, and he calls it a freakin’ horror show sure to punish fishermen for being fishermen from here to Timbuktu. Good morning, my ass. Anyone worth saluting and still alive on the docks knows there be bad in the air. He warns: If you aren’t eyeball-to-eyeball with a nasty blow, it’ll bite you awful hard. Hell, it will eat you whole.
The weatherman on the late-night news described the storm as a minor disturbance sure to dissipate by morning. Don’t
forget the sunblock, he reminded viewers, before signing off. Sword studied the maps and radar imagery on TV and went
to bed expecting to wake a few hours later to clear skies and smooth sailing. His seabag was packed for a twelve- to fourteen- day fishing trip aboard the Ocean-C, an offshore dragger rigged for catching scallops. She had been iced, fueled and provisioned the day before, her gear checked, tweaked and greased, and her crew was prepared to leave for the fishing grounds off Georges Bank at slack tide, around five this morning.
Sword awoke at three a.m., eager to begin the hunt. But, Christ Almighty, he says, he wasn’t out of bed ten minutes before his marine radio started yapping. The unit automatically responds to storm alerts issued by the National Weather Service, and he listened to a bulletin about a major depression forming off the Jersey coast and tracking northward. The wind was expected to clock speeds over 60 knots, with waves building into twenty-five-foot monsters. The news got him swearing something fierce. After a bit, though, he remembers going all quiet-like, thinking hard, truly, wondering about how much a feller misses between one snore and his last.
He taps a forefinger on the sea-green Formica countertop and says he’s bothered, way-so, by the possibility that he could someday end up dead in bed. While others might welcome such a peacful exit, he ain’t one of them. It would deny him his right to fight. Just as bad, it’d mean betrayal. He reasons: A bunk be a feller’s hurricane hole. No matter what it be blowing or what direction shit be flying, a pillow done always put a muffler on the howl.
Sword pauses (three count) and says, Another big fact, this: there’s nothing much safe. The newspaper be full of stories about hims and hers and way-bad conclusions. You get babies smothered by their mother’s breasts. Honeymooners electrocuted in the bubble bath. And, sure-sure, there always be family dogs eating families.
He digs into what’s left of his $3.29 Harborside Cafe Breakfast Plate Special: two eggs, spuds, links or bacon, toast and coffee. I scan the eatery hoping to raise Fatima, Keeper of the Coffeepot and heiress to the cafe. The place is nearly empty today and there’s no sign of Fatima. The coffeepot is dry; dirty dishes clutter tabletops; meal checks sit untended by the register, which carries a note taped to its side: Please return the Jimmy Fund jar. Off to the left, along the north wall, decorated with dozens of pictures of local fishing boats, a fluorescent lightbulb flickers, its ballast shot and humming the problem.
Leaning backward on the stool, Sword issues a low, one-note whistle, and says, Listen to this, will-ya? He lists some reasons why: Because he just thought of it. Because it happened to him, so you know it be awful-like real. And because he loved her some way-lots.
The Magnificence, he repeats three times. That was her name, the boat, it was, and it fit her right and tight. He was one of eight aboard during her last voyage and says everyone was feeling lucky. The weather was finest-kind. Warm. Flat seas. A big sky showing more stars than anybody knows what to do with. Better yet, they were six days out and had bagged nearly six tons of scallop meat. With that treasure in the hold, and more coming up in every tow, he remembers dreaming about the payday ahead: wads of presidents ain’t nobody knows shit about, except how smooth, all silky-like, they feel slipping in and out of a pocket.
He stops to raise his coffee mug and makes a toast. To the Magnificence, he says, and swallows. Solid her, he adds, and only needing a coat of paint to look young again. Christ, her Cat always purred, never a sputter or a cough; feed her diesel and she’d go as she gulped. Every inch was built in oak or ash. Hardly a splice in her. Tell-ya, they don’t make trees like that no more and, no sir, they don’t make boats like the Magnificence no more. Look around today and it all be steel. Steel. Everywhere steel.
He twists his neck, left-right, to see if anyone’s listening. We’re the only ones at the counter, but he keeps his voice low, saying, While trouble was cooking, he was off-watch, asleep in his bunk, until the bilge alarm sounded. He says that noise is something you neverever, no, want to hear again. It cuts right through you, a knife-like ripping out gut and brain. He reckons several seconds went missing before he put one and one together and realized, holy shit, there be all sorts of twos. Maybe a false alarm. Maybe not.
Again, Sword looses a low, one-note whistle and this time says, Screw answers. At sea, only dead fellers got the time to wait for them things. He remembers running out of the fo’c’sle like some sort of big-shot king, not caring about nobody or nothing but his his own royal ass. Once he saw the emergency gear in place, his mates still aboard, he says the king-feller died and he rejoined the crew. When the skipper yelled, Launch the raft, he was all aye-aye, cap’n-boss-sir.
There was no saving her, the Magnificence, he says, and says it again. Only a million pumps could’ve kept her afloat. Her shaft be gone, along with the prop. Slid right through the stuffing box and from the amount of water coming in, the stuffing box might’ve disappeared, too-like. No sir, he can’t say how such a thing happened and can only guess it be another mystery of the sea. The place got lots of them, he adds. All he knows for certain is how speedy-like disaster arrived: from Dreamland to Mayday took less than one minute. If that bilge alarm wasn’t—
Fatima cuts him off, breezing through the kitchen doors, her voice booming: Hey, Sailor, what will it be? Without waiting, she answers, The usual, of course: Breakfast Plate Special. Scrambled. Wheat. Joe first.
As she heads to the coffee stand, she asks Sword, How’s the food, mister?
Cosmic, he replies, and bites into some cold toast.
Yous, too, the same, she says, and winks.
Sword and I watch as she prepares the Bunn-O-Matic drip coffeemaker. The instant hot water exits a nozzle she strokes the unit’s chromed dome and turns our way. Don’t-ya hate
Killers, Sword pipes. A mess of trouble. He labels himself a storm victim unjustly detained on shore. You know the saying, he adds: The lower the barometer, the taller the trouble.
Fatima wiggles a hand as if defending herself against a no-see-um and moves to the picture window set into the cafe’s south wall. It overlooks New Bedford Harbor, a working waterfront servicing fish, fishermen and America’s largest fishing fleet and is half the reason one sign outside the restaurant says, in large red letters, good food & view. With her face tight to the glass, her breath condensing on its surface, she gives the elements a piece of her mind. Damn, damn-ya, weather. Hate-ya, like-bad. Okay, she concludes, grabbing a fish tote filled with dirty dishes, and heads for the kitchen. Back soonest, she purrs in passing.
It’s dead calm outside. Near the channel, dinghies nuzzle mother ships they usually trail. Flags droop on their halyards, and the exhaust from boat engines charging batteries flattens as it exits each stack, forming oily pancakes which curl heavenward at the edges. The water is flat, not a line to be seen, the harbor a chalkboard ready to record the coming action. Nimbostratus clouds dim the outdoor light and appear stuck in place; gray and featureless, they wait for wind and a drop in atmospheric pressure before dumping their loads.
Sword bends over an empty sugar packet featuring a stylized portrait of Poseidon. The god wears a crown of sea horses over flowing locks of eels and a beard formed by octopi. His cheeks are puffed, his mouth blowing a gale, and one hand grips a trident with a demasted square-rigger impaled on the center tine. Sword pokes the water god in the puss and calls him a fuckin’ murderer. Killed millions, him. Got the Magnificence, too. Took her, he did, in one gulp. No manners, all beast, him.
For three years, Sword says, the Magnificence was his home, nearly; she was his true love, for sure. She’s the one who always brought up the day. So, at the end, he felt there was a heap of reasons the size of Everest to sit with her and say, Thanks, plus more. But, damn, she was sinking too fast for anything polite.
Raising his right hand like a Scout taking a pledge, Sword swears he jumped off the boat with only seconds to spare before he would’ve drowned, sucked under and down with the hull. He remembers the life raft drifting only a few yards from the wreck when the cry went out: She’s gone, she’s gone. True, this, he adds: Poseidon didn’t burp up nothing. There was no oil slick. No flotsam. No trace of her. Not a thing to mark her grave.
I wait for more and end up staring at all the tattoos exposed by his cut-off T-shirt. Arms on arms, he once explained, referring to the arsenal needled into his skin from knuckles to pits. The grenade, knives and various-caliber bullets are drawn full size; the tank, chopper, artillery pieces and assorted handguns and rifles are inked to scale. Above the weaponry, circling his neck and appearing strangely animate whenever he twists, stretches or strains, there’s a serpent’s tail done up in hot colors: raspberry spikes atop fire-orange armor-plated skin. Near each spike a tiny land mine in mid-explosion sprays red ink in three directions. There’s more under his T-shirt, including a map of Vietnam running the full length of his spine and marked with a skull and crossbones in places where he saw action.
Much of the artwork was done in Thailand during R&R breaks from a war he doesn’t talk about, unless asked; he believes most people don’t want to know a damn thing about Nam, and he wishes he were one of them. On his wiry frame—five foot ten, about 160 pounds—and with his mousy looks up top, the tattoos keep strangers at a distance, always guessing, unsure what’s inside the package with all the labels saying Caution, Highly Explosive. This suits him just fine. He says he hates people he doesn’t know breathing on him and he loves to ride elevators alone.
Back to now, Sword announces. He explains that he got fetched up, snagged in memories of the shipwreck, and got lost as he tried to track the Magnificence’s course to the bottom. Go deep and it gets some way-black, he reports. He grabs his coffee mug and, whap, sets it atop the empty sugar packet. Bottom’s up, he tells Poseidon.
Fatima steps out of the kitchen. Damn-damn, she says, and brakes, her Dr. Scholl’s sandals raising a squeak as they drag across the waxed linoleum. She cocks her head to one side, burying her left shoulder under frizzy black hair as big as can be, and taps her right temple with a pencil. Forgot. Forgot all about your order, Sailor. Believe me, you: nothing is steering the right way today.
She turns, retraces her steps into the kitchen and yells the breakfast order to her mom, Marie, who handles the cooking chores. Marie’s response is immediate: the sound of eggs breaking followed by the noise of a fork whipping them into a froth. As the toaster engages, Marie says something in Portuguese which sparks a mother-daughter argument. Although he has no idea what they’re jabbering about, his Portuguese limited to boat terms, Sword whispers that he’s rooting for Marie. Of course, he likes Fatima, a friend for ages, but he loves Marie, his ardor stoked every time he bites into one of her specials. He says he’d kill for her fava beans.
There are now only two other customers in the cafe and they rise from their table with the racket of ten: lots of chair dragging punctuated by grunts from men looking like they’ve worked all night and still have tons to do. They shuffle toward the door, and Sword hails them: Aren’t you fellers off that blue, big-ass clammer that pulled in from Virginia yesterday?
The shorter of the two, a man with a pie-face and nut-colored hair in a pageboy cut, shakes his head no. He points to his T-shirt and says, This, us. The T-shirt is emblazoned with an illustration of a beaver equipped with a dick longer than its tail. In its buckteeth, there’s a log with writing on it: i’m from canada. Show me your beaver.
His partner is more talkative and introduces the duo as truckers out of Sydney, Nova Scotia, where the ferry to Newfoundland docks. They arrived with a load of frozen lobster and crab meat and they’re leaving with a mixed cargo of fresh groundfish. Round-trip, it’s a twenty-eight-hour marathon, and since they co-own the rig, get paid by the mile and haul perishables, they’re always in a rush. Today, however, the driver says it’s balls to the wall for them. They want to stay ahead of the storm, which is expected to race up the coast and smack the Maritimes, and if there’s anything he hates more as a driver than troopers and Mounties, it has to be storms.
The truckers exit the cafe and make their way to an eighteen-wheeler parked behind a nearby fish house. Sword labels them fellers a vanishing species, rare as cod these days. Noting that only three trucks now service the cross-border trade, down from a fleet of thirty during the 1980s, he thinks it won’t be long before fishing in both Canada and America turns into mission fuckin’ impossible. Because he believes feds, regs and quotas are killing the industry, he wonders who will be the first to disappear from the scene after the truckers go belly-up. Will it be fish or fishermen?
He drains his coffee mug, crumples the empty sugar packet into a wad and sends it into a fish tote used to bus tables. There’s a problem, he cautions, standing to pat the outside of his pant pockets. He’s broke. Not a penny on him. See, he left home in the dark a dutiful crewman, at the boat before five a.m. and hoping the storm alert was wrong. But the weather fax aboard the Ocean-C only confirmed the worst, mapping out a whopper of a storm and forcing the skipper to postpone the trip.
Excerpted from Down at the Docks by Rory Nugent. Copyright © 2010 by Rory Nugent. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.