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We pull over again. This time at the parking lot on Western Avenue, Augusta – there used to be a family restaurant here. Joy and I are both so tired it would be dangerous to stay on the road. So we’re resting here before the sun comes up. Sam’s Pizza used to be here, in this lot. Now it’s a Charlie’s Pizza. It seems like a big difference but it’s not. Charlie’s is a huge monster that eats smaller monsters if they’re not careful. I think Sam’s would have eaten other pizzerias if it had a chance to grow. There is no guiding principle in business. And business is what it’s all about. Just eat. When you’re done with that, you eat some more. When that’s over, you eat again.
It feels strange trying to sleep in a car with a girl who’s not my fiancé. There’s nothing wrong with her. I just really don’t find myself attracted to her. I mean, I’m sure I would if I let myself, but that’s not the point at all. I’m engaged. I keep waking myself up without realizing it. I have to make sure we’re not touching, and soon I don’t feel like sleeping at all. Besides, it’s just about the time I usually wake up and my body’s ramping up for another day. I start the car and navigate back to I-95 North.
I expect I’ll see a deer soon – this is when their sensitive eyes can see best, in the dusk light. At a hundred miles an hour, a deer would blow right through the windshield, both of us, and right through the rear windshield like a bullet. I’ve never seen a deer before though, so it doesn’t seem that likely. On the other side of the overpass a police car waits, angled just off the road. Or I think there’s one there. Anyway, that’s the kind of thing that wakes me up a little.
I come out of the Irving, with a bunch of bananas. “Banana?”
She’s not even looking at me. I start into them while she takes over the
driving. I eat three fast and throw the peels out the window, aiming for trees. Cold wind sprays into the car.
“Where’s Ruth and Nutsy’s” she says.
“I can’t believe I almost forgot!” Her mom’s name is Ruth. Joy must be
Nutsy. “It’s around here somewhere.”
“Ruth and Nutsy’s?” I never heard of the place. I have no idea, so I
offer her a banana.
“Still no thanks – Oh is that…?”
She’s real excited about it, so I say, “All right!” It turns out to be an old house with blue paint peeling off and laundry sagging from a white line: grey thermals, red flannel shirts, a run of socks. Beautiful. It’s all good.
I eat the banana in three mouthfuls and pitch the rubbery peel.
She says, “I know we’re closing in.”
She scratches her waistline. It makes her push down her jeans a little, and there’s a red string, which means she’s wearing a thong. She doesn’t realize what she’s showing me.
“Ruth and Nutsy’s! Oh my God! Finally!” but it’s a flower shop with those green foam blocks everywhere with the flowers sticking out of them. It strikes me that she doesn’t know exactly what she’s looking for.
“You don’t know where it is,” I say, “do you.”
“Oh I do all right.”
“Is it in Ellsworth?”
“I need you to take my pic’ in front.”
“You don’t know where it is.”
“It’s in Banger? Bangor? Just off Blackbeard road.”
“Bla, bla, bla! – I just know we’re close.”
She’s a little flakey sometimes. She’s a kind of an old friend though. I’m helping her get to this job interview.
We’re barely outside of Bangor. It’s freezing, but she doesn’t seem to notice, or care. She says, “All I know is it looks like this wherever Ruth and Nutsy’s is.”
We’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s safe, I guess. “Can I borrow your phone?” I say.
She turns the radio on and fishes through the static. So I pick her phone out of the hole in the dash. I don’t have a cell phone. I can never remember when the bills are due. So the U.S. Cellular bills keep piling up, even now that they have taken away my service. So I use her phone to call my fiancé.
“I love you, Dennis.”
“I love you too, Mimi.” I just like to say her name. “Mimi.”
“How’s your dad?”
“Can I marry you, please?” She’s really cute.
“Yes, please. Can I please marry you too? Please?”
“Uh huh, because I love you, and I miss you and I love you so much.”
“I love you too.”
The line goes quiet again for a while. She probably fell asleep. I whisper her name again. She doesn’t reply, so I put the phone back in the dash and close my eyes.
Joy says, “How’s the soon-to-be-wifey?”
“Good. I think she fell asleep on the phone.” I try to imagine what Mimi would look like in a thong. But I can’t help seeing Joy there. She’s right next to me and if I looked, I could probably get another good look.
“Did you want to call your – is that it?” she says, pointing down the road. Of course it’s nothing.
I’m visiting my dad because I thought he tried to kill himself. He lives alone on a boat. The reason Joy is coming and not my fiancé is that Joy was already planning to come up. She wants to move up from New Jersey to Machias. She has this interview, to which she decided to wear a thong.
My dad’s in Jonesport, though, which is perfect. And his little scare was really last minute.
Mimi couldn’t get off from work, so it just made sense to catch a ride with Joy.
Myself, I was waiting for an excuse to walk off the construction site. I’m always doing stupid stuff like that. I’m engaged and I don’t know if I still have a job. That’s why I’m so anxious.
I get out the phone again and call my dad. He doesn’t say anything. “Hello?” I say.
“We’re almost to Ellsworth.”
“Where are you?”
“I guess we’ll be there in an hour or so – hey we’re bringing food out for you.”
“Or should we go out for breakfast?”
“I guess I’ll call you from the dock if we have a signal out there. If not, just look for us standing around on the dock looking shifty.”
“I think my battery’s getting’ low.”
I hang up and lay back down in my seat again. I say, “There’s one more banana if you want it.”
She pulls onto the shoulder and breaks way too fast. At the same time she’s going, “Oh my God!” again. This time though, I think she’s right. Fantastic. So she guns a u-turn and pulls into a dirt parking lot.
Next to an old wooden building, there is a huge fiberglass lobster kind of standing on its tail, red as blood and wearing that stupid checkered bib. I hate seafood. It’s not one of those cartoon lobsters. It’s extremely ugly and looks like an alien. It doesn’t really have a face, just thick whiskers, mandibles and claws coming right out of where the face should be. It’s realistic. I guess she just forgot about this big nasty bastard.
“Push the button,” she says as she hands me her camera. She wraps her arms passionately around its tail. I can’t blame her for forgetting about this place. I actually never noticed it. After a while all this tourist stuff blends together. I almost take the picture but she undoes her arms from around the tail to straighten her artificially red hair. It strikes me just how repulsive these things are. I don’t understand how they draw people in. I guess I can kind of see it. Lobsters just do what they do. They don’t even have brains. They’ll eat each other all day long without realizing it.
“Got it yet?” she says.
“Hold on.” I step back to include the big steel pot in the frame. Under the pot is a bed of coals with red plastic flames – the same red as the big shell. They turn red when they’re cooked, so the big one is already dead. And he’s wearing that stupid bib. Obviously I can’t see inside the pot, but that’s where the food is. That’s where all the little lobsters are being cooked. The picture wouldn’t make sense without this pot. I don’t feel sorry at all for them. They would eat the nasty fucker if they could.
“Just take the picture already!”
“Hold on,” I say. “I almost have it.”
“I can’t stay like this forever. Take it! Take it! Take it already!”
“It’s a digital camera. Just keep shooting.” She flits around like she’s down the Jersey shore. After a while of this she comes up to me and gives me this hug and a kiss on the cheek. She tosses her red hair. It doesn’t mean anything, of course. She’s friends with Mimi, so it can’t mean anything. Plus, I’m engaged!
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
“No, not really. Weren’t you going to eat out with your dad?”
God, am I hungry. But I say “You looked hungry, is all.”
We get to Jonesport is a fishing town, or something like a fishing town. We drive slowly down Main Street. House steps and store fronts press out against the sidewalk. One of the storefronts has curtains drawn, and it is clearly now an apartment. I love that. We turn at the gas station with two old men sitting guard in their lawn chairs. They were there last time. I think they are brothers and that they own the place. It is a proud old family business. They get the picture. We come into a neighborhood of old cape homes mingling with campers and trailers. Ahead is the boat launch, its parking lot full of pick-up trucks with boat trailers. There’s a truck backed into the water, launching something like a skiff. That water comes right up over the wheels, so that the truck looks like it’s trying to become a boat.
The road ends here, and we park beside the port-a-potties. Their smell invades the car. It is inescapable. At the end of the dock, a lobsterman hands pots to a boy. Probably his son. Family is everything out here. Across the bay is Beal’s Island. It’s a town of one family. Their high school basketball team can’t be beat. Nothing is stronger than a family. Between the island and the dock is the bay with hundreds of fishing boats, and lobster boats. A lobsterman’s son skims across the bay in his tiny speed boat with a long rooster-tail trailing behind.
“Any signal?” I ask her.
She looks and then puts the phone back in her pocket. “Does he know to look for you?”
I pop the trunk and lift out my backpack and tool bag. “What time is your interview?” I say.
She looks at the ship. “Dennis, I don’t have an interview.”
The ship looks nice from here, but it’s several miles away. Still, the proportions are basically right. I know that the masts and bow sprit are undersized, but they look really good. For once in my life they look like they are supposed to be there, just because they are there. I say, “I could have taken a bus.”
She hugs me and tries to pick up my tool bag. “Oh, God! You’re on your own with this!” Then she says, “Don’t forget the spam. Are you sure he wants spam? It’s so salty. We can go get him some vegetables.”
I feel really uncomfortable about the hug and the kiss she gave me at Ruth and Nutsy’s. She is definitely trying to get with me. “He used to love spam,” I say. “It’s nostalgic for him. Plus, he’s got no fridge.” I don’t trust her for one second anymore.
She walks me down the dock to wait. At the end is a platform with skiffs tied to it. They are all swamped to some degree. There is an empty spot where one dangles underwater from its bow line. She says, “Is that him?” He is a tiny dot, moving around on the deck of the ship in the middle of the bay. Then he climbs down the ladder like he sees us.
I am afraid I must have misunderstood her hug earlier. She’s not trying to get with me. Sometimes I overreact. “Do you want to come see the ship? You can sleep there if you want. You need some sleep.” It seems like I should explain why I’m saying this, but then I would have to explain how it means I can trust her. That would lead to why I couldn’t trust her before.
“I do, but I told Tina I would be there by noon.” Tina is this friend of ours, and of Mimi’s, who lives in Machias. I guess she’s just going to visit her after all. She hurries up the dock before my dad notices. His eyes are bad, but he is always looking. He probably isn’t coming out because he saw us. He probably wants to beat the fog. But if I weren’t here when he got here, I am sure he would be upset. So he probably expects me. She backs her car a little way down the boat launch to turn around. Then she guns it for Machias.
The air in the crew quarters is like stale wet shadows. The bilge smells like old trash water, beneath me. The walls curve out from this. I assume the floor is at the water line. On one side he has stacked about a cord of wood for burning this winter. That’s not nearly enough. On the other side he and my youngest brother, Bob, have made nine small berths out of scraps. They nailed down blocks to keep people from rolling out in their sleep. I just took a nap – of course I didn’t roll out.
I doubt if he hears me moving around. He lost most of his hearing to an untreated fever in his childhood. He blames grandma for that. I think it makes him talk more. He just can’t hear anyone.
Before I took my nap in the crew quarters, he showed me the blisters on his feet from hitchhiking to Ellsworth and back for a generator part. Nobody gave him a ride, so he walked for fifteen hours. He tried not to let it show but he was out of breath. He must have been on this long walk when I called him before I came up. He answered without saying anything. All I could hear was either wind and traffic, or wind and waves. I kept saying, “Hello,” and didn’t know what else to say. After a while he hung up. He had told my mom to take care of Bobby now.
He has his rusty tools piled beside the orange water cooler. He’s sitting in one of the tall swivel lawn chairs from Winthrop, working his thin, silver Palm 5. He likes to make formulas that tell him the buoyancy of the ship, or how far to the side it can lean, or how many cubic feet are inside it, or how many knots it will do with how much sail showing. His jeans are skinned over with epoxy and tar.
I say, “What you got here?” pointing to the pile by the water cooler.
“Window,” he says. Normally, he would have called it a porthole.
“Wanna do it before we eat?” I say.
“It’s too dark,” he says, “there in the pantry.”
I point to the inventory on the whiteboard. “Eighty seven cans of spam?”
“I also have thirty bags of tortilla chips, but whoever donated them forgot the salsa.”
“We don’t have to do the window. I’ll get to it some time.”
“What if I took you out to Tall Barney’s?” Tall Barney’s has great hamburgers.
“You don’t have to do that. You should save your money for your wedding.”
Then it’s quiet for a while. I look at the floor, which I helped make. I feel the toe of my shoe catch the edge of one of the boards. The boards are dark now and almost shiny from bare feet and spilled food not cleaned for a lack of fresh water.
I hear the bilge pump kick on.
When we were building the ship, he would say that wooden boats always leaked a little to start with. The leaking stops after it’s been floating for about a week and the wood has had a chance to swell. Then, just in case he was wrong about that, he would say, “Of course, we’re not professionals.” This always pissed me off. I wanted him to say that he believed in us that we could do this, that we were professionals to him. Every time he made the point that since this was our first time, then we shouldn’t expect too much, it made me think we had no business trying. He said these things to cover his own ass, not to make us feel better about the small leaks.
“Nice day,” I say.
“Yes,” he says, “It is.”
“But it sure is colder,” I say, “out here than it was on land, though.”
He looks at the tools. They are old and pathetic. The skill saw looks like it would electrocute me if I try to use it. It looks like he didn’t hear me, but I don’t want to reiterate anything bad about being onboard his ship. I don’t want to make him feel bad about where he’s at. At the same time, it really is cold out here, and I’m sure he knows this. I’m sure it does feel lousy out here all by himself. That’s probably all he’s thinking about. If I ignore that, I’m ignoring him. “I – yeah,” I say, “I wasn’t expecting that. What kind of window are you making?” I point to the tools as I say this so he knows what I’m talking about. His hearing is totally shot.
“I want to cut a hole in the deck,” he says, “above the pantry.” The pantry is in a corner of the big dark room, between us now, and where I was just sleeping. It’s in the pool of trash water darkness, and is where he keeps his food. Normally his voice is loud because of his bad hearing. Now, though, he’s real quiet. I’m sure he’s embarrassed about why I’m here, and about the mess. The ship is a total mess. He doesn’t even look at me, really. He has to though, a little, to see what I’m pointing at when I talk.
“My cordless tools are in my black bag in there,” I say. “If you want to save gas.”
“I don’t have any gas right now.” He is probably flat broke. There’s not much he can do.
“Think we could charge the batteries off your bank?” I say.
“I could whip us up some hash and spam,” he says, “if you’re hungry.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I say. “I want to take you to Tall Barney’s. I’m famished!”
“You’re finished with what?”
There is a small green skiff is right in the middle of the deck surrounded by piles of rope, anchor rode and off-cuts. Piles of frozen sawdust fill the inside corners and the cracks and the spaces between the loops of rope. The ship is solid in the water, but I am starting to feel nauseous. Dad climbs slowly up the ladder. The wake of a passing lobster boat moves the ship like a kid pushing a large man who’s not expecting it. He walks stiffly around the hatch covering, and labors to close it. The fog has moved in and appears to hold the Beals Island bridge from falling into the water. The engines of different boats sound like farm tractors. But with the fog, I can’t tell where they are. I can hear his heavy breathing, which reminds me of watching him play basketball in the men’s league. Soon a scallop dredger plows its way out of the fog and into the clear space between the bridge and us.
I say, “Where do you want to do the window?” I really wanted that Barney Burger, but I said, “You need that window.”
“I don’t mean to step on no one’s toes, but I really wish someone had given me some advice before I got married. You’re gonna’ get into arguments, and they’re gonna’ end, but that don’t mean they’re resolved. Your mother would bring up things that ended years ago, which she couldn’t let go of. That’s why she’s depressed. I ain’t sayin’ I wasn’t no part too, but so weren’t those things. I ask her to marry me twice. The first time, she says no. Then a few months go by an’ she come back to me like we was shackin’ up now. I’m just happy as a dog just to see her. I didn’t think nothin’ of why she came back. I – just happy. I’s so happy I asked her again, an’ this time she says yes, but even that weren’t so simple. I had her over to gramma’s for dinner, an’ couldn’ help askin’ everyone around the table to help me convince her if she says no again. I ask her before dinner’s over, an’ she says, ‘you bet.’ Turns out she’s already carryin’ Anna. All you want is a healthy baby, you know that. Anna’s born an’ goes straight to the incubation chamber an’ then right into open heart surgery, an’ your mother feels real guilty like she’s the reason. I didn’t think about it then, but that’s what happen. She felt like that’s God punishing her for playin’ aroun’ before she’s married. What I’m tryin’ to say, she’s always been married more to her than me and still is. She obeys her an’ not me. She never committed herself to me. Not fully. A wife’s got to know her place, an’ she never knew hers. So, what I’m tryin’ to say is if she had ever once tried to resolve this, things would be different now. Not once, Dennis. Right?”
“Uh huh,” I say. I don’t know what to say to all this. I pretend to see something on the shore. His jacket used to be yellow, like fresh spruce. Now it’s so dirty I can’t imagine him wearing it in public. I try not to worry about him wearing it to the restaurant. Obviously, he’s ready to go, but I haven’t noticed until now how embarrassing it is. I think I would rather starve than be seen with him in that thing. I want to burn it.
I leave him standing on deck and go down below. I grab my cordless saw and heave it up the ladder. When I come up, he’s already staked out a seat on the green skiff. I say, “I need to charge this. It’s almost dead. Is the bank good enough?” He doesn’t hear me, but seems excited. He goes right down below and soon I hear the drill. I know the bit hasn’t been sharpened since the last time I did it. That was before I left two years ago. I kind of doubt that it’s going to make it through the deck. I don’t know if I want it to.
But it splintered through anyway, all rusty and rough. There was nothing inspiring about it, like I was expecting.