Stories of the Sea, The Lobster

Posted on May 12, 2017

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My friend Bob Triggs shared the feature image with me on fb, the day before the event. I looked at it with mild interest a couple of times, went to possibly the worst website I’ve ever seen, then noticed that there was an email address on the original image if you wanted to be a reader. So I dashed off an email, the guy got back to me, and I got the last spot. Originally, I thought I could whittle The Unmanning of Seaman Trueworthy Shrift down to fit the ten minute time slot, but as that story is basically one long set up for a punchline, this proved to be unfeasible. Then I thought I might read a few poems, but they were not long enough. Like Little Red Riding Hood, the morning of the event, I was still searching for something “just right.”

Ray Bradbury used a free association technique every morning to write stories. I first read about this when I was 12 but never used it. So I sat down at lunch and tried it. 24 minutes later, I had my first draft of “12 Hours on the Docks,” which I sent to my critical reader, Amber. She suggested a title change to “The Lobster.” I have a thing where if I ask for help, I really do try to take it, so I used that title, although the two keep flipping back and forth in my head.

I noticed the crowd was pretty rude until you got their attention, so I started with one stanza of Riversong.

Riversong

Rivers run

Forever young

With age swept to the sea

Where flying done

They add

To the voids of eternity

I followed that up with my main piece. Something that, for me, captures the essence of steaming out the back channel, a commute I dearly miss.

More Net Than Weave

The sun is a red blossom

On the morning

As the boat swings pregnant

Into the morning tide

The mist in the channel rising

Gentle as thoughts

To embellish clustered houses-

Perched watchful mothers-

Above the rickety docks

Eyes winking open at our passing

So, so beautiful

For a moment I want a camera

Then I am reminded

                         I once knew a woman

                           So beautiful,

                           I hunted her for years

                           But I could never take her

                           A trophy for my wall

I have to smile,

Not hours ago

It was no poet busy

Filling empty bottles

With pieces of myself

All those young man lies

And old men aspirations

So much spilt foam on the table

              Sometimes I think

              If life were a river

              I’d have drunk it dry

Now, with the morning wood smoke

Still in my hair

I am up to my elbows in fragrant blood

The firm ripe fish of yesterday

Distilled by an August sun

A bitter draught to make your living by

No spoken word, save for the cursed gulls

The traps without guidance go rushing past

Each knotted cord a piece of the day

And I trundle them

to and fro:

             I remember when in school

              My dreadful secret was discovered

              Advanced past my years

              And I had never learned to tell time

              Back I went for the laborious chore

              I think that was the last thing

              They ever taught me

But you can forget everything

Out on the gray warped water

The slap of the trawls upon the ocean

The bump of the waves beneath

All your exertions

Gentle tugs on a mother’s breast

I had this on my list, but skipped it as, well, lame and sophomoric.

Surges

The sea

Shakes her hair at me

Spume reminds like a lover’s slap

Memories of my brothers’

Rape and plunder

Lie deep in her memory

She is not a mistress

That you keep

Her treasures stolen

With naught but life to return

To her cold bosom

You bring her your sons

And she leaves jealous daughters crying

Briney tears to fill the bottomless depths

Womb of the world

She has suckled her life to the barren mountains

And the hungry air,

A pale blood returning

Fought your way tooth and scale

Out of the womb

To lie upon gentle swells

A lifetime dreamt returning

Cast upon the foreign shore

You can run and fly

Though you’ve forgotten how to swim

Fear not ambitious ones,

You will learn again

Here is the list I made to start the story:

  • Betty
  • Coke
  • Sea Witch
  • Stevie
  • Godie
  • Bait fork fight
  • Libby B
  • Belly full of stones
  • Scales
  • Philip
  • Zane Grey

I’d printed the draft and made some markups at the bar over dinner. Then I got up and read it cold, without ever tumbling the words around in my mouth to make sure they were the right words. After, I went back and fixed some bits long-hand on the draft. As I said recently, changing a few words changed the whole piece the way spawning salmon change the courses of rivers. Or something like that.

The Lobster

After working the lobster boat since 5am I went to dinner with the skipper’s daughter. Two showers later and I still had fish scales on my arm as I reached across the table to pour Betty some more wine. The good part about dating a girl from a fishing family though, is that she understood. We still made love in the Honda before I went back to the docks to unload alewives from the seiner Libby B.

It was pretty good work, I was making $500 a night in 1981, plus all of the coke I could do. We would work all night, then go back out on our lobster boats in the morning. Sleep on the beach in the afternoon and do it all over again the next night.

I was yelling to Bobby, Gordie Hull’s nephew who only worked the docks because the UNH team had a 3am ice time and he was cheaper than a forklift, when Stevie threw an alewife up the twenty feet from the deck of the Libby B to the dock. The fish had been fermenting all day in the sun, and the entire fish exploded in my wide open mouth. Coke, no sleep, wine, and too little time with my girl being a bad combination, I filled a coal shovel with ripe fish and walked over to the edge of the dock. “Stevie,” I said, and when he looked up I dropped 35 lb of fish directly onto his face.

He grabbed a bait fork and bounded up the ladder to me. We faced off in rubber boots on the wooden planking, me with my shovel, him with his septic-tined fork, barely able to stand for all of the pogey guts and grease. His handle gave him a two-foot of reach on me and those tines were viciously sharp. I would’ve been regretting my rash actions had I not still been spitting fish guts.

As we circled each other, thrusting and feinting for position, Bobby walked over to the fire hydrant and hose that we used to wash the industrial strength grease off the decks at the end of the night and washed me and Stevie right off of our feet, nearly blowing us into the water. Then he walked over and picked one of us up in each hand, put us on our feet and walked away. I looked at Stevie for a while. Then we both laughed and clapped each other on the back.

I used to work with Stevie on the Libby B. Days and days of boredom filled by sleeping, reading tattered Zane Gray novels, or self-consciously ignoring the stacks of porn in the galley; followed by insane periods of round-the-clock work when the fish hit. Stevie would sit thirty feet up in the crow’s nest and look for schools of fish that would boil the surface when the blue fish hit them from below. You could see the bait fish trying to leave the ocean up to 25 miles away. As soon as he saw them we would steam off, hoping to get there before the bite quit. Then we would circle them with a net pull the bottom tight and pull them in.  It was sea hunting, fishing in its most primitive and primal form.

My job was to work the nets in and out of the dory that trailed the seiner. The net would come over a pulley on a mast in the center of the boat. I would walk back and forth on the curved 4” gunwale, letting the net out or laying it neatly in place, four feet off the water, in rubber overalls, on pitching seas. If you go in, your waders fill with water and you sink and drown before the seiner can turn and get back to you. Even if you survive, the North Atlantic water is so cold you only have a few minutes of consciousness.

Unrelenting boredom, followed by unrelenting terror. This was compounded by the fact that even though the crew was born only a mile away, on the other side of the Piscataqua, their Down East accent was so thick, I never understood a word they said. I only lasted a week. This was the only hard job I ever had, but I would still rather being doing this than sitting in a cubicle. Even shoveling fermented fish is better than that.

Late in the night, as we were cleaning up, the dragger Sea Witch came in. They gave me a 15 lb sleeper lobster they dragged up because they had no way to cook it before it went bad. Over shots, they told me they dragged up a body, his belly cut open and filled with stones. It went without saying that they put it back, because if you bring a body in, they impound your boat until the investigation is over, and some of these guys could make $1000 a day when the fish were running.

My blood went cold. I knew that body was my cousin, Philip. The money for fish was good when the fish were there, but the drugs never ran dry. Almost every boat on the dock was funded by drug money. You don’t pay high school kids the equivalent of four times their parents’ salaries because fishing is so profitable. We didn’t just unload fish. I’ve loaded pickup trucks with bales of marijuana, and watched divers go down for chains with bricks of white tied to them right in the mid channel on a Sunday morning. I frequently got paid out of briefcases of Benjamins, like something out of a movie. Philip got popped on some minor dealing beef and turned state’s on his crew. The cops’d asked him to keep going out to allay suspicion, and the last trip he never came back.

How I knew it was Philip was because they said the body still had its eyes. That’s the first thing the scavengers eat, so the timing fit. I took the lobster, and thanked the guy. Like a lot of things that happened back then, I never told anybody about that body, lest it somehow make me complicit.

By now the sun was coming up, the boats were unloaded, and I decided to head home and cook the lobster as a surprise for my dad before my captain picked me up for the morning run. Unfortunately, I fell asleep sitting upright on the sofa and woke up with thick smoke 2’ from the ceiling throughout the house. My “surprise” less than delighted my father. It took us days with bowls of white vinegar on the counters to get rid of the smell. When I took that beast out to the kindling stump I had to use the axe to crack the quarter-inch thick shell, but the meat was ruined.

I still feel bad about that lobster.

 

I don’t know, I think the lobster bit almost works, and if it did the title would be good. Maybe that is where my ambivalence comes from. So, if you’ve made it this far, I will tell you that this story is true, think of me what you will. I started to cry when I told the part about my cousin. I guess I had really repressed that. Of course, I usually find something to cry about when I do readings, soooo….

Then I closed with this:

Leanne

I watched the waters flow by today

And isn’t it a long, long river

Separating you from me

Saw the white swans floating by

Trailing silver reflections

The grey geese

Eider down recollections

I went down to the banks to play

And added briney thoughts

To the miles in between

There in the sand stood a crane

Focused on a minnow he had lost and seen

In the spring the snow melts away

Stretching the banks like joy

Laughter to break the smiling ice

So bright and full of teeth

Separating you from me

Pictures of you run through my thoughts

Old man willow trailing brows

In muddy water

Full of the tumbling leaves

Floating away like our brighter days

I think I might build a boat

Crude and sturdy

To drift in the current without oars

And watch the sky float over me

Chasing the dreaming clouds

To the sea

To the sea

People seemed to like the crying a lot. I had a hard time because I’ve never used a microphone before, and although it was a story tellers’ event, there was no podium (and thus I had to put my beer on the floor).  The only light was a spotlight directly in my eyes so I couldn’t see the audience, or my print out. Had I to do it again, I would’ve written the story, reduced it to beats, put them into a list, and used that list to tell the story extemporaneously. One judge, who probably shouldn’t have, came over and called me a “true poet.” You know, nobody ever said that to me before, but even though I have a book of them floating around (I just gave the last copy away),  I’ve never really shared many of them.

The writers had all collected together in one corner of the bar, but I was pretty sure we didn’t stand a chance against the musical acts and sure enough, they swept the awards. While I may have entertained brief fantasies of crushing my enemies, seeing them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women, in the end, I realized I was really only there for the other story tellers anyway.

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