East Marion’s Captain
On a crisp morning, before the fall met the winter, the kid named Michael stood on the east side of the small wharf. He was on his heels, then on his toes, as he watched the boss and the man beneath him for any orders. Quickly, he looked into the water held by the canal walls and daydreamt of the barnacles packed like cities on the boats’ bottoms and the docks’ side. He thought of clam beds flat to the bays’ floor and of crabs, beneath the barnacles and above the clams, running clumsy like track stars with shorts too long. He stood, ready as before, but now asking them what he should do.
“ Just a minute kid…relax,” the boss said.
Michael looked about the dock. He observed bits of the maritime everywhere: fiberglass shards, decrepit locks of rope, skeletal fish remains, all like it was strewn by the hands of fishermen or seagulls passing through. The sun glinted on the canal and he looked above at the tin overhang which ran from the docks’ edge back to the rear entrance of the market. Like they were its’ shadow, non-slip rubber mats ran parallel, on the ground, with the overhang. To his left was a leaning pile of pallets and to his right, rectangular, small coffin ice bins.
“ Open that door,” the boss said handing a clipboard to his underling. Michael looked and the ice house door was almost flush with the concrete of the ground. He looked up and his young eyes saw something antique like an obsolete storage silo. Eddie, the man below the boss, opened the door after unpinning the handle from its’ cradle.
“ Fill the bins halfway.”
The kid looked inside and the ice chips sat on a still wave from when they had last cascaded down. There was space between the entrance and the ice. Michael stuck his head inside, saw his breath blow out gray, and turning sharply upward, saw the ice like it was a fat comb of minerals formed on a cave ceiling. Eddie took the thick plastic shovel and dug up inside and the ice fell softly on itself, amassing enough to spill out of its’ housing. It was simple and Michael laid the bins in two sets of three and began his work at the docks.
“ Lift with yer legs kid,” the boss said, as he was two bins shy of finishing.
“ Don’t say it to me, tell it to ya back.”
Michael arranged the bins in a congruent manner. Eddie told him to bring one up beside the scale. He followed orders and stood beside the men, his bin, and the scale. The boss and Eddie went to the lip of the dock and looked south. The kid did as well.
The boats were coming from the Great South Bay in a small rag tag armada. Michael did not know it then, but the men on the last boat itched the worst for what was on land: they smoked vehemently, cursed and spat about being the last of the four heading to the dock. Some swearing under their breath to leave the profession altogether, maybe staying on land permanently, though deciding to decide after their pay was handed out. After the weekend.
The dock received them in the order of their arrival. The first boat was Sue Baby. The boss talked first to the captain and Eddie exchanged small words with the crew as if there was something regimental happening. Michael was silent and met eyes with the crew, nodding to them, as if to announce himself. A haul of small tuna came ashore, one fish after another. Once on the scale, and the weights dragged along their slide to find exact weight, Michael followed Eddie in the use of a fish hook, lifting them into the ice bins.
The second boat came and the third as well, both with catches similar to Sue Baby, though the third had two swordfish, and many pounds more flounder than the other vessels. Michael worked frenetically. And with a little foresight, from repetition of his tasks, he stayed ahead of Eddie and the boss’ next moves.
“Hey kid, yer making us all look bad,” Captain Deck Cowan said from the small porthole within the boat. He watched Michael work urgently, as everyone else on land and the bay loafed about. Then Cowan brought his boat, The Joyce, beside the wharf so precisely, that he yelled to his first mate: “Didn’t even touch the dock? Did it?”
The kid and the captain stood talking on the stern of The Joyce, both of them done with their work for the day.
“Where’d ya bring my fish today Mike?”
“Rocky Point, Riverhead.”
“How many pounds?”
“About three fifty.”
“Nice. Yer a fine middle man sonny. It’s interesting that us guys in Bay Shore are feeding Riverhead.”
Cowan ran his thumb over his lucky knot, staring fixedly at it. It was a yellowed, two inch bit of rope that he always kept in his pocket. He had told Michael, a month before, his story, starting classically with his origin: Deck Cowan was born in East Marion, a few blocks from the sanctioned oyster ponds that lay north and south of the Main road to Orient. He began to fish in Gardiners Bay as a boy and, as a man, made his living the same way. The knot he always carried was one he had invented upon first learning the trade: “It’s called The Peconic…being on that river when I tied it. Is it a good knot? I tied it once and forgot how I did it. So, I keep it tied tight and when I pass on the world will see if The Peconic will hold weight.”
“Can you smell the spring kid?”
“A little Captain.”
Cowan admonished his pronunciation: “It’s CAP’N. This ain’t a royal vessel…anyway…” And Deck explained that he believed the interim weeks before the start of a new season was when Mother Nature chose to favor, either the current season, or the one to come. “By the smell of things the winter should be leaving early.”
The market chef exited from the rear and approached The Joyce with two paper baskets of fried scallops. These were handed to Michael, and Deck gave the chef two bottles of Guinness from the cabin cooler. Amongst most employees at the wharf, food or beer passed as currency, and the two laughed at this exchange, as the chef smuggled in his drinks. The sky above was a cold red and a wind began, forcing a steam from the scallops. Michael followed Cowan into the cabin.
The kid looked at the wheel of the boat first, and then glanced starboard at a desk with a small surface. It had nautical charts for a table cloth and sheets of paper thrown over them. Michael approached as he ate and saw they were sketches.
“I’ve studied the whole island like a single fish,” Captain Cowan said. Then he took, from a battered milk crate, more of his sketches that curled at the edges from the sea air.
“These were all drawn about this time. Happy hour….the world looks best at dusk.”
Michael pulled one from atop the other. They were depictions of inlets and open sea and harbors, with shadows emphasized, by a pencil of deep, dark lead. Some conveyed the violence of deep Atlantic waters. A few showed the bustle of crowded docks and boat traffic. The cabin light inside The Joyce was slight and he bent to look at the details of each. He placed a hand on his lower back, bracing for a slight pain.
“You gotta lift with yer legs kid.”
“I try to Cap’n.”