Saturday, March 19
Two days before he met Sully Marlybone at the Eagle Café, Harry Wry was startled by the sound of a gunshot. He sat upright like a released spring, struck his head on the bunk above and pitched onto the deck, stunned. He remained on hands and knees as the drunken stupor cleared from his brain and the pain flooded his head like a spring tide.
Pistol shrimp. Damned pistol shrimp. Little shrimp with a cartoon claw. They banged their over-sized claw closed so hard it created a jet of water traveling 100 kilometers per hour. Little water cannons that stunned or killed their prey. A low-pressure bubble formed in the wake of the jet. The bubble collapsed with a sound like a pistol shot. The sound passed effortlessly through water and the wooden hull beside Harry’s bunk.
His detailed knowledge of the natural history of pistol shrimp was one of the benefits of a degree in marine biology. That and three bucks could buy him an espresso.
Harry was kneeling in an inch of standing water. Saltwater. The seams of the wooden schooner wept like an old lady. There was no money to haul the boat and caulk her. Until there was he simply pumped the bilge more often. Except when he was hungover and forgot.
The pistol shrimp were banging away in the shallow water of Slee’s Bay. It sounded like a pitched battle. “Dear God, make it stop,” he whispered. It was a rhetorical prayer. Harry didn’t believe in a God who intervened with pistol shrimp but wasn’t above pleading with a fictional deity when he hurt this bad.
He was as unsteady on his feet as if the old schooner was pitching in a seaway but found his way on deck, moving one handhold to the next, and fitted the long handle to the manual bilge pump. Each stroke was like a blow to his head. He grit his teeth and kept pumping until the bilge was dry and an oily sheen surrounded the boat. He kept a bottle of dishwashing liquid beside the pump. With a backhand gesture, he broadcast drops of soap across the water. Each drop devoured the oil in an expanding circle like a petroleum-eating Pacman. It wasn’t ethical, it wasn’t even legal, but avoided a fine Harry couldn’t afford to pay.
It wasn’t the only thing he couldn’t afford. Spike Africa’s sails were so often patched they looked like quilts from the Women’s Missionary Society. She needed new standing rigging and her engine was hardly better than ballast. Everything he had was sunk into the old schooner and she was about to sink beneath him.
In the galley, he pumped pressure into the kerosene stove and boiled water for coffee. He washed down a handful of aspirin with water that smelled of rotting eggs. He pulled a notepad from his pocket and made a note to add more bleach to the water tank. The previous note was a phone number Lidmann gave him the night before. Some guy interested in importing from Canada without the hassle of customs. Lidmann didn’t say what he wanted imported.
He drank his coffee in the cockpit. The breeze had already risen on the Strait. Whitecaps were forming where the ebb ran strongly against the prevailing westerly. He heard the surf beating against the outside of Ediz Hook. Clouds of gulls followed a fishing boat returning to harbor. The gulls were squabbling over the bycatch the fishermen threw overboard.
Despite his abject poverty and punishing headache, he couldn’t imagine a better way to live. He didn’t want it to end.
Lidmann had mentioned the importer after Harry’s fourth or fifth glass of rum. He was drinking the cheaper stuff that tasted like molasses and wood alcohol.
“If I don’t find some way to make money,” Harry complained to Lidmann, “the old girl is going to sink or be arrested by Federal marshals.”
“How much do you owe?” Lidmann asked.
“More than I can pay.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Ten thousand to Haven Boatworks. And another five to Hasse’s sail loft. I can’t see a way out. Hauling tourists was a bust. It cost more money than I earned.”
“Do you have qualms about how you make your money?”
Lidmann had a subtle accent. The accent sounded vaguely European; no one could place it. He was a man of indeterminate age and indefinite history. He owned Fiddler’s Green, a waterfront bar on the wharf near Slee’s Bay. The bar was favored by locals. The few tourists who strayed far enough from safety and basic hygiene to reach the front door were dissuaded by the smell of stale beer and despair. Despite the regular customers, there was no sense of community. Men drank alone in dark corners and shaded booths, solitary men silently staring into their whiskey and beer or arguing violently with their memories. It was Harry’s kind of bar.
“It’s a perfectly good word,” Lidmann said. “And the question remains.”
“No, I can’t afford any qualms. Or reservations or inhibitions or morals. If they take my boat I’ll end up serving burgers at McDonald’s.” He rubbed the gray stubble on his head with his knuckles. It was the same gray stubble on his chin. “Can you imagine me wearing a hair net?”
Lidmann gave him the number. “Write it down. You’ll forget your mother’s name in the morning.”
It was true. In the morning he couldn’t remember if he ever had a mother. He finished his coffee and added the cup to the sink of dirty dishes. He decided to call Lidmann’s contact but needed a phone. In a cellular age, pay phones were rare. The nearest one was at the Eagle Café.
Harry hauled the long boat alongside and managed to get in without falling overboard. Coordinating two oars was difficult when he thought about it so he didn’t think. His body remembered the rhythm of the oars—stroke, feather, and return. He tied up to a float attached to the wharf and climbed the ladder. It was low tide and a long climb. The lower rungs were slick with marine growth. He missed his footing and almost fell, hanging from the ladder by one hand like a baboon, cursing.
The Eagle Café served a big breakfast for a reasonable price. The booths were crowded with men with scarred hands and women whose voices were rough from cigarettes. Hattie Malept served him a cup of black coffee.
Harry left his coffee on the counter and called the number Lidmann had given him. The phone rang twice before a woman’s recorded voice said, “The number you dialed has been disconnected. There is no new number.” His quarter fell into the change return slot. He tried again with the same result.
He waited until the afternoon to revisit Fiddler’s Green. The bar seemed always open but he needed time to recover from the partial blindness that struck him leaving the Eagle. He spent 30 minutes rowing around the anchorage looking for the Spike Africa. It was embarrassing to misplace a 70-foot schooner in an anchorage as small as Slee’s Bay. “I’m getting too old for this kind of shit,” he said when he finally found her.
“You look like a dog’s breakfast,” Lidmann said when Harry settled onto the bar stool.
Lidmann made Harry his hangover cure, raw egg in tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt, black pepper, and Tabasco.
“I called the number you gave me last night. It was disconnected.”
“For the importer.”
“I didn’t give you any number, Harry.”
“Hoffer, Dietrich Hoffer. You said he was looking for someone to haul cargo from Canada, no questions asked.”
“Harry, I never talked to you about Dietrich Hoffer, last night or any night.”
“You didn’t give me this number?” Harry showed him the entry in this notebook. Lidmann shook his head. “Damn. That was my last wild-ass hope.”
“He’s here if you want to talk to him.”
“Here? Now? I thought you said you didn’t know him.”
“I said I didn’t give you his number. He uses this place like his office,” Lidmann tipped his head toward the booth in the most remote corner of the bar, “but he pays his tab on time.”
“So, you don’t know anything about his business?”
“I know more than I should about his business. I just didn’t discuss it with you.”
“Is he a smuggler?”
Lidmann shrugged. “Ask him yourself but be careful. He’s a dangerous man.”
In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.
@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.