Sean Alan Cleary
Later in the summer he would be sent back to the warehouse to sort through black seabass with Bill, the usual dock manager, mostly because he didn’t get along with the new guy who complained all Charlie did was look up the girls skirts on the observation deck above the pier and didn’t move fast enough to cover the good fish with ice to keep them fresh and the bad fish with ice to keep away the flies. Charlie complained all the new guy did was go over orders incessantly—until the buyers from Fulton Market stopped taking his calls—and talk with his wife on the phone about what he was going to do to her later that night. But before, early in the season when things were as they should be, Charlie arrived in his father’s old BMW down at the docks at 1am to help Bill collect the catch of the big draggers harvesting skate migrating out past the crab ledge, maybe twenty miles off-shore—he didn’t know. In early May it was cold and the summer crowds hadn’t gotten big enough and girls from New York didn’t stay weekends at Chatham Bars Inn so there was nothing too distracting, and Charlie and Bill got along grand: shoveling ice, waiting for the draggers to come in late off early season storms. Charlie came down between finals, on weekends, and went elbow deep into vats of skate-wings—the flapping, stinking remains of tailed nautical saucers, prodding them along the big silver chute from the boat with a shovel, separating smaller orders into totes, the slime running down his rubbers, staining his shirt.
He’d go back to school carrying the stink of those vats—something like rotten pumpkins and day old mackerel—with a wad of twenties in his pocket from the check Bill had cashed for him at the Local 5 Bank, taking his customary five dollars for the effort. Charlie would get back to his dorm and shower and walk down to the corner spa for a bottle of Simple Tymes whiskey to forget about inhabiting filth for 18 hours. He’d fall asleep on the couch and wake up, shower again and go to the library. When he sat down, the sniffs would start around him and he’d get the point, eventually retreating to the basement to study in peace with the engineering students who were either too focused or too distracted by their own brand to notice.
He’d first got the job down at the pier before he even made it to college, looking through listings for summer help in a super-market flyer, unable to force the indignity of the service industry on himself. He retired to the back porch of his parents summer cottage to watch his sister and her friends jump into the pool, running around to jump again and again to the tisking of his mother—”Slow down! You’ll break your neck!” she screeched. But round they went anyways, even daring to slide along the slick pebbles glossed into a solid mass surrounding the pool, skittering and chattering as they flew through the cold May air. When he came across the listing he mulled it over for a day before calling up the office—they hired him on the spot, excited for someone without a thick Limerick brogue or broken Eastern-European English looking for dock-work—ready, Charlie thought, to thrust hard work on a dandy trying to experience something for a summer.
But it was nothing of the sort, just four innocuous droning summers of slogging through vats and totes of skate-wings, dogfish, haddock, cod, founder, dace, redfish, ocean catfish, monk-fish and seabass. There were no shanties, no rituals, no grand old times, just people, there—at work, calling out weights, culling sizes of fish, tossing rotten soaked groundfish to the seals: unsellable—looking up the skirts of the girls from New York who came and stayed at the Chatham Bars Inn and walked down to the docks to look at the seals and smell the fish, squealing as the slime splattered from another bucket of skate-wings.
Charlie couldn’t tell, halfway through a bottle of Simple Tymes if he had somewhere along the line been naive about the whole practice. If when he sat there, looking at his sister’s friends run around the pool, their fifteen year old bodies just beginning to be dangerous—him mulling over whether he should call up the office and try his luck at the fish pier—did he somehow imagine himself a brave enlightened fool off to drown himself in the troubles of those poor lumpen fisher-folk. Did he think they had stories? Had he too recently read the romantics—Marx?
He couldn’t remember, but he measured, at least when he was there at 1am in May in his father’s old BMW parked up in the visitor’s lot because it wouldn’t fit well between the old pick-ups of the fishermen, the dock workers’ beat up subcompacts and the new SUV’s of the Government people and Coast Guard, he had some semblance of romance—however fleeting. With the sun still not a glow over the cottages on the very end of Nauset beach, two of which would fall into the ocean during his tenure in late spring squalls before he was done with the place, he’d sit and listen to CDs of folk music his high school girlfriend made him and drift off until Bill would knock on his window and they’d start off unlocking the ice-sheds and getting everything ready for the first of the draggers to come in, their flood lights illuminating briefly gulls swooping and swaying eager for the skate entrails ditched overboard as they rounded the beach into Chatham Harbor.
He couldn’t remember, halfway through a bottle of Simple Tymes if he’d learned anything from the men down there, if he had gotten any respect, if there was any more indignity to smelling like slime and being spat at by fishermen, angry and distrustful of your math who threatened to pack up and go with a rival company if you shorted—they thought—and when they’d yell, “Hey, you remember to tare that?” when Charlie would be counting up boxes of cod to send to New York and Charlie couldn’t remember, halfway through a large order and unable to recall the last few bleary seconds—lost between the sleep and three grimy boats filled with skate and the few precious Cod left. Was that were the dignity lay? In that moment, when Charlie and Bill would empty out the last two boxes and count them out again, all agreeing the second box was two pounds heavy the first time around, the captain now smiling and scratching his head with a hand speckled with dried fish scales—”should have trusted you the first time.” And Bill warning him to pay attention more afterwards in the office, but not meaning it really.
But it was a fleeting understanding. Momentary. And each half ton vat of wings they loaded into the truck bound for New York took Charlie further and further from the few early mornings, when still in finals: his brief romance, his high-school girlfriend’s music, his memories of her, of his father’s BMW, of sunrise, of the faint smell of his clothes that never went away, waking up to that staleness of flesh anticipating the days perpetual-damp.