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Sharkey died today.
I cried alone in my bungalow for most of the morning, trying to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I have no idea how I’m supposed to keep running the boat, the crew … he’d expect me to though. But Sharkey was … well, he was my granddad, he was my skipper, he was my friend and mentor. He taught me everything I know about sailing and trawling, and about being a man. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now, and the prospect of not hearing Sharkey’s voice, his grit-toothed bellowing over the crash of the waves, whine of the winches, scrambling squeaking rubbers of the crew, the gulls and the wind, not hearing his pirate’s cackle in Oliver’s after coming back in with a catch, not seeing the gleam in his eye when he catches me staring at Maris … without those things, my world doesn’t make sense anymore. I’m turned topsy-turvy, inside out, I’m lost and adrift and I don’t feel like doing anything except trying to make myself either believe Sharkey’s finally gone, or wake up from this goddamn nightmare and find out it’s just a dream, and he’s standing on deck screaming for me to wake up and get a move on, boy, the day’s a-wastin’.
If you don’t know him — didn’t know him — you’re missing out. Your life wasn’t as rich as it should be, as it could’ve been. Sharkey made everything around him richer. He was one of those infectious people that had so much life, oozing out of him so strong, you couldn’t help but catch the zest he had and ride it, carried along, an albatross on a zephyr. Sharkey was everything best of the world, a genuine and earth-salt man you either loved or hated, because he made you confront your weaknesses, your illusions, your self-lies and self-doubts, your deceptions. Sharkey could spot bullshit a mile away and he’d scream about it from the preacher’s walk of his trawler, pointing and chewing on the sopping greasy end of an old stogie picked up in port or from one of his myriad friends rounding the globe aboard ships bound for exotic locales and distant piers, who stopped in our little silver-wood shanty port town long enough to fall in love with the beautiful Alyssa and her mother’s unbelievable chowder and blue crab cakes. Sharkey knew every lie I ever told, and called me on each one, if for no other reason than to make me see I could lie to everyone but myself and the good Lord. Sharkey was God’s eye on Earth. He found the wickedness of everyday living and dragged it out into the open daylight, beaching it like a dying whale and laughing at it. He lifted the sailor’s hat he wore to scratch his stumpy lawn-mowed scalp, and set it back down, the cap rimmed with salt from sweat poured out through his skin for untold decades, the one that was tattered, tired and droopy when Noah sailed the sea. He’d pound the heel of his hand on the gunnel and laugh and laugh that buccaneer’s cackle of his until he turned purple and tears ran in the furrows formed on his leathery, weathered face to topple onto that thick neck, pocked and pebbled by sea winds, bad sweaters and baking, merciless sunshine.
I suppose you need to know who I am, and who Sharkey was, and how Sharkey and I came to be friends, ship mates, and how he at last became my grandfather. Or the man I thought of as my grandfather. Makes sense; I could talk all day about what Sharkey was like and how I felt about him, but it wouldn’t make any difference if you’re either not from around town or unfamiliar with me. Since I’m assuming you’re neither, I’ll start as best I can from the beginning. I find that’s the best place to start most things, don’t you?
My name’s Johnny-boy. Not really, but that’s all Sharkey ever called me. My Christian name is Johnathon, but everyone on the trawler calls me John. You can call me whatever you want, I guess, but if I’m going to tell you my story — the story of my too-brief intersection with Sharkey — you need to call me something. Let’s start with John and you can decide from there if you have something better suited later on.
So, I’m John … John Wilkenson, at your service. I’ve known Sharkey for a long time — most of my adult life. I’ve seen him in town since I can remember. You couldn’t pass the harbor when the ships came in and not see Sharkey. Or, more to the point, hear Sharkey. He tried to be mindful of women and children with his language, but Sharkey was a sailor through and through. And his name was a familiar one when I grew up. Visitors came into Oliver’s wide-eyed and shaken asking who that man on the boat was yelling and screaming and laughing, and Alyssa or Joan, or their mom Bev, and now Joan’s daughter Maris, would just smile at them and say, “Oh, that’s just Sharkey — don’t mind him.”
Yeah, don’t mind him. He doesn’t bite. Much.
I came to know Sharkey in an intimate way when I was about twelve years old, though. When you grow up in a small town, and they don’t get much smaller than this one, you know the folks around. Everyone knew Sharkey. My dad waved to him when we passed the piers if Sharkey was out there, and Sharkey would get a broad smile on his face that narrowed his sparkling green eyes to slits, raise one ham-hock, knobby-knuckled hand in the air and boom a “HEY, Dane, m’boy! How’s that fine young vision of a wife ya caught yerself, ya lucky dog??” And my dad would laugh, laugh as hard as I ever knew him to laugh, and he’d call back “She’s still too good for me, Sharkey!” And Sharkey would thunder a cackle that I swear shook the beams of the pier beneath him and put his hands on his barrel chest, then cup one hand to the side of his mouth, you know, just in case we couldn’t hear him halfway to Canada, and answer back “Ah, you plugger, you, she always was! You’re th’ last t’know it, Dane-boy!!”
Matter of fact, now that I think about it, I found out my father’s name from his exchanges with Sharkey. And I’d look up at my dad, a little quivery and nervous inside, and say, “Daddy, who is that yelling man?” And my dad would bend low to me, kiss my cheek and whisper, “That’s just Sharkey, buddy. He’s daddy’s friend.” And after he said that, I’d be okay. Well, at least until the next time we saw him.
Sharkey was married once, and only once. He found the woman of his dreams somewhere in the misty past and whisked her away to marry him. He loves her still, lost these many, many years. I don’t know if anyone who didn’t sail with Sharkey ever knew the whole story, and I doubt all of those who did sail with him knew it. He kept it to himself for the most part, and shared it with those he chose over fine rye whiskey on hushed winter nights lit by firelight and candles and hurricane lamps, with a silver-aged plank building, floor and table surrounding him, the wood almost as old as he is, just a season younger than the sea.
Sharkey’d go to the grocery up on Hilltop Drive. It’s more of a general store, really, with goods of every kind crammed into a wooden building with plate glass windows along the front and wooden beams supporting a soffit, atop which sits a hand-painted sign that’s needed touching up since before my father was born, reading “Marlin’s Goods and Staples”. There’s another placard of rotting wood nailed next to the glass-paneled entry door that says you can get your horse shoed for a dime or your boat patched for a quarter. The hitching post still stands along the front of the store’s wide porch, creaking along the entire front of the building and rising a teetering three steps up from the sidewalk. The store’s bigger than it looks from the outside, but feels smaller because it’s so packed with crap all the time. It’s like no one ever shops there. The only exception was the big squall of ’91. That October the Devil himself brewed New England up a storm that folks still shudder and whisper about, and during that time, Marlin’s was cleaned out. I’ve never seen the shelves of the store, before or since.
Anyway, like everyone else, Sharkey’d go to Marlin’s while he was in port, and he noticed the sidelong glances the older ladies gave him, huffing through their powdered nostrils about his coarse nature and language. He knew how they were hypocrites, Christians one and all on Sundays in church, whispering and back-biting the other six days. I told you, Sharkey could sniff out deception and cunning and backhandedness with a shark’s nose for blood, and would hunt it down and tear it open with his jagged pearly whites. So in the store, he hobbled around in his bow-legged hobble, one hip bad and the other knee worse, and lean from side to side and sort of swing his legs along for locomotion. He saw those old battleaxes in their flowery dresses and bouffant hairdos, turning their noses up so he wouldn’t think they were eyeing him just moments before. And Sharkey, being the man he was, swept his cap from his head and across his waist in a chivalrous bow, his sparkling eyes never leaving theirs, and his face cracked into a system of webbing around his eyes. Then he’d say, in his gravelly scream-and-sea torn voice, “Good day, ladies — fine day to shred a body’s character, ain’t it?” And they blushed beet red and hurried past him with noses in the air, but he watched them the whole way as their high-heels would tap-tap-tap away across the salt-hardened planks of the floor. And he chuckled as they did.
If my mom did the shopping, I noticed a distinct difference in how Sharkey dealt with her, and other women of her age group. Sharkey still took his cap off, but he didn’t give his faux-gentleman’s bow; instead, his face lit up and broke into a genuine smile that still furrowed his face with the plethora of lines cut in the tanned skin, but he gave a little nod and said something soft to her. Well, soft for Sharkey, anyway. My mom was always one he’d come to, and scoop her hand and kiss it on the knuckles, and hold it in his great, calloused mitts while they spoke.
“Vanessa, darlin’, you’re a Rowan in a desert, sweetheart. How’s your dear mother?”
Mom would always blush, and say “She’s fine, Sharkey, thank you. How’re you holding up out there all alone?”
And Sharkey shook his massive head and looked at her with eyes gleaming and said, “Ah, ‘Nessa, what a heart you’ve beatin’ in ya, doll. T’care about how an old crotchety man feels in his autumn years. God love ya, baby-girl, God love ya … ya ain’t changed a wisp since ya sat on me knee in diapers and melted a salty heart, jewel-of-the-sea. And you tell that man o’ yers t’mind treatin’ ya well or he’ll be a-hearin’ from ol’ Sharkey.”
And mom would laugh, laugh, laugh, and throw her arms around Sharkey’s weathered and sandpapery neck, and he squinted his eyes in a bigger smile still and hugged her back. And it was that way for a lot of the younger moms in town — not that there were many, but Sharkey knew every one and seemed to have some hand in raising them. He was everyone’s favorite uncle, a kindly loving seaman with Thor’s hammer for a voice and the sea for his eyes. That was Sharkey … it was like the sea came alive and walked among us for a while.
Now he’s gone back to the sea, where he belonged. And I miss him just telling you this.