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I dried up enough to be functional by the time my mom came over about eleven.
I knew it was her from her knock. If I’m not right by the door, I can’t hear it. As it happened, I was laying on the couch, trying to figure out what needs to be done. So much has to be addressed, from Sharkey’s estate to funeral arrangements. I’m overwhelmed, but I know Sharkey doesn’t have any family, and it’s up to me to get these things done. Who else will?
So anyway, my mom gives me her little pitter-pat knock, and I heard it somehow, so I bellowed through the door to come in.
My mom’s an elegant lady. She’s always in something nice — dress, pant suit, nice shoes — you know, like she’s going somewhere. She’s been like that all my life. My dad’s more of a jeans kind of guy, but even he’s sort of a priss about clothes. Me, I’m a bum. One of the things going through my mind when my mother opened the door was, “What the hell I am going to wear to the funeral?” I don’t even own a suit.
“Hi, hon,” Mom said in her little sing-song voice. My mom’s got a voice like an angel. Sharkey used to say God kissed it before he gave it to her.
“Hi,” I said, but couldn’t manage a smile for her, and I didn’t even raise my eyes. The white splash of light behind her spilling through the door as she stepped in gave me the impression of overcast, like a fog rolled in while I wallowed in grief. Good. It should rain. Sharkey’s gone, and the world needs to recognize it’s a darker place.
“How’re you holding up, baby?” I guess I’ll always be “baby” to my mother.
“I’m … I don’t know. I don’t … I just don’t know. Where’s Dad?”
“He’s making funeral arrangements, honey.”
She said it like it was the most natural and obvious thing in the world, like I should know where he is, what am I, a dork? But I sat up and looked at her for the first time since she came in, so beautiful in her sundress with pink pastely flowers in big swatches over the white background, and I remembered again how Sharkey used to greet her, kiss her hand and smile at her. He loved my mom, and was never ashamed to show it.
“Funeral arrangements? But I …”
“I know, sweetie, I know,” she cooed, and I noticed the plastic garment bag slung over her shoulder for the first time, too. “But your dad loved Sharkey too. He wants to do this.”
“How’s he going to get the insurance? I think I’m the beneficiary.”
She blinked at me. “Sweetie, we don’t need Sharkey’s insurance to pay for his funeral. You know that.”
“You mean … you and Dad are going to …?”
She nodded, and took my hand. “Of course. Sharkey was like our father, baby. Didn’t you know that? You grew up with him. He was always there with us and we always talked with him and … well, just look at his relationship with you, love.”
“I know … I … I guess I didn’t get it. What’s in the bag?”
She giggled. “Yes, John, your suit. You can’t go to the funeral without a suit on, sweetie. You’ll look foolish and embarrass yourself.”
I blushed. She was right, of course, but I didn’t expect so much … caring from her, I guess. I have no idea why, she’s my mother, but it took me by surprise. Tears stung my eyes and shocked me. I didn’t expect them.
“You didn’t have to do that, Mom. Thank you.”
She squeezed my hand and gave me the bag. “Go hang it up, love. It will be a couple of days before the funeral and you don’t want to mess it up or wrinkle it.”
I smiled, and bent to kiss her cheek. She put her arms around me and hugged me hard. “It’s going to be okay, John. You’ll see.”
It sure as hell doesn’t feel that way. I trudged up the creaking, griping stairs to my bedroom, and wonder what else needs to be done. The things foremost in my mind, my parents are taking care of. A blessing and a curse, to be sure. On the blessing side, I have so much less to think about at a time when I can’t focus my thoughts very well. On the curse end, I have nothing to think about except life without Sharkey for the first time since I was a kid.
I wonder if that makes sense to you. It doesn’t to me; not right now, anyway. I think I’m over my head, trying to figure out what to do about everything that has to happen — the funeral, the insurance papers, the transfer of the boat, getting it registered in my name, taking over the crew and getting Sharkey’s business matters in hand. My mom’s subtle care package, my dad stepping in to take care of the funeral arrangements, and their surprise that I didn’t know they would do these things makes my brain do a little back flip and I start wondering if I’ve missed other stuff, or if there are other complications ahead of me I don’t know about. Sharkey was always a step ahead of me. My folks are too, I guess. So I start doubting whether I know what’s around the next bend or not.
I took the plastic bag off the suit and hung it up. I didn’t bother to try it on; it fit. My mother knows me better than I know myself, no matter how much time at sea I put in. She knows my outside as well as my inside and I have no doubt the suit will be right, like it’s been custom made. For all I know, it is.
Sharkey used to say my mom fell from heaven and my dad happened to be standing there and caught her. He teased Dad every time he saw him about not deserving her, how she’s too good for him, things like that. When I talked to him alone, though, he never had anything but praise for my dad.
“That dad o’ yours, boy, he’s a man o’ God’s own mind,” he’d say. “Brilliant like the shinin’ sun on the open water, boy. Ya learn from ‘im and ya listen ta all he tells ya. Man’s a mind like no other, and I won’t have ya disrespectin’ ‘im on my boat or in my ear shot. I hope I’m clear on that.”
He told me that when I was about twelve, I think. It wasn’t long after I started to approach Sharkey. He’d won me over saving me from myself, but I didn’t know it then. I used to find excuses to talk to him. Show him things and ask what they were, if he’d ever seen one, tell him I was writing a report and wanted to know if he’d visited this place or that place. I looked for excuses to be around him, and every time I did, he pointed me back to my dad. When he told me those things about my father being brilliant and someone to respect, it made me sit up and watch my dad in a new way. Sharkey didn’t speak that way about everyone, and it struck me funny he never had anything foul to say about him.
Take Clarence McHenry, for example. Clarence’s boy Hank — yep, you heard me right, Henry McHenry, but he went by Hank — was the school bad-boy. Every boy in school wanted to be him, every girl in school wanted to be with him. You know, “go steady”, or whatever. But Sharkey said some pretty nasty things about Clarence and he didn’t care a bit for Hank, either. I couldn’t understand why.
“You listen ta me, Johnny-boy,” Sharkey hissed, and he bent low to glower at me through squinted eyes set in that web of wrinkles around them, one side of his mouth pulled back in a snarl. “That good-fer-nothin’ Clarence McHenry’s nothin’ but trouble, an’ always was. He’s a louse from a long line o’ lice, ya hear me? And if ya spend time with that spawn o’ his, yer headed fer trouble sure as the sun rises in the east, boy. Ya mind me, now. Stay clear o’ them McHenrys, ya hear me?”
I nodded. I had no idea what he meant then. I understand now.
That summer, Hank McHenry’s dad got out of prison. I don’t know what he was in for, but when they sprang him, he came straight to our little port town to catch up with his ex-wife Belinda. Belinda was a tired, perspiring dishwater blond with a lined face and a perpetual frown. I guess ol’ Clarence figured she owed him, but she made it clear she didn’t want any part of him. Problem is, I guess Clarence didn’t take a hint too well, and he ended up moving in with her pretty much right out of the Greyhound.
At first those old biddies just whispered and murmured about poor Belinda while she tried to do her shopping, or tried to get gas for her beat up old Dodge, or when they saw her washing hair down at Saline’s Salon. She tried her best to ignore them. But it didn’t take long for her to start coming out in sunglasses, no matter the fog or overcast. She started wearing long sleeves even when it was warm, and never wore her battered, faded old dress anymore. She didn’t putter in her garden out front of her little double-wide anymore either, and folks knew what was going on. Of course at twelve, I didn’t. All I knew was Hank started being cool with me at the park. I tried a couple of times to ask about his dad, but he’d just change the subject.
Most of that summer me, Lenny Watterson and Mike “the Turd” Tilford hung out with Hank. For whatever reason, we thought he was cool because he stole money from his mom to buy candy and soda pop, and took one of his dad’s condoms and showed it to us. Lenny asked him how it worked and Hank lashed out with some nasty language for a twelve year old and tore into Lenny about how if he didn’t know how a condom worked it wasn’t Hank’s job to teach him, and he should ask his old man. Hank started wolf-whistling at women too, some of them the moms of my classmates and their sisters. I couldn’t figure out what was up with him.
One day, Hank showed up at the docks, just around the bait and tackle building among some of the tiny, wooden warehouses, where we always met him. He told us he had something cool to show us and produced a towel wrapped package from his book bag. With all of us staring at him like he was about to raise the dead, Hank unwrapped a .357 Magnum pistol, gleaming silver. A collective gasp and a round of “oooh”s followed the revelation, but Hank said there was more. He reached back into that bag of his and pulled out a bag of ammunition for it, fat bullets coated in copper and gleaming their pink-orange glint in our eyes. Lenny started laughing in such glee and wonder Hank had to give him a shove to shut him up. Lenny was bigger and probably would’ve beat the hell out of Hank in an all-out fight, but Hank had us all convinced he reigned supreme over tough twelve year olds in our town, and for all we knew, beyond.
So Hank told us it was his dad’s gun — no surprise there — but he was supposed to hide it for a while. His dad gave him the ammo to hide, too. So Hank was feeling pretty important by the time we all got together that Thursday afternoon. We stared at Hank’s gun and he let us touch our fingers to it, and we stroked it with the same wonder we would’ve held if we were stroking a woman’s breast. But Hank said he wanted to have real fun.
We looked at him, and shrugged. What do tough guys do for fun, we wondered?
They load their dad’s gun with rounds turned out to be the answer.
We almost shit in our pants when he did, and when he had all the bullets in there, he gave the barrel chamber a spin just like in the movies. Then he grinned a demonic grin that passed mischievous about four years back, and through his evil eyes, he told us to watch.
Sharkey was out on deck of his trawler. They pulled in while we marveled over Hank’s armament. Hank crept around the corner of the warehouses and stood off a good distance from the dock, lurking in the alleyways of the little buildings and hiding from full sight. He looked back at us, then winked.
I almost pissed my pants when Hank leveled the gun at Sharkey’s boat. I think I did piss myself when he fired.
It was like standing next to a thunder clap. I jumped, all of us did. The adrenaline burn ripped through me like the bullet hit me. Something near Sharkey’s boat — I think it was a bucket of something, but never knew what — exploded into shards of plastic and watery spatter that sprayed all over the dock. There was a metallic ping when the bullet ricocheted off the hull and another explosion of water, white and misty, when the projectile hit off the aft starboard.
Hank didn’t know how to fire a gun. I know that now, because the recoil tore it from his hands and it skipped across the silver aged planks of the dock, and he screamed in shock when it went off. At least, his mouth did. I couldn’t hear anything over the ringing in my ears from the concussion. Hank scrabbled fast for the spinning gun and snatched it, but held it down at the end of the grip with two fingers, out away from his body like a venomous snake or a dirty diaper. His face was contorted and red, and Lenny and Mike were already beating a fast retreat. The roar of Sharkey’s shouting, his face red and scrunched, tore across the dock. Hank’s eyes pleaded with me, and something in me told me I’d make a friend for life and be “cool” if I helped him. So I stopped and waited.
Sharkey came down the gang plank like a crab, red and angry, side-stepping to accommodate his bad hip and knee. But he moved faster than Hank, who couldn’t run full-tilt holding the gun that way, or he’d drop it again.
Sharkey bellowed and closed the distance, his hands hooked into claws in rage, veins on his neck dancing and pulsing. I looked back and Hank headed around the corner, and you know what he did?
He put his palm into my chest and shoved me back toward Sharkey. Then the little shit took off running down the dock, and as I tried to recover my balance, I felt Sharkey’s iron grip on my shoulder.
I winced, probably screamed, and if I didn’t piss myself again, it was because my bladder was drained from the wetting I let go when the gun went off. Sharkey torqued me around, his face a mask of crimson rage, wrinkles and weathered, leathery lips, pulled back from his teeth like a Great White about to strike.
I froze. And so did he.
“Johnny?” he said, and the sudden shift in his voice to a soft, shocked whisper coaxed a choked sob from me. “Johnny-boy? No — no, I don’t believe it. Nay, it canna be you, Johnny!”
A fat tear rolled down my face, and I turned but Mike, Lenny and Hank were long gone. Long gone.
“Did ya fire a gun at ol’ Sharkey, Johnny-boy?” The tone was disbelief, denial, not accusatory. I shook my head in violent jerks, unable to find my voice, and swiped my palm over my cheeks.
“I — I –” I couldn’t form a sentence. All I could do was stammer. He rose up, massive and mighty as the sea, and put his great, knobby hands on his hips. His brows dipped for an instant, and one of them rose again, mashing his forehead into a million folds over it.
“Did ya fire that gun, boy?” His voice was harder, but still … I don’t know. It wasn’t mean. He wanted an answer out of me, I know that, but I sniveled and gulped before I could make a sound.
“N-no sir!” I said. “I wouldn’t — I don’t have — I don’t know how –”
Sharkey let out a long, tired sigh, and he took the brim of his ancient cap and lifted it off his head to scritch on his bristles of hair with the last three fingers of the same hand. When he reseated the cap, he took me in an iron grip around the arm and tugged me along as he waddled back to the gang plank, and onto his boat.
I just knew, deep in my heart, I’d seen my parents for the last time. Sharkey would kill me and hide my body in the dark, fishy-wet bowels of his boat and use me as bait or feed me to sharks, and no one would ever know what happened to me.
He led me into the galley and about tossed me into a chair, then he settled his bulk into one across the table from me and leaned forward on his scaled elbows.
“Somebody fired a shot at me, Johnny-boy,” he said, his voice low and dangerous. “I don’t take kindly ta that sorta garbage. Man wants ta kill ol’ Sharkey, well, he can step up face-to-face and have at it. Firin’ from the shadows in secret’s how cowards do their work, ‘less there’s a war, an’ far as I know, there ain’t. Now, I got a good feelin’ that gun come from Clarence McHenry an’ that cur he’s raisin’ did the shootin’. I seen ‘im runnin’ away, so don’t lie ta me, boy. That the way things happened then?”
His eyes pierced my soul. Tears fell in free, rushing rivulets down my face then, and I didn’t care. I didn’t care about my pride just then, and whatever bravado I might’ve had ran down my leg in the river of urine I drained earlier. Instead, I nodded, sobbing and sniffing and feeling embarrassed, scared and stupid all at the same time.
Sharkey just nodded. “I figgered as much.” He leaned back in his chair, and I heard the gulls, the sounds of his men working on the boat, the lapping of the sea on the hull. Then he leaned forward, and dipped his mighty head low and level at me, eye to eye. “Now, ya listen ta me, Johnny-boy, and ya listen well. That good-fer-nothin’ Clarence McHenry’s nothin’ but trouble, an’ always was. He’s a louse from a long line o’ lice, ya hear me? And if ya spend time with that spawn o’ his, yer headed fer trouble sure as the sun rises in the east, boy. Ya mind me, now. Stay clear o’ them McHenrys, ya hear me?”
I didn’t know what to say, what to do. I swallowed, staring at Sharkey wide-eyed, at once in terror and in awe. All I could manage was a nod.
He returned it, acknowledging my ascent. “Ya get home now, boy. I don’t want ta see ya ’round the docks n’more today. Am I makin’ myself clear?”
His eyes bored into my soul again. I nodded, sheepish and wimpy. And once again he nodded back. “All right, then. Now get home.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I went straight out of the cabin and into the open, misty air, and the cool maritime wind chilled my sweat-caked body. I went over the gang plank as fast as I felt safe moving, and gave Sharkey a last backward glance as I stepped off onto the dock. He leaned on the jamb of the trawler’s cabin on one arm held over his head, and crossed his feet. He took a good look at me, and I at him, and then he winked.
And in that instant — that brief, single familiar gesture — I knew I loved him.
“AND DON’T LET ME CATCH YA TRYIN’ TA PLUG MY BOAT FULLA HOLES N’MORE, BOY!” he bellowed, and I got a bad jolt from the sudden eruption. It sent me scurrying down the dock, gaining speed as I raced home. I spent the rest of the day in my room, laying on my bed and reading, and my mind spent the rest of the day with Sharkey.
I never told my parents about what happened that day. I guess it’s just as well. Later that summer, Hank shot Clarence with that .357 and killed him protecting his mother. He went away to juvie for a while, but I never saw him again.