If you like this piece, you can find the rest of it here. Enjoy!
I don’t know how long I held onto Maris before I pulled away. She’s so beautiful, and I can’t stare right at her for too long. It’s like staring at the sun. I’m sure I’ll go blind if I do, and I always drop my eyes after just a few seconds.
Maris’ hands stayed on me, though. They traced down my shoulders and arms as I stepped back. It gave me this tingling, shivery sort of feeling that raised goosebumps all over. I hoped she didn’t notice.
“I-I’m … I’m sorry,” I muttered, sniffling and trying not to see if everyone in the place stared at me. “It’s been a … well, I’m sort of … I think I …”
“Johnny,” she said, and her voice soothed my angst to silence, “it’s okay. It’s all right to hurt.”
My mom sat back in the booth, but her Cheshire cat grin made me blush.
I sighed. A sniveling, jittery sigh of a child who’s cried too much. I nodded because I’m too damn dumb to say anything intelligent, and I folded myself back onto the seat in the booth. I slid over when I felt Maris slide in beside me, and she took my hand in both of hers.
I wished my mom wasn’t here. It wouldn’t make it easier to talk to Maris like a normal person, but it wouldn’t be as awkward either. Nothing like being shy, fumbling and stupid around the girl you love with your mother watching.
“You know,” Mom said, and I almost jumped when she spoke, “I think I’ll to go pay the bill and chit-chat with Joan. I haven’t seen her yet today. I’ll be back in a bit, John.”
“You don’t have to pay for me, Mom,” I said, reaching for my wallet.
She laughed. “I’ll take care of it, bab…sweetie. Be back.” She walked past us and her eyes never averted from her path. And I don’t know if I’ve ever been so glad she didn’t call me “baby”.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Johnny?” Maris’ words rang with sweetness, with something … something loving and kind. It caught my attention and pulled my eyes to her.
“No … no, thanks. I’ve just got to … I don’t know. I have to deal with it. He’d be so disgusted if he saw me acting this way.”
“Oh, I doubt it, Johnny. He loved you.”
“He expected me to be … to be a man. I’m acting like a baby.”
She squeezed my hand. “He expected you to be who you are. Right now, you’re a man in sorrow and pain.”
I tipped my head back, and felt the warmth of her hand. Whenever Maris touches me, I’m sailing, floating, drifting. Even in the depth of my grief, her hand on mine carries me to some magical place where the sun always shines soft and fields of grass and clover wave in a gentle breeze, and the smell of sea mist is light and carries flower perfume over it. I lose track of time.
Sharkey noticed it first when we came in together for a drink. We’d off-loaded a catch and a few of us drifted to Oliver’s to relax before heading home for the night. It wasn’t late, but not super-early either. The sun had set already, and the air was cool and crisp but I can’t recall what month it was. Sharkey and me, and Bulldog O’Conner, one of the hands on the ship, shuffled up the docks and past the harbor master’s shack into town, and up the little grade to celebrate.
Sharkey didn’t need much reason to celebrate. Any reason would do: We had a good catch. We had a bad one. The weather was good. The weather was foul. The men worked hard. The men were lazy louts. It didn’t matter, Sharkey went for life with gusto, and gusto meant a drink in one hand and either a woman or a good sandwich in the other. I asked him about all the celebrating early on, after I joined his crew.
He stared at me a minute, and one half of his mouth turned a crooked grin on me. “Johnny-boy, ya only live once. If ya can’t celebrate the good times, then ya toast the hard ones, m’boy. Hear me on this, now, ’cause life ain’t always gonna give ya reason to celebrate, boy. You make your own reasons, and damned be anybody that ain’t willin’ to let ya have the party. Salute the good and tip a hat to the bad, and tip a drink to either. That’s the way to live, Johnny-boy.”
It sounded like an excuse to get drunk to me, but what the hell … Sharkey did what he wanted. He was as free a man as I’ve ever seen.
Anyway, we came up to Oliver’s that night and Alyssa saw us when we came in. She gave us a smile and a wink, and it was like Aphrodite herself winking. I heard Bulldog muttering and grunt under his breath beside me.
“What’s wrong?” I said, raising my voice over the din.
The place was packed. People of every walk of life turned out that night. The bar was crowded with young guys with college emblems emblazed on sweatshirts pulled over turtlenecks, baseball caps turned backwards, and dressed in shorts and docksiders with no socks. The tables were packed full of folks of every age, some decked out in suits and ties, others in jeans and sweaters. The entire mass spoke together in a vocal cacophony that banged against the brittle wooden ceiling under the ancient gables and ricocheted off the silver beams crisscrossing the span above, then settled back down like rain.
Bulldog gave me a look. “What are ya, blind? That damned Alyssa gives me a hard-on just walkin’ in here.” His thick New England accent made him say “ah” for “are” and “hawd” for “hard”. My mother always corrected my speech growing up, so hearing people like Bulldog speak makes me smile.
“Oh.” I felt pretty uncomfortable knowing that much about how Bulldog felt about Alyssa.
Bulldog’s a crass, blunt sort. His real name’s Dwayne O’Connor. He’s a wiry, dirty-looking guy with stringy hair and a scraggly mustache running over his lip and down the corners of his wide mouth. His smoke-gray eyes are always bloodshot, no matter how much sleep or how little alcohol he’s had. He’s got deep lines in his face, but he’s not that old — just 46. His hair’s going gray but doesn’t show because it’s mouse-brown and unkempt most times. Sharkey calls him — sorry, I keep forgetting — called him “Bulldog” because once he latches onto something he doesn’t let go. Sharkey said it’s because he doesn’t have the brains to know when to quit, but it’s made him a good man to have at the right hand.
So we walked in and Bulldog couldn’t get his eyes off Alyssa, and Sharkey leaned on the hostess podium beside the door and drummed his thick, rough fingers, his face impatient and edgy.
“Aw, Christ, Alyssa, do I need ta find my own damned seat??” he bellowed across the floor.
Alyssa finished speaking to her customer, jotting in her little white pad of dog-eared, stained paper with her elegant pen, then turned to Sharkey.
“Keep your damned shirt on, Sharkey! I’ll be there in a minute!”
“AAAaahhh …” Sharkey said and gave a dismissive swat in her direction.
I tried not to laugh, and Alyssa vanished through the single, swinging door behind the bar to the kitchen, ripping out the little paper from the pad. Before it swung back the other way she pushed it open again and smiled at me as she came toward us.
“Hey, Johnny, how’re you?” She never looked at Bulldog.
“I’m fine, Alyssa, thanks. You?”
She took one of my cheeks in her palm and planted a light kiss on the other, then hugged me. “I’m good. Why are you with these two clowns?”
“Gimme a damned seat, girl, ’fore I tell your mother you’re about neglectin’ the payin’ customers,” Sharkey shifted his weight on his legs. “And be quick about it! My hips aren’t gettin’ any better!”
“Pipe down you crusty old bum!” Her voice was sharp and her face stern, but her eyes burned with playful glee. “You can see we’re busy! Where am I supposedta putcha? Huh? Where?”
Sharkey snarled at her, but Bulldog sidled up to her. “Hey, Alyssa, how’s it goin’?”
She rolled her eyes at me before she turned to him. “Great, Dwayne, and no, I ain’t going out with you, you slimy little perv. And take your damned eyes off my boobs before I kick your ass!” She stepped up and poked her finger into his chest, and Bulldog shrank back.
“Sorry! I can’t help it! You’re so damned good-lookin’!”
“Too good-looking for the likes of you! Now eyes up!”
He made what I’d swear was frightened eye contact until she turned away, and his bulging orbs never settled below her collar. She turned and hooked an arm through Sharkey’s. The antagonistic way they were with each other was only a front. Under it all Sharkey adored Alyssa’s spark and spirit. She led him waddling through the tables toward the booth she’d been holding for him all night — his favorite one, beside the fireplace.
She helped him slide in and I saw her kiss his cheek and he squeezed her hand. “Now get me a rye, girl! Double-quick and double-shot!”
“Have some food first, you old fool! You’ll be drunk before you get the meal!”
“Damn it, I said rye!”
“You’re gettin’ a beer until dinner comes! Now what’re you having??” She tore the little pad from the pocket of her apron and Sharkey muttered something about the usual. She nodded and wrote. She knew what it was without him saying it — soft shelled crab sandwich and a cup of chowder. His favorite and a specialty of Bev’s.
I gave her my order — Bev’s good Boston baked beans, corn cake and a pulled pork sandwich — and turned away to look around the place while Bulldog gave his order and Alyssa threatened his life if he didn’t stop looking at her like a dirty pervert. I lost track of it then, because out of the kitchen, golden, soft, hazy light spilled out, a chorus of heavenly voices sang magical notes, and an angel drifted out through it all.
Her dark hair wafted behind her and her fair skin contrasted against it. Her graceful head and the sumptuous curve of her cheek seemed … not of our world, somehow. The eyes — eyes like I’ve never seen before, or since — burned with an internal light of their own. The noise of the tavern faded to silence, and my heart thumped steady and quiet in my ears. All the people froze in place, slowed and stilled like a movie being paused, and the only thing on Earth was that angel, that dark haired work of living art, a porcelain goddess floating and dragging the diffused golden light behind her.
“JOHNNY-BOY!! WAKE UP, LAD!”
The shout ripped me in two and jolted me so bad I snapped back to the table with my palpitating heart throbbing on the table in front of me.
Alyssa cackled so hard she almost fell backward. Bulldog about busted his gut too, and Sharkey had a devilish laugh bubbling up from his red-face and straining, vein-lined neck, pounding his hand on the table in uncontrolled mirth.
“Wh-what??” I yammered, hands shaking and adrenaline burning my palms and fingers.
“She’s askin’ ya for your drink, boy!” Sharkey said, and another peal of hearty, rib-crunching laughter racked him. “Oh, but ya can’t be bothered with Earth now, can ya? Ya been starin’ at somethin’ heavenly over there! HAHAHAAAAA!” He banged his hand again as he purpled with another round of guffaws.
I blushed. I blushed like a virgin debutante in a pornographic theater. I couldn’t stop. My eyes fell hard to the table, and I tried to shrink, get smaller, vanish if possible. Bulldog almost rolled onto me, clapping his hands like he’d seen a great stage production, tears squeezing out of his eyes.
“Whiskey sour, please,” I muttered, and Alyssa nodded, still laughing as hard as they were, and wrote it in the little tablet. She looked over her shoulder and then back at me, and winked again.
“Why don’tcha say hello, Johnny? It’s been a while, right?”
My eyes had drifted back to her before I even realized it. “Yeah, I guess so…I haven’t seen her since the end of the last summer of high school.”
“She’s been studyin’ out of state and whatnot,” Alyssa said.
I jerked my head to her. “Studying? She’s been in school all this time? Studying what?”
Alyssa shrugged. “Whatever she feels like, I think. She’s got her degree in some kinda BS like art or somethin’ useless like that, I dunno. Then she went down to Florida to study marine biology, or somethin’. Then her money ran out. Now she’s back.”
I turned back, and she drifted like a morning mist back through the door to the kitchen.
“You should say hi to her, Johnny. She’d be glad to see ya.” Alyssa winked at me one more time.
“Uh…well…maybe, yeah. Later, when…”
But Alyssa was gone, off to deliver the orders to Joan and her mother, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the door. But she never came back out. That angel stayed behind the clouds of heaven the rest of the night.
And that, of course, meant I was fodder for Sharkey and Bulldog all night long.
“‘Oh, why don’tcha say hi, Johnny?’” Bulldog teased, making his voice falsetto to mimic a woman’s. “So, grow some balls an’ say hello awready, or aren’tcha man enough?”
“You like that one, eh, boy? Like a younger version of Alyssa she is,” Sharkey said, and nodded his massive head with a wink, which sort of creeped me out. “She’s a looker, there, and she’s already draggin’ your head off to distant shores when she comes ’round. You’re like a schoolboy with a crush on teacher!” And he cackled again, Bulldog joined him, and Sharkey banged the heel of his hand on the table, making everything on it jump.
“When ya get some hair on your li’l wee-wee down there Johnny, ya can ask her out an’ stuff, huh?” Bulldog jabbed me with his elbow in the ribs. “Huh? Won’t know what t’do with her, now, but ya can ask her!” And he cackled again.
“Eh,” Sharkey sneered, “show the girl some respect, ya slimey pervert. She ain’t that kinda gal.”
Bulldog sobered, but only a little. “Whattaya mean, Sharkey? They’re ALL that kinda gal! ’S just about the right sailor comin’ along!”
“I said mind yer manners, filthy scum!” Sharkey slammed his hand down on the table and the loose items all flew, skittered or toppled. He leaned forward with bared teeth, his face red and fiery, veins leaping on his neck. Bulldog shrank fast into the booth wide-eyed.
A hot flush of adrenaline burned my face and I looked around. Every eye was on Sharkey and for a split second you could’ve heard a pin drop. In a heartbeat the din rose back to its normal clamor and the patrons returned to their conversations and meals.
No big deal. It’s just Sharkey.
Bulldog sat forward and put his hand out in a calming gesture. “Calm down, Sharkey! I’m just kiddin’! I don’t mean none of it!”
“Then keep that crap to yourself, ya filthy bilge rat! I won’t have ya bad-mouthin’ that girl or any other in here while I’m in earshot, that clear??” His growling, gravel-pit voice pinned Bulldog into tongue-tied shock.
Bulldog could only nod. It was the last time he ever teased me about Maris. Not Sharkey, though. Just Bulldog.
After that, Sharkey didn’t spend much time with Bulldog. He said Bulldog wasn’t the sort of guy he’d choose to spend time with off the boat anyway, and after his crack about Maris, he wanted even less to do with him. He said Bulldog was a dirty old man to think that way about a young, sweet girl, and it sort of made Sharkey sick. He didn’t keep it a secret from Bulldog, though. Sharkey was never like that. He told him straight to his face in front of a lot of the other guys the next day that he didn’t want Bulldog coming to Oliver’s with us anymore. He could go on his own, but if Sharkey heard about Bulldog making any more “filthy remarks” about any of the women there, he’d kick Bulldog’s ass himself, right there in the tavern.
I didn’t see Bulldog around Oliver’s anymore. I don’t know where he went to do his drinking. Home, I guess.
I never had a problem with Bulldog myself. I knew he was teasing me that night, and not being vicious about Maris. Sharkey didn’t care, though. I think he wanted to make a point about Bulldog, but I never found out, and still don’t know, if Bulldog ever got it. The two of them worked together just fine, though, so it never spoiled the captain-first mate relationship between them. Sharkey never did mix the man and the sailor during working times, for any of us.
For some time now, Bulldog’s made no bones about his belief that he’s the next in line for Sharkey’s spot as captain of the boat, but he’s also been pretty vocal about how everyone’s convinced that Sharkey left the boat to me and put me in charge of her too. He doesn’t like the idea, and since he was Sharkey’s first mate for so long, he’s a little miffed at me. Not for getting the boat — he doesn’t seem to have a problem with that part — but my being named captain pisses him off. Like I said, he thinks he deserves that spot instead of me.
In a lot of ways, so do I. A lot of ways.