Written November 2009
I moved to this town many years ago, because the blue fog combined itself with the false impression of infinity that an ocean can provide if only an eye looks beyond the foaming coastline that signals a return to port.
For years before I came here, to this town of short-sleeved polyester shirts sitting proud around a boardroom table; this town of short walks to the Post Office or the sugary-pink bakery; this town of hello good mornings spoken to strangers; this town enveloped by a Sunday-morning, aromatic cloud of steam lifting off from crackling bacon and pan-fried onions; this town of inconsolable old fishermen and their exhausted wives. For years before I came to live with all of this, I vacationed in the next town over, just twelve miles away, but they were twelve miles that I never wanted to traverse.
Not until the morning I sat beside a wrinkled, fat and dusty man dressed in denim overalls, the two of us hunkered down over the diner’s counter, dipping burnt bread into sunny-side egg yolk, scooping dollops of homemade corned beef hash onto the wet and buttered toast. Not until we began to speak to each other, or rather he began to speak to me.
“Good to have an old-fashioned diner here in town. Mike, the tall guy who owns this place, comes from Atlantic City,” he said. His cheeks bulged with food as he spoke. His lips, full and chapped, looked slimy with the egg yolk he spilled there.
“Atlantic City? New Jersey?” I said.
“There isn’t any other, not that I know about.”
“My dad used to take me crabbing in Atlantic City.”
“Yeah, well you still have the accent,” he said. “I grew up there, too, along with Mike, though I expect that you and us came up at different times.”
“Sometimes I miss the place,” I said.
“There’s lots of crab and fish in the next town over. Just a short stretch, and I’ll be going there after breakfast if you want to come along. Won’t be much sunshine there today. Never is,” he said. “Want to come with me? Finish your meal, then.”
We both let the weight we gained from our full breakfast pull us down from the diner’s vinyl-covered stools.
His truck, rusty as a ripened crab trap, was parked around the corner. Along the way we walked past clean-shaven Christians holding hands with their pleated-skirt wives and pert college girls looking at their reflections in shop windows.
The truck door’s hinges creaked as I pulled her open. I climbed the distance from sidewalk to worn-cloth upholstery, sat and stared through a dirt-streaked windshield; and once out of town I allowed my glance to follow the four-lane highway’s painted lines.
My breakfast companion said nothing until we reached the exit that led to Our Town.
“Gotta drive down to the boat launch first, then we’ll ride back again and meet the crabs I was talking about. You game?”
“I’m game. You own a boat?” I said.
“No. I clean the fish that others carry up to the sinks. Then I sell what I can for them down to the Olde Port Market. Rest I give away to friends. It’s all part of the deal, the way I make my living now that I’m old. Once upon a time, though, I owned a side trawler. Many folks nowadays find it fashionable to condemn the man who trawls for the food they eat, but that’s just the way it is.”
“Is that why you gave it up? Because tree huggers criticized you?” I said.
“No. It’s a long story you don’t want to hear, but the short of it is that Manny, one of my Mexican crew, killed himself by being crushed in the winch’s cable. Nothing any of us could do in spite of his screaming. Once you’re caught, you’re dead. There’s a monument just the other side of town that makes mention of Manny and all the others lost to sea. Maybe someday you’ll say a prayer while standing there.”
I thought better than to ask the man any further questions. I figured that he needed time to think about Manny and then some more time to recoup his sense of purpose.
The boat launch felt like a lost and empty place, grey and filthy as the fog, constant rainbows of blood and guts flickering on the metal cutting boards beside the sinks. My breakfast companion worked fast and with the skill of a seasoned surgeon. I shuffled and humble-shifted my body around the several men working there, men who not once asked who I was, men who seemed so intent on completing their day’s work that nothing outside of that sweat-soaked reality registered as being part of the world.
My companion loaded several coolers, each filled with fresh-cut fish covered in ice, into the bed of his pickup truck, then wiped his hands on a blood-soaked towel and climbed back into the driver’s seat. I followed suit. We traveled less than a mile before he pushed his foot down hard on the brake pedal.
“There’s the crab tubs. Get yourself down and out, and go to look at them,” he said. “I’ll be inside talking business with Giovanni.”
To the left side of the Olde Port Market’s front doors sat two metal tanks filled with live crabs. A filter ran a continual bubbling stream of water into the vats in order to keep the crabs alive. I stared and ran my thoughts backward to the times I and my dad went crabbing just outside of Atlantic City.
“They’re beauties, ain’t they now?” he said.
I jumped when I heard his voice come from behind me. I’d been lost in thought, and now I felt irritated because of his interruption.
“No. No, they aren’t beautiful, friend. Matter of fact, they’re downright ugly,” I said.
“What’s got you pissed?”
“The hair on the back of their shells. I never saw, much less ate, a crab who needed a haircut.”
“This ain’t Atlantic City, you know, but it’s as close as you’ll come out this far away.”
“Maybe, then, just maybe I should turn around and make my way back home.” I said.
“I like you better without all that make pretend shyness, kid. Hash and eggs, and catering to old men like me won’t cure your disease, but –”
“Disease, what disease are you talking about?”
“Loneliness. Don’t go back now to pretending, because a second act can’t erase a first impression,” he said.
“I’m not particularly lonely. No more than most who move from one shore to another,” I said.
“Okay, whatever you say, but for what it’s worth, I think you’re right about crabs. You’re not the only one who remembers the oily smell of mud around Atlantic City. But home you are. Right here and now. Manny was lonesome for home, too. But in fact of things insofar as I understand them he died at home, right there crushed to bits inside that winch’s cable.”
I never again saw my breakfast companion, and I never want to see him on a different day. But on blue-gray mornings such as this one I oftentimes visit the monument he talked about, and standing there I say a prayer for all of us.