Blue-Gray Days

Olde Port Fish Market
Down to the Olde Port Market

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.


A Slice of Virtue: Part I: Preparation For Departure

Up and Down, and Up and Down Again

This story is Part I of a book I’m writing called “A Slice of Virtue.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now. Find Part II  here.
An Entertainment, Part I

He now had everything he needed until the final moment stored inside this house he’d purchased and maintained as a well-kept secret. Whenever that final moment should arrive, he realized, he might feel as if he needed more; but the moment and the need would pass unnoticed by anyone but him.

He’d spent weeks stockpiling what little food he required. Food no longer held much interest for him. At times he wondered why he bothered himself with the effort to nibble on a piece of fruit or heat up a bowl of last night’s canned stew. His tongue gave up some time ago conveying to his brain a sense of taste. Force of habit, that must be his reason for all the chewing and swallowing he performed; because as the unavoidable hour approached, reason advised him that leaving the world he’d known, in one way or another, for seventy painful years did not require a full stomach.
On the evening of his last steps on somewhat solid ground, he knew that she’d be waiting for him, lingering just inside the front door of that other house, the one they’d first called home and then later named their private battlefield. She’d want quick to trap him between her sweaty body and the nearest foyer wall, and then to pursue the next chapter of their vile and well-honed argument. “I hate you,” she’d tell him once again. “I feel as if I’m living with a madman.”
And had he gone to that house on that last evening after work, and not to this secret house of shadows, he now understood that he would have remained still and stiff in front of her, silent and fuming, guilt-ridden and sad, angry for all the failure in his character. “Hopeful dreams begin to die whenever two people fall in love,” he told himself.
On that last afternoon of his former life, after another exhausting day of teaching several university classes, and then spending a few hours inside his office advising students as to which courses might best lead them closer to their stated goals, Jon Trainer walked away from the administration building and toward the nearest parking lot. The surrounding air was dark and full of wind. Raindrops, thin and sharp, cut across his face. As he thought of her, and of their endless quarrel, he felt his legs begin to shiver. His eyes lost focus. His body floated at a dizzying angle above the earth.
He narrowed his line of vision until he located his Volvo wagon, and then he pushed himself forward with intense effort, punched the green button on the remote control that unlocked the car’s doors, yanked backward on the door handle, and fell into the driver’s seat. He listened to the solid, almost silent thud as he pulled the Volvo’s door closed. He leaned back against the cushioned headrest, closed his eyes and considered driving to the tavern in the next town over.

But lately colleagues and self-declared friends had noticed and had chosen to tell him that his eyes looked yellow and his skin looked pale. One woman, a professor of history, just a few days before this grey afternoon, had expressed her concern. In private she’d assured him, although he had understood that if she were commenting on his physical and emotional state, then so too were other faculty members.

“Have you seen a physician about possible liver problems?” she asked. He mumbled an ineffective reply, but next rushed to the restroom, stared at himself in the mirror, and saw that she was right. “Dear God, it’s time to go,” he’d said to himself. “It’s well past time to retreat and to prepare.”

Clean Food and Love, Please

So instead of traveling to the bar, he headed away from the place the two of them still insisted on calling home, steered the Volvo northward onto the freeway, toward the town of Maplewood, where Rosie’s Diner each evening held blue-collar court.

Rosie wore bright-red lipstick in a messy smear across her lips, smelled of five-and-dime rose sachet, snapped chewing gum when she spoke, and covered a customer’s hand with her own when she served the first cup of coffee.

“So, professor, to what do we owe this honor?” she whispered as he took a bench seat at the counter, not far from the diner’s front door. Rosie’s breath was spiced with the odor of cigarette smoke. The diner’s door, disconnected from its broken pump, allowed puffs of air mixed with raindrops to enter and land on the heavy rubber welcome mat. Trainer watched as muddy footprints melted on the rubber, and he wondered which ones might have been his.

“I need a cup of –“

But Rosie had the cup set there in front of him before he completed his request.

“Looks like you need a whole lot more, Jon. But we’ll let that go for now. Dinner, or just a slice of virtue this time round?”

Virtue, Trainer had learned by way of his recent, frequent visits here, was diner-speak for cherry pie. He checked himself and discovered once again that he owned no appetite, but he ordered the slice of virtue anyway, maybe just because he wanted an excuse to stay here for a while longer.

He realized that on a rainy afternoon turning fast toward evening he must look counterfeit and silly with a pair of dark glasses wrapped around his face, but to take them off, he feared, would reveal his disease to other people seated nearby. He wasn’t sure why he cared enough to hide the obvious; the citizens of Maplewood remained gratefully unaware of the employees of Rutherford University, and in any event, Jon Trainer’s life would soon be of little consequence to anyone but the authorities. Still, he supposed that somewhere inside himself he yet harbored a residual sense of pride.

At first he thought that the now familiar, daily sense of vertigo was what threw him off balance, but soon the shock of metal slamming hard against itself cracked the air like a shot from a gun. Trainer reflexively ducked in time to avoid the larger shards of glass as the windowpane closest to the door she had snapped full backward on its hinges gave way. Next he sensed the heat of her, heard the intrusive shriek of her anger and felt the spray of spit hit the back of his neck.

“I hate you, Jon fucking Trainer, and now everyone in this lousy excuse for a town will know what you are.”

He sat up and stared after her as she turned on her heels and left the way she’d come. He felt hot tears leaking from his tired eyes; and through the blurred confusion he surrendered his body to trembling, as Rosie curled her arm around his back and kissed his cheek.

Perhaps to be continued . . .