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.

 

Dear Young Companion, Dear Old Friend, Part I

Dear Young Companion, Dear Old Friend

Dear Young Companion,

I watched you last night. Lying there on your antique couch, the one with the maroon brocaded upholstery and the wide-winged arms, one of which you use each day as an uncomfortable headrest, stiff and unyielding enough to leave your neck muscles in knots. Why do you remain there and refuse to climb into your bed each evening like any sane man would do?

Ludicrous of me to ask, of course. After all, I know the answer to every question I put to you. I am your old friend. I’ve been close to you for what seems to be a lifetime’s worth of days and years, and yet is just as short or as long as what human beings name a second.

I ask you questions so that you will ask them of yourself. If you want to survive these saddest days, then hear me and pay attention.

You will survive, by the way. I know this fact as well as I know myself. One day soon you’ll rise from your couch and walk out your front door for more than just a midnight walk.

For now, though, you must swim a while longer inside your self-made pool of tears. I could tell you not to worry. I could say that self-pity is a necessary step toward revelation and self-acceptance. But you wouldn’t believe me. Not today. You think you’ve reached your end. Fact is that you want your life to seize upon itself, at least that’s what your voice whispers whenever your mind settles on the subject of regret.

So she left you. You came back to the apartment that you shared with her, the home where you and she tried hard to destroy each other. Four weeks ago now. You walked through the door and smelled the odor of darkness that you kept safe by closing all the windows, all the shades drawn tight against your secrets. And there you found the note, the single scribbled sentence that you pretended would never come to meet you. There the note lay, on top of your prized writing desk, the desk that you and she in happier times pushed neat into the living-room alcove. The living room where death occurred each morning.

“I need some space, some time to think,” she wrote.

And you feigned anger in order to avoid spiritual disintegration. You screamed profanities. You blamed her for leaving you. You imagined yourself as an altruistic, noble gentleman who had been cruelly wronged. But no one heard you shouting. You knew that no one could hear you. After all, it was you who shut the windows of your second-story apartment, that very morning and all the preceding mornings, so that your neighbors and the angels flying by could not hear the ugly arguments that you and she entertained.

And there you stood understanding nothing of nobility or of gentleness. You knew that fact, too. Each day when you shaved your face — the same face you stopped shaving after she left — you saw the reflection of a sinner’s broken spirit.

I’ll pose just one last question for today: Why do you take those midnight winter walks through blizzard winds? Hear me. Pay attention. Ask yourself, and try to answer.

Dear Old Friend,

Somehow I know you’re here, your face close to mine, your lips kissing my mouth. But I cannot understand you. Why would anyone want to be near me? I’m a failure. I tried to love her, but I was born without sufficient capacity for giving love, without sufficient tenderness or empathy.

I’ve given up my desk. Instead, I lie here on the couch and scratch disjointed thoughts onto one pad of paper after another.

I changed the locks on the one door to this apartment. I go outside only after midnight. I never turn on a lamp. I want the air here to remain dark, black enough that I can think, think until the end arrives.

Yesterday afternoon, a friend came knocking at the door. “Are you there?” she asked. I slid my body silent to the floor and crawled, slow and careful, into the nearest corner, under a window sill. I held my breath until her murmured questions stopped. And then I held my breath a while longer. I stayed still inside the corner. I shut my eyes tight. I would not allow her to hear me moving.

She left, and I returned to the couch, to my place of refuge. There again I recorded the fearful moment. Someday soon I will destroy these pads of reckless paragraphs, but when I reach the bottom of the final page I’ll remember what I wrote.

I keep one dim light lit. A green glow behind a round clock face. There I can watch the clock’s hands move, listen as they tick off the needled steps toward midnight. At midnight I feel safe enough, alone enough to stand up and leave this place for a while. As I reach for my woolen coat, I can feel you holding it open, wide enough to allow me to slide my arms into its sleeves. This winter season, this season of my saddest, final days, is the coldest winter season I remember. So I wrap and tuck the scarf she gave to me last Christmas tight around my neck. I wear boots that keep most of the snow and ice away from my feet. I lost my gloves somewhere in the mess I made here, so instead I pull a heavy sock onto each hand.

I have nowhere that I need to be, no destination comes to mind, no one who asks that I visit. So I punch my legs into the snowdrifts, follow the misty orange streetlights that serve as background to windswept flakes, and I walk in circles. Until hunger returns to say, “Go there and eat.”

There is a sandwich shop at the intersection of two sets of trolley tracks. Each time I enter, the big man in the little kitchen throws a few slices of thin chipped beef onto the grill to join the pile of fried onions that lives there day and night. He asks me no questions; and for his silence I feel grateful.

I slip my body onto the vinyl-covered seat of an empty booth. I watch the man squirt pale-yellow oil onto the inside of a hard roll of bread, then press the roll down on top of the steak and onions. I breathe in deep the food’s cheap aroma, rise from my seat, snatch a cold root beer soda from the metal locker, pay the man and walk home with my food.

At the foot of the snow-covered path that leads to my apartment building, I stop and spy, just to be certain that no one waits for me there. That’s a nonsensical thing to do, isn’t it, old friend? Two-thirty strikes the darkest morning of my saddest day, Zephyr surrenders to the howl of frigid air, and I expect a visitor? Nonsense, yes, perhaps; but somehow I understand that it’s you who waits for me, you who will sit with me on my antique couch to share a meal, you beside whom I will sleep until tomorrow.

A Shared Christmas Meal

Red-brick "Cottage"
Not A Cottage, Not A Home

In a long ago time and a faraway place, as we try in vain to measure what seems real, I knew a sad boy named Jimmy. I knew him when he was maybe twelve years old. And I, at twice his age back then, thought I was a wise adult.

Jimmy felt sad because he had no home to visit on Christmas Day. He lived inside a small blue room; along a shadowed, narrow hallway; inside a red-brick building that the county authorities called a cottage. But Jimmy and I knew that his room was a cell within an institution, a place designed to house and care for children whose parents had disappeared.

Each December staff members of this institution tried as best they might to contact children’s families and make arrangements for holiday visits. Most times these efforts met with success. Someone, anyone really, would lend an embrace in the spirit of the season. A relative, or a friend of a relative, or even a relative stranger with the sense to understand that an open door was a gift that a lonely child needed.

But no one opened a door for Jimmy that year. Jimmy’s voice sounded too loud when he interrupted a conversation.  Jimmy’s stare burned resentment into the flesh of those who looked at him. Jimmy’s nostrils flared with contempt when someone said hello to him. Jimmy’s muscles tightened with tension if another person dared to touch him.

Jimmy wasn’t cute or pretty in the eyes of most who met him. He frowned when addressed by another child. He slammed his feet when he walked, as if to punish the ground that refused to support the weight he carried. He threw tantrums and slammed his fists against the walls that held him back.

Jimmy fast became an outsider, even to other outsiders.

Instead of an ordinary school, Jimmy attended a Psychiatric Institute for academic classes and therapy sessions. Each morning, Monday through Friday, as the fifteen other children who lived near him, but not close to him inside his “cottage,” walked to street-corner bus stops to wait for their rides, Jimmy remained behind. He peeked around the edge of a curtain and looked at the wakening sky, until everyone else had left. He wanted no one to see him board the foreshortened yellow bus that picked him up and drove him to the center of a hollow city.

I tried too hard to befriend Jimmy, although I thought I was doing otherwise. I believed that I could somehow fill an empty space so wide and deep, a space that I now understand as the nagging ache a child feels when he wants to smile or cry.

“Good morning, Jimmy.”

“Leave me alone.”

“I tried. They wouldn’t let you go home to my apartment. I’m not married. I’m an employee here.”

“They ain’t reasons.”

“I know.”

“You don’t”

“I can’t.”

On the morning of December the twenty-fifth of that distant year, Jimmy’s anger grew more desperate. He watched his cottage neighbors leave the place they all were forced to call home. Name them orphans if you’re willing to admit that no politically correct attempt to alter reality can change the nature behind a name. Jimmy watched them as they marched down the narrow corridor, then gathered together inside the cavern called a living room to meet kind faces and hear soft voices whispering Merry Christmas wishes.

“Come here, child. Come with me today. And who’s that hiding there in the corner?”

“He’s Jimmy. Jimmy don’t like Christmas.”

“That can’t be true. Merry Christmas, Jimmy.”

“Go away, lady.”

And when the last kind face had disappeared into the holiday breeze that blew beyond those red-brick walls, when the last soft voice became smaller than a forlorn echo, Jimmy and I prepared to share a meal.

The kitchen space was all stainless steel. Large cabinets held gallon cans of spaghetti sauce that tasted like ketchup, fruit that swam in syrup, and vegetables that surrendered their colors for sake of preservation. The refrigerator, large enough to serve as a butcher’s locker, contained eggs by the gross, lard by the pound, bacon by the slab, and milk by the jug.

So I’d earlier that week shopped for kinder food at the local grocery store. Jimmy refused my invitation to join me. I wasn’t his father or his older brother, that much I understood.

We baked a Cornish hen; dressed it up to look like a turkey for two; stuffed it with rice and berries. Mashed potatoes, whipped together with heavy cream, topped with a lake of yellow butter. Homemade bread and jam. Root beer soda poured over crushed ice. No vegetables to ruin a child’s appetite.

The dining room. Four great tables, bolted to the tile floor. Four squeaking metal chairs arranged around each table. Shelving along one wall, piles of folded clothing sitting there, each item labeled with an orphan’s name. High ceiling. The glare of fluorescent lighting. Dusty plastic draperies pulled closed against the windows.

I spread a cotton cloth atop a fold-out wooden table that I’d brought from my apartment in the city. A centerpiece candle, shaped like a snowman. Sprigs of pine. Holly leaves. Silent Night drifting from the speakers of a radio.

We sat. Jimmy stared. I guess I prayed in my own way.

A tear ran down Jimmy’s cheek, a tear he couldn’t wipe away.

“Don’t want nothing.”

“Please, please, Jimmy, eat with me.”

“I ain’t hungry.”

“I know. I understand.”

“You don’t.”

“I can’t.”

I followed Jimmy as he walked back to his cell. He wouldn’t let me pull the blankets close. He turned his face toward the wall.

I sat awhile beside his bed, and then I left him there till morning.

And so is this the end of a sad Christmas story? It seemed so way back then.

But no, it’s not, because such stories never end. Today, this Christmas, I can wonder what became of Jimmy, and believe that he wonders in turn about what became of me. I can hope that Jimmy found an open door.

Jimmy, young boy, you did want something; the tear that ran down your cheek that evening told me what you wanted, told me what then I could not give to you.

Although we human beings try in vain to measure time and place, time and place cannot be measured. The Christmas meal we shared that night, and all it meant, still lives within the two of us.

Merry Christmas, Jimmy. Merry Christmas to the both of us.