by Ryan Cannon
“Harry’s Bait Shop. What a name. Don’t these small towners have any originality?” Johnny opened the door and stepped out onto the gravel street shoulder. He shut the door and checked his hair in the tinted window. Mike walked around the front of the truck.
“We order the herring here, and we have to drive all the way out here in the morning before we launch, right? That’s, like, an extra twenty minutes.” Mike was twenty-three. Johnny was twenty-six. The difference in actual age and perceived age was, however, much greater. Johnny was nearly bald and thicker around the middle and chest. The heaviness of his upper torso was offset by a lack of heaviness in his lower body. Where his butt should have bulged, there was a decided slackness to his Levi’s. Mike had sun-bleached hair and a somewhat freckled face. His eyes were a pale blue that often appeared cloudy in bright light. He was taller and slimmer than Johnny.
Johnny started to cross the street. “We have to get our saltwater tags, and I don’t think the place next to the dock has ’em.”
“That’s twenty minutes more I could be sleeping.”
“I’ll just tuck ya’ in twenty minutes early, sweet pea.”
“Aw, you gonna miss your wife that bad, John? You poor thing.”
The bait shop was a small house that Harry, the namesake and owner, had knocked all the walls out of. It passed like a “U” around a small center bathroom that was closed to the public. A sales counter had been erected in the leftmost corner from the front door. Fishnets and gaffing poles decorated the right arm of the “U.” The floor was empty throughout the rest of the store while the walls were laden with sinkers, aluminum sleeves, flashy rainbow-colored planers, barrel swivels, downriggers, deep-sea atomic lures, twin-hook setups on thick leaders, and so on.
Marian was behind the counter. Mike saw her in still frame as his boot hit the wood floor. She was overexposed, the white of her skin washed out against the saturated red lips. Her thin hand with short fingers hung suspended over the counter. Her eyes flashed out of the white of her face in pale green luminescence. She inhaled and motion resumed. She was eighteen, petite like a bluebell and economic in the firmness of her limbs and torso. She would have been wholly and youthfully beautiful, but her face was drawn with tension. Slender concavities graced her cheekbones. There was something impassive in the way she held her head straight and in the rigid discipline of her neck. She had dyed her hair a bright and flamboyant red. It was the red of fire engines and blooming roses. Her nose was pierced on the left with a small fake-diamond stud. She wore a low-cut blouse and a push-up bra that accentuated what there was of suppleness about her body. The blouse ended three inches shy of where her bleached and torn jeans began.
An old charter boat captain was leaning against the end of the counter, facing Marian. He was flossing his teeth with twenty-pound test fishing line and talking in a loud voice as Marian flipped through the pages of a magazine. The charter boat captain’s name was Harvey. He went by Harv. He had been guiding fishing boats out over the bar and into the ocean for forty-four years. Harv was saying, as Mike and Johnny walked into the shop,“’Ee ain’t never seen no storm, I told ’im. ’Ese rich Alaskin’ fishers think ’ey’ve seen …”
The bell on the door, which should have rung when Johnny opened it, rang instead when Mike closed it. Harv paused in his narrative. Marian looked up. The captain pulled the fishing line out of his mouth and dropped it into a bucket at his feet that served as a garbage can.
“’Ee’s on my boat, rite? An’ ‘ee’s tellin’ me when the things ’er gettin’rough? I told ’im, ‘Fifty ’ears I been fishin’ ’ese booie. Fifty ’ears.”” Marian turned the page of the magazine. Johnny went to look at the hooks. Mike stood next to a display of fillet knives on the wall. He picked one up and looked intermittently at it and at Marian. “An’ the other fishers starts to be scared ’cause one guy ’sboutta peein’ ‘is pants. Nobody’d caught ’eir limit ’n nothin’.” Harv bent over and picked the piece of fishing line from the bucket. He poked the end through a particularly large gap in his bottom teeth. “But I brought ’em in. S’ere dollar after all.”
“Do you guys sell saltwater tags here?” Johnny asked, holding a fistful of Eagle Claw hooks.
“Yeah. How many you need?” Marian replied. She set the magazine on the counter. It was a five-month-old copy of Seventeen.
Mike made the peace sign as he approached the sales counter.
Harv looked at Johnny looking at the hooks and asked, “You fishin’ fer salmon?”
“Gotta ’ave barbless hooks, y’know.”
Johnny looked back over at the display on the wall.
“Don’t sell ’em. Gotta make ’em hooks barbless.”
Harv walked over from the sales counter to Johnny and took the plastic package of a leader with two barbed hooks out of his hand. “Just get ya’some pliers and grip it ’ere, real tight. Squeeze ’til the barb ain’t there no more. An’ ’ere.”
Mike looked at the reels behind the glass at the sales counter. Then he looked at Marian. She was writing with a pen on a small pad. Then at the magazine. It was dog-eared and used.
“How many times you read that magazine?”
“Do you guys want the two-day or seasonal tags?” she asked Mike.
“Two-day. How many times you read that magazine?”
“Too many times to make talk ’bout it.”
Mike looked over at Harv. Harv was telling Johnny what time slack tide was the next day so that the bar wouldn’t swallow the two young men. Waste of youth, Harv told him, and a bigger waste of a boat.
“Okay,” Mike said.
“What’s your name?”
“Mike. What’s yours?”
“Full name. For the tag.” She held up the pad of paper so that Mike could see she was filling out a form.
“Mike Richards. That’s my brother John.”
Johnny heard his name and said, “Hey, Mike. Order a couple dozen herring, too. All right?”
Marian said, “I need your driver’s license numbers.”
Mike pulled out his wallet.
“My name. You asked my name.”
“Right. Marian. Good to meet you.”
Harv was leaving. He kissed Marian on the cheek and said, “Where’s Harry, Mare?”
“He’s out at Buoy 10 on the Redhead. They’re after kings.”
Harv straightened his old cap and walked out, saying, “Good luck tommorra, fellas.”
Johnny approached the counter. “She needs your license number, John,” Mike said.
To Marian, Johnny said, “I need these hooks, too.” And then to Mike, “Did you order the herring?” And then, “Slack tide is at half-past seven. Plenty ’a time to sleep.”
Marian closed the bait shop a half hour before nine. It was fully dark. She road her bike in the light of scattered streetlights. Crisp nighttime chill was settling in. She felt her cheeks and nose numb and redden with the rush of air as she peddled hard and fast the streets that she peddled every night, hard and fast. It was silent except for the ocean. That was Ilwaco. Silent except for the ocean. It got to most of them so that they didn’t even notice it anymore. The ocean was like an appendage of themselves. She felt as though she was never alone, and that was okay most of the time.
Her house was nearly dark, except for the bluish flicker of a television set. That was her father. A chain link fence surrounded the small house and the overgrown yard. The gate was missing. She pushed the bike over the curb and into the yard. The night was clear. She looked up and could see the stars in infinite layers of brightness and density.
“Mare, is ’at you?” her father said as Marian closed the front door behind her. Glen was in front of the television with a beer.
“Harry get out?”
Glen’s red face split into a liquored grin. He hadn’t fished since he lost his leg, yet he couldn’t stop talking about it. There was nothing else to talk about. “Where at? Had to be in the mouth.” He turned his wheel chair around to face Marian. She looked past him at the television.
“We got anything to eat?”
“Meat pies in the freezer. Sandy brought us some silver ’ee caught out at CR, but yer brother already et most ’a that.” Tad was thirteen, five foot six, and nearly two hundred pounds. He ate like her father drank. The two rival high schools in Astoria had been recruiting him for their football teams for over a year now. He didn’t like football.
“Where’s he always?” Glen waved his half-empty beer bottle in the air. “Leave ’im. The boy can find ‘is way ’ome. ‘Ee’s big ’nuff.”
“Well, I worry that something will happen to him. He’s not so big. And you know he doesn’t pay attention to anything.”
“Awright. Go get ’im then. Tuck ’im in. Baby ’im. Your mother didn’t do it ’nuff.”
The beach was bright in the starlight even though there was no moon. The waves beat out a rhythm as they broke and spilled up the sandy incline, running thinner and thinner until they collapsed back in upon themselves. Beyond that was the roar. The wind stirred the lengths of tall grasses that grew among the piles of driftwood at the beach’s edge. It was a cold wind. The ocean stole the silence.
Marian walked quickly down a trail that wove through the grass and stocky pine, over piles of bonewood to the beach. She left her sandals at the trail’s end. The coarseness of the sand against the soles of her feet was warm at first, but as she got closer to the surf, the sand was damp and cold with ocean waves. Her toes and the balls of her feet made tiny imprints in the wet sand that flexed and settled as she passed. Gooseflesh broke out along the base of her throat and along her naked arms. She stopped to roll up the cuffs of her jeans so that they wouldn’t get soiled in the sand and seawater. Her feet were white and thin jutting out into the moonless night.
She could see the shifting shadows of the grass and small pines to her right as she moved northward towards the cliff and the lighthouse. The ocean seemed like a pulsing inconstant to her left, inconstant and eternal in inconsistency. The cliff was far enough away to be blacker than the night, like a great void before her, where vanished the pale stretch of beach and the crashing ocean. The lighthouse spun its warning slowly atop the cliff, hundreds of feet above the beach and the sea. The light danced over the sky, never touching down, never slowing. At the base of the cliff were jagged, barnacled rocks of tidal pools and clutching shellfish. The waves pounded and broke over the lower rocks, splintering into spray and mist and fast appendages that coursed through deep channels between the rocks. She walked along the line of surf where the waves fell back, leaving a thin line of whitish foam. The waves made her dizzy if she stared down at them as they coursed in and back. The ocean could not rest.
There was a large formation of jagged igneous rock that stood separated from the cliff and the other freestanding boulders in the upper corner of the beach. At high tide the water only crept about its base. It was forty feet high with an aggressive slope to the sides. This was Tad’s rock. He would sit and read in a sheltered, sandy bowl at the crest where the sun wasn’t so direct and the ocean spray and mist drifted overhead. There was room for three or four up there in the little half cave, too high for the tides to reach. But it was too dark to read now.
As she grew closer, she could hear better the wind whistle as it hit the rocks and the cliff. The whistle quickly superseded the rustle of the grasses. No chance for silence. The stars were bright enough that she could spot the dim outlines of beached jellyfish and bull kelp and driftwood in time to step around them. The large rock, Tad’s rock, materialized before her, its outline black against the black cliff. Like a halo the lighthouse spun.
The ascent was on the back side between Tad’s rock and the cliff. The rock was sharp and uneven on her bare feet yet warmer than the wet sand. She worked her way up through the fissure, bracing her hands on either side and lifting her feet from foothold to foothold. She wondered how on earth Tad forced his bulk through the narrow crack in the rock. She thought maybe he would be sleeping in the sandy crater at the top with an open paperback resting on his large chest. He didn’t get cold like she did. She would scare him, leap on his huge chest or plug his nose or stick her pinky finger in his ear. He would awake, groggy at first and then laughing. He would chase her around the sandy crater. She was faster, though.
The fissure placed her on a small indent in the rock face that was no easier on her feet. Small natural steps led up to Tad’s haven. As she ascended she heard, above the whistle of the wind and the roar of the surf, the muffled clink of glass on stone. She paused. There was a groaning sigh.
A man was there with his back facing her. He stood at the edge of the small crater, mostly veiled in the deeper shadows of the overhanging rocks where the starlight did not filter. He had placed a hand above him on the rocky wall. His other hand was out in front of him somewhere in the shadows. He was urinating into the sand, pelvis extended and back slightly arched. There were several empty beer bottles at strange monolithic angles in the sand.
“Tad?” she said and he leapt, startled.
Cursing aloud, he turned his head back towards her, hunching somehow and taking his hand from the wall. He was smaller than Tad, shorter and thinner. There was a vagrant leanness to the way his clothes hung on his frame. The starlight defined vaguely the beakish ness of his nose and the hard planes of his thin face. He looked Marian up and down, casually finishing to zip up the front of his jeans. Venus gleamed in his dark eyes. Marian knew him. They went to school to gether, only he was a little younger. She couldn’t remember his name. He produced a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket. He lit one. The flare from his lighter flashed in the black long after it was extinguished.
He stepped closer, never averting that Venus gleam. He ran his free hand through his wiry mess of hair. His nostrils spat smoke, and the wind whistled it to sea. “He’s gone, baby. He’s left the scene.”
“Where’d he go?” She felt a flush rising in her cheeks as he came closer. He stopped directly in front of her. She felt terribly conscious of the great empty expanse behind her — the sharp decline, the craggy outcroppings, the beach so far below.
He reached out slowly and laid a long, thin finger on the fake stud piercing in her nose. The skin of his hand felt like latex. She could smell the pungent beer now wafting from his clothes and breath. “Didn’t you hear, baby? He got out.”
Then she was gone, stumbling down the little steps and struggling through the fissure until she hit the beach on the balls of her bare feet. She slowed her momentum with her hands and ran back through the edge of the surf away from the lighthouse.
She had cut her foot. She could feel the immediate stickiness of the blood. Sand adhered itself as if glued to the wound. She grimaced as she slowed to a walk, breathing forcefully and feeling her heart pound throughout her skull. The wind whipped up, nearly howling across the beach. There would be a storm. The ocean crescendoed, agitated and roaring thick.
And the light from the lighthouse on the cliff went round and round, flashing over the top of the beach and the small town.
There was a cold mist the next morning, a fine spray of water wafting off the low clouds and fog as they drifted from the cold ocean to the warmer coast. Marian knew to grab her slicker before she left for the bait shop. It was instinct, as was turning the television off and helping her incoherent father into bed from his chair. He slung his heavy arms around her neck and garbled incomprehensibly. She could smell the distinct odor of beer and underneath that, something ranker, corpulent, and familiar.
Her legs felt fatigued as she braved the slick hills on her bike. The mist seemed to press her down, adding to the heaviness of her eyes and face. There were several men waiting outside the bait shop for herring when she arrived to open. Soon after she unlocked the door, the shop was full.
“Get out past the bar during slack tide, er just ’ang loose, skipper,” Harry, the shop’s owner and namesake, said to a man in thick glasses frosted with water spots. Harry’s voice was like an old dog’s, with a rasp in the throat that wouldn’t cough out. He smoked when he fished and he fished all the time. The ocean had made him strong and thick as a sea lion, layers of fat coating the brawn beneath. There was a permanent redness to his face and neck from the harsh sea air and sun. Walrus jowls hung down the sides of his face.
“Where’re they bitin’at?”
“Charter boats ’er out by Buoy 2 ’n the CR buoy.”
“S’posed t’get windy t’day, ain’t it?”
The fishermen thronged in and out, multicolored slickers and rain gear, faces beaded with the cold mist. To get them in and out quickly, Harry sold herring from styrofoam coolers in the corner for cash. The fishermen joked with each other about the size of fish they’d reel in that day, about the size of wife they’d left at home, but there was an underlying gravity. That day they faced the ocean.
Mike and Johnny trailed in a little before eight. They wore yellow slickers over flannel shirts. Johnny was very pale.
“I don’t know if he drank too much or what,” Mike explained to Marian. “He just woke up that way.”
Marian felt numb. She had thought at first that she was simply tired and that the lethargy would lift as her body warmed and the day progressed. No. It was numbness. She just wanted to sit for a moment and breathe deeply, in and out, in and out. For hours. For days.
Harry turned a bucket upside down and sat Johnny on it. His jowls shook as he put a thick red hand to Johnny’s forehead.
“He puked twice just on the drive over here.” Mike’s face was shadowed with short stubble. A black stocking cap was pulled down over his brow. Marian wondered what he was like, outside of bait shops and fishing trips.
“You best sit today out, son,” Harry rasped, peering from under his thick brow at Johnny. “The ocean’ll only make that worser on ya?”
“Forget that.” Johnny was holding onto the corner of a wall and lifting himself from the bucket with wilting bravado. His face was bloodless and sweating. “I wanna fish.”
Mike shrugged and asked Marian, “You got our herring?” She did.
She wanted to ask Mike to take her with him when he left Ilwaco. She could sit in the extended cab of the truck. She wouldn’t make much noise. She would press her cheek to his and relish the sandpapery feel of his stubble and take the sunburn off his lips. She was sure that there was so much under the yellow rain gear and the old flannel; so much that had nothing to do with endless ocean roars and everybody know ing everybody and nowhere to go except out where the cliffs end and the light just circles round and round overhead; so much that was only passing through
“You better hurry,” she said.
He took the three bags of dripping herring in one hand and his brother’s arm in the other. Their eyes looked like glass, the fishes’. They stared blankly out from the ice and plastic bags. Mike looked at Marian.
Glen was in the road in his wheelchair when Marian returned from work in the late afternoon. There was still daylight, but the mist had been falling all day. Glen was soaked, but he wasn’t drunk, as Marian thought he would be, seeing him from her bike as she coasted
down the hill. He was shivering and angry.
“Didn’t you find Tad?”
She laid her bike down against the curb and took her father’s wheelchair. She began to push him down the cement path to their front door. “Yes. He was out on the rock.”
“Why ’idn’t ’ee come ’ome?”
Her voice stuck in her throat. She felt her cheeks burn and her heart ache. “I’m not sure.”
“Did’ya tell ’im ta come ’ome?”
Glen hit the doorframe as she pushed him through it. He hit it hard enough that he split his knuckle. He looked at the blood with a sense of wonder. “Ee’s a giant boy, but ’ee’s only thirteen, Mary. You tell’em that. Tell’em ‘ee’s only thirteen.” Mary was her mother’s name.
Marian helped her father into some dry clothes. He stared at the blood welling out of his split knuckle the entire time. She thought to herself how she would find Mike that night and he would take her away when he was done passing through. How he would take her out of Ilwaco.