“Shit, Morris has got to be rolling in the dough. He sure don’t spend it on this dump.”
Mick sliced open a new eighty-pound bag of salt and set about burying the layers of cuttings I had just shoveled into the drums from the fifteen bushel heap dumped out on the bait shed floor. Fifteen bushels of heads and tails, cuttings from the sardine factory over to Southwest Harbor. I wielded the snow shovel and Mick kept the salt coming as we layered the bait and salt so it would make a pickle and keep all through fall fishing.
The floor was slick with fish oil and blood even where Mick spread a layer of salt so’s we could get a grip. Every time I swung the snow shovel to get another scoop I slid back half a step. Couple of times I just about landed face first in the pile.
It was hard to argue with Mick’s logic. The planks laid down for decking were worn into smooth wooden waves by generations trundling loads of slopping buckets and trashcans in the rusted carts. The wooden wheeled barrow Johnboy used to deliver five bushel to a time from the factory truck to the sheds would qualify as an antique if any shoppe had the stomach for it. Morris spaced bare bulbs every 50 feet or so strung on loops of black wire snaking overhead. We paid fifteen dollars a bushel delivered for bait, five dollars for a bag of salt. We bought bundles of buoys and coils of rope and paid it off on account as we sold what we caught.
“Well, think of the rent you fellas are paying why dontcha? Workshop and a stall in the baitshed. How much a month, huh? Rent-free. A goddam New Yorker’s wet dream I say.” Virg hawked and spat into the pile. His sleeves were rolled up and his boots rolled down.
Mick looked up but didn’t say anything. He put the shit to just about anyone and everyone, but not Virg.
Virg didn’t ever say much but when he did people shut up and listened. Some days, when it was just him and Old Morris, he’d tell about the times he rode up forward as the boat ran full throttle through the offshore chop after tuna. The whole vessel fashioned spear like with the metal pulpit thrust fifteen or twenty feet in front of the bow. Him, alone above the waves, with the twelve-foot spear at the ready, balanced like a heavyweight boxer on the balls of his feet. Timing the throw with the pitch and roll of the boat and the bullet arc of the fish.
“We seen some fish ain’t we Virg?” said Old Morris.
Some other fellas come in just then, looking for rope or bouys, or some such. I watched Virg slip away like a shadow when the sun peeks through, one minute it’s there, next it’s gone.
Old Morris didn’t even ask after him when he finished with the others. Just went back to filleting codfish on the glass sheet over the light. Slice, flip, slice. Just like that, the shack clean to the backbone and the fillets stacked on the tray. By the time he was done, Virg was back.
“You wouldn’t know to look at him, Benjoy.” Old Morris ground out his butt under the heel of his boot and took his time making sure it was out. He grinned that lopsided grin and his pale blue eyes flashed bright and hard for a moment. “But Virg here has what you might call a sensitive side.”
Virg cleaned the grime off the one window with his shirtsleeve like he was suddenly interested in how the wind was making through the harbor.
“Yes, Virg, is what they call a water witch.” Morris tapped a Marlboro out of the pack in the front pocket of his red and black checked wool jacket. He lit it and eyed me through the smoke to see if I got his drift.
“He finds things,” Morris explained. “Water, lost shit, whatever. Takes a little stick and twitches it around and Bob’s your fucking Uncle, he says dig here. Just like that.”
Virg turned and held his hands out. Huge rough paws, scarred and leathery as catcher mitts.
“And they say I must be a rich man,” Morris grinned again and gestured at the room, the wharf, the peeling paint, the glass front case with plastic trays of cod cheeks and tongue, cod livers, flounder roe, and the neat stacks of pale fillets. He caught himself pointing the fillet knife, sharpened to a thin, bright crescent, and slid it into the leather loop on the side of the table. “I got all this and you got the gift. Look at us Virg,” he said. “Fuckin pair of aces we are all right.”
I asked Dickie about it the next time out. “Morris said Virg was a dowser, is that for real?”
“Ayup,” Dickie gaffed the next buoy, ran the rope through the hauler and watched the coils pile up on the loose coils pile up on the platform. The wind blew the tops off the chop and crusted our faces with salt. The traps come up and we tended them, Dickie brought her around and set them back in line so the buoy dropped off the stern just as he reached to gaff the next in the string. He nodded. “He’ll find anything for you. Won’t take a cent. Never has. Says it’s a gift. Says a fella shouldn’t profit on what’s given.” When we finished with the string, Dickie idled back and we dipped buckets of water to wash down the weed and the mud the traps brought up. Time it right and you didn’t didn’t have to lift hardly at all. Miss the wave and you’re leaning over looking down into a 100 fathoms of cold sea like hanging off the edge of cliff.
Dickie put her into the wind and poured a cup of coffee from his thermos. “Old timers,” he said.
He was quiet after that as we hauled through the strings set along the rock bottom of the Cap fifty fathoms below. We followed the rhythm of the sea and tide and wind, there was no need for words.
When we went to clean up after dark that night Dickie stopped and picked at fish scales stuck to the wheel. “Thing of it is,” he said, just like the conversation never had a break. “Them two are a pair. Went off to the war together. Virg got done first. Morris was in the Pacific and they stayed on a while. Never said a word about it either one of them. Old Les told me plenty of nights it would just be the two of them, Morris and Virg, and a bottle between them. Folks said all kinds of things.” Dickie paused to make sure my imagination got his drift. “Just like they always do. But them two, shit Benjoy, they don’t make them like that no more.”