Mike is painting my portrait. He stands in front of me squinting past to the canvas at the end of the hall as if scanning the horizon for a landmark to take a bearing.
He was a Physical Education teacher before he switched to art.
“I thought I’d miss being active,” he says as he sets up his brushes and bowls of linseed oil, turpentine and oil paint. “But with this technique I keep moving.” Each time, after he sizes me up, he strides down the hall to the canvas. The kids who stop to watch know to stand clear. I can hear the brushstrokes go on. Perched on a stool, I focus on a photograph pinned to the wall opposite me. I keep my chin up, head tilted slightly. Eyes on me, he signals whenever I forget and glance away. I watch him seeing me. Hear the sure dab of him mixing color in the plastic bowls.
We take a break half way through the hour sitting. Long enough to turn around and see myself looking back from the six foot square canvas taped to the wall.
“You’re working on the eyes today.”
“I started taking painting lessons when I was twelve.” He tells stories the way he paints. Sure, strong phrases, with pauses as he finds the memory he wants. “From a Dutchman. He liked to say the eyes are the mirror of the soul.”
I thought about that for a while. Mirrors. Not windows. Reflections. I wonder if the images are from within or without.
I watch his eyes as he works. I’ve never looked in a man’s eyes for that long. When he squinted, I saw Old Morris’s faded blue eyes through the smoke of his Winston. Looking out at the harbor, knowing who was still out and how long until the tide turned, and what the clouds said about the wind. When he balanced on the balls of his feet and took the measure of the canvas beyond, I saw Dickie balancing as the Deborah-Jayne rolled, looking astern, finding his marks with the mountains and the headlands before we headed offshore. I thought of my father’s eyes focusing as he sharpened a knife and tested the edge by shaving the hairs on his arm. I’ve watched men at work but never looked into their eyes. I knew them by their actions and what they watched for, but I never looked long enough for the images to gather.
As he mixed colors, I thought of memories. Of the way they blend and bleed into each other. Of winter roads and windows passed. Memories returning skittish and shy as dreams, look too hard and they fade away to wisps. Sitting statue still, I stared beyond them as if I didn’t care. Waiting patiently, patiently letting them dare to come closer. Quietly, like crows dropping down to sit in solemn lines upon the fence. Nodding to one another then sitting slightly hunched and watchful.
There have been seasons when I walked the nights. Alone on empty roads, I looked into the houses I passed for a glimpse of life and light. Passing glances. Windows into someone else’s memories. Sometimes, a figure passing from room to room paused before the window as if they saw me but I knew they weren’t looking into my world. They could only see their reflections looking back at them. The dark road, the winter glint of stars, footsteps on the frozen ground. They knew none of this.
I remembered the time we crossed over to the island, just the two of us after an early December nor’easter in the Carly T. She wouldn’t be two until May and so bundled up against the cold all she could move were her eyes. I had her car seat lashed to the bait table with a length of trap warp so I could handle the boat. The waves were enormous. Towering walls where they came over the shoals off The Head. Higher than the radio antennae on top of the cabin when we were in the troughs. They shimmered gold and black in the last of the sun. The tide was running out and I had to make it into the Pool while there was still water and light enough. I looked down and smiled, worried she’d be afraid with the seas so high and us all alone. Her eyes were bright with the winter sun and the awe of it all and for a moment I forgot to worry and saw the world fresh and wild with magic.
In third grade I was bullied. I don’t remember his name or even what he did. I never told my parents, never talked to the teacher until the day she kept me in from recess. I remember her sitting down, across from me in the little chairs. She leaned forward earnestly. She felt old to me then, but she must have been a young teacher, perhaps just starting out. We looked at each other across a distance as great as between two stars even though our knees almost touched. I waited. I was glad not to be out at recess, waiting in line for the slide, always edging toward the back, out of his way. After a while she nodded as though we’d reached an understanding. “You know,” she said. “It is wrong to hit or kick but I give you permission, if he does this again, you kick him. Hard.”
I listened seriously. I took everything seriously. I still do. I don’t remember if the bullying persisted. And although I didn’t fight back, I never forgot what she said. It was like an account with a forgotten PIN. Some small amount held away, accruing interest, compounding, building, even if it was never used. A bulwark against uncertainty. So is the architecture of identity shaped, not in rings as in a tree or pearl, but as in the inner structure of a shell. A structure only visible when time and tide have worn the surface away revealing the inner chambers.
In Junior High, Angelo and Jamel took turns punching me, every day in shop class and then, after I told the teacher that Kristen Wheeler’s sculpture was outside the window, every day in art as well. I never ran away. I never fought back.
It was about this time my father showed me some boxing moves. Step in with a combination to the kidneys and then short, hard, and fast to the face when the other guy doubled over. We practiced every day after school for a while. Maybe the teacher told the principal and the principal called my parents. It didn’t occur to me to ask. It seemed a reasonable if random father and son thing. Adults got ideas, it was better, easier to follow along. Questions got you questioned, that or a lecture. I tucked my chin in, came in hard and fast; right, left, right, left to the kidneys, then drove forward with a right to the face when my father dropped his hands to cover his body. He had boxed a little at Lawrenceville and then later in the Navy. A smart Jewish kid at Lawrenceville in the early Forties, he would have known a lot about keeping his guard up.
In practice, in the slow motion mechanics of a recipe without emotion, it was easy enough but, in the tumult just before the bell, when they pinned me by the supply lockers, I went blank and turned side-to to take it on the shoulder until they got bored and moved away. They were glancing blows, had to be, thrown as we moved away from each other. Caught in the fabric of time, we were set on different courses. Before long, beyond any reach. Without knowing, then, I saw the choice. We can carry it or leave it behind.
Years later, after high school and a failed run at college, I was starting out as a commercial fisherman in Maine. I had enough money to buy trap stock to build my new lobster traps but no money for rope, or buoys, or paint. I trudged up the dusty wooden stairs to the Old Morris’s office at the wharf. He looked up and cleared a seat for me.
“I’m making new gear,” I told him.
“I got the trap stock ordered from the mill.”
He nodded again.
I glanced at the calendar on the wall. We both knew it was March and not a lobster in sight along the shores and not likely to be for another month.
“I got some rope I picked up along the shore from all the snarls that washed up.”
“Take some patience to work the tangles out of that mess,” he said.
“Yeah. Mick says I got as many knots in my trap warps as in his gran’s knickers.”
Old Morris laughed and went to coughing. I waited until he got his breath back and tapped a Marlboro out of the pack in his jacket pocket.
He took a slip off the pad on his desk and dug under the papers until he found a pen that worked. He handed them to me and nodded at the loft where the supplies were stored. “Just write your tally down and bring me the slip when you get what you need. I’ll help you set it aboard your boat.”
I stacked coils of new rope, boxes of buoys, and cans of paint, counted them twice to check the tally and wrote it all down carefully in the light of the one bare bulb. When I was done I took him the slip. He stuck it on a nail above his desk along with a stack of others. Some fresh like mine, some curling and yellowed. He followed me down the wharf as I trundled one of the rusted old carts across the rough planks and passed down the coils and boxes on the end of a hookline.
“That do you?” he asked.
“Should do,” I said.
“Tide’s still coming and you ain’t had your dinner,” he said. “You all alone out on the island?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Vera’s got something ready I ‘magin,” he said. “You in a tearing hurry to run back out there?”
We both looked at the chop outside the harbor and the low grey haze of the outer islands to the south.
“Wind’ll drop out when the tide turns,” he said.
I followed him out to his old Caddy in the gravel lot beside the wharf.
“You oughta get you a cook,” he said. “Helluva long way out there. Must be some old quiet this time of year. You know my boy Charlie?”
“That little place up to hell and gone in the Marsh. Ever since he got back, only place he wants to be.”
Me and Jeff Crow walked out there that winter. Before the snows came, it froze hard and clear and we walked up the Salt Marsh all the way to the Great Heath with the dogs. They’d run skittering on the clear ice and we followed, blown by the nor’west wind and the wild lonely feeling of the open marsh and the dark flow of water beneath us.
Charlie’d seen us coming up the ice and waved us in to his little place perched on the shore of the salt grass meadow all brown and rustling in the winter wind. He served us tea in chipped mugs and said he was sorry the cookies were gone. We’d talked about the birds and if the ospreys might come back until the dogs got restless and we felt the tug to be out and moving. He stood in the doorway in his shirtsleeves and stocking feet like maybe he would have come with us if we’d waited. I saw him leaning against the the door jamb, watching until a bend in the stream hid the driftwood grey cabin.
“Charlie was a helluva a party guy before he went to Viet-Nam. I worked down to the wharf then you know. Charlie could hoist hundred pound crates of lobsters soakin’ wet, set her up on top of the wharf as easy as you please. Do it all day long. Had a beautiful voice. Knew every song.” Jeff whistled something like maybe he was trying to call back that time. The dogs put their ears back and raised their muzzles like they might join in. “He come back and went at it hard. Him and Joey Sawyer had a place outside of town. Man, the place was hopping, I seen things. I’m telling you, I seen some shit up there. Joey split with some fella from California. Morris said come back to the wharf, but all Charlie wanted was the land up on the marsh. Had enough from the VA to get the cabin built. He didn’t even want a road put in. All’s he wanted was to be left alone.”
I thought about Charlie hoisting crates to the top of the wharf, shirt off and singing. You could still see it in his smile, if you didn’t look at the way his hand shook holding his mug of tea or the way his skin looked clear and thin as Clingwrap.
“Yessir.” Old Morris squinted at the boats riding their mooring chains. We listened to the wind in the cables and the tapping of the halyard on the bare flagpole. “Only place he wants to be, out there in the marsh where it’s quiet, nothing but otters and ospreys out there. I guess you know what I mean.”
I guess I did but he wasn’t asking.
“Vera,” he said as we took our boots off by the door. “This is Benjoy. He’s living out to Gotts Island.”
Vera smiled, and set another plate on the table. “Must be some quiet out there this time of year.” She said it like she knew all about me, or maybe she just knew Old Mo’s strays.
Story was, Morris was in the Navy back in the Second World War. He came home with an officers uniform and a box of medals. He hung the uniform in the closet, left the medals in the box. The old fellas said the Navy come after him to speak here and there and go to big meetings in Boston or New York City but Old Morris never hung a picture, never returned a call, never said a word. All those years away and he come to find the harbor just the same, only change was Virgil shacking up with his wife. Whatever it was or wasn’t, he just got on with it, Virge fished for Morris just the same and Morris lived down at the wharf. They said the old Caddy was there all hours and so was Laura Jane’s car, the one who did his books.
“Does his books,” they said. “All hours,” they said.
I walked nights through the dark village. Winter restless and aching to move, to be anywhere, so long as it was away. I seen the old blue Caddy in the silent lot and the one bare light in the office above the wharf. Times I’d see Old Morris at the window looking south to the sea, knitting trap heads, cap tipped back, like he was waiting on the last boat out.
On the ride back, I looked out the window and wondered should I ask. When I started, he looked straight ahead, both hands on the wheel but it was like he had tilted toward me.
“I’m not from around here. So how come you gave me credit, you know, got me started? Some people told me, from away and all, I’d never get started.”
He took his time. We were pulling into the parking lot before he answered. “Fellow like you Benjoy, don’t come in saying much. Way I figure it, you wouldn’t say shit if you had a mouthful, just go on ahead and do what needs to be done.”
He parked and let the engine idle. “I seen fellas come in all talk and what they’re gonna do. Most times, they’s the first ones out of it when it gets tough.”
Dickie’s red Ford pulled in beside us. The tide was making and he was down to set bait aboard for tomorrow. He raised a hand in the thick white mittens his wife knit him every year. We sat there watching the boats turn to face the incoming tide. “The quiet ones,” said Old Morris. “They’re too busy getting the goddam job done. Ain’t many fellas know how to be quiet.”
He switched off the engine, fumbled in his jacket pocket for his pack of Marlboros. “If you know what I mean,” he said with the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and the match just ready to light it.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess I do.”
The wind had died out when the tide turned just like Morris said. I give her just enough throttle to stay with the seas but not enough to pound. The sun was low and my shadow stretched out far ahead across the waves. I thought of Charlie leaning against the door frame looking out over the marsh with the whisper of the dry salt hay all around him and the shadows of the mountains reaching down toward the sea. I thought of Old Morris standing at the window knitting trap heads watching the white V of my wake pulling away and the chatter of the gulls heading south to the islands for the night. The three of us, all watching, triangulated in silence, looking to distant horizons.
A couple of years before, the first year I lived on the island, I rowed to haul my lobster traps. I had a fourteen-foot Novi dory with ten foot oars that first year. I set gear all around Gotts Island and three sides of the little island. Ten miles every day to haul my string. Up at 4:00 every morning to be done before it breezed up. Odd jobs and cutting wood in the afternoons. Four miles each way on the days I rowed ashore to sell my lobsters and pick up bait and groceries. By the end of fall fishing I was the strongest I’d ever be.
It was early November and we’d had a couple of snows already. Old Morris said something about how Dickie was looking for a stern man that winter. “Not many fellas’d go out with Dickie,” he said. “Only him and Georgie Sawyer, only two boats fishing offshore in the winter. The rest of them haul their gear up in their dooryards and drink.”
I watched Dickie run the Deborah-Jayne alongside the wharf to sell. “Benjoy,” said Morris like he’d just thought of it. “Whyn’t you pass down that bait to Dickie since you’re here.” I lowered the bucket of salted herring and two garbage cans of redfish cuttings.
“You staying off here this winter?” Dickie asked.
“Yeah, in Doc Washburne’s little place,” I said. pointing at the tiny weather beaten cottage just the other side of the stretch of beach Old Morris used to haul out his lobster cars.
“Handy,” said Dickie. “Might want to sleep in the rafters for the high run tides.” He chuckled. “Keep your boots right beside the bed.”
We didn’t say much more than that but I started working with him the next week. 15% off the top, before he paid for gas and bait. He brought the boat in at 3:30 to pick me up so we’d be offshore by first light. We’d haul the last strings by spotlight and run home under starlight.
I was splitting wood by the side of the cottage one day in late January. It was below zero but I’d warmed up enough to be down to my red long-johns and jeans. Dickie’d said he was going to put bait aboard with the high tide that afternoon, but no need to help if I was busy. I saw him come into the wharf and waved. He set the bait aboard and ran back out to the mooring. I waved again. I knew he’d fuss with it to get the bucket and trash cans all lined up and the covers set on tight. He couldn’t stand a mess or anything the least out of line. When we cleaned up after a day hauling gear offshore we finished with spray bottles of Windex and a roll of paper towels each.
He drove beside the cottage on his way from the wharf to his house up the hill. He put her in park and walked over. I was by the chopping block, a four-foot splitting ax in my hands. He stood across the heap of split wood from me.
“Where the hell were you?” he demanded. “I had to put bait aboard all on my own. What the hell I pay you for anyway.” His arms swung and he tilted forward. “I go to the wharf and you oughta be there to help.” His face was red, cap shoved back, eyes narrowed to slits, breath smoking.
“You said don’t bother, Dickie. I asked if you wanted me to help and you said, no need.” I leaned on the ax and looked at him across the heap of stove wood.
He looked like he was having trouble breathing, like not enough air was getting in, like something inside couldn’t get out. He stood a moment longer then stomped across to his truck and drove away.
3:30 the next morning I was on the ladder waiting as he pulled into the wharf. Two hours out, he idled back and fussed with his dinner pail. He opened his battered stainless steel thermos and poured a cup of coffee then pulled a couple of tinfoil wrapped squares out. He slid one to me. “Gwennie made a chocolate cake last night. Said I oughta give you a piece.”
We ate the cake. Dickie drank his coffee. He crumpled the foil when he was done and dropped it in his dinner pail. He polished the compass with the end of his sleeve, then rubbed at the brass spokes of the wheel like he’d noticed a spot of seaweed stuck there.
“A fella gets angry and all that happens is he thrashes around and makes things worse.”
“Yeah,” I said
He nodded. “I guess we’ll start with those 90s we set in the canyon off The Cap. Maybe we’ll get lucky.” He looked down.
“Yeah,” I said and pulled on my gloves.
He grinned then. Pushed her up to 3500 rpm and began the day.
At the end of the day, after kids and the last teachers had gone home and the cleaners were on their smoke break, I went back and looked into my eyes, wondering if Mike had seen it all. He’d added some to the background, a scene emerging from the abstract of browns and blue. The shapes were still unclear but they seemed familiar. In the fading light, the eyes stood out most clearly. I held the gaze and realized without knowing how that I was looking into Carly’s eyes again. And I wondered if she felt the sea rise up beneath her even now, felt the sheer power of it all through the thin planks of the hull. It was all so clear. The drone of the engine, the rush of water passing against the planks of the hull, the wind coming out out of the west, the last glimmer of the day behind us and the deep blue of night rising in the east. I remembered coming into The Pool that night. The Carly T safe on her mooring. Us hurrying home to light the lamps and build a fire.
Like sea worn stones these memories. Points in time. I thought, at first for them to align, lead as stepping stones. But they came to an end and I no closer than I was before. I began, certain each was more than the sum of the words, certain there was something I missed in the living that I’d find in the telling. But each was a moment and whether I passed through them or they through me, either way, the way back is barred. I cannot return to ask or say something more. Only to dream and work and watch for tide and wind to bring the last boats home.