"Sinepuxent" by Andrew Kleinstuber
He stood alone on the quiet street with his back to the rising sun only just now reaching out beyond the cusp of the sea, ghostly blues and hallow golds fanning the horizon, blocked out by concrete. The buildings stood thirty stories above the highway blocking out the light from the western half of the island for an hour or more depending on the time of year, casting darkness along the pocked marshland where he fished. When he was a child, he thought he could remember seeing the waves break from the old pier stuck out into the Sinepuxent, but he wasn’t so sure. He had memories of his mother, too, and she was gone long before he could possibly capture her face. They may have been pictures he’d seen or stories he’d heard, of what had come before his time, of the way things had been. But with his feet planted firmly along the sun-bleached planks and the distant memories eddying through his mind, there was only the shadow of now.
Stepping from the pier onto the boat that had been his father’s he pulled life into the old outboard, plumes of grey silting rainbows onto the water, and listened the gurgling clear itself out around him. It smelled of diesel and decay as he untied, shoved off into the channel.
Idling along the tepid waters the man passed a wading Heron, feathers still cobalt in his youth, and watched the bird strike carelessly at the dark water ebbing along his legs, coming up empty. Throttling slightly the boat carried on into a gap between buildings and the light from the sun now comfortably above the brim of the world tossed him into effulgence of thought, and he could hear the whispers among the salt grass, the laughter in the breeze. Sliding quickly back into the darkness the voices seemed to fade, a car horn cracking out across the water tore him listlessly into present. His first buoy was ten feet aft, and he settled into neutral.
The pots were coming up lighter, now, better for the old back and tired fingers of age, but not for his worth. Four crabs fell from the trap onto his boat and clattered along his feet in the still morning and two were sent back with the reds of their claws flaring in his eyes and the third just undersize. With one in his bucket, he moved along to the next, and so forth into the morning.
When he was younger, and he had run these lines with his father behind the wheel, the traps were laden with Blue Crab, ones bigger than dinner plates and strong enough to cut through his rubber gloves, as he remembered. His father used to laugh at the boy as he danced along the deck above the crabs that reached desperately out into the air, but now there was only the sound of traffic along the 90 bridge, laborers coming in for the day to tend the pools and guard the children from the shore and cook eggs that they poured from cartons.
Behind him the heron barked and took to the sky.
At the fourth pot the man added a half dozen to his bucket and refilled the bait, felt the chicken necks frozen along the cartilage, watched it float within the wire before it was ripped into the murk beneath, mud pluming as it landed. By now the sun began breaching the skyline, prominent halos framing each building in turn before it was above the concrete’s grasp and tossed the bay into a mild light and he heard the first motor dragging across the water toward him. It was an offshore rig, he could hear it in the rumble, the sound of more horsepower then common sense and wealth behind the wheel. The boat passed the man at a distance, but still, he looked away along the marsh.
It was the terrapin that caught his eye, a grey nose breaking out above the surface halfway up a tax ditch, rings rippling out from its neck. The head disappeared below the surface as he looked, swirls trailing behind as it escaped his gaze along the mussel line. He almost overshot his next pot, lunging off the starboard rail as it slipped by, feeling the slimy growth on the line as it pulled taught. It was the feeling on his fingers that reminded him of his old dog, her tongue waking him in the morning for their runs, and how he’d overslept the morning after she died in her sleep. He found her in the kitchen after the sun had risen, with her chin resting on his deck boots. Now he used a five-dollar alarm clock from Walmart. It reminded him of traffic.
After two empty traps, and another so filled with horseshoe crabs he had to loop the line around the port cleat to pulley the load over the rail, the man throttled his boat up unto a sand beach halfway down his line and pulled the tobacco from the glovebox, the papers stuffed within the pack. He removed a sheet and a pinch, began to roll as his gaze drifted out across the water, now flecked with the reflections of the morning sun. Behind his pharmacy glasses the old eyes, paler now than they once were, searched for something he recognized along the western shore. There were once trees there, he knew that. It wasn’t a memory, he thought, it was a fact. Once that whole line had been green and full of pine trees and gum and wild blackberry bushes and the birds in the trees were worth however many he could fit in his hand, or however, the saying went. It was a stupid saying, not sensible in the least, as the birds belonged in the trees as the fish in the sea and him on his boat, but man always wanted things within their grasp, and now the trees were replaced with houses and the greens traded in for sea foams and corals with white trim.
He lit the cigarette and brought the smoke into his mouth, puffing on it, but not inhaling. The doctor told him it was too late, of course, the flakes on the x-ray a sheer sign of it all, but it’d be better to keep the ash from his lungs. It’d be better to keep it out altogether, but he was a man of habit, so he puffed down to the ruddy filter and thought of his daughter.
When she was younger, and the waters of the bay had lapped at the marsh and not the bulkheads, she had enjoyed riding out with him in the early mornings, the smell of beechwood and salt in her tawny hair. Looking now the old man could see her, denim cuffed along her slender calves, smiling at him. Her son had that smile, now. He’d taken it from her in a non-refundable exchange upon his birth as she had taken her mother’s and so on through the years as the worry of parenthood stole innocence. Now the boy, in his early teens, lived in blue lights and pixels, the assumed smile distorted by modernity. Looking down at the paper flaking off in his fingers the old man considered time, the dredging of it all within himself and the plodding nature of progress, the concrete buildings behind him and the modular homes before him and the designer life that replaced the comforts of contentment. The will to progress, he thought, became the will to forget.
So he flicked his cigarette into the bay and forgot, moving further down his line.
In the days past the man had run his line along the center of the bay before they had cleared a channel and the boats tore across open water and severed his floats and pushed the crabs from the deep unto the flats where the water was warmer and clearer and the heron and the ibis hunted freely and the numbers dwindled. There were more pots, now, of course, and more traffic and hustle and more mouths to feed and more money to make by bringing in excess from across the globe and less understanding between what was hard and right and what was convenient. He thought of the green crab and how they thrived in the bays of the mid-Atlantic and the protections placed on oceanic rockfish and the oyster blight and the rainbow slicks that shimmered in his dreams and how his pots grew lighter with each passing year.
His wife, when she was still alive and his children still visited on long weekends and vacations, collected photos of the past, postcards in time. There were bathing houses along the boardwalk on the southern end of the island with Trimper’s wheel blotting out the sky in the black and white card-stock and a train line carting visitors across the Sinepuxent and in all of the long worn faces, even against the grainy distortion, there was happiness. The men stood tall in their holiday suits and their mustaches prim while the misses held their elbows tight while the children ran, blurs in the foreground. They were rough times, he knew, no better than now in any way. People went hungry and wars of attrition raged in the south and in faraway lands and the men on the Television lied as they did today, and yet they had been better times, or so he remembered. All this progress, he thought, and we’ve gone nowhere.
But the water that lapped at the hull now was the same water, in principle, as then. It flowed through rivers and into bays and through underground caverns and evaporated into the sky and fell heavily across the land before finding it’s way back. It was the water his own father had spat his chew into and he’d played in as a boy and the same water that he’d baptized his baby girl in and the water that had taken his three brothers in the South Pacific and that had saved his own life, more times then he could count. The water, vast and narrow and tranquil and morose, filled the container in which it was held, taking the form of the beholder. It was, he knew, stronger for its manipulation, but void of self. It just was, and always would be.
Running back down his line the bay had woken and the cries of children scattered across the surface. Deck boats and inboards and neon kayaks bobbed before him, the gulls following diesel fumes out to the feeding grounds as the breeze grew from the South casting salt grass in long billowing waves. He watched his own wake crumbling behind, absorbed in step by the marsh while the converse disappeared into the cacophony of the open water, crashing into waves far stronger and the hulls of others. It all became lost to him, one churn at a time, sinking into memory.
He idled into the pier where a family gathered, leaning over the edge of the planks to see beneath the surface, the mother holding a white paper cup tight in her hand. Cutting the engine his old boat listed sideways into the pilings and he took hold of the rope coiled beside, mooring his bow with slack for the dropping tide. Behind him, feet from his boat, a young boy watched, eyes wide, as the old man tied the stern off and started clearing the deck. He tucked his cage net along the gunwale and slid his half-full bucket beside his cooler and his backpack on the pier, tucking his keys into the pockets of his jeans, giving the scene a once over before carefully climbing off the old boat, knees creaking beneath the weight.
The man noticed the boy, now, holding a crab line tangled in his hands, the glint in his eyes as he looked over the boat beneath him. He had dinosaurs on his shirt, they were smiling. Feeling the old man’s gaze the boy shifted awkwardly, started for the edge of the pier where he let the weight fall from his hands toward the water. A knot in the line like a bird’s nest caught mid-descent, held it dangling inches above the water. Behind the boy the man noticed his parents taking photos of themselves with their phone, back to the boy, and something lurched in his gut. He set down his bucket and pulled a chicken neck from his cooler, started off toward the boy.
The two smiled at one another, silently, as the man bent low against the will of his old joints, the pain settling in the back of his mind. He reached out for the line, and the boy handed it over. Pulling the knot upward he fumbled with the twists and the loops and grinned as the boy giggled until the line dropped free from the cluster, clunking on the deck beside their feet. The parents of the boy were watching, now, as the man unhooked the clasp of the weight and fit the barb carefully through the cartilage of the neck, clipping it shut. With his eyes, the man gestured to the far end of the line and the boy took it tight within his little hands, anticipation roiling within. With a flick the old man tossed the neck into the water and laughed with the boy as it slapped the surface and sent an oily ripple out across the canal, fading into the current.