Oysters in the Gowanus

A Short Story by Sharon Dale Wexler

We begin our journey and head out east of the inlet, after monsters.  It is the time of day when the party boat engines coat the air with black smoke, and the rubber boots of mates shake the wooden planks on the dock.  We talk how rough the water is.  And how it changes.  We go out through the Canal into the Harbor and anchor in front of the Statue of Liberty and watch the water turn from green to brown.

Whether we hook up or not we laugh at our luck.  While bottom fishing, he holds the line tightly and me loosely, loops his arm around my waist.  They are biting.  We are a team.  He sets the hook, and I reel in a flattie the size of a doormat, a fluke.  He scrubs off the blood with dish soap.  I rinse off after him.  We go home, and he sautés a fish and corn dinner.

The next day we go out again.  Although late in the season, we look for keepers.  But we keep the shorties too.  With nothing more significant biting all day, yet again he brings up going after a monster.

I scrub the teak and sunbathe.  He joins me on the bow. Just me laying up against his cool flesh, requires I contemplate his mood turn from sweet to sour. His cold flesh sizzles on the gleaming plastic.

Then he bites my shoulder the way he tests the water with his foot.  I yell, "No."  but it does not hurt.

“Do not use that word,” he says.  “No is the unsexiest word.”

I smuggle a bunch of bananas in the galley.  Around the docks, there is a rule no bananas on the boat.  It is bad luck.  Despite the contraband, we hook up fish, and people on the docks say we are a blessed couple.

In the morning, I hear him saying, today’s the day I get my monster.

We cut loose from the dock, head into the wind.  He says, “Steer and watch for birds, we are loose, anything can happen.” He runs all over the deck running rigs, setting out the poles, checking the lines. We are trolling, motors quiet.  The engine is rigged on remote control.  I am controlling the motor with my foot, using my hands for fishing.  Then he goes below.  He goes below often.  I do not particularly care where he goes.  I purposely am off course.  I am looking for birds.  There are none.  I feel calm.  I do not remember how much time elapses or ever feeling this feeling on land.  I see a white cap on the water, and I ask myself whether instead of white foam crests from breaking waves it may be a big fish, or a pod not ready to separate. And then I realize there is no land and the sky turns black with birds.

He offers to make hot coffee but never moves.  Fog forms like steam on the water and the birds leave. We change into rain gear, and he turns on, in the galley, the red whorehouse lights.  He asks me again to tell him the story of my lover and me, but my account is so different than he wants, I find my memory failing.  He reminds me that at the memorial for my ex-lover I recited a line from the poem. The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

“Recited by heart in front of a crowd of strangers,” he says. 

Then it is time to go out to the galley and get a sandwich.  I dream of the peanut butter and banana we shared on the top of Mt. Katahdin.  For most of the climb, all I really wanted was scotch, but the whole point of climbing the mountain, he said, was the view.  How surprising 6,000 miles up to be greeted on the top by discarded condom wrappers.

When I ask him whether he remembers the sandwich we shared on Mt Katahdin, he says he does, but I can tell he is lying.  He does not even remember our anniversary. The fog bounces the same horn back and forth. He wants me to lie down in the bunk next to him.  I say, "No." Despite my no, I lie down.  He tests the water, leaving teeth marks on my back.  He reads me like the birds.  To guide us in our search for a monster, we invent names for birds, after a constellation of characters.  “Bobbies and frigates, Moby Duck and Wavy Davy,” he says.

He asks whether I can turn the boat around so we can follow the birds. “I can," I say.  I give the throttle the jelly.  The ship rises a few degrees; my chin too.  I like moving.  I used to love it.

We hear the party boat captains buzzing about monsters at the hole.  But when we get fifty miles offshore, there are just porpoises, birds, and garbage bags.  The vessel rises higher and higher, then jerks and moves backward like a plastic bag catches in the propeller.  He is yelling, then he is screaming.  On the boat, he wears these funny hats which go with the water, which go with his eyes, which go with everything.  I want to ignore his voice.  He wants to do things his way on the water since he is the captain.  I like to wander and get lost, so I rarely answer when he calls.

Just then I hear a pop and the pole is bending, stripping the line at top speed.  Heart splashing, fist pounding, I reel.  He tries to take back the rod. This is my monster.  I do not want him to take it away from me.  "Keep the tip pointing at the fish,” he yells.  I point the tip down, “Up,” he yells.  Don’t let him take your monster fish.  The lines cross and the poles, all of them, bend so much they look like they are going to break.  “Do what I say,” he yells.

The fin appears next to the boat.  He tells me, start the turn slowly, and he will wind up the other lines.  The fin disappears under the boat.

“Straighten the line,” he says.

I reel furiously and risk tightening the drag a smidgeon, not wanting to stretch it too much or the line will break.  Then I see he is about to cut my line also even though I have it under control.

He is wrapping it around his pinky finger and pulling.  “Get me the fingernail clippers,” he yells.  He goes into the microwave where he hides everything from me.  He returns with the fingernail clippers—mine, that have been missing for weeks. He cuts my line.

The fin reappears next to the boat and dives in silence, a rainbow blurring through the waters.  And it was a big one, a monster.

I see his uncapped pinky finger, skin hanging and bleeding.

My stomach jerks, blood-stains his t-shirt, reminding me of the time he took me to the emergency room and dropped me off bleeding. 

He dropped me off, “Can you roll her out in a wheelchair, so I don’t have to park?” he asks the nurses.  So much blood, so little care.

Returned late, picking me up after the abortion.  Then dragged me off shopping.

He needed loafers.  He tried on many pairs of expensive leather moccasins. He wanted no designs.  Impossible to find.  There was so much blood coming out of me.  I soaked through both pads before we left the store empty-handed.  In the car, I noticed a large shopping bag in which I looked and found he had bought himself gifts of one hundred dollar black t-shirts and tubes of male designer face wash. 

If I had to do it again, I would have kept the baby. 

He is crying about his finger.  “You know I hate pain,” he says.

“Don’t die, suffer,” I say.

“Do you have pills, he says, I'm going to lose my finger.  I wish you still drank.  I can sure use a drink.”

I get the emergency bottle of rum from the microwave he thinks I do not know he has hidden, along with my fingernail clippers.  He gulps it down.  “I’d offer you some, he says, but you’ve had one too many.” He never tries to get me drunk.  I always buy him liquor. I like him better drunk than sober.   But instead of freaking out, I love seeing him bleed.  I hope he bleeds out.  It is the drunkenness that freaks me out, I fear for my sobriety.

A boat is a small world.  Every detail on repeat like a song.

I radio for an ambulance to meet us at the dock.

All the guys from the marina are waiting to see what we caught.  In anticipation of a monster, they decorate the bulkhead, with fish heads.  It is the tradition.  They throw me a line. Wavy Davy and Dennis the Menace wash off the boat into the Brooklyn Riviera.  No one cares about the suds or yells as we let out the head – after all, it is the Gowanus.

There are those birds again.  Those birds we saw when we first set out.  Before we lost the monster.  Following us, those same birds.

There are flashing red lights on the dock like the whorehouse lights.  Cops.  An ambulance.  I pass through the crowd of alcohol fumes leaving him to face the cops alone.  They won’t believe a woman can steer a boat and will give him a BUI because he is drunk.  I wish. 

I check the black ropes attached to the dock for oysters.  I look in the black water and see bubbles.  Nothing can explain the presence of oysters.  Except oysters are forgiving.

At 6:00 am.  I am going back out with him. In a different time, I would not get back on the boat.  If I were my seventeen-year-old self, the me who climbed Mt. Katahdin, the one who quit drinking, that self is not on the boat. 

But this is the last afternoon as myself.  I get back on.  I ice the cooler. I roll it across the gravel.  I navigate the climb down the ladder noting the condoms swimming in the Gowanus Canal. 

He yells, "Careful!!!" throwing me off balance.  “I am not careless,” I yell back.  As I walk the deck beam, I nearly slip at his voice.  I grab on, regaining my sea legs, never so lucky on land.

Sharon Dale Wexler’s teaching and writing won fellowships from The Cullman Center Institute for Teachers, New Visions, and The New York Times. Her fiction is published in Promethean and is forthcoming from Madness Muse Press/ Addiction and Recovery Anthology. She is a graduate of the MA Writing Program at City College of New York, The University of Florida and has studied with Gordon Lish. Find her on Twitter @sdwexler

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