Mike stood on the wharf looking out over the breakwater at Tapper’s Cove. It was Sunday. Low tide at dawn. The morning light sifted through cool sea air. Far beyond Torbay Bight out on the horizon quiet waves sawed the rising sun. Mike drew hard on a smoke and walked toward the boat. A stone’s throw away gulls swooped and shit in the water surrounding the algae-coated slipway. Adrenaline and stale beer still coated the back of Mike’s tongue. His throat was still a bit hoarse. Still. He was anything but still. Behind him the steep road split the grassy north side hills like an asphalt ski jump. Not a place to lose your brakes, lose control.
His old man was already on one knee in the boat fiddling with the gas lines to the 50hp Evindrude. He was wearing his beige Tely hat tied under the chin with a white string and corvette red oil skins. If you overlooked the pup tent-like beer gut busting through the zipper and velcro, he might be cut from a fall L.L. Bean catalogue.
“You look some crooked,” he said, squinting from under the nylon stitched hat brim.
“Shawn Cantwell was standing where you’re to last week, first day of the food fishery. Had the same scowl on his face.”
Mike felt his stomach drop a bit, like he was on some shitty Canada’s Wonderland rollercoaster. He put his right foot on one of the chipped yellow toe-rails edging the wharf. To his left a couple of fellas were cleaning their catch on a makeshift plywood cutting table. One of them hove the contents of a 5 gallon bucket over the edge. Sculped fish heads and knotted guts swirled like discarded handkerchiefs in the shallow water near the jetty.
“Why’s that now?” Mike asked.
“A fella from DFO was drilling him about his cod quota. Shawn lost it after about five minutes, said to buddy ‘If this was forty years ago there’d be a bloody riot on this wharf!’ He’s right too.”
“Ya well, we’re all weekend fishing warriors in Newfoundland now right, what do we know,” Mike said, scanning the ramshackle of trucks and boat trailers in the gravel lot. You couldn’t spit without hitting one. He figured half of them sported Alberta plates, young oil Newfs home from a hitch.
“I think you mean, what do you know, son. There was dignity in this once. Hop in now and we’ll shove her off.”
His old man guided the boat out to the east, negotiating the raft of punts moored to buoys that in turn were fastened to killicks at the bottom of the bay.
“We’ll head out to Mother Molloy’s Piss Pot, alright?” his old man yelled through the wind.
Mike nodded, hauled the peak of his ball cap down past his brow. He sized up the old man, thought he looked happy and somehow younger at the helm of the boat. Like the salt spray might scrub the liver spots right off his hands, restore a former glory. Meanwhile, Mike felt a hundred years old, prematurely corroded, but whatever. No use bringing it up right now, he thought. When the engine throttle is opened up isn’t a time for talking. Voices are too muffled with the roar of it and the wind buffeting your ears, watering your eyes, so what you see goes by unremarked on. But not unnoticed.
Within fifteen minutes they had cleared Pigeon Holes and steered to the south for Torbay Point.
“Now, you remember the marks?” the old man asked, glancing at him sideways.
“You close in Outer Cove bridge until you can see Ron Ryan’s silo across the bay,”
“That’s it.” The old man cocked his head and winked.
The old man put the engine in neutral and let her idle. Mike stood up clumsily, bracing one hand against the gunnel, then found his footing in the swell. He passed his father a jigger and took one for himself. They were all alone on the marks with the sun at their back.
“I beat the face off a fella last night,” Mike said, unrolling the heavy line from the spool, felt like a length of clothesline in his hand.
The old man said nothing. Then reached inside his breast pocket for a flask of Wisers 12 year old whisky and took a swig.
“I hardly ever drink when we’re on the water now,” the old man said.
A rivulet of liquor trickled down his father’s chin. He wiped it away with the sleeve of his jacket, and passed the flask to Mike. They kept on fishing, the old man in the stern and Mike in the bow. With each jig Mike felt the weight of the lead lure bounce above the shoal. Along the gunnel the wet line slipped in and out of small hash-mark grooves. Over the years they had worn into the wood like a row of scars.
“Some gearbox propositioned me. I was tired from bouncing at the pub all night. Sober as a judge when it happened. I won’t tell you what he asked to do. But he offered me a hundred bucks to do it.”
Mike’s fist clenched the handline as he talked. Beads of saltwater flicked from the line, stinging the scrapes on his knuckles.
The old man sighed.
“Could you have talked your way out of it?”
“That’s not the point. Who the hell did he think he was?”
“You got your whole life ahead of you b’y. To jeopardize your future like that. Over something as foolish as that…nonsense Michael, pure nonsense.”
“I’m not like you alright. I can’t be so fucking diplomatic all the time.”
Mike’s face reddened, he began to sweat inside the heavy orange oilskins. His shadow swooned on the water in front of him. A flock of turrs bobbed indifferently on the surface just off the boat’s port-side.
“I know you’re angry. Angry and hurt.”
“Listen skipper, let’s leave it at that alright,” Mike said.
“No, it’s not alright. I’m still reeling from it too, my son. She died hard.”
“I said leave it…Jesus.”
“Come on Michael, I’m just saying seeing that changes you, it would change anyone.”
There was a cinderblock silence between them. The old man nudged Mike gently on the knee and looked him in the eye.
“Until then, I didn’t raise you b’y, it was her, your mother did,” the old man said, shaking his head.
With that the old man let out a bawl and jerked his line sharply past his hip. The boat rocked so violently he nearly lost his glasses over the side.
“Shit! Mike, I snagged one!”
Mike stopped jigging. His shoulders slouched and he stared dead-eyed between his rubbers at the white ribs and keel of the boat.
“Big as a Jesus dog! I hooked him right on the bottom, that’s the spot!”
Mike saw the white hospital-issue bed sheet against her wrinkled, jaundiced skin. Blood in her teeth. The white walls in the room pressing in on her shallow, rattled breathing.
“For Christ’s sake, the gaff, grab the fucking gaff!”
Everyone telling his mother to let go. A white noise of chatter. White uniforms drifting in and out over a cold, shiny linoleum floor.
White and black turr wings bursting from the waves, red legs skimming the surface like water doctors.
Mike reached for them.
They became eye level just before he face-planted the water as he tumbled over board. Thought he might pick a couple up, careful not to tear their delicate legs from their body, and place them in a mason jar, like when he was a kid mucking around the reeds at Whitrod Pond. He could be back home for lunchtime. They owned the big, beige house at the end of Barron’s Lane and he hadn’t been home in a while.