Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hull, Massachusetts

A few months ago I wrote a short story for a local fiction contest. Naturally, nothing happened with the contest, and thus nothing ever became of the story. I would like to expand it a bit, but had to stay within the 2,000 word count at the time. After sitting on it for a while, I thought I'd share it with you here. I'd love to know what you think.

If Eugene was a painting, he would be filled with color. There would be a lot of orange. Yellow too. And, of course, green. And there would be sharp brushstrokes overlaying thick, soft ones. But there would also be deep strokes of black. And they would startle. But I would love it. And I would frame it.

They told me the morning Eugene was born, his mother woke, muttering. They stood in the room, waiting for his tiny cries to bounce off the white hospital walls. But he clenched his shriveled fists and wiggled his slimy toes and sighed.

I remember the day I met Eugene because it was also the day my brother was released from prison. My brother will not be a part of this story.

It also happened to be the day the truck drove through my shop. It was an eventful day. The day things began to be released.

Eugene had been walking down the street. He had seen the whole thing. The white Ford F-150. 1996 model. Saw the truck bounce up the curb, fly across the sidewalk, crash through the glass, and come to a hissing, click-click stop in front of my father, who had just finished stocking an aisle of dry chum.

The guy had fallen asleep. He was on his way home after a 12-hour shift at the hospital. Or maybe it was Tedeschi's. I don't really remember.

Eugene froze as the truck barreled past him, inches from his skin. He could have reached out and touched its warm metal as it flew past, but his hands were in his pockets.

He stood, watching the steam rise from the hood of the truck that had come to a stop between the fishing line aisle and deep drop tackle aisle. When I stepped over the rubble and crossed from tile floor to concrete, I saw him.

This was the first time.

Four days later the blue tarp still covered the gaping hole that spilled my family's tackle shop onto Nantasket Avenue. The sharp winter wind rustled the plastic and the hole looked like a wide mouth with splintered teeth.

Since I couldn't work, I didn't know what else to do. I still left my house every morning at 8 a.m. and came home every evening around 5. Usually I spent my days in town, reading in the wooden gazebo overlooking the harbor. Or walking up and down the beach, my scarf wrapped across my face to protect it from the biting wind. No matter how many layers I wore, my chest was always cold.

I was reading The Great Gatsby again. Its spine was broken from use. Some of the pages had come free, and were tucked loosely into place. I would also frame this book, if it were a painting.

For as long as I can remember, whenever I passed through the harbor at night, I would scan the black canvas for my green light. All I ever saw were the blinking white and red dots of the boats fishing long into the darkness.

I was in the gazebo with my book when I saw him the second time. This time I felt him. When I turned around, he was standing silently behind me, clutching a brown knit hat in his hands. The wind was whipping this day and his smooth cheeks were a bright shade of pink. His tussled hair was the color of buttered toast. His green eyes glistened.

I knew who Eugene was. Everyone in town did. After his mom died, he lived in Hull for six years with his grandparents. By now, he'd been gone for almost fifteen years. But everyone remembered. His mother had been beautiful. And in Hull, beauty like that is not soon forgotten.

Four days after Eugene was born, they found his mother in the bathtub. Her body was as cold as the crimson water when they pulled her out. I wish this was something I did not know.

His sudden reappearance in town brought the story back to the forefront of everyone's mind and the surface of their lips. In the four days since he was first seen walking down Nantasket Avenue, I'd heard it again and again.

There was a loud crack behind me when Eugene said my name, but my eyes never left his face. I don't know how long we talked. It felt like minutes. He smiled when I agreed to meet him and my chest filled with warmth.

I watched him walk away until he turned the corner of R Street and was gone. Only then did I notice the commotion behind me. Men were frantic, barking commands and throwing ropes. The bow was the only part of the 36-foot Delta still above water, and in a few minutes, it disappeared into the grey water. When it was gone, the surface was as smooth as glass, as if it had never been there. But it was all beneath the surface, where it would stay.

Later that night I met Eugene at the carousel. He told me he was glad I had come. That I was the only one who seemed to look at him without judgment. That he knew it would be me when he saw me standing in a pile of broken glass and fishing nets.

I never got used to the way he moved, with the fluidity I had never seen in a town of fishermen. There was so much I had never seen. People watched Eugene from the corner of their eyes wherever he went. His elegance shattered any chance for his desire to melt into the crowd. But if anonymity is what he wanted, a town like Hull was the wrong place anyway.

Towns of this size do not take kindly to change. They make excuses, overlook things just so they can call them the same. They use words like queer and faggot. I don't use any words at all.

We talked for hours. The darkness was a cloak of heavy velvet, but light reflected off the ocean water. The tide was inching closer to the boardwalk when the space between us suddenly collapsed and I felt his warm lips against my cold ones. Time thawed from the heat of our bodies, and I don't know how long we stayed there, locked together.

Everything about him was warm. His scent, his hands, the inside of his mouth. And suddenly those things that had never made sense finally did. Even the emptiness. The empty feeling inside my chest. The empty space next to me in my bed. Even those things made sense. Even those things were suddenly important.

When the night's fishermen docked their boats in their creaking slips at dawn, their muscles ached. The nets moaned from the weight. The decks shimmered with the silver bellies of cod, slowly gasping at the air. Opening and closing their cold mouths. Searching for water on a vessel of timber and aluminum. But it's impossible to find what's necessary to survive in a place that doesn't fit.

As the weary men stepped out of their rubber boots and into warmth of Gun Rock Tavern, their excited voices bounced off the dark, wood-paneled walls, crowding the dimly lit space above their heads. Hands waving, clutching tumblers of whiskey. Not in 21 years had a single catch brought in so many fish. There were others who would never forget that night.

It took four weeks to get the tackle shop back in working order. I went in every day once the construction was finished to help restock and get things back to normal. I met Eugene every night at the carousel.

When the moon shone off of the water, we talked for hours. We talked about things I never talked about before. Things that made my head swim and things that made my bones heavy and my chest ache. And things that were beautiful. So beautiful it was unbearable and I wondered if anyone in the history of the world could truly handle it with the delicacy it deserved. Things that didn't fit in a town of chapped hands and rough beards. And I knew.

When the moon was hidden by the clouds and it was too dark to see, we didn't talk. We told each other the things we frantically needed to say. That I learned how to say to his body with my body. Like the first two people in the world learning how to hold hands. Like knowing that of all the hands in the world, only this one could wrap itself so perfectly around your palm. Only this one would do.

The night he told me he had to leave, we were sitting on the boardwalk, legs dangling above the cold, damp sand. I didn't say anything. We knew this was coming. There was nothing that could keep him here. A small, fishing town is no place for a boy with green eyes. It is a place for ghosts.

I watched his figure disappear into the darkness. I walked to the end of the boardwalk alone and kept going. When I turned around, back towards the carousel, the pier was burning. Flames were consuming the aged wood, climbing up the carousel and swallowing it whole.

The wind made the flames dance. Bold streaks of orange and yellow leapt into the air and softly floated down to the ocean, muted by the black water. Orange, yellow, deep streaks of black. But there was no green.

Red fire engines roared to the pier and yellow-suited men shot streams of water along the boardwalk as black ash fell like snow all around us. The dark streets were quietly blanketed in shades of grey and black, the first flakes of the New Year.

This was the last time.

By morning the pier was gone.

An old, frayed wire that had finally caught flame, they said. Dormant for more than 20 years, when the carousel was shut down due to electrical problems. It sprang to life this night with a single spark. A freak event. And then it was over.

Since Eugene left, there have been no more extraordinary events. No cars have collided. No ships have sunk. The only time I've seen firemen since that night is inside the Gun Rock. The only fire is in our drink. There have been no more remarkable catches. No more secrets have been told.

I think of Eugene when I am walking and my hands don't feel like they belong to me. Or when I am standing and my arms ache as they hang from my body, like they don't remember their purpose. Or sometimes when I feel my chest straining under the weight of the life I cannot live.

I think about the space between our brain and our hearts. Does it grow the longer we are alone? Do we recognize the expanding distance? Or do we wake up one day and suddenly realize that we've forgotten how to speak without words?

I think of these things as I go to bed each night. I think about all the people who will never know the answers. And all the people who don't know how to hold hands in the dark. All the people who don't know what it's called. All the people like you, who don't even know my name.


Bradford Pearson said...

I liked it, but I think that it might be better off in a different tense. Some sentences don't sound like something a narrator would say, and I think they would benefit from, uh, "Harry" or "Juliet" instead of "I."
Great story though.

hippo brigade said...

You had some very beautiful illistrations. Like: Searching for water on a vessel of timber and aluminum. But it's impossible to find what's necessary to survive in a place that doesn't fit.
It was fragmented and felt like a list of thoughts. Just like the way I think most of the time.
Thank your for sharing. When you write something like this there is this new sense of vulerability that you probally don't feel when you write about your neighbor wearing your undies, and I applaude you for being transpearent.

Cecil said...

Good Stuff! Made me sad when it came to the end. I wanted more! Great description and you covered a lot in 2000 words. Can't wait to read some more of your fiction.

rory said...

Evocatively dark and beautiful. Thanks.

Chatham said...

I am a book snob and I own it. What draws me into a story is if I find myself asking questions and demanding answers. I finished doing both and wanting more. I would be thrilled if you expanded this.

There is one question I must know now. The narrator, male or female?

I don't know how else to describe it, but you write like a dancer.

3continentfamily said...

Yup. Like it. Thank you for sharing :)

sawinkler said...

I read your every post and rarely comment. But (if my wife's hesitance to letting me read her writing is any indication) you must have been freaking out to post this story to your blog and that kind of courage deserves encouragement. So well done and thank you for sharing.

You did a great job with the way the fragmented writing style supports the otherworldly, dreamlike events of the story. It's a little Arundhati Roy/Cormac McCarthy. You manage to say a lot, without over-writing.

There are places where I feel like the story starts to dig into the ideas of loss and longing, but stops short before fully exploring them. (I'm thinking about "...impossible to find what's necessary..." and the "...distance between head and heart...," off the top of my head).

But those lines (and a few others) were definitely stoppers and will give me something to chew on.

Keep it up. I'm looking forward to the next draft.


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