Ship John Light
Ask me if I believe in ghosts, God and magic fish and this is what I will tell you: On a Tuesday, last October, I woke as the sun still slept beneath the horizon.
“I’m going fishing,” I whispered to my wife.
“You wake me up to tell me what I already know,” she said.
Things were not good between us. I could not give her cable television and she could not give me children.
"You never take me anywhere," she said.
"Where would you like to go?"
"Nothin' to see there but slot machines and drunks."
"Still," she said. "I'd like to see it before I die."
She turned over and fell back asleep. Even though it was dark, I could see that she was still pretty.
I put on my jeans and long sleeved shirt that smelled like bait and deet. I walked into the kitchen, took a bag of frozen Bunker from the freezer, went out the screen door and gently closed it behind me. I'd left the truck and boat on its trailer at the very end of the driveway the night before so the sounds of knocking pistons and rusted springs would not wake her again. The air was warm and still, like summer, and with each breath I smelled the salt grass and piles of oyster shells from across the river. People say the piles smell like death and shit, but I never minded it. To me it smells like the morning, like the Bay, and like fishing.
I started the truck, turned on the headlights and watched a small, white tailed deer disappear into the darkness. Greenhead flies crashed against the windshield as I drove through the marshland. A Great Blue Heron flew like a drone in front of the morning stars. Cicadas sang on scrub oak trees and their notes vibrated through the tall grass like electricity through broken wires.
The parking lot next to the boat ramp was empty. As soon as I stepped out of the truck the cicadas stopped singing. It was close to high tide and the water over the ramp was as dark as oil. I had never felt the world as quiet as it was at that moment. It was unsettling and I wondered if this was what it felt like when people said they were lonely.
The cicadas started again. Greenheads landed on my shirt, licked the deet and flew away. I backed down the ramp until water lifted the aluminum hull off the trailer. I put on the parking brake, walked to the boat and felt he warm water fill my shoes. I grabbed the bowline, pushed the boat out into the water, pulled the rope so that the boat banged against a rotting bulwark and tied the line to a broken cleat. I parked the truck and walked back to the ramp. When I stepped down into the boat the soft, plywood floor flexed beneath my weight. The boat is 16-feet-long, with a 25 horsepower engine that is 30-years-old. It isn't much, but it is my one luxury and if you pick your days on the Bay you don't need anything more.
The engine started on the first pull. I backed into the river and headed towards the open water as the first rays of the sun shot through tangerine clouds on the eastern horizon. Wooden oyster schooners, abandoned when the MSX virus killed every last mollusk in the Bay, slowly sank in the mud on the banks. Railroad cars, frozen with rust, lined the tracks that led to the idle canning factory. A pair of Black Skimmers flew just above the surface of the water, opened their long beaks and left two perfectly straight lines in their wakes.
The bell on the 14 Buoy echoed across the water as I passed it. The river opened into the cove and the cove opened to the Bay. Beyond that lay the distant shores of Delaware and it occurred to me that I had never been there. I turned the throttle, put the boat on a plane so that the hull skipped across the glass surface like a flat rock. Every so often a drop of water landed on my face, warm and wet, like a kiss. I had never seen the Bay so calm and instead of stopping to fish the E.P. Tower or Dead Man's Shoal I just kept going.
In the middle of the Bay the water turned a shade of blue I did not know existed there. In the distance I saw the black tower of Ship John Light. I turned off the engine, drifted, and looked down into the turquoise water. Jellyfish danced next to the side of the boat, like breathing moons with legs. A sea turtle, three feet long and two feet wide, poked his head through the surface, took a deep breath and disappeared into the deeper, bluer water. I looked up and saw a black Frigate bird against the blue sky. It felt like I was in some kind of dream orchestrated by Disney himself and for a moment I thought I shouldn't even fish--that I could sit there and just let the dream unfold.
But I didn't. I cut the Bunker into quarters, put a bloody chunk on a circle hook with a three-ounce weight attached to my grandfather's rod and threw it into the water. I kept my thumb on the reel as the line went out. When the weight bounced off the soft bottom of the Bay I locked the reel and set the drag.
I put the rod in the holder, leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes. The sun warmed the inside of my eyelids and painted them the color of a newborn's foot. I saw a circle of pink light beyond them--it was not some near death experience or the son of God trying to birth me again. There was a place I could not see but knew existed somewhere beyond that light. I reached out for it with my right hand. Then it was gone.
When I opened my eyes I saw the tip of my grandfather's rod twitch. The fish hit the bait again and the rod shook in its holder.
"Take it," I whispered and grabbed the rod.
The fish took the bait and line screamed from the reel. I kept the tip of the rod pointed to the sky and let the fish run. He was big and strong and swam violently from one side of the boat to the other in a desperate attempt to free himself from the hook. I let the tip down, reeled him in a few feet and brought the tip back up. He fought and ran again. For twenty minutes we engaged in that awkward dance. Then the line went slack.
"Bastard," I whispered.
I reeled the line in slowly, accepted the fact that the best of fish of my life, perhaps the last one of its kind in the Bay, had got away. But then I felt the pole vibrate in my hands. I looked to where the line went into the water. He jumped. He was four-feet long, with a head as broad as a block of cement. His green and yellow body thrashed wildly in the air before smacking the water. He swam to the back of the boat, jumped again, closer this time. His giant, left eye looked right at mine and for a moment he seemed suspended in mid air.
It was a Mahi Mahi and as he took the line back to the bottom of the Bay for another run I tried to remember a story any of the old men had told about catching Mahi in the Bay. There weren't any. People had caught them, far offshore, above the wrecks and reefs in the warmer currents, but never in the Bay. The line stopped and I began to reel him in again. He fought halfheartedly, realized that his time had come. When I got him to the side of the boat he stared at me through the water with that giant eye and I remembered what my grandfather told me as a kid when I was worried that the hooks hurt the fish.
"Fish don't cry," he said.
I brought the fish into the boat and laid him on the floor. His body heaved. His bright yellow skin was covered with tiny freckles and his dark blue dorsal fin was long and thin. In the sun, his colors faded. I put my hand on his forehead and with my other hand extracted the hook from his mouth. He was easily 40 pounds and the meat would have fed us for a month. I could have taken him to Little Jim's Bait Shop, had my picture taken and then Jim would have sent it to the paper. When people around here spoke of fishing they would remember the time when Robert Sumner caught that Mahi in the Bay.
But I did not want or need all that. I wanted to pay off the mortgage. Take my wife out for dinner. Buy her a new T.V. I wanted to retire, even though I hadn't worked for over a year. The Mahi was my magic fish and even though he did not speak, I told him I would let him go if he promised me money. He blinked three times. I lifted him gently and placed him back in the water. He turned to his side, looked at me once more, slapped his tail, sprayed me with water and then disappeared into the depths of the Bay. As soon as he was gone I felt like a fool.
The air grew cold. A light wind threw ripples across the water. I looked up and watched dark clouds march across the sky like angry soldiers. A blanket of fog gently covered the Bay. I could not see more than twenty-feet in front of me. In the distance I heard a tanker's horn. It sounded like a woman in mourning. I started the engine and headed towards where I thought was land.
The wind picked up. Thunder shook the sky. The fog thickened and left moisture on my face. The waves grew to five-feet and crashed against the thin hull. The tanker's horn grew louder and I felt the vibrations of its large engines. My heart raced and I thought of my wife, a fisherman's widow, poor and alone. A tall black structure emerged from the fog and I braced for impact. But then the bow of my boat crashed softly on a small beach. I looked up and saw the tower of Ship John Light. The light was out.
Rain poured down in sheets. I tied the boat to a piece of concrete on the beach and climbed the slippery rocks to the tower. I pulled myself onto the metal walkway and held onto the wet rail to keep from being blown into the water. And then, so help me God, through the rain and wind, I heard a woman hum.
I walked slowly around the lighthouse until I reached an old steel door. I pulled on the handle and the door opened. The woman continued to hum.
I walked into the small room. Empty beer cans and airplane sized liquor bottles were strewn across the floor. Somebody had spray painted the word Asshole on the wall above the cast iron stove. My hand shook as I grabbed the railing of the spiral staircase that led to the top of the lighthouse and placed my foot on the first stair.
"Hello," I said, but it was nothing more than a whisper.
The humming got louder with every step I took towards the cupola.
I stopped when my nose reached the floor of the lantern room and I looked around it. The unlit lantern spun slowly. I stepped up to the wooden floor. The door to the widow's walk was open and rain pelted the floor. I turned around and saw her on the other side of the glass. She wore a black lace dress, perfectly formed so that her shoulders were square and her hips rose from her sides like the branches of a weeping willow tree. The humming stopped. She stared out through the fog and rain. Then, she turned to face me. Her face was porcelain white, except for a few lines of soot on her left cheek; her lips were fire engine red, her blond hair pulled back in a Victorian bun. Her eyes were the color of Speckled Sea Trout. She walked inside the lantern room, perfectly dry.
"John," she said.
"My name is Robert," I said.
"You ask for money, but not for me."
"I didn't know what else to do."
"You want money?"
"Yes," I whispered.
"Kiss me," she said
I stood in front of her and closed my eyes. Wind shook the tower. Rain hit my leg. The fish, the storm, the woman. I no longer knew what was real and what wasn't. I was scared and a man's mind does funny things. But when her cold lips touched mine and her warm tongue caressed the front of my teeth, it felt as real as the day my mother died.
"Build me a fire," she said. "It gets so cold in here."
She turned and faced the windows and started to hum again. I walked down the stairs. Next to the old stove was a pile of kindling and split logs. An old newspaper lay on the floor. I opened the door of the stove. Inside was an old, leather doctor's bag. I took it out, opened it, and saw stacks of hundred dollar bills. The humming stopped. I walked back up the stairs with the bag and looked for her. She was gone.
The rain ceased. The wind blew the fog North. The sun shone across the blue sky and the Bay returned to a sheet of moving glass. I walked back down the stairs and out of the lighthouse. I looked over the rail and saw my boat just where I had left it. I climbed down, put the bag of money under the port seat, untied the line and pushed the boat out into the Bay. The engine hummed and the hull barely touched the water as I headed back to the ramp.
I put the boat on the trailer as quickly as possible and put the doctor's bag on the front seat of the truck. As I drove I saw downed trees and telephone poles. The Garrison's duck blind was no longer there. When I got home I parked the truck and ran up the driveway. The roof to the house was gone. Half the front wall was missing and I saw my wife sitting on the couch, staring through the giant hole in our house. I walked through the hole, sat next to her and took her hand in mine. It was cold and wet.
"I thought you was dead," she said. "Drowned in the Bay."
"I'm right here," I said. "Everything's fine."
"No it ain't. There's nothing left."
"There wasn't much here to begin with. It was bound to happen someday."
"What do we do now?"
"Come on," I said. "We'll go to Atlantic City."
She simply nodded her head, packed a small bag and walked out to the truck while I took the trailer off the hitch.
We drove through the marsh, out to Route 47 and then towards the ocean. Trees had fallen on houses. Vinyl siding littered the road. Neighbors stood in the yards, crying on shoulders. The man on the radio said the storm was called a Derecho. I had never heard the word before.
"Sometimes I wish that a giant storm would just take it all away," she said. "And take us with it. But it never does. It just takes parts, slowly, until there is nothing left."
She was right about storms. About how they take pieces of us each time they hit. But there are also calms, before and after, magic fish, ghosts and money. I should have told her about them then, but I didn't. I kept them for myself. They were all that was left to believe in.