With a pinch of Lavender

Thesis Segment 2 | November 1, 2009

In the summer my father left for the harbor early, meeting Johnson or Bardier at the docks, talking in the salty fog that disappeared by midmorning. The weather wasn’t idle chat with the fishermen, and ‘red sky at night’ frequently set expectations for the day. My father’s office sounded like a robot. The three radios were tuned to different maritime channels, announcing craft warnings and weather reports. I liked to sit in the window seat of the harbor master building watching dinghies and rowboats navigate the cramped moorings close to the boat launch. On summer days when my mother needed us out of the house so she could make jam, or repaint the shingles, Chester and I sat at my father’s desk and listened to the robot voice tell us how many Knots the wind blew. On the wall there was a painting of a ship that my father said had sunk, the American flag on the stern unraveling in the wind. The only other wall decorations were a series of sticky-notes that held names and registration numbers.

Sometimes my father would let Chester and I sit in the front room with him and the fishermen and boaters that would stop by. We liked hearing them talk; sailing accents from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Canada, the fishermen turning their r’s to ah’s.  Johnson and Bardier spent their mornings in the harbor master building, I don’t know if I ever found out what their first names were. They were both locals whose families had lived in Havret Harbor since it separated itself from the neighboring town of Jeterton, sometime around the war of 1812. They shared a lobster boat because it was “wicked expensive.” Her name was Red Lady and their buoys matched with red horizontal stripes. Johnson and Bardier smelled like fish and cigarettes. The fish used for lobsterpot bait has to be a little rotting so the lobsters can smell it. Their waders had little bits of old cod and halibut stuck to the bottoms.

My father used to haul pots, but grew up in Castine, where he and his brothers and his father and his father’s brothers had gone to Maine Maritime to become captains and shipbuilders. Before that the Sillmans were the Cielmonts in Montreal who built houses. My grandfather was trained to make boats but made chairs; he had his own store full of benches and stools. It was the kind of store that out-of-staters would have their Maine conversation pieces shipped from. His brother Dodge who my father was named after moved away to Port Clyde work on lobster boats, an extra set of hands, earning money and building a reputation among the fishermen until he could afford a used boat. He found a retiring fisherman who sold him the Bella Donna, who was never renamed, and pots with buoys whose colors stayed the same. My father spent summers in Port Clyde hauling for his uncle. The string of pots reached far into the ocean, soaking in the colder waters. He worked in the sun with his oil overalls and no shirt, leaving his French/Irish skin to burn and freckle. His brown freckles stretched from shoulders to wrists where his gloved hands were red from work, and not from sun; his usually chestnut hair bleached, his nose constantly peeling. When he was old enough his beard came in brown and coarse, and the only times he shaved it were for weddings and funerals when a clean face was respectful.

My father spent one summer saving his money to fix up an old Boston Whaler; Sundays were spent in his uncle’s backyard, scrubbing, sanding, painting, and refinishing the decayed boat. The outboard was a gift, all fifteen horses. Sundays were a day for staying home. You didn’t have to go to church, but you couldn’t do anything else either. The whole state closed on Sundays, except for some of the Chinese restaurants, the kind that had signs that said ‘Oriental.’ My father spent most of Sundays in bed, and the afternoons tooling around the inlets and coves in his whaler, spots he could see from Bella Donna, but not close.

Friday nights were when the fishermen, crewmen and dockworkers got paid, my father and his uncle included. The streets, bars and harbor full of drunken port men. His uncle would be angry if he knew he had taken the whaler out after dark to see a private cove one Friday night, late in July, when the air started being warm. It was trespassing, if he was caught, and only if they were home.

Before he could see the dock, my father killed the engine, coasting through the dark and quiet water. He tied the wet and weedy rope around the dock cleat in a figure-eight, pulling it tight. Bilge water sloshed around his feet in the bottom of his Boston Whaler. He put the stern light pole behind the gas tank. The newly varnished seats were red and still sticky; the heat and water kept them from setting. The white flotation pillow with the black mildew held tight to the plank seats. My father fished his keys from the floor attached to his unsinkable buoy key ring. He stood on the seat cushion, holding his tennis shoes in hand and stepped onto the dock. The skiff bobbed when his foot pushed off, pointing the fore into the harbor.

My father sat on the dock, pulling his shoes on, his bottom numb from the wooden seat, barely braced against the pounding of the waves. His wavy hair heavy on his scalp with salt and sweat, rising with the breeze when it picked up. He stood, seeing that the lights were out in the big white Victorian house at the top of the hill that overlooked the cove. The cove and the house were owned by a family from Connecticut who came up for long weekends and the week of the Fourth of July. Their Sunfish lay on the beach, the sails still in their red sheath. My father walked across the beach, feeling the sharp rocks through his tennis shoes, thin from wear. The light at the end of the dock turned on. He climbed up the large rocks that sat between the beach and the pine trees sloping up the hill. His knees crunched old pine needles under them. He sat in the dark of the trees while a girl in shorts and a tee shirt walked down the dock. She leaned over his whaler, and shouted “I know your registration number now, whoever you are! I’m going to the cops, and you’ll get arrested.” She stood crossing her arms, waiting. “Really? You’re going to let yourself get arrested? How stupid are you?”

“Okay, I’m sorry, please don’t repoht me.” My father stepped onto the rocks.

“Because you said you’re sorry?” The girl kicked his skiff.

“Hey, come on now, that’s nowt nice.”

“And neither is going on someone else’s property when it’s clearly marked.”

“I didn’t see nothing.”

“There are signs on the trees over there, and both ends of the dock.”

“It’s really dahk.”

“Which makes it all the creepier that you’re sneaking around here.” She kicked his skiff again.

“Hey now, I just came down heah to see if they was any of the glowin jellyfish I heuhd about.” My father had his hands up.

“I’ve never heard of any glowing jellyfish around here.” The girl kept her foot on the fore of the whaler, moving it back and forth like rocking a baby cradle.

“Yeah, see, some of the fishamin say that in the summah around this time, the jellyfish come in the coves to spawn, and they glow like fiahflies but in the watah.”

“You’re putting me on.”

“No, sweah to god, but I don’t think they’ll be comin anytime soon from the looks of it.” He looked at the water, black except for the yellow reflection of the dock light.

“Well that sucks, especially since you’ll be in jail and won’t get to see them ever.”

“Hey, come on now, I really am sorry, what can I do?”

“You could…” the girl thought about it for a while. “You could give me your boat.”

“I can’t give you my boat, no way.”

“Hope you like jail.” The girl kicked the whaler again.

“Isn’t theyah something else I can do? I could give you a ride, sometime?” My father shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Fine, you have to give me rides whenever I want, for the rest of the summer.” She smiled and took her foot off the boat.

“I weuk fuh  a living, I don’t got time except Sundays.”

“Fine, Sundays it is Mr…” She reached her hand out.

“Dodge Sillman.” He stepped up to the dock and shook her hand.

“Nice to meet you Dodge, my name is Marian Webbly.” She stepped back, letting him get to his whaler. “See you Sunday then.”

“Yup.” My father unhooked the rope from the cleat and started the motor. Marian walked back to the house, turning off the dock light. He put up the navigational lights so other boats wouldn’t hit him.

When he got back to his uncle’s dock, the hems of his pants were wet, even though he’d rolled them up. His whaler made a light tapping sound, pressing against the dock with its rubber bumpers. He decided to wait until his pants dried before walking back to the house to avoid questions. He walked a bit up the hill to the main road.  Next to the lamppost was an old fashioned lobsterpot, arched with a flat bottom, a net slung in a round opening between pine slats, facing inward, like a navel. He could see where the lobsters would crawl in, and into the next room with the bait bag. The whole point of a lobsterpot was to get them to come in, the net would let the small ones back out, but the big lobsters would get stuck, only able to move backwards. The lobsterpot had two miniature pilings thrust through it, the cheap pine slats sawn in jagged circles. He felt that was wrong, since they didn’t even make wooden pots any more, they had to be made by hand, they had to be strong and well built or a fisherman could lose a whole string of pots.

My father wanted that lobsterpot. He didn’t know what he wanted it for, or what he would do with it if he had it. He crouched and tested it by pulling gently upwards; pushing his legs against the wooden platform it was screwed into. After checking to see if anyone was around and finding no one, he ran back down the hill and grabbed a wooden paddle from his whaler. It was supposed to be used in case the motor died, but he wedged it under one corner and rammed it, the old wood of the platform separating from that of the pot. He hoped no one would hear the creaking of the rusted screws, he didn’t know how he would explain it. When he got home later, he would tell his uncle that a drunken captain gave it to him. His uncle would know where it came from but not say anything.

Another thrust into the gap between platform and pot pushed the paddle a few inches deeper into the breach. The pilings didn’t come up, but my father didn’t want them. He was sweating in the damp July sea air, his dark shirt sticking to his chest as he used his weight to leverage the progress. After a few more shoves, he cracked his paddle and pulled the pot from the platform. He put the paddle back in the whaler, careful not to further damage it in the process. The lobsterpot was heavier than a few slats of pine and some old rope netting should have been, but it went under his arm as he walked with what he hoped looked like purpose and not guilt. The dark streets beyond the bright of the dock yawned at him. That’s how my father always remembered the night he met my mother; the night he also stole a lobster pot from the township of Port Clyde.

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