Guest contributor: Crash Barry

Serial Sunday: “Tough Island” by Crash Barry, Episode 16

categories: Cocktail Hour

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Last summer, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour began serializing Crash Barry’s gritty memoir Tough Island. Then, in August, Crash took a break from  Bill and Dave’s in order to turn his novel Sex, Drugs and Blueberries into a feature film. Now, he’s back and ready to finish telling the rest of his true stories from his time living and working on Maine’s most remote island. Click here for episodes 1 to 15.

“C’mon down,” Frankie yelled into the phone. He was one of my best pals from the Coast Guard. He always called around two in the morning after a night out in Boston or New York or Baltimore or Halifax or whichever eastern port his tugboat was visiting. “I met this awesome chick.” He was always drunk when he called. “She musta weighed two-fifty. She was beautiful.”

Frankie loved the big girls, which was funny because he was a little guy. Red-haired, impish and Irish good-looking, he had a huge heart and a great smile. Everything was a joke with him. We spent lots of time in the Caribbean and had many laughs in exotic foreign ports of call, but our big adventure together was a month-long romp around Ireland, on leave from the War on Drugs, exploring our homeland, drinking in the Guinness and the fair-haired lasses.

He hated the Coast Guard, though, and two years into his four-year tour, he decided to quit. Problem was, they don’t just let Coasties quit. That’s not how the military operated. He had to work to get out.

When our ship got underway, leaving Portsmouth and headed to the Caribbean, Frankie simply didn’t show up. He skipped the trip, went AWOL, only to eventually turn himself in and arrive, via helicopter, off the coast of Cuba in handcuffs. That night, we were hanging out on the messdeck while he wrote a statement explaining his unauthorized absence.

“How do you spell ‘unidentified’?” he had asked me. “As in ‘unidentified flying object.’ And what about ‘alien’? ”

He knew a dishonorable discharge from the Coast Guard wouldn’t haunt or hurt his pursuit of a career fixing cars or working on tugs. And while I was living in my cold shack, he was staying, year-round, on his uncle’s cabin cruiser in a Boston marina, enjoying the high life and making tons of cash.

He made me the same offer he always did during his drunken phone calls. “Come and live on the boat with me until you get settled,” he said. “We’ll getcha a job on a tug. Meet a nice girl. Man, it’ll be paradise.”

Problem was, there was no chance I’d pass the mandatory drug screening. There was enough THC in my system to give the drug-test technician a wicked contact high. If they tested for LSD or mescaline, let alone any other substances I may have randomly ingested during a fishhouse party, I’d fail in a big way and they’d want to send me to the loony bin. And staying sober for a month to clean out my system, while still lobstering or hanging out with Frankie, was out of the question.

Plus, a return to the life of a drunken sailor, while slightly alluring, felt like a major step backwards. The reality: I needed to go to college. Sitting at my table and getting high while pecking away at the typewriter and sending narrative poems to The New Yorker wasn’t helping me grow as a writer. Plus, my written material had a major weakness. Thanks to my Catholic education, I was well-versed in theories of heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo. I was intimately aware of the history and habits of the saints. But somehow the nuns failed to notice that my grammar and sentence structure were atrocious. In other words, my writing sucked. Which limited my ability to do more than just string short series of word pictures together and call ‘em poems. I had some important Coast Guard tales to share and needed the tools to turn ‘em into stories.

But it was too late for the winter semester, and the following fall semester seemed so far away. Furthermore, it didn’t make financial sense to leave the island. I was making good cash. The boat price of lobster skyrocketed in the winter, when the catch declined. We practically had to drop a trap full of rotten herring on the sleepy lobsters to convince them to crawl out of their burrows.  Luckily, Donald was a real pro and knew many secret muddy bottoms, places 40 or 50 fathoms deep where lobsters loved to live. We’d go out to haul on days when everyone else stayed on the mooring because Donald didn’t fear rolling seas or a three-foot chop or a heavy wind. Plus, he was happy to escape Mary-Margaret.

There were lots of empty traps during the winter. But a day’s haul usually meant a good day’s pay. Working conditions were tough, but tolerable, thanks to my long underwear, good boots and layers of flannel shirts. I was usually comfortable, except for my hands. I couldn’t find insulated gloves flexible enough for the intricate tasks of measuring and banding lobsters or filling bait bags and tying traps shut. In between strings, I stood in the cabin and gripped the wrapped engine exhaust pipe, trying to convince the warmth to seep through my rubber gloves and thaw my aching fingers.

The cold didn’t bother Donald. He often worked bare-handed, even on sub-freezing days. And while the engine was burning lots of diesel and he wasn’t getting the best return on his bait, he didn’t care about the dollars and cents. He was just happy to be out of the house and away from Mary-Margaret.

“Here’s your check.” Mary-Margaret handed me an envelope one night in late January. “Though you should be paying us for the privilege to be making so much money,” she said, with a short laugh and sneer. “These days, with the cost of bait and fuel, you’re making more than Donald.” A lie, of course, since my cut of the cash came after those expenses were paid.

I was sick of Mary-Margaret. For nine months, I’d been putting up with her bullshit, gossip and back-biting. What made her such a bitch? Genetics? Or was it the kerosene-laced water? Or because she was married to an insufferable prick? Didn’t matter, I hated the sound of her voice. Her nattering stories were annoying and her blather was trivial and bored me.

To her credit, she did make two sandwiches for me everyday we hauled. But the sandwiches were awful. She rotated a steady cast of bland meats: Turkey bologna, turkey ham, turkey salami and tuna. Plus a couple apples for each of us. And some animal crackers which were allowable under Donald’s diet.

Twice a week, I’d go up to their house for supper. First, I’d take a four-minute oily shower, then sit at the kitchen table with Donald and wait for her to feed us. Usually either a plate of boiled chicken and fake potatoes or slices of frozen pizza coated with a thin layer of boring red sauce, sawdust mozzarella and fresh-chopped onions.

On this particular night, pizza was on the menu. I longed for spice and salt. Pepperoni or burger or sausage or garlic. But Donald’s diet didn’t allow it. So we all went without.

“You’d never guess what Brenda told me Pierre did,” she said, taking a seat at the table. “C’mon guess.”

“I don’t want to guess,” Donald said, taking a sip of the Kool Aid and grimacing. “And I don’t give a frig. When’s the pizza gonna be ready?”

She turned to look at the oven timer. “Six minutes,” she said. “Her brother’s gonna fire him.”

Neither of us said a word. She wanted someone to ask why Pierre was getting fired, but we weren’t taking the bait. We both preferred uncomfortable silence to her babble.

“Twice now, they’ve been setting some new gear and he’s set traps without tying ‘em off.” She clapped her hands together in glee. “Can you imagine?” She cackled. “Grown man pushing brand-new traps overboard, forgetting to tie them off. Once is bad enough. But two. Two!” She shook her head. “Right to the bottom. His folks must be rolling in their grave.”

Donald tried to stifle a grin. He hated Pierre. Thought him a fool. But he didn’t want to encourage any more of Mary-Margaret’s banal chatter. He took another sip of the red stuff and scowled. Then he coughed and spit into his handkerchief.

“Pierre has gotta be one of the most incompetent men I’ve ever met.” She nodded her head knowingly. “I mean, why doesn’t he have his own boat? His own gear?” She pointed at me. “I’ll tell you why … D – R – U – G – S! DRUGS!”

“Really?” I said. As far as I’d known, Pierre grew weed and brewed beer and was a good connection to the hash from Vinalhaven. But I didn’t know he had a drug problem. “What kind of drugs?”

“Oh I don’t know, smack-dope or something like that,” she muttered. “And those awful children.”

“What’s the matter with them?” I knew his kids. Sweet and funny second and fourth graders. Good kids. “I like ‘em…”

“She’ll be a slut and he’ll be a thief,” she sneered. “Just like their parents.”

The timer buzzed. Mary-Margaret jumped up from the table and opened the oven. She gasped, then covered her mouth with her hand. Donald saw the problem. There was no hiding it. The oven was empty. His eyes darted to the counter, where the uncooked pizza sat, then back to his wife.

“YOU GODDAMN STUPID BITCH!” He exploded and his face instantly became the color of his Kool-Aid. “YOU FORGOT TO PUT THE GODDAMN PIZZA IN THE GODDAMN OVEN!” He paused for a second, then unleashed a torrent of disturbingly awful rancor and hurled insults most people wouldn’t use on their worst enemy, let alone their spouse. After a half-minute, he ran out of words and sputtered to a stop. He pushed his chair back from the table, got up and stormed into the other room. Grabbed the remote and turned the TV on loud. Real loud.

Mary-Margaret stood there, traces of a sheepish grin frozen on her face. She turned around, her back to me, cleared her throat, and put the pizza in the oven. She set the timer for 20 minutes, then sat back down.

“You’ll never guess what else I heard about Brenda.” Her gray lips pursed in a fresh smile.

I took a long sip of water and listened. Mary-Margaret was an extremely unlikable person. In fact, it’s safe to say I truly hated her. Being in her presence was an extremely unpleasant experience because of her vitriol and poisonous bile. But no one deserved the type of tongue-lashing that Donald gave her. Not in public. Not behind closed doors. This behavior made me wonder what other abuse she suffered over the years.

Three weeks later, I’d literally hold Donald’s life in my hands. Maybe I should have killed the miserable son-of-a-bitch.



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