Guest contributor: Crash Barry
categories: Cocktail Hour
I’d just finished a stint as a sailor in the Coast Guard, fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees. No money. No job. No leads. A rudderless 23-year-old couch-surfer crossing back and forth over the state line between Portsmouth and Kittery.
Then the message came from a Coastie pal’s wife. Her dad, a lobsterman on Matinicus, Maine’s most remote inhabited island, needed a helper immediately. A sternman. A hired hand. A modern indentured servant paid with 15 percent of the catch, plus free housing, on an island 20 miles out to sea.I’d been to Matinicus once before, for a weekend the previous fall, to help my Coastie pal paint an apartment in a waterfront building owned by his father-in-law, Captain Donald. We arrived by lobster boat on a foggy night and worked for two foggy days, ate lobster, drank beer and furtively smoked herb. Then the weather cleared and we flew back to the real world of the Coast Guard.
A move to a remote island was appealing, especially following my over-regulated life in the military. During my time as a Coastie, I traveled to exotic locales, where I witnessed the abject poverty, sorrow and injustice that lived beneath the beauty of the landscape. I needed a new place to ponder what I’d seen. And to recover from my time as a hard-drinking, pill-popping, brawling, pot-smoking sailor. Living in my own shack seemed ideal after three years aboard a ship of 80 men. As a young, wanna-be writer, working on a boat was ideal. So was growing long hair and a bushy beard, smoking tons of ganja and ingesting psychedelics while composing sad, epic poetry. Secluded on an island, I’d be able to hear the tide and absorb the wind. Become tougher. Stronger. Purer.
“I’ll withhold the money from your first check. I hope this works out,” whined Mary-Margaret, Donald’s wife, a skinny woman in her mid-sixties. She was 100 percent gray. Her short hair. Her sunken eyes. Her skin. All the color of cigarette ash. Clothes. Aura. Mini-van. All the same dismal hue. “Otherwise, how will you pay me back for all this gear?”
We were at a commercial fishing store in Portsmouth. She bought me three pairs of gloves, a nice suit of Grunden oilclothes and a decent pair of boots. About two hundred bucks with no sales tax, because it was New Hampshire. She bought everything in New Hampshire, she boasted, as we loaded spools of rope and boxes of fasteners into the mini-van.
By the time we crossed the bridge into Maine, I was in hell. The van’s heat wouldn’t shut off, the power windows wouldn’t roll down, and with a captive audience, she didn’t stop talking. Stories exploded out of Mary-Margaret with a frenzy. According to her, the island’s 50-person population consisted mostly of thugs, troublemakers, cheats, liars, lonely women and stupid men. Plus a handful of children and a couple of retarded senior citizens. About a dozen men were lobstering thieves, she said. The exception, of course, was her hero, my new boss, Captain Donald, who could do no wrong.
“You’re not a drunkard are you?” she asked, turning to look at me, a bead of crusted gray spittle caked on both corners of her mouth. “Been lots of shenanigans lately on the island. We don’t need any more drunkards.”
“Nope, I’m a social drinker,” I answered. A smoker. A stoner. A tripper. An occasional snorter of powder and popper of pills. But not a drunkard. I did drink, but I could take or leave booze. Wasn’t one of my real vices. “Never to excess,” I added.
“Donald doesn’t put up with foolishness, so you behave yourself,” she wiggled her forefinger at me, a gray froth sputtering from her colorless lips. “On mornings you go out to haul, you better be ready at five.”
For the rest of the two-and-a-half hour trip, she chattered. She wasn’t from Matinicus. Donald picked her up in East Boston during his tour in the Navy, four decades before. She prattled on about her life on the island. She jumped from topic to topic: Bad neighbors, her children, the high price of everything, the low price of lobster. Occasionally, she paused to breathe, then start again, usually by insulting an enemy or Donald’s brother’s wife.
As we crossed the Rockland town line, she looked at me and smiled. “My daughter says you’re Catholic. That’s wonderful. So am I! The only one on the island.”
“Well, I was raised Catholic, but these days, not so much.”
“She didn’t mention you were lapsed.” She frowned. “Maybe that’s why you were sent here. So I can get you back to church. Remember,” she said brightly, “Catholics can always come home.”
I was suddenly worried. “Does this have anything to do with working for Donald?”
“No,” she groaned. “He’s not Catholic. Doesn’t even wanna hear the word ‘church’.”
[Come back next week for Episode 2! --Ed.]
Crash Barry lives near a marijuana grove in the hills of western Maine. His column One Maniac’s Meat appears monthly in The Bollard, and details his exploits as a young man serving as a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard. He occasionally blogs at crashbarry.com and his rollicking novel Sex, Drugs and Blueberries and the complete version of Tough Island are available at Maine bookstores and libraries or via crashbarry.com or on Amazon. His latest book Marijuana Valley, Maine: A True Story will be published this fall.
[Book cover by Patrick Corrigan]