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The Story of Aurelio Orosco


Part 1

            Aurelio Orosco had talent by the gallon – shrewd, creative, fearless, and all the other entrepreneurial ingredients mixed in the convenient cauldron of a suspended conscience.  People with money bought him the tools to utilize his talent to make them more money.  Even - or perhaps especially - for an illegal enterprise, this arrangement would typically work well, except for one little wildcard issue – Aurelio loved tequila by the gallon. 

           

Behind the encouragement of his severely alcoholic parents, Aurelio started drinking before his age reached double digits.  Augustine and Maria Orosco needed an entertaining diversion from the drudgery of their dusty Dominican town, and just getting themselves ripped from reality had long lost its gloss.  They couldn’t afford any more potent chemicals, so they made due with a slowly inebriated adolescent.  This worked well for a few years, until Aurelio grew into a more than a handful and they had to kick him out of the house.

            Aurelio wandered aimlessly around his little town until he ended up down at the docks.  He took shelter for the night in a small, ancient fishing boat.  Fortunately someone had left a bottle of booze in the tiny cabin, and Aurelio drank into dreamland.  The ‘someone’ turned out to be the equally ancient captain, who found the kid passed-out in his cabin in the morning and promptly threw Aurelio into the harbor.  The man came down to go fishing the next morning and found the same kid flopped loosely over a pile of net on deck – so he flipped him into the harbor.  This happened for six more days.

            “Hey, kid.”  The leathery old-timer kicked Aurelio into consciousness.  “I give up.  Untie the boat, let’s go.”

            Aurelio and his new Papi got on quite well.  The old man needed the help, and the kid got a place to sleep, in addition to being able to barter a little of their catch for bread and tequila.  Most importantly, Aurelio discovered his knack for fishing.  Every time he set a hook or cast a net, large and numerous slabs filled the little boat.  At first Papi called it beginner’s luck.  After two months of absurd and unprecedented catching, he figured Aurelio for the son of Neptune.  And when a giant swordfish actually jumped in the boat and nearly sank them, Papi evicted his jealousy and any other thought or explanation, and simply sat back and basked in the luxury.

            “Is this all you want to do, every day?”  Aurelio finally asked.

“Yes.  I feed my family.  What else is there?”

“Don’t you want some excitement?”

“I make love to my wife.”

“Ugh, never mind.”

“Aurelio…go to Florida.”

 

            Aurelio landed in Key West in 1971.  Papi’s brother, Toro, gave Aurelio a job on his fishing boat.  Toro would seem to have had no shortage of potential laborers, with eight sons in age from 16 to 40, but not one of them had the fortitude of their papa.  Despite Toro’s own robust genetics, he consistently produced frail and timid offspring.  Their lack of productivity cost Toro, as the old man been expecting his progeny to carry him through his later years.  Aurelio immediately made back for Toro all the money he’d poured into the ocean over the years and the old man did not have to sell his house and put his eight sons in the street.       

 

Word spread quickly among the fishing community concerning the young Aurelio Orosco, in equally hushed and disbelieving tones about his affinity for the bottle and prowess on the water.  As curiosity and superstition gave way to legitimate evidence, men came to offer him jobs on their boats, promising cash, an apartment, their daughter’s virginity.  Out of tremendous gratitude for Aurelio’s efforts, Toro did not try to dissuade him.  One day Ramon Cruz drove by with a truck-bed full of tequila.

“Will you help me load this on my boat?”

Ramon’s boat was bigger and faster than Toro’s, and he worked a different fishery, lobsters.  Aurelio didn’t even have to think about it.  They quickly made a sweet deal, and Aurelio took over operation of the boat for Ramon, who always had ‘other business to do’ anyway.  This worked well for Aurelio for about two months.  For some reason, the job of fishing became no more challenging for Aurelio.  Lobsters held conventions in his traps.  Aurelio guzzled away.

“Aurelio, why do you drink so much?” Ramon finally asked one day.

“I don’t know.”

“Does it help?”

“No.”

Ramon looked at him carefully. 

“Aurelio…I don’t care what you have to do.”

Aurelio Orosco attacked.  The first thing he did was start keeping ‘shorts’, the lobsters that don’t measure up to industry regulations.  Aurelio didn’t see the sense in throwing them back when he could get $4 per pound, cash on the side.  More valuable to him though, was the plain rush of the risk, living beyond convention.  There are ways to accomplish this without crossing legal lines of course, but, Aurelio knew this way.  He had to find invent tricks to hide his illicit harvest, and act chummy and innocent when the Marine Patrol officers boarded his boat.  He knew they suspected him, but he was too clever to get caught out.  The local Cuervo distributor had never been so busy.      

The second season Aurelio moved some of his traps into the marine sanctuary, an area where the federal government prohibits any activity under the premise of preserving the ecosystem.  Even more lobsters hide in this fertile zone.  Aurelio’s monstrous catch rates confirmed for the authorities their growing suspicions, and provided a measure of intensity that thrilled the young man.  Aurelio had to keep an eye out for the Marine Patrol every day, and he loved it.  He delighted in secretly learning the specific schedules of each officer, as well as making his own habits unpredictable for them.  He left the dock at different times and, with his traps scattered far and wide, varied his rounds every day.  On days when he knew the Marine Patrol was shadowing him, Aurelio just drove his boat around for hours, far from home, and didn’t even haul a single trap.  His blood ran clear.

The next year got complicated.  Aurelio started hauling other fishermen’s traps.  He didn’t think he could outwit them as effectively as he deflected the Marine Patrol.  Now he was a pirate, and being labeled a thief is practically a death sentence for a fisherman within his community.  He had to work around not only the authorities, but also the routines of his supposed brethren.  Aurelio out-drank Mexico.  But Aurelio appeared to be craftier than even he thought.  No one ever approached to accuse him of anything.  In fact, the local boys barely grumbled over their vanishing harvest.  Aurelio wondered what he had to do.

“Ramon, why are these men lazy?”

“Perhaps they know something you do not.”

Aurelio frowned and narrowed his eyes. 

“Aurelio, do you want to find out how good you really are?”

Now he smiled.

 

On his first trip back from Jamaica with a load of weed, Aurelio got drunk – but not like usual.      

     

Part 2

            Tequila tore through Aurelio’s senses, gave him Wordsworth’s eyes.  The libation emancipated him from conventional perception, allowed him to make connections the common man could not.  Sun and stars, wind and water - Aurelio could see into the universal life of things, without even trying.  Fish didn’t swarm to him, he just always knew where they were.  But he wasn’t fishing anymore.  And with the bottle only half empty, no matter how much he forced himself to focus, Aurelio couldn’t see a thing.

            Aurelio’s informed instinct was suddenly in short supply.  He had no idea what to do.  He didn’t know where he was or how to get where he wanted to go.  He ran his boat in the wrong direction for half a day.  He finally waved down a passing yacht. 

            “Where am I going?”

            “How should we know?”

            “No.  Which way am I going?”

            “Well, it’s hard to tell.  Your heading is east, but you were driving backwards.”

            Aurelio stumbled back into his cabin, took two quick shots of tequila, and started doing everything the opposite of what he thought he should do.  This included, after a full day’s steam and another finished fifth, hailing the United States Coast Guard. 

            “Uh, vessel in distress, my engine won’t start…and I’m really not feeling too good.”

            “Roger, vessel in distress.  Give us your coordinates and sit tight.”

            The Coast Guard didn’t inspect Aurelio’s boat very thoroughly.  By the time they got there he had sobered, and his story about his engine failing before he made it to his favorite fishing grounds sounded plausible enough.  So Aurelio made it all the back to Key West with zero navigation skills and even made up for the fuel he’d wasted the day before.  He was happy.  Ramon Cruz laughed at the story and took Aurelio to see his new boss.

            Maribelle Cassas was the sweetest old lady you ever met, and she moved more pot out of Key West than any other player in the game.  Her little veterinary clinic provided the perfect cover.  She had a fleet of vans and her files said she doctored ten times more animals than any other clinic.  But everyone just figured she was the best at what she did.  Which in fact, she was.

            “Aurelio!  We had quite a little adventure, didn’t we?”

            “It was fun.”

            “That’s so nice.  But let’s try to have a little less fun next time, OK?”

            “OK.”

             “Good boy.”

            On his second smuggling trip to Jamaica Aurelio drank too much tequila and went the wrong way again.  This time some pirates discovered his wayward vessel.  Aurelio leapt from the cabin to defend himself, naked, dropped the glass of tequila he was holding, slipped on the spill and knocked himself out.  The pirates laughed so hard they couldn’t kill him.  They brought Aurelio and his boat back to their camp.  By the time Aurelio woke up, his captors had rendered themselves unconscious on his barrel of tequila.  Just enough remained to liquefy Aurelio’s mind into remembering the way home.  He reached Key West with his own load, plus all the pirates’ loot.

            Ramon laughed at the story.  It did not amuse Mae.

            “Oh, Aurelio, you make me worry.  Maybe you should just go back to fishing with Toro.”

            “He can’t,” said Ramon.  “Toro has a new mate.”

            “He does?  Who?”

            “Yamilla.”

            “Yamilla?  The hardcore dyke?  She used to haul stone crab traps by hand in a little skiff.  Brought her cute girlfriend along to watch.”

            “Yeah.  Toro says she’s the best mate he ever had.  Except for Aurelio, of course.”

            “Of course.  I just hope she doesn’t use his little trout for bait.  OK, Aurelio, I guess we’ll try again.  But we’ll do something a little different this time.”

            Aurelio took his boat to Cuba to gather fifteen refugees.  At four thousand dollars a head he would earn almost as much as he did smuggling drugs.  When all of his passengers made it on board Aurelio started handing out shots of tequila to keep them calm and warm when he noticed a military boat approaching fast.  Aurelio prepped himself to offer a drink, an explanation, a bribe, or all three, but the Cuban Marine Patrol was not waiting for any of those things.  With no warning they opened fire. 

            Aurelio dove into the cabin, threw the boat in gear, and redlined the throttle.  Unfortunately for him, their boat was faster than his.  Fortunately for him, they were lousy shooters.  Severely under-funded lousy shooters.  The assault ceased when his pursuers ran out of ammo. 

But only for a minute.  The thing about poor people is that they can also be exceptionally resourceful.  The patrol boat continued to race alongside Aurelio.  A carpenter’s hammer banged off the hull.  Some pliers cracked his plexiglass window.  A pair of screwdrivers ricocheted up in the rigging.  When Aurelio stuck his head out of the cabin to try to make sense of what was happening, a pipe wrench opened a crack in his skull.  For some reason the Cubans aimed better with their tools.

            Aurelio poured some tequila in his wound and managed to make it back to Key West.  Ramon laughed at his eight stitches.  Mae did not.

            “My goodness, Aurelio, what are we going to do with you?”

            “He could just go back to fishing with Toro,” said Ramon.

            “I thought you said he had that super-lesbian, Yamilla.”

            “He does.  But she’s not his mate anymore.  She’s his girlfriend now.”

            “What?”

            Ramon shrugged.  “They don’t call him ‘The Bull’ for nothing.”

            “OK, well, I have something else in mind anyway…a special mission…that doesn’t involve boats.”

            Mae suspected the Feds might be on to her operation.  It was an outside chance, really, but she liked to play things safe.  She decided to take all the illegal guns she had collected in the closet of her apartment – Mac-10s, Tec-9s, AK-47s – and have Aurelio bury them on some vacant property up on Big Pine Key.  Aurelio agreed, but on the appointed night, a rainstorm hit.  It rained and rained.  Aurelio had nothing to do but wait and drink, drink and wait.  Then the tequila got the best of him and he decided to go do the job anyway. 

            Aurelio never had so much fun getting soaking wet and covered in mud.  And not only that, but he did a great job too.  Because no one ever found the guns.  No one.  When Mae asked him where the weapons could be dug-up if needed, Aurelio had absolutely no idea. 

            “My dear Aurelio, you do cause me great concern.  Luckily for you, you make me even greater money.  I suppose we should get you back where you belong.”

           

 

 

Part 3

            Aurelio Orosco pioneered the 25/25 Club to the Yucatan.  He left port, picked up twenty-five thousand pounds of grass on the Peninsula, and beat it back to Cayo Hueso, all within twenty-five hours – hence, the dawn of the 25/25 Club.  It revolutionized the industry in the Conch Republic. 

            Aurelio got tired of doing things just as they had always been done, which is precisely the reason why Key West’s citizens tend to do things.  When Aurelio asked Ramon why it wouldn’t make sense to smuggle more contraband in one trip, Ramon had to agree that it would.  But bigger boats made easier targets, because they were slower and would therefore be gone longer, arousing suspicion.  Aurelio suggested a vessel contrived for both size and speed.

            “I will return before anyone knows I’ve left,” he told Ramon.

            “Very well.”

            Aurelio was so happy he didn’t even drink.  Maribelle Cassas had to hire extra veterinarians.  Ramon completely lost track of his money.  He would find hundreds in his laundry, thousands in his glove box.  Days passed with simple, bountiful splendor.  People celebrated Aurelio’s name.  Until they despised Aurelio’s name.

            Aurelio embraced his trade and ruined it all because he was too good.  Big, easy money invites competition and Aurelio had almost single-handedly made the money big and easy, put stacks of cash on a fat fiberglass platter.  He should have collected commissions and retired.  Every “fisherman” in Key West owned a shiny oversized speedboat.  But it suddenly got very expensive for Marine Patrol officers to not do their job.  And the suppliers started dictating terms.  They refused to share the risk anymore by meeting halfway, on the Yucatan, and Aurelio had to take his boat all the way to Panama, or Columbia.  Now he had to arm himself against pirates.  He had to start ferrying cocaine to equalize the risk/reward scenario.  The Feds started to take notice of all this lucrative activity and moved down to the Keys to crack some heads and collect their cut. 

Aurelio gathered a ridiculously enviable stash of greenbacks, two ulcers and a facial tic while he ground his stained yellows down to the gumline.  He un-gathered most of his friends and sanity.  All of which was enough to drive him to drink.  Aurelio remembered fondly the simple days in the Dominican and tried to booze his way back there.  But the liquor had lost its luster. 

Aurelio found himself all kinds of trouble.  In Key West he wandered from bar to bar, walked out on his tabs, passed out on Duval Street, woke up in lock-up.  Mae tired of bailing him out.

“What’s wrong, Aurelio?”

“Nothing.”

“Okay.  I asked.”

In Columbia, Aurelio went out and trashed every brothel in Bogota.  So the cops trashed Aurelio.  The cartel spent so much money getting him out of jail and patching him up that they decided to confine him to the ranch.  Mae started adjusting herself to the idea of losing her best man.

“Is there anything I can do for you, Aurelio?”

“Nothing.”

“Okay.  I asked.”

In Panama the cartel wouldn’t let Aurelio leave the compound either.  He drank himself into uncharacteristic obstinacy and belched terribly inappropriate directives to surly, unshaven men toting machetes and AK-47s.  They never did what he said.  He walked around with his bottle of tequila making a general nuisance of himself, kicking in any door that wasn’t locked, harassing the barnyard animals.  He thought it was hysterical to disrupt the guards’ soccer game.  Their tolerance drained, much the way Aurelio drained himself into the well-water one afternoon.  He had to leave.  He went down to his boat and made a last request for some meat to get him through the trip.  A goat plopped on the deck of his boat with a thick thud, gushing blood from the place where its head presumably used to rest.  He had to never come back.

Aurelio prepared for the worst.  He had no propensity for weaponry, but he had suddenly generated a bad feeling about this particular voyage, and felt sufficiently vulnerable to at least adopt a simple defensive veneer.  He dug out the LAWS that Ramon had planted on the boat, just in case the necessity of lobbing explosive projectiles at menacing marauders should ever arise.  Aurelio decided to familiarize himself with his new gat, and clumsily manifested his own fears.  He had no idea the LAWS was loaded when he inspected the trigger mechanism.  He missed all of his appendages but didn’t consider himself lucky.  The grenade started a fire in the hold and twelve-and-a-half tons of weed began to blaze, a floating inferno of dizziness and despair.  He charts and maps went to ashes, and of course Aurelio could barely reckon his way across the street, never mind the Carribbean.  But he was so drunk and high it hardly mattered anyway.  He had no choice but to drift and drink and laugh.

Right before Aurelio had to start swimming, a huge freighter sailed along.  It took him a while to descend from delirium.  The crew thought he was crazy and didn’t want him on the ship, but the captain had to salvage something worth something to someone from the wreckage, even if it had to be an actual person.  They generally possessed less value than traditional booty, but you never know.  By and by the untraditional booty turned up on the bridge for a chat with his most recent savior.

“Where are we going?”

“South.”

“I don’t think that’s the way I want to go.”

“We can always put you back in the water.”

“Are we anywhere near the Dominican?”

“No.”

“Will we?”

“Eventually.”

One month passed.  Aurelio saw lots and lots of water.  He hadn’t wanted to behave unappreciatively around his new hosts, and given how his last mission ended, Aurelio guessed that a sea-style walkabout was probably the safest thing he could do for a while.  But after thirty days he began to feel claustrophobic.  He went to see the captain again.

Uhh…are we anywhere near the Dominican?”

“No.”

“Will we?”

“Eventually.”

They shared this conversation once-a-month for the next two years.  Aurelio saw amazing places and people and things through clean eyes and hated every second.  Sobriety didn’t treat him very well.  The solitude, the conscious nothingness, it wore on him, claiming far more damage than barrels of tequila ever did.  Aurelio looked much older than his years when the ship finally landed in Miami one month.  The captain had resigned himself to not getting anything worth anything from anyone for Aurelio’s safe return, and expressed his newfound pity with bus fare to Key West.  Aurelio rolled back to the beginning.

It was no triumphant return.  Ramon looked about as happy as a penguin in a sauna.  After one year all of Ramon’s inquiries about Aurelio’s welfare had come up empty, as had his quest for good reasons to not, therefore, sell all of Aurelio’s worldly possessions – skiff, car, house and everything in it, down to the last thimble of tequila.  He was not particularly inclined to fall off that loot anytime soon.  Life had continued as if Aurelio had never existed, a cruel reality which Maribelle explained would have to continue to continue if they didn’t want very bad people to do very bad things.

            “I just need a boat, Mae.”

            “That’s probably not a good idea.”

            “What will I do?”

“Stay dead.”

“It’s not as fun as it sounds.”                  

            “I can only imagine.  But your untimely demise cost me a small fortune, and I need to get my money’s worth.”

            “Can I just go home?”

            “That probably is a good idea.”

            Ramon let Aurelio stay at his house while they arranged for a final boat ride to the Dominican.  They sat and talked one cool night.

            “Have some tequila, Aurelio.”

            “Thank you.”

            “It’s the least I could do.”

            “Let no man say you did not do the least you could.”

            “Times change, Aurelio.”

            “Yes.  But people should not.”

            Ramon Cruz nodded and slid a shot down his throat.  “I’m so glad you’re going home, Aurelio.”

            Aurelio Orosco nodded and slid the bottle of tequila away.  He stood and walked out the sliding doors into Ramon’s back yard.  He kicked at rocks and stared teary-eyed at the stars as he wandered down to edge of the canal behind Ramon’s house.  He looked into the water.  Even shallow and murky, its mystical charm entranced him one more time, and he soaked in the nourishment of its dark promise.  A beaten old freezer box floated along on the canal, as ripe as Moses’ basket.  Sensations suddenly stirred in Aurelio’s soul that he hadn’t felt in years. 

The cooler bumped against the concrete wall at Aurelio’s feet.  He thought about what remained of his life.  He knew he had to stay dead.  He nudged the cooler out into the open canal and it drifted away.  Aurelio Orosco existed only in lore.

 

But every story’s ending is also a beginning.  And a lot of things can happen when a story begins with a lost-and-found freezer box filled with 212,500 dollars of clean, cold cash.       

             

           

           

The Story of Ruben Garcia


Part 1

Ruben Garcia had been searching for a way out of the Keys for a couple of years, ever since he received his first citation from the Florida Marine Patrol. Ruben considered most of the laws that governed his industry as anything from frivolous to downright malicious. Such was his justification for working his little boat in constant violation of a significant number of rules and restrictions, fishing for lobster and stone crab up and down the Keys. He fished angry, probably because he knew he was just flat-out wrong. But he never really bothered anybody, and, as life would have it, especially in the Keys, nobody bothered him. And so it had gone, for close to two decades. So when an officer he didn’t recognize stopped him that day and issued him the ticket, Ruben knew he had to kiss it all good-bye.

First he kissed his girlfriend, Nadia, good-bye. Actually she kissed him good-bye. A typically mellow guy, Ruben turned ornery in a hurry after that first citation. Then in the classic “F-you” style, he quickly racked up tickets two, three, four, and five, and developed his skills at grumbling antagonism. He ate less, drank more, and started taking the liberty of telling Nadia all the things she needed to do. In the midst of a particularly belligerent rant, her final exit hardly registered with Ruben. It took him a week to recognize her absence, and another year to convince himself that he didn’t care - and then one night to forget about it all entirely.

Ruben and his newfound carelessness wandered out into a sticky night and found salvation. Actually salvation floated right to the man’s feet. In the canal behind his house Ruben discovered a battered bait cooler drifted against the seawall. He stared at it calmly as a thousand fantasies flew through his head. He had always daydreamed about landing a “square grouper”, as the locals had dubbed the big blocks of weed wrapped in waxed plastic that floated along the Florida Straits from time to time. Or a bundle of coke or a stash of cash. It had happened to plenty of people in the wide open days of the Keys.

Ruben actually knew a guy who knew a guy who stumbled into 50 G’s tucked in some bushes up the beach one time, patiently awaiting a pick-up or a drop-off or whatever. The guy tried to be smart but he couldn’t resist the sweet Caddie that had been seducing him from the lot at Tony’s Used Cars for the last month. A few days later the guy opened his front door to a couple of strapping gents he’d never seen before. They politely informed him that he could keep the ride but should please return the rest of their property to its original hiding spot as soon as reasonably convenient. The guy had seen these two strapping gents once to often for his liking already, so he gladly followed their recommendation.

Ruben had been waiting and wishing, seemingly forever, checking every little scrap he ever noticed bobbing around the bay as he pulled his traps. He knew his fate was forever entwined with water. His eyes glazed at the cooler below his feet. It didn’t look like a cooler. It looked like an oracle, a ripe package closely resembling destiny.

Ruben knew what he was going to find before he even opened it, so he took his time, savoring the anticipation of his imminent release. He dragged the cooler onto his back patio, sat with it for a while, clipped his fingernails, dug out his bolt cutters, changing his clothes, drank another beer. He leisurely enjoyed the most exciting moments of his life. He wondered when he might be able to sleep again. Eventually he started counting. When he got beyond $100,000 he decided he’d better count it again - somewhere very far away.



Part 2

Alaska looms as far away from Key West as a guy can get without a passport, and Ruben had no time for such specific documentation. The place only occupied mythic dimensions in his mind, like Olympus, or Camelot, an heroic and hectic domain, the character of which one could only hope to comprehend from first-hand exposure. Ruben didn’t even need to think about it though. Its’ geographical proximity to the Keys alone made the obscure tundra desirable, and he could only hope that opportunity existed there for a man of his particular aptitude.

Ruben went from Key West to Kenai, simply because he figured he could easily remember that name. He broke off a piece of his $212,500 paid cash for a nice, used 4WD Ram pickup and explored his new stomping grounds. He couldn’t tell if the lazy, undulating roads had decayed or just remained unfinished, but he liked the style either way. He also like seeing water almost everywhere he looked - a big, wide, choppy, dark, fertile body of water. Ruben stopped above a steep bluff. He could discern a mountainous silhouette maybe fifty miles to the west, and absolutely no end in sight to the south. Specks of aluminum glinted all over the place, like a swarm of flies littering a sheet of blue paper. Boats, fishing boats, thirty footers, buzzing absolutely everywhere. Ruben soaked it all in, smiled, got back in his rig, and drove into town.

Ruben moseyed into the Cozy Nook Diner, sat at the counter. A skinny guy hiding sad eyes below a baseball cap came and stood across the counter from Ruben. Ruben asked for coffee. The guy brought it. Ruben sipped.

“Good.” An awkward moment passed. “Nice place here.” A more awkward moment passed. Ruben figured his Key West drawl might bring a cool reception, but the guy had yet to utter a syllable, and didn’t appear to be developing any such inclination. “That’s some kind of bay out there.“

The guy lifted a weary glare. “That’s Cook Inlet.“

“Oh. Sorry.“ But at least he had the guy talking. Ruben elected to hazard a direct question. “So, how’s the fishing around here?”

The guy shrugged and tried to look disinterested. “It’s OK.”

Ruben grinned into his coffee mug. He knew he was all in.

Ruben left a healthy tip for the guy and aimed the Ram south. From the bluff, he had seen what appeared to be some sort of factory or plant resting along the shore a little ways down the Inlet. He had guessed it was an oil refinery, but now he realized it was fish processing plant. It didn’t take him long to navigate his way there.

Ruben rolled down a shallow, gray gravel drive, passed stacks of gray insulated vats, gray fishing boats resting on wooden chocks, a big gray warehouse, and rows of campers and trailers. He maneuvered his truck down towards the pier, threw it in Park and stared at the massive, gray processing plant. He couldn’t believe the dull intensity of the grayness. He wondered if he might even find anyone in a reasonably good mood. He wondered if he had come to the right place at all.

A gray-looking figure moved across the lot in the direction of the campers. Ruben hopped out of his truck.

“Hey buddy!” The figure paused and looked back. Ruben hustled up for a little chit-chat. “Thanks for stopping.”

Either puzzled by politeness or presently impatient, or perhaps some measure of both, the man narrowed his brilliant blue eyes at Ruben. They frosted him from between a dirty wool cap and a dirty wool beard. Thick shoulders rolled underneath a heavy, hooded sweatshirt and he barely bounced in his boots. Ruben figured he’d better not waste the man’s time.

“I need some work.”

The irises switched to skepticism. “This ain’t a job fair.”

Ruben matched the razor gazer. “Must be the weather makes everyone so hospitable up here.” The man blinked. “Can you point me in the right direction, or do you need to hear a bunch of salty stories first?”

The bright creases relented just a touch. “I’m goin’ up to take a nap. We leave in three hours.”

Ruben nodded. “I’m Ruben, by the way.”

“Ozzie.”

Ruben shook the man’s cinder block. It felt like destiny. “Ozzie…is it always this gray around here?”

Ozzie actually smiled the faintest, fastest smile Ruben had ever witnessed before hustling away for a quick lie-down. Ruben took that as a “No.” As he would shortly come to discover, behind the inexorable roll of “progress” and “development” the wild, wild west just kept sliding further and further in that specific direction until all the real estate had been devoured. Then Seward’s famous Folly preserved a couple more generations’ worth of that heroic, wilderness lifestyle. The severe climate and isolation erased the romantic idea of the frontier and redefined the reality of rugged self-sufficiency and survival. Alaska doesn’t tolerate “outdoorsy types”. But, as fortune would have it for a man like Ruben, a man who identified his independence with an outlaw profile, a man determined to demonstrate disdain for societal conventions, wide-open Alaska perfected the renegade spirit of old Key West in bold, beautiful, Technicolor.



Part 3

Exactly three hours later Ozzie came rumbling back down the hill.

“Let’s go.”

The dark and cold of early morning invaded Ruben’s senses. He started to follow Ozzie down the lot, but whirled back around when the sudden sound of screeching tires pierced his ears. A powerful, roaring, burning black phantom, boldly blazing through the blackness, tore sideways down the dry gravel drive. Ruben blinked. A dark colored El Camino, somehow caught on fire, torched its way across the lot, fishtailing to a halt just a few feet from the frozen forms of Ozzie and Ruben. They heard the gaining scream of sirens as one, two, three guys bailed out of the El Camino and scattered into the small camper maze. Then one, two, three, four police cruisers, flashed and blared and chased their way into the camp. The cars spun to a dusty stop and bunch of cops keystoned their way after their prey. Ruben coughed through a haze of dirt and looked questioningly at Ozzie.

Ozzie bit the inside of his cheek. “Huh.” Then they were off.

Ozzie and Ruben hustled passed the plant, along the pier. To the right, within the gaping bay doors of the plant, workers in white rubber boots and shiny yellow aprons aimed pressure washers about the place, finishing up the previous days’ processing. To the left, red and green running lights rushed down the river, the head starters swimming smoothly between the boats still on their moorings. They reached a ladder and descended from the pier to Ozzie’s boat, the Apache. Adrenaline flashed through Ruben’s skin, and it made him feel somewhat childish. He hadn’t known such an eager sense of anticipation since his first days as a fisherman, helping his daddy back home in the Keys. He figured if anyone had “seen it all” in the fishing game, it was him. But the morning’s minor mayhem charged him, and he began to imagine that the Alaska boys might play the game by a whole different set of rules.

Or maybe, behind their progressive spirit, since rules are made to be broken, they just didn’t bother to make any.

Ozzie steered his fat aluminum sled out the cut.

“So that was pretty normal then?”

“Ain’t nothing normal about Fast Eddie.”

“Fast Eddie?“

“Yeah. He’s a big barrel of trouble tumbling downhill, like a lot of guys. But he’s the only one I seen, fast enough to get out of his own way.”

“Fast Eddie, though?”

“Yeah, heh. One day they should get ’em all together and just settle it.” A bitter little wind painted Ruben’s face red as the Apache cleared the point and steamed north. Ozzie flipped a switch on the single side-band radio and grabbed the mic. “What‘s the report, Mort?”

A high-wired voice crackled back. “Ah, you wouldn’t believe it, Wiz. I wanted to be just above the tank farm for first light, start working my way down, looking for jumpers, you know? Well, I had it all timed with the tide and the wind and all, so I just let ‘er drift and went down for a sleeper. Well, all of sudden this deep churning sound yanks from my dream, I look up and there’s nothing but black! Well I jump for the key but my feet tangle in the blanket and I crash to the floor! Then, BAM, the boat smashes into the oil rig!”

“What?!”

“Yeah, I guess my calculations must have been a bit off, because I drifted all the way up here to the top of the Inlet! Hit that big-ass oil derrick and slammed me into the wall, my face all busted up! Now I gotta run all the way back down there before the fun starts!”

“Jesus, you gonna be all right?”

“I don’t know! The boat’s running a little funny with the whole port side caved in, I don’t know if I’m gonna make it! You’re gonna have to get ’em without me!”

“All right, well, at least it’s blowing the right direction down here at the tank farm. We should whack ’em today.”

“Go get ‘em. Let me know.”

“Rog-O.”

Ruben strained to think of a reasonable question to ask. Then he let it go as the tank farm came into view.

Now this was what an oil refinery looked like. A massive dock supporting a huge piping system stretched well out into the Inlet. A tanker ship nuzzled up to it, gleefully guzzling gallon after gallon of crude into its deep belly. Salmon boats nosed right up to the stern of the rusty steel wall, mere inches from mashing metal, drifting sideways with the current for several hundred feet until safely clearing the bow of the beast. Ozzie started to line up for their turn. He motioned toward the stern of the Apache.

“Throw that ball when I tell you and get the hell out of the way.”

Ruben jumped down into the stern quarter and grabbed the tether of the big orange buoy ball. He gained his bearings as boats throttled up and down, angry shouts clattered over the water, and nets and balls streamed all around. The congestion intimidated him just a bit, and he liked it. He just hoped it was worth it.

“Let ’er flicker!”

Ruben flipped the bubble and pressed himself against the rail, out of harm’s way, as the natural drag he’d created began to unwind the three hundred yards of net coiled on the freewheeling drum. The lead-laced side of the net sank rapidly. The cork-laced side stayed up, and started jumping and jiggling on the surface immediately as fast fish plunged headlong into the nasty nylon neckties. It was worth it. Tails flopped and flailed at the water line and small sections of cork sank. Ozzie had his head on a swivel, gauging his drift. Things still looked manageable. Then the Apache cleared the end of the tanker.

The wake from vessels racing back to the top for the next set rocked the Apache as, below them, salmon boats started to bunch up as they struggled to retrieve their overstuffed nets before drifting onto a devastating rock formation. Nets crossed and tangled, hulls crunched together, harsh yelling echoed up and down. Then they heard the shots. Ruben didn’t recognize the gunfire for what it was - until he saw Ozzie instinctively crouched behind the wheelhouse, sneaking peeks around the edges as he tried to maneuver.

“It’s getting kind of hectic.”

Ruben’s face tightened with disbelief as he glanced over the rail. Inside the Apache, practically up in the sand, a lonely member of the drift fleet bobbed between bullets. A few men fired handguns and shotguns relentlessly from the shore as the boat slid along the beach. Somehow, despite the understandably invisible crew, yards of net just draped with thick, heavy salmon wound their way aboard. Ruben peered, ever more perplexed. He decided to check for accuracy.

“This is ‘kind of hectic’?”

“Usually Good Time Charlie blasts his Kalashnikov right back at ‘em. Then it gets really hectic. Must be out of ammo.”

“Why, though?”

“’Cause he tries to shoot the sea lions that eat the bellies out of the fish stuck in his net.”

“No, why are they shooting at him?”

“Those are the set-netters. That’s their turf. Boats aren’t supposed to get that close to the beach…but there’s so many fish. Look at ’em, hanging like grapes!”

“How is he reeling them on?”

“He rigged a lever for his feet. He’s lying down in the stern there, dodging lead, picking fish from the flat of his back. Good Times!” Ozzie yelled, then his head darted frantically in all directions. “We gotta haul back now!”

Ruben staggered up and clutched in the hydraulic drum. Normally they would wind on a few feet at a time and pull the fish out of the net before it wrapped up on the reel. But not today.

“Those two below us got their nets twisted and can’t move! We gotta round haul!”

“What?“

“Pull!“

Ruben flexed his fingers into the mesh again and again, pulling as hard as he could, trying to help the straining hydraulic motor as slab after slab of fresh salmon slapped over the stern and onto the mini-merry-go-round.

“We ain’t gonna make it!”

Ruben groaned against Ozzie’s furious lament. He groaned at the sight of the beautiful fish twisted and mangled into the long, layered loop of web and more fish. He imagined the sickening mess about to befall the Apache as boats bashed together and their net drifted over the top of the horrible helix already working in the water below them. He cried out as the pain of his extraordinary effort pulsed through his fingers, arms, shoulders, and back.

“Almost!”

Ozzie throttled up and tried to tow the remaining length of net clear of the approaching chaos. Ruben could no longer pull against the drag. He held on tight and winced. At the last possible instant the end of the Apache’s net slipped beyond the bow of the floating foible. Ruben didn’t know if he wanted to collapse, or do it again.

“Good,” offered Ozzie, and then, “Hurry up. We need another set here.”

Which ended that dilemma. Ruben peeled in to the ridiculous pile as Ozzie powered back up the Inlet. Another boat casually cruised passed the Apache. Ruben looked up, and lay low. Some kind of crazy, mummy-looking sentry propped himself firmly in the stern, a .410 Snakecharmer tucked obtrusively under its arm. Ruben heard Ozzie on the side band.

“Who the hell is that with you, Phil?!”

“Don’t know. Found him this morning, floatin’ off the Point.”

“Shot?!”

“Not that I can tell. Just put him there for a - what do you call? - deterrent.”

“Is it working?”

“Reckon so. Corked two guys already today, didn’t make a peep.”

“Can’t last.”

“Don’t I know it. One more set and I’m loaded anyway.”

“Right behind you, Phil.”

“Always are, Wiz, always are.”

Phil’s boat sped away from the Apache. Ozzie watched it go, scratching his head, talking to himself. “You didn’t need to say that, Phil. Now you done made me ornery.”

Ruben watched Ozzie’s agitated body language as he fussed about up in the cabin, checking the compass, checking his watch, lighting a cigar, gazing around. At length he turned the Apache one-eighty and started heading back down the Inlet.

“Get that net clear!”

“What’s going on?”

“What’s going on?! Phil’s a petty schemer, that’s what’s going on! I’m gonna show him how a genuine rustler gets it done.”

They continued heading away from the fishing fray. High-powered Coast Guard and Marine Patrol skiffs careened by, aimed straight at the commotion they’d just escaped.

“Perfect,” Ozzie observed. Ruben wondered what kind of old-school subterfuge Ozzie had in mind. “I’m too old for this stuff, kid. Fightin’, shootin’, crashin’, losin’ gear…losin’ friends. I just don’t feel good about it no more. Time to get out, you know? Got my spot all picked out, down in Mexico. Sit on the beach, drink a cerveca, maybe catch a fish or two. Only need a couple hundred grand, live like a king down there, the rest of my life. Yep, sell it all, if I could, get the hell out.”

“Why can’t you?”

“Well, I need cash, you understand, on account of a little difference of opinion between me and the federal government.” Ruben quietly nodded. “See, it used to be real crazy around here. A few years back we had cash tenders we could deal with - boy, was life grand. Guys would sit outside the river with big barges, and put up a big sign offering a dime or sometimes more over cannery price. Well, a dime on ten thousand pounds is no joke, plus it’s cash! So then the barges have to start competing. They let you come on the barge, take a hot shower, they got booze, whatever drugs, even working girls on there - nice ones too. So the canneries gotta come up because suddenly they’re not getting any fish. The whole salmon market exploded, and the IRS must have got some shrapnel in the ass, ’cause they came in hard, swearin’ to clean up the place. Well, really they just give us a swift kick in the nuts and run off. So now we all got tax bills, gotta make a living, and ain’t nobody here to keep it all straight. Makes for a big mess.” Ruben curiously noted that the Apache had entered the river and continued right on passed the cannery, passed all the other boats, upstream, and he watched the banks narrowing as they wound their solitary way. It provided such a peaceful contrast to their earlier activity, and also made Ruben more nervous. Could they be legal? “So anyway, like I was sayin’, in the meantime, I gotta be smarter.” Ruben slowed the boat as they approached a sharp bend. “And it helps me not feel so bad when I have to do stuff like this right here.” Of course they weren’t legal.

Just around the bend the river passed under a bridge. Ozzie crept the Apache directly underneath the overpass, then turned at a right angle and gunned the boat up onto the bank. He slid into his high waders and hopped off the boat.

“Toss me that ball.” Ozzie took the end of his net and forged his way across the river. He tied off the end of the cork line to some shrubbery on the opposite bank, then he waded back across and climbed on the Apache. He peeled off his wet gear. “Nap time.” Ozzie turned down the volume on his radio, leaned way back in his captain’s chair and closed his eyes.

Ruben stood on deck and looked around. Water gushed and gurgled below and around. The cork line jiggled and twitched every so often. To the north, brownish marshland stretched and widened into sparse, green forest before ascending into bold, whitish-grey rockiness. Caribou yawned across the marsh. An eagle hovered effortlessly. To the south, the river crept away, oozing into thick mud flats that pressed into a high, orange bluff. Smoke puffed out of a small, lone house into the clean blue sky. Ruben knew of one other place where he’d witness comparable natural majesty. Four thousand miles away, and he was home again.

Ozzie wandered on deck, rubbing his eyes, and Ruben suddenly registered why they’d called him Wiz. Ozzie patted his tummy, shook his legs a little, peeked over the stern, sniffed satisfaction.

“Let’s get ‘er.”

He started the engine, clutched in the hydraulic drum, and hauled back toward the opposite bank. Fish after fish after fish flopped over the stern roller and fell out of the net. They had just hooked one gill and laid up in the mesh. The two men didn’t have to twist, mash, or fight, just listen to the continual resounding thud of heavy salmon against the deck, and laugh. Ruben looked back down the river, smiling peacefully. He couldn’t shake the image of the yellow brick road.

“So, Wiz, you need cash, huh?”


The Story of the Dariel

 

The Dariel began, so far as it concerned Alan Pickup, as a dilapidated corpse of a once-stalwart vessel, delivered as his ninth birthday present from his father, Milton. The old-timer who gave it up to Milton certainly just wanted to get rid of the thing, though he couched its presentation to the Pickups in generosity and sacrifice. Milton decided on the acquisition because he enjoyed bargains, but more importantly, because he anticipated a favorable response from his son. Any satisfaction the old-timer derived from dismissing the albatross would fizzle and die the moment his eyes beheld what Milton and Alan created.

Untrained surveys suggested that the Dariel had seen its best days, but Milton recognized a worthy vessel when he saw one. He and his son harbored no fear of labor to dissuade them. No serious problems or flaws threatened the boat’s seaworthiness. It simply required some significant and dedicated attention. And the Pickup men possessed energy to spare. It overjoyed Milton to see his son swell to the task of shipmate, and the two of them took great pride in maintaining and sailing the sloop as long as the seasons permitted. Their time spent together aboard the Dariel ultimately proved more stirring and gratifying to Milton than he could have imagined.

He would never know how much more it would all come to mean to his son.

Four years into their pleasurable and demanding adventure, the Fates intervened. Milton’s abrupt departure from the corporeal world shattered fragile psyches. The widow, Vivian, proved unable to cope. As an only child and not keen on making friends, necessity dictated that Alan become skilled at entertaining and, unfortunately, educating himself. With no other sense of connection, the Dariel became an even more vital part of Alan’s identity. He took far more care than he had before, and spent increasing amounts of time with maintenance and upkeep on the boat. He wanted everything to be as proper as possible. He wanted everything to be perfect.

And then he would sail. His strong hands held fast on the winch and the wheel. Heavy spray matted his thick, wavy hair and stung his blue eyes, which pierced the wet, salty veil and found the way. Fast and hard, full-sail in ripping winds, straining on the lines as the boat stretched and raced on one edge, defying common laws of speed, leverage, and balance. Alan yelled back at the wind and the water, he cried at the ghost in the mist.

The fantastic sight, or just the terrifying thought, of Alan’s exploits would deplete what remained of Vivian’s stamina. Her physical presence could not massage the fact that her mind flew. The one and only time she’d seen the Dariel however, long, thick, limp ropes held it passively, uninterestingly, to the wooden dock at Fulton’s Pier.

In the years since Milton’s death, as Alan worked more meticulously outfitting and refurbishing his prize, he often brought the boat into a slip at the pier. He cringed at the idea. The Dariel deserved to display its majesty from a proper pedestal. Tethered to the last mooring, just inside the jetty, the smooth lines and sleek hull of the Dariel charged at the open ocean to the east. Though smaller than most of the boats in the harbor, its splendid condition and noble profile impressed even the most pretentious yachtsman. Alan’s painstaking care and craft had rendered an elegantly powerful vessel that just looked like it needed to go. The pier seemed a cruel manner of restraint, like penning in a magnificent wild horse. On the other hand, it essentially made his work possible, so Alan accepted the necessary evil.

Alan enjoyed the walk from his house down along the river to the pier. Calm and eager, he never hurried. He strolled with poise, toward peace, toward pursuit, with humble admiration in his chest. He savored the feeling.

One early fall afternoon Alan ventured forth in such a manner, prepared for due diligence. As he came within range of Fulton’s Pier he found a cluttered confusion of bodies bustling about. Men hurried back and forth, agitated, distracted, sometimes pausing to shout and point. Other men simply stood around bickering. As Alan rounded Tripp’s Ship Supply warehouse and looked out, he quickly recognized the cause of the commotion - a fire. A small fire, but a fire nonetheless, indicated by the slight tails of smoke wafting into the air, had evidently perpetrated some measure of damage, devouring a piece of the dock. Alan immediately wondered how the fire might have started, and then just as quickly decided that he didn’t care. He had to discover about the Dariel.

Alan made his way out on the dock and maneuvered close enough to clearly see the dire scope of the situation. The fire had charred the last part of the dock and several boats, including his precious Dariel, to varying degrees before anyone could battle the blaze into submission. In most cases the damage, though serious, looked strictly superficial. But Alan’s boat and the one right next to it, the Sneaky Pete, appeared decimated. Alan guessed that the fire had started on his neighbor’s boat, probably due to some manner of carelessness, and undoubtedly spread thereafter due to generous helpings of incompetence. He noticed his neighbor giving a panicked explanation to the Dockmaster and Fire Chief. Alan had never warmed to the guy, and now he knew why.

Alan suppressed his anger; none of that extrinsic nonsense mattered anyway. The fire now raged within him, and Alan tried to shift the energy toward some constructive concept. He stood staring resolutely at the beaten, blackened, diminished form of his boat. His taut posture belied the activity circulating in his brain. His mind churned as he thought about the necessity of raising the boat up on the rails and expeditiously undertaking repairs. Other men made condolent comments as the walked and gawked, surveying the destruction, murmuring the shame of it, shaking their heads and stiffly patting the boy on the back. But Alan gave them no pause. He knew - he could feel - that the heart of the Dariel still thrummed in the depths.

The resurrection of the Dariel required the patience and purpose, not to mention the soul, of a rather young man whom no one imagined possessed the fortitude. But its provident delivery resulted not from some random school assignment or some tedious mandate from an overbearing boss, but from a deep, genuine desire, borne of an anguish that no one else could possibly know. Alan Pickup’s singular and determined character could launch a fleet.

In lieu of reparations, the owner of the Sneaky Pete secured the use of a tiny corner of the lot at Smith‘s Shipyard, a stone’s throw from the pier, to work on the Dariel. The offer came perhaps out of compassion, perhaps out of some twisted grasp for amusement. And it helped that Milton had gone out of his way for this Smith guy once, a long time ago, though the details of the accord remained hazy to the few people who were even aware of it. Whatever the case, Alan hardly cared; he just needed to build. It didn’t matter that Smith’s Shipyard really only constituted Smith, a barn, and some dirt with a fence around it. Alan worked odd jobs around town every day after school and gave the money to Smith when he went to the yard on the weekend. This arrangement left his conscience unfettered as he scavenged the place for tools and lumber, cleats and canvas, and whatever else he might have use for. The builder allowed this to continue for a number of weeks, certain the kid would quit any day, and thinking he would eventually come out ahead. But Alan was not a sprinter.

After several months the builder realized what he had on his hands. It happened one day when Smith actually took a minute to observe the goings-on in his own yard. He saw that the kid had to sand the bottom of the boat, which sat up on large wooden chocks. But the kid had no means of rolling the cumbersome hull, which possessed the conflicting qualities of heaviness and delicacy. But the kid didn’t ask for help. Instead, he crawled underneath the hull and lay on his back in the dirt and gravel to get the job done. He didn’t put down any of the canvas he had gathered to protect himself because he needed to keep the canvas in good condition for another application. His back and shoulders ground into the uncomfortable earth, bruising his body. The dust and grit fell in his eyes, nose, and mouth, which all grew red and raw, and Smith knew the kid’s arms must ache terribly. But the kid never coughed or complained. He just kept sanding and sanding until he completed the task. The builder would tell people, if he knew any people worth telling, that he learned the essence of respect from a fifteen-year-old kid in one afternoon.

Smith, a single guy in his late forties, carried himself on a thin, deceptively strong frame. He acted friendly with his few acquaintances, but otherwise gruff. He secretly wished to be an artist, but he knew he lacked the sensibilities. He also knew that many better boat builders than he plied their trade on the Atlantic coast, but he enjoyed his vocation and performed with steady competence. He also enjoyed casual pessimism and, while not exactly angry at the world - and despite Milton’s mysterious deed - had trouble recognizing promise in other people. But he behaved in a generally tolerant fashion and more or less kept things to himself.

The builder figures he knows what love is, but he’s never had the occasion yet to feel especially moved sensitive another individual. He certainly never thought he’d invest any emotion in a skinny, awkward adolescent who obviously thought he already knew everything. But what Smith saw that day compelled him to approach the kid. He felt a little weird about it, as it constituted an unprecedented move for him. He couldn’t believe he actually felt a little nervous about how the kid might respond to him. He thought about grabbing a sanding stone and silently joining the kid, some kind of ice-breaking gesture of solidarity. As a fellow craftsman though, Smith sensed the kid’s need to protect the integrity of his own project. The kid always worked late. Smith resolved to stick around a little longer that night than he otherwise would, and catch the kid on his way out.

Finally the kid looked like he’d had enough for the day. He had to pass through the barn on his way out, so the builder sat at his work table in the barn and looked at some blueprints. The builder waited until the kid passed right behind him, but he didn’t look up from his designs.

“You wanna roll ’er, let me know.”

Alan stopped and slowly raised his head to look at the guy. But the guy only offered the back of his head. Alan’s face held no expression, like it had frozen by the double surprise of the guy actually saying something to him, and the fact that he’d offered something nice and helpful on top of that. Though not overly concerned about it, Alan had guessed that the guy didn’t really like him. His larynx wouldn’t work, but his long face and large eyes softened a bit as he nodded at the guy, then he continued quickly off toward home. Smith still pretended to work at his desk, waiting until he knew the kid wasn’t coming back for anything. He allowed himself a satisfied smile.

The boat builder and the kid fell into a simple manner of sharing some common space, time, and activity. In as much as these comprised rather foreign circumstances for the builder, and rather poignant circumstances for Alan, they struggled somewhat to get comfortable at times. But their mutual respect kept it all intact, and they generally fared amicably. They both worked very hard and very quietly, with diligence and a sense of honor. They built their relationship without words, but with an appreciation for what the other did or did not do. The builder would step in and join the kid - even uninvited he managed to recognize the appropriate junctures - and always knew where to draw the line between assistance and interference. The kid would reciprocate sometimes and offer assistance of his own, not because he felt he had to, but because he wanted to. The kid never got outside of his abilities, and the builder never had to worry about the quality of the job. And so, though he didn’t necessarily need it, the builder gladly accepted the kid’s help. And though he didn’t really want it, the kid humbly accepted the builder’s help.

This style of labor relations continued from spring throughout the hot summer. With school out Alan’s efforts multiplied, but the process still seemed to take forever. Then suddenly September arrived and Alan had his boat ready to launch. Valuably short time remained in the season to work out the kinks and squeeze in some inspiring sailing. The Dariel had been a great boat before, but now it looked gorgeous, perfectly reproduced with a magnificent finish and glimmering hardware. The builder even gave the kid a brand new sail as a present. With little fanfare and significant pride, Smith and Alan splashed the Dariel on a Sunday afternoon. As it floated majestically just off the beach, their eyes locked on it with awe and without ego.

The Dariel loomed much larger than either of them. Alan imagined himself at the helm, where the world bent to his fantastic will. He seized control. The elements could not intimidate or confound him. He confidently manipulated the enormous, surging energy around him to his own private ends. This angered the winds and the tides, but he stood strong amidst them and continued to test the bounds of his abilities and fortune, sailing farther and in more treacherous conditions whenever the chance arose. The clever ocean, which yields only the shrouded promise of a deeper search, could accommodate his pursuit forever.

The day drew late. Alan decided to deliver the boat well away from the clutches of the pier, out to its throne, the last available mooring inside the jetty. There he left it serene and secure. He would savor this time, this sensation, this beautiful exhaustion, this potent emptiness. He would allow himself this brief luxury of basking in accomplishment. And he would sail very soon.

Over one week had passed and Smith had not seen a hint of the kid, nor ever spied the Dariel missing from its mooring. It bobbed patiently, proudly, just inside the Point, eternally ready. And precisely that image had formed on the builder’s mind when he suddenly awoke that night. His sleeping brain’s concern for the Dariel caught him off guard, but the banging of the shutters on the side of his house quickly dashed his wonderment. He opened the front door and stepped outside. The air smelled damp, pregnant, and the wind had shifted, blowing hard and cold from the northeast: a storm-front rising.

The builder forced his brain into focus as he went inside and began to dress, and he almost fell over pulling on his pants. Smith sat on the edge of his bed and took slow breaths. Darkness still prevented him from venturing to the yard. He just sat and collected himself, identifying everything in his mind that he needed to cover, lash down, pick up, lock in, or otherwise secure and protect from the boiling threat. If he had a helper it would all take very little time, but as the wind intensified and the rain began, he knew he could only do his best and hope the storm would wait for him. He bundled himself against the bite as best he could, psyching himself up for his imminent effort. As the first faint sight of sun-tips trickled into the world, he bolted for his yard.

A few other men ran about down around Fulton’s Pier, obviously engaged in the same capacity as the builder, trying to save the impetus for their own lives. Smith resolved to help someone else if he had time. Pushing against the gale, it felt like forever before he reached his lot, but he finally turned the corner to survey the scene. The blow had already scattered loose wood, canvas, and other material around his yard. The wet marbles falling from the sky would soon turn the ground to mud. He had to grab and stash as much as he could, starting with his current project, a brand new fishing hull.

The infant shell sat precariously on chocks in his yard, and he knew if he didn’t do something before the wind began to shriek, he would lose it. Flipping it upside down would help, but he saw nothing to lash it to. He had to try to drag it inside his barn, where he thought it would just fit. But the large shape was just too heavy to move with brute strength alone. The builder hastily fashioned a block-and-tackle system. He fastened pulleys on the bow of his hull and on the far wall of his shed. Then he ran a rope twice back-and-forth through the pulleys until he stood with the empty end out next to the would-be boat. The fact that he now basically stood in a mud bog both helped and hurt his cause. It would cushion the blow of the hull off the chocks and save some damage, but also make it more difficult to drag across into the barn. The builder ran to the gate of his yard. Two men hustled by. He recognized one of them from around town, and grabbed the guy’s arm.

“Just help me a second!”

Smith let his plea twist in the swirling air as he looked at the guy earnestly, and never released his firm grip from the guy’s elbow. The storm appeared to worsen by the minute. The guy looked pitifully at Smith and timidly surveyed the sky. He really wanted to get home. Finally the guy frowned, like his own choice disappointed him.

“OK.”

The two men hurried, slipping and stumbling through the yard, and picked up the loose end of the rope. They secured as sturdy footing as possible. Smith looked hard at his reluctant helper.

“Ready? Pull!”

They gave the line a fierce tug. The new hull dropped to the earth with a thud that made the builder cringe. Then they pulled hard together on the line as the rough carriage began to slide begrudgingly through the fresh mud. Smith and the guy strained their muscles to the limit, and after several painful minutes, the hull finally scraped along the concrete floor of the shed. It barely fit. Some planks had suffered some minor hemorrhage to be sure, but as long as the ribs remained uninjured, Smith considered the effort successful. He shook the guy’s hand in gratitude.

“I would have lost the whole thing.”

With the major task narrowly accomplished and the storm thundering down, the builder decided to forgo the rest of it. The other guy helped him lock up the barn’s heavy, swinging doors, and they hustled out of the yard together. The other guy had his head down against the elements, moving intently up the street. For some reason Smith glanced back the other way, down along the docks. He stopped short and tried to peer through the whipping weather, narrowing his vision, blinking through the stiff rain. Against the gloomy, gray background he could make out the dim silhouette of Alan Pickup, standing tall and still on the exposed dock, as if it were a warm, sunny afternoon. The kid calmly stared out into the thick abyss, out where the Dariel floated in a violent shroud.

“Hey,” Smith yelled toward the figure. But the kid would never hear him at that distance through the groaning squall. The builder turned and yelled back to the other guy, “Hey, where you going?”

“Forget it, Smith, it’s too late!” The guy shot his retort over his shoulder and clambered unsteadily away. Smith looked back and saw that the kid had stepped off the dock and began heading down the shoreline toward the Point.

“God dammit,” Smith muttered to himself as he hurried down to the dock.

Smith reached the spot where the kid had since disappeared. His eyes valiantly searched the gloom. They found the shadow drifting quickly down the shoreline, simply dismissing or ignoring the tempest raging around him. The builder yelled again, “Hey,” but his call swept uselessly into the fray. For a moment he debated chasing the kid, but he knew he could never catch him. Smith could only manage a helpless vigil, watching the kid’s solemn surrender to the sometimes simply cruelty of life. The kid walked passed some other boats, boats belonging to people who’d charged to their moorings, frantically raised half a sail or just a paddle, haphazardly run their boats up onto the beach, and then dragged and pulled them up the bank, into the safety of the reeds and small dunes. These boats would make it. The kid walked by the last boat that Smith could see, and he reached out a weakened hand to touch it caringly. Then he vanished in the fog.

The builder turned and squinted for a view of the Dariel, but he couldn’t possibly see that far. He couldn’t sense if the great vessel still floated or not, but he imagined that it did, fighting fiercely, absorbing brutal punishment, bravely resisting the immense force of natural misfortune, willing itself to survive…

Violence crashed into his senses. His imagination failed.

The builder closed his eyes in despair and cursed aloud at the terrible void.

He would not see the Dariel, or the kid, ever again.



   

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