Saturday, July 14, 2012

Justin Erickson / Ingleside on the Bay

Ingleside on the Bay
Photographs by Edward Burtynsky

I was walking back from the corner store, my Snickers bar melting in my hand quick as a popsicle, when I met a pirate. She pointed a clothes’ hanger hook at her eyepatch and said, “They call me the Pirate.” I asked her what her name was and she said, “Argh!” and I said, “But what’s your real name?” and she said, “Macy,” so that’s what I called her.
Macy had lost a game of “think fast!” and got hundreds of caterpillar hairs stuck in her eye, so when she showed up at school with a wad of gauze and tape covering it, everyone started calling her the Pirate. And now she was the Pirate. “Ahoy!” she would say, and “Avast ye!” always waving her hook, and sometimes clomping on a peg leg. Sometimes it was her right leg, sometimes her left.

I gave Macy part of my Snickers and licked the other half off my fingers.
“Cool bandana.”
The next morning I followed her onto Roger’s boat to steal his dog. The dog’s name was Coon Dog and the boat smelled like a tackle box and Roger snored like a pirate, the same way he swore and drank, which is twice as much as a sailor. He’d been both, Macy told me, so he knew. We found Coon Dog tail-chasing inside the pilot house and she scooped him up and caught tongue all over her face. “Down, boy,” she said, but held him close.
It was the first summer I spent with my father after he left, or after he was told to leave — the story changed with the teller. The arrangement my parents had reached was that I would weather the Iowa cold with Mom during the school year and then sweat it out with my father in Texas over summer break. This was not something I had any say in.
Macy and I slipped off the boat with Coon Dog and walked him up and down the road, and then to the marina, on a lead Macy had bought with scavenged change for just this purpose. Colt was at the marina, not doing anything, just being there, and he wanted to know whose dog it was. He said, “That’s not your dog, Pirate. You don’t have a dog,” and Macy said, “Shiver me timbers.” I said the dog was Coon Dog and it belonged to Roger.
“The boat guy?” he asked.
“He lives on a boat.”
The three of us walked Coon Dog back to the boat after he peed on every roadside vertical object. Also, he crapped twice. “We can use that later,” Colt said. Colt and I waited while Macy clambered onto Roger’s boat and put Coon Dog back.
“Where are you from?” Colt asked.
“Where’s that?”
“It’s real cold there.”
When Macy got back we went to her house and threw darts at a cardboard target she’d drawn and tacked to one of the house’s stilts. While we were playing, a tan kid on a bike started riding circles on the road in front of the driveway, crunching up the gravel. “Get out of here,” Colt yelled. “Go back to Mexico.” The kid said, “Soy de Cuba, estupido!” and pedaled off. Later Macy’s mom came out and asked who my parents were and when I told her about my father she did this kind of laugh that was also a frown. She said I could stay for dinner, if I wanted. I didn’t, but later I wished I had.
At home, my father’s snores Zzz-ing out of the living room sounded nothing like a pirate’s. And this lady who I’d never seen before was rummaging in the fridge. She was wearing my father’s union t-shirt and her underwear was yellow through the crotch. She looked up from the fridge and wiped a chilled beer bottle across her forehead.
“Linda,” she said. “You eat? I’ll put on some macaroni.” She set a pot of water to boil on the stove. “So Iowa, huh? Pretty cold there?”
I nodded.
“I bet,” she said, and then took her beer into the living room.
I waited in the kitchen and when the water started to boil and she didn’t come back I went to fetch her. She was passed out beside my father on the couch. Water hissed into vapor on the burner as I searched the cupboards for a box of macaroni, and by time I turned off the stove there was nothing in the pot but a roiling foam.
Every morning Colt, Macy, and I would kidnap Coon Dog and walk him to the marina or throw a ball for him in the empty lot next to Roger’s dock. Colt and I would throw the ball, but Coon Dog would only give it up to Macy. “Boyfriend material for you, Pirate,” Colt said. He pitched the ball toward the fat-trunked palms and viscous lines of slobber unspooled as it spun through the air. When the four us got bored with the game we’d go back to Roger’s boat, and if Roger wasn’t up yet we’d take our battle stations. I buckled under the weight of the imaginary cannon balls that I heaved into the breech, and when Macy said, “Fire!” Colt unleashed the broadside against the unsuspecting merchant ship, which was played by the Caldwell’s two-masted sailing yacht on the other side of the dock. Their booty now ours to plunder, Macy picked up Coon Dog and said, “Polly want a cracker?” and gave him a biscuit from the pouch she kept tied to her sash.
When Roger came up from below deck we followed him to the bow and watched as he cast his lines. “See what we get today,” he said, flicking his pole. Sometimes he would let Colt or me try, but Macy couldn’t on account of her hook. We watched for movement in the line while he went back under. When he returned we each took a handful of unshelled peanuts from the bag he offered and sat around littering the deck with stringy shells and flakes of red peanut skin.
“You boys know about riverine warfare?” he asked. “I know the Pirate here does.” He told us about ducking below the gunwales and shooting blind into the jungle beyond the banks, letting the pig go cyclical until the barrel glowed and drooped.
“Was that in ’Nam?” I asked. I’d heard my father talk about ’Nam before.
Roger coughed a laugh and shook his head no. His smile was all gap, no teeth. “Colombia,” he said.
We looked over his frog tattoos and the shiny scar on his neck. We wondered where Colombia might be.
I went home at night, and then straight to the guest room. The bunk bed had only one mattress, up top, but I pulled it down after the first night when I woke with half my body hanging over the edge. The chest of drawers had a swivel frame for a mirror, but no actual mirror. When I unpacked my duffel into the drawers I found a piece of paper with taped corners that said free in big bubble letters. One of the two bulbs in the uncovered light fixture was burned and burned out. At home in Iowa, I’d almost outgrown my race car-shaped bed, but I still liked the solar system wallpaper and the planets that glowed in the dark, the stars on the ceiling.
Colt let the tan kid join us when he found out that he had an extra bicycle I could borrow. His name was Sebastian, but he told us to call him Seb, which sounded like sub. I said it, “Seb,” to test it out, and he said, “Dive, dive, dive!” which was very funny to him. Colt called him Mexico. “Hey Mexico, get the bike already.” The bike turned out to be his sister’s, and was a sun-faded blue with white tassels hanging off the handlebars, but at least it wasn’t pink.
“Will she be mad?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “She is gone away.”
“Back to Mexico?”
Seb glared at Colt. “To heaven.”
The days that Roger’s boat was gone, the four of us would ride around Ingleside on the Bay, from one end to the other, our speed a kind of shade, a kind of fanning. We biked up around the cove and watched giant yellow cranes hoist trusses for new offshore platforms while plumes from the refineries mushroomed in the distance. We rode south past all the stilted houses to the end of Bayshore Drive and stood up our kickstands and watched tugs push linked barges through the narrows. Orange-winged trainers from Naval Air Station Corpus Christi flew loose formations over the bay.
“Aye,” Macy said, “is that your dad?”
Colt said, “No. He flies real jets. He flies F-14 Tomcats. He’s a Top Gun.”
I was still waiting for the movie to come out on VHS. This was impressive.
My father was up and around that evening when I got back. The groceries he was putting in the fridge clinked and chinked and came in six packs.
“You having a good time?”
I shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Maybe we’ll do the Lexington next week, or the aquarium.”
I very much wanted to see the USS Lexington, the aircraft carrier anchored across the bay, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath. When it came to my father, I had no lung capacity.
Seb refused to come aboard when we visited Roger’s boat. He sat on the dock and said “What?” when we laughed and “What?” if we were quiet too long. Macy said, “Ahoy, landlubber!” and threw him Roger’s life preserver. He put it around his waist and bobbed up and down on his tiptoes.
On the boat, Roger told us about Arabia. “Rub al Khali,” he said. “The Empty Quarter. Nothing but sand and pipeline.” He told us about Panama. “Spiders big as dinner plates, mosquitoes thick as nets.” He told us about love. “The important thing is her soul-color,  how it refracts, but the prenup is a close second.” We didn’t even know what we didn’t know. From the dock: “Què?”
The morning Macy was late to snatch Coon Dog we asked her why her eyepatch was on her other eye. “He gave me something to whine about,” she said, without a trace of pirate in her voice. Her dad’s oil platform had just changed shifts, Colt explained. “Four weeks on, four weeks off.” Macy squinted her uncovered eye all day as we walked the neighborhood, collecting shirtfuls of mesquite pods. At home that night, my father complained that the rig monkeys had cleaned out the groceries and, with nothing to do, he went to bed early.
Colt managed to talk Seb onto the boat for the fishing trip. “Chicken, Mexico?” he said. Seb jumped onboard and got right in Colt’s face and said, “I’m Cuban,” and Colt smirked, but he never called him Mexico after that. I asked Roger if he would take us around the bay on the way out, but he made straight for Port Aransas and the Gulf. He only had three life vests, the orange kind you wear like a yoke, so Seb slipped the life preserver back on and stayed in the pilot house.
Macy was still being quiet, but she did brandish her hook at passing vessels, at the freighters and barges and other fishing boats. I looked over the side for fish but only saw the barnacles scabbed on the hull just below the waterline. The sky was a blue shade of white and the clouds out over the Gulf thickened as the land behind us thinned into the horizon.
After a couple hours he said, “This’ll do,” and killed the engine. “There’s a reason the charter boats come out here.” We cast our lines and mounted our poles in the holders. We could see four or five boxy silhouettes out under the darkening clouds. “Spent some time on a rig,” Roger told us. “GOPLAT’s risky business.” We nodded, memorizing his words, trying to absorb this wisdom.
Seb asked about his scar.
“Which one?”
“On your neck, sir.”
“Don’t you ‘sir’ me,” he said. “I work for a living.” He laughed and took a sip of his beer. He tapped his neck. “Got some hot brass caught in the collar of my flak jacket. Stings like a--” He stopped and pointed: the end of my rod arched ever so slightly toward the water. I lifted the pole out of the holder and started to reel in the line, which was angling away from the boat faster than I could remember Roger’s instructions. I panicked and set the bail arm. The line caught and the rod whipped out of my hand, swung over the boat, and lanced into the water. Roger laughed so hard that he spilled his beer on Coon Dog and between gasps of air Seb said, “You almost got fished!” Macy laughed a real laugh, a girl laugh, instead of her normal “har har har.”
No one else got a bite before the storm picked up. We watched the lightning zap the oil platforms, one, two, twenty times as Roger turned the boat toward shore. The lightning just seemed to appear, to flash into existence fully formed, a silvery tether between cloud and rig. Roger made best speed but the storm overtook us before the shore even began to take shape. The waves went all Tilt-o’-Whirl and Colt painted the deck with his breakfast and when my cheeks ballooned Roger waved his hand and said, “Over the side, over the side!” but jellyfish were washing into the boat and I was afraid of being pitched overboard. The lightning fissured the clouds and Roger sent the four us under the deck and told us to keep our shoes on, not to touch anything metal, while he manned the helm. It was dark and muggy and smelled sweetly like skunk. Colt cried. I cried. Macy pirated. Seb got on his knees and started praying in Spanish really fast and then cried, “Papá es con los peces, papá es con los peces,” over and over and over until the rain muted everything.
The next week we held our own Olympics to celebrate the Fourth of July. Colt won the bike race and we ate too much of Seb’s dust in the sprint, but I got silver in fencing with a few pointers from Macy, who tagged each of our hearts in turn. Colt smeared Coon Dog’s poop on the wheelbarrows so that Macy and Seb couldn’t — wouldn’t — actually sit as we ran them down the dirt access road behind the houses. Seb was too wriggly and Colt spilled him in the bushes as I pushed Macy across the finish line.
The speed eating contest was a draw: nobody could finish their Worcestershire and Horsey-sauce-slathered sausage. That night, after the closing ceremony, my father and Linda and Macy’s mom and dad and Colt’s mom and Seb’s mom and baby sister and the Caldwells came out to light off the value-pack fireworks we’d pooled our money for. They gave us sparklers to hold and we watched the fountains spray neon and the strobing flashers cut the night into stills and the Roman Candles volley stars back at the sky. My father lit the fuse on the Black Cat strip and tossed it onto the road and we covered our ears as it popped off in a machine-gun staccato. I asked my father where Roger was.
“Who? The boat guy?”
As a group we walked to the marina to watch the displays over the bay. We hung our feet off the dock and drank melted Freezepops as colorful as the fireworks blooming in the distance. The patterns and dazzle would blink out before the soft report of the explosion reached us. While we watched, Macy handed us each a paper and told us to write a wish on it. She rolled up the notes and slipped them one at a time into a beer bottle and then twisted a stray cap onto it and handed it to me. I sailed the bottle out into the cove. We watched as it splashed and bobbed and then disappeared, and wondered where it might wash up.
Justin Erickson is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.

"Soggy" - Bedroom Eyes (mp3)
"Big Boo" - Bedroom Eyes (mp3)

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