Short fiction by Tamar Hodes
The lobster catchers stilled their boat where the water darkened. Ahead of Buddy and Spike, the Portland Head lighthouse displayed its red and white stripes. In the gentle sun, the two men performed their daily ritual, a silent dance around Maine’s Casco Bay. They dragged the pots, heavy with the catch, from the water and into the boat. The lobsters twitched and fidgeted restlessly on the deck. The men searched through them, tossing the smaller ones and the females back into the ocean. They stored the larger males in crates and threw the pots back into the water.
Over the craggy rocks, clover and black-eyed Susans clambered wildly, knotting themselves with grasses and daisies as if stitched together. A cormorant stood still on a boulder.
Time to move the boat on. Ten minutes later, they repeated this mime: hauling, sorting, throwing back, storing. And later, again, they performed their wordless song of verse and chorus: one man stocky and blond, the other dark-haired, smaller and slower, working together while the pale light varnished their faces.
When the sun had grown white and intense, it was time to return to the bay.
Buddy steered the vessel into its mooring place and Spike clambered out to wrap the rope around the post. As he boarded the boat again, he looked at Buddy: tall; his muscles bulging in his tanned arms; golden hair slightly ruffled; always smiling. Why not? He had it all: good looks; a delightful wife; two gorgeous children; the white, clapboard home he had built in the woods, the wraparound verandah a perfect viewing place for watching the red cardinal birds which brightened the feathery foliage. Sometimes Spike wondered, if there were a God, why he gave so much to some and so little to others. Why was Spike the one with the limp, the one with the scar on his face, making him feel like someone who would never find love?
Together the men lifted the lobster crates out of the boat and into the truck. Buddy drove them to the fish market where they unloaded their catch. The men wound tape around the lobsters’ claws before throwing them into the cold water tank. From there, the discerning Maine customers would come and buy, take their chosen lobsters home and drop them into a pot of boiling water before serving them on their plates, adorned with lemon wedges, to their refined friends. Restaurateurs also bought from the market, admiring the fair prices as well as the freshness of the shellfish.
Their work done, the men rewarded themselves with a sarsaparilla which they took from the cold store at the back of the market. They drank from tilted bottles, the condensation bubbling the glass, as if sweating in the heat.
‘Good catch today,’ said Buddy, draining the last drops of his drink.
‘Yeah,’ agreed Spike. ‘There was talk of a storm brewing but luckily it didn’t amount to nothin’. I’m gonna go mend the pots, ready for tomorrow,’ and he disappeared, limping, from sight.
Buddy stayed to finish his drink and chat easily to the market workers before returning to his truck. On the short drive to his house, Buddy thought about Casey. He pictured her in the kitchen, bare footed as usual, her long flaxen hair tied back, her cheeks pink from stirring a clam and mussel chowder, perhaps. Little Erik would be in his high chair, stuffing his already fat cheeks with anything edible he could find and sweet Milly would be playing with her dolls on the porch or singing to herself as she rocked in the chair.
Buddy had reached a stage of his life when things felt good. It hadn’t always been like that, when his ma and pa died within a year of each other or when Buddy had left school and was wondering what to do with his life. Messing around with friends; earning no money; drinking too much: it couldn’t go on. Then he had heard that Spike was looking for a helper in the lobster boat and everything improved. He was able to marry Casey and support her and the kids as well as using some money left to him to build their dream home in the forest where woodpeckers drilled the yew trees and chipmunks scampered in the meadow. Life was good.
The sky started to darken. Buddy turned the radio up louder to muffle the grumbling thunder and joined in with the song, tapping the steering wheel as he sang, ‘Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…’
He looked upwards to inspect the clouds. It was then that the buck leapt out from the cedar trees as if he had flown in from the sky. Buddy tried the brakes but they seemed to fail him. So he steered sharp to avoid the animal and watched in horror as he saw the limbs and head lurch towards him, a body in disarray. The truck smashed into a tree, crumpling like tin foil. Buddy was hurled over the front and smacked into a pine trunk. He lay motionless on the ground, only a few feet away from where the deer, too, instantly lost its life.
Casey looked out at the sky. It seemed angry as if the clouds were frowning.
‘Milly,’ she called, ‘come on in. It’s gonna rain, honey.’
Milly gathered up her dolls by the hair and carried them into the kitchen. Baby Erik was eating an oat rusk or rather squashing it against his mouth with the flat of his hand and being delighted when a few crumbs accidentally coated his tongue.
‘I dunno where your daddy is,’ said Casey. ‘This meal’s gonna spoil.’
She looked out at the yard where the rain had now started, at first gently tickling the leaves, then pelting them, as if building up to a tantrum. Foliage shone like plastic, shiny with moisture, as if it would never again be dry.
Casey served Milly a bowl of chowder and tucked a bib under the little girl’s chin so as not to stain her pink cotton dress. She gave Erik some clams on a saucer which he pinched with his chubby fingers and tried to stuff in his mouth. Rusk and tomato sauce stuck on his cheeks and he looked a clown.
Normally Casey would have laughed but she felt sick. Her legs were so weak that she had to sit down. Her heart was fluttering in her chest and her skin was clammy. Buddy was never late. He left early each morning, did his catch, delivered the lobsters to the market and drove home. Every day she heard the crunch of the truck on the gravel drive and it punctuated her day. Her time alone with the kids was over and Buddy would wash, eat and help her settle the children before sitting with her on the verandah with a cold beer watching the sun set over the blue mountains and talk about their day. Or sometimes they would go to bed early, lying in cool sheets and melting into one.
But this evening it would not happen. Casey could feel in her bones that Buddy was not coming home.
An hour later, both kids bathed and in bed, Casey sat again at the kitchen table. The stew was overcooked, a deep brown ring crusting the pot. She had lost her appetite.
The knock at the front door made her jump. She knew it was not Buddy. He always went round the back, letting himself in through the screen partition. The sun was out again, defiant.
Her legs barely strong enough to support her, Casey carried herself to the front door. Opening it she saw Officer Kaplan. She caught his eye and she knew instantly. She had known Bobby Kaplan almost as long as she had known Buddy. Everyone in this part of Portland knew each other.
‘Hi there, Casey,’ said Officer Kaplan. ‘Can I come in?’
Casey led him into the kitchen where the air was steamy with cooking and mugginess. The rain outside had subdued but water was still dripping from the leaves.
‘I’m real sorry, Casey,’ he said.
Casey heard the words come from her mouth but wasn’t sure that she had spoken them.
‘We think he swerved to try to save a buck as there was one on the ground near where… His truck tried to avoid it, that’s for sure, and Buddy was thrown against a tree. I’m so sorry.’
Casey thought: this is happening to someone else. I am watching this on a screen. It is the film of someone else’s life. Or maybe I’m dreaming. She had often dreaded this moment. The knock on the door. The trying to think back to the morning. What had been the last thing she had said to him? Something mundane like ‘Have a good day’ or ‘Love ya, honey’ but if she had known that she would never see him again she would have pressed her body close to his and kissed him long and hard and refused to let him go.
She sank into a chair and closed her eyes. As if that would block reality out.
She remembered the day they’d met. It was a dance down Rockingham Way just before Thanksgiving. It had been organized by the farmers for young folk and their partners. There were hot dogs and ginger beer and the hay barn was converted into a dance space, the bales pushed back like furniture stored out of the way and there was a space for couples to jive in. Casey could remember how she’d pinned her hair up and the red dress she wore. Her ma had made it out of an old tablecloth and when Casey danced it lifted itself up into a crimson bell and flew around her. She had slender legs before the kids were born and she knew she looked good, like a spinning tulip. Buddy came over and asked her to dance and she could remember his blue eyes and his rough hand strong around her waist. No other man had ever made her feel that way.
After the dance, they took two bottles of ginger beer and lay together in the hay at the dark end of the barn. Buddy was a lobster catcher, worked over near Portland and he spoke about his work. She told him how she loved to bake cookies and watch the birds and the conversation just flowed right on out of their mouths until they chose to stop them with a long kiss.
Casey looked up to where Kaplan was standing. She had forgotten that she was in her kitchen, that he was now a police officer and that Buddy was dead.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t even offer you a soda or nothin’’. Are you thirsty? It’s kinda muggy.’
Officer Kaplan shook his head. ‘No thanks, Casey. I don’t think you should be alone tonight. You’ve had an awful shock. Can I go call your folks, get them to come on over?’
Casey shook her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I want to be on my own.’
After he left, Casey went out to the yard where the washing on the line, part dried, part resoaked from the sudden rain, had twisted itself into hard shapes and she stood in front of a blue shirt of Buddy’s, his favourite. She held its stiff folds to her face and wept, her tears taking the nearly dry shirt back to the dampness it had had before the harsh sun had starched it. The only dance she would have with Buddy now was with his empty clothes. Crumpling on the rough gravel, her knees grazing, she howled.
Spike carried on taking the lobster boat out on his own until a young boy, Ned, was hired to help him. Spike found it hard. It wasn’t that he and Buddy had spoken much. All they would say was, ‘Did you remember to bait the net?’ or ‘Think it’s gonna rain today?’ but they had worked well together. Ned, being young, needed telling what to do and the silence with him was awkward. With Buddy, it was as comfortable as being alone.
Spike felt abandoned but he still had to eat, didn’t he? Pay his bills.
He had never socialised much with anyone. Getting up early each day made going out the previous evening nigh impossible and he had no one to take to a dance anyway. What’s more, he was kinda self-conscious about his limp and his scar. No one ever said anything to him about it but once he had seen a group of kids, outstretching their legs and pretending to be lame. One boy had lipsticked a mark across his face. Spike shooed them away and they ran laughing and deliberately stumbling into the woods. Everyone in the area knew Spike and his gammy leg and they mostly accepted him for what he was. They all remembered the accident: how he had fallen in the pit playing as a child and how it had taken three grown men to drag him out. Two months in hospital, then wearing a splint and it had left him with this, a limp and a flawed face, daily reminders of those terrifying hours spent alone in darkness and the gnawing, stomach-wrenching injustice of it all.
The community called it an accident but of course it was no such thing. Spike remembered it clearly: the boys in the woods and how they had transformed from rough children in the neighbourhood to ugly savages, daring him to climb into the disused pit. The day had started so well. They – three boys aged nine to twelve with dirty knees and cheeky grins – had asked Spike to spend the day with them. They’d have a picnic, they said. Spike knew them from school, didn’t like them but was flattered that they’d asked him to meet up. When they did so, he noticed at once that there was no picnic except Spike’s. He felt an idiot, clutching his hessian bag of sandwich, apple and toffee cake, which his mum had carefully packed for him. All the boys carried were bottles of cider which they swung from their dirty hands.
‘Aw, got your little picnic?’ asked Gaffa, the ringleader. ‘Did your mummy pack it for you?’
And Spike had never forgotten how the boys had set upon his sandwich like vultures, ripping the bread away from the crust and crumbling his mother’s cake with their sweaty fingers. Their menacing laughter echoed around the woods. They drained their bottles, wiping their mouths with the backs of their hands. Spike disliked the over-ripe apple smell; it made his stomach churn.
When they’d demolished his picnic and their drinks, Gaffa dared Spike to climb into the pit. Spike could hear his father’s words: ‘Don’t ever do nothin’ that you ain’t comfortable with, son,’ but those words did nothing to protect him now.
Gingerly, his stomach hollow, Spike lifted himself over the lip of the pit and descended. There were a few nails embedded in the walls and he tried to rest his sandaled feet on those but to no avail. Spike could feel himself falling, flailing, his arms outspread like a flightless bird and darkness around. Then nothing. Until hours later, three men and sirens and the rescue about which he remembered little.
Then the faces of his worried parents peering over him at the hospital bed. And Spike put his fingers to his face and felt the groove on his cheek and they told him about his leg and he knew that life would never be the same again.
He never told anyone about Gaffa and the boys, not his parents nor Buddy nor Casey. Somehow it was his one piece of heroism in an otherwise humiliating incident to bear it alone and never to tell a soul. They all still lived in the area: all grown now, one with a kid, Gaffa was in and out of trouble, folk said. When he saw them in the street, their eyes would meet fleetingly and look away again, as if to say: don’t even think about it.
Spike knew that he should go and see Casey and offer his condolences but weeks passed and he kept delaying. He had seen her at Buddy’s funeral but Casey had her kids with her, had been surrounded by relatives as if they were building a protective barrier around her. But at last he plucked up courage to go to see her.
She was in the back yard, feet bare, her yellow hair catching the sun, her cotton dress light and loose, scattering corn to her chickens. Her kids, sweet little things, were playing in a sand box Buddy had built out of bricks. Washing flapped in the breeze.
‘How’s it going?’ Casey asked Spike, as he came towards her. ‘You wanna soda?’
‘Sure,’ said Spike sitting on a broken chair. From his pocket he brought out some soft candy for the kids. ‘How are you?’ as he accepted the bottle.
‘Okay. Coping, just about. My folks want me to take the kids and move in with them. But I’m not sure. We like it here. Buddy built this house with his bare hands. Leaving this place would be like leaving him behind. I’d miss him even more.’
‘Of course,’ said Spike, knocking back his drink. ‘I miss him, too. They’ve given me this young boy, Ned, to help in the boat but it’s not the same.’
‘I know what you mean. No-one can replace Buddy. I want to stay here in this house. Our house.’
‘I can understand that.’ Spike paused. ‘Casey, I just remembered that Buddy lent me some money way back. I’m able to repay it now. I reckoned it might be handy for you.’
‘Gee, thanks Spike,’ said Casey. ‘He never said nothin’ about it. Just typical of Buddy. He was so thoughtful. I sure could do with it.’
‘Another thing,’ said Spike. ‘You know how Buddy and me was allowed to take home clams and mussels from the market each Friday? Well, I think you’re entitled to get that still. Would you allow me to bring you some shellfish each week? Maybe some littleneck clams and cherrystone ones? Buddy always said you liked them.’
Casey’s face flushed at Spike’s kindness. ‘Are you sure?’ she asked. ‘You don’t mind?
Spike saw how her face shone in the light. Her hair, yellow and fine, framed a round face and her eyes were the colour of a cloudless sky.
Spike had loved Casey as long as he had known her. When he started working with Buddy, he’d invited Spike back for dinner and Spike knew from that moment he met her that Casey was the woman he wished he’d married. He kept this secret to himself, loving her in his dreams, telling no-one how he felt. Each time Buddy mentioned her name, Spike would wish that she was his wife.
‘Of course not,’ said Spike, draining his bottle.
‘Why, thank you Spike,’ she said. ‘I’ve been worrying about money but if I can get that back from you and keep baking for the Blueberry Café, maybe me, Milly and Erik can stay in this house after all.’
Erik was struggling with his trike, which had caught some bindweed in its wheel. Spike unthreaded it, and steadied the little boy, limping after him as he rolled along. Milly sat on a striped rug with her dolls, dressing them. Her granny had made all the dolls’ clothes and Milly liked to choose their outfits. Braid their hair.
‘That’s a fine doll, you got there, Milly. What’s her name?’
‘Baby,’ she said shyly.
‘Gee, that’s cute.’
A few days later, true to his word, Spike brought Casey a bag of fish from the market. There was a variety of shucked clams and crab claws to make broth with and even half a lobster. He also brought a large wad of money wrapped in an elastic band and handed it to her.
‘No argument,’ he said. ‘That’s what I owed him.’ Casey gave him a sack of Buddy’s old blue dungarees. He wouldn’t need them now. As she handed them over, their hands touched and Spike felt his skin burn.
All week, Spike looked forward to Friday evenings. He loved to see Casey and play with the kids. She would ask him to help with a chore such as fix a broken drawer or open a too tight jar of pickles or ease a stubborn piece of wax from a candle stick with a knife.
Sometimes she invited Spike to eat with them. She always had a chowder simmering on the stove or maybe a sour cherry pie newly baked, its crust golden and the smell, delicious. She loved to pick the fruit from the woods behind their home, liked the way they stained her fingertips purple.
They would sit at the kitchen table, the four of them, eating and sharing. They would talk and laugh until the trunks of the white pine and birch shone bright and thin in the night, like the legs of giant herons. Spike started staying longer and longer, helping Casey put the kids to bed. Then he’d light a log fire and he and Casey would have a scotch and soda and watch the flames click in the grate.
Spike started coming over more often. It wasn’t hard to think of an excuse. Fridays were easy but other days he’d return a spinning top of Erik’s, which he’d fixed at home, or he’d just drop off some gooseberries from his garden. Then Casey would ask him in and the evening would slip easily away.
If they did speak, it was of Buddy. Her ma and pa were good people but they tried to comfort Casey, stop her grieving, she said. Spike let her cry, sat with her while the tears spilled from her eyes onto her shirt and he allowed her to take her time, do her weeping.
At night, Casey would lie twisted in cool sheets and think of Buddy. She could close her eyes and feel his large hand on her satin skin and hear him whisper in her ear. She could feel his mouth upon hers and his body entwined with hers while the owls split the night with their cries.
She never dreamed of Spike. He was a kind, good man and, although only a few years older than Buddy, seemed more like an uncle to her than a potential partner. People in the neighbourhood gossiped, of course, but she knew that she would always be loyal to Buddy.
As the days rolled on, Spike spent more and more time in Casey’s home. He ate there, played with the kids, washed up the dishes, fixed anything that broke and did everything he could to help Casey. He kept his love concealed, as he always had.
‘You know,’ he said to Casey one evening when the kids were asleep and the cicadas were clicking in the sky. ‘It’s kinda crazy me having a house of my own. If I sell it, I could give the money to you.’
‘And where would you live?’
Spike looked down at his bottle as if the root beer had the answers.
‘You know what people would say,’ said Casey. ‘You know how they love to tongue wag round here.’
‘Then let them. Buddy was my friend. If I could help you in any way, then I would feel I was helping him too. I’d pay you rent, of course.’
‘Well, I suppose you could have the spare room downstairs, next to the yard?’
Spike drained his bottle. He understood what Casey’s words meant. She did not love Spike. She did not desire him. No-one would ever make her feel the way Buddy did. She would never make love to another man again. That was clear.
Spike did not answer. He had never had any luck with women. His mother’s dying wish was to see her only son married and he had failed her. He’d been with plenty. There was that barmaid with the dimpled cheeks and red hair, who was always up for a bit of messing around, and he had liked Corry from the bookstore but she had moved away. There were others whose names and faces he had now forgotten, none of them right for him and none of them a match for Casey.
He’d been jealous of Buddy, the way everyone liked him. Spike could feel it at the fish market. They nodded to Spike but they slapped Buddy’s shoulder. They waved to Spike but they spoke to Buddy. When Buddy waved Spike off each night, Spike wished that he could stay in the truck just to catch a glimpse of Casey, her bright hair shining at the window.
Deep in his heart he was pleased Buddy had gone. Of course, nobody wished for someone else’s death, did they? But now he had a chance, albeit a slim one, with the woman he loved.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t dream of anything else.’
But that is exactly what he did dream of. Every night. Every day. Him and Casey lying together in a quilted bed, the stars sprinkling the sky and the thin moon blessing them as they lay, pleasing each other.
Spike sold his house. Moved in with Casey. Gave the community something to talk about.
Each day Casey would hear a truck crunch the gravel outside. It reminded her of Buddy coming home and for a moment she would pretend to herself: Buddy’s back. It must have been a bad dream after all. She missed him so much it hurt.
But no. The truck door would open and she would hear not Buddy’s heavy tread and then the door bursting open but the walk of a smaller man dragging his leg slowly across the yard.
It was three months now since Spike had moved in. It suited them all and the extra money helped Casey. He played with the kids, helping them ride their trikes or catch butterflies with their nets and built a new coop for the chickens. Life took on a new rhythm of its own.
It had been a perfect day. The kids had wanted to go down to the lighthouse to play on the sand and Spike had shown them the cormorant who sat on the rock each day and the giant sumac trees and he told them how some people ground the blooms into a spice to flavour their cooking with. He pressed wild mint between his fingers and let the children smell them and when Erik grew tired, Spike lifted him on his shoulders and carried him, Milly and Casey trailing behind, linking hands.
Once home, they soaked up the juices of the clam chowder with crusty bread and Spike told the children stories till their eyelids closed while Casey washed the dishes.
Casey and Spike sat together downstairs. He had a beer and she a soda. She put a candle in an empty bottle and lit it, the wax hardening into swollen clusters down its side. She had filled a terracotta vase with white roses, creamy and blown, and the candlelight shone through them, illuminating their petals.
They spoke about Buddy and how he could turn his hands to anything. Casey looked at the man in front of her. He was good, had been so kind to her. Buddy had said that Spike had had no luck with women. She felt compassion and pity for him. They flooded her like a warm bath. How lonely it must be never to have had a deep and intense love like she had experienced with Buddy. Was Spike ever going to meet a woman and settle down with her? She hoped so. He just needed some confidence.
Spike tilted his beer back, letting the cold liquid slide down his throat and as he put the bottle back on the table he saw Casey look at him. Did she – was she – did he dare to think that she was attracted to him? She was smiling warmly. Maybe after all these years, she was falling for him? The woman of his dreams. Could it be? He saw the way her skin shone in the half-light. He could see the cotton clinging to her breasts in the muggy heat, emphasizing her curves. Her softness made him harden, just looking at her, her beauty, her warmth. Close to her now, he felt himself privileged. He felt he had a chance.
‘I don’t know how to thank you, Spike,’ she said quietly.
He looked down, felt his cheeks burn.
‘I just could not have got through the last few months without you.’
Spike felt his body tingle. He understood what it was: desire for Casey but also guilt. He shouldn’t have tampered with Buddy’s truck brakes, when his friend was in the fish market. He knew it was wrong but he had been overcome with jealousy, built up over years. Why did Buddy deserve Casey rather than him?
Casey stood up, blew the candle out, and putting her hand on his arm, said, ‘Spike. Your room is so hot. You might like to lie with me in my bed tonight. It’s cooler.’