Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Novel Excerpt: New England Clam Chowder

by mykl sivak

January 28, 2002
July 24, 2004
August 27, 2014



Image: Henry, Eugene P. “A Maine fishing Village.” 1922. Web. August 27, 2014. <http://www.hellenicaworld.com/USA/Photography/en/PictorialPhotographyAmerica1922.html>
 
In the winter rain they stood upon some strange wooden pilings, sodden waterlogged beams, remnants of some out-of-use edifice, but neither seemed to know what its use had been.

Two walls of wood, slats affixed to wide pilings and foot by foot cross beams.  The whole thing was fitted with wide hex-bolts with threads displayed naked where the water and accumulated sand of tides and tides had forced the wooden pieces apart.  With each wave that sloughed up through the roughly twelve-foot wide space that separated the walls, the wooden beams hulked and shook, the one-inch bolts wrenched out of their stripped shafts and snapped back sharply as the waves fell past. The whole thing shuddered.

It must have been some type of levee, designed to direct the flow of brackish water out from the estuary marshland and down into the bay, a way to minimize beach erosion.  But the geology of the beach must have changed much since the walls were built, which was clearly many decades past, for the estuary’s flow was little more than a dribbling trickle which died half way down the beach never reaching the spot where the walls began.

Or perhaps there had been a road.  Yards away, to the Northwest, there were signs that a portion of what was now the beach had once been paved, for here and there broken bits of old asphalt jutted up from the sand. And rusted lengths of pipe stuck up among the rocks at the base of the rock cliff suggesting antiquated plumbing.

Nathan walked out first, foot before foot, with a jaunty, almost cartoonish, confidence which seemed, to Berry, inappropriate given the strong wind that blew across the pilings sidewise and the white capped sloshing waves that lapped the wood from all sides and at times broke inches above the topmost planks’ surfaces.

The wind was warm, given the setting, but the bay’s water was icy cold.  Berry sneered at the water as it smacked against the sides of Nathan’s black canvass sneakers.  He heart skipped a beat when the kid’s worn soul failed to find purchase with one step and his whole body tottered before landing the next step. But Nathan hadn’t even seemed to notice.

Halfway down the structure, Berry’s glasses were so covered with rain and salt his visibility was less than if he wore no glasses at all so he removed them. Stuck them into the waistband of his tighty-whities. Suddenly everything became like a wash of thinned ink. A gradient of grey that moved and morphed as if dragged across paper by the unseen brush of god.

Berry felt his face growing red with … was it anger? Anger for whom? For this kid, Nathan? For the elements? For himself? It smoldered hot beneath the red of chill on flabby fat cheeks.
He could not scorn the sea.  It was what it was, and he guessed he respected its climatic barbarity.  But he found himself, now, filled with a bubbling rage for the slight boyish frame which moved across the wooden pilings before him, and the oblivious something-like-grace with which it moved despite the grossly obvious danger surrounding it.

As if on cue, it spoke: “Don’t worry, dude! The water’s so high, if we fall in we can just pull ourselves back up.” A pause. “Unless there’s some crazy undertow, which there no doubt is.”
Berry sniffled hard; a booger shot up into his sinuses.

That morning:

Berry awoke to the sound of water slamming against his room window.  It was the ocean.  During the night a winter squall had moved in from the sea.  Berry sat up in his bed, rubbed his eyes, and the back of his neck.  Yesterday, he hadn’t closed the window’s curtains, and now the diffuse grey light of stormy Maine filled the room.  Rhythms pulsed around him.  The cyclic undulation of rain on the roof and window was an offbeat to the pounding of the surf against the outer wall of Berry’s room.  He got out of his bed and walked to the window. He looked out through the slosh and clamor of the breaking waves and across the turbulence.  Through the rain and the waves, Berry could make out a few brightly painted fishing boats, tethered to posts, and pitching uncontrollably in the ocean’s billows.  For a moment he got the strange sense that the waves were like the arms of the ocean, and they were reaching out for him. He imagined what it would be like, if the waves were to knock out the wooden pilings which bore the weight of the B&B. If he and his whole room were sent crashing down into the breaking waves.  A small fat man and his suitcase, in which were the few remaining things he owned, the entirety of a whole life, set spiraling down to the water and the rocks to be tossed and smashed to nothing.

He put on his pants, and his shoes, and his black turtleneck sweater. He grabbed a small black satchel off the floor next to the bureau and went downstairs.

Berry had hoped that Nathan would be around when he got downstairs, but he wasn’t.  He had hoped Nathan might let him borrow his jacket.  He thought about going up to Nathan’s room and knocking on the door to see if he was in, but he decided against it.  Instead he went into the dining room, poured himself a cup of coffee, sat down in a chair, and waited.

He sat at the same table he’d sat at yesterday.  He sat in the same chair.  The inn seemed empty, again.  Not even the man behind the desk (was he an innkeeper?) was around.  Berry didn’t suppose that anyone besides Nathan and himself were staying there.  It was deep winter in Vacationland.  It was summer someplace else.  He sat and sipped his coffee.  Slowly the realization fell that Berry had a slight hangover, and that he didn’t know what time it was and he allowed his mind to shut off. He became part of the room, motionless, breathing, in existential syncopation with the waves and the rain and the seagulls who barked, somehow still gliding on the hellacious winds.

Soon Berry heard the inn’s front door open.  Sodden footsteps sounded on the lobby’s hardwood floor. Nathan appeared from around the corner, his jacket hood pulled up over his head.  He was dripping with rain.
 
“Berry,” said Nathan smiling.
“Hey,” Berry responded.
“It’s pretty fucking wicked out there today.”
“Yeah.”
“Listen, I came to get you.  You said you were looking for a job on a boat, right?”
“I don’t think I said that.” Said Berry, pulling himself up from a slouch.
“Sure you did. Last night at the pub. You said you felt lost. Like you had never done anything real. I said you should get a job on a boat.”
“Oh.” Berry said, embarrassed, confused.

Well, I was talking to this guy at the docks, and he said he might have a job for you.  We’re going to meet him at the pub tonite after dinner. But first we need to teach you how to fish!”

“Okay,” said Berry. He placed his belongings into his bag and walked toward Nathan.  He expected Nathan to move, to turn around, head out toward the front door.  But he just stood there, and by the time Berry stopped, he and Nathan were standing right in front of one another.  Berry hadn’t noticed before, how short Nathan was.  Berry was only about five ten, and Nathan appeared to be at least three inches shorter.  Nathan was chuckling. 

“Berry, you need a jacket,” he said.  Berry didn’t say anything.  He did need a jacket.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Nathan.  “Hold on a second.”  He moved passed Berry, across the dining room and through a pair of swinging double doors Berry guessed lead into the kitchen.  Berry heard what sounded like cabinet doors opening and closing.  In a moment Nathan returned, dragging behind him a gigantic black garbage bag.

“Here,” he said, thrusting it in Berry’s direction.  “Put a hole in it for your face.”

On the pier:

“I think we should just go back,” Berry shouted to Nathan who now was more than halfway down the total length of the structure, just feet away from where it sank completely beneath the surface of the tide.

“No way, Berry! Don’t be a chicken.  This is fun!” The shape shouted back, giving no verbal sign of alarm when, for a moment, it again almost lost its footing.

Berry felt his body tense, almost diving forward into the water before the blur regained its foothold on the wood.  In a second the tension passed, and Berry became immediately relaxed. In a moment, his fear for Nathan had tamed his rage, transformed anger into courage; and when that too had passed, he realized that he himself had been standing upon the shaky wet wooden prop for minutes.  He tightened his grip on the fishing pole he was carrying, and stepped forward, following Nathan out into the crashing waves.

Nathan was squatting, cutting off chunks of mackerel against the planks between his sneakers.
“If a boat goes by, we’re fucked!” Nathan screamed, laughing.

“Gimme your pole,” he said to Berry as he baited his own hook.

Berry took a few uncertain steps forward, stretching his arm out toward Nathan.  Nathan grabbed the fishing pole, beneath the top loop, and Berry let go.  The pole splashed down into the waves, submerging the reel and bottom half of the pole.  Nathan pulled it up from the water, quickly stuck a hunk of fish on the hook.

“Att’ll do ya,” he said, handing the poll back to Berry.  Too far now to reach the pole without being speared by the dangling hook, Berry took a few more steps forward.
“Watch out,” Nathan said throwing back his pole.

“Okay,” Berry replied, flinching a bit, unsure of what exactly was about to happen.
Then he watched in awe as Nathan cast his line off into the surf.  The purity of motion was amazing and beautiful.  Nathan had never impressed Berry as being particularly graceful.  His movements, though deliberate, had always seemed more purposeful than elegant, impelled more by youthful rawness, than some sort of refined physical dexterity.

But this was something different.  Berry was amazed to behold muscle memory in action. And his brain was flooded with molecules of shame.  It was as if he’d been placed before some large fourth-dimensional mirror, and for what was surprisingly the first time in his life, Berry realized just how entirely physically awkward he was.

There was nothing he did as automatically as Nathan had cast that line.  Not shoveling food into his fat face, not scribbling notes to himself on stolen office post-its, not fucking, not riding a bike, not wiping his ass after a neat little shit.  Berry was incapable of grace even through the most redundant practice.  He was capable of mechanical mindless action, but even that was sloppy and unsure.
“Aren’t you going to cast?” Nathan shouted over the wind, as a large swell billowed over the piling and halfway up his calf.

“Yeah,” said Berry. “I guess so.  I’m not sure I know how.”
“You’re just going to have to figure it out,” said Nathan amidst the tumult.

Berry wrapped his chubby pink fingers around the line just above the reel, pulling it back against the rod.  Then, as he’d seen Nathan do moments before, he flicked the metal arc at the top of the reel with his thumb.  The wind blew hard, and fishing line began to fly off the reel, beneath where he held it with his fingers. He panicked, snapped the pole back over his shoulder then flung it forward. When the pole was pitched 90 degrees he let the line loose with his fingers, sending the bated hook flying out with the wind.  The gust took mackerel and carried it out so far Berry thought he might lose sight of it.  Finally it splashed down to the waves with a whirl.

“That was a good cast!” Nathan shouted. “I thought you said you’ve never fished before.”
Berry just smiled, rainwater and sea spray flowing down his fat dumb face like cum down the faces of Asian girls in the bukkake films he watched.

“Keep casting on this side,” Nathan shouted. “If you cast in the other direction, you might get tangled up on the other wall.  If a fish swims around the pilings, you’re fucked. I’ll keep casting out to the front, here.  That way, our lines shouldn’t get tangled.”

“Alright,” Berry yelled back, not completely sure he understood what it was Nathan was talking about.  A wave swelled up above his toes, filling his loafers with cold saltwater.

The rain was picking up now, and the sea was spraying something wicked. Small steady streams of brackish water were flowing hardcore off Berry’s garbage bag poncho. He was standing sideways upon the structure, water before him, wind at his back.  The rotting wood beneath his soles was soaking up water like a sponge, and the thin green layer of grassy algae was growing slicker from compaction and inundation.  Berry willfully slid his right foot side to side a bit, and a stupid bloated smile spread across his doughy pink cheeks.

He looked to his right, through the gauzy haze of water that had run down his brow and filled his eyes, toward the end of the plank where Nathan stood. He was just a rain soaked blur, like an out of focus photograph.  A soundtrack of windy discord, the crashing and swelling of seawater surrounded him, filling his ears and mind like a superb rising ebb tide.

All at once he was alive.  The wind beat his back harder. Raindrops smacked against his face and cheeks so hard it stung. And soon, Berry couldn’t tell if he wasn’t crying. He laughed, and his laughter was awkward and whooping, forced yet uncontrollable like the unchained sobbing of a grown man thrust into miserable hysteria. And soon, he felt he couldn’t stop himself, and he wasn’t even sure if he hadn’t lost it.

Through clenched and watery eyes he saw Nathan’s form turn toward him.  He heard him shouting.
“Berry!  Your line! You’ve got a bite!”

Berry looked in front of himself.  The rod he was holding had arced down drastically, bent almost 180 degrees.

“Fuck! Nathan! What do I do?” He shouted in a panic.
“Set the hook!  Jerk back the rod!”
He did it, staggering.
“Now what?”
“Reel it in!”

Berry pulled the rod hard against his paunch.  The base stuck in his gut, and he cranked the reel in a frenzy.
He was turning the reel with all his might, forcing the pole’s handle deep into his belly until it hurt.  Still, he felt he was making little progress.  Berry felt as if he were attempting to ride uphill on a bike stuck in the highest gear gear. He turned and turned.

“God!” Nathan shouted, “This thing must be huge!”

Berry’s fingers felt like ice-cold jelly, and just when he felt he could turn the reel no more, the fish’s head broke the surface of a cresting wave which crashed down upon the levee all around Berry.
The head was huge, with a threatening boney jaw, and shining golden eyes.  The horrible face was still burning in Berry’s mind when the waves closed in above his head.

Suddenly, everything was a muffled soundlessness, and murky obscure brown-grey light.  There was no up nor down and everything was drowsy weightlessness and cold.  Berry felt the garbage bag swelling up all around him, he saw vague shadows of ghastly gigantic fish suspended all around him.  And then, suddenly, he could see them. A school. A dozen or so gigantic fish, hovering almost motionlessly, twelve-foot a piece, with strange pointed snouts and prehistoric boney plates down their backs and sides. In the murky light they seemed to glow gold, or ghost white and he could feel them watching him. Like old gods. Like something beyond the experience of man. Like silent acceptance.
He suddenly felt very tired.  He felt as if he was already asleep, and at once everything became just a dream. This was not his life.

He saw himself, from a camera angle outside of his own body.  There he was, sitting behind his desk, in his office at Head Over Advertising, back in Filler.  It was springtime, and all the cartoon frog-green leaves of old maple trees were shimming with sunlight, dancing in the warm Connecticut breeze.

He was there in short sleeves; his old blue and green striped tie tied snug around his fat well-fed neck. Little specks of dust and airy flotsam drifted past the yellow square of window sunlight. And all he could hear was the quiet hummy buzz of the perpetual fluorescent lighting.

Even the old faux-wood paneling upon the office walls seemed bright and welcoming.  Every spilled-coffee carpet stain was gladly received. He was home again, but now everything had changed.  What he had called monotony, was security.  What he had perceived to be boredom was protection, shelter.
That was his life.  Routine is refuge; and he had torn that refuge to bits, cast his haven into the cold Atlantic where is would sink and sink, only to be buried in all the silt of a hellish abyss.

It was a moment before he felt the smacks on his face.  He could see Nathan’s face, flushed and drenched and teary shouting before he heard the screams.  He was back upon the levee, eyes open staring up from a pale expressionless face. Nathan was kneeling on his groin. He puched Berry hard in the sternum with a audible crack.

“Berry!” Nathan’s voice shouted.  “Berry, please!” “Fuck Berry! Please!

“Somebody help!” Nathan screamed so loud it seemed blood would pour out from his throat. And the Berry coughed.  He hacked and felt the sting of saltwater spurt out from his lungs. He swore he felt a little fish wriggle out over his tongue.

“Berry! Jesus, Fuck!” Nathan cried. “Jesus Christ, Berry! Fuck!”

Berry clenched his fat cheeks with fingertips. Jolted up. Tossed Nathan back on his ass to the structure. He stood.

“Nathan! God damn it! You almost killed me! I almost died!”

Nathan got up on his feet ran to Berry, grabbed his face and pulled it down to his and locked his gaze.

“But Berry! You’re alive!”

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