Harry watched the truck roll up in front of the slip, wondering why there were three inside instead of two. It was supposed to be just William and Dan this morning and he squinted against the headlights into the cab to see who was sandwiched between them. He’d never seen the guy before, so he turned his back on the truck and got on with hosing down the cockpit, blasting shrouds of moonlit webs into the scuppers along with their frantic creators, the water gurgling faintly as it swept them into the river.
William hadn’t mentioned bringing anyone else in his voice-mail and Harry fought a quick surge of irritation at being left out of the loop. There were enough details to consider at 5:00 a.m. in preparation for fishing offshore without the added unknown of a new guy. He surveyed the clean deck of the boat in the dimness as a stiff breeze stirred up the cottonwoods on the riverbank. They whispered nasty things about the strong east wind that had blown in overnight, taunting him with the promise of a good pounding in the stiff chop which always accompanied it.
William’s voice carried on the wind, directing Dan to unload the truck. Harry coiled the hose and waited onboard, watching Dan hand gear down off the steel bed to the stranger, who placed it on the wet grass. Waiting for them, annoyed with the wind, and William, he considered telling them all to go home.
“Harry, it’s too damn early.” William dropped a cooler on the dock beside the boat and sat on it, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t know why I bothered going to bed.”
“You’re getting awfully soft in your old age, Willy.” Harry waved him off the cooler and swung it over the side of the boat into the cockpit, sliding it astern to the usual spot against the transom. “I told you it’s been an early bite since the water warmed up.”
The dock shook, announcing Dan’s arrival, stranger in tow, laden with gear.
“Mornin’. You get bait?”
“I got it.” Harry eyed the new guy, who was checking out the boat. Clad in shorts and golf shirt, he looked out of place alongside the heavily dressed men, clearly unprepared for late spring fishing on Lake Erie. The new guy nodded and smiled at him, but Harry, not yet ready for pleasantries from strangers, grabbed a bag from Dan’s hands and bent down to stuff it into a storage compartment. Straightening, he stared a hard question at the largest man on the dock.
William swung his bulk ponderously into the cockpit, pulled a bag of ice from the cooler and dumped it into the fish box. He gestured in the general direction of the dock.
“That’s my brother-in-law, Gary. They just moved up from St. Louis last week. Thought we could show him what the Great Lakes are all about.”
“You should have called, William. You happen to hear the wind singing in the trees? We’ll have five and six footers out there today. Too rough for a rookie.”
William, his head in the bait-well, grunted as he screwed the aerator in. “Perfect day for him to learn. After today everything’ll be easy.” He stuck his head up and glared at Dan. “You gonna stand there? Lock the truck and get on the boat.”
Dan trotted up the dock, leaving Gary standing alongside the boat. Tall and lean, the rookie moved toward the rail as though to climb down into the cockpit, then hesitated. He stepped back, looking down uncertainly on the two men rushing about at mysterious tasks under the waning moon.
Harry stripped old line from a reel and wished, not for the first time, for someone else to fish with. It was so like William to spring this on him at the last minute, simply assuming that he, and everyone else, would go along. He’d fished on Harry’s boat nearly five years with such an easy presumption of command that most of the dock crowd were surprised to discover that the Frank G. was Harry’s. He’d let himself become accustomed to it, as well as William’s equally confident proclamations on most topics, happy enough to have someone able and willing to kick in some serious money toward running the boat. High fuel prices and the effects of several years of hard times made a well-heeled fishing partner a necessary, if regrettable, arrangement.
William reigned over a venerable family-owned company, part of a small minority in the state who had become more affluent in recent years even as much of rust-belt Michigan suffered a steady decline. He affected the innocent surprise of well-insulated old money at Harry’s tales of tough times at the automotive supplier he worked for, of longstanding accounts lost and nothing new coming in. His sympathy amounted to quoting cheerfully from the columns of conservative pundits, joining them in chortling over the decline of unions and the lowering of wages.
“It’s time for this state to wake up and recognize that entrepreneurs like me should be running the show, Harry,” began his favorite blessing on the end of a day of sport, delivered ex cathedra from the cockpit bench, surrounded by worshipful throngs of empty beer cans. Chugging back to the dock, the always pliable Dan cleaning the days catch, the afternoon sun would inflame William into a sweaty, two-hundred-eighty pound healer of the State’s economic problems.
“First of all, business owners must be exempt from taxes and minimum wage laws so we can create wealth. Then we cut out all that money wasted on those lazy bastards on welfare and make the working class actually do some work. That should be obvious to everyone except a few old lefties still teaching at Bleeding Heart U. Let ’em fondle their JFK memorabilia and eat cat food for dinner, I say.
“The new order is people like me who invest in the future and drive the economy. The higher my profit, the more I expand and the more people I employ. And what’s good for me is good for state and country.”
Red-tinged eyes would chase Harry, who had given up arguing years ago, around the deck as he pretended to be engrossed in mopping up fish slime, before alighting on a more sympathetic audience.
“That’s right, William,” Dan would chime with perfect pitch over the guttural counterpoint of crunching bones and tearing skin as he wielded the filet knife. A balding, unremarkable little man, he was at least smart enough to know where his interest lay. William’s general manager during business hours and all around dogs-body for the remainder of the planets rotation, he could generally be counted on to give the proper amen to holy doctrine. His great talent was a chameleon-like ability to shift allegiances almost instantly in accordance with his employer’s whims. An earnest friend to all until William’s disapproving cough quivered his constantly extended antennae, friendship would then be quickly withdrawn from anyone whom master had judged unworthy. A genial rapprochement might be offered a day, or a year later—if William signaled that proper restitution had been made.
There was no getting around his privileged status on the Frank G. this morning though, as at William’s curt request he’d chipped in part of the days fuel cost. Harry regarded both men as a form of penance for his inability to surmount a gradual financial malaise, as year by year his salary was frozen, then reduced, along with cuts to his health care and retirement. Today’s indignity of the new guy invited onboard without so much as a courtesy call was simply additional proof that he’d been judged and found wanting by the new world order, or whoever ran things these days.
After four brutal years of recession he was conscious of suffering an almost biblical punishment of reduced circumstances, with the prospect that what he endured was merely a taste of the future. As though his very own little apocalypse waited, heralded not by fire, or another forty day deluge, but William and Dan preaching at him from the cockpit of his boat– and he’d have to smile and applaud.
He looked at the new guy, still waiting patiently on the dock. William had brought him, and without William sharing the expense of the boat he’d probably have to sell it… if anyone was buying these days.
“Well… welcome aboard, Gary.” He pointed at a bench near the helm. “Have a seat while I get us into the river and then we’ll talk.”
Gary dropped lightly onto the deck and took his place without a word, pressing long legs against the seat as he slid behind piles of equipment. He took in William and Dan’s well-rehearsed choreography of bringing up fishing rods from storage lockers in the cramped cabin, inspecting rigging and setting the rods in the holders around the cockpit. He watched Harry scramble onto the bow to undo the last mooring line and then slip back behind the wheel to ease the boat out of the slip downriver, idling through the no-wake zone toward the lake.
The docks receded slowly into darkness and he smiled to hear ducks calling good morning as they paddled unseen along the shore, caught the silvered flash of small fish breaking the surface next to the boat. He looked up quickly as Harry swiveled the helm chair toward him, round face shadowy under the reddish glow of the running lights.
“So what’s it like being William’s brother-in-law?”
Gary smiled at him. “Weather and fishing are safe topics. We don’t agree on much else but he’s real easy to get along with if you stick with that. ‘Course, we had five hundred miles between us ‘til just recently— that helped.”
“I’ll bet.” Harry returned the smile briefly, looking at Gary’s shirt. “Look… down in the cabin you’ll find a waterproof jacket and pants.” He smiled again, looking down at Gary’s long legs. “You may find the pants a bit short, but you’re going to need something when we get out on the lake or you’ll have hypothermia. It’s a warm day ashore, but we’ll be taking some forty-five, forty-eight degree water over the bow while we’re running and a lot of spray when we’re trolling down in the wave troughs.”
Gary stood up. “I appreciate it.”
“One other thing. While you’re down there check out the life jackets hanging on the wall. No reflection on you Gary– I’d say the same if you were a Navy SEAL– but I may ask you to put one on if we start getting knocked around.”
“Got it.” He started for the cabin just as William came in from the cockpit.
“You two done sniffing asses yet? Let’s go fishing!”
“Just getting him something to wear. Shit… you started already?” Harry looked at the helm clock as the scent of beer floated on the air. It was ten to six.
“Damn right. Gotta show Gary how we do it up here.”
William looked down into the cabin, watched Gary pull on heavy pants and coat. “Harry give you the facts of life?”
Harry heard his laughing reply. “It’s not a big deal if I have to wear a life jacket.”
“Christ, not that.” William looked disgustedly at Harry while shifting his weight aside to allow Gary to step back up from the cabin.
Harry turned away from both men and stared through the window at the peachy-orange glow on the horizon.
“What Harry should have told you is this boat runs on gasoline, not gratitude. You’re my guest today but if you come back, Harry needs your help in the form of a contribution. And just so you know, ten bucks doesn’t get it done with a hundred eighty gallon tank to fill.”
Prickly heat crept over Harry’s cheeks, down his neck. He continued to stare out the window, despising William for the heavy-handed solicitation, but even more ashamed for allowing it to happen. He didn’t want anyone passing the hat so he could run the boat, though he knew he’d take any money offered freely. He certainly didn’t want William strong-arming anyone for him in that disgusting televangelist style.
He snuck a glance and Gary was looking right at him, his face neutral, betraying no surprise or distaste, studying him as the Frank G. approached the river mouth.
Lake Erie was showing her teeth against the lashing east wind, masticating the shoreline on both sides of the river into muddy froth under sharply cresting white-tipped rollers. Harry spared the cockpit a quick look as the boat plowed into the waves, checking that everything was tied down. William and Dan were leaning forward on the bench seats, ready to absorb the pounding with their legs. William took large gulps of beer to prevent any from slopping out of the can. He grinned at Harry, raising the can in a salute to… what? Harry didn’t know. Maybe the goddess dedicated to keeping fat, drunk assholes from falling out of boats.
Gary was carefully emulating the other two, his feet braced against the canting deck. He gripped a rail with one hand and Harry saw that the knuckles were white under the pressure. He wasn’t looking sick though, in fact he was gazing excitedly at the heaving lake as the first waves broke over the bow and ran over the cabin top, drenching the cockpit. Still dry for the moment at the helm, Harry grinned as Gary shook the cold water off just like an old-timer. He looked to be a fast learner and might do all right if he continued like this, shaking it off, ready for anything as they slammed through ten miles of rough water, out to the fishing grounds.
“These aren’t salmon, William, or even sheepheads. These are walleye. They’re not going to pop the bait hard and tear off a hundred yards of line. You’ve got to watch closely—you know that.”
Harry landed another fish from William’s side of the boat, the shiny green and brown skin already turning pale from dragging along unnoticed after it hit the bait. He tossed it into the box and held out another rod for William to check. Dan watched the port-side baits, with William supposedly keeping an eye to starboard as the Frank G. trolled slowly through the swells, crisscrossing over the school of fish marked on the sonar screen. William was also supposed to be showing Gary what to do while Harry steered the boat, but he hadn’t shown much enthusiasm for anything except drinking, and now, sullen faced, stood up very slowly and took the rod from Harry.
“…told Gary to watch… got to learn…,” he muttered.
Harry looked at him closely, and then at Dan—and he was watching William as well, an anxious frown pinching his face. Harry flipped the cooler lid open and counted eight empties partially submerged in the ice-water slurry. He slammed the lid down and rounded on William.
“Jesus-Fucking-Christ-Almighty, it’s not even ten o’clock! What the hell’s the matter with you?” Harry’s hand circled the boat, taking in Dan and Gary. “Nobody’s even cracked one yet and you’re shit-faced.”
William reeled in line and didn’t answer.
Dan pointed toward the helm, motioning for Harry and Gary to follow him, and they crowded around the wheel, holding on to whatever was handy as the boat pitched and rolled.
“Go easy on him. He had a bad night.”
“Bullshit. Anybody drunk this early on my boat, in rough weather, better have more then a bad night for an excuse.”
Harry stared at Dan until the man, who was completely William’s creature, looked away, checked that William was still busy in the cockpit and bent his head conspiratorially toward them.
“He and Donna had a big fight and he spent the night at my house.”
Harry shrugged, “So, they’re always at each others throats. What’s it this time? She catch him fucking the maid… what’s her name… Rosa?”
A faint smile teased the corners of Dan’s mouth. “Not the maid.”
Harry looked at Gary, simultaneous grins split their faces. “Well come on man, spill it,” Harry exhorted.
A quick look toward the cockpit, and Dan leaned in again. “Well, you know Darlene at Bob’s Bait?” Dan looked into Harry’s incredulous eyes, nodded.
Harry simply laughed, just laughed. He didn’t care if William heard, he didn’t care about gas money, or sharing expenses, or anything at the moment.
He looked at Gary, who wore a puzzled smile, and that got him laughing again. Finally, he took pity on him.
“You haven’t been there yet, Gary, but there’s about a dozen bait shops on the highway near the marina all selling the same stuff. Well, a few years ago, Bob’s Bait decided to cut out the competition by getting rid of their male help and hiring pretty, twenty-something girls. They put them in short shorts and halter tops – and business went through the roof. Everybody calls them “The Minnow Girls” because that’s what they do all day long; dip minnows into your pail. They make pretty good money considering almost everyone around here’s laid off.
“Of course, William calls them “bait whores” and says it’s a good enough job for people too poor and stupid for college. Which is why this is so delicious.”
Gary laughed. “And Darlene is a minnow girl?”
“You betcha. But what I don’t understand,” Harry asked, turning back to Dan, “I can see what’s in it for old Willy-boy, but what’s Darlene get out of it? I mean, he’s got money, but look at the guy. And she’d have to listen to his divine right of kings shit.”
They looked out in the cockpit, and William was once again seated on the bench, gut jutting impressively astern, improving himself with another cold one.
Having crossed the line of no return in revealing master’s secret, Dan giggled maliciously. “It seems that Darlene wants to be a chef and William told her he’d pay for a two year course at the community college. Then, last week, they had an argument about something and he told her to forget it – he wouldn’t pay for anything.
“So she’s real pissed, right? So last night she calls the house and Donna answers, and Darlene tells her the whole story, every little detail. It must have been a great fight. He was pounding on my door around two o’clock yelling about a divorce. He sacked out in our spare bedroom for a couple hours ’till we had to get up and meet you at the dock.”
Harry found the rest of the morning much improved. Gary took William’s place watching the baits and he was a natural, spotting the hits almost as quickly as Harry. The fish bit steadily until by early afternoon they’d caught their limit and began stowing rods and equipment for the run back to the marina. William kept to his seat, probably guessing from the frequent grins shared among the others that his secret was out. He scowled, but said nothing when Harry removed the cooler from his close proximity and carted it down into the cabin.
Gary took over the helm under Harry’s guidance, the boat running beautifully now that the wind was behind them, pushing them lightly up and over the foaming wave crests. The big lake displayed her finery for them as if to apologize for the punishing ride earlier, showing off diving cormorants and swooping gulls, sinuous water snakes and stalking herons, all hunting for fish dazed by the pounding waves.
The day had turned out better then Harry expected, and the best of it was a peculiar silence in the cockpit. No boozy orations marred the peaceful sibilance of water rushing along the hull today, or confident prescriptions for curing the State’s economic ills. Not a day for regal pronouncements and fractured logic after all, but curving waves, arcing fish, circling birds. He felt it keenly again, as he hadn’t in years, the magic power of the lake thrumming into him from somewhere beyond the leaping bow, and watching Gary guide the boat his first time into the home channel, an exultation wrought by wind and water on his face, knew he felt it too.
Dan, with Gary as able assistant, tied off the mooring lines at the dock and Gary began stacking gear as Harry handed it to him, working around William, who still kept to his seat, staring at the deck. Dan pulled out the box containing cleaning knives and approached the fish box.
“Wait up Dan,” Harry spoke in a low voice. He turned to William, “Since you weren’t worth a rat’s ass out there today, you think you could possibly clean some fish without gutting yourself?”
“That’s his job,” William growled, jabbing a thumb at Dan, looking hard and mean at Harry.
“I’ve got another job for him right now so get crackin’, buddy.” The “buddy” was discretely vicious and Harry enjoyed it immensely, smiling sweetly against William’s dangerous mien.
Dan offered the knife box to his boss. It remained between them a long moment before William snatched it from his hands.
They watched him hoist the fish box onto the dock, carry it ashore to the cleaning station. His face was flushed with rage, weather and drink.
“So what’s this job?” Dan asked tensely. He was looking more regretful every second, like he’d rather run after boss-man and apologize then anything else. There’d be retribution for telling them about Darlene—William would see to that.
Harry dug around in the cooler. “Well, if Willy-boy left us anything your job is to drink one with Gary and me.”
He handed beers around, they popped the tops, Gary and Dan watching him, waiting.
He smiled at them. “I want to welcome the new guy. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see you Gary, but you did great out there today. You’re welcome back anytime and…” Harry looked toward the fish cleaning station, “don’t worry about what you were told about gas money. You can fish for free.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like those waves; running the boat through them was awesome,” Gary recounted solemnly. “I’ll go again whenever you say.”
He grinned widely, “And I’ll pay my way, so just take the money and don’t argue.”
“I won’t put up a fuss,” Harry laughed.
He raised his beer in a salute, “We’re also drinking to Darlene, Minnow Girl extraordinaire, who with one phone call deflated an eighth of a ton of pomposity. She showed me I’ve been a fool to let William walk all over me. I don’t know if she’ll be a chef, but I hope she gets whatever she wants because she beat hell out of a guy who had every advantage—money, position, experience.”
He looked at Dan, “Maybe something in that for you too. Gentlemen… Darlene.”
They drank up and went about their tasks, loading the truck and cleaning up. Harry began mopping the cockpit, actually enjoying it without William yammering at him. The wind still bent the cottonwoods, no longer threatening, but a crooning breath of the summer to come. Warm days spent floating on sparkling water, sea gulls battling one another to beg for scraps as they bobbed around the boat in gentle swells. He’d show Gary the sweet disposition of the lake and he’d love it, just as he’d loved her raw, lashing power.
He was still working on the cockpit when they came down the dock to say their good-byes. William was already in the truck, not speaking to anyone, and Harry was glad he wouldn’t be riding with them. Old Willy-boy would be prickly for a while after today, though Harry wouldn’t have missed it, whatever came of it. A chastened William, all in all, might be an improvement.
“All loaded up?”
“Yeah.” Dan looked back at the truck as he laid a freezer bag full of Harry’s share of fish fillets on the dock. “We better get going. He’s not exactly in the best mood.”
“I hear you. Well, great trip guys. Got our limit, didn’t break the boat and made it back alive. I’m planning on next Saturday if you can make it.”
“I’m in,” Gary said. “Just let me know what time.”
Dan grimaced at the truck. “I’ll have to see which way the winds’ blowing, Harry.”
“You know,” Harry offered, “You can come by yourself. You work for the guy; you’re not his servant.”
“It’s not that simple. You know what he’s like.”
“It is that simple, Dan. He’s been acting like God-damned royalty for too long. We don’t have any hereditary aristocracy in this country, but we’re ass deep in company Chairmen and CEOs.
“You get a guy like William running around unchecked and Christ; he’s as dangerous to us as a mad King. Darlene knocked him off his throne for all of us, believe me.”
Dan shook his head. “I don’t see it that way. William has a lot of influence. If he fires me I’ll have to move out of state to find a job.”
Harry opened his mouth, but Gary cut in. “He’s not gonna fire you. I been around him off and on for fifteen years and I never saw him embarrassed before, but he’s embarrassed now. William almost always gets his way except this time he didn’t—and we all know about it. He’ll probably treat you even worse then usual for a while but I figure you’re used to that.”
Gary looked at Harry. “It’s always a good thing for guys like us when somebody like William gets cut down a peg or two.”
“I don’t know,” Dan muttered, staring down at his feet. “you don’t work for him.”
Harry couldn’t resist: “It will be all right, Dan. “You can always threaten him with Darlene if he gets too high and mighty. Tell him she’s pregnant and you’ll have to tell Donna if he doesn’t tone his shit down.”
Gary laughed, Dan didn’t.
“Ha ha. Screw you, Harry.”
He leaned on the mop, watching William drive them away until the truck was almost out of sight before finishing the cockpit, smiling at the clean deck, the carefully stowed gear. The Frank G. was once again ready to entertain, royals and commoners alike.