Fiction by Polly Buckingham
Hamlin and Omar serve the drinks at the Ghost Hole Tavern. Hamlin serves the living, and Omar serves the dead. November nights the Ghost Hole is a box of rain, wind gusting around its wooden walls right off the salty bay and rattling the window glass, rain pelting the walls and low tin roof and dirty windows with their spider web cracks, ringing in that open, scuffed wood interior. Worn fishing remnants and ship parts the ocean has washed in hang on the walls—old traps, multicolored mooring line, a rusted cleat, an old wooden block that still turns when the little girl spins it with her finger, warped buoys, the hieroglyphic flecks of neon paint.
Marshall had just docked from a month of albacore fishing. He’d never docked in Garibaldi, but it was late in the season, and the weather had gotten nasty, so they’d pulled in for a night before bringing the boat to the cannery in Illwaco. He’d always liked Garibaldi—it was quieter than other spots on the coast, unspoiled, Marshall thought, not yet taken over by the outside world. His crew of one, a stringy kid named Steve, put up no argument, especially when Marshall offered to buy him a seafood dinner at the Bayside Marina. Afterwards, they headed for the Ghost Hole, their boot steps ringing on the rainy pavement, their bodies trying to adjust to the solidity of the ground, expecting it to sway and jostle, and each time it did not, their bodies took the shock such that, even with full bellies of food, they felt disoriented and lost. No matter how many years you fish, this feeling never goes away. The body, tense, waits for the next surprise. The legs and arms and torso so used to working to keep the body upright, suddenly don’t have to work; the adrenaline it takes to contend with the fact that every step is on uncertain ground still rushes into the blood stream and courses beneath the skin, unprepared for this sudden absence of danger. The best cure is always a drink. Enough of them, and you might just knock yourself into a facsimile of that wobbly sea.
“That cute waitress was checking me out,” Steve said.
“I didn’t notice,” Marshall said. Steve wasn’t much to look at, but Marshall recognized and perhaps admired his cockiness derived from a certain fatalism. He seemed to expect very little from the world, and to some extent this freed him from the normal constraints of humility and self consciousness that plagued most people.
Hamlin slid a beer across the counter. Omar, in red suspenders, was busy with an old regular called Bones whose long skeleton fingers, accentuated cheekbones and sallow face attested to his name. Marshall watched Omar pour the amber liquid into a glass mug. Omar looked up at him mid pour and raised his eyebrows in surprise when Marshall looked back, not with the vacant stare Omar had grown accustomed to from half the clientele at the Ghost Hole. He shrugged. “They come in all packages,” he said. “Ham, would you take a look at that guy.”
Hamlin, in a grubby blue baseball cap, looked at Omar and then at Marshall then muttered something to himself.
“Hey Mate,” Omar said to Marshall.
Marshall nodded discretely.
“Don’t antagonize him,” Hamlin said. “Can I get you something?” he asked Marshall.
“Beer to start’d be fine,” Marshall said. The bar was crowded, and he still felt as if he were in that otherworld between the shore and the ocean, between isolation and people.
Sheila, a girl at the bar waiting for her beer, looked around. Was Hamlin speaking to her? “What?” she asked.
“Nothing, love,” Hamlin said. “Just talking to the ghosts.” He gave her a sly smile.
“Stop doing that to me,” she said. Sheila worked at the Bayside, so she sympathized with Hamlin, always being the only guy behind the bar, having to hustle all the time, but she hated it when he’d mess with her like that. And it wasn’t like the Ghost Hole was all that busy—two young guys playing pool, two fisherman at the bar and herself was all. Two of the guys had come into the Bayside. She’d seated them just before she got off her shift.
Stringy Steve had approached another fishing kid for a game of pool. Steve had a good eye and usually could make extra money at the game. The little girl in a green velvet dress, white tights, and hiking boots sat under the table, poking at the sacks of balls with her fingers. This was Steve’s first season fishing. He’d hung out at the Workers’ Tavern in Astoria last spring passing the word around that he was looking to be a crew. He was just out of high school, though he’d flunked his senior year and was supposed to take summer courses. Fuck that, he’d said and headed for the Workers’. He heard the money fishing was great—you might get $1,000 for just a week of work, and on the ocean, you had nothing to spend it on. Free room and board for as long as you were out there. Which is just what Steve needed since his parents, kids themselves really, had kicked him out. Marshall was a good match. He fished a longer season than most, no matter how dangerous the conditions. Lots of crew wouldn’t have anything to do with him—they all thought he was crazy. But Steve wasn’t scared of the ocean. It was just the same to him whether it took him or whether it let him live. In the meantime, long seasons meant more money.
“There’s another place like this,” Marshall said to Hamlin and Omar. “The Sea Hag in Illwaco. You know, a real hot spot.”
“I don’t get out much,” Omar said, as a blue liquid fell from a metal spout on the head of a bottle and into a square shot glass.
“She’s an old bitch,” Bones said, his head bent over the bar so that all one could see of him was his white fishing cap, the profile of his narrow nose, and his long, thin, white hair.
“Here you go, Bones. Frustrating, ain’t it old boy? Just goes right through you, don’t it?”
Bones wrapped his tiny wrists on the resin-thick bar. “Don’t matter to me,” he muttered. “So long’s I know I got a place.”
Sheila had come here alone. She would hang out at the Bayside, which was just a little classier than this place, but she didn’t like hanging out where she worked. Besides, that guy Byron was really beginning to bug her. At first his crush had been cute, even flattering. But now it was just too much. He reeked of bad cologne and bad breath, and he always stood too close to her, staring at her through thick lenses with his jiggly, myopic eyes. Through smoke, she watched the pool balls banging into each other. Her gaze was unfocused until Stringy Steve sat down at her table. “Mind if I sit here?” he said.
A woman in a torn red dress sat down in the third chair. “You’re a real cutey,” she said to Steve.
“Not at all,” Sheila said.
“Hey old lady,” Omar called to the woman in a red dress. “You ain’t getting nothing of that.”
“I’m just sitting here, and don’t call me old. I’m only twenty,” the woman in the red dress said.
“Yeah but you been around a hell of a lot longer than me.” Omar ran his palm across his silver hair as if to mock her.
“Fuck you, Omar. Fuck you all. And what the hell are you doing under that table, little girl?” the red dress woman said.
The little girl stared up at her with huge, impassive eyes. A striped ball fell into one of the pockets, and she slid over so she could poke it.
“Don’t listen to her, Audrey. She’s just a sour old wench,” Omar said to the little girl, who seemed unperturbed.
“I told you, I ain’t old.” The red dress woman, Valerie, leaned into the conversation between Steve and Sheila, her arms extended halfway across the little round table. Her legs were parted and planted heavily on the floor. “She’s not good enough for you, Sweetie,” she said to Steve.
“You’re a pretty good player,” Sheila said to Steve.
“Thanks. Hey, didn’t I see you working at the Bayside?”
Sheila nodded. “You come here off a boat?”
The Ghost Hole shuddered with a gust of wind. Omar poured Bones another blue drink in a shot glass.
The owner of another fishing boat struck up a conversation with Marshall.
“That your crew?” the other fisherman asked tipping his head toward Stringy Steve.
“Mm,” Marshall said.
“Better than he looks.”
“Mine is waste of muscle. And no brain,” he said directing his gaze to the beefy kid leaning over the table, taking shots without pause.
“Lousy season,” the other fisherman said. “I hate being out this late, wasting my time on a bunch of schoolies. Nothing worth any weight and the catch is a third the size of what I get in summer.” He was a big guy, his feet resting on the barstool’s metal ring, his big thighs crowded into the space under the edge of the bar.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Marshall said.
“And then the canneries don’t give you half of what they used to for ‘em.” His hair and trim beard were peppered with gray, his shirt patched at the elbows like maybe he had a wife, which Marshall didn’t. Marshall looked over at the red dress woman. Wonder what happened to that gal, he thought.
“What the hell are you looking?” she said, catching his eye.
He took a long drink of his beer.
“I know damn well you can hear me,” she screamed across the room.
“Double shot of Jack,” Marshall said when Hamlin came by. “And one for my friend here.”
“’preciate that,” the other man said. “Bill.” He held out his hand.
“Marshall. Where you out of?”
“Oh yeah? What boat?”
“The Annie Grey. You seen her?”
“She that cement number?”
“That’s her,” Bill said, stretching his arms across the bar and settling his weight imperceptibly into his stool as if his body were relaxing as best it could into the small seat. “Real steady. I just try not to think about her filling up with water.”
“Hey,” the red dress woman said to Marshall. “I know you hear me.”
He jerked around suddenly, surprised to find her standing over him. There was a faint red hole in the middle of her forehead where she’d been shot. He turned quickly back to Bill who was looking in the woman’s direction, as if there was something he should see that he wasn’t seeing. He looked like he was about to ask, so Marshall started talking. “How ‘bout that storm Monday night?”
“Look at me, Blue Eyes,” the woman in the red dress said.
“Scared the piss outa me. That’s when you know what your crew is made of. That kid was all elbows. You know its bad when a guy is forced to go out in all this weather,” Bill said. “I got a family to feed.”
“You don’t need to tell me,” Marshall said, even though he didn’t have a family. And he didn’t need the money.
“Sailor, look at me.”
“Lay off him, Valerie,” Omar said.
“She always been a looker,” Bones said. “Wish she’d treat me that way.”
“Stay out of this old man,” Valerie said and threw her red hair back with a toss of her head. She leaned her elbow on the bar. “They say I shouldn’t talk to you, Beautiful,” she said to Marshall. “But I saw you looking at me.”
“That kid of yours is damn good player,” Bill said.
“Yeah, I seen him do this a couple times this summer. Sometimes he gets in over his head, but mostly he’s smart about picking his players.”
“He’s smart about picking Delmar there. That boy got no sense of concentration.”
“At least he’s been able to supplement the piss poor season with pool money,” Marshall said. They were both sitting with their chairs swiveled toward the pool tables. Marshall turned his face halfway to the bar. “Could I get another one of these,” he said to Omar.
“This one’s yours,” Omar said to Hamlin.
“Hang on, man,” Hamlin said. “I’m right in the middle of something here.”
Marshall turned around fully to look. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought you were right here.”
“I can be anywhere you want me,” Hamlin said. “But only one place at one time.”
“One for me too,” Bill said when Hamlin brought the whiskey. “On me this time.” He laid out a twenty.
Sheila thought Steve was cute in his own way. His face was clean and intelligent, and he had a way of talking that wasn’t all braggy like some guys. He was cool with his looks, which weren’t great, but weren’t bad. He was comfortable with himself. Or maybe it was just the beer, which she was drinking much more quickly since Steve had brought a pitcher to the table. She watched his long, loose body lean over the table, his eyes narrowing with concentration. The pool stick slid back and forth against the crook of his thumb and forefinger.
“I’d like my son—he’s 17—to crew for me, but he ain’t interested. And I’ll tell you, I don’t blame him,” Bill said. “If they’re smart, seems they know well enough this career’s destined for the shitter.”
“Sure isn’t like it used to be,” Marshall said, though it didn’t matter to him what he made, long as he could get out on the ocean away from people and the bizarre balancing act that his life on shore always seemed to turn into. Just like tonight.
Valerie leaned over and put her mouth to Marshall’s ear. “Honey!” she screamed.
He winced. Just like this woman screaming in his ear. He didn’t need this crap.
“Something I said?” Bill asked. He did tend to carry on, as his wife liked to say, especially when he’d had some liquor. After all that solitude, it was often hard to gauge when he’d said too much.
Omar reached across the counter and grabbed Valerie’s elbow. “Listen, enough is enough. Go harass someone who can’t hear you. I don’t want no craziness here tonight.”
“Not at all,” Marshall said to Bill. “Bartender?” It occurred to Marshall that he was shouting.
“You threatening me, Omar?” Valerie jerked her arm out of his tenuous grip.
“Not yet for me.” Bill covered his half full glass with his beefy hand. He needed to slow down—he didn’t want to make a fool of himself. He was too old for that kind of thing. And it would only lead to blowing money he didn’t have.
At home, Bill had a teenage son and two young daughters. He’d gotten into fishing in the late 60’s when he was in his twenties. It was a respectable way for someone to feed his family without having to buy into the career trap of the rest of the world. His wife had tended an enormous vegetable garden in the summer and canned all fall. She baked all their bread and composted religiously—coffee grinds, eggshells, the butts of garlic. They fixed up an old cabin with a boathouse on a river on the edge of town with acres of woods behind it where the kids had grown up playing with dogs. In the winter, they’d can and smoke their fish. He’d even grown his hair long and wore only what he wanted, what was comfortable. For 25 years he had a job where he never had to answer to anybody but himself. No boss, no customers but the canneries. The ocean made him feel free, expanding on all sides around him. The world was too crowded, but not out there. The ocean and the earth had been good to him for a time. But now he could barely keep up with property taxes and his wife had to take a job at the bank. The garden was half its old size, and the children walked around with the shadow of worry on their faces, as if the house itself whispered their need, a need waiting to claim them.
This Marshall seemed like a good fellow. Seemed like he understood the value of fishing, of being your own boss, how a man could never be completely fulfilled without the solitude of the ocean.
“You notice that bartender talks to himself?” Steve said to Sheila when he came back from the bar with a second pitcher.
“He’s always like that,” Sheila said. “I think he’s just trying to fuck with people’s heads. Gets me every time.”
“Huh.” Steve poured them each a glass. “You lived here all your life?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“It’s a nice town.” He was thinking about how up and down the coast most towns had new little strips of gas stations and grocery stores, their old down towns turned into tourist boardwalks or else the businesses were boarded up and dead. Even Astoria, which had seemed to him as he was growing up impervious to change, had its share of new development, of cutesy crap.
“Depends on how you look at it,” Sheila said. “He’s a lousy player,” she said in a half whisper, as Delmar’s cue ball jumped across the table and rolled into the corner pocket. He cursed out loud. Under the table, the little girl poked at the white ball.
“A real sucker,” Steve whispered back. This whole place was right out of a David Lynch film. Even Sheila. Hometown waitress with an emptiness in her as deep as his. A cynicism too old for her age. She was sharp and kind of pathetic all at once. She appealed to his sense of voyeurism.
Valerie had returned to her seat with Sheila and Steve. She sat slumped over, pouting, her red dress falling like a giant hibiscus flower over the edges of the chair. “They’re boring,” she said to no one in particular. “Really boring.” She got up and followed Delmar around. “Nice ass.”
“I mean, I love my family,” Bill said, “But there’s nothing like the open ocean.”
“Nothing like it,” Marshall said, and ordered another beer. In truth, Bill’s life was not one Marshall could conceive of—children, a wife, house payments. And the ocean didn’t call for him so much as it was the only place he could go to keep himself from getting locked up. It’s a real problem seeing twice as many people in the world as everyone else saw. Crowds were bad news, cities a nightmare. Sometimes you just couldn’t tell. Bill was beginning to bore him.
For a full ten minutes, Audrey sat under the pool table with her arms crossed. She stuck out her lower lip and glared at Omar.
“Honey, why don’t you go play with the cleats or the wooden block.”
She shook her head furiously.
Marshall, who an hour ago would have known better than to look at her, looked anyway. She was so cute in her hiking boots and tights pouting under the table, he had to laugh out loud. She stuck her tongue out at him.
Bill was mortified. Clearly he’d crossed the line, he’d said too much, he’d made a fool of himself. They were laughing at him just like the kids had laughed at him, calling him Fatso and pushing him into the dirt. He turned red in the face and asked Hamlin for a glass of water.
“Hey, Dude. How ‘bout double or nothing?” Delmar’s mother was ill, and he’d just blasted through a wad of cash on drinks and pool. He was ashamed of himself, which was nothing new for him, but with a couple more drinks, he’d convinced himself he was good enough to win the money back.
“You sure, man?” Steve said.
Sheila held her hand over her mouth suppressing a laugh. Her life disgusted her. A year ago, her best friend from high school had moved down to San Francisco and invited her along. Nothing was keeping her here. She’d grown up with only her father, and he’d drunk himself to death a year after she’d graduated from high school. Still, fear had overcome her, fear and a macabre sense that she belonged here, that death and tragedy themselves were holding her here; she deserved this place where nothing but rain came from the sky four months out of the year, where everything was coated with moss and fungus, the street signs, the fence posts, the corners of the house she grew up in, where the thick, gray clouds dipped so low they seemed to enter her brain, trapping it in a fog of indecision. She’d stayed. And not one day went by where she didn’t lock herself in any small room she could find, a closet in her trailer, a bathroom at work, and weep.
Sheila’s father sat at the other end of the bar by the door watching her. He was rheumy eyed, his nose swollen and red, and broken blood vessels spread across his cheeks. His cheeks were like sacks of sand, big and soft and sad. He sat in a corner, his face fallen and slack, his eyes big and droopy like a poet’s or blues musician’s, the soul right there looking through you. How ashamed he still was. How he wished she could move on. Rain pelted the porthole beside his table and dripped down the glass in little worms of clarity.
“Come here, Sweetheart,” Omar said to Audrey who had begun to cry. “Come here and tell Omar your story again.”
She crawled out from under the table, her thumb in her mouth, and came through the opening in the bar where the bartenders come in and out. She wiped at her face with the sleeve of her velvet dress. Omar picked her up and put her on the bar facing inward, her knees hanging over the edge. “Tell me what happened,” he said. He sounded tired. He knew the story, but it always seemed to make her feel better to tell it.
She looked over her shoulder at Marshall and stuck out her tongue.
“Is that kid allowed to be in here?” Marshall said. “Bartender?” The windows rattled with a gust of rain. It sounded like a thousand tiny people were dancing on the tin roof.
Omar glared at him.
“What?” Marshall said. “It’s a bar.”
“What kid?” Bill asked, sipping at his water glass.
“The kid sitting on bar,” Marshall said gulping down the whiskey. Shit. He couldn’t remember who was who. He could feel the difficult and constant work of sorting it out slipping. Fuck it. We’re all people after all.
Bill sat stunned.
“I was in the forest where we live,” Audrey began.
Hamlin approached Omar. “If that guy’s gonna stir up trouble, I can kick him out.” He nodded his head toward Marshall.
“I was walking through the forest,” she continued, “in the boots my papa gave me. And I found this old cabin all broken down and covered with moss, and out of the moss and all around it and all over it were chantelles.”
“Chanterelles,” Omar corrected, as if he’d done it a thousand times, which he had.
“Oh yeah, chantelles,” she said. “I had my mushroom bag. We could have a whole year of mushrooms.”
Marshall looked into the squares of foggy mirror behind the bar. He could see the little girl’s stockinged knees and her hands folded in her lap, and the way her head bobbed up and down as she spoke. He could see Bill, sad and confused beside him. Their eyes met for a moment in the mirror. Bill’s expression had changed from amiable to reserved. For a moment, he stared at Marshall, his face an open question mark, and then he looked away, as so many people had throughout Marshall’s life; they’d looked away and then turned away, friends, lovers, you name it, all of them just like Bill, embarrassed, confused, dumbfounded by his behavior. Marshall was aware that he was not turning out to be the guy Bill thought he was or wanted him to be. He wasn’t fishing late because he needed the money; he was fishing late because he needed the solitude, not because he wanted it, but because being among people was a constant balancing act for his psyche, just like being on the ocean was a balancing act for his body.
Marshall had come to look forward to the late season storms. In them he could see his own, imminent death over and over again. And in that death, no one would stare at him; he wouldn’t have to wonder who was seeing what, who he could talk to and who he couldn’t. He had come to love the gusts of wind that sent the boat spinning and rocking, where his body held its own against the unnatural throw of the deck. He yearned for the low, full gray clouds as they built into stormy castles in the sky, shedding veils of gray and torrents of rain. He loved the silver fog after storms and the porpoise shooting alongside the boat, impassive to what others perceived as his madness. He stared at Bill’s bearded face turned away from him and marveled not for the first time at the ordinariness of most people’s lives, the families they returned to again and again, the dinner tables, the bills, the school meetings. He was long past longing for such a life. The little girl caught his eye in the mirror as she continued to chatter; she smiled slightly at him as if to make up for her early impertinence and banged her knees happily against the bar.
The next pool game ended more quickly than the previous ones had; Delmar thought his game must be slipping. He imagined his mother in bed, her thin face, her tiny wrists, the hot smell of her dying and of dampness and mold permeating the room, and he hated himself. In the bathroom he punched himself in the nose over and over again, staring at his bloodied face in the mirror.
“You want to step out?” Steve said to Sheila. Wasn’t he the rooster, a pocket full of money and the only decent woman in the bar leaving with him. Who would have guessed? Certainly not his bitchy girlfriend in Astoria. To hell if he was gonna get tied to that wench.
Sheila’s father watched them pass. “Sheil,” he said beseechingly, “not again. You can do better, Honey. Sheila, I’m sorry!” he shouted as the door closed behind her.
“Aren’t you going to follow them?” Valerie asked, fiddling with the tear in her red dress.
“Stop mocking me.” Sheila’s father put his cheek against the wall of the bar and closed his eyes, trying to make his shame disappear.
“So then I was hanging from a tree by somebody’s belt. And I was there one whole day before my Papa cut me down.” Audrey clicked her boots together and smiled.
“God, that’s gruesome,” Marshall said.
Bones was staring at Marshall, his white hair hanging around his gaunt face, his beady eyes looking out of darkness.
“What are you staring at, old man?” Marshall said.
“Are you talking to me?” Bill said.
“No, of course not,” Marshall said.
“Settle down,” Omar said to Marshall.
“You’re the one who let that kid in here. And you’re telling me to settle down?”
“Honey, I knew you’d come around,” Valerie said. She’d given up harassing Sheila’s father who sat now staring out the porthole window into the dark rain, his forehead pressed against the glass. Gray rings like the sad, bloated gills of dead fish hung under his eyes.
“I need to settle up, bartender,” Bill said. He needed to leave, maybe call home, talk with his wife and girls. Marshall frightened him, talking at no one, as if with perfect sensibility. But nothing made any sense. He watched Marshall wave his arm in the air.
“I’ve been looking for you, pretty lady,” Marshall said. “Weren’t you the one whispering in my ear earlier?”
“That would be me, doll.”
“Listen fella,” Bill said, tapping Marshall on the shoulder.
Marshall jumped. “Jesus, can’t you see I’m talking to a lady?”
“You should have some coffee. Bartender, give him some coffee.”
Hamlin, shaking his head, put a steamy white mug on the counter, though he knew coffee wasn’t likely to fix this.
But Marshall had already turned back to Valerie. “How’d you tear your dress?” he asked, reaching for the elusive clothe.
Audrey followed Bill out the door. She walked directly behind him trying to match his footsteps, her hands clasped behind her back. Bill pulled his watch cap over his head and walked slowly down the empty street at first watching his feet splatter the dark puddles. He was in no hurry to get anywhere. Marshall’s transformation disturbed him, more than he’d been disturbed by anything as of late. Was the guy crazy? This was not how drunks acted. Sure, he’d talked to himself before. He’d talked to his mother after she died, as if she were right there with him. It was something he’d done to comfort himself. The worst of it was that he’d liked Marshall. He’d recognized in him the same need for solitude, the same dislike for crowds and cities.
He thought about his brief life in Seattle, how as a young man he’d tried to live in the city, but couldn’t bare the way everyone seemed to be herded into buses and herded down the streets and herded into jobs. In the city, if something was new, it was better. No one appreciated the value of objects worn by age and by generations of people: the wood handles of old tools he could imagine being used by men now dead to hammer a shim into a gap or a wood peg into a floorboard; the scuffed kitchen floors of cabins where mothers long since gone had baked for children long since grown. But perhaps the most shocking thing to him about Seattle were the people muttering to themselves on the streets, gesticulating to imaginary demons, holding full lengths conversations with the air.
“I just don’t get it,” he said aloud, now watching the elusive rain passing through the light of a streetlamp. Funny, how you could see it in the light but not outside the light.
“Can I tell you the story about the chantelles?” Audrey said.
Polly Buckingham’s work appears in The New Orleans Review, The North American Review, The Tampa Review, (Pushcart nomination), Exquisite Corpse, The Literary Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Potomac Review, Hubbub, The Moth, Hiram, Cascadia Review and elsewhere. She won the Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award and has a chapbook forthcoming. She was a finalist for Flannery O’Connor Award in 2011, 2012, and 2013. She is founding editor of StringTown Press and teaches creative writing and literature at Eastern Washington University.
Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels, www.ebbartels.com.