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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Bachelor Boat
by Bryan Quinn ||
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New Jersey was off the horizon when Paul put the first chum bucket in the water. I was throwing up off the bow and Jimmy was singing, "Chum out, lookout for chum! We got some sharks, some hungry sharks out there! Come and get it sharks! We love you, sharks!"
     The thirty-foot boat swayed as it reached the peak and trough of each wave. We were drifting in the tide. I was lying belly down on the no-slip surface, my head hanging off the edge, watching light refract in water.
     Is it always this rough? I asked.
     "Shit no!" my brother Paul yelled back. "Mostly it's rougher!"
     Jimmy was tying the hooks on the rod. "Hey sharky sharky sharky," he sang over the heaves of my vomit. "Hey sharky, come out my little sharkies."
     In the stern, Mark the pirate was cutting up a mackerel for bait. He threw a head in my direction and it landed in a slick of my own spew, where little fish had gathered to feed on old donuts and cola. They pecked at the bigger fish's dead head, which I watched drift back towards the stern and the chum line.
     Paul yelled up from the stern like a joke, "Hang on up there, boy. You don't know what's below you."
     BARF, I moaned into the big blue and over the side of the Caroline B, named after Mark and Jimmy's mother.
     The chrome railings of the bow were slick with sweaty, slipping hands. My mind slipped into visions of falling into the pleasantly warm Atlantic to be gulped in half by the large, white mouth of a shark, rising from the permanent shadow of bottom, attracted to our chum. I felt the saltwater numbing the sweat and vomit from my sunburned skin.
     I need to be back in by five, I yelled back to the stern.
     "Oh Mar-ark, I think Nancy wants to go home," sang Jimmy. "Is that right, Nancy?"
     "By five!" Paul asked. "By fuck you'll be in by five! This is your last day of freedom, boy! You want to go in? Tomorrow you get married!"
     "Ain't no time out here on the water, anyway!" Mark yelled between drags on his cigarette held between fish-bloodied hands, red as his bandana.
      "You're in international waters now, boy!" Paul continued, "This is freedom!"
     "Common and get up, you Nancy. Help us cut some bait!" yelled Mark.
     I wearily got up to a squat and stood under chains of the sea. Muscles aching from the night before, I sidestepped across the narrow pathway beside the cabin, gripped the chrome railings, rope clasps, the antenna and whatever else. The sea swayed below me. A sudden large swell pushed my stomach against the cabin and I felt more sickness coming, as I stumbled onto the stern.
     I'm going below, I said.
     "You go below and it's just gonna get worse, boy!"
     The fuck it will, I cursed and walked down anyway, stepping into the tiny bathroom and kneeling by the toilet, lifting the lid to throw up the Pepsi I drank on the way out; the donuts and coffee already drifted far out to sea with mackerel heads. The boat rolled over another swell. My shoulders bounced off each side of the paneled bathroom wall. There was pounding on the bathroom door:
     "You alright in there, boy!" It was Paul.
     Fine. I'm fine.
     "I got to get in there and take a shit!" The thin door muffled his loud voice.
     Occupied, I said.
     "Occupied!" he fumed, pounding on the door again. "Common. Let's go!"
     Why don't you go lay some chum off the bow? I yelled as I imagined an axe head breaking the door into splinters.
     "You're gonna get it, boy," I heard him say as he walked away, the stairs creaking under his fat hairy body.
     Time went by and I tried to shut my eyes and fall asleep, using the toilet seat as a pillow. I half-dreamt of the drammamine in the backseat of Mark's Suburban. But the rocking was too much. I needed to see a horizon: everything goes blurry without a horizon. I stumbled out of the bathroom and up the aft stairs to the stern, where my cousins stood doing things weekend New Jersey fishermen do: smoking and drinking beer, laughing.
     "Look at your fucking brother, boy!" Mark yelled.
     I looked astern. Paul was squatting over a bucket on the bow. His big Irish face red. The waist of his pants at his ankles.
     "Here he fucking come's!" Paul yelled. "Back from below! You gonna live, Boy?' Paul asked from over his bucket with gravel in his throat.
     I'm living, I spat.
     "Hell of a husband your gonna make for Rosa."
     What you know?
     "I know you ain't got no sea legs!"
     Piss off. I was relieved at the sight of the ocean and the sky--it had a settling effect on my inside out empty stomach.
     "Hey boy, what you been doin' down there! Jerkin it? Haw haw!" Mark yelled.
     Shut up you fucking bum.
     "Hey Jimmy, you hear that, Nancy over there called me a bum!"
     "You betta watch who you be callin' a bum, boy!" Jimmy sang back without turning his gaze from the deep. "Hey sharky sharky, get over here sharky," he sang to himself.
     "You best watch your mouth or I'm gonna put you in the ocean!" said Paul, zipping his pants, now standing.
     Go wipe your ass.
     "You just watch it, boy, them sharks are hungry."
     "Hey Boy," sang Jimmy. "What you goin' to get married for anyhow?"
     That's my business.
     "We family ain't we?"
     "Shh… Quiet!" yelled Mark over all of us as he pointed toward the reel.
     Silence. Paul pulled up his pants. We all turned to see the wire fishing line slowly turning off the reel. Still silence. I listened to the ocean foam under the swaying boat. The engines were off. Saltwater was thick in the air.
     "Click . . . click, click . . . click-click-click . . ."
     "There's drag goin' out!"
     "SHARKY!" Jimmy cried. "My sharky, where you goin', sharky?"
     "I think its Nancy's, ain't it?" Mark asked.
     "Sit the fucking ingrate down!" Paul yelled, disgusted. He took me by the shirt but quickly pulled himself away.
     "Fuckin covered in puke, boy!" he said as he stared at his hand.
     "Time to strap in dee boy!" sang Jimmy as he climbed behind the wheel and started the engines.
     "That sharks goin'," warned Mark. "Get on him!"
     "Hey boy, sit here, hurry it up," said Paul as he pushed me into the fighting chair and strapped a seat belt across my chest and waist, his big hairy hands and the sound of buckling.
     "Put your feet up."
     I put my feet into the steel footrests.
     "Here you go . . ." Mark gently lifted the rod from the trolling position and snapped it into my chair.
     "You ready?" Asked Paul.
     Course I'm ready, I said.
     "Boy, you ain't ready for this," he said as he flipped the bail of the reel--
     --A massive tug followed and doubled me over in the chair.
     "Pull him back, Boy! Set the hook!" they all yelled.
     I pulled back but the fish pulled me forward again.
     I jerked back and spit up on my shirt. It was orange bile and burned my mouth. The fish pulled in long swings of the tail. The line went out the reel smoothly.
     "Aw, Jesus!" yelled Paul. "He's pukin' on himself, Jimmy."
     "Keep that puke off my reel, boy," Jimmy sang.
     "You think this is tough? You don't know shit, boy!" Mark said before I could speak.
     "Yeah boy, you don't know shit. You think this is hard? You wait. You wait and see," Paul said into my ear. I could smell the beer on his breath.
     You all are fucking psycho, I yelled back, puke on my face, pulling against the weight of the fish and pausing a moment before yelling, Damn this is fucking big!
     "You don't know that, boy," said Mark.
     Shit man, I said. Feel this! Touch this damn rod! It's about to snap!
     "Always does that at the start, it's how long he pulls that tells his size. That thing could be 100 lbs."
     100 pounds? You don't call that big? How big do these things get?
     "Up to a thousand," Jimmy sang down.
     Fuck. How long?
     "Hour. Maybe two, boy . . . if he's big."
     I was buckled over. My stomach was wet from puke and sweat. Mark poured bottled water over my head.
     "We'll see what you got left in you. You make it through this next half hour and we'll see what kind of man you are."
     I could go three like this, I grunted and spat orange on myself again.
     "Hey Mark, you ever see anyone seasick like this?" Paul yelled forward. "Ever seen anyone light as this Nancy?"
     "Yeah, once there was this homosexual on Mikey's boat, remember Mike?"
     "I knew Mikey, he's a good fellow and he ain't taken no homos out on his boat before."
     "The fuck he hasn't," Mark shot back. "He's queer as a bull in the barnyard."
     A bull in the barnyard? I asked.
     "You ain't a fag are you, boy?" Mark said.
     Fuck you.
     "Shut your mouth and fight that damn fish."
     I'm fucking fighting! I bent over and tugged again. Stop barkin' at me, damn it!
     "You couldn't fight this fish if I paid you," groaned Mark.
     "Boy's gonna need money anyway, now he's got that baby on the way."
     Jimmy started singing again as he turned on the engine, "Babies, nothing but babies being born every day!"
     Fuck you Jimmy. She and I are in true love together. Stop your singing. The baby's got nothing to do with it.
     "Whatever, boy," Paul said.
     The fish kept taking out line until he was nearly off the reel.
     "Looks like the kid's finding his sea legs!"

     "Not yet, Jimmy, that fish ain't landed yet. Let's see him after the fight, betcha he don't know whether to scratch his pocket watch or wind his ass."
     "Hey kid!" yelled Jimmy. "Why don't you shut up and start fighting this fish!"
     I asked how long it had been. My arms strained. Time was slipping out unknown like the tide in deep water or the wire fishing line.
     "Half an hour."
     Half an hour? Shit. I havn't been fighting this fish for more than a few minutes.
     "Time flies when you get hooked in," said Paul. "You could be fighting for four hours and thinks it's been one. Let me tell you, too, bro, this fish ain't giving in on you either. He's a strong one. If he was small you'd be bringing him in by now."
     The fuck he's small! I yelled. This things bigger than this whole boat and your fat ass together.
     The fish ran out again. Jimmy was at the helm, steering the fish out from under the boat. I could here Paula and Mark behind me, bullshitting and drinking beer. My arms were cramped but wouldn't give in. The vomit was drying on my shirt and chest. The sun was hot. Mark brought me some water, but most of it ran onto my shirt. The fish kept pulling. Seagulls swarmed above us. The boat continued to sway over the relentless waves. Blistering sunlight cut the light ocean breeze and I was shaken by its weight. I looked through sweat-stinging eyes at my shinging arms, beads of it running between hairs. I began closing my eyes for spells. The movements I needed were simple; rhythmic: bend and reel; make slack and reel it. Over and over again. Sharp pains ran through my lower back. My jaw tired as I ground my teeth.
     I was getting married the next day and I couldn't stop thinking about car seats. The baby was on his way. He'd be here in three or four months. How much did a car seat cost? What was the right way to use them. If someone did one thing wrong, like buckle the wrong buckle or miss a strap, what would happen? Are babies safer in car seats than adults in seat belts? I imagined babies flying through the front window and a hundred feet in the air, then landing on some soft patch of grass like the end of a space mission. The baby in a NASA outerspace suit, undoing the straps and buckles and standing up, saying, with the diction of a ten year old, "that's one small step for babies, one giant leap for mankind."
     "Boy, you still in there okay, boy?" asked Paul. "Ain't no shame in giving up now. I can take over for you."
     I ain't giving up, I told him out the side of my mouth. What time's it?
     "Four," I heard Mark say.
     My eyes were having trouble focusing. The sun was still bright. Rosa was on her way to pick me up at the dock. I asked how far we were from shore
     Guess I'll be late, fuck it. I was in too deep with the fish already. His shadow was showing itself between long runs. Looming off the stern of the boat for moments and then disappearing under the waves.
     "Boy's finally commin' back to his senses! Paul, you proud of your brother or what?" Jimmy sang.
     Tell him to stop singing, this is serious, I said to Mark.
     "You still fighting, though, boy, way to go. Don't stop your fighting."
     I'm fighting this fish till it gets in one way or the other. I jerked the rod back again and reeled in more line.
     "Seems like he's on his way," said Mark.
     He hasn't run for twenty minutes or so.
     I think he might be played out.
     "zzzzzzzzzzz, zzzzzzzzzzz, zzzzzzzz, zzzzzzzzz," the line pulled out the reel. It was a sound I was getting used to. The sound of time and pain extending.
     "This could be it, boy, could be his last run."
     I hung on to the rod, arms tired, veins pumping used blood back to my heart, bent over while reeling in. Pull back. Bend over and reel. Pull back, bend over and reel.
     "You're makin' progress on him, boy," Paul said. "Hang on now."
     I hung on and kept reeling. Slowly the line came towards the boat.
     I think he's commin' up, I told them.
     Mark leaned over the stern, staring at where the heavy wire fishing line met the water, waiting for a glimpse at more than the haunting shadow of the fish.
     "zzzzzzzzzz" the line went out again.
     Guess he's not done yet, huh?
     "He's commin', there wasn't anything left in that pull, he's got nothing left," Mark said.
     Then a silver white the size of a small skiff rolled on the surface.
     "Did you see it, boy!" Mark yelled.
     "Boy's got himself a fishy fish," sang Jimmy. "Boy's gonna catch us a fishy fish, sell it all at harbor, pay us back for gassy-gas!"
     I reeled in now harder than before; sweat stinging my eyes, the skin on my arms burning, feet blistered from the footrests. The line was coming in. I pulled and pulled the fish, dragging him closer towards the Catharine B.
     Paul grabbed the gaff from under the boat wall. He pulled the plastic guard off and revealed a long curved spike, long enough to run through the side a person's chest and out another. He came near the edge of the boat. Mark put on gloves and grabbed the wire line. It was laser tight, the wind whistling across it, the sun hitting it just right and sending a bright shine my way. Jimmy cut the engines and came down the tower holding a pistol, and stood next to Paul.
     "One more pull, boy," he said.
     I pulled and Paul lunged his upper body and gaff over the edge. His bare back flexed and the line went limp as he pulled the fish closer. I undid my seat belt as Mark tied the wire off on a rope hook, standing uneasily at the edge of the boat, staring at the massive shark. Its blood clouded the water red. Waves flushed in and out of the engine well. The sounds of the shark's tail slowly slurping back and forth in the sea water.
     "Hell of a mako, Joe," Jimmy said.
     I said nothing, just watched its big body bleed in the water.
     "Biggest one we've ever caught," Paul cheered.
     Mark put his hand on my shoulder and smiled.
     "You want to do him?" Jimmy asked as he put his hand on my back.
     I said yes and took the cold, black .38 in my hand. It felt light compared to the weight of the fish on the rod.
     The shark's eyes were already rolled back in his head, gaffed under the gill, silvery blue and white skin, the wire deep in his throat. I pointed at him and squeezed the trigger. The gunshot was lost on the open ocean horizon.
     He shook once and then went limp, blood pooling into the water out of his skull. We opened the back door by the ladder, roped the tail, and pulled the big mako aboard. He was so heavy that the stern fell a foot or two into the ocean, sending us all off balance as his dead flesh flattened against the floor. While steadying myself, I slipped on the blood spilling out the big shark's head and onto the floorboards. Landing on my side beside the long fish, his dead white eyes meeting mine. I reached out and stroked the rough skin.
     "Get up, boy!" they yelled above me. "You're supposed to catch 'em, not fuck 'em."
     I rolled over, covered in the shark's blood. I stared up at the cloudless blue sky, exhausted, trying to see through the stratosphere and into space.
     We made it back to the marina before dark, around six-thirty. Rosa was in the parking lot with her sister, Maria. We were supposed to go out for dinner together. Celebrate. There would be no church the next day, just a courthouse.
     I was weak. Paul went up to them for me as Mark and Jimmy hung the fish by its tail at the dock. Blood dripped down to its nose and streamed onto the wooden planks. Rosa was swinging her hips and pounding her heels into the ground the way she does when she hates me. Maria was behind her, pushing away Paul's approaches.
     Rosa's face was appalled when she saw me. I was thankful the blood had covered the vomit stains on my white golf shirt. She turned her head sideways at the fish and then me, her mouth hung open.
     We caught a fish, bebe, I smiled.
     "Nice fucking fish," Mark said matter-of-factly from behind.
     "This? You caught this?" she pointed.
     I nodded, near collapse.
     "It's big."
     The shark was swinging slightly back and forth, turning a little, too.
     Jimmy hopped in the boat and grabbed some plyers. He jumped onto the deck and stuck them into the shark's mouth, pulling out a tooth the size of my thumb.
     "Careful," he said to Rosa as he dropped the tooth into her hand, "It's sharp."
     Rosa looked at it and showed Maria.
     "You caught this all by yourself, Joseph?" asked Maria.
     "Sure did," said Paul, patting me on the back again.
     "If you're done with him now," Rosa asked, "we'll take him from here."
     Rosa took me by the hand--I couldn't believe she would touch my hand--and she took me with with her and Maria to the parking lot. We could see the fish as we pulled past the boathouse by the road. I was in the back seat, sitting on some newspaper. Rosa and Maria had their windows open because of me.
     "I love you, bebe," I said, and fell asleep while the perfumed air from Maria's window dried my face.

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