Chris Cascio

Maiden Voyage

We were still living down the shore at the time, long before things got rough. It was the late 80s, I was ten, maybe eleven. My father was still my Little League baseball coach and Mom was still the secretary for the Methodist church a few blocks over. My brother Shawn was in high school by then but hadn’t yet begun to demonstrate the infirm decision making that would lead to his Luciferian fall. No, at that time, the family was still perfect, a cross-linked and crystalized unit on a singular, upward trajectory, the kind that did things together, family things, mostly in our Dad and the boys do this while Mom does that and everybody’s happy sort of way.

Fishing was one of these things. Every summer we’d drive eight hours to Vermont to stay for a week in the family log cabin near Newport and then another in a cottage along Lake Willoughby. And we’d hit every fishing hole from one to the other: lakes, rivers, creeks, ponds, sluices, you name it. Every day was a different spot, and on most we returned with a bucketful of fish that we’d help Mom clean before she fried them up for lunch. One of our favorites was the Clyde River. We’d park right on the side of Route 5 and, without any trail, hike for more than an hour to get to this one particular hole and any one of us could lead the way. It had simply been burned into our hippocampal ridges. Then, after we were done fishing—either because it had been so good or because it stunk and now the sun was high and hot, my brother and I would strip down to our shorts and swim in that very same hole while the kingfishers rattled in the canopy and our father, seated upon a rock and sipping Genesee Pale Ales, continued to cast downstream just for the hell of it.

In October it was Lake Ontario, Columbus Day weekend on the Little Salmon River with my uncle and a few of his friends. We slept in tents and used roe or sponge bits for bait. Salmon don’t actually bite, they just suck down the water in front of them while they swim upstream toward death. My father and those guys killed time between sessions drinking peach squeezins and grilling meats doused in Jack Daniels. At night Shawn and I were given a taste of squeezins to help keep us warm. Then we were sent to our tent while they remained by the fire, sharing the jug and their stories.

At home, though, I fished almost exclusively off the inlet docks, despite the fact that Shawn worked summers as a mate on one of the party boats at the marina and practically lived on the water. One of my father’s friends, this crude salt named Pauly, had gotten him the job, and so we always had either fresh bluefish or fluke or tuna in the house. I could have gone out fishing with either of them any time I wanted, if I’d wanted, but I didn’t. Well, I wanted to but couldn’t. Truth is I just didn’t have the stomach for it. For seafaring, I mean. Every so often I’d give it a whirl, hoping to have grown out of it, but every time was the same: ten minutes past the jetty and I was hugging the rail while my father dug through his pockets for the Dramamine before dragging me off to the galley. And I hated that stuff. It never helped, just knocked the crap out of me for the entire trip, to the point that I wondered if it actually worked properly for anybody. To this day I’ve never encountered anyone who’s had an as-advertised experience on the stuff. Looking back, I’ve probably spent more hours sleeping in galleys drugged up on Dramamine than I have sober and awake.

It’s all to say that this particular trip came about when both my brother and Pauly were working on the same boat, which didn’t happen more than a few times each season, and so my father and I were invited to go out for free. Naturally, we jumped at the opportunity.

I had amassed high hopes for this one and had felt fine a little longer than normal, great even, but then everything went sideways and all I could think was how I now had to weather seven hours of misery and the looks of pity on the faces of my brother and father. Facing the family was always the worst part. Getting sick was one thing, and the faces of the other fisherman, the strangers, was unpleasant but bearable because you know you’ll be rid of them at the end of the night, in my case likely to never see any of them again. But my own family, especially seeing my mother’s face once she’d heard, that always killed. It actually prolonged the misery because she’d be asleep by the time we got home, so her reaction had to wait until morning when it was supposed to be a new day, having slept off the shame and the pity and the disappointment.

We had set out for the Mud Hole. I had been standing alone at the bow pulpit, taking it all in: the hull cutting the water, the surrounding sea reflecting an overcast sky, the spray hissing upward and peppering my face, the shore no longer visible behind us. I got excited. Hell, I was elated. I was going to make it. I turned back to the hull and the cutting and crashing and the open water ahead, grey and rolling and rising in the distance, and in that moment arose a sensation of glory beneath my rib cage, like that of an adventurer or explorer or, dare I say, a pirate.

A moment later we reached those rolling and rising seas and my body dispatched all of that cloying sentiment. Enough was enough. Too bad. So close. Find your father.

He gave me chewable Dramamine that time, as opposed to those stupid tabs that stuck behind your ear, and so I chewed and clutched and leaned on the gunwale while he led me aft toward the galley, where I slumped into one of the booths, my stomach overturned and my head feeling not quite tethered to my body. My father shot me a queer look. Then the room listed hard, and I was out.  

I can’t recall any dream, and I hadn’t yet opened my eyes, but when consciousness returned it did so to the din of what I immediately recognized as a bluefish slaughter: Heavy footfalls tramping up and down the deck on both sides. Splashing water and the bodies of fishes flopping on the deck. Men’s voices blustering from what seemed like everywhere. Quickly the thought emerged that I was missing something important, perhaps even epic. I opened my eyes, my gaze upon a sideways door and the surrounding wall, all paneled in walnut. The sounds of the men and the fish and the sea continued, and I ached to see it, to participate in it. I lifted my head and sat upright, and my vision seemed to shift out of sync with the movements of my head. It was as though I were very drunk, though at that age I didn’t yet know that sensation. Needless to say I was stewed. I did my best, to steady my vision and my wits and my legs so I could and walk out onto the deck, but I never made it to my feet. After only a moment I was completely gassed out, and then my head was back down on the table. And then nothing.

When I awoke the next time, Dad’s hand was upon my head. I could feel his thumb moving upward from my brow, tenderly, the same way as when I was seven and had developed croup. I opened my eyes, and he was watching me. His feathery dark hair and fulI beard made his face appear round and easygoing, but his eyes were deep and rectangular and penetrated in a way that told you unequivocally that you were the only thing on his mind at that moment. I could see him clearly now and knew subsequently that my inebriation had ended. The adventure, I could tell, had also ended. The clamor had subsided. Only the noise of the engines remained, and that could mean only one thing: we were on our way back in. Dad gave me a little smile and asked if I was okay. I sat up and said that I was. Then I asked what time it was.

“Early,” he said. “Not even eleven.” He must have read the confusion on my face. “We hit ‘em just right and killed ‘em. It was great. They were all big but not too big. You know, no mudsuckers. Everybody hit their limit so fast, I mean it was just a massacre. The captain had no choice but to start heading back.” He gleamed as he reminisced about it. “Wish you could’ve seen it.”

I scooted myself to the end of the seat and began to prop myself up to stand.

“You okay?” he asked and took hold of my elbow.

I wavered a little but steadied myself, and he let go. Just then Shawn poked his head into the doorway of the galley. “Ya’ doin’ okay?” he asked.

He looked to our father, who gave him a nod. He then looked back to me and I gave him a yuck face.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Shawn said, and then he disappeared from the doorway.

 My father let go of my arm and surveyed my balance. He cocked his head. He was still concerned, but I could tell by his bearing that he was happy I was awake and able to bask in the afterglow of the trip’s success.

The view outside was fitting for the occasion. The sea had calmed, and despite being nighttime the now-clear sky maintained a luminous indigo hue. The cannonade of the engines somehow sounded softer than normal, a heavy king-of-the-junglelike purr from below. The men sat on the benches, conquerors all of them, sipping from beer cans as they looked upon the coruscating water and sharing similar expressions of satiety. Behind their feet lay their burlap sacks swollen with the spoils of war.

The boat slowed as we approached the inlet. I leaned against the gunwale alongside my father. Shawn, Pauly, and the other mates had all gone up to the wheelhouse. Two drawbridges separated us from the marina, and as we passed beneath the first I marveled at the raised decks. We then approached several other boats gathered in the inlet, not moving at all, all of them dark. We slowed as we approached the group. There were four boats altogether. Three of the boats surrounded the fourth, and as we got closer the men seated behind us started to rouse from their seats. “Oh,” one of the men quavered, clearly buzzing but still concordant, “That’s the Eagle there, isn’t it, set up in the middle there?”

“You better believe it,” one of the other men boomed. This man was broad and tall with long, shaggy blonde hair and coarse grey stubble on his face and he wore a set of full rubber waders. “They went out booze cruisin.’ Hear they had entertainment.” He then drew his cooler from underneath the bench and began handing out beers to those nearby. He handed one to my father, who hadn’t yet finished the one in his hand. “Looks like we’re getting a show.”  

“We’ll have to see.” My father took the beer and finished the open one in his hand. He then raised the new one to the man and cracked it open. The gargantuan blonde, now sitting back down on the bench and pleased with this new prospect, raised his can in return, casting a cursory glance in my direction before taking his sip.

At that moment everything became very quiet, and the deck lights on our boat all faded. We’d gone dark, just like the others. When my eyes adjusted, I saw that another boat had joined us in surrounding the Eagle, the Imperial Eagle as she was named and my father had pointed out, the newest and largest boat in the fleet.

Then, in one finger snap of a moment, the spotlights from all of the boats, ours included, fired up and shone beams of silvery white light onto the rear deck of the Eagle. In the rear cabin doorway, illuminated within the glow stood a woman, a young and beautiful woman, dressed in nothing but a pink string bikini. Her pose was an impressive contrapposto, one hip extended perilously to one side while she lay both hands against the opposite side of the doorway. Long, dark, wavy hair draped over her shoulders and halfway down her back. From one of the boats, I couldn’t tell which, emanated a loud but slow crooning wolf whistle. The woman held still, like some prison escapee in an old-time movie frozen within the circle of the guard towers’ searchlights. The gargantuan blonde fisherman behind us had barely rumbled his  “Get ready, fellas. Here we go,” when the music hit.

Her routine was extraordinarily acrobatic, made all the more impressive by the slick rear deck of the boat and her dangerously high clear-as-glass heels. She swayed and kicked and did cartwheels and splits. And handstands! At one point she performed a split while in a handstand and then spun around in a circle.

It was at this point that one of the spotlights moved up the ladder to the captain’s deck, and sitting cross-legged atop the rail was a second woman, this one in a blue bikini and brandishing long, fiery red hair. This was more than the fishermen could take. They grasped their chests and cheered until their throats hoarsened and they started banging objects against the railings of the boats. It was then I noticed the captain’s deck of the Imperial Eagle was full of men, elbow to elbow behind and around this woman like a crowd of concupiscent sailors at a USO show. The boat’s entire party had gathered there for prime balcony seating. The blue-bikinied woman then twirled herself from the rail onto the ladder, much to the delight of the surrounding men, and descended.

Something then moved in my periphery, I wasn’t sure what it was at first, a small, dark mass moving slowly through the air. After shifting my attention—it was no easy task I assure you—I saw that it was a bucket, a bucket hanging from the hook of a long gaff extending from the stern of the boat beside us. The blue bikinied women dismounted the ladder, tenderly stroked the side of the first woman’s face, then strode aft and reached outward into the bucket, withdrawing two handfuls of paper money that she displayed like pom-poms. The men went wild. She then worked each side of the deck, facing each of the boats, beckoning the fishermen who ate it up and cheered like sports fans at a mascot hyping up the home team’s crowd. She fastened some of the dollars strategically beneath the ties of her bathing suit and tucked the rest into the bathing suit of the first woman. Then the beat changed, and the two women began dancing in unison.

Soon the boats began passing buckets gaff to gaff and ultimately to the Eagle for the women, who displayed their haul each time before stashing it in their swimwear or—when it got to be too much—in the darkened haven of the cabin. I stared at all of this like—well, like the child I was. I knew these ladies were attractive and performing suggestively, but I hadn’t yet been schooled on the birds and the bees, had yet to thumb through my first Playboy or—God forbid,  actually get to first base. I simply knew it was exciting and adult and made everyone around me happy. The men on our boat cheered and drank and slapped each other’s backs while they grinned at the women and then at each other. My father, too. He didn’t hoot or send money, but he stood with the other men and drank beers and tousled my hair from time to time. I didn’t watch him or the other men much, rather I remained transfixed on the spectacle before me, I’d missed so much of the night’s activities already as it were, but I heard his laugh, his voice so rich and distinct to me I could track him down in a crowd in the darkness, single him out of the men’s chorus at church while blindfolded. And it was then I heard him speak, not loudly, in fact quite softly, as though he were speaking discreetly, out of the side of his mouth. He said: “If it’s got hair on it, I’ll fuck it.”

I whipped around and our eyes met. He was only a few feet behind me, and beside him stood the blonde colossus, shined up and sniggering. They were practically leaning upon one another, drinks in their hands like they might at any minute strike up a song, but I couldn’t hold the gaze. I had seen his eyes and the color leach from his face. I broke fast and returned my attention to the boats and the lights and to the women who were nothing like my mother, spellbinding the men as they gyrated and twirled in those miniscule bathing suits and those crystal clear shoes.

I can’t pretend to know why we expect what we expect, or how come we instinctively construct postulates so seemingly unassailable that when they break something inside of us breaks as well. I know only that those who do the breaking can hurt as much as the broken, and that there are no unassailable postulates.

Soon the loudspeakers on our boat crackled and the captain was on the air. “Ahem,” he cleared his throat deliberately. The captain’s voice via the loudspeaker was oppressively loud and even from that singular, guttural grumble identifiably weathered and intolerant, a voice I could imagine as the voice of God. Emotionally distant yet simultaneously domineering and immediate. Old Testament God. No tincture of that New Testament forgiveness business.

And so we all waited for God to continue.

“Toes,” the voice thundered.

The women stopped dancing.

“I want to see toes,” the captain commanded.

A few rogue cackles radiated from the boats, echoing off the water and the buildings along the inlet. The man upstairs had spoken. The woman in the pink bikini faced our boat. She bent down, unfastened the straps on her heels, and stepped out of them with the polish of a seasoned professional. She then issued one lusty kick high into the air and lowered her calf gracefully onto the railing and, with a wink and a smile, flittered her digits.

“That’s it. Wiggle those piggies, honey” the captain blared, his voice now prurient and consumed.

The second woman followed suit and then they were both wiggling piggies at us. All the men roared, all except for my father. He hadn’t spoken since the comment I’d overheard and didn’t speak to me directly for the rest of the night, not until we were home, when he slipped his head inside the cracked doorway of my bedroom to give me a brief “Goodnight, Tommy.” Not after the ladies waved and exited to euphoric applause and the ruckus subsided. Not at dockside while Pauly ceremoniously fileted our fish. Not during the short drive home, in the back seat while Shawn sat up front and chewed his ear about how many blues he’d gaffed and the tips he’d raked in despite the cash surrendered to the buckets. Certainly not during those final moments of the spectacle, when the bikini-clad dancers seized the opportunity of the captain’s request for what became their grand finale, but then who could blame him? To the swell of a syrupy techno rendition of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, the women stood tall and bared their breasts to the world. At the height of the crescendo they performed synchronized handstands, their legs spread into full splits as they spun around and around like slow-moving propellers for what seemed like ages, all while wiggling their toes.

© Chris Cascio

Chris Cascio‘s writing and visual art has appeared in The Southampton Review, Sand: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, Peregrine Journal, Longridge Review, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at Monroe College and also works as a freelance editor and portrait artist. He currently lives in Larchmont, NY.

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