The catbirds woke me up instead.
We’ve got three catbirds in our ash tree. Da calls ‘em Larry, Moe, and Curly. I call ‘em Foghorn, Leghorn, and Bugle. They’re loud as sin this time of year. Granddad thinks they’re courting. I think they’re hocking worm balls.
But I was happy about the noise. It meant I could sneak up the screen and shimmy down the fire ladder without bothering a soul.
Like Mom, I’ve always had a talent for sneaking. She’s the one who taught me how to plug the gap where the cookie has been and hide a live frog in my lunchbox. We snuck into everything—movie theaters, baseball games, outdoor concerts. She called it the fine art of disappearing.
I like to think I inherited her cunning brain. Also, her trick of plumping up pillows to look like a sleeping boy can come in handy.
Course, I was halfway down my street when I realized that I wasn’t gonna catch much with my bare hands. So I had to sprint all the way back to Da’s shed to look for my rod and bait.
And I was halfway down the same street again when my stomach remembered it was starving. It grabbed me by the guts and yanked me back to the kitchen.
By the time I finished eating breakfast, it was nearing on six and I was getting worried that I might run into Granddad. He has a habit of getting up early to pee. You can hear him singing while he does. Says it eases the flow.
“I hear the train a’coming, it’s coming round the bend…”
Yep, that was him. Headed down the stairs.
I didn’t have time to do anything but duck under the sink. Fortunately, Granddad’s blind as a bat without his glasses. He stumbled right past me into the bathroom.
“I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps dragging by…”
I grabbed a loaf of bread and some lemonade and bolted out the door.
“That train keeps a’rolling and I hang my head and cry!”
Granddad’s darn whistle tailed me to the docks. I forget—did I tell you we live only two blocks from the water? Da got the house cheap after a hurricane blew through ten years ago. Most folks, as a general rule, don’t like hurricanes.
It’s a nice enough place—kinda saggy and peeling in parts—but you can’t beat the location. Kids in my class would give their baby back teeth to be as near to the river as I am.
You wanna guess what my river’s called? The Fisher River. Course it’s named after some addle-pated settler who thought a saltwater marsh was a good place to plunk a farm, but that ain’t the point of the story.
The point is fishing, as it always is.
“You aiming to catch a mako, boy?”
That’s Slack Joe asking the question. Slack Joe calls everyone boy.
“Sure. Then I’ll stuff it in your PJs!”
I don’t have much truck with Slack Joe. He’s the kind of man who thinks it’s funny to bark at babies and dangle rats above buzz saws. I hate wharf rats just as much as the next man, but no creature deserves a preview of hell.
Slack Joe didn’t used to be slack. Da knew him back in high school. Says he was called Lightning Joe then—could run a ball fifty yards without ruffling his greased-up hair.
But then his dog left him and his knee blew out and he got real lazy and sour. People who forgave him for being a cuss when he was fast didn’t want to put up with him when he was slow.
So Joe took to sitting on the harbor docks all day drinking warm soda. Now he looks like a giant sausage about ready to bust out of its casing.
“Your Da know you’re here?”
That was a lie, sure, but what else could I have done? If Slack Joe knew the truth, he’d hurl it halfway ‘cross town.
Still, I could see by the squint that he thought I was acting suspicious. Without moving a lump of lard, he eyeballed me down the gangway and onto the docks. Before I’d even reached our boat, I was itching to be out of there.
Which was a shame, cause there’s nothing better than being on a dock in the spring. It’s the smell that gets to you most—the stink of dead crabs, the rush of gasoline, the seaweed and warm wood and rope. I reckon there should be more poems on docks.
Docks and Woodbury skiffs. Cause that’s the type of boat our Rita Anne is. She’s a real beauty—nigh on sixteen feet from stem to stern, with curves like a porpoise. Granddad says Woodburys were built for the days when we were fishing off schooners. Before the trawlers sucked the Banks dry.
“You know how to run that thing, boy?”
Now, Slack Joe knew I could run the Rita Anne to Antarctica and back. He was just trying to get under my nails.
Instead of answering him, I checked that the shift was in neutral, pulled out the choke, turned the hand grip to start, and yanked on the starter rope. In a few pulls, the outboard was running like a top. So much for squirrelly.
“Hey, Harbormaster, some kid is stealing Pete’s boat!”
You gotta hand it to Slack Joe. He could spoil Christmas morning.
See, the weird thing about this Saturday was, we didn’t have our regular Harbormaster, Nate. His wife had gone and birthed a baby so the town had brought in this joker to cover for the week. Nate knew me like the back of his transom. This subbie was clueless about the Tuckers.
Not that I was gonna hang around to introduce myself. I grabbed hold of the stern line as the door of a pick-up truck slammed shut.
But wouldn’t you know it? Some fool—probably one of Da’s girlfriends—had made a mess of the whole thing. The line was snarled all over the cleat. It took me three goes to get the first loop free and I still had one hundred and four left.
Meanwhile, I could hear Slack Joe whooping and hollering and the Harbormaster’s feet banging down the gangway. I pushed and I tugged and I swore blue seas and still that stern line held.
I told you Fate had it in for me.
“You! Kid! Stop!”
The Harbormaster was picking up speed as he neared the end of the dock. He’d worked up a good head of steam and appeared to be snorting fire.
Three feet, two feet, one…
There! The last of the line whipped round and slithered into the harbor. I revved the engine and pointed the Rita Anne’s nose towards clear water.
Just in time to watch the Harbormaster go sailing over the space where the skiff had been. He must have done track—he soared like a long jumper.
But he fell like a bag of flour, legs splayed and hands thrown up like he was praying for deliverance. The whole world cracked as his butt hit the ocean.
Gosh, it must have been cold. Water in June is close to 60˚—not a bath you wanna take a soak in. Plus there’s the squidgy wet feeling that you get when the sea fills up your shoes. I lingered long enough to make sure the Harbormaster came up sputtering and then hied the heck out of there.
“I’ll get you, boy!” I heard Slack Joe bellow.
Yeah, I thought. You and what navy?