How it Came to Be
I landed in St. Mary’s County about as foreign as a
person can be. I’d been living for months in a Volkswagen bug and a pup
tent. I’d left downtown Denver to wander the southern border of the
United States looking for a new home. I met Marisa in Key Largo and as
her family claims she also did with stray kittens, she brought me home.
“That is not “Bo-FART, either,”
laughed a teen-age
girl lounging on the sidewalk with her friend. They were leaning
into one another telling girl secrets, giggling with heads together
then laughing apart only to fall back into one another again.
They had been like the silver balls in a pinball machine, ricocheting
up the steeply curbed sidewalk of the arched cement bridge, careening
up the sidewalk, sprung from the spring of adolescence. The falling sun
glinted from water below and also off the hot, bleached cement. The
girls were made beautiful and fresh.
“BE-uuuuu furt,” one giggled,
when Marisa asked what was so funny as we caught up to them on the tall
curb at the foot of the bridge climbing into town from the main
road. The girl cut “furt” off with a hard, chopping sound.
“You from here?” Marisa keeps up and
the girls deadpan the truth.
“All my life,” says the other.
“Nothin’ to do, no place to go, no boys.”
“No boys?” Marisa eggs them on.
“No cute boys,” they both correct.
“And the Dit-Dots aren’t in yet,”
“Yeah?” Marisa asked.
Smiling. Cocking her head. Listening to the rural complaint
of the young.
“I can’t wait to get outta here,”
the other teenager says with disgust in her voice.
“Yeah. I know,” Marisa
commiserates. “I’m from this little town in Maryland. About
all it has is a school for merchant marines. So I joined up to
see the world.”
The girls were wide-eyed and
suddenly silent staring at the first female Merchant Marine they’d ever
seen. “It’s great,” she said, “nothing but men. Aboard the
ships, it’s odds beyond reckoning,” she grinned at them.
They asked what she did.
“I’m an A.B., Able-Bodied,” she said
and puffed out her chest as she watched the girls’ confusion then
slight horror pass over their quickly controlled faces.
Able-Bodied Seaman. The jokes
were endless and not gender limited. In the grander scheme of
gender barricades it was pretty simple on a ship, Marisa
said. She could do the job. Most let her do it.
If someone else wanted to do it for her, that was great too. But
“Listen,” she goes on to tell the
teenagers. “You don’t believe it now, but you’ll wanna come
back,” she tells them. “That’s where we’re going now,” she
gestures toward me, “back to St. Mary’s County.” Then after a
pause qualifies, “To visit.”
“I don’t never wanna come back
here,” says one.
“To visit,” Marisa says.
“Never,” says the other.
“Dit-Dots?” I ask.
They all three stared.
“The Dit. Dots,” the chubbier of the
two girls opens her hands and extends even her fingers wide. “The
Dit-Dots. The summer people. The tourists. ”
“The yachties,” Marisa says to
And in an unanticipated unison say
to me, “You know.” And the three of them giggle.
A Dit-Dot. An outsider.
One who did not know. Sheepishly I followed Marisa down the road
away from the teenagers who had better things to do and then down a
side street and then another.
It was turning dusky and Marisa was
looking for the place she knew where seaman could get a cheap room for
the night. “It’s full,” she gestured to a lit second-floor
of lights in a pale, modern building. We had not stopped to query had
not even broken stride for her to assess and determine. “I know
another place,” she said and we walked on.
“So when were you last in Beaufort?”
“BE U FURT,” she said.
“BE U FURT,” I said.
“Shrimping,” she said. “Dirty
job. I was going with the guy that owned the boat and we were
supposed to make a bundle over the season. I never made
anything. I’m sure he was stealing more than his share of the cut
and drinking it. And all we ate were shrimp. Filthy job.”
“This was before you were an
“Yeah. Well. I didn’t
have a ship and I had met up with this guy, here, here, this is
it.” Marisa reached for the doorknob of a blonde-wood door, its
threshold at the sidewalk edge. The door was undistinguished in
any way that I could discern. It yielded onto a hallway of men at
barstools, a tableau of men’s faces stricken with distrust.
Marisa took a step inside while I held open the door letting the
refrigerated air pour out on me. Despite the escaping chill the
men were red-faced and sweating, one behind another lined up along a
25-foot run of plywood serving as the bar, their backs within 16 inches
of a pressboard paneled hallway making up the entirety of the
establishment. Their legs were tucked tightly beneath the bar to
fit themselves to the space and their elbows rested far into the
plywood. Their heads remained turned toward us and the
silence expanded. A woman stood behind the bar and asked if
we were looking for someplace else.
“This is it,” Marisa announced to
her and the gathering silence and as she pushes in and maneuvers around
the first butt, clapping its owner on the back and grabbing the arm of
the next man in line to thread her way down the bar to a single empty
stool two-thirds the way down she hops up and orders a beer.
The man next to her stands and moves
to the other empty stool at the end. Marisa keeps pattin’ and arm
grabbin’ and dropping what I’m coming out of my stupor to suspect are
the names of ships and the men who work them. I regretfully give
up my hold on the door and move quickly to her back, clinging closely
to the wall. One of the men finally relents and gives a grunt of
recognition at one of the names. I don’t know whether ship or
seaman. I sit at the seat just vacated at her side. The
woman behind the bar looks blankly at Marisa, then thunderstruck when I
sit as well.
“Whatcha want?” she asks after a few
more men grasp Marisa’s rights to be here. A couple of men even
pretend the event is over and turn back to their drinks while another
one pulls out the always reliable Able-Bodied repartee and Marisa gets
“Whadda you want?” the barkeep
now turns to me.
“A glass of white wine over ice.”
It goes quiet again. “We don’t
have any wine,” she says.
“I’ll have a coke,” I say.
“What kind of beer do you want?” Marisa says with a
partial turn toward me, the first recognition she’s offered since
opening the door. Her quiet voice registers surprise and carries
a slight edge to it.
“Bud,” I say.
I drank the first glass of beer I’d
had since my 18th birthday when I could legally down a pitcher of 3.2
beer and barfed it then across the table. I was sucking at
the last warmer-than-my-hands sips of the same Bud after Marisa had
gotten down her two and half of mine from the second round we’d been
bought. She took my arm suddenly and propelled me out the door into the
muggy and motionless heat I’d forgotten. We walked quickly up the
side street and quickly turned another corner and then another. I
caught only the quick glance of the single face poking its head out the
door as we made the first turn.
“Got your keys handy?” Marisa
asked as we spotted the bug. I fumbled for keys in jeans too tight and
realized we wouldn’t be staying in any seaman’s hostel that
night. And that I had to pee. “And I gotta pee,” Marisa
said almost in unison with my thought. We squatted at the side of
the bug which was parked in a copse of trees along the road to the
ferry. As I giggled Marisa laughed her deep contralto.
She would have been the far better
Southern Maryland News. I’d have plenty of opportunities in the
years ahead to recall that contralto when I would unexpectedly be
caught by my little-girl and faraway voice as I drove the endlessly
meandering marsh roads of St. Mary’s County. A Dit-Dot
still. A Dit-Dot with a tape-recorder. A Dit-Dot with a
notebook. A Dit-Dot it seemed forever.
The road I careened down that night
in Beaufort, our backs to the anonymous door hiding its anonymous den
of men, the road to the ferry that we missed despite my speed, that
road foreshadowed them all. Winding. Draped in Spanish
moss. The sunset delayed and delayed. Or maybe sunset had
come and only the feeling of light from reflections on the water let us
think it was earlier than it was.
Occasionally we’d pass a house with
white goods aging to dirt on front porches that hung into the road as
do the stone fences of New England, determined not to be bypassed, but
passed by anyway. The sheer tenacity of the ramshackle gave it
“Don’t you know, every
red-necked boy has got to throw a beer can out a car window some time,”
Marisa’s cute brother tried once to explain St. Mary’s County to
me. A somewhat dented charm.
Later that night, after I’d raced
too late to the ferry, we backtracked to a whitewashed cinderblock
motel room in the crook of two local roads. The room didn’t have a
lock. Marisa painted her toenails and described that earlier room of
her colleagues. “They would make such great husbands,” she
said. “Their money gets sent home. They just want someone to come
home to when they’re off the ship. And they aren’t home all that