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just before it's gone

Hoot and Holler
Albert Poe
How it Came to Be
Sad Story
The 350th
Life's Horizon
Land Line
No Women
Chinese Mud and Going Native

once a reporter, always a reporter

but now I have a dog

island dispatches

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,” says one.

    “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 rare.

    “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 me.

    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?” I asked.

    “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 A.B.?”

    “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 her beer.

     “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.

    “No coke.”

“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 charm.

     “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 much.”

at the dock

Sad Story