Colin Pierce’s first goal was to christen his homecoming with a cold beer. Two beers. Poking someone in the nose might also be a gratifying way to say, “I’m back.” He banged open the door to O’Malley’s Plimsoll Line, the bar where he’d had his first drink at 14.
It appeared O’Malley had never left his post in all this time. Standing with a bar rag in his hand, he might have been a statue for the tourists to photograph.
Colin shook the afternoon’s cold rain off his jacket, tossed it on a barstool and slid onto the stool next to it.
“Long time, Colin. Sorry to hear about your loss.” O’Malley drifted down the duckboards behind the bar. “Barlow was a difficult one for sure.”
“You know about it,” Colin said. Not much got by O’Malley nor his one good eye.
O’Malley grabbed a glass and poured a draft. “I went to the wake. We missed you.”
“I was out off the Keys with some tourists. Didn’t learn for a week that he was dead.”
“Things are different now, Colin,” O’Malley said, as though his monument to solicitous drinking might have undergone cultural renovations.
Colin rolled his sleeves, exposing muscled forearms covered in dark hair, and saluted O’Malley with the glass.
“Alice was asking after you,” O’Malley offered. A crack of thunder broke outside.
Colin looked at the tin ceiling, wondering if O’Malley had orchestrated this meteorological homecoming. “Don’t know why. We haven’t talked since she divorced me three years ago.”
“Old times’ sake, maybe. I said things have changed. Maybe she changed.”
Colin emptied the glass. “What do I owe you?”
O’Malley waved his hand. “Screw your money. It’s on the house. A first time for everything. Come back later and we’ll talk some.”
* * *
The Pierce family tree stretched back to shortly after the Mayflower hit Massachusetts. There had been centuries of ancestral trawlers, yawls, even a schooner under their hands. Son after father, all the way down from Capt. John Pierce, who ferried Roger Williams from Boston to Providence Plantation, had been sailors — usually captains or owners. Barlow was among a dwindling community of commercial fishermen, piloting a sword boat from Cape Ann to the Outer Banks. O’Malley knew this, as did Alice and everyone in town. Barlow’s heart attack on the high sea was a footnote in the family tree.
Colin learned Barlow was dead when he returned to port and heard the message on his answering machine. “Even if you weren’t close to the old man, you’re the closest to the old house,” his kid brother, Ian, told him on the call-back. “I’m tied up here in San Francisco. I’ll help on the paperwork.”
Ian was the fair-haired boy who went to U. Mass on scholarship and defended his move to the West Coast. Now an officer at a bank, he had acquired a wife along with a condominium and closet full of suits.
It was an ironic process of elimination, Colin thought, that he was the one shanghaied to clean up the business Barlow left behind. Begrudgingly, Colin had driven up from Key Largo to Gloucester. “You know the old man never gave a shit for either of us.” he had told Ian. “All our lives he was out on the water.”
“And quiet as the harbor stones when he was at home,” Ian agreed. “He wasn’t the best father, but you have to let the dead rest in peace.”
Crap, Colin had thought. “He never even congratulated me when I got my own 36-footer. I make a good living taking parties out for tarpon and tuna.” To himself, he added, The father I wanted never came on board when I was born.
Walking from O’Malley’s to a corner market, Colin bought bread, eggs, cereal, milk, deli ham and cheese, and then ran out of ideas. At the checkout, he remembered to add a bottle of Scotch and a pack of cigarettes.
The drive up the hill to the house took five minutes. It was his house now, by temporal possession as Barlow’s executor. After stowing the food, he allowed himself a swallow of whiskey. The place hadn’t changed since he said a prayer over his mother’s grave and left town. A great hunk of furniture held a little TV screen. One wall still had a picture he referred to as “Jesus Scanning Heaven for a Weather Report.” Plaster and ogee frames on the stairway held vaguely remembered ancestors.
It was time to walk through the frame structure, from the always-damp cellar to the widow’s walk overlooking the harbor, assessing what the house on the hill still contained. The rooms didn’t trigger memories as much as they made him irritable. His mother’s death three years before had severed any connection the house had to his childhood. This wasn’t a home, it was a crypt.
Opening the attic door, he was washed by the smell of old trunks and mildewed quilts. The accumulation of generations glowed under their dusty mantle in the whiskey-colored sun that slipped between the horizon and a cloud bank. This attic once had been Colin’s playroom and refuge. From the window overlooking the harbor he was the watchman of the sea in his attic aerie.
What caught his eye was the litter of scrapbooks filled with ancestral photos. There were daguerreotypes and tintypes and faded silvertone cartes de visite bound up in thick books with golden hasps, and albums of black paper bound by black laces and filled with Kodaks. Each person had his or her name inked below their visage.
Colin grabbed the most recent generations and went back downstairs to look them over.
Of greatest curiosity now were the pictures of his father before he married Ma. Barlow had taken off in 1965. Not to the sea like his parents; that would have been too easy. He hitchhiked the highways as “an adventurer,” according to Ma. “He traded the eternal truths of the water for the iniquities and temptations of country people.”
His postcards and letters had been tied up in ribbons. Colin sat in the parlor, leafing through the albums and unfolding letters, occasionally sipping the whiskey. The spirits of his family gave scant comfort — a musty atmosphere of the past filled the room — but he had the luxury of time. The ghosts were in no hurry either.
He stopped when the fading twilight made him turn on a lamp, then returned to the previous pages. A break in the precise continuity of photos caught his eye. Barlow’s letters and photos had simply stopped. In early 1969 and extending for about a year, there were no letters or holiday cards detailing his adventures mining copper in Montana or picking hops in Oregon or branding cattle on a Wyoming ranch. Barlow had ceased to exist. Neither were there photos from this period in an album someone had maimed. The spaces in ’69 were mocked by empty DuPage photo corners.
Barlow’s cards resumed the following year, announcing that he was working his way home. When he got back to Gloucester in 1970, Ma had said, he went to work at a ship’s chandlery, left again for the Vietnam War as it boiled into a stewpot of blood, and then led a life of uneventful continuity, chasing fish ever farther out on the Banks until his death.
The pictures in the “Barlow Album” stopped with a third of the book still empty. Barlow was the last of his family to inhabit the house, the last person to maintain the graphic history that had devolved to blurry Instamatic snapshots.
Colin recognized the later pictures, photos he had sent home of him in a Navy uniform. Colin had written to his mother and brother from Inchon, Taichung and Subic Bay, but never wrote a word recognizing his father.
With the sun gone and a breeze coming in from the north shore, he pulled on his jacket and walked down to the Plimsoll. A hamburger and fries there would be as good as anything he could whip up, and there might be the pleasure of old acquaintances.
Instead of crew members or friends, he found Alice.
“Surprised to see you, Colin,” she said. She sat at the end of the bar, her legs crossed and half a thigh showing the way north. He noticed her blonde hair was growing out dark.
“You think I wouldn’t come back to say goodbye to my own father?” he asked. “I was out on the water and didn’t know he croaked.”
“Sorry for your loss.”
“Colin, I’m sorry. For a lot of things.” She put a hand tentatively, lightly, on his arm and then withdrew it.
“Me too. Mistakes all around.” No bitterness remained. The emotional distress was forgotten, and only the litany of events — the car she wrecked, the books and tapes she’d thrown out the window during a night-time fight — remained. “It’s a thing I have,” he said. “I said goodbye to my buddies and left for the Navy the week the U.S. invaded Panama. And, we were married — remember? — about the time Saddam invaded Kuwait. I didn’t know we were starting our own war.”
“Ha ha,” she said tonelessly.
“Hey, honey, what do I have to do to get a beer in this joint?” he shouted to the bargirl, louder than needed to be heard over a nearby argument having to do with the Patriots’ Tom Brady.
The young woman slapped a glass down, ignoring the foam that slid to the bar. “I’m not your honey.”
Alice laughed. “Still a pain in the ass, aren’t you? It’s your nature. Anyone here could say go to hell and get a thank you. You say ‘good morning’ and they’ll poke you in the nose.”
“You always been a hard case, haven’t you, Alice?”
“Trot, trot to Boston,” she sang the children’s song. “Trot, trot to Lynn, look out little baby ’cause you might fall in.” Turning to the barmaid, she said, “Dalma, this’s Colin, my unlamented ex. Colin, Dalma.”
“Crabs are disappearing from the bay,” Dalma said. “Now we know they’ve come to O’Malley’s.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” he told her. “What’s a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?” If he got that one backward, he could blame the beer, but she put her head back and laughed.
“Lots of reasons, none of them your business.”
“Anytime you want to trade travel stories, I’m game,” Colin said. “You’re a wicked piece of work that’d turn heads in Miami.” She had agate-colored eyes and clear skin like tanned leather. Her face had a slight Portuguese or Latina cast, but was unlike the other Cape Ann girls in ways too subtle to define.
Alice snorted and turned to watch the Patriots. O’Malley stood at the end of the bar, his good eye drilling into them while the lazy eye floated over the crowd. “Dalma,” he shouted, “go bring up a case of Schlitz.”
Alice laughed. “Trot, trot to Salem, Trot, trot to Dover. Look out little baby ’cause you might fall over.”
* * *
His melancholic mood over meeting Alice dredged up thoughts of Barlow, and those vapors hovered ghost-like over his bed that night. There were dishes still in the sink that no mourner cared to wash. Half the cups had no saucers. Food in the fridge was rotting. The old man must’ve been crazy as a dog’s breakfast in his last days.
As he drank coffee the next morning, a news report on the black and white TV made him raise his head. The Boston station was doing a “Remember When?” feature on Tom Crutchfield, the Butcher of Dorchester. Colin pulled together pieces of memory as the reporter interviewed an elderly black woman. She had encountered the body of Tom’s mother, Mabel, hacked to pieces on the kitchen floor. Two other neighbors who had come calling — one of them a preacher’s wife — were also cut up like supermarket chickens.
The incident had been as famous as the Boston Strangler. Tom had been picked up easily enough. As the cops slammed the cell door on him, dozens of people threatened to storm the jail and lynch him. The state tried to give Tom the death penalty for the dual crimes of being a murderer and a mongrel kid, but the jury settled for life.
The reporter gleefully dragged out a long tale of Tom’s transgressions. He had been a troublesome truant, an alcoholic teenager who abused stray animals, and had fathered an illegitimate child when he was 17. The litany of sociopathic crimes seemed to define the nature of evil itself. Tom was a character who transcended humanity and became a local legend, “a latter-day Lizzie Borden,” the reporter concluded. “The evil ones are often better remembered than the saints.”
All this had happened while Colin was a high schooler promising undying love to Alice. He remembered his mother’s comment the night Tom was convicted, “Well, I pity him.” Pity was the most damning curse she could put on a person.
The knock at the door jarred him from meshing pieces of the past and the present.
“Hey,” Dalma announced. She was wearing a silver wind breaker and her red face showed the cold and exertion of walking up the hill. “I came by to return your cigarette lighter. You left it at the bar.”
“Wondered what happened to it.” He took the gold lighter a client had given him, turning it over in his fingers. “C’mon in and have some coffee.”
“Wouldn’t mind a cup.” She edged past him and cast her eyes around the living room as though scouting out sharks. Her scrutiny embarrassed him, until he remembered it wasn’t his house. He had no need to be self-conscious.
“Alice got on your case last night, huh?”
“Well,” he said, pointing her to the kitchen and past Jesus forecasting the weather, “she needs to bolster her ego — at my expense.”
“What do you do down in, where? Florida?”
She looked younger than she did at O’Malley’s, like a kid. He guessed she was another one of those who finish high school and aim to be a beautician or a nurse’s aide, then find it’s easier to pour beers and chat up guys until the best of the lot proposes marriage.
“I take parties out to the Keys, sometimes to the Bahamas or Puerto Rico. Milk and sugar?”
She shook her head. “So your father died and that’s why you came back to Gloucester? Gonna stay here?” Her lips puckered up as she sucked in the coffee.
“No longer’n I have to. Want to buy a house? Solid as a rock since 1845. No hurricane’ll take this one out.”
A smile flickered. “What’ll I do with a big house? Who’ve I got to share it with?”
Was she angling? There’s a special way to make fish interested in the bait, a way of learning to move the line, but girls instinctively know how to troll. He asked, “How come?” and let her read that as How come there’s no man or no family or no nothing?
“I don’t need to tell you my business. I’m just giving you back your lighter, but if you want to know, my ma’s run off, my father’s not coming back. And, while I’m at it, I don’t like nosy people and small animals.”
He told her that’s okay. He didn’t like animals that weren’t cooked and he was in the same boat family-wise. “That make me an orphan? How old do you have to be until you can’t be an orphan?”
A squall line blew across her face. “Some people are born orphans.”
* * *
By three o’clock the sun had dropped in the west so he poured a small whiskey to salute the afternoon. He was back in the attic, tossing the last of the junk down the stairs to be trashed, when he found a small box under the eaves. It was the kind his grandma would keep jewelry in, but there was no key. Locks and keys are like unhappy marriages that separate as soon as the weather turns, he thought, jimmying the top with his penknife.
He opened the box to find a packet of letters from a woman named Mabel and dated March through August of 1969. One envelope had a complete return address for Mabel Crutchfield in Dorchester. Barlow’s address was a Boston apartment. At the bottom of the box were photos of Mabel, a good-looking but expressionless African-American girl.
Mabel’s last letter said, “Dearest Barlow, if our child is a boy I cannot name him after you for having deserted me in my hour of need. I shall name him Thomas.”
The television documentary slammed into him. Tom the Butcher had been born Thomas Crutchfield. Mabel was his mother and Barlow….
He closed the box and took it downstairs.
Colin let the fact sink in. For three decades, the ghost of a half brother had been a stowaway in their attic, getting free passage with the white middle class New Englanders. He guessed that knowing Tom lived twenty miles away had rankled Barlow all those years Colin and Ian were growing up. He imagined the fear Barlow must have hidden that someone would learn he’d shacked up with a darkie and his kid was walking the same streets as him, putting a lie to his self-righteousness. What had this anger and despair done to infect his mother? Did Barlow cringe every time his wife said, “I pity him”? Did she bite her lips to keep the secret hidden?
Needing to brush off the cobwebs of time, Colin drove down to O’Malley’s. The same half dozen faces were hanging over the bar as he’d seen the evening before. The Plimsoll was well-named for the line painted on a merchant ship, showing the depth it can be loaded before it’s in danger of sinking or capsizing. The regulars at the bar were on the line.
“These guys ever go home, O’Malley, or do you hang them up in the closet after closing?” He heard an indifferent “Up yours, Colin” from someone at the end of the bar.
“You can have a beer if you talk nice, Colin,” O’Malley said putting his ruddy face into Colin’s. “And only if you stay away from Dalma.” The last came out in a hoarse whisper.
“She something special? Give the place a little class?”
“Yeah, she’s special here.” His face heated up like a pot-bellied stove. “Barlow was my friend, and I don’t need his runaway kid comin’ in here and playin’ us for fools.”
“You got a bug up your ass? I’m here to do my business and sell the house. If your barmaid wants to play games while I’m here….”
“You mind my words, Colin! Dalma’s off limits. I know she came to see you today.” He threw down his bar rag and waddled off.
* * *
He was sitting on the porch that night, enjoying his mother’s rocker, when Dalma drove up in a battered Honda, brakes squealing and hand brake crunching. She looked good with the moonlight silhouetting her trim waist and wide hips. Too good to be wasting the rest of her youth in a Gloucester bar, he thought. If she could cook worth a damn, it would be worth teaching her to make conch chowder. His thoughts stopped there.
“I heard O’Malley threw you out of the bar.” She announced it, standing on the sidewalk with her hands on her hips.
“Not really. Told me to keep my hands off you.” He shrugged, knowing she missed the gesture in the darkness. “Aren’t you of age yet?”
“I’m legal enough to stand on either side of a bar. Point is, I want to know why O’Malley is telling people he’ll cut your balls off.”
“Beats me. Maybe he’s a dirty old man. I’ve seen worse. There was a guy in Lauderdale one time….”
“Colin, I asked around. In spite of what Alice says, I think you’re a decent guy.”
“She doesn’t hate you. You and her together were just a mistake. She admits it, that half of it was her fault.”
“What’s your point?”
“Let’s go inside. I don’t like standing in the street.”
He stood up. As she passed, he put his arm around her shoulder and swung her into an embrace. It was something he was compelled to do, a way of showing her she was an okay human being and he approved of her being a beautiful creature endowing an autumnal night in Massachusetts. She flowed into him like the flood tide and her mouth opened wide and salty. It wasn’t that Colin didn’t have women in Largo, what with the rich ones hanging around the Ocean Reef Club looking for amusement, but Dalma filled another need. She was an organ transplant for a missing heart.
“Goddammit, Colin, I said to keep away!” O’Malley shouted from the darkness.
Colin hadn’t heard him drive up, or else the old fart had walked. “Not your business, O’Malley. Go back to your bar.”
He strode up the walk as good as he could with his belly flopping and his arms waving, and his eyes — the good one and the bad — getting squinty. Colin didn’t step back because of fear but because he thought he might be squashed under this steamroller.
“Didja ever ask Dalma what her last name is?” he hissed. “It’s Crutchfield. She’s the Butcher of Dorchester’s daughter, him being in jail for the rest of his life. Tom’s your half brother and Barlow’s bastard son. Now, you little shit, get your hands off your niece!”
“That true?” He turned to Dalma, who looked confused.
“Tom Crutchfield’s my father. You think I want everyone to know that? You think people in this town gonna let me hold my head up knowing that? Do you? Only O’Malley knew. He brought me here, gave me a job, and he doesn’t talk. But I didn’t know my Dad’s father was….” She slumped down in the rocker. “He doesn’t know who his father is.”
“O’Malley’s right, Dalma,” Colin said. “I read a letter. Barlow ran away from your Grandma Mabel when she needed him.”
“Oh, Christ,” O’Malley said, sitting down on the steps and holding his bald head in his hands. “Barlow confessed to me. One night when he was drunk. I tried to keep an eye on Tom, but he was a bad seed. I promised Barlow I’d do what I could for his granddaughter, especially when Tom was put away.” He looked up with bloodshot eyes. “And I aim to keep my promise, you little shit. Barlow knew the devil himself had climbed aboard your family ark.”
“He was ashamed.” Colin said the words that didn’t need to be voiced.
“Mabel’s bastard son was the reason he could never talk father to son with you or your brother. Maybe he thought Tom would’ve grown up normally if there’d been a wedding and a father, or even child support. Christ, I don’t know.”
“Dalma?” he asked, but she wasn’t looking at him.
“Colin,” O’Malley said. “Goddammit, Tom’s mother was colored. You can’t get serious….”
I shook my head in the dark. “We’re both orphans, old man. We have that in common. At least one thing to share. She’s family, and that ain’t all bad.”
* * *
Dalma stayed with him that night. “Way I figure it,” he told her, “two half people can make one whole person.” They were in a big house, built to withstand the worst hurricanes. It could stand up to this.
he explained, “I’m going to find a buyer for this house, then head back to Florida. Someone who’ll take the ghosts along with the property and furniture.”
“I’ll miss you, Colin.”
“No, I want you to come with me. Be a mate on my boat.”
“And make conch chowder?” she laughed.
“When we’re out on the Gulf with the wind at our backs, we’ll think about how lost souls can climb aboard and stow away all our lives.”