By the age of twenty-three, Ellis had his own boat, the Cape Ann, and his own charter business, bringing wealthy men out to the banks for the sport of fighting and landing a bluefin tuna. For, by then, word had gotten around that if you wanted to test your mettle against nature, fighting a thousand-pound bluefin for two or three hours was one way to do it.
In those days, when the fish were still plentiful, Ellis was the man to see. He had an uncanny knack for knowing where the great fish swam in the warm summer months. Men came up from New York, men flocked in from the mainland of Massachusetts, they came down from Maine, and they flew in from America’s heartland to hire Captain Ellis.
His fishing haunt was the Middle Bank, also known as Stellwagen Bank. Stellwagen is now a marine sanctuary, but back in the day it was Ellis’ private fishing preserve. An apartment on T Wharf, overlooking the Rockport Inner Harbor, doubled as his base of operations for his charter business and a house of ill repute when he was not fishing.
• • • •
The incessant ringing awakens Ellis. However, before lifting the receiver, he glances at the clock sitting next to the phone. Its luminescent hands throwing off a slight green glow. The time is 4:46 a.m. He had been asleep for less than an hour.
Groggily, and in a rasping whisper, Ellis speaks into the phone, “Hello?”
“Ellis, old buddy. It’s me. Marty.”
“Yeah … Marty. Marty from Long Island. Me and my two buddies came up to do a little fishing.”
Ellis’ head clears a mite. He is wishing he had a glass of water. And a couple of aspirin wouldn’t hurt either. He had spent a hard night of drinking a concoction invented by one of his friends. He did not know what it consisted of, but he did know the prime ingredient was rum … and a lot of it.
Before he can further respond to Marty, a voice next to him intrudes into the conversation. “Ellis, honey. What time is it?”
Oh yeah. I forgot about her, thinks Ellis.
“It’s early. Go back to sleep.”
From the phone comes a reply. “Damn right it’s early. And we’re already up here in Gloucester. We’re going fishing. We have no plans to sleep until we’ve landed a bluefin.”
“I wasn’t speaking to you, Marty. Now tell me what the hell’s going on.”
“Ellis, I know I just woke you up from a sound sleep. So I’ll make this easy for you. We’re going fishing. You, me, Ted, and Verne.”
“Ted and Verne?”
“Yeah! Ted and Verne, they’re friends of mine. Now get your ass up. We’ll be there in an hour. We’re in an all-night diner on Route 128, just finishing breakfast.”
Ellis is now fully awake. How dare this New Yorker call him in the middle of the night and demand he hop out of bed and take him fishing. Sure, Marty’s a regular and a good customer. He’s also a generous tipper when he catches fish. But still.
Then Ellis remembers that his coffers are at an all-time low. It’s been a week since his last charter. Not because he didn’t have the business, but because he’s been too busy partying with his cronies and trying to bed every young female within the town limits of Rockport … and a few just over the town line.
Last night when they got low on rum, he had to make a call to the package store over in Gloucester. It went something like this:
“Hey, this is Ellis.”
“Hi, Ellis. What can I do for you?”
“I need a gallon of rum, but I can’t pay for it right now.”
“No problem. It will be there in fifteen minutes.”
Everyone liked the Boy Wonder.
For financial reasons, Ellis had decided to take the charter, but he wasn’t going to make it easy on ol’ Marty.
Speaking into the phone, his voice now strong, he said, “What makes you think I don’t already have a charter for the day?”
An eager Marty explains. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll pick up the full tab. I’m sure they’ll let us tag along.”
That’s why Ellis liked Marty. He was an eternal optimist.
“Well, it just so happens that I’m free today, but you’ll have to pick up the bait. Stop at Charlie Cucuro’s fish house. You’ll pass it on your way in. You can’t miss it. It will be on your left, and there’s a big red and white sign that you can see from the road.”
“Will they be open this time of morning?”
“It’s a fish house. They’ll be open.”
His conversation with Marty at an end, Ellis turns his attention to his bedmate. She’s a comely lass who goes by the name of Susie. Her hair is long and blonde. She has a figure that just will not quit. He had met her the day before as the sun was making a spectacular descent behind the high hills in the west. The diminishing sunlight rippled in her hair as it does upon a wheat field in midsummer. She was a tourist up from Boston, walking T Wharf with her girlfriend.
Ellis had observed her from the vantage point of his second floor apartment and was smitten. He was soon standing next to the girls and introducing himself. He invited them up to his apartment for a cool drink, and called a friend to come over to entertain the girlfriend while he spoke with the blonde. Long after the gallon of rum had been delivered, the friend took the girlfriend home and Ellis was left alone with Susie.
One thing led to another and here they were.
Ellis leaned into her and gently kissed her cheek. She shifted in her sleep and smiled. He did not want to wake her. He would leave a note on the kitchen table telling her how much he had enjoyed meeting her and that he would be back sometime after sundown if she felt inclined to continue their escapades from the previous evening.
From the kitchen phone he called his mate, Wayne. “Come on, buddy. We got ourselves a charter.”
“What do you mean we, white man?”
“I mean get your ass outta bed and meet me at the wharf in thirty minutes.”
“Damn! I just hit the sack. Why didn’t you tell me we had a charter today?”
“Look, Wayne, I didn’t know it myself until ten minutes ago. We need the money, and thank God the fuel tanks are full. So, we’re going.”
“Okay, Captain. I’ll see you at the wharf in half an hour.”
The two men meet, climb down the ladder to their waiting dingy, and row out to the moored Cape Ann. As Wayne inspects the fishing tackle, Ellis brings the boat to life. At first she roars, but then settles down to a contented purr.
Wayne disengages the line tethering them to the mooring and Ellis deftly maneuvers the Cape Ann alongside of the wharf. It is now almost 6:00 a.m. The sun is throwing a gentle light up and over the eastern horizon, turning the sky a light gray as the clouds turn dark—almost black. But that would not last. Soon our star—our sun—would emerge in all her glory. The sky would turn orange, the clouds would rapidly turn from dark gray to purple, and then sing their joy as they became a vibrant pink. Glory hallelujah, the sun has risen! But all that means less than nothing to Ellis, his head is throbbing.
Marty and his friends arrive and soon the Cape Ann is headed due east, into the rising sun.
Ellis was not a religious man, not by a long shot. He might not have marveled at the majesty of God’s sunrises, but he did have one ritual. Every time he took out a charter or just went out fishing for his own enjoyment, he would look to the south and see the concrete towers of Boston. And he would always say a silent prayer of thanks that he was out on the open ocean and not shackled to a desk in one of those monstrosities. The sea was Ellis’ church.
After a little more than an hour, the boat slows; they are now over the Middle Bank. It’s time to fish.
Wayne had rigged the gear on the way out. Each line hooked and baited.
The three New Yorkers stand at the stern and slowly let out their lines while Ellis keeps the boat steady and on course. It would not speak well of the captain if the lines were to tangle. After a hundred yards of line have been released, the anglers set their drags to fifty pounds and sit back—metaphorically speaking—to await the great bluefin tuna.
The minutes slowly pass … the hours drag on. Ellis thinks of Susie and her firm, round rear end. He keeps the fishing lines from tangling as he crisscrosses the bank in search of bluefin. The men down in the cockpit are swapping lies about the fish they had caught on previous outings and the women they had bedded in their younger days. Wayne sits in the small cabin wishing he was back in bed. He too had had a rough night.
Out of the depths, a bluefin strikes. Marty is the lucky one. It is his line running out to the south. Ellis slows the boat. Wayne comes alert. He yells to the other two men to reel in their lines—fast!
Ellis’ headache is forgotten. Susie is forgotten. The only thing that matters now is landing the bluefin. It will be a two-man affair. Marty down in the cockpit and Ellis up on the fly bridge. The rest of the men on the boat have suddenly become superfluous.
Marty gives the fish some lead. Not much … just enough. Then he braces his knees against the transom. He has to do this right or the whole day will be for naught. He lets the fish run, thinking it had just scored a tasty morsel of mackerel.
Ellis says nothing. This is Marty’s play. The boat is idling, but only momentarily. Once the hook is set, it will be Ellis’ job to move the boat forward or to put her in reverse and move her backwards to keep Marty’s line from getting tangled in the props. If the tuna takes off to the right or left and heads for the boat, Ellis will have to adjust his course. If the tuna pulls the line under the boat, it will be all over. Until the tuna is landed, he’ll be working just as hard as Marty.
The reel is spinning at an alarming rate. The line is going straight out to sea. Twenty-five yards … fifty yards … seventy-five yards … wait … wait … NOW! Marty pulls back on the pole. BAM … the hook is set.
His friends slap him on the back and congratulate him. Ellis frowns and yells down to the men. “It’s far from over. Give him room. Marty, you get in the chair, you’ve got a fight ahead of you. And Wayne, you know what to do. Stay behind the chair and don’t let our customer get yanked out of the boat. We haven’t been paid yet.”
Ellis was thinking of a good friend of his, a charter captain by the name of Mike. It was just him and a single customer. There was no mate. A tuna hit, and the man sat down in the fighting chair with a big smile on his face. Mike was doing his delicate dance of keeping the line away from the props. He was in reverse when it happened. The tuna was a big one. Before Mike knew it, his customer was pulled from the chair and into the ocean. There was no time to react. The man was chewed up by the props and sunk to the bottom. A week later, a fishing trawler brought the body up in their nets.
Marty cranks the reel … he pulls back on the pole … he cranks again … he pulls again. At first it’s exhilarating, thrilling … and so satisfying. But as time passes, his arms begin to ache. His feet are braced on the foot rest and his legs are on fire. Every muscle in his body is taut and tired.
If Ellis had not been fighting the fish in his own way from up on the fly bridge, the tuna would have pulled the boat miles out to sea. The process was simple. All they had to do was wear the fish out. Once it was exhausted, there’d be no problem reeling him in.
The adversaries are starting to get tired. But who will wear out first—the human or the fish? In a way, Marty was cheating. He had two diesel engines helping with the fight. The tuna had only its brute strength. The minutes wore on.
In a last ditch attempt to be rid of whatever was pulling him to his death, the tuna dives deep and heads straight for the boat. Ellis sees the line heading their way and gives the throttle a slight push forward. He has to keep the fish from the boat until it has no more fight left in him. Marty holds tight to the pole and cranks the reel. At this point, he just wants it to be over.
At the two hour-mark, the line goes slack. The tuna has given up. There is no fight left in him. He is on the verge of drowning because he cannot swim any longer. There is fear in his eyes … he knows he is going die. He is being pulled to what he does not know, but he does know that his days of swimming the cold Atlantic are at an end.
Up on the boat, Marty reels in the last few feet of line. The tuna rolls on the surface. He beholds the creatures that will take his life.
Wayne is there with the gaff. He hooks the tuna just behind the gills. This way the fish will bleed out and there will be just that much less blood to hose down off the deck when they return to port.
The tuna weighs six hundred pounds. So naturally, no one is going to pull it up and over the gunwhale. Wayne sets up the gin pole, a contraption made up of a four by four and a block and tackle. It is the gin pole that will bring the tuna on board.
With the fish secured, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Marty’s buddies break out the beer. Marty sits back down in the chair, takes a deep pull from the cold brew, and accepts the accolades from his friends. Marty soaks it up. The praise is well earned.
Wayne stores the gear and gives Ellis the thumbs up. It’s time to head for home. Another day, another dollar.
Ellis, from his perch high up on the fly bridge, nods to Wayne and puts her in gear. His course, 270 degrees—due west. Five minutes later, Ellis sees a large dark form, just under the surface, off the starboard bow. It’s moving his way. He knows what it is and he cuts the engines.
They won the battle with the tuna. No way could they win against this creature.
The whale changes course and comes at the boat from amidships—starboard side. She’s beautiful. Ellis is enthralled. If she continues on her current course, the boat will be nothing more than flotsam in a few minutes. And all on board will be sleeping in Davy Jones’ locker this night.
On she comes. The men down in the cockpit are unaware of what is happening. They are swilling beer and laughing. Wayne is out of sight. He’s most likely in the cabin, knocking down a beer himself.
Fine, thinks Ellis. If we can come out here and kill a beautiful creature like a bluefin, then we should be fair game ourselves.
On comes the whale.
Ellis braces for the collision.
Short of the boat, the whale dives.
Ellis lets out his breath. He had not been aware that he had been holding it.
He’s about to restart the engines when the boat rises five feet into the air. The whale has come up under the Cape Ann. The lady whale is saying hello. She is a playful thing. A few seconds later, the boat has been gently deposited back onto the surface of the water. A giant tail, twenty feet off port, swishes in farewell.
Ellis grins, points the Cape Ann toward the setting sun, and shouts down below. “Wayne, bring me up a goddamn beer!”
Another day, another dollar.
The wind is blowing at close to sixty knots. The sea is rolling—creating valleys twenty feet deep. The sheer walls of water would freeze a man’s heart if he was unlucky enough to find himself at the bottom of one of those aqueous canyons. The freezing rain slants in almost horizontally, carrying with it chunks of hail that dimple the surface water. Spray from the whitecaps fills the frigid air with its salty fury.
• • • •
Winters are harsh in New England and even harsher if you are out at sea. So Ellis looked around for something to keep him busy during those months and also put a few shekels in his pocket.
At the time, he drove an old Volkswagen beetle and liked the dependability of the car; hence, he decided to become a Volkswagen salesman during the winter months while the Cape Ann was laid up in dry dock.
Ellis being Ellis, he had a demand when he applied for a job at the local dealership. “I’ll work for you winter and spring, but come summer, I’m going fishing. If you can live with that, then we have a deal.” His renown as a sport fisherman had preceded him. The local dealership enthusiastically put him to work selling cars.
Ellis earned the Top Salesman Plaque for six months running before leaving for a summer of fishing. Not a bad life for a twenty-five-year-old bachelor. It afforded him the time and means to pursue his two favorite sports—fishing and meeting young women. Not necessarily in that order.
As legendary as he was for his fishing acumen, Ellis was also celebrated—at least by the male population of Gloucester—for his way with the fairer sex.
There was the aforementioned Susie. Then there was Cindy, Fran, Terry, Elouise, Diana, Mary Beth … well, the list goes on. Their names alone would take up an entire chapter. This aspect of Ellis’ “career” has been brought up for a reason. There was one name on the list that had a profound effect on Ellis’ life, but not in a way that he or anyone else could have ever imagined. Her name was Natalie. And her profession, at the time, was that of a nurse practitioner at Beverly Hospital.
• • • •
It’s a beautiful January day. The sun is shining. Cottony white clouds race across an azure sky. The scarlet feathers of a lone cardinal stand out against the snow-covered branches of a stately oak—his morning song filling the cold, crisp air. The people of Gloucester are starting their day. God sits on his heavenly throne and smiles down on Cape Ann. He is pleased with his handiwork.
It is now the third winter since Ellis started selling cars. The time is just a few minutes before 8:00 a.m. and Ellis is in his car heading for work. He’s thinking of the night before and lamenting the fact that, for the first time in a long time, he had gone to bed alone.
I needed some rest anyway, reasons Ellis. Then he ruminates further. Perhaps I’ll call Sally after work and see if she wants to come over for a little dinner. Now that he has that out of the way, he tries to turn his mind to more mundane matters, like selling a Volkswagen or two before day’s end. But he can’t help himself; a smile spreads across his face as he thinks, If I ask her nicely, I wonder if Sally will wear her white mini-skirt this evening?
The black Porsche 914 cuts the chilly air as it heads towards Ellis’ fate. The car is moving with the flow of traffic—about sixty miles per hour—when suddenly and without warning, Ellis goes into an uncontrollable sneezing fit.
One sneeze after another in rapid-fire succession. And with each sneeze, Ellis’ eyes close. At first, he’s able to keep the car in its lane, but then, fate intervenes. The right front tire hits a patch of black ice.
The Porsche skids to the right, across an empty driving lane, and heads directly for a sign post held up by two one-foot-square, solid steel I-beams. The ground in which they are imbedded is frozen solid. If a car were to hit either beam, there would be no forgiveness. It would be like hitting a brick wall, only worse. The wall would collapse … the beams are going nowhere.
Ellis sees his death fast approaching. There is no time to react. Just before impact, he thinks of Sally. He wonders—knowing how much he liked her in that white mini skirt—if she will break with tradition and wear it to his funeral. He hopes she does. That is his last conscious thought before impact. The Porsche plows into the left I-beam and explodes into many pieces. Then there is only darkness.
A trucker hauling a load of lumber is the first to stop. He is a big, tough man. He had fought in the war with General Patton. He has seen death, but not like this. For the most part, they were clean deaths. A bullet hole and an exit wound. Even the men who had stepped on land mines were in relatively good shape. Yes, they were missing a leg or two, but you could still identify them by their face. Now, he is repulsed by what he sees and takes a step back.
There is nothing to be done. The poor son-of-a-bitch is obviously dead. He will wait until the police arrive, give his statement, get the hell out of there, and then stop at the first bar he sees. He needs a drink.
Thankfully, the cops soon arrive.
The first police officer on the scene has seen his fair share of accidents, but this one is something else. The car lies in pieces and the man who had been driving did not fare much better. The officer has radioed for an ambulance, but only as a matter of form. He should have called for a hearse.
It is rush hour and traffic is heavy. Plus the fact that people are slowing down to take a gander at the mayhem, keeps the ambulance from arriving sooner. But eventually it gets there and the cops fill the driver in on the gory details. The driver shrugs. He too has seen his fair share of death.
He says to his partner, who is new on the job and still learning his way about, “Before we take him to the morgue, we have to confirm that he’s dead.”
Leaning into the destroyed car, the ambulance attendant puts his stethoscope to the corpse’s chest. “Goddamn! This man is alive!” he shouts.
The cop runs over. “Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. He has a heartbeat!”
With great difficulty, the two attendants get Ellis—or what is left of him—onto the gurney. Once he is secured within the ambulance, the emergency lights are activated and the siren starts its woeful wail.
At the hospital, Ellis is rushed into an operating room where various liquids are pumped into his veins in an effort to stabilize him … to keep him from going into shock and ultimately cardiac arrest. X-rays are taken and show that every bone in his head has been broken—all twenty-nine of ’em. His right leg has sustained breaks in twenty places. In short, Ellis is a mess.
However, the biggest mess is Ellis’ face. Because of the trauma of the collision, it is twice its normal size. And with all those broken bones, the plastic surgeon that has been called in has no idea what the man looked like before the accident. How can he put him back together again if he doesn’t know what he looked like before?
He mutters his predicament to the nurse standing next to him. She turns to him and says, “I’ve got a picture of him in my wallet. Will that help?”
“Go and get it!”
Natalie runs to her locker and retrieves the cherished picture of Ellis that she has kept close since he gave it to her over a year ago. As she walks back to the OR, she thinks, That son-of-a-bitch is damn lucky I held on to this picture. But she’s smiling as she thinks it. Ellis was one of the kindest and most attentive lovers she had ever known.
Back in the OR, the doctors get down to the business of saving Ellis’ life and reconstructing his face. Natalie is also there, doing her job. She is a professional, but still, a tear or two trickle down her cheeks. But they are hidden by her surgical mask.
Besides everything else, Ellis was permanently blinded in his right eye.
It’s twenty-four hours before he regains consciousness. His jaw is wired shut. He’s wearing a cast from the hip down on his right leg. But he’s having fun and holds court daily. His cop buddies from Gloucester smuggle in cocktails for him. His many girlfriends stop by—bringing flowers. His male friends can barely fit into the room because of all the women crowding around his bed.
A month later, he’s discharged and walks out on two crutches. A month after that, he’s using a cane, and the month after that he’s back at work. No … not that kind of work. He’s back to chasing anything wearing a skirt.
It’s hard to keep a good man down. Just ask Natalie. She was the first person he called when he decided he had been celibate long enough.
In Ellis’ mind, the whole affair was just another day in his life.
No big deal.