This is a story that tells of my one and only encounter with Kris Kristofferson. I was a kid of eighteen and he was a janitor. We had a beer together and then we went our separate ways. He went on to become the famous Kris Kristofferson and I ended up buying his records and thinking, That guy wasn’t so bad after all. Oh … and there was one other guy involved. His name was John.
It was 1968; I was eighteen-years-old, and I was hitchhiking from Miami to New York. I had gotten off the beaten track, so to speak. I should have stayed on US 301 (this was before the Interstate Highway System), but instead found myself just south of Memphis hoping to catch a ride into Nashville by noon and then catch a long haul out of that city.
It was early morning. The traffic was light, and I wasn’t having much luck when, suddenly, a black Mustang screeched to a halt, and the guy driving leaned over and said through the open passenger-side window, “I’m headin’ to Nashville, that do you any good?”
Of course I said, “Yes,” and jumped in.
As he’s accelerating, he’s looking straight ahead, not at me. In fact, he doesn’t say anything, which is strange but not unusual when you’re hitching. So, I said nothing and stared out the windshield at the fast approaching skyline of Memphis. Then it hit me. I know this guy; I should have tumbled from the voice.
At that time in my life, I was not into different types of music; I liked rock n’ roll. Since then my taste in music has matured to encompass all types. But even though this guy wasn’t a rocker, I knew him and his music. A couple of his songs had crossed over and were played on the top forty stations.
The driver was intent on what he was doing, but I think he caught me looking at him out of the corner of his eye. I noticed he had a firm grip on the steering wheel, his knuckles were white. After a few minutes, he turns to me, saying, “Howdy, my name’s John.” At the same time, he raised his right hand from the wheel and stuck it out in my direction.
We shook hands, and I said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Cash. My name is Billy.”
Once John and I shook hands, he became more talkative. Hell, he became downright verbose. He told me about his hitchhiking adventures and asked me about mine. We were three hours out of Nashville and I don’t think there was another quiet moment for the whole three hours. We talked about life, women, and we even got into a metaphysical discussion. He told me about his army days and the time he was arrested in Texas. Just to keep even, I told him stuff that had happened to me while on the road. We didn’t talk about his music or anything like that. I’d been around enough to know that coming off as a gushing fan would have been a major turn-off for him. And besides, at the time, I was not a fan, gushing or otherwise. But by the time we hit Nashville, I was becoming a fan … of the man if not his music.
As we neared Nashville, he told me he’d just gotten married a few months back and was dying to see his wife. “I’ve been gone two days and it feels like two years,” he informed me. Then he said, “It’s about dinner time; why not stop in and get something to eat and then hit the road. June’s a great cook.”
Dinner is what country folk call lunch.
I accepted his kind offer, and we got off the highway and headed for his home, which was only a few blocks away. When we got to his house, and as we were pulling into the driveway, he said, “Looks like June is out somewhere, but don’t worry, we’ll rustle somethin’ up.”
I told him not to bother, that I could cadge a meal down the line. He looked at me, shook his head, and in that deep voice, he asked me if I had any money. Of course, I didn’t and I told him so. He told me that he’d been on the road and hungry, and that if I didn’t get my butt in the house pronto, he’d drag me inside.
So in we went, and we walked right back to the kitchen. John told me to sit at the table as he opened the refrigerator and looked around for a moment before saying, “Ah ha! It’s still here. And he pulled out a platter with a ham on it. I mean a real ham, bone and all! He also came up with a jar of mustard and a hunk of cheese. As he started to slice the ham, he told me where the bread and plates were kept and asked me to get them.
When the sandwiches were made—two of them—he asked me if I’d like a beer.
So there I am, sitting in the kitchen of a man I’d met only a few hours before, and I’ve got two thick ham and cheese sandwiches and a can of beer in front of me. Not a bad score and the day was still young!
I asked him if he was going to eat, and he said beer would do him fine.
We’re sittin’ at the kitchen table, shooting the shit when the doorbell rings. John gets up, but before he leaves, he takes a long swig of beer. “Be right back,” he says. A few minutes later, he comes back into the kitchen with this guy.
“Billy, I want you to meet a friend of mine. This here is Kris.”
I had my mouth filled with ham sandwich, so I mumbled a hello. He waved and smiled, “Glad to meet ya, Billy.”
John asked Kris, “How about a sandwich and a beer?”
“Just a beer, please. It’s my lunch hour, and I’ve got to get back to work. But I have a new song I’d like you to hear and see what you think of it.”
By now, I’d eaten my two sandwiches, and I had nothing to add to the conversation, so I figured I’d just finish my beer and get the hell out of there. But before I could say my thanks and hit the road, John leaves the room and returns a moment later with a guitar.
Prior to my going any further, I’ve got to lay the scene out for you. We’re sitting at a round kitchen table. To my left is John and directly opposite me is this guy, Kris Kristofferson. John and I were hitting our beers and watching Kris tune the guitar. Then he picked at the strings and started to sing. I don’t remember what the song was. I wasn’t really paying attention. In my mind, I was rehearsing my good-bye speech to John.
When Kris was done, we all three sat there looking at one another. I didn’t say anything because it wasn’t my opinion Kris sought. Kris didn’t say anything because he was waiting for John to say something, which he finally did.
“It’s not bad. But I don’t know if it’s for me.”
I’ve got to hand it to Kris; he smiled broadly and said, “That’s okay. I just wanted you to hear it and get your thoughts.” Then he lifted his beer and said, “Prosit.” That was my cue to leave. I stood and told John I had to hit the road. He said he’d drive me back to the highway, but I told him not to bother, he had company, and besides, it was only a few blocks away. Kris said if I could wait a few minutes, he’d drop me off at the highway on his way back to work. I declined his offer. I didn’t want to wait around. I had a full stomach and New York City was calling to me. I said my good-byes and walked out the front door, retrieved my case from the Mustang and headed off for further adventures.
Just one last thing: When I got to New York and opened my case, there was Benjamin Franklin staring up at me from on top of my clothes. John must have put the C-note in there when he went to let Kris in.
There is one bit of advice that I have for aspiring authors. And that is, if you want to write well, you must read. Reading to a writer is as medical school is to a doctor, as physical training is to an athlete, as breathing is to life. Think of reading books as taking a writing course. I would suggest reading the classics: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and, of course, Steinbeck, to name but a few. These three authors made up their own rules. Hemingway couldn’t get published at first because his writing was so different from the writing that preceded him.
Below are three examples of Steinbeck’s writing. If you read stuff like this, you can’t help but become a better writer. Please note that the first example is one long sentence that makes up an entire paragraph. That, of course, is a big no-no . . . or so “they” say.
• • • •
“The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed the anlage of movement.”—The Grapes of Wrath
• • • •
“The afternoon came down as imperceptibly as age comes to a happy man. A little gold entered into the sunlight. The bay became bluer and dimpled with shore-wind ripples. Those lonely fishermen who believe that the fish bite at high tide left their rocks and their places were taken by others, who were convinced that the fish bite at low tide.”—Tortilla Flat
• • • •
“June is gay—cool and warm, wet and shouting with growth and reproduction of the sweet and the noxious, the builder and the spoiler. The girls in the body-form slacks wander High Street with locked hands while small transistor radios sit on their shoulders and whine love songs in their ears. The young boys, bleeding with sap, sit on the stools of Tanger’s Drugstore ingesting future pimples through straws. They watch the girls with level goat-eyes and make disparaging remarks to one another while their insides whimper with longing.”—The Winter of our Discontent
My first bit of advice is to read. My second: don’t pay too much attention to the “rules” of writing. And my third is, never, ever, ever respond to a bad review.
Thank you for listening to my morning rant,
My name’s not important, but it’s up there somewhere. So I guess it ain’t no secret. Anyway, this is what I gotta tell ya. And I don’t have much time. You see, I escaped my confinement, but goddamn it, they’re on my trail. I’ll be dragged back to my computer when they catch up, so I gotta spit this out while I can.
I’ve written a book or two, I’ve been there and I’ve done that. But over time, I went kinda crazy. I wanted to … no, that’s not right … I had to … I needed to … write the best damn novel since The Grapes of Wrath. Yeah, I know, that’s why I said I went crazy. So crazy I am.
I broke off human contact. I disconnected all wires that invaded my abode. I went old-school. I kissed girlfriends good-bye. I shook hands with friends, tellin’ ’em I was going into seclusion for the duration and I wasn’t comin’ out until I set the world on fire with my literary talent.
But here’s the deal:
I’m writing, I’m researching. I’m twenty-six chapters in. I got the last sentence of the book in my head. I just have to get there, but there are so many words standing between me and that last damn sentence. Please, Lord, please let me get there. I gotta put chapters behind me. Those future chapters … those future words … are callin’ to me. They need me to give them life. I need them to give me purpose. I need help with this next chapter.
Lord, I’m facing a white wall. You help me get this one chapter on paper and I’ll never ask You for another thing … not another goddamn thing. Please, Lord, give me this next chapter.
Remember, this is all true.
“Hello. Is this Ellis Hodgkins?”
“Who wants to know?”
“My name is Dan Levin. I’m a writer for Sports Illustrated.”
“Sure you are.”
“Seriously. We would like to feature you in an upcoming issue.”
“Why in hell would you want to do that?”
“Word has come to us about your prowess when hunting the bluefin tuna. We’re planning an article about the demise of the fishing grounds and seeing as how you were the one who kind of got the whole thing started, my editor and I thought you’d be the person to talk to. It’s as simple as that.”
“How did you hear about me?”
“We have a mutual friend by the name of Myron Birch. He’s been telling me about the legend of Captain Ellis for a while now. I finally did a little research into you, and lo and behold, he wasn’t shitting me. So what do you say? You wanna be written up in a big-time magazine?”
“I’ll have to think on it. Give me your phone number and I’ll call you back.”
Ellis was pretty sure the phone call was a put-up job instigated by one of his friends. However, the number did have a New York City area code. He called back later that day and was a bit surprised when a professional-sounding woman answered. “Time, Inc. How may I direct your call?”
“I’d like to speak with Dan Levin.”
A moment later, Ellis was speaking to Levin, “I guess you’re legit. How do you want to do this?”
Three weeks later, Levin and a photographer from Sports Illustrated met with Ellis at the Cape Ann Marina.
Levin spoke first. “Mr. Hodgkins, this is Peter Balasko. He’s my photographer. The plan is that we will follow you around for a week. I’ll be asking you questions and Pete will be taking pictures. How does that sound to you?”
Ellis had one question he needed answered before things went any further. “Who’s picking up the bar tab tonight?”
“We’re on an expense account, Mr. Hodgkins. Wherever you go for the next week is on us.”
Ellis smiled and said, “So what do you want to know?”
“We’re here to learn about you and bluefin tuna fishing. While researching you, I came across an article written in the Gloucester Times. It was about the time when you were fourteen and you caught a 750-pound tuna with a hand line. Why don’t you tell me about that and then we’ll progress from there.”
“I had forgotten all about that.”
“You forgot that you landed a 750 pound tuna?”
“No … I forgot about it being written up in the newspaper.”
So, the men from New York stayed a week in Gloucester. Besides interviewing Ellis and people who knew him, at night they would follow Ellis to his favorite haunts and sit at a nearby table listening in on the talk of the Cape Ann fisherman and his friends. They never overtly intruded into his life, and for that Ellis was grateful. For his part, he never took advantage of the Sports Illustrated purse. Even though they picked up the tab everywhere he went that week, Ellis was restrained in his ordering. He bought a round for the house only once.
Levin gathered what information he could and Balasko took pictures he deemed appropriate for the article. Two months later, it appeared in the November 18th, 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.
The lead sentence read as follows: Ellis Hodgkins stands in his doorway, huddled against the wind, squinting out to sea with his one good eye.
When the article came out, everyone in town loved it and hailed Ellis as a hero—everyone, that is, except his mother. She did not like the fact that it mentioned he had only one good eye.
“Why did you let them write that about your bad eye?” inquired his mother.
“I had no say in it. And besides, who cares?” answered Ellis.
That was Ellis. He had one rule that he lived by. It was a simple rule. He never broke it and he never strayed from its fundamental precept. To quote Ellis, “Who gives a fuck?” Or as stated in his high school year book: The Boy Least Likely to Give a Good Gosh Darn. It was 1953 after all. That was as explicit as they could get.
One thing all the Sports Illustrated hoopla brought home to bear, at least for Ellis, was the fact that the days of catching bluefin tuna—at least in the way he had done it—were over. The article made note that Ellis’ charters had gone from one hundred eighty-two catches of bluefin in one season to thirteen within a three-year span. It was time to move on.
He put his boat up for sale and informed the owner of the Volkswagen dealership that he was leaving town. It was nothing personal, but he was looking for new horizons. And besides, he had grown tired of the car business. He gave a two-month notice. His last day would be July 4th.
Ellis was an employee any boss would want to keep around. He had once suggested that the dealership should stay open on Christmas Eve.
“Maybe we can sell a car or two.”
“I can’t get any of the salesmen to stay here on Christmas Eve,” replied the owner.
“No need to. I’ll do it. You never know. Maybe someone will want to buy a car for a last-minute Christmas gift.”
Shaking his head at the dedication of his employee, the owner said, “Forget it, Ellis.”
A little while later, when Ellis started to get restless and make noises like he might be ready to move on to another profession, the owner handed him a blank check and told him to go get himself a boat. Ellis had sold the Cape Ann the previous fall.
“Go and do a little fishing and then come back.”
“How much do I spend?”
“Just get a boat that you like, catch yourself some damn fish, and then come back here and sell some cars for me.”
Now, two years later, here was Ellis announcing he was definitely leaving, the owner didn’t think anyone being paid as much as Ellis was would ever give up that kind of money. For the next sixty days, every time he saw Ellis, he would say, “You’re not leaving.” And every time Ellis would respond, “Yes, I am.”
On July 3rd, his boss observed him packing up his things and said to Ellis in a resigned voice, “I guess you are leaving.”
“I guess I am,” responded Ellis.
In the hopes that he would return, the dealership sent him a paycheck every week for one year and they kept him on their insurance program for the same amount of time. Ellis would call his ex-boss periodically and implore him to stop sending the checks. However, they kept coming every week for fifty-two weeks straight. Even long after Ellis had moved far from Gloucester.
His many friends and acquaintances threw him a going-away party, the likes of which were seldom seen in that neck of the woods. It was a massive affair—standing room only. Half the town showed up. Two days later, he packed up his conversion van and his current lady friend, Karla, and headed south.
Act II of Ellis Hodgkins’ life is about to commence.
His village sits at the mouth of the Touloukaera River. Touloukaera means life giving in the Tequesta language. Aichi is awake early this morn. It is still dark as he paddles his canoe across the short expanse of water that leads to the barrier island to the east.
Today he will build three fires on the beach for the purpose of giving thanks to Tamosi, The Ancient One—the God of his people. The fires must be lit before the dawn arrives. It has been a bountiful season. The men have caught many fish and killed many deer. The women of his village gathered enough palmetto berries, palm nuts, and coco plums to last until next season. There is an abundance of coontie root for the making of flour. Tomosi has been good to his people.
Tonight, the entire village will honor Tomosi. But this morning, Aichi will honor Him in a solitary way. Because tonight, at the celebration, he will wed Aloi, the most beautiful woman in the village. It took many seasons to win her heart, and now he must acknowledge Tomosi’s role in having Aloi fall in love with him.
He builds three fires to represent man’s three souls—the eyes, the shadow, and the reflection. When the fires are burning bright and the flames are leaping into the cool morning air in an effort to reach Tomosi, Aichi will face the ocean. With the fires behind him, he’ll kneel on the fine white sand and lower his head until his forehead meets the earth. He will then start to pray and will continue with his prayers until the sun rises out of the eastern sea. At that time, he will ask that he be shown an omen that his prayers have been heard.
The first rays of the awakened sun reflects off the white sand. Aichi raises his head and there before him is the sign Tomosi has sent him. Not a mile away, floating on the calm, blue ocean are three canoes of great size. He can see men walking on what looks like huts. He knows they are sent from Tomosi because they each have squares of white fluttering in the light breeze. White denotes The Ancient One. And if that were not enough, no men paddle the massive canoes. They are moving under their own power, traveling north to the land where Tomosi lives. The men upon those canoes must not be men at all. They are the souls of the dead being taken to the heaven of the righteous.
Aichi leaps to his feet and runs along the shoreline trying to keep abreast of the canoes. But in time, he falls behind and soon they drop below the horizon. What a wondrous day this is. He has communed with his god and tonight he will wed Aloi. With joy in his heart, Aichi runs back to his canoe. He must tell the people of his village what he has seen.
What Aichi has seen are not spirit canoes. They are three ships from the fleet commanded by Juan Ponce de León. He is sailing along the coast of a peninsular he has named Florido which means “full of flowers.” He is in search of gold to bring back to his king. He has also heard from the Indians to the south that somewhere to the north lies a spring of clear water that if one drinks from it, one would have eternal youth. To bring a cask of that water back to Spain would make him a rich man indeed. The year is 1513 A.D.
Aichi and Aloi produce many children and grandchildren. But to no avail. The coming of the Spaniards has decimated the Tequesta. Most have died of the diseases brought by the white man. Others were captured and sold into slavery. By the year 1750, the village by the river that celebrated Tomosi’s largess in the year 1513 is abandoned and overgrown with plant life.
In the spring of 1788, the Spanish drive the Creek and Oconee Indians south to the land once populated by the Tequesta. The Spanish refer to the bands of Indians as Cimarrons, which means Wild Ones. The Americans to the north bastardize the name and call the Indians, Seminoles.
In 1789, a band of Seminoles, tired of running from the Spanish, inhabit the place on the river where the Tequesta once lived. They name the river, Himmarasee, meaning “New Water.” They live in relative peace for twenty-seven years. But at the outbreak of The First Seminole War, the Seminoles move their village farther west and into the Everglades to keep out of the white man’s reach.
In 1821, Spain cedes Florida to the United States, and the Americans begin surveying and mapping their new territory. Over time, the shifting sands of the barrier island caused the mouth of the river to empty into the Atlantic Ocean at different points along the coast. As the coastline was periodically charted, the surveyors—not understanding the effects of the shifting sand on the river’s behavior—thought that the various entry points were “new” rivers; hence, each time the land was surveyed, the map makers would make the notation “new river” on the updated chart.
The 1830 census lists seventy people living in and around the “New River Settlement.”
In the year 1838, at the beginning of The Second Seminole War, Major William Lauderdale and his Tennessee Volunteers are ordered to build a stockade to protect the settlers along what has become known as The New River. He selects a location of firm and level ground at the mouth of the river where once the Tequesta and Seminoles had built their villages.
The fort is decommissioned after only a few months. Two months later, the Seminoles burn it to the ground. The fort is now gone, but the name remains.
There are no roads into Fort Lauderdale until 1892, when a single road linking Miami to the south and Lantana to the north is cut out of the mangroves. In 1911, Fort Lauderdale is incorporated into a city.
During the 1920s, there is a land boom in South Florida. Everybody and his brother is buying land. When the most desired land runs out, developers make acres of new land by dredging the waterways and using the sand and silt thus obtained to make islands where future houses will one day stand.
Because of its natural geography and the dredging that went on in the ’20s, Fort Lauderdale has become known as the American Venice. There are countless canals, both large and small. Most houses on those canals have a boat tied up behind it. And many of those who do not live on a canal have boats sitting in marinas or sitting on a trailer in their backyards.
In 1974, twelve percent of the population of Broward County, in which Fort Lauderdale lies, make a direct living off the boating industry. Another twenty percent benefit indirectly.
Into this world Ellis Hodgkins descends … trailing Karla in his wake.
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.