Kevin Carey

“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched
men live on to bear such torments...”
Homer, The Iliad*

kcareyThat year I picked forty-eight thousand pounds of lobster, picked it, cut it, squeezed it, two hundred and fifty-two days, (about one hundred and twenty pounds a day), the lines in my hands outlined in red and each day my fingernails packed with enough white meat to stuff a ravioli.
        I chopped the celery that got mixed with the lobster, stocked the rolls that the lobster went in, loaded the grill where the lobster rolls got toasted, filled the pickles and cut open the boxes of chips that went on the plates that the lobster rolls got served on. When you took that roll away from the counter with your pound of meat, celery, mayo, chips, pickles, on a ten-inch cardboard pie plate, covered by aluminum foil, tucked in a small white paper bag, I was all over it.

* * *
        I had history here. First onion rings, then the counter, then frying fish and clams, then setting up plates of food, or sometimes slicing roast beef. I moved through the stand like a utility infielder, playing nights and days and weekends and mornings. You name it, I did it. Set it up, pushed it out, fried it, cooked it, bagged it, cut it, breaded it, collected for it, and cleaned it. Fifteen years, all hours, all days, I did it.

* * *
        Any midnight and the beach could still be cooking with gas, headlights from one end to the other, muffled hip hop from tinted windows, a Harley or two weaving in and out the traffic, the city skyline looming. The beach people, doing beach things.
        There's a recipe to beach life: salt air, fried food, sun tan lotion, traffic, kids drinking beer on the seawall, sea gulls picking trash, girls from the ave in cut off jeans, hot August nights. People living on the beach are a part of a grand design. Behind the moaning and the groaning and the bitching and the drinking and the hangovers and the fights, they know there is something driving them to do the things they do, a strange serendipity they see in the ocean, in the seasons, in the storms and the waves, in the high and low tides, when the water washes up over the sea wall in winter and the sea smoke dances off the ice packs.
        In the summer, a steady stream of bikinis, elderly a.m. walkers, hardcore heads in Bob Marley T's, bikers, hot rods, arcade pigeons, cocktail captains, tan hunters, immigrants, Americans, young ones, old ones, fat ones, skinny ones, lines of motors idling, music blaring, waiting, waiting in line, waiting in cars, waiting for the tide, waiting for the sun and the seafood and the beer and the taffy and the old days, the new days, the easy lay, the cops to kick them off the sea wall at midnight, and us, a broken band of misfits waiting to wait on them.
        I watched it all go by, sometimes at work, sometimes out the barroom window lined with sea shells. No sense heading home. No one to go to, just this beach, people who worked it, who played on it, people who didn't smell you or look you up and down because you had dried white flour and sawdust on your shoes, the walking talking fish plate, the french fried human onion ring, stamping two inches of flour off his high cut sneakers. The beach brought us all together, a long line of accumulated misery.
        Throw a few back, that's the ticket. If he's buying, I'm flying. Put it on ice, Marie. I'll get to it, sure as shit.
        And then some, and the comfortable sway back in the legs, the one that makes me think I can dance and shit if it don't go down better after eight hours in the box. But there's more to come, always, more work in the morning, more cooking to do, more bums to wait on, like the disco ball says, more more more.

* * *
        I was a set up man too, heard things, things like: three fish, small clam, scallop plate, two medium fries, three small rings, fish dinner, four clam plates, fish sandwich, small fry, shrimp plate. Hours at a time, lunch time and after, ten or twelve window guys yelling, fried food, plates of it, denizens of the deep. Many tried this job, the ones who did it best drank the chaos like alcohol, the more they had, the more they wanted, the more they heard, the better they got, found their groove in the late innings, a fourth quarter running back, treated the voices like inspiration, customers yelling at window men, window men yelling at them, them yelling at fry guys, voices littered around their heads. Me, I got orders on the brain, had seafood nightmares.

* * *
        If you spent the day sifting buckets of cornmeal and white flour, breading shellfish with your fingers, clams, scallops, fish they think is haddock, you'd throw a few back wouldn't you? If you walked the sidewalk smelling like corn meal and Canola, the last nine hours of your life staring into several hundred fry baskets full of french fries, staring at a long line of beach bums, you'd head for your favorite arm rest and throw down a couple of what the doctor ordered. Jesus Christ, who wouldn't?
        Over the years conversations from various pay phones in dark hallways of various barrooms. Hey Baby, What's up? Want some pizza? No? Not hungry? What? Is it that late?
        And back at the bar ordering two more. Why two?
        Because by the time I drink this one I'll want another and you might be busy.

* * *
        Sometimes after work when I got a fog on I remembered the musty smell of an early morning gymnasium, stretching the warmth into my body, the cold wood floor, the bleachers, the dust in the corners, the leather ball, the thick air, the squeak of well-worn sneakers, the groan of wind sprints, the joy of shooting, the flick of the wrist, the touch off the glass, the suspended time of a long range jumper.
        Or the games, sixteen one night, twenty another, always once or twice stepping into a passing lane, picking someone clean off the dribble and pushing it up court, slowing that last sure step, in my house now.
        I might remember two free throws in Boston Garden, the closing seconds of a State Tournament game, my father in the stands praying, as if it were a dream, a dream worth the years of shoveling a court in winter, shooting with finger-less gloves, dribbling miles around the neighborhood before school, and shooting and shooting and shooting, and then what? Then I left it like a tool bag at a job site, left it sitting and rusting in the rain until it was just something I did, something that didn't work anymore, something, like my job, I lost ambition for.

* * *
        It wasn't the work, I liked the work sometimes, it wasn't the guys, I liked the guys sometimes, it wasn't walking down the boulevard like a man on death row, it wasn't smelling like onions when I ordered a beer and something short and hoped some long-legged baby would tuck me in for the night. You know what it was? It was nothing, nothing but the day I said fuck it. A sunny August day, rolls loaded on the grill, condiment trays filled, early morning walkers served, and a guy smoking a cigarette against the sea wall, smoking, taking a sip of a large coffee, cream no sugar, the gray smoke blending with the haze, and it dawned on me, just like that, a frozen moment against the sea wall, and I realized I'd had enough.

* * *
        There's a certain place for a song, not every song, but one that comes at the right time, when the mood of the strings fits your life, some candid vocal that slips into your soul, a ballad that evokes the consensual damage in all of us, talks about things we've missed or forgotten or in the most dangerous places, things we remember.

The silence of a falling star...

        An outdated jukebox, probably still had quarters from the sixties floating around in its belly, a weird cross-section of American music, a little disco, some rock, some one hit wonders, and some country, cut off somewhere around 1970. The title cards were yellow and curled at the edges. But it played and the regulars that came to the basement “no tell” tavern still fed it on occasion, but usually they waited for me to do it, a perk for coming to the bar in the first place, the purple-light glass front crescent bar, where I hid when I wasn't working a “peep show house” construction job in Boston's combat zone.

lights up a purple sky...

        You could call this the beach, but it was the end of the strip, the demilitarized zone. It got some beach people, but not many, mostly people who wanted to be on the fringe without waiting in the summer traffic or dealing with the bikers or the punks or the girls strutting their stuff on the nights hotter than griddle butter, nights when the old women from the Ave lifted their house dresses to their knees and waded in the ocean, watching the planes fly low to the airport, and people slept with their babies on the open station wagon backs, and always someone drank too much from a brown paper bag and started a fight. In here, it was safe and air conditioned and the drinks were cheap, and the people behaved, some sucking pineapple cocktails, other nursing twelve-ounce beers, the bottle sweat forming pools around the damp napkins and mostly there was chatter and jokes and whatever extra nonsense some half a doper wanted to tip me with.

the moon just went behind a cloud...

        I always played it before I opened, while I was wiping bottles left out over night, cutting fruit, smoking a cigarette with a Kaluha and coffee. Might as well be with my people on the slow burn to midnight, beer and butts, booze and pretzels, a scotch or two, something green with Midori or one of the Russian brothers in a shaker, something to soothe the ills of life near the beach, something to remind me that Hank Williams was a real country star who died at twenty-nine years old, drunk in the back of a car on route 66.

I'm so lonesome I could cry.

*Translation by Robert Fagles

KEVIN CAREY teaches Writing at Salem State College and coaches basketball at The Glen Urquhart School in Beverly, Mass. Recent publications include: The Comstock Review, The Paterson Literary Review, The Zeus Anthology, Still Waters: Crime Stories by New England Writers, and The White Pelican Review, where his poem, “Shredding Me,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.                           

   [copyright 2008, Kevin Carey]