I sat alone restlessly listening for a chance to enter into the Island’s human world to which I was a stranger. I was sipping coffee because that is what guests do until they are invited to drink. The juke box had just finished playing The Coal Miner’s Daughter. Sincerely it did. It was loaded with those kind of songs. In the absence of Loretta Lynn’s happy grief, a leathery voice arose. It was a smoking voice: “Those years are gone...” The only other woman besides the barmaid and me —perhaps one of the Island’s matriarchs — offered an opinion. Not really to anybody. Her glass was empty. I turned on my swiveling bar stool. “Not gone…” I suggested gingerly, soberly (a little bit tired of coffee) and — brave me — a little sarcastically “…just olden.” “Who the fuck are you Darlin?” She crowed, daring me with blue eyes the color of a ferociously evil yet simultaneous stunning winter sky. “I don’t know maybe ‘olden’ isn’t what I meant.” “Damn right it isn’t.” She growled. And then in the same breath: “I could be your mother!” She thrust out her chin at me. Mean-faced. Poker faced. Daring. Then she dropped her jaw and winked. Perfectly. Sweetly? Her Russian scarf undid itself and fell over her face causing her to growl first, then curse, then laugh. Tugging it off her face with a graceful action that did not indicate anger in the least, but indicated to me (intentionally?)that she was not a weak, or timid woman, she introduced herself.
“NamesVerla. You’re the Greenhorn on the Dart. I know yername! Whasyour name!” Saying the word, Dart caused her to spasmodically jut out her elbow. Maybe it was alcoholic nerves. At any rate her humorous made contact with the heavy low-ball glass, sent it careening off towards the dance floor which was empty because of the sad time of day it was. Noon. It was also sunny, but raining on the other side of the bay. “To answer your first question, Verla…” I tried her name: “…sort of. Second question: Tara Doyle.” Verla eyed me. “What the fuck do you mean sort of you either are or you aren’t. My father sailed the mail boat to Adak. Used me as the binnacle. Seasick. Coffee can strung around my neck for me to puke into. Whaddaya know about that Doyle? Can you follow a compass course in the black of night? Iddy Giddy men creeping up through the fog? Shit! Do you even know I was the only white kid in school here? Growing up during WWII. We got bombed by the fuckin’ Japs! Nobody knows that anymore…” (that last ranting comment a mumble). “I had to learn how to fight with my fists when I was a kid. My father was a nasty old fuck! Asshole…”
Verla leaned out of the vinyl booth. It creaked she didn't . When it was new it had been scarlet. Now it was mostly duct-taped, its stuffing leaking, its cushions sticky. It was greased with long, black and brown scars of boat filth and pocked with cigarette burns. Verla fetched her glass and tossed it immediately at me through the smokey air. Luckily I caught it. Step one at impressing the locals of a small fishing village on an island in the Aleutian Chain: be quick-witted and prove yourself capable. “What’s your pleasure Verla?” I inconspicuously sniffed at her glass while guessing. My nose crinkled. I hope she hadn’t noticed. “Rum’ncoke.”
Suddenly, a vague smile burst through all that weather of hers. Her teeth were perfect and somehow white as she lit up a green Kool. I studied her jaw bones and marveled for a brief moment at what struck me as a heroic and dim beauty. She was rail- thin yet bone- strong. Presently she was crumpled behind the fake wood table and the little dingy Bakelite ashtray, but Verla was resplendent. Haphazardly dressed in rust-stained denims, a nicotine colored and baggy T-shirt slipped out from the edges of a zip -up hoodie that read: The Elbow Room, Unalaska Alaska. It was pink and new with bold, black letters. An embroidered puffin and whale swam around an image of the wooden cape-style bar which had been the Blue Fox Tavern during the war.
There was a giant plate glass window besides her refracting a cathedral window-like light. It was gilt-colored and did not so much as drift in but arrived flashing from the low angles of the autumn sun. The view was of the bay. Water always has a strange mercurial skin when the evening light settles into its rich salinity. It connects with the interstices of a soul and makes a person want to cry and then pray. Beyond the long bay dominates the Bering Sea. The hills of the earth that had been thrust up from violent seismic activity in the not- too- long- ago past sloped down with a fresh white snowline on either side. Brown in the places below where the dazzling pristine of rain had become too cold. This place would become home.
The view held time still for a moment since the wind was calm. One range, to the North, belonged to the one island, Amaknax, where the famed port of Dutch Harbor curls inside of the spithead. The other dinge of hills to the South are the swells and troughs of Unalaska Island where Verla and I were becoming acquainted. Squid-ink black ravens flashed around like kites and the swells rode in from a tourmaline and sapphire sea remarkably without any white flashing or scud-foam. In the years that were to advance I never could get over the tropical azure color of one of our planet’s coldest and meanest seas. Somber and quick to kill.
“Hey! Doyle! You should meet my son! He’s always falling in love with dumb twits!” I ignored the comment graciously. I was at the same time ordering Verla her drink. The barmaid, pouring with her back to me now, kept her eyes locked politely on mine from the mirror. She had a Scottish brogue. I found it bookishly familiar. Like I was living inside of a classic seafaring novel. She said to me kindly, “I think Verla’s actually paying you a compliment, Hen.” “Fuck you Carol! I mean what I mean. She’s not a twit!” Pointing her smoke at me and waving her hand and frown-smiling and exhaling. “That’s my point! She’s already earning half share on the Halibut boats! I Hear she wants to go crabbing!” Then to me, “you really wanna go crabbing Doyle?” I didn't have time to answer. “She’s one to watch Carol. Gave up her first born to fish.” I turned to stare at her statement thankful for the church-like lighted breath of air. “I know everyone on the Dart, Doyle. Never mind. They asked me to look after you. Can’t imagine.” She shook her head.
Carol, respectfully held the glass in her hand. I nodded. “Thank you.” She returned the nod and set the drink down on the bar wood with a thick, wet, clunk. I thought it was the sound of fog. “Six fifty. You want anything, Hen?” A tear might have slipped out of one of my soul’s portholes but I didn’t sniff. “Sure.” I looked into my wallet, not for money, but for composure. Composure looked like a deep, black and silvery-gray vat of waves like the waters I had earned them from. There were still too many hundreds to easily or quickly count. Maybe seven of them. “A Highliner please.” I refused to rub my sleeve over my face. “In honor of the Dart!” (A way to give off emotional steam is to shout). Having said the expected line — for the captain of the Dart invented the drink — I could look up again with dry, red, freckled cheeks. I even smiled. “Thirteen even then.” Carol brogued.
I took what felt like a leaking, miniature bulkhead over to the table as Carol went back to work pouring Grand Mariner and Baileys into a nine o’clock cup of fetid coffee. I heard her close the door of a 1980's microwave. As I moved back across the floor I felt the eyes on me. Old men’s eyes. Patrons of the last few decades. Locals. One of them turned towards me as I was walking past and tugged on my outer sleeve. “You gonna buy me and my buddy a drink heh?” I thought his face overly round and simply sly but warm, like a grandfather’s who was never very bright, but slowly religious. I made eye contact and was shifting my face to neutral. “Oh shut up Frank!” Verla yelled with her arm sweeping up into the air.
I set her drink down on the table and scanned the bar. Last night, when I said goodbye to the captain and the crew of the Dart, the place had been civil war hospital full and just as stinky and bloody and sad. I had only a few beers and some shots. None of them were the same: whisky, tequila, vodka, rum. I’m Irish so it didn’t affect me. Not visibly. I refrained from joining in any of the brawls or going to bed with the sexy scalloper who was only handsomely elusive because he hailed from New Bedford. Or so he had told me.
And then, in the nano-seconds of space in which my insides completed thier churning with dull, but obvious birth memories and a dangerous boat passage across the gulf — from which I escaped another life — I wondered about my next boat. For the interim, my recent skipper of the Dart had told me to “just hang out at the bar until things get late, then taxi back to a boat with whatever mysterious, drunken crew you bond with. Drink like yore Eyrich!” The last he had told me with his fists pounding the table for emphasis (it was nearing two in the morning). “I am Irish sir.” I told him — I had to have been shouting. “Stand your ground Doyle! Guard your crotch and sleep under the galley table with an iron frying pan!” His advice was nicely, poetically, potato- faminely- fatherly. I laughed. Things would work out. I was in a small town with big hearts beating inside of people with weirder stories and sadder lives than mine. Nobody gave a pig’s tit who I was or where I came from or what I was doing here. There were only three basic concerns. Thirst, work, and survival.
The door opened up and the smell of low tide walked in mixed with diesel fuel. Thick arms swung forth from a fouled, gray sweatshirt torn and ragged. Fishing boots smacked across the threshold. Legs like small tree trunks in pewter-tinged sweat pants read: “Saint Paul” down the sides. The hoodie boasted: FV Albatross. A red beard, peppered gray. Ball cap greased like an axle, illegible. Oddly, glasses — very thick. Round, high shoulders thrown back making an unusually enormous space about the neck and a bright gold chain with a king crab pendant snuggled into the hollow of the man’s visibly pulsing throat.
The door hung open as if making an announcement. A cat fight could be heard erupting in the alley. A splash of mud squeaked out from the taxi’s tires purchasing departure and the door slammed shut. The count of the patrons now equaled five. I pivoted on my way back to the bar not because I was instantaneously attracted to this man — he was not much taller than me and quite unattractive. But because I wanted to do something that would make me stand out as a fellow fisherman. Maybe I wanted to cause a stir now that I had been so rudely introduced as a baby- abandoner without a chance to tell my story. I would, however, make it quite obvious before the night was over that I had no maternal instincts for anything other than boats and that wherever my baby was, she was far better off there than being swaddled into the Elbow room in a murky engine room rag with a “mother” who would most likely be sleeping under a galley table with an iron skillet.
Things were slow and moody anyway and if Verla was going to chastise me in public then she could just as well own up to my old Skipper’s wish and look after me as her long lost daughter. A kindred soul might come in handy too. My drink was bound to be ready for I had heard the beep beep beep of the microwave oven. Cutting across the fishermen’s course could not be avoided. “Port to port!” I advised him with a sideways glance as I shouldered him off. And then, grinning, I took hold of the lanyard that hung decoratively down from the bar’s musty bronze bell and heartily rang out a free round. “Ding!” Went the bell. “Fuckin A!” celebrated the man who clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Fuck’nO it’s easier!” — an old high school saying of which I think is very obnoxious and clever, but of which I should also, perhaps, be more embarrassed of dropping. “Drinks for the house!” Carol sang out in her old hearty Scottish brogue. Then, leaning one elbow on the bar and puffing her bangs out of her face she grinned at me. In the crook of her bodies pose I noticed a long hand carved sign above the mirror. I stared at it puzzling. Carol looked at the fisherman in the soggy sweats and asked: “Whatle ye have me old boy?” The sign read: IITWYBMAD.