The summer was crazy right from the beginning, even before I discovered the sunken car in West Basin harbor. The Gazette was reporting "record numbers" of tourists pouring from the ferry boats onto Martha's Vineyard, the island where I lived. Mom was working all weekend at Town Hall, selling them beach passes. Barry Lester, the guy who'd been kind of her boyfriend since Pop died, was busy renting them cars and mopeds and Jeeps. And I had my first real job.
I was working for Pop's old friend Chick Flanders, who owned a bait and tackle store down-island in Edgartown. Chick used to be a commercial fisherman, like Pop. When the bad years hit the commercial fishery, Chick quit fishing and bought the bait shop. But it turned out he couldn't stand being indoors behind the cash register all day.
"Ben," he said, "it drives me crazy to talk about fishing instead of doing it. If your father was alive, he'd have told me straight out I was being a bonehead to buy the store. 'Chick,' he'd have said, 'you're a fisherman, not a shopkeeper.'" Chick shook his head and grinned.
I nodded, imagining Pop saying it. There were lots of things I liked about being with Chick, and one was that he wasn't afraid to talk about Pop. It was weird the way some people avoided the subject and were scared to even mention fathers or dying. Which was really stupid. They didn't want to remind me that Pop was dead, as if I never thought about it unless somebody slipped and brought it up. But Chick talked about Pop whenever he felt like it, and I liked hearing the old stories about them growing up and fishing together.
Anyway, Chick had finally admitted he was a bonehead, hired somebody to watch the shop, and began taking out charters on his boat Something Fishy. He had all four days of the upcoming Fourth of July weekend booked, and asked me if I wanted to be his first mate. I jumped at the chance.
Fishing with Chick wasn't the same as being with Pop, not exactly. But there was something familiar about the way Chick handled the boat, the way he moved and thought. Chick counted on me to know what I was doing, forthe most part, and I liked the way he taught me new stuff without making a big deal out of it.
Not only that, but I was going to get paid thirty dollars a day, which I thought was pretty good for a thirteen-year-old kid. By Monday night, I'd have made a hundred and twenty dollars, more if I got tips. When I told that to my best friend, Jeff Manning, his eyes just about bugged out of his head.
One hundred twenty dollars was a lot of money, but we needed a lot more if we were ever going to be able to buy the fourteen-foot aluminum skiff with the twenty-five horsepower motor we wanted. Jeff and I planned to work really hard over the summer to get closer to having that boat.
Being first mate meant that I got the rods and bait ready in the morning, cleaned the fish we caught, washed up the boat at the end of the day, and kept the cooler stocked with ice and drinks. Piece of cake.
But Chick explained that working on a charter boat isn't only about fishing. "You get all kinds of people," he said. "They're paying for a good time, and you've got to stay on your feet and figure out how to keep them happy. Some of them know what they're doing with a rod in their hands, but a lot of them don't. You might have to help people bait their hooks, show them how to cast, maybe even hook a fish and reel it in for them."
"No way!" I said. I couldn't remember a time when I hadn't known how to catch fish.
"You wait and see," Chick said, laughing. Then his face grew serious and he added, "It's one thing when people don't know how to fish. But every once in a while you get a guy who's a real pain in the tail. When that happens, you just have to bite your tongue and be polite."
I grinned at him. "You mean I have to suck up to people even if they're real jerks?"
Chick smiled and shook his head. "I didn't say that. Just don't let 'em get to you. Keep your cool, and get through the day. Blow off steam to me later. Got it?"
"Got it," I said.
On my first day out with Chick, I learned he sure was right about one thing: knowing how to handle fish was only part of the job. The easy part. Knowing how to handle people was a lot trickier.
It was Friday of the Fourth of July weekend, and our clients were Bill and Ann Brewster and their four kids. They seemed nice enough, but I wasn't sure the kids were going to make it through a whole day in the boat. Two of them were fighting over who got to sit in the chair next to what they called the "steering wheel," one was complaining that he didn't want to go fishing,he wanted to go to the beach, and the littlest one, a girl, kept saying, "My tummy feels funny, Mommy. Mommy, it hurts."
We were leaving the dock at West Basin harbor. There's a sandbar between the dock and the channel where a couple of boats run aground every year. I was standing on the bow, looking into the water to make sure we were going to clear the bar, and, suddenly, there it was. Through the ripples on the surface, I could see, sitting on the sandy bottom almost right under the boat, a bright red car.
"Cut the engine!" I shouted.
As I hollered to Chick, I drew my finger across my throat in a gesture that he was sure to understand even if he couldn't hear me above the sound of the motor. By then I had decided the tide was high enough that we were in no danger of hitting the sandbar, but I wasn't sure we could clear the roof of a car, and I didn't want Chick to ram it with the hull or the propeller.
In the sudden silence, Chick looked at me with a puzzled frown. "What?" he asked.
"There's a car down there," I said. It sounded really dumb when I said it. I mean, you might expect to see a sunken boat in the harbor, but a car? Still, there it was beneath the shimmering surface, big and red and as real as the bow line in my hand.
All at once the thought flashed into my mind: What if there's somebody in there? Without really thinking about it, I kicked off my boots and jumped into the water. The boat had drifted, so I had to swim for about twenty yards to get back to the car. I dived down, then opened my eyes to look in the window. I was filled with sudden terror at the idea of someone looking back at me, someone dead, with swollen, bulging eyes. But there was no one.
I shot to the surface and swam over to the stern, where Chick gave me a hand climbing into the boat. "Nobody in it," I said, gasping.
"Looks like somebody drove right off the boat ramp," said Chick.
I nodded. West Basin was kind of a weird place, I figured. Lobsterville Road just ended there, and turned into an unpaved ramp where you could launch a boat off a trailer into the harbor. Everybody who lived there was used to it, but it surprised a lot of tourists who thought the road ought to go somewhere, such as across the channel to the village of Menemsha, instead of dead-ending in the water.
"What are you going to do, Captain?" asked Mr. Brewster.
"We've got to go over to Squid Row to get gas, anyway," Chick said, pointing to the neighboring Menemsha harbor.
Menemsha was much larger than West Basin. That was where the big commercial fishing ships docked, along with all kinds of other fishing and pleasure boats. There was a gas dock and a store where you could buy bait, tackle, drinks, and snacks.
"We'll report the car to the harbormaster," Chick went on. "Then we'll go fishing."
And that was what we did. It was a pretty wild day's fishing, too. The kids went nuts when their dad brought in a big beauty of a striper. It was the first real, live fish they'd ever seen, I guessed, and they all wanted to catch one, too. They began casting their baited hooks in all directions, getting them stuck on the bottom, wedged under rocks, and caught in gobs of seaweed. The Something Fishy was twenty-four feet long, but it began to feel awfully small, especially when the youngest boy whipped his rod out behind him to cast and hooked me right under the chin. Luckily, it didn't go in past the barb, but it still hurt a lot.
"Hey!" I cried. "You're supposed to catch the fish, not the people!"
He thought that was hilarious, and pretended to try to hook me again. He was only fooling around, but it got a little hairy. Finally, his father made him sit in the "timeout" chair for five minutes. I'd always thought that was really dumb when Mom made me do it, but right then the time-out chair struck me as an excellent idea.
What with ducking to avoid flying hooks and chunks of slimy mackerel, baiting and untangling lines, netting fish, and keeping the boat in the correct position, Chick and I had our hands full.
I didn't have time to think about the sunken car until we headed into Menemsha harbor at four o'clock that afternoon.