NERVOUS WATER (Chapter One)One
The end of a muggy Thursday afternoon in early July. Thunder grumbled from the direction of the western suburbs, and the air hung still and heavy and moist over the city.
I'd shucked off my courtroom pinstripe, slipped into a pair of cutoffs and a T-shirt, and made myself a tall gin and tonic, and I was sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs in the walled-in patio behind our town house on Mount Vernon Street reading the Globe sports section and waiting for Evie to come home.
Henry David Thoreau, our middle-aged Brittany spaniel, lay under the picnic table with his chin on his paws eyeing a pair of evening grosbeaks, which were jabbing at sunflower seeds on one of the hanging birdfeeders.
I'd finished my drink and was pondering a refill when I heard the kitchen phone ring. I figured it was Evie. She was a little late.
When I stood up, the grosbeaks burst away in a bright flash of yellow and black.
"Sorry about that," I said to Henry, who'd lifted his head and was frowning at me. Brittanies are bird dogs. Their genes carry the powerful instinct to point grouse and woodcock and quail for the hunter. Poor Henry, the city dog, had to be satisfied with grosbeaks and finches and titmice.
When I answered the phone, a gravelly voice said, "Hey, sonnyboy."
Only one person ever called me "sonnyboy." I hadn't heard that voice for over thirty years. But I recognized it instantly.
"Moses Crandall," I said. "Jesus Christ. What's up, Uncle Moze?"
"Just wonderin' how you'd feel about helping me haul my pots." I heard him take a wet drag on a cigarette. "Maybe go fishin' afterwards. Stripers're in the river. Gittin' some blues, too. They ain't gonna hang around much longer."
"Is everything all right?" I said.
"Why the hell wouldn't it be?"
"Well, okay, good," I said. "When did you have in mind?"
"Saturday okay with you?" he said. "Git here around noon, we'll catch the turn of the tide."
"I'll be there," I said. "Your boat still moored in the same place?"
"Same river, same mooring, same boat," he said. "Mostly the same string of pots. Nothin' much changes, sonnyboy. We just keep gittin' older. See you then."
I was back out in the Adirondack chair when Evie came out through the back door a half hour later. She bent down, hooked her forearm around the back of my neck, and gave me a long juicy kiss on the mouth.
She'd snagged a bottle of beer from the refrigerator on her way through the kitchen. She flopped down in the chair beside me, pried off her high heels, propped her feet up on the table's bench seat, hiked her skirt up to the tops of her thighs, and pressed the bottle against her cheek. "Hot one, huh?" she said.
"It's not so much the heat--"
"Yeah, yeah," she said, "it's the damn humidity," completing the hoary New England cliché.
"Thunderstorm brewing," I said. "You can smell it."
She looked up at the sky, where dark clouds were roiling. "No doubt," she said. "I love thunderstorms."
"Budget crap." She waved the subject of budget crap away with the back of her hand. Evie was an administrator at Beth Israel Hospital. She worked a lot harder than I did. "How 'bout you?"
"I had the MacPherson suit today. We settled in the lobby a half hour before the hearing."
"That's good, huh?"
"This time it was." I took a sip of gin and tonic. The grosbeaks had not returned, but a couple of chickadees were flitting back and forth between the lilac bush and the feeder with sunflower seeds in their beaks, and three or four goldfinches were perched on the thistle-seed feeder.
Henry had taken up a position beside Evie's chair and was pretending to ignore the birds. Evie's arm dangled down and she was scratching the top of his head. She was slouched in the chair with her eyes closed.
"Looks like I'll be heading up to Maine on Saturday," I said.
"I got a call from my uncle. Uncle Moze. Moses Crandall. My mother's brother. Lives in Moulton, just over the New Hampshire border. He wants me to go out on his boat with him, help him tend his lobster pots. Maybe we'll try to catch a striper."
"Sounds like fun." Evie took a sip of beer and looked at me over the bottle. "I don't remember you ever mentioning your uncle Moses."
"I haven't seen him for over thirty years. When I was a kid Uncle Moze used to take me out on his lobster boat. He was my favorite uncle."
She looked up at the sky. The dark clouds were thickening, and the air had become noticeably cooler. "I think you're right about the thunderstorm."
I smiled. "Of course I'm right."
After a few minutes of comfortable silence, Evie said, "So why now?"
"Why after--what, thirty-odd years?--why is it today that your uncle invites you to go lobster fishing?"
"That," I said, "is the question. Did I ever tell you about when I was a kid and we found my Uncle Norman's body floating in the river?"
"You never talk about your childhood, Brady."
"Well, what do you want to know?"
My mother grew up in the village of Moulton on the estuary of the Piscataqua River in southernmost Maine. Her name was Hope. Jacob and Moses were her older brothers. Uncle Jake and Uncle Moze.
My mother had three sisters. Faith, Charity, and Mary. Mary was the baby of the family. My grandparents apparently ran out of virtues by the time they got to Mary, so they named her after a virgin, which turned out to be pretty ironic.
Gram Crandall had white hair and a large bosom and smelled like violets. She is, in my memory, a kind of mythic presence, sweet and gentle and beloved by everybody. I associate her primarily with the aroma of corn chowder and warm apple pie and boiled new red potatoes doused in butter and sprinkled with parsley.
My grandfather worked for the paper company running pulp on the Kennebec River. He died in some kind of accident when I was four or five. I have no memory of him.
My mother was the only one in the Crandall family who actually left home. Her sisters married local boys and settled right there in Moulton. Her brothers chased the local version of the American Dream, which was owning their own lobster boats.
My mother was the rebel. She went to college in Massachusetts, taught seventh-grade English, and married Alan Coyne, who was a lawyer with a big firm on State Street.
All of that made my family members objects of awe and suspicion among my aunts and uncles and cousins and their neighbors in Moulton, Maine, and probably accounted for the fact that we didn't visit Gram Crandall more often.
Except for Mary and Moses--Uncle Moze--I didn't know my aunts and uncles very well. Faith and Charity were younger, more nervous, less loving versions of my grandmother. Uncle Jake pretty much ignored me whenever he was around.
Uncle Moze was my favorite. He was strong and independent and profane, the closest thing to a New England cowboy that you'd meet in those times thirty-odd years ago. He was the only uncle who paid any attention to me, actually. He seemed to enjoy having me on his boat, maybe because he didn't have kids of his own. Uncle Moze gave the impression of being taciturn, but when he was in the mood, he loved to tell long, ironic stories. They involved colorful Maine characters he'd presumably known--poachers and drunks and adulterers, mostly--and it flattered me that he didn't censor his stories because I happened to be there.
To me, going lobstering with Uncle Moze was another kind of fishing. We chugged around the broad tidal river spewing diesel fumes, and he and my old man snagged the buoys with the boat hook, looped the thick line around the power winch, and hauled up the pots.
I liked anticipating what we might find inside the big wooden lobster pots. It wasn't that different from seeing my bobber start to jiggle on my neighborhood millpond back in Massachusetts and wondering what kind of fish might've eaten my worm. I was seriously hooked on fishing of all kinds when I was a kid.
In those days, lobsters were abundant, and Uncle Moze's pots generally came up crawling with them. He wore rubber gloves that came up to his elbows, and he groped around inside the pot, came out grasping a lobster around its middle, and quickly measured it with his steel lobster ruler. He threw the shorts overboard. The keepers went into tubs filled with seaweed--those with both claws, which Uncle Moze sold to a wholesaler in Kittery, in one tub, and the unsalable ones with a missing or deformed claw, which he kept for himself or gave to Gram, in the other.
My job was rebaiting the pots. For bait Uncle Moze used pollock and haddock minus their fillets but with the heads still attached that he got cheap from the wholesaler he sold his lobsters to. I liked digging my hands around in the tub of smelly fish skeletons and stabbing them through their eye sockets onto the metal hooks inside the wooden pots. I liked how I smelled fishy for several days afterward.
Most of all, I liked the fact that Uncle Moze, unlike my old man, made me feel useful.
That's why he was my favorite uncle.
Two months after we found Uncle Norman floating in the Piscataqua River, Aunt Mary gave birth to a girl. She turned the baby over to Uncle Moze and his wife, a quiet little woman named Lillian who, my mother once told me, couldn't have children. It was Lillian and Moze, not Aunt Mary, her actual mother, who named the baby Cassandra.
Aunt Mary lived with my grandmother until the following spring, when she hooked up with a boy from Portland who'd just been drafted by the Detroit Tigers. She followed him to someplace in Iowa where he'd been assigned to a minor-league team, and that was the last I heard of Aunt Mary.
Cassandra, her baby, stayed in Moulton, Maine, with Uncle Moze and Aunt Lillian.
My grandmother moved to Florida a year or two later, and after that my family stopped going to Moulton, and I pretty much lost track of the Crandall side of my family.
They never did figure out who plugged Uncle Norman in the forehead. They questioned a lot of people, but nobody had seen anything or had much to say. Forensics, such as they were, weren't much help. His body had been in the water for quite a while.
Or maybe they just didn't try very hard. Nobody had much tolerance for a beer-bellied drunk who'd break his pregnant wife's arm and punch her face and kick her out of their trailer.
Anyway, it turned out that Norman Dillman had plenty of enemies. He'd been transporting more than lobsters and fish on the boat he kept moored over in Kittery, and he owed a lot of money to some shady people in Boston.
The consensus in the Crandall family was that all in all, things hadn't turned out so bad.
NERVOUS WATER Copyright © 2005 by William G. Tapply.