Shags and Gulls
An Excerpt from Hull Creek by Jim Nichols
Hull Creek is a timely tale of change on the coast of Maine and the challenges it brings to the men who still seek their livelihood from the sea. After the death of his parents, Troy Hill left college to take up his family’s traditional lobster-fishing life. Now, thanks to poor fishing, a misguided second mortgage, and the changing nature of his hometown, Troy finds himself faced with the loss of that life.
Hull Creek by Jim Nichols. Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 242 pages; $24.95.
I guess I can figure the day it all changed. I remember coming in, upset after another poor haul, yanking the skiff toward the old iron bridge that takes Seaview Street out of town and bends it down the south Pequot peninsula. It was late in the afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, and I had my eyes on my lobsterboat, moored on the east side in front of Danny Brinker’s marina. Then I stopped to look over my shoulder. The sun was low and bright, flashing down the creek, turning the water under the bridge the color of a new penny. I stirred with one oar to change my heading, then bent back to it. When I reached the bridge the current drove me sideways, but I dug harder and slowly made headway.
Understand, I didn’t have to work that hard.
I could have climbed out and walked the skiff up the narrows. There were foot rocks all along the bank. But I was just too pissed off. I had that helpless feeling that things were happening I couldn’t control, but one thing I could do was lean on those bloody oars.
It was cool under the bridge, only May and the air still a bit raw, but coming out the other side the sun warmed my neck as I inched along to smoother water. In two more deep strokes I was clear, and I slowed to catch my breath and looked around at the new growth on the high banks: the spring greens, the clumps of pink and purple phlox. It was pretty, peaceful, and I lost a little of my crankiness.
But I was still worried. Who wouldn’t be?
I started in pulling again, past black rock tops and through a wooded bend that brought the upper creek into view. I swung around on the thwart, careful not to tip — it was a small skiff and I’m a pretty big guy — and switched hands on the oars so I could face forward to check out the birds. The whole upper creek was alive because of the alewive run. There were gulls on the rocks, a fish hawk high up in a tree, a big mess of shags in the water with just their long black necks showing.
The shags backed away as I drew close and then sort of levitated to sprint along the surface, beating their wings and pattering their webbed feet on the water, raising a racket that in the confines of the creek sounded exactly like a roomful of applause.
It was a noise I’d heard every spring of my life.
I watched them go and thought of the old man. When the birds took off like this, he would bow his head like they were clapping for him and say, “Thank you, thank you very much,” his Elvis imitation so lame you couldn’t help laughing.
I smiled despite myself, watching the shags strain up into the air. They’re piss-poor flyers. I think it’s the set of their wings that makes them seem to work so hard. You look at the gulls and their wings are forward compared to the shags, and you have to admit they’re much better flyers, no matter what else you might think of them, which isn’t much in my case.
The shags lifted over the pine trees and birches, the gulls circled back toward the harbor and I caught a quick sight of the fish hawk pounding away north, looking a lot like a giant gull.
But he was no dump bird. He was a working guy, like me.
I pushed on up the creek, my farmhouse approaching behind the tall trees. The old place was built before the Civil War, but was still sturdy and warm, with a wide deck I’d added myself back when I had a little money in my pocket, before I somehow turned into just another dub lobster fisherman.
About here I told myself to quit whining.
But I couldn’t help wondering if I should have kept the old man’s boat a couple more seasons. Problem was I’d had a little money, and I’d wanted an Ollsen boat bad. Old man Ollsen was getting ready to retire, so I went for it.
I drifted up to the old dock, weathered and warped, built and rebuilt from the time when we Hulls hauled traps by hand, from dories in close to shore, when you didn’t have to chase the bugs around. I’d heard the stories since I was old enough to listen: how you could pick them from behind rocks at low tide, how they’d caught millions of pounds for the canneries, no size limits, no worrying about berried females, no problems.
On the dock I arched my back, something out of whack in there. All the old-timers had bad backs, and I supposed that was in store for me, too, assuming I could fish long enough to become an old timer.
I stretched until my spine popped back into place. Then, instead of heading straight to the house, I walked out into the field that followed the creek. It had been a while since I’d been up here. I kicked through the grass to the woods and walked along the overgrown mule trail to the earthwork that blocked an old canal from the creek.
I climbed up the slant and looked in. It was pretty wet, because this time of year the canal still diverted water from just below Seven Tree Pond. Come summer, that skim-off would stop, the water would sink into the ground, and grass and weeds would cover the bottom. It had been that way since they quit logging years ago.
I remembered playing in the dried-up canal bed, using it for a hideout with the rest of the gang: Niki Harjula, Billy Polky, Danny Brinker. Thinking of those days made me smile: how we’d steal around town in the evening, peeping in windows, eavesdropping, and then dash back to the canal. Back then we thought the whole town belonged to us.
I fished through the old memories for a while, then backed down the slant and walked out of the woods. I headed back across the field toward the house, noticing the shags were back: two or three hundred watching from the creek. I crossed a stretch of lawn that wound past cedars, birches, and the small bog with the frog pond, stopping to check the fiddleheads hatching out of their little mounds. I remembered my mother harvesting them for supper greens, and the sadness welled up in me like it still does sometimes.
Then I thought about Julie Marie.
I missed her, too, but it was different. She wasn’t dead, for one thing. And it was more of an indoor feeling: I missed her in the kitchen, the living room, the shower she’d use for an hour at a time. The bedroom, too, in a way that was so messed up I couldn’t even bring myself to sleep in our old bed any more.
But I didn’t miss her outdoors. She wasn’t connected to the property the way my parents were. It had never been anything special to her. It was no great shakes, for example, that we didn’t have neighbors close by.
Hell, she liked neighbors!
Missing Julie Marie — her red hair, her smart mouth, her flat belly, and freckled breasts — I walked up the driveway, grabbed the bills and flyers from the dinged-up mailbox, came back through the shed. There were buoys in there, tools and trap-making materials, too, snowshoes, a cracked baseball bat, a hand-mower, a grill and bag of charcoal, my old Schwinn, covered with cobwebs and missing its rear tire, a stack of National Geographic, a hoe, rake, and shovel leaning against the wall, a rickety bookcase full of the old man’s paperbacks. I picked one up and opened to a turned-down page. I pictured him in his recliner, reading with his mouth open. Catching flies, my mother called it, but he was just lost in the words. People think folks like us don’t read, but my old man would read anything: books, newspapers, magazines, cereal boxes. I’d caught it from him, and I still remember how my teachers made a big deal out of a fisherman’s kid reading at lunchtime!
I set the book down and looked at a box full of hardcover textbooks. Sometimes I thought I should just toss them, but once in while I came back from Captain Cobb’s Crow’s Nest with a little clip going, and I’d pick up Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, with this big, weird flounder on the cover. I had hoped to study marine biology at Maine, and sometimes the old textbooks still made that seem possible. But mostly they just sat, collecting dust and bat droppings.
I left the shed and headed for the kitchen.
There I picked through the mail, still thinking about my folks and Julie Marie. I saw the logo of a three-masted schooner and tore the envelope open and read: . . . late payments . . . may find it necessary to observe the terms of your loan . . . and my face turned hot. I looked around for something to smash, but there was nothing handy. I could’ve punched a hole in the wall, but the last time I hit a stud and broke a goddamn knuckle.
I jammed the letter into my pocket and yelled: “Goddamned assholes!” Which was mostly just letting off steam, but still, I was wound up. I stomped out to my pickup, noting the cluster of rust spots across the cab, like somebody had sprayed it with a machine gun a few years back. When I fired it up I thought it ran all right for an old piece of crap, and the tailgate still latched despite a constellation of dents. Yeah, I thought, backing onto the street, maybe you should have made the old boat work for a little while longer, you big, dumb genius you.