Alone at Sea
by Tom Sheehan
"Dawn’s a liar," Cristo Mullen said beneath his breath, for about the first time in his thirty some years heading down the Saugus River and out past the Point of Pines to the Father of Oceans. Dawn and the river and the open sea usually had good words for him to start the day, the river coming here on its curving and bent ways from Wakefield and Reading and places beyond, taking him on its path to the sea. Now, as if belaboring him, here was the false-dawn haze out over Lynn saying one thing and the river, beating under him with a new tune, saying something else entirely.
This day is different, it was saying; he was marked, and he knew it.
And he was paying heed to other elements, some abstract, some physical, pulling at him, but he didn’t know which or where from (him being aware that he was always tied to opposites in his internal troubles)… the pile of lobster traps heaped on the aft end of Mini Who II looking as if the load would capsize the boat, the morning river tossing flakes of vapor upon his face with diesel oil smell crowding each deposit.
At the eastern bank toward Lynn the hinting false dawn was making its appearance over the high parapets of the buildings of the General Electric Company, perhaps generating their own mist. And the rap at one knee kept beating sure as an echo every time he changed direction on the deck to settle one task, initiate a new one; the traps at call, the chum ready, the catch hungry; or, damned be it all.
He was another either-or guy on an either-or day.
Even when he had risen at half past two in the morning, Carmella rising with him, some truth of the day worked in the air. He knew it was another one of those days. At first it was much like a hobo lolling about for a place to put down his head for another night, then, because it was working at the opposites, it became a stern boss making demands on legitimacy. All that morning there was company of the sea coming along with his thoughts of her, first when she had brushed against him, as she always managed to do, as if renewing her claim on him, affixing her signature.
Perhaps it was Carmella’s acknowledgment that sex with him was a highlight of her mind and rode into night with its promise, then came the outright sign of heaven, taking his hand at the table as she picked up his breakfast dishes, putting it on her, signaling her openness, her want, saying, “I’ll be here tonight. Don’t get wet. I have a few errands to do today, some business to take care of in town, and supper to plan. Don’t get wet.”
He understood how she took care of distance, and loved her for it.
In the mix with other women, there’d never been one like her. She’d always announced each trip out with the same words, measuring everything, making demands: Don’t get wet. All of her words accumulated for him as he plied the river, spilling all about the boat for him, coming off the gunnels, the Fincastle, the deck under him, the cabin door swinging loose on a pair of hinges: Don’t wear the river in your boots. Or the ocean. Don’t get lost out there. Don’t go over the side in a bad storm. Don’t ever leave me here alone in this house. There will be a son for you yet.
The constant message. The salutation of every day he went to sea. Her advancement of them as a pair of people, a couple, with room for sharing.
Hell, he was fifty and she was forty and each dreamed up a child with every new day. One day, before it was all over, they hoped a son would be born to claim his boat, his license, both as first in line after him. And she had said, at least a dozen times just before sleep, “If we had tests and I was the one who could not start a child, we could try a surrogate, but if you are the one, no way would we go that other route. The child must be yours. It will be a boy. He will get your boat. He will own the sea.” She was adamant about that. “No interlopers,” she said. “No pretenders.” He understood her to be saying, No one will come after you, if it ever comes to that. But you should have a son!
That message dovetailed his ambivalence; his want and need for the sea when she was near, for she’ll always be there for me and I don’t have to dream about her; his need for her when the sea was a calmer master than he was, when it curved the horizon with limitless promise, when it gave him gentle winds and easy prey, when the soft swells said her name or mimicked her night hushes, her tender dedication. At such moments he enjoyed the riches he didn’t own, didn’t have at hand.
Now, later in the day, deep on the dividing sea, that sea running heavier than he thought it would, land far astern, Carmella too, he suddenly noticed the radio was not working. Day had changed around him without being announced. Dark clouds in a great circle loomed low and heavy, settling the way mushroom caps do, or umbrellas, and though he could not see the far horizon any more, he knew that dark cap also set out beyond him and the pawn of his small boat on the endless sea. The small red-orange glow of the radio dial face was gone. In the center of what constantly was a minor lamp of connection, came minor darkness. So too went the constant static that often served as music for him, that faded nondescript security blanket of sound, all as though some electric impulse swallowed his boat in one bite.
Then, in dread announcement, the engine coughed, coughed again, coughed a third time and died away within its gagging. He quickly researched his morning.
It had all started innocently, he thought, if one can say that of any submerged body met upon the sea. He’d been bounced before; an old log somewhat submerged for eternity, a whale lost or at a mindless cruise. The impact beneath surface level had not at first seemed substantial, the shudder running under his booted feet like a building shaking in a storm or an earthquake. No shoals here, he acknowledged, but he’d been there before, a small island off the Japanese coast many years ago; in fact, he could still feel the cold terror taking aim at his promised longevity, crawling up his back, stating the known from the unknown, harbinger and omen at fierce odds, the alternate mixes ever working his mind as they always did.
Now, in this instance, he had leaped to the port side to see what had caused the collision, and saw a lengthy dark shape, larger than a dead whale he surmised, floating away from the boat, not behind the scenes but under the scenes, in petto, as if slithering away from the contact. In mere seconds he knew his rudder was gone, and other gear… the radio, the small radar above his head, now hanging by a loose bracket. The GPD was not operating. He was alone and uncharted except for those who knew his trap territory. At opposites he was caught once again, the primeval twist that wound about his person, the fated one still afloat. He realized the body below the green surface of Father Atlantic was metallic. It was no mammal but man-made, and it was bigger than his boat!
His cousin Shel Mustine had often told him of the German U-boat going down off the Louisiana shore, for good ostensibly. But the Nazi threat was now a half century dead. What else was new? Disbeliefs shook his head, the way vagrant thoughts rise, disperse, make themselves known again as being the real thing. What new terrors lay afoot? Submerged? Hidden? He thought about minisubs and pigboats, and a host of imaginative crafts from dark movies. Were Arabic sands now afloat? Once the terror was airborne, like arrows into the midst of us.
Then there had been newspaper stories about the target of natural gas tanks just down the coastline. He clearly remembered shaking his head in disbelief as he read the newspapers, at first not believing what was being sounded out, and then seeing the twin towers dropping from existence, the endless dust blowing across Manhattan, across America. Was this dark thing a bomb? Another pure load of high octane waiting for a new impact, new delivery? Bigger than that? Wipe-out big? A force so malevolent the mind could never reach it? The nth thing of all things? The Z- Bomb? People had talked about it, spit it out, let it drift away, going back into a rut, not believing what was mounting itself halfway across the world to get here. Only Cristo Mullen, childless, lonely, thinking now of his wife back home; only Cristo Mullen in the way of eternity, darkness, dust, decay, ever rot.
Nah! How stupid could he get? So blind. Suddenly so imaginative. Nothing but a lobsterman having another bad day. The lines would foul. The catch would be too young, too small. He’d get fined. The traps’d break loose. He’d be swept overboard. He’d get thoroughly, thoroughly wet. She’d know as soon as he did. Isn’t that the way it would go? Her knowing. Him going.
The doubts, the two-way paths, as ever, still worked on him, still rode him. Ideas too far-fetched were running rampant, yet sat poles apart again. His boat was in trouble, he was in trouble, and here he was conjuring up old news accounts and old fears to bedevil him one more time; alone on the wide sea and he was merely bringing a new brand of terrorists out of the depths.
What made him this way? Where would his thinking go next? To what shore?
He wondered, who was he? What was he? Was he to be figured out? He’d be in the backyard with Carmella, the west wind at work, the maples bleeding their essence for him, the robins at a stretch and blue jays at scramble and small wars, the roses rushing down the length of the driveway split rails knowing they were doomed for the short run, the Swan River daisies splashing against the house, and him ever wishing he was at sea. Always he wished he was at sea; not in the bed in the dark room with rich Carmella, not on the couch with her and the day shades drawn down on the neighborhood, but out there at sea, on the great mattress that could gentle him to sleep. It was where he could feel the breezes at watch, know their singular touch as they rode past his features, the warmth buried in their caress, always another love.
That’s when all things legal bothered him too. Was there also the onslaught of ambivalence in that outlook? What made him think of troubles when the way was smooth, serene? Oh, don’t be comfortable, he’d said to himself; there is always something to worry about. He’d never made out a will. Never even gave it a thought. Not for a damn minute. Christ, he felt he’d live forever. And Carmella, too. There had to be the time for her to have a child of her own. It had to be written for them, ambivalence or not. He was nothing but a lobsterman trying to hold his own against the whole world: the tides, the character of the sea changing, the level of catches dwindling, the arm of international politics swinging its punch into the midst of his trade. And last night a guy at the bar was saying how stupid could a guy get if he didn’t make out a will to take care of his wife and kids. All night long he twisted in his bed, the linens wrestling with him, soft and warm Carmella on the far side of the bed still drifting away in her sleep, the voice of the guy at the bar muscling in on him: even the smartest guys gets to be jerks at times.
He remembered last night; out past the second-floor porch of the yacht club, the moon swam in the Saugus River like a gold ten-dollar piece was swimming underwater, shining off In God We Trust as though it was another flake. Why? How, do people throw things aside? Atop the GE Power Plant, itself a mere muscle on the arm of the river, another moon made announcements, made its own curves, and when the Belden Bly Bridge swung up from its base to let late boat traffic flow underneath, coming back to the snug little harbor, he swore he could hear the gears and cogs of bridge mechanisms talking trash to each other… old Belden still arguing his principles, making small waves in the huge, harsh universe, voice of voices.
Then it was morning. And the dark, submerged man-made mysterious structure faded into the nether world. And he was adrift. For hours he was adrift. Not to worry. By now they’d know he was in some kind of trouble. Carmella would be knocking at doors, soliciting friends, pacing at the marina, prodding a search, appealing to compatriots, hoping he wouldn’t get wet, waiting for him. She’d have them gathered in the yacht club, planning, looking at tide information, at weather reports. He had trouble figuring out how far he had drifted, in what direction.
He worked on the radio and the engine and forgot, at length, his trap lines. He was in another zone. The fog had settled about him, the skyline gone, all around him too much like a snow bank along the driveway in the dead of winter, across the front of the house. Silence, a vast arena of silence, shrouded him and his boat. He could only hear himself think, but heard no gulls at shrieking, no notice of them, and no beachside frivolity parting the white veil sitting around him.
And the submerged thing came back, the black, lengthy secretive thing. This time he heard it and feared it, a throb underfoot, and a hum as if the universe was compelling him to talk back. He held his voice. He listened. It was directly beside him. Immense it was compared to Mini Who II, long and black and silent. What came back to him on the quickest note was the Nazi submarine down in the Gulf waters, after it had come so close to the enemy, the bottom falling out, and retribution at its worst.
His mind went on a small rampage, games of guessing, false measurement, hopelessness. It couldn’t be anything, he finally thought, but terrorist in origin. And possible multiple targets of terrorism in the nearby region limped into his mind, then leaped with massive attraction; myriad gas and oil tanks with the crazy painted designs sitting beside the Southeast Expressway leaping away from downtown Boston, almost at the crush of the city. The whole city would freeze up in the first harsh winter storm.
Then he pictured the huge ocean-going tankers bound for Chelsea Creek and other storage depots along the cluttered coastline, and what simple and hideous targets they would be. He ultimately thought of the natural gas depot tanks big as life over in Salem that had carried the headlines for a few recent weeks. 9/11, ever breathing its pains, was still weighing down in endless plunge, the airborne miles of dust loosed for eternity, a neighbor’s boy caught up in the mess and the dust, his being scattered over Manhattan forever.
A comic image came to him of two men down below, terrorists from the deep and not from some harsh desert, fore and aft, pumping at some bicycle pedaling arrangement. Into his mind raced images of a long-gone vaudeville stage where the end of Staff Road now drops into Cliftondale Square. He recalled unicyclists and jugglers and pantomimes galore and clowns and men at sparring battles and huge-necked wrestlers. The images carried him to two large hooks looming on the topside, just under the water’s surface, and an oddly-shaped structure that seemed to hang off one side of the craft. From those hooks it had been birthed into the ocean, to seek this shore.
He felt the game of tag. He was it! No either or now. This time he could not let it go. He pushed his mind to an extreme, searching for ideas. He scurried about on the deck and found a length of line, made a noose and, after a couple of attempts, managed to loop it over one of the hooks. Controlling the slack of the line, he secured the other end to the bow of his boat. If nothing else, it was going to be a tow job. Triple A at work. He kept saying: Am I the last bastion of defense? Or the first in the line? He didn’t know where in the echelon he was, but the pressure came on him, as if he had been commissioned for this one special action.
He was being towed very slowly and needed something to do. He worked for a time on the engine and the radio, without any result, and the submersible continually moved just under the surface as though it was being propelled by envisioned hand-foot power. When he couldn’t pick which, hand or foot, he was immediately thrown back into his own levels of indecision. Images quickly fixed in his mind the Twin Towers, his body flinching at each incomplete mind picture, each aircraft impact seen on television. The impact of the second plane he had seen a hundred times; knew two passengers, had seen others or knew of them. A kind of paralysis was hanging about him, its tentacles had reach.
The small, almost silent propeller blades were momentarily revealed to him as he peered down into the water at the aft end of the craft, like a hand waving the submersible onward. An idea leaped up. Scurrying, he went below deck recalling a length of chain that had been brought on board for some forgotten job. Under a shelf in the narrow prow he found 25 feet of chain; it looked strong enough to tow a car.
With great deliberation and stealth, he held the chain above the mysterious propeller. He would try to immobilize the propulsion of the craft, thwart its movement. This was his only course. He affirmed again in his mind that it was not a US Navy craft, there were no visible markings that he could see.
He bided his time.
The structure on the side of the dark submerged craft bothered him. He could imagine the vessel rolling on one side to bring that structure topside, a change of ballast, and thus a change of silhouette. Was it a side-slung conning tower of sorts? he wondered, almost aloud. The secretive underwater vessel with each second became darker, more of a threat, its glide path heading toward land. With that threat about him he tried to see faces of people he knew in Salem, in nearby Marblehead and Beverly. He summoned them back by sheer will power, some of them long in his past, and then lost each feature of each face as he always did at recollection, the eyes running away first, then a nose or a mouth or the facial outline that marked so many people with easy recognition.
The faces of close friends in Lynn and Swampscott and Nahant also rushed at him. And there were all of those back home, back there on the river, on the edge of the great marsh spreading from the Baker Hill rise, people he had known all his life, went to school with, worked with, partied with. They rushed at him, a parade in full force, teammates and teachers and barbers and clerks and station attendants and town workers whose names had disappeared over the years but not all their faces, an eye here, a mouth there, merely the ears of another. He felt guilty. He dreaded the haunt of forgotten names, faces fading away, known silhouettes shrouded, warm and decent gestures almost gone forever. He wondered how far were their departures.
There would come atonement.
Gingerly, by playing on the tethered line, he pulled himself to a point above the propeller; Mini Who II seemed lighter than ever, a mere cork afloat on the water. From his stubby, salty hands the chain went straight and slowly down over the spinning blades. He fed the chain like a trout line on the Pine River in Ossipee, his fingers knowing each link passing through, caressing each one, urging silence, urging stealth. The chain, lowered gingerly, trembled in his fingers. He heard a gull cry above him, and then another. A breeze touched at his neck and dipped into his shirt. Carmella came back with the image, her hand announcing intentions, her breath at his ear. At that instance the chain banged suddenly with a dull sound, threatened to be pulled from his hands, and then snagged in the turning blades… which, with a quick shudder, seized, and stopped turning. Slack returned to the tow rope, which dipped to the water.
He had immobilized the drive power, whatever dint it was.
He waited. He pictured the onboard panic. He waited for sound. He heard nothing.
To the east the bank of fog was lifting. A landmark sat its outlined darkness. A sense of timing rushed at him. He fired the first flare into the air, a rising arc of initial fire and then a streaming darker arc as it pitched over in a partial rainbow. Five more rounds were available. He’d wait a while before setting off another round.
In a few open spots the horizon was clearer yet. Then, in one small rush of sound, air or water escaping, the underwater craft began to roll. The side-slung structure began to rise, the whole craft turning slowly on its axis, fore to aft. A hatch cover gradually came into sight, coming horizontally. Came to him the movie with Robert Mitchum and Curt Jergens and the Nazi submarine and the Navy destroyer. It was too real to bear again.
Move now or forever hold your peace, he said to himself. He grabbed his trap line by half a dozen loops and leaped onto the craft. With expert hands, he crossed the line over the hatch cover half a dozen times, looping it on one large bolt head, one smaller hook, and through the rungs of a small ladder. The line was fully secured. If the dark vessel stayed afloat, the line would tighten in the sun, would cement itself.
He climbed back aboard the Minnie Who II and fired off another flare. On the great circle of the ocean the white banks of fog had lifted, the sun appeared overhead, and he heard the chatter of gulls sounding as though all his bait chum had fallen overboard. With no more trapping for the day, he dumped his whole bucket of bait.
The gulls went crazy, diving near him in their frenzy. He could see no other craft on the surface, but he fired his third flare. He had three left and promised himself he’d be more patient.
The submersible was fully upright, the conning tower exposed. Now he heard the banging aboard the craft, perhaps a hammer was beating at the hatch cover, or a heavy wrench. Of all the pictures that came into his mind about conditions aboard the small submersible, he could not settle on one of them… all were true chaos and panic, air being cut off, heat or cold coming upon all inner surfaces, Death itself no longer shrouded. At some moments he thought he himself could no longer breathe, as though in sympathetic gesture with whatever strange or alien crewmen were aboard the floating submarine of sorts. The pain of withdrawal came into his chest with a sharp, incisive slice; his throat hurt, and his chest seemed to be charged with suspense.
Thinking again of Carmella dogging people at the marina.... boaters, lobstermen, officials of any rank, he regained his breath, took one or two deep breaths, scanned the horizon again, and fired off another flare. The response came in ten minutes… a Coast Guard cutter coming towards him at full bore, perhaps 25 knots, the white wake flowing out behind it, like an arrow from the flat horizon, a pennant flashing in the wind.
A booming mega-horn voice bounced across the water as the cutter finally sidled in toward Cristo Mullen waving on the deck. The young CG skipper waved back. “You okay, Mr. Mullen?” His voice was loud and clear. “We have your wife on voice hook-up.” He held the butterfly mike up for Cristo to see.
“I’m okay, skipper,” Cristo yelled back, “but you better send a crew over here and check out what I’m tied up to. It looks like a mini submarine to me, and I’m damn sure there are people on board. I can hear them banging on the hull. I’ve locked down their hatch cover. They can’t get out, whoever they are.” He held a line of trap rope high in the air.
“Say again, Mr. Mullen. A submarine?” There was a flurry of arm waving and activity aboard the cutter. An outboard rig, the inflatable type, was dropped off the starboard side of the cutter and the skipper and four men climbed into it. In minutes the skipper and two men were aboard Mini Who II, and examining the submerged craft.
“I think they’re up to no good,” yelled Cristo Mullen. He pointed along the axis of the submersible. “Look, no markings. Like damned pirates.” He held his breath again, “Or damned terrorists.”
“How did you corral this thing, Mr. Mullen?” The young skipper showed amazement on his face, his eyes as wide as coins.
“I fouled the propeller with a length of chain,” Cristo answered, “and it seized right up. That conning tower, if that’s what it is, was lying over on one side and came upright when I fouled their drive. They started banging from inside when I locked down the hatch cover with some of my trap line. I sure didn’t want to let them loose, whoever they are. Scared the hell right out of me. I hope I did the right thing.”
In minutes, aboard the Coast Guard cutter, he was on the radio phone with Carmella, understanding how rich her voice sounded, hearing the echo of the last words she had said that morning, then she broke in and asked, “Did you get wet, Cristo?”
“Not very. I’m okay.” He saw the skipper and two crewmen untie the lines securing the hatch. Two men came up out of the hatch and were held at gunpoint by the Coast Guard sailors. The young captain returned to his craft.
“We’ll take over now, Mr. Mullen,” the young skipper said, and handed the radio mike to him.
“I’m glad to hear your voice,” Carmella said, her own voice electric, not morning warm, but still mysterious. “Now I have good news and some bad news,” she added. “How will you have it?”
“It makes no difference,” Cristo said, remembering her last touch that morning.
“I tried calling you a dozen times,” Carmella said, “but I couldn’t get through. All those worries you had, well, I have to tell you, someone’s going to take your boat.”
Her voice, though curious, was steady on the radio, even out in the middle of the sea.
Cristo Mullen was not aghast at the possibility of losing his boat; he was behind in his payments, the catch nowadays not ever so good as before, the work harder, the days longer, and the sea a more constant threat than before. He’d almost lost the boat anyway on this day, but he detected another edge to Carmella’s voice, saw the image develop the way the fog had lifted, clearly and precisely and stretching for all it was worth, as she continued, “And that someone’s going to get your license, too.”
The young Coast Guard skipper, who had seen a lot of misery in his short career, was amazed at the happy look on Cristo Mullen’s face that he was going to have to give up both his boat and his license to trap lobsters. Would life always be so cruel? He wondered.
Bio note: Sheehan, in his 93rd year, (31st Infantry, Korea 1950-52; Boston College 1952-56), has published 48 books, multiple works in Rosebud, The Linnet’s Wings, Copperfield Review, Literally Stories,, Frontier Tales, Green Silk Journal, Rope & Wire Magazine, etc. He has 16 Pushcart nominations, 6 Best of Net nominations (one winner). Latest books released are The Grand Royal Stand-off and Other Stories and Small Victories for the Soul VII and Poems and Reflections for Proper Bostonians. In submission cycle are Beneath My Feet This Rare Earth often Slips into the Far Side of Another’s Telescope and Back Home in Saugus and Fables, Fairy Stories, Folk Lore and Fantasies.