My first novel, a literary thriller called Burning Under, is forthcoming (Fall 2018) from Stephen F. Austin. State University Press. Stay tuned for more details.
Here’s another one, recently published in Descant.
Jonah untied the painter from the cleat and pushed off the dock. A thin coat of ice covered his oarlocks. He rowed through the choppy granite-colored water, past moored yachts with masts rattling in the wind, a gusty wind that kicked up a briny spray. The dory creaked and swayed and the bait bucket – an oily stew of processed herring and redfish – sloshed under his feet. His joints ached, signaling a cold front. Autumn had vanished overnight without a proper goodbye. Last night he and Ellie had enjoyed steamers and grilled haddock on the porch under a Maine sky torched with stars, unsullied by city lights or smog. This morning he’d wanted stay in bed with her, but his lobster catch for the season was way down.
He reached his boat and climbed in. As the engine warmed up, he carried the bait bucket to the stern and restacked his empty traps. The wind cut through his oilskins and Carhartt jacket. He coiled the unused trap lines and stowed them in the cabin. He unhitched the mooring and climbed into the wheelhouse. Leaving the harbor, he lit a cigarette and studied the horizon: pinkish red, the color of infected skin. He tuned the VHF radio to the Coast Guard station. A flat, lifeless voice announced the weather forecast: Today a Nor’easter will sweep up the Maine coast and bring freezing rain and snow. Highs in the mid-thirties, lows around twenty.
The boat was named ELIZABETH ANN, after Jonah’s late mother, but Henry called it the Giant Pickle. Last summer Jonah had repainted it pine green to cover up wear and tear. The hull was long and tubular. The sides were low in the stern, easier to pull buoys and traps, and higher in the bow, protecting against waves.
The boat was paid off, he set his own hours, and he answered to no one else. But maintenance and repair costs grew every year, and the red tape – who could even read those new Coast Guard forms? – never stopped. He’d considered moving to Florida, where he could make more money guiding deep-sea fishing charters. Ellie liked the idea, she’d grown tired of Maine winters, but there was also Henry, his ten year-old son, to think about. Jonah had joint custody, yet neither his ex-wife nor the family court judge would let Henry leave the state.
He passed Mere Point and entered Maquoit Bay to pull some traps he’d set three days ago. There were no beaches edging this side of the bay. Only a handful of modest summer cottages, nestled between patches of pine, spruce, and birch trees. This sliver of the mid-coast had not been ruined by development, though it was just a matter of time before the New Yorkers built their gaudy mansions here, too.
Jonah descended from a long line of fishermen. His great-great grandfather harpooned whales in the South Pacific. But Casco Bay – a shallow body of water, buffered from the Atlantic by a string of banks and shoals – had been Jonah’s childhood playground. He possessed local knowledge most other lobstermen took years to learn, like where a rock bottom floor turned into mud or where a ledge dropped into deeper water. He didn’t need GPS or fish-finding radar. Some guys had the newest gadgets, but they lacked the most crucial thing: instinct.
Beyond Sisters Island, he cut the engine and let the boat drift up to his string of red buoys. He hooked the first buoy with his gaff and coiled the rope around the hydraulic pulley, then watched his first trap surface. Empty. Adding insult, some idiot had set his traps too close to Jonah’s, and now their lines were snarled. Jonah would have to cut some lines and lose a few traps. And he didn’t recognize the green buoys, which likely meant this guy was not from Harpswell and had no right to fish here. Another reason why the lobster trade was dying. Too many morons were slinging traps all over the bay. They’d spy on the best fishermen and set their traps ten feet away. The ones who stole lobsters from other traps were the worst: drug-addled poachers who didn’t give a damn about the ethics of fishing. At least the fishermen from Jonah’s harbor looked out for each other. If you were in trouble, they’d put personal grudges aside and give help.
Needing a second opinion, he tried to reach his older brother, Gordon, on the radio. Before striking out on his own, Jonah had been a stern man on Gordon’s boat. Ellie didn’t like Gordon’s “negative energy,” which was her way of criticizing his drinking and drug habits. His brother did have a reckless streak, Jonah would admit, but he always managed to keep it on dry land. Out on his boat, Gordon was a different guy, serious and professional. He was the best fisherman in Casco Bay. He could find lobster anywhere.
Jonah picked up the radio handle. “G-Man, you copy?”
The line crackled. “Go ahead.”
“Where you parked at today?”
“Near Eagle Rock,” said Gordon.
Wicked far, Jonah thought, as he poured coffee from a thermos into his RED SOX mug. He wondered why Gordon had ventured that far out. Lately he’d heard whispers about Gordon: that he was doing side work for a group of Canadians who dealt drugs – coke, heroin, meth – off their sword boats, running from Halifax across the Gulf of Maine. Jonah hadn’t asked any questions, but to him it sounded like a false rumor started by one of Gordon’s enemies.
“Waves knockin me around good. Storm coming. So, what’s up?”
“Some jackass is fishing all over me, and now our lines are snagged. You know anyone with green buoys?”
Gunmetal clouds congealed and darkened the sky. The first sheets of freezing rain cut across the bay like a theater curtain.
“Pat McCurdy,” said Gordon. “But he usually stops fishing in October.”
Looking at his nautical map, Jonah asked his brother if Maquoit Bay was still inside Harpswell’s fishing territory.
“Rumor is the state might open it up to everyone.” The radio went silent a few seconds. “But until they make it official, I’m not buying it.”
Fishing territories were an unwritten code among Maine lobstermen. Different harbors had their own areas, and some overlapped. Every few years the fish and game commission modified boundary lines, trying to justify their existence. Typical bureaucrats. But problems on the water got solved on the water. Nobody went to a lawyer, and if you called the Coast Guard about a territory dispute, they’d laugh and hang up.
“I wonder who did this,” said Jonah.
“Likely one of them Portland hippies, fishing to support his drug habit. Or another poacher from Old Orchard.”
“What should I do about it?”
“Sledge hammer his traps,” said Gordon.
“I’m not ready to start a harbor war.”
“Busting a few traps, that’s nothing. You hear about Ned Riley? Someone sunk his boat in the middle of the night.”
“Are you serious?”
“No joke,” said Gordon. “Those Portland assholes invade our fishing grounds all the time. We need to send a message.”
Jonah paused. “Fuck it, why not.”
“That’s more like it, kid.” There was a pause. “Well, I need to get back to work before this storm hits, and I suggest you do the same.”
After he untangled the lines, Jonah pulled a handful of his neighbor’s old, wooden traps up on deck. He opened the storage bin and found his axe. The handle felt good in his hands, as he raised the blade. After smashing five or six traps, he threw the larger pieces overboard. Then he returned to hauling his own pots. They were coming up full, bursting with dark green, semi-hard shelled lobster. The valuable ones. In a few days they would soften and turn bright red. Jonah had found their hiding place, most likely a rocky floor covered by seaweed. He threw them in the fish hold, removed the old bait bag from the trap, and replaced it with a new one.
He drove to the next buoy and repeated the process: pull, empty, reset. His traps had been soaking for three days and most were full. He rounded the tip of Mere Point and pushed into Middle Bay. A flock of seagulls trailed the boat, diving for spilled bait. The sleet had sleet changed to snow, large wet flakes that stuck to his beard. His body ached and his wet clothes weighed him down like hockey pads.
From the corner of his eye, Jonah glimpsed the rogue wave. Before he could brace himself, it slammed against the boat and knocked him down. He tried to get up, but something tugged at his leg. A rope had coiled tightly around his boot and was dragging him to the stern. It felt like a sucker-punch. He was also opposed by the laws of physics, since the rope, attached to hundreds of pounds of traps, was trying to pull him overboard, yet the boat kept churning forward. Worse, he couldn’t reach the engine key or the radio.
But he remembered his hunting knife and pulled it from the back pocket of his oilskins. He wrapped his legs around the trawl table that was bolted to the floor. He started cutting the rope around his boot, but the table’s legs broke under the weight of the traps and gear. He dropped the knife. It slid out of reach.
All the force was on his right ankle, which was severely swollen, maybe broken. He was getting pulled out of the boat, and he needed the knife to free his ankle. Without it, he’d drown. He grabbed one of the table’s busted legs, using it to scoot the knife back within reach. Finally, after a few deep breaths, he quit resisting the rope’s force and let himself get pulled over the side.
The water was frigid: a godless cold that cut through his clothes. His rubber boot caused him to sink fast, and his feet settled in the soft mud. Shallow here, maybe thirty feet, and murky. He bent down and felt the rope around his boot, then started cutting at the frayed part. The cutting took longer in the water. From first-aid training, he knew that he could hold his breath about two minutes. But instead of dwelling on the negative shit – like what might happen if he couldn’t finish in time – he focused on the task. It took another minute, but he severed the rope. He ripped off his boot and shot to the surface. He sucked air into his lungs, wheezing.
Squinting through the snow, Jonah watched his boat drift away like the devil drove her, headed for a ledge. No other boats were in sight. His shouts for help died away, unanswered.
Crow Island was a few hundred yards away but he’d be going against the current. There was a ledge marker, a large metal buoy, between him and the island. You need to swim for it, he thought. He summoned his courage and started off, forcing his arms and legs to move.
When he finally reached the marker, he climbed on top and wrapped his arms around it. The buoy kept swaying, but he held on, desperate to keep his body out of the fifty-degree water. His coat and pants, though waterlogged, retained some body heat.
The sun would poke out of the clouds for a minute, then retreat. The cold sucked on his bone marrow. Too weak to hold his bladder, he pissed himself. It warmed him, briefly.
His thoughts drifted to Henry. He remembered the last time they’d fished together, when Henry caught a big striper. He was a natural, like his old man, but he had options. There was no future in commercial fishing. Henry could be anything – doctor, engineer, professor – but he needed guidance, a strong example. Who else would do it? Surely not his mother’s boyfriend, that lazy creep who mooched off Jonah’s child support.
Late afternoon. The last strands of light falling away. Jonah felt hot, as if ought to shed some clothes. His hands were getting numb, losing his grip on the buoy. Hypothermia setting in.
He scanned the western edge of the cove. There was a white dot. He blinked. Still there. A white lobster boat. Creeping closer. A searchlight flicked on. The circle of light danced along the water surface. When the light settled on him, Jonah waved his arms and kicked his legs.
The boat grew larger. Within fifty yards, it slowed to a crawl, and a man appeared in the stern. He waved a white rescue float. He yelled something, but his words were swallowed up by the engine’s low rumble. Then, he hurled the float. After a few weak strokes, Jonah managed to grab it. The man pulled him in, then hooked a long gaff under Jonah’s belt. Jonah felt like a snared swordfish. The man carried him to the cabin below deck, then draped a blanket around his shaking body.
Jonah looked around. Old fishing nets and rope littered the floor. A gas can and some old buoys sat in the corner. Dirty dishes sloshed in the sink. The cabin reeked of weed. A bolt-action rifle was sticking out of a storage bin.
The man stood over him. He had long brown hair and a goatee. Short, maybe five-nine, but solid. Checkered flannel shirt, overall jeans. Dark lines under his eyes. The scar under his left cheek looked like a sliver of moon.
“How long were you out there?” asked the man.
“Don’t know. Couple hours.” Jonah’s tongue felt like wet cement.
“I saw a boat stranded on the rocks.” The man rubbed his goatee, deliberating something. “You’d be screwed right now if I hadn’t spotted ya!” He laughed, a little too hard.
“I need a doctor,” Jonah said. “My hands and feet are numb. My fingertips are black. My ankle might be broken.”
“Just sit back and relax. You’ll be fine.”
“Freeport’s the nearest harbor.” Jonah pointed south. “Take me there. We can radio ahead for an ambulance.”
“Here.” The man pulled two pills from his pocket. “Go ahead, take ‘em.”
“What are they?” asked Jonah.
“Your body needs a little jolt.”
Jonah wondered if he was dreaming all of this. He wanted to confront the man, ask him a few questions. Then again, he’d just been rescued. He should be grateful, and he didn’t have the strength to pick a fight.
He popped the two pills in his mouth.
“There ya go,” the man said. “By the way, what’s your name?”
The man did not offer his name. “You from Harpswell?”
“Yah,” said Jonah. “What about you?”
“South Portland. But I move around a lot. Listen, I have to get back upstairs. Just holler if you need something.” The man climbed up the steps.
Jonah peered through the narrow cabin window. Far off, the dim glow of Portland’s city lights. Searching the dark clearing sky, he spotted the North Star. Polaris, the sailor’s compass, would guide him home.
He pictured Ellie and Henry in his living room, a nice fire going. He stared at his black fingertips and wondered if the doctors would have to remove them. Frostbite. That happened to a guy he knew who’d been hiking in the White Mountains and got stranded in a freak storm. But it didn’t matter. Jonah would easily sacrifice a finger to get off this boat.
He decided, right then and there, that he’d move – with Ellie and Henry – to Florida. To hell with his ex-wife and the judge, they couldn’t stop him from pursuing a better life for his family. He glanced out the window. The boat had turned again, moving away from the city lights.
Jonah’s ankle was swollen and purple, but at least he could put weight on it. He pulled himself up the steps and hobbled over to the wheelhouse, where the man stood. It was pitch dark, but Jonah recognized where they were.
“Why are we still in Maquoit Bay? What about Freeport?”
The man pulled out a tin of tobacco, fingered a pinch, and worked it under his lip. “I wasted a lot of time picking your ass up. Need to finish hauling my traps, so I won’t have to come back tomorrow.”
“I might go into shock,” Jonah pleaded. “I need a doctor.”
“Shock?” The man chuckled. “No, you sound pretty together to me. This won’t take long. Go back downstairs, lie down, and let me finish my work.”
“It’s too dark.”
“No problem, I’ve got lights.” The man flipped a switch and a beam of light issued from the bow, illuminating the black water.
Looking around the deck floor, Jonah noticed the green buoys. He remembered how he’d smashed up someone’s green traps, right around here, before the accident. He closed his eyes and tried to think up a diversion.
“You said you’re from Portland, right?”
The man nodded.
“This is Harpswell territory. Technically, you can’t fish here.”
The man spat tobacco juice onto the deck floor. “You Sinclairs make me laugh, acting like you own the ocean.”
“How’d you know my last name?”
“C’mon, everyone knows the Sinclairs.” The man smiled. “Your brother Gordon and I have some history.” His smile vanished. “He used to know my wife. Carnal knowledge. And, not too long ago, he fucked me over on a business transaction.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“You got a point, I suppose. But I’m a flawed human being. Besides, you’re connected by blood. The strongest link there is.” He stared at Jonah with the glassy eyes of a large fish. “Oh, and you’re wrong about Maquoit Bay. It’s open to all lobstermen now. The state changed it last summer. Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t know.”
As Jonah tried to process this, the man pointed to something in the water.
“What’s that over there?” The man throttled down the engine, then leaned over the side. The water was black and shiny, like oil. He pulled a piece of wood from the water and examined it. “Looks like part of a trap.”
Jonah shrugged. “Could be anything.”
“I sure hope nobody fucked with my traps.” The man tapped his forehead with his index finger. “That would quash any charitable thoughts left up here.”
Jonah went back downstairs. His head was cloudy. He felt concussed. He tried to think straight. What about the knife? He checked his pockets. Gone. He looked around the cabin. The rifle was still there, sticking out of the storage bin. He walked over, picked it up. It felt heavy in his hands. He raised the bolt handle and pulled it back. The chamber was empty. No cartridges or shells.
Those goddamn pills, he thought, are making you paranoid. What would you do with a rifle, anyway? Nobody is going to die. This asshole is just having his fun, giving you a little scare before you taking you home.
Jonah wrapped the blanket tighter around his shoulders and glanced out the window. His breath fogged up the glass.
With his finger, he spelled out a word: H-E-L-P.
A second later, he wiped it away.
He searched the sky for the North Star, but the clouds had returned and the snow was beginning to fall again.
Here’s another story called “Normal Again” that was recently published in Northern New England Review.
Take Aunt Joanna’s hand and lead her outside. She follows like a scared child. Maple and birch leaves litter the deck, remnants of last night’s storm. A briny zephyr sweeps off the bay. The ebbing tide exposes skeins of seaweed and ledges of barnacled rock. Farther out, a lobster boat idles beside a buoy. The bearded lobsterman leans over the side, pulling his traps.
Help Jo into the wrought iron chair. Her threadbare dress shows her scarred knees. She wears the scent of hospital rooms: a strange mix of lime-based disinfectant, ammonia, flame retardants, and stale cheese. She has coarse, gray-tinged hair and her pallid skin affirms the quarantined life she has lived. She rocks gently back and forth, her nerves damaged from years of electric shock treatments. That’s how doctors once treated schizophrenics. They induced seizures, intended to reduce delusions and acts of self-mutilation. No anesthesia or painkillers. Nurses strapped wires on Jo that channeled electric current through her nervous system. You wonder if they ever lobotomized her. She has lived in psych wards or halfway houses most of her adult life. She might go several days without speaking.
“Don’t pick your nose.” You pull down her arm. “Want some cheese and crackers?”
Jo pokes her tongue through a toothless gap in her neglected mouth. You take a Triscuit and a slice of Gouda from the appetizer tray and place them in her palms, which are cupped like she is ready to receive the sacrament.
“The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” You smile. “It’s a joke. Looks like you’re taking communion.”
She looks confused.
“Maybe you don’t believe in God. I don’t blame you.”
Your parents have rented a house in Boothbay Harbor, near your grandparents’ old summer cottage. Your grandfather used to pick Jo up from the hospital or halfway house and bring her to the cottage for Sunday family dinners. When lucid, Jo would ask you about school or field hockey, but more often she’d sit there, frozen, and stare at her food. One night, she flung mashed potatoes at people and made screeching noises. Another time, she accused your brother of being a spy, hired by the government or the hospital. Your grandfather’s funeral, three years ago, was the last time you saw Jo.
Presently, she gazes at you like she’s channeling your inner thoughts, even your chronic fear that you, too, are schizophrenic. You believe you’ve inherited your aunt’s disorder and will soon be diagnosed. You picture it as a wad of Play-Doh festering in a shady corner of your brain. You and Jo share the same features – pale blue eyes, thin lips – and physique, which your mother calls big-boned. After a nervous breakdown your sophomore year you dropped out of college, left Boston, and returned to Maine. You moved back with your parents in found part-time work at a used bookstore. Your mother claims you’re acting out. You see a psychiatrist. He never talks and has hairy nostrils. The medication dulls your senses and emotions. You feel frozen: trapped within a shell of ice. There is a goateed man who keeps coming in the bookstore. He looks like the guy in Boston, the one you’d see on campus, at your “T” station, outside your apartment building. You’re convinced he’s a stalker, but your mother warns you to stop crying wolf.
Jo’s mouth is a contorted rictus, full of crooked teeth. With her thumb and index finger, she pulls down her lower lip to its farthest point, then stretches it wide.
You catch her eye. “Jo, what does it feel like to be crazy? How long did you keep it a secret? Are people always laughing or whispering about you? Do you hear voices?”
Jo tilts her head sideways, like a slightly confused dog.
“Do the voices remind you how fucked up you are, and that everyone hates you? I hear the same voices.” Your rub your temples. “Why can’t you be normal again, Jo?”
The sound of tires crunching gravel grows louder. A few minutes later, your brother Dave swings open the screen door. A commercial fisherman, he looks the part. His hair is wavy and sun-bleached. Tan lines purl from his mouth and eyes.
“Hi Jo!” Dave’s voice drips with sarcasm.
“Don’t make fun of her.”
“It’s not like she’s offended.”
“How do you know?”
“Erin, she’s crazier than a sewer rat.”
You fold your arms. “She’s not crazy. Just sick.”
“She’s insane. Catatonic. Not a fucking clue what’s going on.” He waves to get her attention. “Hey Jo. What’s your favorite food? Pizza?”
“What about monkey testicles?”
Jo nods again.
You cut your eyes at Dave. “For just one day, could you not be a dickhead?”
Jo lowers her head and buries her hands between her thighs. Then, a noise – the high-pitched buzz of an outboard motor – comes from the water. Stirred by the noise, Jo walks to the porch railing. A ski boat, pulling a water skier, cruises by the dock. Behind the boat, a lanky teenager holds the rope with one hand as he gracefully crosses the wake.
You stand beside Jo. “See the boat?”
Jo grunts a few times, trying to force the words out. “Big boat. Fun!”
Your eyes widen. “Dave, did you hear that?”
“Tell him what you said.” You pause, but Jo doesn’t speak again.
As the skier again cuts across the boat’s wake, he crashes and releases the rope. The driver slows his craft and horseshoes back to the boy. Laughter vibrates off the water.
Jo covers her ears and starts to groan.
“It’s okay. The boat’s turning around. They’re going to pick him up.”
You put a hand on Jo’s shoulder, trying to calm her down, but she recoils, as if you were a hostile stranger.
It’s been a busy spring + summer for my family and me. Here’s a quick summary. May – Completed my PhD in English. Accepted job as Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. June/July – Sold our house. Moved from Nebraska to Central PA. Visited friends + family in Pittsburgh, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Maine. Watched Hal take his first steps. August – Gearing up for my new teaching gig. (Hal is now walking like a champ.)
Hectic, but we’re happy to be closer to home and closer to family.
When I wrote this story in an MFA workshop, it was inspired by two things: 1) reading hundreds of bizarre cover letters attached to fiction submissions for the Yalobusha Review, and 2) Gogol’s great short story, “Diary of a Madman,” essentially a series journal entries from a low-level Russian civil servant that become increasingly deranged and non-sensical.
When submitting stories to literary journals, you’re told to keep the cover letter short, and don’t try to describe your story! So, it occurred to me, why not write an aburdist parody of this unwritten code, in which a sad-bastard writer, who’s been rejected from an “elite” magazine for decades, breaks all the rules and writes the strangest cover letter ever. Thankfully, Pine Hills Review was amused enough to take it. I’m not sure if this one would ever “fit” into a collection with my other stories, but still, I’m glad it found a good home: http://pinehillsreview.strose.edu/fiction/
I’m not a huge Elizabeth Gilbert fan. I thought Eat Pray Love was overrated. But listening to her on NPR today, she said something clever and brilliant that I’d like to riff on here…in a larger discussion about Gilbert’s recent Ted Talk — which was about overcoming her fear after writing after a book that sold 10 million copies (tough problem to have, cry me a river — she said that telling people to “follow their passion” is wrong, because some don’t know their passion, and for others, their passion is an unreachable burning tower. Instead, you should follow your curiosity, which might lead you closer to a passion. Trying to write fiction — or any art that doesn’t pay well — is challenging, and to be honest, some days my passion for writing doesn’t burn as hot as it did 10 years ago. But, if I follow my curiosity and pursue a subject I want to learn more about, often it leads to me getting to back to the keyboard or journal, which leads to story or poem, or even the start of a novel. So, for you creative souls, which is all of you, I say the best way to find your passion is to be curious.
“Wild and Wonderful,” short story: http://www.friedchickenandcoffee.com/tag/tom-bennitt/
“The Fringe” – Flash Nonfiction: http://www.wordriot.org/archives/7677
“Here Is What We Know” – Flash Fiction: http://issuu.com/monongahelareview/docs/the_monongahela_review_-_issue_8/9
Interview with Skip Horack: http://fictionwritersreview.com/interview/grist-for-the-writing-mill-an-interview-with-skip-horack/
Review of Brad Watson book: http://fictionwritersreview.com/review/aliens-in-the-prime-of-their-lives-by-brad-watson/
That quote, from Denis Johnson’s great story “Emergency,” captures why I started writing fiction ten years ago, and why I’ve now decided to join the new century and create a website/blog. Not too many bells and whistles here, but you’ll find links to the published work of friends and writers I admires, links to my own creative work, and occasional blog posts about things like films, music, sports, teaching, literary theory, and family life. Thanks for tuning in, hope you enjoy.