The Basking Shark by John Flynn
Followed by Q&A
The three silver dories bobbed in place, each tied to its edge of the net. The men stood elbow to elbow in them, from six to ten in a group. Holding the net with all their might, every swell splashed their faces, shining against yellow oilskin bib overalls. When the Atlantic dipped, so did each dory. As more of the net went under, the men released it, fearing the loss of fingers. The horizon didn’t care. Like everything else, it sizzled white-hot under July sun.
Made of heavy aluminum, pointed at both tips, the dories were longboats born of a tradition started centuries ago. They called them dories rather than longboats because they acted as cubs to their mother vessel, the 72-foot steel hag, Iron Jane. Low in the water and stinking of diesel, Iron Jane cast a shadow large enough to cloak one of her dories in darkness. She lolled and creaked alongside her margin of the square net. Bald tires hung against her glossy green hull like a bracelet of black washers.
Men started to see the catch. Exclamations—”Squid, yeah, mostly squid”—fired off between them. Finally, thought Victor Silva, the effort pays off.
Victor watched seagulls perch in a line on Iron Jane’s rail. Some circled in a noisy growing collective overhead. The net began to curve over the edge of each dory, taking the shape of a bowl. High up the bow of Iron Jane, it gleamed like a spider web catching shifts in the light.
Just a few feet from Victor’s hands, a shapeless cloud of squid and fish fogged thirty square yards of hissing green water. The pinkish cloud expanded with every inch of the net’s ascent. Breaking the water’s surface, it shined with a glassy radiance. A shark fin cleaved through its surface. Victor, and Pat Hennessy next to him, watched it.
Foreman Mitch McSherry stood behind them, scarlet-cheeked, fists on hips, green eyes flinty, as lean as a scar from a honed blade. Hair barbered to a coppery shine, his neck creased and sun-scorched, a scowl of disapproval writ large on his face, Mitch wore jeans and a blue T-shirt so tightly they looked painted to his frame. He was the only one out there not wearing oilskins. He kept a pack of cigarettes rolled into one sleeve. A fillet knife in a sheath fixed to his wide belt. Jeans tucked into high rubber boots. Standard gear, the boots ran up to his knees. All the men wore them.
“Harden 'em up. Let’s go. Harden ‘em up,” cried Mitch. Each shout came barked in a clipped cadence, a harsh local accent that flattened all Rs. “Harden ‘em up. Let’s go.”
Vic sneaked a glance over his shoulder, took a long look at Mitch’s wet face, crimson, shining, ropey veins swelling in his neck. A blue vein gleamed like a lightning strike down the middle of Mitch’s forehead.
“What you gawking it, Silva?” barked Mitch. “Turn around. Don’t lean. Don’t bend over. Bend with your knees and pull with your legs. C’mon, get it in gear.”
Vic turned back toward the net. So much of his job had to do with balance, economy of motion, and putting up with Mitch.
“You peckerheads! Together for Christ’s sake. Harden ‘em up. Let’s go. Making progress. Harden ‘em up. Let’s go….”
As the net emerged black and dripping, so did gleaming fish. Mitch moved to the dory’s tip that sat lowest in the water. He leaned over to study surges, bubbles and swirls of foam on a surface bottle-green one moment, black the next. The sea fizzed like sparkling wine marked by tiny frothing fissures and erratic whirlpools. When it darkened, it looked like a polished onyx.
If the sea meant anything, thought Vic, it meant life was a show of violent change.
“What you getting?” asked Pat Hennessy. “See much?”
Mitch, still scowling, ignored Pat. He waved one arm to get Skipper Sonny Lombardi’s attention.
Sonny Lombardi stood at Iron Jane’s bow, high above his dories and net, overseeing the operation. Bowlegged, gimpy, Napoleonic, the puffy swells under his brown eyes proved he hadn’t been sleeping much. His face a sun-washed map of cuts and boils, his hair a wild tangle of silver shot through with black, his flannel tattered, tails out, roomy enough to sleep in. Did he like what he saw? Never. Not Sonny. The years had made his body lumpish, and he needed Thorazine to withstand a nagging back injury, but he gave off an aura of pained endurance, and a tired solidity of purpose that went unquestioned.
Baggy trousers tucked into black rubber boots, Sonny lurched along Iron Jane’s rail, his gait reluctant, low-slung, as if unpredictable winds pushed him along. A cigarette behind his ear, he stopped a moment and rested elbows on the rail. Grave and skeptical, he surveyed the dories. They formed a wobbling frame upon the water that struck him as absurdly puny.
He scratched and fingered the stubble of a two-day beard, mumbling vague expressions of doubt. As usual, he lacked experienced manpower. Many of his boys were unfamiliar greenhorns hired as day laborers to keep the operation going. Others, more seasoned, hadn’t shown up as promised, forcing him to take what he was given—ex-cons, drifters, dope-smoking diehards with hangovers, and baby-faced boys free for the summer and wet behind the ears. Some wouldn’t come back the following day. Some would get so drunk that night they’d end up in jail.
A few would come back. Very few. The desperate ones.
“What you seeing?” he shouted. “Squid?”
“Up the wazoo,” cried Mitch. “Like I told you. Means you owe me a hundred bucks. We’re gonna have to bail.”
Victor looked at Pat. “How can he tell?”
“Now you want to talk,” said Pat. “When we shouldn’t.”
Victor shrugged. “So?”
“He’s Mitch,” shouted Pat. “He knows everything.”
“Damn right I do,” remarked Mitch. “And don’t you morons forget it.”
Leaning over the dory’s edge, Pat took a closer look at the shark. He flinched as he heard “Shark!” from another dory.
“No kidding,” muttered Victor. He said to Pat, “Big sucker.”
“Great white?” asked Pat.
Mitch cackled. “Forget the shark you guys. We got work to do.”
Pat held on and pulled the net but kept a wary eye on the shark fin. The bundled net at his feet, once a coil, had become a tangled blob. He eyed that, too, making sure his rubber boots stayed on top without any net choking his ankles.
Winches sputtered in each dory, pulling a yellow line attached to the net and making conversation impossible. Within the net, a slow boil began to grow louder. Trapped fish slashed seawater, more and more of them exposed to the air.
The shark moved closer at a steady clip. Like a swollen missile, thought Victor.
“Huge,” Pat exclaimed. “Look at that thing.”
Victor would not show the fear that vaulted in his stomach. He glanced at Pat, who was leaning over the water, trying to grab the fin. He saw Cliff Larch moving from the far end of the dory. Cliff stood close enough to push Pat overboard if he wanted to.
Victor lunged toward Pat. “Hey, don’t lean out like that. You nuts?”
The dory rocked. The shark had nosed under and nudged it, throwing them all off balance. Victor saw Cliff nudge Pat. Perhaps on purpose and perhaps not. Never be able to say. Didn’t have time. He widened his legs and managed to keep his balance.
Pat didn’t. He paddled the air as he fell.
Victor reached and latched on to a suspender strap of Pat’s oilskins. This slowed Pat’s descent. Didn’t stop him. Gasping, flailing his arms, Pat keeled toward water. Victor tried to yank him back, holding on with both hands. Summoning all his strength, he bent his knees, his rear low, weight underneath him. Waves slapped into Victor’s neck, salt stinging his lips as he grunted, clenching his jaw, his elbows burning as he held on, falling with Pat’s dropping weight.
A wave lifted the dory and threw Pat and Victor backward. Vic felt no resistance. He soared upward through the air, and his stomach flip-flopped into his throat. All grew silent for a moment. He felt as if he were soaring in a dream.
The dream ended when Victor gagged, the crotch of his oilskins riding up his scrotum as if someone had kicked him there. He thought he would vomit as the pain in his testicles sent a chill rippling through his stomach. Saltwater continued to burn his eyes.
It was Mitch. He’d grabbed Victor and yanked him along with Pat, timing it with a wave that had twisted the dory away from the shark, saving both of them.
Cliff Larch, tight-lipped, had done nothing to help.
The sea’s splashing, the flatulent sputter of winches and the cawing of gulls returned to Victor’s senses. This was no dream. Pain sharpened and fired another bolt. He felt dizzy. Gagged again and fought off wrenching urges to vomit. This was three stooges, all right—he, Pat and Mitch out of control, soaked, panting and dazed.
Hard laughter swelled around him, pierced by shouts and curses. Mitch, poker-faced, shoved Vic aside and popped to his feet. Slapping wet hands against wet jeans, he leered at those who’d been watching. He spit saltwater off his lips. Then he flipped them his middle finger.
All the men jeered at him and laughed.
“Very funny.” Mitch cursed them, one salty label after another, fueling their laughter, which grew louder when Mitch, after yanking Pat to his feet, cuffed him against the ear. “What I say about leaning over? This ain’t pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey out here.”
The barrage of Mitch’s curses continued as Pat sulked, struggling to regain his breath.
Victor tried to make sense of what had happened. He blurted out to Pat, “You crazy, man? You hurt? What you do that for?”
“That pansy ain’t hurt,” shouted Mitch. He turned to Pat. “Are you?”
Pat looked cowed, moon-eyed, unable to meet Mitch’s glare. His ribcage heaving, he shook his head no.
“Just shocked,” said Mitch. “Christ, Hennessy, get with the program. You owe Silva here a cold one for saving your ass. And Silva you owe me one for saving yours. Back to work now, both of you. You’re making me out like a clown.”
Skipper Sonny Lombardi shouted from the rail of Iron Jane, “Hey Mitch, tell them boys they want a shark, the nearest aquarium’s in Mystic.”
Crewmen erupted with laughter. Big Gunther, foreman in another dory, used both hands to slap his massive stomach, a deep-from-the-gut bellowing that Victor hated at that moment, hating them all for their laughter, but he had to admit he’d have acted the same way if not involved. They were bastards, wouldn’t cut him any slack for trying to save Pat. Then again, Mitch had saved him, and Mitch was royalty and they were laughing at him, too.
Nobody got kid-glove treatment. Nobody cared how loudly you could curse.
Vic decided not to wallow in self-pity, or to think whether Cliff Larch had nudged Pat. He felt sorry for Pat, but sorrier for Mitch, all the egg covering his face since he was Sonny’s top foreman and owned shares in the company.
Clenching his teeth, Vic squinted and fought off the heated pulsing in his groin. He wished he could unwind a moment with a cigarette, let the pulsing subside. He returned to his standing position, hands in the net. Vomiting would feel good, rid him of nausea, but there was no way he’d humiliate himself further. The main thing was to get his wind back.
He should pay attention to someone else, so Vic sneaked a glance at Pat and managed the suggestion of a rueful grin.
Pat didn’t even look back at him.
“You good?” Vic mumbled. “You gonna make it?”
Lips pouting, his face shiny with sweat and seawater, Pat began to speak. He stopped. He stared at Vic as if begging an answer to this misery. The dory rocked back and forth. Vic didn’t have Pat’s answer. The kid had no idea Cliff might have bumped him on purpose.
The shark fin cleaved and skittered. Trapped fish continued to splash. Overhead, a handful of gulls flapped their wings in a flurry of commotion. One dropped a turd that greased Victor’s shoulder.
Insult to injury, Vic thought. He wiped it off.
Mitch, standing at the winch, had seen it happen. Stone-faced, he shook his head in disgust but spoke not a word.
Pat muttered, “That’s good luck.”
Pleased his friend had summoned the will to speak, Vic replied, “Yeah, but it’s for both of us, not just me, so no more shark surfing.”
Pat didn’t reply. He looked to where the fin followed the edge of Iron Jane’s shadow.
Vic had neither time nor energy for all the darkness clouding his head. Was he a failure? They all were. The sea assured them of it. With a shrug in Pat’s direction, feeling disappointed with himself, he kept both hands on the net and continued to pull. He felt momentum at last, helped by the labor of each winch.
As the dory tilted, the yellow winch line grazing his back, Victor felt uncomfortable with the net at his feet. All part of a dangerous job, he thought, but he wouldn’t be doing it for long. With experience and Pee Wee Coyle as a connection, he’d land his first trip any day now. He’d crew on a commercial lobster boat, work at sea six days a week, so far out he’d never see land. With one day off, he’d have no time to spend the $1,000 a week he’d earn as a greenhorn. In the winter, he’d boogie to Florida with Pee Wee, buckets of cash behind him in a Newport bank.
Nice dream, but he shouldn’t forget able-bodied hands outnumbered commercial boats lobstering out of Newport by at least ten to one. Maybe he’d crew on a swordfish boat or a scalloper. The odds were tough, even for hands with experience.
Vic paused a moment, overcome by a fugue of despair. So many diehards with experience wanted trips: sons, cousins, nephews of skippers. Still, he couldn’t let that stop him and he shouldn’t look down on Pat for being so eager and naive. In many ways, Pat was like him, only greener. Had to be patient and keep working. Stick to their dreams. Will them to happen.
Vic thought about Loren. He was doing this for her. Smart, sexy, with a good job, and her family had some money. They’d been supportive, even though they knew Loren could do better. He needed to give Loren every reason to believe he was Mister Right, especially if she was pregnant. Having a kid would only mean pulling harder, getting these damn fish into port, money into his pockets.
The net cut deeper into his hands. The Atlantic rose like a tilting glass table, and the net rose with it. Puking it up, thought Vic. As his dory rose, he felt a moment of weightlessness and he hurried to get ahead, to keep more of the net out of water and into the bundle of slack in a long wet coil under his boots. There was no time to hesitate. He stomped on that coil, smoothing it down, determined to hold it there. Finally getting ahead, he thought. I’m no punk and nobody calls me Vic without my permission.
He looked up. The shark fin had disappeared within Iron Jane’s shadow. Colors had begun to emerge pink, orange, silver, gold, chrome yellow, scarlet, emerald, and the spangled scales of fish that swarmed as they battled. A rainbow of blades of all sizes gone berserk upon touching the air, fish flung their bodies, squiggling and lancing, some of them glittering as they snapped and spanked the water, zigzagging in deranged surges.
The bailer appeared. Like a giant butterfly net, it hung from its stays over Iron Jane’s side. Glenn Lesley and Shrimpy Keefe manned the bailer’s long boom from Iron Jane’s deck. They dipped its net in a scooping motion through fish. Shrimpy Keefe controlled a sliding mechanism on the handle that opened and closed the net. Glenn made sure the boom hung high enough so the net would pass unobstructed over the deck.
The bailer’s rising net released a gleaming excess of water that sounded like glass nails showering back into the sea. A few lucky fish fell away, curling and twisting as they smacked against waves. All eyes watched as the bailer soared through the air above Iron Jane, bulging with fish that shined as they flapped and spit.
Swoosh. It opened. Fish spilled from its bottom, flesh spanking flesh, some bouncing with a thud against the deck.
“Harden ‘em up.” Mitch sounded fatigued but persistent. He didn’t look at his crewmen. An inward cast reddened the granite in his face. “Let’s go. Harden ‘em up.”
Vic sneaked a glance at Cliff, who remained stoic, out of the picture, calling no attention to himself. Not my problem but that bastard’s guilty, thought Vic.
Pat made noises like a wounded animal, mumbling under his breath, snorting through his nose. Vic glanced at him. Mitch had been right. Pat owed him, but now wasn’t the time.
With each dip of the bailer, the net felt lighter and rose with less effort. Each foreman managed his winch, making sure the yellow line fed evenly as it wrapped around its spool.
A cry went up. “There goes the shark.”
Vic stopped pulling and watched it soar. Sign of humiliation, danger, a prehistoric predator, thought Vic. Got to respect it. Yet out of the water it looked small, its hide the color of wet clay, its white underside pearly inside the bailer net. Small or not, it was still the largest he’d ever seen up-close.
“I was right.” Mitch spat. “Basking shark, I think. Harmless.”
The bailer lifted the shark over the deck, but this time Glenn didn’t release it. Instead, he and Shrimpy swung the net to the far side of Iron Jane, where they opened it and dropped the shark out of sight.
All heard its splash.
“So much for Jaws,” crowed Big Gunther, arousing a chuckle from a few men.
Mitch snickered as he studied Pat. “Nothing to it. Now keep focused. You too, Silva.”
Pat in silence stared straight ahead and kept pulling. Vic did the same.
Mitch turned to Cliff. “You with us here?”
Cliff, icy and stiff, nodded twice.
“Better be,” clipped Mitch.
Vic felt less queasy, needed to stretch fingers and work out cramps. The pulling had slowed and would soon cease. As Mitch predicted, the net was loaded with squid. Iron Jane’s deck held a mountain of fish, and she creaked overburdened, deep in the water. Maybe half of the net was empty. The other half would need to wait until tomorrow.
A new slice in Vic’s palm began to sting. He flicked his hand back and forth. A small wound was the worst kind. It would annoy him for at least a week. He thought of the sorting to come, every fish culled and boxed on ice. For that work, each man could wear gloves but would still need mobility in both hands. The cut would sting full of sweat and fish blood. If not careful, he’d get iodine poisoning.
How did the others do it? They didn’t dwell on the pain; they ignored it and it went away. Victor knew he could do this. He’d put this wound out of mind until another took its place. Sure, his body ached, but he couldn’t complain. They were all hurting. The hurt in Pat had to be monstrous, because it was dingy with shame.
Yet he’d saved Pat. Mitch had saved him. That meant they worked as a team. Had to count for something in Sonny’s eyes. From another point of view, they’d provided comic relief. Yeah, eventually, had to count for something.
Vic said, “Hey Pat, so what if they laughed. Screw ‘em.”
Vic waited Pat’s reply. Nothing came. Pat didn’t even look at him.
A clot of resentment burned in Vic’s throat. He glanced at Cliff and thought: I’m on to you. In the future, if possible, he’d avoid working with him in the same dory.
For all his aches, Vic saw he was in good shape, more upright than many others. The greenhorns who had acted so tough on the wharf before work had begun, stood bent over in foreman Big Gunther’s dory, breathing hard, their arms dangling.
Hardly any of them were talking, and it was late now, almost seven a.m.
John Flynn’s stories have appeared recently in Paterson Review, The MacGuffin, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Istanbul Literary Review, among others. He’s earned one Pushcart Prize nomination, and writing awards from the Peace Corps and New England Poetry Club. He’s published four poetry chapbooks, a collection, Moments Between Cities, a book of short stories, Something Grand, and a book of poems translated from the Romanian of Nicolae Dabija, Blackbird Once Wild Now Tame. His novel, Heaven Is A City Where Your Language Isn’t Spoken will be published in 2011 by Cervena Barva Press, www.cervenabarvapress.com. His website is www.basilrosa.com.
Q:What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: In this era of green concerns, I wanted to write about man versus environment and one of the ways we get our food. Trap fishing, which is still practiced, is one of the oldest most basic forms of commercial fishing in the world.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: My first pull toward the arts was as an actor, achieving some success in my early teens in semi-professional children’s theatre. My grandparents were vaudevillians who worked with George M. Cohan and Ray Bolger. My father was a disc jockey. My brother and sister are both trained musicians. My mother, who’s self-educated, loves to read. I had music around me all the time growing up, but I’m from a big family, the oldest of six. In need of a private space, of sorts, I started at age eleven to keep a secret journal where I wrote poems. I haven’t stopped. I studied theatre in college, quit, knocked around, got into trouble, never really made it as an actor, so I went back to school, earned a scholarship through the graces of George Garrett, and turned to working as a journalist, and an ESL instructor, and all the while kept writing poems and stories. From 2000-2005, I blended my theatre background with writing and earned a living with an indie movie outfit in Manhattan. We made some nice movies, I think. Only time will tell. The why of it all remains a mystery. Perhaps I simply crave attention.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Piano. I’ve been told I have a good ear. I played piano as a kid and quit when puberty sent me off the deep end. When I hear the instrument played by Glenn Gould, for example, I think that’s my soul on better days. Melancholy, spritely, uncertain of its next trickle.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: Writing, for me, is mostly torture, an obsession. Not therapy. I never write as therapy. Or do I? It’s often more the problem than the cure. Sometimes, during revisions, a turn of phrase or a modifier discovers me, and I hear the language, and view the scene and characters in a different way. This opens and changes and delights me. I also enjoy being opened by the work of other writers. I’ve been reading A.J. Liebling and Sean O’Faolain, of late, and it’s their precision, descriptive powers, as well as their buoyant pacing, among other things, that blows me away.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: This year I have been very productive regarding the completion of works that have been for a long time in process. This is because for the first time in my life I do not punch a clock full-time, and I’ve lived at the same address for more than two years in a row, which has allowed me to gather all manuscripts and material and to start revising them. I’ve cartons of work to get to. I owe all my productivity to my wife, who is the breadwinner and leaves me alone to pace and brood. She is very supportive. I do not exaggerate when I say this year I published my first novel, and finished two more novels, a short story collection, and two poetry collections. The key word is finished. They were all started many years and afflictions ago. I’m in the throes of completing another novel that I started over two decades ago. I’ve loads of work in the hopper that I look forward to refining, or else burning.