People’s Choice Award Finalist Story in the 6th Annual Warren Adler Short Story Contest.
Seven squid jiggers line the weathered dock like seagulls. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder, hair amiss from a significant east wind, waiting for their prey. Their hands are covered with ocean slime, dirty water sloshes over onto their shoes and the sound of a distant foghorn goes unnoticed in an otherwise silent night.
I live on a rock where jiggers welcome the black of night like hungry bats. They use the dock nearest my house. On the east side of the island, the dock juts some 300 feet into the deep waters of Puget Sound. The dock, they say, has been here almost as long as there have been people living on the island.
Sometimes I walk by the fishermen at night filling my lungs with fog and mist and occasionally rain, on my way to the Toolies to dance and drink with others who gather to avoid lonely nights in dark houses, alone with last year’s thoughts. Most nights it’s the same people, loud and fun, talking, crying, mostly telling stories they’ve told a hundred times before when hungry ears open and beer loosens their tongues. The Toolies is what they call a meat market, a good place for a single woman to meet a man, and that’s where I met the man who eventually made my life hell—a master jigger who ruled the dock. That was before he left the island with a woman on one arm and all his fishing equipment in the other.
The dock is crowded most nights this time of year with men wearing thick coats and hats that cover red ears, and mops as dark as the winter sky. Floodlights, brilliant enough to light up half of Seattle, brighten an otherwise coal black dock. The squid jiggers hook them up to attract their prey.
Jiggers always amaze me, even though not much that happens on this unassuming island can surprise me anymore. I’m amazed because I like calamari as much as anyone, but I’ll be damned if I’ll stand out here and wait for a slimy critter to take the bait, lug buckets around, and then stand while the cold enters my bones like worms in soft wood. I did do some heavy lifting and bone-freezing when my husband, Melon, jigged. I wouldn’t do it now for any fisherman.
Regardless of the cold, the jiggers stand like happy little soldiers—hands in pockets, tongues rolling around in fat cheeks, with the smell of fresh kill on their calloused, dirty hands, night after night. They wait near the rail with poles hung over the edge like erect penises. In the water below you can barely see reflections of squid surfacing in search of a mate, their season finally here; horny, hungry, unaware and frightened all at the same time. Sounds like some men I know.
As I walk out further to the end of the dock with tired feet as sorry as my dog’s new flea problem, I see that I recognize most of the guys. When you live on a small island, you’re bound to recognize people, especially when squid jigging was in your ex-partner’s blood. And since he was the king of the jigger dock, as he liked to say, you might say I was in the limelight.
I’m a little more careful now, though, because it doesn’t pay to be too friendly with certain people. A quick nod, a half smile, or a grunted hello from deep within my throat, is plenty. Someday when I leave this island I’ll never give guys like this a second glance, and I’ll probably never see a squid again, either, unless it’s on an elegant China plate at a restaurant so fancy I have a reason to wear a dress.
Boiler is the first man I notice. He’s the one with shoulders that stretch out twice the size of most men’s and a gut that extends out over his pants like a fat and happy brew. He’s got the ratty jacket too, but doesn’t care because he’s pulling them in right and left, filling his bucket to the brim with slimy, condom-looking wigglers not much bigger than a good-sized banana. No one believes his real name is Boiler, but he says it’s true. His mama named him that some 35 years ago on a quiet, cold night in a boiler-room where his dad worked. Yeah, right.
Next to him is Fern. Sounds like a girl’s name to me—flowery, soft and quiet—but it’s not. He pointed that out to me one night when I took a ride with him on the Great Northern Posturepedic. He ain’t no girl and I’m no lady, but who cares? That was before I took the oath not to entertain the likes of a squid jigger, before I told myself I needed to leave the island and make a new life for myself, next year for sure.
It looks to me like a contest to see who can pull in the most squid. “Hey,” I say, not expecting much more than a nod of the head, while I flip golden damp hair out of my face.
“Hey, kid, how’s it going?” Everyone looks, heads twisting, bouncing up and down like yo yos when Sal acknowledges my presence. Sal’s called me kid before, so I usually remind him that my name is Meg, but he knows that and doesn’t really care.
Within ten seconds they’re back to watching their poles and pulling those slippery squid in like it’s the most important thing in their lives, and for some of these guys, it probably is. I watch while Sal rearranges his pole, hat, lights a cigarette, and kicks a beer can out of the way all at the same time. Sal is short for his legitimate name, Salmon.
His father was a salmon fisherman in Astoria. When he saw his shiny, pink baby for the first time, he said all he could think of was a salmon. His mother died shortly after childbirth. Sal never got to meet the woman who brought him into this world, but he sure got to learn how to fish for salmon.
“Headin to Tools?” Sal looked at me, then quickly at the bucket sitting at his feet. I know he wanted me to be aware of his catch. His ego is as big around as the tires on my beat-up pickup and as full of air. I figure, why not? If a little ego massaging is what these guys need, I’ll bite.
“That’s a bunch of squid,” I said, pointing with my eyes, giving my voice some inflection while I fill my ears with a new horizontal rain that has come up suddenly. I watch while a new arrival is released, spewing purple ink in protest of the catch.
Weather changes fast on the island this time of year and there is barely a night that I can get to the Toolies without getting wet and chilled to the bone. The fishermen are wrapping their coats tighter around them, but not one of them, like me, makes a move to leave. My coat begins to leak, and I feel water through my soft cotton T-shirt, touching my skin like a pair of wet lips.
In the distance a ship stretches out like yielding taffy, probably longer than the block I live on, passing in cotton-ball silence, the jiggers unaware of its presence. Walking over to the other side of the dock, I watch in silence until it’s out of sight. Just over there, across the water where the fog sometimes hides the distant lights, is where I’ll go when I really get serious about life off the island. Seattle, where the action is.
Rain runs in steady rhythm now down my green hood, dripping into January time, reminding me that this is another winter not to be spent on the beaches of Mexico. Across the dock, men’s voices rise and fall to the rhythm of the catch.
Foghorns, an occasional gull cry, and spitting are the sounds at the dock on what I call a squid jigger night. It looks like a good catch tonight, too. The markets tomorrow will be happy and the boys who played fishermen will be down at Toolies drinking up their profits, asking me to dance and taking home the Bell of the Ball, whoever that might be.
After bidding the boys good night I pull my scarf tighter, wipe raindrops from my face, sort through the many thoughts running around my head, and start to walk away before I remember. “I’ll be down at Toolies later if any of you wanna dance.”
Sal nods, then Boiler, then Fern. Grunts are heard all around. I guess a grunt is the universal language when more important things are at hand, like jigging in the night.
Heading off the dock I feel bright lights on my back, like thoughtful eyes helping me along in the right direction. Tonight the rain dies down as quickly as it started. Now the air is rainwater fresh, lung-cooling crisp, and the smell of darkness invades.
As I walk closer to my destination, thoughts of resisting squid go through my head like passers in the night. I think squid jiggers are to be applauded, admired, maybe even awarded. If nothing else, the town should erect a plaque in their honor near the edge of the tired dock where people like me stop by to say hey and give boost to slender egos. Calamari lovers everywhere should give gratitude.
Later at Toolies where, like Cheers, everyone knows my name, I laugh and talk, cry in my beer over past lovers, and dance with island men who are truly salt of the earth, caring and certainly friendly enough. When the jiggers come in later, dock smells following them like long tails, I wave and wait for them to come over to my table where I sit with several others who are heavy into a conversation about slick-talking city people, asphalt smog, noise and crowded sidewalks.
As the night progresses, I probably dance with every eligible guy in Toolies. One thing I can say about this group, they all have a history together and care enough about each other to pay attention when someone loses their insides, or worse yet, their heart.
The more I listen, the more I realize that I may just stay on this isle. Where else could I spend time on a January evening, watching the waters of Puget Sound as it bequeaths its delicious aquatic wonders? Where else could I give a boost to the egos of so many squid jiggers while on my way to The Toolies?
Categories: Contest Stories