Winch was crouched on the edge of the pier, tying off the bowline, when he noticed the pair of white Keds next to him. One of the Keds was tapping in rhythm to his pulse. He stood up unsteadily and faced their owner. Oh, God, the day was getting worse and it was hardly yet noon.
Donna Jean glared from beneath the brim of a faded fishing hat. Hair the color and texture of old straw poked out from under it and framed her shopworn face. Between her thin, mirthless lips she chewed on an unlit cigarette. She was a big, tough old bitch, and she could've broken Winch in two if she ever wanted to. Today she looked like she wanted to.
"Don't tie 'er up too tight, Winch, 'cause 'less I see some money she ain't stayin' here."
Winch finished snugging the line anyway and dropped the excess rope in a clumsy tangle on the dock. The sea monster had been a scary sight, but DJ could be scarier.
"Donna Jean," he pleaded, "I'll pay up, I promise. But right now, I really, really need a drink."
She flicked away the cigarette and spat into the harbor.
"Look, Winch," she sighed. "You're really an okay fella. We has some good times. I felt bad 'bout you losin' your dock an' all, but I gotta pay my bills too." She fished out a piece of pink paper from her shirt pocket and unfolded it: an invoice. She scanned the bill as it fluttered in the breeze off the bay.
"Seven hundred fifty-six dollars for repairs..."
"Six hundred even for three months' slip fees..."
"Three hundred seventy-five
"...and forty-two dollars for sandwiches and beer at the snack bar."
"Really? I didn't think I ate that much."
"For a grand total of one-thousand, seven hundred an' seventy-three dollars, plus tax."
Winch groaned. Donna Jean handed him the invoice.
Hey, bud," she said. "I know it's the weekend and you prob'bly don't carry seventeen-hunnert in your wallet, so I'll give you 'til Monday when the bank opens. I gotta close out the quarterly books this week. If I don't have the money in my office by noon day after tomorrow, you an' the Ham are history." Her flat gray eyes drilled into his, and her nostrils flared as the wind shifted, carrying Winch's aroma.
"Jesus, you stink!" She took a step back, almost falling over the tangle of rope he'd dropped on the pier.
"An' coil that line proper," she shouted at him as she turned away and strode up the dock.
Winch watched her go. Hard to believe that they'd shared bottles and beds until recently. He glanced down at the pink paper through red eyes and pondered the impossible tally. Now he really, really, really needed a drink.
Just beyond the marina, hugging the shoreline, hunched a weather-beaten clapboard structure. The deck, which extended from the rear and hung precariously over the tide, was closed, made unsafe by the recent hurricane. But the bar inside remained open for business. Winch pushed open the side door and entered the gloom of the Oarhouse.
With the deck condemned and the season over, only the sparse group of regulars haunted the bar at noon. One of the latest regulars was Brant, a student at St. Mary's College, who posed as a tortured artist but actually came from a wealthy family in Chevy Chase. Quite talented, he had become a fixture in the Oarhouse over the summer, spending his free time drinking light beers and drawing whatever caught his fancy on an oversized sketch pad. A shade shorter than Winch and almost half the captain's age, Brant wore his streaky blond hair in a rebelliously punk fashion, long on the top and shaved close above the ears. A diamond stud pierced his left lobe. Small round glasses kept sliding down his elfin nose. He was thinner than Winch, if that was possible, and possessed a sunny, naive and harmless disposition. Winch enjoyed the kid's company. On this particular Saturday midday, Brant was propped in a corner, tilted back in a chair, fingers working the black charcoal across the art paper.
Today's subject was Buster, one of the most ancient mariners Solomons Island had ever seen. He was entirely gray and nearly toothless and had spent the last two decades warming the same barstool. To believe in the tales he told was to accept the truth of Santa Claus.
Buster claimed he was born on May 7, 1915 on board the Lusitania only minutes before she'd been torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. Oddly, and incredibly, he'd somehow managed to grow up and enlist in the navy in time to participate in the sinking of a German battleship only three years later. He had also been present, he claimed, at the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in 1945, and had been first officer on the USS Pueblo when it was seized by the North Koreans in 1968. Buster's colorful sea-stories grew more colorful in direct proportion to the amount of rum he consumed.
Clustered at the far end of the otherwise empty bar perched Cap'n Mattson and his three scruffy crewmen, back from a morning oystering. They were big, tough men, hardened by a lifetime of labor upon the bay. They'd all known and respected Winch's father, but had little use for the son. Sullenly, they munched on sandwiches from the kitchen and knocked back Budweisers, pointedly ignoring the droning monologue from Buster.
Winch let his bloodshot eyes adjust to the murky lighting of the Oarhouse and shuffled listlessly to the bar. Gil, the proprietor, bartender and dishwasher, watched the captain's approach warily. Gil was an old bachelor, an ex-Marine, and hard as nails. His weatherbeaten face sagged beneath three days of beard and his hooded brown eyes narrowed, a veteran of twenty-five years of bar fights, drunks and lousy tippers. Winch nodded distractedly at Cap'n Mattson and pulled himself up onto a stool.
"Double vodka," he mumbled at Gil. "Straight."
The bartender folded his thick tattooed arms across his beer-stained apron and glared.
"You got my money?"
Winch lowered his head to the sticky bartop, letting the cool wet wood soothe the pounding in his temples. One of the watermen nudged Cap'n Mattson and grinned. Over in the corner, Brant paused in his sketch, mid-stroke. Buster raved on softly.
"C'mon, Gil," Winch muttered into the wood. "I need a drink. You have no idea how bad."
Gil turned to the cash register and rang open the drawer. He grabbed a slip of paper and slapped it on the bar next to Winch's throbbing head, where it immediately began soaking up spilled beer, blurring the numbers.
"The deal was, I stock your boat for your little charters, you collect the money, then you pay me. Right? So that'll be three-hunnerd, twenny-three dollars." He rapped on the countertop with a hairy knuckle, next to the deadbeat's head. Winch didn't move a muscle.
"I saw...I saw..." But his throat was closing, parched, and nothing more would come out. Damn it! He didn't want anything to come out! They already thought he was out of his mind and anything he said would only confirm that. Shut up, Winch, shut...
"What did you see, Winch?" called Brant much too cheerily. He liked Winch, wished he could be as self-destructive. That would enhance his image as a suffering artist and piss his parents off, too.
"I want the money," Gil threatened. Beneath the bar, his fingers found the knob of the softball bat he kept handy.
"Monday," Winch croaked dryly and glanced up at the towering barkeep. "When the bank opens," he promised, though he doubted there was enough in his account to pay this month's service charges. Gil continued to glare at him, considering it.
The bartender poured two fingers of house vodka in a greasy glass and set it in front of Winch. Winch cautiously reached for the liquor, but Gil deftly snatched it back.
"I don't see no cash on the bar," he growled.
"Aw c'mon, Gil," Brant spoke up from the corner. "Put it on my tab."
"Stay out of this, you little pissant, or I'll kick your ass outta here, too."
Brant set down his sketchpad and got to his feet. He was as tall, but not as meaty as Gil. Cap'n Mattson and his men avidly anticipated the unexpected entertainment. Even Buster shut up, blinking blearily at Winch.
The gangly, blond art student crossed the few steps to the bar. He whipped out his wallet and slapped down a twenty, looking at Gil evenly, foolishly challenging the bartender. He had no idea that Gil had his hand on the softball bat, or that it had been used before. There were three good dents in the wood to prove it. They recorded a welshing biker, a failed bandit, and and unruly tourist from Gaithersburg.
"Double vodka, straight," Brant ordered. "Make it a Smirnoff."
Face frozen, Gil slowly slid the drink back onto the bar.
"Ain't got no Smirnoff," he hissed, but commerce won out over honor. The bartender scooped up the twenty and dropped a ten and four singles down. It included his tip. Brant pushed the glass back over by Winch's elbow and slid onto the stool beside him. His eyes took in the touseled hair and vomit-stained clothes of the man next to him, his Pan.
"Geez, Winch. You look like hell." He wrinkled his nose distastefully. "And you smell even worse." Brant discretely slid his stool to the left a few inches.
Winch nodded in gratitude and sucked noisily at his vodka. Perversely, Brant admired Winch's style. If only he could be so fucked-up.
Gently, Brant prodded his friend, "So, you were saying...?"
Winch knitted his eyebrows together in puzzlement, trying to remember. Then they shot upward alarmingly, eyes solid white in shock as it rushed back at him. His hand trembled as he drained the last of the vodka and he pushed the ten across the bar toward Gil.
"More," he gasped. Gil shot Brant a pained look. Brant nodded sternly, and a second double appeared.
"You said you saw something," the kid whispered. Winch was a shaman, Brant knew. Perhaps his mentor had had a vision. He inspired Brant's art, and he always had the best women, if you didn't count Donna Jean.
Winch shook his aching head slowly and took another deep sip of liquor. How could he put this? It wasn't something you just blurted out. It was like claiming you'd seen a UFO, or had God Himself speak to you from a burning bush. But he had to tell someone or he'd go crazy.
A small thought occurred to him. What if he was already crazy? Well, if that was the case, there'd be no damage done and maybe they'd lock him up in a nice warm padded cell somewhere. He rubbed his stubbled face with his palms and peered about the barroom. It was a crazy story, but what the hell, maybe he was crazy already and this would put his doubts to rest. Everyone was silent, staring at him. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"I saw Chessie today," Winch sighed. "In the bay."
No one laughed right out loud. Instead, it started as a chuckle, turned into a chortle, evolved into a guffaw and climaxed in a final belly-wrenching chorus of hoots and roars, tears running down their faces. Gil was leaning across the bar, pounding it with his fist. Cap'n Mattson tilted his gray head back and howled at the ceiling. His crewmen gasped for breath between wracking snorts and were nearly falling off their barstools. Even Brant was failing to hold back a snicker. Winch tried to tuck his head between his shoulders, while only Buster sat stone-faced in the corner. His faded features twitched. A faint smile of recognition twisted his toothless mouth. He knew he must speak the truth, fueled by five (six? seven?) navy grogs.
"It's true!" shouted the old man, lifting unsteadily to his feet, and a new wave of mirth swept the bar. He spread his hands in the air for attention in the center of the room. "I seen her wit' my own eyes!"
"Oh, this I gotta hear," gasped Gil, wiping the streaming tears from his cheek.
"Tell us, old man," cried the youngest waterman, rubbing the stitch in his side, and the others joined in. Winch felt like crawling under the bar.
"True! I seen her," Buster insisted more quietly, and the laughter gradually subsided to a level of great amusement. Winch turned on his barstool and gazed hopefully at the old man.
"'Twas back in WWII," he began. "I was a seaman on a PT boat in the Pacific, the PT 109. Was early in the war, afore that Kennedy fella got there. General Doug MacArthur had to be evacuated from the Philippines and we was given the job. Well, we nearly went aground tryin' to maneuver into the beach where the General was waitin', so I volunteered to take one of the liferafts in to pick 'im up meself." Subtle chuckles swept the bar once again, but Buster forged on.
"I gets to the beach finally, dodgin' machine gun fire all the way in, an' there he is, big as life, General Douglas MacArthur. But afore he gets in the raft he turns to his men on the beach and says, real loud-like, 'I'll be right back.'"
Winch closed his eyes and shook his head at the renewed burst of laughter.
"The General--he says to call him Doug--climbs in my raft an' I begins to row back out to the PT boat. Just then, a real thick fog rolls in an' neither of us can see a thing. An' all of a suddenlike, Doug yells, 'What the fuck is that?'
"I turns 'round and there she is, so close she's nearly scrapin' the sides, forty-feet if she's an inch, all black an' smooth wit' a tiny little head stickin' up outta the water. An' just like that," he snapped his fingers, "she's gone."
Cap'n Mattson snorted beer right out of his nose. One of the watermen had a coughing fit and the other two commenced to pound him on the back.
"So then what'd you do?" titterd Gil behind the bar.
"Why I said, 'Doug, sit the hell down! Yer rockin' the boat!'"
Fresh peals of laughter rolled through the Oarhouse. Brant had returned to his sketchpad and was scribbling furiously. Gil was in such a good mood by now that he poured everyone, even Winch, a round on the house. Buster accepted his drink with a good-natured, toothless smile and toasted his audience. Winch chugged the remainder of his second vodka and groaned.
For a minute there, he'd thought Buster might actually come through for him, back up his story. The legendary monster of the Chesapeake, known to the locals as "Chessie", had loomed before him large as life. No, Winch told himself. Chessie was only a story for the tourists. So maybe he was as nuts as the old man. What gnawed at Winch, though, was the nearly perfect description of the beast he'd seen--thought he'd seen--not two hours ago out on the bay.
The noise in the Oarhouse died to a level just above its usual murmur and Winch concentrated on draining his third drink. Behind him, he heard Buster's excited voice and twisted around to glimpse the rummy examining Brant's sketchpad.
"Yeah! That's her for sure! You got her 'zactly right!"
Brant grinned and got up. He walked over to Winch, shoved the pad under the captain's nose, and asked, "How's that? Am I close?"
The entire bar tilted to one side as Winch's head spun, and not from the booze or the aftershocks of the LSD.
The sketch was crude, smudged with charcoal and black fingerprints. And it was, as Buster had proclaimed, 'zactly right. Long serpentine body breaking the waves, small dark head bobbing high in the air, and those unforgettable eyes staring blackly back at him from the rough paper.
"I took Buster's description," Brant said proudly, "added a little plesiosaur, with a dash of Loch Ness Monster."
With uncharacteristic force, Winch slapped the sketchpad from Brant's hand and onto the floor. The artist mewled a startled cry of surprise and protest.
"Leave me the fuck alone!" Winch drained his last glass and snarled, "I owe you twenty bucks." He leapt from the stool and staggered toward the door. Brant was stunned. He hadn't meant to be mocking, he was just trying to help. Hell, he liked Winch, sickly admired the man.
As Winch made for the exit, Gil looked up from the sink behind the bar and hollered after him, "Monday, Winch! Three hunnerd and twenny-six bucks!" The door slammed shut and Winch was gone.
Gil looked down at the sketchpad scattered on the floor. He shifted his beady eyes toward Brant. "Hey, kid. Y'mind if I keep that? Might look good over the bar."
Copyright 2009, Lee Dravis
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