Buck pushes the plate towards Pickle. It’s Willow Ware, the pattern she grew up with, blue and white with trees and swallows and a Chinese pagoda. There’s a chip along the rim that has turned yellow around the edges.
“Seriously?” Pickle says, “Pancakes and beer?”
“Breakfast of Champions,” Buck says, as he rises off of his chair and reaches across the table. “Here, let me get that dead soldier out of your way.”
He lifts the empty Michelob bottle closest to her and jump shots it into the trash barrel on the opposite side of the room.
“Two points,” he shouts and sits.
The table is littered with empty bottles from the night before. The yeasty odor of stale beer is nauseating but the pancakes look good. They’re fat and perfectly browned, slathered with butter that’s melted into a foamy yellow puddle on the chipped plate. Buck holds out the syrup. 100% Maple the label says. She waves it away. He pours syrup onto his stack and clears his plate in just a few bites.
“Better eat those before they get cold,” he says.
He picks at the blood soaked Band-Aid on his forehead. Pickle’s memory isn’t clear. She vaguely remembers him falling.
“Where is everyone?” she says.
He runs his finger through the leftover syrup on his plate and slowly sucks it off, staring at her as he does.
“Banished,” he says. “I’m sick of running a revolving door operation.”
“You invited them in.”
“Yeah, Maybe so. And now I’ve thrown them out. It’s just you and me babe.”
He pops the tops on the two cold beers he brought to the table with the pancakes.
“Morning after. Hair of the dog. And all that,” he says and holds one out to her.
“Bad idea,” she says.
He smiles a crooked smile at her. He’s probably another bad idea, but then there are his eyes. She gets wet whenever he looks at her the way he just did. And suddenly there’s nowhere she’d rather be that sweating it up with him on the rumpled sheets in the creaky bed in the room at the end of the hall. God only know the last time he changed those sheets. At least he’s age appropriate. That’s something. Progress. Sort of.
She eats, walks back to the bedroom, retrieves her panties from under the bed and gathers up the rest of her things. She almost trips over a basketball on the floor. She kicks it into the corner and shouts out to him, “When does the next boat leave?”
“Not until four,” he hollers back.
He’s peeling a banana when she walks back into the kitchen. He breaks off a piece and holds it out. She takes it. It’s over ripe, slightly slimy. The smell makes her queasy.
“I’ve got to get back,” she says, secretly hoping he’ll badger her to stay, but he just shrugs and chomps his half of the banana. She stares at hers.
“I can’t eat this.”
“Trash is over there by the window.”
She walks over and dumps the banana. She can see the ferry dock in the distance. The house is on an island. It’s the summer place of his parents, or friends of his parents. She’s not sure which. They only just met, at bar in Portland last night; he was eavesdropping. Overheard her name. Pickle. Leaned over the empty stool next to her and asked, “Sour or sweet?”
“Depends on my mood,” she’d said and stifled a sneeze. “Actually it’s a nickname.”
“Never would have guessed,” he’d said.
“My baby sister couldn’t pronounce Priscilla. It got twisted into Pickle and it stuck.”
He moved over and that was that. They talked. (She can’t remember about what.) And drank and when his crew invited her crew over to the island she must have said yes because here she is, remembering the boat ride, the sea spray, the moon trail on the water.
She licks the back of her hand. It tastes of salt. He laughs at her. The house is a mess. Uninsulated. No sheet rock on the walls. A splintery floor. Mismatched chairs. Old appliances. The sink’s white enamel is chipped in places, showing off the black cast iron underneath. A rickety table holds a bowl of fruit that’s starting to rot and liqueur bottles, Amaretto, Bailey’s Irish Cream, sweet stuff she wouldn’t expect a guy to drink. The windows are curtained, blue and white gingham, to match the Willow Ware? It’s faded to nothing where the sun hits it, someone’s attempt a long time ago to add a little cheer to the place.
Buck’s mobile lights up and buzzes on the table. He glances at it but doesn’t answer.
“Jerk,” he says. “I’ll bet you anything he fucked up the haul.”
She has no idea what he’s talking about.
“Time to take a walk,” he says.
Behind the house, three tracks lead up into the woods. Buck heads up the center one and Pickle follows. She catches up to him and they walk into the trees to a clearing where a rusted trailer sits at an off angle on a crumbling concrete block foundation. There’s a distinct smell of smoke in the air.
Pickle hangs back. Buck stops walking, turns to her and judging the look on her face, he laughs.
“What do you think we’re cooking up, crystal meth?”
“Something smells fishy,” she says.
“It’s the smoker. Down to the last hundred pounds and God damned Stevie screwed up. Pissed our supplier off so bad he sold his whole catch to someone else. We’ve got orders at six restaurants on the mainland. Shit if I know how we’re going to fill them now.”
A rickety pile of broken cinder blocks and railroad ties serve as steps up into the trailer. The door is open. Buck climbs in ahead of her and extends both hands to help her in. His hands are big, reassuring. His touch makes her quiver, deep inside, remembering the night before. Inside there’s a shiny new refrigerator and stainless steel racks filled with trays of fish fillets, buckets of wood chips, and crocks and tins filled with she has no idea what. Buck lifts the lid of one of the crocks and dips a finger in. He holds it out to her.
“Taste,” he says.
She sucks the brine off his finger. It’s salty, and sweet, and seasoned, and sexy.
“Bluefish,” he says. “They’re plentiful in these waters but a lot of people don’t have a taste for them. Too oily. But smoke them the way we do and they’re pure gold.”
He launches into an explanation of the smoking process. The brine. The woodchips soaking in water so they won’t burn up in the smoker. How a smoker works and how long each step takes. Pickle tries to be attentive, but she more interested in him. She can still taste his finger in her mouth. She thought he was going to be dangerous. Her boyfriends have always been dangerous. But this guy, this Buck, is a surprise. He’s an entrepreneur.
When he’s finished the tutorial he leads her out behind the trailer.
“This asshole is Stevie,” he says by way of introduction to the guy tending the smokers.
He’s beefier than Buck, older. Two inches of smoldering cigarette hangs out of his mouth.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Stevie says. “Brister just wasn’t in a bargaining mood. How was I to know he overloaded the boat and sank it? Chris Silva dove for the catch before I could get to it, so he let him have it for way below market price.”
“Was the idiot out there night fishing again?”
“You guessed it,” Stevie says and glances at his watch as he settles into a lawn chair in front of the smokers.
The smokers are a row of old gym lockers lined up on a strip of gravel. Buck opens one of the doors so she can get a look inside. The locker is fitted out with rows of wire shelving. On the bottom, hot coals glow under a rack of smoking woodchips. The fish are golden and glistening. The smell is pungent. He takes a penknife out of his pocket, flicks it open, cuts a chunk out of one of the fillets and holds it out to her.
“Go ahead. Take it. It’s not too hot. That’s the trick. You have to keep the smoke up and temp down so they don’t overcook.”
Carefully Pickle takes the fish off of the tip of the knife. He’s right. It’s warm. Not hot. He’s smiling at her. She pops the fish into her mouth. It’s soft and silky, smoky and sweet.
“So?” he says.
He’s staring right at her. Last night, in the dark and this morning she hadn’t paid attention to how green his eyes are. She has green eyes, too, one of her best features. That and her trim little body. He’s just the right height for her. All lean muscle. And his hair. Straight, and dirty blonde like hers and the words cute couple float in front of her as though they popped out of a dream. She licks her fingertips.
“Once a fisherman reaches the limit of his catch for the day, that’s it. But idiots like the guys I buy from get greedy when they’re really running. They go out at night, in skiffs, wearing headlamps and reel them in. You can only carry so much in a boat that size before it’ll go down or the Coast Guard or the Fish & Game people come after you. The big boats with commercial licenses don’t want to sell to small fry like us, and if we buy from the Coop the prices are too high to make a profit.”
Back at the broke down cottage, she watches him wait for a couple of slices of toast to pop up. He talk, talk, talks while he pulls together a platter for their lunch. A slab of fish straight out of the smoker, sour cream, some capers, some onion she chopped.
It’s time for her to decide. Go. Or engineer an excuse to stay.
“My parents bought this place in the 60’s,” Buck says. “Their hippie days. They lived out here for a couple of years before my mother got pregnant with me and threatened to leave with, or without, my father. So they closed the door, got on the ferry, and except for a week or two in the summers, never came back.”
Pickle is already thinking about what it will take to spruce the place up, a pretty fantasy to strengthen her resolve to use meeting him as an opportunity. She’s hoping a sudden storm will come up, that the ferry will have to be cancelled, but one look down towards the dock confirms that the sea is as calm as it gets.
“I don’t want to give the wrong impression,” he’s saying. “I don’t usually get that drunk.”
He touches his fingers to the bandage on his forehead. “I hope you don’t think I’m some kind of lush.”
The toast pops and he cuts it into squares. She doesn’t know what to think. Technically speaking she is “some kind of lush.” He doesn’t know that she was in the bar celebrating her release from yet another stint in rehab. Her poison is pills, more than drink: uppers, downers and everything in between. And she’s thinking maybe being stranded on an island in the middle of the Atlantic is just what she needs to really kick this time. Last night she kept herself to a couple of beers and a daiquiri – or two. No pills. And right now she’s not craving either one. What she is craving is another round of touch-me, feel-me with Buck before she has to hike down the hill to board the ferry.
They eat. And they fuck. And they eat some more. And they fuck some more. She gets dressed and so does he. He’s been careful. She didn’t have to fight with him about wearing a condom. Not even last night when they were both drunk.
“Time to hustle,” he says.
She tries not to sound too coy. “You know, there’s no place I have to be until the day after tomorrow.”
Actually there’s no place she has to be today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or any day after that. There are places she should be, or might like to be, but right here feels better than any of the alternatives.
“Well that’s great for you, but I can’t miss the ferry,” Buck says, “I’ve got to pick my kids up from their afterschool program at five-thirty.”
Kids? He’s got kids. Divorced? Separated? Shared custody?
“I don’t live out here. The smokers stink, so the woods are an ideal place for them. No neighbors to complain about the smell.”
“I built them a couple of year ago.”
“I meant the kids. How old are your kids.”
“Eight and ten. Two boys.”
He fishes around on a high shelf and pulls down a set of keys.
“My car is parked at the dock. You have any kids?”
“No. No kids,” she says. “Not yet.”
She touches a hand to her face, wondering. Do I look that old? Old enough to have kids? She didn’t think he was old enough to have kids. It’s made her readjust her thinking about him. Kids take time. Her sister has kids. Younger than his. That’s all she talks about. What they said or did. Their ear infections. How picky the girl is about her food. The baby’s diaper rash.
She has friends who won’t date guys who have kids. Say they want the guys to focus just on them. They’re not interested in buying into anyone else’s readymade family. And there’s the ex. Unless the guy is widowed, there’s always an ex to contend with. She’s on the fence about that, but doesn’t want it to be a deal breaker. Last night as they walked from the bar to the dock, his friends mingled with hers. They all looked like twenty-somethings to her, including him. He must have had those kids young or he’s a lot older than he looks.
“Stevie stays out here fulltime,” Buck says. “He crashes in the cottage when I’m not here and the smokers are going. He’s island born and bred. Lives in the village with his mother.”
He checks the time on his phone.
“Let’s get going. You’ve got everything you came with?”
“I do,” she says.
He’s standing in the doorway. She steps up to him, puts her arms around his neck and presses her lips to his. His skin smells like soap. He kisses her back, quickly, without the passion of last night or this morning or this afternoon. And he’s no longer looking her in the eye. It’s as if he’s left already. She lets go so he can close the door.
Down at the dock the ferry rolls on the swollen high tide. Buck high fives a couple of people then stops to chat with the mailman and helps him lug his canvas bags onto the boat. He makes no attempt to introduce her to any of them. Acts like she’s invisible. She keeps her distance but she’s close enough to overhear their conversations.
The mailman says, “Give Carly a kiss for me.”
And Buck answers, “I will. She’s pulled a double tonight so I’ve got to get back to the kids.”
What little light was left in Pickle’s life goes dull and she’d kill for a drink, or better yet, a couple of Klonopin.
She walks over to Buck.
“I need to speak to you. Privately.”
He takes her arm and steers her off the wooden dock onto the landing.
“Please tell me Carly is your baby sitter,” Pickle says.
“What would make you think that? You knew I have a wife. I was talking about her to my friends right before I started to talk to you. I was sure you overheard. I never would have…”
“You think I hang around bars listening to guys talk about their wives and hook up with them for one night stands?”
“Well I figured by the time we got over here at least, you knew. We were all pretty loaded. And my friends were sniggering. And yours tried to talk you out of staying. You could have gotten on the last boat with everyone else. You could have gone back.”
The previous night, from the time they all left the bar to this morning, is a blur. Buck shifts from one foot to the other, looking anxiously towards the ferry. His plaid shirt is unbuttoned a couple of buttons. His chest is tan and smooth. She wants to reach out and touch him there and hear him say, Got you. Just joking.
“So that’s it?” she says, her voice rising.
He looks past her. The mailman and a couple of the people he was talking to before keep glancing over at them.
“You’re going to make a scene? For what? We had a good time. You had a good time. Let’s leave it at that.”
His face is a blank. He shrugs and walks off. She stands, gut shot, alone.
On the ferry, he climbs the stairs to the upper deck. She stays below. The cabin is fitted out with tables and benches bolted to the floor so they can’t slide around. The boat is almost empty. The few people on board all know each other and are clustered together, talking and laughing. She sits pressed to the wall of the cabin, her cheek to the window, watching the waves. There’s a good chop that makes the ferry rock side to side. When the boat finally docks, she waits to get up until the other passengers are gone. As she disembarks she catches sight of Buck, just the back of him, walking towards the parking lot. Her heart has turned to stone. She fumbles in her pocketbook to find a slip of paper from the night before, the number of a drug dealer in Portland. Her hand shakes as she smoothes it out.
She crumples the paper into a ball and tosses it over the side of the metal ramp that leads down to the dock. It bobs in the water before the current drags it away, down into the deep. As she watches it disappear, she wipes the tip of her nose with her fingers. They smell ever so slightly of fish.
Joan Wilking’s short fiction has been published in The Atlantic, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Barcelona Review, Other Voices, The Mississippi Review, Ascent, Hobart, Clackamas, The MacGuffin, Elm Leaves, and others. She has also contributed creative nonfiction to The Manifest Station, New World Writing, and Brevity. She was a finalist for the 2010 Nelson Algren Short Story Competition of the Chicago Tribune, and received special mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize XL Anthology. Her book, Mycology, which won the Wild Onion Novella Prize is forthcoming from Curbside Splendor Publishing. She lives and works at the edge of the earth overlooking Plum Island Sound in Ipswich, Massachusetts.