Emerging Writers. New Short Story by Angela Rieck
The loud chugging of the motorboat interrupted the stillness on the river. The moisture in the air in the late May morning predicted a hot and humid day, a day that they called “close” on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The blue-grey river wound around the green patches of cattails that were just starting to erupt on the sandy banks. The cloudless sky was motionless except for a lone osprey circling the river.
“Look, look, do you see the menhaden? Menhaden mean that the river is warm enough for the crabs to start their journey from Chesapeake Bay to the river. The crabs will be here this week; they might even be here now.” James pointed to a tumultuous three-foot circle on the river as he continued steering the boat. “Those are the menhaden.”
‘Oh, joy,’ thought Nicole, but she gave James a smile, glad that the sunglasses hid her expression, she returned her gaze to the flat monotonous river and glanced at the McMansions that claimed its shoreline. The houses all looked the same; crisply painted, featuring long docks with shiny white sailboats and motorboats; a swimming pool; a grand house with too many rooms; a gazebo; gardens; anything that screamed “I am rich.” ‘Oh where is the requisite Labrador Retriever?’ she thought sarcastically.
“Let’s put the crab pots out when we get back,” said James.
“Sure.” She tried to sound interested but her gaze didn’t leave the steel grey river ahead watching the early morning rays sparkle on the tiny waves. The air was starting to smell of brine, so she knew that they were near the Chesapeake Bay. The change of smell did not break up the laziness of the landscape, still the same marshy grass and occasional sandy shoreline.
“Oh, look, there is another one, you see it? See the silver flashes churning in the river. Those are the menhaden!” James couldn’t contain his excitement as he pointed to another patch of turbulent water.
“Oh, sure, I see it.” She feigned interest, but she didn’t see where he was pointing and she didn’t much care.
“Well, summer is officially here!” He proclaimed. “Don’t you just love it?” He was so enraptured that he couldn’t see that the anticipated summer bounty held no interest for her. He could not contain his excitement at the prospect of the rivers teeming with rockfish, bluefish, perch; but mostly crabs. “I’ll get some chicken necks or bull-lips at the store when we dock. We’ll have time before we go to the restaurant, I want to make sure that we get them before they run out.”
‘Yes,’ she thought. ‘These creatures prefer bull lips to what they are eating now, does he even think about what he is saying?’ “Sounds good,” she said; she knew that he was too excited to see how bored she was. And restaurant, hardly, it was a dive where people got eggs and scrapple and for desert, Smith Island cakes. To James, this was living; to her it was a purgatory.
Nicole could hardly believe that her life had come to this. She had met James at a club in NYC, sixteen years ago, when they were just starting their lives. James had a big job with Goldman Sachs, she was in PR. James was her ticket. She knew it the moment she met him. She was from Summit, NJ and she could smell success. And James had that smell all over him. And they fell in love with each other and the rich, NYC life. They moved to the Meat Packing District before it was cool and they enjoyed all of the fantastic things that NYC offered them.
James had been open with her from the beginning. He was going to make his money on Wall Street and at forty retire back to the Eastern Shore, where he had grown up. He was going to buy a house on the Miles River, not the Choptank, not the Wye, but the Miles. Because to James, that was the best river and he was going to go back as a success. She had acquiesced, but she didn’t think that he would really do it. She loved James, she really did, but every time she went back to the Eastern Shore, she was appalled by the gun culture and lack of interest in information or even facts. All they seemed to care about were crabs in the summer and oysters in the winter. And drinkin’ beer and huntin’ and fishin’ (because that is how they talk) for rockfish. And just being on the river…she never understood the lure of the river, it is a muddy grey, where you can only see a couple of feet below, just a muddy mess. Yes the sunsets were beautiful, but really, sunsets versus culture and life, not even close.
So she was surprised when, at his fortieth birthday party, he leaned over and whispered to her. “I am ready.” She thought for sure that he had been swept away by the richness of New York City and would never be able to return; but he had kept his promise to make them rich and now she had to keep hers. Besides, she wasn’t sure what would happen if she said no.
“It will be great,” he said. “You can write the great American novel and we can really try to start a family. I’m going to apply for a job as a warden with the Division of Natural Resources, where I’ll get to spend my days on the river, keeping poachers and cheaters from stealing our Bay. Next weekend, we’ll look for houses.”
“Oh, sure,” she said, still not sure that he meant it.
But he did, and Nicole kept her promise. Which is why this Sunday morning, they were headed to Tilghman Island to some dive to eat eggs and scrapple with his best friend, Dale, and his wife, Chris. And he and Dale and Chris will talk for an hour about the weather and the tides and the crabs, always the crabs, and she will sit there with her wan smile.
She had an open mind when she moved here, she really did. She thought that she could find peace in the banality of this world, certainly James had never looked better. But she couldn’t relate—to the people, to the river or to the land. The locals took pride in their ignorance, dismissing climate change while complaining about the eroding shore line (“Those liberals want to tell us it is global warming, hell, it is just erosion, dumbasses.”) And their hick accents, and silly words…bass is rockfish, jimmies are male crabs, sooks are female crabs, it went on and on. To them, a foreign film was a Mission Impossible film set in a foreign country. No clubs, no theater, no culture, just the boring river and endless flat landscape, often broken up by rows of cultivated crops. And James is now Jimmy, no one calls him James, except her and his friends snigger when she does.
“I am going to bait the traps first thing when we get back. I’ll bet we will have crabs for supper.” James’ tanned face radiated pure happiness at the helm of the boat. His blonde-brown hair blowing in the breeze created by the boat; his body was lean and tanned, yes James had never looked healthier or handsomer. And he was very handsome these days.
Nicole stared ahead. ‘Supper, when did that become a word? And who wants to cook crabs, listening to them struggle to get out, while they are being steamed to death.' Nicole thought. No, she wanted her meat in nice containers far away from its original inhabitants. She turned her gaze back to the houses, listening to the whining of the motorboat, to a landscape devoid of people.
Out of nowhere, five boats appeared in the distance, skimming the river at breakneck speed; all the same, carrying uniformed people. Two of the boats had a single passenger that appeared to have a hood over his (or her?) head. In an instant, the boats disappeared into a cove.
“What was that?” Nicole asked, for the first time interested in her journey.
“Oh, it’s a CIA safe house.” James said blandly while staring straight at the river with an inscrutable expression. He didn’t look at her, just continued to navigate the boat through the wake.
She turned and looked at James, but he didn’t change his gaze, as he continued to steer the boat through the wake. Yet, was there something about his tone? Bits of divergent information began coming together. How he had insisted that they keep a gun in their home and that she learn to fire it; knowing her disdain for weapons. How his friends were surprised at how fast he got a coveted job. How quickly they were able to move from NYC. How sometimes he went out overnight, telling her that he had to lie in wait for poachers or drug smugglers. James remained inscrutable, despite her stare, as he began to maneuver the boat into a slip. Was he hiding something or contemplating the best bait for the crab pots? She didn’t ask because she wasn’t ready for an answer.
She turned her gaze back to the river, but the river had changed. She wondered if its murky grey color hid secrets in its silt, perhaps the monotonous landscape was a perfect place to blend in, could the narrow focus of the locals make this a perfect place to hide? Or was hers the narrow focus?
And this time she saw the menhaden, the circle of silver churning in the river, serving up a tiny clue about the river’s secrets.