I am a product of the 50’s and 60’s – that was my youth – and Mr. Merritt nailed the feeling of the period. . . . His characters, especially the kids, were superbly created, as was their dialog.
That day I met Alexis, I’d never had any illusions I would ever amount to much. It merely began as one of those still summer mornings when the waters of East Bay lay slack under a diffuse, predawn light. As I worked the sculling oar in a rhythmic pattern, my twenty-three foot sailing skiff radiated a slowly expanding wake of languid ripples across the glassy water. Three gulls hovered over the mast following me in to the beach where they knew I would soon begin cutting bait for the traps. Only the flutter of wings and the monotonous creak of the oar in the transom notch broke the early morning silence.
As I approached the beach, the sun broke free of the eastern horizon, its horizontal beams illuminating a slender girl standing quietly at the water’s edge. She watched me from beneath a shock of sleep-strewn hair seemingly aflame in the warm morning light.
“Hi,” was all she said as she waded out and caught the bow of my little skiff, guiding it onto the beach as though we were old sailing companions. The sculling oar thumped hollowly as I dropped it onto the floorboards. It was a sound I loved. It was the sound of wooden boats on the water.
“Hi, yourself. Haven’t seen you around here before.”
“Just moved in yesterday. The next house that way.” She nodded toward the old Ramsey camp a hundred yards up the beach as she ran her fingers through her short, bleached hair in an unsuccessful attempt at smoothing it out a bit. When I turned to lift out a crab trap, she tugged at the top of her frayed, bathing suit for a second or two until she seemed happy with the placement. It was hard not to notice that she had outgrown the top. The suit had probably been white at one time but had seen a lot of wear and now had that faded, yellow cast of age.
“That wildcat get you anywhere besides your head?” I asked, setting the crab trap on the sand.
She turned back with a questioning look before she caught on. “Oh. You mean my hair? Didn’t stop to brush it this morning. Didn’t figure I’d meet anyone this early. Saw you out there pulling in traps, though, and thought I’d see if you needed any help. I’m Alexis by the way.”
I stopped unloading traps and offered my hand. “Wade.”
Her grip was warm and firm. Eyes, as gray as the water under the dawn light, glinted flecks of blue here and there, while her small nose wrinkled as she gave me a tight, closed-mouth smile before releasing my hand. I probably looked her over a little too long because she finally ran her hand through her hair again with a bit more success and glanced out toward the bay. The early sun backlit the profile of her cheek, lending a quiet radiance to her face. I figured her to be maybe sixteen. A year older than me.
“So, Wade, you catch many crabs out there?”
She turned to look at me again. “Well, you never answered my first question. Do you need any help?”
I was entering the tenth grade in the fall and girls had become an earnest interest to me the past few years. I didn’t know any well enough to be comfortable asking them out and had nowhere to ask them out to if I’d had the wherewithal to take them anywhere. Now, out of the blue, a girl stood here on my beach asking me if I needed any help.
“Sure. I could use some help.”
And that was that.
Alexis and I spent the rest of the day together, baiting and resetting my traps, and cleaning the boat, and throwing the cast net to catch bait for the next day. She hung on every word as I discussed what little I knew about prices for crabs and how the males were called jimmies and the females sooks and how the jimmies brought a better price if they were sorted out. By nightfall we were talking, as kids will do, about starting a small crabbing business.
Every day the rest of the week we met before dawn and worked until well after dusk. It was all business with Alexis. She proposed we buy a roll of chicken wire to make more crab traps since that would be cheaper than buying them readymade. After several attempts, we developed a pattern the right size and shape to fold into a trap frame. We just had to add the entrance funnels, bait box, and access door. And, of course, a retrieval line and float. Every morning we added another trap or two, but it soon took us until lunch to run the ever-growing trapline because the morning wind had been too light to let us run under sail. I would scull along with the oar, but it was slow going. It did, however, give me time to learn a little more about Alexis.
She was, as I had deduced from her figure, a year older than me and would be entering the eleventh grade at summer’s end. Her father shrimped out of Pensacola. Having moved from rental to rental over the years, the family had finally bought the old Ramsey fish camp to live permanently on the bay. She had been around the waterfront most of her life and knew how to fish. She threw a cast net reasonably well, though she didn’t have the weight to throw it very far. Her older brother had drowned working on a shrimp boat the previous summer when his clothing had snagged on a batter board and swept him into the net as he fed it over the transom. No one noticed until the net was fully deployed and wouldn’t track properly. It took them another ten minutes to retrieve it with her brother still inside.
Her brother’s plan had been to earn enough money to buy a small boat of some kind so the two of them could try to make a living with it. This was an idea she still pursued. I told her selling crabs wouldn’t make much money, especially since it took so long to run the trapline, but she remained undeterred. The following week she directed me to scull the boat down to her place.
As I pulled up to the short dock, she tied off and scrambled out waving me up to her little clapboard house. An old 1930 two-stroke, Johnson K-50, 8 horsepower outboard hung on a sawhorse by the back steps. She even had a full tank of gas with the proper oil mixture.
It took me about ten minutes to mount the little motor to the skiff’s transom and connect the gas line. I primed the carburetor and wrapped the starter cord around the flywheel. On the third pull, the little motor coughed once and fired. I released the choke and it settled into a steady purr.
Alexis cast off the painter and we nosed away from the dock. When I opened the throttle, the little skiff fairly flew across the bay. We ran the trapline in less than two hours. I offered to buy the motor, but Alexis said it was my boat so it was only fair that she supply the motor. I never did find out how she had come by it.
By summer’s end we were running thirty-six traps and could empty, bait, and reset them from the skiff by mid-morning. We pulled, on average, six crabs per trap. It took about six dozen crabs to make a bushel so we took in around three bushels a day. We sold those in Pensacola for ten dollars a bushel. That gave us thirty dollars a day, sufficient incentive to keep going. By summer’s end, we had built a larger holding pen to keep the extra crabs alive until we could deliver them to market. By then we had earned $2,700 between us. Alexis was thrilled. We planned to plow it all back into ‘the business’ as she now called our effort.
So we ran the traps beginning in the predawn hours. In the heat of the day, we kept the skiff and traps and cast net cleaned and repaired, sharpened fillet knives, and prepared for the next morning. On alternate days, we made the tiring run across East, and Escambia, and Pensacola Bays to the crab markets. Evenings we threw the cast net. The last item of the day was to fillet the mullet and redfish and save the heads and backbones for crab bait. The fillets we split fifty-fifty. I would walk Alexis up the beach to her house each night and watch as the screen door closed behind her. I never detected the slightest hint that she had any interest in me other than as her new business partner.
Perhaps a month after we’d met, I wandered down to the end of dock one evening late to listen to the night sounds and enjoy the peace. The southern shore of East Bay in the fifties remained sparsely populated with scattered fishing camps, most built by the residents themselves. Waterfront property was cheap back then. Dirt roads were the only access, and no one wanted to live so far out of town. Live oak, hickory, and magnolia grew rampant down to the shoreline where sun-silvered skeletons of long-dead pines stood sentinel-like along water’s edge, manned in their upper reaches with ospreys or the occasional eagle.
I leaned back on my arms. In the darkness, nearby mullet still leapt high trying to form up a school for the night. But fifty yards off to my right, lower, communal leaps indicated mullet already schooled. The sounds formed distinct images in my mind. It was how my dad had taught me to track schools in the darkness. “See the sounds,” he had told me.
It wasn’t long before footfalls came padding down the dock. I turned to see Alexis step barefoot out onto the tee with me. “I thought I saw you come out here. I was sitting on the beach watching the stars. What’re you up to?”
She sat down next to me and remained quiet for about three seconds. “Not much to hear.”
I told her about the schooling mullet up toward her house.
“I just hear mullet jumping all over. How can you tell where the schools are?”
“I build up an imaginary map from the sounds. It’s sort of like seeing in the dark. I keep track of all the night-animals that way. Usually, I add in the horned owls way down on the point, but I can’t hear them tonight.”
“Maybe they’re out hunting.”
“No. I’d still hear them calling to each other. It’s the wind tonight. It gets in the way.”
“It’s just a light breeze.”
“Yeah, but I hear it when it blows across my skin.”
She looked over at me. “Sure you do. Is that one of your lines?”
“Okay, first you tell me you see in the dark. Now you say you actually hear with your skin?”
“I never said that.”
“But you just told me you hear the wind with your skin. Are you saying now you don’t?”
“I never said I hear the wind with my skin. I said I hear the sound it makes when it blows on my skin.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
I shrugged again.
“All right, you’re teasing me. I’m going home.” She stood up but didn’t move away. “Come on, Wade. What’s this all about? Really.”
“Mom says she doesn’t know of anyone else that hears sound when something touches their skin, so I can see why it wouldn’t make sense to you.”
“Hey.” Alexis looked out over the bay. “The breeze just stopped.”
“That’s the graveyard shift.”
“The land has cooled enough that the Gulf is now warmer. In a few minutes, the warmer Gulf air will start rising, and the cooler land air will flow in to replace it. Then the wind’ll start again from the other direction. Happens in the summer.”
“How do you know that?”
“Okay, you’ve changed the subject.”
“You’re the one asking the questions.”
“Now you’re doing it again.”
“All right, I’ve lost track. What’s your latest question?”
“So what’s it sound like, this wind on the skin? When you hear it?”
“It’s hard to explain. If it’s a light breeze, I hear a low tone. Like an organ note. It changes if the wind speeds up. Gets higher. If the wind is gusty, it’s kind of like a wind chime. If it changes direction it makes a … I don’t know. A different sound. Not like any sound I ever heard with my ears. It’s no bother unless I’m listening for faint sounds. It can wash them out.”
“What? You want the whole story?”
“Out with it, Wade.”
“All right. Sometimes late at night, it’s like …. You’re gonna laugh.”
“No I’m not. Like what?”
“Well, when the air moves over me through the open window by my bed, if the wind’s irregular, it sounds like a foghorn far off in the distance. When I was little, I thought it was a sea monster, maybe the last one, that had come up into the bay looking for more of its kind. It’s a lonely call. Sometimes the creature called all night, but nothing ever answered. I went out on the porch once trying to find it, but the sound didn’t come from any particular direction. When I put my hands over my ears, it didn’t stop. Then I knew it was all in my head. Now I just pull the sheet up over my shoulders to make it go away.”
She sat pondering my answer for a time. “I’m not sure I believe all that.”
“I understand. But you’re the one who keeps asking the questions. If you aren’t going to believe what I tell you, don’t ask any more.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. You couldn’t just make up a story like that. I’ll shut up now and listen.”
She punched my shoulder.
The next morning we were back to business as usual.
All summer I watched her outgrow the frayed, white bathing suit and tried to maintain my composure when she leaned over me to grab the bait bucket. I also noticed her deepening tan. And the exquisite curve of her calf. And, well, everything. Finally, on the last week of summer I decided to do something about it and told her I had a surprise for her that night.
It wasn’t much. I didn’t have much. But I had rolled a sun-bleached, pine log down to the beach and gathered enough driftwood for a small fire. On the way back to Alexis’ house, I told her to have a seat by the log while I started a fire. It took me a few minutes to get it going nicely. Finally, I stood up and brushed the sand off my hands. In the flickering light, Alexis sat regarding me with a kind of amused interest. She knew something was up.
Over a period of several weeks, I had liberated four cans of my parents’ Old Milwaukee tallboys–the 16 ouncers. One can every few days so they wouldn’t notice. I had those stashed in a cooler behind her. As I leaned over her to grab the cooler, she ducked away from me in alarm.
I lifted the cooler over the log. “What’s wrong?” I asked as I sat down next to her and pulled out a cold can.
“Wrong? Nothing. Why?”
I fumbled about in the ice for the opener. “When I leaned over you, you jumped like you thought I might hit you.”
She didn’t say anything for a time. “I thought you were going to kiss me.”
“Kiss you?” I blew out a long breath. “Didn’t know I had that effect on girls.”
She coughed and gave a short chuckle. “You mean making them leap out of the way when they think you’re going to kiss them?”
“Yeah.” I punctured the can, spewing a cold mist of cheap beer into the warm air. “Ever had one of these before?”
“Never.” She accepted the can, and squinting, took a small sip.
I popped a second can and dropped the opener back into the ice. “Me neither, but I figured we earned it after this summer.” I took a swig and leaned back against the log. “First time for everything I suppose.”
“Smells like pee.”
“Dad says that’s why it goes through you so fast. It doesn’t have to stop to change smell.”
“I heard it was the color that didn’t change.”
Alexis continued sipping at her beer and seemed to relax a little. When she leaned back, our shoulders touched. I don’t think she meant it to happen, but at least she didn’t pull away. “Sorry about dodging you, Wade. You just caught me by surprise.”
“No, I understand. You’ll be sixteen next month and I just turned fifteen.” By the third sip I was beginning to acclimate to the bitter taste.
“That’s not it at all. You act a lot older than other boys my age. And you’ve treated me right all summer. We have a nice little business going and enough money to expand it next summer. And since I’ll be sixteen in three weeks I can get a driver’s license.”
“A driver’s license? What good will that do us?”
“What we need most right now is an old pickup so we can get the crabs to market without having to make that long run in to Pensacola every two days in your skiff. That 30 mile round trip takes us almost four hours when there’s any kind of chop. By road we could make the whole trip in a little more than an hour and not get beat to death doing it.”
I could see she might be on to something. “Any idea how much a pickup costs?”
“There’s always someone needing money that will sell an old truck for half what it’s worth. We just need to keep an ear to the ground. I’m guessing we can get a decent one for three or four hundred.”
“Our own truck, huh. I like that.” My beer was about a quarter gone and I tried to detect whether it was having any effect on me. I didn’t feel any different. “So, what do you think of beer?”
Alexis took another sip. “Well, at least it’s cold. Can’t say much for the taste, but I have to admit that last sip was better than the first.”
And so in the flickering firelight we chatted on about everything and nothing until the bay filled with moonlight. When I finished my beer and stood up to grab another from the cooler, I noticed a sway in my stance that hadn’t been there before. Alexis drained her beer as I fished around in the ice. “Think you can stand one more?”
“Why not. It’s too early for bed and I like sitting here watching the colors in the fire.”
“That’s from the minerals the driftwood soaked out of the salt water,” I offered.
“So I’ve heard. It’s beautiful.”
The last of the beers opened, I glanced at her over-strained suit top as I sat back down making sure my shoulder touched hers. My head spun a little as I leaned back looking up into the stars. They were trying to spin too. That somehow made all things seem possible, so I offered up a beer-fueled supplication. God, let that top come off tonight and I promise I’ll never ask for another thing.
“So if you’re right about the truck, we’ll still have over two thousand left to put back into the business. Maybe you can get yourself a new bathing suit.”
She was mid-swallow and coughed before speaking. “What?”
“You don’t like my bathing suit?”
“I like it fine. It just looks a little … uncomfortable up top. You’ve kind of outgrown it.”
“Didn’t know you were paying attention.”
“Sure you did. You caught me paying attention several times.”
She laughed. “Okay, so the top is making you nervous? You think I might pop out of it?”
“I worry about it constantly.”
She giggled. “Well, you’re right it has become uncomfortable, but I’d rather use the money to further the business. If I happen to pop out it won’t cost us anything.”
“So you don’t care?”
“Not if you don’t.” She sat up and turned her back to me. “But, since you’ve brought it up, it is uncomfortable. Just unhook the back if you don’t mind.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well, I don’t need it out here in the dark with you do I?”
“No, I guess not.”
And so, with the snap of a clasp, my chances of requesting any further form of divine intervention evaporated along with my confidence.
“Ahhh.” Alexis tossed the top into my lap and got up to push the unburned portions of the driftwood into the fire. When she knelt down next to me, I was breathless. She brushed my hair off my forehead. “Happy now?”
“Uh-huh.” I hoped I didn’t look like a scared rabbit.
She picked up her beer and took a long draught before setting the can back down. “Listen, Wade, I’m as curious as you are. What kind of effect am I having on you right now?”
I watched her breasts jiggle in the firelight and tried to put together an answer that wouldn’t send her screaming off for home. “Well, it’s kind of hard to say. I’ve been watching you climb around that skiff all summer ….” I closed my eyes and leaned my head back on the log. The world tried to turn upside down. “My daydreams … never got close.”
“Sure. You never had any? About me?” Things previously unspoken in our daily discourse now seemed to just fly from my lips.
But her pause was half a heartbeat too long. “Well, yeah, of course.”
“I somehow doubt that. It’s okay, though. I understand.”
Alexis crawled in closer to me and leaned in to hug my neck. “Don’t talk like that, Wade. It’s just different for girls. We don’t feel the same about seeing boys’ bare skin in the firelight.” She kissed me on the side of my mouth. Nothing romantic but a nice kiss, nonetheless. “See, you didn’t even flinch. You guys are different somehow.”
I slid my arm around her and ran my hand up the arch of her back stopping at the nape of her neck. Her skin was hot from the flames she had stirred. I massaged her shoulders as she rested her head against mine for a minute or two.
“That feels nice, Wade.” She leaned closer until I pulled her to me. Neither of us finished the last of our beers. Finally she kissed me with lips grown cold from the night. A string of spit stretched between us as she pulled away. It wasn’t all I thought a first kiss should be, but nothing is ever perfect. I had things to tell her, but a few loose pieces of my wits had hung around long enough to keep me quiet. A half hour later, I walked her up the beach under the ringing, timpani calls of a thousand tree frogs. She pulled her suit top from over her shoulder and bundled herself into it before dashing up the back steps. That night brought me dreams. Whirlwind dreams that swept before them the world I had known until Alexis had arrived.
I am a product of the 50’s and 60’s – that was my youth – and Mr. Merritt nailed the feeling of the period. . . . His characters, especially the kids, were superbly created, as was their dialog.
Initially I passed on this book because the description called it a love story. But it’s much more than that. A little bit Prince of Tides, a little bit Forrest Gump, a bit of Rambo even, all woven into a wholly original tale. Merritt continues the tradition of great Southern storytellers. He deftly develops his characters through their words and actions. Really, one of the best tales I’ve read in some time. This one deserves to be made into a movie. I’m going to read all the Merritt I can get my hands on.
Another fun and thought provoking read by Mr. Merritt . . . . [H]is descriptions of the bays and coast line of Pensacola are spot on. The characters that live and work the water remind me of relatives and friends that I grew up with . . . . I particularly appreciated the female characters in the book, which were smart, strong and capable and treated as respected partners as the story unfolded. Highly recommended!
I love this man’s books. He is a great writer. The story is detailed with lots of twists and turns. I enjoy the depth of his storytelling.
This is the third novel I’ve read from Mr Merritt. Another winner. Excellent, in depth characters mixed with imagination and wild adventures.
I rarely, if ever, write reviews. This is my third Jerry Merritt book, and one of my favorite books of all time. Love, coming of age, adventure, emotion, loss, war, greed, fear, and great characters.
I have read hundreds of books but very few more than once. I have read A season of Tides and A gift of Diamonds four times each and can’t stop going back.
you want intelligent, beautiful, thoughtful writing with perfectly developed characters and story lines then Jerry Merritt stories are for you. All have been five stars. All have had completely different themes. . . . They’re the best I’ve found on Amazon.
This guy is an author in every sense of the title. He knows the sea (apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson) and the combat scene was as well written as any I’ve read. Tim O’Brien would be impressed.
Memorable characters, knock-out plot twists, action, romance, and prose that sweeps you away.