Fall 1998, Volume 16.1
Joseph M. Ditta
Hour Before the Dark
Joseph M. Ditta (Ph.D. University of Missouri-Columbia) has published before in Weber Studies. His work has also appeared in The Missouri Review, The Ohio Poetry Review, The Illinois Review, Voices in Italian Americana, The Centennial Review, and many others. He teaches American literature and creative writing at Dakota Wesleyan University.
It was a warm summer day and he was getting ready to go crabbing. His younger sister had put on boots and he told her to take them off and
put on sneakers. "You can’t pedal your bike in those things," he said, "besides, once we get there, you’ll probably kick off whatever you’re wearing and go barefoot. Why do you want to wear those clompers, anyway? It’s going to be hot today."
"I thought we’d get wet," she said.
"Yea, that’s the point, dummy."
"But we’re not going swimming, are we?" she asked.
"No, not this time, not where we’re going." And he went out into the garage to collect the gear they would be toting on their bikes.
She was four years younger than him and the second in a row of six children. He was sixteen now and she was twelve. All the others were close in age, shading back to the youngest of two. But Peter was oldest, and he was so much older than the rest of them that they often didn’t think of him as a brother so much as another elder in the family. But he and Celeste had the closest relationship of all the brothers and sisters. She idolized him and was, in her childish dreaminess, almost in love with him.
He checked his pockets to make sure he had the money to buy bait, and he checked for his pocket knife, which was an indispensable tool for crabbing, and the small pair of wire snippers. Then they both went into the garage and began preparing their bikes. He lashed an old peach basket to his handlebars and made sure it was secure. Then he put a brown paper sack holding their lunches in it and a big ball of twine and a coil of bailing wire he had cut from the big roll in the basement. He covered everything with two burlap sacks, tucking them down deep into the bottom around the things he put there. Then he fixed a large thermos in Celeste’s regular wire basket that her bike came with and tied it down so it wouldn’t spill out. Then he got the long-handled scoop and leaned it on the bike. Everything was ready. He told her to wait while he went inside to tell their mom they were starting out. A few minutes later they shoved off, sailing down the drive, and turning onto the asphalt road, heading south towards the bay. He pumped, holding the handlebar with one hand and carrying the scoop net in the other, and she pedaled along beside him.
The road cut through a scrub pine forest, as old as old, and the short trees were thick and gnarly, and mostly needleless, with huge cones bristling on the ends of their nude branches. Scrub oak and sumac and mullein and pokeweed grew on the forest floor and in the sandy gravel at its edges beside the road, and the asphalt ahead rippled in the slowly advancing heat of the day. They pedaled at first without talking, concentrating on the effort, and looking into the forest from side to side as they went along. Sometimes, when they pedaled up the road, they would see quail at the tree line, pecking in the gravel bordering the road, or catch a glimpse of a doe or the fleeting red fur of a fox, and sometimes they’d see a dog, gone wild living in the forest, shy but curious, poke its head from under a bush.
They pedaled for several miles until the road gave out onto the state highway. This they followed until it turned into Main Street. They entered the village, then passed the bank and the A&P, and made their way to Burns’ fish market. It was getting to be about ten o’clock, and the old man, Frances Burns, had already turned down the awning, which was a red and white striped canvas made to fit a metal frame that unfolded almost at a touch and locked into place by a yank. It was shady and cool under the awning when they got there. Mr. Burns was a pot bellied man who lived his days behind a huge apron stained with fish gore and seemingly always wet. He was laying out a row of blues on the ice in front of the counter behind which he took his station in life. Already, he had set out the flukes and flounders, had huge cuts of bass sitting on crushed ice on the other side of the counter, and had the long fillets of salted cod hanging in the window. In the shaded back of the store, beside the very end of the counter, he had a great wooden barrel full of bunker, which people used as bait, mostly, and this is where Peter headed. He scooped out a dozen of them and Mr. Burns rolled them in paper and sacked them.
"Can you let us have any fish heads today?" he asked, knowing the old man would be generous, and give them for free the gore he would only throw away, anyway.
"If I give you fish heads, you catch crabs, and then you don’t buy crabs from me. Now tell me, is that good business?" He smiled at Peter, knowing full well that he was going crabbing. But he went into the back and came out with four big bass heads sitting on a sheet of paper, plopped them on the counter and rolled them up and gave them to him. "People make soup with these you know. I get ten cents a pound for them."
"I can’t afford to pay ten cents a pound. If I didn’t have so many mouths to feed back home, I’d give you a couple of crabs in payment."
"I know, I know. How is your father? Is he getting better?"
"Slowly, he is. The doctor came yesterday and said his eyes were looking clearer and his skin wasn’t so yellow anymore, maybe he could go back to work in a month or so."
It was a game they played. He paid fifty cents for the bunker and took the fish heads. Stacking both bundles under his arm, he peered through the dark door that opened onto the back of the shop, where he could see a man, probably old Tom, lugging a bass, about a thirty pounder, by the gills and tossing it onto the big wooden block. The shop opened in the back onto the docks, where the fishing boats came in and sold their catch. But they had no time to go round back and watch the fishermen haggle. He loved to go back there and look at their catch, the huge coolers of porgies, blackfish, bonita and albacore, cod, bluefish, mackerel, oysters, clams, crabs, mussels, lobsters—the boats would come and go, each with its own catch, all morning long. Mr. Burns had stooped to lift a bushel of clams, and grunted loudly as he set it on the counter. He was laying them in the ice when Peter turned to go.
"Thanks, Mr. Burns. Wish me luck."
"Where are you going today?" he asked, as Peter was opening the door.
"To the old ferry," Peter said, "See you next time," and left. Celeste had gone in with him. For her it was always an adventure, and all she ever did was stare around, sniff the gory smell of the place, and hope she would see Mr. Burns chop the head off some big fish.
Outside, Peter lifted the burlap sacks and slid the bundles under them and packed the burlap down around them. They kicked up their stands and walked the bikes to the corner of Main and Stillwell. Once they were over the curb they mounted and pedaled down Stillwell until they reached the docks. Then they headed east until the asphalt gave out and the road became a dirt and gravel path and started to wind through the dune grass. There was a place back there where the fire department trained its new men, and the ground was scorched black in a great big circle at the center of which was a shallow pit. It always gave Celeste the creeps to pass this place, for she had seen the horror movie Them, and the place looked like where the radioactive ants nested and came up from underground to terrorize the world.
As they pedaled, the ground on either side of them became marshy, and they were on a strip of land not much more than twenty feet wide. They crossed the marsh and were on solid ground again. To their left was an old abandoned dock, its pilings sticking up out of the water, and an old rotting bulkhead holding the bay back. Tall cane grass shot up on either side of it and obscured it from sight until they reached it. Only a little further up, the path ended, passing into a thicket of cane grass. On the other side of the thicket, the ground was submerged, but just off the bank, an old ferry, three-quarters sunk, its hull resting deep in the sediment, and listing about twenty degrees to port, rested and rotted in the sun and water. Its deck was caved in, and you had only a rim of solid surface to walk on if you climbed aboard. Getting aboard was the big problem, though, for the bank gave way quickly there. You could step out one pace and be ankle deep, and the next be in over your head. The trick was to leap from solid footing onto the rail of the ferry and scramble on.
Peter had unloaded their things and led Celeste to the spot where he wanted her to hand them up. He leaped, caught the rail, and scrambled on, and holding fast to the rail, he leaned out towards Celeste and she handed him their things, one by one. Then he grabbed her hand and pulled her on. He set to work quickly and methodically, unrolling a long length of twine and cutting it with his knife, then clipping a piece of bailing wire with the snippers. This he shoved down the mouth of a bunker and pushed in until it came out at the tail. He twisted the ends together with the snippers and tied the string to it and tossed it into the water inside the ferry’s hull and then tied the string to the rail. He made three of these and spaced them about six feet apart. Then he went to work on the bass heads.
Meanwhile, Celeste was lying on her belly on the rim of the deck, peering into the dark water below. Only moments after the first line was set, she could see crabs swimming around the bunker, moving towards it sideways, one claw folded against their shells and the other extended toward the fish, their pincers hinged wide open, faintly glowing blue and red at their tips. Wary and quick, they sidled to the dead thing and sped away, and then came back. When the next bunker splashed in the water, they all shot to the bottom. But soon they had another fish to lure them, and they came back.
When he had set as many lines as he wanted for their first try, Peter said, "Let them feed awhile and feel secure at the bait. They’re too fast right now."
So they lay on the deck, their feet towards the rail, and kept their heads away from the edge, not to scare the crabs with unnecessary movement.
After a while, Celeste said, speaking in a low voice, "Why did you tell Mr. Burns daddy was getting better?"
"It’s none of his business," Peter said.
"But why tell a lie?" she persisted, "Daddy is getting worse. That’s what Dr. Weiner told mom, you heard him too."
Peter was silent and didn’t answer her.
"What are we gonna do if daddy dies?" she asked again.
"He’s not going to die, he’s just sick. He’ll get better."
"But what if he does?" she demanded.
"I’ll have to quit school and get a job," Peter said, irritated at her persistence. "Besides," he continued, "I can feed the family all summer. Tomorrow, I’m borrowing Mr. Gioia’s boat and going up by the bridge to dig for clams. Maybe I’ll fish for flounder, too. You’ll see. I’ll keep us fed all summer. Then dad will get better again and things will be OK."
"Can I come with you?" she asked. She loved him with a child’s ardor, especially because he confided in her, as he was doing, and because he treated her like a friend. Ever since their father got sick, he had changed—he stopped treating her like a kid and took her seriously, asking her opinions about all sorts of things, especially their mother, who was coping badly with the emergency, often screaming at their brothers and sisters, and sitting alone on the patio worrying and sighing long drawn breaths that made him feel all pitying and queer when he saw her. He told Celeste her job was to keep mom from falling apart. And she thought long and hard about how to do that. Mostly she just did it by not complaining and by keeping her younger brothers and sisters from complaining, too. She felt that she and Peter were holding up the world, and that together there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do.
"Can I come with you?" she repeated. "I won’t get in the way, and I’ll be a help."
"I know you won’t get in the way. That’s not the problem," he said, looking at her and smiling. "I’ll be with Kenny and Paul. Mr. Gioia’s boat is only a ten-footer, it’s so small there won’t be room."
He saw how disappointed she was, so he told her that if either Kenny or Paul couldn’t go, he’d take her instead. That made her feel better. She put her arm around his neck and they lay on their stomachs, listening to the soft sound of the waves lapping against the broken side of the ferry, and looking up once in a while to stare at the gulls. When the crabs had about fifteen minutes or so to become accustomed to the bait, Peter fingered the lines. They were loaded. He could feel them tugging and pulling, feasting on the fish. So he told Celeste to get ready with the scoop, and he began to slowly draw up the line, raising the crab to the surface. When it got there, Celeste gently scooped it up, and she shouted with excitement and joy.
"Our first," she boasted, "and I got him!"
Peter got the peach basket and helped her drop it in. Then he secured the basket in an upright position between the rail and the deck, reached for the next line and drew it up. Celeste scooped up the crab like the first and dropped it in the basket without help. They went through all the lines and had seven crabs in about as many minutes. They were all large and had heavy thick claws. After all the lines were returned, Peter dipped one of the burlap sacks in the water and covered the crabs with it. They stopped scurrying and fighting each other and settled down under their wet shelter, and again Peter and Celeste lay down on their stomachs.
It was a long and lazy afternoon, with periods of dozing and laying around punctuated by the excitement of the catch. They had eaten their lunches and sipped their cold water, and talked about their father, and fended off the dread they both felt almost all the time these last several months. When they filled the basket and couldn’t hold another crab, Peter leaped from the rail of the old ferry and splashed in the water just off the bank. Celeste had a hard time handing down the basket, but they managed it without losing any crabs, and after all was removed, she leaped and Peter caught her and kept her from falling into the water.
When their bikes were made ready, they set off for town. Peter had seventy five cents when they set out, money he earned from his paper route, and he only paid fifty for the bunkers. So he told Celeste they could stop in town for an ice cream before pedaling home. They came back up Stillwell and turned west on Main, toward the movie theater. Peter loved to go to the movies, but there was no money for that anymore. Burt Lancaster was starring in The Kentuckian, and he dearly wanted to see it. They stopped under the marquee and looked at the posters and talked about their favorite movies.
The village was huddled on the bay, and all the shops and houses had storm shutters mounted beside their windows and weather vanes on their roofs, and those beside the bay had bulkheads at their property lines. On Main, just past the theater, were the docks. Their slips were filled with pleasure boats, small glossy yachts and wooden-hulled skiffs with flying bridges and flags. Right across from the docks was a city park built around a natural fresh water lake that had three little waterfalls that emptied the lake’s overflow into a small basin, where the water flowed through a culvert into the bay, and in the park they bought their ice cream cones.
They watched the swans and ducks paddle near the banks and dart for the bits of bread tossed by the children who always gathered there to feed them. One boy had a little fishing rod and was catching sunnys with pieces of frankfurter for bait and throwing them back when he got them off his hook. The sunnys were no bigger than the bunkers they used for crabbing, and they watched him and laughed every time he hoisted one out of the water.
On the east side of the park they could see the dome of St. Joseph’s, and they looked toward it as they heard its bells gonging.
"It must be five o’clock," Peter said. "We’d better be going." But first he crossed the street and went to the docks and leaned over with one of the burlap sacks and soaked it in the water and came back and covered the crabs again. Then they set out.
They pedaled easily, and when they reached the forest road, they turned into it for home. It was a calm and beautiful evening, and they rode side by side, happy yet all unknowing of what tomorrow would bring.
When they got home, their mother had a large covered pot on the stove. She was waiting for them, and since they were late, she was worrying. They saw her standing at the door when they rode up, looking thin and haggard and apprehensive, like she was on the edge of tears. She opened the door and told them to get the crabs ready on the wooden picnic table on the patio, and her voice seemed to shake with relief that they were home. They looked at each other, and both felt a twinge of dread as they walked around to the side of the house.
Peter hosed the crabs down in the peach basket, and Celeste picked them up one at a time with a pair of tongs, and brushed each one and dunked it in a pot of clean cold water. Then her mother held it on its back and split it in half with a cleaver, and the legs on each half would go up and down and then start to quiver. When she had split about twenty of them, she took them inside and dumped them in the pot on the stove. This pot held a stew of tomatoes and chunks of lemon and potatoes and cloves of garlic and basil, and when the crabs were added, it smelled wonderful.
The rest of the crabs were packed in ice and soaked and covered with the burlap and stored in the garage for cooking later in the evening.
After dinner, Peter sat outside in the shade under the trees. Before dinner, he looked in on his father and saw his mother sitting on the bed in the semi-dark, her head in her hand, bent over. His father seemed asleep. Quietly he backed into the hall and closed the door and rounded up his brothers and sisters to get them seated at the table. Soon they were all sucking crab legs. And afterwards it seemed to Celeste that it took longer to clean up than it did to eat. After washing the faces and scrubbing the hands of her brothers and sisters, she came out looking for Peter, and when she saw him sitting under the trees, she called and ran up to him.
"What’s the matter," she said, "why are you sitting alone?"
When he didn’t answer, she looked at him and noticed that he kept his face turned away. He was on the bench swing, so she sat beside him. They sat together in silence, neither knowing what to say. They were looking towards the house, and as the day turned to dusk, they could see their mother through the lighted window of the kitchen, standing at the sink, toiling away the last hour before the dark.