Barefoot Capt. Shelton kept looking at the changing horizon out here on the middle grounds -- trying to see around that curve of the earth. This large-shouldered, tall man with big fists was worried, standing here on the rising bow of the 28 ft. Miss Jenny far out to sea in the green Gulf of Mexico. His sea legs kept him very steady as the little fishing boat now sank back gently into the sloshing trough of the next gentle Gulf wave.
Shelton was trying to teach this angry, still hungover slouch of Havana/Madrid Bar and Grill, never-been-to-sea drunks, what an anchor was. "This piece of hinged iron laying here onna deck and heating up in the sun here's a valuable anchor, Matacini -- member him back at the Fortune Street dock? -- the boat owner? We lose it he'll take it outta our fish money. Not only that, caint stop the boat without it. We out here in the high lonesome all by ourselves, no radio, nobody 'cept God and each other; we lose the anchor, we're adrift forever."
It took a lot of bad judgment and good seamanship to get this sinking wreck of a little boat all the way -- 450 miles -- across the Gulf of Mexico to the fish-filled Gulf of Campeche on the Mexican side. Florida waters had been fished out.
"So," Shelton went on, "be sure, don't throw this anchor over, without this here damn rope here -- wake up, San Antonio," one bald sunburnt and peeling head was drooping, "this damn rope here, the anchor rope, secured around this little wood post called a Sampson post with a good knot that can't come loose, like a hatchet hitch."
Where were the Middle Grounds' black squall lines every small boat had come to hate? Capt. Shelton's weather eye went to all different points of the compass card, while talking, for those sinister wind-filled clouds that would certainly sink this little boat. Shelton's inexperienced crew couldn't face up to no Middle Grounds weather emergency at all.
Two days ago he'd recklessly putted, in the early humid Florida dawn, down the Hillsborough River with the wind behind and the Miss Jenny's coughing little diesel stuttering, sail up, to catch the early morning westward breeze, but still only making only three or four knots of way even propelled by wind, tide and motor.
At that time the rest of his crew had been still passed out in an alcoholic stupor on the deck. Only Capt. Shelton and excited young Maurice, now sleeping below deck from an all-night wheel watch, were actually conscious and sober back then. They'd cast off the frayed ropes, still in the dark, under the shadow of Fortune Street Bridge, with a full load of ice, big steaming blocks slidden down a plank r-r-r-r-r, shooting off a little ice particles, loaded with ice tongs from off the teetering-in-the-mud river dock, bumping down into the Miss Jenny's hold, and a full tank of freshly pumped diesel; and then the Miss Jenny, poor old limping seagoing lady, had gasped her way down the falling Hillsborough River tide under cover darkness, coughing oily smoke through still sleeping downtown Tampa, on her way out before the Coastguard would see of the garbaged Hillsborough into perilous Tampa Bay.
It was Joe Shelton's first time being captain. No other boat owner'd hire him yet because of inexperience. No crew of the real sailors would sail with him.
But the half-sinking Miss Jenny was, heedless of all warnings, hurrying further out through Tampa Bay and evrn into the much more dangerous open water of the Gulf of Mexico just as the blood red Sun was beginning to pop over the rim of the world, making a long bloody streak from the East; its garish light tiped her masttop with ominous red and then, once outside the Bay, Joe Shelton throttled her back to save diesel as the rising daystar yellowed and she was finally safely out of sight of the Florida coast before the sleeping shanghaied crew could wake up to jump overboard.
The Miss Jenny's owner, Matacini, also sole proprietor of the Fortune Street fish shop by the Fortune Street Bridge, had first said to Joe Shelton, "Meester Joe, how you like him be Capt. of my Mees Jenny dees time? Get me crew; we got him goot wedder coming up; ees safe for Mees Jenny can go across de Gulf to Campeche ahnd steal feesh from de Mexican." ##
Matacini had used up the experienced captains in Tampa on the dangerous Miss Jenny; only winos and chain gang criminals were left, drunken bums caging drinks at the Havana/Madrid Bar and Grill, that, properly lubricated, were conveyed in semiconscious cab rides--"We gotta bottle aboard the Miss Jenny," had said Joe Shelton once he got the drunks to the stinking river, and then down the steep slope to Matacini's little, muddy, coming apart Fortune Street fish dock, below Matacini's fish store: FRESSH FISH, down a slippery fishgutmud slope and then, with some assistance, aboard the Miss Jenny, the Death ship, in the middle of the night.
But waiting for the cab's arrival, in back of FRESSH FISH for them this trip, hiding in the skunkcabbage shadows was a monstrously fat man in jail house stripes. After getting the others on board and drinking, Shelton had used an electric sawzsall, hacksawing through the fat jailbird's leg irons and throwing them splash in the river.
The Miss Jenny was a famous refuge in the prison community. There were even spare old clothes aboard to replace convicts' jail uniforms
The Coast Guard, like most vicious lazy government agencies in those days, did its duty not at all. Hadn't inspected the sinking Miss Jenny in years, her pumps pumping 24 hours a day, even at the dock, or she'd settle right there into the river mud; and, if she ever got out to sea, no ship-to-shore radio to call the Coast Guard to save the lives of drowning seamen. Her greasy life preservers sunk like stones in the water with little rainbows of dissolving grease.
Good for Matacini: fish for cheaps, sold at high prices and no wasted money hauling and scraping and repairing the waterlogged boat.
Now, days after that drunken departure, these shanghaied drunks and the fat jailbird were here up forward on the 28 foot Miss Jenny's deck; they had arrived all the way out here in the most dangerous part of the Gulf, on the Middle Grounds, raging, angry alcoholics, dry for the first time in years, with the Tropic of Capricorn sun now boiling their brains.
Capt. Joe, went on, "Here's some good knots and hitches I've tied, you gotta learn'em, practice while you're settin' here, bends, half hitches and this one here I'm showin you now, so you know don't never tie this particalar knot here if it's gotta be untied quick, this here's the dangerous hatchet hitch."
But nautical knots had gotten Shelton Maurice.
He was "recruiting" his crew at the notorious Havana-Madrid and there was a tanned, dreamy young man with chestnut hair sitting alone, tying sailor knots in a piece of rope laying on the table. This was Maurice, the young man now sleeping below deck.
Shelton approached, "Those'er some knots you're tyin. Must be a sailor? Mind if I set? Name's Joe Shelton, lookin' for a crew. Done any fishin'?"
"No," Maurice replied, "but I'd like to."
Maurice had only shipped on disappointing huge Merchant Marine ships, nothing like those magical sailing vessels of his dreams, dreams that came from reading Pedro of the Black Death, Lord Jim, Horatio Hornblower, Moby Dick, White Jacket "I just shipped on freshwater, doesn't even smell like sailing."
A whirling green Silver Bar beer bottle came spinning along the Havana-Madrid barroom floor, spewing foam, followed by a scream from a fight across the room.
"I see they whoopin' it up already over there," observed Joe Shelton, "our Snapper Fishery's 'bout as salty as ye git."
That sounded good. Maurice wanted the true, old time sea-adventure, mailsails, jibs, topgallants, royals, stunsails, teak decks to be scrubbed, rigging to be climbed , crow's nests to be kept watch in, for English Men-of-War, midships, gunwhales, anchor rodes and scuppers, creaking masts, ropes, and spars. Old time romantically rat infested quarters and eating hardened sea biscuits, moldy salt pork, and getting scurvy from no vitamin C.
"Merchant ships're just seagoing factories," said Maurice.
The Havana-Madrid fight was getting louder: screaming, a thump, somebody hit the floor. A beer glass came flying across the room.
"What's your name?" said Shelton.
"You oughta come with us Maurice," now both had ducked under the small table, looking up at pieces of red Dentine, gray hardened Wrigley's spearmint stuck to the table's bottom, "it's beautiful out there on that dark black liquid Gulf at night and smells very salty," the sticky floor they were kneeling on stank of spilled beer, and stuck to their pant knees, "just that silent sound a the parting waves beneath the bow," -- blam -- a table fell over -- "with a great big delicious vanilla moon painting a long yella streak in the water."
Unspeakably delicious to Maurice, just like the books, something to get his nose into. The smells of the sea were essential to him.
And now, several days out to sea, here was adventure-craving Maurice, asleep in the dark, tiny forecastle below decks of the Miss Jenny, smelling that longed for authenticity: molding canvas, urine, and cockroach stink of this forecastle -- emanating from its dense population of night-flying, 1.5 inch black and tan cockroaches, Periplaneta americanus. These Blatodids relished these moldy, lightless, dank, below deck conditions and nightly pattered out softly of the Miss Jenny's damp boat crevices, out of bulkheads onto the sleeping crew's improvised rag pillows, stealthily crawling up a hairy, sleeping, snoring, passed out sailor's chin and then rasping away on his lip skin.
Cockroaches and alert old salty nautical rodents, survivors of many leaking Miss Jenny voyages, but now lately, worried rats from rising bilge water levels.
Smart Rats that squeaked rising alarm amongst themselves.
But sleeping Maurice here in the dark except for light chinks leaking through, heard only the whispering wave susurrus, lulling him under the peeling hull, that had cast him off, onto a great green rolling sea of dreams -- oh the thrilling, majestic, upwelling deep! He slept on this morning though the wave-induced bumps of sliding ice blocks, moving back-and-forth up forward in the sodden hold with each rising and falling of the Miss Jenny in the slight chop, the sunwarmed deckwood creaking over his bunk, expanding boards up there, baking in the Tropic of Capricorn sun. The Miss Jenny was sailing south as well as West; but even while sleeping, Maurice worried: would he be the seaman he prayed to be? enough to face those sinking Middle Ground's seas he'd been warned could suddenly arise out here -- would this little decayed Miss Jenny herself survive the fierce Middle Grounds winds? The Miss J. was an alkaselzer tablet that, fizzing her way across the Gulf, each voyage got smaller and smaller, leaving board-pieces of her hull behind.
This trip was a test of courage, who could know if he was courageous if untried?
He dreamed a prayer, "Father, help me to be the man you want. Thy will, not mine be done."
Up topside the other men, including the formerly striped and leg ironed fugitive now in very tight fitting spare pants that he'd split out in back from his tremendous hairy gut, were getting drowsy, "Uh-huh an this here's the hatchet hitch?" said veiny-nosed George St. George, his multidiscolored large mustache hairs flopping out, then flopping back again, resticking to his least lip after speaking, stained by tobacco and heavy with dried crusts of former meals. His aching eyes were squinting in this sun, while tying knots, the hatchet hitch, tying it to anything handy, any loose piece of rope, to the rail, to the cleats.
All the men were furious Joe Shelton threw overboard everything alcoholic.
Sweating Emilio Esteban Gonzalez was drifting the small wooden wheel of the Miss Jenny back and forth on an approximate compass course.
But, at least there were no black squall clouds in sight and finally Capt. Joe was temporarily reassured. He lay down briefly in the bow and drifted off for a very short nap.
"Wake me," he had said to Gonzalez, "for any weather."
But the leaking, only lately sober Gonzalez was shaking and dripping volumes of alcoholic sweat at the wheel, massive gouts of plopping perspiration that burned his eyes. Made him shut them. The wavering compass card was shimmering in his sight, his feet were making sloppy sweatwet, inexact imprints on the hot deck as he tried to keep his feet, even in the slight swell, trying to keep the seasalty compass needle west-southwest but not even daring to look up at the painful burning blue sky that hurt his bloodshot eyes.
The sky was now blue, but last night it had been deeply, richly black, and ablaze with a billion seastars, never seen on land, salty constellations reserved for mariners, furnishing last night's helmsman, young Maurice, all alone on this same deck the whole night through, a glorious wheel watch: seastars and young man, caressed by a soft mid-Gulf breeze.
Maurice had listened to the whispering ancient sea memories, legends of the Gulf. Beautiful waking dreams induced by the whistling wind sweeping across the narrow little spray-swept deck and through the Miss Jenny's little bit of rigging -- the most peaceful of all peaceful feelings, a little toy ship rounding the globe's great curve: the watery deep moaning with pirate sailor ghosts of the past that had sailed this storied Gulf of Mexico, perhaps, 300 years ago, them watching, as he was watching now, these same fanciful night cloud vessels in the Gulf's stately sky, those great black fleecy cloud frigates up there, cloudish men-of-war transiting the huge bare crescent of a yellow summer moon.
It had made Maurice remember his own poetry,
Oh the glorious night ocean sky,
Brilliantly bulging with moonbeamed cloud,
Bursting with moonglow and windful sigh,
Filling my ear with wave song loud
And, as the splashing night solitude wore on, he had imagined lit-up swaying deck lanterns of ancient Spanish Galleons, English pirate sloops. Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, Jean Lafite, mustachioed privateers -- but, intruded the worry, would he, Maurice himself, have the courage to be like those brave sea-ancestors?
He remembered a blearyeyed, old, Havana-Madrid snapper fisherman saying, "Git off them Middle Grounds, 'bout half way across, fast as ye kin, no matter what the captain says; they's dangerous undersea mountains out there, leetle breeze comes up and they'll scramble the waves, coming from all points a the card, sink any boat, let alone thet floatin coffin, the Miss Jenny. You'll drown out there sure as snake shit's slick, or the shark'll eat you up, seagulls peckin out chure eyes. Always keep ye a never blinkin' weather eye to the sky an if ye don' already learned how to pray ta God, ye better take it up quick. No man ever comes back from a trip onna Miss Jenny a atheist."
Maurice's imagination saw them, those submarine mountains all night, lurking below the green frothing sopping Gulf of Mexico waters, waiting to generate huge boat-sinking-waves from all quarters: while a helmsman might be trying to put a little boat's bow into a huge oncoming wave, he'd suddenly find another, larger portside wave already crashing over on him, or from starboard or descending upon him from his stern to break over the transom and swamp a little boat, capsize her.
But now he slept, here below in this dark forecastle, the day boiling up, only partly awakened, from time to time to take off damp clothes. It was 107 stinky degrees below decks -- even the resident rodents down here sweat, squirmed and squeaked in the heat.
Topside the Miss Jenny's salt-encrusted deck was suddenly darkened.
Tottering Gonzalez, the helmsman, was grateful.
The green Gulf turned leaden, reflecting a big black cumulous thunderhead squashing down, the roiling outlying whitecap fringes of this fierce squall already reaching the Miss Jenny with a sea-change -- the squall's breath whining, growing louder.
The chilly cloud's breeze woke napping Capt. Joe Shelton out on deck, "Why didn't you wake me? San Antonio! St. George!" he shouted to the still sleeping men.
Large white caps were already getting blown off the fast rising waves, yellowish sea foam being swept across the little deck.
And then, whoom, a cold slamming squallgale struck the Miss Jenny hard, ripping her sail, and snatching the whole boat over on her side; and below decks hurling naked Maurice out of his bunk onto the forecastle deck -- the whole boat jerked over, struck broadside by this instant powerful blast and pitching her leeward severely: the mast's wood groaning; and, on top of Maurice, in the darkness below decks, was a maelstrom of falling boots, half empty bottles of frothing Corby's whiskey, pots and pans, kettles and cans, and Petri wine hitting him on the head.
And falling, shrieking rats.
And flying roaches.
But, worst of all, blub,blub sea water bubbling in, wormeaten boards in the Miss Jenny's forepeak were pulling apart, in her bow, little spurts of seawater gushing in with every violent rise and fall, loud yelling up on deck, falunk, falunk, men's bare feet, clomp, clomp, rubber boots, Joe Shelton screaming, "this here's a damned hatchet hitch."
The Miss Jenny was capsizing, beginning to get ripped apart and would soon fill with water and sink.
"Marino, Marino, get a knife," Joe Shelton was yelling to him through the deck down to him.
Maurice was scrambling, grabbing at anything to get to his feet -- where were his pants in the musty jumbled darkness down here? and the deck hatch? Trying to make his way in all this fallen cascading junk, pushing himself out from under cups and plates, with little furry bodies and clawing rats scratching his bare skin, climbing on him, removing a fork stuck in his groin, sharp roach claws climbing up his bare buttocks, stepping, slipping on he-knew-not-what, broken greasy plates, charts and tangling rope pieces that had flopped out on top of him in a huge pile from all the bunks and bulkheads.
FLOP, SLOP -- ominous sound -- surface waves smacking now on the exposed hull's bottom, hitting on her keelson -- this rotten Miss Jenny must now sink with all hands, 200 miles here offshore on the Middle Grounds.
Maurice found the deck ladder in the darkness and his other hand some kind of stiff, pants-like, cloth object that he stepped into and was pulling up around him, around his waist while his bare feet ascended the ladder, the scaly rough something with attached legs he was pulling on -- pair of trousers? felt like in the dark? -- oh, it was that convict's huge pair of wadded up trousers not yet thrown overboard with the leg irons -- a rat was trying to climb over his face.
"Save me, oh Lord," he prayed as he finally found the thick boards of the deck hatch banging it upwards with the top of his head, grating his grinding headhair against the hard boards -- the deck hatch popped loose, and let in gray stormlight and fierce squall wind, screaming in, a huge splash of blowing blinding salt water blinded his eyes and cold salt foam slapping his sweaty torso.
The rats and roaches climbing on Maurice rushed upwards on his body toward the light, up his neck, greasy lice-ridden rat-teat bodies clawing over his face, making for the light of the sudden opening and escape.
Maurice holding his still loose pants pushed further open then deck hatch and kept climbing out, repeating Peter the Apostle's, prayer on the stormy Sea of Galilee, "Lord, help us or we perish. Father, give me strength; this is your test," he prayed.
Now on deck the rats and roaches from below came pouring out the hatch, running over his feet, past him falling into the water. Roaches trying to spread their wings and fly in the tossing wind, being swept up, black specks, off into the storm sky as he slammed back closed the hatch.
These gigantic fatman's trousers--he could see them now out in the gray storm light -- were the striped prisoner's jail pants.
"Cut this rope!" yelled the Captain.
BALLLOOOWOW-BOOM! A brilliant blindy flash arched down, liquid lightning fire bolts, boiling the gray sea, the wind screaming up and down the scale.
"Get a knife! Where're the fish knives?" yelled the Capt. desperately looking everywhere around him, the wet, falling, befuddled men up forward with him, huddling, holding onto the mast, getting drowned by ponderous breaking waves, nearly dragged away; and Capt. Joe, now seeing Maurice, "grab a knife -- hatchet hitch, Maurice! Some damn fool tied the sail up with a hatchet hitch," himself still working frantically at the knot biting it, swollen with water, "Knives were in that bucket amidships," yelled the Captain to Maurice.
There was the gleaming silver blade of a thin fish knife spilled out onto the deck in the scuppers, about to be washed overboard, Maurice thrust aside a panicked swimming rat and grabbed the knife, while grabbing a mast rope tied off on a cleat, looped it around his wrist, holding on, pushing himself off and swinging across the slanted deck with the wonderful picturesque courage he'd seen in a book illustration and had prayed God for; landing at the foot of the mast and thrusting himself through terrified slipping, drowning men losing their footing --
"Where's my shoes, lost my shoes!" Yelled Gonzalez as another wave subsided.
Maurice was quickly sawing through the yellow tight Manila rope knot and felt a little thrill of courage and joy of thankfulness that, with God's grace, he was keeping his head, doing his job.
But during his sawing -- Maurice holding on with his other arm to not get swept away -- cutting through the layers of thick oily faded yellow rope that sprang apart, and braced against the fierce wall of squall wind that was filling his loose convict's pants, making his nether regions shrivel and ballooning out the striped convict pants, from ass to crotch with its 50 mile-an-hour breeze, bagging them out, lifting Maurice slightly, hurting his tender parts and ripping the rotten jail fabric, almost blowing him away, and then ziiiiiiiipppp -- suddenly the loose pants blew off and were immediately jerked away overboard.
With the sudden severing of the "hatchet hitch" the dangerous sail slid quickly down the mast and the Miss Jenny shuddered, masts still way over, almost pointing at the horizon, but now miraculously lurching herself back upright, water spilling out her scuppers, off her little deck.
The drenched and shivering men stood there a moment, on the still pitching and yawing deck, all dripping, looking at the cutting knife that had saved them, at the severed rope, at first mate Maurice, here draining water, once again goose-bumply naked.
Several soggy, rats stood indeterminate, stunned on the deck not sure what had happened, others, their wet fur plastered to them, had been swept overboard with the roaches and were now paddling back to the boat, trying to keep their heads above the suddenly sunlit waves.
The squall was passing.
A sunbeam lit up the black tossing sea's white caps.
All the men were watching the drowning rats over the side that were now trying to get back aboard, sqeaking for help in the waves and there were Maurice's snatched off convict trousers, their striped ass still full of squall wind, now tacking off, riding the crest of a departing wave.
"Well," said Captain Joe Shelton, "they're gonna know I'm bullshittin', back at the Havana/Madrid, when I claim this here squall blew the first mate's pants off."
Pierrino Mascarino has been published in The Linnet's Wings, The Beat, Bartleby Snopes, Darkest Before Dawn, Dry Bones Anthology, Black Lantern, Hackwriters, and Fear of Monkeys. He has published the print quarterly Invertebrata, the instructional novella, My Aunt Rose, played the title role in the award winning movie, Uncle Nino, has appeared on National Television over 6000 times, won the Dramalogue Award in Los Angeles twice, and lettered in football at St. Anthony's Grammar School in Atlanta GA in 1952.