Gums: A Story of the River
A horror Story by Craig Hollingsworth
The stories probably never made even the back pages of your local newspaper. Two deckhands on Mississippi tugboats had vanished or died within days of each other under mysterious circumstances. Actually, the accounts I read didn’t use the word “mysterious.” The conditions surrounding Tiny’s disappearance and Mickey’s death were called “unfavorable” or “in question because of the heavy weather.” The truth was known only by us deckhands, our captains, and Captain Marlowe of the Coast Guard.
My job last summer was working with Martrans, Inc., a company that runs tugboats up and down the Mississippi river. Summer work for the college student—and an interesting change from the usual lawn mowing, painting, French frying, and toilet cleaning. John Freemen, a distant cousin, called from Minneapolis one day to ask if I was interested, and I was. His son, John Junior, was a captain for Martrans, and summer work was how he had started.
The pay wasn’t great, but you had room and board on the boat and got out of staying home for the summer. Summer jobs were hard to come by on the University of Illinois campus unless you knew some one.
John Junior Freeman was one of the two captains on board the Lindholme, the tug I was assigned to. Captain Freeman was radically different from his dad. Captain John had long black hair, a thin black beard with Fu Manchu moustaches, dark dark skin, and surprisingly bad teeth. He sized me up with several looks, knowing where I came from. “Just call me Cap, like the other hands do,” he said in a low voice. “None of this ‘junior’ crap.” “Oh, no sir,” I gulped out. “Don’t need the ‘sir’ either,” he growled.
“Right,” I said.
“Your name again—John Gunn?”
“That’s right—I guess we’re cousins, somehow.”
“Yea, I guess so. Funny we never met before. John Gunn—okay, you’re ‘Gunner’ from now on. I’ll get Tiny to show you your berth. ”
I found out quickly that the work wasn’t very demanding mentally but physically. I also found there were a number of interesting characters to meet and take shit from for being a college boy.
The shit wasn’t deep enough to overwhelm me, though. Mickey, Tiny, and the other guys were pretty good-natured, having worked with other college students before. They all at first professed a supernatural awe of somebody who would willingly undergo all those years of “educatin,” but that quickly degenerated into scorn for the college boy who could read all them books but couldn’t tell a crescent wrench from a ratchet.
They remained, however, very interested in the four years of beer blasts and wild college women they read about in the letters sections of certain magazines. I told them I wished I could find that college and go there too, since mine was particularly lacking.
The other perks of the job were traveling up and down a mighty river that I had read about in Mark Twain’s work but had never seen in person. And don’t think I use the word “mighty” easily, or as a cliché. No. The Mississippi is large, looks lazy, but is mighty like the gods are mighty. Mighty the muscles under Zeus’s skin, capable of moving the world. The river looked placid and lazy but not far beneath the surface lurked power and mystery.
Witness the power. On my second day, a fully loaded coal barge broke its mooring, snapping the strands of two inch thick nylon super cord like string. I was still standing on the barge. The supple river had teased and pushed and wriggled the barge, then gathered its watery arm and pushed and the super cords snapped with loud rifle cracks that left me deaf in one ear for a day. Mickey told me later that if I had been any closer to a cord I might have lost part of a leg from the recoil. Within seconds, before my landlubbers wit could react, the river had pushed the barge away from its sisters and the gap was too large for me to jump. And never, never go into the water, I had been told by Captain Conrad with Captain John Freemen listening. The current will sweep you under a hull and hold you there just long enough, he’d said, and that life vest the Coast Guard requires you to wear won’t do naught (his word, honest) but hold you more tightly under the hull.
Lucky for me this was broad daylight and Cap (both Captains were called Cap, and were almost interchangeable benevolent despots) could come after the barge with the tugboat, capture it, and ease us back to the staging area. I felt foolish for a while like it was my fault, being the new kid, the summer greenie. But I learned such events were one of the hazards the river imposed on men for allowing us to use its back to carry our goods up and down. And there were others hazards, I found out.
It started one afternoon, one magic afternoon of a day that was so clear I could see every leaf on every tree on the eastern bank. The setting sun was a gigantic red disc rolling across the deepening shadows on the bluff faces of the western bank. I was on watch with Mickey, a lean Tennessee dude with an infectious grin and a mop of long, dirty blond hair that hung into his mischievous eyes. We were far forward, at the tip of the raft of barges, sitting on the rusty, coal-dust covered steel deck and smoking, enjoying the sunset until our relief arrived. Mickey got reflective, taking in the afternoon. He was surprisingly thoughtful for a guy with a Confederate flag tattooed on one bicep and Harley wings on the other. In, fact, he’d almost talked me into getting my favorite emblem, the skull and crossbones, tattooed on my, well, never mind.
“You know Gunner, things look right beautiful here tonight, and you’ve only been through one storm so far that’s riled things up a tad. Things ain’t always like this. I’ll tell ya, I been out here five years now, and learnt that this river has moods just like the woman back home. It’ll hurt you whenever you let it, and kill you as quick as a wink. But there’s things out there other than the river, things you got to watch for, especially when the weather is bad. Black nights when the wind is screechin’ like a shot pig, the rain is pissin’ buckets, you gotta be careful, especially with full barges. You see, we’re only about a foot above the water here, close enough. Say, did you know one of these things hold sixteen rail cars of coal? No? Helluva lot.
“But you’re real close to the water, and don’t wanna slip in, not at all. ‘Cause there’s somethin’ under that water sometimes, somethin’ that people don’t believe in. It’s a monster from one of the deep holes in the river, and he’s lived there since the Injuns used to paddle their canoes around. Gums, he’s called.”
“Gums? Gums? Like from Jaws? Ha.” I guffawed loud and sweet as the notion struck my funny bone. “Oh crapazola, Mickey, that was a good one.” He smiled a strange smile and leaned over to spit on the deck. There was movement behind us.
“Hey Danny, Tiny. I ‘us just telling old Gunner here about Gums. College Boy thinks it’s funny.” Our relief had just come forward, no doubt to hang out and have their own smoke before duty.
“Come on guys. Back home in Illinois we call that an ice mole. You know, ice moles hibernate all summer then come out in the winter. They tunnel through the ice on lakes looking for frozen bugs and fish and leave those long cracks. I haven’t spent my whole life in college.” Tiny laughed, his obese face and stomach quivering, his childlike voice tittering.
“Now G-G-Gunner,” he quavered. “You listen up to what ol’ Mickey says. Might save your butt from ol’ Gums one dark night. Hee hee hee.” Danny just grunted something and shook his head. It was hard to tell what he thought, because his face was always hidden behind his full beard and West Virginia Mountaineers hat.
The next day we stopped at Alma, Wisconsin, and delivered coal to the power plant there. On our return trip to Minneapolis we were to make up a tow of covered grain barges—eight of them, which waited for us along the river bank like tethered green steel whales.
Making up the tow was where most of the hard physical labor came in. Cap would use the tug boat to push and nudge the barges together, and us deckhands would lash them tightly together. The barges were extremely heavy and required specialized gear to keep them together. We used wires and ratchets. Wires were steel cables about fifteen feet long with the cable looped into an eye at each end and closed with steel clasps.
The wires were looped over and around heavy steel stanchions on the barges and then ratcheted tight. The ratchets were mechanical devices with hooks on either end that could be adjusted in length by screwing them in or out of the base tubes. They had a ratchet in the middle with a long handle that tightened the wires. Crank, crank, crank. Lots of physical labor involved in manipulating the wires and ratchets then cranking them tight. And it was dangerous, dancing about on the barges while they were being pushed together. A man could lose a foot if it got pinched between them. And if the load shifted dramatically wires could snap. I was assured that their whiplash was ten times worse than the super cord. Could cut a man in half, I’d been told. And I believed. There was lots of kinetic energy in those things.
It was dark when we finished putting the tow together—Mickey and I weren’t usually on watch this late, but making up a tow required most of the crew. As we finished, we heard the dull thuds of thunder in the distance, and before we could get off the tow and back onto the tugboat, a mighty wind swept the tops of the trees, causing strange dancing shadows as the branches moved through the huge work lights along the shore. The spotlight from the tug seemed to flicker because of the leaves and junk flying through its beam as Mickey and I jogged along the narrow walkway on the outside of the tow. Get to the tug before the rain hit. We laughed breathlessly, wondering if we would make it, punching each other in the puffy chest and back of our life jackets.
“Looks like a Gums night,” laughed Mickey. We jumped onto the deck of the tug as the first rain drops fell. Tiny and Danny were coming in behind us.
“Hey Tiny—looks like a Gums night,” Tiny didn’t answer, just waved a gloved hand and continued waddling.
She was shaking my shoulder, and my girlfriends voice was changing, going deeper, not telling me anymore that she had met this guy at the pool, and that she missed me so much that she had to start seeing him.
“Gunner, man git yore ass up and quit moanin’.”
“Jesus, I mean, Mick. What, man. What?” I sat up in the narrow bunk, rubbing my eyes, suddenly noticing that the usual and reassuring roar of the twin diesels had gone down to a rumble, like when we were tied up somewhere. But we weren’t supposed to be in St. Paul for another two days.
“What happened? Snag?” The river had been getting lower, and we had hung up once, briefly, on sandbar. Not good with a fully loaded tow.
“No. Tiny. Fuckers gone, man. Cap’n called a ‘man overboard.’ Get out on watch. We gotta look for him.” Man Overboard. We start looking, the Coast Guard comes and starts looking, any other boats in the area start looking. I got dressed fast, pulled on my rain suit and life jacket, and jammed my hat down over my eyes to keep the search lights from blinding me. The wind was gusting as I got on deck, and thunder kept rumbling all around us. Suddenly the dark was turned into a blue shell as a lighting bolt etched my brain.
“Captain Freemen is in the wheelhouse. I’ve searched above and below decks once. You search again, see if Tiny is hiding anywhere I missed. Mick and Danny are using flashlights off the port and starboard of the tow. Soon as you search the tug, come up to wheelhouse and report.”
“Yessir.” I went to the very back of the boat, the little aft deck, because we all hid out there once in a while to have a smoke. Then I checked the galley, getting behind the counter, checking the pantry and the clothes locker, even under the seat of the hollow bench. Sheesh.
Then down to the engine room, around the washing machines. I was fairly certain that Tiny was no where on the boat, not after Cap had given it the once over. I got to the top of the engine room stairs, and as I took off my ear protectors, I heard the intercoms squawk. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but I knew enough to run for the pilot house.
Danny was there in his huge yellow rain suit, black flashlight in hand. He and Cap were just getting ready to step onto the tow.
“Come on, Gunner.” I ran up after them, clicking on my flashlight. There were things I would rather do than walk in the dark along those narrow walkways with the black water so close. At least the tug was stopped, Cap holding us dead in the water. Even so, you could slip off and…To hell with Gums—the black water would suck you right under the barges and through the propeller and voila. Puree de fois hommes. I suddenly felt sick, thinking of Tiny spinning through that gigantic prop. But wait—there was something up here that we were supposed to see. I followed Danny and Cap to the bow of the tow, just where the deck started sloping up to the prow. We stopped on the narrow walkway where Mickey was squatting, looking at something under the beam of his flashlight.
“Mick,” said Cap, “Wahdya got here?” Mickey looked up slowly, his face ghastly in the bottom light from the flashlight. He pointed with a gloved hand, and I could see the glowing coal of a cigarette between the first two fingers.
“Tiny’s hat. And a glove. And Jesus, Cap, lookit this stuff.” His shaking hand paused above a white ridge on the edge of the deck. He slowly moved his first two fingers down and through it. Ugh, looked like slime. Gross stuff. Mickey transferred his cigarette to his mouth and flicked his hand to get the stuff off.
“Looks like grain slime to me,” said Cap. “I wonder—Tiny might have slipped, lost his footing, and gone in.”
“Grain slime? What’s that, Cap?” I asked. I had gotten over asking what I thought were stupid questions.
“Grain spills out during the loading process and rots. Organic slime mold.” Well, that stuff sure looked like organic slime, but not from grain. Rotting grain stank, and was slippery, but I’d always seen it turn black, not whitish like this.
“Fuckin’ slime, fuckin’ storm,” barked Danny into the night. He turned to Cap. “Think Tiny’s dead?” he said in a surprisingly small voice, like he was almost pleading for it to be not true.
“Don’t know, Danny. There’s always hope.”
Suddenly, another spotlight came at us from up river, covering the front of the tow, stopping on us for a moment, then moving on across the black water.
“That’d be the Coast Guard,” said Cap. “Let’s get back to the tug.”
After the Coast Guard arrived, we spent the rest of the night moving back on the river searching for Tiny. We found nothing. No one did, not the boats following us up the river, people on shore, nobody, nothing. We started off again for St. Paul, all pulling a little extra duty to make up for the missing man, all in dark, reflective moods, all of us wanting to go home. I wrote a long, long letter to Sarah Kay, telling her what had happened, and about my dream, but not being able to do what I wanted to, which was to ask her to be mine, to be true to me. I knew where the dream had come from, and was hoping it might speak for me. It had happened before.
The weather didn’t help. A brisk northwest wind kept us cold on deck, and the cloud cover never went away, day and night seeming to merge imperceptibly. The evening of the second day there was an incredible electrical display that lasted several hours, the lightning scrawling arcane messages on the ebon slate of the northwestern sky.
Plus, I was running out of cigarettes and had to start rationing myself. Finally, there was no beer. Rules. I think all of us would have liked to take a couple hours to sit around, talk about it, and get pleasantly buzzed and warm.
On the third day, I came on watch in the late afternoon and smelt the faint odor of the Mason meat packing plant that guarded the entrance to Pig’s Eye Lake, the wide spot in the river where companies had their docks. The plant never exuded smoke, just occasional vents of steam, but it smelled like the Gates of Hell. I wondered what abominations went on inside and vowed never to eat any packaged meats again.
We dropped off the tow just outside of Pig’s Eye at a holding area where the barges would be unloaded and the grain moved into trucks or railroad cars. After we finished, Cap called us up to the pilot house. It was cramped but cozy. The control lights, the dim overhead light, and the view of St. Paul’s lights made the atmosphere warm, made the cold wind and the splatters of rain seem far away.
“Men, I want to tell you, from Cap’n Freemen and myself that we appreciate the work you’ve done in the last couple days, covering for Tiny. Martrans does too. But they want us to make the tow tonight and continue—one more trip to Alma and back, because they have a contract to fill. And for helping them out with this contract, they’re going to give each of you a bonus check at the end of this run. We’re gonna have to make the Alma run a man short, as you might have figured. They can’t get anybody up here quick enough.” He stopped for a minute, letting that sink in, and everybody’s face was working, doing the cussing for their mouths. I looked out at the lights of St. Paul, and thought about Sarah Kay and her comfortable bedroom. Why the hell did I leave Urbana for the summer? Then I thought, oh well. I’m alive.
“In other good news, Martrans is giving you guys two days off, with pay, soon as we get back here. Sorry men, but I don’t know how they could make it any sweeter. We’ll just run call watch, and I think we’ll make it fine. Kind of like college and finals, eh Gunner? We’ll just work all day and stay up all night.” I grinned sheepishly and the other guys rolled their eyes.
“The weather is supposed to break tomorrow too.” Cap swung his chair to the control position. “We’ll stop at the supply barge for cigarettes before we start on the tow. I’m out.”
I wasn’t even sure he smoked, but it was a nice gesture. We motored into Pig’s Eye and up to Johnson’s 24-Hour Supply Barge. Right after we hit the stand for smokes and chocolate bars, we all made for the bank of pay telephones to make that one call, the link to the outside. I dialed Sarah Kay’s number, collect. We’d agreed I could.
“Dinah—this is John Gunn, how are you?” Her housemate Dinah. She was a sweetheart, tall, blonde, knockout who was just a nice outdoorsy person.
“John. How’s life on the Father of Waters? Where are you?” Sounded like I woke her up. It was almost midnight.
“St. Paul. We got a break in the action here. Is Sarah Kay there, I hope?”
“Uh, no. I don’t know where she might be, John.” Something wrong here.
“Has she been around today, know when she might be back?”
“Umm, haven’t seen her today, John. Haven’t seen her since—Monday.”
“Did she go visit her parents, do you know—probably not, eh? She’d have told you.”
“Yea, I guess. Her car is still here. She has her bike.”
“I, I think I see. Dinah, I had a dream the other day. Tell me, did she meet him at the pool? Naw, I guess that’s not a fair question. Sorry.”
“John, it’s not that…I…” Awkward silence. “So is everything going good?”
“Naw, not really. We lost a man overboard, never found him. This job is not what I’d choose to do again next summer. Listen Dinah, I’ll let you get back to sleep, and drop you a letter tomorrow. In six days, I’ll be back in St. Paul with a couple off, and I’ll call again then. Maybe. Okay? The Captain is revving the engines—I gotta go.”
“Bye John. I’ll tell Sarah Kay.”
“Yea. Thanks. Bye Dinah.” I hung up the phone slowly, and lit a cigarette.
“Whoo boy.” Mickey whooped right next to me, and slapped me on the back. “Gunner, I’ll tell you—what a woman I’ve got. She was trying to get me off over the phone. Can you imagine? I’ll tell ya’ though, she’s better be ready for me when I get home, ‘cause I’m gonna be harder than the Chinese alphabet. Ha.” He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. I grinned back.
“The Chinese alphabet, eh? I need to remember that one.” I just kept grinning, feeling laughter trying to force its way up my throat, and me trying to choke it down thinking of Sarah Kay.
“What’s a matter, Gunner-boy? Couldn’t you get a-holt of your woman?”
“I’ll tell you, Mick. College women. Too smart for their own good. Well, I think I’ll be a little smarter this time, you know?”
“Hey Gunner, sorry about that. Happens sometimes, here on the river. I’d expected it from my woman before, but now I think we’ve got it, we’re gonna last. I’m gonna be a pilot. Next trip, maybe the trip after that, I’m gonna start apprenticin’. I’ve been talking to Cap Conrad, and he said he’s almost got Martrans talked into letting me start learnin’ how to pilot. ‘Course, at first it’ll be on my own time, but then…” He trailed off, looking into the future, maybe thinking of the long watches he’d pull—deckhand duty, then a couple hours in the pilot house learning the river, the controls of the tug, and seamanship. But hey, it sounded good to me—I liked the pilot house. It was a cross between a jet fighter and a paddle wheeler. Hi tech integrated with an age old community.
“I’ll tell you what, Gunner. We get back from this last damn run, I’ll take some of my bonus check and get you drunk. Maybe get you that tattoo we talked about. Won’t matter now, will it boy?” I laughed and remembered how I told him that Sarah Kay might not like a tattoo.
“Man, if we can get it done by the same guy who did yours, you’re on. She can go piss up a rope anyway.”
“That’s it, Gunner. You’re a youngster yet. You’ll get your bag wet a few more times before it’s all over.”
“Yea? How old are you, geezer man?”
“Twenty-eight, boy. Your elder, and don’t you forget it nor sass me back.” He took a cuff at my Fleet Master Truck Parts hat, and I ducked and made motions of obeisance. We both laughed again. I liked Mickey and the other guys. They were right up front.
We jumped onto the tug, the last ones back. Cap Freemen revved up and we cast off. I stood forward, watching the black water slip beneath the bow, finishing my smoke, thinking about girlfriends and love. The rain was spattering, and Mickey showed up in his rain suit and handed me mine.
We started building the tow and Cap Conrad came down to help, partnering with Danny, while Cap Freemen piloted. At first I felt sorry for Cap Conrad as the rain started in earnest and the wind picked up. But then I remembered that this is where he started. I pulled my hat down tight and cinched my life vest up. The storm was getting worse.
After one very loud crack of thunder that scared me, I raised my gloved fist at the sky and screamed a foul curse, one that I would never have put together before I worked on the river. Mickey was down a bit, heard me, and raised his fist and mouthed “Right on.”
As we worked, Mickey and I were each carrying a ratchet and dragging a wire when we were blinded by a flash and then deafened by the thunder. It felt like an explosion right next to us and it was the loudest thing I had ever experienced. I don’t know if it was the blast or just my body reacting but I fell to the narrow deck. The ratchet I carried had poked me in the stomach on the way down and knocked the wind out of me. The wire snagged on my glove and almost dragged me into the water. I prayed to God for the second time in my life. I started to get up, stunned. I looked around and under the spotlight from the Lindholme I saw Mickey just coming up from his knees, and Cap Conrad wiping the rain from his face, staring into the black sky. Danny was standing next to him, looking down at the deck, shaking his head like he was trying to clear his ears.
Mickey and I started to lug the ratchets and wires again down the narrow walkway, when suddenly Mickey wobbled like he turned his ankle on something, and got close to edge of the barge. I could see exactly what was going to happen in my mind and then it happened. His boot slipped on the rounded, slick edge of the barge, and off-balance with all that weight on his shoulder he went into the water. The ratchet clanged off the barge and then hit Mickey’s head as they both went in. I dropped mine instantly, not caring where they landed.
“Mickey. Cap. Danny—Mickey’s gone in. Help,” I yelled, because I was suddenly terrified of something happening to him. Mickey bobbed up, hands to his head. Good sign, he can feel pain. Cap Freemen on the Lindhome got the drift and snapped the spotlight on us, blinding me, silhouetting Mickey’s head and puffed life vested chest above the water. I got to him and knelt down, reaching out my hand. He was paddling weakly with one arm, holding his head with his other. One side of his face was red, and blood was already staining his life jacket.
“Come on man, almost here, I almost got your hand—reach.” I clenched my finger tips in and hooked over his. Then it happened.
Mickey gasped and moved toward me like a water skier getting pulled up. There was a blackness behind him pushing. Instantly we came together, heads cracking, and I was propelled over into the bed of the barge onto the lumps of coal. I cursed and tried to get to my knees to see what the hell had happened.
Mickey screamed, elemental fear and pain, and I screamed in unison. The black mass was hooked to the narrow deck by huge fins and had Mickey halfway down its throat. The whiskers were like thick black ropes drooping, and the eyes were emotionless shadows in the spotlight. I screamed again and pulled my knife as I scrambled over the coal.
I hooked my arm over Mickey’s, the back of his vest in my face, and started slashing at the thing’s black, slimy skin. I could hear shouts from Danny and Cap, and finally their footsteps on the deck.
“Aggh. Kill it. Fucking kill it.” The thing must have bit down, because Mickey jerked suddenly, almost throwing me off, and he screamed in short, sharp staccato bursts. The thing then reared up, moving back into the water. I could feel Mickey’s head beneath me crack the edge of the deck, and our arms hit together. Pain snapped through my brain as I went into the black, cold, water, struggling instinctively to get free of Mickey and the beast. I didn’t want to drown.
Cap and Danny hauled me up onto the deck, and I stood with Danny, watching the black water swirl, while Cap ran to the pilot house to call the Coast Guard.
We were tied up at Johnson’s the next morning when I woke up. We had abandoned the search sometime early in the morning, the Coast Guard keeping a boat in the area, us knowing better. I went back to the galley for coffee. We were all off watch, and it was nice knowing that I didn’t have to drink fast to make watch. Danny was sitting there by himself. Cook must have gone ashore for something.
“Well, what the hell,” I said by way of greeting.
“Nothing, I suppose.”
“Nope. They called Mick’s wife already. You got anyplace to go? They’re gonna let us go early. Home.”
“Home? Oh man…” That’s the place I’d like to be. Give me back the usual summer job of lawn mowing, slinging bagels in a deli, anything.
“I’ll tell you what, Danny. Next time I come back to the river, it’ll be as a tourist like the ones on the Delta Queen. Or I’ll be looking at it from a bridge inside a car. With my grandchildren.” I poured myself a cup of the black moonshine we called coffee and noticed my hands were shaking. “In fact, fuck this fucking shit, period.” I sat down, carefully placed my coffee cup, and started crying suddenly, tears pouring down my cheeks. “What a shit way to die, you know? Jesus, and no one’s gonna believe it. Eaten by a giant scum sucking catfish from the bottom of the fucking Mississippi river. Shit, it’s almost funny enough to be a movie. Yea, fuck you and ol’ ‘Gums,’ Mickey. Little did you know that…”
The door opened and Captains Conrad and Freemen came in, both looking very grim. They were followed by a tall Coast Guard officer; thin, ropey, tanned, with squinted eyes like an old salt, maybe the next step that Conrad and Freemen would get to. I wiped my eyes, and they pretended not to notice.
“Danny, John, this is Captain Marlowe. He’s been leading the search for Mickey. John, would you tell Captain what exactly happened, what you saw? We all have spoken with him already. I blushed, feeling like an absolute fool. What had they told him? Was I going to sound demented, spinning a yarn like this when somebody actually died? Freemen must have noticed my hesitation. “Gunner, tell the truth, the whole truth, so help you God, like that.” he added almost uncertainly, not wanting to insult me I think. I took a deep breath.
“Smoke?” offered Captain Marlowe, pulling a pack from his breast pocket and casually moving to the stool next to mine. His eyes caught mine and seemed to radar-lock in.
“Thanks. Please.” He had a brass lighter that looked like the one Fred Flintstone used, almost like rubbing two sticks together. Old fashioned, but tradition behind it.
“You’re not under oath, of course. Nothing you say will go out of this galley, unless it’s through you. All the others have made depositions already.” So I told him. I don’t know why he seemed interested in my version of the story, but I told every detail I could remember, down to the lightning and thunder beforehand, and how I’d lost my knife. Maybe it was still in the thing, or maybe I dropped it, didn’t know. As I finished, Marlowe carefully put his second cigarette out.
“So, am I the college boy with the overactive imagination? What did these guys tell you? Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. Like I told Danny, I’m getting the hell off these boats. I’ll stick to my fishing boat on Devil’s Kitchen, my kayak on the Nippersink, thank you.”
“University of Illinois, right? Got my undergraduate degree there. Cap Freeman tells me you’re part of his family.” He caught me with his eyes, which were an incredible shifting ice blue and green. Extraordinary. I could believe anything this guy said, I thought for a second. Eyes like Doc Savage; hypnotic, compelling. This guy was a leader.
“Yea, we’re family. Distant, right Cap?” He smiled, nodded. We might have been born on different planets, for all we knew each other. But still, we were family, blood. “So Captain Marlowe, sir. Even if you don’t believe me, tell my anyway. What in God’s name was that thing?” I got a sick picture in my mind of Mick all mashed up and being digested in a dark stomach, the stomach getting cut open and Mick falling out, all bleached and starting to dissolve. His wife was there, standing next to me. I took a drag off my cigarette to chase the vision away.
“Gunner, based on the various descriptions, I might say that it was a member of the order of Siluriformes, a scaleless, freshwater fish that has many species.”
“Might say? What is order Siluriformes? I don’t know it.”
“Oh, you do, being a fisherman. Catfish. Lot’s of species, all over the world. Down in South America, in the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, men have caught specimens ranging in size up to seven feet long. These fish were blamed occasionally for killing a child or stock animal like a goat. Of course, these stories are comparatively recent in the history of the rivers. Our Mississippi is quite large enough and old enough to have bred its own large catfish. We navigate the river, think we have it tamed and under our control. But it chisels away on our locks and dams, year after year, and they fall or the river goes around them. And we by no means know every deep hole and hiding place. Even with electronic fish locators, there a places fisherman will probably never find. Take my word on it, Gunner.”
I listened to him, fascinated, thinking, frightened. I wanted to get off the river, and to get back to Sarah Kay’s arms. Well, scratch one good idea. Funny, but thinking about Mickey dead suddenly made me think I was very horny. Celebrate death with life. I blushed again, feeling stupid about the rapid chain of thoughts that had taken me to the bed that I used to enjoy.
“So, what do you tell people? Cap, the newspaper is going to be all over this place. I’m surprised it’s not already, matter of fact. What do you tell people? I mean, you guys believe me, but I don’t honestly think anyone else will.”
“Gunner,” began Marlowe, locking his radar eyes on mine again and not letting go. “Can you keep a family secret?”
© 2005 by Craig Hollingsworth
About the Author
After graduating from college in the 80s, Craig’s wife carried him across state lines from Illinois to North Carolina, where she completed a residency program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After she established her practice, he quit his job as a proposal writer and spent many interesting years at home with his two children as Mr. Mom. He began working again as a teaching assistant in the public schools, then attended North Carolina Central University to qualify for a NC Teacher’s License. He is currently looking for a full time public school position. In the meantime, he’s teaching Freshman Composition at NCCU part time and working on fiction and nonfiction writing.