September 1, 2009
The twelve-year-old boy says goodbye to his mother and leaves their rented South Baltimore row house, at 807 William Street, by the side door. He passes through the covered areaway (or “sallie port”) which separates his house from the one next door, emerges onto the sidewalk and turns right, toward the harbor. The water begins one block from his front stoop and runs along Key Highway for a mile or two, and from there it goes on to Antwerp, Bombay, Darkar, Jeddah, Keelung, Liverpool, Malta, Port Sudan, Rangoon, and Zanzibar, and ends—for all the boy knows—in some dark jungle pond where jaguars come to drink.
The boy walks on rectangular Belgian blocks paving the surface of Key Highway. The stones once served as ballast in the holds of clipper ships which, two centuries before, sailed regularly from Europe and the Far East bringing tools, dry goods and foodstuffs to the colonies. The street reverberates with a cacophony of cart and truck wheels on rough pavement. The life of the city huddles close to the water’s edge. The workers’ homes—small shoulder-to-shoulder structures with low, slanted roofs, combine with the narrow streets to create an intricate pattern of late afternoon light and shadow. Sailboat spars gracefully dissect rooftops; the lines of a five-masted sailboat, lovely, etches itself against the background of a coal pier. Sunlight tints the oil-slick harbor water and illuminates two bright white excursion steamers—the Bay Belle and the City of Richmond—waiting for dusk and sailing time. Nearby, banana boats are unloaded at the United Fruit Company pier.
Huge cranes, black against the sky, tend ocean-going ships. The boy notes the origin of each vessel; There is a clean Norwegian loaded with tractor parts bound for Cape Town; a rusty Frenchman packed with wheat for Rotterdam; a Panamanian tanker gurgling rich back oil below-decks; a Russian, the name illegible on her dirty bow, holding only the residue of iron ore; and a British tramp freighter, emptied of a cargo of firecrackers from Hong-Kong, chests of tea from Shanghai, rubber from the Malacca Straits, glass from Genoa and seeds and ochre from Marseilles. Swarms of tiny welders work in the hull-rigging of each ship, making hot repairs to steel bellies, their torches creating a fireworks display of sparks. The harbor is smoky and dirty and filled with the clangor of steel on steel. Smoke stacks, grain elevators, factories, freight terminals and ramshackle wooden buildings line the innumerable wharves. Piers separate and define every twist and turn of the water’s edge. There is salt in the air, the odor of fish and clams, the scent of Oriental spices, the acrid smell of chemical fumes. From the shadowy depths of the low pier buildings the boy hears a musical chant. Black men in greasy overalls, their singsong blending with the noise of labor, rush from boat to truck and back again in ceaseless procession, dragging their livelihood out of ships’ holds. Lumber, sand and gravel, oysters, fish and crabs, cantaloupes and watermelons, tomatoes and potatoes; the men handle ponderous boxes and barrels and crates. Backs bend and straighten. Muscles expand and contract. Sweat glistens and salt collects in white lines on dark skin. The men are power made visible—made human—and as they stretch and lift, their graceful movements achieve the effect of great dancers.
The sun dips toward the western horizon and the mood of the harbor changes with the light. Smoke no longer clouds from the stacks, but spreads in an even, violet haze. The boy is aware of an unaccountable mystery that takes possession of the place. Monsters—towering chimneys and grain elevators, huge buildings of steel and concrete—are no longer black or red or harsh yellow, but are alike draped in a blue-gray mantle, infinitely soft, dusky, dreamy. Outlines soften into shadows. It is impossible now to distinguish the ugliness of the garbage scows and the lumber barges. At the steel mill, away in the distance, flames lick the twilight. Suddenly, three shrill blasts on a ship’s whistle startle the boy. He hears the sound of a gangplank scraping a pier, the scratch of heavy mooring lines being lifted from dock stanchions, tossed overboard and drawn through the water by thin ropes. Officers shout orders to seamen on the after deck. Fussy tugboats close in on the enormous sea-stained hull, nudging, pushing. From the bridge the captain watches. The engines are given full-forward power and the ship slides past a bulkhead, swings out into the channel stream and heads for open water. The boy feels—or imagines he feels—the deck shift and pitch under his feet. He waves . . .
Baltimore Harbor, 1951 was originally published in a slightly different form and under a very different title in the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1979 or the early 1980s. I’m usually pretty good when it comes to dating clippings—especially my own—but in this case, as Jon Stewart might say, not so much. My idea for this rather poetical mood piece was to attempt to convey the romance of the harbor as viewed by a young boy who very recently moved to the city from a small town in Virginia.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Short Fiction/Part Four
Ted used heavy string to tie a little hangman’s noose around the rotten chicken neck, then he dropped the bait off the pier into the harbor. “Crabs are so dumb,” he said. “Once ol’ Mr. Crustacean grabs onto his smelly treat he forgets how to let loose, and that’s his undoing.” In no time flat a crab took the bait and Ted pulled it to the surface slow, hand over hand. I scooped it up in the net Alice made for us out of cheesecloth and an old broomstick. When I dropped the crab in the basket, Ted said, “Big one. That’ll eat good.” Alice did her crabs in a huge pot with water and beer and secret spices. The trick of cooking crabs, Ted claimed, was to let the liquid come to a boil and drop them in fast and slap the lid on. They never knew what hit them, he said. They went in blue and lively and came out red and dead—steamed to death.
Daddy had promised to take me crabbing but never showed up. Didn’t call, nothing, so Ted volunteered. Me and him and Ronnie went to Wagner’s Point. We got up at five and left the house at six. Alice was invited, but she said no. She claimed anyone who got up that early and didn’t have to was a damn fool. Ted picked a pretty spot on a falling-down pier by a refinery, close enough to smell the oil. We watched the dark outline of the city across the harbor get lighter in the warming air. The sky was clear except for a smear of orange smoke from Sparrows Point steel mill. A blue heron flew over with a fish all a-squirm in its beak. Ted knew it was a heron by the general shape, the long crooked neck, and how its legs hung out behind in the air. Judging the direction, Ted figured the bird was headed to the marsh grass in behind Fort McHenry. We crabbed and crabbed and the sun got hotter and hotter. Pretty soon me and Ronnie got bored and went to explore the rubble of an old pier shack. We climbed inside—at least it was shady cool in there—and scrambled over piles of boards and tar paper and other trash. At first I didn’t feel the plank piece stuck to my foot, and then I did. It hugged the the bottom of my sneaker like an extra sole, held there with a rusty ten-penny nail in my foot. After five minutes it got to hurt pretty bad but I didn’t cry. Ted left the wood where it was until we got back to the house, then he yanked it off and cleaned the nail hole with peroxide, like when he used to be a medic in the Army. Ted put a bandage on to stop the blood and took me to the hospital for a tetanus shot, cussing Daddy all the way there and back.
That evening Ted hollered at the radio in the living room, “Stupid, stupid, STUPID!” From where I was in the hall I could hear him but I couldn’t see him. He hated it if our team made a mistake. When our shortstop missed an easy grounder, Ted yelled, “JERK!” Meanwhile, I was watching Alice framed in the kitchen doorway, her back to me, how she took a bottle from behind the cleaning stuff under the sink and poured some in a glass and gulped it. Ted kept on at the radio, but I turned him off. The silent movie of Alice in the warm light from the bare kitchen bulb kept me mesmerized, how she emptied the glass and poured and poured. She gulped a last one, then rinsed and set the glass in the sink. Then Alice leaned on the counter top with both hands, shoulders pushed up so her neck disappeared. That caught my attention. I was focused on the round shape of her shoulders, the sad way they shook.
Most nights after supper Alice would sit with Ted on the sofa. Other times she wouldn’t, but when she didn’t he made it a point to sit with her. Ted would go at her all in a good mood and cuddle her. Other times she went at him, but when Alice went at Ted it could be a good mood or bad mood, either one. He never knew what to expect. There were days when Alice started at Ted in a bad mood but it ended with her happy and laughing a little, at least for awhile. But soon enough Ted would get tired of how hard it was most times to even get her to smile. Alice, though, once she got going, she kept at him. When it was her at him like that, after a while he would move her off him, off to one side—but gentle—and he would go on about his business. So even if they were at it only a minute ago—she at him or him at her—they were not anymore because he had decided not to play anymore. Ted would just go off somewhere and Alice was left to think about what next—dinner, maybe, or bedtime—something else altogether.
The next day Ted took me and Ronnie for a walk at Fort McHenry and I could tell it was because Alice had been at him that morning in a bad way and drove him crazy. But Ronnie didn’t let on like there was anything wrong between his parents. Anyway, who knows for sure what Ronnie ever thought? When it came to his folks, Ronnie’s mouth mostly stayed zipped. That time Alice was on Ted’s case because of the back yard, the mess his old dog made back there. When she went at Ted like that it usually rubbed off on Ronnie, too, so he had to know that something was up between them. The yard was Alice’s pride. Ted kept his old animal chained to a dog house back there that looked like a seaside cottage in some movie. The dog walked the ground smooth as far as the chain would let him, back and forth, just short of Alice’s flower bed. Alice claimed Ted never picked up the dog turds. The big problem, though, was when the dog dug a trench under the shade tree and flopped in it to stay cool. When he was in it, with his chin on the edge, all you saw was his wet nose, his brown eyes that followed you back and forth, and long ears twitching off flies. It was early fall, still real warm out, and Ted hadn’t filled in the trench like he promised Alice.
Meanwhile, at Fort McHenry, people were clumped together on the big lawn that went from the cannon walls down to the seawall. One family had a humongous picnic spread out on a tablecloth. Some teenage boys played football catch. A fat guy napped on the grass with a bath towel over his eyes. There were five kites high in the breeze over the harbor. The barn swallows that worked the grass were long gone, but some neighborhood chimney swifts still swooped low for what bugs there were left. Before long, Ted claimed, the bugs would disappear and the swifts would fly off to South America. In the harbor tugboats moved huge steamers into the main channel, or helped them dock at piers across the way. Sailboats went by. We walked the path that ran next to the seawall and Ronnie held tight to Ted’s hand, used his other hand to grip his daddy’s forearm like he was afraid he’d lose him. Ronnie was acting real pussy for a guy almost thirteen. Ted put up with Ronnie’s arm lock but when he had something to say he said it to me. He pointed at the sidewalk. “Duck shit looks like cat shit, Andy—small perfect turds in a pile. And gull shit, that whitish-greenish splatter? That looks like it could be from a fat man who just cleared his throat and spit.”
Ronnie didn’t laugh at that but I did. Most likely, Ronnie didn’t even know it was supposed to be funny. Alice hated when Ted used such words, but what he said about the different kinds of shit was true. I never would have thought of gull poop that way—how it looked and all—if he hadn’t said it. It got on toward sunset and me and Ted sat on the seawall to watch the light change and change while Ronnie went off to intimidate ducks. In no time flat the light on the pier buildings went from red-purple to the best gold I ever saw. I guess it reminded Ted of something, because that’s when he told me a pretty lie. “Andy,” he said, “this time of day if you climb up to our roof real quick—really, really fast—you get to see the sun set twice.”
The fifth and final part of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.