“You eat those?” I asked, because why else would he be shaking salt on them? Some of the whitebait still quivered inside the bag, winked against the evening sun.
“Nope” he answered, which might have been the end of our conversation, such as it was. This was pretty much how it ran between the captains at the dock and me. I’d ask a question I didn’t think was so stupid and they’d answer with a stingy monosyllable, maybe because they knew who my father was, or maybe because I was a mite young to be of any use, or maybe because that’s just how they were.
But this time I noticed the fisherman’s lips curve into a near smile, which didn’t quite show his teeth. The lips were sun-cracked and hardly had any red in them at all so it was difficult to discern their borders. The near smile was enough to keep my sneakers planted on the dock as he sealed up the bag with a twist-tie at his cleaning station, mixed the salt about by cupping the bag from below and worrying the bolus beneath his fingers. I felt the heat from the sunbaked dock seep inside my Keds, smelled the ripe smells of fish viscera from nearby cleaning stations and fumes from the two-stroke outboards rising above the more pleasant brine of the gulf. A gull laughed.
“So you like to fish?” he asked without looking up from his labors.
I did like to fish, although I hadn’t done much fishing in my ten years on the island. My father was the regional vice president of Suntrust Bank, had only moved us from Orlando to our watery redoubt to accept a promotion. He let it be known in ways subtle and unsubtle that fishing was a shiftless activity that was beneath him, beneath my sisters and me by extension. There was no future in it, he warned, busy as he was denying loans for fancy center consoles, bait stores, seafood distributors, and marinas, and, worse, foreclosing on what the bank might salvage from loans he ought to have denied. In lieu of proper birthday gifts, he often presented me with inspirational books, the name of the virtue he felt I lacked usually floating somewhere in the title: The Power of Perseverance, The Industry Principle, Grit Wins the Day. My father, in any case, was often the person to deliver the final word to distraught or just plain angry customers. Which is why (I’m quite certain) some of the charter captains stayed well clear of me at the dock.
But not this fisherman. He let me hose down his skiff while he mounted the mutton snapper and mangroves he’d caught earlier on the reef. I’d already loitered about the marina enough days after school with my pissant rod that I wasn’t squeamish at the sight of him piercing the eye sockets of the snappers through the steel prongs top of the cleaning station. That’s how all the captains advertised their catch, ginned up future charters and attracted customers for leftover fillets. The salt spray had already started to crystallize on the black hood of his two-stroke so I put down the hose, hopped down into the vessel and set to it with the brush, which impressed him. That I did this simple thing that needed doing without having to be told. (Industry my ass, father.) I could tell he was impressed by the way he glanced over at what I was doing, nodded as he opened up his cooler to retrieve more of his catch and a can of pilsner. The can clacked against the stainless steel cleaning table when he set it down. It felt good to be on the boat, to balance my weight against the water. At the center of things, it felt like.
He finally explained why he salted the whitebait as he set to cleaning a mess of snappers smaller than the ones he impaled across the steel frame of the station, taking quick pulls of his beer every so often in between his knife strokes and words. He liked to freeze a fair portion for deadbait. “Works better than live,” he said. “Fish lazy as most people. Bait hangs in the column’s easy pickings.” (I would only learn later that this was a minority opinion among the charter captains, who much preferred live bait.) The salt drew out some of the juices, he continued, kept them from getting mushy when they defrosted later out on a charter. Whole time he spoke I paid less attention to his words than the quick work he performed with his hands, the way he flicked his wrists just so to make the thin blade of his knife separate skin and bone from fishmeat. The hands were large and leathered, but mottled white in places as if those places couldn’t take on color from the sun. A few of the nails were ridged and yellowed—a fungus, perhaps—recalled clamshells. The hands seemed older than the rest of him, and he already seemed old enough, what with his thinning shell of hair, the gray-blonde bristles splashed across his cheek, the sunbit flesh riding loose above the muscle cords in his forearm as he flicked fishmeat from skin and bones, wrapped four fillets at a time. He sealed the package by gripping both ends of the plastic wrap and sending the fillets inside whirring, somehow. Last, he tied the ends in a knot. It seemed like a performative exercise, even though I was the only one watching.
“So, gonna tell me your name?” he asked that first day as I continued to scrub down the skiff’s deck. I wasn’t used to the work, or any honest work with my hands. The muscles in my arms high up near my shoulders burned, so I appreciated the opportunity to stop. He lifted the beer can to his mouth, took a long pull as he awaited my response. I told him my full name as I leaned against the brush-pole, braced myself for him to recognize it and recoil, kick me off his boat, maybe. But he only nodded, returned to his knife-strokes.
“I’m Captain Horace Holtkamp,” he said without looking up from his handiwork. “Nice to meet you, son.”
That’s how things started between the captain and me. Few days a week, when I didn’t have baseball (which I liked okay) or piano lessons (which my mother forced me to endure), I’d stop at the dock after school, wash down his boat while he cleaned his catch and entertained inquiries from charters and would-be charters, an expression that might be mistook for gastric distress painting his face. He didn’t much care for chatting it up with folks. He didn’t much care for speaking, period, and tended to leave out those linking words in sentences that most people used between the crucial nouns and verbs.
He adhered to an unwavering, if unremarkable, dockside routine, so that I felt after only a few days that I knew him much better than I truly knew him. He used Comet powder and water on the vinyl seat cushions, but never on the fiberglass deck or sides, which was bad for the gelcoat. For the fiberglass, he squeezed a bottle of dish soap straight down from the plastic bottle into a five-gallon bucket, tracing large green O’s that sudsed up the water as I filled the bucket with the hose. He sharpened his fillet knives against a steel rod with quick swipes that sounded brightly over the bird cries and boat motors. He emitted a strange smell from his pores I didn’t know at the time to associate with the beer he drank as he set to his dockside labors. (What I would say about that now is that I don’t think Captain Holtkamp was quite the drinker most people thought he was, especially after what happened. Drank about the same as most around here, I’d guess.) He listened to the country western station on a cheap battery-operated transistor radio while he cleaned the fish. When a song came on he especially liked, he’d sing along in a passable voice, which was the most outright joyful thing I ever saw him do. Last thing he did was re-rig his light spinning rods for the next morning, most of them equipped with orange popping corks for the snook and redfish.
For my efforts, he would give me whatever change he had floating around in his pocket, sometimes a dollar bill, which didn’t seem at all stingy back then. After a couple weeks, one of the other captains, a fat fellow who had offered me one of those curt greetings weeks before, took note of me hanging around Captain Holtkamp’s station. “Hope ‘least he’s giving you is minimum wage,” he growled from beneath his visor as he limped by on the dock, slapped Holtkamp’s shoulder. It wasn’t clear whether it was me he was teasing or the captain. He wore a salt-and-pepper beard, which further obscured distinctions between cheek and chin and neck, fat as he was. Captain Holtkamp just shook his head in the fellow’s wake, swished the pilsner around in his mouth as if to wash out the taste of the fat captain’s words. Captain Chuck Sergeant, I’d later learn his name, who managed to lose most of that weight after a heart attack, only quit the water a few years back, leaving the business to his boys. His sons spent at least as much time on the dock as I did those weeks. I recognized them straight away from school, but they were a few years older than I was, which might as well have been a few decades given how much each year mattered those tender school-age years. Captain Holtkamp was the only captain at the dock who didn’t seem to have at least one sandy-haired teenage mate (son or otherwise) helping out with the fish or boat cleaning.
“So you don’t have any kids?” I asked him once the fat captain was out of earshot.
The more logical first question along these lines might have been, Are you married? but it didn’t occur to me at the time that a man his age wouldn’t have been married.
“No.” He took another deep swig of his beer. The can made a high, tinny sound as he set it down this time on the steel cleaning table, which was how I know he finished it. “Mrs. Holtkamp and I couldn’t have children.”
This rocked me, the extent of the disclosure.
“I don’t like beer starts to get warm down the bottom,” he told me in his laconic way, maybe to change the subject. He might have surprised himself too with his earlier words. I was scrubbing down the gunwales now with the pole-brush. “Can finish my cans now on, you want.”
Plenty of youngsters found a way to drink beer back in the day on the island. So it wasn’t too scandalous a proposition by the local standard. And however downright unsanitary the offer strikes me now, at the time it seemed like the most generous thing a grown adult had ever said to me. So I started sipping the dregs of his pilsners some afternoons. The cans were sweaty and lukewarm by the time he handed them to me. They had blue ribbons on them and verbiage that boasted their premium quality, which I didn’t think to question. The beer tasted dreadful, the cans themselves laced with an even less pleasant fishsmell from the cooler. I probably only drank as much as a half-beer any given day, just enough to fuzz up my head under the sun’s heat.
Soon, Captain Holtkamp started letting me come aboard Saturdays when there was only a single charter or when a charter canceled and he decided to go out anyway to scout for snook or harvest snapper to sell the fillets. I’d rise before dawn so as not to miss him at the dock. I’d always know first sight of him when it was okay for me to go along. I’d study his grizzled face as he veered too fast into the marina off Roosevelt, the trailer bucking over the blighted asphalt along the one-way loop to the ramp. He jutted an elbow out the truck window as he lowered the skiff down the launch into the drink. When it was okay for me to join him, he looked back at me pretty quick and showed his teeth behind his cracked lips. When it wasn’t okay, he took longer to look my way and kept his teeth hidden inside his mouth. What I think about that now is that he felt sorry for me when there wasn’t enough room on the boat, delayed making eye contact because he could hardly stand to break the news, glimpse the disappointment on my face, which I wouldn’t have thought to conceal.
I learned an awful lot those few days I joined him as mate, because most charters were greener than I was and appreciated tips from the captains on this and that. Part of what they were paying for. Leaning over the captain’s clamshell nails, while pretending all the while for the charters that I already knew what he was teaching, I learned three different ways to impale live shrimp on three-aught hooks; I learned how to cast under the mangroves; I learned how to flick line out the bail fast to feed bait into the current; I learned how to tie an Albright special knot to wire for kingfish and reef donkeys over the wrecks; I learned how to tie a surgeon’s knot to join monofilament to fluorocarbon leader. (I already knew how to tie a clinch knot, which everyone knew.) The Bimini Twist was the most complicated knot he would have taught me had things turned out different. Summer was right around the corner and I was looking forward to all the days I’d have out on the water, all I’d learn. I’d eventually have to tell my parents about my plans. They had a dim knowledge I was spending several afternoons and Saturday mornings at the dock, but they didn’t yet know about Captain Holtkamp, that I’d been out with him on his boat a half-dozen times already. It was still a time when parents, even parents like mine, offered their boys a wider berth.
A woman in a dress showed up at the captain’s cleaning station one day as I struggled over a stubborn blood-stain from the skiff’s stern with a damp rag. She wore her hair up in a complicated fashion that exposed a slender neck. It was a school day so I’d only just arrived at the dock moments before her. The Navy was testing their jet-engines at the nearby base, so it was awfully loud at the marina. From the deck of the boat, I could only hear isolated snatches of what she was saying to Captain Holtkamp, fewer of his words in response, if those were words he was speaking through his colorless lips, which barely moved. She waved her hands about as she carried on, set them on her thin hips time to time between her gesticulations. That’s how I figured she must be Mrs. Holtkamp—knowing just enough about how husbands and wives tended to address each other—even though she seemed younger and prettier and, well, classier, than anyone I would have guessed for the captain’s wife. At one point, her eyes flashed my way, then back toward the captain. I imagine she asked something about me then, that my presence merited maybe a sentence or two between them.
“So that’s your wife?” I asked between the cries of the jet engines after she strode off on heeled shoes. They made clacking noises against the wood of the dock.
“Mm-hm.” He lifted his can of pilsner to his mouth, sighed through his nose. A jet engine fired up again from the base and sustained its crescendo. I had to wait awhile to speak again.
“More or less. Seems I plum forgot an engagement tonight.” He pitched the can into the trash and started tending to his chores faster than usual, by which I mean not slow anyway, his arms stretching into sharp angles as he hosed down his rods and wiped down the stainless cleaning table. He needed to get home. I might have said something else here, something like She sure is pretty, or What’s her name? but I didn’t say anything, accommodating myself to the captain’s temperament, maybe.
Anyway, that was the first time I saw Joy Holtkamp.
It couldn’t have been too long after I saw Mrs. Holtkamp that the captain returned to the dock early from a Saturday charter. A tyke had gotten cranky out on the water. This happened more often than you’d think. The fellow with the whiny kid was awfully good about it, all apologies as he folded crisp bills of cash into the captain’s calloused palm. It was pure luck I was still hanging about the marina to tie up the skiff with a cleat knot (which Holtkamp had taught me). The captain might have called it a day, too, but stared up at me from the deck, his hands propped against his hip-bones.
“Every boy ought ‘a know how to throw a cast net,” he said. “Hop on board, no bananas on your person.” That last bit was something he said a lot. Fishermen, for whatever reason, thought it bad luck to eat bananas on a boat.
He piloted the skiff for quite a while full throttle once we cleared the no-wake, then headed in a direction we hadn’t headed before without any channel markers, threading mangrove islands that all looked the same to me. I wondered how he knew exactly where he was going. This was before GPS, and he didn’t use Loran, either, which some of the captains used. He swept the horizon with his eyes as the boat roared on plane, as we broke out into the open gulf, seemed to sniff at the salt air through generous nostrils. He wore sunglasses, but the wind still made the tears roll back from his eyes then disappear into his wispy hairline. My eyes would have been tearing too had he not forced me to sit on the cooler seat for safety behind the protection of the center console. “She can fly, she will,” he had warned just before punching the throttle, which was another one of his expressions. He stuck to the darkest blue water, I noticed, avoided brown and green patches. Flying fish launched themselves skyward time to time and glided alongside the low gunwales, seemed to float up there right beside me before gravity caught up with them. I looked back at the necklace of islands we called home, marveled that those insignificant patches of land hosted so many ordinary lives.
We finally reached the place he was aiming for as he pulled the throttle back halfway and plowed toward another mangrove island. I rose. The thicker air off-plane smelled like heat and sulfur from the mangroves, a smell that bothers some but not me. “Grassy bottom up in the shallows off the island,” he said. I could see where the gin-clear water gave way to dark green close to the land, knew enough to know that whitebait favored the protection of grassy bottom. He lifted the lower unit from a switch at the throttle once we got close to the grass, told me to head up to the anchor locker as we drifted.
“Now,” he said, so I dropped the Danforth and its chain onto the sandy bottom, edge of the grass, tied off the rope to the cleat at the bow. I had been out with him enough times by now that he didn’t have to say much, certain protocols, to get his meaning across.
First thing he did was retrieve a plastic cup and a wide-mouthed glass jar from a hatch at the stern. White remnants of a label clung to the jar, which might once have held mayonnaise but now held a brown powder that he told me was ground up cat food before I had a chance to ask. He reached over the gunwale to fill the plastic cup with a bit of salt water, then added the cat food powder to the cup, stirred it with a clamshell nail time to time between doses of powder. “Want it just pasty enough,” he said, “you can roll into little pills, throw over as chum.”
“Oh,” I said, it only just now occurring to me that the powder was for attracting the baitfish.
He untangled his cast net, the leadlines rattling against the deck. Tsk-ing at his carelessness (deck noise spooked the creatures below), he had me scatter tiny pebbles of the chum into the current licking the stern. After only a few moments, I could hear whitebait licking the surface, then saw them winking above the grass. I told the captain that the bait was here and he made his way to the stern with the net.
“Okay, watch first. Should be able to handle this old eight-footer. You throw the cord-loop over your left wrist, then take hold just under the horn same hand, see? Like it’s an ice cream cone.” He stood close to me as he offered his instruction. I could smell the sour in his breath above the sulfur from the mangroves, but I wouldn’t shrink from it.
“Then hold it out so leadline’s just off the deck and separate the leadline into halves. Or thereabouts,” he said, gazing down at the lead weights bottom of the curtain, directing my gaze with the slightest dip of his unshaven chin.
“Okay,” I said again. An osprey splashed down into the water just behind us, lifted itself skyward just as fast, its head bobbing between its wings, its silver prize writhing in its grip.
“Now pay attention, son. Tricky part.” He was squinting behind his sunglasses in such a way as to draw back his pale lips, making one of his fillings flash time to time in the back. Red marbled his cheeks, too, under the exertion. It wasn’t easy for him to hold up the weighted net this way for so long. “You roll this half the net over your wrist here, like this. See?” He repeated the movement a couple times so I’d be sure to see how he was doing it.
“Yeah, I got it.”
“Then you lift a fair piece above the leadline, put it in your teeth.” His next words were garbled, the mesh between his teeth, but the words didn’t really matter as much as his mottled hands with those clamshell nails. I watched them carefully, watched as he reached down with his right hand to grab a piece of leadline, then grab the bunched up net from around his left fist. He mumbled something else through the net that I didn’t understand at all as he hopped up on the ledge closest the transom, bent his knees and swiveled his hips, gathered the net somewhere in his crouch—seemed like a concentrated ball of potential energy for that briefest moment—then unfurled himself and his hands, spinning the net high off the stern, splaying all his fingers. It reminded me of a giant Frisbee, the way it opened up in a disk, the white of the nylon flashing against the sun for just a moment before the leadlines splashed down into the water. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
“Remember let go the net with your teeth when you throw,” he continued more intelligibly now that he wasn’t speaking through the mesh. He pulled hard on the rope to shut the net below the surface, trapping the whitebait inside. “Toughest part knowing when to pull it closed. Depends how low the fish, whether net’s one-quarter or three-eighths inch, weight of your leadlines. Trial and error. Shallow enough here not much to think on.”
The bait-pod blinked silver and blue and green in the net like Christmas tree lights as he lifted the whole thing above the bucket, reached down for the horn and lifted it to unfurl the mesh. While most of the bait dropped into the bucket, some of the smaller fish were stuck in between the mesh by their gills. It took us several minutes to free them, and only after pinching most of them in half, shedding heads, tails, entrails into the gulf.
“Best keep hands clear of the water,” he said as I leaned over the gunwale. “Sharks,” he added upon noticing my blank stare, maybe.
Once we finished our dirty work, he poured the bucket with the surviving creatures into his largest live-well. I could hear the drain slurp up the sea water as the level sloshed just below the drain pipe, then just above, then just below, the skiff bucking against our weight.
“Your turn,” he said, handed me the net.
This probably wasn’t the last day I saw Captain Horace Holtkamp, but it’s the last time I can remember, which isn’t such a bad last thing to remember about someone. What might have been a matter of days after the lesson—a week or two, maybe—I missed him at the dock, figured he’d already washed down the skiff and headed home. I missed him the next afternoon too, then the following Saturday morning, which was more unusual, not to see him on a Saturday. I stood there hangdog at his cleaning station for a good long while, which is why Captain Sergeant lumbered over to have a word with me.
“You didn’t hear?”
The fat captain lifted a hand to the beard on his chin, rubbed it a few seconds as if for good luck. “Horace had an accident, son. He’s gone.”
Weird thing is that I did hear about the fatal automobile accident on the Seven-Mile Bridge, which was on the television news the morning after it happened. I just didn’t hear the name the reporter had mentioned, and it didn’t occur to me that it might have been Captain Holtkamp. My parents didn’t know him, so the specific identity of the deceased escaped their commentary.
“Too many lousy drunks around here,” my father had said, snapping open a new page of his newspaper.
My mother, over her coffee, made more sympathetic clucking noises with her tongue, instructed my little sisters and me to clear our plates so we wouldn’t see the wreckage splashed across the screen.
I still see her from time to time. Joy Holtkamp. Like many folks her age, she comes into the bank more often than necessary to visit her small drawer in the safe deposit vault, see to her modest accounts. I’m only too pleased to meet with her. I recognized her straight away first time I saw her walk in around ten years ago. I’d already been back a while from the state university in Gainesville and a stint up in Jacksonville. A stroke had taken father before he could manage to escape the island on more favorable terms and here I was to step to the plate, take care of mother in her dotage. (My sisters had decamped for Atlanta and Charlotte and set down quick roots in the form of my nieces and nephews, as if to settle matters.) It was on the tip of my tongue to say something to Mrs. Holtkamp, that I was a boy at the dock who knew her husband years back in a certain way, if only for a short while. That I saw her there one afternoon, wearing her hair up in a bun just the way she wears it today. That I keep in my garage the eight-foot cast net in its five-gallon bucket her late husband gave to me the last time I saw him, and which I couldn’t throw worth a lick that afternoon. That I throw it better now with my daughter less often than I’d like using the same net-in-mouth technique Captain Holtkamp taught me. Yet I doubted she’d remember that afternoon we exchanged a glance, or that it was a memory she’d appreciate, given the tenor of the conversation with her late husband. Or, closer to the truth, I suppose that I like to keep my own accounts fairly close. Like my father. Like Captain Holtkamp.
Read Andrew Furman’s essay “The Problem with Pretty Birds” also appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of anchor and boat by JensEnemark, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Andrew Furman by Benjamin Rusnak.