Last Light Over Carolina, Excerpt

Chapter One

September 21, 2008   4:00 am
McClellanville, South Carolina

For three generations the pull of the tides drew Morrison men to the sea.  Attuned to the moon, they rose before first light to board wooden shrimp boats and head slowly out across black water, the heavy, green nets poised like folded wings. Tales of the sea were whispered to them in their mothers’ laps, they earned their sea legs as they learned to walk, and they labored on the boats soon after.  Shrimping was all they knew or ever wanted to know.  It was in their blood.

Bud Morrison opened his eyes and pushed back the thin, cotton blanket.  Shafts of gray light through the shutters cast a ragged pattern against the wall.  He groaned and shifted his weight in an awkward swing to sit at the edge of his bed, head bent, feet on the floor.  His was a seaman’s body-hard weathered and scarred.  He scratched his jaw, his head, his belly, a morning ritual, waking slowly in the leaden light.  Then with another sigh, he stiffly rose to stand.  His knees creaked louder than the bedsprings and he winced at aches and pains so old he’d made peace with them. Standing, he could turn his knee to let it slip back into place with a small pop.

A salty wind whistled through the open window, fluttering the pale curtains. Bud walked across the wood floor to peer out at the sky.  He scowled when he saw shadowy, finger-like clouds clutching the moon in a hazy grip.

“Wind’s blowin.”

Bud turned toward the voice.  Carolina lay on her belly on their bed, her head to the side facing an open palm.  Her eyes were still closed.

“Not too bad,” he replied in a gravelly voice.

She stirred, raising her hand to swipe a lock of hair from her face.  “I’ll make your breakfast.”  She raised herself on elbows, her voice resigned.

“Nah, you sleep.”

His stomach rumbled and he wondered if he was some kind of fool for not nudging his wife to get up and make him his usual breakfast of pork sausage and biscuits. Lord knew his father never gave his mother a day off from work.  Or his kids, for that matter.  Not during shrimping season.  But he was not his father and Carolina had a bad tooth that kept her tossing and turning half the night.  She didn’t want to spend money they didn’t have to see the dentist, but the pain was making her hell on wheels to live with and in the end, she’d have to go anyway.

He’d urged her to go but she refused. It infuriated Bud that she wouldn’t because it pointed to how he was unable to provide basic services for his family. This tore him up inside, a kind of feeling only another man would understand.

They’d had words about it the night before.  He shook his head and let the curtain drop.  Man, that woman could be stubborn.  No, he thought, he’d rather have a little peace than prickly words this morning.

“I’m only going out for one haul,” he told her. “Back by noon, latest.”

“Be careful out there,” she replied with a muffled yawn as she buried her face back into the pillows.

He stole a moment to stare at the ample curves of her body under the crumpled sheet. There was a time he’d crawl back into the scented warmth of the bed he’d shared with Carolina for over thirty years. Even after all that time there was something about the turn of her chin, the roundness of her shoulders, and the earthy, fulsome quality of her beauty that still caused his body to stir.  Carolina’s red hair was splayed out across the pillow and in the darkness he couldn’t see the slender streaks of gray that he knew distressed her.  Carolina was not one for hair color or make up and Bud liked her natural, so the gray stayed. Lord knew his own hair was turning gray, he thought, running his hand over his scalp as he headed for the bathroom.

Bud took pride in being a clean man.  His hands might be scraped, his fingers broken with discolored nails, but they were scrubbed.  Nothing fancy or scented. He tugged the gold band from his ring finger then slipped it on a gold chain and affixed it around his neck.  He didn’t wear his ring on the boat, afraid it would get caught in the machinery. The cotton pants and shirt he slipped on were scrupulously laundered but no matter what Carolina tried she couldn’t get rid of the stains.  Or the stink of fish. This was the life they chose.

As he brushed his teeth he thought the face that stared back at him looked older than his 57 years.  A lifetime of salt and sea had navigated a deep course across his weathered face. Long lines from the eyes down to his jaw told tales of hard hours under a brutal sun.  A quick smile brightened his eyes like sunshine on blue water. Carolina always told him she loved the sweet smell of shrimp on his body.  It took her years to get used to it but in time she said it made her feel safe.  He spit out the toothpaste and wiped his smile with the towel. What a woman his Carolina was. God help him, he still loved her, he thought, tossing the towel in the hamper and cutting off the light.

Carolina’s face was dusky in the moonlight.  He walked to the bedside and bent to kiss her cheek goodbye.  He paused, held in check by the stirring of an old resentment.  The distance to her cheek felt too far.  Sighing, he drew back.  Instead, he lifted the sheet higher over her shoulders.  Soundlessly, he closed the door.

He rubbed his aching knee as he made his way down ancient stairs to the kitchen.  The old house was dark but he didn’t need a light to navigate his way through the narrow halls. White Gables had been in Carolina’s family since 1897 in a town founded by her ancestors. When they weren’t working on the boat they were working to infuse new life into the aged frame house, repairing costly old woodwork and heart pine floors, fighting an interminable battle against salt, moisture and termites.  His father often chided him about it, telling him it was like throwing more sand on a beach with a strong current. In his heart, Bud knew the old man was right but Carolina loved the house and the subject of leaving it was moot. Even in the dim light he saw evidence of it in the shine of the brass doorknobs, the sparkle on the glass windows, and the neat arrangement of the inherited, threadbare sofa and chairs.   Every morning when he walked through the silent old house, he was haunted by the worry that he’d cause Carolina to be the last of her family to live here.

Bud went straight to the kitchen and opened the fridge, He leaned against the cool metal, staring in, searching for whatever might spark his appetite. With a sigh he grabbed a six-pack and shut the door.  The breakfast of champions, he thought as he popped open a can of beer.  The cool brew slaked his thirst, waking him further. Then he grabbed a few ingredients from the pantry and tossed them in a brown bag: onions, garlic, potatoes, grits, coffee.  Pee Dee would cook up a seaman’s breakfast later, after the haul.  He tossed in the rest of the beer.

At the door he stuck his feet into a pair of white rubber boots, stuffing his pant legs tightly inside the high rim. The Red Ball boots with their deep grooved soles and high tops were uniform for shimpers.  They did the job of keeping him sure footed on a rolling deck and prevented small crabs from creeping in. He rose stiffly, rubbing the small of his back.  Working on the water took its toll on a man’s body with all the falls, twists and heavy lifting.

“Stop complaining, old woman,” he scolded himself.  “The sun won’t wait.”  He scooped up the brown bag from the table, flipped a cap on his head and headed out of the house.

The moon was a sliver in the dark sky and his heels crunched loudly along the stone walkway. Several ancient oaks, older than the house, lined their property along Pinckney Street. Their low, hanging branches lent a note of melancholy to the dark night.

The air was soft this early in the morning.  Cooler.  The rise and fall of insects singing in the thick summer foliage sounded jungle-like.  He drove a few blocks along narrow streets. McClellanville was a small, quaint village along the coast of South Carolina between Charleston and Myrtle Beach.  There used to be many similar coastal towns from North Carolina to Florida back when shrimping was king and a man could make a good living for his family.  In his own lifetime, Bud had seen shrimping villages disappear as the value of coastal land skyrocketed and the cost of local shrimp plummeted.  Docks were sold and the weathered shrimp boats were replaced by glossy pleasure boats.  Local families who’d fished these waters for generations moved on. Bud wondered how much longer McClellanville could hold on to the fishing tradition.

His headlights carved a swath through the inky darkness revealing the few cars and pickup trucks of captains and crews parked in the lot.  He didn’t see Pee Dee’s dilapidated Ford. Bud sighed and checked the clock on his dashboard.  It was 4:30 am.  Where the hell was that sorry excuse of a deckhand, he thought?

He followed the sound of water slapping against the shore and the pungent smell of diesel fuel, salt, and rotting fish to the docks.  Drawing close he breathed deep and felt the stirring of his fisherman’s blood.  He felt more at home here on the ramshackle docks than in his sweet smelling house on Pinckney Street.  Gone were the tourists, the folks coming to buy local shrimp, and the old sailors who hung around retelling stories.  In the wee hours of morning the docks were quiet save for the fishermen working with fevered intensity against the dawn.  Lights on the trawlers shone down on the rigging, colored flags and bright trim, lending the docks an eerie, carnival appearance.

His heels reverberated on the long avenue of rotting wood and tilting pilings that ran over mud flats spiked with countless oysters.  Bud passed two sixty-foot trawlers-the Village Lady and the Miss Georgia, their engines already churning the water. He quickened his step. The early bird catches the worm, he thought, lifting his hand in a wave. Buster Gay, a venerable captain and an old mate, returned the wave with his free hand, eyes intent on his work.

The docks were quiet. There were fewer boats docked every year, dwindling from fifteen to seven in as many years. Of these, only five would be heading out today.  Roller-coaster fuel prices and the dumping of foreign shrimp on the market made it hardly worth taking out the boat any more. Captains were selling their boats.

Bud continued down the dock, sidestepping bales of rope, rickety planks, and hard, white droppings from gulls. As he passed the boats he took note of one boat’s chipping paint, another’s thick layer of rust.  Every boat had a distinctive look. Each boat had a story.

“Hey Bud,” called out LeRoy Simmons as he passed.  “Looks like rain coming.”

“Yep,” Bud replied, looking up to the deck of the big, sixty-five foot trawler, the Queen Betty, where Leroy was hunched over his nets.  “Wind, too.”

LeRoy grunted in agreement.  “We oughta get a day’s work in.”

“A half day, at least.”

“At least.  I’m hopin’ the rain flushes the shrimp down.”

Bud waved and walked on.  There wasn’t time for small talk.  Bud had known LeRoy all his life.  LeRoy was second generation of a McClellanville family of African American shrimpers. Captain Simmons could bring in more shrimp on a blustery day than most other boats on a good day and Bud knew it took a lot more than luck.

Time was, a captain with the reputation of bringing home the shrimp had his pick of top crew because the strikers got a percentage of the day’s catch instead of salary. Now the catch was unpredictable if not downright pitiful.  Too often, the crew got little money and drifted off to higher paying jobs on land. It was damn near impossible for a captain to hire on decent crew.

In this, LeRoy was more than lucky, too.  Bud glanced back at the Queen Betty to see LeRoy and his two brothers nimbly moving their fingers over the nets, searching for tears. The Simmons brothers worked together like a well-oiled machine. He grimaced, remembering the days he and his brother worked together.  Poor Bobby…  Then he scowled, thinking of his own nets and the work that needed to be done before he could shove off.  Where the hell was Pee Dee?

Peter Deery was born to a dirt poor farming family on the Pee Dee River, and the nickname stuck.  For all the damage booze and drugs had done to his brain, Pee Dee was clean and sober on deck, as nimble as a monkey on the rigging, and worked harder than two men. He was his cousin once removed.  Sometimes Bud wished he was more removed. A man couldn’t pick his family but a captain could pick his crew –and Pee Dee was somewhere in the middle.

Bud’s frown lifted when through the mist and dim light he spied the Miss Carolina waiting for him at the end of the dock.  His chest expanded taking the sight in.    The Miss Carolina was a graceful craft, sleek and strong like the woman she was named for.  He’d built the fiberglass and wood trawler with his own hands and knew each nook and cranny of her fifty foot frame.  He spent more time with this boat than any woman alive and his wife often complained that the Miss Carolina was more his mistress than his boat. He’d shake his head and laugh, inclined to agree.

Every spring he gave Miss Carolina a fresh coat of glistening white paint and the berry red trim that marked all the Morrison boats.  Yes, she was a mighty pretty boat.  His eyes softened just looking at her.  All captains had their families–and loved them dearly.  Yet there was a special love reserved for their boat.

The morning’s quiet was shattered by the roar of an engine coming alive.  Bud swung his head around to see the Queen Betty making her way out to sea, her green and white mast lights flashing in the dark.   Ol’ Leroy would have his nets dropped by sunup, he thought with a scowl.  Damn, he’d get the best spot, too.

Fifteen minutes later the Miss Carolina’s diesel engine was growling and Bud had a mug of hot coffee his hand.  He sat in the pilothouse, breathing in the scents of diesel fuel mingled with coffee and listened to the marine radio for weather reports.  The boat rocked beneath him, churning the water like a boiling pot. After finishing his coffee he began his chores. There was always one more job needed doing, one last repair he had to see to before he could break away from the dock.  He needed to get ice in, fueled up, and some rope…  Bud sighed and shook his head.  He couldn’t wait for Pee Dee to show up.  He might as well get rolling.  Bud climbed down from the boat to the dock.

A weathered warehouse with a green and red painted sign that read COASTAL SEAFOOD dominated the waterfront.  The warehouse was the heart of the docks where fisherman could get fuel, ice, and gear, then unload shrimp at the end of the day.  Under its rusted awning a few men in stained pants and white boots stood smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee in Styrofoam cups and bantering while waiting to load ice.  They grunted greetings as Bud moved past them. Inside it was a sparse room with a few metal chairs and tables and a roughened plywood counter.

A young, broad shouldered man with unruly, dark hair leaned against the counter. He wore a denim jacket against the morning chill and white rubber boots over his worn and stained jeans.  He looked both boyish and edgy, with the congenial air of a man well liked.  He turned when Bud approached and broke into a lazy grin.

“Hey Bud,” he called out.

“Hey Josh,” he replied, hearing the resignation in his own voice.  He didn’t expect to see Josh Truesdale this morning.

“I was hoping I’d run into you,” Josh said, straightening.

Yeah?” Bud replied, stepping beside him at the counter.  Josh met Bud eye to eye.  Bud narrowed his. “And why’s that?”

Josh shook his head with a wry grin.  “Don’t look so worried, Cap’n.   I ain’t gonna launch into Lizzy now.”

Bud barely suppressed his grin that the kid hit the nail on the head.  His daughter was exactly the subject he was hoping to avoid.  “You know I don’t have nothin’ more to say to you on that subject.  You and Lizzie-that’s your problem.  Not mine.”

“I hear you,” he replied.  “But I got this other problem I was hoping you’d take a look at.  My winch.  Not my wench.”  He chuckled at his joke.

Bud’s eyes flashed in warning.  He didn’t care for jokes about his daughter.

Josh’s smile fell hard.  “Sorry,” he blurted. “You know I didn’t mean no disrespect.”

Bud liked Joshua Truesdale; always had.  There weren’t many young men going into shrimping these days. He could count the ones he knew on one hand.  Most of the captains in these parts were too old and too stubborn to change their ways. Josh was one of a new breed of shrimpers. Though he came from an old line of fishermen in the Shem Creek area, Josh had new ideas on how he could make the business pay.  While Bud liked his enthusiasm, sometimes those new ideas made the kid a bit cocky.  Still, Josh Truesdale was the best deckhand he’d ever had.

Even if he was the worst son-in-law.

“Well,” Bud drawled, lifting his hand to signal to Tom Wiggins behind the counter.  “I sure don’t got the time to help you now.”

Tom was a small, wiry man who looked to Bud like a gray squirrel with his gray stained clothes and a wreath of gray, frizzy curls and beard that was as bushy as a squirrel’s tail.   Ol’ Tom had worked this counter for as long as Bud could remember and the thing of it was, he looked the same when Bud was a kid as he did now.

“Tommy, you got a couple hundred feet of ¾ inch rope back there?”

“Yeah, hold on and I’ll get you some.”

“What’s the matter with your winch?” Bud asked, turning again to Josh.

“Keeps slipping.  Has no tension.”

“And what can I do?”

“I remembered how you jerry-rigged your winch.”

Bud rubbed his jaw.  Adjustments on equipment were common enough among captains. Especially among those who’d built their own boat to their own specifications, as he had.  Bud didn’t always have the money to buy a new part or maybe he didn’t even know what part could do the job he had in mind, so it called on him to be inventive.  Most every boat had been rigged by its captain in one way or another.  It was a point of pride and gave a boat its personality.

“I’m always tinkering with that old winch,” he replied.  “But I don’t rightly know that I can recall what I did to it.”

“Come on, Bud.  Everyone knows you’re the best damn mechanic in these parts.”

“That’s for true,” added Tom.

Bud scratched behind his ear with a self-conscious smile, not immune to flattery.

“Will this do?” asked Tom, handing over the rope

Bud made a cursory inspection.  “Yeah, it’ll do.  Put it on my tab.”

Tom blanched and rubbed his neck.  “Sorry, Bud.  Can’t do that.  Everything’s on a cash basis now.”

Bud’s head jerked up.  “Since when?”

“Since nobody can pay their bills and are falling behind.  I don’t mean you,” he stammered.  “But, hell, Bud, you know how the times are.  I got no choice and I can’t be making exceptions. That’s the word I got direct from Lee and I got to do it.  Or I’d make one for you.  You know that.”

Bud’s ears colored and he tightened his lips as a surge of anger shot through him.  Lee Edwards once was like a brother to him but he’d proved to be more Cain than Abel and there’d been bad blood ever since.  It still burned that Lee had done so well over the years. He owned Coastal Seafood and just about all the preferred real estate along the docks. Bud hated to admit it but Lee was a good business man. If the shrimp boats failed, Lee would still be sitting pretty.

Bud silently cursed. His haul was hardly worth a day’s wage, and that was before taxes.  Hell, Lee and his pals probably spent more on lunch than Bud earned in a day. Running a tab at the fish house was how most fishermen made it through a rough patch.   Most every shrimper in town was in hock to him and it gnawed at Bud that he was one of them.

“Well, shit, Tom,” he said, struggling to keep his anger in check. “I didn’t plan on buying rope this morning and I don’t have enough cash on me.”

“Here, let me,” Josh said, pulling a worn black leather wallet from his back pocket.”

“No way,” Bud said gruffly.  “I don’t need your money.  I can pay my own bills.”

“I ain’t saying you can’t.  I’m just lending it to you.  No big deal.  Besides, I owe you.”

“You don’t owe me nothing, son.”

“I think you know I do.”  His emotion was too strong and he cleared his throat.  “You can take it as a down payment for working on my winch.”

Bud struggled with a reply.  He’d never take a handout but this seemed fair–and he needed that rope now.

“I reckon I could come by and take a look at that winch later today or tomorrow, weather depending.”

“Yes, sir.  Any time.”

Bud nodded, grateful for Josh’s respectful tone.  And the kid had a winning smile.  It must’ve been the dark tan that made his teeth shine so white.  He wasn’t blind to the fact that his daughter, Lizzy, still thought so, too.

Josh laid out bills on the plywood counter.

Tom gingerly handed the rope into Bud’s hands, relieved to have the transaction settled amicably.  “Sorry about that.  Nothin’ personal.”

“Yeah, sure,” Bud murmured.  “You tell Lee Edwards he can stick his policy where the sun don’t shine. Nothin’ personal.”  Bud hoisted the net and turned to leave.

“Where’s your boy?”  Josh asked, tucking his wallet back into his pocket.  “Don’t you usually send Pee Dee on these errands?”

“Ain’t seen him,” Bud replied, walking out.

“He’s probably on some bender again,” Josh quipped.  “What a loser.”

Bud turned fast and walked back toward Josh.  No matter what Bud might think or say about his own, he wouldn’t allow anyone else to slander them, not even Josh.

Josh took a step back as Bud leaned close.  In a low voice he said, “Pee Dee and the Miss Carolina aren’t your concern any more.  Nor, for that matter, is my daughter. Got that?”

Josh straightened his spine and locked eyes with Bud.  “Lizzy is my concern.  But I’m sorry for what I said about Pee Dee.”

Bud considered Josh’s words, impressed by his unflinching gaze.  He remembered the boy but this depth of feeling reflected a man.  Maybe the kid grew up some in the five years since Lizzy dumped him.  Bud acknowledged Josh’s apology with a curt nod and stepped back.

“I’ll come by your boat later.”

He hoisted the rope then walked out, but not before he heard Tom mutter to Josh, “Boy, ain’t you learned your lesson yet?”

By force of will, Bud shoved the roiling thoughts about Pee Dee, Lizzie and Josh into a far corner of his mind to deal with later when the nets were dragging and he had time on his hands. Thinking about all that was like dredging the mud. Right now he had to clear his head and focus.  Without Pee Dee here it’d take twice as long.  He still had to load the ice and more work to get done on his own than he had time to do it.

Bud put his back to it.  As each minute passed, with each chore he ticked off his list, Bud’s anger was stoked till it fired a burn in his belly.  He knew in his heart that Josh was right and that Pee Dee was likely on some bender.  He ground his teeth, feeling the betrayal of the no-show.

A short while later the roar of engines sounded and he jerked up to look out over the bow.  The final two boats slowly cruised along the narrow creek toward the Atlantic.  Josh’s small but sturdy 45 foot, the Hope, followed in the bigger boat’s wake.  Clever boy, he thought with grudging respect.  With his smaller boat and his ideas for niche markets, he might do all right.  Shrimping always was a young man’s sport.

Bud cleared his throat and spit into the ocean.  But there was a lot of life left in this salty old dog, he thought, rolling his shoulders.  He’d match his experience against some young Turk any day.  Bud pressed the small of his back while his brows gathered. At times the pain was so severe it felt like a hot iron was being jammed into his lower lumbar.

Time was wasting.  It was already late.  Bud crossed his arms while he mulled over the pros and cons of the decision that faced him. The dawn was fast approaching.  He couldn’t wait for Pee Dee any longer.  Could he go it alone?

It’d be tough to take a boat this size out alone, and he wasn’t as young as he used to be.  But he’d done it before, hadn’t he? Bud cast a wary glance at the gathering clouds.  He wasn’t fooled by the seeming serenity of the drifting clouds.  His experienced eye knew they were the tips of a rain front likely to hit sometime later that afternoon.  At least he hoped the rain would hold off.  God knew he desperately needed a good haul today and it would be easier to get in and unloaded before the first drops fell.

No doubt about it.  It would be a risk out there alone if the wind picked up.  But he’d only be out for one haul.  He’d be back in dock before things got rough.

Bud brought his arms tight around his chest and narrowed his eyes.  To his mind, a man worked hard to take care of his family.  He did whatever he could, whatever toll it took. With or without a crew, he was the captain of this vessel and it was his duty to bring home the shrimp.  He leaned forward, gripping the railing tight and stared out at the docks.  He only needed to bring in one good haul to pay the diesel fuel bill.  One good haul, he repeated to himself, and he could keep his boat on the water.

What choice did he have?  Failure would mean the loss of everything he’d worked so hard for.

Bud tugged down the rim of his cap, his decision made.

“Well, all right then.”