Bill O’Neal ran the Ocracoke fish house for 30 years before time and money and a general decline in a way of life forced him to close its doors. Tyler Evans used to break free of his mother’s summertime chores and run down creek from Howard Street every afternoon hoping to catch his father coming in. Bill watched for the sandy haired boy, turning his head when he heard the oyster shells crackling under Tyler’s bare feet. Jennie Evans had warned Bill if he ever caught her son down there he was to send him right back home, that she didn’t need the sound stealing both her men’s souls. Bill knew, and suspected she did too, that the Pamlico had already won that battle.
It became pretty regular that Tyler spent his afternoons at the fish house, sneaking through the scuttle in the side of the building and acting sheepish when Bill pretended he didn’t know where he’d come from. When he got big enough Bill put him to work. Nothing too strenuous and mostly things that somebody else could do but Bill knew the small chores made the boy feel important. Stacking bushel baskets, hosing down cleaning tables, washing out coolers. He liked having Tyler around as much as Tyler wanted to be there.
Tyler often got distracted by the boats coming in, drawn especially to the Gulf Stream rigs and the shiny yellow underbellies of the dolphin fish on deck. Flat bottomed, deep sea boats and trawlers tied up abreast one another in the slips, off loading their hauls in a sea of exchanges about which ledges they’d fished and what the tide and winds were doing that day.
“Hard blow from dain saind this morning,” a trawler boat captain said about the wind out of the sound south of the inlet. The island was 20 miles off mainland and isolation had rendered Ocracokers with their own language. The brogue was fading with the industry but the watermen held onto it with as fierce a resolve as they did their livelihood.
“That right, Bucky?” Bill said, slinging shrimp baskets from deck to dock. “You did right good for a winard draw then.”
“Didn’t head in the wind. Couldn’t. The Andromeda’s the only boat I seen head south today. Cawley Evans must get into them feesh on them Hog Oisland shoals to chance it loike he does,” the captain said.
Guys in the fish house said things like this about Tyler’s father from time to time, that he was a real crackpot when it came to chancing the tides or a half-wit as the older captains saw it. All Tyler knew was that the Andromeda caught more fish than any other long haul rig on the island. And nobody could argue that.
When Tyler was young as much as 50,000 lbs of seafood a day went through the fish house. Vendors from Hatteras took the ferry over every Friday in the summers to stockpile their freezer trucks for the changeover in the tourist week. No one had yet sold their rigs or gotten their charter boat captain’s license. There were still signs of life. Tyler dreamed about his own boat, tempted by the Gulf Stream but knowing that his veins ran thick with the sound waters his father worked. He’d wanted an old deadrise like the Andromeda, wooden hulled and big enough to put a crabbing rig up if he chose.
Bill teased him when he caught Tyler daydreaming, mommucked him as the old timers said, telling him that if he couldn’t keep up with the dock chores he’d send him to work with Scratch. He knew the old black man who ran the steamers and did the oyster shucking scared the daylight out of the boy. Scratch never said much, just took the orders about how many bushels were needed and what seasoning they got. Story went when he was a kid he lost vision in his right eye to his brother’s slingshot. Bill knew he was harmless, but even he got a little unnerved when Scratch came out of the steam room, all the cookers going, a cloudy haze surrounding him and the milky white of his right eye rolling in its socket.
Tyler got right serious when the Andromeda sounded over the CB that she was coming through the Ditch. Cawley Evans was a long haul man, seining the waters just off the shoals. He had a whole rig that accompanied the 36-foot Andromeda, a net skiff and another engine-powered boat. The Andromeda and the second boat pulled the seine net out from the skiff in a U-shape, tightening the 1,000 or so yards of it until the U closed, keeping the fish trapped inside. When the net was secured they started bunting up, hauling it back on board, the bagging end full of fish resting between the skiff and the Andromeda. Cawley and his crew bailed croaker, red drum and trout onto the deck, standing knee deep on a good day in 5,000 lbs of fish.
It was easy to see why Tyler admired his father the way he did. Cawley was one of the good ones. They both hoped for a mild winter, Cawley so the mackerel kept running and Tyler so the marshes around Silver Lake Creek, the harbor that housed the fish house and opened up through the Ditch, wouldn’t freeze. He wanted to be able to swim across the creek in January on his tenth birthday, a rite of passage for a boy going out on his father’s rig. Cawley had worked the sound since he was 16, getting up before dawn to pull shrimp nets on his father’s trawler and hopping off board in time to get to second period most days, sometimes third. Back then it was assumed that if an Ocracoke boy couldn’t make it to homeroom, he had good reason.
“Smeedget behavin’ himself today, Bill?” Cawley asked once the catch was culled and packed out. Smidget was a term reserved for anything small like Tyler, being no more than four feet tall and 50 lbs soaking wet. Cawley was a big man, six feet and a few inches with wide-set shoulders and a thick back from hauling in seine nets. There was some hope for his son.
“Had to throw ‘eem back in the steam room a few times,” Bill said.
“I’ll get the paddle to ‘eem at home,” his father said. But Tyler knew he wouldn’t. Cawley didn’t believe in it. Most people fathomed he’d had enough of the paddle and the belt and whatever Tyler’s grandfather got his hands on after a day’s work and a few too many swigs. When Cawley started working on the old man’s rig and was too old and too strong to take beatings anymore his father stopped coming home after work. Cawley’s mother got a phone call whenever the bar was kicking him out for the night. She’d send Cawley down in the Buick to pick up his father who was often too drunk to walk through the door.
After Cawley had been paid for his catch and paid his crew, he and Tyler rode home up Howard Street in the pickup, detouring for a chocolate ice cream cone. Tyler sat in the cab, licking and slurping the brown mess that dripped in between his fingers and down his chin. Cawley didn’t get mad when a dark sticky spot appeared on the stitched grey interior of the Dodge.
“You’re already catchin’ enough hell from your mother when that plate’s not clean,” he said.
Tyler figured he probably would, but he’d catch all the hell in the world if it meant he could get an ice cream cone with Cawley every day.
Two weeks before Tyler’s tenth birthday Cawley’s right hand started going stiff. Not a bad stiff and not noticeable all the time, but he started having trouble making it do what he wanted. It first happened after he’d picked up Tyler from school. The January wind had just started to bite and Cawley said he’d get him after he got done at the fish house so he wouldn’t have to walk. They had to stop at the gas man’s to pay for the fill up he’d gotten at the house a few weeks back. People still trusted each other like that. When they got out of the truck and up to the front stoop, Cawley in front and Tyler in tow, Cawley pulled his right hand from his pocket to knock on Mr. Gaskill’s door. He got it up to eye level and stopped, his palm still flat, his knuckles straining against the air holding them back.
He turned his wrist and stared at his palm, bewildered, like his hand wouldn’t work. Because it wouldn’t.
Tyler jammed his own hands down in his pockets and kicked at the stoop. Cawley blinked. Maybe it was just the cold. He wrapped on the front door with the butt end of his palm until they were let in.
After they got home that night and had dinner and Tyler had gone to bed, Cawley sat in his recliner trying to put it out of his mind. When he couldn’t he told Jennie about it.
“Just a muscle tensin’ up. You were probably nervous. Didn’t want old Mr. Gaskill thinking you had short-changed him, that’s all,” she said.
“Reckon you’re right,” he said.
“You’re fine.” She came over to his chair and kissed him on the cheek. His skin was rough with the faintest taste of salt even after he’d showered.
Jennie didn’t know if he was fine or if he believed her or if she even believed herself. Only that if something was happening to her husband there was no use getting him worked up about it.
Cawley forgot about it by the weekend. They were well into January now and the bluefish were the only steady catch, a tougher sell than the Spanish mackerel and flounder that had hung around through December. Tyler’s birthday was getting close and neither he nor Cawley had gotten his wish. The offshore waters were just cold enough to push the fish south and the inshore waters had begun to freeze around the marshes. Tyler decided that being born in January was just about the most unfair thing that could happen to a person and became right mopey around the house.
“Tyler Evans,” his mother said, “if you ain’t the sorriest looking thing I ever saw. Wanderin’ around my house like a ghost. Feelin’ doasted, are ya?” she asked.
“Feel fine,” he said.
“Well then. I’d appreciate some help with these sheets.” The Evans could afford a few small luxuries and since the winter had set in the wind off the harbor came right through the insulation in their old house. Jennie decided they could spend a little extra on flannel sheets to keep their toes warm at night.
Cawley didn’t much put up with whining but he felt a little bit bad for Tyler. When Jennie told him of his son’s foul moods he had no trouble guessing why, having been an island boy himself and remembering his own 10th birthday. It had been in September though, a few days shy of Bill O’Neal’s. They swam neck and neck the whole time, Cawley beating him just by a forearm’s length at the buoy, which Bill still swore was only because of his height.
The day before Tyler’s birthday, Cawley and Bill sat in the Pony Island Restaurant waiting on Bill’s wife Leanne to bring them the last pieces of her fig cake.
“Boy’s turnin’ 10 tomorrow, is he?” Bill asked. All the rigs had gotten in around lunchtime and he decided to close down early, it being a Friday and mostly poor hauls coming in as it was.
Cawley took out a cigarette and matches from inside his coveralls.
“If you can believe it,” he said through the left side of his lips, the Pall Mall clamped between the right. He struck a match and brought it to his face with the tips of his thumb and forefinger, years worth of engine grease and Pamlico mud driven hard up in his fingernails.
“Gonna let ‘eem try for it?” Bill asked. Cawley shook his head.
“You know our fathers woulda.” Bill took a slug of his coffee and grinned.
Cawley drug out his cigarette and let it idle in the ashtray.
“And then Pap’d made me carry ‘eem home when I got back,” he said.
Mr. O’Neal had been a friend of Cawley’s father’s and one of the only people who ever said anything to him about the way he wore out the liquor and his son. He died the same year the boys turned ten, hardly a month after. It was a Sunday. The DNR had already forbid commercial catching on those days but the waters were calm and he had gone out alone, like most watermen did when they got antsy for the sound. The Coast Guard found his boat abandoned a few miles off shore. Days later his body washed up on the sound side, on the beach of a vacation cottage. They speculated he’d had a heart attack and fell overboard. Bill never wanted much to do with being out on the rigs after that. He started working the fish house in high school and had stayed on since he dropped out after the 11th grade. He and Leanne hadn’t had kids. Cawley never heard him talk about it, just figured he had enough to take care of. Most of what went between the two was unspoken. A guy like Cawley needed a guy like Bill, someone he could depend on if things ever were to go wrong out there.
Leanne slid two plates across the counter and called for Bill to come pick them up.
“First class service around here,” Bill said, getting out of the booth.
“Same kind you get at home, and neither of ‘em do you pay me.” Leanne had managed the Pony Island for a time now and Cawley thought he saw the way it wore on her. But she always smiled when he and Bill came through the door on Friday afternoons.
When they finished eating Bill left a five on the table for both of them. He got up and waited for Cawley to do the same.
“Hangin’ around?” he asked. Cawley had zipped up his coveralls, his right arm lay on the table and his left palm pushed against it.
“Told Jennie I’d meet her here and we’d roide up to school and get Toyler,” he said. His arms slid off the table and he fell back against the vinyl booth.
Bill pulled his hat down over his ears. “Don’t be babyin’ the boy so much now.” He grinned and turned toward the door.
Cawley watched him wave goodbye to Leanne and head out into the fading January afternoon, staying in the booth awhile after he was gone, waiting until he could make his legs move again.
Tyler woke up as a ten year-old smelling hotcakes. It was a Saturday. He came downstairs to find Cawley at the kitchen table, drinking black coffee and reading the tide charts. This wasn’t always the case for Saturdays, most of which Cawley worked and only one did Tyler turn a year older. But today was different and he was happy to sit down across from his father.
“You think of anything special about today?” Cawley looked up from his charts and asked Jennie.
“Not that I can recall,” she said, pouring batter on the skillet.
“How ‘bout you, Toyler – you think of anything?”
Tyler had started to squirm in his seat.
“Daaad,” he said.
“What?” Cawley got a kick out of things like this. Jennie rolled her eyes.
“My birthday!” Tyler all but squealed.
“I suppose you think you’ve got a present comin’ then,” Jennie said. She turned to the stove and flipped a hotcake.
“Do I?” he asked, more of his father than of her.
“I think I can find one someplace,” Cawley said. He got up and went to the hall closet where he’d kept the rod for the past few weeks. Jennie had tied a red ribbon around the reel.
Tyler’s eyes grew big when he saw Cawley coming back down the hall with the rod. This was a real six and a half footer with an underspin reel and a full handle and to Tyler the very best rod that had ever been. And his father’s hand shook when he handed it to him.
Jennie said maybe it’d be good if he could get to the doctor, just to check things out, but she was sure he was fine.
“I heard it’s a sodium thing. Maybe don’t eat as much salt. Sure that’s all it is,” she said. That might’ve been the reason for his hand shaking, something she’d noticed more at night, mostly when he went to pick up his fork or pour himself iced tea or when they made love. But she didn’t know what was causing it to seize up or his legs to falter so much when he got out of bed in the morning.
Jennie didn’t want to think about something being wrong with her husband. She could only remember two times since high school that he’d had to miss work, once when he was rushed over on the ferry for appendicitis and the other when he had the stomach flu so bad he couldn’t keep anything down for three days. He was Cawley Evans, the boy every mother on the island wanted her daughter to marry and her son to be. He was indestructible. She still wasn’t sure why he’d picked the runtish dark-haired girl with a bad temper and a harsh tongue. But he had and the day they got married in the First United Methodist Church he took her small hands in his big ones and told her not to ever change. They had made a good life together and she prayed every night that it would stay that way.
Dr. Bedley was the only doctor on the island and Cawley had seen him since he was a boy. He told Cawley he couldn’t diagnose him and sent him up the beach to a doctor at the hospital in Nags Head who could run some tests.
“Can’t you just give me somethin’? Gotta be some kinda peel, right?” he asked, very well knowing that a trip up to Nags Head was a whole day shot.
“ ‘Fraid not.”
Cawley stared at the tops of his shoes.
“Well, how serious is it?”
Dr. Bedley took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose.
“Thing is, Cawley, there’s two kinds of serious. The serious when time is on your side and the serious when it isn’t. This is the second kind,” he said.
Jennie took off work from the B&B where she kept the books and made sure Tyler could go to her mother’s after school that Friday. She and Cawley took the Dodge on the 45-minute ferry ride across to Hatteras and made the hour and a half drive up highway 12 to the hospital in Nags Head.
Cawley had his blood drawn and his brain and spine scanned while Jennie sat in the waiting room. The nurse told her she could come back and wait for the specialist after the tests were through. When she got back there, Cawley had already put his clothes on and thrown out his hospital gown. He sat on the examining table, keeping his right hand close to his body with his fingers outstretched against his thigh. His worn white sneakers dangled just above the floor. He looked young, boyish and thoughtful, the way she’d seen her son consider his father unloading his tackle box or boarding up windows before a storm. Jennie often thought she saw so much of Cawley in Tyler, but in that hospital she saw Tyler in her husband.
The specialist introduced himself and outstretched his hand first to Cawley, whose own hand faltered in the slightest. If the doctor noticed, he didn’t say anything and moved along to shake Jennie’s. He looked over his charts, asked Cawley to relax his legs and took out his mallet. His knees jerked forward as the doctor tapped them, farther than Cawley ever remembered them having done when he was a kid. He put his glasses on, made some notes on his chart and told them there wasn’t any diagnostic procedure for Cawley’s condition. The blood-work and scans were just to rule out other possibilities and he’d like for Cawley to come back and do further nerve testing, but that he was convinced of what they were dealing with.
“Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.”
Cawley and Jennie stared at him.
“Can you write that down?” Jennie asked.
The specialist peered over the rim of his black-framed glasses. “I’ll give you a pamphlet. It has information about ALS, including therapy options and treatments,” he said.
“So there’s medicine?” Cawley asked. “That’ll make my hand and my legs quit seizin’ up?”
He said there were two forms, one that would control the muscle stiffness and spasms and another that would slow down the progression of the disease.
“Have you heard of Lou Gehrig? The famous Yankee. It’s very rare, especially in men your age, but it isn’t unheard of. Is your father alive?” he asked.
“Died three years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. And what was it that he died from?” the doctor asked.
Cawley looked at Jennie. “Livin’,” he said.
The doctor started to speak but stopped like he’d changed his mind. He went back to his charts, made some more notes and looked up again. Neither Cawley nor Jennie had moved.
“Well, sometimes we see genetic cases, but there’s really no way of knowing. Like I said, I’d like to see you again, about a month, to do some nerve testing.” He had one hand on the door handle before he turned back.
“And what is it you do for a living, Mr. Evans?”
“Feesh,” Cawley said.
On the way home Jennie pulled the Dodge into a gas station in Salvo and called her mother from a payphone and asked if she could keep Tyler for the night.
“Everything alright?” her mother asked.
“Fine,” she said. “Tyler’s been askin’ for a sleepover with you. Tell him I’ll be over of the mornin’.”
“Alright,” her mother said.
“Oh, and Mom,” Jennie said before she hung up, “give him a kiss for me.”
She got back in the truck, the engine still running. Cawley was angled toward the passenger’s side door, looking out the window.
“This medicine,” she said, nosing the Dodge back out on the highway, “doctor says it’ll keep symptoms away for awhile.”
“Suppose so,” he said.
Jennie kept her left hand on the wheel and reached across the bench seat of the truck with her right. She took Cawley’s hand in hers, his left, and squeezed and he squeezed back and it worked just fine. It was six o’clock by the time they pulled in the driveway. She heated up tomato soup for dinner and except for the slurping noises and clanking spoons they ate in silence. When she finished the dishes she went upstairs to their bedroom where he lay on the bed, his back to her on top of the quilt his mother had given them as a wedding present, and she lay down next to him and held him that way through the night.
The doctor in Nags Head had been right, the medicine did subside the spasms and stiffness in Cawley’s hand and legs. It still came on sometimes, but not more than every few weeks. Cawley kept working and their lives got somewhat back to normal except for the monthly trips up to Nags Head for more tests and monitoring, which the doctor said was mandatory.
Tyler passed his swim test the first week the water temperature reached 60 degrees. Cawley took him out the following Saturday when the boys rigged up for a half day. Tyler had been on the Andromeda, he’d even used his rod angling with Cawley a few times, but this was the first time he’d get to see the thing that made his father so great.
They were heading out into the sound by 5:30, the morning air chilly and smelling of engine oil before the sun came up. Tyler yawned and jammed his hands down into his coveralls. If he was cold he never let on, needing to prove to his father he belonged out there. When they got out on the shoals, two men started rigging up the net and Cawley hopped in the skiff. The Andromeda operated on a turn system. Even though it was his rig, today it was his turn to stand in the skiff and haul out the net while the other boats pulled. He told Tyler to stay on the Andromeda, not to be hopping over even when they started to haul in fish.
The whole operation took close to 20 minutes by the time they got all the net out, closed it and came back to start bailing. Cawley tugged hard on the net, one strong grip after another, his arms clawing the water in rapid succession. The gulls circled the Andromeda, screeching and calling over the bluefish and grouper and red drum flopping on the deck, all the fish that had started to make their way north again. Tyler’s face chapped against the wind, squinting hard into the sun, staring at his father.
After about ten runs they closed down the rig, Cawley having promised the crew a half day and needing to make it in to the fish house before they stopped taking inventory at one. When Bill saw the Andromeda coming and Tyler on board he brought all the fish house guys out to give the boy a hand on his first haul. He even got old Scratch out of the steam room, clapping for Tyler who was still scared to look at him.
Tyler rode home in the Dodge that afternoon, a grin stretched wide across his face.
“Best day of my life, Dad,” Tyler said, looking at his father, his cheeks red and his face crusted with snot above his upper lip.
Cawley had to look away. He didn’t want to laugh, but worse, he didn’t want to cry.
“Good,” he said, reaching out his hand and giving him a gruff pat on his head.
The day after he took Tyler out, Cawley decided to go angling as he sometimes did on Sundays, preferring his time with the Lord much better on a boat.
“Too hard for him to hear me over you women, as much as you can say a word,” he reasoned with Jennie. He had his boots on and his coveralls zipped up.
“Besides, if it’s his time to take me the first place he’s gonna look is right out there. Hate to confuse ‘eem,” he called, already out the storm door and halfway down the porch steps.
“Suit yourself,” she said, sighing before collapsing onto the couch, half believing he was right. There was no disputing him, all she could do was be happy he was in good spirits and had gotten out of the house before Tyler woke up. She wouldn’t have to fight her son on why God could hear him just fine with his backend rooted firmly in the pew.
High tide was slated for 8:12AM. Cawley planned to get up to Hog Shoals before that while the fish were still moving. The shoals were slightly north of Gap Point, maybe ten miles off the island. Word had come in the day before about a storm forming below Cape Lookout, headed up the coast, with the winds coming out of the north from Norfolk. It was late in the season for a storm like that, a few days into April, and Cawley had never been much on weather reports that didn’t call for an evacuation.
As he steered the Andromeda north out of the Ditch, nudging the throttle down until he heard the groan of the old cylinders, Cawley wasn’t thinking about what would become of the island when he was gone. He wasn’t thinking that the boys he grew up with would have to evolve, jumping reluctantly into the tourism market as inn-keepers, sport-fishing captains and parasail guides. That there might come a day when there weren’t enough fish and that Bill and the fish house would one day become relics in a lost industry. That Tyler, too hard-headed to put his father and grandfather’s stories behind him, would have to work a weekend construction gig just to feed his own kids. The only thing on his mind was the steady slam of the hull against the waves and the imposing sun to his starboard side, causing him to squint with his cap flipped around backwards, the spray on his lips tasting faintly of salt.
Megan Moore is a writer living in Boston and an MFA candidate in fiction
at Emerson College. She's spent most of her life south of the
Mason-Dixon line and enjoys reminiscing in her writing, but loves Boston
just the same. This is her first piece of published work.