Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ebb Tide

Ebb Tide
Roger W. Gardner

The Captain's Bounty

The Captain's Bounty was the biggest, busiest, noisiest seafood restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Bounty sprawled out over an ancient fish pier just recently, and rather misleadingly, renamed Seven Seas Wharf. It's just possible, I suppose, that some of the more gullible tourists from Iowa or Michigan had no difficulty believing that those weary old draggers and gill-netters that tied up to the pier were actually unloading riches from the Orient -- even though the Captain's Bounty Gift Shoppe featured nothing more exotic than little white ceramic figurines of jolly fishermen and endless variations on the themes of lighthouses and seagulls.

Throughout the frigid winter months the sparsely-filled restaurant subsisted in a state of semi-hibernation. But with the coming of Spring the Captain's Bounty came alive again. In early March and April they began hiring the summer help -- waitresses and waiters, busboys and busgirls, bartenders, prep cooks and dishwashers, almost all of them young people in transit, between jobs, between lives, between semesters. For three or four hectic months they'd be thrown into the heat of battle, then, immediately after Labor Day, they'd all vanish, back to their separate interrupted lives. However, during those furious summer months the friendships and romances that were born seemed, perhaps just because of their transitory nature, all the more intense and poignant. We had a camaraderie, an esprit de corps. It was us against them. We were the defenders of the castle, and they, the enemy, laid siege to us in droves. Day in and day out, they attacked relentlessly. They came in cars and trucks, vans and motor homes and buses. Endless lines of them. They were the Golden Horde, the Scourge of God, they were the tourists. One thousand-five hundred of them on a busy Sunday.

Even in some really nice restaurants, the noisy, profane confusion of the kitchen would present a startling contrast to the quiet dignity of the dining room. But at the Captain's Bounty the deafening chaos existed equally on both sides of the swinging doors. We seemed to be in a continual state of panic and confusion.

Gilly's Tiger

Tony T., our nebulous boss, had inherited the aptly named Captain's Bounty from his aged father Leo, who had indeed been a tough old Sicilian fishing captain, who had made a small fortune bootlegging. Tony T. involved himself as little as possible in the actual running of the restaurant, leaving the day-to-day management in the capable, well-manicured hands of Caroline, a nervous and somewhat faded beauty who was rumored to be his mistress.

Hugo, the head chef, ran the kitchen as his private fiefdom. Somehow Tony T. managed to overlook the fact that Hugo was a drunken and obscene Neanderthal bully. Fat, bleary-eyed, always sweating, the formidable Hugo never missed an opportunity to display his cruelty or his ignorance. His violent and profane tirades could reduce a new waitress to tears. But, typically, for all his unlimited power, fat Hugo was a coward who would back off from anyone who could stand up to him. Unfortunately, there were only a few who could. One of them was Gilly.

Gilly was our salad man. Gilly was a Japanese-Hawaiian who, since the war, despised the Japanese and demanded to be called Hawaiian. In attempting to describe him, I shall try to avoid using the term 'inscrutable', although he most certainly was. Gilly -- whose real name I can't remember now -- was an exquisite little man with a tiger. When Gilly's tiger was sleeping -- somewhere in those cool dark recesses of his Oriental soul -- he was a friendly, soft-spoken, sensitive little man. His voice had a monotonous, sing-song, soothing quality about it, like the soft tinkling of wind chimes. Gilly was an artist, who produced glorious lobster salads in the shape of lobsters, and magnificent Hawaiian fruit dishes of intricate and perfectly symmetrical design. His salad bench was as sterile as an operating table; his knives always neatly organized, sharp and clean. Gilly took great pride in his cleanliness, his salads, his knives, and his tiger.

Gilly's tiger would sleep contentedly for days, even weeks, on end. Only one thing would wake him: Jack Daniels. Helplessly subsumed by some mysterious timetable, perhaps imposed on him by some ancient and unforgiving Hawaiian god, Gilly periodically went on a binge, and the dreaded beast would be unleashed. During these times, you could hear a pin drop in the kitchen. Even Hugo, the monster-chef, tread lightly when the big cat was loose -- in an earlier episode, Gilly had supposedly chased Hugo out of the kitchen with a huge knife, threatening to cut off his balls, and Hugo knew that he meant it. So, Hugo wouldn't talk above a whisper and would carefully avoid looking in the direction of the salad area. Nobody messed with Gilly's tiger.

During these perilous days, the Captain's Bounty kitchen operated like a silent movie, Gilly stalking impatiently back and forth in his salad area, violently berating the waitresses and waiters for the slightest deviation from perfection, and hurtling continuous and virulent abuse at the entire kitchen staff. After the experience of fifteen years, Tony T. gracefully managed to avoid the kitchen.

Then, as suddenly and unexpectedly as he'd appeared, the fiery tiger would retire back into its den, and slowly, cautiously, things would return to normal. Although, perhaps 'normal' isn't quite the proper word to describe the barely-controlled bedlam of the Captain's Bounty kitchen in the summer. Yet, somehow, despite the constant uproar and confusion, we managed to put out over a thousand meals on a busy day. Everybody worked at a fever pitch -- Hugo, Gilly, the three cooks on the line, the half-dozen prep cooks, clam-shuckers, go-fors, and an endless parade of Portuguese dishwashers.

Early that Spring they hired a pair of young prep cooks, Mark and Scott. They were absolutely identical twins, both tall and blond. To make matters worse, they both wore identical white uniforms and had essentially the same jobs, which they performed at the same time. Hugo and Gilly had somehow developed their own secret methods of telling them apart. But the rest of us were never quite sure which one we were talking to. In the midst of a busy night, I wonder how many conversations begun with Mark, once interrupted, were later resumed with Scott, or vice versa? This hardly ever seemed to upset them, though, and they seldom got angry. Somehow they must have resigned themselves to a life of mistaken identity, and they exhibited a gracious patience beyond their years. For a while, I successfully skirted the issue by calling them both, "Buddy". But they quickly caught onto this ruse."Hi, old buddy," I'd say. "How's it going?" "I'm Mark," he'd offer with a helpful smile. Finally, after giving up all attempts at bluff, I'd simply ask,"Who's this?" before starting up any conversations. They were both nice boys, and they were both rather quiet. I never liked one more than the other because I never learned how to tell them apart.

The In-betweens

I was a waiter. I was also one of the 'in-betweens'. Trying to hold out against the system, working around the edges, trying my best to remain aloof and uncommitted, wanting to be neither businessman nor bum. I was one of the first waiters to be hired that season -- sometime in the middle of March, 1972. In keeping with the latest fashion trends, I sported a great round curly Afro, a fulsome moustache and thick bushy sideburns. On my days off I'd wear cowboy boots and bell-bottomed jeans. My best friend -- another 'in-between' -- was Bert. He was hired a couple of weeks after me.

Bert had a sort of scruffy, mismatched awkwardness about him, and a face that would have been sorrowful, were it not for his wide, toothy grin, which was somehow too big for his face, and a certain twinkling in the eye, as though he were in constant anticipation of some impending witticism. Which I, of course, attempted to supply. A few days after Bert was hired, his girlfriend, Laura, came to the Bounty as a waitress. A pale and poetical brunette, who looked as though she had just stepped out of fifteenth century Florence. Quiet, wistful, enigmatic as a statue, Laura only worked part-time, and had another job posing, appropriately, as an artists' model in a local studio. An incongruous pair, Bert and Laura nonetheless appeared to share some deep, unspoken bond, and were always to be seen together.

With April came Ola. Big, round, and rowdy, with constantly dishevelled hair. A farm girl from Minnesota, who was -- somewhat incredulously -- attending Divinity School. Ola had an indomitable spirit and a heart as big and full as her expansive bosom. She possessed a great, booming, boisterous laugh, unflagging energy, and an unbounded enthusiasm for life and Margaritas. Yet, she never appeared to be drunk. She was just Ola. Ola should have been born beautiful but, alas, she wasn't. In some kindlier era, she might have been called voluptuous, and could have been perhaps a rich, vivacious courtesan, surrounded by an eager entourage of fair and gay young courtiers. Unfortunately however, she was born to a time when thin was in.

But Ola wasn't one to be ignored. In lieu of beauty, she chose outrageous. In lieu of glamor, she chose bizarre. Throughout that summer, Ola competed with herself, showing up at the Barnacle Inn pool -- where we spent most of our off-duty time -- in one outlandish costume after another, always under some huge, flowery, floppy hat. And as likely as not, she'd jump into the pool, wearing the whole absurd regalia.

The last waiter to be hired that season was a brilliant young Harvard student, an unflappable Boston WASP, with the imposing title of Robert Armstrong Cunningham III. Pink-faced and portly, fastidious, impeccable, and gay, Robert the Third was irresistibly funny and hopelessly in love with Chivas Regal. Sir Robert had an almost Victorian air of propriety about him, and a quick, biting, cynical wit, with which he devastated more than one hapless adversary -- he once told Hugo that he had "all the intelligence and sensitivity of a cannonball".

The lumbering Tony T. was enthralled by Robert's supremely confident and flawless demeanor and his seemingly infinite vocabulary. And Caroline the manager swooned over him, calling him,"The most perfect gentleman I've ever met". Sir Robert elegantly danced his way through the dining room with an almost regal grace. Having never seen him completely sober, we could never tell if he was drunk. However, drunk or sober, Robert Armstrong Cunningham the Third was the epitome of proper breeding. He was also the first victim of that summer's postcard campaign.

I can't remember now whether it was Bert or me who first came up with the idea of sending people postcards -- it just seemed to flow naturally from our love of making up fictitious names. Bert and I shared a common love for drinking, for movies, and for practical jokes. One day, on one of our northern excursions we picked up a postcard from some sleazy little motel in Maine. It was perfect. With Laura's help we created a little gem which we promptly mailed off to Sir Robert, care of the Bounty. It arrived at Captain's Bounty two days later.

Robert Cunningham
c/o Captain's Bounty Restaurant
Gloucester, Mass.

Dear Robbie,
Hi honey! I miss you really awful!! Thanks for the wonderful time we had. I never let no one do the things to me that you did to me before. But it's OK. It was really nice. I hope you really mean all those things you said that night.
Write real soon,
Your honey,
Tina Rodriguez

I think perhaps Manny, the Portuguese dishwasher, was the only one who didn't get to read that postcard before Robert got it. But then, he couldn't read English anyway. Tina Rodriguez became instantly famous and Robert the Third endured an endless succession of dirty jokes. He became, however, one of our best friends, and one of the original Barnacle crew.

The Barnacle Inn

Across the harbor from the Captain's Bounty, the Barnacle Inn was a haphazard collection of old, ramshackle, wood-framed buildings rather optimistically painted a bright and promising yellow. Perched precariously on a rocky promontory that jutted out into the mouth of the harbor, it sported an outdoor saltwater pool that had a kind of second-rate splendor about it, like a cheap imitation of some dazzling Mediterranean villa. The emerald green pool was encircled by a weather-beaten promenade, adorned with crude little cupids holding broken dolphin, slatless benches, and a fading shuffleboard -- for which we could never find the puck.

But the air was fresh and the grass was green and the water clean and blue and it was, at times, the most perfectly wonderful place in the world.

The Barnacle Inn. Like a bawdy old hooker well past her prime, sagging under the weight of years, burdened by a dubious past, and an even more dubious future, she was making the most of what she had. And what she had was color and warmth and character. And sometimes, in a certain light, she could still be proud and beautiful.

The Barnacle's owner was a nervous little man named Franco. Short and chubby, with a face like a disillusioned Teddy Bear, he was reputed to have connections with the Boston mafia. In fact, some years ago, the Barnacle Inn held the somewhat dubious distinction of being known as a mafia vacation spot. Those days were, however, long gone, and now the old Barnacle had become the hangout of choice for the local restaurant workers -- who probably drank more than the mafia ever did.

Franco loved music, and he especially loved to hear his piano being played. The old upright piano was out on the porch, midst a motley collection of mismatched rattan furniture. The porch of the Barnacle Inn was right out of a scene from Key Largo. You could almost picture Humphrey Bogart out there, nursing a gin-and-tonic, cynically smoking his ever-present cigarette. I played the piano, so I spent a lot of time out on the porch that summer. I supplied the songs -- old standards, like Alfie, Stardust, and Ebb Tide -- and Franco supplied the Dewars-and-water. It had the makings of a great summer. There was only one thing missing, but that was not to be for long.

The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes

One of the new waitresses at the Bounty that summer was a dancer. Tall and slim, with fine blond hair and ice-blue Botticelli eyes, she moved through the room with a fluid grace. She had a certain intriguing, quiet seriousness about her. Her name was Deirdre, and the moment I saw her I knew I was lost.

One night early that summer Deirdre came to the Barnacle Inn. She talked with her friends at the bar for a while, then eventually made her way out onto the porch where I was playing the piano. Without saying a word, she sat down next to me and just listened while I played. Later that night, we walked together out past the pool to the rocks at the edge of the water, where we sat in silence watching the lights of the distant city dance across the harbor. Behind us, beyond the golden glow of Chinese lanterns, occasional bursts of spontaneous laughter rocketed through the summer night like distant fireworks, and silver music drifted aimlessly out to sea.

Deirdre ate only natural foods, ran seven miles every day, and would cautiously sip an occasional glass of white wine. She believed in 'vibrations', 'auras', and the 'transmigration of souls'. She referred to her body as the 'temple of her soul'.

I lived on a strict diet of scotch, coffee, an occasional cheeseburger, and three packs of Marlboros a day. I never walked further than I had to, and I referred to my body as the 'bonehouse of my soul'.

We were made for each other.

I entered the temple in the beginning of June. About a week later, Deirdre gave up her room at the YWCA and moved in with me and we were lovers.

That summer of '72, I lived on the top floor of an old clapboard house, high up on a hill, overlooking the whole city of Gloucester. From the windows of my tiny kitchen the view was stunning. The rooftops of the city stretched out below me, and out beyond the shining steeples of the Trinity Church and the Portuguese Church, beyond the town hall clock, by which I told the time, the busy little harbor opened into the endless sea. My small kitchen opened into one enormous, high-ceilinged room, with nothing much in it but a small single bed, a bar, and my old upright piano. Deirdre called it 'the ballroom', and she transformed it, filling the empty room with combs and books, all those little tiny bottles, stockings drying over doors, the fragrance of her hair and the electric touch of skin. And filling the nights with great climactic gasps of passion, little wicked whispered words, and the teasing of light fingers.

Deirdre would always get up before me in the morning and do her exercises while the coffee was brewing. Then she'd bring me coffee and a cigarette and wake me with a Good Morning kiss. And sometimes, like a child, I'd pretend to be asleep just so I could get that kiss. Afterwards, if she could break away, she'd be out the door, in her shorts and running shoes, all the way to Eagle's Point and back before I finished drinking my coffee and smoking my morning cigarettes. One morning, for some unaccountable reason, I awoke before Deirdre. I went into the kitchen for a cigarette, and then went downstairs to check the mail. Amongst the fliers and bills was a letter from Deirdre's closest friend, Ellen, who had recently moved to upper New York State. I put everything back in the mailbox and went back upstairs. Ever so quietly, I slipped back into bed beside her and waited. When Deirdre awoke, I told her about the strange dream I had just had. I told her that I'd dreamt the her friend Ellen was trying to get in touch with her. Deirdre listened attentively, then got up to make the coffee. She decided to go down and check the mail. "Oh, my Gawd!" She came running back up the stairs. "You won't believe this!" she said, clutching Ellen's letter in her hand.

The pace at the Bounty that summer was frantic. No matter how fast you worked, you were always behind, the pressure building to such an unbearable point that you'd feel certain that everything would just explode, or that you'd go out of your mind. Then, suddenly, it was over and you were free.

And free meant long hot, steamy days at the beach, listening to the gentle rush of the waves and the tinkling laughter of little children. Or watching Deirdre, erotic behind dark glasses, absorbed in Vogue, almost naked, with brown glistening skin, giving herself freely to the omnipotent sun. And free meant bicycling, and long walks, and long talks, and partying at the Barnacle Inn.

And so, the summer wore on, and I continued playing the piano and Franco continued buying my Dewars-and-water and complaining about business. As I said, Franco was a nice man; but he had this nephew named Vito.

Now, Vito was a go-for who looked like a weasel. He was the bartender, janitor, room clerk, groundskeeper, pool cleaner, occasional cook, and Franco's all-around errand boy. He was a skinny, nervous, angular little guy, with shifty eyes. He had jet black slicked-back hair, a pencil line moustache, and he made the girls nervous. But Vito had an unbounded ego. Somewhere in the vast illiterate wastelands of his limited imagination, he fancied himself as something of a cross between Dean Martin and Don Juan: a natural born lady-killer. Behind the bar, he never lost an opportunity to recount his many legendary conquests at the Barnacle. According the the Annals and Histories of Vito Frontiero, few, if any, of the vacationing beauties who showed up at the Barnacle Inn escaped the allure of his irresistible charms. Over and over, on and on, we helplessly endured his endless exploits.

So, we sent Vito a card. A handsome postcard from some elegant little inn in New Hampshire, written, this time, in Deirdre's delicate hand.

Mr. Vito Frontiero
c/o The Barnacle Inn
Rocky Neck
Gloucester Mass

My dearest Vito. By the time you receive this card I will be halfway home. I have been trying to put you out of my mind, but I can't. You've touched something deep within me. What, for you, may have been just another summer fling, will remain, for me, one of the most treasured moments of my life. Please think of me often and write when you can.
With love,
Jennifer Stockbridge.

The card showed up at the Barnacle bar a couple of days later, prominently displayed next to the cash register. After an appropriate amount of time had elapsed, I asked Vito who it was from. It was, he explained as he showed us that all-too-familiar card, from a young college coed named Jennifer, with whom he'd had a brief affair. She was, we subsequently learned, a beautiful and rich brunette, who had fallen head over heels for him. Vito proudly kept the postcard in its sacred place of honor, next to the cash register for the rest of the summer and into the fall. Sometimes, late at night, when it was just Vito and me, he'd start talking a little wistfully about Jennifer Stockbridge again, about how beautiful she was and how much he missed her. And sometimes I think I began to miss her too.

Ebb Tide

One day, towards the end of August, Gilly invited Deirdre and me out to his house in Rockport. We rented bikes and rode out along the shore, out past Eagle's Point. It was, I remember, one of those magical, dreamlike days, when you feel as though you're a part of some wonderful, lyrical, universal rhythm. We spent that afternoon in the cool, dark, oriental world of Gilly's flowered cottage, talking quietly, sipping spiced tea, Gilly flitting lightly from room to room, bringing out exotic little treasures for us to see. He was so kind and gentle, like a gracious little grandmother, offering us her special cookies from a secret jar. As we were getting ready to leave, I noticed a small table by the door. On the table was a large oriental vase, next to it was a small hand-painted figurine. It was a tiger.

We rode our bikes back towards home in silence, gliding through long shadows. Labor Day was less than a week away. That night, Deirdre started to pack a few things and it was then that I think it hit me for the first time that she was really leaving.

My dearest Deirdre,
What for you may have been just another summer fling will remain for me one of the most treasured moments...
And so the summer ended, as it had to, everyone going their separate ways, exchanging promises and addresses, all those futile rituals of farewell. The last I heard of Sir Robert Armstrong Cunningham the Third he'd had a nervous breakdown and was in a mental hospital in Chicago. Wonderful outlandish Ola quit Divinity School and went back to Minnesota. The twins finally severed the cord. Mark joined the Merchant Marines and Scott was working somewhere in Boston, both finally freed to live their individual lives without confusion. Gilly died about a year ago. Bert and Laura got married and Bert went into computers. Later, I heard they got divorced. I never saw Deirdre again. Jennifer Stockbridge never changed. Impervious to the laws of transformation, she will remain, always and forever, young and rich, beautiful and elusive. The crusty old Barnacle Inn is long gone now; a cold and geometric condominium squats incongruously in her place.

I can still remember. One of the last nights of that summer, after everyone had gone away, Vito and I closed up the Barnacle bar, and I took my Dewars-and-water with me in the cab, toasting the lonely streets of the sleeping city as we wound our way up the quiet hill to home. It was early in the morning by the time I entered the empty ballroom. I poured myself another drink, sat down at the piano and started to play. From somewhere outside I thought I heard the sound of someone calling. Was I playing too loud? I got up and walked over to the window. There was no one there. I leaned out of the window and listened intently. It was so perfectly still, as though the whole world were sleeping, just a gentle breeze fluttering light curtains. Then, from over the silent rooftops, from somewhere up the darkened street, a faint, disembodied voice called out:
"Play Ebb Tide..."

I took a long drink of scotch, sat back down at the piano and began to play Ebb Tide. I played it only the way you can play when the party's over and you're all alone and a little drunk and it's three o'clock in the morning. I played the surging of the sea and the rolling of the endless waves. I played the summer which was ending and those lovely Botticelli eyes which I would see no more. I played the fading echoes of lost laughter of lost friends and all those real and almost real loves of my life. I played it all.

Then, slowly, gently, the music of the tide within me, which was love, receded back into the sea, which was me. I finished and lit a cigarette. Through the soft darkness of that lonely summer's night, came the sound of someone clapping.