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August 26, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 18 (p. 286-292)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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As the sun peeked slyly over the ocean at the fleeing moon, the machine whirred. Its metal slats scraped an occasional rasp against the walls along the sides of the mesh belt as they were dragged up and over and under and back into the salt water. The water frothed along the edges of the stainless steel tub and spun irritable ripples along the surface; underneath, it was roiled by the belt and twirled in a current as it was sucked through a tube and spit out onto the wooden planks. Rubber boots slopped across the slimy boards followed by the metal wheels of mechanized yellow palette-jacks piled high with empty waxed cardboard boxes that were being tossed in rows along the sides of the dock. Gnarled loops of thick rope thudded against the lids of the boxes and set them rocking as the hemp slid down posts and tightened into splintered grooves. The sides of the boat thumped against the worn wood and made the whole dock shudder. A cloud of smoke billowed out invisibly against the dark gray sky as the boat's engine gave a final thrust against the tide and was cut off. Huge, white, and stained buckets swung over the boat on ropes and floated into the hole in the deck, disappearing into the hold. They tottered as they reappeared, spilling whiting onto the deck, into the water, and onto the dock. The fish were dumped into a chute and rolled through the lime-colored plastic tubes in waves of cool salt water. The whiting churned over and around each other as the chute dipped and curved and emptied them out into the tub of the steel machine, where they seethed with the water and were caught by the metal slats, which carried them over the mesh metal belt and dumped those that it did not shred onto the scale-encrusted cull-board. Bodies with torn and spilling guts were plucked from the surge of fish and tossed into the grimy water of the harbor, where the seagulls finished the disembowelment that the machine had begun. The whole fish were pushed along by a rubber glove and fell into a chain-linked basket on a rusting scale. In response to an uttered "yawp," the glove held up the flow of whiting while Nathaniel lifted the sixty-pound basket and poured its contents into a cardboard box, and the box was whisked away.

The men chattered as they worked, spilling rude jokes and spitting barely sensical exclamations into the air. They shouted to each other about drinking and gambling and women. They tossed good-spirited insults to their friends and roared baldfaced lies of rumors along the line. Nobody believed any of it. The red-eyed box-maker shouted a boorish question to the lanky palette-wrapper, who sneered it at the jack-ass, middle-aged and muscular, who laughed it in a husky voice to the chunky, charismatic foreman. The foreman whispered it to the assistant foreman, who loitered like a shifty toady by his side, and the assistant foreman shouted it like a dirty joke to the boxing team, who passed it around among themselves — from the stocky palette-loader to Nathaniel, the dumper, to the dark and jovial cull-board man, who was missing a finger on his left hand — and then cheered it down the dock in unison to the old, gnarled winch-man. The winch-man cackled it to the bucket-catcher. The bucket-catcher pushed it to the fishermen on the deck of the boat along with an empty bucket, and it followed the bucket through the hole to the lumper in the hold, coming back with a snide answer that followed the fish — the product — back down the line, anticipated with and pursued by roguish mirth.

Meanwhile, another boat docked on the opposite side of the pier, and banter shot back and forth across the boards like cannonballs. The sun was well into morning when the first boat was unloaded, and the second cut loose and lurched across the water to take its place. The dock workers took quick breaks, some staying behind to take less onerous positions on the line (though rank or brawn was likely to supersede the move), and some returning with the faint smell of brandy lingering in the air around their heads.

The second boat was all fluke, flounder, monk, and dogfish. Less weight, but more work. Huge green vats were dragged out onto the dock for the monk and dogs. The sun beat down upon Nathaniel, and he began to sweat as he lifted boxes of flatfish onto the palettes in layers of six, five high, eighteen hundred pounds of fish on each before the jack-ass took it away with his yellow machine and Nathaniel slammed another wooden palette against the boards.

Next came lunch. The tourists, a thinning crowd as autumn overtook New England, passed more hastily now than they had just moments before, when they had slowed to watch the workers as if it weren't work at all, but a reenactment in an authentic outdoor museum and the workers only actors who mimicked the motions of ancient dock-hands in the actual costumes of ages past, just as others, elsewhere, took the roles of blacksmiths and candle-makers. Now the workers dropped their rubber overalls around their ankles and sat at a desiccated picnic table to eat and ogle the wives and daughters of passing men, who diverted their eyes and hustled their families along toward the ferry.

After lunch, the workers made their way reluctantly back to the dock, some by way of the bathroom, two by way of the ice room (again, lending a subtle spice to the air when they emerged), to find a boat waiting to unload lobsters and stone crabs. A cloud was spreading across the sky, and the wind picked up, putting a chill in the air.

Now that they had eaten and relaxed, and because lobsters and crabs are packed more lightly and make for slower, more careful work, the wind seemed to freeze their sweat- and sea-soaked shirts against their skin, and one by one they slipped away to add layers of clothing. They knew, though, that they would strip it all again when they got into the groove of unloading the next boat, a big one that was already strapped to the posts.

It was mid-afternoon by the time Nathaniel paused to take off his heavy flannel shirt, and he had just slipped his hands into his grimy rubber gloves when the foreman stuck his head out of the office window and shouted that Nathaniel had a visitor.

Someone said, loud enough for all to hear, "See that? Once yer famous y'ain't no good for workin'; can't put t'gether a whole day 'n less'n a week."

Everybody laughed, including Nathaniel, and they all laughed again when the dark-skinned cull-board man with the missing finger yelled out, "Herry up 'n sign yer ahtographs, boy, an' get yer ass back here. Theh's work ta do!"

Nathaniel slipped off his gloves as he stepped inside the barn-like building that housed the office. He could hear the thirty-five inch television on which the foremen and their boss liked to watch basketball games. He walked toward the sound but stopped when a familiar voice called out his name from behind him.

He turned and said, "Holden! What are you doing here?"

Holden shuffled his feet on the new wood floor, still covered with sawdust, as if he had more of a confession than a request to make. Then he swung right into his pitch, "Listen Nathaniel. I've come a long way to do you a favor, and I'm not gonna insult you by beating around the bush."

"Well it's mighty fine to see you, too," Nathaniel said, smiling because he wanted it to be an ambiguous joke.

"My father runs Ethos magazine. Have you heard of it?"

"Yeah, who hasn..."

"Well your book's really taking off with our readers, and it would really be a great promotional tool for you to let me write an interview with you."

"What... wait... I, I haven't been looking to do any promotional interviews."

"Exactly!" Holden exclaimed as if his point had been made and the matter settled. "That's why nobody has printed it yet. And I wanna be the first."

Nathaniel shoved his gloves in the pockets of the jeans that he wore under his rubber overalls and looked at Holden with bewildered eyes that hinted, though only slightly, that he foresaw impending helplessness. "Despite the fact that you've appeared from nowhere and sprung this on me without showing the slightest interest in visiting, Holden, I appreciate what you want to do for me, but it's a path that I don't want to start walking. I want to let the book do what it has in it to do on its own, but without involving me."

Appearing to rear up a bit, Holden took the tone of an elder brother, "Nathaniel, I know you think of me as a kid, but I've seen enough to know that one of two things will happen: either the book will lose steam without promotional pushes from you, or it'll take off anyway and drag you along." Then, poking his left hand with his right pointer finger, "You have to get control now, or you'll lose it altogether, and if you start it off with a friend, you can be sure to start it off in a good way."

"No."

Holden threw his hands in the air, "Why are you being so stubborn?"

"I'm not being stubborn," Nathaniel replied, keeping his composure, though he was slightly displaced from reality by the rapid pace at which Holden moved in his thoughts, changing, entirely, the mood of Nathaniel's day in mere seconds, "I've given this a lot of thought and have made up my mind to stay out of it. Even the fact that it was published had nothing to do with me."

"Nothing to do with you?" Holden laughed. "You wrote the goddam thing!"

Nathaniel shook his head with an expression that confirmed his words, "Believe what you want, but I'm not going to change my mind. I'm sorry you came all this way just to find it out."

With his demeanor making the transition from advisor to helpless friend to fretting child, Holden first shook his head, then, turning his back on Nathaniel, stomped his foot, finally flailing his arms from over his head to his sides, where they slapped his thighs. Nathaniel watched the transformation patiently.

With his temper petering out as if being flung off in pieces with each wave of an arm, Holden turned to face Nathaniel. "Well if you won't do it for your stupid self, why don't you do it for me?"

"What difference does it make to you?"

Holden bowed his head, preparing to make a confession, "Listen... I'm the owner's son, and I haven't really had a big story or idea yet, so nobody really takes me seriously. And I... I'm just sick of feeling like everybody is talking behind my back and thinking that I'm getting an easy ride. I mean, I may not be a bigshot reporter or nothing, with all the stars ringing my phone off the hook or great as hell stories falling into my lap, but I do work."

Nathaniel was reticent to offer too much consolation but tried to present a noncommittal comfort by saying, "Holden, I'm sure you'll find something big if you keep at it long enough."

"But you could be it." His confidence was rebuilding. "I mean, if you gave me an interview, I'm sure other things would follow. All it takes is one break. You know that."

"No, I disagree. It takes a long time and hard work."

Holden's confidence slipped and his temper splashed up, "Oh whatta you know? Everything's come to you on a platter. You don't even want to do the work of an interview."

"It's not that."

"It is that! All you do is throw your fish around all winter and then sit in the woods picking your nose all summer, then somebody publishes a book you wrote and people are talking about you like you're the next... the next J.D. goddam Salinger, and you won't even help out a friend. Who wants a friend like that? I'd help you out if I was this big famous author and all."

"Holden, I'm sorry, I just don't want to..."

"To go down that path, I know. You said that already. Can't you think of something new to say for Chrissakes? It's a miracle you finished a book at all!" Holden stomped his foot and put his hands on his hips, saying, "Well, I didn't want to have to do it, but if you're not going to help me out, I don't have a choice."

As if his ears had perked up, Nathaniel's eyes flashed, and in a harsh tone he asked, knowing that his was precisely the expected reaction, "What do you mean?"

"Oh you know what I mean. I saw the way you used to act, and you can't tell me that there isn't a world of dirt out there on you. That'd be an even bigger story, and you know it. I wasn't going to do it because I thought you were my friend and all, even though I knew it would be a better story."

"You wouldn't know how to begin looking," Nathaniel said, getting angry.

"Oh I've read your notebooks. I know where to start, and you can't stop me."

"You better bet I can stop you! If you so much as..."

The foreman stepped out of the office, looking large and imposing in the dark corridor, "Hey Nate, is this guy giving you a problem?"

Holden raised his hands in a defensive, dismissive gesture and said, "No. No problem. I was just leaving. I have to catch a train to New Jersey. Nathaniel, I'll see you later."

With that, as quickly as he had appeared with his tornado plea, Holden slipped out the door and was gone. Nathaniel was about to chase after him but paused as the foreman spoke. "Is everything alright?"

Going slack, Nathaniel responded in a distant voice, "Yeah, he can go to New Jersey, but I don't think he'll know what to do once he's there."

A car horn tooted, and Nathaniel heard the sound of tires trying to peel out on gravel. "Yeah," he said, "he's nothing to worry about."

The foreman slapped him on the back and said, "Whatever you say, Nate, but let me know if I can do anything for you."


Nathaniel stands looking out the doorway as the foreman walks back to the office and to the television. The sound of disparate drops of rain begins to reverberate through the empty wooden room. Going out into the fresh air, Nathaniel crosses to the storage room and emerges wearing a plastic raincoat. He looks at the sky as if refreshed by the slight drops that fall onto his face and slide down his neck.

He walks out onto the dock, the other workers brushing by him as they use the rain as an excuse for a break, if only one long enough to put on rain gear. With the dock momentarily cleared, Nathaniel is free to choose a station, and instead of trying to get away with taking one of the easier ones, he stands ready in a position that nobody will begrudge him. Ready to dump baskets.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 26, 2006 4:09 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches