Dan Berne grew up in a working-class family in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked his way through college with jobs in drugstores, warehouses, U-bolt factories, and cement plants. He moved to the West Coast in 1979. He has been an active member of a select writing workshop led by author Karen Karbo for ten years. His short stories and poetry have been published in literary magazines and he has won a literary award from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. Dan owns a market strategy consultancy and is currently writing a book on market transformation. He lives with his wife Aliza in Portland, Oregon. The Gods of Second Chances, published by Forest Avenue Press, is his first novel, .
Excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Gods of Second Chances
Forest Avenue Press
© Dan Berne 2014
We head north by northeast and cut across Frederick Sound at slack tide, the boat pitching over the waves where the cross currents are their weakest. We make our way to the south end of Kupreanof Island and anchor in Kah Sheets Bay. There are no other boats within sight, so we picked either a really good spot or a loser. By the time we set the pots in, charcoal-colored clouds sweep in from the northwest. Another thirty minutes and black rain funnels down. We put on our heavy-duty rain jackets, but it still feels like someone’s throwing buckets of ice water on us.
The rain morphs into white pellets that pummel our exposed hands and faces. The wind beats the cold into my bones. When I try to secure the hoist line, my feet slide on the hailstones and I go sprawling onto the deck. The pot swings out and comes back wide, nearly taking my head off. Felix isn’t faring much better. As he’s closing one of the latches, his right leg twists sideways. He stumbles and lets go of the latch, which slams down, just missing his hand.
“You okay?” I yell through the hail that’s stinging my cheeks and nose.
Felix scrambles to his feet and takes a moment to catch his balance. “Hang on a second!” He climbs up to the pilothouse, opens the port, and disappears from view.
When he gets back on deck, I ask him how many times he rubbed the belly of the Billiken.
“You ready to get on with making a living now?”
“Don’t give me that.” Felix pushes his face right up to my chin. “You know as well as me, we could be running around like spider crabs being chased by a seagull out here, or I can take a minute of our precious time and try to make things right. You want to tackle this kind of weather without so much as a by-your-leave to the powers that be, you go right ahead.”
He’s right. No sense ignoring the gods on a day like today. “Jesus, don’t be so sensitive. Help me get this pot cinched up.”
“I should have brought me some incense this morning,” Felix says as he returns to the pot. Standing on each side, we latch the door and secure the lines. “I told Muskeg that. I told her.”
So the day goes.
By three o’clock, the hail turns to sleet. We’ve sunk our pots, emptied them, and re-sunk them five times over. What do we have to show for it? Twelve hundred pounds of crab. Half a load. With another dozen Chinese mitten crabs mixed in the bunch. We should try our luck at another spot, but the storm’s bearing down pretty hard. There’s not much choice but to head back to port, and see if things are any better tomorrow. Felix and I empty and secure the pots, neither of us saying more than a couple of words at a time.
Turning out of Kah Sheets, we head south, then southwest. I watch the early evening sky get stitched together with thick patches of midnight gray. Not a sliver of yellow or red to be seen. Even in the pilothouse I’m still shivering, like I’m never going to feel warm again. By the time we unload our catch and dock, I can barely move my lower back. In spite of my rubber boots, my feet swell. Every other part of me is frozen, but it feels like someone’s holding a hot metal rod against the tips of my toes. Felix hunches his back and walks with a slight limp to his truck. He pulls himself into the cab with barely a wave good night.
It’s completely dark now. The muscles in my arms and legs feel like they’ve been chiseled down. When I finally pull into my driveway, it feels like I’ve run a marathon. I peel off my wet clothes and change into dry ones. In spite of the talcum powder, seawater has made my skin chafed and raw. I’m too tired to run a shower. The skin on the bottom of my left foot has cracked so much that it split open near the big toe, like someone had slit it with a boning knife. I rub Norwegian Fisherman’s cream into it. Stings like hell, but I know it’s good for it. Sitka is over at Sarah’s but should be home soon. I should get something together for dinner but I’m drained. I need to rest, just for a minute.
The slam of the front door wakes me up, or partly so. I’m sprawled in the frayed lounge chair in the living room, and my legs and feet are still half asleep. I try to move them and get a jolt of nerves shooting up into my knees. Dressed in a pair of sweatpants and a flannel shirt that Donna had asked me to throw out fifteen years ago, I still reek of crab and winch grease. Sitka throws her backpack onto the sofa cushions, gives me a once over, and scrunches her nose.
“God, it stinks worse in here than the boys’ locker room. What if I had one of my friends with me?”
I yawn before answering her. “Then the two of you could fix dinner together while I finish my nap.”
“You mean there isn’t any dinner? I’m starving and I have a ton of algebra homework and I have to finish a stupid paper on the stupid French Revolution.”
I’ve wiggled my feet enough that I can stand up. “I’ll make a deal. You cook dinner and I’ll clean up while you do your homework. There’s some scallops in the fridge that we should eat today or tomorrow. Throw them over some noodles with some butter. Heat up a box of frozen spinach and we’ll call it good.”
“Aagh,” she says, but steps into the kitchen anyway.
“And how do you know what the boys’ locker room smells like anyway?”
No answer on that one. This wouldn’t be the first time Sitka’s made dinner. She’s actually a pretty decent cook. I move back and forth on the balls of my feet, trying to get some more circulation going. Donna used to have one of those plug-in foot bath things, but God knows where it is. As I rotate my shoulder, trying to work out the kinks, I hear Sitka rummaging around, banging out pots and pans.
There’s a sudden loud crash, and when I limp into the kitchen, my ceramic statue of Ganesh is on the floor. Or rather, a hundred charcoal-colored ceramic pieces of the Indian elephant god are scattered across the linoleum. Sitka stands over a good portion of the trunk and one eye.
“That’s the only Ganesh I have!”
Sitka kicks at a couple of the broken pieces. “Well, why do we have to have all this junk everywhere?”
She’s referring no doubt to the small Tibetan Buddha and the larger Japanese Buddha, both made out of monkey wood, the resin-made-to-look-like-amber statues of Shiva, Matsu, and Lei-Zi, and the plaster-made-to-look-like-marble figurines of Demeter, Poseidon, and Horus, and about two dozen others made from varied materials. St. Anthony, the only fully-painted figure, stands out in the crowd, which only makes sense since he is the saint of lost articles. Ganesh was the largest god in my collection and he’s left quite a gap at the edge of the kitchen countertop.
“You can’t even move in this house, it’s so crowded with this junk! Why can’t we live like normal people?”
Did I mention that Ganesh is the god of domestic harmony?
“We are normal people.” I swipe the broom next to the kitchen door and shove it at Sitka. “Sweep up the mess you made, and I mean all of it, but save the pieces.”
“Like I’m the only one making messes around here.” But she takes the broom anyway. “I don’t have any space in this house!” Like her bedroom suddenly disappeared into a black hole. “And now your stupid daughter’s coming here and probably bringing all her junk and I won’t have enough space to even breathe!”
As she sweeps, I get the dustpan and bend down, holding it in place for her. My legs and shoulders feel like cast iron.
“Why are you jumping down my throat because your mom is coming? I thought you were okay with this.”
Sitka sweeps up the final bits of gray and white ceramic into the dustpan and stands up. “Like it matters what I think. She’s coming. Nobody asked me.”
“Yeah, well, nobody asked me about it either.”
Sitka slides the broom back into its usual spot. “She’s not going to start living here, is she?”
“She’s coming just for a short visit. This is our house.” I smile to reassure her, but Sitka’s mouth looks like a salmon that just got hooked and barbed. “I’m not expecting you to do anything differently or behave differently. I’m sure your mom just wants to see how you’re doing. We’ll have to see how it goes. That’s all anyone can do, right?”
Sitka thrusts out her right hip and rolls her eyes. “Everyone’s trying to make my life miserable.”
I don’t have a good comeback and I really am too tired to take any more of this on tonight. “Go on upstairs. I’ll fix dinner. Just do your homework.”
Sitka turns and leaves, not happy, but not stomping mad either. I realize I’ve now volunteered to do the cooking and the dishes. But I’ll take that over another run-in. I still have the full dustpan in my hand. I pour the broken Ganesh into a sack. I’ll take him out on the boat and throw the broken pieces overboard into whatever reincarnation awaits him.
Whom do you implore in times of need? Do you harbor a collection of symbolic representations? Are you superstitious?