I stood on the aft deck, rising and falling with the bounce of the boat, letting the cool night air slough off sleep.
Pier 1 glowed like a Martian ship was about to land, but only stars spattered the sky.
Our neighbors buzzed along the pier armed with a bevy of bare bulbs, search lights, and living room lamps tethered to the pier’s electric sockets.
I stuffed my pajamas into the waistband of my jeans and wiggled into my sweatshirt. The last time I’d been woken, Hurricane Betsy beat against the blackboard Dad nailed across my bedroom window.
What had Dad shouted through the hatch a few minutes ago?
The shrimp are running!
“Over here!” someone called in the damp breeze.
Feet pounded across the dock toward the voice.
Sparklers of alertness fired in my brain as I walked the Annie Lee’s deck.
I slid from the bowsprit to the pier. Still sluggish, I crouched down beside R.J. where he laid on his belly, intent on Scottie Canfield’s flashlight beam. I stared at the pop-eyed creatures the size of my pointer finger shooting backwards through the water, whipping their tails under them.
Gross—especially the eyes. Like watching Dad clean a fish, I couldn’t look away—equal parts curiosity and repulsion.
R.J. grabbed the net out of my hand and scooped some shrimp.
“Hey! Dad gave me that net.” I snatched it back, amidst R.J.’s squawking, and headed toward Mom.
She stood at the other end of the pier.
Dad dumped his net full of the creatures into her bucket.
Seawater sloshed over the brim.
I jumped out of the way, then emptied R.J.’s pittance onto Dad’s haul.
Mom spirited away the bucket toward the Annie Lee, saying she’d make shrimp cocktail.
Kate Canfield bustled down the boards with a bucket, yelling at her brother, Matt, to give her a turn with the net.
I caught up with Kate and handed her mine.
When Kate was done, I swirled the mesh back and forth beneath the green surface of the bay in the beam of a shop light.
The shrimp rode along, caught up in the carnival ride of the net.
I shook them into Kate’s bucket and squatted at the edge of the pier for the next scoop.
Around me, the sounds of our middle-of-the night block party hummed.
This was about as much fun as I could imagine.
Later, Mom brought out a bowl of freshly cleaned and boiled shrimp and a bottle of cocktail sauce.
Our friends grabbed shrimp and popped them into their mouths on their way past Mom.
I chewed slowly, savoring the warm soft flesh, the cold tangy sauce. As long as I didn’t think about their eyeballs, it was the best thing I ever tasted.
I glanced up when Dad shouted at Kate’s father. It was a happy sound. Maybe too happy. I stared hard at Dad as he jogged down the dock to say something to one of the men on the Tee. Normally, he only ran during his exercise regime.
Now Dad talked loud and fast like he’d downed six Cuban coffees.
Rocks rolled around the floor of my stomach. Sure, I complained because Dad was too strict, but I didn’t want him loosened up like this. I didn’t know this Dad-gone-a-little-crazy.
I found Mom where she’d wandered down the dock to chat with Pat Thornburg near the phone booth. I pulled her aside. “What’s wrong with Dad? He’s acting weird.”
Mom said he’d had a little too much to drink, and he’d be fine in the morning. She hugged me close.
After a minute I eased out of her arms and found Kate perched on a dock box, supervising our brothers’ shrimping.
I scooted onto the box, trying to put too-happy Dad out of my head. As I stared at the rays of light penetrating the water, I drifted to Dad’s making grapefruit wine in the bathtub after Hurricane Betsy blew down all the fruit in our yard. He bottled the wine and passed it out to friends. It tasted so awful, his friends served it back to him whenever he visited.
Before tonight, that was the only connection in my mind between Dad and alcohol.
The gravel in my stomach shifted like the pebbles in the sluice box Dad built to pan for gold out West. What if Dad didn’t wake up sane? What if he got stuck like this?
I told Kate to give the net back in the morning, I was going to bed.
I curled up in my bunk and put my head under the pillow to block out the laughter. Something at the very bottom of me felt rattled and wrong.
I never saw Dad drunk again, but I’m glad I saw him that way—once. The picture of the night the shrimp ran followed me to high school keg parties. Even though I knew people didn’t go insane when they drank, I poured out my paper cup of Miller High Life when nobody was looking. And as an adult I’ve never felt the desire to repeat Dad’s performance.
My appreciation for all the boat days came late, too.
Today I thought about the day Hurricane Betsy barreled down Eleventh Street, we huddled in our boarded-up house listening to her bluster through the night.
The next day the eerie quiet of her “eye” settled on us.
We ran outdoors to feel the stillness.
Minutes after we retreated to safety, wet wind thrashed back, heaving a tree through our roof.
Afterward, the Annie Lee, still a hodgepodge of two-by-four’s, resin, and fiberglass, huddled unscathed in the yard.
I realize how close I came to losing the boat days—the eye in the storm of my (and R.J.’s) childhood. I’ve finally come to cherish the night the shrimp ran, sailing Biscayne Bay, sea glass, swinging from ropes and dropping into clear, sweet heaven. Friendships that lasted a lifetime. I wonder what took me so long.