For an instant, Benny heard them again, those last shouts. He saw the sea leaping. He’d survived.
Benny sat on the straight-backed chair under the single light at his desk. The shotgun stared at him, its barrel steady except for the slight rocking of his pulse. Again, in his mind he heard the roar of the waves and the shouts. His finger tested the trigger, the faint yelling still in his head.
The phone rang. His finger shook. Across the wind, he had heard the voices. The phone rang and rang, and the barrels inched away from his face.
His hand floated over and touched the receiver. He stared at his blackened fingernails.
Exposure, they called it. Funny he hadn’t felt it at the time. The phone rang.
His fingernails. The doctor said that first they would turn black, then fall out. Now they hurt as if they had been crushed. His toenails, too.
“In a hundred years, who’s gonna know the difference?” Uncle Alex once said. He said it when Benny came home crying after a fight in the fifth grade. It hadn’t helped then. It didn’t help now.
The phone rang. Then came a little snap in his head, and the world sped up. He saw the dark walls beyond his circle of light, heard the traffic outside, a chilly San Diego night. He looked at the gun, then picked up the phone.
The voice was hearty and loud.
“You the guy off the New Hope?” Benny’s heart pumped. “You there?”
“Yeah ” Benny said.
“Sorry as hell about your family. You okay?”
“Miracle you made it. Listen, we pulled up a piece of your radar. Caught in our nets off Eureka.
Want it? We can —”
“I don’t want anything. Spread it around. I don’t want anything.”
He hung up. He’d thought it would be over after telling the families about their men. But the phone calls kept coming. Sticky. A kind of hell. Pieces of the New Hope hadn’t sunk. He couldn’t put it away.
A kind of hell. Had he been the one to die, while the others were. warm and dry, drinking coffee aboard the New Hope?
The New Hope. He could still smell her, the oil and coffee and fish. And he remembered the glare. That certain glare always shone on the ocean before a strong wind.
Benny knew the sea. His finger traced the swirls in the dark wood of the gun. A fishing family, they’d been called, fishing out of San Diego for three generations. The weight of it sagged his mother’s face as if gravity pulled harder on her than on others. Her eyes were brown, as her brothers’ had been.
Her two brothers, Julius the philosopher and Alex the musician. They’d been more like fathers than uncles. They took him to sea.
Men were always leaving his mother. His own father had left her, and not for the sea. She didn't believe him when he said, “You get pregnant. I’m gone.” She’d wanted a son. Benny grew up with his uncles. They took him to sea.
Before Benny’s last trip, she said, “Don’t be a dummy all your life. Stay and finish college. They like you out there at State. Besides, remember your Uncle Julius.”
Old Uncle Julius. Gone. No wreckage. No bodies. He just hadn’t come back. Now both uncles were gone. And Benny lived. Why him?
He pulled back the hammer of the gun with his thumb and eased it down again, pulled it back and eased it down.
In his head flashed the same picture, the angry sea and shrieking wind above the fortieth latitude.
The ocean was different up there. The roaring forties. He used to hear romance in those words. What had he told his mother before leaving? Something smartass about going down to the sea in ships.
She called him selfish, like the rest of the Santos men. Selfish. She was right, and that’s what cut. He should have thought of her at the end of that day. That day.
All afternoon he’d watched the wind pick up and the mare's tails thicken into a heavy overcast bringing a premature dusk. The New Hope rode heavily in the rising sea. Her bow plunged into the troughs and oncoming waves, and each time he worried as she struggled to rise. He would talk to the old man.
Crossing the deck on his way to the wheelhouse, Benny had to stop and grab a line. The boat plowed deep into the trough. The pitch made water bang inside the bait tanks on either side of him. The goddam tanks. The bow lifted, shouldering off the swell. Green-white seawater swept the deck and streamed out the freeing ports.
Benny hung on.
When he finally reached the wheelhouse, his uncle was a dark shape, his strong hands on the wheel. But the face, shadows and soft green light from the instruments, was a blur.
“We’re gonna have to pump those tanks,” Benny said.
His uncle’s voice, a small voice for a big man, rose above the hum and whine of the wind. “Save it.
We run for the beach. Not far now. Twenty-five, maybe thirty miles to Eureka.”
The New Hope burrowed into the trough and struggled too long to rise free. With tanks in the hold and tanks on deck filled with live bait, Benny figured the New Hope was eight-tenths water. “I don’t like it,” he said.
Uncle Alex didn’t answer. Spray rattled against the window.
Benny peered out into the swirling darkness. “Gets any worse, our ass is in a sling.”
“We don’t show a profit, our ass in a sling.”
Benny turned to leave. His uncle called. “Hey, Benito. Tell you what. It gets worse, you pull the chutes on the deck tanks.”
The gun was a weight in Benny’s hands. He sat in the cone of light.
It had been his decision. Gets any worse, pull the chutes. Same as saying, you decide. Shouldn't have been his decision.