Remembering George Vukelich

Fifty years after the Fisherman's Beach was published, the book's re-release stirs memories of a life well lived and a legacy cherished.

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An Excerpt from Fisherman's Beach: Chapter 10
By: George Vukelich

They spent half an hour getting the tug ready for the run out to the fish grounds. Out of the shanty gear shack came the empty fish boxes they hoped to fill by noon. Raphael and Gabriel lugged these aboard while Roger gassed up the tug and Germaine carried out the foul-weather gear. They moved quickly, quietly, anxious to have the joework over with and be underway. Once they cleared the dock, they could relax and smoke during the seven-mile run back up the coast to the nets. Now there were hundreds of pounds of ice to be put aboard and steel oil drums into which they could fling the trout guts when they cleaned them on the way back. The offal would be sold to the area farmers. It wasn’t much but every little penny helped now. “Anything you get out of the lake these days,” Roger said, “you keep out of the lake.”

“How many gut barrels you want?” Raphael asked.

“Take two,” Roger said.

“Christ, we didn’t fill two all last season.”

“I got a feeling it’s going to be good today.”

“Roger, Roger,” Raphael said. He carried the second drum down to the tug.

“Jesus, what’s two barrels for?” Gabriel asked as they passed.

“I dunno,” Raphael said. “Maybe Roger’s gonna wee-wee in one of ’em.”

Roger started the engine and the twins cast off the bow and stern lines. The fish tug Ione backed tentatively into midstream.

As they cleared the harbor breakwater, the powerful swells of the open lake caught them full force and the stubby tug began its wallowing fight up the coast. The tug smashed ahead heavily, like an icebreaker, the waves exploding over the bow and whipping down the deck in stinging shrapnel-like bursts. Gabriel and Raphael struggled into their foul-weather gear and huddled together in the hold to smoke. Off to the eastward where the sky was reddening a little, the heaving waters to the horizon took on the shadowy cast of flowing lava. The wind was fresh and smelled of fish. Germaine squeezed into the tiny pilothouse where Roger was squinting out over the wheel. The windshield streamed with driven spray.

“Just like old times, huh?” Roger said loudly.

The tug went crashing down into a trough and Germaine had a brief gagging aftertaste of coffee. He took a deep breath as the tug labored and skidded greasily. He had shared this pilothouse with the Old Man on a thousand rolling mornings and he knew that those days were dead and gone and finished forever.

“Yeah,” he said. “Just like old times.”

Roger reached for a cigarette.

“About Ginny,” he said.

Germaine braced himself as another rush of water boomed into them.

“We might even get married,” Roger said. “I been thinkin’ about it.”

Germaine didn’t say anything. His days with Ginny Dussault were as dead as his days with the Old Man in the pilothouse. They floated in a meaningless limbo of memory, without flesh, without blood. It was as though a stranger named Roger LeMere had said he was going to marry a stranger named Ginny Dussault. And yet Germaine felt a twinge, a pang. A feeling for what might have been when the questions were simple and the answers were simple. Once he might have married Ginny Dussault. They had grown up together and gone together and it was a habit. Like the church you went to or the paper you read or the way your family voted. They might have married then and by now they would all know what he had known all the time. He had been in the wrong nest, the wrong pew, he thought. College had started it and the war had finished it. He was a fallen-away Catholic and as Sister Justa had told him back in grade school, that was the worst kind. A fallen-away Catholic became the enemy of Holy Mother Church. Amen, Sister. Only in grade school he didn’t realize the injustice of branding a baby guilty of Original Sin the moment it left the womb. In grade school he didn’t realize that Holy Communion was as symbolic of cannibalism as African juju. In grade school he didn’t realize that his generation of American Catholics was going to kill and be killed by a generation of German Catholics. To break with the Church was to break with his family and he had done it and stayed away.

The marriage would have been a foolish, terrible mistake.

Roger looked at him, his tongue flicking the hard sensuous lips.

“Old Man Dussault thinks it might be a good idea,” he said. “He seems to be happy about the idea.”

“Well, congratulations.”

“Actually,” Roger said, “there’s no date set or anything like that. Christ, we aren’t even engaged officially.” He gave Germaine a sly wink. “We just go together. Coupla years now.”

Germaine reached for his cigarette and stared out at the deck. In the hold he could see the wet, slickered figures of Gabriel and Raphael huddled together. They could get in a little cat nap by the time the tug reached the fish grounds. Germaine smiled. What the hell, when you were young the questions were simple, the answers were simple, and you could cat-nap in a fish tug or a bomber or a hole in the ground. It was all the same.

“You see,” Roger was saying earnestly, “this is all I know. I’m a fisherman. Just like the Old Man.”

Yes and no, Germaine thought. Yes, this is all you know and yes, you are a fisherman. But like the Old Man? No, my pushy little brother, you are not like the Old Man. There is no one like the Old Man and there will never be anyone like him again. He passes this way only once.

“The thing is,” Roger said, “I’m pretty sure Old Man Dussault would like to get out of the fishing business. He’s getting up there and without any sons in the family …” His voice trailed off and he half-turned, leaning on the wheel.

“Both Dussault boys,” Roger said, “they got it at Iwo Jima. They were Marines.”

“That’s rough.”

“Well, so there Old Man Dussault is, all alone, running his tug. There’s nobody to pass on the business to.”

Germaine looked at Roger, the powerful slouch, the determined eyes, the hands tight and strong on the tiny wheel.

“That’s where I come in,” he said. “As a son-in-law I’m right in the family. In like Flynn.”

“You don’t mean buy in?”

“Hell, no, I don’t mean buy in. Where the hell would I have the money to buy in? I mean after I marry Ginny, Old Man Dussault makes me a partner in his business. That’s natural, ain’t it?”

Yes, Germaine thought. That’s natural. Christ yes, if it was anything, it was natural.

“What about Pa?” he asked softly.

Roger looked at him harshly.

“What about Pa? I got my own life to live. He don’t own me. I’m getting pretty goddamn fed up with him acting like he does. Don’t you pull that what about Pa stuff with me. What about Roger?” He flushed, his teeth showing white and strong like an animal at bay. “I get the picture with Pa all right. He doesn’t have to hit me over the head. All these goddamn years I fish for him and do all the friggin’ dirty work and break my ass for his business and what happens? Nothin’ happens, that’s what. He’s still got me on salary. He won’t make me a partner, screw him. I can run Dussault’s operation. And I can own it.”

Roger subsided as a heavy wave caught them broadside, its unleashed flowing strength slamming full into the rudder, pulling against the wheel like a waterfall. Roger’s booted legs were wide stanced, braced and straining. The tug shuddered, the wave lifted them dizzily and gushed past. Roger relaxed and draped his arms over the wheel.

“Why won’t Pa make you a partner?” Germaine asked.

Roger snorted and dropped his cigarette butt to the flooring.

“Why?” He turned and Germaine saw the defeated look in his eyes. “Because of you, that’s why.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. He’s saving the whole shebang for you.”

Germaine heard the words and he felt a genuine sorrow for Roger. Roger was trapped and he didn’t deserve that.

“That’s ridiculous,” Germaine said.

“You goddamn right it’s ridiculous. When you were here I didn’t say boo, not one friggin’ word about the setup because you were the number one boy and I was a punk kid. But goddamn it, Germaine. You went away and I stayed and by Christ, I’ve got more time on this tug than you ever had. And with all that, he still won’t make me a partner. You goddamn right, it’s ridiculous. I’m taking a screwing.”

“I told him I didn’t want it,” Germaine said quietly.

“You know how he is,” Roger said. “He’s so goddamn hard-nosed. He believes what he wants to believe.”

It was lighter now. A quarter-mile to portside the sun rays were running through the pine tops like a  crown fire. With the dawn the water changed too. Around the tug, it was a clean waxy green; to the shoreward it was a hard deep blue that exploded into the white wavering line of the breakers foaming onto the yellow beach. They were off the Point Beach Forest now, the Old Man’s house would be coming up soon.

“You want me to take the wheel for a while?” Germaine asked.

“All right,” Roger said. “Sure. I could use some coffee.”

They exchanged places. Roger got out a thermos bottle.

“You want some?”

“No, thanks.”

He opened the bottle and sloshed it into the cover cup. He sipped it carefully and smacked his lips.

“Goddamn working for a living,” he said. “It’s a bitch.”

Germaine nodded sympathetically but with the wheel in his hands and the clean wild look of this beautiful morning it actually felt like a holiday.

“It’s no fun,” he said.

“What I need,” Roger said, “is some of that flight pay. Whattaya get? Fifty percent of your base pay?”

“Yeah.”

“And overseas pay on top of that?”

“Yeah.”

“Christ.” Roger stared ahead glumly, his face a dark inscrutable silhouette against the eastern sky. The throbbing of the engine filled the tiny pilothouse; the lake swished and gurgled under the hull.

“That’s the whole goddamn trouble,” he said. “I got nothing to show for it. Not a goddamn thing. It’s the Old Man’s boat. The Old Man’s beach. His nets. His fish.”

Germaine was watching Raphael and Gabriel. They stirred as the sunlight caught their faces. They burrowed closer to the gunwale and slept on. What were their dreams, their hopes? Did they want something more than straight salary too? Did they want to be full partners with the Old Man? Everybody a chief and nobody an Indian? Why not, what was in it for them?

The Old Man built his beach for his family, his sons, and yet it was the Old Man’s beach. Germaine had never questioned it before but he realized now that it would be the Old Man’s beach as long as the Old Man lived. He didn’t know if it was right or wrong. It was simply the way the Old Man was. If Roger was concerned about title and deeds and property he would have to wait until the Old Man died. That’s the way things were. That’s the way the Old Man was. He sneaked a look at Roger. You’re not so bad off as you think, he thought. You want title and deeds and property, wait a little. You’ve waited this long. Wait a little more. Be patient. The Old Man won’t live forever. When he dies, the Old Man’s beach will be yours. It will be yours and welcome to it. Until then, keep the deathwatch. Watch and be patient.

 

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