“Hagy’s writing and characters are worth getting to know.”—The New York Times Book Review
Life on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is filled with contradictions: a wildness of spirit alongside astonishing beauty, while the encroaching sea continues to take its toll. In Graveyard of the Atlantic, first published in 2000, Alyson Hagy explores the lives of those who persist at the eroding edge of a landscape that is as harsh and glorious as any human heart.
“Alyson Hagy’s stories have grit and the tang of seawater—and they sound like no one else’s. They are about men and women who live alongside great bodies of water and who are in the grip of great forces of nature, transfixed by them. These stories pulse and burn, like a rope traveling rapidly through your hands.”—Charles Baxter
“You can hear the surf and smell the cut bait. And you can enter the lives of a host of colorful characters, each expressing his or her own kind of longing as well as a connection to this lush place. . . . This collection is a prize.”—Jill McCorkle
“Strong, polished stories. . . . Hagy’s spare prose and flinty dialogue vividly conjures the ocean-sprayed atmosphere of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. . . . Honest work from a thoughtful craftswoman.”—Kirkus Reviews
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I know some fellows who believe fishing is more than recreation and more than a bad habit. I even know a dozen stand-up guys who'd rather drop line in a mud puddle than play eighteen holes at Pebble Beach. Soul-mates, those guys. But I've never been one to claim fishing is the be-all and end-all. I've got a grown daughter married to a chief petty officer up in Norfolk; she and her kids are worth the sunrise to me. And the love of a woman — I mean the real skingrain kind of love — that's surely the blood equal of solitude on the water. When I drive down to the pier with my coolers and my gear and my all-night shark-radar mood, however, I don't care to be interrupted.
Now that I'm retired, I go for shark maybe thirty times a year. Big Al was the one who got me to tally my excursions; he's damn competitive that way. Still, the days when I seriously counted brook trout and salmon and tequila shots and hard-ons are pretty much behind me. It doesn't make sense to apply that kind of bullshit to snagging sharks. Sharking is primarily attitude. Like climbing a mountain to meet one of those mysterious lama monks, something like that. You got your rituals, you keep to yourself. Sometimes you hook a beauty, but mostly, almost always, you don't.
Frankie, the guy who's running Frisco Pier this season, is good about my quirks. I pay my four dollars just like everybody else only I stay out all night, even after he shuts down at two, and that's fine with him. I've never had any trouble with the help here — they're ex- navy lots of times, or ex-cons, sometimes just ex-schoolteachers happy to bum around again like they did when they were eighteen. Frankie is solid, and he'll make change for the cigarette machine if you want it. He knows I'm good for free beer, too, which pleases him since he doesn't like to sneak it from the snack bar.
On a weeknight I'm pretty much guaranteed my spot at the end of the pier, just past the utility shed. Tourists beat me there on occasion, but they don't stay. They get restless if a fish doesn't latch onto their bait after about ten minutes. Besides, Frankie tells them their luck will be better midpier where the surf begins to break, which is mostly true. He knows I like my elbow room. He also knows I'll get it — at the southern corner, best place to keep my line clear — one way or another.
I can be downright gentlemanly once my bait's in the water and the sky's gone dark and hovering. But I'm a big man, wide enough to cover the top of a Coleman cooler with one haunch. The beard, the black cap, and the smeary Indonesian tattoos give some tourists the idea I might be a biker, so they sidle clear. Others, especially those whiny-type dads trying to teach their sons to fish, they got something else to prove, some need to hang out over the everlasting end of the pier like they're Columbus on the edge of the world. So they get too close to the rods I set up to catch my bait, they tangle their lines with mine, then swear at themselves or wise-eye me like I'm some bum on a park bench. In either case, they pretty quickly leave. Sometimes because of the bowie knife I pull to cut the tangled lines. Sometimes because the babble I produce as I hunker down on my cooler, a beer in each hand, doesn't dovetail with their idea of a family vacation.
So I aim for a perfect evening. A Tuesday in early May, three weeks before the tourist season cranks up. Wind out of the north, five to ten knots. Clear sky, and Big Al is nowhere in sight. Chances are he's on the pier at Nags Head because he's a lazy coot who won't steer his ass another hour south to Hatteras Island to take me on. Am I complaining? I am not. The night's a joke when we're both rigging floats, swapping tales about the mako the charters have brought in, or the hammerheads the surfers have skedaddled from. I don't like how I get sucked into it, verbal sparring of the lowest, toothiest sort, but it's a weakness of mine. One of several.
Besides the folks on the beach, the only company I've got is fifty yards back where a lanky, careful-moving couple in bill caps and dark green work clothes are bottom-fishing with cut mullet. I like their looks. They've each got a tackle box, they hardly speak a word, their eyes are focused on the scalloped water of the middle distance. The woman's had a good day; I saw her bagging fillets when I passed by. The man, well, maybe he hasn't caught a damn thing, but I can tell by the set of his head that he'd never think of complaining. He might consider trying another spot tomorrow, or the day after, but he's too aware of his good fortune to bitch and moan. I like to see people inhabiting their fishing time like that — you know, living right in it. Gives me hope that the world may yet learn to leave us all alone.
I lay out the pieces of my rig like I'm a mechanic, or maybe a gourmet chef. The tide has shifted, but I've got an hour before I need to drop my float and there are preparations to be savored. The hook — a six-inch single barb — and the three-foot steel leader are old, though you wouldn't know that by looking. I keep things polished. I got one white garbage bag, a spool of catgut thread, 800 yards of 80-pound test on a top-of-the-line Daiwa reel, and my best St. Croix rod. The St. Croix's short and thick around as a longshoreman's thumb, looks more like an instrument of punishment than anything else. In my second-string cooler I've got a four-day-old amberjack, stinkingest piece of bait I've had all season.
So I'm at it, a heavy man working light on his feet. Stuff laid out on a pair of striped bath towels, each thing in its place. I re-oil the reel. I finger the leader for chinks or flaws. I back off and crack open a beer just so I don't rush. That's when I see her, a wisp of a woman clearing the glare of the halogen lights posted every twenty yards or so. She's got a bucket in one hand, rod in the other. She's walking that slow, self-absorbed walk, heel to toe, no hip swing, and I see exactly how it's going to be. She's going to set up in my outpost, right on my sea- splashed fang of a world, and I'm going to have to deal with it.
She stops short when she sees me, takes in the clutter of my passion and flattens her lips. In her forties, I'd guess. Too thin for my taste, but dressed practically in a yellow shirt, jeans, a pair of boys' tennis shoes. Got a blue windbreaker knotted around her waist and a bandanna on her head. She looks me in the eye just once to be polite, then threads her way around my stuff to set up in the northern corner. I can't figure right off what she's after — puppy drum, maybe — but it's clear she'll stay out of my way. I peg her as one of those edgy divorced types who like to see if they can hack loneliness in the dark.
I get back to business. Rig the pole, check the wind, blow the garbage bag up like it's a balloon and tie it off with catgut. Then the best part — lifting that vile jack from the cooler and running the hook through its gristly eyes. My homemade float will carry that sucker out with the tide a couple hundred yards before the catgut melts and drops the bait in deep water. And there she'll lay, grand and sour and available.
The waiting is the heart of it, of course. My companion knows that. She baits her own hook deliberately and without distraction. She never even looks at me, barely nods at the sightseers who wander out after their seafood and wine dinners in the village. Out of respect for her concentration, I don't holler when I drop my masterpiece over the rail. I just roam back to my cooler, spritz open a cold one, and take a gander at the stars, which make me think of the pale sky over Okinawa, which leads me to consider the slow fade-out of my marriage. No regrets. The wife and I both wrung what we could from twenty-five hopscotch years in the navy. Then she bailed to live with her sister in West Virginia. I see our daughter and grandkids more often than she does, but I'm not fool enough to think that makes me a better person.
I wonder if my lone friend in the corner has children. I watch her for a few minutes — my float is finally out of sight in the black draw of wind and water — and I make guesses at her life. No rings on her fingers that I can see, so I decide there's an asshole left behind in a good brick house somewhere, a drinker maybe, middle- aged guy scared of his own life. She's a fine person, I decide that too, though I can't quite say why she gets my vote. Then I notice the bandanna, how it folds and flips in the breeze, how it reveals uneven tufts of downy hair all over the back of her skull, and I rethink her history with the knowledge that the score has been less in her favor all along.
She's dyed that brave hair platinum blond, bless her, a fact that nearly makes me laugh. Skinny, sick, a stubborn sense of humor — I reckon she deserves a night like this, with the timbers shivering under her feet and the wind singing off the guide wires. All the nights she wants. I watch her lean into the chest-high rail as her bait does a free fall. When she sets the line, her shoulders and back relax, and I see her hips begin to sway. One, two, three. One, two, three. It's a thing I haven't noticed before. How the rhythm of the surf beneath us, the way she hears it, has her waltzing above the waves.
Seeing this makes me restless, so I stand to check my line, which doesn't need to be checked. I'm wondering how I'd be doing in the Texas hold 'em poker game at Eddie's in Virginia Beach, when I hear a commotion on shore. Hell. One look tells me all I need to know. Four or five guys have piled up a bonfire and are set to create some mayhem. I can tell they're drunk by the hee-haw quality of their laughter. Their faces are like orangish half-moons from this distance, staggering planets around a sparking sun. No problem. I'll tune them out. Which I do until a crescendo of shouting causes me to take another look. By God, I get acid in my throat then. The punks are muscling an inflatable raft into the surf, two guys clinging to the sides, and I know they're planning to row some bait into my territory and poach on my shark.
If I'm lucky, they'll capsize before they clear the surf. If I'm unlucky, they'll get out there and cross my line and cause big trouble for all of us. I grab the gut-smeared rail and shake it with my hands, wishing I had a rifle so I could pop a hole in that oversized doughnut of a raft. I don't quite swear out loud, but I hear a rattling scrape behind me and sense the woman looking at me, at my quivering temper, wondering why I'm suddenly so out of whack. She's right. You're right, I think. Where's my God damn poise and equilibrium?
I don't like how I feel — flummoxed, out-maneuvered — but I manage to let go of the rail.
Enough time passes for me to get halfway through a cheddar cheese and mustard sandwich. Then I hear a sound that doubles the coils in my guts and takes me back fifteen years, to when a steam pipe blew on the supply ship I was assigned to and scalded the unlucky sods working nearby. Deep pain and panic. I can't see much, just a couple of dark figures zigzagging from that bonfire to the surf, but I assume the worst. The idiot raft has gone over in the waves.
I'm down the pier in half a minute, over the rail by the snack bar before Frankie has even gotten out the door. "Call Leon right now," I say. "Get him up here." Frankie's face is thick with sleep and confusion, but he understands the important part. Two deputies with lifesaving equipment can be here in three minutes, and we might need them.
I pump my legs through sand. The first guy, arms straight out in front of him, rushes up to meet me like I'm a long-lost cousin. He's wet to the waist and shivering, though not from cold. The second guy comes in behind me like he's been up to the parking lot or something, looking for help that isn't there. They're both hopping from foot to foot, saying something about Wayne and Talbot and the raft, though it's all coming out in hoarse fragments that don't help me a bit. I don't know what I'm going to do, of course. I'm overweight and don't swim that well, regardless of my years on the pitching decks of the U.S.N. I take it as a good sign that I'm absorbing a lot of detail with Kodak-type clarity, like the fact these fellows are both wearing shirts from the University of Tennessee, though it's hard not to connect those neon orange shirts to the general stupidity of the situation.
We all three trot into the surf up to our knees. There's some shouting coming from beyond the white fringe of the breakers, but it's impossible to tell how desperate it is. The story I've got by now is that Wayne and his brother were in the raft. Then Talbot, who was fishing from shore, hooked something big and heavy, a thing he swore was a shark, and the boys rowed over to see what it was. That's when the yelling started. Maybe the raft capsized, maybe it didn't. All they know is that Wayne and his brother, who doesn't appear to have a name of his own, are wearing life jackets and both know how to swim. Talbot, who is drunk enough to worry even these two locos, decided to follow his fishing line to the source of the trouble. According to the report I'm getting, Talbot's never soaked himself in anything bigger than a bathtub.
God almighty. The first thing I say is, Boys, maybe it's best we wait for the law. Your friends will be washing up around our ankles any minute.
Second thing I say is, Do you have a flashlight?
They do. Talbot's got one with him too, though he apparently hasn't managed to turn it on. I assess the situation one more time. The surf's not that rough, but the current is strong. I turn on the light and, guessing at the raft's drift, hightail it down the beach about two hundred yards. One Tennessee guy stays near the bonfire to flag down Leon when he arrives; the other one follows me like a duckling after its nettled mother.
Of course I'm a hard-hearted SOB, so I still manage to think about my bait and how it's lying out there unattended, how my night's a ruin. These fellows have trifled with the ocean and with me — the way I see it, they've only got one strike left. I wade in, waves smacking at my thighs and chest. I haven't been in salt water this deep since I slipped off a dock in the Philippines, many, many whiskeys ago. Go from sandbar to sandbar, I tell myself, keep your own damn head above water while you try to pinpoint that raft.
They find me, of course. Two ratty-looking boys in life jackets, their long rock'n'roll hair plastered to their foreheads and necks. One of them's got a cut-up arm, but they're safe, been trying to swim the raft in against the tide, which hasn't been easy. They look surprised as hell to see me, and hangdog grateful. What about Talbot, I ask, shouting into the wind that's picked up again, where is he? The brothers look befuddled, then a little weepy. The one I think of as Wayne, who looks most likely to have that name even in his present condition, stops dog-paddling with his free hand and grabs at the front of my shirt. Tells me I must be crazy, mistaken. There's only them two with the raft. Talbot would never come out yonder, he says. He don't know how to swim.
By now Mr. Tennessee Shirt Number One has joined us and we're set to drag that raft to dry land. Or we will be, once the Three Musketeers stop spitting and slapping fives. Talbot, they pant. Talbot, man, we got to find him. I can see a wheel of lights beyond the pier now, the tiny lighthouse flashes of the rescue van. We may get lucky, I think to myself, and be out one drunk fisherman instead of three. Tugging on the raft is going to flare up the bursitis in my left shoulder, I'm thinking that too, when Mr. Tennessee Shirt who's stumbling beside me says, What if a shark got hold of Talbot after he got hold of it? He looks behind him as he says this, then back at me with eyes the size of line spools. He wants me to tell him it can't be so.
I ask the soggy brothers, Did you all see what Talbot had on his line? No, Wayne says, they never got that far, a breaker flipped them. His brother, who has got the cut arm and a mustache with maybe five hairs in it, appears relieved they missed their chance. Probably hooked a lunker drum, I say. Naw, says Tennessee Shirt, no way. The drag was set tight and the line played on out. Whatever he had was damn big. Tennessee's hands fly off the raft to measure just how big and his eyes are filled with braggart's pride for his buddy until he remembers why he's staggering through the strongest undertow on the Atlantic coast, losing his shoes to the devil's kiss of the tide. Then it's like the bones in his long hillbilly neck have collapsed and his chin's at his chest in prayer or cruel sobriety, I can't tell which.
Don't worry, boys, I say. He probably just snagged one of them Nazi subs sunk offshore during the war. It won't harm him none.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Graveyard of the Atlantic"
Copyright © 2000 Alyson Hagy.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Snake Hunters,
North of Fear, South of Kill Devil,
Graveyard of the Atlantic,
What People are Saying About This
[These] stories have grit and the tang of seawater-and they sound like no one else's. They are about the men and women who live alongside great bodies of water and who are in the grip of great forces of nature, transfixed by them. These stories pulse and burn, like a rope traveling rapidly through your hands.