Stern Men: A Novel320
Stern Men: A Novel320
Off the coast of Maine, Ruth Thomas is born into a feud fought for generations by two groups of local lobstermen over fishing rights for the waters that lie between their respective islands. At eighteen, she has returned from boarding school-smart as a whip, feisty, and irredeemably unromantic-determined to throw over her education and join the "stern men"working the lobster boats. Gilbert utterly captures the American spirit through an unforgettable heroine who is destined for greatness-and love-despite herself in this the critically acclaimed debut.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Hometown:Hudson Valley, New York
Date of Birth:July 18, 1969
Place of Birth:Waterbury, Connecticut
Education:BA, New York University, 1991 (Political Science)
Read an Excerpt
Unlike some crustaceans, who are coldly indifferent to the welfare of their offspring, the mamma lobster keeps her little brood about her until the youthful lobsterkins are big enough to start in life for themselves.
-Crab, Shrimp, and Lobster Lore William B. Lord 1867
The birth of Ruth Thomas was not the easiest on record. She was born during a week of legendary, terrible storms. The last week of May 1958 did not quite bring a hurricane, but it was not calm out there, either, and Fort Niles Island got whipped. Stan Thomas's wife, Mary, in the middle of this storm, endured an unusually hard labor. This was her first child. She was not a big woman, and the baby was stubborn in coming. Mary Thomas should have been moved to a hospital on the mainland and put under the care of a doctor, but this was no weather for boating around a woman in hard labor. There was no doctor on Fort Niles, nor were there nurses. The laboring woman, in distress, was without any medical attention. She just had to do it on her own.
Mary whimpered and screamed during labor, while her female neighbors, acting as a collective of amateur midwives, administered comfort and suggestions, and left her side only to spread word of her condition across the island. The fact was, things didn't look good. The oldest and smartest women were convinced from early on that Stan's wife was not going to make it. Mary Thomas wasn't from the island, anyway, and the women didn't have great faith in her strength. Under the best of circumstances, these women considered her somewhat pampered, a little too fine and a little too susceptible to tears and shyness.They were pretty sure she was going to quit on them in the middle of her labor and just die of pain right there, in front of everyone. Still, they fussed and interfered. They argued with one another over the best treatment, the best positions, the best advice. And when they briskly returned to their homes to collect clean towels or ice for the woman in labor, they passed the word among their husbands that things at the Thomas house were looking very grave indeed.
Senator Simon Addams heard the rumors and decided to make his famous peppery chicken stock, which he believed to be a great healer, one that would help the woman in her time of need. Senator Simon was an aging bachelor who lived with his twin brother, Angus, another aging bachelor. The men were the sons of Valentine Addams, all grown up now. Angus was the toughest, most aggressive lobsterman on the island. Senator Simon was no kind of lobsterman at all. He was terrified of the sea; he could not set foot in a boat. The closest Simon had ever come to the sea was one stride wide of the surf on Gavin Beach. When he was a teenager, a local bully tried to drag him out on a dock, and Simon had nearly scratched that kid's face off and nearly broken that kid's arm. He choked the bully until the boy fell unconscious. Senator Simon certainly did not like the water.
He was handy, though, so he earned money by repairing furniture and lobster traps and fixing boats (safely on shore) for other men. He was recognized as an eccentric, and he spent his time reading books and studying maps, which he purchased through the mail. He knew a great deal about the world, although not once in his life had he stepped off Fort Niles. His knowledge about so many subjects had earned him the nickname Senator, a nickname that was only half mocking. Simon Addams was a strange man, but he was acknowledged as an authority.
It was the Senator's opinion that a good, peppery chicken soup could cure anything, even childbirth, so he cooked up a nice batch for Stanley Thomas's wife. She was a woman he dearly admired, and he was worried about her. He brought a warm pot of soup over to the Thomas home on the afternoon of May 28. The female neighbors let him in and announced that the little baby had already arrived. Everyone was fine, they assured him. The baby was hearty, and the mother was going to recover. The mother could probably use a touch of that chicken soup, after all.
Senator Simon Addams looked into the bassinet, and there she was: little Ruth Thomas. A girl baby. An unusually pretty baby, with a wet, black mat of hair and a studious expression. Senator Simon Addams noticed right away that she didn't have the red squally look of most newborns. She didn't look like a peeled, boiled rabbit. She had lovely olive skin and a most serious expression for an infant. "Oh, she's a dear little baby," said Senator Simon Addams, and the women let him hold Ruth Thomas. He looked so huge holding the new baby that the women laughed-laughed at the giant bachelor cradling the tiny child. But Ruth blew a sort of a sigh in his arms and pursed her tiny mouth and blinked without concern. Senator Simon felt a swell of almost grandfatherly pride. He clucked at her. He jiggled her. "Oh, isn't she just the dearest baby," he said, and the women laughed and laughed.
He said, "Isn't she just a peach?"
Ruth Thomas was a pretty baby who grew into a very pretty girl, with dark eyebrows and wide shoulders and remarkable posture. From her earliest childhood, her back was straight as a plank. She had a striking, adult presence, even as a toddler. Her first word was a very firm "No." Her first sentence: "No, thank you." She was not excessively delighted by toys. She liked to sit on her father's lap and read the papers with him. She liked to be around adults. She was quiet enough to go unnoticed for hours at a time. She was a world- class eavesdropper. When her parents visited their neighbors, Ruth sat under the kitchen table, small and silent as dust, listening keenly to every adult word. One of the most common sentences directed at her as a child was "Why, Ruth, I didn't even see you there!"
Ruth Thomas escaped notice because of her watchful disposition and also because of the distracting commotion around her in the form of the Pommeroys. The Pommeroys lived next door to Ruth and her parents. There were seven Pommeroy boys, and Ruth was born right at the end of the run of them. She pretty much vanished into the chaos kicked up by Webster and Conway and John and Fagan and Timothy and Chester and Robin Pommeroy. The Pommeroy boys were an event on Fort Niles. Certainly other women had produced as many children in the island's history, but only over decades and only with evident reluctance. Seven babies born to a single exuberant family in just under six years seemed almost epidemic.
Senator Simon's twin brother, Angus, said of the Pommeroys, "That's no family. That's a goddamn litter."
Angus Addams could be suspected of jealousy, though, as he had no family except his eccentric twin brother, so the whole business of other people's happy families was like a canker on Angus Addams. The Senator, on the other hand, found Mrs. Pommeroy delightful. He was charmed by her pregnancies. He said that Mrs. Pommeroy always looked as if she was pregnant because she couldn't help it. He said she always looked pregnant in a cute, apologetic way.
Mrs. Pommeroy was unusually young when she married-not yet sixteen-and she enjoyed herself and her husband completely. She was a real romp. The young Mrs. Pommeroy drank like a flapper. She loved her drinking. She drank so much during her pregnancies, in fact, that her neighbors suspected she had caused brain damage in her children. Whatever the cause, none of the seven Pommeroy sons ever learned to read very well. Not even Webster Pommeroy could read a book, and he was the ace of smarts in that family's deck.
As a child, Ruth Thomas often sat quietly in a tree and, when the opportunity arose, threw rocks at Webster Pommeroy. He'd throw rocks back at her, and he'd tell her she was a stinkbutt. She'd say, "Oh, yeah? Where'd you read that?" Then Webster Pommeroy would drag Ruth out of the tree and kick her in the face. Ruth was a smart girl who sometimes found it difficult to stop making smart comments. Getting kicked in the face was the kind of thing that happened, Ruth supposed, to smart little girls who lived next door to so many Pommeroys.
When Ruth Thomas was nine years old, she experienced a significant event. Her mother left Fort Niles. Her father, Stan Thomas, went with her. They went to Rockland. They were supposed to stay there for only a week or two. The plan was for Ruth to live with the Pommeroys for a short time. Just until her parents came back. But some complicated incident occurred in Rockland, and Ruth's mother didn't come back at all. The details weren't explained to Ruth at the time.
Eventually Ruth's father returned, but not for a long while, so Ruth ended up staying with the Pommeroys for months. She ended up staying with them for the entire summer. This significant event was not unduly traumatic, because Ruth really loved Mrs. Pommeroy. She loved the idea of living with her. She wanted to be with her all the time. And Mrs. Pommeroy loved Ruth.
"You're like my own daughter!" Mrs. Pommeroy liked to tell Ruth. "You're like my own goddamn daughter that I never, ever had!"
Mrs. Pommeroy pronounced the word daughtah, which had a beautiful, feathery sound in Ruth's ears. Like everyone born on Fort Niles or Courne Haven, Mrs. Pommeroy spoke with the accent recognized across New England as Down East-just a whisper off the brogue of the original Scots-Irish settlers, defined by an almost criminal disregard for the letter r. Ruth loved the sound. Ruth's mother did not have this beautiful accent, nor did she use words like goddamn and fuck and shit and asshole, words that delightfully peppered the speech of the native lobstermen and many of their wives. Ruth's mother also did not drink vast quantities of rum and then turn all soft and loving, as Mrs. Pommeroy did every single day.
Mrs. Pommeroy, in short, had it all over Ruth's mother.
Mrs. Pommeroy was not a woman who would hug constantly, but she certainly was one to nudge a person. She was always nudging and bumping into Ruth Thomas, always knocking her around with affection, sometimes even knocking her over. Always in a loving way, though. She knocked Ruth over only because Ruth was still so small. Ruth Thomas hadn't got her real size yet. Mrs. Pommeroy knocked Ruth on her ass with pure, sweet love.
"You're like my own goddamn daughter that I never had!" Mrs. Pommeroy would say and then nudge and then-boom-down Ruth would go.
Mrs. Pommeroy probably could have used a daughter, too, after her seven handfuls of sons. She surely had a genuine appreciation of daughters, after years of Webster and Conway and John and Fagan and so on and so on, who ate like orphans and shouted like convicts. A daughter looked pretty good to Mrs. Pommeroy by the time Ruth Thomas moved in, so Mrs. Pommeroy had an informed love for Ruth.
But more than anyone else, Mrs. Pommeroy loved her man. She loved Mr. Pommeroy madly. Mr. Pommeroy was small and tight- muscled, with hands as big and heavy as door knockers. His eyes were narrow. He walked with his fists on his hips. He had an odd, scrunched-up face. His lips were always smooched in a half-kiss. He frowned and squinted, like someone performing difficult mathematics in his head. Mrs. Pommeroy adored him. When she passed her husband in the house hallways, she'd grab at his nipples through his undershirt. She'd tweak his nipples and yell, "Tweaky!"
Mr. Pommeroy would yell, "Whoop!"
Then he'd grab her wrists and say, "Wanda! Quit that, will you? I really hate it."
He'd say, "Wanda, if your hands weren't always so warm, I'd throw you out of the damn house."
But he loved her. In the evenings, if they were sitting on the couch listening to the radio, Mr. Pommeroy might suck on a single strand of Mrs. Pommeroy's hair as if it were sweet licorice. Sometimes they'd sit together quietly for hours, she knitting woolen garments, he knitting heads for his lobster traps, a bottle of rum on the floor between them from which they both drank. After Mrs. Pommeroy had been drinking for a while, she liked to swing her legs up off the floor, press her feet against her husband's side, and say, "Feet on you."
"No feet on me, Wanda," he'd say flatly, not looking at her, but smiling.
She'd keep pressing on him with her feet.
"Feet on you," she'd say. "Feet on you."
"Please, Wanda. No feet on me." (He called her Wanda although her true name was Rhonda. The joke was on their son Robin, who-in addition to having the local habit of not pronouncing r at the end of a word-could not say any word that started with r. Robin couldn't say his own name for years, no less the name of his mother. What's more, for a long time everyone on Fort Niles Island imitated him. Over the whole spread of the island, you could hear the great strong fishermen complaining that they had to mend their wopes or fix their wigging or buy a new short-wave wadio. And you could hear the great strong women asking whether they could borrow a garden wake.)
Ira Pommeroy loved his wife a great deal, which was easy for everyone to understand, since Rhonda Pommeroy was a true beauty. She wore long skirts, and she lifted them when she walked, as if she imagined herself fancy in Atlanta. She wore a persistent expression of amazement and delight. If someone left the room for even a moment, she'd arch her brows and say charmingly, "Where have you been?" when the person returned. She was young, after all, despite her seven sons, and she kept her hair as long as a young girl's. She wore her hair swung up and around her whole skull, in an ambitious, glossy pile. Like everyone else on Fort Niles, Ruth Thomas thought Mrs. Pommeroy a great beauty. She adored her. Ruth often pretended to be her.
As a girl, Ruth's hair was kept as short as a boy's, so when she pretended to be Mrs. Pommeroy, she wore a towel knotted around her head, the way some women do after a bath, but hers stood for Mrs. Pommeroy's famous glossy pile of hair. Ruth would enlist Robin Pommeroy, the youngest of the boys, to play Mr. Pommeroy. Robin was easy to boss around. Besides, he liked the game. When Robin played Mr. Pommeroy, he arranged his mouth into the same smooch his dad often wore, and he stomped around Ruth with his hands heavy on his hips. He got to curse and scowl. He liked the authority it gave him. Ruth Thomas and Robin Pommeroy were always pretending to be Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy. It was their constant game. They played it for hours and weeks of their childhood. They played it outside in the woods, nearly every day throughout the summer that Ruth lived with the Pommeroys. The game would start with pregnancy. Ruth would put a stone in her pants pocket to stand for one of the Pommeroy brothers, unborn. Robin would purse his mouth all tight and lecture Ruth about parenthood.
"Now listen me," Robin would say, his fists on his hips. "When that baby's bawn, he won't have any teeth. Heah that? He won't be weddy to eat that hard food, like what we eat. Wanda! You have to feed that baby some juice!"
Ruth would stroke the baby stone in her pocket. She'd say, "I think I'm about to have this baby right now."
She'd toss it on the ground. The baby was born. It was that easy.
"Would you just look at that baby?" Ruth would say. "That's a big one."
Each day, the first stone to be born was named Webster, because he was the oldest. After Webster was named, Robin would find another stone to represent Conway. He'd give it to Ruth to slip into her pocket.
"Wanda! What's that?" Robin would then demand.
"Would you just look at that," Ruth would answer. "Here I go, having another one of those goddamn babies."
Robin would scowl. "Listen me. When that baby's bawn, his foot bones'll be too soft for boots. Wanda! Don't you go stick any boots on that baby!"
"I'm naming this one Kathleen," Ruth would say. (She was always eager for another girl on the island.)
"No way," Robin would say. "That baby's gonna be a boy, too."
Sure enough, it would be. They'd name that stone Conway and toss him down by his big brother, Webster. Soon, very soon, a pile of sons would grow in the woods. Ruth Thomas delivered all those boys, all summer long. Sometimes she'd step on the stones and say, "Feet on you, Fagan! Feet on you, John!" She birthed every one of those boys every single day, with Robin stomping around her, hands heavy on his hips, bragging and lecturing. And when the Robin stone itself was born at the end of the game, Ruth sometimes said, "I'm throwing out this lousy baby. It's too fat. It can't even talk right."
Then Robin might take a swing, knocking the towel-hair off Ruth's head. And she might then whip the towel at his legs, giving him red slashes on his shins. She might knock a fist in his back if he tried running. Ruth had a good swing, when the target was slow, fat Robin. The towel would get wet from the ground. The towel would get muddied and ruined, so they'd leave it and take a fresh one the next day. Soon, a pile of towels would grow in the woods. Mrs. Pommeroy could never figure that one out.
Say, where'd those towels go? Hey! What about my towels, then?
The Pommeroys lived in the big house of a dead great-uncle who had been a relative of both of them. Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy were related even before they were married. They were cousins, each conveniently named Pommeroy before they fell in love. ("Like the goddamn Roosevelts," Angus Addams said.) To be fair, of course, that's not an unusual situation on Fort Niles. Not many families to choose from anymore, so everyone's family.
The dead Pommeroy great-uncle was therefore a shared dead great-uncle, a common dead great-uncle. He'd built a big house near the church, with money made in a general store, back before the first lobster war. Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy had doubly inherited the home. When Ruth was nine years old and stayed with the Pommeroys for the summer, Mrs. Pommeroy tried to get her to sleep in that dead uncle's bedroom. It was under a quiet roof and had one window, which spied on a massive spruce tree, and it had a soft wooden floor of wide planks. A lovely room for a little girl. The only problem was that the great- uncle had shot himself right there in that room, right through his mouth, and the wallpaper was still speckled with rusty, tarnished blood freckles. Ruth Thomas flatly refused to sleep in that room.
"Jesus, Ruthie, the man's dead and buried," Mrs. Pommeroy said. "There's nothing in this room to scare anybody."
"No," Ruth said.
"Even if you see a ghost, Ruthie, it would just be my uncle's ghost, and he'd never hurt you. He loved all children."
"No, thank you."
"It's not even blood on the wallpaper!" Mrs. Pommeroy lied. "It's fungus. It's from the damp."
Mrs. Pommeroy told Ruth that she had the same fungus on her bedroom wallpaper every now and again, and that she slept just fine. She said she slept like a cozy baby every night of the year. In that case, Ruth announced, she'd sleep in Mrs. Pommeroy's bedroom. And, in the end, that's exactly what she did.
Ruth slept on the floor next to Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy's bed. She had a large pillow and a mattress of sorts, made from rich- smelling wool blankets. When the Pommeroys made any noise, Ruth heard it, and when they had giggly sex, she heard that. When they snored through their boozy sleeping, she heard that, too. When Mr. Pommeroy got up at four o'clock every morning to check the wind and leave the house for lobster fishing, Ruth Thomas heard him moving around. She kept her eyes shut and listened to his mornings.
Mr. Pommeroy had a terrier that followed him around everywhere, even in the kitchen at four o'clock every morning, and the dog's nails ticked steady on the kitchen floor. Mr. Pommeroy would talk quietly to the dog while making his breakfast.
"Go back to sleep, dog," he'd say. "Don't you want to go back to sleep? Don't you want to rest up, dog?"
Some mornings Mr. Pommeroy would say, "You following me around so you can learn how to make coffee for me, dog? You trying to learn how to make my breakfast?"
For a while, there was a cat in the Pommeroy house, too. It was a dock cat, a huge coon-cat that had moved up to the Pommeroys' because it hated the terrier and hated the Pommeroy boys so much that it wanted to stay near them at all times. The cat took the terrier's eye out in a fight, and the eye socket turned into a stink and mess of infection. So Conway put the cat in a lobster crate, floated the crate on the surf, and shot at it with a gun of his father's. After that, the terrier slept on the floor beside Ruth Thomas every night, with its mean, stinking eye.
Ruth liked sleeping on the floor, but she had strange dreams. She dreamed that the ghost of the Pommeroys' dead great-uncle chased her into the Pommeroys' kitchen, where she searched for knives to stab him with but could find nothing except wire whisks and flat spatulas to defend herself. She had other dreams, where it was storming rain in the Pommeroys' back yard, and the boys were wrestling with each other. She had to step around them with a small umbrella, covering first one boy, then another, then another, then another. All seven Pommeroy sons fought in a tangle, all around her.
In the mornings, after Mr. Pommeroy had left the house, Ruth would fall asleep again and wake up a few hours later, when the sun was higher. She'd crawl up into bed with Mrs. Pommeroy. Mrs. Pommeroy would wake up and tickle Ruth's neck and tell Ruth stories about all the dogs her father had owned, back when Mrs. Pommeroy was a little girl exactly like Ruth.
"There was Beadie, Brownie, Cassie, Prince, Tally, Whippet . . ." Mrs. Pommeroy would say, and eventually Ruth learned the names of all the bygone dogs and could be quizzed on them. Ruth Thomas lived with the Pommeroys for three months, and then her father returned to the island without her mother. The complicated incident had been resolved. Mr. Thomas had left Ruth's mother in a town called Concord, New Hampshire, where she would remain indefinitely. It was made pretty clear to Ruth that her mother would not be returning home at all. Ruth's father took Ruth out of the Pommeroy house and back next door, where she was able to sleep in her own bedroom again. Ruth resumed her quiet life with her father and found that she did not much miss her mother. But she very much missed sleeping on the floor beside the bed of Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy.
Then Mr. Pommeroy drowned.
All the men said Ira Pommeroy drowned because he fished alone and he drank on his boat. He kept jugs of rum tied to some of his trap lines, bobbing twenty fathoms down in the chilled middle waters, halfway between the floating buoys and the grounded lobster traps. Everyone did that occasionally. It wasn't as if Mr. Pommeroy had invented the idea, but he had refined it greatly, and the understanding was that he'd wrecked himself from refining it too greatly. He simply got too drunk on a day when the swells were too big and the deck was too slippery. He probably went over the side of his boat before he even knew it, losing his footing with a quick swell while pulling up a trap. And he couldn't swim. Scarcely any of the lobstermen on Fort Niles or Courne Haven could swim. Not that being able to swim would have helped Mr. Pommeroy much. In the tall boots, in the long slicker and heavy gloves, in the wicked and cold water, he would have gone down fast. At least he got it over with quickly. Knowing how to swim sometimes just makes the dying last longer.
Angus Addams found the body three days later, when he was fishing. Mr. Pommeroy's corpse was bound tightly in Angus's lines, like a swollen, salted ham. That's where he'd ended up. A body can drift, and there were acres of ropes sunk in the water around Fort Niles Island that could act like filters to catch any drifting corpses. Mr. Pommeroy's drift stopped in Angus's territory. The seagulls had already eaten out Mr. Pommeroy's eyes.
Angus Addams had pulled up a line to collect one of his traps, and he'd pulled up the body, too. Angus had a small boat, with not much room for another man on board, alive or dead, so he'd tossed dead Mr. Pommeroy into the holding tank on top of the living, shifting lobsters he'd caught that morning, whose claws he'd pegged shut so they wouldn't rip each other into a slop of pieces. Like Mr. Pommeroy, Angus fished alone. At that time in his career, Angus didn't have a sternman to help him. At that point in his career, he didn't feel like sharing his catch with a teenage helper. He didn't even have a radio, which was unusual for a lobsterman, but Angus did not like being chattered at. Angus had dozens of traps to haul that day. He always fished through his chores, no matter what he found. And so, despite the corpse he'd fished up, Angus went ahead and pulled his remaining lines, which took several hours. He measured each lobster, as he was supposed to do, threw the small ones back, and kept the legal ones, pegging their claws safely shut. He tossed all the lobsters on top of the drowned body in the cool tank, out of the sun.
Around three-thirty in the afternoon, he headed back to Fort Niles. He anchored. He tossed Mr. Pommeroy's body into his rowboat, where it was out of his way, and counted the catch into the holding crates, filled his bait buckets for the next day, hosed off the deck, hung up his slicker. When he was finished with these chores, he joined Mr. Pommeroy in the rowboat and headed over to the dock. He tied his rowboat to the ladder and climbed up. Then he told everyone exactly whom he'd found in his fishing grounds that morning, dead as any idiot.
"He was all stuck in my wopes," Angus Addams said grimly.
As it happened, Webster and Conway and John and Fagan and Timothy and Chester Pommeroy were at the docks when Angus Addams unloaded the corpse. They'd been playing there that afternoon. They saw the body of their father, laid out on the pier, puffed and eyeless. Webster, the oldest, was the first to see it. He stammered and gasped, and then the other boys saw it. They fell like terrified soldiers into a crazy formation, and broke right into a run home, together, in a bunch. They ran up from the harbor, and they burst, fast and weeping, past the roads and the collapsing old church to their house, where their neighbor Ruth Thomas was fighting with their littlest brother, Robin, on the steps. The Pommeroy sons drew Ruth and Robin up into their run, and the eight of them shoved into the kitchen at the same time and rushed into Mrs. Pommeroy.
Mrs. Pommeroy had expected this news ever since her husband's boat was found, three nights before, without her husband anywhere near it, floating far off course. She already knew her husband was dead, and she'd guessed that she would never recover his body. But now, as her sons and Ruth Thomas hurled themselves into the kitchen, their faces stricken, Mrs. Pommeroy knew that the body had been found. And that her sons had seen it.
The boys knocked into Mrs. Pommeroy and took her down to the floor as though they were mad brave soldiers and she was a live grenade. They covered and smothered her. They were grieving, and they were a real weight upon her. Ruth Thomas had been knocked over, too, and was sprawled out, confused, on the kitchen floor. Robin Pommeroy, who did not yet get it, was circling the pile of his sobbing brothers and his mother, saying, "What? What?"
What was a word Robin could say very easily, unlike his own name, so he said it again.
"What? What? Webster, what?" he said, and he must have wondered at this poor snarl of boys and at his mother, so silent under them. He was far too little for such a report. Mrs. Pommeroy, on the floor, was quiet as a nun. She was cloaked in her sons. When she struggled to stand up, her boys came up with her, stuck on her. She picked her boys off her long skirts as if they were brambles or beetles. But as each boy dropped off to the floor, he crawled back on her again. They were all hysterical. Still, she stood quietly, plucking them from her.
"Webster, what?" Robin said. "What, what?"
"Ruthie," Mrs. Pommeroy said, "go on home. Tell your father."
Her voice had a thrilling, beautiful sadness. Tell yah fathah . . . Ruth thought it the prettiest sentence she had ever heard.
Senator Simon Addams built the coffin for Mr. Pommeroy, but the Senator did not attend the funeral, because he was deadly afraid of the sea and never attended the funeral of anyone who had drowned. It was an unsustainable terror for him, no matter who the dead person was. He had to stay away. Instead, he built Mr. Pommeroy a coffin of clean white spruce, sanded and polished with light oil. It was a lovely coffin.
This was the first funeral that Ruth Thomas had attended, and it was a fine one, for a first funeral. Mrs. Pommeroy was already showing herself to be an exceptional widow. In the morning, she scrubbed the necks and fingernails of Webster, Conway, John, Fagan, Timothy, Chester, and Robin. She worked their hair down with a fancy tortoise-shell comb dipped in a tall glass of cold water. Ruth was there with them. She could not stay away from Mrs. Pommeroy in general, and certainly not on an important day like this. She took her place at the end of the line and got her hair combed with water. She got her nails cleaned and her neck scrubbed with brushes. Mrs. Pommeroy cleaned Ruth Thomas last, as though the girl were a final son. She left Ruth's scalp hot and tight from the combing. She made Ruth's nails shine like coins. The Pommeroy boys stood still, except for Webster, the oldest, who was tapping his fingers nervously against his thighs. The boys were very well behaved that day, for the sake of their mother.
Mrs. Pommeroy then performed some brilliant work on her own hair, sitting at the kitchen table before her bedroom dresser mirror. She wove a technically complicated plait and arranged it around her head with pins. She oiled her hair with something interesting until it had the splendid sheen of granite. She draped a black scarf over her head. Ruth Thomas and the Pommeroy boys all watched her. She had a real gravity about her, just as a dignified widow should. She had a true knack for it. She looked spectacularly sad and should have been photographed that day. She just was that beautiful.
Fort Niles Island was required to wait more than a week to stage the funeral, because it took that long to get the minister to come over on the New Hope, the mission boat. There was no permanent ministry on Fort Niles anymore, nor on Courne Haven. On both islands, the churches were falling down from lack of use. By 1967, there wasn't a large enough population on either Fort Niles or Courne Haven (just over a hundred souls on the two islands) to sustain a regular church. So the citizens shared a minister of God with a dozen other remote islands in a similar predicament, all the way up the coast of Maine. The New Hope was a floating church, constantly moving from one distant sea community to another, showing up for brief, efficient stays. The New Hope remained in harbor only long enough to baptize, marry, or bury whoever needed it, and then sailed off again. The boat also delivered charity and brought books and sometimes even the mail. The New Hope, built in 1915, had carried several ministers during its tenure of good work. The current minister was a native of Courne Haven Island, but he was scarcely ever to be found there. His work sometimes took him all the way up to Nova Scotia. He had a far-flung parish, indeed, and it was often difficult to get his attention promptly.
The minister in question was Toby Wishnell, of the Wishnell family of Courne Haven Island. Everyone on Fort Niles Island knew the Wishnells. The Wishnells were what was known as "high-line" lobstermen, which is to say that they were terrifically skilled and inevitably wealthy. They were famous lobstermen, superior to every fishing man. They were rich, supernatural fishermen, who had even managed to excel (comparatively) during the lobster wars. The Wishnells always tore great masses of lobster from any depth of water, in any season, and they were widely hated for it. It made no sense to other fishermen how many lobsters the Wishnells claimed as their own. It was as if the Wishnells had a special arrangement with God. More than that, it was as if the Wishnells had a special arrangement with lobsters as a species.
Lobsters certainly seemed to consider it an honor and a privilege to enter a Wishnell trap. They would crawl over other men's traps for miles of sea bottom just to be caught by a Wishnell. It was said that a Wishnell could find a lobster under a rock in your grandmother's flower garden. It was said that families of lobsters collected in the very walls of Wishnell homes, like rodents. It was said that Wishnell boys were born with tentacles, claws, and shells, which they shed during the final days of nursing.
The Wishnells' luck in fishing was obscene, offensive, and inherited. Wishnell men were especially gifted at destroying the confidence of Fort Niles men. If a Fort Niles fisherman was inland, doing business for a day in, say, Rockland, and he met a Wishnell at the bank or at the gas station, he would inevitably find himself behaving like an idiot. Losing all self-control, he would demean himself before the Wishnell man. He would grin and stammer and congratulate Mr. Wishnell on his fine new haircut and fine new car. He would apologize for his filthy overalls. He would foolishly try to explain to Mr. Wishnell that he'd been doing chores around his boat, that these filthy rags were only his work clothes, that he'd be throwing them out soon, rest assured. The Wishnell man would go on his way, and the Fort Niles fisherman would rage in shame for the rest of the week.
The Wishnells were great innovators. They were the first fishermen to use light nylon ropes instead of the old hemp ropes, which had to be painstakingly coated in hot tar to keep them from rotting in the seawater. The Wishnells were the first fishermen to haul traps with mechanized winches. They were the first fishermen, in fact, to use motorized boats. That was the way with the Wishnells. They were always first and always best. It was said that they bought their bait from Christ Himself. They sold huge catches of lobsters every week, laughing at their own sickening luck.
Pastor Toby Wishnell was the first and only man born into the Wishnell family who did not fish. And what an evil and well-conceived insult that was! To be born a Wishnell-a lobster magnet, a lobster magnate-and piss away the gift! To turn away the spoils of that dynasty! Who would be idiot enough to do such a thing? Toby Wishnell, that's who. Toby Wishnell had given it all up for the Lord, and that was seen over on Fort Niles as intolerable and pathetic. Of all the Wishnells, the men of Fort Niles hated Toby Wishnell the most. He absolutely galled them. And they fiercely resented that he was their minister. They didn't want that guy anywhere near their souls.
"There's something about that Toby Wishnell he ain't telling us," said Ruth Thomas's father, Stan.
"It's faggotry, is what it is," said Angus Addams. "He's pure faggot."
"He's a dirty liar. And a born bastard," Stan Thomas said. "And it may be faggotry, too. He may just be a faggot, too, for all we know."
The day that young Pastor Toby Wishnell arrived on the New Hope to attend to the funeral of drowned, drunk, swollen, eyeless Mr. Pommeroy was a handsome early autumn day. There were high blue skies and keen winds. Toby Wishnell looked handsome, too. He had an elegant frame. He wore a lean black wool suit. His trousers were tucked into heavy, rubber fishermen's boots to guard against the muddied ground.
There was something unreasonably fine about Pastor Toby Wishnell's features, something too pretty about his cleancut chin. He was polished. He was cultivated. What's more, he was blond. Somewhere along the way, the Wishnells must have married some of the Swedish girls born to the Ellis Granite Company workers. This happened back at the turn of the century, and the soft blond hair had stuck around. There was none of it on Fort Niles Island, where nearly everyone was pale and dark. Some of the blond hair on Courne Haven was quite beautiful, and the islanders were rather proud of it. It had become a quiet issue between the two islands. On Fort Niles, blonds were resented wherever they were seen. Another reason to hate Pastor Toby Wishnell.
Pastor Toby Wishnell gave Ira Pommeroy a most elegant funeral. His manners were perfect. He walked Mrs. Pommeroy to the cemetery, holding her arm. He guided her to the edge of the newly dug grave. Ruth Thomas's Uncle Len had dug that grave himself over the last few days. Ruth's Uncle Len, always hard up for money, would take any job. Len was reckless and didn't generally give a damn throughout life. He had also offered to keep the body of drowned Mr. Pommeroy in his root cellar for a week, despite the protests of his wife. The corpse was sprinkled heavily with rock salt to cut the smell. Len didn't care.
Ruth Thomas watched Mrs. Pommeroy and Pastor Wishnell head to the grave. They were in perfect step with each other, as matched in their movements as ice skaters. They made a good-looking couple. Mrs. Pommeroy was trying bravely not to cry. She held her head tilted back, daintily, like a nosebleeder.
Pastor Toby Wishnell delivered his address at the graveside. He spoke carefully, with traces of his education.
"Consider the brave fisherman," he began, "and the jeopardy of his sea . . ."
The fishermen listened without a flinch, regarding their own fishermen's boots. The seven Pommeroy boys stood in a descending line beside their mother, as still as though they'd been pegged to the ground, except for Webster, who shifted and shifted on his feet as if he were about to race. Webster hadn't stood still since first seeing his father's body laid out on the pier. He'd been moving and tapping and shifting nervously ever since. Something had happened to Webster that afternoon. He had become goosey, fidgety, and unnerved, and his reaction wasn't going away. As for Mrs. Pommeroy, her beauty troubled the silent air around her.
Pastor Wishnell recalled Mr. Pommeroy's skills on the sea and his love of boats and children. Pastor Wishnell regretted that such an accident could befall so skilled a sailor. Pastor Wishnell recommended that the gathered neighbors and loved ones avoid speculating on God's motives.
There were not many tears. Webster Pommeroy was crying, and Ruth Thomas was crying, and Mrs. Pommeroy was touching the corners of her eyes every so often, but that was it. The island men were silent and respectful, but their faces did not suggest personal devastation at this event. The island wives and mothers shuffled and stared actively, reckoning the grave and reckoning Mrs. Pommeroy and reckoning Toby Wishnell and, finally, reckoning their own husbands and sons quite frankly. It was a tragedy, they were surely thinking. Hard to lose any man. Painful. Unfair. Yet beneath such sympathetic thoughts each of these women was probably thinking, But it was not my man. They were almost fully occupied with relief. How many men could drown in a year, after all? Drownings were rare. There were almost never two drownings in a year in such a small community. Superstition suggested that Mr. Pommeroy's drowning had made all the other men immune. Their husbands would be safe for some time. And they would not lose any sons this year.
Pastor Toby Wishnell asked those gathered to remember that Christ Himself was a fisherman, and that Christ Himself promised a reception for Mr. Pommeroy in the full company of trumpeting angelic hosts. He asked that those gathered, as a community of God, not neglect the spiritual education and guidance of Mr. Pommeroy's seven young sons. Having lost their earthly father, he reminded those present, it was now ever more imperative that the Pommeroy boys not lose their heavenly Father as well. Their souls were in the care of this community, and any loss of faith by the Pommeroy boys would surely be seen by the Lord as the fault of the community, for which He would punish its people accordingly.
Pastor Wishnell asked those gathered to consider the witness and testimony of Saint Matthew as a warning. He read from his Bible, "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." Behind Pastor Wishnell was the sea itself, and there was Fort Niles harbor, glittering in the hard afternoon light. There was the New Hope mission boat, anchored among the squatty fishing boats, gleaming prominently and looking lean and long by comparison. Ruth Thomas could see all this from where she stood, on the slope of a hill, next to Mr. Pommeroy's grave. With the exception of Senator Simon Addams, everyone on the island had come to the funeral. Everyone was there, near Ruth. Everyone was accounted for. But down on the Fort Niles dock stood an unfamiliar big blond boy. He was young, but he was bigger than any of the Pommeroy boys. Ruth could tell his size even at that significant distance. He had a big head shaped something like a paint can, and he had long, thick arms. The boy was standing perfectly still, with his back to the island. He was looking out to sea.
Ruth Thomas became so interested in the strange boy that she stopped crying over Mr. Pommeroy's death. She watched the strange boy during the entire funeral service, and he did not move. He faced the water for the full duration, his arms by his side. He stood there, still and quiet. It was only long after the funeral, when Pastor Wishnell walked down to the dock, that the boy moved. Without speaking to the pastor, the big blond boy climbed down the ladder of the pier and rowed Pastor Wishnell back to the New Hope. Ruth watched with the greatest interest.
But that all happened after the funeral. In the meantime, the service continued smoothly. Eventually, Mr. Pommeroy, idling in his long and leggy spruce box, was packed down in the dirt. The men dropped clods of earth upon him; the women dropped flowers upon him. Webster Pommeroy fidgeted and paced in place and looked as if he might start running any minute now. Mrs. Pommeroy let go of her composure and cried prettily. Ruth Thomas watched in some anger as the drowned husband of her favorite person in the entire world was buried.
Ruth thought, Christ! Why didn't he just swim for it instead?
. . .
Senator Simon Addams brought Mrs. Pommeroy's sons a book that night, in a protective canvas bag. Mrs. Pommeroy was making supper for her boys. She was still wearing her black funeral dress, which was made of a material heavy for the season. She was scraping the root hairs and rough skin from a bucket of her garden's carrots. The Senator brought her a small bottle of rum, as well, which she said she thought she wouldn't be having any of, but she thanked him all the same.
"I've never known you to turn down a drink of rum," Senator Simon Addams said.
"All the fun's out of drinking for me, Senator. You won't be seeing me drink anymore."
"There was fun in drinking once?" the Senator asked. "There ever was?"
"Ah . . ." Mrs. Pommeroy sighed and smiled sadly. "What's in the sack?"
"A gift for your boys."
"Will you have supper with us?"
"I will. Thank you very much."
"Ruthie!" Mrs. Pommeroy said, "bring the Senator a glass for his rum."
But young Ruth Thomas had already done so, and she'd brought him a chunk of ice, too. Senator Simon rubbed Ruth's head with his big, soft hand.
"Shut your eyes, Ruthie," he told her. "I've got a gift for you."
Ruth obediently shut her eyes for him, as she always had, ever since she was a very small girl, and he kissed her on the forehead. He gave her a big smack. That was always his gift. She opened her eyes and smiled at him. He loved her.
Now the Senator put the tips of his two index fingers together. "OK, Ruthie. Cut the pickle," he said.
Ruth made scissors of the fingers on her right hand and snipped through his fingers.
"Get the tickle!" he exclaimed, and he tickled her ribs. Ruth was too old for this game, but the Senator loved it. He laughed and laughed. She smiled indulgently. They sometimes performed this little routine four times a day.
Ruth Thomas was eating supper with the Pommeroys that night, even though it was a funeral night. Ruth nearly always ate with them. It was nicer than eating at home. Ruth's father wasn't much for cooking a hot meal. He was clean and decent enough, but he didn't keep much of a home. He wasn't against having cold sandwiches for dinner. He wasn't against mending Ruth's skirt hems with a staple gun, either. He ran that kind of house and had done so ever since Ruth's mother left. Nobody was going to starve or freeze to death or go without a sweater, but it wasn't a particularly cozy home. So Ruth spent most of her time at the Pommeroys', which was much warmer and easier. Mrs. Pommeroy had invited Stan Thomas over for dinner that night, too, but he'd stayed at home. He was thinking that a man shouldn't take a supper off a woman freshly grieving the funeral of her husband.
The seven Pommeroy boys were murderously glum at the dinner table. Cookie, the Senator's dog, napped behind the Senator's chair. The Pommeroys' nameless, one-eyed dog, locked in the bathroom for the duration of the Senator's visit, howled and barked in outrage at the thought of another dog in his home. But Cookie didn't notice. Cookie was beat tired. Cookie followed the lobster boats out sometimes, even when the water was rough, and she was always very nearly drowning. It was awful. She was only a year-old mutt, and she was crazy to think she could swim against the ocean. Cookie had been pulled by the current once nearly to Courne Haven Island, but the mail boat happened to pick her up and bring her back, almost dead. It was awful when she swam out after the boats, barking. Senator Simon Addams would edge near the dock, as close to it as he dared, and would beg Cookie to come back. Begging and begging! The young dog swam in small circles farther and farther out, sneezing off the spray from the outboard motors. The sternmen in the chased boats would throw hunks of herring bait at Cookie, yelling, "Git on outta heh!"
Of course the Senator could never go out after his dog. Not Senator Simon, who was as afraid of water as his dog was inspired by it. "Cookie!" he'd yell. "Please come on back, Cookie!
Come on back, Cookie! Come on back now, Cookie!"
It was hard to watch, and it had been happening since Cookie was a puppy. Cookie chased boats almost every day, and Cookie was tired every night. This night was no exception. So Cookie slept, exhausted, behind the Senator's chair during supper. At the end of Mrs. Pommeroy's supper, Senator Simon caught the last morsel of pork on his plate with his fork tines and waved his fork behind him. The pork dropped to the floor. Cookie woke up, chewed the meat thoughtfully, and went back to sleep.
Then the Senator pulled from the canvas sack the book he'd brought as a gift for the boys. It was a huge book, heavy as a slab of slate.
"For your boys," he told Mrs. Pommeroy.
She looked it over and handed it to Chester. Chester looked it over. Ruth Thomas thought, A book for those boys? She had to feel sorry for someone like Chester, with such a massive book in his hand, staring at it with no comprehension.
"You know," Ruth Thomas told Senator Simon, "they can't read."
Then she said to Chester, "Sorry!" thinking that it wasn't right to bring up such a fact on the day of a boy's father's funeral, but she didn't know for certain whether the Senator knew that the Pommeroy boys couldn't read. She didn't know if he'd heard of their affliction.
Senator Simon took the book back from Chester. It had been his great-grandfather's book, he said. His great-grandfather had purchased the book in Philadelphia the only time that good man had ever left Fort Niles Island in his entire life. The cover of the book was thick, hard, brown leather. The Senator opened the book and began to read from the first page.
He read: "Dedicated to the King, the Lords Commissioner of the Admiralty, to the Captains and Officers of the Royal Navy, and to the Public at Large. Being the most accurate, elegant, and perfect edition of the whole works and discoveries of the celebrated circumnavigator Captain James Cook."
Senator Simon paused and looked at each of the Pommeroy boys. "Circumnavigator!" he exclaimed.
Each boy returned his look with a great lack of expression.
"A circumnavigator, boys! Captain Cook sailed the world all the way around, boys! Would you like to do that someday?"
Timothy Pommeroy stood up from the table, walked into the living room, and lay down on the floor. John helped himself to some more carrots. Webster sat, drumming his feet nervously against the kitchen tile.
Mrs. Pommeroy said politely, "Sailed around the whole world, did he, Senator?"
The Senator read more: "Containing an authentic, entertaining, full, and complete history of Captain Cook's First, Second, and Third Voyages."
He smiled at Mrs. Pommeroy. "This is a marvelous book for boys. Inspiring. The good captain was killed by savages, you know. Boys love these stories. Boys! If you wish to be sailors, you will study James Cook!"
At that time, only one of the Pommeroy boys was any kind of a sailor. Conway was working as a substitute sternman for a Fort Niles fisherman named Mr. Duke Cobb. A few days every week, Conway left the house at five in the morning and returned late in the afternoon, reeking of herring. He pulled traps and pegged lobsters and filled bait bags, and received ten percent of the profits for his work. Mr. Cobb's wife packed Conway his lunch, which was part of his pay. Mr. Cobb's boat, like all the boats, never went much farther than a mile or two from Fort Niles. Mr. Cobb was certainly no circumnavigator. And Conway, a sullen and lazy kid, was not shaping up to be a great circumnavigator, either.
Webster, the oldest boy, at fourteen, was the only other Pommeroy old enough to work, but he was a wreck on a boat. He was useless on a boat. He went nearly blind with seasickness, dying from headaches and vomiting down his own helpless sleeves. Webster had an idea of being a farmer. He kept a few chickens.
"I have a little joke to show you," Senator Simon said to Chester, the nearest boy. He spread the book on the table and opened it to the middle. The huge page was covered with tiny text. The print was dense and thick and faint as a small pattern on old fabric.
"What do you see here? Look at that spelling."
Terrible silence as Chester stared.
"There's no letter s anywhere, is there, son? The printers used f instead, didn't they, son? The whole book is like that. It was perfectly common. It looks funny to us, though, doesn't it? To us, it looks as if the word sail is the word fail. To us, it looks as if every time Captain Cook sailed the boat, he actually failed the boat! Of course, he didn't fail at all. He was the great circumnavigator. Imagine if someone told you, Chester, that someday you would fail a boat? Ha!"
"Ha!" said Chester, accordingly.
"Have they spoken to you yet, Rhonda?" Senator Simon asked Mrs. Pommeroy suddenly, and shut the book, which slammed like a weighty door.
"Have who, Senator?"
"All the other men."
"Boys," Senator Simon said, "get out of here. Your mother and I need to talk alone. Beat it. Take your book. Go outside and play."
The boys sulked out of the room. Some of them went upstairs, and the others filed outside. Chester carried the enormous, inappropriate gift of Captain James Cook's circumnavigations outdoors. Ruth slipped under the kitchen table, unnoticed.
"They'll be coming by soon, Rhonda," the Senator said to Mrs. Pommeroy when the room had cleared. "The men will come by soon for a talk with you."
"I wanted to give you some warning. Do you know what they'll be asking you?"
"They'll ask if you're planning on staying here, on the island. They'll want to know if you're staying or if you're planning to move inland."
"They probably wish you'd leave."
Mrs. Pommeroy said nothing.
From her vantage point under the table, Ruth heard a splash, which she guessed was Senator Simon's pouring a fresh dollop of rum on the ice in his glass.
"So, do you think you'll stay on Fort Niles, then?" he asked.
"I think we'll probably stay, Senator. I don't know anybody inland. I wouldn't have anywhere to go."
"And whether you do or do not stay, they'll want to buy your man's boat. And they'll want to fish his fishing ground."
"You should keep both the boat and the ground for the boys, Rhonda."
"I don't see how I can do that, Senator."
"Neither do I, to tell you the truth, Rhonda."
"The boys are so young, you see. They aren't ready to be fishermen so young, Senator."
"I know, I know. I can't see either how you can afford to keep the boat. You'll need the money, and if the men want to buy it, you'll have to sell. You can't very well leave it on shore while you wait for your boys to grow up. And you can't very well go out there every day and chase men off the Pommeroy fishing ground."
"That's right, Senator."
"And I can't see how the men will let you keep the boat or the fishing ground. Do you know what they'll tell you, Rhonda? They'll tell you they just intend to fish it for a few years, not to let it go to waste, you see. Just until the boys are big enough to take over. But good luck taking it back, boys! You'll never see it again, boys!"
Mrs. Pommeroy listened to all this with equanimity.
"Timothy," Senator Simon called, turning his head toward the living room, "do you want to fish? Do you want to fish, Chester? Do you boys want to be lobstermen when you grow up?"
"You sent the boys outside, Senator," Mrs. Pommeroy said. "They can't hear you."
"That's right, that's right. But do they want to be fishermen?"
"Of course they want to be fishermen, Senator," Mrs. Pommeroy said. "What else could they do?"
"But forever, Senator? Who stays in the Army forever, Senator? They'll want to come back to the island to fish, like all the men."
"Seven boys." Senator Simon looked at his hands. "The men will wonder how there'll ever be enough lobsters around this island for seven more men to make a living from them. How old is Conway?"
Mrs. Pommeroy informed the Senator that Conway was twelve.
"Ah, they'll take it all from you, for sure they will. It's a shame, a shame. They'll take the Pommeroy fishing ground, split it among them. They'll buy your husband's boat and gear for a song, and all that money will be gone in a year, from feeding your boys. They'll take over your husband's fishing territory, and your boys will have a hell of a fight to win it back. It's a shame. And Ruthie's father probably gets the most of it, I'll bet. Him and my greedy brother. Greedy Number One and Greedy Number Two."
Under the table, Ruth Thomas frowned, humiliated. Her face got hot. She did not entirely understand the conversation, but she felt deeply ashamed, suddenly, of her father and of herself.
"Pity," the Senator said. "I'd tell you to fight for it, Rhonda, but I honestly don't know how you can. Not all by yourself. Your boys are too young to stage a fight for any territory."
"I don't want my boys fighting for anything, Senator."
"Then you'd better teach them a new trade, Rhonda. You'd better teach them a new trade."
The two adults sat silently for some time. Ruth hushed her breathing. Then Mrs. Pommeroy said, "He wasn't a very good fisherman, Senator."
"He should have died six years from now, instead, when the boys were ready for it. That's really what he should have done."
"Or maybe that wouldn't have been any better. I honestly don't see how this could have worked out at all. I've been thinking about it, Rhonda, ever since you had all those sons in the first place. I've been trying to figure out how it would settle in the end, and I never did see any good coming of it. Even if your husband had lived, I suppose the boys would have ended up fighting among themselves. Not enough lobsters out there for everyone; that's the fact. Pity. Fine, strong boys. It's easier with girls, of course. They can leave the island and marry. You should have had girls, Rhonda! We should have locked you in a brood stall until you started breeding daughters."
There was another splash in a glass, and the Senator said, "And another thing. I came to apologize for missing the funeral."
"That's all right, Senator."
"I should have been there. I should have been there. I have always been a friend to your family. But I can't take it, Rhonda. I can't take the drowning."
"You can't take the drowning, Senator. Everyone knows that."
"I thank you for your understanding. You are a good woman, Rhonda. A good woman. And another thing. I've come for a haircut, too."
"A haircut? Today?"
"Sure, sure," he said.
Senator Simon, pushing back his chair to get up, bumped into Cookie. Cookie woke with a start and immediately noticed Ruth sitting under the kitchen table. The dog barked and barked until the Senator, with some effort, bent over, lifted the corner of the tablecloth, and spotted Ruth. He laughed. "Come on out, girl," he said, and Ruth did. "You can watch me get a haircut."
The Senator took a dollar bill from his shirt pocket and laid it on the table. Mrs. Pommeroy got the old bed sheet and her shears and comb from the kitchen closet. Ruth pushed a chair into the middle of the kitchen for Simon Addams to sit on. Mrs. Pommeroy wrapped the sheet around Simon and his chair and tucked it around his neck. Only his head and boot tips showed.
She dipped the comb in a glass of water, wetted down the Senator's hair against his thick, buoy-shaped head, and parted it into narrow rows. She cut his hair one share at a time, each segment flattened between her two longest fingers, then cropped off on a neat bias. Ruth, watching these familiar gestures, knew just what would happen next. When Mrs. Pommeroy was finished with the haircut, the sleeves of her black funeral dress would be topped with the Senator's hair. She would dust his neck with talcum powder, bundle the sheet, and ask Ruth to take it outdoors and shake it. Cookie would follow Ruth outside and bark at the whipping sheet and bite at the tumbling clumps of damp hair.
"Cookie!" Senator Simon would yell. "Come on back in here now, baby!"
Later, of course, the men did visit Mrs. Pommeroy.
It was the following evening. Ruth's father walked over to the Pommeroy house because it was right next door, but the other men drove over in the unregistered, unlicensed trucks they kept for carting their trash and children around on the island. They brought blueberry cakes and casseroles as offerings from their wives and stayed in the kitchen, many of them leaning on the counters and walls. Mrs. Pommeroy made the men polite pots of coffee. On the grass outside, below the kitchen window, Ruth Thomas was trying to teach Robin Pommeroy how to say his name or any word beginning with r. He was repeating after Ruth, fiercely pronouncing every consonant but the impossible one.
"rob-in," Ruth said.
"wob-in," he insisted. "wob-in!"
"razz-berries," Ruth said. "rhu-barb. rad-ish."
"wad-ish," he said.
Inside, the men offered suggestions to Mrs. Pommeroy. They'd been discussing a few things. They had some ideas about dividing the traditional Pommeroy fishing ground among them for use and care, just until one of the boys showed interest and skill in the trade. Until any one of the Pommeroy boys could maintain a boat and a fleet of traps.
"rubb-ish," Ruth Thomas instructed Robin, outside the kitchen window.
"wubb-ish," he declared.
"ruth," she said to Robin. "ruth!"
But he wouldn't even try that one; Ruth was much too hard. Besides, Robin was tired of the game, which only served to make him look stupid. Ruth wasn't having much fun, anyhow. The grass was full of black slugs, shiny and viscous, and Robin was busy slapping at his head. The mosquitoes were a mess that night. There hadn't been weather cold enough to eliminate them. They were biting Ruth Thomas and everyone else on the island. But they were really shocking Robin Pommeroy. In the end, the mosquitoes chased Robin and Ruth indoors, where they hid in a front closet until the men of Fort Niles began to file out of the Pommeroy house.
Ruth's father called for her, and she took his hand. Together, they walked to their home next door. Stan Thomas's good friend Angus Addams came with them. It was past dusk and getting cold, and once they were inside, Stan made a fire in the parlor wood stove. Angus sent Ruth upstairs to the closet in her father's bedroom to fetch the cribbage board, and then he sent her to the sideboard in the living room to fetch the good decks of cards. Angus set up the small, antique card table next to the stove.
Ruth sat at the table while the two men played. As always, they played quietly, each determined to win. Ruth had watched these men play cribbage hundreds of times in her young life. She knew how to be silent and useful so that she wouldn't be sent away. She fetched them beers from the icebox when fresh beers were needed. She moved their pegs along the board for them so that they wouldn't have to lean forward. And she counted aloud to them as she moved the pegs. The men said little.
Sometimes Angus would say, "Have you ever seen such luck?"
Sometimes he'd say, "I've seen better hands on an amputee."
Sometimes he'd say, "Who dealt this sorry rag?"
Ruth's father beat Angus soundly, and Angus put down his cards and told them a terrible joke.
"Some men are out fishing one day for sport, and they're drinking too much," he began. Ruth's father put down his cards, too, and sat back in his chair to listen. Angus narrated his joke with the greatest of care. He said, "So, these fellas are out fishing and they're really having a time and drinking it up. They're getting awful stewed. In fact, these fellas get to drinking so bad that one of them, the one named Mr. Smith, he falls overboard and drowns. That ruins everything. Hell! It's no fun having a fishing party when a man drowns. So the men drink some more booze, and they set to feeling pretty miserable, because nobody wants to go home and tell Mrs. Smith her husband is drowned."
"You're terrible, Angus," Ruth's father interrupted. "What kind of joke is that for tonight?"
Angus continued. "Then one of the guys has a great idea. He suggests maybe they ought to hire Mr. Smooth-Talking-Jones to go break the bad news to Mrs. Smith. That's right. It seems there's a fella in town, name of Jones, who's famous for being a real smooth talker. He's perfect for the job. He'll tell Mrs. Smith about her husband, but he'll tell her so nice, she won't even care. The other guys think, Hey, what a great idea! So they go find Smooth-Talking- Jones, and he says he'll do the job, no problem. So Smooth-Talking- Jones puts on his nicest suit. He puts on a tie and a hat. He goes over to the Smith house. He knocks on the door. A woman answers. Smooth-Talking-Jones says, 'Pardon me, ma'am, but ain't you the Widow Smith?'"
At this, Ruth's father laughed into his beer glass, and a thin spray of foam flew from his mug to the table. Angus Addams held up his hand, palm out. Joke wasn't finished. So he finished it.
"The lady says, 'Why, I am Mrs. Smith, but I ain't no widow!' And Smooth-Talking-Jones says, 'The fuck you ain't, sweetheart.'"
Ruth toyed with that word in her mind: Sweethaht, sweet- hot . . .
"Oh, that's terrible." Ruth's father rubbed his mouth. He was laughing, though. "That's terrible, Angus. Jesus Christ, what a rotten joke to tell. I can't believe you'd tell a joke like that on a night like this. Jesus Christ."
"Why, Stan? You think it sounds like someone we know?" Angus said. Then he asked, in a strange falsetto, "Ain't you the Widow Pommeroy?"
"Angus, that is terrible," Ruth's father said, laughing even harder.
"I'm not terrible. I'm telling jokes."
"You're terrible, Angus. You're terrible."
The two men laughed and laughed, and then settled down a bit. Eventually, Ruth's father and Angus Addams commenced playing cribbage once more and grew quiet.
Sometimes Ruth's father said, "Christ!"
Sometimes Ruth's father said, "I should be shot for that play."
At the end of the night, Angus Addams had won one game and Stan Thomas had won two. Some money was exchanged. The men put away the cards and dismantled the cribbage board. Ruth returned the board to the closet in her father's bedroom. Angus Addams folded up the card table and set it behind the sofa. The men moved into the kitchen and sat at the table. Ruth came back down, and her father patted her bottom and said to Angus, "I don't imagine Pommeroy left his wife enough money to pay you for that nice coffin your brother built."
Angus Addams said, "You kidding me? Pommeroy didn't leave any money. There's no money in that goddamn family. Not enough money for a pissant funeral, I can tell you that. Not enough money for a coffin. Not even enough money to buy a ham bone to shove up his ass so the dogs could drag his body away."
"How interesting," Ruth's father said, completely deadpan. "I'm not familiar with that tradition."
Then it was Angus Addams who was laughing. He called Ruth's father terrible.
"I'm terrible?" Stan Thomas said. "I'm terrible? You're the terrible one."
Something in this kept them both laughing. Ruth's father and Mr. Angus Addams, who were excellent friends, called each other terrible people all that night long. Terrible! Terrible! As if it was a kind of reassurance. They called each other terrible, rotten, deadly people.
They stayed up late, and Ruth stayed up with them, until she started crying from trying to keep herself awake. It had been a long week, and she was only nine. She was a sturdy kid, but she'd seen a funeral and heard conversations she didn't understand, and now it was past midnight, and she was exhausted.
"Hey," Angus said. "Ruthie? Ruthie? Don't cry, then. What? I thought we were friends, Ruthie."
Ruth's father said, "Poor little pie."
He took her up into his lap. She wanted to stop crying, but she couldn't. She was embarrassed. She hated crying in front of anyone. Still, she cried until her father sent her into the living room for the deck of cards and let her sit on his lap and shuffle them, which was a game they used to play when she was small. She was too old to be sitting in his lap and shuffling cards, but it was a comfort.
"Come on, Ruthie," Angus said, "let's have a smile out of you."
Ruth tried to oblige, but it wasn't a particularly good smile. Angus asked Ruth and her father to do their funniest joke for him, the one he loved so much. And they did.
"Daddy, Daddy," Ruth said in a fake little-girlie voice. "How come all the other children get to go to school and I have to stay home?"
"Shut up and deal, kid," her father growled.
Angus Addams laughed and laughed.
"That's terrible!" he said. "You're both terrible."
What People are Saying About This
[Gilbert's] gift for lively, authentic dialogue and atmospheric setting lights up this entertaining, and surprisingly thought-provoking romp.
Publishers Weekly, Starred
"Gilbert's tangy language has as much music as muscle; the novel is Emersonian in its clarity and Austenian in its sly social observation." Mirabella
"[Stern Men] flashes with welcome brilliance."
-The New York Times
-San Francisco Chronicle
Reading Group Guide
“Honestly, was there any reason a smart fisherman had to wake up at four A.M.? There had to be a better way.” —Stern Men
Off the coast of Maine lie the remote islands of Fort Niles and Courne Haven. The two are virtually identical, have no near neighbors, and are separated only by a shallow channel less than a mile wide. Yet, for generations, their residents have been divided by a bitter and occasionally bloody feud begun by a long-forgotten man of questionable sanity. So by 1976, the only thing that the hard-drinking, stubborn, and proud lobster fishermen of Fort Niles know for certain is that they hate the hard-drinking, stubborn, and proud lobster fishermen of Courne Haven . . . and vice versa. What neither group realizes, however, is that outside forces are conspiring to change their way of life forever, and their hope for salvation just might lie in the hands of a very unusual young woman.
Ruth Thomas was born on Fort Niles in 1958 during “a week of legendary, terrible storms” (p. 12) and their fury established the tenor of her early years. Her parents—Stan, a native Fort Niles lobsterman, and Mary, the illegitimate, quasi-granddaughter of the island’s wealthy mainland patrons—separated when their daughter was just nine, and Ruth has been struggling against her mother’s attempts to win her away from Fort Niles ever since.
Up until she turned eighteen, Ruth was coerced into attending an elite boarding school in Delaware with girls “who fussed over their figures annoyingly, uninterruptedly, odiously” (p. 46). And, upon graduation, she proclaims her decision to eschew college in favor of joining her father, Stan, on his lobster boat as a stern man. No one is pleased by this announcement—not even Ruth who, honestly, finds both lobster fishing and her father’s company profoundly boring. Fortunately, her father has already engaged a stern man for the season, and Ruth is left to fume insincerely over her disappointment.
Though quick with a lie when it suits her, Ruth is honest with herself and knows two things for certain: she loathes the Ellises and she very much likes the solid, silent figure and blond eyelashes of one Owney Wishnell—a descendent of Courne Haven’s finest lobster-fishing family and therefore one of her father’s most hated rivals. Equipped with this knowledge, Ruth sets out in search of her destiny.
To the naked eye and especially to Cal Cooley—the Ellis family’s eyes and ears and Ruth’s nemesis—it might seem as if she were simply idling the summer away. Even Ruth herself is unsure what course her meanderings will take, but there is one person on the island who is confident they are the prelude to greatness. And, in the end, an elephant’s tusk, an antique lighthouse lens, and a drunken foray on Courne Haven point the way toward happiness and the salvation of the world Ruth loves.
In her sparklingly original debut novel, Elizabeth Gilbert’s indomitable heroine takes on a world hitherto run by men and achieves a triumph that trumps even her most ardent naysayers. Told with wit and compassion, and peopled by an endearingly quirky cast of characters, Stern Men also offers a tantalizing early glimpse of the writer whose own story would go on to strike a chord with millions of readers.
ABOUT ELIZABETH GILBERT
Elizabeth Gilbert is a journalist and the author of the blockbuster New York Times bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love. She is also the author of Pilgrims, a Pushcart Prize–winning short-story collection, and The Last American Man, a nonfiction finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Stern Men was originally published in 2000. It is her first and only novel.
A CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH GILBERT
Q. You write about the Fort Niles/Courne Haven communities with such affection and in such intimate, quirky detail. Did you grow up in a similar milieu?
Not really. . . . I had a very inland upbringing, raised in the Berkshires on a small family Christmas tree farm. But my parents were somewhat quirky (my father, particularly) and I always felt that our family (my father’s family, specifically) were a cast of fairly unusual souls, who lived in a world that didn’t really look like anyone else’s world—and who were also big drinkers and creative cursers, just like many of the characters in the novel. I think I got an early taste for insular eccentrics, which has never really abated.
Q. Where did you find all the colorful historic tidbits of lobster facts and lore that preface each chapter?
I spent months poring through all the arcane old literature about lobsters that could be found in the New York Public Library. I wrote this book before I had access to such a thing as the Internet, so the NYPL was still the Google of the day for me. One thing I loved about living in New York was that it was almost easier for me to find lobster-related information in that grand old urban library that it was to find such details in the historical societies of rural Maine. Although the historical societies of rural Maine helped, too, most of those marvelous lobster-related gems were excavated from the bowels of midtown Manhattan.
Q. Ruth is such an original heroine but there are also traces of Elizabeth Bennett and Jo March in her. Who or what inspired her creation?
To be honest, I wrote her as a response to reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. It’s one of my favorite books, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that I was haunted by the fate of its heroine, Isabel Archer. I don’t think I’d ever met a woman in literature whom I related to more (with her craving for adventure, her frank Americanness, her sensual curiosities, and her willingness to throw away caution in the endless search for “experience.”) But James wrote in the nineteenth century, and so Isabel was punished harshly for her spirited nature—and by the end of the book she is fairly well ruined, destroyed by the manipulations of others. Ruth shares many of those same qualities (even down to the hidden hand of manipulation behind her life), but she rises triumphant. I couldn’t help it. I loved her (and Isabel!) too much to continue the chain of suffering.
Q. What do you imagine Ruth is doing in 2009?
Steadfastly, relentlessly, sturdily kicking butt. She may have a grandchild or two, and probably has taken up gardening—and I’m certain that she’s bringing environmental activism to the islands, and generally making a marvelous nuisance out of herself. I imagine she’s put on a hefty bit of weight and let her hair go gray and couldn’t care less. Her husband still thinks she hung the moon.
Q. Stern Men is filled with a motley crew of vivid characters. Besides Ruth, who is your favorite and why?
Oh, I love the Pommeroy sisters. Especially Kitty. There will always be a soft spot in my heart for brave, ridiculous, bawdy Kitty.
Q. Did you always plan to be a writer? Is there anything else you can imagine yourself doing? Lobster fishing, perhaps?
There is actually a word in the English language for somebody who has only one talent, and that word is “monodynamic.” I am lucky enough to be monodynamic to the extreme; writing is not just the only thing I want to do, it is the only thing I can do. I have friends who are multitalented and I’ve come to see it as a bit of a curse because their attention always wavers and they are torn between too many interests, too many gifts. For me, there are no such problems. That said, I think I would be pretty good at any job that would make an official hostess. I’m good at welcoming people. I would be a disaster as a lobster fisherman, largely because I am always cold, cannot navigate, and don’t like to have wet feet.
Q. Stern Men, your first novel, and Pilgrims, your debut book and a collection of short fiction, were both extremely well received yet your next two works, including Eat, Pray, Love, are nonfiction. What inspired the change? Will you ever return to fiction?
I keep meaning to return to fiction. It is my first love, and it was my entry into the world of writing. When I was younger I never imagined that I would write anything except fiction. I still have ideas for novels and short stories that drift by sometimes, but so far nothing has electrified me enough to motivate me to dive in and make it happen. You have to write the books you are driven to write, and for the last several years I only find myself excited by stories based in the real. Maybe this will change over time?
Q. How do writing fiction and nonfiction compare to one another? Which would you recommend to a writer just starting out?
I can’t say I recommend one over the other. Fiction is harder for me than nonfiction (where you only have to report a world, not create one) but I’ve heard other writers say different. (Some people have more luck inventing than exploring the uncomfortable real world.) In the end, it doesn’t matter. There are extraordinary works of art created in both forms—and that doesn’t even take into consideration the other great fields of writing, such as poetry, playwriting, journalism, criticism, screenwriting, etc. You must write the work that is shouting loudest in your ear to be born—the work that will not leave you alone until you make it manifest. My friend the novelist Ann Patchett says that she writes the books that she feels she is missing, that she wishes somebody else would write. If there is a hole in the world and that absence is haunting you or inspiring you—then you really have no choice but to fill it with your work and your words.
Q. How does your typical day of writing unfold?
I often go for months on end without writing—either when I am between projects, or when I am researching for a new project. I have to do a lot of research to create books. (I can’t just sit in a room and invent a novel, the way that my sister—who is a young adult novelist—can.) I need to go out there in the world and roll around in the earthy details of a story, and of course I have to spend a lot of time in the library. Only when I feel I know everything possible about a subject do I have the momentum to begin. Once I do get writing, though, my schedule is simple. I clear off a few months of space (this takes planning and the willingness to disappoint people) and then I go away (either literally, or I hide in my attic) and I write from about five in the morning until about noon. My brain, during these times, becomes like a dried out calzone: I am useless for anything else. When I am writing, I am boring to be around, and I spend most of my time staring into space. I also get a little careless with the personal grooming. But inside—where nobody can see it—the greatest happiness is steadily pulsing away. I never feel more like myself than when I am writing—even when it is difficult and even when it isn’t working. I am always my truest self during those hours.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a nonfiction book called Matrimonium. The subtitle is: A Meditation on the Subject of Marriage, which pretty well describes the project! This has taken up the last few years of my life, and it’s been a fascinating exploration—one that I very much needed to undertake as I approached marriage for the second time. Once I am finished with it, I plan to take the summer off and work in the garden and learn how to kayak. Then I will go hide in my attic again . . .
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