This is an excerpt from a book of stories I wrote called Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, a book that has joined this world just in time for summer.
There can be a black mark on the so-called beach read. We get the sense that it necessarily must be piffle. But I thought, what if there is a beach read that is something for the normally harried, hardworking blue collar couple who want to get in some entertaining reading while their kids build sand castles at the shoreline? And what if that book was also something that you could study if you were a professor?
I was born on Cape Cod, I delighted in what Thoreau wrote of the area—he was better at writing about Cape Cod than he was his famous pond back in Concord—and I marveled during my visits there, as a kid, with my parents, on what was a relatively inexpensive vacation that we could afford, how the flora and the fauna of the region informed the lives of the people who both lived there, and passed through there.
I wanted to write the best summer book possible as entertainment and as literature, for people on beaches everywhere, be they Cape Cod beaches, California beaches, Lake Michigan beaches, sandboxes adjacent to kiddie pools in the backyard, or the beaches in your mind. This book was my effort at doing so.
It’s a strange thing being asked to write about someone that you knew a few decades ago, but I guess a man like Jibber Stokes, as far as real life local legends go, lends himself to something like this. Patty, my wife, had the idea of me getting some thoughts down on paper, nice and informal, before I do my big piece for The Clews, so here I am.
I’m no more of a writer than anyone else who tells you, when you’re having some drinks, that they’re going to write a book someday, even though they sell insurance or work at the fish market. I never understood that. I made gazpacho the other night and cut myself, so I put a Band-Aid on, which doesn’t make me any more this wonderful chef-doctor hybrid than writing about Jibber Stokes makes me a writer. I tried to explain this to Patty. And it’s not like The Clews is a big deal, just the free paper that’s stocked by the door in all of the bars up and down Cape Cod, where I’ve spent most of my life, and where I met Jibber Stokes, when I was 26, on a whale watching boat in Truro.
Of course, there was no Jibber Stokes then, but this kid—actually, he was a year or two younger than me—Jib Stokinger. I was studying to become a vet at the time, thinking I’d be the Outer Cape’s answer to Dr. Dolittle, with a specialization—after all, we’re talking one salty, nautical part of the world—in piscine affairs. Although, truth be told, I wasn’t sure how much fish doctoring anyone had ever done, but I envisioned sick pet flounders, and the occasional lobster with a gimpy left claw. What can I say—it can get a bit lonely in the off-season on the Cape, especially way out in Truro.
I was also—in my mind anyway—one kick ass drummer, a veritable Keith Moon reincarnate, in a band called The Afternoon Watch. For our day gigs, anyway. Lots of day gigs. You’d play block parties, clambakes, fairs, or even as a warm-up act at the drive-in before the sun went down and Star Wars played for the umpteenth time as fireflies dotted the air and that ancient, but daily, Cape smell filled your nostrils and eased your burdens—whatever they may have been—somewhat.
Whenever we picked up a nighttime booking, doing our mix of Who, Stones, Them, and Beatles covers, with the odd original thrown in—never mind that everyone else, back in those early ’80s, were doing numbers by the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and New Order—we’d change our name to The Evening Watch, and I, for one, liked how we were the band that suggested the dogged regimentation—I’d call it discipline—of some indefatigable frigate from 200 years ago. In my mind, I was always sailing off on one of those frigates. The Outer Cape has a way of making you feel disconnected from time. I mean, it’s the summer of 2012 right now, and as I sit out here in my office, watching the tide make its way back towards the land, you could tell me that I’ve been up and dropped in 1812, and I’d probably hear you out at least.
But for today, I need to think of myself in 1983. The whale spotting job was a financial necessity, as I continued my studies during the day and gigged up and down the Cape in my free time. Any gig you threw at us, we’d take it. We even played for some kids and horses once at this dressage fair in Hyannis Port, where all the rich people are. Given the hours I was keeping, it was a challenge not to fall asleep in my chair on Dorse Smith’s whale watching vessel, The Buck and Rider. My job was to yell port, or starboard, or humpback at three o’clock, and then everyone’s head—the tourists, I mean—would turn in a different direction. We called them googans. You know, weekend warriors, people from Chicago and Texas who no more knew a horseshoe crab from a horse-fly.
Captain Smith, himself, was one salty guy. A buck and rider is a local term for a male and female crab locked in the act of coitus, and Smith would pace the deck, as dawn was coming on, and his crew of three was staring bleary-eyed off towards the horizon, yelling—as he hosed down the vomit from the previous night’s inevitable revels with some of the other whale watch captains—“who’s bucking and who’s riding, boys? Who’s got the balls to do that big ol’ bucking?”
The boat’s icon featured a randy-looking male lobster—he was wearing one of those wife-beater undershirts—leering at a female counterpart who had bright pink eyebrows that hovered around her antennae. “Lobsters can give skull just the same as any dame, if you know what I’m saying boys!”
Once the customers left, and it was clean-up time—which meant pretend-to-look-busy time while our boss got his load on—everyone became a googan in the parlance of Captain Smith, who’d race around the ship, sometimes sneaking up behind you to swat you on the ass, shouting, “here, googan googan, here, googan googan!”
You could hear his voice sounding between the breaking of the waves once you were back onshore, and I’d wonder how long it’d go on into the night, this strange, salty calling-all that seemed to bring the sea to bear upon the land, and the land to bear upon the sea, like you had come upon this grand nexus where the disparate elements of humanity were summoned to gather, the common denominator being a matter of souls. The Summoner was not partial to land or sea, the people of the one, or the people of the other, nor, in the voice of our captain, was he against slipping a “motherfucking” between words.
Suffice it to say, it mostly sucked working for Captain Dorse Smith, but when the standard issue googans came aboard, he’d quote from Melville’s Moby-Dick, and even Owen Chase’s The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, which inspired Melville, as I found out. I mean, who knew?
I learned a lot about cetology, actually, even if, once we pulled back into port, and the googans had gone off to their latest lobster dinner, it was, “you know that a whale with all of that baleen is like a dame with no teeth, right boys? We’re talking some serious sucking. Feels nice for those big old whales. Nice and relaxing. Oh yeah.”
The other two crew members quit. Paco, this Spanish kid who barely knew any English when he came aboard, but by mid-summer was saying the word “fellatio” in every other sentence, and the venerable Mr. Gruber, the science teacher that every long-time resident had in high school, and a sea mammal enthusiast. But apparently constant oral sex jokes don’t make for the best workplace. And when Captain Smith said that the ocean was God’s spunk—that’s why there was so much of it, and that’s why it was so salty—that was it for the redoubtable Mr. Gruber. Paco had simply gotten shafted on his wages.
“Fear not, Mr. Midshipman Malley,” Captain Smith intoned on that morning when I turned up alone, to see that we were a crew of one. He addressed me a lot like that, and I preferred it over the times he’d use my full name.
“Tom Malley. Tom fucking Malley. Why’d your parents name you that? You know what it means, don’t you?”
I did. Tomalley is the green stuff you find inside of a lobster. I guess with the last name already in place, my parents couldn’t help themselves. What can I say? We’re Cape people.
“Good in a soup. Brings a range of ingredients together. Is that what you do, Malley? With people?”
“I try, Captain.”
“Well try it with your new crew mate. That’s him pulling up.”
I watched an athletic-looking guy with coil upon coil of blank springy hair tumble out of a Volkswagen Bug that barely stopped long enough for him to open the door and slam it shut again. He leaped up on the pier, and as he got closer I couldn’t tell if he was seventeen or twenty-seven. He had a T-shirt on that said Give Me a Jab, and when he caught me staring at it, he stuck out his hand and said—like this was something he had already recited a dozen times that morning— “I’m Jib Stokinger. Stokie. A boxer from Dennis gave me the shirt last night after I fell out of a lifeguard chair. He had just had sex with my girlfriend. Well, his girlfriend now. She was nice enough to drop me off anyway. I guess he felt bad. So I got the shirt. Now, are we gonna spot us some whales, or are we gonna spot us some whales? And you are?”
“Like the green stuff in a lobster?”
“Like the green stuff in a lobster.”
Stokie, as everyone was soon calling him, was actually a pretty skilled whale spotter, with a knack for telling everyone where to look before the latest whale broke the surface of the water. I didn’t have a lot going on socially at the time, the band aside, so I suppose I was one of those guys who is bound to end up hanging out with the people he works with. I was surprised, though, when Stokie and I started palling around. He was a person you figured would have something better going on, some cool thing awaiting them that you’d hear about later in the latest humorous and dramatic story that you’d take forward with you in your own life, wondering if you’d ever have days and nights composed of such stories. It probably helped that he didn’t have anywhere to stay and I could lend a hand there.
I never knew exactly where Stokie was from. He’d obviously been up and down the Cape, because he knew all the bars, and many of the boats and their captains. Lobstering, tuna fishing, chartering—there was the sense he’d done all of that, but he was by no means one of those Cape Codders whose proper employ had to do with the sea. Instead, you had the impression that that employ had more to do with, well, his head you might say. You’d be talking to him, and he’d be listening, and responding, but you knew he was somewhere else, all the time, somewhere else that maybe, if you were lucky, you’d be brought to later, but only and ever as a visitor, with this temporary pass, before the door closed again, and you went back to your world, and he kept on pursuing everything in his.
“There’s The Dirty Luff. It’s a rooming house.”
“The Dirty Luff?”
“Yeah. It’s where I’ve been. Nice. You’d like it. Clean. Name aside.”
And it was. I was poor enough—before Dorse Smith gave me a raise—that I’d been staying at an adult theater called The Stern Chaser. That was awful. The Evening Watch had even had some gigs there backing dough-y strippers as they did their thing on the stage, and locals like Captain Dorse Smith got drunk on the beer we’d sometimes be conscripted to help water down, between sets. There were a couple rooms behind the movie screen, so you’d try and sleep while not paying any mind to lines like “Open your mouth and shut your eyes,” a reoccurring directive in one of the more popular flicks.
“Doesn’t sound that bad,” Stokie opined, as we had a couple of Budweisers in my room at the Luff. “What was your real reason for leaving?”
“I told you. It was like sleeping inside of a porn film. With condoms on the ground.”
“But that wasn’t your real reason was it? Probably even felt a bit romantic. Would-be vet by day, rock drummer by night.”
He was right. It was kind of romantic. When you’re young enough, something like that isn’t embarrassing. Well, it was to my parents. But to you, as you’re doing it, there in your youthful succession of sloppy moments, it’s cool, like you’re really going for it, living life all out.
“You’re right. That wasn’t the real reason. We lost our gig. To this Latino steel band. No one in the group spoke a word of English. They were all tuna fisherman whose captain had replaced them. They were terrible. Beyond terrible.”
“What were they called?”
It was then that I knew that he knew all of this already, like he’d done some research, although he was just one of those people you meet in life who have a way of knowing things about you that you’ve either never known yourself, or tried to forget, or wanted to keep hidden away.
“They were called La Vagina Es Muy Peligrosa. And when I asked the singer why, he said, ‘Porque es muy verdad.’ Everything taken together, it seemed like it was time to find a new place to stay.”
Later that first day I was still drinking beer when I watched the Volkswagen Bug pull up outside the room Stokie had taken. The Luff was an L-shaped building that used to be this giant fish market, a real summer hotspot, before it was converted into a rooming house. You could still smell mackerel on a hot enough day. Stokie’s room was at what you might think of as the outer portion of the bottom of that L, where local lobstermen once cut their deals and dumped their catch into the various tanks, according to size.
A massive guy who you’d never think would have been able to fit in the Bug got out of it like he was some magician performing an optical illusion for the tenants of The Dirty Luff, and walked over to Stokie, who was sitting atop a rusted out lobster trap that I sometimes fired pucks at during solitary games of street hockey. The massive guy had on his own T-shirt that read Give Me a Jab, and he handed Stokie a suitcase and a guitar case. I had no idea he played, but then again, I had just met the man. The massive guy said a few sentences I couldn’t make out, and touched Stokie—really softly, actually—on the arm. It was kind of, I don’t know, tender. But then again, it was hot, and I was sucking down those beers at a pretty good clip.
I was hung-over the next morning, but Captain Smith was far worse off than I was, and he went below decks, leaving the whale watch cruise to me and Stokie. There were only a couple googans on board, and not a whale in sight, so Stokie and I got to talking music.
“You should sit in with us. It’s real informal. Fun though. If you like British ’60s stuff. Yardbirds, Animals, some Kinks. Guys are always bringing people in who want to play for a night or two. You won’t get rich out of it. But there’ll be free beer, probably a free clam plate.”
“None of it gets recorded then?”
“Ha. Right. Of course not. It’s just playing for drunken tourists and fishermen.”
“But some people must want it to get recorded. Like some of the musicians.”
“Is that what you’d want? I mean, are you good?”
He didn’t answer that. I remember noting it at the time. A humpback breeched a couple hundred yards off the starboard side, and Stokie alerted the googans, who were busy playing a game of Crazy Eights, with this 12- or 13-year-old kid in an Oakland A’s hat swearing nearly as much as Captain Smith did.
“I guess they’re not that into it,” I said, sitting back down. “You know, there are some guys who are pretty good players. Not in our band. In other bands. Everyone has this pipe dream of making a demo, and sending it to wherever demos get sent, and not having to become a fisherman, like their father, and their father’s father. It’s weird that anyone would still think that way. But you know how it is around here. Some people act like they’re cut off from Boston, let alone the rest of the free world.”
“When’s your next gig?”
“Well, not until next week. We’re not exactly Zeppelin. And Sez the Flounder isn’t exactly the Fillmore, but if you want to sit in, provided we haven’t been hove to by a whale before then and lost at sea, we’d love to have you.”
“And what shall we do in the meanwhile?”
“One of us should probably go downstairs and make sure Captain Smith hasn’t choked on his own vomit.”
“And if he has?”
“Then we got our own boat and our own crew.”
I turned and looked at the kid in the A’s hat, who was now giving me the finger. Stokie smiled, and the kid waved to him.
“Buddy of yours?”
“Humpback coming up on the port side!”
And so there was. Close enough that we all got wet. Stokie left the water on his face, and if I hadn’t just watched all of us get drenched by a whale, I would have wondered if he was crying.
“You all right?”
“Yeah. But Sez the Flounder? That’s a bar?”
“Indeed. Although no one really knows if Sez is the flounder’s name, or he just made some remark that no one is privy to. One of Truro’s great mysteries, you might say.”
Excerpted from “Chix and Quarters,” the fourth story in Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, out now from Tailwinds Press. Reprinted here with permission of the author.