The summer was crazy right from the beginning, even before I discovered the sunken car in West Basin harbor. The
was reporting “record numbers” of tourists pouring from the ferry boats onto Martha's Vineyard, the island where I lived. Mom was working all weekend at Town Hall, selling them beach passes. Barry Lester, the guy who'd been kind of her boyfriend since Pop died, was busy renting them cars and mopeds and Jeeps. And I had my first real job.
I was working for Pop's old friend Chick Flanders, who owned a bait and tackle store down-island in Edgartown. Chick used to be a commercial fisherman, like Pop. When the bad years hit the commercial fishery, Chick quit fishing and bought the bait shop. But it turned out he couldn't stand being indoors behind the cash register all day.
“Ben,” he said, “it drives me crazy to talk about fishing instead of doing it. If your father was alive, he'd have told me straight out I was being a bonehead to buy the store. âChick,' he'd have said, âyou're a fisherman, not a shopkeeper.'” Chick shook his head and grinned.
I nodded, imagining Pop saying it. There were lots of things I liked about being with Chick, and one was that he wasn't afraid to talk about Pop. It was weird the way some people avoided the subject and were scared to even mention fathers or dying. Which was really stupid. They didn't want to remind me that Pop was dead, as if I never thought about it unless somebody slipped and brought it up. But Chick talked about Pop whenever he felt like it, and I liked hearing the old stories about them growing up and fishing together.
Anyway, Chick had finally admitted he was a bonehead, hired somebody to watch the shop, and began taking out charters on his boat
. He had all four days of the upcoming Fourth of July weekend booked, and asked me if I wanted to be his first mate. I jumped at the chance.
Fishing with Chick wasn't the same as being with Pop, not exactly. But there was something familiar about the way Chick handled the boat, the way he moved and thought. Chick counted on me to know what I was doing, for
the most part, and I liked the way he taught me new stuff without making a big deal out of it.
Not only that, but I was going to get paid thirty dollars a day, which I thought was pretty good for a thirteen-year-old kid. By Monday night, I'd have made a hundred and twenty dollars, more if I got tips. When I told that to my best friend, Jeff Manning, his eyes just about bugged out of his head.
One hundred twenty dollars was a lot of money, but we needed a lot more if we were ever going to be able to buy the fourteen-foot aluminum skiff with the twenty-five horsepower motor we wanted. Jeff and I planned to work really hard over the summer to get closer to having that boat.
Being first mate meant that I got the rods and bait ready in the morning, cleaned the fish we caught, washed up the boat at the end of the day, and kept the cooler stocked with ice and drinks. Piece of cake.
But Chick explained that working on a charter boat isn't only about fishing. “You get all kinds of people,” he said. “They're paying for a good time, and you've got to stay on your feet and figure out how to keep them happy. Some of them know what they're doing with a rod in their hands, but a lot of them don't. You might have to help people bait their hooks, show them how to cast, maybe even hook a fish and reel it in for them.”
“No way!” I said. I couldn't remember a time when I hadn't known how to catch fish.
“You wait and see,” Chick said, laughing. Then his face grew serious and he added, “It's one thing when people don't know how to fish. But every once in a while you get a guy who's a real pain in the tail. When that happens, you just have to bite your tongue and be polite.”
I grinned at him. “You mean I have to suck up to people even if they're real jerks?”
Chick smiled and shook his head. “I didn't say that. Just don't let 'em get to you. Keep your cool, and get through the day. Blow off steam to me later. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said.
On my first day out with Chick, I learned he sure was right about one thing: knowing how to handle fish was only part of the job. The easy part. Knowing how to handle people was a lot trickier.
It was Friday of the Fourth of July weekend, and our clients were Bill and Ann Brewster and their four kids. They seemed nice enough, but I wasn't sure the kids were going to make it through a whole day in the boat. Two of them were fighting over who got to sit in the chair next to what they called the “steering wheel,” one was complaining that he didn't
to go fishing,
he wanted to go to the beach, and the littlest one, a girl, kept saying, “My tummy feels funny, Mommy. Mommy, it
We were leaving the dock at West Basin harbor. There's a sandbar between the dock and the channel where a couple of boats run aground every year. I was standing on the bow, looking into the water to make sure we were going to clear the bar, and, suddenly,
there it was
. Through the ripples on the surface, I could see, sitting on the sandy bottom almost right under the boat, a bright red
“Cut the engine!” I shouted.
As I hollered to Chick, I drew my finger across my throat in a gesture that he was sure to understand even if he couldn't hear me above the sound of the motor. By then I had decided the tide was high enough that we were in no danger of hitting the sandbar, but I wasn't sure we could clear the roof of a car, and I didn't want Chick to ram it with the hull or the propeller.
In the sudden silence, Chick looked at me with a puzzled frown. “What?” he asked.
down there,” I said. It sounded really dumb when I said it. I mean, you might expect to see a sunken boat in the harbor, but a car? Still, there it was beneath the shimmering surface, big and red and as real as the bow line in my hand.
All at once the thought flashed into my mind:
What if there's somebody in there?
Without really thinking about it, I kicked off my boots and jumped into the water. The boat had drifted, so I had to swim for about twenty yards to get back to the car. I dived down, then opened my eyes to look in the window. I was filled with sudden terror at the idea of someone looking back at me, someone dead, with swollen, bulging eyes. But there was no one.
I shot to the surface and swam over to the stern, where Chick gave me a hand climbing into the boat. “Nobody in it,” I said, gasping.
“Looks like somebody drove right off the boat ramp,” said Chick.
I nodded. West Basin was kind of a weird place, I figured. Lobsterville Road just ended there, and turned into an unpaved ramp where you could launch a boat off a trailer into the harbor. Everybody who lived there was used to it, but it surprised a lot of tourists who thought the road ought to
somewhere, such as across the channel to the village of Menemsha, instead of dead-ending in the water.
“What are you going to do, Captain?” asked Mr. Brewster.
“We've got to go over to Squid Row to get gas, anyway,” Chick said, pointing to the neighboring Menemsha harbor.
Menemsha was much larger than West Basin. That was where the big commercial fishing ships docked, along with all kinds of other fishing and pleasure boats. There was a gas dock and a store where you could buy bait, tackle, drinks, and snacks.
“We'll report the car to the harbormaster,” Chick went on. “Then we'll go fishing.”
And that was what we did. It was a pretty wild day's fishing, too. The kids went nuts when their dad brought in a big beauty of a striper. It was the first real, live fish they'd ever seen, I guessed, and they all wanted to catch one, too. They began casting their baited hooks in all directions, getting them stuck on the bottom, wedged under rocks, and caught in gobs of seaweed. The
was twenty-four feet long, but it began to feel awfully small, especially when the youngest boy whipped his rod out behind him to cast and hooked me right under the chin. Luckily, it didn't go in past the barb, but it still hurt a lot.
“Hey!” I cried. “You're supposed to catch the fish, not the people!”
He thought that was hilarious, and pretended to try to hook me again. He was only fooling around, but it got a little hairy. Finally, his father made him sit in the “timeout” chair for five minutes. I'd always thought that was really dumb when Mom made me do it, but right then the time-out chair struck me as an excellent idea.
What with ducking to avoid flying hooks and chunks of slimy mackerel, baiting and untangling lines, netting fish, and keeping the boat in the correct position, Chick and I had our hands full.
I didn't have time to think about the sunken car until we headed into Menemsha harbor at four o'clock that afternoon.
We came in with a pretty decent catch: four keeper bass and three big blues. A small crowd gathered as we unloaded the fish, and stayed to watch me clean them. Everybody likes to go out with a successful captain, and Chick signed up a couple more charters for the next week from among the onlookers. When the Brewsters left, looking tired and sunburned and happy, each kid was holding a dripping bag of fresh fish fillets as a souvenir of the trip.
I began cutting bait for the next day. Chick was fiddling with the bilge pump, which had quit during the afternoon, when Pete Vanderhoop, the Menemsha harbormaster, walked over.
“You missed all the excitement,” he said dryly. “Jim hauled the thing out with one of his tow trucks. It was a brand-new, mid-engine Porsche. Can you beat that?”
I wasn't sure what “mid-engine” meant, but I did know that a Porsche was a pretty hot sports car.
Chick whistled. “Big bucks down the drain.”
“Yes, and the strange thing is, there's no sign of the owner.”
“He's probably too embarrassed to show his face,” I said.
“I would be, too, if I drove into the drink,” Chick commented. “It wasn't an island car, was it?”
Pete shook his head. “It had Connecticut license plates.”
“Well,” said Chick, “by now the police have probably run the plate numbers and found out who it's registered to.”
“Probably,” Pete agreed. “The other interesting thing is that the cops are pretty sure there wasn't anybody driving when it went in the water.”
“How do they know?” I asked.
“Well, the side windows were open a little, and so was the sunroofâjust enough to sink it pretty fast, but not enough for someone to climb out. And both doors were closed.”
I waited, not sure what Pete was getting at.
“Ed was saying that it would be nearly impossible to open a car door against the weight of all that water.” Ed Widdiss was the police chief for the
town of Aquinnah, which included West Basin. “And even if somebody did get the door open, you think he'd take the time to close it behind him?”
I thought about that. It was a good question. “But if nobody was driving, how did it get in the water?” I asked.
“Ed figures it might have rolled in by accident. Or somebody could have pushed it in for a prank.”
“Pretty expensive prank,” Chick observed.
“Well, this time of year, with all these people around, I guess anything can happen,” Pete said.
“Not like the good old days when tourists didn't get up-island much,” said Chick. “Now they rent cars and those blasted mopeds andâ” His face reddened and he broke off, probably remembering that Mom's boyfriend, Barry, owned the biggest car-and-moped rental agency on the island.
But I knew what Pete meant. The thing about living in Martha's Vineyard was that it was really like living in two different places. For most of the year, it was pretty quiet, and you knew just about everybody you ran into. Thenâ
Summer came, and the island was crawling with strangers. Suddenly there were traffic jams and lines at the grocery store and crowds on the beaches. There were so many more tourists than islanders that sometimes it felt as if they were taking over, as if the island was more their place than ours. And every summer got worse than the one before.
Chick and Pete continued to shoot the breeze while I hosed down the boat with fresh water and Chick finished fixing the pump. Then Chick and I motored back across the channel and tied up for the night at the West Basin dock.
“Nice job today, Ben,” Chick said, handing me my thirty dollars. “Did I see Mr. Brewster give you a tip?”
“Yep,” I said proudly, patting my pocket. “Ten bucks.”
“Good,” said Chick, smiling. “You earned it.”
“That's for sure!” Warily I asked, “Are there going to be little kids on board again tomorrow?”
Chick laughed. “No. Two big kids, as a matter of fact.”
“Whew!” I said. “I just wondered if I needed to bring safety goggles and a helmet!” I headed for my bike, calling back, “See you tomorrow.”
Pedaling up Lobsterville Road toward home, I could tell that summer was really here: the West Basin parking lot was full of cars I didn't recognize. But coming toward me was a junker I'd have known anywhere. It was an old blue Pontiac LeMansâat least it had started out blue. Now its dented side panels were covered with body filler and primer paint in all kinds of colors. Actually, I thought, you'd have to say that the car was mainly
silver, from the dull gleam of duct tape, which was plastered everywhere and which, I figured, was what mostly held the car together.
Across the front and rear bumpers, the word “Tomahawk” was spelled out in duct tape letters. That was to remind everyone that the owner, Donny Madison, like Jeff, was a member of the Wampanoag Indian tribe and proud of it. “Nobody messes with the Tomahawk,” Donny liked to say.
Donny slowed and stopped beside me, his brown, muscled arm hanging out the Tomahawk's window, keeping time to the music blaring from the radio. “Ben, my man!” he said. “How goes it?”
“Hey, Donny,” I said. Looking in the car, I expected to see Jen Navarro, Donny's girlfriend, snuggled close beside him. To my surprise, it was my best friend, Jeff, sitting in the passenger seat, his arm hanging out the other window, looking quite pleased with himself.
“Hi, Ben,” he called over the pounding of the speakers.
I looked at him and lifted an eyebrow. I figured Jeff knew me well enough to read my mind:
Think you're pretty hot stuff driving around with Donny, don't you, Manning? How'd you get so lucky, anyway?
Donny said to me, “Word is, you've got yourself a job.” His face wore its usual expression: eyes half-shut and lazy looking, mouth grinning at me as if we shared some kind of secret, something funny or wild only the two of us knew. Which made me feel great, because Donny was cool.
For one thing, he knew everything about cars. For another thing, when Donny was around, things happened. If there was something exciting or a little bit edgy going on, Donny was usually right in the middle of the action. That made him popular with the kids, but got him into a lot of trouble at school, and the minute he turned sixteen, he dropped out.
The town of Aquinnah was so small, everybody knew everything about everybody else, and since my mom worked at Town Hall, she heard all the news eventually, usually before anyone else. When she heard about Donny quitting school, she gave me a big lecture about how important education is, and said Donny was headed for nothing but trouble.
I was sure she'd never let me go driving around in the Tomahawk with Donny, even if he'd asked me to, which he hadn't. I'd have bet the forty dollars in my pocket that Jeff's mother didn't know where
was at that moment, but that didn't stop me from wishing I was in his place.
“Yeah,” I said to Donny. “I do have a job. I'm mating for Chick. Just for four days, more if he stays busy.”
Donny batted his eyelashes and raised his voice to a high falsetto. “Oooh, Mister First Mate, could you please put this bait on my hook for me? It's so
I laughed and said, “Talk about icky, this morning a little girl threw up all over the place.”
“Gross,” said Jeff.
“She actually turned green,” I added.
“Let me guess,” said Donny, smiling widely now. “It was the mate's job to clean it up.”
“You got that right,” I said, making a face.
“Poor kid,” Donny said. Then he added, “I mean her, Daggett, not you. Cleaning up barf is good for you. Builds character.”
“Great,” I said. “I'll remember that. Hey, did you hear about that mid-engine Porsche in West Basin?” I threw in “mid-engine” to impress Donny, and hoped Jeff wouldn't blow it and ask me what it meant.
Donny grinned wickedly. “Some little rich boy's daddy is going to be plenty tee'd off.”
“Oh, wow,” I said. “You mean you know whose car it is?”
Donny smiled again and said, “No. But it stands to reason it's some fat cat tourist's, right? Who else drives a car like that? Not one of us local boys, eh?” He reached down and patted the door of the Tomahawk. “Our cars have
Jeff reached a hand out and patted the Tomahawk's other door, almost as if he owned it. “Definitely!” he said.
I stared at Jeff, amazed at how cool he was acting. I felt like a little weenie, standing in the road, straddling my bike, while he sat shotgun in the Tomahawk as if he belonged there. “You know,” I blurted, “I'm the one who saw it first.”
“No way!” exclaimed Jeff. “You found the car?”
“Really?” Donny's eyebrows lifted with interest. “When?”
Pleased at having their full attention, I tried to sound casual. “First thing this morning. Chick and I were headed out and all of a sudden I saw this car in the water. I couldn't believe it!”
“Yeah, well, believe it, Daggett,” said Donny. He reached out his hand to give me a high five. “And the rich kids who come here thinking they're better than usâthey'd best believe it, too. Right, Manning?” he added, turning to Jeff and high-fiving him, too.
“You got it!” said Jeff.
Just then there was a loud beep, and I looked up to see a car coming our way, heading in the same direction as Donny. I scrambled to get out of the road so the car could go by. I caught a glimpse of the driver, a guy with a long gray ponytail. He scowled at me impatiently, then gave Donny a slow nod as he passed.
Donny gunned the engine. “Catch ya later, Daggett.”
“Later, Ben,” called Jeff as they pulled away.
“Right,” I said, watching them disappear around a curve in the road. “Later.”
, I thought,
I work for one day and Jeff goes and finds a new best friend