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Authors: Mary Alice Monroe

Last Light over Carolina

BOOK: Last Light over Carolina
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Last Light over Carolina
Also by Mary Alice Monroe

Time Is a River

Pocket Books
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2009 by Mary Alice Kruesi

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

POCKET and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Monroe, Mary Alice.
    Last light over Carolina / by Mary Alice Monroe.
      p. cm.
    1. Shrimpers (Persons)—Fiction. 2. Shrimp fisheries—Fiction. 3. South Carolina—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3563.O529L37 2009


ISBN-10: 1-4391-6401-0
ISBN-13: 978-1-4391-6401-3

Visit us on the Web:

This book is dedicated to my brothers:

James, Gregory, Brendan, Vincent, John


Thank you, Clay and Martha Cable, for inspiring me to enter the world of shrimping, for sharing stories, checking my facts, and introducing me to others in the field. Most of all, thanks for being the best neighbors and friends.

I can’t thank James Cryns enough for his ideas, brainstorming, editing, and insights during the writing of this book.

There are shrimping communities all along the southeastern coast. Many people were helpful and I thank you all. I have made changes in the geography of these towns to fit the needs of my story and beg the towns’ understanding. In particular:

In McClellanville, I owe a great debt to Georgia Tisdale. Her family history with the
Miss Georgia
was an inspiration for my heroine. Thanks also to her daughter, JoAnn, and to Captain Gardner McClellan (the
Miss Georgia
). Also in McClellanville, I want to thank Lucia Jaycocks, Billy Baldwin, Selden “Bud” Hill and his book
McClellanville and the St. James, Santee Parish,
and Rutledge Leland.

In Shem Creek, I’m eternally grateful to Tressy Magwood Mellinchamp and her book
East Cooper: A Maritime Heritage.
Tressy answered countless questions and opened the doors to Shem Creek, introducing me to her father, Captain Wayne Magwood (
Winds of Fortune
). Thanks also to Captain Rocky Magwood (the
), Captain Donnie Brown (the
Miss Karen
), Captain Robert Schirmer, Jr. (aka the Hagg), Captain Warren “Bubba” Rector, Frank Blum, and Eddie Gordon.

In Beaufort, thanks to Hilda Gay Upton and the Gay shrimping family.

In Wadmalaw Island, thanks to Micah and Daniel LaRoche of Cherry Point Seafood.

I’m grateful to Jason Zwiker for sharing his valuable research on the shrimping industry and discussing the story in the early stages. Thanks also to Sally Murphy, Anton “Trey” Sedalik, Nina Bruhns, and Terri Ehlinger.

Every character and situation in this book is strictly fiction. However, I have given the names of John Dunnan and Judith Baker to two of my characters with their permission. I also honored a few of the many captains I’ve met by dropping their names or their boats’ names into the pages.

A heartfelt thanks to my editor, Lauren McKenna, for her continued faith in my work, and to Louise Burke. And to my agents, Kim Whalen and Robert Gottlieb, for their constant support. A special thanks to Jean Anne Rose in publicity and Marjory Wentworth for behind-the-scenes magic. My love and gratitude also go to Eileen and Bob Hutton and all at Brilliance Audio.

As always, I end with those who come first—my family. Thank you, Markus, Claire, John, Gretta, Zack, and our own jumbo shrimp, Jack.


All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names.

What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life—to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories….

—George Eliot
Adam Bede


September 21, 2008, 4:00 a.m.

McClellanville, South Carolina

or three genertions,
the pull of the tides drew Morrison men to the sea. Attuned to the moon, they rose before first light to board wooden shrimp boats and head slowly out across black water, the heavy green nets poised like folded wings. Tales of the sea were whispered to them in their mothers’ laps, they earned their sea legs as they learned to walk, and they labored on the boats soon after. Shrimping was all they knew or ever wanted to know. It was in their blood.

Bud Morrison opened his eyes and pushed back the thin
cotton blanket. Shafts of gray light through the shutters cast a ragged pattern against the wall. He groaned and shifted his weight in an awkward swing to sit at the edge of his bed, head bent, feet on the floor. His was a seaman’s body—hard-weathered and scarred. He scratched his jaw, his head, his belly, a morning ritual, waking slowly in the leaden light. Then, with another sigh, he stiffly rose. His knees creaked louder than the bedsprings, and he winced at aches and pains so old he’d made peace with them. Standing, he could turn his bad knee to let it slip back into place with a small

A salty wind whistled through the open window, fluttering the pale curtains. Bud walked across the wood floor to peer out at the sky. He scowled when he saw shadowy, fingerlike clouds clutching the moon in a hazy grip.

“Wind’s blowin’.”

Bud turned toward the voice. Carolina lay on her belly on their bed, her head to the side facing an open palm. Her eyes were still closed.

“Not too bad,” he replied in a gravelly voice.

She stirred, raising her hand to swipe a lock of hair from her face. “I’ll make your breakfast.” She raised herself on her elbows, her voice resigned.

“Nah, you sleep.”

His stomach rumbled, and he wondered if he was some kind of fool for not nudging his wife to get up and make him his usual breakfast of pork sausage and biscuits. Lord knew his father never gave his mother a day off from work. Or his kids, for that matter. Not during shrimping season. But he was not
his father, and Carolina had a bad tooth that had kept her tossing and turning half the night. She didn’t want to spend money they didn’t have to see the dentist, but the pain was making her hell on wheels to live with, and in the end, she’d have to go anyway.

He’d urged her to go but she’d refused. It infuriated Bud that she wouldn’t, because it pointed to his inability to provide basic services for his family. This tore him up inside, a feeling only another man would understand.

They’d had words about it the night before. He shook his head and let the curtain drop. Man, that woman could be stubborn. No, he thought, he’d rather have a little peace than prickly words this morning.

“I’m only going out for one haul,” he told her. “Back by noon, latest.”

“Be careful out there,” she replied with a muffled yawn as she buried her face back into the pillows.

He stole a moment to stare at the ample curves of her body under the crumpled sheet. There was a time he’d crawl back into the scented warmth of the bed he’d shared with Carolina for more than thirty years. Even after all that time, there was something about the turn of her chin, the roundness of her shoulders, and the earthy, fulsome quality of her beauty that still caused his body to stir. Carolina’s red hair was splayed out across the pillow, and in the darkness he couldn’t see the slender streaks of gray that he knew distressed her. Carolina was not one for hair color or makeup, and Bud liked her natural, so the gray stayed. Lord knew his own hair was turning gray,
he thought, running his hand over his scalp as he headed for the bathroom.

Bud took pride in being a clean man. His hands might be scraped, his fingernails broken and discolored, but they were scrubbed. Nothing fancy or scented. He tugged the gold band from his ring finger, then slipped it on a gold chain and fastened it around his neck. He didn’t wear his ring on his hand on the boat, afraid it would get caught in the machinery. The cotton pants and shirt he slipped on were scrupulously laundered, but no matter what Carolina tried, she couldn’t get rid of the stains. Or the stink of fish. This was the life they’d chosen.

As he brushed his teeth, he thought the face that stared back at him looked older than his fifty-seven years. A lifetime of salt and sea had navigated a deep course across his weathered face. Long lines from the eyes down to his jaw told tales of hard hours under a brutal sun. A quick smile brightened his eyes like sunshine on blue water. Carolina always told him she loved the sweet smell of shrimp on his body. It had taken her years to get used to it, but in time she’d said it made her feel safe. He spat out the toothpaste and wiped his smile with the towel. What a woman his Carolina was. God help him, he still loved her, he thought, tossing the towel in the hamper and cutting off the light.

Carolina’s face was dusky in the moonlight. He walked to the bedside and bent to kiss her cheek good-bye, then paused, held in check by the stirring of an old resentment. The distance to her cheek felt too far. Sighing, he drew back. Instead,
he lifted the sheet higher over her shoulders. Soundlessly, he closed the door.

He rubbed his aching knee as he made his way down the ancient stairs. The old house was dark, but he didn’t need a light to navigate his way through the narrow halls. White Gables had been in Carolina’s family since 1897 in a town founded by her ancestors. When they weren’t working on the boat, they were working to infuse new life into the aged frame house, repairing costly old woodwork and heart pine floors, fighting an interminable battle against salt, moisture, and termites. His father often chided him about it, telling him it was like throwing more sand on a beach eaten away by a strong current. In his heart, Bud knew the old man was right, but Carolina loved the house and the subject of leaving it was moot. Even in the dim light, he saw evidence of it in the shine of the brass doorknobs, the sparkle of the windows, and the neat arrangement of the inherited threadbare sofa and chairs. Every morning when he walked through the silent old house, he was haunted by the worry that he’d cause Carolina to be the last of her family to live here.

Bud went straight to the kitchen and opened the fridge. He leaned against the cool metal, staring in, searching for whatever might spark his appetite. With a sigh he grabbed a six-pack and shut the door. The breakfast of champions, he thought as he popped open a can of beer. The cool brew slaked his thirst, waking him further. Then he grabbed a few ingredients from the pantry and tossed them in a brown bag: onions, garlic, potatoes, grits, coffee. Pee Dee would cook up
a seaman’s breakfast later, after the haul. He added the rest of the beer.

At the door he stuck his feet into a pair of white rubber boots, stuffing his pants tightly inside the high rims. The Red Ball boots with their deep-grooved soles and high tops were uniform for shrimpers. They did the job of keeping him sure-footed on a rolling deck and prevented small crabs from creeping in. He rose stiffly, rubbing the small of his back. Working on the water took its toll on a man’s body with all the falls, twists, and heavy lifting.

“Stop complaining, old woman,” he scolded himself. “The sun won’t wait.” He scooped up the brown bag from the table, flipped a cap onto his head, and headed out of the house.

The moon was a sliver in the dark sky and his heels crunched loudly along the gravel walkway. Several ancient oaks, older than the house, lined their property along Pinckney Street. Their low-hanging branches lent a note of melancholy.

The air was soft this early in the morning. Cooler. The rise and fall of insects singing in the thick summer foliage sounded like a jungle chorus. He got in his car and drove a few blocks along narrow streets. McClellanville was a small, quaint village along the coast of South Carolina between Charleston and Myrtle Beach. There had once been many similar coastal towns from North Carolina to Florida, back when shrimping was king and a man could make a good living for his family. In his own lifetime, Bud had seen shrimping villages disappear as the value of coastal land skyrocketed and the cost of local shrimp plummeted. Docks were sold
and the weathered shrimp boats were replaced by glossy pleasure boats. Local families who’d fished these waters for generations moved on. Bud wondered how much longer McClellanville could hold on.

His headlights carved a swath through the inky darkness, revealing the few cars and pickup trucks of captains and crews parked in the lot. He didn’t see Pee Dee’s dilapidated Ford. Bud sighed and checked the clock on his dashboard. It was 4:30 a.m. Where the hell was that sorry excuse for a deckhand?

He followed the sound of water slapping against the shore and the pungent smell of diesel fuel, salt, and rotting fish toward the dock. Drawing close, he breathed deep and felt the stirring of his fisherman’s blood. He felt more at home here on the ramshackle docks than in his sweet-smelling house on Pinckney Street. Gone were the tourists, the folks coming to buy local shrimp, and the old sailors who hung around retelling stories. In the wee hours of morning, the docks were quiet save for the fishermen working with fevered intensity against the dawn. Lights on the trawlers shone down on the rigging, colored flags, and bright trim, lending the docks an eerie carnival appearance.

His heels reverberated on the long avenue of rotting wood and tilting pilings that ran over mudflats spiked with countless oysters. Bud passed two trawlers—the
Village Lady
and the
Miss Georgia,
their engines already churning the water. He quickened his step. The early bird catches the worm, he thought, lifting his hand in a wave. Buster Gay, a venerable
captain and an old mate, returned the wave with his free hand, eyes intent on his work.

There were fewer boats docked every year, dwindling from fifteen to seven in as many years. Of these, only five would be heading out today. Roller-coaster fuel prices and the dumping of foreign shrimp on the market made it hardly worth taking out the boat anymore. Captains were selling their boats.

Bud continued down the dock, sidestepping bales of rope, holes in the planks, and hard white droppings from gulls. As he passed, he took note of one boat’s chipping paint, another’s thick layer of rust. Every boat had a distinctive look. Each had a story.

“Hey, Bud,” called out LeRoy Simmons as he passed. “Looks like rain coming.”

“Yep,” Bud replied, looking up to the deck of the big sixty-five-foot
Queen Betty
, where LeRoy was hunched over his nets. “Wind, too.”

LeRoy grunted in agreement. “We oughta get a day’s work in.”

“A half day, at least.”

“At least. I’m hopin’ the rain flushes the shrimp down.”

Bud waved and walked on. There wasn’t time for small talk. Bud had known LeRoy all his life. LeRoy was second generation of a McClellanville family of African American shrimpers. Captain Simmons could bring in more shrimp on a blustery day than most other boats on a good day. Bud knew it took a lot more than luck.

Time was, a captain with the reputation of bringing home
the shrimp had his pick of top crew because the strikers got a percentage of the day’s catch instead of salary. Now the catch was unpredictable, if not downright pitiful. Too often, the crew got little money and drifted off to higher-paying jobs on land. It was damn near impossible for a captain to hire on decent crew.

In this, LeRoy was more than lucky, too. Bud glanced back at the
Queen Betty
to see LeRoy and his two brothers nimbly moving their fingers over the nets, searching for tears. The Simmons brothers worked together like a well-oiled machine. He grimaced, remembering the days when he and his brother had worked together. Poor Bobby…. Then he scowled, thinking of his own nets and the work that needed to be done before he could shove off. Where the hell was Pee Dee?

Peter Deery had been born to a dirt-poor farming family on the Pee Dee River, and the nickname stuck. For all the damage booze and drugs had done to his brain, Pee Dee was clean and sober on deck and as nimble as a monkey on the rigging. And he worked harder than two men. He was Bud’s cousin once removed. Sometimes Bud wished he were more removed. A man couldn’t pick his family, but a captain could pick his crew—and Pee Dee was somewhere in the middle.

Bud’s frown lifted when, through the mist and dim light, he spied the
Miss Carolina
waiting for him at the end of the dock. His chest expanded.

Miss Carolina
was a graceful craft, sleek and strong like the woman she was named for. He’d built the fiberglass and wood trawler with his own hands and knew each nook and cranny of her fifty-foot frame. He spent more time with
this boat than with any woman alive, and his wife often complained that the
Miss Carolina
was more his mistress than his boat. He’d shake his head and laugh, inclined to agree.

Every spring he gave the
Miss Carolina
a fresh coat of glistening white paint and the berry-red trim that marked all the Morrison boats. Yes, she was a mighty pretty boat. His eyes softened just looking at her. All captains had their families and loved them dearly. Yet there was a special love reserved for their boats.

The morning’s quiet was shattered by the roar of an engine coming alive. Bud swung his head around to see the
Queen Betty
drawing away from the dock and making her way out to sea, her green and white mast lights flashing in the dark. Ol’ LeRoy would have his nets dropped by sunup, he thought with a scowl. Damn, he’d get the best spot, too.

Fifteen minutes later, the
Miss Carolina
’s diesel engine was growling and Bud had a mug of hot coffee in his hand. He sat in the pilothouse, breathing in the scent of diesel fuel mingled with coffee, and listened to the marine radio for weather reports. The boat rocked beneath him, warming up and churning the water like a boiling pot. After finishing his coffee, he began his chores. There was always one more job that needed doing, one last repair he had to see to before he could break away from the dock. He needed to get ice in, fuel up, and get some rope…. Bud sighed and shook his head. He couldn’t wait for Pee Dee to show up. He might as well get rolling. Bud climbed down from the boat to the dock.

BOOK: Last Light over Carolina
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