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The Width of the Sea: A Novel

Chapter One

Early on a Saturday morning most people of Rosaline sleep in. A few lobstermen -- RayRay O'Buck, Tomas Dugan, and Jim Salvatore -- get up and out in the dark a.m. to check their pots, but they are far offshore now and the town is quiet. Out in the bay, small waves mirror the sky: deep blue troughs and dazzling caps like liquid light. The red and green buoys look dull against the brilliant water. It is going to be a hot one. Even the gulls seem to be feeling it. They are slow to discover a package of hot dog buns spilling from the dumpster behind the Finast. One finally swoops in, a few more follow, then suddenly a crowd gathers, fighting over the scraps.

"Hah! Hee-yah!"

Two men come through, one shouting and feinting kicks. The gulls scatter. The men are locals, fishermen. Their clothing gives them away. They wear home-knit sweaters frayed around the cuffs and waists, flannel-lined canvas trousers reinforced with extra swaths of fabric at the thigh, the colors so faded and dirtied and sun-and-salt-bleached the original shades are a guess. Their hair, too, is bleached and dried. On their feet, rubber deck boots -- folded down -- flop noisily about their ankles. Even if these men were to clean up and wear different clothes, their hands would mark them. Turgid, mottled palms; inarticulate fingers, thick as toes, curved as if permanently rigored around a fillet knife.

The big one, John Fitz, is thick-necked and broad-shouldered. He walks slowly, as if he is not yet awake. The other, Chris Albin, is small and wiry, and his path is not straight. He veers here to kick a bottle cap, there a pebble. As soon as the gulls resettle, he rushes them again, crying, "Yah! Hee-yah!

Satisfied, he swings back to his friend. "It's warm," Chris says.

"Yeah," John says.

Chris trots alongside the bigger man, looking up at him. "I'm thinking about fried egg sandwiches. I could use a fried egg sandwich right about now."

"No dollars," John says.

"We could stop at the ATM."

"None there, either."

The two cross the parking lot, duck behind Handleman's, and come out on the east end of Water Street. A banner over their heads reads Welcome to Rosaline -- One Foot in the Past, One in the Future! In small print, Sponsored by CARP; and in smaller print, Citizens Associated for Restorative Projects. There is no wind. The banner sags. They pass the old processing plant, still smelling of fish and metal. A few threads of graffiti decorate the barred steel doors. The temporary closure sign has rusted around the bullet holes. Most of the chicken-wired windows are broken.

After the fish plant, Water Street splits in three. One paved road heads to Charlesport as Route 412. One road, gravel and broken clamshell, runs to the tip of the southern spit, servicing the southern lighthouse. The third road, the one John and Chris take, is just a nub of asphalt leading to the bay. Not too long ago, it curved gently down to the Titus Fish Pier, but now the road breaks off abruptly as if it has been hacked by a giant hand. Last year's nor'easter blasted away the last hundred yards and left the Titus Fish Pier in shambles. The town hasn't had the budget for repairs. Now the fleet docks farther down the harbor, in front of the Maritime Museum. The two men stop at the end of the severed service road and squint over the edge of the cliff to the shipyard below.

"Look at that," John says.

Chris whistles.

For months the marine railway has been empty, but now an antique schooner sits between the catwalks. Half her rigging is down and her dories are gone, her sails are yellowed bundles on deck, but John says, "She sure is something."

There aren't many like her anymore. Her hull rises dramatically from her keel, as if defying gravity with perfect geometry. The shores and lines look too small to hold her. Though broad, she tapers to a graceful prow. She would sail well. Compared to the pleasure boats John sees scudding around the Charlesport Yacht Club, she is a giant. Length overall 125, length on deck a hundred or so, beam a quarter of that. Her masts -- trees that tall don't exist in Rosaline forests anymore, but they did when she was built. John knows this boat well, though he has never seen her under way.

The whole town knows this boat. An exact replica sails in the Maritime Museum, in a glass aquarium in the middle of the Ship Models Room, on a plaster-and-paste sea. There, her tiny rig is in full repair. Her matchstick crew work about the deck cleaning fish, some lay aloft furling sail, a few more are out in the waters still, rowing their laden dories back. As a child, John loved the models. He would press his nose against their glass boxes, fogging them with his breath. He memorized the bronze plaques detailing the statistics and histories of each boat. This one, the Shardon Rose, was a dory schooner built in a Rosaline yard in 1902 for groundfishing off the Bank. She became a cargo vessel between Cape Verdes and New Bedford, made a scientific expedition to the Arctic, had a stint in the movies, and then spent a few years as a toy for a billionaire who made his money in adhesives. For the last decade, she's been rotting off a Halifax pier. But now she has come home -- this morning, at 3:14 according to the chalkboard on Carreiro's henhouse.

"So Sal won," John says, pointing to the chalkboard.

Dora Schultz had a pool going up at the Whiskey Wind for when the Shardon would come in. She'd rigged a chart over the register, and every night she moved the pushpin a bit farther south, tracking the schooner's progress.

Excerpted from The Width of the Sea © Copyright 2002 by Michelle Chalfoun. Reprinted with permission by Perennial. All rights reserved.

The Width of the Sea: A Novel
by by Michelle Chalfoun

  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060958529
  • ISBN-13: 9780060958527