Red Snapper

Frank always drove the 132 bus down Marine Boulevard to the Farmers’ Market in Seattle and nothing got him in more of a bad mood than Maddy coming to work with him.

“Don’t tell me fresh fish for dinner again – nice and healthy”, he shouted at Maddy, before turning his head to the other passengers, just to make sure the sting had worked.

Maddy sat demurely on the seat behind him, long golden curls flowing softly on bronzed shoulders.  She looked down at her basket and shopping list, pushed her glasses back as she did when Frank embarrassed her.  Bit her lip – Frank’s behaviour – too much to take.  When he stopped at the traffic lights she got up and turned to him.

“It’s up to me what I cook for dinner, you just get on and do your job”.

“Don’t forget your wetsuit, fresh fish caught by your hunky boyfriend on the stall.  Mind the fins honey!”

Maddy was glad to leave the bus and its whispering passengers, she headed straight for the bustling market.  One of the pleasures of her day was the fat richness the market brought to her in the morning.  She could hear her mother say that morning was the best time of day and now, in her thirties, she had come to understand the meaning of this simple truth.  The sensuous experience of colour, smell and noise meant nothing to Frank.

Night rain infused freshness into the air and the strengthening sun brought an iridescent glow to rows of tomatoes, fat bottle green cucumbers, coarse-skinned magenta beetroot and dewy lime lettuces.  Fat women jostled in sensible shoes to fill up plastic baskets of berries while a young man in his white apron charmed them – “Morning girls”, he smiled.

 A large dark-skinned man at the fish counter beamed at the incoming trade, hands on hips.  Maddy approached, “good morning, what can you recommend today?” trying not to blush.

“Well now, for someone like you, I’d say rainbow trout plainly grilled with butter, lemon and courgettes”.  He lifted two fillets for her to see they lay delicately flat in his broad hands.

“That’s just perfect”.

“Good protein, I tell you, that’s what I’m bringing home for my good lady to cook tonight”, he hummed

“… hates California, it’s cold and it’s damp…”

Maddy paid and lingered, reluctant to leave the stall, “see you soon” she lifted her hand to wave and put the paper parcel in the basket.  Red, the stall holder, let his eyes wander to her legs as he weighed a whole salmon for the next customer.  Let himself daydream a little about her body while she was so close, his appetite whetted.  All too swiftly another regular customer waited for advice from Red’s gentle but authoritative tones.  No doubt about it women liked him.

“Madam, why don’t you poach this with half a bottle of Chablis and it will be the finest flavour to grace your tongue…..that’s why the lady is a tramp”.  He faded away.  The grey-haired customer reached for her purse with a smile.  He had dispensed another potion.

Maddy stopped by the ocean café and let the breeze caress her face and whip through her hair.  The clatter around was good company, feminine coffee cups steaming in harmony with masculine beer glasses.  A toddler in a push chair shared a cinnamon bun with seagulls on the prowl and closed her eyes with sheer pleasure as the breeze stroked her face, just like Maddy did as a child.

Around her happy workers with outdoor hands piled splintering wooden crates high and split bulging bags of new potatoes.  Green, red and yellow peppers were arranged in pyramids ready for the demands of the day.

Maddy queued at the dairy counter for butter and milk.  Frank preferred  milk in cartons from the supermarket.  She bought two large cartons of nectarine yogurt which she hoped might dissuade Frank from hauling the huge ice-cream container out of the freezer, which he nearly always did at the end of the meal.

At the bus stop Maddy could see the crowd gathering with laden bags, coins and purses rattling ready for the journey home.  When she saw that Frank was not on this route and probably on a break now, she breathed a sigh of relief and climbed aboard.  The loveliest part of the day had passed and Maddy felt at ease with the world on the journey home.  The sun was high and would burn through the small apartment window.  She would recline on the old sunbed on their balcony – private and comfortable for an hour or so until Frank came home for lunch.  She escaped in her thoughts.

“I could just fancy a steak and double scotch honey”, blurted Frank yanking the balcony door open to its maximum width.  He was standing there in his shorts, breathing heavily.

Maddy kissed him lightly and was back on duty on the kitchen chopping and opening drawers while the tap was running.  She did not speak but smiled at him.

“No steak today, no steak tomorrow”, Frank let out a raucous laugh as he lit a cigar and poured himself a hefty scotch.

“Had a good morning Frank?”, she called.

“Yes, good crowd, no fare dodgers, all passengers delivered safely.  That’s one of my favourite runs I hope they don’t change it.  When’s lunch and what is it?”

They ate in silence.  Frank even ate nectarine yogurt since Maddy had poured some cream over it.  He was mellow today.

The next day was hotter and Maddy walked to the market rather than catch the bus.  Filling her basket with flowers, parsley and chives she stopped at the fish counter last of all.

“Hullo Maddy.  May I interest you in the freshest red snapper this side of the bay?  He leant forward.  “Do you know I was out there at 4 o’ clock this morning for the catch and it was beautiful.  Yes Ma’am, that’s a mighty fine time of day.  I wish I could just take you with me so you could see them fish jumping round the net, I tell ya!”  Maddy was seduced.  She watched him being transported back to that elusive world that no one ever shared with him.  She longed to be allowed just one glimpse of it.  Juicy fillets hung over the scales, ice crystals tinged with the ocean.  Maddy watched entranced.

“You make it sound so inviting, I’ve never been fishing before”.

She could not bring herself to call him Red even though she knew his name well enough.

“If you like the taste of them snapper tonight, we’ll go catch us some more.  I got my brother’s boat for Friday and I’m gonna take it out late, get myself a little something for the weekend trade.  If you wanna come along I’d be glad to take you Ma’am”.

For once in her life Maddy did not hesitate.

Frank had a change of route the next week and he didn’t care for it at all.  He was covering for someone on holiday and would be going to the railway station on afternoons.  He was not going to be able to see how many times Maddy went to that grubby market.  He was angry that evening and could only be soothed with a large portion of rice beside the red snapper and several beers.

“Won’t be for long Frank”, Maddy massaged his shoulders and kissed his neck.  “How about you taking me to the movies tonight, it’s been ages since we went out together”.

“Anything you like doll”, Frank squeezed her hard, “whatever makes you happy”.

At the movies Frank bought the largest bucket of popcorn for himself and a passion fruit ice-cream for Maddy, the flavour she liked least of all.

“Just like the old days”, he smiled.

Stroking his hair Maddy asked.  “Frank have you ever been fishing?”, asked Maddy innocently.

“Good God no, too quiet – too boring, you don’t want me to take you fishing do ya?”

The evening out made Frank feel good and he sang on the way home, it made Maddy realize how easily satisfied he could be.  The differences between them were like the desert and the ocean – Maddy was the ocean.  Later, as Frank slept contentedly after his final cigar, she lay awake wondering what would become of the two of them, shipwreck perhaps…

The creeping dawn cast its spell over the city and Maddy waited for sunrise, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of that magic that Red knew so well out there in the early hours.  She envisaged him fully abandoning himself to the primitive art of fishing from a small boat before dawn, in touch with deeper mysteries that disappear with the break of day.

On Friday Frank grudgingly set off for his new run to the station.  Maddy promised him chocolate cake to make it better and he waved at her smiling as he made his way down the road, jacket over his shoulder.

Maddy walked to the quay where Red was loading boxes and netting on the fishing boat.

He beamed.  “Hullo there Maddy, it’s good to see you, come aboard Ma’am”, he smiled.  His welcome was warm and simple, the full thrill of the adventure ahead pumped through his veins.  There had only ever been one occasion long ago where he'd invited a woman on his fishing boat, and he smiled at the memory.

They set sail and Red made coffee for both of them, there was no need to make conversation as they were both at ease with the silence – gliding away from the crowded port to give themselves up to the intimacy of the ocean.  River police hovered quietly in the port observing the day's traffic.

“How long will we be gone?”, asked Maddy, realizing for the first time that she really didn’t know the man she was in the ocean with.  She thought of Frank punching tickets and humming to himself on the road, looking forward to the promised land of chocolate cake later.

“We’ll make us a catch eh?”

He sensed none of her anxiety.

“I don’t want to be back too late you know”, she felt stupid for the way this sounded.

Red did not answer but spoke of the depth of the water and the habits of fish and Maddy felt somehow calmed once more.

“Let’s go fix up some nets”.

Red busied himself and Maddy helped, following instructions to be part of the project she’d dreamed of.  The sun shimmered on the surface and large underwater reeds blurred the underworld – no fish were to be seen.

“I think the nets are caught in them reeds here, I’m just gonna take a look now I won’t be a minute”.

Red climbed nimbly down the side of the boat and was gone.  Once again the warmth of fear rose in Maddy’s throat.  She could see Red splashing around trying to unravel netting with one hand and holding on with the other.

“Damn!”, she heard him say.

“Are you okay Red?”, she asked timidly.

He let out a whoop of pain and Maddy gasped.  “Something stung me down here, stung my leg real bad”.

“Red, Red, please come back, let’s just forget the snapper and go home – please…”, panic pounded in her chest.  Maddy longed for the power of Frank’s arms around her, they’d be able to pull Red out of the water in seconds.

“My leg, my leg… it’s numb… I can’t move”, he cried out in agony and Maddy, delicate as she as, stretched out her utmost to grip his arm in some small attempt to haul him into the boat.  The sting sent fire through his leg and  he let go to consciousness.  Eerily his eyes stared open as his large body floated like dead wood on the surface.  The attacked leg was crimson, raw, obscene.

Maddy wept through fear and disbelief.  What was she doing here?  She remembered something from schooldays about radioing for help but how?  She shouted desperately to Red, hoping he would somehow wake up and bring some normality back.  There was no response and Maddy felt her chest crush with despair.  If only she could remove herself from this scene, fast forward a couple of hours.  She sank to her knees as tears of hopelessness mixed with sweat smudged her face, yet she knew she couldn't totally indulge herself in this pity and ignore the man overboard.  She stood up and stared over the side at him, noticing the murky pool of alarming redness that now encircled him.  Should she look for signs of movement - were his eyelids moving, or did she just imagine that?  Was there any rope she could throw to him?  No that would be pointless, what would an unconscious man do with a piece of rope?  She stared, frozen and shivering.  Red remained motionless.  Panic and calm.  Nothingness took over.

In her distress Maddy did not notice the patrol boat silently approaching.  In a removed daze she watched Red being swiftly scooped out of the water and brought back to life.  With calm efficiency she saw his leg being bandaged, his arm injected, his whole being brought back to life; but Maddy now turned her back on him and could only think of reaching land and going home, home to Frank.  A kindly officer sat beside her, draped a blanket around her while a younger officer steered the boat and confidently radioed in details.  They sped back to shore.

Maddy and Red exchanged no words, united in their desire to wipe out the events of the day.  Rescued, comforted, questioned, partly repaired, Maddy thankfully stood on dry land again.  With enormous gratitude she turned the key in the door, ran herself a deep bath and put on dry clothes.  It was wonderful to be home.  Frank came home on time with flowers and gave Maddy a bearhug, the new bus route was not that bad.

“You off to that market tomorrow honey, I could just fancy you and me sharing one of them big juicy pineapples in front of the television tomorrow night.  What d’ya say!”

“No Frank, let’s forget the market for a while, but why don’t you pick up a couple of steaks and a cherry cheesecake from the deli on your way home.  I could just fancy a piece right now”.

“Sure thing doll!”, Frank shouted from the balcony.  What a heck of a girl she was.