Self-proclaimed as the ‘home of winos, dingbats, and riff raff” on a sign above the outside entry, Newport’s Barge Inn is mostly an old folks’ bar. People whose only goal is to get drunk alone sit at the bar, strategically placing themselves enough stools apart to allow a smattering of off-hand comments and gossip, but not so close as to allow any degree of intimacy. It allows them to either get away from their nagging partners, or to proclaim they don’t really drink alone. I’m here because the line at the pool table at the Bay Haven is too long for me, and I guess I need a change of scene.
I put my quarter on the pool table, beneath the bumper and above the coin slot, to reserve my place in line. No other quarters up. The unspoken pool house rules say that I’ll be next against whoever wins this game. I walk over and sit down at the bar to wait my turn.
I order a beer on tap. It arrives, a dark ochre color. The heft of the beer suits the long, gloomy and wet winter season in Oregon, a season that takes up most of nine months.
There’s a guy walking toward me, and it takes a minute to place him. I’ve seen him around; he’s a captain. Buddy’s boats are high-liners, meaning it’s among the highest earning vessels that make as much or more than the rest of the Alaskan fleet combined. Slots on his vessels are among the most sought after in the fleet.
He takes a stool, two seats down, and smiles at me. If I’d been a bit less naïve, I would’ve recognized it as an oily smile.
“Hey.” from Buddy.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
That’s the style. Polite. Minimalist. Sorta size each other up for conversation. A way to engage without really engaging, talk without really saying anything.
Silence sits between us as the pool balls from the game in process carom off of each other, sometimes dropping into a pocket. Then the sound of the ball rolling along the mechanical slide toward the far end of the table, becoming imprisoned behind battered acrylic. Gumballs, waiting for two quarters to free them.
We sit, backs to the bar, feet resting on the lower rungs of our stools, watching the game. We make half turns with our bodies to pick up or set down our beer glasses every few minutes. Buddy’s in his forties or fifties. His hair’s still dark and parted to the side, controlled by Brylcreem. A stocky guy, he’s developed a paunch from too many years in the wheelhouse. He’s about 5’10”. Back to back, he’s a bit taller than me, but he seems higher. Buddy has the demeanor of someone accustomed to giving orders – and having them followed. He sits on the bar stool, impossibly relaxed. His elbows lean on the bar behind him, his knees splayed open, not a care in the world. I sit, one barstool between us, hands folded on my lap, knees together. I lean imperceptibly toward him to show an interest in whatever he might have to say.
The eight-ball hits the corner pocket, teeters on the edge, and falls in before its time. Ouch. Smallish groans escape the players. I stand up to take my turn. I nod toward my opponent and give a slight smile. He smiles back. Walking toward the table, I reach into the pocket of my blue jeans and pull out a quarter to add to the quarter I’ve already put on the table. I put both of them into the slot, side-by-side, heads up for luck, and push the metal tab into the slide mechanism. The ten or so balls that had been pocketed during the last game come rolling noisily out to the receptacle at the end of the table. I take the two steps to that end, bend down and grab the balls, two at a time, and place them on the green felted top. My opponent sweeps the other balls with the butt end of his stick, moving them toward my end. I pick up the triangular wooden rack and place the balls inside, alternating solids and stripes, eight ball dead center.
All the while I’m sizing up my opponent. He’s relaxed – he’s thinking he can beat me, no problem. I’ve just seen him play, and he’s okay, but I’m sure I can beat him. His right arm – the arm holding the butt of the stick- has a tendency to sway just before he hits the ball, leaving him with little control. Add to that the problem of a too relaxed left hand around the tip of the stick and his control decreases even more. I have an advantage in that he’s never seen me play. Because I’m a young woman, most people don’t really expect that I know how to play the game, and take it easy on me at first.
I gently pull the rack up and away from the triangle of balls and slide it back into its slot.
I walk toward my rival and offer my hand for a shake.
He takes my hand and gives it a return shake.
“Hi. I’m George.”
He walks to the cue ball, picks it up, and places it on the table behind the worn out circular patch that marks the edge of the area he’s allowed to shoot from. He takes the cube of chalk and squeaks it solidly against the tip of his cue. Blue powder falls, dissipating in the air.
He hits the cue ball, and it rips into the rack. The balls fly to all corners of the table. The seven-ball clackety-clacks down into a side pocket, giving George the solids to shoot at. He surveys the table, and slowly walks over, intent on the two. He hits it, but it misses the corner by an inch. My turn.
He’s left me set up for the ten, but I don’t see much after that. I could try for the ten with a set-up for the twelve, or deliberately miss the ten-ball, leaving him without a shot. I opt for the latter, and George takes a long time to assess the table. I return to my beer, giving him his space. Buddy is watching the game.
“Nice leave.” he says.
“Thanks, he may have a shot at the three.”
“Nah – he’s not that good.”
Buddy’s right, George misses the shot. This time, he’s left the table wide open for me, and, one by one, I hit the balls into the pockets, including the eight. Game. George and I again shake hands, and he goes back to his seat at the bar to nurse his pitcher of beer. Nobody else has a quarter on the felt for the next game, so I sit down near Buddy again. Queen of the table.
“Nice game – you really creamed him. Don’t have much mercy, do you?”
“Heard you know how to cook.”
“Well, I cooked down at Mo’s, and for my family, but that’s about it.”
“Heard you worked on the Valhalla.”
“Yeah, but Phil did all the cooking.”
“Ever think about working up in Dutch?”
He’s referring to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The gold rush town of commercial fishing.
“My brothers’ve worked up there – Bob’s up there now,” as if he’s asked me an entirely different question.
“I need a cook on The Dominator.” The nicer of Buddy’s two boats. The one he personally works.
Where’s the boat?”
By now, my heart’s rhythm is drumming a bit quicker. My brain starts with a whispered refrain: adventure…adventure.
I’m nervous to ask about pay. It’s an important question, but if I ask, maybe he’ll think I don’t trust him to be fair.
But people will ask me, and I’ll need to tell them something. I mean, I don’t want to seem like a doormat or anything.
Dad will ask. He’ll expect me to know. Well, everyone makes good money in Dutch. He has to pay me a decent wage. But maybe asking will start us out on the wrong foot. I don’t want him to think it’s only about the money. But if I don’t ask him, maybe he’ll respect me less. I mean, it would make me seem like a shoe-over.
I find my courage. “What’s the pay?”
“Ninety a day – three months.”
Although I hear the number, I don’t listen, not really. It’s information for the sake of information. My mind’s made up before he even tells me. “Sure,” I say. Like it’s maybe a trip to the zoo.
“Gimme your phone number,” he says as he pushes a pencil and a rectangle of white paper over to me. The paper has lines, and has been perfectly torn from a larger sheet.
I write my number down and hand it back to him. Buddy folds it once, right down the middle and puts it in his breast pocket, He picks up his glass, puts it to his lips, and empties it without ever taking his eyes off of me. He places it soundly on the bar and stands. “I’ll get the details to you. See you next week.”
And that’s that. I mean, that’s really that. I’m going to Alaska, just like that!
I figure my sickness is done. I’ve given my due to Mother Ocean. I tell myself I won’t get sick. It’s a bigger boat and I’m used to the ocean now.
Sort of dazed, the excitement builds from the bottom of my belly on up in a wave of warmth in my chest, exiting through my lips with the slightest Mona Lisa smile. As I leave the Barge Inn and review what’s happened, I realize that Buddy came in specifically looking for me; it wasn’t random. He’d come in, sat next to me, talked a bit in his clumsy way, asked about the job and left. I walk toward the car, and my smile gets bigger until I’m laughing at my luck.
It doesn’t occur to me that the crew might appreciate a more intimate knowledge of a galley than making hamburgers and cakes for my family and slinging chowder at Mo’s.
Disclaimer: :>) names have been changed.