John Mancini ~ No Future in Oysters

My father was an oys­ter­man just like his father before him—and just like I would have become had things not turned out the way they did. By the end of the six­ties, the Bay was in poor shape, and the men who worked the water and drank at the bars at the mari­na could see the writ­ing was on the wall. Action groups were start­ing to form around the idea of “sav­ing” the Bay—whatever that meant—and the careers it sus­tained, but by the time “envi­ron­men­tal­ism” entered the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, after decades of indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion and runoff from local steel fac­to­ries, the Chesapeake had seen such a decline in oys­ters, crabs and rock fish that most of the old dredgers were already out of business—and those of us who weren’t would soon be dri­ven to retire­ment by mechan­i­cal dredging.

I spent most of my child­hood rid­ing in my father’s skip­jack with my broth­er Glen, watch­ing the tongers gath­er the catch from the floor of the Bay and haul it up and dump it on the culling board to be sort­ed. When I was old enough, I kept my tan by work­ing on the boat along­side the men. By then, my father was reluc­tant­ly using the dredge to work the deep­er waters—“Life has a way of suck­ing you in,” he liked to say, mean­ing if you weren’t will­ing to impro­vise, you’d have to com­pro­mise. “You’ve got to learn to adapt,” he said. “Just look at the Indian. He didn’t van­ish. He just changed col­ors.” My father claimed to be one-eighth Indian, which would have made me one-six­teenth Indian had it been true, but I don’t think it was. He used to tell me our ances­tors were out­laws, that they’d belonged to a war lov­ing sub-tribe of the Algonquin on the Eastern Shore, a tribe that shared with their north­ern neigh­bors a love of fish­ing and of fighting—only one of which I had done well. I was not much of a fight­er. When U.S. troops invad­ed Cambodia, I joined the reserves before the draft could take me—no one was get­ting 4‑H those days, and blue-col­lar boys from the Bay were among the first to ship out.

The year Hurricane Camille dev­as­tat­ed the oys­ter pop­u­la­tion, my broth­er died in a boat­ing accident—one that had noth­ing to do with oys­ter dredg­ing and every­thing to do with div­ing into Stoney Creek at low tide. After Glen’s death, my father stopped ask­ing me to join him on the boat, didn’t want me think­ing about becom­ing a dredger—didn’t want me on the Bay, peri­od. He start­ed drink­ing more, work­ing the water less. He spent his time at the Pearl down at the mari­na, bitch­ing about mechan­i­cal dredgers and Nixon, buy­ing rounds for his friends when he could, and sell­ing a lit­tle pot to make ends meet—but he was slow­ly falling into a black­ness that would last through­out the winter.

The fol­low­ing spring he asked me to join him on a road trip to Texas. It was a rare invitation—I had long known him to van­ish for weeks at a time with­out explanation—and it was an invi­ta­tion that I accept­ed if for no oth­er rea­son than to change the scenery. The same­ness of Silver Sands had begun to make my brain go flat, in eigh­teen years I’d nev­er been far­ther south than D.C., and despite our dif­fer­ences I was still will­ing to fol­low my father any­where he want­ed to go—whether out on the Bay or over the Allegheny Mountains. So we drove togeth­er, father and son, down through West Virginia, and we stopped over in Tennessee where he had some friends who ran a small motel and din­er called the Royal Arms. He was “check­ing on his orders,” he said. He planned to make anoth­er stop here on our way back north, but for now our des­ti­na­tion was Laredo, on the Rio Grande, where we were going to see an old friend of his, some­one he want­ed me to meet.

Twenty hours lat­er, the road had tak­en its toll and the vast­ness of the desert was mak­ing me dizzy just to look at. The empti­ness on all sides was like some­thing out of an old west­ern, the scrub brush and clumps of pon­derosa pine, the sage brush-dot­ted gul­lies and zigzag­ging gorge dis­solv­ing into the Technicolor dis­tance. I knew I was out of my ele­ment, but I put my trust in my father, for whom this was no strange ter­ri­to­ry. I knew he had been here before.

The first bales we brought back from the ranch in Laredo had been humped across the bor­der by young boys bare­ly in their teens—the so-called “Acapulco Gold” they car­ried, with its bright orange hairs, resem­bling gold nuggets that had been com­pressed into sol­id bricks the size of shoe­box­es and wrapped in burlap and tied with twine. The bales filled the flatbed of my father’s Chevy and stayed lashed down with a length of tarp that snapped in the wind all the way back to Tennessee—where we unloaded half the prod­uct as planned—and then on again to Maryland.

Though I did not real­ize it at the time, a new fam­i­ly busi­ness was being forged, one that didn’t require long days on the water and one that would even­tu­al­ly prove quite prof­itable for me—though it was not with­out its haz­ards. Eventually, I would serve ten years of a twen­ty year sen­tence for pos­ses­sion and dis­tri­b­u­tion. But going to prison was just anoth­er mat­ter of learn­ing to adapt. I’d learned that from my father, a man who made one thing clear to me on that trip all those years ago, some­thing he advised me to chew on a while before I made up my mind. After all, becom­ing an out­law was not for every­one, and it was a hard truth—one you could real­ly break your teeth on if you weren’t careful—one that he had come him­self to believe as the only log­i­cal solu­tion to a prob­lem that he had not caused. All the way to Baltimore, he repeat­ed it like a theme: There was no future in oys­ters. Marijuana, how­ev­er, was a dif­fer­ent story.


JohnMancini’s fic­tion and poet­ry have appeared or are forth­com­ing in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Akashic Books online, Natural Bridge, Pindeldyboz, Flash Fiction Magazine and else­where. He received an MFA from San Francisco State University, an MA from the University of Southern Mississippi and a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design. He recent­ly com­plet­ed a novel.