Standing nearly six foot three in high heels, Sally easily opened the door to Jimbo’s. She stepped inside and stopped as the door closed behind her. Gave her eyes a chance to adjust to the dim interior.
She saw fifteen or so empty stools scattered in front of a bar that ran down the left-hand side of the place. A half-dozen tables with chairs occupied the space between the bar and the opposite wall. Three rough looking men sat at one of the tables. Beyond them, a pool table sat in the dingy recesses of the far end.
Sally walked up to a stool, flopped her purse onto the bar and kicked off her heels. Looked at the marks they left on her feet, and regretted buying them a size too small. Futile. They still looked like barges. She mounted the bar stool and her bare feet disappeared beneath her flower-patterned full skirt.
Motion in the shadows behind the bar at the other end caught her attention. From the corner of her eye, she watched the bartender take his time getting off a stool. When he was a couple paces from her, she turned her head to him and made eye contact. And saw the near double take when he focused on her face. That was followed by a smile so big it made his ears move. He placed a napkin on the bar without breaking his stare. Leaned a hip against the bar, as if settling in for a long conversation.
“Weren’t you Miss Arkansas?” he said.
“That’s the best you got? Arkansas?” Sally pursed her lips, looked down and shook her head once. “Honestly.” Gave him her attention. “A draft beer in one of those mugs, please.”
She dismissed him with a shake of her head that made her shoulder-length Ferrari-red hair shimmy. She rooted around in her purse and came up with a compact. The barkeep placed a mug of beer in front of her and got out of the way. She was sure she saw him wink at the occupied table as he made his retreat.
Sally opened her compact to check her makeup. The mirror revealed a man approaching her from behind. She snapped it shut when he took a stool next to her.
“My name’s Carson,” he said. Held out his hand.
She hesitated a second, let out a breath. “Mr. Carson, I’ll save you some trouble. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not looking for a man. So, if you don’t mind…”
Carson stiffened on his stool. “Well. Ex – Scuse me. My bad. I thought you was a whore with a pretty face.”
The last word just made it out of his mouth when Sally backhanded her beer mug into his face. Non-lethal, but messy. The result was something akin to a back flip off the bar stool followed by a three-point landing, knees and face, onto a beer-soaked runway.
Carson sputtered for a moment as he got himself together and back upright. Beer dripped from his face and his lower lip began to bleed. A cloud seemed to come over his face. “You bitch,” he spat out, along with bloody saliva. Then he charged…
Into an empty bar stool.
By the time he saved his teeth by grabbing the bar, Sally was already behind him. He pushed himself away as he turned, and ran into a fist that damned near dislocated his jaw. Back to the floor, and this time he stayed down. The lights were still on, but there was no fight left in Carson. One of his buddies came to help him back up. The other sat at the table snickering.
Sally turned her back on the pair as if it were the end of a conversation and returned to the bar. Pushed the stool aside and did another purse search. Came up with a cell phone and money for the beer. She finger punched the device a few times and put it to her ear.
“Cap’n Will? This is Sally… Sally. S-A-L-L-Y.” She frowned. “Goddamnit, Cap, it’s Randall. I just got into town. Where the hell is the boat tied up?”
She nodded her head a couple times. “Got it.” Threw the phone into her purse and picked her high heels up from the floor. Slung the purse over her shoulder and faced the table where Carson sat recuperating.
“Mr. Carson,” she said, “You are a mean person.”
She turned and sashayed out the door barefooted. She was certain no one noticed her big feet.
A raggedy old Subaru pulled up to the concrete bulkhead at the city docks and parked next to the Swamp Fox, a 73-foot fishing trawler. Cap’n Will sat in the pilot’s chair, deep in thought or maybe just day dreaming. When a woman with crazy red hair and no shoes got out of the car, Cap’n Will welcomed the interruption. But then she turned her face to the boat.
“God-damnit,” he said. Threw his feet from the dash to the deck and stepped out of the pilot house onto the wing, the little platform just outside the door. Grabbed the waist-high guard rail with both hands.
“Nice ride,” he said.
The captain’s top deckhand hefted his sea bag to his shoulder in a practiced motion. “It’s only got 253 thousand mi…”
“I told you about wearing that crap around the boat, Randall.”
“I’m sorry, Cap. I couldn’t help it. I just came from a bar fight. And it’s Sally, if you don’t mind.”
“Don’t you worry. I got Sally written on your pink slip. And how many times do I have to tell you about fighting? I been doing that since before you switched teams.”
Randall gave him a big grin. “You know I’m always on your team, Cap.”
“Yeah, well, get your gear stowed and,” he hesitated. “I don’t know, suit up in the team outfit? And when you get changed, come up here to the pilot house. I want to talk with you.”
“Roger that, Cap.”
Ten minutes later, Randall made it to the pilot house in full compliance with the dress code. Flip flops, cut-offs, t-shirt and a ball cap that advertised, “Free Mustache Rides.” The red wig was gone and his blond hair was tied back into a pony tail that stuck out from beneath the cap. He took the mate’s chair opposite the captain’s.
The summer light was good. Sun reflected off the concrete on one side and off the water on the other. Both came back up through the windows and splashed onto the white ceiling. Randall seemed to stare out a window, mesmerized. Cap’n Will studied his face.
“Did you go to that chicken plucking outfit? Get all your whiskers pulled out in one day?”
“Can you tell the difference?”
The captain scratched his gray beard. “Yeah, I can. It looks like you just shaved, but got ’em all this time. Nothing like a 5 o’clock shadow to mess up your makeup. How’s that working out?”
Randall let out a little laugh. “Pretty good. That’s what started the fight, some guy trying to pick me up in the bar. I was polite, but he called me a whore. That pissed me off, so I slapped him off his bar stool with my beer mug. He should have stayed on the floor, but he came back at me. Not my fault.”
“Cap’n Will stared at the glamour makeup still on Randall’s face. “One punch, right?”
The captain shook his head a couple times. “You just don’t look like the knock-out type.”
Randall held up one finger. “That’s because you don’t know anything about fighting, Cap. Big muscles don’t win fights.” He retrieved his finger. “It’s all about speed and accuracy. E = M times V squared. V stands for velocity and it’s the squared part that’s important. M is your fist, and…”
“Shut up, Randall. You’re not on this boat to tutor the captain.”
“Right.” Randall’s mouth slammed shut like it was operated by a ventriloquist.
Cap’n Will took his cap off and absent mindedly brushed back the hair that no longer grew on his bald head. “I don’t get it. I’d never guess you were queer if you weren’t dressed up in that Halloween costume. Don’t get me wrong. You’re a damn good deckhand, but some of the shit y’all do with each other makes me wanna…”
“Whoa,” Randall said. He sat up straight in the chair. “Hold on a minute, Cap.”
“You think I’m gay?”
“Oh, man. You got it all wrong. If you think I’m…”
“It’s OK. As long as you do your job and don’t grab me by the ass, we’re good.”
Randall took a deep breath. “I don’t know where to start. It’s hard trying to explain this to a homophobe.”
Cap’n Will’s jaw muscles tightened. “Careful, son. I don’t know what sort of homo you’re talking about, but if you just called me one, you can pack your shit and get your sick ass off this boat.”
Randall threw his head back and covered his face with both hands. Hesitated for two or three seconds, then dropped his hands to his lap and faced the captain. “I wasn’t being disrespectful, Captain Will. A homophobe is someone who doesn’t like queers, that’s all.”
“Well, I don’t like what y’all do, but like I said, I got no problem as long as you don’t bring it onto the boat.”
“No. You don’t understand. I’m into women. The same as you. I just like dressing up as one.”
“You mean you don’t do that stuff with other guys that I was talking about?”
“No, I don’t. You don’t have to worry about your ass around me, Cap.” His smile went extrovert.
It took a couple seconds for Cap’n Will to sort all that out. One half of his head was working on the play on words while the other was wondering if it was OK for straight guys to… to do what Randall was doing.
“This is all about chromosomes, Cap. We’ve always been taught there are only two sexes, male and female. But Mother Nature screws up all the time. Two-headed animals, for instance. The screw-ups in chromosomes aren’t that easy to label. There are all kinds of different combos of those x’s and y’s that can happen. Gay and Lesbian are just two of them. My combination is different. I like women, the same as you. At the same time, I like dressing up as a woman. I feel like a woman inside, if that makes any sense to you?”
Cap’n Will scratched behind one ear. “I’m not sure I get it.”
“Some of the people who have my combo, called transgender, get operations to change their physical equipment to what they feel inside. If I did that, I reckon I’d be a Lesbian. I guess you could say I’m a Lesbian trapped in a man’s body.”
“Then you could get serious about knocking guys out who mess with your old lady?”
“Not if I took all those female hormones to change my body. That’s not for me. I’d rather just dress up and knock ‘em out. Besides, I love fishing, and I need to be strong for that.”
“I’ll say one thing, Randall. You live a complicated life.”
“It’s not really my choice, Cap. I’m just playing the hand I was dealt.”
They sat in silence for a few seconds. “Alright, then,” Cap’n Will said. “Now go wash that crap off your face.”
Randall climbed down from the mate’s chair. “And those otherguys, Cap? I don’t believe what they do with each other is any of my business.” He took three paces toward the stairs that lead to the deckhouse, then stopped. Turned back to face the captain. “I don’t believe it’s any of our business.” He was halfway down the three steps to the deckhouse when Cap’n Will’s cell phone rang.
“Hello… OK. We’ll come get y’all.” He ended the call and put the phone back on the dash. “Randall,” he hollered over his shoulder.
“Yeah,” from the companionway at the bottom of the stairs. Randall backtracked and stood on the top step.
“When you get your face cleaned up I want you to take my truck to the bus station and pick up Craig and Richard. We need to get the ice and groceries on board so we’ll be ready to sail in the morning.” He picked the truck keys off the dash and flipped them to his deckhand.
Ten minutes later, Cap’n Will watched Randall climb over the bulwarks onto the dock and start toward his pickup. Nothing about his appearance said anything about queerness. As the truck pulled onto the street, he got out of the chair and exited the door on the river side. His intention was to head to the back deck, the work area where most of the danger in this fishing business lurks. He wanted to give it a quick once-over before his crew arrived.
As he walked down the space between the rail and the deckhouse, he noticed that Randall left the sliding door to the crew quarters open. And he saw the red wig sitting on a top bunk.
He walked three steps past the open door before he stopped. Stood motionless for a few seconds as he looked at the deck while his brain whirred. He moved back to the open door. Stopped, and stared at the wig.
It was one of those “screw it” moments. He stepped over the foot-high threshold, and reached for the wig before he realized he wasn’t sure how to pick it up. Grab it from the top, or stick his hand underneath it as if his fist was a head. That would give it the most natural look, so he went for it.
And there he stood, his arm positioned as if frozen in the air, just prior to a fist pump. He shook the thing a little and saw that wasn’t going to work. Grabbed the top of it with his other hand. It didn’t look so natural that way, if you could call gaudy red hair natural, but that wasn’t what he was after. He gave it a little shake to watch how it shimmied. Jiggled it around to see if he could get it to dance like a hula skirt. Smiled as he got the motion just right. With one foot back over the threshold, the wig arm still inside the house, he looked up and down the river. Saw none of those little landlubber boats zipping around, so he stepped out onto the deck. He scurried up to the wing where he slipped into the pilothouse and closed the door with his free hand. Crossed to the other side so he could close that door as well. When it hit the stops, he let out a deep breath and directed his attention to the mirror mounted on the aft bulkhead.
Cap’n Will placed the wig on his head. Positioned it so the bangs weren’t lopsided. And saw the big smile appear on his face.
He gave his head a couple quick shakes to watch the wig dance. Turned sideways and checked out his profile. Faced the mirror again and gave it what he thought might be a sexy pout. Even threw in a little air kiss.
That’s when he heard voices from the dock. Swiveled his head to look out the window of the door and saw his crew getting out of his truck.
He snatched the wig from his head. Yanked the sliding door on the river side open and raced down the deck to the door of the crew quarters. Slapped the wig back onto the top bunk and hauled ass back up the deck.
Out of breath, he slid across the pilot house and peeked out the window of the closed door on the far side. When he was certain none of his crew was looking in his direction, he eased the door back open. Backed away from it in slow motion and resumed his position in the captain’s chair, feet up on the dash, a Marlboro burning in one hand.
A couple minutes later Randall came up the stairs into the pilothouse and took the mate’s chair. “The guys are getting their gear stowed,” he said.
“Finest kind.” The captain reached to the dash and stubbed his butt out in an ashtray that was way past full.
A quizzical look appeared on Randall’s face. He squinted his eyes and leaned forward as he studied the captain. A second later he raised his head. Grinned and said, “You OK?”
The captain faced him. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”
Randall got down out of the chair and took the few steps to where the captain sat. Reached to one of his shoulders and picked something from it. Backed up a couple paces and dangled a long strand of fake red hair in front of him.
Cap’n Will pulled his feet from the dash and sat upright in the chair. Could feel his face begin to heat up. “I was curious. Trying to get a handle on what you do.”
The smile was back on Randall’s face. “It’s OK, Cap. I got another one of those. It’s electric blue. We could dress up some night and get a couple drinks. It would be fun.” He reached up and gave the captain’s shoulder a gentle fist bump. “And don’t worry. Anybody wants to mess with us… I’ll knock ‘em out. E equals M V squared.”
Cap’n Will grinned. “Don’t hold your breath on that one, Randall. I’m straight arrow.” A few heartbeats ticked along as the pause grew and his grin wilted. “What’s so funny?”
Randall winked. Turned his back to the captain and headed back down the stairs to the deck house.
“Hey,” Cap’n Will said.
Cap’n Pete is a retired commercial fisherman.
He writes creative nonfiction about a life at sea and the characters that
populate that world. And struggles with a twisted sense of humor, as well
as his retirement, for fish are dying of old age out there. Occasionally,
he stumbles upon an idea for fiction, but it won’t be far from the briny blue