Two 50-Pound Bags of Salt
Editor’s note: Eighteen years ago, a young Crash Barry moved to Maine’s most remote island to work as a sternman aboard a lobster boat. This is one of his true stories. (Some names have been changed for a variety of considerations.)
My replacement as Bert’s sternman, Hughie, only spoke to me once, just minutes before he killed himself. This was my second year on the island and I was living in my new captain’s shack down in the Lower Harbor, away from my old ’hood, the Upper Harbor, where all the rest of the sternmen lived. It was a Sunday afternoon in August (in those days, there was no lobstering on Sundays during the summer), so I was chillin’ on my wharf, smoking and drinking tea, when Hughie roared down the dirt road, a cloud of dust trailing the Hondamatic motorcycle Bert always loaned his sternman. He braked hard and almost crashed into a five-tall tower of traps piled on the side of the road. He jumped off the bike and ran toward me.
“Where the fuck is she?” he screamed. “Lora! Get your ass out here!”
“Dude,” I said. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Where’s Lora?” he hollered. “Where the fuck is my girlfriend?”
I had no idea. I wasn’t screwing his old lady. Barely spoke to her when I saw her at the well or post office. Never more than a “Hello, how do you do?” She was cute, for the island, and young. She lived with Hughie in my old shack, which I knew to be drafty and home to mice and wharf rats.
He glared at me. Crazed with rage, he wasn’t sure what to do. I was bigger and tougher and meaner than him and perhaps he could tell I was filled with residual anger over the way Bert fired me and knew it wouldn’t be smart to make me explode. He didn’t say another word. Got back on the Honda and sped away.
This is what happened next: He raced over to Jimmy’s shack, where a couple other sternmen were hanging and smoking herb. Hughie asked to borrow a gun so he could kill his girlfriend, but Jimmy said no, he wasn’t gonna lend him a murder weapon. So Hughie stormed off and ran along the shore path. Jimmy and the other fellas watched as he climbed down the ladder on the Steamboat Wharf and took Bert’s skiff and headed toward Bert’s moorings.
From Jimmy’s shack, they observed Hughie’s strange behavior. He lugged two 50-pound bags of salt (used to preserve the herring) from the bait scow and hauled ’em into the skiff, then motored over to The Dotted Eye. He put the salt on the gunwale and climbed aboard his boss’ boat. Then he took a long piece of rope and sat on the gunwale and somehow lashed both bags of salt to his body. And pushed himself overboard. And sank to the bottom.
Jimmy sprinted around the shore and grabbed another skiff and rushed out to Bert’s boat. By the time he got there, it was too late. In 20 feet of water, Hughie was dead. At least, that’s what Jimmy said.
Jimmy went ashore, donned his wetsuit, then met Bert at the Steamboat Wharf and they went to the mooring. Jimmy dove and untied the corpse and brought him to the surface. He and Bert muckled the body into the skiff, went ashore and put Hughie in the bed of Bert’s pick-up and drove up to Bert’s house, in the middle of the island, and called the Coast Guard.
Well, the Coasties weren’t gonna drive 20 miles across Penobscot Bay to pick up a dead man, but they agreed to meet halfway. So Bert and Jimmy went back to the harbor and put the body into The Dotted Eye and steamed toward the mainland. Ten miles from the island, they made the transfer, turned around and came home.
Hughie, who had no family or money, was given a pauper’s funeral. Knox County seized his only asset, the Honda, to defray the cost of burial. Bert, by the way, never actually sold the Honda to Hughie. But after the suicide he had no interest in the bike. So Jimmy rode it down to the ferry the next month and the motorcycle was sold at auction in Rockland.
Ever since, I’ve been bothered by two questions. Why didn’t Jimmy dive in and try to save Hughie? And had Hughie learned the truth? The girl was screwing around on him. With another sternman, not me. And she was pregnant. And most of the people on the island knew it.