Don’t Drink the Water
Editor’s note: When he was a younger man, Crash Barry spent two years working as a sternman on Matinicus, Maine’s most remote island. This is another of his true stories.
We went lobstering in all sorts of bitter January weather because Captain Bert hated his wife. Many frigid days were spent, dawn-to-dark, hauling gear from 60 fathoms, where Bert’s well-placed traps, baited with rotten herring, lured sleepy lobsters from their mud burrows. The boat price, 19 winters ago, was good enough to endure the threshing from wind, waves and cold. It was especially worthwhile for Bert, since work meant money and time away from Mary-Margaret’s incessant and annoying babble. So we’d go out to haul when everyone else stayed on the mooring.
I was invited to Bert’s house twice a week for a supper of either soggy chicken or bland pizza. This particular night, pizza was on the menu. Mary-Margaret’s recipe: a frozen, store-bought crust coated with tasteless tomato sauce and sawdust mozzarella. She chopped onions and spread ’em sparingly, like they were precious olives or gold. No pepperoni or burger or sausage or garlic, due to Bert’s medically mandated diet, which Mary-Margaret adhered to religiously. This also meant no sweets, butter, oil, salt, pepper or spice for any of us.
The beverage for every meal was sugar-free red Kool-Aid made with tainted water from their well. Twenty years earlier, 250 gallons of kerosene spilled from a ruptured tank into the earth and slowly seeped into the aquifer below. They’d been drinking and bathing with petro-water ever since. Their cheap filters did almost nothing, allowing the undertones of fuel to sneak into the house.
I don’t know if it was the poisonous kerosene she ingested or her genetics, but Mary-Margaret was a very annoying person. Her chatter was all negative. She’d back-bite her neighbors and gleefully retold stories of others’ misfortune and woe. Numb as a hake, with the sense of humor of a clam, her crackled gray lips would glisten with spittle, excited to prattle the latest gossip while Bert and I sat at the table and watched and waited for the timer to count down the minutes until pizza.
Occasionally, she’d ask him a question. If she was lucky, he’d grunt an answer.
Bert, in his mid-sixties, looked like the cliché of the Maine lobsterman. Salt and pepper beard with no mustache. Arms the size of legs. Hands of a giant. Eyes, the occasional tourist would say, that sparkled. But I knew the truth: the glint was merely the sunlight reflecting off the inside of his vacant skull. He was a racist, sexist, homophobic, polluting curmudgeon. He hated people who weren’t from the island almost as much as he hated his fellow islanders.
The miserable prick never listened to her. After 40 years of marriage, he could tune her out. It was obvious he wanted a drink. He fumbled with the glass of Kool-Aid, wishing for booze, another treat off limits to him — save for a single monthly ration — if he wanted to stay alive. (He would survive another cheerless 15 years.)
The timer buzzed and Mary-Margaret jumped up from the table and opened the oven. She gasped, then covered her mouth with her hand. Bert turned around and quickly saw the problem: the oven was empty. His eyes darted to the counter, where the uncooked pizza sat, then over to his wife.
“You goddamn stupid bitch,” he yelled, his face instantly the color of his Kool-Aid. “You forgot to put the goddamn pizza in the oven!” He paused for a second, then unleashed a torrent of rancor so disturbingly awful, I won’t duplicate it here. He hurled insults most people wouldn’t use on their worst enemy, let alone their spouse.
After a half-minute, he ran out of words and sputtered to a stop. He pushed his chair back from the table, got up and stormed into the other room. Grabbed the remote and turned the TV on loud. Real loud.
Mary-Margaret stood there, traces of her sheepish grin frozen to her face. She turned around, her back to me, cleared her throat, and put the pizza in the oven. She set the timer for 20 minutes, then sat at the table.
“You’ll never guess what I heard about Brenda at the post office,” she said, a fresh grin on her face.
I took a long sip of the polluted Kool-Aid and listened. Mary-Margaret was an extremely unlikable person, but no one deserves to be treated that poorly. Not in public. Not behind closed doors.
Three weeks later, I’d literally hold Bert’s life in my hands. Maybe I should have killed the son-of-a-bitch.