by Martin Maenza
A rotund man wearing a blue suit with greasy black hair that peeked out on either side of his head sat before a dining room table in a dank mansion. The wallpaper around him was spotty and smudged with dirt, tears visible here and there in the light of brass chandelier above — three bulbs burned out and one flickering violently.
The man didn’t care about the condition of the room, nor did he mind the stains on the white tablecloth that covered the old oaken surface. No, he was focused intently on a covered plate that was placed before him. His eyes literally watered at the thought of pulling off the silver cover, though his huge nostrils already had an idea of what lay underneath. He had an impeccable sense of smell and taste when it came to food.
“Oh!” he glanced up with great surprise. “I d-didn’t hear you come in! I was just about to sit down to dinner!”
Then Abel frowned slightly. “I’m s-sorry I didn’t know you were coming. If I had, I would have made sure there was enough to share.” He looked forward again. “Y-you don’t mind, do you?” He paused for only a moment before he spoke again.
“Good!” Abel clapped. “Then, if that is settled, I’ll dive right in!” He pulled the silver lid up and tossed it aside with a loud crash. He ignored that and focused on the rather large, at least ten-pound, stuffed trout before him. The fish was lying a bed of steamed rice and was garnished about the edges with parsley. A cooked, stuffed green pepper had been placed in the fish’s mouth.
Abel inhaled deeply. “Ah, fresh fish! A joy!” He picked up his fork and knife, and was about to dive in when he paused.
“Oh, how rude of me!” he said. “Since I cannot share my dinner, perhaps I can tell you a tale while I eat! That might satisfy any hunger you might have.” He plunged his fork into the fish.
“And I know just the story. It is called ‘Love of the Sea’…”
It was the middle of autumn, and the cool breeze blew across the waterfront into a small port town on a western bay. Seagulls squawked as they flew overhead, eventually perching on the large round posts of the various docks. There they would stay, ignoring the bustling workers that hurried back and forth with large boxes on carts in tow, until another freighter came up requiring someplace to tie off. Then the birds would just move on to another spot and start their cycle anew.
The seaport easily served a hundred ships a day, though no one other than the dockmaster ever kept an official tab. Some were boats that just traveled up and down the coast, while others took longer voyages across the ocean. Yet, no matter the originating port of call, no matter the type of cargo, no matter the size of the ships big or small, they all shared one thing in common: the men who worked on them.
The lonely sailors would often pass the time away, talking to one another about their homes. They would talk while they worked, loading and unloading the cargo, and they would talk after hours at the small tavern just past the end of the shipping yard.
The tavern was average-sized, with many tables spread about the main floor. There was also a long bar with stools along the back, and the owner of the bar, Manny, served as the chief bartender as well. For twelve hours a day, seven days a week, the man in his late fifties shuffled back and forth between the counter and the stocked bottles, pouring drinks and lending an ear.
Manny ran a good place, an honest place. The lights were dim, relaxing. The seats firm and steady. A sign by the door clearly stated that fighting would not be tolerated; Manny only had to enforce that once with the help of a rather large bat, and word got out that this rule was enforced.
He had served over thirty years in the merchant marine himself, so he knew how hard life on the sea was for the sailors. They sometimes needed a place they could relax and call home while away from home. Manny opened up the bar with just that in mind.
For a number of years, Manny did everything himself. He was a proud man, a hard worker. But when the bursitis started in his left leg, and he found it wasn’t as easy for him to move about the place, he realized quickly he had to hire some help.
Luckily, as he often said, the gods smiled down upon him the day a beautiful, brown-haired young woman answered his help-wanted ad. She was in her early twenties, with a shapely figure and a pleasant disposition. She added a bit of life, a breathe of fresh air to the place.
She had grown up in this harbor town herself. She had family in the shipping trade, brothers and uncles, so she was accustomed to being around sailors. She wasn’t the shy kind of flower who would recoil at the start of an off-color joke. In fact, she often joined right in with the men, stopping at one of the tables with a tray of empty bottles and glasses still in one hand to ask them if they had heard the one about the man who brought an elephant into the doctor’s office or some such thing. Everyone loved her. She worked hard, laying whiskey down night after night.
“Brandy!” Manny called out from behind the bar.
“Yeah?” she said with a smile.
The bartender finished pouring the last of the drinks. “Fetch another round!”
She moved through the crowded floor, sashaying as she walked in three-inch heels. Every now and then, one of the men would go for a quick pinch of her short-skirted behind. She never complained. She would throw the culprit a knowing look later, and they often compensated by leaving her a large tip afterward at the end of the night.
Brandy placed her tray down on the bar, allowing Manny to load it up with four glasses. “Who’re these for?” she asked.
“Table to the left,” the graying-haired bartender indicated.
The waitress nodded, made her way back across the room of conversations and stopped at her destination, all the while balancing the tray perfectly in her hand. She glanced at the four men seated who were happy to see her arrive with the drinks. “So,” she said, checking out the tray, “who gets the whiskey, and who gets the wine?”
The guys gave her smiles and laughs as they got the drinks to the right parties. “Brandy, you’re a fine girl,” said a dark-haired man with a beard and mustache.
“Yeah,” chimed in another with red hair. “What a good wife you would be.”
Brandy laughed. “If I had a dollar for every patron who made proposals to me, I wouldn’t have to keep slinging drinks to you lot!” The four guys laughed at that.
She returned back to the bar. Manny had been watching the exchange. “We’ve got us a good crowd tonight,” he said.
“Good crowd most nights,” she concurred. She then told Manny about what the guys had said.
He smiled as he listened to her recount the conversation. “Yeah, I can see that,” he said. Her eyes, they could steal a sailor from the sea.
Still, Manny knew better. He knew this girl as if she were his own daughter. Sure, she was pleasant and slightly flirtatious with most of the clientele, but that was really just for show. She put the men at ease while they relaxed after a hard day of work. It was good for business.
But despite every proposal, every advance, they didn’t mean anything to Brandy.
Manny was reminded of that every night when he looked at her. The braided chain she wore about her neck was a telltale sign. The necklace was made of the finest silver from the north of Spain. At the center hung a locket which bore the name of the man that Brandy loved: Erwin.
The bar owner had never met the man, or more specifically, they had never been formally introduced. So many sailors came into the bar. Some were regulars, on cycles that often passed through the harbor town. Others, not so much. Still, he knew the story, because it struck a cord with him when Brandy first told it to him.
“He came on a summer’s day,” Brandy had explained not long ago. She described him dressed as a typical sailor: a longshoreman’s dark coat and a hat, with wavy blonde hair underneath it. Erwin had seen Brandy on previous visits, and this time he had something for her. “He brought gifts from far, far away.” With some sadness in her voice, she then had added, “But he made it clear that he couldn’t stay.”
Manny recalled asking her, “if you loved him so, why didn’t you go be with him?” Manny knew about love lost, having regrets of his own. He never married himself, never had a child. He spent too much time going from port to port. It was only when he moved to the town and opened the bar did he establish some roots again.
Brandy had explained with sadness in her voice as she fingered the chain he had given her but a few days before. “He said,” she started to say, then had to clear her voice, for she was getting as choked up as she had when he first said it. “He said… my life, my lover, my lady is the sea.”
Manny had heard accounts from others that Brandy used to watch this man’s blue-green eyes when he told his sailor stories. He was a very passionate storyteller; she even said that she could feel the ocean foam rise and saw its raging glory as he spoke. The man had been honest with her about how he felt, yet why he could not commit to her, and Brandy she tried her best to understand.
But understanding was one thing, and accepting was another.
Every time the bell over the door of the bar would jangle, Brandy would turn about to see who was coming. Sometimes, for a brief second, those blue pools that were her eyes had a twinge of hope. Yet that hope would crash like a wave upon the rocks when she realized it was not her sailor who was walking through the door again.
Manny wished there was something he could do to comfort the girl, to make it hurt less. But he could not. With a sigh, he returned to wiping out the glasses he had just washed in the sink behind the bar.