Islander in Exile

Folks who live on islands for a while might want to be on the mainland, but forget about living away from the water. We can’t get far. After I moved on from the island I used to fish from, I found jobs down by the docks of coastal cities. Fishing guide, boat rentals. A pub. I worked a few months at a gig then moved down a couple towns.

No place felt magnetic enough to stick there.

I was hired as a longshoreman unloading container ships with cranes. It’s a heavily nepotized field, as in I was the only person on shift who wasn’t hired because their uncle was a veteran hand. Legacies. Not sure why they took me, but I liked the work and liked being near water.

I read that people are using these shipping containers to build tiny houses. Hipsters and New Urbanists (but I repeat myself). When a ship from China docks, stacked to the limit with cargo, I’m looking at what could be a whole village worth of dwellings that Asia and everywhere else can spare. Then we absorb the contents over here, Americans.

There have been a few serious thefts. Have to wonder if they were inside jobs. I’ve seen wiseguys on the docks before. Last month the DEA found a container full of heroin. How does someone get that across the ocean? How much contraband slides through we never know about?

Unanswerable.

I keep dreaming I’m back on the island, but that’s better than dreaming that I’m right where I am. At a previous job in another city a guy who’d been there for years quit because he’d dream he was at work, working, every night. He had no relief. He looked ill before he resigned.

I wasn’t a born loner but I spend most off-shift hours by myself.

Starla rode the ferry from the island and visited last fall. It was real nice. But when I asked her to stay, she gave a solid, “No,” without further elaboration. She went back to the island, where they still don’t know that Starla ate half the apples I was ostracized over.

I get to be the bad guy in everyone’s stories there. Every maritime town needs a villain to vilify.

When she was here, I took her to see how we unload. I had someone’s future tiny house suspended in the air high over the wharf. I forget if it was tea or consumer electronics, but remember mentioning how people line up to squeeze their lives into such confines. Starla seemed put off. She said she would always need a lot of space and windows too. She’d have to be able to see the water from home to relax.

She’s been in relationships before, but never married. I knew she wouldn’t stay before she got here. It’s okay. We’re all barely connected to each other in this world. There’s nothing to do about it.

I dream about the island, and I work.

Todd Mercer was nominated for Pushcart Prizes in Fiction and Poetry in 2019, and the Best of the Net in Poetry in 2018. A three-time Dyer-Ives Prize winner, his collection Ingenue was published in September 2020 by Celery City Press. Recent work appears in The Lake, Dunes Review and the museum of americana.

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