Delta Blues

A Short Story

As he had anticipated, a week at his mother’s home in San Francisco was almost more than he could take. She had fussed over him in a predictable manner, asking every hour how he felt, did he need anything to eat or drink, was he taking his antibiotics and pain pills, was he taking them too often, and so forth. His brother and his wife came by, at first by themselves, and then with their kids. Brenna, at age five, was flat out scared and didn’t even want to enter Jason’s bedroom.

Justin, who had just turned eight, was itching to see his hero uncle and ask him about a million questions. After the third telling of the drama, Jason finally said, “You’re worse than your Grandma! Why don’t you tell me what’s new in school or what you got for your birthday or something?” 

“My birthday is in August, Uncle Jason!” he giggled. 

“Really? Silly me.”

“Tell me the part about how you pushed the bad guy overboard again, pleeease?” 

Jason sighed and told the story again, omitting the details of his gaffing techniques.

Well wishers, doctors, his boss, and even his old girlfriend either called or visited and this was more interaction than Jason had experienced in a year. The exchange with Jan was tense. Much had transpired and she had moved on. Yes, she was seeing a great guy. Curiously, Jan wasn’t that interested in all the details of his adventure. She could readily talk about her successes, but apparently Jason’s happiness or his woes were off limits. After she left, he felt deflated.

Deputy Damaris had come to his mother’s home the day after he was discharged from the hospital. He was so tired of repeating the tale that he just waited numbly for the next question. Despite his fatigue, the deputy pushed on with her relentless interrogation. 

Tucking the pencil behind her ear, she had asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to add, Mr. Barlow?” When he didn’t respond, she closed her spiral notepad, put it in her breast pocket, and stood up.

“Take care of yourself. You seem to be attracting trouble lately.”

“Yes. I feel like someone’s painted a bullseye on my back,” he sighed. “By the way, you can call me Jason now.” 

“Thank you, I will,” she turned to leave. “You can still call me Deputy Demaris.” 

Jason’s mom was waiting just outside his bedroom door. Old habits, he thought ruefully. He had to get out of here.

The doctors finally gave him a clean bill of health. His mental state; however, would take longer to heal.

“Bye mom. Thanks for all your help,” he hugged her with his good arm.

“Goodbye, dear. I still think that you are leaving too soon, but the doctors say your wound is healing nicely. Who am I to hold you back? You’re a grown man even if you do act like a teenager at times.”

He watched tears well up in her eyes, despite her attempt at stoicism. She would always see him as her child. 

“I’m not sure what I would have done without you.” And he meant it.

“Call me when you get home. I love you. Now GO!” 

“Love you too, mom. Take care.” He threw his duffel bag onto the back seat of the Malibu. The engine cranked and roared with the throaty sound of the aftermarket Flowmaster mufflers. 

He would go home via the boat, telling himself it was to check on the damage sustained during the melee. It wouldn’t hurt if he took her out for a while.

Entering the town of Oakley, he decided to stop at a second-hand book store and, further down the street, a thrift shop he had always intended to visit. However, he was disappointed. It was a pointless exercise since everything just looked wan and overpriced. 

Walking around the corner to a convenience store, he picked up a few groceries, a six-pack of Fat Tire amber ale, and a bag of ice. Pulling out of the parking space on Main Street, he punched the accelerator and made straight for the Sand Mound Marina.

Ten minutes out of town, he saw the typical mix of people along the levee road. Some had set up folding chairs and picnic tables with coolers as they fished for catfish, striped bass, and sturgeon. This melting pot was a microcosm of society. People who fished for recreation, throwing back everything they caught, fished side by side with those who depended on their catch to help feed their families. He began to relax as he entered familiar territory.

Continuing onto the marina, he parked and entered the locked gate across the ramp leading down to the dock. Big Medicine looked listless in the still water. Jason walked down the finger slip to the aft deck and immediately noticed the broken window blown out by the stray bullet. He cursed the dead man. It was easier to blame him for this nuisance repair than to acknowledge that he had been the cause of the man’s death. It was kill or be killed, he reasoned. 

Jason unzipped the tarps, stepped aboard, and was assaulted by the coppery smell of blood. The closed quarters retained the distinctive odor of death. Before he did anything else, he rolled up all of the stained rugs with his one good hand and clumsily dragged them up to the dumpster in the parking lot. Back on board, he sat in the Captain’s chair to recover from the effort. 

Jason’s gaze rested on the pair of brass handles of the aft deck cabin door. They had come off of one of San Francisco’s famed cable cars. He bought them at an auction, when the City was unloading surplus goods. It was the Barlow family’s favorite civic event because his father had been the auctioneer for ten years until his untimely death. That seemed like a lifetime ago. Jason was bidding against an antique dealer from the Castro district for the brass handles. His dad had been merciless, driving up the price and as a result, they were the most expensive item on the boat. Jason made his dad take him out to dinner afterwards and they both had a good laugh over the fact that dinner at the swanky Tadich Grill cost less than what he had paid for the handles. The memory was bittersweet. 

“I gotta get going,” he said to no one and began prepping the fifty-year-old vessel for a short cruise. He turned on the bilge exhaust fan to remove the fumes and then methodically unzipped each tarp to air out the musty cabin. Stowing the rolled up tarps was always part of his Virgo process, as was icing the beer in the antique Coca-Cola ice chest. He relished these rituals. He was a man of pleasurable and, at times, predictable systems.

Firing up the inline six-cylinder engine, dock lines free and coiled near their cleats, he eased Big Medicine into reverse and backed it out of the slip. The honey-colored mahogany wood interior of the cabin glowed in the late afternoon sun as he headed towards Bacon Island, which was bordered on the south by an old train trestle. 

There was something uniquely satisfying about looking out of the open window at the Grey Herons stalking small fish in the reeds at the river’s edge.  The breeze ruffled Jason’s hair as Big Medicine cleaved the water, the V-shaped wake spreading behind and curling into the tules. There is an unsung magic on the water of the Delta with Mt. Diablo dominating the western horizon, especially during the quiet of a weekday late afternoon. A large sturgeon surfaced and breached causing a splash. But even these familiar elements weren’t enough to shake off his restlessness.

Jason made for an abandoned shack on a rotting pier a mile from the marina. No one would bother him there. Or so he thought. Rounding the curve of a cut in the island, he immediately spotted a vaguely familiar aluminum skiff tied up at the dock. Smoke curled up from the stove pipe jutting from the shack roof. Another minor disappointment in a series… 

Just as he was about to power up and find a new spot, an older man came ambling out of the doorway. It was the same guy Jason had seen fishing with a young boy a few weeks back .

The man waved and called out, “You the owner of this place?” 

“Nope,” Jason throttled down the boat’s motor and drifted. “I don’t know who it belongs to.” 

“Well if you’re not the owner, then I guess you don’t mind if we set a spell. We’re cooking up some catfish.” 

Buoyed by the man’s friendliness, he called back, “Not only do I not mind, it smells so good, how do I  get a seat at this restaurant?”

The man let out a deep chuckle. “Come on, son. No reservations necessary.” 

The boy Jason had seen before appeared shyly in the doorway of the shack.

“Say, didn’t I see you and your son fishing a couple of weeks ago up by Frank’s Tract?”

“Actually, he’s my grandson. Yes, that’s right. I remember your boat now. Unusual name, something medical.”

“Good memory. Big Medicine.” 

Les laughed, “Big Medicine? Are you a doctor?”

It was Jason’s turn to laugh. “No, it’s a long story… I’ll tell you over catfish. I’ve got some cold beer in my cooler and could probably rustle up a soda for your grandson.”

The man turned and said, “Hey Jojo, batter up some more fish. We got company.” Turning back to Jason he said, “Let me move my boat and you can tie up here. Careful though, this ol’ dock is returning to the river.”

Jason mused over this kindred spirit as he angled his boat into position. With a gentle feathering of the transmission and throttle levers, he maneuvered the boat skillfully up to the dock and cut the engine. Moving deliberately, he winced at the pain radiating from his injury. He tossed a stern line to the man, stepped onto the decomposing dock with a bow line and together they secured the boat. 

“My name’s Lester Coleman but you can call me Les.” 

“Hi, I’m Jason Barlow. Nice to meet you, Les.” 

They shook with their left hands. The man’s grip was strong, his skin was like leather. Les glanced at the sling but didn’t ask about it. Jason was grateful.

The boy, who appeared to be about ten or eleven, emerged from the shack and Les put an arm around his slim shoulders.

“This is my grandson, Jonas. He likes to fish here in the river country with his gramps. Isn’t that right, Jojo?” The boy nodded.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Jonas. Would you be willing to help me get your soda from my cooler?” 

The boy’s face lit up and he took a step towards the big boat.

“My daughter’s got six kids and I try to rotate ‘em on my fishing days. Jojo here seems to put up with me the most.” Both men smiled as the boy climbed aboard Big Medicine. “He’s a darn good fisherman, too. Even lets his Gramps catch one once in a while.” 

The dock swayed gently as they ate spicy catfish and drank ice cold beer. The leaves of the cottonwood trees rustled and the tule reeds bent to the velvety breezes gently blowing from the west. Conversation revealed a shared love for the Delta. 

“I thought only I knew about this place,” Jason said.

Les scoffed. “I’ve been coming here longer than you’ve been alive! I know all the best spots to drop a line.”

“Do you live nearby?”

“No. I was a middle school teacher in Oakland and I fished almost every weekend. I retired five years ago and now I spend most my time here. Sometimes I bring grandkids, but mostly I’m content to just putt around on my skiff all day and sometimes I look for a spot to spend the night. The missus likes it when I get out of the house for a while. A little peace and quiet she says.”

Jojo snorted. Jason glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. 

“Gramma can be loud,” Jojo said into his soda can.

“That’s right, Jojo. Gramma can get pretty worked up when those boys are winning, huh?” Les elbowed the boy good-naturedly before turning back to Jason. “You ought to hear her when the Raiders score a touchdown!” 

Jojo giggled. Though a child of few words, it was clear just how much he adored his gramps. 

Dusk turned to night while the men exchanged stories. A fresh round of beers were opened before Les finally lifted his sleeping grandson and carried him into the shack. 

The night was filled with the Delta sounds of water lapping against the pilings, the call and response of hoot owls, and coyotes yapping on a neighboring island. 

“I could spend the rest of my days up here,” Les sighed at the shack door. “God sure must have liked this place. He graced it with lots of privacy — lets a man think.”

The older man sank heavily into his folding chair and motioned with his chin. “So you’re the one who got caught up in that mess down ‘round the old refinery. I thought I recognized the name of the boat.” It was a statement, not a question.

“You mean you heard about it?” Jason adjusted his arm in the sling and winced at the memory. Big Medicine shifted in the current and groaned as the bumpers ground against the pier.

“Oh yeah. Word got all around these parts about a big shoot’em up, and some cop picking off this attacker from the shore next to the sugar plant. Crack shot at that distance. Now I see that it was your boat. I wondered about the broken window.”

“Yeah, that was me, unfortunately.” Jason shook his head. It was not how he wanted to be known. In fact, he was trying to maintain a low profile. Perhaps it was time to give up the scintillating life in the country and move back to the relative quiet of San Francisco. 

“There’s some crazy folks running around out there. These river rats like to talk about the goings on and I usually believe about half of it. Turns out this wasn’t a rumor after all. You’re lucky to be alive, son. Coulda been lights out.” 

“I know. Seems like someone’s looking out for me. Guess it’s not my time to go yet.” Jason looked at the rising moon as a silence lingered for a beat.

“Nope. Guess not. Someone higher up makin’ those decisions.” Les stood slowly and stretched. “Do you mind a little music?”

“Sure.” 

Jason watched as Les walked into the shack and reemerged with a scratched old guitar. He sat on a milk crate and strummed softly. Les played the kind of music that transported you to a simpler time and place. A slower pace and cadence. 

Jason listened transfixed, looking past the open shack door at the fire in the wood stove. At that moment, his problems seemed insignificant. He yielded to the swelling emotion and wept quietly as the mellow sounds of the nylon stringed guitar washed over him. 

Picking out a slow eight bar blues tune, Les sang; 

And when I cast m’line

the bait these fish refuse

that’s when I know

I got these ol’ delta blues… 

 

Delta blues indeed.

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