Spring 2023, Volume 34

Fiction by Joe Ducato

The Tender

Gulls huddled wherever gulls go to huddle at midnight.  The old man, the bridge-tender, Tiago made his way down Amos Avenue; lunch pail in hand, evening edition under arm and extra smokes behind his ears.
He headed for the steep wood staircase that would take him up to the back door of the bridge shanty.  Tiago preferred the Amos Avenue way over the Beachy Boulevard way which led to the front of the shanty where there were no steps, but Tiago needed steps.  He needed to show them. 

He stopped and looked up the 14 steps like he was looking up Mount Everest.  Spite fueled his short legs; spite for the bosses who wanted him out to pasture yesterday or maybe shot like some old dairy cow whose teats had dried up. 

He cursed every painful step; cursed his wife, gone for years; cursed his kids, now turned into Christmas and Father’s Day cards, cursed everything but the work.  Tiago was a bridge tender, like his father and his father’s father before him.  The work was honor.

The tender growled his way up each step knowing he’d need to reserve a little “umpf” to kick open the back door which had stuck for years.  He knew that young Enos, the 2nd trick tender, wouldn’t hear him coming.  He never did.  When someone doesn’t care, the first thing to go is the ears.  The young ones don’t even care to keep good call logs.  They just cared about clocking out and finding someone to copulate with.  Nobody cared like Tiago did.
At the top step, he caught his breath and kicked the door a good one.  There stood young Enos, smug as a feral cat and itching to leave.  Tiago knew the transfer wouldn’t take but a minute even though State regs called for 10.  

“Everything’s good,” the bored kid said before hopping away like an over-caffeinated hyena.

Alone in the shanty, the tender laid out his tools; 6 sharpened number 2 pencils, limburger cheese sandwich in aluminum foil, wooden ruler to connect arrivals with departures, binoculars, and a mini-crow bar named Agnes, just in case.  He tested the bridge lever.  Good play.  He tested the radio, laid out his picture of Jesus and put his hands together and gave thanks for the coming sunrise. 

He then went to the small table in the corner and began making the coffee in a coffee maker left from the Roman Empire.  Every time Tiago made the coffee, he thought about Big Jim.  J, as he was known to his fellow tenders, had been the best.  He could handle traffic like no other.  J had a gift. 

Towards the end, J couldn’t make his own coffee.  His co-workers made it for him before he arrived.  Respect.  After his shift one night, J had a heart attack and died right there behind the wheel of his car.  The engine was still running when they found him.  The fudgsicle he’d unwrapped was a puddle on his lap.  J never got a lick in.  Death doesn’t care. That’s a fact.  J’s coffee mug still hung on a hook in the shanty, not even washed. Respect.

The call for Barge 512 came early, 01:50 hours, 1:50 a.m.  A good run.   It didn’t surprise Tiago.  Melendez ran that outfit.  Melendez was good.  Tiago raised the bridge and waved the 512 through.  No need to stop.  Melendez had earned that.  

“Load?” Tiago shouted from the dirty, shanty window, “…for the log.”

He held the log book out in the night air.

“Lumber,” Melendez shouted back, “Lots of it.  They’re finally redoing the dock at Pearl.  Looks like pigs do fly!”

Tiago meticulously wrote in his book, balanced in one hand, then watched intently as the barge pushed up river.  Red lights on the back of the boat blinked twice.  Love to the man in the shanty. The rush of waves in the boat’s wake sounded like a symphony to Tiago.

The next call didn’t come in until 0400 hours, 4 a.m., when the world knelt, when the moths finally lost their minds, when the gulls that huddled where gulls huddled, started to stir.

“Sun and Moon to the 6th Avenue Tender,” came an unfamiliar voice over the radio, “Copy?”

Tiago had never heard of that rig.

“Copy. Origin please?” Tiago radioed back with authority.

No answer.

“Origin please, Sun and Moon.”

 “Fort Prince” came the reply.

Tiago shook his head and wrote.

“Cargo?” he called out. 

No answer.

He gripped the microphone, “Cargo, Sun and Moon?”

Radio silence.

Fifteen minutes later, he saw the headlight.  When the boat got close enough to see, Tiago marveled at the small craft.   

‘Grand Banks,’ he thought, “Haven’t seen one of those in years.” 

Above the river’s outer banks, a light came on in a tenement building, then another and another, like the birth of stars.

Tiago marveled at the beautiful, wooden boat.  He turned the spot lights on it.  The small craft had been meticulously restored.  A strapping young man appeared on the back deck, eager to throw rope and anchor.  For some reason, Tiago always felt a certain peace when a vessel, big or small, cut its engine and left only the sound of water.  His father and grandfather knew it too.   

Tiago bounded purposely from the shanty, flashlight in hand.  He approached the tethered, bobbing Sun and Moon.  A strange-looking old man came out from behind the boat wheel.  He had that skipper look, and the hard eyes of a sea man.  He stood next to the deck hand.  The skipper’s hair was white and so thick it was like someone had plopped a large scoop of vanilla ice cream on his head.  

“Didn’t you hear?” Tiago grunted at the old skipper who shaded his eyes from Tiago’s light.

“I said cargo” Tiago stammered, “I need it for my book, State requirements…”

“Ah, the State” the skipper mused, “The State says...”

“That’s right,” Tiago replied, somewhat annoyed.

Then the bridge-tender noticed them, behind the glass of the cabin window; the faces, the many faces of the many people packed into the cabin like sardines; people standing shoulder to shoulder; men next to women, old next to young each possessing the same drawn look, the same blank stare.  

Tiago had no words.  Suddenly he felt a pain inside him.  Lack of sleep, he told himself, cheap lunch.  He felt like he had asked the wrong question, but the rules.  He had been trusted with the rules.  He didn’t know this captain. 

 The tender shined his light back on the skipper.  Tiago noticed the old man’s body was bent like a tree too long in the wind.

 “Where are you bringing these people?” Tiago asked, “Do they
speak?  Where do they come from?”

“Of course, they speak,” the skipper laughed then turned to the cabin.

“You are free to go if you wish!” he announced, but no face, no eye, turned.  The skipper looked back at the tender. 
“No takers.”

He laughed, “Now these rules, fine rules I’m sure...”

The tender shined his light back on the cabin window, then quickly back to the skipper.

“It’s like they have no souls,” Tiago mumbled, “…like they’re mannequins?  I’ve seen things in the war, but this, I…”

He couldn’t shake the feeling inside.

“Oh, they have souls,” the skipper smiled, “That’s easy to see, at least from here.”

Tiago stepped back.  He felt like the gears of the dawn had jammed.  Worse yet, he believed the skipper and couldn’t understand why.  His head was throbbing, but he straightened up his backbone and jaw.

“You’ll need to sign the log book,” he said with firmness, “That’s the least that can be done.  You’re walking a thin line.”  

The skipper gazed at the mortar wall the boat leaned and swayed against.

“Look at the mussels.  They must think they’re in Heaven.  I cannot write sir, not a word!”

Tiago threw his head back.

“No!” he fumed, “I’m sorry but no!  That won’t do.”

“I understand,” the skipper said humbly.

“It’s the least you could do.  I’ve already broken…”

“I’m sorry but I don’t know how or I would,” the skipper apologized.

Tiago reached, for reassurance, to his back pocket where he carried his copy of the State Waterways Regulations.

The skipper then dropped to his knees, wincing at the reality of hard wood on old bone.

“Please! Don’t do that,” Tiago warned.  He remembered he’d left Agnes on the desk.  The skipper put his bony hands together.

“At your mercy,” he cried out, then real tears came down his cheek leaving a trail that sparkled in Tiago’s light.

The tender couldn’t stop turning back to the faces behind the glass;  one face in particular, a boy’s face, a boy of no more then 10; a boy with long, wavy, unkempt hair that fell and disappeared beneath where the tender could see.

“Beautiful,” Tiago thought, “Like Atlas or Christ.”

He tried to shake the cobwebs loose.  The pain in his body worsened.  He struggled to break the boy’s gaze and finally jerked his head away.

“Go then!” Tiago, relented to the skipper, “I am an old man.  Just an old man who cares too much!  Go!  Get out of here!  Go now or I’ll turn you away!  I will for sure!”

The skipper didn’t move, just smiled.

“You will be here tomorrow, this time, on your shift?”

 “Yes,” Tiago, dejected, mumbled, surrendered, broke.

“I will come back through tomorrow when you are here.”


“You will let me by?”

“Yes,” Tiago surrendered again.

“The next day, if you are working, I will come back with more, but only if you are the one.”

Tiago raised his head, “How many more are there?” 

The skipper paused.

“A mystery.”

He laughed.

“I can’t stand mysteries!”

Then he turned and walked bow-leggedly to the captain’s seat and climbed up and sat behind the boat wheel.  He turned again to Tiago. 

“I will make sure, when I come back with more that I leave a space, enough space.”

The tender’s heart pounded.  The gears of the dawn started to turn again.  The gulls began stirring wherever it was that gulls stirred, and a bell sounded for early mass.  More tenement lights came on, more stars born.
Tiago looked at the shanty, then back to the Grand Banks.  

“But who will lift the bridge?” he mumbled to himself, “Who will keep good records?”

The skipper turned over the engines.  A low rumble filled the silence and rippled the water.  The boat hand untied the boat then ran and sat in a chair on the back deck and held on.   

The tender turned and slowly headed for the shanty.  Inside, he sat and caught his breath then pulled the lever that raised the bridge.  

When the bridge was properly lifted and locked, the skipper commandeered the Grand Banks under it and slowly, peacefully pulled away and started up river.  The tender watched through the dirty shanty window.   He looked around.  His father leaned against the book case that sagged with old call logs.  His father’s father and J were outside on the deck watching the dawn.  J had his cup in hand.

Tiago closed his eyes and let the ghosts go.  After he reopened his eyes, he opened a desk drawer and took out 2 slices of stale bread, then got up and walked out to the empty dock and approaching dawn.  He stood at the water’s edge, broke off pieces of the bread and tossed them onto the water until he had no more bread.  The gulls came quickly; one, then 2, then many, then too many.  The bread was gone in an instant and the gulls flew off.

The tender wiped his hands, went back into the shanty, sat down at his desk and began gathering his things.  




BIO: Joe Ducato's previous publishing credits include; Wild Violet Magazine, Sandy River Review, The Avalon Literary Review and The Bangalore Review among others.