Editor’s Note: Commander Jaime Johnson is a fictional character in Claude Berube’s Connor Stark series (Naval Institute Press). SYREN’S SONG will be published in November. This is the fourth short story at War on the Rocks in which various characters from the books find themselves in real bars before, during, or after an event in SYREN’S SONG. Check out the first three stories here, here and here.
Disinterested by the muted NESN sports anchor discussing the latest Red Sox loss on the widescreen televisions above and behind her, Jaime Johnson’s eyes focused on the various markings on the bar that went back at least fifteen years. One person had engraved simply “Amelia” with the symbol of a heart in front of it. Another had boldly written the name of their fishing boat — the “F/V Vengeance.” Between them was the calligraphy of a neophyte and the simple initials “JJ+DL.” The ink had faded over time since Jaime first wrote it as a young woman, much like the romance that followed that union. She pulled out her pen and began scratching a “U” in the wood closer to her.
The main room of the bar was lit by strings of Christmas tree lights that remained hung year-round. Reminiscent of a bar Johnson once visited in Pensacola during Officer Candidate School, which had thousands of dollar bills tacked to the ceiling and walls, the Black Harpoon’s ceiling was covered by multi-colored lobster buoys representing every family’s boat on southern St. George Peninsula. Several of the buoys sported the signatures of their most recent captains. Above the kitchen door, stuck between the suspended ceiling panels, were the black and white striped socks and ruby slippers of the Wicked Witch of the East. Behind the nine bar stools — all of which bore names etched on their seats like those on the bar — were four tables. In a smaller backroom, where a few lobsterman were talking about the local co-op, were four more tables dotted with an assortment of chairs purchased at numerous consignment stores.
“Another one, Jaime?” the blonde bartender and former high school classmate asked. Jaime leaned over to check the options on draft — Shipyard Ale, Sam Adams Summer Ale, Harpoon, and two others. She settled on another Shipyard Ale.
One of the lobsterman at the far end of the bar teased the bartender about not being born in Port Clyde, instead being born across the St. George River. “Took us a long time to accept you since you were from away.”
A lot of people in Maine were “from away.” Would Johnson be considered the same after her next assignment? Would her memory fade from this place like the black and white eight-by-ten student photos from the ‘50s and ‘60s that lined the upper wall above the racks of liquor?
Two artists who seemed to make up nearly half the Port Clyde community in the summer were chatting at one of the remaining four tables in the main barroom. Jaime heard one tapping her foot along with the subdued bluegrass playing on the stereo. One of them asked for another Vodka Gimlet from the bartender.
The door to the outside creaked open as Jaime kept her head down, continuing her now more advanced calligraphy skills with a capital “L.” To her left, in her peripheral vision, she saw a heavy man twice her age in a forest green t-shirt and blue jeans reach up and tap the nude mermaid ship’s figurehead above the kitchen door. It was a gesture of gratitude for his good luck in returning from another day on the water. He called off the vodkas on the shelf.
“Gray Goose? No. Stoli? No. SKYY? No. Ketel One? Hell no. You know what I need, Callie,” he said to the bartender as he took a seat next to Jaime. The bartender finished making the artist’s Gimlet then turned around toward the liquor rack below the ship’s bell that usually used to signal last call. She pushed aside the Crown Royal and Glenlivet and removed the Jameson snuggled between them. She poured a double and set it before him with a smile.
He took a sip and set a small paper bag to Jaime’s left so as not to interrupt the calligraphy.
“A little something for when you get underway,” he said.
“Goat’s cheese?” she guessed.
“Your favorite. From Bittersweet Heritage Farm. This batch is from Sea Sea and Piper. They’re coming along well.”
She penned a lowercase “n.”
“Did I ever tell you about that night?” he asked looking at the bell.
“A few times,” she said, smiling. But she wouldn’t deny him the chance to tell it again.
He recounted it quietly, as if it was only a secret they shared, about the night of the storm when he was out lobstering and nearly didn’t make it back. When he pulled into harbor late that night (after another boat came out to help guide him in), he came to the Black Harpoon and patted the mermaid, his boat’s namesake. It was last call and he was about to order a drink when his brother came in to tell him his wife had just given birth to a baby girl. The bell for last call was rung and his eyes immediately caught the name of the closest bottle.
“And that’s why,” she completed his thought, “you named me Jameson. Mom never forgave you for that.” She wrote a “D” and another behind it.
“How can you tell?” she asked.
“Because you’ve always quietly done calligraphy to get your mind off things. You don’t need to be worried about this, Jaime. You’ve commanded a ship before.”
“That was different, Dad. It wasn’t a warship. And we lost people.”
“And now you will have one of the newest ships in the fleet. I told you there are three people you need to listen to, remember?”
“Yeah. You, my bartender, and my Chief.”
“None of those will ever steer you wrong. You’re going to be fine. Right, Callie?” The bartender confidently nodded her head.
“That’s two out of three so far.”
Jaime grabbed her glass of Shipyard Ale and tapped her father’s glass in a final toast before her change of command ceremony fourteen hours away. Before leaving, she put the finishing touches on her latest addition to the bar: “USS Lefon DDG 125.”
Claude Berube has worked for two U.S. senators and for the Office of Naval Intelligence, and deployed with Expeditionary Strike Group Five in 2004-2005. He teaches at the United States Naval Academy. Follow him on twitter: @cgberube.
Photo credit: Kristin “Shoe” Shoemaker