The Obelisk Chapter 1 – Fish

The fishery was a miserable place, a cavernous building nestled on the Boston waterfront, in an industrial sprawl of concrete and steel. The place was blanketed with the thick smell of fish guts, tinged with the metallic odor of rust and the gritty scent of coal ash.

This was not where Joe Bramovich and Tomás Marcos thought they would end up when they left their hometown back in Maryland. Tomás and Joe were indentured servants, bound by law to labor for their proprietors until their contracts were completed, under threat of starvation, imprisonment, torture, and death.

Indenture was practiced differently around the nation, with state laws varying widely. One of the biggest differences in this regard was residency laws. In the old south and parts of the west, where land was cheaper, cash crops still ruled the economy. Contracts typically included lodging, so that the indentured in these states were subject to 24/7 control from their proprietors, who hired heavily armed guards and ‘militias’ to enforce their rules.

In the industrial cities of the northeast, where space was not cheap, most proprietor-industrialists wanted no part of the responsibility to house their servants. They were perfectly content to let dents in the cities spend their own wages to rent crowded tenements and build sprawling shantytowns, while the police took over discipline from private company men.

The big city industrialists, in turn, provided robust financial and political support to police departments, as institutionalized beatings and harassment in the slums became a public utility for the holders of property and people.

Tomás was born in Houston, Texas. At age 9, his father Juan was arrested and imprisoned for assaulting a police officer. The state presented scant evidence, with a testimony from the officer who beat Juan bloody as the prosecution’s centerpiece. By Texas state law, the jury lacked a single indentured person. Juan Marcos was convicted after a single day in court, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.

Tomás, his mother Marie, his younger brother Maurice, and his two little sisters, Lisa and Jacqueline moved across the country, to a small agricultural town called South Seneca, just beyond the outskirts of Washington, DC.

Joseph Bramovich was born in South Seneca, and he’d never been more than thirty miles from the town. Joe’s father was indentured to the Washington Post as a typesetter, a prestigious contract in which he took great pride, and for which he endured a long commute by mule-cart and crowded train. His mother was an indentured sharecropper. Joe and his sister Jean had to help with the harvest as well, once they were old enough to work.

In 1937, Joe and Tomás both turned 18, and their birth contracts were up. Together, they signed three-year contracts to join logging crews in Maine. But when the price of timber plummeted, their proprietor sold their contracts to McGeehan’s Fishmongers in Boston.

September 8th, 1940, had gone much like any other day. Tomás and Joe lived in a room with two other workers, in a three-bedroom apartment on Boston’s south side, near Fenway Park. The other bedrooms housed families of four and six. In addition to the human inhabitants, the apartment hosted an ecosystem of mice and roaches as well. Most indentured people couldn’t afford more than a spot in a cramped tenement like this.

Like every other day, the duo woke up at 5:30, ate oatmeal, drank black coffee, and huddled around the radio in the kitchen with their housemates, before they each went to work all day. And so it went, day in and day out, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

They clocked in at the wharf, went out on a trawler, and sighed with relief that it didn’t rain. They ate lunch out at sea; fish, typically, and kept fishing until they met their catch quota, before returning at around 3:00.

Then came the worst part of their day. After unloading the catch, they had to gut, fillet, and package each and every fish they’d caught. Some went into wax paper wrappers on ice for the markets, and the rest went into the canning machine.

The canning machine was a churning, sputtering metal monstrosity with a grinder on top like a great mouth with jagged iron teeth. Joe and Tomás had to gut each fish, chop the head off, skin it, de-bone it, then throw it into the machine, to be chewed up by the interlocking rotation of the grinder’s teeth. The machine plopped portions of pulverized salmon flesh into awaiting tin cans, like stinky pink excrement from some great beast. The cans were then sealed, and boxed for shipment by Joe and Tomás.

After a few hours packing fish, Joe and Tomás sat down on pair of crates by the water to smoke cigarettes and watch the sunset, looking over their shoulders every few minutes. If their proprietor, Mr. McGeehan, caught them taking a break, they could expect a steep fine or even a beating.

As they smoked and watched the big red sun slide below the horizon, they heard footsteps behind them. They turned around to see a young woman walking across the warehouse floor towards McGeehan’s small office on the far side.

Joe’s eyes lingered on her. Her colors stood out like bright brushstrokes in a drab oil painting. Her hair was wheat-blonde, like molten gold with a dash of dirt. Her green eyes shone like emeralds against her pale skin. She wore a blue dress with gold buttons and a high, frilly lace collar, of the Neo-victorian style which was common in New England. Her posture was stately, her head held high. To Joe, she seemed delicate, like porcelain, out of place here in the wharf.

“Joe.” Tomás whispered urgently. “Joe!”

“Ya?” Joe replied, turning back around to face his friend.

“I know what you’re thinking right now. You’re gonna give her your usual spiel.”  Tomás said with as accusatory finger. Joe shrugged slightly. He started to stand. “Dammit Joe!”

The two hated their situation at the fishmonger, so whenever they saw someone who looked like they might want to buy their contracts, Joe would try to talk them into doing so. It had earned him more than a few beatings from Mr. McGeehan. He made Tomás watch, every time, warning him that he would be next if he ever tried any shit like that.

“Excuse me ma’am, can we help you?” Joe asked the woman.

“Yes, I’m looking to buy some fish…is your proprietor around?” She answered.

“He’s in there.” Tomás said from behind Joe, pointing at the office’s red door with his thumb. He didn’t want to see Joe get beaten again.

“Thank you.” Said the stranger.

“But he’s entirely unpersonable.” Added Joe.

“Excuse me?” She asked.

“Christ, here we go again…” Mumbled Tomás.

“He’s a jerk, a schmuck, an asshole.” Said Joe. “He’s very unpleasant.”

The woman shot back an apprehensive look. “I see.” She said, pulling her leather purse closer to herself.

“I see you’re confused, so I’ll cut to the chase.” Said Joe. “You are clearly a woman of means. Surely a person of refinement and sophistication such as yourself seeks the same qualities in their servants.”

To the surprise of both Joe and Tomás, she was listening attentively. Joe chanced a quick glance back at his friend. Tomás looked at him with a mix of apprehension and bewilderment before giving him a shrug as if to say, go for it.

“You should buy us.” Joe stated bluntly. “We can read, we can write, we can do math, we’re fast learners, we’re hard workers, and we’ll do almost anything.” He said, looking back at Tomás, who nodded in affirmation. “Just for the love of God don’t make us handle any more fish.”

The woman smiled slightly. What luck, she thought to herself.

Just then, Mr. McGeehan, the proprietor, burst out of the office, slamming the door with a crash and sending a cluster of wooden crates clattering across the floor.

He was a short man, pudgy, balding, and sweaty, with a greasy, scruffy moustache like a piece of black tape across his upper lip.

“What?” He shouted, fanning his meaty hands through the air like a pair of ham hocks. “What the hell is this racket?” He demanded. “Joe, what the hell are you bothering this broad about? You better not be trying to sell yourself again! You ain’t worth shit! You ain’t worth a sack of beans! Don’t forget it!” McGeehan spat and shook as he yelled. Still firing from the mouth, he turned towards the woman. “And just who the hell are you? What do you want?”

“I want to buy these two.” Said the woman sharply, pulling her purse towards her chest, literally turning her nose up at McGeehan. “Point zero-five over contract. I also need 50 pounds of fresh salmon. Do you have that much in stock?”

“Of course, madame. Right this way to the paperwork.” Said McGeehan with a little bow and flourish. The smell of money always made McGeehan dance.

“I want wild caught, none of that farm stuff.” Said the stranger.

“Of course.” Replied McGeehan as they walked into the office.

“Hey bubs, pack up the salmon while we do the paperwork.” He added, sticking his head out the door.

Luckily, their last task for McGeehan was a relatively easy one. Joe and Tomás each moved two twenty-five pound boxes of fresh-caught salmon from the freezer to the door.

The woman exited the office, followed by McGeehan, who held $57 in cash, and a check for $5,500.

The cash was for the fish, and the check was for Joe and Tomás.

With a crooked grin, McGeehan waved goodbye at Joe and Tomás, peering hungrily down at the check as they left with their new proprietor.

Tomás and Joe carried the boxes of salmon to the strange woman’s car in silence. They were on the brink of new lives, hopefully better than their last ones. Life at the fishery set a low bar, so their odds looked good.

“Do either of you know how to drive?” Asked the woman.

During their month cutting logs in Maine, Joe did learn to drive huge two-ton trucks, loaded with logs, but he’d never driven a normal car.

“I love to drive.” Said Joe with a grin, gambling that he could figure out the new machine in a few minutes. He was also gambling with his informality, responding as he did, instead of “yes, m’am.” or something similar.

“Bollocks!” Said the stranger suddenly, striking her forehead lightly but sharply with an open palm. “I haven’t introduced myself.” She extended her hand. “I’m Claire McLeod.”

Tomás shook it. “I’m Tomás Marcos, but you can call me Tom, if you want.”

“And I’m Joe Bramovich.”

Joe was about 5’7”, lean, wiry, with a short, bristly beard, and thick, wild brown hair. Tomás stood an even six feet, with curly black hair shooting from his head in a short afro. He was powerfully built, with a broad chest and thick limbs.

“Well, Joe and Tomás, it’s nice to meet you both.” Said Claire with a smile.

She looked at Joe. “You drive.” She commanded.

Tomás sat beside Joe up front, while Claire sat in the back, looking out the window for most of the drive. The long blue car rumbled along the misted asphalt, cutting through an evening fog which lurked in after sunset. Big band swing blared over the radio from KBOS 88.7 FM.

As they drove, a slight drizzle grew into a full and steady rain. Joe turned the windshield wipers on. Claire kept watching the water droplets roll down the window. She watched in silence as the brick and concrete of downtown Boston gave way to rows of painted clapboard houses and, eventually, rolling hills thickly forested with old, towering trees.

Joe and Tomás didn’t say much to each other either, they wanted to talk without being listened to by their new owner.

“I wonder what they look like in the sunlight.” Said Joe.

“What?” Said Tomás, half-asleep. The car’s seats were thick, comfortable, made of slick tan leather. Good for sleeping, which Tomás did, sinking into a restless slumber as Joe drove the car onward on the gently curving forest road.

“The trees.” Said Joe. “I wonder what they look like in the sun, the fall wind in their leaves. Like the ones in Maine…”

Joe’s musings roused Tomás from his nap. He shot up and looked around, noticing their rural surroundings. “I’ll wait until morning.” Said Tomás. “Can the poetics until then.” He added sarcastically, with a good-natured grin.

Tomás turned around in his seat and glanced at Claire, who sat resting her elbow on the windowsill, her chin perched in her hand, moonlight shining softly on her face through the window.

Tomás leaned towards Joe. “Listen.” He whispered. “We might be out of the frying pan and into the fire. Don’t let your guard down.”

Tomás looked his old friend in the eye. Joe met his gaze and nodded, and they kept quiet for the rest of the drive, waiting. Waiting for privacy, to talk freely, and waiting to learn exactly what they’d be talking about.

“Take the next left.” Claire said from the back. She sounded irritated. They worried she’d heard them whispering, but she had other things troubling her mind.

Lightning crackled in the distance as they turned onto a gravel road, which ran between the pillar-like ends of a stone wall, through a patch of forest, and up a hill. At the top of the hill stood a three-story mansion. It was built of brick, in 1896, in the Victorian-neoclassical style which was common at the time. Ivy crawled up the walls, past tall glass windows in wrought iron frames, tickling the edges of the slate roof. Joe drove about fifty feet past the house to a low-slung garage, its clapboard walls covered with chipped green paint.

The garage door was open. A single bulb hung from the ceiling, flickering and spilling light out to dissolve in the night’s deep darkness. A lone figure stood to greet them, casting a long shadow.

He was an older-looking man, with balding, neatly-trimmed grey hair and dark brown skin. He wore black dress pants, black shoes, a white dress shirt, a black vest, and a dark blue tie with small white spots. The man stood ramrod-straight, hands clasped behind his back. He stepped aside as the car pulled in and opened the door for Claire. She exited the car, as did Tomás and Joe.

“Good evening, Claire.” Said the man.

“Hello Charles, it’s good to see you.” She replied, before turning towards Joe and Tomás. “Joe, Tomás, I’d like you both to meet Charles, he’s the head of household here.”

“In plain english, I’m the butler. How do you do?” Charles said with a smile, giving them each a firm handshake.

“I bought them..” Claire began, before hurriedly and awkwardly stopping herself. “Err…sorry, I bought their contracts today from McGeehan’s Fishmongers. For the thing, tomorrow night.” She said, fishing around in her purse for their contracts. She found them and handed them to Charles. “Give these to father.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Show the newcomers to their quarters, and get them some proper clothes.” Claire said to Charles. She turned to Joe and Tomás. “Welcome to the McLeod house.” She said with a forced smile, before turning and walking off towards the house.

“Well, gentlemen…welcome to your new lives.” Said Charles. “Now get the fish.”