Net Man

Net Man originally appeared in the spring of 2020 in poem form, in Crosswinds Poetry Journal in Rhode Island. The piece also called out to me to be written in a form that is part Personal Essay and part Prose Poem, which is what appears here.

“The point is that he had – as we all do in given measures – an unknowable wildness.”

My grandpa was a net man. Never mind how well I knew him, never mind how much I loved him, the point is that he used rope, wove nets with his hands, hands I loved so much I never knew how to say it.

My grandpa was a net man, he was a talker and he was a storyteller. His life was woven with stories as much as it was with rope and he told those stories in a rich gravy voice. He talked about picking rows of cotton as a farm boy in Georgia during the Great Depression.

I think everyone should have to pick a row of cotton sometime in their life, just to know what it feels like.”

He talked about going down to the Palace Saloon as a boy and easing his mother off of a bar stool, slinging her over his shoulder and carrying her home, talked about being given a choice when he was just a little kid – a choice that would shape the rest of his life: “You wanna go to school, or you wanna go fishin’?”

He talked about World War 2. I listened closely when he talked about the bomb that came down the ship’s smokestack, how he was sent down into the belly of the ship with a burlap sack. I shouldn’t have listened so well, my grandpa was a net man.

He talked about his shrimp boat and the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950’s, when he was known as Captain Buddy. Talked about Veracruz Havana Brownsville Key West South America, having his ear pierced by a prostitute in Campeche, discovering abandoned boats with blood-spattered decks out on the Gulf, my grandpa was a net man. Sometimes the nets were full of shrimp, he said, sometimes the nets were full of shrimp bound up with seaweed and trash, sometimes the nets contained nothing but pieces of junk, he said, sometimes the nets didn’t have a damn thing in ’em.

My grandpa was a net man, never mind his T-bone steaks.  Never mind his nine machetes and his earring and how the gators slithered up into his yard from the Withalacoochee River, the canoe my dad and I would paddle upriver to a crystal spring hidden away among cypress trees, their roots dipping into the water’s edge like fingers on an old witch’s hand.

Never mind how the short fuse of his youth alchemized into the easy way he had about him later in life, never mind that his childhood nickname was Junebug, that his wife made the best red velvet cake you’d ever set a fork upon, that when I was twelve years old he talked me into eating a Scotch bonnet off his pepper bush and then laughed and laughed.

The point is that he had – as we all do in given measures – an unknowable wildness. The point is that for 92 years he touched people’s lives without ever once trying to, the point is that now he really has crossed the Gulf, the point is that in the still of the night he left the world and by left I mean he’s gone and by world I mean all of this, I mean the crescendo of his life swept back down in a broad arc and mass overtook energy.

But before the crosswinds took him, he was a net man.  I knew it to be true, because he was often out in his workshop making nets.  I knew it to be true, because I had lingered on every page of his old photo albums, and it said so right there on the license plate of his old jeep: NET MAN.

He had been a shrimper himself and worked with the nets for years. So when he opened a net shop in 1960, down in Key West, he knew what to do. The shape and size and type of net he made depended on where the shrimper would be trawling, what kind of boat they drove. He worked the rope not only with his hands but with an understanding of what was needed, the intimate knowledge that comes with time spent close to the heart of the work itself.

The nets were dragged along the ocean floor by trawlers, but before that they drifted down, down through the briny seawater. And before that, they had to be made – fashioned – from the rope that passed through the fingers of my grandfather’s hands. Hands I loved so much, I never knew how to say it.

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