Online Exclusive

The Fisherman Bombardier of Naval Station Norfolk: A Performance in Four Generations, Three Races, and Too Many Genders to Name
A Selected Text from Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity
For Jean Genet, Aimé Césaire, and Rose LaRose
In this mariner’s damp the lichen sprouts, or rather creeps, in the manner molds and kisses do, prurient. Slightly closer then farther toward and away from their undisclosed destination. Investigating, guarded, but unwilling to cease from exploration.

Sun, perhaps, is for the suicidal ones. And the rotten logs are for the whore molds—whore spores of all kinds, honorable and excoriable, seductive and repulsive, venal and venereal and Venetian, Vesuvian, Venusian, exquisitely fantastic whores—some with scales, some with soft, striped skin, slick.

After all, for centuries the navy ran a red-light ghetto here called the Pussy Stockade, inhabited by many of my ancestors, who were rich until they died, highly venereal. And I owe them something, a stalking, a haunting, along the decaying quay at sunset. I have come here to investigate, in my way, the lichen that I feel slips from my viscera in the darkness. Quays and whores and sailors make fine company as ghosts. All dripping wet, all specters of the slimy sea.

And it was in that way, driven by curiosity, I went walking on the quay at sunset, where good things never happen, depending upon the interpretation of goodness as asset or as liability. I am wearing a preposterous reproduction of a nineteenth-century courtesan corset and a hoop skirt.

There is a why for this, and I shall elaborate.

The sense of the perpendicular rib cage comforts me. When I am walking on the quay at sunset I know that my ribs are encased by other ribs, prone, recumbent, the secretive grave ribs of the Norfolk whores in my family. Supine, and as disquisitive about me, I suspect, as I am about them. But to a questioning bystander I would of course reply that the baroque aristocractic decadence of my corsetry is instead a matter of practicality—they are utilitarian even, because I have slipped on the slimy stairs and fractured my spine, and without the corsets I am instructed to lie on my back— otherwise the ripped tendons and ligaments and tiny slivers of bone would return to the celestial brew of heavy elements and fetid slime, hidden tastefully beneath bruised skin.

Why have bruises become so fascinating in this context? Their near spectral appearance—the surprise one doesn’t expect after impact, yet knew all along was coming. The fifth horsewoman, an Amazon, is the bruise; only one breast, and sharp points in her quiver. Violet, chartreuse, dead blood are the colors of licentiousness and mildew. Erotic in its refusal to comply, yet its malleability. There is the curiosity of what will emerge from a wound that initially leaves no trace. There is the knowledge that a future examination is forthcoming. The flesh remains full and soft, and its darkly nacreous sneer reminds one that as sweet and wounded as it may seem, it will remain until it decides itself to depart. Typically in a follicular haze of mustard, a chlorine gas held tight beneath the skin.

And this corset is violet and rose madder shot silk, as they used to say here during the various wartime embargoes, when privateers smuggled the prized silk from Paris on pain of being shot. And it is totally inappropriate attire for the quay at sunset in a naval town on the day the NATO aircraft carrier comes home from the Barents Sea. This century, at least, I feel the obligation to haunt—after all, the Russians have returned. We are repeating history, and I feel obligated to ritualize the repetition.

Why walk Genet’s quay looking for a love fight if I can’t do so tied into vertical strips of steel? I am an iron-clad battleship armed with tits. The steel bands run perpendicular to my fractured ribs, but no one need know that except for my dog, the Brussels griffon bred to belong in a courtesan’s carriage in the Bois de Boulogne like any other undersized Belgian ratcatcher who looks cute in his wee goatee until one feels his fangs.

And combat boots nearly to my thighs, too large by far, and inappropriate because I know of no other way to behave except inappropriately when I intend humanity only good. When I intend humanity only good, I haunt it with the most humane of traps. I am mistaken for a ghost. They fall into the netherworlds of time, they flail, I watch and like any wayward Gretel they are rewarded before being kindly savored with a spoiled Madeira and returned to the twenty-first century, only slightly damaged.

There is no other worthy digestif for such occasions.



Along the quay I encounter a fisherman. He attracts my scrutiny due to his posture—one that was at first trained to cringe and then to stand upright, at attention, with pride. A spine rehabilitated, perhaps, from a position of feeling fear to one of causing fear. He comes to the quay in his own war that is not his war. Fighter jets and Seahawk helicopters constantly overhead and he says before he turned the fifty years he is today he was a bombardier but it’s not true. He’s in his eighties or nineties but with an enticing force of will.

He comes to this quadrant of the quay for several reasons, but at least for this much: these are the houses of the naval officers’ wives of the surrendered Confederacy, grand and glorious yet their ghostly snubs will not protect them from rising seas or from the fisherman bombardier: despite their signs that say no fishing near the estates, there is no method by which a black man who is also a fisherman who is also eighty who is also a bombardier airman could be stopped from exploring the possibilities for instilling discomfort. This draws me to him, our common goal of pushing at the soft places to see how deep the finger goes.

I don’t need to ask. I see the blondes run past and avert their eyes yet mine are drawn to his and his to mine. We are seeking the spine within the slime we both know that we contain. He doesn’t need to ask. I’m the only one who speaks to him at dawn and twilight. He and I are the ones from whom haughty matrons step aside. And he and I know that it has always been so, and we can push them into stumbling should we so desire. I suspect this of him, as he does of me, and we watch them with a dominance that they feel we have not earned, and yet he knows, and I know, that we have. We are here to figure out the compulsion of it, on all sides. But this investigation is clandestine—he is cloaked as a fisherman, and I am daggered.

Perhaps this—and other factors—push us together.



He comes here because he likes to catch gaspers. I ask him, Why are they called gaspers and he says, Watch, and gives me the half-smoked Newport cigarette that was between his lips, rips the head from a rotten prawn, and casts his line into the harbor until a pale, bloodless, glistening thing, a fish that is the child of moons, emerges on his hook.

The fisherman bombardier, deft with his fingers—how could he be otherwise—unhinges its jaw with a faint but potent crack and the fish gasps.

As though it has been fondled in the night by German mustard gas.

Listen, says the fisherman bombardier, a gasper. The thing snaps its spine against his bucket until it’s dead. I design a corset for the gasper. One with more flexible metal stays.


He comes here because the men-of-war chase the fish into his hooks. The gossamer haints and ghouls of the Atlantic, jellyfish who trail veils behind them, seem still beloved by Tennessee Williams, once a regular at the brothels here, languorous and white and startling, floating lazily in the sea. When they wrap the gasper in their electrical embrace it is shocked with the sear of pain and flips itself into the air, which it cannot breathe for gasping

When it falls, exhausted, it is into the fetid, baited hooks of the fisherman bombardier.


The storm moves in and visibility is low and my anachronistic yet more appropriate than any other option shot-silk corset is getting wet, as it should, because I’m here to see what happens to a wormhole woman on a naval quay at night. Overhead the jets move fast and low as he talks to me. I can’t hear a word he says, just his lips moving: lips that at eighty years old are anything but innocent. Anything except ignorant. Not here. Not now. And while I watch his lips move and no sound makes its way to me because the fighter jets, the fighter jets, the fighter jets, the fighter jets, the fighter jets, the fighter jets, the fighter jets. A Seahawk. The fighter jets. The fighter jets.

They are returning from the aircraft carrier that is returning from classified exercises in an enigmatic Baltic deployment that is returning from the Barents Sea that is returning from the ghoulish grimaces of the gulag skeletons of my Russian ancestors who should by rights and honor have eaten each other alive in the camps rather than reproduced.

So often it is the same thing.

And the fisherman’s lips are still moving but there are so many fighter jets I can relax a while, nodding and watching the electrocutions, because I see the ghost of my Great-Grandfather Lafayette, named after the great general. My Lafayette used to walk this quay with his half brother, of darker skin, who because of that had no name in the white half of the family Bible, and who because of that had no name in the black half of the family Bible, but together they looked for tricks to turn for sailormen along the Norfolk quay, where I am now, except my ancestors put out and I don’t, and they were dying of syphilis and I won’t.


And the fighter planes have passed and now the old fisherman bombardier is snapping open cracking open the jaw of a perfectly acceptable cock-sized gasper and he says, Quintan is a man’s name.

Yes, I say. He gives me a seasoned side-eye and squeezes the fish in a way that is ancient and expert. He is eighty or maybe more. He knows how it is done. My name is Lesley, he says. Hello, Lesley, I say, and give him the pause for effect he’s been hoping for but refuse him the satisfaction he seeks. I want to watch what I know will happen next. It’s a girl’s name, he says. And I reply, Yes it is. He pauses. Do you have a husband, Quintan? he asks. I have three; technically, four, but they’re nobody who matters, I say. With any luck they’re dead and without luck at least I’m divorced.

Ah, he says, so it’s just you and the dog on your own.

Yes, I say.

Oh good, he says, and throws the gasper back into the sea for the jellyfish to consume. It was too small for him.

He asks if I go to church. I love the Lord, he says.

No, I say, I don’t go to church. I love the Lord but mine is older than yours. I see a glitter of anger split his eyes of brine then flash away. I relent. I was unkind, and he was hoping we could bond over something closer to the surface—here we realize there are too many possibilities as to what—than our secrets slinking away from inquisition in the brine.

I go to shul, I say, and he eyeballs my attire and says, Really now. The woman with the man’s name and no decent clothes on is a good Jew, he says, Jews, he says, shaking his head in contempt and in the metal bucket the gaspers echo and echo their doomed inhalations.

I have a woman’s name, he says. I could come over to your house and cook you a gasper if you can get a pair of lemons.

Maybe so,
I say, but definitely not. Definitely not.

It’s at this point that my great-grandfather and my half great-uncle turn around and grin at me, dark skinned in the shadows, from mouths without flesh. Sailors and sex have never been conventionally heterosexual. They urge me to bend the rules a bit, like they have, hybrids, black and white, male and female, Jewish and Christian, in discomforting ways that had no taxonomical name.

But I am on the quay for different reasons. I tell my ancestors this man wouldn’t give me money because I’m a Jew and he hates us. They shrug their shoulder bones—it’s all they have left to shrug.

Eh, they say, love, hate, just move along, we all wake up for a reason until we don’t.

The crepe myrtle blossoms, an absurd pink, fall into my hair. Genet and his flowers, the syphilitic sores that would have been incubating on the palms of my ancestors, and I’m listening to warplanes again, wanting the bombs to drop. The fisherman bombardier was likely gifted at his art, and well trained. Were black soldiers allowed to drop bombs on white Europeans? It seems unlikely when the matrons’ distaste is fully assessed, and yet many did. Droppers of bombs in a war that was deemed more righteous than the one that needed to be dealt with back in the South. Eh, say my ancestors, holding hands of curiously different hues, love, hate, just move along.

Regardless, even at eighty his salty wet hands don’t shake as he slaps a new gasper against his thigh.

Walk on, dog, I say. And the rain falls more angrily than ever and I don’t blame it at all. I would if I could. The embrace of the electric jumps and arcs just beneath the surface of the corset stays.

Hailed as “universal and personal, comforting and jarring, ethereal and earthy” by Hyperallergic and “heady, euphoric, singular, surprising” by Publisher’s Weekly, Quintan Ana Wikswo (@QuintanWikswo) is the author of the collection The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (Coffee House Press) and the novel A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press). A Creative Capital grantee in Emerging Fields, her work has been honored by a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship at the Lynchburg African American Cemetery and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Endowed Fellowship at Yaddo. She is the 2018 Mina Darden Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University.