Cap'n Robbie Robinson owns the 42-foot charter boat docked near the broken, sea-scoured pier across from the Tiki Bar and Ray Casey's Vittles and Grog Restaurant.
Sometimes after a day run on the Chesapeake he'll stop for a burger at Casey's or for a beer at the Tiki, and to exchange chatter with the old salts who call him over to find out what he caught. The Tiki, an open bar connected to the Island Manor Hotel, has hanging plants everywhere, and the sculpted wooden heads of Polynesian warriors you buy at peach stands off the Florida freeway.
Robinson mostly keeps to himself, though, and watches the crowd get bigger and bigger as the day turns into night. He'll sit alone, smoking King Edward Imperials or the pipe he keeps in a peanut tin, and wonder about people--who they are, where they come from.
It's funny, but out on the water with a party at night, he can look at the horizon, see the beads of lights strung like a fancy pearl necklace all around him, and imagine the people who live where those lights are. He likes to believe they are all good people, decent folks, trying to live right and true, trying their best to get by.
The other night, bottom fishing at 30 feet off Hooper's Island with a party of machinists and sheet metal men, Robinson caught the outing's only trout, at midnight. "That'll teach you to mess with the master," he told the fish. Four years ago, with a banker and his family, he caught more than 164 trout. It was his biggest night in 22 years as a captain. He took pictures with an Instamatic and keeps them in his hip pocket. He'll show them off to disbelievers, but only on request.
Robinson always calls his charter parties if he knows other captains on the bay are not having any luck. He says, "A man pays me $175 for six hours of fishing. If he's willing to pay that kind of money I want to be honest with him. If the fish ain't running, it's his option whether we are or not."
Robinson never finished high school, never married, never felt the urge to pack his suitcase and take a train to the city. He's not a city person and doesn't pretend to be. He wouldn't tell you he feels bad about never earning his high school diploma because he doesn't. Only two of the 17 in his class graduated and he had to work, besides.
He worked hard as a boy because his father was sick with shingles and couldn't walk down the hall to the bathroom, much less make a living. Robinson was just new to razor blades when he looked his father in the eyes and said, "You been good to me, Papa. Now let me be good to you."
Doctors say the old man now has rheumatory arthritis. He can't walk but, occasionally, Robinson will carry him to the boat, seat him comfortably and take him down the Patuxent River to watch the sun come up.
On those days, his mother makes oyster or chicken pot pie fresh on the wood stove, or maybe just simple potted meat sandwiches and iced tea. The father and his son sit on the bay with the waves lapping against the rig, and Papa talks about when he was an oysterman, working the tongs for a living. Or they say nothing for hours and still understand each other. That's how it is with someone you love, Robinson believes. Saying nothing is sometimes saying more than saying something.
A couple years ago, Robinson ordered eight dozen T-shirts to give to the city folks who chartered his boat. He was very proud of those shirts, had them done in bright orange and green so you could see them from far away. He had his name, Capt. Robbie, screened on the front where the pocket would be, and the name of his hometown, Solomons, Md., on the back.
Although his shirt is now faded and the lettering difficult to make out, he wears it whenever he takes a party out. He wears his favorite belt, too, the one with the silver buckle that's worn smooth he's put it on so many times and the word, Robbie, in fancy cowboy script across the back.
His real name, however, isn't Robbie, but John Edgar. And his boat's named Regina II, after his first rig, Regina I, which was named after his mother. Everything runs in cycles. The tides, the seasons. Boys he grew up with had sons who grew up to look just like their fathers. Day follows night, and he's fishing, regardless, casting his line out, reeling it in.
He thinks he's 41; he doesn't know. He could be 42. Robinson remembers when only five, six cars passed down the street between his boat and Casey's on any given day of the week except Sunday, when only one or two passed. Now, there's no counting, there's so many.
On the bay, he remembers the night he drove the town ambulance to a wreck on the highway and held a stranger in his arms and felt him die, felt the life leave his body like warmth stealing from a hot water bottle. And he remembers working as chief for the volunteer fire department, burning his hands trying to save the nighthawks at the lounges across the bridge that seemed, back then, to fall to flame every time you turned around.
That was in the '60s, when people believed life gave you something without telling you why, took it away without reason, and left you wondering how come. Maybe it's still that way. He can't help but wonder about serious things sometimes when he's out on the water, out calling a big blue to his line or counting shooting stars.
Late at night, he likes tuning into a country and western station and singing way down deep with Hank, Willie, Waylon and all the other good old boys who sing of pain and loss and rising up with thunder. He likes the idea of resurrection. And he likes good hot coffee, strong as a spring mule, and how it tastes of work, of fishing. One thing Robinson learned by living the best he could was that the sun going down is as pretty as the sun coming up.
"I'm happy to be where I got," he says. "I seen a lot of things. I done a lot. A man makes decisions and gives things up to be what he dreams of being. I dreamed of fishing and being a captain. My life's been good. I am what I wanted."