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Open Features: Sherillanne

…The bar where she worked was mainly patronized by crews from the lobster and clam boats, and sport fishermen who were well practiced in the art of luring their prey. Sooner or later one of them would wear her down like they played the fish; giving her scope then reeling her in, until she succumbed, ready to believe that this time it was “true love.”…

Will Sherillanne ever find the right guy?

John Merchant tells a real-life tale.

She was young, beautiful – and fated. Probably around twenty or so, she had the slim figure that suggested too few regular meals and inadequate nutrition. Her skin was pale and transparent. She had a ready, perhaps too ready smile, and knowing eyes that were set wide apart and twinkled, though not with humor. Sherillanne worked the bar with practiced ease, and deftly parried the clumsy advances of its oafish regulars.

But street-wise as she appeared to be, it was a stone cold certainty that one day she was going to fall for some guy’s line of patter, and finish up in yet another abusive relationship. The bar where she worked was mainly patronized by crews from the lobster and clam boats, and sport fishermen who were well practiced in the art of luring their prey. Sooner or later one of them would wear her down like they played the fish; giving her scope then reeling her in, until she succumbed, ready to believe that this time it was “true love.”

Her mother, and the man who fathered her, split up soon after she was born. From what Fred said, her mother went out for cigarettes one day and just never came back. She had no idea whether her mother was alive or dead. They moved around quite a bit when Fred roused himself enough to look for work. At other times she’d be in and out of foster homes, “In need of care and protection,” as the social workers put it. Ironically, many times she was in greater danger in the foster homes.

Eventually she came to believe that the advances of her surrogate fathers were an inescapable part of foster care, and when her abusers were kind and gentle, and told her how pretty and exciting she was, even got to like it on occasion. She learned how to trade her young body for favors – candy and clothes, CD’s and pocket money, and the occasional joint. When Fred had work and somewhere to live she’d move back to him. He’d have live-in girl friends from time to time, but they’d take off after they discovered he was neither able nor willing to cater to their dreams.

After a while he concluded that there was no need to spend his energy, time and money searching for female companionship when he had this available sixteen year old under his roof. Sherillanne wasn’t shocked or surprised by his advances – she’d never thought of him as a father anyway, and he was a lot younger and gentler than most of the foster fathers she’d had to deal with.

As soon as she was able she got a job. Having an income, however meager, gave her the illusion of independence, as long as she could keep her savings out of Fred’s clutches. Most of the jobs she could get with her lack of schooling were non-skilled, dead-end stints – fast food server, supermarket shelf stocker, and the like. She was a quick study and often did well, but would soon become restless and want to move on to what she hoped would be a better situation.

She accepted her limitations, but then one day her friend Trisha said there was a spot for a bar tender where she worked, and offered to show her the ropes. The wages weren’t terrific, but the tips made up for that at Cap’n Bill’s Seafood Shack and Bar. Cap’n Bill’s was the only bar in the small, Maine fishing village, and the regulars who worked the clam and lobster boats couldn’t wait to spend their hard earned dollars after a good week.

Sherillanne quickly became good at her job – she remembered all of the regular’s drink preferences, and was never short at cash-up time. Her upbringing had taught her well how to handle the clumsy advances of the drunks without offending them, and if, on occasion, one of them got out of hand, she had plenty of defenders, including Skip Bowman, Captain of the M.V. Gresham, one of the clam boats. Skip made a real play for her in his unpolished fashion, and she was attracted to his lean, dark looks and confident ways. As ship’s Master, his cut of the weekly clam haul was substantial in a good season, and he planned to own his own boat before too long.

It mattered little to Sherillanne that he was older than she, or that the scuttlebutt in the bar said he had a wife somewhere. What interested her more was that he had income, and prospects, and gave her money for clothes and jewelry. Trisha warned her that Skip had a reputation for violence, but so far she’d seen no evidence of it, so she put her friend’s misgivings down to jealousy. Not long after their first date she moved into his apartment.

The violence started in small ways. They’d be joking around after a few drinks, playfully slapping each other and wrestling, but then Skip would get carried away and hit her hard. In the early days he would immediately be contrite, and his attempts to comfort her would usually lead to sex, and afterwards she always forgave him.

When he was sober, Skip could be loving in his way, and generous. He let her drive his car, and took her on trips to Portland, when the Gresham was laid up for repairs. But over time his bouts of violence became more frequent and more dangerous, leaving her bruised and hurting. She was scared of his moods, and even more of what he might do if she left him. But in a strange way he gave her a perverted sense of security.

Then one day the bar hired a young college guy for the summer to wash glasses and clear tables. It wasn’t long before Rick fell for Sherillanne in a big way. He thought he was keeping his feelings to himself, but even some of the thick-skinned regulars noticed the way he was always looking at her when he thought she wouldn’t see him.

She liked Rick. He was different to any of the men she’d known. He was sensitive, well mannered and intelligent, and planned to be a marine biologist. But she was terrified that Skip might get the wrong idea from all the teasing the regulars subjected Rick to, no matter how much she pleaded with them to stop.

Despite the fears they shared, the attraction they felt for each other grew to an intensity that in the end they couldn’t resist. The first time the Gresham was going to be gone for three or four days they had their first date. Rick borrowed his father’s car and took her out of the village to a restaurant several miles away. At first she found it hard to deal with his kind and considerate ways, and responded as she would have to some of the bar romeos. But she soon saw that he was sincere, and was hurt by her cynicism.

The following afternoon they made love in Skip’s apartment, and Sherillanne felt real love for the first time in her life. It was an overpowering experience, and sent her emotions into such turmoil that her whole body shook with the intensity of it. Rick was alarmed, knowing nothing of her life up to that time. Afterwards, as they lay side by side, she told him just enough about herself that he might understand the way she had reacted.

That evening, as she tended bar, the sly remarks and crude innuendo of the regulars told her what she had dreaded. Her secret was common knowledge. She realized that she had been naïve to think it could be otherwise in a small village like this, where people knew everything about each other’s lives. Her fear of what might ensue when Skip returned was like a cold, leaden weight in her belly.

It was just a couple of days after the Gresham docked at its home port when Sherillanne turned up for work with a cast on her arm, limping, and with a black eye. She told Trisha she had fallen after too many drinks in celebration of Skip’s return, but Trisha, and everyone else, knew otherwise.

A week later, Rick was found, bloody and unconscious in one of the dockside warehouses. That night in the bar, Skip announced out of the blue that he had signed off his contract with the Gresham’s owner and was moving to Louisiana to skipper a shrimp boat. He’d be taking Sherillanne along.

Trisha knew in her heart that things weren’t as they seemed. She tried to talk to Sherillanne, but couldn’t get through the mantle of hurt and fear that enveloped her. She was like a frightened rabbit – paralyzed by the events that had overtaken her. The afternoon before Sherillanne’s departure for Louisiana, they had a final get together, and Sherillanne, to Trisha’s dismay, handed her a sealed envelope with instructions to take it to the police if she hadn’t heard from her in twenty-four hours.

That night, after working the late shift in the Bar, Trisha set out to walk home in the pale, pre-dawn light. As she approached Skip’s apartment she was surprised to see him loading bags into his car. Running forward in the hope of saying one last goodbye to Sherillanne, she was stunned to see him get in the car and drive off alone.

She rushed up the stairs to the apartment to find the door half open. The interior was empty, devoid of any sign that it had been occupied just a few hours before; no clothes in the closets, no pots and pans, none of Sherillanne’s plants or knick-knacks, not even a window curtain remained. The refrigerator door was open, the light on, but nothing inside.

Twenty-four hours later, Trisha handed Sherillanne’s letter to the police.

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