THE BOATSWAIN OF TARSHISH
Harold Snow figured he'd seen more dead people than anyone alive, something like 102,000 by his best estimate. Lately his eyeballs played old film, like movie screens showing heinous scenes, the dead queued up before him to shake his shoulders and yell, "Wake up!" But Snow couldn't wake up. The night the new ordinary came aboard, he lay in his bunk being chased by bombs. He was running down the side deck of a fleet oiler in 1942. Then he was in a medical ward at Pearl where a nurse was giving him a sponge bath and a hard-on at the same time. When he finally did awaken it was thirty-eight years later and a voice in his blacked-out room was telling him the ship had been denied entry into San Francisco.
Snow rolled toward the sound wishing he could pretend this was impossible. He wished he could kill the messenger. People underestimated the power of that kind of thing; it was ritualized denial, though in this case he didn't even know who the messenger was. A dream voice, that nurse, flicking his erection as if removing an insect then telling him the Coast Guard was turning the tanker around. Time was muddled. He was ship's boatswain. He hauled himself out of his bunk and across the room wearing boxer shorts, his gray hair sticking straight up off his head. His body was tanned, muscles tightening as he walked, belly round and hard, but his joints clicked. In his private head, he washed his face and combed his hair with Vitalis. By the time he stepped down the passageway from his cabin on the ship's O-2 deck, he wore simple leather work boots, jeans cuffed at the ankles, suspenders, a pinstriped work shirt--blue--and a mackinaw jacket. He descended the internal stair tower and out the companionway to the afterdeck, to a clear winter dusk.
His ship was called Tarshish, and she lay at anchor eight miles outside the Golden Gate, just north of the sea buoy and just west of the pilot boat San Francisco, its mast lights pitching on a rising southwesterly swell. Beyond, Snow could see the dim hump of the Marin headlands, with the blinking swing of Point Bonita Light defining its seaward side. To the east-southeast, the Golden Gate formed two perfect waves of lighted orange. Lights began their glimmers along the waterfront, Coit Tower like a glowing fire nozzle, the narrow girded pyramid of the Trans-America building rising before the downtown. The sight of it all, and the prospect that they had just lost five million dollars in cargoes, made a desperate ball form in his chest.
Snow turned up the portside weather deck to find Bracelin, the ship's chief mate, talking with a Coast Guard ensign, leaning toward the man with insistence. "This is cheap screw," he said. Two crewmen listened from above, stretched out over the poop deck railing making motions as if to spit on the coastie's head. Ostensibly joking, their faces had a grim set, and they looked to be having little fun with it.
The coastie was holding his own, all spit-polish with a voice that lectured. "Some people might be okay with bulk chemicals washing up on Fisherman's Wharf. Me, I have a problem with it. If this were a U.S.-flagged ship, she'd be impounded and towed to dry dock. As is, consider yourselves fortunate."
He sounded like a northeastern boy. One of those yacht guys, a real sailor. Snow had the urge to toss the prick overboard. But he was buff in a thin-waisted way. He could probably tread water for three days. They'd have to knock him one on the head before they gave him the heave-ho, and Snow didn't much care for knocking people on the head. He'd done it before in his life and, truth was, these days he didn't like thinking about it. He didn't like the bad dreams he'd been having. He didn't like the mood of self-judgment, or the way a certain female AB looked at him when he told her things he had done in his life.
He realized now that she'd been the one to rouse him with the bad news. She had told him and run off before he was fully awake.
A crew boat approached along the port side, the coastie checking his watch, then blathering on about two dozen code violations, about illegal soft plug repairs in the pipeline, about a compromised seal on the covered lifeboat. "Mark my words: you try to put to sea in that, you will buy the Ground Port."
Snow wondered what the hell this guy knew about the Ground Port. He couldn't resist chiming in. "Listen here, buddy. First off, that was on our list. So it's clear we ain't trying to hide anything. But we can't address problems if we can't get business done."
The coastie looked skyward in irritation. Then he blanched. The two Malaysian sailors hung over him, lifted their chins at him. "Uhh--" he stammered and looked at Snow. "You're missing the point, bos'n." He looked back up at the sailors and stepped out of their fall line.
"The point," said Bracelin, "is we're working our tails off to make this tub of shit copasetic." He stood a head taller than the coastie. "You got any idea how much money we stand to lose?"
The mate had the ugliest mug Snow had ever seen, like someone had carved a pumpkin only to decide on a different design, and so stuffed all the pieces back in place, the seams showing. As if that wasn't enough dead tissue, he had bead-sized scars all over his cheeks and nose from windblown caustic burns. His arms looked like gnarled tree roots entwined across his chest, and though the temperature wasn't more than 40 degrees F, Bracelin wore short-sleeved coveralls that said wade on the front patch and crown moving and storage on the back. His first name wasn't Wade at all, it was Charlie, but he wore those covies whenever a new man was coming aboard, regardless of climate, so they could see his thick biceps and arcane tattoos and be properly intimidated.
The most obvious tattoo was the analemma on the inside of Bracelin's left forearm. A figure-eight pattern with the approximate proportions of a bowling pin, the analemma showed the variation of the sun's position in the sky, as if you stood on a spot at the equator and took a snapshot of the sun at the same hour of every day for a full year. It bore the markings of the days of the year along with parallels of latitude, while his right forearm showed a series of equations, the stuff of spherical trigonometry. Bracelin's tattoos weren't just ornamental--he could figure his position at sea using only a sextant, a chronometer, a pencil, and his tattoos. Long as nobody cut his arms off, he didn't need star tables.
Now Bracelin's jaw muscles strained as he leaned forward. He looked ready to take a bite out of the guy's neck.
"Just take it easy," said the coastie. "There's nothing I can do for you, gentlemen." He tore off four sheets from his citation book and handed them to Bracelin. "Have a safe trip out of U.S. waters."
With the only good ear he had left, Snow heard a racket from up the deck, where two ABs leaned against the bulwarks holding a fire ax and a length of pipe respectively, hammering the deck with the butts of the tools. Then the crewmen overhead started in to whistle, and before long the crew was crowing and complaining like animals. Snow heard Ali, one of the Malaysians, say "Orang-puteh so stupid one-lah, no get into Frisco no way now!" while above, someone else bemoaned the loss of the Chinese New Year: "Year of the Snake I go Eddy Street get fucky for four dollar. God damn, no go Eddy Street now. No go Eddy Street!"
Snow felt the disappointment too, but he had visions of lost cargoes, lost dollars, lost opportunity--even a lost girl. The coastie looked around at the protesting crew and then stared straight at Bracelin. "Your crew's a bit tense."
"Three months on deep water," said the mate.
"They were hoping to go ashore," Snow added.
The coastie peered around as if seeing the ship for the first time. "Unusual situation you have here. American officers and petty officers, but a foreign crew." He looked to be pondering some life-altering decision. And maybe it was. Snow waited to hear where he was going with this, how far he wanted to push it.
"Ain't so unusual," said Bracelin. "We got a recent sale; we're just seeing out this run."
"Right," said the coastie. He looked around. Then at Bracelin. "What'd you say was wrong with the captain?"
"You saw him. He's sick."
"Never heard of a foreign outfit keeping American officers."
"Listen, bub," Bracelin snarled, "I'm no academy grad. I don't get the plums. I was a raw squid in 'fifty-nine, and the CPO of a nuclear submarine six years later. I been a merchant officer fifteen years. I came up the hawse pipe. I think I understand how things work. My job's running cargo, so I'm gonna go do that. Your job is to wait for your ride and make sure you don't fall overboard."
Bracelin moved topside, taking steps three at a time. Damn him for mentioning the sale, such as it was. The ensign kept watching the crew. Snow wanted them calm--he turned and raised a hand, and they fell quiet. They were a ragged crowd, with Frisco jeans and greased canvas pants and coveralls, faces streaked by sweat and frustration. Not only had they been aboard since Port Kuleng, Malaysia, without break, they'd worked ten hours prepping for this inspection. They didn't give a damn about contracts, all they cared about was sucking down Tsing-tao beers and ushering in the Year of the Monkey in Frisco Chinatown. By Snow's way of thinking, they had reason to be tense.
Ships steamed inbound, a box boat for Oakland and a tanker for Benicia or maybe the Richmond long wharf. Snow watched them with longing, but had to admit that going ashore was a mixed thing, lost cargoes aside. Some ways he itched to head up San Pablo Avenue and have dinner at the Hofbrau and find the Wooden Indian and settle in for drinks just a block from his old house there in El Cerrito, never mind he didn't drink anymore. But he also knew he'd end up walking by the old house, with no one he knew living there after all these years, no wife or son for sure, nothing save a dark hole of lost time. Thinking about that made him want to flee, and in his mind he hopped outbound ships, veering north toward Seattle and Anchorage, or south toward San Pedro, or straight west into the vast black Pacific.
Snow breathed deeply, calmed himself. He said, "I got work," and started forward, took intentionally long strides up toward the midship tankerman's locker. He passed the scowling faces of crewmen. "Time for work, gents!" he said, in a grandfatherly voice, continuing on as if he had something to do out on the bow. But he had nowhere to go. He found himself drifting into the shadows. The weather deck of a chemical tanker was a crowded place, a tangled system of pipelines and bulbous valves and vent stacks rising thirty feet overhead. Snow heard fans running and smelled the gas-freeing of two tanks that once held acrylonitrile. He recognized the peach odor. Made you want to smell it, even though smelling it for long gave you dancing black spots and smelling it long enough left you brain damaged. He wondered if half the crew wasn't already there.
They were known as drugstore ships or parcel tankers. They hauled acids, caustics, chlorinated solvents, aromatic hydrocarbons in a worldwide trade. Bulk chemicals that ached to react with something: each other, sea water, air, or nothing but themselves. Prior to loading, the crew filled tanks with inert nitrogen gas to keep certain chemicals from spontaneously going off. Right now Snow paced on top of a tank of vinyl chloride monomer, a self-reacting gem. Polymerized, it turned to polyvinylchloride--PVC--the white pipe used in a million sprinkler systems all over America. The crew had to pump chemical inhibitors into the stuff to keep it from turning to plastic right there in its own tanks. Have to tear the ship apart to get it all out, assuming the reaction didn't do it for you.
Snow stretched out his upper torso and dug his fingers up under his right rib as if to extract a rock. A tight pain ran up his chest, like he'd slipped a rib or torn a muscle or something. He pulled his elbows back as far as he could, stretching over and over until they nearly touched behind him, and still the sensation persisted.
He heard some grunting from nearby and weaved through the pipes to find a certain female AB lying on her back, trying to tighten a Dresser coupling with a three-foot-long pipe wrench. Snow watched her face tighten as she yarded on the long end, punctuating her pulls with sharp exhalations, over the smell of kerosene-based jet fuel, an oil-only Sorbent pad on her chest to collect the drippings. Her name was Elisabeth Abudjah.
"You're working hard!"
She started. "Bloody hell, Snow! How about a bit of warning?" Beth was English on her mom's side and Liberian on her dad's, but it was her mom taught her to talk.
"One of the ten thousand things I like about you, Bethy. Hardest-working AB I got. Dress like a boy and work like a man!"
"I quit working, someone might notice me."
"Oh, they notice you all right, you don't have to worry about that," Snow said, and then a line from a song came to him. Among other useless talents, Snow did a dead-on impression of Billie Holiday. He had a high frail voice anyway, and it was a strange sight, a pot-bellied white man singing like some kind of rare instrument. Snow stopped crowds when he sang like Billie:
"I got a house and a showplace,
but can't get no place with you. . . ."
"That's a trifle thick when I'm lying here bathed in jet fuel," she said.
"I met her once. I tell you that?"
"I know, and shagged her."
"Now, I told you I was kidding about that."
Beth grunted out the last hundredth of an inch on that coupling before she finally quit. The leak gave one last drip and stopped. "Listen, Snow, I need to talk to you about Bracelin. The man won't quit on the crank thing. I've told him a dozen times I can't get it. I just don't have those kinds of contacts. He's getting ugly. I need him to stop."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Western Limit of the World by David Masiel. Copyright © 2005 by David Masiel. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.