Friday, August 10, 2012

Ghost Ship

August 9, 2012 – Ghost Ship

It’s like being on a ghost ship
as if I’m the only one alive
and even my respiration, my vibrancy
is questionable

I venture out of my room, creep into the hallway, and tread lightly to the lounge to make some tea. The omnipresent sound of chipping is gone. No one is washing the decks or painting or running a crane or sweeping the floors. Not a soul is working. They’ve got the day off and are probably, most of them, sleeping off hangovers from last night’s party. Even Josko’s door and the captain’s doors are closed. I’m not even certain at this point that there’s anyone up on the bridge steering the ship.

What would it be like to wake up and discover I were the only one onboard? Strange and disconcerting are the adjectives that come first to mind. In this hushed and empty space, it feels like I am. I briefly wonder if something like the Christians’ Rapture has occurred for everyone but me. Or if it’s some alien invasion where all the seamen (and cadet) have been beamed up someplace far far away and I, for some anomalous reason of time and space, got left behind.

Odd thoughts in mind and tea in hand, I decide to go back to my room and
finish Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I’ve got about fifty pages out of four hundred something left to go. When I set up this trip I’d thought I’d have long days stretched thin with reading and writing. In my reality, at the end of each day I fall into bed wondering what has happened to the hours. I’ve hardly read anything at all and I’ve only written the first line to the story I want to work on. There just aren’t enough minutes in my days.

“Are you bored?” the chief officer asks me in passing one afternoon.

“Bored?!” I exclaim. “I don’t have time to be bored.” There’s way too much to see. There’s way too much going on. There’s hardly time to ask the questions from the officers on the bridge, or chat with the crew, or jaw jack with the chief engineer, or sit in the sun, or talk to the pilots, or stare at the ever-changing blue of the sky and sea, or look for marine life, or just sit and breathe.

I settle on my couch and read. The air conditioning blows frigid and I wind a wrap around myself to stave off the cold and think about going down to the engine room where I know it’s warm. I leave my room door open to listen for sounds of life. I’ve got thirty pages to go and I’m thinking that in about half an hour I’ll have to decide if I want to start a new book, do some work or wander around in search of some diversion when I hear the sound of steps coming my way down the hall.

I lift my chin and wait.

I see a hand first as it taps my door and then a face. It’s the bosun. His name is Alan. He’s in charge of the crew and makes sure that the tasks the chief officer assigns get delegated to the proper crewmen. Up to this point I’d only really interacted with him at yesterday’s drill and that was just observation. He had kind of intimidated me with his questions to the officers. He’d seemed like the sharp edge between crew and command. I hadn’t been sure what to make of him.

Now I smile at him.

“I came to invite you down to the pool for a party,” he says.

“Right now?” I ask.

He nods.

I put my shoes on. I don’t even think to grab my camera or my jacket. I just up and go. Alan escorts me down the stairs and outside to the pool. The third officer and the cadet are there together. Josh leans against the railing with a beer already in hand. There’s a handful of the crew including a new older Ukrainian seaman who signed on in Philadelphia.

“You like beer? You like whisky?” the bosun asks me.

“Whisky is fine,” I say. I know I can sip it slow and make it last while they beer away.

I go stand next to Josh and get his five words from him. I wonder what to do now that we’ve both exhausted our chitchat bank. Drink in hand, I put my back to the railing and grin at the boys.

Ian, last night’s cameraman, is tipsy. He’s full of willingness to make Josh’s and my traveling experience the best possible. “I haven’t had a chance to talk with you,” he says, “to ask you questions. And I wanted to. But if you have any questions or want to anything. Just shoot. Just ask. Just shoot.” He looks at us waiting for our questions. I’ve been asking questions and listening and watching ever since I walked up the gangway, and I’m at a loss of what to ask. Josh asks something and I’m happy. “I just want you to have the best time on the ship that you can,” Ian continues. “If you need anything. If you have any questions. Shoot. Just shoot.” He makes a gun finger motion and laughs.

It’s chilly outside, even more than it had been in my room. A cold wind sweeps across the water gathering an icy touch and raises goose bumps on my arms. The sun is coated with clouds which look heavy laden with snow. It’s July, but it no longer feels like summer.

The Ukrainian jumps into the pool and I shiver. I may never be warm again. The third officer and the cadet leave. Filipinos come and go. They sit together on the deck chairs, stand next to each other, drape arms around shoulders, legs over legs. The need for human touch isn’t stifled like I’ve seen in the States, these guys are all they have and they’re playful with each other. Like children at times.  

“Amanda,” the Ukrainian seaman says. He’s out of the pool, changed out of his swimsuit, and sitting in the chair to the left of me. All these guys know my name and I’m still far behind in learning theirs.

“Why did you decide to take this kind of ship instead of a passenger ship?”

I tell him. After, I ask him about the types of ships he’s worked on. He talks for a while about the past. Then he tells me about the Initiation Rites of Neptune that seamen perform when a new seaman crosses the equator for the first time.

“I have video,” he says. “You come to my cabin and see?”

I follow him to his cabin. It’s sparser than mine. Smaller. It seems unfair. But he makes it inviting and hospitable as he pulls out the chair for me and finds the video in his computer’s files. We watch it and then he shows me pictures of his daughter and more pictures of other ships and crew.

We go back out together. It’s still cold. I take a seat on a small bench in between one of the reclining chairs and the bosun’s chair. I cross my arms over my body.

“My guys were afraid of you,” the bosun says. “They thought you were FBI.”

“What?” I say. “Why?”

“They saw your computer in your room with a gun on the screen and they thought you were FBI.”
I’m laughing. It can be good to have a certain kind of reputation. “Gun? What gun?”
I never find out, they get on a roll with jokes. Teasing one of the guys about working at a call center, one of the guys about being born in Alaska, one of the guys about being the wife of the other since they share a room.

“It’s cold?” the bosun asks me.

I’m not sure if my lips are blue, but my teeth are almost to the chattering point. “Yes, it’s cold,” I agree. I can see my breath. I puff out some air to show him.

“Oh,” he says. He gets up and goes. A few moments later he returns with a winter coat. He helps me into it. He all but zips it up. “Is that better?” he asks.

“Yes. Thank you!” It is. I fold myself into the depths and for the first time today I’m warm. I’m no longer dreaming of sitting in the engine room or in the drying closet in the laundry room. No longer dreaming of a summer that doesn’t seem to exist.

“My guys are good guys,” the bosun says. “It they are indecent, if they say bad words to you, you come tell me and I’ll give them the screw. I’ll fuck them. That’s why I came to get you, to protect you. You can feel at home on the ship.”

I thank him. These sentiments I don’t take lightly. Even though I prefer to take care of things on my own, there’s a touching sweetness of security in his words. “The guys have been very nice,” I tell him. And I mean it. Even Jake with his desire for clandestine encounters has been nice.

These guys act out for me. They tell jokes at each other’s expense. They all vie for my attention with a constant chorus of “Amanda, Amanda, Amanda.” I can hardly keep up. It’s exhausting to be a girl at times. Having to equalize my attention to all the voices clamoring in. Not just being able to sit in silent observance. I do my best to keep up.

“There are ghosts on the ship,” one of them says.

“Really?” Ghosts make good stories.
“Two chief officers,” they say. One chief officer had died in an accident when water had leaked into one of the holds where some water-reactive chemical had been stored. Then the chief officer who came onboard to replace him died, presumable, of a heart attack in his cabin. I wonder if this is the crew’s way of getting back at the officers, creating ghosts of chiefs since the chief is the one who creates their work lists. I’m watching these guys for signs of a punch line. They’ve joked around so much by now I’m not sure what stories are supposed to be real and which ones are created to get a reaction from me.

Apparently this one is supposed to be real. But they move on to other subjects before I get a chance to find out more. Several hours have gone by and my smile has worn out and my laughter is starting to sound brittle. When there’s a lull, I rise and excuse myself.

“When we have party you’re invited,” the bosun says. “For the guys’ birthdays. When we’re at the pool.”

“Thank you,” I say. “Just come get me when you have one and I’ll join you.” I hand off the coat and make my way back upstairs. I have enough time to finish my book before I head down for dinner. Josko’s door is open and the captain is standing in the doorway talking to him.

They stop talking when I pass by and say hi.

“You’re going for your supper?” the captain asks.

I nod.

“I was just about to open something special,” he says. “But we’ll wait for you.”

I make short work of my dinner and stop for a moment in my room before I go poke my head into Josko’s room. “Can I join?” I ask.

“We were waiting for you,” the captain says.

I leave my shoes at the door and take my normal chair, pull my legs up and get comfortable. Josko had invited me in for a beer several nights before and I feel at home there. “You take beer?” he’d asked. “Sure,” I’d said. We’d talked of ancient civilizations (I’d shown him pictures of the Nazca Lines and of Machu Picchu), of dangerous Chinese beer he’d gotten really sick from drinking once (we drank Pale Pilsen), and of how Genghis Khan would have taken over Japan but for the typhoon that came through just in the nick of time (I have a rueful inward moment of shame realizing that most of what I remember about Genghis Khan comes from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure).

I have a petty reflection of joy that it’s me in this cabin having drinks with the captain and the chief engineer and not Josh. Then my kinder nature wonders if I should invite him over as well. The captain uncorks the bottle of white sparkling wine and pours for three. Sorry Josh, I think.
The captain tells stories. Josko gets a few in here and there. I sit and listen for the most part. The captain refills his glass and turns to me.

“What you are doing?” he asks with an indignant tone. My glass is still full.

“Sipping,” I say.

He gives me a reproving glance and tops off Josko’s glass.
Somewhere in the middle of the bottle a phone rings. It keeps on ringing. Insistently.

“Is that your phone?” the chief engineer asks the captain.

“Excuse me,” the captain says, getting up. “It might be important.” A moment later, he returns. “It wasn’t my phone. It was from the other side.”

“It was probably my phone,” I say. Jake has been in the habit of calling me just after dinner to try and talk me into meeting him up at the Blue Bar. “I don’t think it was important.”

The glasses get filled again and the stories keep on rolling. Ten minutes pass, maybe fifteen and the stairway door opens and closes. We all turn to see who’s on our floor. It’s the bosun. He passes the chief engineer’s open door, sees us all together. I wave. Smile. He sees me and turns to go back down. The captain gets up to see what he needed.

But I know. He’d come to get me again. It’s a smart strategy because how could I refuse an invitation from the bosun? It’d be like turning the captain’s invitation to share a bottle of sparkling white wine down. But the captain trumps the bosun. The captain comes back into the room and takes his seat again.

“I think you just break some hearts,” he says. “Broke a heart,” he amends.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” I say, but he’s no longer listening to me. I’m not important to the story he’s now telling and this makes me happy. It’s a blessed contrast to the attention I’d had to provide at the pool party.  “I’ll probably break a lot of hearts on this trip,” I say aloud to no one but myself.

And we finish the bottle of wine.

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