George Eyre Masters

Posted on August 18, 2011

4


Dead Reckoning

At 0527 hours, Able Seaman Tom Harp was awakened by a knocking on his cabin door. Captain Peter Ford said, “I’ve got some bad news. Your mother called. Your father died this morning. I’m sorry, Tom. When you’re ready, come up to my cabin and you can call her.”

Harp sat at the captain’s desk and hung up the phone. For a full minute he looked out the window, the sea starting to flatten, the sun out now and shining. Standing, he went and knocked on the captain’s open door. From a green leather couch, reading the Hong Kong paper, Captain Ford looked up.

“Thanks for letting me use the phone.”

“Come on in Tom, sit down.” The captain, younger than Harp, pointed to a green leather chair. Harp sat.

Captain Ford closed the newspaper. “What happened?”

“Heart attack. It was fast.”

“Cup of coffee?”

“No thanks.”

“How about a drink? I’ve got some good scotch.”

“I go on watch in two hours.”

“You’re off the roster. One shot of medicinal whiskey? I’ll never tell.”

“My mother left him in the kitchen frying eggs and bacon. When she came back he was on the floor.”

“I’ll make arrangements so you can leave the ship when we get to Hong Kong. Your ticket will be taken care of. Your mother’s going to need you.”

“Thanks Pete.

“Now about that drink?”

“Medicinal.”

“Exactly.”

*********

In the ship’s gym the unsecured rowing seat slid back and forth with the motion of the ship. They had picked up some weather coming out of Kaohsiung. North of Luzon Strait, sixty knot winds and thirty foot seas had caused the nine hundred foot ship to pitch and slam, and like a wet dog, shake herself, the sea lifting her seventy thousand tons as if she were no more than a thatch of kelp.

Stirred by gale force winds, the storm had charged up from the bottom like a pod of great whales. Bull muscled and white veined, the humpbacks carried the ship skyward. And then down she’d rush with the speed of a sea going roller coaster. An ear ringing, stomach dropping ride that made a seasoned sailor light headed and weak in the knees. Made a man want to lie down and close his eyes as the ship plunged through the dark watered hills.

Thirteen hours out of the storm, the late morning sky had cleared and the sea rolled deep and brooding. Bad tempered and sulking, the ocean threw an elbow now and again; gave the ship a shove making the old girl shudder as she headed west, south-west.

Harp sat on a weight bench with a forty five pound dumbbell at his feet. Breathing heavily, he tasted the scotch. As if paging through a photo album, he saw his father through the years. Going to the rowing machine, he secured the sliding seat. Picking up some of the dumbbells tossed by the storm, he returned them to their rack and glanced out at the dark blue, white flecked expanse.

On the incline bench, feet up, he waited for the ship to come back off her roll. As she leveled, he reached up and released the bar bell. Bringing it down to his chest, he pressed two hundred and twenty pounds three times then locked it in place above him. From where he lay, the weights at both ends of the chrome bar made it look as if he were about to be run over by a train. The discs clinked and rattled and it reminded Harp of riding the train in to Hoboken with his father.

Adding ten pounds to each side of the bar, he eased back under the train. Feet hooked under the high end of the bench, he was looking to get two repetitions, maybe three. He started breathing a fast locomotive rhythm to load up on oxygen. Lifting weights at sea was all in the timing. The weight could be made heavier or lighter depending on the pitch and roll of the ship. Feeling her roll, he waited. As the ship started to come back, he filled his lungs one last time, reached up, grabbed the bar and went for it. He got one, two, three repetitions, then feeling strong, he tried for one more. The ship rolled and he was stuck. Halfway up, he couldn’t budge it. Lock it now, he told himself, feeling the weight beginning to press down on him. Finish it, he argued, you can do it.

His strength was leaving him fast and now the weight began to feel like four hundred, and then five hundred pounds as the ship held her roll. “Come back,” he begged.

Harp heard and felt the rumble of the Hoboken train beneath him. His heart vibrated, he skipped a breath and he was there on the Erie Lackawanna at the end of the line.

Following his father on to the Hudson Tubes, he glimpsed his hat and shoulders on the crowded train. Climbing the stairs, he found himself on the evening streets of New York, taking in the traffic and people, the way the subway steam smoked up through the grates.

The Manhattan lights lit his memory. Inhaling the terrific smell of coffee and pizza, of busses and taxis and roasting chestnuts, he could not have been more excited or alone. Striving to keep his father in sight, he lengthened his stride. Passing slower pedestrians, crossing streets against traffic and playing matador with the cars, he caught brief glimpses, no more than that, of the compact, wide shouldered man who walked like Popeye and wore a grey snap brim with a black band, the hat cocked a bit to the right.

At a corner, the light changed from red to green and Harp found himself caught waist deep in a crossing tide. But then there was his father coming back, passing him in the middle of the street.

Harp turned and pushing his way clear of the throng, chased after him. Stretching his legs, he shouted “Pop, slow down it’s me.” Walking fast and then breaking into a jog, he was still unable to keep up.

Seeing only the back of his father’s overcoat, the collar up, his hair neatly cut, Harp lost him in the crowd then spotted him again. This time he was heading purposefully down the stairs and back to the Hudson Tubes. Knowing his father was going home, he ran down the stairs in pursuit.

The subway’s air was stale, the platform a cacophony of color—the white tiled walls, red and yellow candy machines, and blue transit cops. Taking a guess, he boarded the next arriving train and rode standing as the lit stations flashed by. Beneath the river, he walked through the cars searching for his father, looking for his face, his hat, his briefcase, for a trace of anything that might give him away. And “Rickety-rack-rickety-rack,” went the train. Scared and thrilled to be this close to his father, he knew it was his last chance.

At the Hoboken station Harp felt lost in the cavernous aura of the place. The high ceilings and pigeons flying about and perching on rafters, the rows and rows of wood benches, the ticket windows, the lit and crowded cocktail lounge that served oysters.

A trace of cigar smoke and burned pretzels led him out to the concrete platform strewn with ticket stubs and the thousands of back and forth shoes that created a special electricity that ran beneath all their feet.

Ancient and timeless these travelers. The tired dreamers were here along with the eagerly hopeful but they were far outnumbered by the hopeless, the quietly beaten and defeated. You could smell it in the crowd, see it in their eyes. These desperate prisoners were not trying to escape, not any more. Without options or choices and no exit worth attempting, they were dutifully headed back to wives and children, to whiskey and gin, to television and dinner, and houses unpaid for. Hearing the announcement over the PA system, they shuffled in quick-stepped unison to the trains, to once again be returned to their cells.

Harp tasted the wet salt across his upper lip. The temperature of the station was being raised by the proximity of humming locomotives, steamed hot dogs, lottery tickets and cigarettes. On each track the platforms were lined with dull green cars, their windows fogged and dirty.

To the sound of air brakes being released, engines throttling up and wheels creaking, the trains began to leave. In panic, Harp sprinted up and down the platform reading the boards at the foot of each track, the electric signs lit with destinations and times of departure. He had to pick a train.

Jogging, needing to gamble, he chose a train and jumped on to the rear steps of the last car. Taking his time, he walked forward through the cars, the train groaning with its load, wheels squeaking as they made a turn.

At the front of the train, with no sign his father was aboard and unable to go any further, he leaned down and looked out as the train picked up speed through the grass wetlands. Under power lines, past dark and dirty factories, past tall brick chimneys and abandoned cars, the truth sunk in.

Walking back through the cars, he stopped now and again to check a stranger’s face, to glance over a newspaper. It was no use. Men snored with mouths ajar and hats down over their eyes. Men and women smoked and laughed over drinks in the club car. Harp had boarded the wrong train.

As it got darker beyond the soot stained windows, all he had were the memories and smells of a city and a train his father had brought home every night. The wick of shoe polish, the paper musk of folded newsprint and torn tickets, ghosts of tobacco, and the whiskered shine of an optimistic aftershave.

Knowing his father was not on the train and having no ticket, he needed to stay ahead of the conductor. Moving toward the rear, unwilling to surrender, he continued his search. It was growing cold between the cars, the wind and the night in his face, the tracks and wheels directly beneath him and loud with their “Chackata-chakata-chakata-chakata…”

The last car door didn’t want to open. Turning the handle, he put his shoulder against it and pushed his way in. The car was empty except for his father. Halfway down the car, the old man sat alone. Hat in his lap, overcoat on, not smoking, not reading the paper, he waited. Everything as natural as could be, the train moving with its own rhythm, his father relaxed and looking out the window but seeing his reflection.

Reaching him, Harp leaned over and touched his shoulder.

His father turned and they were eye to eye. He laid his fingertips against his father’s cheek, the skin real. Trying desperately to hold the moment and grasp what he was seeing, Harp said, “Pop, it’s really you.” He smoothed his father’s hair.

The old man smiled and touched his hand. “We don’t have much time. How are you, old boy?”

Hearing the car door open behind him, Harp turned. It was the conductor. Turning back to his father he said, “I’m fine, I–” and stopped. His father was gone, the seat empty. The conductor walked past as if Harp didn’t exist. Never asking for a ticket, the conductor walked through the rear door of the last car and disappeared.

*********

In the ship’s gym, on the incline bench, straining under the train’s axle, arms and shoulders and locked, Harp was trapped. Giving it everything he had, the bar continued to pin him. Pushing up, calling on all his reserves, using his stomach and arching his back, he groaned with the effort and slowly the bar began to rise. As the ship came back off her roll, the bar inched upwards. Running out of steam, he had to finish it now. Sucking a final gulp of air, muscles trembling and tendons popping, he cried out. Then his father reached in and helped him lift. Together they moved the bar the last five inches and Harp locked it.

***

George Eyre Masters was born in Philadelphia, PA and grew up in Vietnam. After the Marine Corps, he attended Georgetown University where he began to write. His work has appeared in national magazines, newspapers and literary journals. To support his writing he has been a commercial fisherman, construction worker, bartender, teacher and taxi driver. As a stuntman, he was consumed by the beast in the film “Alligator.” Masters has written the crime novel, “Trouble Breathing”, about a homeless war hero who falls for a San Francisco socialite, and is seeking a publisher. His website is http://www.georgeeyremasters.net

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