He grabbed the unbearably cute waitress by the arm. She had meant to go and not come back, tip in hand.
“There’s a sea chanty festival down in Mystic. Just five hours away. You should go. I could take you.”
It wasn’t sexual urges that made him proposition her – that part of him was dead. He didn’t always know what he was doing … he felt lost on solid ground.
She smiled at him prettily and patted his shoulder while slipping her arm from his grasp.
“Oh!” she said. “That’s so sweet! You’re such a sweetheart for asking! But I can’t! I’ve got to work. I waitress here and I tend bar and I’m in school! But thank you so much! I hope you have a great time!”
She’d been too nice to him, he thought, as she walked away. None of the women he’d trusted had ever been nice to him. They were like the waves, rough and powerful when they came, inevitable when they left … they were like the music he loved, rollicking and beautiful and promising work, work, work in the morning.
His favorite view had been from the top most mast of the tall ships. From that height he could see that the ocean was truly endless. No matter what they say, you can ride that water to the edge of the world and fall off if you don’t turn back.
He had worked on the tall ships for 30 years and only made one mistake. When he hit the deck the clouds turned black, he could feel every piece of his spine and . . . somehow . . . it was the only thing he could feel.
They lifted him on to a stretcher. That far out at sea there was no way he could get the kind of medical attention they said he needed. So they left him in a room below decks and went on with the routine of the ship. The last thing he remembered was the clouds turning black. For days, that image was frozen on his eyes while he listened and the boat rocked.
He used to frequent prostitutes at ports. He used to have regular girls: if he used anyone else, it was like cheating on them. They loved him the way dogs love a butcher. It wasn’t bad. He’d do it again in a heartbeat, but now he was landlocked. He rolled around Midwestern bars in an electric wheelchair staring at women’s chests.
He traveled to folk music concerts. He hitched rides as far as he needed to go … Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, St. Paul … he’d once tried to get all the way to Nova Scotia, but the bus broke down. He understood. We can’t always get where we’re going.
He’d smile at everyone, especially at the concerts. He’d wheel up to the performers during intermission and tell them how much he was enjoying the show. He’d ask if they knew any sea chanties: “South Australia” or “Fire Maringo,” “Round the Corn Sally” or “Pump Me Boys,” hell even “Blow the Man Down.” He loved to shout out the chorus of “The Mermaid” – “And the land lubbers lie down below, below, below! And the land lubbers lie down below!”
Usually the performers knew something, could sing him a song or two, toss him a bone. He nodded gratefully. He clapped along. He would have sung with them, but he was always short of breath.
He listened. He listened just the way he had when he lay below decks, his vision frozen in the shape of the sky as he fell, listened to the songs of the men getting back to work, going to their stations, returning to the life he was leaving behind. There was a rollicking quality to these songs; they were the songs of the waves, songs of the tides, songs of motion and longing. They were the songs of the end of the world, that men somehow manage to sing even after they have fallen off it.
He didn’t know why he’d propositioned her. Perhaps, for a moment, he’d forgotten everything. Everyone smiled at him now, consciously, deliberately. He stared up at the ceiling, with no place to go, the image of the waitress’ chest frozen in his eyes, as life got back to normal.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.
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