By: Art Hanlon
The Able Seaman
I left home in the dead of winter with a forged birth certificate, four dollars and change, and the clothes on my back three weeks after a Christmas morning in which my mother and grandmother confronted me in the living room next to the artificial tree and told me there were to be no presents that year. I could have hardly cared less; I was soon to be sailing to China like my great, great grandfather, the master of a clipper ship in the tea trade.
My mother and grandmother were clearly troubled because they let time slip through their fingers and somehow forgot (forgot?) to buy presents. I stood by witnessing their distress with a lofty sense of all the worldliness I had attained since quitting high school, wondering how my standing in the neighborhood could have somehow eluded them. I wasn’t indifferent; I was aloof, pitying. They hadn’t even noticed when I dropped out of high school in October, one month into my junior year. The expression of concern in my mother’s eyes vanished as she realized I hadn’t been hurt by the absence of presents. She stepped to the small plastic tree propped up on a sideboard and began writing out a check for $25, telling me I could use it to buy whatever I wanted. She seemed disappointed and irritated by my inappropriate placidity as she leaned hard into the checkbook with the ball point. I was more of a mystery to my mother than I was to my grandmother. My grandmother, a math prodigy whose gift had been neglected, stood behind my mother, her lips slightly pursed in agitation, her brow furrowed with impatient concern for both her daughter and her grandson.
“Even a gun?” I had an undeveloped sense of irony, but enough to visualize an audience for that remark, like Pete Meagher, my erstwhile best friend who lived across the street, lately a foot soldier in the Madison Street gang, or characters pulled up from books or down from the movie screen. Late summer, September, back to school at a Tuesday Novena during an afternoon of sun showers, the hot sidewalk outside hissing as the rain hit the asphalt, Brother Robert, in his black suit, who taught earth science and mathematics, stood at the end of the pew with the “cherry stick,” his cure for classroom antics, regarding me over the bowed heads of my murmuring classmates. He noted my refusal to kneel, my silence, my boredom. I stared back, not afraid to let him see my rage, making my defiance and hatred of his oppression obvious, while the rest of the student body sang hymns and chanted prayers. He stood in the aisle, slapping the side of his leg with that gnarled rod in response, his expression full of promise.
When Brother Robert moved off, I had a moment of mild panic over the disbelief and resistance I had set in motion. What I was leaving behind? Would I be pursued? As I stared through the prismatic cloud of sun-stained incense rising before the church windows, I swore I could sense the Archangel Michael, Aries’ medieval Christian incarnation, backing away. I, who had taken his name at my confirmation, envisioned his wings, so bat-like in their hinged, articulated metacarpals, their webbing of thin velvet membranes still holding the shape of my body, folding with the sound of an umbrella snapping shut. I felt the palpable withdrawal of his protection, heard his bowstring droning like a dulcimer above the sound of the boy choir as he abandoned me to the shadows. The phantasmal coil had been cut, maybe forever.
I had been freed, released, dropped, fired, let go, liberated, whatever you want to call it. I could not afford to be afraid. Walking with me at midnight on Catalpa Avenue, a neighborhood street, the night following my Novena vision, Pete Meagher pulled a loaded revolver from a shoulder holster hidden inside his jacket, a Ruger single six .22 caliber “flatgate,” with its Bisley grip and hammer. He was desperate to show it off. And with good reason. You had to admire the nasty beauty of its blued barrel and cylinder, the varnished walnut grips, the empowerment, the authority vested by its lethality. It contained so much—promise—I don’t know what else to call it. For me to even see Pete posing with this peacemaker in his hand, his fingers curled around the grip, forefinger resting on the trigger guard, was enough to send a rush of cascading imagery tumbling from the cave of my imagination, starting with the Conquistadores in shining carapaces of silver pictured in my elementary school history book, mingling with the Redcoats and the frontiersmen in buckskin, the pioneers, the cowboys, the Seventh Cavalry, onward glorious history to San Juan Hill, Sergeant York, the images ascending all the way to the flag raising on bloody Iwo, and then downhill from there—lately to Charlie Starkweather, Huey Long, Charlie Anastasia—the question of how far downhill still unimagined.
“Let me see,” I said.
Pete hesitated for just a moment but then gave a little shrug and angled the pistol grip in my direction. I took the revolver out of Pete’s hand and pulled the hammer back, swiftly, before he could react, and snapped a shot off at a streetlight with a serrated metal shade over a 150-Watt bulb. The bullet drilled the shade bing before hitting the pole, raising splinters and a little cloud of dust. The light didn’t even flicker.
Pete took one hop and ran, leaving me standing with his revolver in my hand, the sound of the shot still echoing, the smell of cordite and creosote in the air mingled with the dank odor of the rotting autumn leaves lining the gutters. I didn’t know why he took off; nobody living on the street opened a door or raised a window. I should have been afraid; the fact that I was not might have been a warning sign. The next day I found Pete slouched along the cyclone fence in Madison Park and returned the gun, sidling up to him and handing it over so not to be seen by the others. As a precaution against impulsiveness, I had unloaded the bullets the night before, but he wouldn’t look at me or even speak to me as he snatched the pistol away, not even checking to see if it was still loaded, and stuffed it inside his jacket, still leaning into the pocket of wire cyclone fencing formed by years of slouching teenagers. He had known all along I wasn’t sidekick material.
My mother gave me one of her patented looks of utter disgust and finished writing the check, giving her signature a final underlining scrawl. I was at the age where I understood the link between antagonism and subversion. And yet, I wanted her to say she knew I was only joking, to laugh, innocent of my intentions, which might have been enough to tip my aspirations in another direction, but of course, the instinct to antagonize ran in the family. Behind my grandmother, as if in ranks on the sideboard and leaning on the mirrored shelf, were photographs of herself with her parents. Arranged behind that file of crisp photos were sepia photos of their parents, including, within a yellowed, oval cardboard frame, a daguerreotype of my great, great grandfather, Michael Cummins, in bowler hat and frock coat, the sea captain and professional conversationalist standing on the steps of a Booterstown row house in the shadow of University College. He had given up sailing tea clippers right after the Great Tea Race of 1866. He had lived in China, in London, and Dublin, and was ready to embark for a settled life in the New World. And it had come to this… I could hear him saying if he should suddenly arrive in our house as a haunt. The walls were bare, not even calendars to mar the timelessness of childhood, nothing at all except for the crucifixes in every room. Living with these women, these familial remnants, it was easy for me to sense that at least one twisting skein of the family yarn had unraveled and gotten somehow stranded in America and, after one or two generations, just kind of petered out—the sons ending their lives prematurely on southern battlefields, at sea, or in knife fights in Brooklyn alleys, in barrooms, by their own hand following financial disaster, or as confirmed bachelors living so long and so bereft of consequence they just faded away in the care of sisters or nieces; the daughters changing their names as they became absorbed into other families. Unlike his brothers, Michael Cummins’ profession protected him from conscription during the Civil War. Family stories told about Captain Cummins—how his ship had been one of sixteen clipper ships in the Tea Race, leaving Foochow, China in May, sailing around the Horn of Africa and arriving in London in February. My real father, long gone from the family, was a bookie who hung out in a Flushing saloon. It was the sea captain I was said to favor.
And I was meant to sail the East China Sea. Figured maybe it was in my blood, so striking for Able Seaman on a freighter was what I originally planned. I was ready to go, but even given the power of my tractive dreaming, I almost changed my mind about shipping out when I saw The Gatekeeper centered in the clerk’s window at the seaman’s union hall. John Framer, the name written on his nametag in grease pencil, looked as if he had spent his entire life at sea and had only lately been forced into a desk job. Why was I so disappointed in this…this…clerk? Did I expect to find him wearing a tricorn, a patch over his eye, a parrot on his shoulder? When I appeared in his window, a single eyebrow shot up and merged with the channels ribbed across his forehead. I was beginning to learn how experience sculpts the body to express its life. He, in turn, looked at me as if he were about to shuck an oyster. I presented my credentials, which is to say, my forged birth certificate. He looked down at the worn page with the smudged over-typing without touching it. “What’s this?” I wondered if he could tell how young I was. Fifteen.
“I want to ship out on a freighter.” I affected a tough, streetwise demeanor as I spoke. I had that shit down cold, but my confidence wavered when I heard a few chuckling voices behind me. Framer seemed to smile, but I really couldn’t say. Who could tell the meaning behind the single quiver of a lone facial ridge, one among so many? He pushed the paper back with the finger of one massively calloused hand, the fingers yellowed with nicotine, the extended fingernail hooked and thickly ridged with fungus. He coughed once with a kind of pneumatic, phlegm-flooded chuff from deep within his leaky respiratory system. “Yeah, well….”
Instantly, I realized how little I had to offer, and my tough demeanor melted away. I felt like snatching back my laughable credential and running for the door, but to my surprise, Framer’s face lit up. “You promise not to break anything on the ship if I give you a job?” He kept shooting glances over my shoulder at the group behind me, his face full of something significant but unidentifiable to me. I was too hopeful to take his tone and his remark as ridicule. In my head, I was already standing lookout watches on the flying bridge of a tramp steamer headed for Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Kobe. I thanked him politely just as his secretary called over to tell him he had a phone call.
“Wait here,” he said. As he turned, the lower part of his face cracked into something that just might have been a smile, and I decided not to give up hope. Instead, I remembered how excited I felt when I exited the subway early that morning and found a line of merchantmen leaning on the wall outside of the union hall as if too landsick to stand up straight. They had seen so much of the world, and I hoped I was about to do the same. Where, I wondered, could I find the same kind of Navy-blue pea coat and watch hat that some of them wore. Once inside, the hall was so quiet I thought the entire cavernous space—capacious as an armory or an airplane hangar—was deserted until I began to hear little coughs and throat clearings from the benches. Blue cigarette smoke hung suspended in the cold white light filtered down through chicken wired windows high on the walls. In a railed enclosure behind the counter and just before the door to Framer’s office, a woman sat slowly typing behind a desk. The clacking of the keys echoed through the hall. A cloche hat with a floral cluster tacked to its curved brim hung over the reference books lined between two metal bookends atop her desk. Framer hung up the phone and waved me past his secretary’s desk and into his little hotbox of an office. The radiator in the small office was on full blast and every few seconds it would give out a metallic knock and drip a few drops of condensation into a tin pie plate on the floor a few inches under the valve. Framer sat behind the metal desk, his hands folded on the desk blotter. The desk was clear except for a black telephone and intercom console, a pen set in the center, his empty in/out boxes and a single ashtray with a lit, half-smoked butt balanced on the rim. He took out a folder from the file cabinet. “I might have something for you. We call it the Guano Express, and it goes to the Caribbean and back hauling sh…, ahum, fertilizer.” Framer examined me across his desk, his eyebrows raised as if inviting me to say something. It was an awkward moment. “Sounds like a real shit job, huh?” He laughed at his own remark.
“Not really,” I said.” Not that funny. Anything, anything, just get me on a ship. I had gone to a Catholic high school and could humor the worst of those holy bastards. Framer was just another gatekeeper.
“Well, if you want to go to sea, they need someone who’s good with a shovel.” Smoke from his parked cigarette curled into the air. Expressionless, he continued to stare at the paper in his hand. I quickly assured Framer I had shoveled snow every winter since I could walk and was a very good shoveler indeed. Framer’s pause lengthened, and he pulled a speck of tobacco out of the corner of his lip. Then he turned his head and spat thpp into the air over his shoulder.
“There’s only one little detail.” Another drop of water hit the pie plate. “This is a special job, so I want you to bring something to the ship when you go. It’s important, the ship can’t go anywhere unless you do this.”
He paused again, shifting the papers in the folder and, for an endless stretch it seemed, visibly shifting the gears in his mind. Oh no, I thought, second thoughts are going to kill me here, but then his features settled into a resolve that I found encouraging. Hope did not die on its slender vine.
“Go down the street to the tavern on the corner.” He turned his head to the side. Thpp. His cheeks looked not exactly unshaven, but rather as if they had been plucked and scalded, and pinfeathers were all that remained. His head swiveled back. “It’s run by a retired deck ape, an old shipmate of mine; ask for Mickey.”
“Tell Mickey you need a bucket of steam to bring back here. Myra ran out of steam this morning, didn’t you, Myra.” His secretary looked up from her desk and frowned hatefully at her boss.
Framer didn’t even try to suppress his laughter, spluttering, tripping over his words. “It’s for the coils,” he said. “On the ship, the guano ship. Why do you think they call it a steamship company?” His last laugh, wet, plosive, was more like a sneeze that wouldn’t come, and the effort hardened his wrinkled face into a scrimshaw of amused misery. I remember thinking this was exactly what he would look like when he had the heart attack that would kill him. That thought was little consolation while I listened to the subdued chuckling from within the shadows outside the office door. He’s at it again, I heard someone say. What made them think I was dumb enough to fall for that archaic trick? I could see there wasn’t going to be any ship—that I never really had a chance. Framer was just trying to make his day a little less boring. He was a real comedian of the proletariat, full of bitter, depression-era solidarity with a class that had been almost completely rasped out of existence—for me, in an instant, life as per my imagination became more B. Traven than Joseph Conrad. I wanted to take my leave with as much rudeness as I could muster, so I stopped at the railing to cast back what I thought would be a final devastating remark: “What happened to your Parrot, Sinbad?”
He didn’t even look up from the paper he was reading, so all I glimpsed looking back to see his reaction were his foreshortened, disintegrating features—the encysted cranial dome, a brownish mole on its left temple, the greasy strands of grayish hair pushed behind his ears.
“I ate it.”
On the Myrtle Avenue line, I leaned on the window as the train made its way over the elevated tracks to the Fresh Pond Road station. I felt a cold meanness rise from the region where it is said the encaged heart resides. I would get into a fight tonight at Madison Park. I would start it. Win or lose, I would have no friends left when I was finished.
When the train approached the Wyckoff Avenue station, I glimpsed a military recruiting booth, as narrow and tall as an outhouse tucked almost completely down under the elevated platform on Myrtle Avenue, and I had one of those moments in which you see an opportunity that can be grasped, but only if action is taken immediately. I rushed off the train just before the doors closed, went through the turn-styles, and down to the street. The Marine recruiter’s office under the ‘el station resembled one of those guardhouses at the border between two countries with a tradition of mutual suspicion. A poster of the famous Joe Rosenthal photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima hung in a narrow window. Underneath the poster, a slogan: Nobody likes to fight; but somebody has to know how. The Marine sergeant, an athletic all-American type, wore the Marine dress uniform, sky-blue trousers, a long-sleeved khaki shirt with three stripes on the sleeve, and a tie. The brass buckle of his web belt was polished. His jaw was angled like the iron blade of a snowplow. He took off his peaked hat and sat down, gesturing me over to a chair next to his desk. He was a big man, and the size of the outhouse he had to work in was not proportional to his size. I wondered if, when his work was done here, his quota filled, the recruiter would collapse his intricate folding box of a recruiting station and hand carry it like a salesman’s suitcase to the next neighborhood. I decided it would be hilarious to just ask him exactly that. Ten seconds after my wise-ass question and a few other choice remarks, the recruiter told me I was a punk but that I just might have the right stuff. He invited me to take a day to think about what I was doing and come back to his little house in the morning to take the mental test; although, he doubted I could pass it.
That evening I put Japanese Koto music on the hi fi, lit a candle on a bench by the wall opposite my bed, and turned out the lights. From the cabinet, I took out the I Ching and a little statuette of Kuan Yin I bought in Chinatown and centered it on the bench. I lit a stick of incense, placing it on a small, bicycle hubcap upended in front of the statue, and sat cross-legged on the floor. I took out three coins, juggled them around in my cupped hands, and tossed them to the floor. I wrote down the results and tossed the coins five more times. I tossed all changing lines; sixes and nines. When I finished, I looked up the Hexagram: Chun – Difficulty in the Beginning.
I examined the hexagram. Nine at the bottom: Pondering and pondering: one should find helpers.
Six in the second place: Many difficulties. Present time is auspicious for change; perhaps the military.
Six in the third place: Lost in the forest, the superior man gives up the hunt.
Six in the fourth place: Good fortune; students will find favorable job. I hadn’t really planned on joining the Marines.
Nine at the bottom: One should seek helpers.
I turned my attention back to six in the second place: Present time is auspicious for change; perhaps the military.
We’d given a lot to the wars of this republic: a great grand Uncle, Edward Cummins, in the Army of the Potomac killed at Brandy Station; another Cummins on the Confederate side, Grandfather Michael’s brother, George, not seen or heard from since leaving Ireland, showing up in New Orleans only to be killed in Kentucky, both brothers drawn to the cavalry, neither brother aware of the other in the opposing army. A distant cousin, a Houlihan, was blinded by gas at Belleau Wood. My mother’s first cousin Jimmy Cummins died on Omaha Beach. My father’s brother, Patrick Houlihan, was at Corregidor and spent the war years doing forced labor as a prisoner of the Japanese. According to my grandmother, Uncle Patrick was not at all the same person when he returned. If you are death’s accountant calculating over a spread of years, the battle deaths may not seem so much, but if you compress the generations of your own family so diminished, counting up those who have paid the price and slipped away, the butcher’s bill, as U.S. Grant called his casualties, adds up. Such arithmetic compels a certain vested interest in the goings-on of the republic.
The chances of a war breaking out gave me pause, and as crazy as I was in those days, experiencing combat was definitely not one of my burning aspirations. I spent a few tortured hours in my room trying to make up my mind. The cold war had forced a stalemate between the two major belligerents. In three years, I would be eligible for the draft, and by then, the current period of non-hostility might well have run its course and kindled something more dire. The sooner, therefore, I got the military out of the way, the better. I was well aware that the timing of my enlistment might work favorably in terms of my own survival. And so, a most beguiling irony occurred to me: from a certain perspective, it could be said I was consciously and presciently playing the odds in the great roulette wheel of our national life and had, therefore, come upon the most obtuse form of draft-dodging ever devised. That was a winning perspective, so appealing on so many levels that I was able to make up my mind. I turned back to the I Ching hexagram; the first four lines of the hexagram were so apposite, significant and persuasive, seeming to answer my needs so thoroughly, that I paid scant attention to the last two lines: Nine in the fifth place: plan carefully; caution forestalls trouble. Six at the top: He paces back and forth on horseback; He sheds tears with blood!
The next day, the recruiter barely glanced at my birth certificate when I handed it over. He put it to one side, rotated in his chair, pulled a folder out of the filing cabinet, rotated back, and slid the test booklet across the desk. He maintained his severe impassivity when I told him about my union hall misadventure but cracked a smile when I said I wanted to live a life of adventure. That I wanted to sail the East China Sea, like Jack London, like Martin Eden, like my great, great grandfather. He took my fantasy talk right in stride, and I detected neither cruelty nor irony when he shrugged and said “You’ll get there.” His expression allowed me to interpret his unexpected remark as a vote of confidence. The test, a simple multiple-choice exam, was surprisingly easy. Any high school senior could have passed it. It took me about twenty minutes to work it through. “Didn’t take you very long,” he said when I handed it over, insinuating that my final score would suffer because I had rushed through the test. He put the answer template over my answer sheet and proceeded to grade the results. His scrutiny, when he glanced up, made me uncomfortable, but his gaze was appraising, not penetrating, and that allowed me the latitude to believe I still held some mystery for him—I was still an unknown, possibly malleable, quantity as far as the Marine Corps was concerned. “By Jove,” he said as he raised his head. “You passed.”
In the morning, I sat up in bed after lying awake for most of the night. The room smelled of stale incense and vomit. I had puked up quantities of cheap wine after staggering through the door long after midnight, my knuckles scraped, an egg of pure bone pushing up from the ridge over my eye. I didn’t know if I had won anything, but after the preliminaries, I had come out swinging with an inspired resistance full of virtuous resentment and a satisfying anger so deep and so unspecific that I had to wonder where it all came from. I had gotten my wish. I no longer had any friends.
Art Hanlon was born in Brooklyn, New York. After serving in the Marine Corps, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, taking a bachelor’s degree in American history and English, and a master’s degree in journalism. He worked as a newspaper reporter, a country blues musician, a theater set carpenter, a technical writer, and a book editor before returning to the University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and writing for the performing arts. While at Riverside he was the poetry editor for The Coachella Review. He is currently an associate poetry editor for Narrative Magazine. His song, “Spokane,” won first prize in the 2005 Tumbleweed Music Festival in Richland, Washington. His work has appeared in Surfing Illustrated, Art Access, and Narrative Magazine.