“McGlue” (Excerpt) by Ottessa Moshfegh
A story about the life of an abject sailor
EDITOR’S NOTE BY REBECCA WOLFF
If I fell in love with McGlue I would want to mother him, and that is unhealthy for both of us. He needs another mother like he needs another hole in the head. I’d certainly want him to cut back a lot on his drinking, and trick-turning, and take better care of himself in general — bathing and sleeping — but I also know that a significant portion of his massive charm, a golden tooth winking in the jaw of a skull, lies in the drastically poor choices he makes, choices poorer and poorer, led down the paths he’s led down, and the severity of his cruelty to himself and others, and the tragedies of his actions — the swiftness with which he follows his own soul down into the various drinks available to him, sea and blood and grog, mead, gin, wine. With where he came from — dirt — and where he’s headed — phantasmagoric hell — you’d think he’d find room for some redeeming faith in love or God or state. But not McGlue.
He does like to read, when he can get his hands on a text, and so do I, and that’s what keeps us together.
Shortly after I did fall, irrevocably, in love with McGlue, because he’s the kind of queer, socially maladjusted bad-boy who can always float my boat — if not his own — Rivka Galchen did too. It’s not every day that a publisher launches a book prize. The publisher has to cross her legs and hope that she, the judge she’s picked, will settle on something she, the publisher, can love. Rivka says: “A sextant of the psyche, McGlue works its grand knowing through the mouthfeel of language; it’s a sharply intelligent, beautiful, and singular novel. A scion of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Raymond Carver at once, Moshfegh transforms a poison into an intoxicant.”
Hawthorne is the salty courtroom and the bitter docks; Carver is the raw taciturnity and long-suffered loves, maternal and filial and consensual. The poison is drink, a non-literary addiction; the poison is poverty and other harsh, historically accurate conditions that make a boy reckless with those who might love him, with his mortal body and his eternal soul, that turn his soft heart into a sharp or dull knife, one that cuts both ways. The intoxicant is writing this brilliant.
Founder and Editor, Fence Books
“McGlue” (Excerpt) by Ottessa Moshfegh
Recommended by Fence Books
I wake up.
My shirtfront is stiff and bibbed brown. I take it to be dried blood and I’m a dead man. The ocean air persuades me to doubt, to reel my head in double, triple takes towards my feet. My feet are on the ground. It may be that I fell face first in mud. Anyway, I’m still too drunk to care.
A wrathful voice calls out from the direction of sunshine, ship sails hoisting, squeaks of wood and knots, tight. I feel my belly buckle. My head. Just last spring I cracked it jumping from a train of cars — this I remember. I get back down on my knees.
This McGlue. It sounds familiar.
A hand grips my shirt and pokes at my back, steers me to the plank and I get on, walking somehow. The ship is leaving. I puke and hold on to the side of the stern and belch bile for a bit watching the water rush past, until land is out of sight. It’s peaceful for a small while after. Then something inside me feels like dying. I turn my head and cough. Two teeth skip from my mouth and scatter across the deck like dice.
Eventually I am put to bed down under. I fish around my pockets for a bottle and find one.
“McGlue,” says the cabin boy, the sissy, “hand that shit over here.”
I swig it back. Some spills down my neck and wets my soiled collar. I let the empty bottle fall to the floor.
“You’re bleeding,” says the fag.
“So I am,” I say, pulling my hand away from my throat. It’s dark, rummy blood, I taste it. Must be mine, I think. I think of what use it may have if I get thirsty later. Fag looks worried. I don’t mind that he unbuttons my shirt, don’t even beat his hands away as he steers my neck one way, then the other. Too tired. Inspection time. He says he finds no holes in me to speak of. “Ah ha,” I tell him. Fag’s face has a weird sneer, and he looks a little scared and hovers there over me, red hair tucked carefully into a wool cap, a dot of sweat sitting in the trivet of his upper lip just below his little nose. He looks me in the eye, I’d say, with some fear.
“No touch,” I say, ruffling the blanket back up. It’s a grey-and-red striped blanket that smells of lambs’ milk. I hold it over my face while Fag goes about. It’s good here under the blanket. My breath shows in the dark. So dark I could almost sleep.
My mind travels the cold hills of Peru where I got lost one night. A fat woman fed me milk from her tit and I rode a shaggy dog back down along a river to the coast. Johnson was there with the captain, waiting. That was trouble. Hit warm with the rum now I close my eyes.
“What have you done?” says the captain next time I open them. The blanket is stripped away like a whip. Saunders removes my shoes. I hear the boat creak. Someone walks down the hall ringing a bell for supper. The captain stands there by the cot. “We want to hear you say it,” says the captain. I feel sick and tired. I fall asleep again.
They are moving mouths. Saunders and the fag stand by the door. Fag holds a bottle, Saunders dangles keys.
“Gimme.” My voice breaks. I can breathe, hear. He passes the bottle over.
“You killed Johnson,” says Saunders.
I get a good half the bottle down and steady my neck, fold my shoulders back. I feel my jaw let go, look down, remembering blood. My shirt is gone.
“Where’s my shirt.”
“Did you really do it?” says the fag. “Officer Pratt says he saw you. Drunk at the pub in Stone Town. Then run away to the dock just before they found him in the alley.”
“Trash, it’s cold. All possessed till takers of this anti-fogmatico, thank you, faggot,” I say. Drink.
“They found him stabbed in the heart dead, man,” says Saunders, gripping the keys, eyebrows smarting.
“Who has a brick in a hat, Saunders? Quit it, now. It’s keeping me all-overish. Is there food?” The fag takes the empty bottle from where I lay it on the blanket. I feel like dreaming. “Where’s your freckles, Puck? Let’s trade places.”
They aren’t talking to me anymore.
“Food, man. Shit.” I’m completely awake now. In one glance I take in the room: placards, grey-painted wood walls, wire hooks, some hung-up duck and Guernsey frocks, a grey, shield-shaped mirror. Sunlight hazes in, block-style, speckled with white dust. The shadows of men on deck pass along the walls through the small rectangular windows up high above my cot. An empty cot on either side of me. A whine and creak of ship and ocean. I yearn for ale and a song. This is home — me down in the heart of the drifting vessel, wanting, going somewhere.
Saunders and Fag pass words and go out and I hear Saunders lock the door and I protest with, “Come back and smile, Saunders. Give me the goods, what’s up?” and nothing happens.
It’s not the first time I’ve been in the hole on this trip. Will be made to work the pump well each morning and darn sails like an old maid once I’m well again. I think of my mother as I imagine her always at the loom through the nailed-down windows of the mill, me a wee tip-toed kid, fingers hoisting my eyes barely above the horizon of the window ledge, watching my stoop-backed, prim, high-nosed mom at work, and watching her again that night at the table in our little house, calling me and brother “good boys,” pushing crumbs, counting coins and coughing, my sisters in bed already, my mother’s pale, tuckered out hair splayed across her back. All the stars outside just sitting there. The cold rinse of Salem night after running hot all day. I’d throw a rock at a window if I could, if I had one. Did Saunders say Johnson was in unkeeps? I’ll get up and see about it.
I get up. My head thwarts around and I see nothing, then I see stars. Saunders called Johnson dead, I think. I greet the cot again, blind. Saunders will come back with Johnson and have a laugh. Until then I’ll ride my cogitations out through the stabbing pains in my skull, the licking waves. Most likely I’ll doze then wake up to bread and butter and hot beans and whiskey and it’ll be night and we’ll be halfway to China and they’ll say, “Hit the well, McGlue,” like after my last bout. I try to remember the port of call I got this wet in.
Think of someplace you’d like to go.
I can see again. I take my lids between my fingers and hold them open, take a colt-step towards the mirror. A bit closer and I stumble. A rope is tied around my ankle and bound to the bedpost.
I call out, and my voice makes me ill to hear it. Get back down to the cot, McGlue. Yes, thank you. The stars come out. I look for the moon, but it eludes me. I can’t find or measure my way. Drift, drift. If I just close my eyes I’ll get there.
I sleep some more.
I wake with fever. I know fever because there’s a wet rag folded on my brow. The fag attends me bedside with a book in his lap, one leg swinging from a crabapple–shaped knee. My arms are tied to my thighs, ears shut up, face bandaged around and there’s water dripping through the cracks in the deck ceiling and when I breathe I taste a harsh kick of lye and shit. On the dropped-down table slat there’s an opened bottle of pickled cabbage and a cake of bread. I look up. The drops of deckwater fall in my eyes and burn. Fag wields a pale wooden tenon in his hand, arm hovering above my head motherly almost.
I open my mouth to curse.
But Fag sticks the tenon lengthwise between my teeth. I rattle around a bit.
“It’s what you got, McGlue,” Fag says, holding down my neck.
I’m thirsty so I look him in the eye as best I can.
“We can’t give you anymore, so don’t even ask,” is his answer.
He thinks he’s got something over me. I let him have it and rattle around some more. With difficulty I use my tongue to taste the roof of my mouth and get salt-air and shit. It’s not good. I’d like something sweet about now. There was a little outpost in Borneo that sold wine made out of honey I remember. That was good. The girls there stood around fanning themselves with silver plates, tits and nipples set above tight chainmail vests. Those girls’ hips, narrow like young boys’, hopped a firm beat between my hands when I willed it, like they were somehow inside my mind, listening. I sat in the shade and I took them into the road to dance when it cooled down and I felt like dancing. Johnson, too. Then “Keep back,” he’d said, trotting off, “watch for the fat one, yell ‘pig’ if you see him come,” pulling one of the girls behind the jungle curtain back aways and I’d continue to dance and keep my hands on the girl’s hips and when the fat one came I just grabbed my pistol from my boot and shot it at the stars. The girls loved it, screaming and running, then laughing and creeping back from behind the dark palm fronds with their hands over their mouths. The fat one holding his belly nods to the fresh bottle on the little stool they use as a table. Forget Johnson, the worried, shameful rat. I sit and drink and watch the sky. A girl comes and takes my hand and we dance some more. Johnson shows up again.
“So soon, old man?” I holler, watching him walk back to the road, his girl slunk back in the dark, chainmail aflash in moonglow. Always with a girl. He sheds a tear for her, or what he’s done, as we set sail. Always a tear. I laugh. “Why not stay awhile,” I used to say, “build up a nice family, learn the language?” and he’d shove off and reemerge hours later all cool and fixed, talk to the captain on the virtues of clippers over cutters and be asking how he’d got in the racket and so on, starry-eyed. Make me sick. I watch the girls now in a line waving goodbye from the shore, picture them standing along the crack in the ceiling of this darkening room, eyes ashimmer like drops of water, and I rattle on.
I’ve been this sick before.
“Shit,” I try to say, but the tenon’s got my tongue again. I look at Fag. His eyes are on his lap, reading lines.
If Fag won’t give me rum then let me suck the brine from that cabbage at the very least, I think. I get myself on my right side, planning something. Fag gets up and digs his elbow in the nook of my waist. I spit the tenon out onto the floor. Blood leaks from my mouth.
“Happy now, fagger?” I slurp. My voice hurts my head. My head, I seem to recall, has a big crack in it.
“Count a blessing, McGlue. Next stop’s Mac Harbour, where we ought to just set you right down with the rest of the cons.”
“Pleased if you do,” I say, and slam my head back against the cot. The effect is good: a sharp taste of blood in the back of my throat and I see black for a while, then white. Sleep again.
Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania
We’re docked and most mates are ashore but blackies locked in the next cabin are snoring. Then I hear one pour something in a cup. I’m awake. I rub my wrists rough up against my hips and get the ropes undone, get up and drag the foot of my cot to the wall and take a breath. I see a canteen on the dropped-down table. So I drag the cot that way and grab it and drink till it’s empty. Just water. It glaciers down my tubes the opposite of piss on snow and I double over and curse — my first words in days. The blackies mumble. Then I drag the cot to the wall again and step up on it, look through the high window over the deck. It’s blue everywhere. The sky is blue. The clouds are blue. The ocean’s blue. The slow zig-zag of a seagull sways in my eyes in such a way they start to water. Am I crying? If this side of the ship was facing land I think I’d puke for wanting. Any other day I’d be purchasing a tin of tobacco, taking some in my gums quick then more in a pipe, squint, drum my chest, yell at Johnson to get on. How many hours till the ship’s loaded, I’d find out. We’d take a ride to town, see what they’ve got to get into here. A country full of murderers and thieves must have good stuff, I’m thinking. Blood wine, I’m thinking. Whiskey made from ladies’ fingers. Some kind of strong snuff from bad plants used to treat the blackhearts in lock-up. Roasted meats. Pies filled with sugar plums, rats, brandy. I can bet I know what the mates would be saying. Nasty, wrench-pussied women all about. I am starving.
“Starving!” I yell out to the sea.
They said I’ve done something wrong? Johnson must be angry and won’t come down to make it right. Not yet. And they’ve just left me down here to starve. Haven’t had a drop in days more so. They’ll see this inanition and be so damned they’ll fall to my feet and pass up hot cross buns slathered in fresh butter and beg I forgive them. All of them: Johnson, Pratt, Captain, Saunders, the fagger, the entire world one by one. Like a good priest I’ll pat their heads and nod. I’ll dunk my skull into a barrel of gin.
I feel happy imagining my hand on Johnson’s bowed head, the black, gleaming hair through my fingers. I’d twirl it around like a little girl does braids, pinch his cheeks, let some of my hungryman drool drip down on his face, unhook the frog in my throat, “Johnny,” I’ll say. “A toast.” Two cups of ale up and down our mouths and our seamen’s beards are full of foamy slaver. It was like that in Salem, nights we waited to leave port. The red in Johnson’s cheeks blooms like flowers every time he swallows, then fades again while he talks. His hair, black and slick as hot tar, never flails or wanders from where it lies, no matter what the wind or rain. “Pretty,” they say. He called me “Soaplocker” for how I wore my hair when we first met: so long in front I’d wrap it around my ears and it’d hold. He says he took me for a kid like fifteen the night he found me and thought himself a real hero.
I have to laugh. The first time I saw Johnson I thought he was one of those asshole Charlies you hear engage with kids out in the woods for a few cents a suck or whatnot. I know these types well.
“You think,” he’d said, “that rum will keep you from freezing the night?”
I had my hat over my face, bottle between my knees, slowly melting my ass into a seat of snow propped up dead-tired against a tree. Johnson sat on a horse.
“Get going,” I said. A Charlie or not, I didn’t care. I’d made it a few days into a jag by that night, somewhere between New Haven and Orange. I was never going home again. I could see the ice-paved beach through the moonlit trees. I had another whole, full bottle — a double pint — in my coat pocket, and some money left. I was good. That was my thinking.
But Johnson wouldn’t leave. His horse reared up and he pulled and steered her back, both his breath and horse snort steaming out like ghostly spirits leaving their bodies, like some child’s scary poem. I tried to laugh but my face had frozen. I remember that.
“You’ll die out here,” said Johnson. “Let me take you into town.”
“Go fuck,” I told him. He acted like he didn’t hear and steered the horse around some more.
“Puck, you say?” he said. I took a drink. “A boy’s read Shakespeare comes to spend the night on ice. Aw…” He slapped his horse’s rump. “Get on that, Nicky Bottom.”
He acted like a fag but didn’t look like one. A joke, I thought. Making fun of me, what I’d expect him to be. He leaned down and put his hand in my face for me to take hold of. He asked where I came from, and when I’d said, “Salem,” he laughed.
“I was born there,” he said, pulling me up.
I’d been hammered down bad before and by this time — I was twenty-two, twenty-three — I knew that I was doomed. I’d accustomed myself to that most of all. For some reason, though, I went along: I got up on the horse and grabbed the saddle strap where I could and we rode. It must have been just as cold on that horse as it was sitting back there in the snow. But he could be right, Johnson. He may have saved my life.
We headed south and rode all through the night as I recall. Johnson said around Stratford I leaned my head up on his shoulder and snored. I woke up, must have been days later, in Mamaroneck in the afternoon, head on a clean white tablecloth, smelling fish fry.
Johnson stood by the stove with his back to me and his arm around a girl. The girl brought a plate to the table. There was a brown fried fish. “Nick here won’t eat that, sister,” he said. “Give him potatoes. I think that’s all he can stomach for now, that right?”
Johnson came and sat and ate the fish with a silver fork, one hand in his lap.
“McGlue,” I told him.
He gave me his hand again.
Fag unlocks the door hours later. It’s turned grey, early evening. He’s wearing a funny green sweater. He leaves a crate of oranges on the dropped-down, then comes and stands over me. I fold my hands.
“Captain says to give you food. There’s some oranges. I’ll send you down a plate later. And I guess some ale. But captain said no more rum. You’ve got a big hole in your head, McGlue.”
I touch the crack with my finger. My ears ring. I wake up more, it’s like a bright, sunny day and nowhere to go. All the more rum I’ll need, I think.
“You need to go, you go here,” he says, going back out to the hall and carrying in a big tin bucket. He sets it carefully by the bed.
“Many thanks, faggot,” I say. “Throw me an orange.”
He selects one and tosses it softly into my open palms. Nice little fag, I think. Good boy, I’m thinking, watching him leave and lock the door. I pierce the dimpled orange peel with my thickened, yellow thumbnail. The perfume rouses the hairs in my nose, making my eyes water. I sniff deep. My head fills with the sour spray, scratching an itch deep in my brain. It’s good. I take a bite, peel and all. It’s not good. This is me now: puking fruit into a bucket already half full of blackie piss and shit.
I lay back down and close my eyes. Soon there will be hot food. The thought makes my stomach turn. A mug of cold ale more like it. I’ll sleep till then, think of Shanghai. The so-often swept and scoured plaza. The great clock. The perfect skin of the girl. No variation. You could paint her in three colors: yellow, black and red.
Fag wakes me in the dark with a cold plate of hash and digs a fork into my fist. “No ale,” he says. “Captain’s orders.” Still just remembering my name, what man I am, I sit up in my cot and eat as best I can.
South Pacific, a month later
I’ve been studying a Walch’s Tasmanian almanac, memorizing pages, not to let my mind-muscle go to flub like my arms and legs have after almost a month, I guess, of lying down here, imprisoned. Sometimes when I look down, a less-thinking part of me looks up at the shapes and curves of my flesh and bone which have taken on a kind of pale and pretty shiftiness, like a young country girl in winter. I lift the sheets and stare and stare. Well, it’s a good game to play when I’m too bored to think. My mind wanders watching it rise and tarry. If they give me food in the morning and it’s not too cold, I tend to pass the time aloud, sing the songs I learned in school, talk to an invisible Johnson, have a laugh or two, get some soul out. I’ve asked Saunders and Fag to provide me with some diversions. “Let me walk around the ship. You think I’ll swim away?” I say. They tell me I should be happy with what I’ve got to read — three letters raised on the blue glass bottle of O-I-L. They don’t know about the almanac. They keep saying I’ve killed Johnson.
Without Johnson around to have look-aftering, and all these mates down on me as a killer, I miss the rum. I am beginning to hear what they say I’ve done. Fag says I should lay here quietly and pray. I tell him I’m thirsty. I flip the blanket down and lift my johns.
“Fagger,” I say. “If I was thirsty, would you afford this?”
I see his eyes twitch, the fag.
“You smell like a dead horse’s ass, McGlue.” His scoff is so huffy, I laugh.
I look down at the lovely alabaster ridged cliffs and valleys of my body, scribbled with little light brown curls down into a shag of darkened, wet and heady hell. A tall mug of port would be good. I’d kiss you, I think. It makes itself known, unshies itself from the dark down there.
“Hello,” I say to it. It rises.
“The fag’ll have none of you then,” I say, and lick my hand.
“Fag,” I say, reaching down to it, “stay with me.”
He sees well the game I’m playing. He stays.
That evening he brings me a hogshead of ale.
The next morning, a bottle of the good stuff.
I’m good again. I don’t read the almanac as much. Hell hides in the ditch and my eyes are dry.
Captain comes in. He’s got on a new jet black felt hat.
“What’s worse, McGlue? You want to confess today?”
“I didn’t do it,” I say.
“And you don’t recall.”
“Show me your hands,” he says, and I stretch them out towards him best I can. They warble and drift from side to side. He steadies one between his two warm palms. Then he slaps it, hard. A naughty child. I don’t laugh.
“Word’s been sent to your mother, McGlue. You’ll be tried in Salem, most likely in the first degree. Or even second degree. The greatest degree if you want to know what I think you’re due.” That idiot. He wrenches his face and looks away and sways back on his heels and tries again to look me in the face but can’t and wrenches his face again. He resembles a drowned man: doughy-faced, unbearded, eyes bulging and colorless, veins showing clearly at his throat. “You think it’s one big gag, don’t you. Lie down here all day, do no work, think you’ve got the world in a book. Drunken trash,” he calls me. “I never saw what Johnson said you’d be any good for, and I was right. Don’t want to think what his family would have to say to you. Why would anyone? People are gonna want to know why you did it, McGlue. Better start thinking real hard. What have you been thinking all this time?”
I fold my hands and sit up a little in the cot. I just look at him like, What?
“We’ll be home in a month,” he says. He comes a bit closer and looks down at my head from above, I guess at the crack. Inspection time. On his way out he catches scent of the piss and shit bucket, and looks at the fag and cocks his chin at it, and goes out with his head down. His chin is gutty and flubbed like a fish that way. I wonder who would ever want to fuck such a man.
Things get slow down here.
There was a little Hindu man sitting cross-legged in the market in Calcutta waving a sword around his head. Johnson elbowed me at the sight of him, so we stopped and watched him put the blade down his throat, all the way till the handle was just sitting on his teeth. Some men came and the little man ran off, his head still thrown back, moving nimbly like a little lizard.
I asked Johnson how he could’ve survived such impalement.
“It’s all empty in there, Nicky,” he told me, drumming his chest. “Like a tunnel.” Then he knocked on my head. “You may be just clear of junk up here instead,” he said.
What I have been thinking, captain, is what is exempt from import tax in one country is what I’d like to stick through the crack in my skull to start to fill it: hay, oranges, lemons, pineapples, cocoa nuts, grapes, green fruit, and vegetables of every variety, and linseed oil cake. Horses, pigs, poultry, dogs, and living animals of every description, except cattle and sheep. Corks, bark, firewood, logwood, and dyewoods. Copper or yellow metal, rod bolts or sheathing, and copper and yellow metal nails. Felt for sheathing, oakum and junk, pitch, tar, and resin. Sail canvas, boats, and boat oars.
I fill my head with ships’ blocks, binnacle lamps, signal lamps, compasses, shackles, sheaves, deadeyes, rings and thimbles, dead lights, anchors, and chain cables of every description, and galvanized iron wire rope. Lime juice and ice. Printed books, music, and newspapers, maps, charts, globes, and uncut cardboard, millboard, and pasteboard. Ink, printing presses, printing type, and other printing materials. Passengers’ baggage or cabin furniture arriving in the colony at any time within three months before or after the owner thereof. Tablets, memorial windows, harmoniums, organs, bells, and clocks specially imported for churches or chapels. Hides and skins of every description, raw and unmanufactured. Veneers of all sorts. Rattans, split or unsplit.
Carriage shafts, spokes, naves, and felloes. School slates and slate pencils, slates for roofing, and slates and stone for flagging. Marble, granite, slate, or stone in rough block.
Soda ash, caustic soda, and silicate of soda. Cotton waste, woollen waste, candle cotton, wool, flax, hemp, tow, and jute, unmanufactured. Specimens of natural history, mineralogy, or botany. Gold dust, gold bars, bullion, and coin. Coir bristles and hair unmanufactured. Broom heads and stocks, partly manufactured for brushmaking purposes. Jars of glass or of earthenware, specially imported for jam. Rod bar hoop sheet plate and pig iron and piglead share moulds and mould boards. Epsom salts, citric acid, sulphuric acid, muriatic acid, carbolic acid. Hair cloth for hopkilns. Wines and spirits.
We stayed a night in Mamaroneck, and though I’d have liked to get out and have a run at a grog shop, Johnson said we had to get up early to ride into the city, and laid out for me a set of his old clothes across the back of a chair: heavy brown trousers, a clean shirt, vest and woolen frock coat.
“New Haven is good for two things,” said Johnson, undressing for bed. “Sam Colts and cotton gin.” I watched him from where I stood, warming myself by the fire. His arms were thin and finely wrought. Hands red and afog in what I could only think what must be beauty. “I’m done,” he said, getting into bed. “New York is full of rich people, money, and wine. You just have to learn how to not take too much or you’ll get shut down.”
I stood there with my hands in my pockets. I was thinking he was a ride somewhere and another few meals until I got there.
“Who’s the girl?” I asked him.
“An old maid,” was his answer.
I stood there some more and watched him rub his eyes in a cracked mirror on the bedside table. “What you want me here for?”
“You got a gun?” he asked.
“And you haven’t shot me yet,” he said.
He threw a blanket at the rug by the fire and rolled over.
In the morning we found that Johnson’s trousers were too long on me and he had the girl hem them while I sat in my long johns by the fire and he got the horse ready.
North Sea, south of Long Fourties
There is a storm in the night and the boat rocks. Mates clamber up and down the hall and across the deck, hollering over the wind and rain. Raise the sails, furl the sails, repair the rigging, I remember all that. I stand on the cot to look out the window, wipe my face, watch the lightning flash through the white tower of flags, whipping crazy, the bow flying high, chair scraping along the floor behind me, the black seas all around. The ship tilts and rain spills in through the window onto the cot. I get up and drag the cot up against the door. This kind of dizzy makes sense when I walk. The piss and shit bucket I wedge in the corner. I’d like a smoke. I tip the cot to get the water off and lay back down. This is like high seas. The best part. I close my eyes, let the room spin.
“If you can’t sleep, think of things you like to eat, things you see walking down a road, girls’ names. Say them in your head, again and again, until you’re done.”
“I’m never done, Johnson,” I tell him. “It’s what I always need, one more.”
“Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, Johnson…”