Willie hopped on the back of the bike, his hand resting briefly on Buzz's waist as he settled his feet on the posts, and pressed his legs along the edge of the smooth, leather seat. The night was cast darker now, a breeze kicking up, a good breeze, bringing a promise of summer's warmth beneath the cold, crisp slide of air down his shirtcollar. Water sloshed across the sand as the tide began to go out and Willie felt the jerk of Buzz's body as the bike's engine barked into life. The sound was hard and edged against the silence of the sandy bay, and Willie thought he heard Buzz ask him a question, so he leaned forward and said, "All set."
Even though he wasn't.
He wanted to stay out beneath the stars forever. The stars were where Jason was.
Buzzed eased the bike into first, lifted his feet from the gravel, and in that second it was as if the bike had taken flight. Balanced beneath Buzz's hands, a knowing touch sending it to hop over a hillock and onto the smooth, dark, white-lined roadway. Wheels humming as the bike sped through the rows and rows of trees, sliced through overhead with the canopy of stars. A bright wind whipping his hair straight back, Buzz's outline cutting the chill only a little bit, Willie hooked his hands on the bar behind him, and titled his head. Up, up, so his eyes could see the stars as the bike flew beneath them.
A thousand stars, and a thousand more behind that, all silver and white, burning far, far away to slice through the space between them. As Buzz raced the bike, curving into the turns, not hurrying, but moving, constantly moving, like the stars through the sky, or the cut of a hull through the splash of fine, cold Pacific waters, or the softer spray of the warmer South Pacific. Or even the frozen Atlantic, off the coast of Greenland, once, the stars pouring down through crystal air as they were now, the sudden image of Jason in his ever-present black hat, elbows bent on the iced railing, pointing at the bleak tip of an iceberg under the dark sky. His breath smelling of whisky, and the cold tap of the metal flask as he'd passed it to Willie.
And from his lips, nothing profound, nothing sacred, or even remarkable, but Willie remembered laughing just the same. "Now that's what I call cold, boy-o," Jason had said. "Colder than a well-digger's ass." Tipping back his head, laughing, Jason catching the flask as Willie dropped it, chuckling in his turn. They'd both been so drunk, well-armed against the cold with pea coats
and woolen socks, sailing on the Bonny White Lady, signed up for crabbing, but both so horribly bad at it, discovered only when it was too late, that the captain had set them to rolling lines of rope, and baiting the cages, and staying out of the way. Their pay would be cut in half upon their return, they'd been told, but Jason had shrugged, and Willie had thought it very likely that the other man had something else lined up and that the Bonny White Lady was only a stopover on the way to someplace else. It was taking them, after all, to the port of Sandvosk, in Norway, and from there, well, the world was full of boats. And stars.
It hadn't been like that at first, of course. When Willie had first bumped into Jason, it had been beneath smoky, humid-dark skies over a Brooklyn tenement street. The middle of summer, and so hot, even as the sun went down, you couldn't breathe for feeling your lungs were on fire, with the stars blocked out by city smog and dust. That was the way summer was, hell-hot, cut through by violent storms that didn't do a thing to rinse away the dirt or the heat or the smell.
He'd been on his way home from the brickyard, which had been the third job his dad had gotten for him in as many months, with the unhappy news that he wasn't going to be joining the union anytime soon. Not that he cared, but dad would have a hairy fit, and be liable to send Willie's head through the plaster. So he was taking the long way, past the bars on the docks. The sweat was sticking to him like a heavy paste that had been thrown on him and then it had started to rain. It had been like standing under a waterfall, with the only shelter being in the Bulldog, and so even though neither him nor his dad was a regular customer there, he slipped inside. No one was likely to tell him to scat, not with the rain pouring down, the gutters filling with dust and mud slipping past. He even had his last fifty cents in his pocket; maybe he could get a beer.
The taproom was like so many others in Brooklyn, dark wood, designed with grace from another time, but begrimed over so that any gentleness that had existed was beaten down by the rude noise and the almost black sawdust on the floor that had seen its last change several months back. The smell was a familiar one though, the thick burst of local brewed hops, and the sharper cut of whiskey straight from the bottle, poured without ice or soda. And sweat, the unwashed kind that begged for soap and hot water, but whose cries were drowned by clothes that were worn, of necessity, every day except Sunday.
Somebody had a radio on, the baseball scores were being ripped through. There was a shout, and a murmur, and Willie stepped into the room, feeling somewhat more at home.
A small silence fell, and he stuck out his chin, running his tongue over his back teeth, and marched right up to the bar. Then the regular noise built up again, and he raised a finger at the man behind the counter. "Beer, Mac," he said.
"Name ain't Mac," said the bartender, wiping his hands on his blackened, button-down shirt.
"Gimme a beer anyway," said Willie, flipping his hair out of his eyes. Sass always took him a long way, and he would use it now, even though this was an unknown bar, and the patrons no friends of his. Didn't matter anyway, did it? They'd sell him a beer, wouldn't they, when he pulled out his fifty-cent piece.
He reached into his pocket and laid his money on the counter, slipping onto the stool and tucking his feet into the railing below. His muscles relaxed the second the mug of beer was slammed in front of him and the money taken away by a hand with dirty fingernails. Taking the first sip, he sighed. Two dimes rattled down in front of him, and as he took a second, deep swallow, he wished he had another nickel. Then he could have a second beer and then maybe dad's shouts and blows wouldn't matter so much.
Not that they did, of course. Not that Willie cared. He was out of here anyway, soon as he could figure out just exactly how.
Behind him he heard the flutter and slam of the door as someone else came in, and the ripple of a coat and a hat being removed and shaken, and he saw Mac nod at the newcomer and sipped at his beer. Down at the end of the bar was another commotion as the newcomer sat down and was greeted with mock blows and growls of hello, and a shot of whiskey was put in front of him without his having said a word.
Slick. That's what he was. Slick as an eel. Willie watched as he downed the shot without even moving his throat, head tipped back, dark hair swirling with dampness around his face. Flushed with the heat of the room and the warmth of the drink, he only smiled as Mac asked, "Hey, McGuire, you got that two hundred you owe me?"
"Of course I do," came the reply, his accent as thick as if he were off-the-boat Irish. He patted his own pockets as if concerned. "But of course, in this neighborhood, all those thieves about." He nodded, smiling with his teeth. "It's in a safe place, of that I can assure you."
The man, McGuire, turned his head, making a motion for another in his glass, and caught Willie's eye. Winked, and Willie felt himself sniggering. Mac's money was long gone and he was an idiot if he believed McGuire. But believe him he did, pouring another whiskey and bringing a cold beer besides, waving away the man's attempt to pay. "On the house," he was saying, fully believing that his errant money was actually on its way.
McGuire was taking off a thick sweater, in the heat, and Willie figured he had really just come off a boat. Maybe not from Ireland, maybe not, but from somewhere. Somewhere cool and cold, not smacking of pressured heat, and the dirty grime that fell from the skies with the rain. He was folding the sweater now, in the warmth of the bar, placing it to one side, seemingly confident that it wouldn't be taken, and Willie moved back, and took the last swallow of his beer. Not as cold as the first swallow, but a damn sight better than a warm one, or no beer at all. Jostled the fellow next to him and felt the splash of something cold along his side, and then a grip on his arm. Pulled off the barstool inside of a second, and the man holding him, shouting. Red faced with drink, as if he'd started the moment the Bulldog opened.
"You spilled my goddamned beer!"
"Did not," said Willie, narrowing his eyes. "So let go of me."
The grip on him tightened. "Buy me another beer!"
"Ain't got the money, so what are you gonna do about it, huh?"
The logic of this baffled the other man, and the patrons in the bar were only watching, including Mac, as if this were their afternoon's entertainment, and not one of them wanted to miss a thing. It was almost perfectly silent as the other man's breath whistled through his nose, and his glassy eyes tried to pin some sort of focus on Willie.
Willie wasn't afraid, not really. Yeah, nervous, okay that much he could admit to, because this was a new bar, and he didn't really know how much swinging room he had, or if the floor tilted or how slippery it was, or who might stand at his back if things got out of hand. In his own neighborhood, in the Red Hat, he wouldn't have even needed to ask or worry about any of this.
The other man shook Willie, his hand like a bear claw, and the muscles of his shoulders bunched up, looking like he could make one clean move and jerk Willie's arm right out of its socket. The feeling was going from his shoulder on down, and now he was starting to sweat.
"BUY me a BEER!"
"Don't have any--"
A fist was coming at his face, and Willie ducked, but he could only duck so far, and the fist grazed the top of his head. Three inches lower and his face would have been a pulp. But the man didn't let go and Willie had a feeling the second blow would be much more accurate. And his own left fist would only do some good if it could connect with an eye, or a jaw, but the other man was tall, like a bear standing in a forest and Willie had to look up so far that it threw him off balance, and he began to think that the beating he'd been fearing from his dad was coming from a stranger in a strange bar anyway. Some things just couldn't be avoided, he guessed, and shifted his weight to balance when the next blow came. Maybe he could duck, maybe the grip on his arm would slip, maybe--
"Well, now," said an Irish voice in his ear, "what a welcome home this is, and me with money in my pockets to burn. Give us a round, eh, Pete? For me and my new friends here."
He clapped a hand on Willie's shoulder, causing him to jump three feet, and then on the other man, gripping the collar of the shirt and giving it a jerk.
"A nice cold beer, eh, my friend? That's what you want, isn't it? Well, have a seat." Here he shoved, and the other man was forced to let go and slither onto the nearest barstool. His elbows landed with a heavy thud, slipping in the spilled beer, and the patrons in the bar seemed to sigh with disappointment and turned away.
Blood pumped through Willie's liberated arm, and he rubbed it, looking at the other man reaching into his pockets and paying with a dollar for the beer, nodding and smiling, saying "Keep the change," and then giving a nod to Willie as he stood between him and the other man, pulling a mug to his mouth and drawing it back and sighing, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Tuck in, lad," he said, jerking his chin at the beer Willie now saw was being pushed at him. "Tis not going to get any colder, is it."
Willie shrugged and sat back down. Free beer was, after all, free beer, and he could save his twenty cents for the servomat and get a sandwich and a candy bar later. If it was at all possible, the first draw of his second beer of the afternoon was better than the first had been. McGuire stood at his elbow, polite as if he were waiting his turn at a party for the dip, until the man sitting on the stool had finished his free beer and shuffled off to find the urinals. Then McGuire slid in next to Willie, his elbows avoiding the spilled beer until Pete came with a damp rag and wiped it all up. He seemed to settle in and finally relax. As if he'd been waiting for just this bar stool, this moment, to take a deep breath and let his head nod down.
"Where you in from?" asked Willie, half to be polite and half because he wanted to know.
"Come bound from the North Sea," Jason said, sipping his beer, "across the Atlantic."
"Is it cold there?" Willie asked, his eyes flicking to the pile with the sweater and the hat.
"The Atlantic is as cold as the North Pole," came the answer, somehow glittering and smooth at the same time.
"Even in summer?"
"Even then, boy-o."
"And where're you goin' now?"
"Catching a boat to go round the Horn," said McGuire, not looking up.
"Aw, c'mon," said Willie. "Really, where?"
McGuire shrugged. Not caring if Willie believed him or not, it seemed. Just stating the facts and Willie could take it or leave it. "Round the Horn, stopping at Tierra del Fuego," he said. "Good money going on a ship picking up spices, and the water is warm."
Warm water was not thing Willie felt short on, not with summer so hot, and ice water as far away as winter, and he couldn't imagine it. Nor even picture in his head where the Horn actually was, his geography learning days far enough behind him that even a sensible map of the country he lived in was falling to dust. He could only nod, and sip at his beer.
"Naturally, after that, I'm headed to San Francisco, and after that, who knows. Maybe Seattle or perhaps the China Sea." McGuire smiled at his beer, as if his thoughts were far away. Naturally, as if he knew exactly where all those places were.
"China Sea, huh?" Willie asked, and McGuire smiled with all of his teeth as if he'd been waiting for Willie to ask just that question.
"It's not the work I'm after, you see," he replied, tipping his head back. "But rather a fine, dusky beauty with velvet skin who speaks a language that needs no translating."
The guy went for oriental dames, that was clear, and Willie felt a churn of something deep in his gut. Yeah, that would be the life. Sailing from port to port, picking up a local lovely and then leaving her without a question or a promise. Not like in Brooklyn, where if you even wanted to get past second base or even first, you had to shell out. Meet the parents. Take her for walks in the park or along the battery. Or the movies, with her in a white on white dress that you dared not even touch. Timewasting. And the end result was blue balls and the tantalizing remains of her perfume.
"So, ah," he started, running his thumb along the damp edge of the handle of his beer mug, "what do you do on these boats?"
"Ships, lad," said McGuire without heat. "They're called ships. The big ones. The trawlers, the tankers, cargos, all of them, ships."
Willie tipped his head in a half-nod. Still looking at his beer, still thinking about it, wondering if the air was fresher out at sea, cleaner, the way it looked in all the ads that plastered the walls of the subway, or lined the brick buildings outside the place that sold tickets to places he could never afford to go.
"To answer your question," said McGuire now, swallowing back a mouthful of beer, "I do just about anything. As little as possible, of course, but enough to get by."
"Uh, like what?"
"Cargo man, cook, and oh, let's see, one time, even got a position as first mate. That didn't last very long though."
"Well," began McGuire, his eyes flicking to Willie's and then away, his brow furrowing as if he were greatly distressed. "There was some problem with the captain and the drink, you see. And what with the papers for the port authority not being filled out completely, well, you can see what a muddle that would be. A great deal of confusion, naturally, and I was forced to step to shore. Unannounced, as it were."
Which was, apparently, McGuire's way of saying that he'd had a brush with the law. Had walked away from it, too, from the sounds of it. Wasn't overly concerned about the morality of it, either.
"Well here's to stepping to shore," Willie said, feeling something turn inside him. McGuire was more interesting than the usual boozers he met in the local bars. Knew more too. Had a glance that riveted, and a sparkle and flash of having been places. Seen things. He lifted his beer and McGuire lifted his and they toasted.
"Here's to the shore," said McGuire, "and here's to leaving it as soon as possible."
Taking a large swallow, Willie let the beer hit his stomach. "Yep," he said, wiping the dash of foam from his upper lip. "When you shipping out?"
"Two in the morning," said McGuire. "High tide. More room in the baywater then for big ships."
"Oh. Well, good luck."
"Thanks, laddie." McGuire took down the last swallow of his beer. He looked ready to gather his things and head on out, his eyes searching the bar for his things.
"Sounds like fun," Willie said, scooting back on his barstool to give McGuire room to move.
McGuire stood up, and checked the dollar and change on the bar with one hand. "You could come with me," he said, almost as if he was talking to himself.
"Like I said," repeated McGuire, in aggrieved tones as if Willie had insulted him by not believing him. "You could come with me. You'd be handy on a ship, if you didn't get seasick."
"Aw, c'mon." Tale tales, that's all it was. "You don't mean that."
"Indeed I do." McGuire pointed to himself, a wounded expression pulling at his eyes. "You think I would fib about a thing like that? After I bought you a beer on this hot day?"
"No." Willie had to agree, though he was not sure why. McGuire had a convincing way about him.
The smell of the bar and damp bodies coming in from a pelting rain hit him as he watched McGuire lean down to pick up his sweater and his cap. Then he noticed the seabag in the corner by the door. Then he shrugged. "Thanks, but I gotta...I gotta stay here. My dad, well, you know."
"Won't let sunny boy out of sight, eh?" McGuire shrugged back, it was all the same to him, and Willie knew the offer must have been made almost in jest. For who in the world would make an offer like that to someone he'd just met?
"Never mind, then, laddie. When you're ready, there'll be a ship for you."
McGuire turned to walk away, putting his cap on his head and gathering up his seabag with one arm, the coat and sweater slung over his elbow. His hand was on the door and Willie's heart began to race. McGuire walked like he knew where he was going, and wherever it was had to be a hell of a lot more exciting than anywhere Willie was heading.
"Wait," he called out, startling the patrons around him. "Which ship?"
"The Fitz Pomery," said McGuire without turning around. He was, even, opening the door as he spoke. Opening it and stepping out into the rain. "It's a reefer," he said, shifting the bag in his hand. "Dock 89."
Then he was a jumbled figure in the rain, and he was gone, the door banging shut behind him. Leaving Willie to wonder what the hell a reefer was.
The Fitz Pomery turned out to be a refrigerated cargo boat, picking up and dropping off slabs of Argentine beef. Not spices, as McGuire had said. Jason McGuire, as it turned out, born in County Kerry in the stone cottage of a turf farmer, whose whole life had revolved around cuts of peat to be burned in village fireplaces.
"And that was it!" Jason would say, almost excitable in his confusion. "He wanted nothing more than that, and a drop of his whiskey on Sundays." And he would shake his head, giving Willie the feeling that Jason thought his father crazed in the head and missing out on all that the world was to offer. Because, for all of Jason's relaxed code of ethics, missing out was the worst sin, the only sin, that mattered. Wheeling and dealing, Jason made sure that he missed out on very little.
And when Willie joined him at dock 89 in the clearing air of an early summer's morning, a small overnight bag full of things he thought he'd need, he began not to miss out either.
Although, some things would have been better served had Willie stayed home.
Like the time he'd gotten stung by a jellyfish along the beach on the coast of Tierra del Fuego. Not their first stop, certainly not their last, the whole feeling of docking in a new country always too much to resist. He'd gone out walking, since Jason had found his local lovely, not wanting to play witness or join in.The first bar he'd walked into had stunk to high heaven. Something about the pipes backing up, and Willie had backed out pretty quickly, the romance and newness of the place wearing off faster than the shine of a new day. Taken off his shoes and walked in the surf beyond the wharf, watching out for oil sludge and pieces of iron and not watching for the clear, dead looking bodies of jellyfish.
The first sting had taken him by surprise, as if someone had zapped him with electricity, like the time he'd helped his dad, or rather tried to help his dad, to fix a short that had blacked out their TV and left an odd smoky residue in the air. Willie had grabbed the grounding wire, and bam, gone down like a dead haddock. The second sting sent him to the sand, just like he'd been plowed into from inside. His head just inches from the high tide mark, and then the pain had started. Flowing like a hot shower, inside his veins, and then he had started to feel hot all over. Shaking as if he were on fire, and sweat popping out all over. Then he threw up and fell over.
His first clear memory after that was of waking up in the hotel room that he and Jason had rented. Jason standing over him with a cold cloth, pressing it to his forehead. The windows open, and a fan going, ever so slowly, in the ceiling. The smell of his own vomit tart in his nostrils.
Another memory, darkness now, the ease of air sliding over the windowsill, and himself feeling cooler than he had in his entire life. His feet smarting, his legs feeling like hard balloons. But he felt better. Eyes drifting over the dark room, and there was Jason, in the room's only arm chair, a small short, thing, and the glowing tip of Jason's cigarette. Puffing and fading, a dim smell of burned tobacco, and Jason's eyes glinting in the dark.
Turned out that the Fitz Pomeroy would not wait, had sailed off to San Francisco without them. And that Jason had stayed behind. Forfeiting his wages to come, taking care of Willie, who had been ill for a week. For a week Jason had taken care of him. Even his own father would not have done as much. Not that he told Jason that. When he'd tried to express his thanks, not being very good at it, not having had much practice, Jason had shrugged him off, almost angry, saying that it didn't matter, what did it matter.
It was just what you did.
They ended up catching another ship to take them to San Francisco, a tanker whose name Willie could not remember. Smelly, and dank and noisy, and Willie hated it. After the quiet clean lines of the reefer, it was like stepping into traffic after walking in the local park. And he hadn't been able to fake his way into the engine room, as Jason had, so he'd been relegated to the kitchens. The work wasn't bad and the crew was okay, most of them spoke at least a little English. But the smell, like burning tar trapped in a small pipe to burst up under your nose in a heated, sour explosion. He would never forget it.
Once in San Francisco, they missed by three weeks the sailing of the Ardent Heart, a cargo ship that went back and forth to Seattle. But instead of lashing out, as dear old dad would have done, Jason got them berths on the Shakira, which made good two of Jason's promises. Not only a boat bound for the China Sea, but one that was built to pick up spices. Empty, it made good time, the wind tossing around the remains of previous cargos until Willie was breathing in air that smelled like an adventure.
"The China Sea, really?" he'd asked one night when they were nearing a tip of land that Jason told him was Japan. The cook had brought forth the bottles of sake, and heated it up for the crewmen who weren't on duty, and Willie'd tossed back a bit more than his share. He felt like a kid and he knew he sounded like a little boy who was about to get a ride on a pony at the circus, but it was hitting him hard. He'd managed to sneak out of the apartment with his gear; dad had never woken up, and would never know where he was. Out in the vast, wide ocean, nearing a strange land that he had never been to. Smelling the damp, foreign air and swallowing back the local brew. His head spun. Japan, the China Sea, some place called Macao, and he was going there. And he'd thought the Horn was a big deal, but it wasn't. Not compared to this.
"Aye, laddie, the China Sea," said Jason, smiling at him, broad teeth, an earthen sake tumbler in his hand. He didn't look at all angry that Willie sounded like he was 12 instead of 19. He'd tipped back his fare share of sake, too.
In Macao there'd been more sake, and a week's stay in yet another hotel while they waited for the Bajamir, another reefer, to take them to Turkey. And another local lovely who Jason had taken into his arms while he'd been sitting in their hotel room, so fast that she'd had to straddle his knees. Her silk dress riding up to reveal a tangle of pubic hair, making what Jason had said yet again true. American money could buy beautiful girls, none of who wore underwear. He'd slapped her gently on her thigh, and called her his lovely Laureen. She'd smiled and dipped her black hair against his face. It didn't matter what he called her of course, as long as he was paying. What the whore didn't know, and what Willie wasn't going to tell her, as he watched this familiar bit of foreplay, was that Jason called all his boughten girls by Irish names. Bridget sometimes, or Ciara, but mostly Laureen. Instantly turning dark haired, almond eyed, dusky beauties into Irish lasses with plump, blushing cheeks, and spinning golden-red hair.
"You want me to go, Jason?" he'd asked.
Jason was pulling his hands through her hair, gently, gently. "Go or stay, my boy, it's all the same to me."
But Willie stood up and went out. He had money in his pockets, enough to buy himself a piece of what Jason was having, though he'd learn her name, first, and whisper it to her as if it were a part of his own language. A part of his heart. For he fell in love with them, with each of them, a little bit. Saying her name to her was like giving her back a bit of the gift she was giving him. Even if he was paying for it. Even if it didn't mean anything to them. Names that rolled off his tongue stiffly when he was sober, and more easily when he was drunk. Names like, San San and Tia, or Hoshi, or Amika. Funny thing was, when he did this, when he pulled back the curtain of their hair to do this thing, he felt them move against him, and open up to him, wet and hot and ready. He practiced his names every chance he got.
Later, when he'd returned that night, Jason was alone, sitting on the long bench just inside the doorway, a glass of beer in his hand, the cigarette lighting his face in odd flashes. He'd gotten a case of beer, it turned out, and it was the first beer Willie'd tasted in months. Since he met Jason at the Bulldog. A glass for him, a refill for Jason, the night breeze kicking up before the dawn, to bring the rain and the smell of spices and the sea, the room cooling off by many degrees. Finally drying the sweat that had taken up residence in the creases of his arms and his knees. He'd kicked off his shoes, and sat next to Jason and drank his beer. Borrowed a smoke, and had that too. Then another beer, the room swimming in the darkness of nighttime, a faint faraway shine from the single streetlight in the area.
He'd thumped his glass on the bench. Jason turned to him, a shadowed eyebrow going up as if Willie had asked to ask a question and Jason was saying yes, ask it.
Willie reached up his hand, his arm so close to Jason's now that he brushed the cloth of Jason's shirt.
"You gotta tell me," he asked now, as if the conversation had been going on for some time, and he desperate to reach some conclusion. "Why?"
"Why what, boy-o?" Jason took a swallow from his glass, tipping his head back far enough to bump against the wall behind him. He was too drunk to notice, and Willie was too smashed to rib him about it. But then Jason looked at him, serious, eyes flickering in the near dark. "Why what?"
"Why me," said Willie, reaching out till he was almost touching Jason's face. Almost. Except for the time he was sick from the jellyfish sting, Jason wasn't the type of man you touched. Not like the guys back home, with back pounding and arm punching. A slap to the back of the head that passed, without words, for affection. He drew his hand back. Let it fall.
"Why did you ask me?" he said at last, realizing that a silence, except for the far away movement of the sea, had fallen over the room.
Jason got up with a sudden movement, moving away. Getting another beer in the dark, breaking the seal on a bottle and pouring it into his glass. Handing the remains of the bottle to Willie. And standing there, swallowed the entire thing dry. Then he turned away to stand in the doorway, where a false dawn was lighting his face into planes of milky ivory. He looked down at his empty glass, his shoulder wedged against the doorjamb.
"Because," he said, his voice low. Willie leaned forward, almost trembling. He'd never heard that tone in Jason's voice before.
"Because," said Jason again. Then he swallowed, and looked up. Toward the horizon of buildings and ships and cranes, and beyond that the sky, which Willie could see through the window was turning from black to purple. "It was like looking in a mirror."
In the morning, it was the drink of course. They caught the Bajamir a few days later, and the subject was never talked of again.
Turkey was a hot, dry, place, with clean swept streets and skies as blue and as clear as the deep push of the ocean. They ported to a small city with an unpronounceable name and Jason had told him that there was something new they should try. Hashish, for one, sold on the streets to roll into cigarettes. Not legal of course, but common, enough so that the local version of the police tended to look the other way.
"You ever try hashish, Willie?" Jason asked as they stashed their gear in the cool, low ceilinged room. He had taken off his shirt to put on a clean one and Willie watched as he wiped the sweat from himself with the dirty shirt before putting on the new one.
"Hell, no," said Willie, "but I'm game if you are."
"You're in for a treat," said Jason, his eyes bright. "Grab the money and let's go."
They walked out into the street and toward the market, much like a Chinese market or an Argentine one, but with different smells, and colors, live animals tied up in crates, or dead ones hanging from their feet. Liquids in bottles tied with string and suspended from poles beneath tent awnings, and open grills roasting pickets of small fish. Willie wiped his hair from his eyes, grown long in the sea crossing with no barber available and him forgetting about it without a mirror handy. His dad would have been after him like crazy, but no one he'd met seemed to care.
"We gonna get something to eat, Jason?" he asked, thinking that it was late in the day and that it had been hours since he'd eaten. Trotting a bit to keep up. Jason had big strides, especially when he had something particular he wanted to do.
"After, Willie, after. We'll buy the stuff and then smoke it and eat. Trust me, okay?"
Willie nodded, catching Jason's eye with a flick. Jason had not let him down yet.
After the market came a series of streets that seemed too narrow for normal passage. But they were clean streets, newly swept and smelling faintly of dampness and soap.
"It's a clean country," he remarked, swiping his hang against the stone wall.
"Hush," said Jason. "I think we've got our man."
"How do you…." he began and then stopped. A man was approaching, his pockets full, and Willie assumed he was the man that Jason had wanted to meet. The hashish man. Jason was reaching into his pockets and the deal was over before Willie could blink. The man slunk away, and Jason turned to him, smiling.
"Here, put this in your pocket, that will make it easier for us to get through the market."
"Why?" he asked, turning to follow.
"Because, Willie," started Jason, with a tone that alerted Willie to the fact that what Jason was about to tell him was part truth and part lie. "You've got the face of an angel, no one would suspect you."
They were crossing the first line of tents, when Willie felt a brush of someone behind him, and turned to see a man dressed all in black. Carrying a baton and sporting a badge that looked uncomfortably official.
"Jason, I thought you said--"
Jason stopped, greeted by his own man in black and the sights and smells of the marketplace seemed hushed for one, long minute as Jason turned around. Willie felt his muscles bunch beneath him. He was ready, of course. He could take one of them and Jason the other and then they could have a good laugh back at the hotel about it later.
But Jason raised his hand, his expression severe. "Don't run, boy-o. Not in Turkey, never in Turkey."
Then his expression changed, at that moment, as the guards grabbed them, and Willie realized that Jason had only just remembered which one of them was carrying the hashish. His eyes closed and he looked as if he wanted to kick himself.
"Tell them, Willie," Jason muttered as they were pushed against a wall and searched by hard hands. "Tell them it's mine."
Willie felt his head thunk against the wall, felt the hands on him, his mouth dry as an old well. "They ain't askin' me anything."
The hashish was found in short order, and Jason was shoved to one side, and Willie dragged out of the market by the two guards. For a moment, Jason was on them, pulling back, and one of the guards hit him with a baton and Willie only had a flashing glimpse of the blood pouring from the side of Jason's head before he was shoved into the back of a dark van.
Of course it couldn't last, of course Jason would be at his side very soon, quite soon. Before the grilled and wooden doors of what must be the local jail slammed behind him he was tossed into a room and stripped searched and slammed against the wall to have his picture taken. The bright flash of light was still blinking in his eyes when his clothes were thrown at him, and as he got dressed he heard a voice say, "Hashish is illegal in this country, you stupid Yankee. Or did you think you could pass for a native?"
He never really got a good look at the man, though. Or close enough to try a swing, though he had a funny feeling that trying to fight back would not be a good idea. Guards tossed him in a cell, clean, of course, this being Turkey, with four mats on the floor and a bucket in the corner and a spigot coming out of the wall. Clamping down on the shudder that urged him to start screaming for help, he moved to the edge of the cell. Pressed himself against the wall and shut his eyes.
Hashish is illegal in this country, you stupid Yankee.
Of course it was. Jason's idea of a good time always bordered on the dangerous or the illegal, he'd noticed, though Jason's good luck, or something, always managed to keep them out of trouble. Not this time. Not for Willie.
There was a row of bald light bulbs hanging from the ceiling outside of the bars of the cell, though none were actually located in the cell. This cast long, jagged shadows across the mats on the floor, and his feet, as he stood there, just to one side of them. He saw the shadows moving before he saw the people, and backed up quickly as the door opened and three other prisoners were thrown in. All Turkish, or thereabouts, they looked like to him. They didn't seem duly concerned about where they were, either, taking off their shoes and settling on the mats. One of them bent down, cupped his hands under the spigot and got a drink of water, leaving a damp stain and thin puddle beneath it. Familiar with the place that they were in, and edgy at the same time. Whatever their crime, it wasn't the first time for them.
They smelled strongly of sweat, and their dark eyes flicked over to him, once they'd noticed he was there, standing plastered against the wall as if glued to it. One of them motioned with his hand for Willie to sit down and Willie shook his head. Nope, he was fine where he was, thanks. Sitting down would lower him, lower his resistance. He'd never been in jail before, but a buddy had told him that fights often broke out, especially in crowded cells, and if you were sitting or were low to the ground, your chances of getting hurt went up. Not that this cell was crowded, though it seemed to Willie that the walls were shrinking a bit as one of the men, the one with a black moustache draped over his lip, stood up. He had managed to bring in some smokes, and lit a cigarette with a match and then tapped out the match with his finger.
He looked at Willie a long time, smoking the entire cigarette, and nobody moved. Then he said something that sounded like mediterraneo, which Willie didn't understand but that didn't sound Turkish, it sounded more like someone from Bensonhurst, the Italian neighborhood. Then, he nodded at the other men. They stood up, fast, like they'd been waiting for that nod, and went over to the bars of the door. Then they nodded back, and the man with the cigarette stubbed it out beneath his boot and walked over to where Willie was standing.
"Mediterraneo," he said again, lifting his hand to touch Willie's hair. Dropping his hand to the flesh beneath Willie's eye, the tips of his fingers hot and a little rough and Willie jerked his head back so fast he heard something pop.
"No," Willie said, his voice cracking.
The man only smiled, and pointed to himself. "Ruaf," he said, rolling his r with smoky thickness. "Ruaf," he said again, nodding.
Willie shook his head, his body starting to shake as if it were realizing the bad position he was in. His brain, however, was taking its sweet time catching up, and though he could smell his own sweat breaking out in cold lines beneath his armpits and along the back of his legs, he couldn't quite figure out what was wrong.
"Do your worst, buddy," he said, baring his teeth. "I'll match ya."
One of the other men snickered, and Willie lunged at him, only to be brought up short and hard against the wall. Ruaf's arms pinned him there. Dark fingers gripped his muscles through his thin shirt.
"Ruaf e Mediterraneo," Ruaf said now. It was almost a question. He seemed to be tilting his head back as if to appraise Willie's response.
Willie tried wriggling back, to loosen the fingers on his arm. "Get off me," he said, snarling, low. "Whatever it is, I don't want any of it."
Ruaf stepped in close, dipping his head to inhale, as if he was catching the smell of Willie, and then he lifted his head. Lips close, and Willie caught the sudden idea that the man was going to kiss him. He ducked down low, trying to push away, and Ruaf's arms caught him easily, and tossed him to the closest mat.
"Ruaf e Mediterraneo," said Ruaf, and now his voice sounded much more assured.
The light above them went out at the same time that a blast of bells sounded through the entire building, and Willie, even in this foreign land, could recognize the signal for lights out.
In this black and grey-dashed place it was already dark, he could feel it getting even darker before his eyes, as the men moved to one side, and Ruaf fell to his knees on the mat beside Willie, sending up the dust of old skin and dried urine and something that caught in his throat. He tried to move up from his hips, but Ruaf caught him. Pushed him down, pulled his arms to one side, and trapped them beneath his body. Willie kicked, his heart in his throat, but Ruaf's legs were over his, and hands pulled easily at his pants and shirt, opening his pants, shoving them down and the shirt up, up, the bare, rough ticking of the mat scratching at his hot skin.
He was sweating so hard his body was slick, and he slipped his hands free and began to push away, kicking at the same time, when something clicked below his ear. Pressed against his pounding neck, and then he felt it, bright and cold, cut the skin. Not enough to hurt, but enough to warn.
Sliced and dead? the knife asked. Or not? Your choice.
Ruaf's hand pressed him down, till he was turned resting on his hip, the knife flicking against his skin if Willie resisted, and they were so close that Willie could feel Ruaf's heart pounding against his ribs. Thin ribs, as if he spent his days on the run, sliding through closing doors. Handling change in back streets, smoking on rooftops when the sun went down. Willie had seen the men in other hot places doing this; he knew the picture of Ruaf's life.
A faint shuffle sounded in the corridor as the guards went by, and Ruaf didn't even bother to put a hand over Willie's mouth as Ruaf lifted himself up. It wouldn't matter then, if he shouted for help, or screamed for Ruaf to stop. Then guards didn't care, and certainly Ruaf's pals had taken the side of their friend.
He started to shake, felt the back of his neck grow hot, and for the first time since he'd joined Jason, he wanted to be home. Back in Brooklyn, in the tenement apartment on Heights Street, his dad yelling about the heat and the lack of beer, and the fact that his son was a no good, lazy bum.
Anything, anything else. Anywhere but here.
Hands, cool on his warm skin, pulled at his legs, pulling down his pants, the snapping elastic of his briefs catching on his hips and pubic hair. Hands tugged and stroked the line of his hip, and Willie could almost hear Ruaf salivating. He certainly swallowed, grunting in his throat. Willie turned, trying to push away, but his legs were now beneath Ruaf's thighs, and the stroking turned a little harder. Not unpleasant, not to hurt, but his skin was cold and he couldn't stop shaking.
Ruaf bent down, pressing against Willie's hip, hands moving across him, across his front and his back, fingers trailing, slipping between his legs, the hardness of Ruaf's crotch against his hip.
Then Ruaf breathed in, spreading his scent of uncertain spices, unwashed spans of flesh, and then breathed out. "Stay," he said, shocking Willie with this show of English. "Stay, Mediterraneo."
Willie pitched his head back as Ruaf leaned down, sounds in his throat, wanting to scream, teeth grit, and then the mouth on his shoulder. Biting down, not piercing the skin, but confident. Marking him. Moving hands as Ruaf knelt above him. Hands stronger now. Pushing cloth away, until his pants were down to his knees and the mat began to feel like a sheet of iced sandpaper beneath him.
Now the mouth was on his shoulderblade, teeth marking him, and moving up the back of his neck, sinking once, hard, right into the muscle there. Willie arched away, wanted to spit, but his mouth was dry, like he'd swallowed sand, with no water to sluice him clean.
"Stay," came Ruaf's voice, almost tender, in his ear. Rasping a bit, as if his mouth, too, were dry, and Willie began to realize that this unlikely word was possibly the only English that Ruaf had.
He said it again, like a hiss, under his breath, pushing Willie down on his face, one last hand sliding up Willie's front, a light play on his cock, a hard palm to rouse him, and then away. Knowing it was no use, that his mediterraneo, whatever that was, did not care for this sort of game. It would have taken a lifting crane to get him up, and Ruaf was no fool to waste his time.
As Ruaf's hands lifted, his body shifted down, and Willie scrabbled for reach at the edge of the mat. Wanting to pull forward, to push with his feet, to kick Ruaf's weight off him. But Ruaf's thighs clamped down and his chest pressed now, suddenly, against his back. The knife clicked under his ear again, and Ruaf said that word again.
"Stay." Meaning it.
The knife cut him along the shoulder. Again, not deep, it felt more like a sting or a rash, but the warning was there. The knife could go deeper. Willie could be dead by morning. At the door to the cell, he could hear the men shifting, a voice saying something that did not sound Italian, and Ruaf, in that language replied.
One of them came forward and hunkered down on his heels just as Willie raised his eyes. Far as he could, only seeing the breadth of the man's shins and the shining blade swinging in his fingertips. A smear of blood on it, too far out of reach to grab, close enough to smell the odor of the fishmarket, a funk of crotch and hair, and the bittersweetness of olive oil. Willie turned his head away, closing his eyes. Knowing the knife was there, and Ruaf's hands were free, and there was nothing, nothing that anybody could do.
His eyes began to sting, like they were going to water, and he clenched them even tighter. Telling himself that if he couldn't see it, he couldn't feel it.
But he could feel it. Every shift of Ruaf's body, flex of muscle pressing against him. Heard the rough sound as Ruaf spit, though no spittle landed on him. Heard the click of belt and the trained buzzing of a zipper undone, and moist hands stroked his back and the curve of his hip. Moving to cup his backside. Weight lifting off and then coming down, naked flesh against him, Ruaf's chesthair crushing into his back, now, more spitting and then, fingertips.
Ruaf's voice, humming, saying soft, as if to a woman, or a shy girl, "Stay, stay, stay."
Fingertips pushing into him, separating his legs, and moving inside him. Slow, with care, damp nails with rough edges, and he could feel it all. One knuckle, then two, and it got rough. Pulling out, and then pushing in again. Two fingers, Ruaf hunkered down so far that the soft sack of his balls brushed against the back of Willie's thighs. Another spit. Two fingers, hurting now, and he tried moving away from it, and Ruaf said something to the other man and Willie found his shoulders pinned down by hard hands. The knife still clasped so that Willie could feel the cold blade of it warming against the warmth of his arm. Legs and arms pinned, he could not move. Ruaf returned to his stroking and pressing, and the fingers entered him again. Ruaf paused to hitch one of Willie's legs up, scraping the inside of his leg against the mat, cold air swirling between his legs now. And then Ruaf lifted off Willie altogether, and Willie felt hot knees settle along the inside of his thighs, taking their time. Ruaf humming, whispering to himself, "Stay…stay."
Then the snub of something entirely hot, moist with Ruaf's spit and, undoubtedly, the gush of its own intent, grazed the inside of his crotch. Stopped, Ruaf's thighs quivering as hard as Willie's, and then a push. The fingers pulling out with a slip, then the supple-edge firmness pushed again. Didn't stop pushing, though it rested with a half-hitch, as Willie's voice began to cry of its own accord, and he found that even as he cried, Ruaf pushed in, gently, as if he were a girl, a new, untried, shy thing, so new that to take her in any rough fashion would truly be a sin. As if he believed that what he was doing was perfectly alright with Willie, but that he must have a care because, it was, after all, Willie's first time.
Ruaf's cock was halfway in, taut and large, pushing him wide, feeling like he was splitting apart. Being ripped from within, hurting as if it were a sharp blade, slicing him, and the noises wouldn't stop. He could hear himself making them, deep whimpers that began somewhere inside and found their own voice, his eyes, watering, tears burning their way down his face, he had to admit that they were tears, his heart scattering painful sparks down to his gut, and Ruaf stopped whispering "Stay, stay." Instead he almost grunted, the word mediterraneo lifting out of his lungs and with one, hard push, shoved himself into Willie all the way up to his cock's hilt.
That was when Willie finally screamed.
Ruaf clamped his hand over Willie's mouth, now far forward so his lips were on Willie's ear, his chin digging into Willie's shoulder. Whispering something as Willie breathed hard, some combination of "stay, stay" and mediterraneo, but Willie couldn't hear him. Not through his own panting, and the taste of Ruaf's hands, grit and salt and the sour backwash of his own cock where Ruaf had stroked him.
Now Ruaf moved, his hand falling away from Willie's mouth, though Willie could still feel it there. Tried to concentrate on that instead of the rough scrape sawing as Ruaf pushed in and pulled out. His rhythm, like the huppa huppa of a flat tire swaying back and forth, and the snapping sound of his damp flesh meeting with Willie's and then pulling away. Growing moist, with the slickness of Ruaf's excitement, or perhaps the smear from flesh worn too roughly, and Willie's cries, meeting with that rhythm, his head knocking against the mat with each pull and push, his shoulders moving up as he tried to pull away from it, that soaring rocking that now began to move faster, faster into a hard trot, and then the shudder as Ruaf pushed in so hard and so fast that Willie felt the other man's hipbones against his and, and saw, just in that second, a flash of white, as if something had exploded and he'd gone blind.
Then the darkness again and the roughness as Ruaf's whole body now pressed him down into the mat. Still, but breathing hard, a hand stroking his hair, moving down his face, moistness sticking them together, as Ruaf rolled off him, his cock slipping out of Willie with a wet snick sound and the cool air of the cell sliding down from the ceiling to coat him, till he was shivering hard enough for his chest to hurt for breathing. The hard keening in his throat did not stop, even as Ruaf stood up, and put his clothes back on, the sounds of the zipper and belt echoing in backward slow motion, and Willie curled up on his side, though his back screamed at him, hands uselessly pulling at his trousers, his wrist feeling the thick dampness along the back of his thigh. The smell of salt and a slashy tang of pulsing semen as it leaked out of him, and the feeling that he could never, ever take another calm, slow breath.
There were sounds as if the men were moving away from him. To the other mats, their voices as they talked sounding only like beats of rain from far away. Not saying anything that Willie could understand, but speaking with an irregular rhythm that would never stop. Stretching out on their mats, still talking, the cold air crowding his hot flesh, cupping him in unexpected places. Like hands still upon him, pressing flat against his ears, or trammeling down his backside, searching between his legs like seaweed grown too thick in brackish water.
And everything hurt. Like he'd been beaten, only he hadn't. The shallow cuts beneath his ear and along his shoulder had ceased to exist. He couldn't feel them, not if he tried. His back and chest pulsed as if they'd been crushed between boxes, wrists raw from where they'd been held, ankles scraped somehow from the ragged cement floor. And from somewhere inside of him a low pulsing thing was growing, growling from far away and coming closer. He pulled up his pants with trembling hands, tried to pull his shirt down over his ribs, feeling the splashed dampness of Ruaf's bites, hearing the men talking still as he wiped the sweat away from his neck with hands that shook so badly it was as if there were an electric current running through them.
Up on his knees now, to match button to button hole, zipper up, knowing that they were looking at him in the light from the hall way. Maybe laughing to each other, he didn't know, or care, only that the sounds of their voices, like rain against a sill, did not come closer. Did not say, "stay, mediterraneo, stay," nor husk against his ear as if they were lovers. His waistband pulled at his hips and he knew he would have to stand up. Would go to the spigot that felt as if it were miles away though he could see it gleaming only a hand's breadth distance in the almost dark. He did it, pushing up with his hands, feeling a ripping sound and the angry tearing from inside, the growing thing, once so bland and so far away, galloping close enough to touch, and he got the very clear idea that in a few seconds he would be unable to move at all.
His feet became entangled in the mat and he had to half stumble off it, hearing the snorts of laughing behind him, closing his eyes as his hands circled around the spigot, not caring. Telling himself he did not care, turning the tap on as he fell to his knees on the hard cement, the back of his brain rocking with the dense, low pain that could not even begin to match the one that startled to life between his legs.
His hair fell low on his forehead, sticky with sweat, and he bent his mouth to the stream that now poured out of the spigot. Gulped down a swallow, pushed his hands beneath his chin to catch the water, rinsing, pushing the water over his face. Ducking his head, hot beneath the cool spray, the smell of metal rising up from the cement, not caring that the water tasted too sharp and tart, as if there were sulphur lurking in the pipes. Only that his mouth, once so dry, felt like the bottom of a river was sluicing over it. That his face, the back of his neck, now felt cool. And that his hands were so cold they hurt, almost drawing away from the never-ending thump of blood inside of him, pushing against some part of his insides that scraped and pulsed and then scraped again till no matter how hard he clenched his teeth, he felt the straggle ends of his breath squeaking high and hard up from his throat.
Hands met the back of his head, pulled him up. Another hand turned off the spigot and he was led, half-hitched against a thin pair of ribs, his legs weak, knees knocking against each other, to his mat. His mat, now. Marked with something dark, patches of it darker here and there, than others, and the hands pushed him down. He recognized the smell, uncertain spices, a faint tobacco. And the hands he knew. Pushing him with quiet gentleness, no laughing now bounced off the walls of the cell. Nor rain on the sill either, only the quiet broken breathing of his own lungs as he lay his head at one end of the mat and felt his legs stretched out for him. As if he could not move. Hair wet, pushed out of his eyes and away from his damp cheeks, fingers, sensing and smelling of himself, blood and darkness and cold, cold ash.
Eyes tight, he tucked his head into his shoulder, bringing up his knees as far as he could, to tuck his elbows against his chest, feeling the bleeding, like a hot ribbon, soaking out from him.
Ruaf moving away. The rain-patter voices talking again, low, as though they did not wish to disturb him, his head spinning white flakes against the darkness of his tightly closed eyes. And the screaming sound, too close now, that he could not even begin to ignore. Then it landed, hard, like razors, a thousand of them, pushing through him, lances and spears all thrown by hard hands, sure of their mark. Heart, lungs, his gut, and racing up from between his legs straight to his brain, a hot wire, a solid thickness, boring a pike right through him.
A white smear folded around him, clotting his lungs as he struggled for breath, barely feeling his hands moving up to pull his head down further into his chest. Tucked so hard down that his face became hot with the press of flesh of his upper arm, but he could only feel cold. Not the warm air nor the water drying on the back of his neck had any effect at all. Only the snow behind his eyes, as he grew colder still, and he, not in the clotted air of a prison cell, but in a deep, drifting bank of snow, somewhere far from the spot where he curled on a mat that dug into the bared skin of his ribs. Where ice slatted beneath him, and crystals of it formed around him, cutting off movement and sound, stopped the slow pulse of his heart, even, till the only thing he could feel or sense or know was the tick, tick, tick of the rain on the sill.
When he awoke, the cell was quiet around him, his body as stiff on the mat as a curl of dried meat. He lifted his head. He was alone, and a shift of the light in the corridor beyond the barred door told him that it was daytime. A bowl with bread in it sat inches from his face. His stomach surged at the thought of food, and he felt it turn over even as he struggled to sit up, kneeling only in time to vomit on the edge of his mat. Fumes rose up, sour like old milk, and his throat felt raw as though acid had poured through it.
He tried lifting his head, pushing up from the mat with his arms, his eyes catching the damp spot beneath the spigot just as the smell of damp sulphur swirled around him. His pants were rough boards against his thighs, and he looked down to see the long dark patches where blood had dried and stiffened the cloth. Bruises circled his wrists and forearms like bold, purple tattoos, streaking across to the bones on the back of his hands.
It occurred to him that though he was alone, he was still in jail. In a foreign country. How long would they keep him for possession of hashish? He did not know. Jason had never told him, and he felt the pulse along the back of his throat start to quicken. Would Ruaf be back, or would they throw someone else in the cell, and would he too have friends to back him up?
Going through it once was one thing, being someone's slave to it was another.
He pushed himself all the way up, legs like bowed pins beneath him, and staggered to the door of the cell. Peered through the bars at the bare, silent corridor, not looking at his hands as he curled them around the grey bars, not wanting to see the smears of blood still on them.
His back began to throb, merely by standing there, and his thighs quivered, even with the mere effort of keeping him upright. Between his legs it felt as if someone had bored their way through him. A nasty sweat danced along the back of his neck, and he felt cold enough to wish he had a blanket. In the heat of the cell even, where the bars beneath his hands were almost warm to the touch and the air warm-swirled through the opening as if it had come straight from the dunes and hills of the nearest desert.
No use calling for someone, he did not speak Turkish, not a word, and he was sure his dance card made full mention of the fact that he was an idiot Yankee who liked to make like a local and buy illegal drugs.
Sighing, he let his hands fall away. And stood with his back against the wall.
The bread was still in the bowl, and looked fresh, but he could not bear the thought of eating. In an hour or so, perhaps, but not now. He needed to stop shaking, to stop hurting, to calm the nausea bubbling in his stomach, and to ease the rub of his pants against his legs. And wait for Jason to come get him.
Would he come? Would he know where Willie was?
His teeth began to chatter, and the wall felt like ice behind him. His stomach gave one loud burble and he barely had time to bend forward at the waist before he spewed up what he had eaten the day before. It arced to splat on the grey, cement floor, and Willie lifted up and turned away from it, wiping the back of his mouth with one blood-streaked hand. The cement wall grazed him as he pressed against it, and now he could not move away from it.
The day had started badly and late, and soon it would get dark and there would be more men in the cell come sundown, surely, and it would happen again, and he would spend the whole of the next day staggering around, throwing up in each corner of the cell and he didn't think that the maidservice would be showing up anytime soon.
He heard himself saying it in his mind, though he wasn't used to hearing it.
Stop it. Stop acting like an idiot.
It was his own voice, but calmer. More sensible. He tipped his head to one side and waited for the echo of it to die away.
It did. And then he heard it again.
Wash up. Have some water. Lie down.
And then what?
Eat some bread later.
It gave him something to do, in the vacuum of the cell and the corridor from which no sounds echoed.
He walked over to the spigot and stripped off his pants and briefs, his mouth and nose balking at the heavy tang of the combination of dried sweat and semen and whatever else there was embedded in his clothes. Hunkered down on his heels and turned on the spigot and began to rinse his underwear. Blood squeezed out in a ruby colored waterfall through his fingers as he pressed the cloth between his palms. His gut began to hurt, so he bent to his knees, gritting his teeth as he shifted his body in small short motions, feeling the twist of muscles that did not want to be moved, and tender flesh tearing anew.
Do this. Then rest.
Shut the fuck up!
It was impossible to ignore though, and he ran the underwear under the stream of water one more time and laid it out on the cement out of the reach of the puddle. The pants were harder, more cloth, more blood, clots splattering down to ooze in the water at his feet, and his hands grew raw under the tap and by the time he was finished and had laid out the pants, he was shaking so hard his teeth rattled. He made himself take some water in small, quick sips and turned off the tap.
Now his head was thumping as if he were actively banging it against the floor or the wall, and the shivering would not stop.
Do not throw up again. Don't.
He didn't want to, he really didn't want to, but it was too late, his stomach churned up the last vestiges of whatever he'd recently eaten in one watery brown splash and he had to rinse his mouth out again. Then he crawled to the nearest mat, not covered with vomit, and let his bones and body do what they had wanted to do forever and ever, to lay down and never get up.
I'll just stay here. And if they want me, they can have me.
He closed his eyes and felt the light of the day slipping away, faster than horses could gallop.
And awoke hours later, in the dark, the light from the corridor streaming through the bars. An echo of his shout bounding back and forth off the cement walls, and he knew that his bravado of earlier was a lie. He was alone, though. Now. Maybe not forever. If anyone touched him, he knew he could not bear it.
He was shaking again, cold all over, as if he'd been carved from marble and had never felt the warmth of anything, the sun, a kind, undemanding touch, or even the flash of a match being lit. His lips were numb. He made himself push up, and reach for his clothes. Still damp, but drying.
In the morning. He would put them on in the morning.
If it ever came.
Three days later, a pair of guards came for him. By that time, his pants had dried, and though still stiff, they did not rub his skin raw. He followed them down the hall, signed whatever papers they thrust in front of him, and listened silently to the lecture, delivered in accented English, about drugs and their dangerous nature. He nodded, and went out the door pointed to him. And there was Jason, waiting for him outside the jail in the bright Turkish sun.
He was looked at by narrowed green eyes, sweat-mottled beneath the curl of dark thick hair. Jason had had a bath recently by the looks of things, even though the heat was already eating at him, and Willie found himself almost salivating at the thought of it.
But Jason had not missed the swaths of stain along the inside of Willie's trousers; Willie knew he couldn't possibly miss them. Two rinses had not gotten them out and in the end Willie decided he'd rather be dressed than clean. The bruises around his neck were also impossible to hide, and the dark brown streaks on his formerly white t-shirt stood out like they'd been painted there.
"You get me out?" Willie asked, his voice flat.
Jason offered a wrist, bare except for one bright, pale-skinned band. "A nice watch goes far in a place like this," he said, not sounding sorry.
Willie shrugged. The heat of the courtyard and the low sidewalk were bouncing off his eyes, and in tandem with the streaks of sunlight, a storm swell was forming in his skull with piercing, ragged hands, and he knew if he didn't sit down, he was going to fall down. Except he couldn't sit down, not for very long. Almost to the day after Ruaf's exit from the cell, his backside had determined that sitting was out of bounds and he'd spent most of his time either standing, weak-kneed, or lying on his side. It was as if he were frozen up inside. A gut-sized block of ice and spikes.
"Willie, are you alright?" Jason's voice came to him as if through a long, narrow pipe.
"Yeah," he said, shaking his head. That made it worse, and his eyes clouded over, like fog dropping.
He felt hands on him, someone was pulling him into the shade, trying to make him sit down, and he exploded, throwing off the hands, stalking away, except that he only got as far as the sunlight before he staggered and fell to his knees. Now Jason was behind him, a shocked indrawing of breath before the hands pulled him to his feet, and began walking with him quickly away from the courthouse and the jail.
"What did they do to you in there, Willie?" asked the voice as if from a long-distance phone call through very bad wires.
"Didn' do nothin'," he replied, letting the hands take him. If he were walking, he wasn't throwing up, or passing out. That much he'd learned, pacing hour after hour in the cell. Movement kept him from falling apart.
"Don't lie to me," said the voice, now severe. "You're all over blood and bruises. Did you--did they--"
Jason stopped, his face was suddenly stark and clear, in front of Willie. Brows drawn together, the eyes serious and dark. Willie realized they were standing in an alleyway not far from the place where they'd bought the hashish.
"The guards are probably smoking it right now," he said, his voice coming out in an uneven whisper.
"Never mind that now, I want to know--"
Willie shoved off the hands, falling back to lean against the wall. "I don't give a damn about what you want, Jason," he said. "I want a bath. I want clean clothes. And I want to get the hell out of this place."
His palms were pressed flat against the crumbled brick and stucco, absorbing the heat, and now in the shade, his headache began to fade and he could concentrate a little more. Realized that he'd just shouted at Jason, spoken forcibly, as he'd never done at home in Brooklyn. Then again, at home, he'd not been recently set upon by an overly amorous WOP with thin lips and strong hands and a cock the size of what felt like a policeman's bully stick.
He tried it again.
"Take me someplace cold, and I mean cold. Snow. Ice. You got me?"
He watched Jason's eyebrows rise up to his hairline, a troubled light flickering behind the green eyes, and he felt the push of a fierce anger whose origin he could not identify.
"Now," said Willie, "now, damnit, or I swear to God, I'll find him and I'll kill him, no lie. I'll get him and cut him and then I'll take--"
A wave of fast acid pressed around his stomach, moving up his spine as if squeezed through a sieve, and he found himself toppling sideways, clenching his stomach with both hands. The knife forgotten, revenge taking a back seat, and Jason, bending over him, holding his shoulders as he spewed out the bread from his morning's breakfast. Trying not to choke on the string of mucus and sick, his thighs crumbling beneath him.
Jason caught him on the way down, settling him to the flagstones at the mouth of the alley, crouching beside him to take a corner of his own shirt to wipe Willie's mouth with it. He seemed untroubled now, shrugging a bit, as if to say that it was all the same to him. "Snow then. Someplace cool. Where the ladies are willing to be seen in the altogether, shall we not?"
Willie closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the brick. Ignored Jason's unconscious humming as he rocked a bit on his heels, and tried not to think.
"Snow, damnit. I don't give a fuck about the ladies."
"Oh, now, sure and you do, you only just--"
Willie lifted his head and opened his eyes. "Only just nothing, Jason."
Jason nodded, reaching out his hand to pat Willie on the shoulder, drawing it back at the glare that Willie felt shooting out of him. His back ached, and his ass was on fire, and if anyone walked by who even so much as slightly resembled Ruaf, he was a dead man.
"Snow then," said Jason. "I'll take you to the hotel and then I'll go check in the harbor and I'll be right back. Then we'll get our things and go. Yes?"
He had the tone of someone who is not willing to argue with a crazed man and Willie found he quite liked it. Let Jason wonder and jump for a while, and he smiled to himself as Jason helped him to his feet and walked him through the alleys to their hotel. Was still smiling as Jason lowered him to the bed, which felt like a thing crafted by angels, and left, closing the door behind him.
Crazy man, yeah, that's me.
Jason might come back. Or he might not. It didn't matter, Willie was never moving again.
Only he did move. Down to the docks with Jason, carrying his bag of gear, onto the Athena Rose, a steamer carrying cargo to Sweden, and down to his bunk, slam up against the boiler room. Out of the heat and into the steam, and he fell into his bed and slept. Got up and shoveled coal, ate, showered, and went back to bed. All the way to Sweden. He remembered Jason standing nearby, a worried expression pushing at his normally smooth, calm features.
There was another vague memory too, of Jason dragging him down the narrow metal passageway. Into a room. Taking off his clothes in hard, brisk motions, pushing him under a spray of hot water. Making him wash. What Jason had said was unclear, but he had said something, a whole string of something, and Willie remembered nodding, the water slipping into his eyes and ears, and then Jason had handed him the soap. Jason had not let him out of the shower until he had used the soap, after which Jason had let him out, had helped him get dressed with new clothes he'd gotten from somewhere, and then put him back to bed. There had been some shouting too, between Jason and someone else, but he'd fallen asleep, and when he'd woken up, the shovel-eat-shower-sleep routine had begun. And then ended when they'd docked in Sweden.
The most boring, coldest place he'd ever been to. Within a week, he hated it, and since Jason could not find any blonde strapping Swedish lass who would answer to the name Laureen, it was agreed that they would light out. Took a ship on which they'd lost half their pay, the Bonny White Lady, and berthed in Brooklyn. Willie would not go ashore, and Jason had argued with him, and in the end gone alone. To the Bulldog, he'd said, where the beer had been damn good. Willie had flipped him the bird, and they chugged with the Bonny White Lady down to Boston, where they'd caught the Carrie Dee down to Charleston, and then the Virgo Maris to Martinique, where they'd caught up again with the venerable Fitz Pomeroy.
"All the way to San Francisco, this time, lads?" asked the captain, joking with them as they signed their papers. Willie began to mutter under his breath until Jason elbowed him in the ribs, at which point he quieted down and kept his fingers crossed that he would not be needed in the boiler room. He was starting to hate the taste of coal in his mouth.
"Guess you'll be in the boiler room, Loomis," said the quartermaster looking at his list.
And then Jason was looking at him, a worried frown pulling at his face. "Ah, you know, sir," said Jason, plying the air with a smile. "Willie and I, well, we were kind of hoping to help above decks. You know, to keep watch and all."
"You got sharp eyes?" asked the quartermaster.
"Oh, the sharpest," Jason assured him.
The quartermaster shrugged as if it were all the same to him, and jotted that down on his clipboard. "Go and see Mr. Stiers, he'll get you a duty chart. Anything else?" The quartermaster looked up, and they shook their heads, knowing there had better not be anything else or they would find themselves shoveling coal.
"Thanks, Jason," he said, elbowing his way past as they went down a thin flight of stairs to belowdecks. "And I get the upper bunk this time."
It was a weird feeling to come back to a ship he almost remembered, to find the things that had changed and that had not. To see the land slipping away, and to dock in a port that had an air of familiarity to it, along with the still strange smells and sounds.
"Watch out for jellyfish," warned Jason, as they stepped ashore for their last night before they weighed anchor and headed up the west coast of South America.
Willie nodded. Jason was in search of a local Laureen, and Willie was in search of a bar. With cold beer. And maybe a fight after.
This he did not find, though he stalked through at least three bars, bumping and pushing. No one took the bait, and high tide came before he could get a single punch in. Then the Fitz Pomeroy took them round the Horn to San Francisco. There they caught the Ardent Heart, and along the way Jason taught Willie how to darn his socks, how to make better trades on shore when they docked, and how to make it look like you were working harder than you were. Which Willie always thought was like trying to teach a monkey to swing from trees.
In Anchorage, they caught the Diligence, which was a reefer on a small scale, carrying supplies to outposts along the Bearing Strait, crossing back and forth when the ice was melted back in summer. When they caught it, it was the end of summer, the bold, last dash of the Diligence to make some extra pocket money for the captain and regular crew. To Jason, it was a step closer to Japan.
"Japan?" asked Willie.
"Yeah, Willie," said Jason, clapping him on the back as they signed up. "I got a deal going on there. The spice trade, you might say."
Whatever Jason had going on, spice was the last thing on his list. But Willie signed anyway, saying, "I'd rather be on the Ardent Heart."
"So would everybody," replied Jason, leading them down the gangway to their cabin where they stowed their gear. "But Japan is where we want to be, and the Ardent Heart doesn't go there."
Willie had the impulse to ask why it was so important, to get that information on what was going down in Japan, but from the look on Jason's face, it was something big, and besides, Jason didn't like to be bothered when cooking up a scheme. He liked to leave the details to the last minute. Willie's job was to help him swing whatever was going down, and to back Jason up. So he waited, leaning on the bulkhead, for Jason to finish.
The metal beneath his shoulder was cold to the touch, but considering the cabin they'd been assigned to, this was not unusual. They were underwater. Nothing to worry about, the hull was inches thick and the chance of them getting snapped by a hunk of ice or the lip of an iceberg this time of year was slim to none.
"C'mon, Jason, let's get some chow, huh?"
"Right-o," said Jason, straightening up, his expression telling Willie that Jason's mind was already in Japan. He was liable to get rough if Willie pressed him, so he led the way back up the gangplank, trying to ignore the fact that the linoleum was curling back from the metal floor, which was rusting all the way along the narrow corridor. Or that there was a runnel of water and rust along the seams of every doorway they went through. Where it ended up was another matter. The engine room? Willie found that he could imagine it all too easily the water piling up to the pistons of the engines and stopping them flat. A ship as out of trim as this one appeared to be, well, it wouldn't be that long of a shot.
A stiff breeze whistled past his ears as he tromped ahead of Jason, smelling his way to the galley, his stomach growling.
When they got there, they ate what was put in front of him. Grey something with crisp, fried fish, and something sweet that could have been tapioca gone bad, or some very runny custard. He ate it all; within days of his first berth, he'd learned not to be picky. Eat now or starve later. Jason was eating as well, washing everything down with large gulps of hot coffee.
"Where you posted, Jason," he asked, when it looked like conversation could now take normal directions.
After a moment of silence, Jason apparently agreed. "Navigation, of course," he said. Smiled.
Of this Willie had no doubt. Jason knew the captains and could pull the best duty offered to a non-member of the regular crew. But he pulled Willie up with him as often as he could, and this Willie knew, so he couldn't complain.
"Engineer's monkey," he said to the unasked question. An engineer's monkey's job was to see that the equipment was greased up and to put away tools. That was it. Willie had gotten very fast at doing this, and could spend more time having a smoke and playing cards in the galley. Or dozing off in his bunk. Or trading for girlie magazines so he could doze with them in his bunk.
It would be a good trip.
Except that it wasn't. By some fluke or oversight or misspent funds, there was enough fuel to sail them from port to port, but not quick enough to outrun the encroaching ice along the Bearing Strait. They'd kept going through the night, expecting to beat the weather, only to find themselves going slower and slower and finally stopping as the ice thickened all around and the ship had to come to a standstill. The first Willie felt of it was the jolt as the engines were slammed shut and the screech of metal grinding into a powder blasted in his ears. And then came the bad news. No rescue for two days. The nearest ice-breaking vessel was two days away. Russian patrols had picked up their SOS and were on their way. But the Diligence only had fuel for one more day. Which meant that in less than a day, everything would be turned off and they would be locked in the ice, frozen solid.
"Won't they keep the heat on?" Willie asked Jason as soon as he could plow through the confusion of men in galleyways and on the deck. He found Jason in the radio room, leaning through the doorway, not getting in anyone's way, but finding out what was going on.
"No," said Jason. He didn't look worried, but then, that was Jason's way, to always put a good face on things. "They've got a cargo to protect, and they expect us to manage without."
"What will we do?" He wanted Jason to tell him that it would be okay, that they would make it. Of course they would. But how, that was the question.
"We hunker down, laddie," said Jason. "And eat cold food for a day or so."
The heat went off near midnight, just as Willie was coming off his shift of packing the engine with grease to keep it from freezing. He wanted nothing more than a hot shower and a warm bed. But there was only a sliver of light in his cabin to heat the space, and Jason, putting on two pairs of socks, thickly darned, and searching for his hat.
"I don't like the cold, Jason," he said, digging around for layers of his own. Going to bed coated with grease that he could only get off with cold water and hard soap was nasty.
"You wanted cold," said Jason, only that far from sounding angry, "well, now you've got it."
The air was like snow, even as it was very still without a single breeze, and Willie shrugged himself into the lower bunk, under the woolen blankets that seemed too light to keep him warm, even though on other nights they had been plenty. His hat slipped off, and his socks itched, and his nose felt like a chip of ice was sitting on top of it. Jason shifted only once in the upper bunk, and Willie imagined, even as his teeth began to chatter, that there was nothing that would ruffle Jason's feathers. He'd never seen a man like him.
An hour more and Willie felt like a block of ice, and he was not asleep.
I'm not going to make it. I gotta get warm.
"You not asleep, Willie?" came the question through the darkness.
"N-no," he managed, shuddering.
He heard the muffled thump of Jason's socked feet on the floor and then the heavy weight of a body on his bunk.
"Scoot over, laddie," said Jason, pulling back the blankets. "It's just me, I'm no WOP, and I don't have a taste for men, so scoot over."
A small sharp lance cut through his gut. So Jason knew. Of course he knew, he wasn't stupid, though they've never talked of it.
Willie moved back, toward the wall and lifted the blankets. Felt the weight of more blankets drifting on top of him and then felt Jason slide in beside him. Blankets settling down, and the banked warmth of Jason's body.
"Take a deep breath," said Jason, low, as if he were talking to himself, "and think of a fireplace. You like fireplaces, don't you, Willie?"
"I'm gonna kill the guy who got us stuck in the ice," he said in reply.
"Fine," said Jason, his head moving on the pillow. "But tomorrow. Sleep now, I'll find you something to kill him with tomorrow."
Willie rolled over on his side, toward the wall, feeling pulses of warm and cold as the air sifted between their bodies. Then Jason scooted right up behind him, and they were hip to groin, Jason's legs tucked up behind his. He froze.
"Breathe," said Jason, his voice soft. "I'm not going to hurt you."
A heavy arm laid itself across his waist, sealing in the heat of their bodies, casual, as if it were over the back of the family pet and nothing more. Willie could hear Jason breathing, slower and slower, and finally a little snort and a snore, and he realized his eyes were still open, staring at the grey darkness of the metal wall.
Stay. Breathe. Bend over.
"What," he asked, his voice sounding low and thick in his ears. "What's a mediterraneo, Jason?"
"It's the name of a thing," said Jason, his reply, sleepy and soft. As if he thought someone else might overhear them. "The name of a person, really. It means--" he paused, arm shifting, the weight of it pulling Willie closer to him. "It's Italian for someone with blue eyes. Someone beautiful, like a statue. Where d'you hear it, then?"
Willie shrugged. "Around."
"Don' worry about it, then," said Jason. "Nobody will be calling you that while I'm around."
Willie tucked his head into the pillow and made himself close his eyes. The weight of Jason's arm was warm, warmer than anything, and the heat of it spread through him like slow butter on a hot pan. It melted through him. Reached up. And pulled his head into the pillow.
It was days later, as they finally docked in Japan, before he could begin to get that feeling out of his head. Jason's body behind him, that arm, heavy across his middle, and the sure solid feeling that nothing and no one would get at him with Jason there. A little repair job had gone on that night, unbeknownst to Jason, Willie was only realizing it as they stepped to shore and Jason had them stow their bags in yet another little hideyhole motel, and told Willie to wait. And Willie did wait, even with vague feelings of doubt, as Jason did not usually leave him behind like this, not when first into port. He'd never been to Japan before. But it just might be that Jason had saved him that night on the Diligence, in more ways than one, so Willie could forgive him the leaving.
Japan was a land of paper buildings and dark haired people who made him feel like a giant towering over them. And it was where, for the one and only time, Jason landed in jail. Willie had been using his hands to barter some gum for a bowl of noodle soup from a street vendor and not getting very far, when two armed policemen approached him. As in Turkey, they were polite and quiet and bristling, Willie was to come with them now. As to why, he soon found out.
Jason, in the midst of some scheme or other, leaving Willie all unawares, had tried the schilling on the wrong person. Some mayor or other's nephew had gone screaming to grand uncle, and now Willie stood, staring through the bars of the paper jail, at Jason, who looked like he wanted to throw up.
"Don't like small spaces, boy-o," said Jason. One of the guards poked him, and he grunted. His hair was askew, and his eyes looked deadly green.
A small man, so short and slight so as to appear to be a boy, came up. He was wearing a dark suit, and his hair, black as coal, looked oiled. He smiled and bowed, as everyone in this country seemed to do, and nodded. And began to speak in clear, though slow, English.
"Your friend here has broken the law. We put him in jail. He says you will bail him out?"
But of course. That's what friends did.
Turned out that working off the bail, as Willie had no money, and now, neither had Jason, meant truly working off the bail. In a fish packing house, in a country that did not seem to have the grasp of ice and running water. It was Willie's job to shovel the wreckage of slaughtered and gutted fish. Guts, and spines, and ribbons of pink and grey fin. Sliced eyes and still flapping tails, hacked off with large blades and spilling onto the floor to wither in a stink of pooling blood and mucus. The fishcutters stood up on low platforms and the bodies of fresh-caught fish trundled by on a rubber belt. They didn't care about the blood circling their feet, no indeed. Chattering in Japanese, they walked above the swill, passing to and from their tasks on raised stones. Only Willie, his feet soaked inside of ten minutes, waded through it. Shoveling the muck into bins to be used as fertilizer.
He couldn't decide later if it was the smell, an ever pervasive funk of sea salt and rotting flesh that got to him, or if it was the shower of scales that littered the air and settled on his skin like an unwelcome layer of bitter silver. Or maybe it was the ache in his shoulders that built very quickly each time he had to lift the heavy and clumsy shovel over his head. Or the constant slip beneath his feet as he trod on split flesh, sometimes bright red and still alive, somehow. Sometimes so old, stuck in some crevice and forgotten that the lump had grown new flesh that smelled as foul as the bottom of an overused privy that Willie had to allow himself to throw up.
Only for Jason would he have done this, and at noon on the second day he made a pact that he would never work again. Jason would hear of it, friend or no. Willie's working days were going to be over very soon.
At the end of the third day, they let Willie go. Funny that he had never thought of running, or of punching Jason out of the rice-paper jail. It wasn't that he was too tired at night to move that stopped him. Or even the fact that they were in a foreign country and God knew what the punishment for unlawful release from jail was. No, it was the leery feeling that he got when he thought about it. You don't build a jail out of paper if you expected that anyone would actually try to escape from it. It was almost as if they built the jail so flimsily because they knew you wouldn't dare.
Jason hated jails. But maybe he could poke a little hole in the wall of this one and look out at the sky that way.
When he met Jason at the police station, oddly it was as simple as that. No escort. No last minute paper work or lectures about stupid Yankees in over their heads. He was walking up and Jason was walking out. Willie had their bags, surely the Japanese authorities would expect them to beat a hasty retreat and so they were. Jason nodded, and Willie remembered giving him the hard line of how the future was to go. Willie would do no more work. Ever. Jason would pay him to back up his schemes but that's as far as it would go.
"Fine, laddie," said Jason, taking his bag and hefting it on his shoulder. They were heading toward the docks as fast as Jason's long legs could lead them, and Willie hustled to keep up. "I'll think up something to keep us busy. But first, you and I are going to take a break. I've got us tickets on a ship headed south."
"You bought tickets?"
"Indeed I did, laddie."
"What? I thought--"
Jason patted his bag, and Willie could see how it seemed overfull at one end and that's when he stopped and slugged Jason. Jason swayed back, dropping his seabag and came at him, both fists holding his collar.
"I had to keep it. It was my deal!"
"Your deal," snarled Willie, shrugging himself out of Jason's grasp, "cost me three days in fish guts, when all the time you had enough money to bail yourself out!"
"But I couldn't, don't you see? I needed that next egg, I had this plan--"
"I don't care about your fucking plan," he said, curling his hands into fists, "but you're giving me half right now and I'm going on my own."
"Half?" Jason's eyebrows rose.
"I earned it, now hand it over."
"The hell I will," said Jason. Also curling his fists, socking Willie in the jaw so hard that he fell on his ass in the dirt, and Jason was on him, working him over, muttering about being trapped in that damn paper jail, with large, hard punches, till Willie was sagging on his arms, swallowing blood. And Jason, looming over him, sweating. Rage fading.
"Get up, boy-o," he said, holding out his hand for Willie to grab. "I'll take you out of here."
There was a moment of silence as the dust settled in the street around them, as Japanese people passed by, eyes averted, not making a sound. He stared at their eyes, trying to make them look at him as he got up and wiped his lip with the back of his hand.
He was almost nose-to-nose with Jason before the other man spoke. Low, in that way he had when delivering threats he knew he could make true. "You're picking up your bag, and you're coming with me. You got that? We're taking the next boat that's leaving the docks and we're heading out of here. Now."
A glare from Jason's eyes, and Willie let himself be crumpled. He wanted out of here and he didn't like fighting with Jason. "I ain't never working again," he said. "I swear it. I'll help you with your schemes, but I ain't never lifting no shovel, or carrying anything, or being no fucking grease monkey, you got it?"
Jason nodded. "I got it, boy-o."
The next boat leaving was the Ki Li Si, heading out to Pacific islands that even Jason had never seen or heard of. She carried nothing more demanding than cinder blocks and meant to pick up exotic fruits to take to trade for supplies for the string of islands so far beyond civilization that there were no jails, paper or otherwise, and where Jason would feel no need to go dancing at the edges of the law.
"No work," said Willie as they stowed their gear.
"No work," agreed Jason. "We're on vacation, I paid for our passage, square and proper."
Willie could only grunt at this as they clambered up the narrow gangplank and stowed their gear in what was obviously a converted third-class passenger cabin, with wooden plank siding and even a little sink. It was small, but after double metal bunks and no storage space, the cabin was a piece of luxury. He claimed the best bunk under the little porthole for himself by throwing his sea bag on it, and brushed past Jason in search of a shower. He could feel Jason's eyes on him, though neither of them said a word, and he knew that Jason would be scooping out where the booze was kept, and the two of them would have something to drink later. When the ship was underway. When they had left Japan.
After they had docked at and left the third island with no call to all hands or a request from the cook that Willie carry out and dump the slops overboard, Willie could relax. Jason had paid for the tickets, and the Ki Li Si apparently carried a small batch of old salts who liked island hopping, and the stops in port were truly casual. The port authority would arrive on small tugs, or outboard motorboats, or even just wave from the main, usually the only, dock. The Ki Li Si was welcome, as was her cargo, and the passengers came and went, stopping in sleepy, small sea side towns that didn't seem to care how much a fellow drank or if he fell asleep in the middle of the only street in town.
"Let's stay on this one, Jason," he begged early one morning, as Jason was hauling his ass off the road. The sand he had fallen on at or around midnight was the softest he'd ever felt. The hooch had been smooth, tasting of coconut, and the breeze was like a first kiss, soft and shy and sweet. "Let's stay here forever."
"Up you go, Willie-me-lad," said Jason, picking him up in one single move. "I'll take you somewhere, to this one place I have heard tell of. Sand softer than this, the women sweeter, and the fish fly into your frying pan."
They were walking back to the ship, or rather, Jason was walking and Willie was hanging off him, his feet completely numb, though his ankles felt the soft, velvet sand underneath. Looking up, he saw the stars swirling behind Jason's head. Literally swirling, like a shining roulette wheel that never stopped, and each slot paid, sparkling like diamonds, with chips of silver light spilling out of each one.
"Is it--" asked Willie, "is it gonna have stars like this?"
"Stars?" asked Jason, looking down at him, his breath warm on Willie's face. His voice was gentle. "What are you talking about, boy-o?"
"Behind you. They're everywhere." Willie lifted a hand to wave at them all, sparkling behind Jason as if they were diamonds studded in pure black velvet. He was about to fall back when Jason caught him, an arm around his shoulders, and then Jason looked up. Tipped his head back, his eyes catching the light of the stars, and even in the darkness of night, the stars were so bright that Jason's eyes were green. Green against the black, the muscles of his arm holding Willie up, his neck stretched to look at the night sky, and for a moment there was silence. Between the hush hush of one wave and the next, and the call of a night bird, there was pure silence.
"Those are the kind of stars," Jason said, quiet, as if to himself, "that will always take you home."
Then he looked down at Willie and smiled. Willie smiled back, feeling the slip of the liquor in his blood flow into his gut.
"Home is where you are, Jason," he said, thinking it. Thinking it out loud.
He could hear the ocean now, and the night birds, the soft whack of a boat in its moorings, and he knew he would never forget the look in Jason's eyes then. Glittering and hard and closing off whatever thoughts were in Jason's head. You didn't say things like that, you didn't say them. But Willie had. And now, here was Jason, about to remove his arm from around Willie's shoulders, and was reaching to pry Willie's fingers off from where they clutched at his shirt, as Willie tried to stay upright and not fall over.
"Jason," he said, his voice husk and desperate. "I didn't mean it, honest, I'm just drunk, you know, and--"
Then Jason did pry his fingers off and remove his arm and walked up the road towards the single wharf, where the Ki Li Si waited out the low tide. When the dawn came, she would be trimmed up and made ready to make way. Passengers going with her would be aboard, and some of the fruit that had been loaded belowdecks would be sliced up for breakfast as the first blue waves of the day churned and frothed under her white bow. And Willie knew his heart would break if he and Jason weren't on that ship together as they had been forever, Jason telling his tall tales to whoever had gathered near to hear, and he at Jason's side, taking the food from Jason's plate without asking, and the both of them knowing that at the next port, or maybe the one after that, they would disembark and go looking for Laureen, and Tia, and Collette, and whichever girl liked the look of their faces and the sound of their voices and the feel of money being pressed in their hands.
If it ended, he knew he would die.
In the darkness that was turning blue as the dawn came near, Jason stopped. His hands twitched as if he wanted a cigarette, and Willie watched as he reached into his pockets and pulled one out. Lit it, a yellow spark on the sand road, and puffed. The smell of tobacco from the States wafted toward him, and Willie walked into it.
"Jason." He wanted to beg, but of course, to a man like Jason McGuire, that's what you didn't do. Not what a man did. He was so drunk, so terribly drunk, he should not have said it, not brought it up at all, out into the open. It was such a vulnerable feeling, he should have kept it close, hidden. Locked away. His knees shook.
Jason took another long puff, his features becoming brighter in the quick glow of the cigarette end, and then faded into the near darkness once again. He seemed to be nodding, almost to himself, but also to Willie. Deciding something in the quiet of the early morning as it stole across the sand road.
"I'll always be here, Willie. Always."
Willie felt the hitch in his lungs, something in his stomach that he didn't want to examine just then.
"Thanks, Jason," he said, low. Letting the words sift across the sand, catching the warmth of a breeze as the sun kicked up its heels just beyond the horizon.
"For you, kiddo?" Now Jason looked at him, eyes sparking, mouth quirking into a small, almost unconscious smile. "The world." Sarcasm oozing, but every word honestly meant. That was Jason's way.
"I think--" started Willie, but his mouth felt like it was slurring everything.
"I think you are going to fall over," said Jason, coming to hitch an arm under Willie's shoulders. "Don't do that now, we want to be putting you to bed, that's what we want."
"Sure, Jason," said Willie, letting himself be led. "Anything you say."
It was only as the Ki Li Si had gotten underway that Willie fell into the first solid sleep he'd had since Turkey. When he woke up he discovered that he'd missed that morning's sliced fruit, but that Jason had saved him some. His thanks were waved away with a hearty snort that he, Jason, did not care for fruit, and it would only have gone to waste. A big fat hairy lie, but the kind Jason preferred to be believed.
The blue waters of the Pacific led them from one island to another, all of them dripping with shells and lathered with sand, surrounded by curving coral reefs. Brown islanders either took to them or they didn't, some islands had real buildings, others just had huts. One island had a little village entirely made of cinderblocks, and it was to this one that Jason suggested that they disembark. An unremarkable island, for all the truth be told, the sand was just as white and soft as anywhere else, palm trees just as languid in the warm breezes. The women were just as kind or indifferent, depending on their mood, and not one of them seemed to want to answer to Laureen.
"Why here Jason?"
"You have got to learn to think, Willie," said Jason scolding as he packed. Made Willie pack. "This one…did you not see the wires in the little village?"
"No," said Willie. It came out like a question.
"That means a generator. Electricity. Cold beer. You remember cold beer don't you?"
"We'll buy a little scooter, and head up the coast a ways. Find a good spot; a man I know will sell us his cinderblock hut."
Jason lifted up his seabag and tapped Willie on the cheek. "Trust me, kiddo. The stars here will be brilliant."
As they walked down the gangplank to the smaller of two docks, Willie heard Jason whisper under his breath. "It's Tir Nan Og, my boy, you just don't know it."
Whatever Tir Nan Og was, it was something Jason liked, and even though the woman Jason hooked up with insisted that her name was not Laureen, it was Piree, he was in a good mood for the whole of their stay. The cinder hut was private, and there was a spring nearby that brought up cool water every day. If you needed to wash, the ocean was right there, and the money flowed as well. They bought fish from the boats as they came in each day, and fruit from the women, who took no pains to hide the fact that they thought that Jason and Willie should get themselves some good strong women to look after them.
The rains came, and the hot days, and Willie took to fishing with his own hands, bringing in various things for them to eat. They both grew tan, though Jason would always sport an Irish glow about him that instantly marked him as a non-islander. The scooter took them into town whenever they wanted to go, and there was cold beer on tap, with the bartender thinking that maybe Willie would like to come to work for him. Willie shook his head no, smiled at Jason, and pushed his hair back from his eyes.
And then at night, he and Jason would walk on the beach, always, and especially, if the moon was coming up. Walk and watch the phosphorescence in the waves break themselves over nothing, blue and green and glowing in the night air. Sometimes they would talk as they headed back to turn in, but most times they would say nothing. Jason usually walked up-beach, so that Willie could roll up his pantlegs, if he was wearing pants, and walk in the surf. They walked side by side that way, and Willie could look up and see the strong profile of Jason's face cut against the backdrop of palm trees. And stars.
If they never left, it would be too soon.
But of course, leave they did, headed on a small black-painted freighter called the Noona Soong, which picked up fruit and people from the out islands and carried them into the shipping lanes. There they caught another boat, and then another, the money holding out so that, as paying passengers aboard a shipping vessel, they could work or not as they pleased, and Willie found he wanted to go someplace where they could work some deals. He was, he found himself, astonished, becoming bored.
"I wanna make some money, Jason, not just take handouts."
"What's mine is yours, Willie-me-lad, you know that."
"I know, Jason, it's just…I just want to do something. Something fun. And profitable."
Jason thought for a moment as they leaned on the railing, staring at the mash of blue and green and white that the bow spit out. "Alright, Willie. I know where we can go. Easy money. But it's back in the States." His voice was a warning.
"You know I don't wanna go back there."
"That's where the money is. That's where there's very easy money. You don't even have to do anything. Just be my muscle."
"Your muscle, huh?" He liked the sound of it, actually. Thinking of himself, standing hard by as Jason did the patter, made the pitch. Jason's ideas were usually good. Okay, except for Japan and Turkey, but everywhere else they had gone had turned out fine.
"Where in the States, Jason?" he asked, patting his own pockets for a cigarette, wondering if they were sailing into a wind too stiff to strike a match by.
Jason passed him a pack of cigarettes and brought out his matches, cupping his hands, waiting for Willie to pull out a cigarette and put it to his mouth. Then he lit the cigarette with a match, leaning his body forward to shield it and Willie from the wind.
"It's in Maine," said Jason, his dark eyes watching Willie draw on his first puff. "Gets cold up there, even in summer."
"I don't mind the cold," said Willie. "Besides, we can always leave if the snow gets too deep." Not like on the Bering Sea, with ice all around, and no way out. Except for Jason, holding him there, he would have frozen. The memory came at him, as it did from time to time, out of thoughts of breakfast, or smoking a cigarette, or folding a blanket as a pillow for his head. Or it came out of nothing at all, out of the vacant space that occupied his brain when he looked out at the ocean, the thought that Jason had saved him.
His last clear memory of Jason had been on a ship off the coast of South Carolina. They'd caught the Carrie Dee again, in Charleston, as she headed back up to Boston. Their money was low, and Jason made a deal with Willie that if he worked as cook's mate, he'd hook him up with a sweet pearl of a girl in Boston, and after the deal in Maine was cooking, Willie would well and truly never have to work again. The expression on Jason's face told Willie that his friend meant it. Or at least he believed it. And as the ship headed north, following the coast, Jason brought out his Greek fisherman's cap, and tipped it to Willie with a gleam in his eye, dark hair curling on his forehead. The spray from the bow as they stood on the forecastle whipped up into their faces, dotting them with salt, and Jason smiled and licked his lips.
"There's nothing like the sea, boy-o. And don't you forget it."
I'll always be here, Willie. Always.
Though as for the always part of that, Jason had probably never foreseen himself moldering for always beneath the slab stones of a family tomb. Buried there by his good friend Willie's own hands. That muscle he spoke of so fondly going into the effort of sweating back the stones and digging a trench deep enough for a body to be laid in. Forever.
I knew you well, Jason, and loved you more.
Maine had turned out to be worse than the Diligence, Japan, and Turkey combined. The only always now was Barnabas.
Of course he could not forget it. The sea was where Jason was. And the stars. Silent. Whirling now over his head as Buzz guided the bike under the port-cochiere and turned off the engine. Held the bike steady as Willie slid off, his legs vibrating from the engine's rumble, his mind full of memories of Jason. He started to walk into the house, feeling the fresh air of the beach being overcome with the weight of the Old House.
"Yeah?" Willie stopped and turned to look at Buzz.
"You're a brother of the road, I can see it in your eyes. Why don't you come with me tomorrow? The bike can carry two as easy as one."
Whatever he'd thought Buzz had been going to say, that was not it.
"No, I can't." His reply snapped out of him before he could actually start thinking about it. About what Buzz was asking. About what Jason had asked years before. Come and go with me.
"I just c-can't, okay?" His heart jerked in his chest and he looked over his shoulder at the kitchen door. If Barnabas had heard the bike, then he would be wondering where his servant was and why he was tarrying out of doors when he should be inside, awaiting his master's pleasure.
"Hey, c'mon, man, what's keeping you here? Collinwood's a drag, you know that."
A drag and then some. The temptation to hop back on the bike, where the warmth of his own body still remained on the seat, and give the bike a pat to tell Buzz he was ready to head out, was a vivid acid in his head. And so was the awareness that, somewhere behind him in the Old House, Barnabas was coming closer. His heart began to pound and he could only look at Buzz and shake his head no.
"Look, man, if you change your mind," said Buzz, "I'm leaving from the Blue Whale at 6 a.m. You wanna go with me? That's where I'll be. Okay, man?"
The door behind him opened with a little snap, the kind only Barnabas could produce to demonstrate his irritation, but still appear calm in front of guests and unexpected visitors.
He saw Buzz looking past him, saw the flicker of unease across the other man's face.
Willie reached out to shake Buzz's hand. The flesh of Buzz's palm was hot against his own. "Thanks, Buzz," he said," G-good luck on your trip. Stay upright, okay?"
"Okay, I'll do that," said Buzz, his mind already focused on starting his bike and heading for home.
Willie turned to face the Old House and let the darkness swallow him.
In the morning he awoke, the fog coming in through his partially opened window like smoke sifting up from a low, damp fire. He pulled up his woolen blankets and held his hands to his chest, watching as the fog filled his room, rolling low across the windowsill and sinking to the floor. There was an odd, sad dampness that threatened to vanquish the stalwart little light of the courting candle, and Willie stared at the ceiling and imagined he could see the dawn growing into brightness.
The night before, Barnabas had given him the shakedown, demanding to know where he'd been, why his chores had gone undone. The kitchen had been mostly dark, the air still, and the tall form at the other end of the room had been all in shadow. Barnabas had been waiting for him, none too pleased, the patience in that voice non-existent, the edges of it chipped and hard, seeming to reach for him and twist at his insides with a clenched grasp.
He tried to give the best answer he could, without boring the vampire with stories about stars across the night-black sky or Jason on the bow of a ship passing him a flask of whiskey to keep off the cold. It would have meant nothing to Barnabas, and even less would he have wanted to concern himself with the bubbling anxiety in Willie's stomach that did its best to keep him from answering.
In the end, he told the truth, that he'd gone out with Buzz Hackett on his motorcycle for a ride. He left out the details of the beer and the offer to light out, thinking he was hiding a great deal and would soon be discovered, and found to his surprise that Barnabas' major concern had been with the identity of his companion. That he had been out with the Buzz Hackett, who had late been courting Cousin Carolyn.
Barnabas mostly wanted to know if Young Hackett had anything nefarious planned. Willie assured him that Buzz did not, that he only wanted to pay him back for the favor he felt was owed to Willie. Then Barnabas wanted to know about the favor. Which is where the conversation got squirrelly. He tried as best he could, through a mouthful of stutters, to explain that Buzz could leave because Carolyn didn't want him anymore. And the reason Carolyn didn't want him anymore was because Jason was gone. Jason wasn't around to thank, so that left Willie.
More amazing than the fact that Barnabas' temper over the unpermitted absence of his servant had fizzled away almost completely at this explanation was the fact that he seemed to understand what Buzz had been doing. His only demand was that there would be, of necessity, no repetition of such an outing in the future. With Willie's assurances that there would not be and that he had not, in the end, revealed the whereabouts of one Jason McGuire, Barnabas dismissed him to do his chores. Which he'd done by around midnight and had tumbled into bed, expecting to sleep at least a few hours past dawn.
But no. Here he was, socked in by fog, while in the distance he could hear the thin bells of the early shift at the cannery. And if he listened, tuning his ears past the low quiet of the Old House at sunrise, he thought he could hear, faint, like a whisper, the click and rumble of a motorcycle as it started up and headed out of town.