Mills-body.jpgIllustration: Pirate and traveller map game, 1906 (detail)
Two weeks on the boat you’re feeling okay. You’ve got your morals. At least some. Two months in, you’re not okay.
We’ve been outside for months now. We’re getting the way we do after so long without sight of land or a woman. Last night Vince licked my neck. It was on the way to the showers. “Come here,” he said. Then he brought me in for a whisper. “Listen to what old Skipper told me.” When I got close then he licked me. I laughed and gave him a quick hickey on his shoulder. Really it was more like a bite though.
Vince’s tales have been getting stranger. Especially over the last few weeks. No one listens to them any more. Yesterday he was going on about his granddad again. Vince’s granddad said if you split a crow’s tongue apart it’ll talk like a parrot. So Vince tried it. Only the tongue kept slipping and rolling out of the bird’s mouth. The only reason we remember that one is because him and Euclid got in quite a scuffle afterwards. About whether crows really do have tongues or not.
Two weeks on the boat you’ve still got fresh memories of home. You’re feeling okay. You’ve got your morals. At least some. And your head’s not completely filled with fish innards yet. Two weeks in you’re still doing all right. Two months in you’re not doing all right. That’s when you’re broke up. Being broke up is like cabin fever times a thousand in a house that won’t sit still. It’s being trapped in a world of sixteen on and four offs and little to no sleep. It’s when things get “small and dark” like Euclid says.
The Captain gets broke up too. He’s been outside so long he never came back. He likes to take stuff from us and each time it’s something different. This time when we boarded we were searched for calendars and bankbooks and anything with a date on it. He told us we’d get it back when we dock. If Euclid is right and the Captain does have some kind of collection going then we’ll never see our stuff again. “You know as well as I do that he didn’t give it back the last four times out,” Euclid said the other day as we put shrimp to boil, “so why would he now? Why do you think he’s got a gun to guard our pile of stuff? So other people won’t take it?”
The other day we brought in the net. Only there was nothing. Not even the net. I was below in the processing room sending the last shrimps down into the hold. Euclid came running in waving his big arms and head around. “They hauled back and nothing left but doors!” He was happy as anything. When they pull in the main warp and there’s nothing left but the doors we chain them back and steam for land. That’s all. The Captain has no other choice. He’s got this hundred-by-two-hundred-foot net lying on the bottom with the cod end probably packed with a couple tons of perfectly good eating. And he’s just got to leave it.
Dropping the net’s never happened to me before this time but you’d always hear about other ships losing theirs. I heard foreign trawlermen talking about it the last time we docked in Godthab. I guess it’s not unpopular for Japanese captains to do themselves in after something as traumatic as that. They can’t face the companies. No wonder though. The companies are never happy. Especially about dropping a net. Nets aren’t cheap. I imagine the Captain isn’t sleeping too good right now knowing what he has to face.
Us boys doing the hauling and processing don’t care too much about dropping a net though. Every one of us hopes to God we never see each other again after we get off the boat. “See you,” we say when we’re getting in our cars and meeting our wives and kids at the yard. “I hope I never see your fucking face again.” That’s how much we care about being out on the water dragging up nets. Being out here slicing. Packing. The list goes on. It’s a living. That’s it.
Vince tells me how his granddad had this imaginary friend. The friend had an imaginary dog. They both lived with Vince’s granddad before he died. In the wintertime his granddad’d pretty well melt the snowbanks when he left the door open to call the stubborn mutt inside. When Vince went to see him on his deathbed he shooed Vince out. “I need my friends,” his granddad said. “Can’t you see them standing there waiting for you to leave?” Those were his granddad’s last words. “He conked out before I could even leave the room,” Vince says. “It was as eerie as hell being left alone with those two.”
I wish Euclid was here in the galley. Him and Vince’d be at each other’s throats. Euclid questions every story Vince ever tells. It’s because he’s sick and tired of them more than anyone else. “Your granddad was a horrible person,” he likes to say. “Just like someone else I know. Tell a story worse than that and I’ll give you my cut of the catch.”
“How’s the steak?” Vince asks me. Last week we hauled back and there was this giant halibut in the end. Normally we throw anything that’s not shrimp back but Vince called it the moment he saw it. “Mine!” he said. “That sucker’s mine.” When he strung it up it was taller than us. About four feet wide with eyes like baseballs. I don’t know why he called it since he lets anyone cut a piece off and fry it. That’s just Vince though. This is our fifth time out together and I’d say when he gets broke up he’s about as right in the mind as his grandfather was.
“I said how’s the steak I said.” Vince eyes my fork as I move it to my mouth.
“Biggest one I ever caught.”
Then someone shouts. “Land!” We hear it again. “Land!” But it sounds a lot like guys from up above just messing with us. We’re an easy target. You can’t see anything when you’re eating in the galley because it’s down below and the Captain’s boarded up the porthole. So you’ve got to be careful not to get carried away. Since the haulback last week I’d say I’ve heard it at least once a day.
Everyone’s quiet. Not even a plate or fork banging in the kitchen. You can hear the footsteps overhead.
“What did they say?” Smithy asks.
“They’re saying shut your mouth,” Vince says to him. “Coal miner’s daughter.”
Smithy stands up. All sweaty and crazy-looking. His eyes blank like a shark’s. He rolls up his sleeves and holds his fork up like he’s going to put it through Vince’s eye. Smithy’s a force to be reckoned with. He has five older brothers and was raised as a miner. “Hold still,” he says to Vince. “I’m going to put this through your eye.”
But he can’t do it. Because when he goes to jam the utensil in he’s knocked down by a big shake from the boat. Land. All hell breaks loose. Guys drop what they’re eating. The cook doesn’t even bother shutting the freezer. Land. It does this to people and you’d never know it unless you spent months away and were double broke up.
Vince got a couple sheets of tickets from the Captain. Since we’re in Greenland we’re going to need them. Tickets can save you from waiting in line outside the bar. You can also have a bunch of girls around you by the end of the night. Tickets are what allow you to buy drinks. Plain and simple. You don’t have a ticket you can’t buy a beer here. It’s the system to keep people from drinking their whole lives away. Since boats come in and out and a lot of guys get tickets from their captains it doesn’t always work too good though.
“Vince. Let me buy some tickets.”
“Talk to the Captain. He don’t care about anything right now. He gave me two sheets.”
I have to pass by the Captain’s door to get to the back of the lineup. You can see him inside talking to guys but also eyeing our stuff. He’s gotten even skinnier since he dropped the net the other day. The lineup moves pretty quick. But when I’m number two the Captain says to the guy ahead that that’s the last sheet. I have to get right in there and ask if he can rip it in half since there’s no one behind me in line. “Unh unh buddy,” the guy in front says. He’s a monster. He’s no threat though. He’s one of the biggest guys on the ship but he can barely chain the doors back himself. “First come first serve,” he says. “How about I get you a tall one at the bar. How about that?”
I want to grab him so bad. I have my moments where I’d say I’m almost triple broke up and something like this can really trigger it. “You should rip it in half,” I tell him.
“No can do son.”
You learn pretty quick being outside that you can’t take that or they’ll walk straight over you. “Look boy. Sell me half for twenty,” I say. “First thing back to Novi I’ll get you the money. Or I can give you kroner right now.”
“I said no can do.”
I give the bearded beast a huge shove. Right into the door frame. The guy moans. So the Captain bangs his bony hands on his desk. At first I think he’s telling us to take it deckside. Then I realize he wants to see a fight. “Grab the tickets from him,” the Captain says. So I try and grab them.
“No way,” the monster says. He puts the tickets behind his back. “No fair buddy. You’ve got the Captain on your side.”
“No fair?” I push him again. “Just give the tickets then. Rip them.”
The guy takes off. So I run after him. The Captain comes out into the hall. “Grab the tickets!” he screams. “Grab his leg. Trip him!”
The monster heads downstairs. I push him into the fish jackets but he’s so excited to get off the boat that he just bounces off. That’s when one of his buddies comes out of his room. Daniels. Daniels is known from here to Moncton and back to be a scrapper. Daniels took Euclid out one night when Euclid put a stingray down his back.
“Just rip them in half,” I tell him. “I’ll buy them off you. Come on.”
“Take a hike,” the monster says. Then he slaps me across the jaw. But not as hard as he could seeing as Daniels is right here. “If I see you at the bar you’re dead,” he says to me. Then he gives Daniels half his tickets.
Vince is alone in his quarters listening to The White Album. He’s singing along with “Piggies.” All the other guys have gone already. “How’d you do?” he asks. He’s got his only set of good clothes on. “Get any tickets?” Vince sprays some cologne in the air and walks through it. I don’t know why the guy bothers really. He’s always reminded me of those fish that pop when they hit the surface. Those ones whose eyes and tongues get picked at when we throw them to the birds.
“I’ll have to get some from you,” I say. “You got two sheets didn’t you?”
“Come to me at the bar and I’ll give you whatever you want.”
“I’ll just buy them now.”
“I said you don’t have to buy them I said. Just come to me at the bar.”
Most people in the city are wearing parkas or large jackets. All Vince and I have on are our wrinkly good shirts. This place always reminds me of Newfoundland. And it can remind some Newfies of it too. Once instead of land I heard a Newfie shout home when he saw Greenland in the distance. You’ve got to be pretty broke up to do that though. The land’s kind of the same in places but the houses are different. More European. And you’d never see a Benz taxi and a dogsled team cross paths on the Rock.
Vince waves his sheets of tickets in the air. The bouncer nods his head for us to come forward. Some people in line aren’t happy about us getting in. Either that or they want our tickets. Trawlermen tend to get more than the locals do. There’s some shouting in broken English and Danish. Mostly Inuit though. The bouncer puts all his fingers in the air. So Vince rips off nine tickets.
Inside they’re playing Scandinavian disco music. Flashing lights are everywhere. So are Inuit girls. They’ve all got these tinselly scarves on that make them seem really exotic. Almost European but not quite. Half the guys from the boat are up on the floor already dancing with some of them.
Vince rips me a ticket.
“Come on. Give me a few.”
“That should do for now,” he shouts in my ear. “I’ve got to preserve these things.”
At the counter this girl who can’t be even fifteen yet says something to me in Inuit. I shrug my shoulders. She tries some English. Beer and buy are the only words I get. I hold up my one ticket so she’ll understand. Then a trawlerman who’s on the other side of me says, “She means if you got an extra ticket she’ll buy you a drink.” Vince is hard to track down but I find him at the back talking to a couple girls and handing them tickets.
“Give me another ticket will you.”
“I don’t like how you ask,” he says to me. “Didn’t I just give you one?” Then he starts laughing really hard. I feel like grabbing him. He always gets cocky in front of women. And when he gets cocky he starts telling stories. “Listen hard to this,” he says. He always says that when he’s in his cocky place.
So Vince goes on about how his granddad had two horses that could tap dance. He used to take these horses around to the carnivals and play the flute while they did their thing. “Granddad had to go to a special blacksmith,” he says. You can tell the girls don’t understand any of it.
“Give me twelve.” I shove a wad of kroner into Vince’s hand. “Give me twelve.”
Vince laughs. Then he hands the girls more tickets. “Listen hard to this,” he says. Then he looks straight at me with those buggy eyes. He laughs with that mouth of his. So I push him hard into one of the speakers.
“Give me twelve,” I shout in his ear, “or I’ll do something you won’t like at all.” Vince’s ugly face smiles but I know he’s just testing me. I look serious enough. Serious enough that he rips me off ten.
“What were you going to do?” he shouts. All of a sudden he’s a little serious too.
“Never mind,” I tell him. “I just hope I never see your fucking face again.”
The girl is still at the bar waiting. So I buy her a drink. She tries to give me money for the beer. I say no thanks. “Next time,” I tell her. I can see she’s already got a hold of some tickets tonight.
We get out on the floor. I’m taking her around all the bodies like we’re ballroom dancing and she’s loving it. I can tell she thinks I’m good. She’s not bad herself. Her little hands are small. The beer makes them colder. Her cheeks are soft as anything. They make me wish I’d shaved so I could feel closer to them. I like to pick her up and swing her around. With all the lights behind her she’s this mystical Inuit goddess who landed right in my hands.
It feels like we stay out on the dance floor for hours. It pretty well could be because I go back and buy us more beer every twenty minutes or so till my tickets are gone.
Around last call I’m swinging her in the air again. That’s when her legs bump into that same monster who wouldn’t give me the tickets on the boat. He pushes me and the girl over on the floor. Some dancers step on us. Our last beers pour over us but we’re still laughing. She kisses me. Then the guy kicks me and my eyes go all teary. So I cover her head to make sure she’s all right.
When I get up the guy is nowhere in sight. With his size he’d be easy to spot. He’s long gone. So I brush myself off and tuck my shirt in. I tell her to wait. Then I go check if I’ve got any blood on myself. When I get back she isn’t there either. I check the women’s bathroom and out behind the bar but I can’t find her anywhere.
I stumble past the factories and back to the water. It takes me quite a while to find our boat because a few have docked since. I can see my breath and my spit freezes before I can walk over it. All over the city there’s laughing and screaming and people lying in snow and grass and mud. A lot of the girls are going to the boats.
There’s this moaning when I get back on board. At first I figure it’s just two people back aft. But it sounds different than that kind of moaning. So I check it out. Halfway under some rubber is my girl from the bar. Her face is covered in black marker. She’s still got all her clothes on. And you can kind of tell they never did anything to her. They just let her pass out there I guess. When I pick her up she looks straight at me like I’m going to hurt her. Then she relaxes. She sees it’s me. I find an unmarked spot between her black moustache and glasses and kiss it.
I take her downstairs to wash. After a while she sits up by herself on the toilet. Hand soap doesn’t do much so I go down and grab some sanitizing chemicals from the processing room. One of them does a decent job. After I’m through the marker’s only about half as dark but you can tell that’s the best it’s going to get. Just when I think I’ve made the situation better she starts moaning again. It seems like she might be trying to tell me her name. I give her some water. That and me scrubbing at her face wakes her up a bit and she stands up to go.
Through the galley doors to the kitchen you can see a group of girls eating out of the freezer. They laugh and throw shrimp and spit juice at each other. “Get out of there!” Euclid screams at them from the belly of the boat. “Stop that and get in here!”
We climb up on deck. That’s when we meet Vince coming back. “Listen hard to this,” he says and points at her markered face. The two Inuit girls he’s with laugh pretty hard. Not as hard as Vince though. Vince looks like he’s having real pain. Like he’s so broke up he’s never going to resurface. Like he’s on the same wavelength as the Captain.
Soon enough Smithy boards the ship with a couple of the boys. They all start riding me like anything. They’ll never let me get away with this without razzing the hell out of me.
“Where’s your girls?” I say. “Or do you even swing that way?”
“What? You call that a girl?” Smithy says back. “He hasn’t shaved in weeks.”
You can tell she’s getting scared of them. She takes my hand. Doesn’t let it go. She pulls me through the streets but in a different direction than the bar. Now there’s less and less screaming and fewer bodies lying around. She pulls me to these red warehouses. Huge complexes. Euclid said most of Greenland lives in them but he doesn’t know anyone who’s been inside.
There’s a hunk of plain plywood nailed onto the wallpaper in her living room. Tape over the broken window. Which makes it not much warmer inside than out. From the height we’re at you’d think there would be a view but all I can see are lights from the side of another building.
Some guy who must be her brother sits in an armchair smoking a cigar. He wears this brown yarn scarf. He says something to her in Inuit but I can’t tell if he’s angry or not. He sets down his cigar and comes over. His face is gold and it stares right at me.
I look down at his hand. I don’t know if I should shake it. “Hello,” he says as if he knew I’d be coming.
She takes me into a small room. She’s drawn all over the walls in there with paint or maybe even black marker. Just wavy faces and arms and legs. On the ceiling there’s posters of Hollywood stars. Her clothes are all over the floor and there’s a small pile of them by the closet. There’s a mattress with no sheets. Just these old blankets bunched up. The whole room has a cold smell to it like a winter bonfire.
She kisses me. I try and turn the light off but she pushes my hand away from the switch. I pull her shirt off and my eyes catch her belly. They drew fish swimming around. Some even push up out of her pants. I keep thinking it had to be that monster who wouldn’t sell me his tickets. The guy who kicked me. All I can think about is the different ways I’m going to kill him.
She gets into bed with the lights still on. I follow her. “Jesus. It’s freezing in here,” I say to her. My teeth are chattering away. “It’s colder with the blankets on.” She laughs but I can tell she didn’t understand much of it. She slides her hands up under my shirt. Then into my armpits to make them warm. Her nose is cold against my neck. I can’t move. I’m still too furious.
When she brings her hands out they’re the warmest things around. She rubs my stomach. She rubs it till I’m not angry any more. Till I’ve forgotten about being broke up in that boat with them. Till I’ve decided I’m staying in Greenland. If not forever at least till after they’ve left for Nova Scotia.