From The Relic (A Sea Story), by Jeff Lowe
“Oh, you want to know my wish, huh?”
The kid’s growl rolled out too quiet for the other riders on the bus to hear. They were all bundled up against the bitter cold and sleet, yet he was without coat or hat. The ice that had pelted him in the slicing wind outside had melted in the relative warmth of the bus. Even so, he was cold and damp and beginning to shiver, though he didn’t yet realize it. Humiliation burns hot and long when you’re sixteen.
He was sitting on a bench leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands out in front of him, palms up, fingers slightly curled and trembling. He had been glaring at them like a judge condemning traitors to execution until he got so disgusted he looked up and saw the poster. It was an advertisement for Puller’s department store showing a jolly Santa who asked, “What’s your Christmas wish?”
The second time, it was in the bark of an angry dog. “So you really want to know what I wish, you old bastard?” Some of the other riders looked at him.
He had been playing the scene over and over again in his mind. At the party, that beautiful girl, the one he had a crush on, the one with the chestnut hair pulled back in a pony tail, the one with the pretty blue eyes and the dazzling smile: Celeste, the one he had always liked but they had only been friends—the “You Don’t Know Me” kind of friends—but not anymore. No, at this Christmas party he was going to bust out of his shell, and he had practiced, night and day for weeks he had practiced, and at home he was great, he was smooth, he was oh-so-virtuoso—the way his fingers danced on the strings, the way his voice rolled through the lyrics—and this night he would take that risk, he would throw caution to the wind and show her who he really was. And he was going to play “You Don’t Know Me,” not like Eddy Arnold, not like Jerry Vale, but like and as himself, and his version would be hers because it would open her eyes and her heart to the real Chick Charles.
But there at the party in front of Celeste and everyone else watching him—and worse yet, listening to him—it felt as if his hands had turned to hooves and he couldn’t make a single good note or chord on that damned guitar, and his heart pounded and his throat choked up and on top of it all he forgot the lyrics. Everything fell apart, everything! And as he slunk off to the wall amid the polite, pitiful clapping, he heard an old woman say, “Aw, bless his heart!” and the words stung like a hornet. He turned once to look back and there was Celeste in the center of the room but she wasn’t looking back at him with any pity or compassion or anything else because Gerard, her real-life boyfriend, tall, handsome Gerard had her in his arms and kissed her on the lips under the mistletoe and everybody cheered and she said, “Well, Merry Christmas to me!” and she was beaming. Absolutely beaming. And so Chick Charles walked out the door without his hat or coat or even his guitar, and he started to run through the bitter, icy night, and he didn’t stop until he hopped on that city bus.
He didn’t even know where it was going. And he didn’t watch where it went, either. He just sat there as the bus wheezed and rumbled along, glaring at his hands with the kind of burning hatred only a humiliated teenager can feel. And the third time he yelled it in a maniac rage, “You want to know what I wish, old man? Huh? I wish you would just take these god-damned hands! Just take them away, they’re no use to me! God damn you all to hell!”
Puller’s Santa didn’t look at him any different, but the few other riders left on the bus did, and the driver yelled back, “Hey! Watch your mouth kid, or you can just get off this bus, got it?”
The kid heard him but paid him no mind. He was imagining being back at the party and somehow chopping both his hands off with an axe and spraying the entire crowd with his hot, spurting blood, and he could just see Celeste there, Celeste with the movie star dreams, drenched in his blood, and Gerard too, and he had the weird thought that someday somebody should make a movie about the king and queen of the high school prom getting drenched in blood and he cackled like a hyena at the stupidity of it all.
The bus squealed to a stop and the driver called out, “End of the line. Everybody off the bus.” Chick woke from his fantasy and looked around. He was the only rider left. The door swung open. The cold wind blew in. He could hear the ice pellets tinking on the side of the bus and the sidewalk. He hesitated.
“End of the line,” the driver said again. “Get off the bus.”
“Uhh… Where are we?” the kid said.
“First Avenue and Dockside,” the driver said. “End of the line.”
“Well, how do I get back?”
“Next bus is 6 a.m. You can either wait for it or call yourself a cab.”
It was well below freezing. The wind and sleet were getting worse. There was no way he could stand out in the street all night without so much as a coat or hat. “Can’t I just wait on the bus?” he said.
“No. You gotta get off. That’s the rules. Look, there’s a pay phone about a block down the street. Go call yourself a ride.”
He glanced at the Santa poster. “To hell with you,” he said, and stepped off the bus.
The driver called out, “Oh, and Merry Christmas to you too, ya little jerk.” The doors swished shut and the bus lurched away with a wheezy rumble, its tires crunching on the pellets of ice that were starting to coat the street.
The kid hugged himself, canted his head against the piercing ice needles and began jogging down the street. At the end of the first block he slipped on ice and fell, scraping one knee and the palms of his hands. He limped onward. Near the end of the second block he saw the phone booth in the distance, and he picked up his pace again. He was desperate to get inside, to close the door behind him and find some sanctuary from the brutal chill. He stuck his hands in his pockets to try to feel for some coins, but his fingers were already starting to go numb. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to count the coins or put them in the phone.
It didn’t matter anyway. The phone booth had no door, nor any walls. The glass sides were shattered and lying on the sidewalk and in the gutter. He couldn’t tell the difference between the glass shards and the ice. And the phone’s handset wasn’t even there. Just wires hanging out with loose ends, swaying in the wind.
He hurried down the street, along a row of ancient brick buildings of the kind you find near the docks, pushing on every door he came to, but they were all locked and dark. There was no traffic in the street—no buses, no cabs, no cars or trucks. He turned back toward where the bus let him off, but that was into the wind, so he turned around again to keep the wind to his back. He wandered, increasingly desperate and afraid, into side streets and alleys, but he found no protection from the cold. His gait became stiff and clumsy as he lost feeling in his feet, and when he could not feel his ears or his cheeks he began to fret that he was actually going to die out there.
He tried to yell for help, but his upper body had become wracked with spasms as the heat drained from his core, and his voice tumbled out weak and unheard. He slipped on ice and fell again. He tried to rise, once, twice, and then just lay there in disbelief that he was actually going to freeze to death. And then he heard someone yell. A man’s voice. Not yelling, really, but singing, loud and boisterous. He pushed up onto his hands and knees and looked down the street.
He saw a man in the yellow gloom of a streetlamp at the end of the next block. The kid locked his eyes on him. He staggered to his feet and stumbled toward the light, trying to yell as he went. When he got there he saw it was an old man with a white beard. His oversized pea coat was unbuttoned and flapping in the wind as he spun around in his happy dance. His sea captain’s hat, also too large for him, flopped on his head.
He laughed gaily as he sang, and didn’t appear in the least cold. As the kid stumbled to him, the old man spread his arms, smiled and grasped him in a bear hug. “Why, my boy, you’re shaking like a leaf,” he said, and he stepped back and shook off his coat. Then he draped it around the kid’s shoulders, placed the sea captain’s hat on his head and stood back with his fists on his hips, considering him.
“There,” the old man said. “Shipshape.” His wispy hair and beard flapped with the wind. Tiny icicles gathered in his whiskers. He inhaled deeply through his nostrils and, looking about with a grin, said, “Ain’t it grand, boy?” He danced some more steps and then stopped, facing the dock across the street.
“Christmas in Tahiti! The warm sands! The clear waters! The pretty girls!” He sniffed the air. “Aahhh, can you smell it, boy? Yaaah, that pig’s been roasting there under the sand for a day and a night, tender and juicy, wrapped in banana leaves. Are you hungry, boy?” And with that the old man danced into the street, skating here and there on the ice, and then he was on the other side, on the dock.
The kid could hardly see him now through the sleet and tears in his eyes. The old man yelled something that got whisked away in the wind, and then he was gone. There was a splash, and then nothing but the wind and the tinking of the sleet. The kid stood there for a few seconds, then stumbled across the street and dropped to his knees at the edge of the dock.
“Old man!” he yelled, his voice shaking with the tremors in his chest. He blinked and rubbed his eyes but the lamplight was dim here and he could see nothing in the water below. He could hear the sound of wind-whipped waves and the crackle of foam and the crunch of ice that had begun to form around the pier, but no splashing of a man trying to swim, and no call for help.
“Old man!” he cried out again. “Oh my God,” he whispered. He stood and staggered back across the dock and the street, clutching the coat around himself, as his fingers were numb and he couldn’t button it. He tried to call for help but his voice died in his convulsing chest.
As he turned a corner onto a side street he briefly heard voices, and a door slam. He saw lights in a window and a small neon sign flickered once and went dark again. The kid shuffled and slid toward it. As he reached the place the neon sign crackled and buzzed and flickered again. It said “Seamen’s Club.”
He tried to turn the doorknob but he couldn’t get a grip with his numb hands. He hammered the door weakly with his fists and kicked it with his shoes but he couldn’t seem to make a good knock. He slipped on the ice and fell to his knees on the stoop and his face smacked against the door.
When it opened the he flopped face down on the floor. “It’s the Old Man,” someone said, and pulled him fully into the room and slammed shut the door. When he turned the kid over he said, “What the… Hey Chief, it ain’t the Old Man… it’s some kid. He’s wearing the Old Man’s coat and hat.”
“Bring him here, Mr. Sanderson,” the Chief said.
The man dragged the kid by the shoulders of his pea coat across the room to a table, then lifted him like a sack of wheat and plopped him on a chair. Across the table the Chief sat with his arms folded over his chest, leaning back in his chair. His khakis were clean but not starched, and his thin, oily hair was combed over a bald spot. His shaven face had the pallor of someone who had spent most of his life in a cave. He studied the kid through black-rimmed glasses.
“Where’s the Old Man?” he said.
The kid tried to speak, but his chest was still shaking from the cold and he sounded like a little motor that was coughing and unable to start.
The Chief leaned forward and laid his elbows on the table, his fingers intertwined, and studied his subject. Then he turned his head and said, “Bartender, bring the boy a cup of your chicken soup. Warm, not hot. He seems to be suffering a touch of hypothermia.”
As the bartender prepared the soup, the kid glanced around the room. The light was dim but it seemed to him there were about six other people there: the man who met him at the door, the Chief, the bartender, two other men—one sitting at the table and one standing—and a figure slumped in the shadows in the back of the room, who seemed to be covered with a blanket or shawl.
The bartender brought the cup of soup and set in in front of the kid. It looked and smelled to him like life itself. He placed his shaking hands on either side of the cup and made to lift it, but the Chief set his hand over the top and pressed down. Then he dragged the cup to the middle of the table, away from the kid. The Chief then pulled a small vial from his shirt pocket. The cap was an eyedropper. He unscrewed it and held the eyedropper over the cup, then squeezed drops of a clear liquid into the soup. “A little elixir to warm the core and loosen the tongue,” he said, and pushed the cup of soup back to the kid. “There. Drink up.”
The kid looked at the cup suspiciously, then at the others in the room. They looked back at him with mute, expectant expressions. Then the man who dragged him from the front door, Sanderson, bent over and said in his ear, “We’re seamen, young fella. We make our living out on ships, where there ain’t no doctors or nothing. We gotta take care of ourselves when we get, you know…” he looked at the Chief, who said “hypothermia.”
“Yeah, that,” Sanderson said. “So we’re used to doctoring ourselves. What the Chief give you, that’s just medicine. We’ve all took it time and again when we’ve needed it. It works, guaranteed. Warm you right up. And the Chief there, he’s a engineer, so he knows what it’s all about scientifically, you know. He’s real smart—knows a lot about a lot. You can trust him to doctor you up good.”
“Go on, drink it,” the Chief said. “You’ll feel better.”
So the kid drank the soup, and though he could not taste the elixir, his shaking began to subside and a bit of warmth seeped back into his chest.
“Now,” the Chief said, “let’s try this again. That coat and hat don’t belong to you. So tell me: how did you came about them?”
“I was lost… and… and cold… and… and I… I saw him…”
“What did he look like?”
“Umm… He… he had… a white… a white beard, and…”
“What was he doing when you saw him?”
“He… he was… umm… singing and… I don’t know… dancing, I… I guess, and… he… he saw I was… I was cold, and… he gave me his coat… and… and his hat…”
“And where was this?”
The kid pointed back toward the front door. His arm was shaking. “Down that way… a couple of… blocks, I guess… by the waterfront.”
“What happened then? Is he still there, or did he go somewhere?”
“He… he…” the kid broke down in sobs. “I… I tried to…”
“Relax, boy, just tell me what you saw. Where did he go?”
“He… he… he danced… across the street and… and he… He fell.”
“Fell. What do you mean, fell?”
“He fell off the dock… Into the water… I tried… I tried to see… I couldn’t reach…”
The Chief leaned forward. “What the hell are you talking about, boy? Did you say he fell into the water?”
“I didn’t see him… I didn’t see him come back up,” the kid blubbered. “I think he… I think he drowned. I came… to look… for help.”
The men looked at each other. “Sanderson, Randolph,” the Chief barked. “Run out there to the dock, see what you can see. Hurry!” The two men ran out of the room.
When the door slammed, the figure in the back, which until then seemed to have been sleeping head-down on a table in the shadows, suddenly stood and approached them. The voice coming from within the hood was female, and chattering in a foreign language. She sounded worried, angry, insistent. Then she threw off her scarf and grabbed the kid by his coat lapels as if demanding to know the same thing the Chief Engineer wanted to know: what happened to the Old Man.
The kid judged her to be about his own age, and as stunning as a bird of prey, with flowing auburn hair and dark eyes burning with a passion that both intimidated and enchanted him. Despite her youth, he sensed there was something terribly mature or experienced about her, and then he realized what it was. As one of the men pulled her away from the kid she slapped at him and then placed her hands on her belly, pregnant and far along with child.
As the man nudged her farther from the table she turned and kicked him in the shin, then slapped his cheek. The man raised his hand as if to strike her, but the Chief barked, “Benson! You will do no such thing. She must not be harmed.” He turned toward the bar. “Bartender, tell Maria everything is all right. Tell her the Old Man just lent his coat to a lost boy. He’ll be around by and by.”
“Chief, my Spanish ain’t too good, you know.”
“It’s a simple message. Use simple words. Everything is all right. The Old Man will be back soon. He will take her to the sanctuary, as promised. But first he wants us to meet him back on the ship.”
“He does?” Benson said.
“As far as she is concerned, Mr. Benson, yes, he does. Tell her, Bartender.” Just then the two other men returned from their foray into the storm. The Chief motioned them to his table and gestured for them to speak quietly so that Maria could not hear. “Well, gentlemen, what did you find?”
“Looks like the kid’s telling the truth,” Sanderson said. “We found his footprints in the sleet, the way it built up on the ground, you know? Looks like he danced across the street, like the kid says, and the prints go to the edge of the dock and then they don’t go nowheres else. It’s scraped there like he lost his footing.”
“I shined my flashlight down in the water, Chief,” Randolph said. “The ice has done started to build around the piers already.” He glanced at Maria and lowered his voice. “Looks to me like he fell through, and didn’t come back up. You know that Christmas card in the pink envelope he likes to give out to hobos and waitresses and whatnot? It was down there, on the ice. I seen it. Like he dropped it when he fell. He’s done for, Chief, I’m sure of it. Ain’t no other explanation.”
The Chief Engineer pressed his fingertips together against his lips and nodded. He looked at the kid. “Would you say, boy, that the Old Man looked drunk, or sober, when you saw him?”
“I don’t know, drunk, I guess,” he said. “He was talking like… like he was in Tahiti, I think he said. It was like… he wasn’t cold at all.”
The Chief nodded again. “I see.” He shook his head and a smile crept onto his face. “It is a sad tale indeed,” he said, “when a man accustomed to peppermint schnapps instead imbibes something a bit more… oh, how shall I say? Profound.” He snapped his fingers. “Bartender, whiskey for my crew and a ginger ale for me.”
As the bartender went about his order, the kid said, “But… aren’t you going to call the police, or… an ambulance, or something?” The Chief Engineer and the others laughed and didn’t answer him. They snickered and elbowed each other like they had just won a secret game. The kid looked desperately from one to the other, confused by their strange response to the drowning of their shipmate.
The bartender set out the drinks, and the Chief lifted his glass. “Gentlemen! A toast. To the gratitude a certain someone will show us upon the return of his…” he made a subtle glance in the direction of the pregnant woman, “very valuable property.” The others drained their glasses and resumed their secretive celebration.
The kid said, “Thanks for your help, but I need to go home now. Can I use a phone to call a cab… or something? Excuse me, but can I use a phone?”
He looked at the young woman. She was sitting at the table in the back again, in the shadows with her head covered. The bartender was leaning over her, speaking softly, patting her on the shoulder, and nodding his head, as if persuading her that everything would be all right, and not to make a fuss.
The kid stood to try to get the men’s attention, but his legs felt rubbery and he had to sit down again. He was no longer cold. In fact he was beginning to sweat. The sounds and lights in the room got loud and colorful and danced like spirits. He felt as if he was about to float out of his seat. He moved, or the room moved, he couldn’t tell which, and he was swept out into the night. He found himself back on the bus. The Puller’s department store Santa was driving the bus, and the smoke from his pipe wafted back to where he was sitting and it smelled of peppermint and spruce and Yule logs and tobacco. The bus swayed and rumbled on the rough streets.
He sensed someone sitting close by his side. He turned to look. It was Celeste. He shivered with a warm thrill as she gently caressed his cheek with her fingertips. “Oh, Chick,” she breathed into his ear. “My old man.” Then she kissed him on the lips and the jostling motion became a smooth, slow swaying as Santa laughed and drove the bus up into the shimmering waves of the northern lights.
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