When the 1st mate opens the door to the crew’s lounge and mumbles something at me, I slide The Universe and Dr. Einstein snugly between the pages of Penthouse. He mumbles at me again, but the only thing I hear is “boy.” His incessant use of boy rankles me worse than if I were 14. I remind myself that I’m 24, then hide behind the cover of Penthouse and read “…the heartbeat of a person traveling with a velocity close to that of light would be slowed.”
“MK-38’s leakin’ bad!” the 1st mates yells. “Get off your ass an’ get that other no good excuse for a deckhand!” He leaves the door ajar and cold air blasts in from the ice-clogged Mississippi. By the time I get off my ass, Jim, the other “no-good-excuse for a deckhand” is following that mumbling old fart up the tow.
Earlier, Jim told me what he’d like to do with the women in Penthouse. He rated them all as “10’s.” Then he offered his philosophy on women in general — “All ya gotta do is plug ‘em.” And I took it all with a gain of salt, mostly because Jim is only 19.
The tow is three barges wide; it has about a quarter-inch of ice on its steel deck and a thin layer of snow on top of that. I make my way up the middle barges. There’s no moon out, but the stars are dazzlingly bright, and they light up the snow. Later, I will read “the stars are dying embers . . . the change appears to be mainly in one direction — dissolution….” I will quote it in one of my letters to Kathy.
Jim and the 1st mate have disappeared into the darkness, and I have no idea where MK-38 is. The classification of barges seems haphazard. Having lashed them together — hours of cranking huge ratchets to stretch the wire cables taut — I can understand why no one’s too concerned about alpha-numerical order.
“I seen a tow break up on a bar,” Jim told me a few days ago, “Man, it looked like the 4th a’ Joooly . . .. Sparks flyin’ . . . one a them wires . . . you shoulda seen what it done to the back a this guy’s head!”
The wires groan. I jump up onto the grain bin and lie flat. Here, I feel closer to the stars. Their light seems to pulse eternally. Instead of looking for MK-38, I gaze into the Milky Way. Galaxies are aggregated stars, far-away island universes, and every single one of them “red-shifting,” moving away from each other at ever-increasing speeds. The thought disturbs me. But, fortunately, there is gravity. I explain this in a letter to Kathy. It doesn’t do her much good, but I tell her that all matter is affected by gravitational pulls — the stars, earth, her and I, and even light itself.
I get up and walk again, staring at the stars. I’m wondering if starlight bends enough to circle the universe eternally, long past a star’s demise. I step into space, unaware of hitting the barge deck, unaware of losing consciousness until I come to and hear the 1st mate laughing. He and Jim are waiting on the starboard side. 10 years later, I will remember how wondrous the universe was that night.
“Where ya been?” hollers the 1st mate. “We been here and back already . . .” He trails off into his mumbling.
Jim has his hands full of thin cedar planks. The smell reminds me of summer and cedar decks, and it seems odd out here in the bitter cold.
MK-38 is listing toward the open river. Our towboat is pushing fast, though I don’t know why. All we’re gong to do is get caught in another ice jam above lock and dam 25. The 1st mate kicks chunks of ice from the deck, then yanks off the steel hatch — it clangs and wobbles in escalating intensity until it finally quivers to a stop. The river’s surface is racing by, only about an inch from spilling into the open hatchway.
“Get your asses down there,” the 1st mate orders. He hands me a flashlight, an axe, and some of those sweet-smelling shingles.
“Lemme go first,” Jim says. “I wanna see this.”
He climbs into the barge and stops about halfway down. His yellow flashlight beam is fading. At his feet I see the waterline high up on the rungs of the ladder. Either of us falls in we’re going to be swimming. “You boys be careful,” the 1st mate calls.
Inside the steel hull, Jim and I can hear the river gushing in, but our dim flashlights fail to penetrate the darkness. We head in opposite directions, stepping onto crossing metal girders. I slip and grab onto the ladder. When I start off again, I move cautiously, touching the grain bin for balance.
Jim hollers, “Over here!”
By the time I get there, he’s out of sight behind a wide arc of water spraying through a four-foot long crack in the steel hull. I move closer and see another leak. This one is nearer to me. There’s a hole where the girder bolts to the hull. A spout of water pounds against the grain bin. “I’ll take on this one,” I holler.
I break the shingle, fold it together, and shove it into the waterspout. It shoots out of my hand like a toothpick.
“How ya boys doing?” I turn, and my weak flashlight beam reveals the 1st mate. He’s grinning.
“This one’s too big,” I yell.
“Well, ya better get with it, or your gonna have ta plug the hatch hole.” He chuckles and starts back up the ladder.
“Wait a minute,” I shout, “we’re gonna need something bigger than these goddamn shingles.”
I watch his feet pull out into the open sky, the sole of his boot disappearing, a star glimmering in the vacant, circular hole. On my next six hours off, I will write to Kathy. “Is it the 4-year old in me, and not our need for money, that brings me here? Or is it the turtle, Mr. Wizard? Help, Mr. Wizard, help! Trizzle trazzle truzzle trone, time for this one to come home.” I know Kathy will understand about Mr. Wizard, a cartoon, a shared memory from our separate childhoods, before we converged.
The water pounds steadily and rhythmically against the bin, filling the hull, rising up the rungs of the ladder. I’d better do something fast. I recall Newton, and his laws explaining force and opposite force. Thinking about it, however, does not stop the water rushing in. I compel myself into action.
I splash through the spout to Jim’s side. Icy water splatters my face and burns. Jim has his flashlight in his teeth, and he is pounding the cedar in with the butt end of his axe, water spraying all over. “Ugh, ah, huh,” he says, and then spits the flashlight into his hand. “Whhhoooeee, this is stim-you-lay-em, sorta like pluggin’ them ladies in Penthouse, huh. Ain’t it?”
“Sort of,” I say and start helping him, flashlight in my teeth, hammering cedar in. Although I will never plug a Penthouse lady, I am pleased each time a shingle fits snugly into the crack.
I look back at my leak and catch sight of a light flickering on the other side of my spout. I see a 4×4 thrust through the surging water, beat down, and pulled back. “Com’n son, take it!” It’s shoved through again, and I grab it firmly. The 1st mate lets go.
I try jamming the thick, three-foot long board into the hole, but the force of the water knocks my board to the side. I lose my balance and lunge for a girder. The water hits my arm and I’m batted down, face pressed against the crossing metal.
I decide to take the leak straight on and, with the 4×4, push my body into the cold torrent. It pins me against the grain bin and pounds on my chest. I lean forward, reposition my feet, and lunge, stabbing my board into the leak, pushing it firmly into place. Small spouts shoot out in various directions. I push harder, further imbedding the 4×4. Then I drive it in with my axe. One last vigorous blow and I reduce the leak to insignificant trickles.
On deck, the wind freezes my wet clothes. Ice crystals form on my face. Jim and I, or what I want to say is, me and Jim, we lower the pump-hose into the water, and Jim, he yanks the starter cord and the pump coughs and sputters then revs-up. I push the choke in.
The boat’s carbon spotlight pans across the front of the tow, then far down river, revealin’ to us deckhands another huge ice jam we gotta pound through. While waitin’ to see if the pump works right, all of a sudden I see huge snowflakes fallin’, big as silver dollars, glistenin’ like galaxies in that brilliant white light. I watch them land on the river and vanish.
Tomorrow, I will watch Jim slip and hit the edge of the lead barge, then slide off the tow, and bounce on an ice floe before going under. The 1st mate will say, “Ain’t nothin’ ya can do for ‘im now, son.”
10 days later, we will dock at St. Louis and I will say to the 1st mate, “We made it!” I’ll move toward him, wanting to give him a slap on the back or maybe a hug. But he’ll turn away, mumble something, and slog off in the snow.
In 10 years, I will be married. I will sit on my cedar deck beneath a star-filled sky and think about Kathy. Where is she? 10 more years and I will close my eyes and see Jim disappear in the icy water. I will wonder if the 1st mate has dissolved yet. And I will understand how an old timer might have felt then.
But for now, Jim and I are standing on the ice-covered barge waiting to make sure the pump works okay. I stare at glimmering galaxies and isolated stars, my thoughts accelerating, flying into the future, and I say, “10 to the power of 10.”
“Yeah,” says Jim, “to them 10’s.”
Banner Image:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMississippi_river_barges_after_passing_under_the_Poplar_St_Bridge%2C_St_Louis%2C_MO.jpg Bachrach44 assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons