★ ‘Way Out to China’ by Jim Meirose

sailor cleaning

Skip crawled slowly through the gap between the huge battered rusty stacks of giant shipping containers, working hard aboard the aging huge freighter Dakota Maru, far out somewhere unknown in the Atlantic, on his fifty-first voyage from New York to Shanghai.  He worked as he thought, and thought as he worked, as, Jesus, Christ, almighty! Yes, that is all I was burdened with, sure. Nothing at all, really no—just burdened with twelve brothers and sisters, four bedrooms, and only two bathrooms, and getting zero attention or care from the one they all called Mother. That was life, Doc—that’s probably what soured me on land life. That’s probably why I turned to the sea. That’s probably why I prefer life at sea to on land. That’s why if I’m on the beach, kind of between sea and land, barefoot in the place where the surf just comes and its fifty percent each sand and water, and I have water cupped in one hand and sand cupped in the other, I will always choose to shake the sand away from my hand, fast; and I will stoop to my cupped hand and suck up the water. It’s salt, so what. It’s water. It’s always water—shit in it, or pure as fresh spring naturally baby bottom perfect heaven, it’s all water, and it’s all the same to me—suck it up. I will, every sweet drop—

Skip had been frozen in place on the deck of the Maru, at the sixty ninth container hold-down he was faced with brushing to rustless, wiping to greaseless, slopping with fresh grease, and tightening snug, remembering what he told the psychiatrist the containership company sent him to, long ago, that one time they pushed him too hard, and he snapped. They had wanted to give him a land assignment; said it would be a step up a grade from being a crewmember; said it was something he’d earned for good work. Said it’d be his first step up the ladder. He tried really tried to do the office job, he did, but—he walked off the job nutty, they put him on disability, he went back, ended up walking off the job again, this time even more nutty, so while he was on disability they sent him to a shrink, and he said over and over again, he said, but—suddenly the wire brush he’d been mindlessly scrubbing back and forth and back and forth over the turnbuckles during his deep wayback daydream slipped, flipped, and the sharp bristles scraped sharp across the palm of his hand, and he woke from the daydream, abruptly as a point-blank pistol shot had just hit him between the eyes; he slammed back down rock hard, in the canyon of the steel city built of battered and rusty rough steel containers he’d been crawling between every day and would continue to crawl through and between and around, until they dropped anchor in Shanghai, and set him free; free, but, up on the empty bridge of the Dakota Maru, on the big wide black flat screen TV on the back wall, there was someone not there but who always was there, and would never ever be free; the large stout cigar smoking old retired pastor, Father Dwyer, whose  image glowed out from his bright clean TV kitchen, playing continuously day and night, going over and over through all the sequential episodes of his great but failed cooking show, Sunday Dinner With Father Dwyer, which, as often happens with bad movies that close the same day they open and after that are only seen as choices for viewing aboard non-stop redeye flights from New York to Los Angeles, had been chosen by some bigshot boardroom fatsuits to be the primary video entertainment show on all the world’s fleet of automated containerships at sea forever and on. When Skip scraped his hand bloody, far out on deck, Father Dwyer had just begun episode nine hundred, and sang the praises of the sweetmeats et cetera that lay spread before him on the massively expensive studio battleship-kitchen size stainless steel worktable before him.

So, he crowed, See! Eighty, yes eighty, perfectly filleted dead ten days’ old perch. And not a smell to be found. No. And next, here! A stunning array of seven green moldy raw dried up old pork tenderloins. After all, you know, it has been scientifically proven that moldy food is actually good for you. Like, take bread, he said, slamming the flat of his fat hand on the steel, The bread I buy I actually will not use until it has begun sprouting those nice little dark green spots on its dampest parts, my mouth waters—see? And he pointed to his gaping mouth full of darkness supported by some blood red thing that might have been a tongue, and then he put both hands flat on the steel, and mouthed, And my perfect teeth? Did you see my perfect teeth? I never get any problems with my teeth, having lifelong eaten the food I do on this show live, before you, true and unhidden. Teeth, you see, and he looked around as though he did not want anyone out of sight in the studio to hear, before looking right through the screen in a very intimate and sincere way, so close you could imagine the pores of his fleshy face, saying, Teeth decay naturally over time. Everything on earth, as a matter of fact, decays naturally over time. Even the earth itself, the solar system, the universe, yes—even eternity decays naturally over time, except eternity, being eternity, will go on to decay more and more forever you know. This is actually the reason why division by zero is deemed impossible and why you can run Pi out an eternal number of digits, but—and with that but, he jabbed a large butcher knife into the air, and said slowly, We are not here though, to discuss eternity. We are not here though, to discuss eternity; that would need to go on eternally, to be done right and true, so, we’re given this mere half hour to cook, and—cook we will, people—cook we will, and he swept the knife over the remaining foods, saying very very quickly as disclaimers and cover your ass words are said impossibly swiftly after radio commercials for anything that’s about investing money, or about getting rich quick, or about making tens of thousands a month working from home, Everything here of course, will be seasoned, with fresh thyme and garlic, but, the acorn squash candied with butter, pecans and brown sugar, unfortunately will not be available except upon special circumstances, and the baked potatoes rice and broccoli with cheese sauce shown on the show is not guaranteed to come out onto all your plates either, and; and the homemade pineapple upside-down cake shown on the show may not be at all times available. But, never mind that. Let’s go, let’s start! Let’s start with the dead fish, let do! And he seized the first fillet, and spun around nearly losing his berretta and sending flying his ecclesiastical collar, and slammed the oily ice-cold corpse into a hot frying pan, causing boiling clouds of steam to erupt and a dizzying sizzling sound to overwhelm the studio sound system. People behind the scenes jumped from their folding chair slumber to readjust the controls. We must readjust the controls! Must readjust the controls, must—it got so intense backstage, off camera. Almost as intense as Skip’s sea-mate Norman, enclosed by dark cold steel compartments deep below, went on with his chore of spraying rustproofing solvent on the hard as rock walls, and as Skip had done, he was daydreaming to the rhythm of the scraping of the steel.  Should I have left, he thought, before she came back with the Schlitz I said I wanted? Should I not have waited so long for her to bring the beer? Should I just have decided she was all talk and no substance? I believe that she is just all bogus. Why would somebody like her want someone like me? Way back how I was only eighteen? But, he thought much too long and deeply, as he sat pimply and red-faced sitting on the bowling alley snack bar counter stool.

Scraping and scraping and scraping and scraping and scrape, the rough drone made him think that, Now, here’s where I should have got up and left. Here’s where if I had done nothing everything would be completely different, no worries about any wife’s health, maybe even having gone down another whole path and never stepped aboard any huge too-huge rust-bucket of a containership, down buried in this silent steel box every day, with just me myself and all my regrets—will she come bring the Schlitz, should she come with the Schlitz, should I go, but all at once he was solidly struck from behind by a baseball bat and came to himself in the tiny steel compartment, deep down below. His hand moved scraping down just one of the thousands of identical walls of the boxes in the belly of The Dakota Maru. Bound for Shanghai, you bet, you do. You bet—his head turned, and back in the bowling alley again, he saw.

Here she comes around the corner, with two tall bottles of Schlitz—but why two, hey, why, he ordered just one, what gives hey you—

Here you go, she said brightly red-lipped and toothy—and also, you know, guess what?

What?

She slid onto the big soft brown stool next to his and said, What’s what is, like I said before, this is on the house. On me, actually. They don’t give this good shit away.

Why are you buying me a beer, he said, palming one bottle that stood ice cold, wet, tall, and foaming. He poured it into the icy glass as she told him.

Because, I’ve been watching you, and, I think you’re cuter than shit. So, anyway, it’s my breaktime, too. Ain’t that a rip? Think I’ll spend breaktime with you—here!

She held the bottle up toward him and he gently clashed his bottle into hers, and with her smile, she said, Here’s to us, Pal. I can see it. I can REALLY see it. So, aside, with that she paused to pour and the black beer rose and the big white head exploded it seemed, with pure white beer flowing over in foam and more foam, and the very head itself joked to itself, I am very cute, smiling and proud, to at last have been delivered to someone. It was dark and horrid in the case, just one of hundreds just like me, in the truck that I rode from the beer factory, in the case and cases piled with hundreds of identical bottles, so—why did this one, I, me, the true one, be in his hand all foaming with this guy watching the waitress busily and abruptly chug down half the tall glass. The tip of the bottle was foamed up white, and he came at her saying, So. My name’s Norman. What’s yours, honey?

Phyllis.

Ha ha, he said. Ha. Phyllis. Funny. Ha.

Why is my name funny? she said, as it began behind his forehead boneplate.

Silently behind his lips the answer formed, Phyllis, Phallus. Phyllis, Phallus—should she know what I’m thinking? Sure, what the hell! Everything in him paused and focused on Phyllis. He took her in from head to toe, did some mental calculations, and somehow got lost in all the flingflying numbers, so lost control and his mouth opened and the answer to her question came right out on and over the marble bar, saying to her waiting eyes, I think your name’s funny because Phyllis, Phallus, and Phyllis Phallus, like that you know, Like that. Phyllis and Phallus are just two letters different. Two vowels, to be exact. Almost the same damned word. You know?

There, yes, I do! I totally get it! she said, pointing—I knew it, I knew. You’re a thinking walking talking dirty minded but nearly a genius fucking man.

Haw! Phyllis and Phallus fit together so well, maybe they’d do a nice word-fuck, he thought bright-eyed, saying, No, I am no genius, no, no not at all—

Yeah, no, I’m not either—but hey, listen. Look what I got today on the way in, look, do you think this would be a good birthday present for my Grandfather? Here, wait—and she rummaged around someplace in her clothes that all of a sudden became unnecessarily voluminous flowing and gownlike, and held out to him a wooden set of Soviet Union Leader nested dolls. The largest was a man with a gigantic birthmark at his bald hairline, whose name Norman couldn’t remember. Oh, he said, as she deftly took apart the nested dolls and the Soviet leaders stood on the counter, largest to smallest, bathing in the gently hard but soft roll after roll of the distant bowling balls, each roll ending with a sharp sloppy crash of large hard bowling pins all scattered, making her pick up her Schlitz and say, Well, what do you think? Pretty cool eh? Russians, you see. Cool.

Russians.

Sure, he said, his word flipping a switch her clothing back to the simple plain uniform of your typical bowling ball snack bar attendant. She had no bag, no usable pockets. There was no place for this bulky thing in her clothing, anyplace—but there it was. Miraculous, miraculous, a sign from whatever’s above, brightening the bowling alley lights even higher, and he knew that yes, that was where his life forked forever. The name of the largest Soviet leader came from the steel wall; Gorbachev, it was; and Gorbachev said clearly and plainly, Norman, this is the one. This is the woman for you. You are now in love. I am a dictator, and am never wrong.

You are now in love—never matter what love is. You’ll find out as the years pass, as in; here, says the stranger you encountered that day in the park. Here, take this pill. Never mind what it is. You’ll see when it comes all over you—you will see! You will; OUCH!

The cleaning solvent smell formed into a giant blue genie up behind him, who had slammed a bat down on Norman’s brain, plugging him back to full attention to his life-socket spot that most people think is their job. Oddly relieved, he kept scraping the gutwalls of the Dakota Maru, all in the here and now; up, down, up down, spray, look, okay, then up, down, spray look, okay, and after another hundred scrapes, the genie hiding in the dark behind him, brought the bat down on his head, much harder this time.

OUCH!

When that word came around and entered his ear, it took him to a pure white space all around him shone that he held something new in his hand. What is this in his hand in some pure white space? he thought; God! A set of nested container ships, each full of smaller container ships, each containing another ship, and another and another on to his last day—caught him like a fish, had this Phyllis—life without parole, baby, yes, she had put him there and put him good; and right then Father Dwyer held out his skillet of badly burnt dead fish, and said, There! See! Mold is nothing to fear, fish do not rot, and look, look. Everything burns. Isn’t this a stunning sight to make you lick your chops until they’re bloody! But never mind this, next is breakfast! and he tossed the fish, skillet and all, into a huge off-camera garbage bin, sounding like a professional level bowling extremely fast, hard, violent strike, no way that was a spare, based on the noise. Had to have been a strike. Like a great Olympic high dive is marked by scarcely a splash. Father Dwyer was a man of God, who was never wrong, and he knew it. Pulling his black silly old fashioned priest’s hat down tight, he faced the camera, and said bulge-eyed and all veiny, Breakfast now, yes, breakfast. It is the day for breakfast. That’s what’s cool now. That what’s going to be happening, in just a little bit, after you’re shown this Boeing commercial. Why on earth they have Boeing commercials on TV to be viewed by the poverty level simpleminded proletariat, is beyond me, but—here goes!

The commercial played everywhere at once, but finally narrowed down to a place far away, having nothing to do with all the ships at sea. In that place, Pa turned to face Ma, in an old rotting house where they were stealing cable, on no ship, no ship at all, and he said through his beard, Look at that! Just look at that plane! and he threw aside his squeezebox and leapt from his duct-taped recliner, almost tearing his waist length beard off, crying, Look at that commercial! Look at that! That commercial makes me want to buy a Boeing product! Let’s buy a great big plane! Sure, let’s buy a great big plane—from Boeing! Yes, Boeing! Yes, let’s—grab up that phone! Ma, Ma—let’s do it! Pa stood with his back to Ma not caring that the commercial was over and Father Dwyer was back, hands out, saying, Sorry, I know the commercials waste your time, but they’re a necessary evil. They pay the bills you know. Pay. Pay might be the most important words ever, but; this is a cooking show after all, and we are to talk about breakfast today. Forget Boeing, it’s gone, dead, think. Think of a big, big breakfast. I am sure you wake each day, leap from bed wide-awake, breeze through your shower and shit and wipe very well and all like that, then you immediately run downstairs ravenously clutching the railing of course, to stay safe, because of your history of bad falls. I know, you have learned the hard way that, you could be a little too hungry and step off the step a little too fast, and the last little cute cloud that might not yet have dissipated in your brain, might cover and blank out your sensibility center, and you’ll instantly turn stupid, and you’ll shoot full blast down the stairs, tripping, falling, rolling, banging, cracking and straining as you fall and fall and fall—and your spouse, who rose early out of love, to have a big fat omelet all steaming and plated and set out for you will hear bumping and crashing and cracking and straining noise pouring in the kitchen door from out by the stairs, somehow—and there you are sprawled out spread-eagled, on your fashionably expensive hardwood floor. There might be blood too—but no matter. Your spouse will now realize that she needs to put the omelet in the oven set to warm, and leave the oven door open, because she mustn’t harm the great, great, omelet, it must not be allowed to get either stone cold or dried up and overheated, to scald your mouth, while you recover your wits about you, and finally come for breakfast. Yes, you will. You will, because every time you have fallen down the stairs in the past, you have shaken it off and come to yourself and you rose and came in to whichever meal awaited you, but—but what has just happened is much more serious. Maybe this time much more is bruised and ruptured and broken. Flags should be waving and crowds should be roaring and you should be stranded unable to cross the wide, wide, road, to be able to blink and move and rise once more, because the parade in honor of your premature death is so noisy and busy and thick and endless, and—but oh, I’m afraid, I think, I digress again. Here is how that omelet you never got to eat, was made. Whether you lived or died of the fall is much less important than me telling my audience of containership seamen how this fat yellow spicy cheesy stunning omelet was made. But, I guess we must have showed you how it was made, because there it is, right there before us, all made and hot and steaming and delicious. So, let’s turn to the bacon. Little piggies grow to big hogs and bacon comes some way nobody is ever shown. That whole time between the living hog and the bacon all wrapped tight in the supermarket display, is unknown. Blank. Undisplayed. Nonexistant. Not to be spoken of.  It’s just, that out of brutality and ugliness, a kind of magic happens, and—there’s the bacon. Get it out of the fridge. Cut the plastic and unwrap it. Slam down the skillet onto the stovetop, just like this, watch me! Put in a dab of oil, wait, wait. Go piss. Good time to take a quick piss. Come back and the oil is steaming and sizzling, kind of more than we like to see, but after all, this is just reality TV, so just pretend the skillet is perfect, and peel off and drop in strip after strip of bacon, and slow sizzling starts to rise. The sizzling rises and solidifies and falls, and in no time, you’re ankle deep in it, then knee deep, then waist, and then—your arms are pinned. Buried to the neckline in hot solidifying sizzle of a silvery hue. And since you’re pinned, you’ve no choice but to watch the bacon darken and darken and stink up smoke up burnt, and destroy itself, because it lets itself stay in the skillet and burn itself to cinders, and beyond.  And as you are forced to watch this horrible sight, faraway Pa is actually on the line to Boeing, Ma is clapping her hands with excitement, and Pa is explaining, saying, But why do you have commercials on all the little poor people’s TV shows, if what you’re telling me is I can’t buy a 777 online? I can kind of see why shipping such a big awkward item might be a problem, I mean I can, and I can definitely see why we have to move our rusted out 1953 Skyliner Trailer to a much bigger lot that can accommodate the plane, but—what the hell is that burning, Ma? Smell it?

I do, but—

Something’s in the kitchen on the skillet burning!

No, it’s—

Yeah, you got stupid again, and started frying something on the skillet and came back out to watch old Father Dwyer rattle on and on about food, and forgot, you old goat, that you were cooking!

I am not the hell an old goat, you, I—

But, said Father Dwyer, taking back control of his show—just like we don’t really need to go into what happens in that blank space between the big live hog, and the bacon in the pan, we really don’t have to go into what happened in the blank space between Pa delivering one too many insults to Ma, to when he lies quiet on the floor by the kitchen door, ripped in half all bloody and gory and red hot stone dead, from a shot from the smoking double barrel ten gauge he so prized since a boy. It lies muzzle smoking right in the blood. It was a big mistake to force Ma to learn how to use it, and so now Ma is gone, where’d she go? Ma! She somehow knew, she had to get out, before she got buried up to her neck again in police car sirens like happened before with the rising bits of sizzle off the skillet going volcanic on everything and sealing everyone in like it’s some kind of Pompeii. I mean, an omelet and bacon, for breakfast, we have talked about, and we have gone through the pertinent processes, so, here—here! Look! And Father Dwyer flings the second burnt skillet into the big dumpster off camera, and lets the crash that surrounds him all misty fade away, and then puts his fists down on the edge of the immaculate countertop, and looks into the camera, with his look of priestly God-given power, and says, Now, then, so; breakfast’s gone never was, but here comes lunch! In the next fucking episode, I will say; did you like this breakfast? Wait ‘till you meet the lunch! More later in episode 901, after these words from our chief sponsor, Boeing! Yes, get ready for Boeing again!

Jim Meirose’s short work has appeared in numerous venues. His published books include Understanding Franklin Thompson (JEF pubs (2018)), Sunday Dinner With Father Dwyer (Scarlet Leaf Press (2018)), and Le Overgivers au Club de laRésurrection (Adelaide Books (2018)). Info: www.jimmeirose.com.

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