THURSDAY: The Deckhand


Copyright is held by the author.

I’D SAILED for Captain “Blackie” Schwartz for the last three years in the pilot house where we got to know each other. He liked me, and I could see that my sudden notice to quit the Pierce hurt him personally. I couldn’t answer his question why I was quitting and I didn’t want to lie to him by making up a story. He thought failing my mate’s test was behind my decision, but I told him it was something else, something I needed to do ashore, and he finally gave up trying to talk me out of it. For a lake-boat captain, sailing isn’t a job; it’s a calling like the priesthood and it’s a fraternity you don’t just quit on a whim.

I didn’t tell anyone else aboard the Pierce I was leaving. Some might have thought something was unusual in the fact we’d just tied up on the Northtown coal docks pier, and I was hauling duffel bags, backpacks, garment bags and one portable lockbox with a combination where I kept my one good watch for shore leave, passport, wallet, and high school ring. I carried everything down the gangway ladder and stacked it. Billy Riggins gave me a sideways look on his way past in his usual dog-trot, but arriving in port is always his busiest time, and he didn’t stop to ask me what was going on. Some of the crew knew Northtown was my home town and might have thought something was different in seeing my gear stacked up by the ladder. The dock boss headed up to see the captain. There’d be business and at the end a little something for his crew. In Superior, Wisconsin the dock boss would have a man lower a worker’s thick glove from the boom operator’s position for the first mate to put a “thank you” donation into it. If the dock crew liked your captain’s vessel, they’d make sure your port time was efficient. Things were going on without me just as they had with me.

“Take care, Jack, and good luck,” Captain Schwartz shouted. The noise of men working and machines had al. I headed down the gangway ladder.

I was leaving my berth, my real home for the last two decades, behind with just a handshake from the captain as a send-off. I had a queasy feeling in my stomach as I waited for the taxi. Captain Schwartz had done me the kindness of calling for one from the pilot house just as we cleared the breakwall on our way into port. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone and stared vacantly at the Plimsoll numbers on the stern of the Pierce as if there was some magical code embedded in them that would guide me to my next step.

I took a room in a bed-and-breakfast in the harbour on the same street as the house I had grown up in. It was at the end of the block; my house was at the other end. I didn’t know who lived there and hadn’t given it a thought in the dozen years since I’d had a letter from the probate lawyer informing me my share for the house was enclosed.  It didn’t matter to me. Both my siblings were several years older and lived in other states. We were not close.

Sailing on the ore boats means, unless you’re a heavy gambler who loses, you’ll have made and kept a decent amount of money. There’s only so much you can spend in bars during port leave and the bum boats that fasten themselves to Great Lakes freighters are stocked with snacks, beverages, and magazines with skin books being the overwhelming choice of males sequestered aboard a vessel for long weeks at a time without seeing much shore leave. The money would free me to do my investigation, as I was mentally referring to it, and I could use as much of it as I needed to gather information. It was a question only of how well the money would be spent and the quality of that information. TV cops refer to investigations like mine as cold cases, but it wasn’t a case at all, much less a whodunit (another overused TV cop term). A boy with his entire life to look forward to had chosen to end it in an ugly and painful manner. The why of it could well be something no amount of money could pry loose from the shadows that two decades of time had spun around it like a funnel web in meadow grass.

Epileptics speak of a door being opened in their heads at the onset of a grand mal seizure. Sights, sounds, voices, even smells from their past will surround them in an aura. That is what seemed to be happening to me in the first few hours of my return. For one thing, I always avoided coming home when the Pierce tied up for winter, sometimes in Buffalo, more often in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Interlake Steamship Company owned the fleet of a dozen lake-boat freighters carrying coal and taconite in the form of iron ore pellets that the Charles M. Pierce belonged to. Although headquartered near Cleveland, it contracted for refitting there. At the end of the season last year, the Pierce was outfitted with two new scrubbers in the engine room for cleaning sulfur and other gas particulates. When I began sailing years ago, the captain simply called down to the engine room and told the chief engineer when to blow fly ash from the stacks, usually when the vessel had cleared port and was out of sight of shore. Now a clean plume of white smoke is discharged.

But those earliest memories of home came flooding in even before I had unpacked. Until then, I never realized how much of my past I had compartmentalized. It felt strange as if invisible tentacles were reaching out to from the ground and the air to touch me. I sat on my bed and shivered but there was no one memory giving me that reaction to my homecoming. A normal sensory overload, I told myself, but the feeling of paralysis was hard to shake off. Maybe the consequences of what I had done in cutting myself loose were beginning to invade my sense of control or well-being. I’m not a nervous person by nature. I try to absorb the world logically, not emotionally. But the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach was one of pure dread.

For the first time since childhood, I had freedom. I wasn’t on a 4 hours-on, 4 hours-off shift in my 24-hour day.  Having money in the bank and no dependents, I felt a thrill I thought must belong to rich people who wake up every day knowing they have nothing to do but whatever pleases them. I wondered why they often led such stupid, self-destructive lives, but I figured that was my working-class envy coming through.

The first thing I had to do was organize my day now that I had all these hours to spend. I made a list of people I could contact, old friends who might still live in town. I had not kept in touch with anyone in Northtown and that included my parents and siblings. When I went sailing on the ore boats as a raw teenager, I had just wrecked my car the night before. I was turning at an intersection on a country road with my date at the time when a car full of teenaged males nearly blind-sided us. I slammed on my brakes, he swerved and just kissed the front of my car going about 60 mph. In a split second, what used to be the hood of my car became an instant metal sculpture before my stunned eyes. I was cited to appear in court, but the boat I had arranged to sail on with my brand-new ordinary seaman’s ticket was expected in Northtown harbor that evening, and I wanted desperately to go. I found out later my father went to court for me and managed to get me off the legal hook. I never thanked him for that.

I made a list of names from my neighbourhood, added some cousins, and a few others who might be willing to talk to me. I had no idea whether Tony Kantola had any living relatives. My own parents were long dead; my siblings didn’t speak to me after I ignored the letters about my parents’ death within six months of each other and the funerals.  I scanned my list for a place to begin and found it: Ante Ente.

His real name was Eerikki Harmaajärvi. Nobody knew why we called him by our name any more than we could remember who named Bumstown or who first called the derelict building on Hulbert the Ice-Cream Factory where we made our army films with my cousin Jimmy’s Super 8 camera.

Everybody called him Ante Ente and never shortened his name to one part or the other. We heard what happened to the Jews in our catechism lessons when they messed around with God’s name and used Yahweh to keep from being vaporized against a wall like the Cold War films the showed us. I always thought of some Looney Tune figure running through a brick wall, leaving the outline of his running form intact. Eerikki changed his name one day in high school and shortened the last name. Nobody, not even the teachers, challenged him about it or asked if he could do that legally. You didn’t question him. He was a legend. He was also the scariest boy my age I had ever known.  We all knew stories about him; some of us had even seen him in action. He beat up high school boys when he was in eighth grade. He jumped out of tree limbs onto cars going past on Walnut Boulevard. Fathers would get out of cars to chase him through yards but no one ever caught him. Cops made regular stops at his house.

His story was that his parents in Finland couldn’t control him so they shipped him to an aunt in America. When I met him down at the slip, I was alone with my dog when he showed up beside an older, bigger boy. I was fishing for carp. He was just there suddenly, looming behind me, jumping from one pile of rocks to another, like a blonde wolf, then he was clambering on all fours down to the shoreline near me. I risked watching him put an M80 into dead carp’s mouth and blow it up. He was scrabbling across a slope of gravel rocks near the Southern & Pacific tracks, glanced down at me, called me “fuckface” without any emotion, and in the next breath threatened to cut my throat. My dog showed up from chasing muck rabbits through the swamp and maybe that saved me because he certainly wasn’t afraid of me — or he just wasn’t inclined to murder at that moment. I never saw him again in the flesh after that, but the stories of his mad adventures and violence continued all through adolescence.

“Eric Jarvi?”

“Who’s this?”

“Jack Schroeder.”

I told him we didn’t know each other but we both knew Tony Kantola.

“Tony — who? Who is this?”

His voice sounded deep, phlegmy, a heavy smoker’s voice. I repeated my name and what I had just said.

“Don’t know him from Adam or you, so fuck off,” the voice said. He hung up.

He was listed in the phone book with a Tivision Avenue address. Apparently he hadn’t moved far from his youthful beginnings. Tivision was in the poorest part of the harbour. Once full of dock workers’ homes, it was largely a black and Hispanic section with a lot of small churches with obscure and semi-mystical names. The Catholic elementary school I had attended there was derelict. Most of the houses were in bad shape and showed signs of rot. I cruised past Jarvi’s house and saw white girls pushing brown babies in strollers and kids running in packs through yards. Some black males affecting the gangbanger look with pants lowered to the crack of their buttocks, eyed me with disdain or sat on porches with rap music blasting away at eardrum-splitting decibels.

Jarvi’s place wasn’t a house but a pair of rooms on the top floor of a three-story rental house behind tall hedges. There wasn’t a single distinguishing feature of the house; it was a mustard-yellow rectangle tipped on its end without a secondary colour for the trim.  

My hands were shaking and I was breathing heavily as I stood in front of his door; it wasn’t the walk up those narrow, winding back stairs as much as my uncertainty at this, the beginning of my private investigation. I had no skills for extracting information. The doubts about my fitness were piling up in my head when the door was flung open and Eric Jarvi stood there.

I hadn’t expected it. I was at least four inches taller, although about thirty pounds lighter guessing from the way his t-shirt stretched across his gross belly. This boy-monster from my youth was a flabby, tattooed man with a bristly moustache and a receding hairline. I had to check my surprise at seeing the reality as opposed to the larger-than-life creature of my youthful imagination.

I told him who I was, repeated an extract of what I’d told him over the phone, and asked if I could speak to him for a few minutes.

He opened the door and I walked into his living room. A single reclining chair occupied the middle of a floor that was devoid of other furniture except for a hi-def TV set up on a coffee table. The floorboards were uneven planking painted a gunmetal grey I had used below decks in bad weather as a deckhand. The first mate of the Pierce would send us down to paint the tunnels connecting the forward end and the engine room. A chrome bar stool was the only other chair in the room; nothing on the walls, not a picture or a print of any kind. Jarvi was even less of a housekeeper than a decorator: his kitchen countertop was littered with empty beer bottles and Styrofoam containers. There was a fuggy smell in the room of rancid meat and male sweat.

Jarvi didn’t ask me to sit down. He stepped back to let me in but he still took up the room. I made a decision to forego any attempt to build camaraderie — a couple harbour kids from the old days. He gave off waves of menace just from his posture. A rush of that boyhood fear surged through me before I could get myself under control.

“I’m here about Tony Kantola’s suicide twenty years ago. He was —”

“You said that already.”

“He was my best friend back then. I’m trying to find out why he did it,” I said and felt my confidence return in the sound of my own voice.

“Like I said, what’s it got to do with me?”

“Tony’s mother and your friend Craig Mäki’s mother were good friends —”

“Shit, man, I haven’t seen old Craig since high school,” Jarvi said.

At least my opening had prodded something other than a hostile smirk from Jarvi’s face.

“I was wondering, maybe hoping is the better word, Craig’s mother said something about Tony’s death.”

Too thin reed to hang anything on. Craig Mäki, a much bigger boy who played tackle for the Mariners as a sophomore, was probably that boy who had accompanied Jarvi in his fish-exploding romp at the slip that day when I was fishing with my dog Buster.

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” Jarvi said, more bored sounding than with any malice. “Get the fuck out of here.”

I headed for the door immediately and then caught myself. I had no reason to be running from this out-of-shape thug. In 20 years of sailing, most of it doing the grunt work of hauling cables on the dock, had put ropy muscles in my arms and kept my belly slim despite the insane drinking that went on in port at times.

I stopped in the open doorway and turned to face him. He had tattoos on both arms from the wrists to the shoulders where parts of his ink disappeared under the sleeves. He held out his arms and turned them over for me to see. They were in different colours, some were crude like jailbird tattoos, others were artful, lavish or grotesque. Clowns, spider webs, a lion rampant, some tribal symbols I couldn’t make out and one covering most of his right bicep that resembled some kind of cross-protection symbol.

“You staring at my tatts?”

I saw the word Sisu inked on the inside of both wrists. Something was wrong with the grin on his face. He hadn’t smiled yet.

“Hard to make them out,” I said. “They say that’s the mark of a real psychopath.”

He was fast. He went from relaxed to war in a split-second and the balled fist that hit me on the underside of my left jaw snapped my head back and sent me backwards into the hallway. I tried to get on my feet but I had Bambi legs and my head was wobbling on my neck, although that was just the impression from the incoherent images going off like a string of firecrackers. I struggled to my feet after a great effort and was about to make a charge at him when the door slammed shut. I heard Jarvi’s laugh or grunt behind the door.

I raised my fist and banged on the door. I don’t know how long I knocked or how long I stood there. My brain was still scrambled but when I began to think coherently again, I realized I was in no shape to fight him. I made my way downstairs a step at a time nearly tripping twice as my feet didn’t seem to want to follow the commands from the damaged citadel above my neck. A little blood leaked from the corner of my lip where a knuckle had connected and my tongue touched a cracked incisor. That gave me pleasure in the hope that his hand was cut. A human mouth is as filthy with bacteria as dog’s. Please, I remember praying, sepsis. Give the bastard sepsis so they have to cut his hand off.   

When I got back to my B & B, I was nauseated and had to throw up in the street. I made my way to my room more by instinct than by sight. I closed the window shades and fell on the bed. I know you aren’t supposed to sleep after taking a blow to the head. I’ve had a couple concussions before. Lying on my stomach fully dressed just seemed to be the only sensible thing to do. I shut my eyes and tried to make myself as small on the bed as I could. I had one unpleasant image of my brain sloshing around in my skull like the water in a toilet bowl in choppy water—the only time I got seasick sailing on the lakes: a coal run down Lake Michigan to South Chicago made the chop judder against the hull in a way that gave the vessel a fast, rolling pitch. I lay there for hours in the dark, semi-conscious, but feeling well enough to get up by eight and drink some water.

I put a chair near a window that let me see the lights on the bascule bridge over the Northtown River. Before the town was settled in the early eighteen-hundreds, it was called “Ashtabula,” meaning “river of fish.” My father told me the Irish and Scandinavians were the first to settle in the harbor. They brought over their clans and in time took over the docks and railroads. Those were violent days, my father said. “Many a body was found floating in the harbor with a knife in his back.” My father worked with an old Finn names Eino Kauppi, who showed me a long Finnish knife once during one of the times I went to work with my father. “It’s called a puukko,” he said. “It’ll go straight up a fish from his asshole to his head.” I was about nine years old and something about the way he said it made me afraid of him.  I always avoided being alone with him on the tug or on the dock whenever I went with my father.

My concussion was a bad one. I couldn’t leave my room for three days, and when I did I was about 10 pounds lighter if the notch on my belt was any indication. I was giving serious thought to calling Interlake headquarters to see if I could get my berth back, if not on the Pierce, then I’d take anything open. I’d even go down to deckwatch if I had to. Twice I dialled the number and twice heard the receptionist at the other end ask if I knew my extension. I hung up both time.

I’m not a believer in the supernatural. Religion and I parted shortly after I graduated from high school. Maybe the concussive effects of Jarvi’s sucker punch were still doing things to my perception, but I had the feeling Tony was looking at me. He wasn’t smiling. He was looking at me in that way he did when I had said or done something that disappointed him in a way that made me think less of myself.

“I’m a grown man,” I said to his shadow hovering in the empty room, “I don’t need you to remind me I’m a coward.”

How do you explain it — those hurts of childhood? They never leave and you can’t redeem them or change a single one. Everything is back there somewhere in the abyss like matter and antimatter: love and friendship, betrayal, loss. We were children becoming adults and that passage was more than we could understand about life — or ever would. I see that now.

My reveries of Bumstown, that childhood place where I came of age, is gone and buried under two hundred tons of stockpiled coal owned by Norfolk & Southern. The water towers are run by computer — what isn’t? — and release their streams of water to dampen the coal dust that makes the residents of Walnut Boulevard complain to the EPA to no avail. I said I parted with my religion, but that’s like trying to get cotton candy off your fingers at the county fair. Science is religion’s superseded patch for a bundle of feelings and anxieties we can’t ever put to rest; yet particle physics says we don’t even have the ability to prove our own existence in the universe.

They say our minds need patterns, crave narratives, even if they’re wrong or too fragile to stand the withering light of truth. Hundreds of satellites cross-cross the night sky on computer-guided paths. Last night I watched the ISS zigzag its way in incremental bursts between Arcturus and the pole star. My eyes tell me it jumps; my brain says it cannot because its control-moment gyroscope keeps it in precise coordinates every night with viewing degree from my position in Northeast Ohio, magnitude of brightness based on an equally precise calculus, and transit time to the exact second.  

Two boys I knew — one well, one vaguely, both blond — exist in my memory on a sliding scale between good and evil, dark and light. I am caught between them, magnetized, unable to move from my exact centre. Like the molecules that make me, I cannot touch anything. I cannot act. Like a fish, I’m rotting from the head down.

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