Pregnant black clouds seemed ready to burst out over the dark bay. I walked along the wharf, quickly, as if I had a purpose, though I didn’t. From out of the mist a barge signaled its melancholy and ridiculous fog horn. BeeeeeOhhhh. A blue neon sign appeared before me in the gloom, reading, “The Hel.”
Out in front of the bar, a rusty streetlamp painted a blurry circle on the sidewalk. I didn’t notice the burnt out “m” on the sign that would have spelled out “The Helm.” If I had noticed it would have changed everything, but it was already too late for me as I pushed through the red, portholed door.
I walked into a haze of smoke that was cool and damp and smelled of salt. Four red candles, evenly dispersed from one end to the other lit the bar. A woman in a green gown turned and regarded me as I walked stiff-hipped to the bar. The place was silent except for a dim creaking. The bartender wore a black, Greek captain’s hat and had a patch over one of his eyes. He clung to the two brass rails of the well as if he were steering something. A small note that read,
was pinned to his shirt.
“Ah, Captain Ahab,” I said smiling.
“How did you know I was a captain, boy?”
“Your name is the same as the captain’s in Moby-Dick.”
“Moby-Dick, Ahab is the captain of a whaling ship
who is obsessed with killing a certain whale. Most critics agree that the
whale represented an unjust god to Ahab.”
I turned toward the woman in the green dress.
“Manhattan, rocks,” I said without taking my eyes from her. Smoky moonlight filtered in through a porthole and fell on her sequins. She lit up this dank room like a disco ball with tits. I looked her up and down without fear. I’d grown so used to being rejected by women that I just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.
“You’re on the wrong voyage this time Sinbad.”
“How’d you know my name?”
Her laugh was a series of hisses.
Ahab cleared his throat. “Three-fifty.”
I have him a five. “Where are we going?” I asked him, finally realizing by the rocking that we were indeed at sea.
“To the end, boy, to the end.” His one eye fixed on me. “That is, if you’ve got the money.”
“I’ve got a credit card.”
“That’ll do, boy, that’ll do.”
A white snakehead of a hand plucked the speared olives from my drink. I turned to the woman, who was chewing one of the olives. “You know, honey, if you were a man I’d have decked you. You don’t toy with a man’s olives.”
“And what now, are you going to take your anger out on me with your lips?”
“No lady, I’m corny, but not that corny.”
She smiled and bit the other olive in half.
I drained my whole drink and slammed the glass down on the bar. “Give me another, captain, and one for the lady. Double olives on both.”
Oh the sleepless nights and days that followed on that wretched journey. The seasickness and swinging chandeliers, the hot cigarette air, the peanuts and gin, the painful lovemaking in upright positions with our clothes still on, the awkward silence afterward, the hunger, the disease, the ruin and rejection… “Oh Captain Ahab, let me off. I beg you.”
“Not until you reach the end, boy. You’ve got to reach the end.” He held up my credit card and winked through his patch. “But I feel we’re getting near.”
The call of seagulls brought me to consciousness. The door opened and the sun leaked in. I pulled myself off the vinyl bench that stuck to in a pool of my own dried blood. The woman was gone, but she’d left her hatpin in my chest as a memento. I crawled over the sticky wood floor toward the light. “Go, boy, don’t come back,” cried Ahab behind me. I got to my feet and stumbled out into the sun. Blinded as I was, I could tell we’d arrived at a port. Crowds of tourists choked the sidewalk, carrying sodas and hotdogs. I tried to escape but soon collapsed on a guano-covered pier. I was taken to the hospital via ambulance where the doctors patched me up. I had scurvy and lice, had lost twenty pounds, and no amount of dry cleaning would ever get the smell out of my suit. The woman in the green dress’ hatpin had pierced my lung, and now I’ll always smoke with a limp.
But here I am, with a new suit and an electric razor, thinking about turning my den into an office. Recovered. But the truth is, not a persimmon sunset fades into a graying bruise, a full moon in the daytime, an allergic spring or a paint-by-numbers fall passes that I don’t yearn to go back. For those who go all the way on the Hel either return there or die wanting to.
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