The swishing sound of my rack curtains sliding open nudges me from a half-sleep. I am tired, but not groggy. I know what I’m being called to do, and knowing that call would come has kept me alert.
I make out a slender silhouette, a body backlit against the white hum hissing fluorescence from the head. A slouched runner’s frame, hunched inside an oversized deck jacket, is exacerbated by the contortions necessary for its voice to reach me without waking anyone else.
I point to my left. The shadow pauses before following my finger, perhaps internal chastisement for asking a question with an obvious answer. “Wake him up. Meet me in CIC.”
I do not hear the sound of boots leaving the berthing, only the door springing open, and then closed.
“Was that Chief Cain?” I hear as I swing my legs out and onto the cold rubbery deck.
“Yeah.” I reply.
Maybe he’s pissed and ready to slink off and disappear somewhere on a half-abandoned ship. Maybe he has already done this despite my being there, cognizant and actively dressing myself.
“We have to carry him down, huh,” I say, confident I was alone.
“Yeah, prob’ly. But it’s because he likes us,” he says finally.
There is nothing in his voice, his posture, the way he rolls out of his rack that suggests he is unwilling to do this. I find this unusual and refreshing.
As I fix my ballcap I shift over to allow him the room needed to adjust, to pull himself and the legs of his boxers down from between his inner thighs and straighten out his undershirt. He rubs his head as if splashing water on it before extending his right arm out to the end of his triptych of coffin racks — “racks” for brevity. . . perhaps also for sanity — and pulls down a set of coveralls hanging from a hook that extends into the pathway that snakes around and through other such sets of racks; each three units high, each unit providing just enough space to accommodate a sailor and the possessions required for service.
As I zip up my jacket I walk out into the pathway to tie my boots. They are worn and scuffed, but not so much that they wouldn’t pass an inspection; they are looked after, attended to. I tie them tightly, but not too tightly, the way I would a pair of running shoes. As I rise, I reach absently into the deep, empty pockets of my coveralls, feeling on the backs of my hands the roughness of dried paint against cheap cotton. I wait for him there, silent in the midst of the electric hum of a ship in port.
When he’s fully clothed, his feet search for its boots, boots that lay on their sides on the deck it shares with four other pairs. The boots are well beyond their useful life and should be replaced. They are still able to work, but are barely willing: hard rubber soles, worn down unevenly at the heel, still capable of protecting the wearer from the hazard of the non-skid underfoot; steel caps in the toes, though varyingly exposed by leather unable to withstand the hard edges that abound on a warship, are unfailing in their ability to prevent the trauma that would be induced were they not there. The laces, however, had quit. The aglets are gone, making any attempt to re-lace a task for someone who cares. And so they remain permanently tied, loose enough to slip on, tight enough to not fall off.
We leave our berthing, turn right toward the bow of the ship, and take the first ladder back up. Our pace, thumping audibly on the dull aluminum rising out of and into subsequent decks, is calm. Had I been alone, the steps would have been tempered by the knowledge that I would soon be helping usher a body down to the medics waiting on the pier; medics I was ordered to call to our slip while standing watch nearly six hours ago; medics who, it was now certain, could do nothing other than accept this body and transport it to the next person, and they to the next, and they to the next, a pitching down in tone and level cut with each pass. As it is I follow pace and try to unfreight my feet of their anxiety.
In CIC Chief Caine stands with his hands in his pockets in a way that expresses solemnity. He looks up as we walk in and then down where, on the deck in front of him, there lay a bag matching, in luster and hue, the boots in which his feet were shod.
It’s silent for a few seconds as we all shift imperceptibly in place, transfixed by the gravity of death. A death in our homeport, 10,000 miles away from the only place I thought I would see anyone die, months after a dhow sailed too close to our ship and in spite of our warnings. Gunner’s mates manned the .50 cal mounts as we sailed toward one another. Maybe the fishermen were deaf. Maybe they couldn’t understand the Arabic shot at them, born in and inflected by two semesters in some American college. Or maybe they could, and did not like to be scolded so close to home. I don’t remember who blinked.
Finally Chief Caine says, “We have to get him down.”
As we step toward the body I look overhead, searching the exposed pipes and wires for remnants of the thin red shot line he had purportedly used. I see nothing to confirm this detail. I look furtively so as not to give any indication of an obscene interest in another man’s passing. Besides, scanning his face while relieving him from watch didn’t compel me to ask any questions – his eyes welled with rage and fear, tears climbing down, escaping only to be wiped away by the cuff of a too-slow sleeve; so why, now that I don’t have to meet his gaze, should I have any right to answers.
We pick up the bag, choosing blindly our respective ends, with Chief Caine and I sharing the load at one. It is heavier than I thought it would be.
As we approach our first descent I learn I have chosen to aid in carrying his head. It droops toward me, loose and heavy and unsupported. It rests on my right hand as we pass through the empty decks swept clean, over the quarterdeck whose petty officer we don’t ask for permission to leave, onto the pier bathed putrid in amber. We place the body into the back of an ambulance that leaves without turning on its siren.
The three of us walk back up the gangplank, back toward the quarterdeck, toward watchstanders who have yet to pick back up the formality their station requires.
Our group splits. I notice only when I lose track of Chief Caine’s faint, irregular gait. I turn my head to see that he had stopped to speak with the Officer of the Deck, but can’t hear anything being said.
The two of us walk back toward our berthing in silence.
I want him to tell me why he thought a man hanged himself, that it happened because his wife was a ho. I want him to remind me that his own marriage wasn’t happy, that his own ex-wife had done the same thing, that the Navy had shit on his life and this was the result. I wouldn’t fight it; I wouldn’t dispute his perverse eulogizing if only to imbue the night with a sense of integrity that can only be had in certainty or admiration. And since I can’t attach any meaningful knowledge to that body, I’m eager for help.
But he says nothing. And so we walk back next to each other until we can’t.
I walk to the head and he to his rack. I hear him kick his boots off -- they bang against the wall of lockers then thud to the deck. They lie near each other, on different sides, and wait for the morning.
I return to my rack and untie my boots only enough to loosen their grip. As I step out of them one falls over. It lies there as I take off my jacket and wriggle out of my coveralls. It lies there as I stow my cap at the foot of my rack.
It lies there as I sleep.