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Miles

2011 Short Story Contest: Third Place Winner

Foggy water. Watery fog. It enveloped the Alaskan ferry until the boat’s Chief Engineer, Miles Gopon, saw more than fog. He saw sheets of lace. Pink lace. Panties. They landed like soft light on the pilothouse floor, the last piece she removed before lifting one foot, then the other, and walking toward him.

He shook his head. He was woozy and he knew it. Who was she? It was four a.m. Was he sleeping on the job? He shook his head again, and then pressed his leathery fingers against a huge marine map. He squinted and scowled, shoulders hunched, knees locked. His six-foot frame, once hefty with flesh was leaner, wanting—a man at fifty. He pressed his temples in a circular motion and peered into the fog. A line on his forehead twitched, a spasm he quickly controlled. Then, with self-assurance, he spoke. “Thirty degrees north.”

“Aye, aye, Chief,” a man in a crisp white uniform replied. The man, by title but not by experience, was the boat’s Captain. The Captain turned to the wheelsman and barked, “Thirty degrees north!”

Miles lowered his head. He gazed over his half-moon bifocals at the sweaty wheelsman, a young buck probably the same age as the improbable panty girl: twenty-five. Miles wondered what illusion (his first wife called it mimsy delusion) drifted through the kid’s head during a watch at the wheel. In the ten years Miles had been navigating the Inside Passage, calling the shots and making decisions, he never asked the guy playing Captain or the brawny wheelsman what they thought about when executing two degrees north, turning eight degrees southeast, or holding steady as she goes. What mattered to Miles was not their fantasies but the engines below, the grunting of coal-fired furnaces, and the fog that could run them aground. And oh the passengers—in those days, working-class types come to make a killing: build the pipeline, carve out roads and sewers, and staff the taverns, fishing boats, and Bartlett-Memorial Hospital, the only sick house in Juneau.

It had been a week since he had noticed a real twenty-five year old arriving for summer assignment. She was power-walking the deck in blue jeans, shiny blue clogs, and a red wool blazer, hand-sewn, she boasted. He had stood outside the Crew Only door, puffing his pipe. It was after supper, his belly swollen from bean soup and extra slices of soda bread. “Evening, Mam,” he said, nodding and touching the edge of his black beret in a modified salute.

On her first lap, she ignored him. On the second, she accelerated her pace, breath quickening and chin jutted forward, her arms swinging. On the third lap, she stopped, pivoted to face him, and planted her feet. “I am not a Mam,” she said slowly, looking past his shoulder at the rosewater light. And then, fixing her eyes on his shoulder, she added, “Mam, by the way, is colloquial for Mamma.” With her eyes on the beret, she concluded, “And I’m no Mam.”

“I see that,” he said. “I stand corrected.” He removed the beret in a swooping manner to let her know he found her fresh and potentially generous. She returned the gesture with a practiced look that was flirtatious but hardly provocative, the best for a pigeon-toed girl from Nebraska. Then two burly women walked by, holding hands. A teenage boy with a guitar came right behind them, scratching out a Dylan tune. “We carry a ship of fools,” Miles said. “And I’m one of them.”

She studied him with the rehearsed face of a nurse, making clinical notations of a sun-blotched forehead, broken blood vessels around the nose, a receding hairline. He wore oil-stained coveralls zipped only to the waist. The high-water britches were tugged upward by his distended belly. Her mental notations made him nervous. Deliberately, he set the beret on his head at what seemed the quintessential sexy angle.

“Nice hat,” she said, but it was awkward.

“It’s a beret.”

“You’re French then,” she said, her tone changing, an expectation that here finally was a ticket to adventure.

“Not that I know of.”

“Then . . . “

“Then why? Because it makes me look unlikely. And I like being unlikely.”

“Oooh.”

“I expect you do, too,” he said. “Or you wouldn’t be here.”

She frowned. “Am I that transparent?”

He frowned back. “In all due respect, might I stroll with you?”

“Sure.”

They lapped the deck several times, working the light banter of the lonely. She: Are those gulls or seagulls? How’d the ship get its name? How do you cope with the midnight sun? He: That’s an impressive red blazer you’ve got there. I once knew a guy who was a cornhusker, always in a fight. I’m glad the ship didn’t get wrangled up in Wrangell.

Eventually, he paused at the Crew Only door. “Want to see how my world lives?”

“Uhh, sure.”

He unlatched a door and they stepped in. After their eyes adjusted to the grainy light, he unlatched a second door and motioned her in. She scanned the rumpled bunk, stained coffee cups, soapstone pipes face down on a stack of Popular Mechanics magazines. “It has a lived-in look,” he joked.

“So do you.”

His face fell. He had no comeback.

“I like it,” she said.

Whether she meant she liked his face or his cabin did not matter. It was a cue and it was the only cue he needed. It took three hours to make it to her waist and his seasoned, middle-age approach was worth every minute, every drawn-out luxurious minute for she seemed willing, confused, young, and unbearably soft. And somewhere in there was trust, too, something new for him and full of trepidation.

As for her: she was drawn to the crepe layers beneath his eyes, how he tapped his pipe, how he had walked on the balls of his feet with urgency, too much in a hurry to use the whole foot. He smelled of new life, exploding aromas of tobacco, oranges, and motor oil. He even claimed to be a father yet no family photos bathed the close walls, only posters of Alaska: sky, mountains, rivers, and birds. He had a past but had left it where it belonged, he said, in the past. She liked that, she thought.

“So,” she noted in their second hour together when they still sat at the two-by-three foot table hinged to the cabin wall, shots of Scotch untouched. “Let me get this straight, three wives and two children, one stillborn.”

He spun the curly hairs of his mustache. “Perhaps,” he said, “it was two wives and three children.” He had intended to sound cheery, amusing, but hearing the truth out loud suddenly felled him the way a good driving rain flattened the wild rushes along the water. He broke his gaze on her and stared at the cabin door. He rubbed his palms together, the skin over his hands moving, lolling with regret. Then he heard her lovely chest fill with air and, still fixated on the door, waited for the typical female retort of Uughhh. When it didn’t come, he looked at her. She had pinched her lips together and above them, her eyes had gone gray, flat washers with holes in the middle. “Look,” he said, arms upswept like a priest at Easter. “Sometimes I can’t remember my own story, what with the Scotch and all.” Her face tightened. For a moment she shook all over. “It’s the twelve on, twelve off,” he said rapidly. “I work to drink to sleep to work.”

At that, her pupils dilated, brackish whirlpools trying to spin all of him. She stifled a sigh. She felt lightheaded. He seemed to be all that had been drilled out of her—naughty, risky, somehow banned. He might be what so many young girls needed: a Project, someone to work on and improve, although right then and there, she could not enunciate that. Right then and there, he was a whirling mass of something, drawing her right toward the forbidden center. She tried to speak but what she came up with sounded naïve and dumb. So she simply sat there.

He welcomed her reserve by pulling on his mustache. He ironed the salt-and-pepper hairs, working from center to edge in a rhythmic fashion. Then he said he was crazy about her. She took in the information with a glassy little girl look and he continued pulling at the mustache, his signature tic when he was uneasy.

The tic accelerated the vortex she had fallen into. She giggled, a release of some sort finally coming. Then she asked if his name was really Miles. It mattered, deeply. After this summer, she wanted to change Ann Gray to something more. More what? Suzanne could be a start. She had read Change a Name, Change a Life and she hadn’t come this far to adopt a man’s name, to settle for that kind of change. Was Suzanne Gray too timid? What about a name like Suzanne Blackstone? Or Suzanne Tresor Blackstone? A totally new identity.

“Miles it is,” he said. “I swear.”

Miles to go before I sleep.”

He grinned. “God, I hope not.” He reached across the table and lifted her hand, kissing fingernails, suckling the silky curve of each knuckle, the fresh tan on back of the hand, the inside of the wrist with its taut skin and bounding pulse. Then he paused as was his custom and asked, “What’s your name?”

She felt an obsession coming on. His lips were drenching her fingers in heat. “Suzanne,” she said, flushing. “Suzanne Blackstone.”

“Wonderful.” He kiss-kissed each finger again until she crumbled into tiny pieces. Then picked up each piece and sashayed around the table. He patted his lap. She sat down, straddling his coverall thighs. “What was your first wife like?” she asked, searching for a benchmark, for a chance to acquire knowledge that she had no idea how to apply.

“Huh?”

“Generally speaking, what was she like?”

Miles stroked the mustache. “Generally speaking,” he said, “she was generally speaking.” His eyes twinkled. “Any more questions?”

Outside, waves splashed the ship’s sides and, had they looked, gulls rode eddies of air behind the boat, diving for churned-up fish. Inside, she studied him, shaking her head from side to side, though for his part he had no interest in more questions. He unbuttoned her blouse. The five buttons popped through each buttonhole easily. Next, he unhooked her bra. She went limp. He ran weathered palms up her spine, across the shoulders, and around the front.

She let out a startled cry. He placed his index finger over his lips, and she got the message, quieting. Then his sweet tobacco mouth opened and she pushed her ample breasts to him with pride. He cradled them and she made small singing sounds, a hum of notes rising uncontrollably from pelvis and along her thighs, her lines voluptuous and charged.

At that, he stopped.

He put his ear to the welling space between her breasts. The sound of heartbeats filled her rib cage, the ruffle and drum of the Divine. He returned to action, beside himself with licking, an unrelenting fervor while she held on for his feathery tongue strokes.

“Let’s go to your place,” he whispered.

She nodded. He offered to dress her. She let him, interrupting his methods, kissing his forehead and earlobes, gliding her buttocks back and forth with a lazy island smile. She was not particularly striking, a girl with glasses and a cowlick. She was round-shouldered and he had noticed she moved like a pigeon. He fastened the last button and then held her red blazer. She threaded in one arm, then the other, before he hugged her from behind and realized he was hard, at last, blessedly hard.

He unlocked the door and stepped out onto the deck. When the coast was clear, he motioned for her, standing three feet away, as if they were strangers. A sliver of a moon held up the sky. Stars and gulls filled spaces between puffy clouds.

She walked ahead of him, trembling, excited by possibility and not wanting this to end. In her mind, the only possibility was to extend the possibility until she was sure that he would not take advantage. And so she changed her mind, not allowing him to enter her cabin, neither that night nor the next, though she did dine with him in the officer’s dining quarters, a big move on his part to acknowledge her public presence in his private, lonesome gut.

“Tell me where it hurts,” she said as the waiter set down plates of buttery whitefish.

“Where doesn’t it?”

Under the table, she wiggled her foot between his legs. Lines around his lips spread into a homespun smile. The tip of her tongue lobbed back and forth along her upper lip until he said they should eat while the food was warm. And they did. And he talked more and her foot again found its place, the numbers of wives and children soon irrelevant. For what mattered was how his life of blazing infidelity was unraveling, and how her life as a helper took him in, their time at table merry and downright playful.

• • • • •

By the time the boat docked in Juneau, he knew hope for the first time in years: address, phone number, work schedule at the hospital. In two weeks the boat would be back, he’d be back, he’d cautiously climb all over her at the tacky apartment she was to share with a secretary from Montana. The Lower Forty-eight could go to hell as far as he was concerned. Those get-rich-quickers had come to rape Alaska and make him find another place to hide out. But maybe, he speculated, it wasn’t a place he needed. Maybe it was this person, an earthy young woman who could hold the emptiness inside him, someone who understood but did not pity what a Downs’ baby had done to dreams the second time around. Aw, hell, he oughta leave her alone. She had twice his energy. She was undefiled and spotless, round and full, vibrant. She had a beautiful structure, at least as much as he had seen. He wanted her. As the engines fired up and the dockhands let go the chains around the pilings, sending him out to sea for another two weeks, he wanted her so badly he went to starboard and threw up.

And she, in the weeks that followed, wanted him too. After orientation on days, she came home to pine-paneled walls in a prefab thrown together that spring. She stood at the window and watched the bulldozer backfill a swamp across the street for a trailer court where, by summer’s end, salmonella and its attendant diarrhea would seize the latest arrivals. The hospital would be full, she working double shifts, glad to fend off hours when the Alaskan midnight glowed and, alone behind room-darkening shades, she would think of his oil-stained nail beds, jelly belly laugh, that wistfulness when he talked of rocky necks, mountain goats, and salmon that swam upstream to spawn and die.

Each time after he left the dock, she tasted him for hours. He was Scotch, full-bodied and sweet with a warm afterglow. She herself was three-two beer, heady, and reminiscent of sawdust and strains of polka music. And now they had met. Whether flirting at the greasy spoon in town or watching bald eagles soar, her vision swelled. And his? It could only be said that his exploded ever since they stood on the deck (the very spot where they first met) and looked at the line where sea met sky. He called it a mystical place, similar to the end of a rainbow or the prisms inside the geode he sent via post to My Suzanne.

By mid-summer, their ideas of sharing a runaway life jelled.

Until a Tuesday evening when she arrived early at the place where he stayed when ashore, a room at the Juneau Hotel. It wasn’t only his room. It was a room the ferry line rented; a rotating cast of officers was assigned it when ashore. He had expected her close to midnight, after her evening shift from which she never got out on time. But by eight pm, she had garnered a “low census,” meaning enough patients had been discharged that a full staff wasn’t needed. She jumped at the chance to leave work early. It meant less money, more of him.

She fairly skipped down the sidewalks between the hospital and hotel. Slabs of cement tilted this way and that. Tufts of switch grass poked between the cracks, defiant against the changing landscape. He had said the room was on the first floor, that she was to simply walk past the front desk clerk, an Indian who had fallen out of a tree, had bumps on his head, and was living off his Native-American Pipeline Payout.

From the street, she saw the only room with light, a pearly blue beam. Then she did something she had never done before: she spied. Stepping off the functional but treacherous sidewalk, she climbed the small stony incline to the lit room. The shade was down, but not completely. The window was ajar. She heard a man’s voice, clearly not Miles’, say, I’m going to give you something I need to give you. She had an overwhelming itch to say, Boo. Instead, she inched closer. I will eat until you say, ‘I can’t take it any more,’ another man said. She held her breath. She peered in and, beneath the shade, saw Miles sitting on the edge of the bed. The TV was on and he was hunched forward, naked. His left hand supported him on the bed. In flickering light, his right hand was at work. He labored rhythmically, neck veins bulging and mouth ajar while a silconized woman moaned on the television. She studied the screen. Two men wet with sweat labored over the woman, one entering her mouth, the other a perineal orifice. It was unclear which orifice.

She scrambled down the embankment in a panic. She had an urge to run. But she was Suzanne now, not Ann. She entered the hotel and stopped at the front desk. The Indian, as described, seemed slow but she engaged him in conversation, buying time until she thought Miles would be finished. Then, she made her way down the hall and knocked on his door.

“Who’s there?”

“Who do you think, Who’s there?

Behind his door, the TV went mute. A chair scraped the wooden floor. The double-hung window wobbled in its sash, a crunk-clunk sound as it closed. Then, the door opened. “It can’t be true,” Miles said. He wore faded jeans, nothing else. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought I was invited.” She crossed her arms against her churning stomach.

“Well, sure. Come on in.”

She did not move. She hugged herself tighter. A tear began to form in her left eye, but she cut it off by squinting, then gritting her teeth.

“Wow,” he said. “Bad night at work? Hey, you got out early. How’s that for a change?” A man came down the hall; the two of them stood there, transfixed and speechless while the man shuffled past. The man arrived at his door, fumbled his key in the lock, and swore. He tried again, succeeded, and then slammed the door as he disappeared. They remained under the transom, frozen, eyeing each other.

She spoke first. “That was disgusting.”

“What?”

She glared at him, arms still folded tightly. She drummed the fingers of her right hand along her left forearm.

“Sorry,” he said. “I should have closed the shade all the way, but it’s stuffy in this pit.”

“That,” she repeated, “was disgusting.”

“I didn’t want to rush you.” He fetched a shirt. “Look, come on in, we can talk about this. You of all people should understand biology.”

“That was beyond biology,” she said. “That was debasement.”

“Shit,” he said. He felt caught. He felt like the very essence of all he scorned. He shot her a look. “You were inaccessible,” he said. “I didn’t want to rush you. We’ve got a thing, you and me. You know it. I know it.”

“You know nothing.” She kicked him in the shin, her face registering surprise at her own spontaneity.

“Good,” he said. “That’s good.”

• • • • •

By the end of summer he thought of how he had waited until the next time the boat docked, then marched right up to the nurses’ station in new trousers and a button-down shirt clean out of the crinkly package, his few wiry hairs slicked to one side, beret in one hand, the other jiggling something in his pocket.

“Suzanne Blackstone,” he said with a wink to the ward clerk. “It’s a surprise.” The freckled clerk looked up from her sandwich, puzzled.

“Nebraska,” he said, adding a head nod to the wink.

“We’ve got an Ann Gray from Nebraska,” the clerk replied, pushing a wad of food into her cheek. “That little cornhusker’s gone to Seattle on a transport, going to take a little R&R while there, something about the midnight sun, how she can’t sleep.”

“Suzanne Blackstone from Nebraska,” he said.

“Sorry, bud,” the clerk said as the phone rang and she answered it.

He paled and walked back to the hotel. He borrowed the desk clerk’s shiny new Dodge Charger and drove out to the Mendenhall Glacier. There he got out of the car. He tasted the view. He heard the ice from the hundred-foot-high wall crackle and crash into the collecting pool. Didn’t she know what a big deal it was that he had taken her down to the engine room and up to the pilothouse? Only authorized personnel were allowed there. Didn’t she know this was all her fault? That way she set her face, fresh from the prairie, with a display of curiosity, followed by sincere interest, and then the sincere, kind nursiness. Of course he had confessed, unloaded the story about his greedy kids, how he couldn’t take it anymore, and those two testy Glendale wives in the rat race. Even if you’re winning the race, he had told her, you’re still a rat.

She had laughed and gotten him to confess even more—how bad he felt when he watched porn, worse after. But a man needed a release, and if his real woman (that’s you, Suzanne) was inaccessible, then he did what he did. She had pouted and said she didn’t like knowing about a problem she couldn’t do anything about. Problem, he had replied. Problem? The only problem was my willingness to wait, for you.

He continued to stand at the mile-wide wall of ice, ironing his mustache. He looked to the sky, spackling into pink and purple and gold. He felt the old stiffness at the back of his knees. A hunk of ice crashed. He feared that in another decade the tree-spotted valley he had just driven through would be clotted by condos, gas stations, and strip malls. Little by little, glaciers would melt and salmon would die before reaching their spawning beds. How would he survive? With another greenhorn Captain? A double-Scotch doubled? He spit.

The magnificent ice before him fissured and fell. It was getting late but he had nothing better to do. So he stood there, trying hard not to think and in the void he recalled how the bar maid had let him use the phone and he had yelled above the Stones on the jukebox, shouted over the pinball machines, and railed beyond the boatload of thrill-seekers pouring into the bar and crowding him while he professed to her how they’d hike the mountain to a salmon bake, take the train to Skagway, and fly into Kodiak—now there’s a place we can hide out, he predicted.

At some point the phone line must have fizzled into dead air; he wasn’t sure when. Still, he was believing that she had heard him when another chunk of glacier crashed, a giant drop destined for meltdown. He picked at his teeth with a pocketknife. Night was coming slowly and it was ridiculously cold, for August. His ankles hurt. His lips were blue. He tugged at his beret and zipped up his windbreaker. A sheet of clouds moved in and moved out while he kept watch, waiting. And then at midnight, a bunch of round and full and vibrant stars emerged, and he watched them flirt in the vast blackness.

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Kathryn Gahl is mad about ballroom dance, the color red, and compassion. Gahl's fiction, poetry, and nonfiction appear in many journals.

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