This is the third of five parts in the short story of a young man facing his self-doubt in the midst of a mid-Atlantic storm, and finding meaning in an unexpected place. A new part will be up each night through the conclusion, at which time the story will be published on Amazon – reviews there would be appreciated.
Copyright James R. Neal 2017
Dan searched in vain for a visible horizon to focus his attention and steady his stomach. The storm, which had been following from the east, had overtaken all 360 degrees of the horizon, blending everything into one mottled, heaving palette of gray and black. Dan’s head began to swim, making his knees weak. He clung to the wheel, focused on the compass rose in hopes of steadying himself. The one thing he had going for him was Stan and his dad were too busy to notice he could barely hold himself up at the wheel. He just had to hold out until after his watch – just a few minutes now – and then he could puke in the head below, or maybe just downwind when Stan was below. All he needed was to focus, to hang on, to hold it together until the end of his watch, until he could find some corner of privacy on a 35-foot sloop.
“Dan, you ready to turn over the watch?”
Dan had been focusing so closely on the compass, forcing himself to not vomit, he didn’t even notice his dad emerge from the companionway. “You ready?”
Dan knew he needed to answer his dad. He needed to answer the skipper. But opening his mouth threatened puking all over the wheel station. He nodded instead, very slightly, trying not to move his head any more than absolutely necessary. How the hell was he supposed to read off the heading and barometer to turn over the watch?
“You sure you’re alright?” Another slight nod of the head. “Are you starting to feel sick?” An almost imperceptible shake of the head. “How’re the sea conditions?” Rolling. Choppy. Angry. Violent. Swirling. Holy shit. He nodded his head weakly.
“Alright, Dan. I’ve got her.”
He opened his mouth in protest, determined to turn the watch over properly. But all he could do was hyperventilate and stare feebly at the compass.
“It’s okay Dan, I’ve got it,” his dad said, squeezing his shoulder. Dan relinquished the wheel without any more attempt at speaking. “Go below and get yourself dried off, get some rest.”
His father, having never been prone to seasickness, failed to recognize that the complete lack of reference of the pitching below-decks was almost guaranteed to push him from queezy to violently ill. But, with no horizon, the cockpit wasn’t much better. Besides, he was too weak to argue with his dad and skipper. He made his way forward toward the companionway, picking his way slowly along like a dog that should have already been put down. He came up short when his safety tether, which he had forgotten to unlatch, pulled tight.
His dad, God bless him, was kind enough not to laugh or even acknowledge he had seen his son just leash himself. He quietly unbuckled himself and clambered to the opening of the companionway. The salon looked deceptively calm and stationary, save for a can of tomato soup that had gone unnoticed and was rolling across the sole as if it were being pushed back and forth by two invisible children. He paused with his hands on either side of the ladder, staring first below and then ahead at the sea. The bow buried itself in a green and white explosion of seawater, then pitched upward into the blackness of clouds and spray, then down again. And up. Then down.
“Dan? You alright?” And up. Then down.
He managed to flash a thumbs-up over his shoulder, then hyperventilated several times and forced his feet, feeling like sacks of flour, onto the ladder. After the fresh wind of the cockpit the air in the salon felt like a burlap sack being held over his mouth. The gimbeled lantern and the cords on the radio mics swayed obediently to the forces of gravity, but everything else – except the damn can of soup – conspired to defy the motion he could feel in his legs, ears and gut. He paused at the bottom of the ladder, steadying himself with one hand on the chart table, and bent down to retrieve the offending can. A loud crash of the rigging and shift of gear in the cabinets barely warned of a deep roll of the hull before the sole came up and smacked Dan in the face.
He lay there on his face, the water from spray and sea boots feeling very cool on his exposed skin. The can of soup continued rolling with the movement of the hull, just outside his reach, like a toy being swung in the face of a very tired cat.
“You alright there Danny?” It was Stan this time, who had paused to collect the errant soup can.
“You know there’s more comfortable places to lay down,” Stan continued with more of his laughter. “Here, let me help you up.” Stan was extending his hand. Dan very much did not want his help, but he couldn’t string enough words together to properly refuse. So, he accepted the hand and got his legs back under himself as best he could.
“You feeling okay? You’re looking a little green.”
He answered with another weak nod of the head and a thumbs-up.
“Well okay, then,” Stan replied, slapping him on the back. “Hang in there.”
Dan stared and gritted his teeth at Stan’s fat ass as he climbed up to the cockpit and pulled the hatch closed. His hatred almost immediately succumbed, like every other feeling, to the pressing urge to vomit. With the hatch closed the salon felt very close and stuffy, and each roll and pitch of the hull seemed amplified. The settee was a mere four feet away – he could lay down there and rest, like his dad said. Maybe this would pass. But it may as well have been four miles. Dan stared at the green cushions but remained immobile, hanging onto the companionway ladder with one hand and the chart table with the other.
Sweat was pouring down his forehead and back now and his jaw quivered uncontrollably. What he needed was air, space to breathe, something to fix his eyes on that would match what his gut was telling his brain. He needed to get back to the cockpit. Maybe there would be a clear patch of horizon. There would certainly be plenty of air. He just had to make it up. The contents of his stomach told him the effort was futile, and filled his mouth with puke to emphasize the point. He choked it down and forced his foot onto the bottom step of the ladder. His gut argued with him again, telling him to just stay below and puke in private. But he was determined. This was not going to happen. He just had to make it back topsides. One more step, and then his legs flew, driven by sheer determination.
He threw open the hatch and was greeted by a blast of cold spray. Yes, that felt good. He climbed over the bottom slide of the hatch and into the cockpit, willing his feet to keep moving. Just a few more feet and victory. He could sit in the cockpit and quietly fight this out, and show Stan he didn’t need his damn pity. Just a few more feet.
“Dan, close the companionway hatch. There’s too much spray now.”
Dan froze. Going back was impossible. But he couldn’t ignore his dad’s order. And he was blocking the path of anyone else being able to close the hatch.
“Dan, did you hear me?” He stood wide-eyed, staring into the face of the waves astern. “Dan? Close the hatch.” More blind staring. “Dan!”
He nodded feebly, then opened his mouth very slightly to acknowledge his dad’s order. “Okay.” Two syllables. Not much. But the word was replaced by a gushing torrent of everything that had passed his lips in the last 12 hours. He lunged at the last second to a bucket on the edge of the cockpit, and managed to get most of his load on target. The rest coated his foul weather coat and the seat that had been his destination.
Stan and his dad didn’t say a word. Dan didn’t look at them. He just hugged the bucket, shaking, and puked several more times.
“Alright,” his dad said softly. “You done for now?”
“Yeah,” Dan managed, no longer held back from speech.
His dad took the bucket to empty and rinse overboard. It was a well-repeated command that if you puked on the boat you cleaned it up yourself. But Dan was too weak to say anything more, or to think of hanging over the lifeline to retrieve a bucket full of sea water.
“Well, you should feel better after that!” Stan offered with a laugh from the wheel. Dan didn’t have pride enough left to hate the man. He just nodded.
“Here you go, Dan,” his dad said, setting the bucket of water down in front of him. He silently thanked his dad for at least allowing him the dignity of cleaning it up. Dan mustered enough strength to scoop water out with his hands to wash his coat, then to rinse the cockpit down to the scuppers.
“Feel better?” his dad asked.
He nodded, forced a smile and settled back in his seat in the cockpit. He pulled the ginger ale out that he had saved from dinner and forced down a few sips to replace the taste of puke. For the next 15 minutes he nursed half the can of soda, then allowed his dad to pour the rest overboard.
Ten minutes later he was again sweating and hyperventilating. Five minutes or so later and he was hugging the bucket. He vomited some more, and then with nothing left in his stomach, he settled into a routine of dry heaving every few minutes until his vision blurred and neck muscles ached. An hour in he attempted to settle his stomach with a handful of oyster crackers and a sip of warm water. That gave his stomach more fuel, and he repeated the whole process.
At first his dad and Stan remained completely silent, allowing the wind and rigging to offer the only accompaniment to Dan’s retching. Later, they attempted to lighten the mood by laughing through old stories of boats, women and the sea. Dan comprehended little and shared in none of the laughter.
By late evening the stories and laughter were replaced by terse commands and response as the storm set in earnest.
Stan remained on the wheel and the skipper was busy going back and forth from the radio at the chart table to checking the sail, sheets, wind and seas. Dan, by then, had been reduced to a quivering mass who no longer cared what happened to him, or what Stan or anyone else thought of him. He lay on the port side of the cockpit, fully enveloped in his foul weather gear and tied off in his safety harness. He just lay there, letting the spray blow in his face. Even the occasional wave top that broke over the transom and set the cockpit awash did not inspire him to movement. This was to have been his great crucible, his anointing in manhood. Instead, he just lay there, awash in weakness and self-loathing. Stan, the whore-mongering oaf with a fat, stupid smile, weathered it all at the wheel. And he, his father’s only son, could do nothing.
Check back for Part 4 Wednesday night!