|Jul/Aug 2015 Fiction|
Photography by Lydia Selk
I almost didn't work on the Exxon Valdez clean-up because I don't like being trapped on boats. Or anywhere. I like gardens and trails and places where I'm able to run if I need to. Plus, I was busy. My plan was to drop Paul at his ship, where he was sailing as chief engineer, then return to my life bordered by Douglas fir and cedar on the salt shoreline of WaWa Bay. There I'd do what I'd been doing for the past few months. I'd wake early, make a cup of coffee, sit down at my writing desk, and continue to grapple with a book about Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer who had exhausted his last appeal and was soon to be executed. I wanted to compile the hierophany, an ode to my sisters' lost lives and my own—the parts of my own life I lost to fear and to tending the injured—but the task was proving to be more difficult than I'd imagined it would be. Over the years, despite the horror he inflicted on hundreds of lives, I'd become ambivalent about the man. I wavered between prosecution and defense.
I knew Ted. He was the boy in the high school halls, one of the invisible hoard, neither popular nor unpopular, smart nor stupid. And he was my classmate at the University of Washington, the creep in the law library who liked to slide into the chair directly across from me and stare until I was forced to look up. I knew several of his victims, too—Liz, Brenda, Holly. Liz was my best friend in high school and Ted the asshole boyfriend who borrowed her car and didn't show up when he was supposed to. Or who showed up but didn't want her. The guy who drank too much, as did she, as we all did, in my crowd, during those years.
"Focus on your own life," I used to tell Liz. "Take a look at your own drinking." I'd appear in a memoir about Bundy, later, as the friend who begged Liz to stop obsessing over the lover who ran hot and cold, kind then cruel. The lover who drank and then disappeared, only to return exhausted and drained. And I'd appear in a book by a friend from my writers group. Though he never told me in advance, my recurring nightmare, exactly as I wrote it in a journal carelessly left open, appeared as his final paragraph: how the killer broke into my apartment, which I'd left unlocked, and stole my baby sisters.
At first, I attributed those nightmares to the images I'd seen in the Seattle Post Intelligencer: faces mirroring my own, gazing out, trusting and sweet, smiling. We didn't know, then, of course, the identity of the killer. I didn't know it was the boy in the law library I finally asked to leave me alone. "You're creeping me out," I'd said, and soon after, he stopped coming to class at all.
No, I thought my nightmares occurred because we were all filled with fear, and because I was volunteering at that time at the rape counseling center. Rape Relief, it was called. We all carried beepers, and when a call came in late at night, we headed into the darkness alone. It was a strange time, and it grew stranger after Brenda, one of my classmates, vanished—spirited away one night as the rest of our crowd ordered one more round before last call. "Where's Brenda?" I remember someone asking. "Didn't she need a ride?" Sweet, beautiful Brenda, found later on Taylor Mountain after Ted disgorged details of unsolved disappearances, hoping to stave off execution one more time.
At Rape Relief, we dissected every detail of each disappearance, beginning with the first, Lynda. "Runaways don't leave blood on their pillows," we said to each other after Lynda, responding to the cops' initial belief that the women were runaways. "My friend Liz thinks it might be her boyfriend," I told my closest colleague. "Ted, this guy we went to high school with. But they told her she was crazy. They said she was just a jealous girlfriend dealing with her partner's infidelity in a very dangerous way."
Even as he stalked his prey, and up until his death, Ted always had at least one woman devoted to him. And eventually the detectives approached us at Rape Relief to collect data. If an assaulted woman didn't want to press charges, she could turn in what was called a "third party report" so the detectives could assemble a profile. The cops also wanted us to train them how to be more sensitive, so women would report crimes at all. We role played, and for one of the trainings, I presented my own assault from my first year at college. I didn't say it was my experience, of course. I simply acted it out, and the woman in charge, my direct superior, Lavina Hawk, scoffed. "Nobody would respond like that," she said. I did, I answered in my mind. That was how I reacted, Lavina. For three days, bleeding, I crashed my head against the dorm room wall. Then I returned to class with a smile. Always with a smile. A smile like the girls in the paper.
So why did I board the Albatroz and set sail for Valdez? What did I think I would gain? I don't know, exactly. Perhaps part of me wanted to get away from Ted and the memories of his atrocities and their nearness to me. Perhaps I thought it would bring Paul and me closer together. Or perhaps I was charmed by Asher, Paul's cousin, who was known by everyone in the Belmont Shipyard as the skipper who buys boats for a song, hauls workers out of bars along the waterfront to restore the vessels bottom to top, then heads north to fabulous hauls of salmon and crab or delivers the boat halfway across the globe to someone willing to pay 100 times what he did.
The Albatroz was a 1943 yard freighter with a deck of peeling grey paint and a long rope ladder down the side. Asher had secured a contract to sail to Valdez, a village on Prince William Sound that formed the epicenter of the clean-up efforts following the crash of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez. I climbed the rope ladder to see Paul off and to say hello to Asher. "And what do you mean you're not coming with us?" he asked. The crew was busy scraping paint and replacing lines, and I stood there watching them and watching Asher. Five feet eleven with blond hair and blue eyes, his smile never left his face, though when it came to the sea and those who worked it, he could be ruthless.
"I'm busy, Asher," I said. I was breathless from the 30-foot ascent up the ladder, the only way to reach up forward (as I learned the front of the boat was supposed to be called). "I'm writing."
I'd met Asher only once, a month earlier, when Paul and I had finally formalized our relationship. He came to our small wedding with his new wife, Gabrielle, an architect from Chile who spoke no English. She was strikingly gorgeous, but I'd been perplexed by a marriage where the couple didn't even speak each other's language—though my friends said the same of my marriage to Paul. "It's like you two are from different planets," they said. "I don't understand why you're together at all."
"Come on, come on!" said Asher. "This is the chance of a lifetime. I'm giving you this trip as your wedding present. You two didn't even take a honeymoon."
I glanced at Paul, but he offered no signals.
Paul was in his monk mode—one of the main reasons our relationship had remained ambivalent for so long. He spent his 20s sequestered in an ascetic practice as a Buddhist monk, where he'd sworn before the Great Assembly he would never have truck with a woman, in this lifetime or the next, and my challenge was to be the one who would make the difference. To be the one who could deal with his mood swings and offer just enough distance combined with love to help him heal. To heal the entire world: that was my calling. That was my hubris back then.
Paul was chief engineer for this voyage, and as he pulled on his dark blue coveralls, signalling his descent into the "bowels of the engine room," as he always called it, his face settled into work mode—a variation of monk mode. It was the face I respected in Paul: the face of an engineer and an aesthete.
This was no time to bring up domestic detail.
"C'mon," said Asher. "Honestly, how could being alone in the middle of nowhere appeal to you more than this? We'll pass some of the most beautiful untouched wilderness on the face of the earth." Asher stepped closer. "And you can bring your computer and write."
I'd like to say this is what convinced me—the open seas, the swaying of the ship, an opportunity to exorcize my demon friend, my nightmares, and my own grief-thick past. I like to think my decision had nothing to do with Asher's charm, and that I am not swayed by handsome men's charisma, as I was not swayed by Paul's rugged beauty but by his fortitude. I'd like to say this is why I decided to go, and so I will. I'll say that's why I went.
"Okay," I said. "I'm on."
"You made the right choice," said Asher.
Paul was already in the engine room.
"You did," said Asher. He flashed a credit card and told me to buy whatever food I wanted for the journey. "You've got six hours to get your affairs in order," he said. "Then we're off, with or without you. Got it?"
The Good Friday oil spill in Prince William Sound was the second worst in American history, and it could have been avoided. The ship's master, after a stint in rehab and several drunk driving charges in his home state of New York, had returned to the bottle. He was drinking vodka before they hit the reef. "Just two," he said later, during his trial. "Maybe three." I knew the story myself. The drinking round the clock. The need to suppress the pain I felt after my assault. I earned a four point in school. No one would have known how much I was drinking. No one understood. "But how much do you drink?" they'd asked, whenever I expressed concern about my habit. "One or two," I said. "Maybe three."
The Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef. Eleven million gallons of oil gushed into the bay and then was pushed by storms and tides across 1,000 miles of shoreline.
"We don't know what we'll be doing when we get there," Asher told me. "We'll find out when we arrive."
I settled cat and dog and child care for Paul's young daughter with his previous wife, a daughter born soon after he emerged from his days of retreat. I located someone to chair my recovery meeting, grabbed my computer, secured the house, and sped back to Seattle to duck into the grocery store near the shipyard. I arrived back on the ship at the stroke of midnight, just before we set sail, with the food for the crew and the belief I was indispensable—the same folly that led me to marry Paul, the same folly that has trailed me around for as long as I can remember.
The inside of the Albatroz was beautiful. She was 120 feet long, her cabin painted blue and white. There were half a dozen staterooms, three bathrooms with showers, and a galley with a gas range, food processor, microwave, blender, freezer, refrigerator, and stowage. "Good choices," Asher said, while the first mate, an older man with a lifetime of sea experience, helped the teen-aged deckhand carry the crates of food into the galley. I filled the stowage and freezers with steaks, roasts, rice, anchovies, capers, apples, oranges, bananas, romaine, cilantro, arugula, potatoes, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. "One of these days I'll make you my famous Caesar Salad," said Asher, his white teeth flashing, his hand flicking in the air as he turned to give orders to the crew. "Release the lines, boys. Let's go."
Leaving port is a challenge for the chief engineer, and Paul remained below, working blind in an engine room he'd never seen before. He'd had only six hours to familiarize himself with the equipment and to execute repairs, most of which would be worked out as the Albatroz steamed her way north—a six and a half day voyage with the skipper, mate, bosun, and deck hand standing six hour watches in teams of two. Asher's stateroom was just off the wheelhouse, and he slept with the door open, supine on his bunk, hands folded across his chest as if in prayer, and always smiling. His room was bare save for the bunk and a row of books, and even when he wasn't on watch himself, he observed everything.
"Too bad Asher wasn't skipper of Exxon Valdez," said Robin, the teenage deckhand Asher had scooped from one of the bars that studded the area around the shipyard. "Skipper doesn't sleep," he said. "He senses."
On the Albatroz, everyone except me was called by their role. Asher was "Skipper" and Paul was "Chief," and the next person on the boat's hierarchy was the old man who'd helped load the groceries on deck, the "Mate." He was at least twice Asher's age, and he'd sailed in the navy before taking a job at a marketing firm. Following his retirement he returned to sea, and his face showed the lines of a lifetime of hard labor. "Women and cats are bad luck," he informed me, the first day out. "If someone brings a cat on board, Skipper tosses it over."
The young boy, Robin, the "Hand," was standing there when the Mate made this remark. He revered Asher, scrambling to obey his every order, but I could see, even on that first day out, that he harbored some resentment toward the old man—a resentment that grew each day, as we moved further out to sea. And it was understandable, this disdain for the old curmudgeon. Unlike Asher, who worked alongside everyone on board—in the galley, on deck, in the engine or the wheelhouse—the Mate refused to do anything but serve his six hours on the bridge. Plus, he flaunted his power. Which is to say that a hierarchy prevailed on board, where the Skipper was God, the officers archangels, and the deckhand nothing more than a common human (the female not even acknowledged). The Mate bossed Robin around whenever the opportunity presented itself, barking orders at him in his gravely voice, and laying it on particularly thick whenever Robin was struggling to keep up with the rest of the crew.
The other person on board was the Boatswain, pronounced Bosun, and he, too, rarely spoke to me. He wore his dark hair just past his shoulders, and unlike the jovial Asher, never smiled. This was his first trip sailing from the West Coast. "Ten fucking years," he told Paul over one of the quick meals in the little dining room off the galley. "Ten fucking years I've been sailing. I'm sick of the low wages."
"So you came out here to seek your fortune?" said Paul. Beneath the table, he squeezed my hand, and later we'd replay the conversation, mocking the man's intonation and laughing at him together. I knew I was safe, then, because with Paul, if we shared a common enemy, we were good. But I also knew his mood could turn as quickly as the weather, and I would become the hated one until his mood veered yet again and I became the object of joy and desire, courted beyond imagining.
"Never had to sail with a woman, either," the Bosun said. "Don't have much truck with them on land, and no truck at all at sea."
"So why sail now?" asked Paul.
"Can't be on the beach more than a month when I get edgy." The Bosun frowned at his empty plate. "Then I've got to go back out. It's what I do. I sail. And when I sail, I want real food—not the shit Asher brought on board. I only eat real food."
I smiled. Asher had brought the food on board, sure. But I'd purchased it using his credit card, and it was free for the crew to eat whenever they wanted it. But the Bosun refused to touch it, and instead ate the Velveeta cheese slices he'd brought on with his own gear, along with white bread and the Miracle Whip he spread on everything. He also refused to drink the coffee I'd purchased—dark espresso beans the rest of the crew brewed with the espresso pot I'd brought from home—and instead, he drank cup after cup of instant coffee you could see through, dumping in several tablespoons of sugar and another of instant creamer. He drank his coffee and chain smoked constantly, whether on deck or in the galley preparing his Velveeta sandwiches, and his cough was thick as his swollen body, a cough that made him seem as if he were in terminal pain and any moment he might come unwound.
"Anything you need done in the engine room, Chief?" he asked Paul in that moaning voice of his. "Can't sleep," he said. "Got to have something to do."
Paul assigned him the task of repainting the engine room floor, and the Bosun vanished below.
Compared to the Bosun, the Hand was like a pup. He'd shipped out since he was 11 with his father, a skipper who owned a fishing boat, and he was intelligent and articulate, his mind filled with thoughts of girls, beer, music, and the books he'd borrow from Asher's little library. He'd just graduated from a treatment program that applied aversion techniques to get him off drugs. "Everyone's an addict," he liked to say. "Show me anyone who's not addicted to something. Or someone."
The Bosun and Hand made a perfect team, and I believed, then, in Asher's genius for hiring them. The Hand, joyous to be out of rehab and back at sea, loved to nip at the Bosun's miseries and complaints, then scamper just out of reach of the Bosun's smoldering rage. He seemed slightly stoned, the young Hand who had signed Articles like everyone else—articles saying we wouldn't carry or consume any drugs or alcohol while on board the Albatroz—and if he was stoned, we never saw him smoking anything or popping any pills. It was just one of those things that made him different. In fact, the only major commonality among the crew was divorce. Like Paul, who catapulted out of the monastery on a drunk bender and found the woman who produced the child I was now raising, each repeated his story again and again, as if to memorize it for some time they'd be called upon to testify. "I was out at sea. Then I came home and found my bed and bank account empty. She took everything." She, of course, was The Wife. This was how women, those married to these merchants, were always described. And Asher's choice of bride, who spoke no English, couldn't drive, and who, we soon learned, was already pregnant, seemed to me, then, as smart a choice—like everything else he did.
The Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia was every bit as beautiful as Asher had promised, and Ted Bundy seemed far away, like a figure I must have invented, as my father once accused me when I voiced suspicions about my friend Ted long before he was apprehended and tried. "Ted would never do anything bad," my father shouted. "You just like to accuse everyone so you don't have to look at your own life."
We passed through 600 miles of wilderness, mountain peaks stretching like claws into the turquoise sky. Bear snuffled along the beaches, and once 100 porpoises appeared to usher us, chirping, into Baranof Bay. Then, even though he'd seen porpoises hundreds of times, Asher emerged from the wheelhouse to gaze beside me at their smooth backs breaching the water. He then tried to teach me to navigate, to use the ship's radar, and to tie knots. But I was a dim student, unable to think in three dimensions.
"You'll get it," he said. "Eventually. Maybe."
"I'd rather cook us all a nice meal," I said.
By then we'd all taken turns preparing the evening feast, and a sort of food gestalt emerged: each person cooking the meal most resembling his essential self. Fried hamburgers served with a jar of Miracle Whip and white bread was the Bosun's meal, which he prepared with a cigarette draped from his lips the entire time. The Hand prepared something that reminded me of a melted Snickers bar, which he served in huge helpings onto each of our plates. Asher sautéed scallops in butter and garlic and assembled his famous Caesar Salad, which had lots of anchovies and croutons fried in more garlic and butter. And finally Paul, a vegetarian, stir-fried carrots and cauliflower and broccoli, served over brown rice.
"You don't have to lift a finger on this voyage," Asher told me. "I didn't bring you on board to cook."
"I know," I told him, matching his smile with my own. "But I want to be involved." And I was. That night, I cooked steak and potatoes, and this occasioned my first direct conversation with the Bosun, who stood close beside me, smoking.
"Real cheese," he said, "is American." He dragged his cigarette. "American is Velveeta. The best kind has individual wrappings." I nodded, happy he was speaking with me at all. "And Bread means one thing," he went on. "White. White bread. Got that?"
"Okay," I said, opening a bottle of water.
He thrust his face into mine. "Perrier is fairy juice." I could smell his sour breath. "A man's drink is at least 80 percent sugar."
But he liked my steaks—in fact, everyone except Paul liked my steaks—and he said he would have liked my red potatoes, too, if I'd have removed the skins first and soaked the potatoes for at least ten hours.
"How about salad?" I asked. "Do real men like salad?"
"I don't know," he said. "I'll have to try one sometime."
The next day we entered the Gulf of Alaska. "Second only to the Falkland Islands for roughness," Asher told me in a cheerful way. And from that moment, I was flat on my back. If I tried to stand, my head spun. If I closed my eyes, it was worse. I mean, I wasn't actually sick—I just couldn't move without feeling as if I was going to lose my stomach—but since I didn't want to add caffeine withdrawal to my torment, I slid downstairs, lurched into the galley, and asked Robin to brew me shots of espresso. I could hear Paul moving around in our room upstairs, turning on the computer, where I'd last tried to work on my Bundy story. But I was too paralyzed to slide my way back up the stairs to see what he was doing, to see if he wanted to talk, to see if he was alright.
The generator that ran the ship's lights roared through my head. The sea continued tossing and turning. I sat in the galley staring at my empty coffee cup and at the peeling paint on the walls until we arrived in the Valdez port at two in the morning, six and half days after we'd left Seattle, at the exact time Asher had predicted. Then I was fine again. The sea was calm. The sky was suffused with pink light, and I went to our stateroom and turned on my computer. The screen flashed on and words appeared in huge crimson letters: "I AM GOING TO GET YOU," it said. "TED BUNDY." I sat staring at the screen for a long time, until, eventually, Paul came into the room, saw what I was reading, and laughed. Then he gestured toward the upper bunk, directly below the ship's generator. "You're sleeping up there from now on," he said.
"What?" I said. "Why? This is supposed to be our honeymoon."
Drained by the day and a half of sea-sickness, and by the thought that Paul's rejection would be on display in such close quarters, I wept. And this, as always, infuriated Paul even more, and he moved toward the door. "I'll find another room," he said.
"No," I said. The idea that everyone on board would know my husband refused to sleep with me was unbearable. "I'll sleep up top."
But I didn't sleep.
I wept away the few hours that remained of the short Alaskan night, and at four in the morning, in the thick dawn light, I scrambled onto a ramp and leapt from boat to boat until I reached the dock.
The village of Valdez, once described as "Little Switzerland," was a kind of hell. Workers had begun to burn the oily water and animal corpses that were being ferried and flown in from the spill, and a smoky haze filled the sky. Enormous incinerators burned 20 tons of waste a day, 500 to 1,000 sacks brought in by air and by an array of mongrel boats like ours. And there were people everywhere. Freed from the boat-glutted harbor, thousands of workers, mostly packs of men, wandered in the murky light. It felt like a house party. As if the kids who gave the party were passed out somewhere and the rest were wandering aimlessly, looking for something, or someone, or anything, that could distract their minds from what they had come to Valdez to do. It wasn't their town. It wasn't their home. They tossed their trash on the ground as they walked and, craving coffee, I wandered through them until eventually I found a crowded bar.
"Coffee please," I said to one of the waitresses. "Strong coffee. Very strong."
She looked surprised. Everyone else was throwing back shots or smashing their beer glasses together in cheers, as if this were their last chance to celebrate before their card was called, as if they were on death row. "I'll brew it fresh," she said, smiling. And a moment later she returned to my table with an entire pot of black coffee and sat down across from me. "I'm so glad to see a woman," she said, brushing stringy hairs from her eyes, her face sagging with exhaustion. "This place is crazy. Everything's different. No one here used to lock their doors. You never heard of murder. Or rape. Everywhere you looked was grass, flowers. Now I'm nervous walking in the streets during broad daylight."
She poured me another cup of coffee. "Area's been populated for centuries," she said. "Native people used to camp along these shores, hunting, fishing, collecting seaweed and them snails they like to dip in seal oil. Collecting clams and mussels and salmon. This place was like a goddamn Garden of Eden, only with seafood and snow. Then some Russian traders arrive, offer the natives fur, fish, gold, and copper. Then comes the gold rush—the Klondike gold rush. Thousands of prospectors come pouring in, including my great granddaddy, and in '64—fucking also on Good Friday—an earthquake strikes off the coast and a tidal wave nearly wipes us out."
I nodded, finishing off another cup.
"But the Valdez crash is worse," she said. "Before them football-sized chunks of oil started washing up on our beaches, before all these yahoos came to town, we were alright. Boats made 9,000 trips outside, no problem. And we lived peacefully with the native people, you know? Only about 500 of them still around, I think. Five hundred, in four or five main villages. They're about finished now. Everything's finished. Everything's wrecked. You'll see. Just wait. You'll see for yourself."
"Thank you for the coffee," I said, standing to leave. "I've got to get back now." She stood when I stood, and she wrapped her arms around me and squeezed my chest until I thought it'd cave in. She was my sister. She hugged me as if we'd known each other since birth, and I left that bar feeling recharged and ready to face Paul or any other disaster that might be lurking around the next corner. "You know where I might be able to find a public library?" I asked. "I'd like to check out some books before returning to the ship."
"Sure," she said. "There's one not far from here. Just head back toward the harbor and make a right. You can't miss it."
"Thanks," I said, and I went to check out some books.
The hillsides around Valdez, which I was yearning to hike in, were dotted with tents and lean-tos. The land seemed scrubbed and raw, ground down by the long winter, and I missed my home in WaWa Bay. I missed the Douglas fir and cedar. I missed my writing desk. But still, as always, walking calmed me, and the pile of books I found at the library calmed me, and I returned to the ship with the naïve belief that Paul's foul mood would have lifted once he rested from the stress of bringing the engine room up to par at full speed. We can relax together, I told myself. I can read or write and he can meditate or practice yoga. Everything will be fine. This too shall pass. Everything is alright. Keep smiling, I told myself. Love him. Love him unconditionally. Acceptance is not a whim but a necessity.
When I got back to the ship, everything was calm. Asher was off networking with other skippers and Paul was asleep. I had my sea legs. I had my books. He just needs rest, I told myself, rationalizing his behavior as I had when I first met him and his dark-eyed four-year-old at a support group where men never brought children. Accept him for what he is, I said. Accept all people for what they are. Set aside your judgments. Try harder. Make this work.
But when Paul got up, he still wouldn't speak with me.
"Exxon wants to show they're operating at top capacity," Asher told us over our evening meal. "Some boats need re-outfitting, so Exxon's ordering them spare parts. But some boats are ordering parts anyway, even though they don't need them. It's a black market. Exxon'll order anyone anything they want, and you wouldn't believe what they got in Valdez. Hundreds of bald eagles, thousands and thousands of otters, 20,000 plus shorebirds so far, all of them in this big refrigerated morgue. It's terrible."
"I'm glad them birds are dead," the Mate grumbled. "Means more abalone and king salmon for us."
"Nature will take of this," said the Bosun. "She always does."
"Yeah, them animals aren't dumb," said the Mate. "When they see another eagle dive into the water and get oil on its wings, they'll figure out not to do that. Animals can take care of themselves."
"Let's go to town," Paul told them. "Let's get out of here. I need a drink."
That night, only Robin and I remained aboard. Asher had forbidden Robin to go because he knew that once he hit shore he'd never be seen again, and with no tasks to keep him busy, Robin seemed increasingly fragile. He kept complaining about the Mate. "Treats me like a child," he said. "Says I'm weak. Says I can't even handle my drink."
"No," I said, my mothering instincts kicking in. "You're strong, Robin. You're so strong you don't have to drink to feel good. You don't worry about that old man. He's just grumpy because he's been out at sea too long. Everything's fine."
The night went on. "Listen to this," he said, pulling one of Asher's books from his back pocket. The cover I recognized: Elie Wiesel's Gates of the Forest. "This guy here, this Weasel guy, he says: ‘The injustice perpetrated in a strange land concerns me. He who is not among the victims is with the executioners." Robin looked at me. "What does that mean?" he asked. "Does that mean I'm an executioner?"
On the far side of the ship, where we'd watched the boys stumble back onto the boat still drunk and swaying from the binge in Valdez, I saw two officials board the Albatroz, a man and a woman. Both wore uniforms—the colors of the sea, that navy blue—and they wore looks that scared me. "Go tell Asher there's some officials here to see him," I said to Robin. "Go. Do it now."
They were there, at last, to inform us of our duty assignment. But before those details could emerge, the Bosun insisted on making them a "real breakfast." "That'll cheer them up," he said, frying bacon, sausage and ham in a greased skillet, and heating a box of biscuits and another of sweet rolls in the oven. He produced a plate dripping in red liquid and runny scrambled eggs, then made pancakes, waffles, and cereal. "Here you go," he said, putting the feast in front of the two officials. "Need real food every once in a while. Need a hearty meal."
The female official shook her head and leaned against the wall of the galley with the rest of us, while the male official ate without a word, wiping every last bit of red syrup with a biscuit before popping it into his greasy mouth. "Lucky President Quayle came up here," he said, sarcastically, finally breaking his silence.
"You mean the Vice President, sir?" said Asher.
"Whatthefuckever," he said. "He came up here. He strutted his stuff. Fucking environmentalists. They're the ones who's stupid. If we had to drill for oil in the middle of Yellowstone National Park, well, that's what we'd fucking do. We'd put a rig right in the middle of that goddamn lodge. Because who causes these spills? It's the consumer. Wants his car. Forces us to get that gas to his station in a big fucking hurry."
He belched and Asher smiled.
"Okay," said Asher. He sat down across from the official. "So how can we help?"
The official wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. "You'll deliver supplies to the boats working on the active parts of the spill."
"Sounds good," said Asher. "We'll do whatever you want. Our boat is slow, but..."
"She's dock manager," said the official, nodding toward the woman he'd come on board with. "She'll find out what you need."
"Okay," said Asher. "Thank you."
The female official walked straight across the galley to me, passing Asher, who had just risen to introduce himself. She had kept her eyes down while the other official spoke, but now that we were face to face, she brightened for a moment, as the waitress in the restaurant had brightened when she saw me walk through the door. "What would your crew like to eat?" she asked. "What can we do to make you comfortable?"
I glanced at Asher, but his smile was broad and impossible to read. Which was when I made my greatest mistake, though I didn't know that at the time. "Nothing," I said. "We've pretty much got everything we need, except maybe some survival suits."
That night, Asher, Paul and I were briefly alone in the dining area, and Asher addressed Paul. "Your wife doesn't seem to know that when the Skipper is present, nobody else speaks." Paul didn't look at Asher, and he didn't look at me. "I wanted to play my little game," Asher went on, "and she got in the way, didn't she?" Paul stayed silent. "She also doesn't realize you don't fraternize with the Hand, does she?" I watched Paul's jaw tighten. He nodded. He still wouldn't look at me. Then I realized what to me seemed so preposterous: he feared losing me to Robin, to Asher, to anyone, and this fear would consume him. That night, I climbed from my bunk and took him in my arms.
The following morning, stevedores arrived with 35 palettes, each holding 20 to 100 cartons, including bananas from Mexico, sodas from California, oranges from Florida, and frozen meat, avocados, snuff, Windex, Stayfree mini-pads, pillows, blankets, bath towels, and 100 jars of Paul Newman's organic popcorn. Back on duty, the crew hauled lines and Paul tried to make our ancient crane lower the palettes into the hold. Asher warned us about safety, telling us how a cook had fallen down an elevator shaft and how two dock hands had vanished overboard, while one man drowned in calm water when his boat was overturned. Another, leaping between the boat and dock as I did every day, was crushed to death.
"Time to sail," Asher said at last, and Paul vanished into the engine room, not to reappear for as long as the boat was moving.
The area hardest hit by oil was 85 miles southwest of Valdez, and we headed in that direction. At nine knots per hour, it took nine and a half hours to reach our first assigned destination. As if he knew Paul and I had finally taken the honeymoon promised by this voyage, Asher had already forgiven me, and I stood beside him in the wheelhouse absorbing everything I could. When we weren't making a delivery, Robin stood there, too, but now I didn't speak with him or even acknowledge him. Because I had to respect the ship's hierarchy, to respect the more powerful men, the officers. I couldn't save everyone. Someone had to be sacrificed, and that someone was Robin.
When we got to the area we'd been assigned, the sky buzzed with helicopters, seaplanes, and boats, and everything was bathed in blue and coral light. The wheelhouse flooded with the chirp and mutter of marine radio. Each palette of supplies was marked with the name of a ship or barge, and Asher knew only their approximate location. Over ship's radio, he announced our name and destination and then the name of the boat we sought. Sometimes our targets responded, but other times we had to track them down as they hid in a cove somewhere, radio off. One barge held 30 electricians, but they had nothing to do because their supplies had not yet arrived.
Our first successful delivery was to a floating dormitory called a camp barge. Workers couldn't live on the rugged beach studded with boulders and oil, and thus lived afloat. The barge was covered with modules the size of mobile homes that housed 200 beds, dining areas, storage and showers. Between 5,000 and 7,000 workers, we learned, were housed on similar barges. Scientists and physicians were housed in more luxurious quarters on cruise ships, also under charter, as we were. We tied up alongside, lifted the designated palettes with their crane or ours, and exchanged news. Asher was warned of submerged rocks not shown on the charts. The 1964 earthquake had relocated underwater rocks by hundreds of feet. "How many of us poor fishermen will die before they bother to update these charts?" Asher said.
"We're all going to die," Robin said, but neither of us responded.
Most eerie about the spill was that no oil was visible from the Albatroz. Tides and waves had spread the initial spill over hundreds of miles, churned up by each new storm and tossed onto some new beach. At that point, 300 miles were filmed with what was called mousse, and unknown quantities of oil had infiltrated into the Gulf of Alaska as far as Kodiak. The workers were spraying the beaches with high pressure hoses, but the oil remained saturated two to three feet under the surface where hoses couldn't reach.
"They've destroyed it," Robin said when we passed each other in the galley. His face was tight with anguish. "They've destroyed it all." The Bosun yelled out at him with some order, and I hurried back to the wheelhouse to stand beside Asher.
When we returned to Valdez, I knew what I had to do. Paul was still in the engine room, and I gathered my clothes and computer and the library books and stepped out onto the deck. Robin stood at the far end, smoking a cigarette. I'd never seen him smoke before. When he heard me, he turned, and I set my bag onto a crate and walked toward him. Although I hadn't smoked for years, when he offered me one, I accepted, and we leaned against the bow looking up at the Chugash Mountains.
"I'm sorry," I told Robin. I wanted to hug him, but it wouldn't have been right. "I have to go."
He didn't look directly at me, but his expression was kind. "I'll survive," he said. "I always do."
And then, with as much thought as it took me to venture onto that voyage, or any, I left. I was done with the Albatroz and the futile clean-up. Finished. Ready to fly. "Sorry," I said again to Robin, and we exchanged one last glance, the commiseration of the lowest of us, the flotsam and jetsam. I thought of how Ted was said to have wept on his final night that January. Wept and prayed. He had wanted his ashes spread across the Cascade Mountains, where Brenda's and some of the other body parts were found. For Brenda and the others, for these otters and eagles, and for Robin, for those who survived and those who did not, I needed to return to my own life on land. That was what I knew then and what I know now. In the early morning haze from the burning bodies of shorebirds, Robin's eyes seemed too bright, and I could no longer bear looking at him. I leapt from boat to boat until I reached the dock, hailed the water taxi like an old hand, and dropped my books on the wooden counter of the ancient library. Then I walked to a tiny asphalt runway on the edge of town. Fresh batches of workers were flying in, and some, dressed in orange survival suits, were headed out to the remote corners of the Sound. I stepped up to a light plane and asked if I could hitch a ride back outside. The pilot looked me over, spat into his beer, and gestured me in. I was finally going home.