The International Writers Magazine:
The wooden walls of the warehouse he leaned against were sodden. The icy wetness had soaked through his thin jacket and shirt adding to his irritation. Alex was miserable. In the dim light provided by the dockside, he deepened his misery by reviewing his meager assets
Raymond K. Clement
The thick fog
that engulfed the harbor was cold. Alex Anderson, his arms wrapped
around his knees, was trying to keep warm, but was still shivering
in the chill mist that swirled around him.
The gunny sack provided by the prison held three pair of socks, a change of underwear, a denim overall, a razor, a piece of soap, and a scrap of towel. That was it, except for the clothes on his back. The contents of his wallet compounded his despair: the used bus ticket from Danbury to New York City, the prison ID card that was now torn into bits and tossed in the gutter. He watched the remnants swirl towards the iron grating of the sewer, away from his sight, but not his memory. The faded newspaper clipping, that in less than fifty words, explained his years of loss: the deadly bar fight, a man’s jugular sliced open by a jagged beer bottle in a dispute over a game of cards, and the seven year sentence handed down for manslaughter. From a secret compartment in the wallet Alex withdrew the photograph of his wife, Helga, dead from consumption at the age of twenty-three, whilst he was in prison. He recalled the parting words of the warden on his release, “Anderson, you’re getting a second chance, don’t blow it.”
Some second chance he thought, feeling the lengthening stubble of his beard as he buried his face in his hands. Tears, once again, stained the aging photograph. There was nothing left, he had reached the end of the line. He looked at the black waters lapping at the pilings of the dock, they looked inviting. It was the solution to his problems, it was freedom, it was total release from the prison of his soul. He rose stiffly and started to walk towards the end of the pier. His mind was made-up: a sense of peace, almost of elation came over him. He had tried, and he had failed. It was as simple as that. This was his second chance. This was the best solution of all.
From somewhere behind him he heard singing. “I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair.” Then again, “I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair, soft on the breeze. . .” It was obviously a drunken voice, yet still melodious. Alex stopped short, a scant five feet from his intended goal.
“Jeannie, Jeannie, where are ye?” called a plaintive voice from the shadows. Then, once again, the voice burst into song.
In his search for the voice in the darkness, Anderson’s resolve to end his life dissolved. For which he was shortly rewarded. Around the corner of the warehouse, behind a pile of crates he spied his quarry leaning against the wall of the warehouse. His legs splayed out, bottle in hand, with his head lolled to one side in a drunken stupor. Alex approached the man cautiously.
“You all right buddy?” No answer. Alex could tell he was a seaman by his signature pea jacket, watch cap, and sea-bag, with the tell-tale white rope closure tied with a bosun’s knot. Anderson’s older brother had been a sailor. He had picked up a few things from him, except a liking for the sea.
“You’re not Jeannie? Where’s Jeannie? Where you got her?” The drunken sailor slurred his words and took another toke from his bottle.
Alex chuckled, “I’m afraid Jeannie’s gone home, and left you all alone.”
To his surprise the man started crying, saying over and over, “She’s left me, she’s left me.” He tried to take another drink from his bottle but spilled most of it on his coat; it slipped from his grasp and smashed on the cobblestones. The man fell silent. Alex stared at the sprawled figure as an idea began to take hold of him. The man could be his way out, his salvation. He wryly thought that it was a better solution than he had been faced with a few short minutes before. It could really be a second chance in the full sense of the words.
He search through the man’s coat pockets and found his portfolio. It held his passport, he angled it to the light, it was a bad photograph and the similarity of the faces might pass an offhand inspection. The man’s name was Francis O’Brien of Boston. An Able Bodied Seaman Certificate, and a brief history of vessels he had shipped on. Alex felt he knew just enough to get by, barely. The ages and physical descriptions of the two men were very close, Alex being a little bit taller and heavier. He unfolded the final document in the lot, his heart skipped a beat. An assignment as a replacement ABS from the New York Seamen’s Hall on the ship Alex had seen tied up farther down on the dock. It was scheduled to sail tomorrow, the first of May. It was more than he could have hoped for. It was his pass to freedom.
Rifling the man’s pants he found a wad of beer soaked money. Not pausing to count it he jammed it into his pocket, had second thoughts, and put half the stash back into the now snoring drunk’s pocket. “Should leave the poor bastard something,” he muttered. He exchanged his gunny sack for the seaman’s bag, took his pea jacket, covering him with his own, and as a final touch took the man’s black watch cap.
Anderson rationalized his actions. The man was never going to get on any ship considering the condition he was in. Sure, he would wake up with a hell of a headache to find that he had been royally rolled. Alex bent close and smelled the foul air that the man was expelling to make sure. He’d lost nothing that could not be replaced. He had provided Alex with a golden opportunity to change his luck. He had given Alex a second chance.
He spied a yellow neon sign flashing farther down on the quay; it’s light reflecting off the wet cobblestones ‘EATS’ ‘EATS’ ‘EATS’. His stomach growled, almost keeping time with the blinking sign, as he hefted O’Brien’s tote onto his shoulder and headed for the diner.
Less than half an hour later he was sopping up the remnants of his sunny side up eggs with a hunk of fresh bread, and washing it down with his third brimming cup of hot coffee, when the cook behind the counter said, “Hey buddy, if that’s your ship that just blew the whistle you’d better get a move on. She leaves on the tide.”
“Thanks, that’s her.”
A few minutes later he had found the crew’s gangway, and as he stepped onto the deck he was confronted by the Watch Officer. He looked askance at Alex, “Who are you?”
“Ander”, almost slipping, “Ah, O’Brien,” stammered Alex.
The desk officer hesitated a moment, checking a list on his clipboard, “OK, you’re the replacement ABS. Whew! What bar did you get thrown out of? Get below, change your gear, and give yourself a good shave before the Captain catches sight of you. If he does he’ll toss you off in a wink. Hop to. Portagee, show this ABS to his bunk.”
Alex started away with the seaman.
“Hold it,” shouted the Officer. Alex froze.
“Your papers. For the Purser.” He started to take out the Seaman’s Hall Assignment from the wallet, “Give me your portfolio, you’ll get it back from the Purser. Be back on deck in thirty minutes.”
One hour later, shaved and wearing fresh clothing from O’Briens’s kit, Alex stood on the fan tail as the ship pulled away from the dock. The fog was still heavy and the ship seemed to crawl along groping her way even with the help of the tug boats.
He had dreaded the interview with the Purser, fearing he would not get through this initial checkpoint. He needn’t have worried, it was cursory, the Purser seemingly more concerned with his cargo manifests. He flipped through the pages of the Passport, and put it into a big envelope with ‘O’Brien’ printed on it, and added it to a large pile of other seaman’s documents in similar envelopes
“O’Brien, this is primarily a passenger ship, but this trip we’ll be carrying some cargo, and that is where I’ve assigned you.” The Purser continued, he told Alex that he was to be seldom seen , and never heard. “Under no circumstances are you to discuss the cargo with any passengers. No fraternizing with the paying public.” He concluded his little speech by saying that if he understood that, and followed orders, it would be a pleasant voyage. “Dismissed.” Five minutes, and he was out the door.
He could have assured the Purser he intended to follow his orders to the letter, and beyond. Alex planned to be well nigh invisible. That was the scheme anyway, as he watch the lights of the city recede in the morning fog. He again felt a sense of elation. But this time it was because it was to be a new beginning, not an end to everything, this was the second chance the warden had spoken of. He would not blow it. He would not make the same mistakes he’d made before. He would change. Alex turned and headed back to the mess for another cup of coffee.
The ship gathered speed as it gained the mouth of the harbor. The fog was thinning and one could now discern the homeport and name of the ship on the stern. She was out of Liverpool and was called the ‘Lusitania.’
On May 1st , 1915 the
Lusitania sailed from New York bound for Liverpool. On May 7th, off
the southern tip of Ireland, she was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Shortly
after the first torpedo struck there was a tremendous explosion that
tore through the forward portion of the ship. Within eighteen minutes
the Lusitania had sunk taking with her 1,201 souls. Only 764 people
were saved. Controversy has surrounded the sinking, especially
the cargo she was carrying. From various sources it has been gleaned
that cargo listed as bales of fur, butter, and cheese were in reality
millions of rounds of rifle ammunition, and five thousand live three
inch shrapnel shells. Such cargo was considered contraband and forbidden
by American law and International Conventions from being transported
on board passenger liners. Despite many Boards of Inquiry,
and numerous public and private investigations the true facts continue
to be hidden even though this incident led directly to the involvement
of the United States in World War One.
© Raymond Clement - December 14th 2005
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.