There were watchman signals posted in the pilot house of the ferry. Ray could see them when he walked by. Two blasts meant heave. Three blasts, stop heaving.
That pretty much summed it up, he thought. The whole mess of life, all in a simple code. Four blasts was Report to the Pilot House, a good enough name for heaven or hell, or wherever you went when your last heave was silenced. Which could happen any time. There were people all around who had stopped heaving ages ago. You saw them everywhere.
By now the city was starting to come into view — high-rise towers barely visible above the green landscape. From the starboard side of the ferry, he looked down at Puget Sound and saw nothing but froth.
Since the news about his brother, he had developed his own set of rules, and most were about going overboard. When you start falling, scream the scream. Hit the water headfirst if you can. Try to keep your eyes open and take it in. The scene beneath the surface. Whatever that might be.
Mermaids, pussy, tits. Moby Dick. Death. Seaweed. Fish. Nirvana.
All of that, but more likely, none of that.
It fucked him up, being on the ferry. There was nothing to be learned, no story to acquire by crossing Puget Sound day after day, just because his brother had drowned in these waters. He knew the pointlessness, but the understanding wasn’t in his bones yet. They still wanted meaning. He figured he’d keep crossing until they gave up.
When they ferry docked, he moved aft and watched the cars start to come off. They were all earnest looking vehicles, even the Subarus. Especially the Subarus. Where were the muscle cars, he thought. Where’s the junker burning oil and chugging on a bad set of points? Am I the only fucker here who remembers what cars used to be?
At the bottom of the ramp, he happened to glance at a forest green SUV, stuck in the exit line. It bore a yellow Support Our Troops magnet and a bumper sticker that said Freedom Isn’t Free. What a clever little dude must have come up with that one. Freedom isn’t free, sex isn’t sexy, and fire isn’t hot. The simplemindedness of it was delicious, a little morsel of puff, and it deeply pissed him off.
Besides growing a vagina and spreading his legs during shore leave week, Ray couldn’t think of a single way he could actually support the troops, and he figured the same held true for whoever was inside the SUV. Although he or she might already have a vagina. Ray could not make the driver’s gender through the tinted glass.
If he’d had a can of Reddi-wip, though, he could’ve have some fun with the Support Our Troops ribbon. A squirt or two just so, and you could make the thing into a white-haired wizard wearing yellow robes. Chris had done exactly that on a pickup truck outside the Hardhat Tavern in Tacoma once. You had to kind of imagine the wizard’s eyes. A dab of chocolate for the feet, maybe.
It was just one of the endless screw-offs before, during, and after a long run of gigs. Chris had been leaning against the pickup and squirting Reddi-wip into the mouth of Cindi From Puyallup when the artistic urge hit.
Soon the owner of the pickup, who had been drinking inside the Hardhat, was made aware of the defacement. The man came out of the bar weaving, wearing a filthy t-shirt, and beard-stubble straight from a spaghetti western. He was on a mission to settle accounts and righteous in defense of his truck and the U.S. of A. Ray was witness to the proceedings. It should have been a hard lesson for Chris. It should have an alley with no way out. But the woman who hung on the redneck’s arm was a Hurt Horse fan, and that was all it took. Within minutes the three of them were sharing the whipped cream and laughing.
That’s how the world arranged itself for Chris. Good times unlimited. Right up until he drowned.
Other ferry passengers bunched past Ray, skirting around him, as he stared at the yellow wizard robes on the SUVs burnished metal. His eyes remained fixed there, lost in memory, until a woman’s torso passed by in ghostly reflection. Distorted as it was, there was something about the movement that made Ray turn and look.
The woman, already past him, had dark hair, a green sweater, and a kind of walk he didn’t see very often.
Ray had nowhere to go and no particular time he had to be there. He checked out the woman’s ass as she moved ahead in the crowd.
Okay, he told himself. In Chris’s honor, then. Why not? He picked up his pace so as not to lose sight of her.
Clearly, the whole thing was a signal. The wizard. The timing. And most of all the way she walked. If that wasn’t two blasts, Ray told himself, he didn’t know what was.