Chapter Six (continued)

Wisdom visited Jacob during the night while the three others continued sleeping. Again, Her beautiful face and the overwhelming warmth of Her eyes took his breath away.  “Hello, Jacob,” She said.  “Your prayers were answered.  Paul’s job was done in helping get you here, and now he’s enjoying himself in heaven.  We’re with the others, too, so don’t fret about any of them.  But don’t you think you might have asked Us to comfort Jimmy and Millie too?”

“Oh, oh,” Jacob replied in his mind. “Sorry about that.  Well, then, would you please also watch over Jimmy and Millie?”

“Already done. Go back to sleep.”  She departed.

Sid awoke at dawn and shook the others awake. “Hey, get up,” he said to nobody in particular.  “We need to get out of here before the driver of this rig gets back.”

“Chill out, Sid,” Frank said testily. “Guy’s probably bedding down a girl and getting the most out of a real mattress and central heating.  He won’t be getting up for a while.”

“No, Sid’s right,” Jacob spoke up. “Maybe he’s on a tight schedule.  All it would take would be one phone call to bring the feds and the cops down on us like flies.  Besides,” he added, standing up, “I have to pee.”  With that, the four men got up, arranged their clothing best they could, got out of the cab, and, finding what meager privacy they could, relieved their bladders.

The second bar they entered offered breakfast burritos. They gobbled these up, ignoring the stench of old fat, and Jacob went over to look at the bulletin board where they had posted their request for work.  Jacob did a double-take when he saw the responding message: “I need four able-bodied seamen on the Rising Star by 11 o’clock today.  Report to Sam on Pier 37.”

Jacob waved the others over to the message. It was all they could do not to whoop for joy or get on their knees in gratitude to God.  Jacob offered a prayer of thanksgiving and made a further request: “Lord, we know that it was your hand that did this.  We hope and pray this will get us near Israel.”

They met Sam on time at eleven that morning. Sam was the first mate.  Being of about the same social level that their own unkempt appearance suggested, he didn’t have any quarrel with their beards, uncombed hair or dirty condition.  In fact, as he looked them over with a furtive expression, he seemed to be pleased with them.  “My regular staff’s kind of under the weather,” he explained to them, “so you’ll be filling in for this trip to Latakia.  Job’s only temporary, keep in mind.  More temporary than that you slack off.  Any diseases?” he asked, not bothering for a reply.  “All able-bodied like I asked?”  He paused after this question.  It was obviously more important.  The four men replied in the affirmative, after which he pointed to the ship.  The sight suppressed their joy, which had infected them at the mention of a destination.  The Rising Star wouldn’t be rising any time soon.  If anything, it would be sinking.  The rusting near-derelict was actually listing to port.

“Where’s Latakia?” Jacob asked.

Sam eyed Jacob with suspicion. “What’s it to you?”

“Nothing. I just thought it would be nice if. . .”

“Stow it. You don’t need to know.  You don’t need to think, either.”

“You notice that he didn’t ask for credentials of any kind?” Jacob muttered to Sid. “Probably carrying a shipment of weapons or something they don’t want to advertise.”

“Yeah, but who’s gonna worry about that?” Sid replied. “It’s a boat, it’s still afloat, and its destination isn’t very far from Israel, even if it may be a problem getting across the border.  And we don’t have any credentials to show anyway, so what’s to be upset about?”

“So you know where Latakia is. How about sharing the wealth?”

“It’s in Syria.  A seaport town not too far from Aleppo.”

“Oh. Well, then, maybe the boat is carrying weapons.  To Israel’s enemy.  I’d sure hate to think we’re going to be helping out one of Israel’s enemies.”

“This seems to be in God’s hands, if you think about what’s been happening to us.”

“Yeah. Maybe we should let God run the show.  Actually, everything’s in our favor so far,” Jacob continued.  “Thank you, Lord, for all of it.”

Sam came after them as they boarded the ship. He showed them a single stateroom with four basic bunks and gave them duty assignments.  Frank was given the task of cook, which included cleanup work and hauling the slops.  Sid was assigned to the engine room.  He’d work as a helper under Chief Engineer Jake Hapley.  Jacob, being the most responsible-looking of the lot, was given the position of helmsman.  Charlie, being the least responsible-looking of them, was assigned the task of general dogsbody, the fetchit-man.  “An’ we ain’t on a watch system on this ship,” Sam said.  “Y’all ‘r on duty twenty-four, seven.  Ya eat when ya can.  Same with sleep.”  He didn’t bother introducing the men to the captain, or to their individual superiors.  Looking at Sid, he simply pointed to his feet, indicating that Jake was to be found somewhere below in the bowels of the ship.

Sid finally found a passageway with a ladder into the engine room. At first the vast room didn’t make sense.  It looked like a factory floor with machinery on top of machinery in a jumble that resembled a junkyard.  But then as he focused more he began to assimilate the pattern: an enormous engine filled the hold.   He’d seen the diesel engines on locomotives; big as they were, they couldn’t touch the size of this beast.  As he focused more, he could discern an open crankshaft, its connecting rods reaching up to pistons hidden within cylinders the size of garbage cans – twelve in all.  The beast was quiet now, but he wondered about the noise level when the monster came alive.  He saw a man in the distance, dwarfed by the engine.  He descended the ladder and approached the man, who sat on a deep canvas folding chair.  He obviously was comfortable there, because Sid could hear his snoring from twenty feet away.  His tongue lolled out like a dog’s, and Sid could see it quiver with every intake of air.  Where it wasn’t covered by straggly hair, the man’s face was as red as his tongue.  He was a chewer, as Sid could tell from the bulging left cheek and the brown color of his chin beard.  Sid was at a loss of what to do.  He didn’t want to wake the man out of an obviously deep sleep, but he didn’t want to leave without knowing what his responsibilities were.  He fidgeted in front of the sleeping man for about a quarter of an hour.  Tiring of this meaningless waste of time, he finally turned around and went back toward the ladder.  He heard a shout behind him just as he put his foot on the first rung.  “Where d’you think you’re goin’?” the man said.  “Get back here!”  Sid nervously complied.  When he was facing the man again, the chief engineer spoke up.  “You ain’t Bill.  What happened to Bill?”

“I think he took sick, or maybe he had an accident. A fall.  I’m here to. . .”

“Aw shuddup. I know what you’re here for.  See that oil can over there?” he asked, pointing to an object sitting atop a little cabinet.  “That’s yours.  You oil the bearings and the fittings every hour on the hour when we’re running.”

“Y-yes, sir,” Sid replied, trying to process the command.  If it’s every hour, when do I sleep? he asked himself.

Jake anticipated the question. “In case you’re wondering when you sleep, you don’t.”  He laughed at his joke.

“Yessir,” Sid said. He’d have to figure it out later.  “Can you show me what I’m supposed to oil?”

“Hey, you dense or something? I jus’ tol’ you.  An’ no slackin’.  Anything happens to that engine, I’ll have your balls for breakfast.  Now git.  You feel the engine movin’ you get back here on the double.  Scram!”

Sid looked behind him. The man was asleep again before he reached the top of the ladder.

Frank looked forlornly at the cooking utensils arrayed before him. He’d never gone so far as to cook an egg in his life.  He rummaged frantically among drawers, searching for anything that might look like a cookbook, but came up empty.  In desperation he looked up Charlie and begged him to switch jobs.  “They’ll never know we switched,” Frank pleaded.  Charlie grinned.  He had done some cooking, and that did beat being a dogsbody.  “Sure, Frank.  No problem,” he said, much to the other man’s relief.

Standing on the bridge deck behind the helm, Jacob looked toward the bow, trying to discern shapes beyond the grimy glass. Sam stood next to him, uncomfortably close, running through the duties of the helmsman, his lecture interspersed with nautical terms, maybe half of them vaguely familiar. This is the blind leading the blind, Jacob thought with panic. Lord, please, he petitioned God in silent prayer. At least let us not be in arctic waters when this ship goes down.  “That’s all there is to it,” Sam said, winding up his talk.  “Relax for a while,” he added with a furtive smile.  “You’re dismissed until we get going.  Oh, by the way,” he said with an attempt at indifference.   “There’s some mags in the saloon for your reading pleasure.  You might want to check them out.”

Charlie was the first to hear from the captain, who had rung up the galley demanding a pot of coffee brought to his cabin. Charlie prepared it and called for Frank, the new dogsbody, to serve it.  In carrying out the task, Frank was the first of them to actually see the captain.  He was still in bed, his red, bloated face portraying the chaos taking place inside his head.  An immense hangover was most likely the cause.  Frank couldn’t see a bottle, but he suspected that a number of dead soldiers lay scattered underneath the man’s bunk.

Curious, Jacob went into the saloon and searched through the magazines. So that’s his game, he thought bleakly. No wonder he was trying to be nice to me. The magazines were all of the same genre: porn.  Specifically, male-on-male porn.  Disgusted, he left the saloon, trying to come up with a plan to bring Sam’s lustful intentions to a screeching halt without jeopardizing their ability to get to Israel.

The Rising Star left the dock the next day and headed southeastward toward the Atlantic.  Sid, of course, knew very little about this first leg of their journey, being occupied with oiling the myriad moving parts and keeping out of Jake’s way, which was fairly easy as his primary occupation was sucking on a bottle of cheap rum.  The first time that Jake started up the massive engine, the awesome spectacle of the enormous parts in actual motion gave him an almost uncontrollable urge to run up the ladder to escape the gigantic beast.  He held the fright in check only with the sternest self-commands.  The overwhelming visual impact of the monster connecting rods thrusting up and down to turn the huge crankshaft abated enough during the next few hours to allow him to make his assigned rounds with the oilcan.  The threat from Jake also diminished as he descended into his daily alcoholic stupor, leaving him only the heat to contend with, a condition that he accepted gratefully.

Jacob had a far better view of the world outside the ship than Sid, but he had other problems to contend with. Sam headed the list.  Sensing Jacob’s reluctance for intimacy, he turned surly and retreated to a large wooden chair at the rear of the bridge.  From that position he snapped steering orders to Jacob, who was forced to stay on his feet.  The captain remained in his quarters.

Left with little to do, Charlie voluntarily helped Frank with the preparation of the meal, which consisted of potatoes, biscuits that turned out flat and hard, and fried chicken legs. “These spuds don’t look right,” Charlie said as he plucked the boiled potatoes out of the pot and set about to mash them.  Looking over to what he was doing, Frank contradicted him.  “I don’t see anything wrong with them at all.  Keep it up.”

The captain saw plenty wrong with them. “This here chicken leg is bloody, and you mashed the skins in with the potatoes!” he shouted in a rage.  Get this slop out of here and fix me a decent meal or I’ll toss the lot of you overboard.!”

Charlie retreated out of the Captain’s cabin and back to the galley, plate in hand. “We need to boil up another batch of spuds,” he told his companion, this time without the skins.  Here, fry up those legs a little longer and gimme three plates right away.  The rest of us shouldn’t mind.”  He dashed down the ladder with two plates, handing them to Sid.  “You take this one to Jake,” he said, rushing back up the ladder.  Sam remained surly when Charlie came back on the bridge with two more plates, but his beef wasn’t with him.  A fixed glare directed to Jacob remained on his face as he took the plate and began to eat. Hello, what’s up with that? Charlie said to himself, but was too busy to reflect on the strange antagonism that Jacob and Sam held toward each other.

An uneasy social stability persisted as the ship churned southeastward. Around midnight Sam, too tired to maintain his aggressive attitude, called the galley for a snack.  When Charlie arrived on the bridge, Sam told him to stay on the bridge to relieve Jacob, then left for his bunk.  Having given Charlie enough information to maintain the ship on its heading, Jacob went to the shared quarters ready to fall onto his bunk.  But before he removed his shirt, something told him to look in on Sid.  He descended into the engine room briefly, returned topside and told Frank to fill in for Sid, who desperately needed a break and some sleep.  Then he returned to his bunk to flop down and pass out.

The next day was spent in similar fashion with Jacob and his three companions on the verge of exhaustion, both physical and emotional. That evening they rounded the Florida peninsula, leaving the keys behind to port.  As they entered the Atlantic proper a massive hurricane centered off the Bahamas began to make itself felt.  The Rising Star shifted her heading to the northeast, beginning a race against the storm and attempting to put a comfortable distance between the ship and the dangerous weather.


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