Slow Boat by Paul Pekin
This story will be appearing in print in the third issue of Furtive Dalliance, available Fall 2018.
When I was young I knew a girl everybody got to, well, you know the word. If she were alive today she would be about my age, which is more than eighty, and I have no reason to believe she wouldn’t be alive. If I can make it this far, why not she?
Tonight, restless, I find myself wondering what it would be like to come face to face with the woman who used to be that girl. As she is now. An old woman. And I an old man. And how such a meeting might possibly occur. I don’t remember her name, first or last, no doubt it’s been changed. No doubt she has moved to some other city. We all moved out of that town. I can’t think of more than three or four who remain. A town like Park Island, you must leave it if you are to have a life.
I picture this meeting taking place by chance since that is how it would have to occur. Certainly, I would not seek this woman out. But where and how could this happen? I very seldom go anywhere without my wife of forty-odd years, a pretty good wife, I would say, to stick with me that long. Usually, when we go out it is for dinner, or sometimes one of those noontime concerts at the Public Library. A big day for us is our weekly trip to the Jewel. Since all our neighbors started keeping pit bulls and letting them run without leashes, we no longer even take the dog for his walk.
But maybe out walking the dog, if we were still doing it. Sandy (understand, I am making this name up!) could be coming down George Street. She could have a very old Irish Setter with one eye frosted over, and our little Faustus would immediately want to fight. Faustus thinks he is a big dog. He wants to fight all the pit bulls which is why we must now confine him to the yard.
And yet, even though I can picture myself meeting Sandy that way, I cannot imagine how we would recognize each other after all these years. And what I might say! You can’t just walk up to a gray-haired lady with an Irish Setter and whisper, “Didn’t you use to give out blow jobs behind the White Castle?”
Because I am the way I am, I have to keep going over and over these things until I finally come up with a scenario that seems believable.
And I think I have it.
We could run into each other in the hospital.
When a man reaches a certain age, trips to the hospital are all too plausible. I myself count three in the last seven years. Well, do I know the drill, the visit to the doctor’s office occasioned by some peculiar and private pain. (Always in some portion of your body you do not care to speak of in polite company.) Hmmm, hmmmm, he says. I’m going to put you in for tests. Why didn’t you come to see me sooner!
So a date is set and one checks in, usually at some incredible hour of the morning. Crows will be calling out on Wilson Avenue. When and how, one asks, did crows ever come to live in the heart of the city? But you forget about the crows soon enough when you enter the muted antiseptic atmosphere of the hospital and are directed to the admissions office. There you fill out form after form for a young woman who looks as if she has at least another 60 years to live. How you envy her, her fresh and flawless brown skin, her thick and vigorous hair, her measured educated voice. You fill out form after form and your wife helps with the dates and telephone numbers. In vain you wrack your memory for the correct spelling of your mother’s maiden name. A little knot in your stomach begins to grow and grow until, at last, you are led off to your room.
Your room. You always seem to share it with someone who is dying. An old man with plastic tubing running in and out of his veins. You see his dentures on the bed stand. He sleeps on his back, mouth open, his breaths steady, but rasping. He is not long for this world, and neither are you.
All of this is far too easy to imagine. I only need come up with some new affliction, and that is easy enough. The prostate. Bad and getting worse. But not cancerous. I cannot bear to imagine that. No, just a minor operation, the doctor says. This will open you right up. You’ll be able to urinate normally once again. What? Oh, don’t worry. Many men find themselves fully functional after this operation.
I think they may have told that to my father, a man who lived a bit too hard and earned an old age that was a bit too difficult. There he was, Patrick Donavan himself, Irish as Paddy’s pig, but now with pure white hair combed straight back from his ivory forehead, his bright blue eyes more than steady, the inevitable blood-filled bag at his side, the bed sheet somehow twisted back, as if to deliberately bare his catheterized penis. I prayed. Whatever you do to me, oh God, don’t let them put that thing up me. I could not imagine how it must have felt.
Now I do not have to imagine it. I’ve felt it more than once. Tolerable. But not pleasant, no, not at all. There were times when I could count every miserable drop that started down that tube.
So I can easily see myself back in the hospital with that bag attached to my penis. When you are hooked to that bag, it goes wherever you go. You want to take a walk down the hall in your skimpy hospital gown with the open back and your bare bottom hanging out in full view? Go ahead. Just carry the bag.
So I’m carrying that bag and I’m taking that walk and my wife has gone home because it is after visiting hours and that means all wives have gone home save those who are waiting on dying men. And I’m not dying. Miserable, yes. But not dying. It went well, the doctor says. You’ll be good as new. Many men are.
After visiting hours, hospitals have a little flurry of activity. Nurses make their last rounds. The next shift checks in The the atmosphere begins to soften. You never have complete quiet in a hospital, of course, but there does come a time when most of the patients turn away from the door and mute their televisions.
That’s when I take my walk down the hall. There is a little waiting room at the end where one of those wives of a dying man is quietly having a cigarette. She holds it cupped in her hands, hiding it, although anyone with a sense of smell cannot help but know what she is up to. I nod to her. She is a woman of about fifty. Her husband has it in the lungs, has been told there is little, perhaps nothing, that can be done. There were second opinions. There was an operation. She is alone now with her cigarette and the certain knowledge that she will soon be a widow. I nod to her.
I continue my walk. The hallway is covered with gray nylon carpeting. I am noiseless. I look into each open room I pass. I see old men, old women, some curled into the fetal position. I see a young man sitting up, reading a book. He waves. I see a young woman without a single hair on her head. We nod.
At the next turn of the hall there is a door that leads to the hospice. There is a little room back there for families, has an electric burner and coffee pot, a small television, a book rack. Easy chairs. Real easy chairs. And wallpaper with patterns. Someone has made a deliberate attempt to make the hospice homey.
At the next turn of the hall, I pass the nurses station. The nurses, without a single exception, are beautiful women. All young, none over fifty, all trim, all efficient. Some are white, some are black, some are Asian, some are Hispanic. They are the most beautiful women in the entire world. “Feeling better, Mr. Donavan?” They ask. “Oh yes,” I say. “I’ll be out kicking a football tomorrow.”
Right after the nurses’ station is where I meet her, Sandy. No, I would never recognize her. She’s in a dark green nightgown, kimono, whatever it is women call these things. Clearly, she has refused the hospitals blue and white checked gown. Her hair may be as white as mine, but she has dyed it a bright orange. She wears glasses with old-fashioned frames, large and oval shaped. She is thin, and carries something I cannot identify in her right hand–my first impression is that it is a cigarette. Later I see that it is only a roll of Lifesavers.
“You,” she says. Boldly. “Are you the man in 213? Donavan?”
“I am,” I say. And I have this feeling that I have met this woman before.
“Peter Donavan,” she says. “Spelled with the A. Did you live once in Park Island?”
“I did,” I say. “Many years ago.”
“I think I know you,” she says. “I think I remember you from a long time ago.”
So we go back into that waiting room where the poor woman whose husband is dying is trying to smoke her cigarette in privacy. “You keep smoking, sweetie,” Sandy says. “If anyone comes in, I’ll say it was me.”
We sit together on a long plastic couch that has been noticeably chilled by the perpetual air-conditioning and look out the picture window at the darkened city below. Not really darkened, of course. Street lights are on. Traffic is slowly passing by on Wilson Avenue. In most houses and apartment buildings, windows are lit. But the trees and the sky and the air itself are dark and although we cannot hear them through the glass, those birds I call night-hawks are almost certainly circling above the rooftops.
Oh, how I hope I do not die in this place, Sandy says. Her red hair turns out to be a wig, and her thinness the thinness of death. Her hands shake ever so slightly. Do you remember, she says, and she begins to name people I have forgotten for half a century. All men. Do I remember, she asks, the dances at the Aragon? No, I say, I never went to one. Do I remember, she asks, that old church at the bottom of the hill? Didn’t it burn? I ask. We talk for hours. Do you remember this person, that name, that street, that store?
We do not talk about how she was the girl everyone got to fuck. She does not mention it once, and I do not dare. Eventually the woman whose husband is dying gets up and leaves me alone with Sandy, and I wonder, oh I guess anyone would, but of course, I am hooked up to that catheter.
Yes, this is stupid, but it is only stuff that I am making up. That is the way I am. I cannot let myself rest until I have imagined these things and made them come out in a way that seems plausible.
For instance, if I were to go on with this, in the morning the doctors will remove the catheter, and my wife will come to take me home. I will feel so good we will stop at the pancake house for breakfast. But when I use the public urinal I will pass blood that will not flush away and that will leave me wondering what the next man to step up will think.
What else do we have in this world other than these things we imagine? Memories? Do we not imagine them too? Oh, there was a night and a memory, a memory I think must surely be true. First, you must understand that Sandy Overmyer was no dog, not this girl. She was a year behind me in high school. When we passed in the halls I would feel my breath stop. Her hair was that dark reddish brown no dye can ever duplicate, her body was trim and perfect, she had a smile, I tell you, that would break your heart, and if you do not know what I mean by that you do not have a heart. I would have given my soul to simply have touched this girl.
But she was always with another boy. Some boy. Any boy. She was never alone. Boys followed her in packs. She glowed for them. Then I would hear them talking about her. Sometimes in the locker room. Did she suck you? Ugh, what a pig! Did I believe them? Not for one minute.
Although you do not see it in my old photographs, I was an awkward young man, and shy, and did not immediately possess what today we call “social skills.” Young people today are so very different than those of my generation they may find this difficult to understand. Let us just say I matured slowly after I graduated high school, as did most of my friends.
None of my crowd went to college. That was for the kids who lived on the other side of the tracks. It was natural for us to go straight to the mills and factories that surrounded our town, to take up jobs we fully expected to work at all our lives, advancing within the company perhaps, but not ending up very different than our fathers.
I worked in the wire factory, dipping coils of metal into some kind of acid solution that ate little holes in my work clothes, and sometimes into my skin. Some of my friends worked at the foundry, others in the galvanizing plant. It’s no small wonder if half the people I grew up with are dead of cancer. The real wonder is that I’m still kicking along.
Work like that made you feel like a grownup, and in fact, you were. By the time I was twenty I was a regular at several local taverns. No one carded me. The term “carded” hadn’t even come into the language yet. I drank hard, harder than I ever did in my life, shot pool, bowled in a league, played softball on an organized team. I dated girls, drove an old wreck of a car, and still lived at home with my parents.
And yes, I visited the local whore house. You had to do it to prove you had balls.
This is how it happened one night. Our team, The Downhill Club, had managed to knock off Harvey’s Tap. Funny that I still remember the names of those teams. I even remember the uniforms. We wore hunter’s green with gold piping and an embroidered highball glass on the back. The Downhill Club, of course, was a bar, and they were our sponsors. If you know anything at all about 16-inch softball you will understand why I, with the weakest throwing arm on the club, always got to pitch. All I had to do was lob up these slow fat underhand pitches and duck out of the way when a line drive came whistling back. We played for a half barrel of beer to be drunk at the winner’s tavern, and this night we won.
I say night, but I mean afternoon. We started right after work. All over the south side you could hear factory whistles going off, one after another, and by six the game would be ready to begin. Some of us went right into it without eating supper. And from the field straight to the tavern to drink the winner’s half barrel.
It was good business for the bar owners and that’s another reason they never bothered to check anyone’s age. But this night there had been some bad feeling after the game. It seems the Harvey guys were sore losers. They kept saying I’d been putting a spin on the ball as if that was against the rules. Maybe it was and maybe I did but that wasn’t why they couldn’t hit me. I never, not once ever, put one directly over the plate, down the middle, no, no, no, for Christ’s sake, it was easy enough to hit that big 16-inch ball as it was. But they didn’t just want to hit it, they wanted to tee off, and why should I let them do that? Low and outside, low and inside, and too damn bad if they didn’t like it.
So it was just our team at the Downhill and that meant twice as much beer for everyone. By the time we finished the keg, there were only four of us left, the usual four, Eddy Sharky, Emil Muldoon, Walt Moran, and me. We put it to a vote and decided to get laid.
In those days there were only one or two ways to get laid in Park Island–assuming you were about twenty, drunk, and with three friends who were even drunker. Assuming it was almost midnight on a Friday night. You sure weren’t going to pick up a woman, but being drunk, we always tried. First, we visited Pat’s Piano Bar and it was dead, all couples. Then we tried Jankovitz’s on the south side, and it was dead. That was it. We headed out for the Poinsettia Lounge, Poinsettia being the last stop before you gave up and went to Leonora’s.
Leonora’s was the real whore house, a brothel in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a ramshackle house on the edge of a little town called Roberts, a town where, in the segregated practice of the times every single resident was black, or “colored” as was the preferred term. Leonora was an old-fashioned madam who wore gaudy jewelry and an elaborate hairdo and never had sex with the customers. Ten dollars would get you one of her “girls,” usually a stocky middle-aged woman with baggy breasts that would have reached her waist if she were to remove her black bra and allow you to touch them. Mostly at Leonora’s, I would settle for the blow job; it seemed safer.
But the Poinsettia had white girls. It wasn’t really a brothel either, just a bar where certain women worked, women in tight dresses who painted their faces and swept up their hair in imitation of Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford or Betty Grable. These women smoked cigarettes in long white holders, covered themselves with perfume, and performed their services in a motel–do you remember those motels that were actually little cabins lined up by the road? If you were lucky, you could get one of these women, but they were very much in demand, and every time I went into the Poinsettia they seemed to be all used up.
It has been so many years since I’ve been drunk, really drunk, that I’ve all but forgotten that delicious reeling feeling, that sensation of walking on deadened limbs over a floor that doesn’t quite stay in place, of breathing air that seems to have somehow thickened and become some magic new substance, that feeling of complete comfort, softness, and absolute peace. There is a reason people drink, I tell you, and it is not just to “loosen up” or be sociable. I have always felt that if a man were drunk enough he could die without fear.
That night I was close to perfection. As quickly as I emptied one glass, I ordered another, as quickly as I extinguished one cigarette, I lit another. I could hear my own voice, talking, laughing, boasting, and I felt the kind of wisdom only true indolence brings. When the jukebox played “Slow Boat To China” I felt the music sink into my blood, everything seemed absolutely profound. I was warm and content inside, utterly safe. In my green and gold softball uniform, I was as good as any man, good as the president, whoever he might have been, good as the mayor, good as the king of the whole fucking world. I didn’t want to go to Leonora’s, or even hook up with one of the Poinsettia’s painted women. I wanted to lie down and hold some pretty girl with dark hair and red lips and small perfect breasts so firm and tight she would never need a bra, a girl so clean, bathtub clean, you could put your face right up into her crotch and die. I imagined such a girl in my arms, and I wanted us to drift off together, rocking and bobbing to nowhere, never again to be alone.
That was the way I was feeling when the commotion began in the parking lot. People were going in and out of the bar, talking and laughing. Finally, it was Eddy Sharky shaking me by the shoulder. Come on, Pete. She’s out there.
I hadn’t seen Sandy since high school. Three years at the very least. But I sat right up when I realized who he was talking about.
The Poinsettia Lounge, understand, was not located anywhere near the city limits. We used to call such places roadhouses because they were built on the road and in those days there were long stretches even in the metropolitan area where nobody yet lived. In the parking lot, you could see the mills glowing off to the south, and you could hear the rumble of machinery that was never allowed to grow idle. The sky was clouded over with something that smelled of sulfur, and the bright neon sign above our heads gave everything a purple cast. Far out in the surrounding fields which stretched out into blackness, frogs were chanting in their curious insistent way, calling for a mate, I guess, or that is what I have been told.
You could easily say it was private in this parking lot. There wasn’t much chance anybody who was not already part of the evening would bear witness to whatever went on. Things always did go on, you understand. It wasn’t at all uncommon to step on a discarded condom, still fresh and spongy with some other man’s semen.
When I got out there I saw that she had the sweater over her face, just as Sharky said she would. She didn’t mind people seeing what she was doing just so long as they didn’t see who she was while she was doing it. They were on the bed of an old pickup truck, this girl with a big baggy pink sweater laid over her head and shoulders like a blanket, her bare legs, wrapped around the guy, a young guy, maybe a veteran–I say that because he was a few years older than me–with his dark hair falling in his face. I wondered what he was getting out of it. What kind of sex was that? He couldn’t even see who he was fucking and he didn’t even seem to care, and when he stepped off, no one stepped up to take his place. There was a little knot of men standing by, and I could hear them discussing it, but they all, one by one, turned and walked back into the Poinsettia.
I stood right where I was. At last the girl took the sweater from her face and I saw that it really was Sandy, and still as pretty as ever. She squinted.
“What’s this. One more customer?”
“Sandy,” I said. That’s all I said.
She got out of the truck, smoothed down her skirt, buttoned up her blouse, and pulled on the sweater. Her hair was dark and curly and she shook it back into place.
“Hey, I know you,” she said. “You’re Peter Donavan. You were two years ahead of me.”
“How would you know my name?” I said.
“The same way you would know mine, I guess,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
She opened her purse, took out a comb, fussed with her hair, and tried to apply a little makeup. “I’m a mess,” she said. “You got a cigarette?” I produced one and she let me light it. It was a big thing in those days to light a woman’s cigarette. That’s what they did in movies. I lit one for myself and we both leaned back against the truck and smoked more or less in silence. It was one of the strangest moments of my life. Understand, I was just drunk enough to feel that I had found wisdom. I had to be in order to say what I finally said.
“You’re too good for this.”
She kept on smoking, just as if she hadn’t heard me. But she had. At last, she flipped away her cigarette and turned to face me.
“You know what? So are you.”
Those were her exact words and I still remember them. I even remember the tone she used. Not at all flippant or glib. And she was right. We both were right. And the frogs were crying out in the fields behind us, almost as if they believed the world would end before they could finish what they had to get done.
“I had a crush on you once,” she said. “How did you get out here? Do you have a car?”
I said I did and I would be glad to drive her home.
“No, no,” she laughed. “Give me the keys, and I’ll drive you home.”
And in case you are wondering, no, nothing happened after. Nothing. Somehow that was it, all there was to it. This may be a story I am telling, but this is no storybook. I saw her again, several times, but only in glimpses, standing on the other side of the street while I drove by, at the East Side Carnival with another guy, leaving a restaurant just as I looked up, and yes, I now find it odd that I was suddenly having those glimpses after having none for almost three years, but then I moved on, or she moved on, or we both moved on, and she became just another one of that endless cast of characters that inhabit my memories.
All of this comes to me for no special reason tonight, I, an old man, an old man sitting up alone in my living room, nursing my second and final glass of wine, waiting till it is time to join my wife in bed and pull up the sheet. Outside, a heavy storm is driving in from the west, and thunder, sometimes immense and very close, rolls again and again over the rooftops of our old neighborhood, and the rain has grown to a great heavy wash that could very well be rising up in the basement at this very moment. I, for one, am ready to go to bed without taking a look.
What I am wondering now, and probably will wonder again, is this. What if Sandy and I were to meet one last time, and she would be young and I would be young as well, and we would be as we once were, flawed and uncertain, but this time as God must surely have wanted us to be?
Beautiful, not just in body, but in soul as well.
Paul Pekin was born in 1928. He lives in Chicago where he has worked as a printer, storekeeper, teacher, and police officer. He writes fiction and nonfiction. His stories have been published in magazines, newspapers, and on the web, and have won awards from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Headline Club.