His name was Kleinwalker. I’m sure he’s dead now – it HAS been more than 30 years. He was the first mate on a tiny ferry I worked on as a deckhand in the summer after I turned 16.
He had an enormous belly, a great pendulous chunk of thick, hard flesh that closed so low over his overstretched, sagging belt, the bottom lip seemed to curl back under to touch his thighs.
He smoked roll-your-own cigarettes, the curly brown frays stained wet on short and stubby fingers burnished hard to tones of oak to mahogany.
I’d never seen anyone smoke a cigarette like Kleinwalker. He had no teeth, but wore no dentures, so that when he took a drag, the burning ember would plunge to the back of his mouth as if pulled by an invisible string, the smoking ember almost disappearing before sprouting forward, spring-loaded. The first time I saw him suck in that butt, I thought I was watching a cartoon.
He didn’t pay much attention to me. As a two-month summer relief hire, my job was to make a good pot of coffee in the morning, clean the heads with a rag mop once a day, polish the brass fittings once a week, and stay out of the way. That and raise the bar upon docking to release the cluster of workers leaning forward, impatient to drive home. At the mill side I’d have to haul the chain across in preparation for departure. It was a brain-dead easy, overpaid union job, but at 800 bucks free and clear in one month – a huge sum for a 16-year-old in the mid-70s – I wasn’t complaining.
Standing around the dock one morning with three other colleagues before the first shift of pulp mill workers stepped aboard, Kleinwalker was holding court. Suddenly, he came out with this:
You know, this morning gettin’ up, I gave the wife a nudge ‘cuz I felt a little bit of a rise comin’ on, just a sec or two, but then I had to get up to take a piss and it was gone. Damn. I haven’t felt what that was like in years.
Just as I was absorbing the fact that this man was spilling to his colleagues things I’d never heard spoken of in my own home before, he turned to me and growled out: What about you, you young cunt? You gettin’ any on it?
No, I wasn’t getting any on it, but I was too stunned to even stammer out the words.
The moment passed and we were soon taking up our positions on the ferry. As he walked away to climb the steep metal stairs to his office, wheezing as he walked and straining to lift his enormous bulk up the narrow passageway, I remember thinking: no adult, not even – or perhaps, especially – my father, has ever asked me that.