"Salvage" by J.T. Townley

Step 1

Still loaded to the gunwales, I kick in the door and brandish my cutlass.  The blade shimmers in the electric lanterns’ murky flames.  I’m rusty on my hinges.  You know how I get, Zaffy.  “Scurvy dogs!” I say, but my intentions stick in my throat.  All deadlights are on me.

“Welcome back, friend,” says a swarthy man with spectacles.  He gestures to an empty seat in their circle.  “Join us.”

The other participants, a rainbow of wretched humanity, shine their smiles at me, nodding.  The ceilings are low, the light dim.  The subterranean space always reminds me of the innards of a leaky schooner.  I wander to a table littered with mangled pastries, grab a tiny cup and fill it with coffee.  Hot but thin.  I’d like to nip from the wineskin I took off that Spaniard near Hispañola, then funnel a spot of kill devil into my cup.  But wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?  

All the while, this bug-eyed wench drones on about her whiskey fetish.  She broadcasts all the sordid details of her debauchery, the endless tavern nights, her displeased captain, her squalid family.  Pathetic.  These meetings are always the same:  Woe is me!  Let’s all hold hands and say a prayer.  I’d much rather spend the eventide at Sea Legs, sipping grog and eyeballing Vanessa’s striptease, but that sizeable debt to Sammy explains why I have to suffer these jolly little gatherings.

I slash my cutlass in the air, then with a grunting yawp hack off the end of the table and run the coffee tankard through.  The hot brown liquid sloshes out, washing napkins, cups, and other detritus onto the scuffed parquet flooring.  No one so much as glances my direction.  I sheath my sword, then swagger over and rest my old bones in one of their folding chairs.  I sip bad coffee and bide my time.  I can be patient when I need to, Zaffy.  When the wench’s story has at last run its course and the blubbering is finally finished, the swarthy gent with the glasses turns to me.

“Friend, how bout your story?”

I feel my physiognomy contort into a well-worn grimace.  My blood boils black, like molten tar.  I try not to wonder what’s become of you, what you’d think if you witnessed this sorry scene.  Then I swallow hard, and in a steady, rasping voice, I announce:

“My name is Black Blake, and I, too, have been known to tipple.”


Step 2

Cap’n Kenny’s already found a booth in the back when I stagger in.  A fryer sizzles.  The air hangs thick with grease and malt vinegar.  In his white cap with the anchor patch and gold brocade, he hunches over an almost-empty plate of hushpuppies, guzzling from a giant flagon of bubbly sugar water.  When he sees me, Cap’n Kenny swallows and waves.

“Howdy, Blake!”

“How be the grub this fine eve?”

He grins.  “Downright scrumptious.”

“I’ll be placing me order now,” I say.  “Fish ’n’ chips for ye?”

He digs out a wad of limp, oily bills.  “Please.”

“Keep your loot, Cap’n Kenny.”

The cooks are quick, so I’m back in three tics.  I set the food on the table and slide onto the bench seat, mindful of my cutlass and blunderbuss.  Cap’n Kenny’s so portly—nay, corpulent—I cannot fathom how he wedges himself in.

He slathers everything with ketchup and malt vinegar, then gobbles some fries and half a piece of cod, eyeing my food suspiciously.  “No fish?” he asks through a mouthful.

“They’re called ‘chicken planks.’”

As we enjoy our provender, instrumental sea shanties pouring from a hidden phonograph, Cap’n Kenny regales me with tales of domestic adventure.  His wifelette’s new hairdo.  His kiddy-poohs’ scholastic achievements.  His promotion at the Port of Galveston.  I half-listen, focusing mainly on the greasy grub, along with the flaxen-haired wench tumbling out of her bodice two seats over.  In another time, back before the mutiny and the plank and that lonely desert island, I would’ve ravaged her in my quarters on the Scarlet & Cassandra.  Those days have come and gone and won’t be back.  Even now, I can hear you cackling, Zaffy:  “Blake’s a pansy!  Blake’s a pansy!”

“Blake?” asks Cap’n Kenny.


“I know it’s kinda personal, but it’s part of the program.”

He waits.  I fix him with my gaze, stupefied by his girth.  You would’ve annihilated him with your acid tongue, Zaffy.  Yet Cap’n Kenny arranged for me to take over the Esperanza, which got me out of the shelter and back onto a ship, never mind it’s an old chumbucket that barely floats.  At least I have somewhere to flop, safe and private.

“Take me,” says Cap’n Kenny.  “I was a no-good, sad-sack, down-and-out drunk.  On the wagon, off the wagon for the better part of five years.  Wanna know what turned me around?  Wanna know how I sobered up and saved myself and my family?”

I grit my teeth.  “The only thing that kept me from going berserk on that blasted island was Calico Jack’s stash of Cruzan.”  I flash my gold tooth.  “And the companionship of one Zaffarelli Psittacoidea.”

It might surprise you, Zaffy, but I give credit where credit’s due.

Cap’n Kenny shakes his head and picks up a hushpuppy.  “You can’t do it alone, Blake.  That’s part of why I’m here.”  He chews and swallows.  “But you gotta hand it over, friend.”  

“Talk to Calico Jack,” I say.  “He already took my ship, my crew, and all my loot.”

“Not your worldly goods, Blake.  Everything else.  Frustration and disappointment and disgust at your body image.”  He waits, eyeing my chicken planks.  “Only a power higher than ourselves can restore us to sanity, friend.  You know who I mean.  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

I suddenly feel queasy.  I push my plate away, and Cap’n Kenny’s eyes saucer.  He points to the leftovers, I nod, he stuffs landlubber fare in his face.

“When I was captain of the Scarlet & Cassandra,” I explain, “I was fair and just.”  I scratch my patchy beard.  “We never pursued an enemy ship of a Sunday.  Not once, mind ye.”

Cap’n Kenny masticates.  “That’s all well and good, Blake.”  He washes it down with a guzzle of sugar water.  “But past is past.  This is the here and now.  You gotta hand it over—all that worry and heartache, guilt and regret.”  

Now he grabs both of my hands in his.  They’re the size of bear paws and greasy from the fish.  Diners are staring, including the wench two seats over.  “Blake’s a fairy!  Blake’s a fairy!” you’d shriek were you here.  I try to reach for my cutlass, but Cap’n Kenny’s too strong, so I can’t wrench my hooks from his clutches.  Then he says: 

“Pray with me, friend.”

As he drones on and on, all I can think about is bellying up to the bar at Sea Legs.  I slap the counter and shout, “Clap of thunder, Sammy!”  He pours, I drink, repeat.  Onstage, Vanessa writhes and shimmies.  Then you flutter through an open window and let the zingers fly:  “What’s a pirate’s favorite pickup line?  Can I fire my cannon into your porthole?”  You squawk and cackle.  “What’s a horny pirate’s worst nightmare?  A sunken chest and no booty!”  Pretty soon you’ve got us all in stitches.  But then I remember Sammy’s menacing, implied ultimatum, and I’m right back at Long Jon’s, holding hands with a grown man.  

“In Jesus' name we pray, amen.”

“Amen,” I say.

Cap’n Kenny smiles bright as a beacon.


Step 3

So the holy day rolls around, and I find myself shifting in a hard pew at First Baptist.  I haven’t darkened a church door in many a long year, and not once since I washed up here in Galveston, still besotted and spluttering, drenched to the bone, eyes burning with salt and tears.  Even then, I knew I’d made a serious mistake, the worst of my wretched life.  It was a bout of weakness, Zaffy, a fit of crapulous desperation.  It had nothing to do with loneliness:  you could’ve winged it to a better life across those turquoise waters at any given moment, but you chose to stay.  Still, there would always be Calico Jack and the mutiny, Zaffy.  The plank and island and everything I ever lost.  I was awash ignominy.

The vicar preaches salvation and forgiveness.  Sparkly light streams through the stained glass.  And up near the rafters floats none other than that traitorous Calico Jack, snaggle-toothed and eye-patched, his face a rictus of incredulity.  I pretend to be deep in prayer.  When I open my eyes, he’s still there, hovering above the congregation, laughing and hacking and swinging his golden hook.  I blink and blink again.  I scan other parishioners’ faces and witness no sign of recognition.  

“Avast ye, Black Blake!” he yawps.  “I’ve come for your pieces of eight!”

Is it possible I’m a canvas shy of a full sail?

“Ho!” he says.  “A farce, since I took them all long ago!”

I squint and stammer, nonplussed.  

“Squiffy in the house of the Lord, be it?” says Calico Jack.  “Have ye no shame?”  

There’s only so much I can abide.  Before I explode in a fit of molten fury, I slink toward the door, his chortling chasing me out into the thick heat.


Step 4    

I lounge in my hammock and flip through the literature Cap’n Kenny foisted upon me.  Down the pier, palm fronds dance in the breeze.  The air smells vaguely of seaweed and crude oil.  Now I’m to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory.”  I scrounge up a stub of pencil and set to work.

  1. confidint
  2. resorsfull
  3. God-feering
  4. courajus
  5. honist & trustwurthy
  6. persistint
  7. prowd
  8. feersum
  9. optimistick
  10. loyal

I scan over my list, satisfied I’ve set down my defining characteristics.  But then I skim ahead in the brochure:  I’m intended to admit the exact nature of my wrongs—to God, myself, and another person.  A bit of negative Nancy, for certain.  Why not just dance the hempen jig while I’m at it?  But Cap’n Kenny is by the book, so I swallow the bile gathering in my throat and give it another go.       

  1. (over-)confidint
  2. resorsfull
  3. God-feering (Sabbath)
  4. courajus cowardly
  5. (dis)honist & (un)trustwurthy (as a pirate)
  6. (formerly) persistint
  7. prowd pridefull
  8. feersum laffingstock
  9. optimistick pessimistick
  10. (dis)loyal, viz. betrayal of Zaffy


Step 5

The lass in the ship chandler’s helps me discern Cap’n Kenny’s address, and I send my list to his place of municipal employment through the postal service.  This way I won’t be forced to congregate at Long Jon’s and watch Cap’n Kenny shovel food into his face as he smears grease all over my papers.  Nor will I have to explain myself—at least not for the time being. 

Now I mill about the ship chandler’s and eye the rum selection.  I mope around the marina, avoiding eye contact.  I loiter in the outdoor tavern, a rooftop deck overlooking the marina.  During the week, the place stays mostly empty, the handful of patrons slouching on barstools, hollow-eyed and listless.  A few linger at the railing, sucking on cigarettes and telling ribald anecdotes, laughing breathlessly amid clouds of blue smoke.  Several are missing teeth. 

They remind me of my crew, Zaffy.  

My tongue grows dry, my mouth parched.  This tavern only serves beer, but Sea Legs is but a short shamble away.  I stumble down the stairs and toward the end of the pier, but as I approach the Esperanza, I think better of my rum-soaked plan and climb aboard.  I guzzle from a bottle of fizzy water, then dig out a mop and bucket and set to swabbing the decks in slow, even strokes.  The whole ship grows redolent of pine sap and ammonia.  

Try though I might, I can’t avoid Cap’n Kenny forever.  He shows up at the marina one afternoon while I’m below decks, mulling about how to begin refurbishing my ship.  Cap’n Kenny only had one caveat:  seaworthy in six months I’ve been thinking on it since I first moved in all those weeks back.  Alas, I’ve made little progress. 

He stirs me from my stupor, and I follow him out into the thick sunlight.  We don’t say a word for a while.  Despite his ample girth, he maintains a rolling gait that outpaces my usual swagger, so I have to lengthen my stride just to keep up.

Though I sense our course leads vaguely west, our destination I know not.  Salt hangs thick in the air.  An oil tanker’s horn blasts.  When we stop at a crossroads, waiting for vehicles to pass, Cap’n Kenny beams at me.  “I read your list, Blake,” he says.  “I’m real proud of you, friend.”

We pass a crab shack, then turn toward Pier 19.  Halfway down, Cap’n Kenny leans against a pylon.  We gaze out across the ship channel.  I wait and watch, hands on my hilt.  

“What be our purpose here, Cap’n?”

A smile flickers at the corners of his mouth.  “Patience, friend.”  

So we wait.  Cargo ships huff to and fro.  A fishy breeze wafts over us.  Seagulls shriek and yelp, growing thicker by the minute.  Flying rats, you always called them, Zaffy.  How you despised those birds!    

Soon a flotilla of short, stubby boats bobs into view.

“There she is,” says Cap’n Kenny, pointing.  “The Mosquito Fleet.”


He glances over at me.  “Ever do any shrimping, Blake?”

We both know the only thing I ever fished for was filthy lucre.    

Seagulls circle and dive as the boats dock.  A cloud of engine exhaust washes over us.  When the bow lines have been secured, thick-shouldered fishermen offload enormous buckets of crustaceans.  It takes a while.  I shift in place.  The seagulls snicker, delighted by their evening buffet, and I have to fight the urge to blast them with my blunderbuss.  When at last their day is done, the fishermen stagger past us down the pier, voices low, smiles quiet, and make for the nearest tavern.  Yet still we wait.  After a time, another fisherman rolls toward us on sea legs.  He’s grayer, face a mangled map of crags and crevices.  Cap’n Kenny greets him like a brother, handshakes, backslaps, a warm, wobbly embrace.

“Blake,” says Cap’n Kenny, “I’d like to introduce you to an old friend, Captain Daniel Davis.”

He doffs his grubby cap.  “Call me Dan.”

“And this is Blake,” says Kenny.  

We shake.  He has a crushing grip.  His blue eyes glisten.

“Good to know you,” he says.

I nod and wince with pain.  “Pleasure,” I say.

“Dan needs an able-bodied seaman for his crew,” says Cap’n Kenny.  “I recommended he give you a look.”

“Sink me!” I say.

Seagulls screech and snicker.

Dan paws his grizzly scruff, then lights a smoke with a match. “Can you plot a course?”

“Aye,” I say.

He exhales blue smoke through his nose.  “Can you man a tiller?”

“Again, aye.”  I wet my lips.  “I was captain of the Scarlet & Cassandra for more than a decade.  I commanded a crew of fifty on the fastest sloop in the Caribbean.  If she floats, sir, I can sail her.”

Dan chuckles, puffing on his smoke.  “Good to know, Blake, but Fool’s Folly runs twin diesel inboards, and nobody takes the helm without my say-so.”  He glances at my sponsor, whose nervous energy pops like static.  “Kenny tells me you’re doing the twelve steps.”

I can’t quite look him in the eye.  “Aye, sir.”

“I went through them myself,” he says, tapping ash from his cigarette.  “Saved my life.”

“He’s making excellent progress.”

Dan nods.  “I’m willing to give you shot, Blake.”  He takes a last drag, then flicks the butt into the water.  “But you gotta show up on time and work hard all day.  Follow orders.  Lay off the booze.”  He hawks and spits over the railing.  “It’s my way or the highway.  Think you can handle that?”

Truth be told, it’s a lot to ask—maybe too much.  Black Blake, a lowly fisherman?  On a ship with no sails?  Scupper that!  I can almost hear you now, Zaffy:  “Blake’s a sellout!  Blake’s a sellout!”  But my debt won’t pay itself, and if ever she’s to sail again, the Esperanza needs much attention.  

I tongue my gold tooth, then say:  “Aye, aye, Cap’n.”


Steps 6, etc.

Although I reek like a fish cannery, and alley cats trail me along as I amble from the marina to the pier and back, I find stability in routine.  The hours are long, the labor tedious.  The diesel exhaust makes me nauseous, and I grow to abhor crustaceans.  Equally unpleasant is the crew.  When they’re not ignoring my very existence, the other sailors bait me no end.  And Cap’n Dan drives us hard.  I’m no better than a galley slave, Zaffy.

Yet after a long day out on the Gulf working the nets, I like to sit in the stern and watch the first stars twinkle into view.  The sea shimmers golden in the day’s dying light.  In our wake, the water glows blue and green.  You should see it, Zaffy.  It’s such a gorgeous sight, I can hardly tear my gaze away.  When he catches me goggling, Dan says, “You in love with them glow worms, Blake?”  The other fishermen hack and guffaw, pitching stray shrimp at my head.

Yet I don’t let it get to me.  I know the Almighty when I see Him—and just when I was ready to skip those steps toward the mystical.  As I gaze out over the water, stinking of fish and sweat, watching the inky blackness devour the day, I consider my shortcomings, my boozing and leching and lying ways.  “Lord,” I mumble to myself, “I humbly beseech Ye to remove my defects of character.”


Step 8

I can’t complain about the paycheck.  When you’re sailing the high seas, pillaging and plundering, there’s no safety net:  no prey, no pay.  But Dan gives a regular wage and pays out legal tender at week’s end.  Soon as I get my hooks on a small stake, I saunter down to Sea Legs, for once not to splice the main brace.  I have a debt to pay.  I’m not about to Welsh on it.  

The place hasn’t changed.  Dark and gloomy, though it’s barely noon on a cloudless Saturday.  Strange music pulses and throbs.  Onstage, Vanessa writhes around the pole, jiggling for three toothless down-and-outs with enormous grog blossoms.  The air reeks of rotgut, sweat, and hopelessness.  It’s a wonder I ever killed so many hours in here, drowning my sorrows in a bottle of Cruzan.  After that besotted swim to nowhere, maybe I was just happy to be alive.  Or maybe, Zaffy, I was afraid I’d never see you again.    

Once my peepers adjust, I stride to the bar where Sammy sits, taking in the sad show.  He pays me no mind.  I slap my cash on the counter to get his attention.  His eyes bug in the dank light, and he sets to counting, banknotes spraying across the bar like playing cards.  When he’s finished, his lip twitches.  

“That don’t even put a dent in what you owe.”

“Consider it a down payment, Sammy.  An act of goodwill.”

He sneers.  “I ain’t working on the installment plan.”  He takes a gulp from his glass, shuffling and stacking the greasy bills, then folding them into his pocket.  “Don’t come back till you got every last penny you owe me.”

Once I demonstrate my good faith to Sammy, I concentrate on the Esperanza.  After many an early morning on Dan’s shrimp boat, I earn enough to replace the rigging and have the sails repaired.  I acquire a new anchor and replace the tiller.  I refinish the decks and polish the brass.  I even tear out most of the cabin furniture and sell it for scrap, replacing the bunk with a hammock and installing a custom-made perch just for you, Zaffy.      

Try though I might, I can only protract the eighth step for so long.  I’m supposed to compose a list of everyone I’ve ever harmed, with an eye for making amends.  Aye, Zaffy, amends!  So when the coffers are empty and my joints begin to ache, I lie back in my hammock and, by the yellow flicker of lantern light, start compiling names of the aggrieved.  Many I don’t recall, most I never thought to ask.

  1. Calico Jack
  2. croow of the Scarlet & Cassandra 
  3. Mum
  4. Scarlet
  5. Cassandra
  6. cap’ns and croows of vessels Frensh, Spainish, and Brit, plying trade along the Atlantick coasts and Caribbeun, a no. likely exceeding 400 
  7. Sammy Sealegs

I’m about to blow out the lantern when I realize I’ve made a glaring omission.  My eyes burn, and a balloon of guilt swells in my chest.  My heart is a Jolly Roger, tattered and torn.  So there at the bottom of the list, Zaffy, I scribble your name. 


Step 9

A bright Sunday morning.  I rouse from my hammock early and accompany Cap’n Kenny, wifelette, and kiddy-poohs to First Baptist.  While I’m not likely to join the congregation, I attend whenever the mood strikes.  Something about those choral hymns:  they make me feel light and free, send my spirits drifting on the sunbeams pouring through the stained glass.  And it’s my great good fortune that Calico Jack has yet to make another appearance.

After the service, I break bread with Cap’n Kenny & Co., then beg off.  Now, post-prandial, I lounge in my hammock on the foredeck, swaying in the soft breeze.  Canvas snaps, rigging clanks.  I mull over the fact that, despite my best intentions, it will be impossible to make amends to those I’ve wronged, since they’re almost all long gone.  

Some six feet under, most in a watery grave. 

I must be exhausted, because soon I’m deep under.  I’ve just washed up to shore.  The sand feels warm beneath me.  When I catch my breath, I gaze around at the empty beach and towering palms, and I realize I’m right back where I started, on that same desert island in a far corner of the Caribbean.  A shout of protest lodges in my throat and melts into muted sobbing.  The breeze dances through palm fronds.  Then a flap and flutter of wings, a riot of scarlet, emerald, and azure.  “Welcome back!” you squawk.  “What took you so long?”

When I awaken, the sun’s sinking into the sea, and the breeze has died.  I’m overwhelmed by a calm I haven’t felt in many a long year.  Even the jealous seagull snickering can’t irk me.  But it doesn’t last.  How could it?  Muted voices, the clomp of boots in the stern.  When I try to stand, I get tangled in my hammock.  More heavy footfalls, a pair of hulking silhouettes.  And that stench!  Sweat, cheap lager, and rotting sea filth.  

“You Black Blake?”

“Who dares board my ship unbidden?”

They tower over me, grinning.  One chucks the other’s shoulder, then further binds me in my hammock ropes.   

“Sammy Sealegs hears you ain’t been spending your money wisely.”

“You got a tab eight miles long, son.”

“He sent us to jog your memory.”

If I could reach my cutlass, I’d slash them up for chum.  Were my blunderbuss accessible, I’d blast holes in their guts.  But, alas, their blades flash in the late-afternoon sunlight, then they attack ropes and canvas.  Glass cracks and wood splinters.  I howl in protest until I’m rewarded with blows to the temple and chin and solar plexus.  Then I’m out. 

I awaken in the pitch of night.  A starless sky.  When at last I unravel myself, I assess the extent of the damage by the light of marina lanterns:  sails slashed and ropes cut, windows shattered and deck boards smashed.  A hole in the cabin roof the size of a small dolphin.  Their stink lingers, as does their rattling laughter.  

I sink to my knees.  

I was so close, Zaffy.

I spend a desolate morning making notes and tabulating repair expenses.  It’s a gorgeous day, clear skies, warm sun, but I’m living under a black cloud.  The tally goes up.  My rage burbles and roils, thick and black as tar.  

But there’s no time to hang the jib.  I begin removing everything I don’t need, namely the communications and navigation equipment, along with the engine and prop.  Since when did Black Blake need anything but charts and compass, sextant and sails to ply the seven seas?

I hock everything I can.  Demand is high, and I leave the pawnbroker’s with a fist full of filthy paper.  That same day, I take the sails back in for patching.  I replace the ropes.  I have neither the patience nor resources to repair the deck or cabin roof, so I make do with a tarpaulin and some cord. 

By midweek, I’m all but ready to set sail.

Then Cap’n Kenny drops by again without so much as a by your leave.  I’m swabbing the decks when he waddles to the far end of the gangplank.  His face is a sour pucker.  “Mind if I come aboard?” he asks.

“What brings you to see us, Cap’n Kenny?”

He shuffles across, gazing at the sorry state of my ship.  His shoulders slump.  “Dan tells me you haven’t been to work all week.”

Fool’s Folly, an honest living.  It completely slipped my mind.

“I didn’t see you at the Tuesday meeting either.”  Waves slap the hull.  Cap’n Kenny shifts his bulk.  “Didn’t you tell me you’d finished the restoration?” 

“Don’t misunderstand, Cap’n Kenny.  I had a wee spot of bother.”

“What happened?”

I scratch my patchy beard.  “Sammy Sealegs has brought me to the brink of wrack and ruin.”

He stares blankly at the yachts bobbing in the marina.  “Don’t tell me you’re back on the bottle.”

“Blimey!  Not a chance.  Never ye worry.”  

“It doesn’t have to be this way, friend.”

“But I haven’t touched a drop—admittedly, not for lack of wanting.”

“You can’t do it alone,” he says, “but nobody can do it for you either.  Not me, not the folks at the meetings—not even the Good Lord Himself.”  He shakes his head, eyes rheumy.  “You’ve got to make up your mind, Blake.  Get sober and stay sober.  It’s all you, friend.”  

Then he squeezes back across the gangplank and plods away amid seagull screeches.


Step 10 

I awaken early the next morning and amble down to Fool’s Folly.  It’s still dark, Zaffy.  Even the flying rats are roosting.  Since I’m no longer a sailor on the vessel, I wait on the pier for Dan to emerge.  Dawn begins to creep over the horizon.  The scent of seaweed and crude oil drifts off the Gulf.  When at last he appears, he looks right at me but shows no sign of recognition.

“Dan?” I say, sidling a few steps his direction.  “Cap’n?”  He looks up, face blank, eyes empty.  “Can I bend your ear for a couple tics?”

He coils rope and wags his head.  “Ain’t nothing to say, Blake.  You had your shot, and you blew it.  End of story.”

I stand there, mute, waiting.  None of this comes easily, Zaffy.  But I take a deep breath and say, “You’re right, Cap’n.  That’s why I swaggered down this bright morn.  My apologies for going missing.  On my own ship, I’d be wearing the hempen halter for desertion.”

His eyes go glassy.

“But it weren’t the kill devil, I’ll have ye know,” I explain.

“Good on you, Blake.  But how’s that help me?”

“I was a victim of circumstance, Cap’n.”

“Still left me a man short, right?”

“I might’ve sent you an SOS.  I hope you’ll forgive this oversight.”

It’s possible he nods in the pinkish-orange light.  “I got work to do, Blake,” he says.  “Good luck to you.”

I lean against a pylon.  Five minutes later, his sailors cast off, and the other shrimp boats soon follow.  My tongue tastes like tar.  I grind my teeth, blood boiling, as they putter up the ship channel, disappearing in a fog of diesel exhaust.


Step 11

I stew all day.  Maybe I’m just stalling, Zaffy.  Maybe I don’t know what you’ll say when I stagger up the beach, soaked in shame.  Maybe I won’t be able to find the island again after all this time, and even if I do, maybe you’ll be gone.  I occupy myself with sails and rigging, wheel and rudder.  The tarp sags and crackles.  I batten down the hatches, a hollow feeling in my gut.  

I should amble down to Sea Legs and show Sammy and his stevedores what I’m made of.  That’s what a real pirate would do.  I’d stride in and train my deadlights on Vanessa and her pole.  Then I’d greet Sammy with a hearty slap on the back, hollering, “Clap of thunder!”  When he refused me service, sicking his goons on me, I’d go to work with cutlass and blunderbuss, slicing and blasting till the blood flowed and the music stopped.  I would give no quarter.  Vanessa would stand there, half naked, white as sail canvas, then run screaming.  Once the paltry few patrons had made themselves scarce, I would smash every bottle of rum in the place, one by one by one.  When the tavern was awash in rotgut, I would make for the door, firing a single parting shot.  The kill devil would catch fire, and Sea Legs would explode in a great conflagration.

You know me, Zaffy.  That’s what I would’ve done before I washed up in this God-forsaken place.  But maybe now I’m a changed man.  Maybe the twelve steps have ruined me.  Maybe you’ll want nothing to do with me when I anchor in that turquoise bay and splash to shore.  You’ll flap and flutter from one palm to the next, squawking, “Blake’s gone soft!  Blake’s gone soft!”  

But what can I do?  I have no stomach for vengeance.  So I stay put and make preparations.  

Everything’s shipshape by nightfall.       


Last Steps

Storms brew overnight, blotting out the stars, swallowing the moon.  They finally let loose in the wee hours:  thunder booms, lightning strobes, the sky opens up.  A gale-force wind howls off the Gulf, snapping sails and rattling rigging.  The deluge goes on and on.  An hour in, the tarpaulin begins to leak, water trickling into the cabin.  I lash it down more tightly, then begin bailing.  

By daybreak, the storms have cleared, and muddy sunlight sprays through a low-hanging sky.  I’ve cleared most of the water from the cabin.  I run the bilge pump, then say a quick prayer.  I know you’re out there, Zaffy, preening your bright plumage in the tropical sunlight.  I cast off the bow line.  You’re wondering what’s become of me.  I cast off the stern line.  You’re wondering if I drowned in my fit of drunken desperation.  I hoist the jib and tack down the ship channel, yielding to giant freighters and Coast Guard cutters.  You’re wondering how, after all our time together, I could’ve abandoned you.

When I hit the Gulf and open water, I hoist the main sail.  I nose toward the muted sunrise, then plot a course east-southeast.  To buoy my spirits, I whistle a bright sea shanty.  If anyone can navigate his way back to that tiny speck of sand, it’s yours truly.  

But it’s not long before an ill wind begins to blow.  Sea spray stings my eyes, and guilt gnaws at my gut.  A green wave of regret breaks inside of me.  I’m underway at last, but there’s heavy weather on the horizon.  Where I’m headed, the skies are dark, the seas full of chop.  But I know you’re out there, Zaffy.  So I grit my teeth and hunch my shoulders into the wind, squinting against the hard morning glare.

J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia.  To learn more, visit jttownley.com.

Posted on August 2, 2016 .