(If you’re reading this, I’m still lost at sea somewhere)
NICOTINE — Draft of a short story
The trade winds were holding steady, and we figured it’d take no more than a week to sail to Bali, but to be on the safe side, we provisioned for two. The only market on the island offered a meager selection of dry and canned goods. Wandering the dirt aisles under the hot tin roof, we bought rice, instant noodles, onions and garlic and chili peppers, coffee powder, soy sauce and cooking oil, canned vegetables, cartons of eggs. After a week at Haji Amrullah’s house, waiting for him to finish the boat, we were well-known in the village, but the market ladies still tried to get us. We had a system down. I bantered, Chuck bargained, Dashell took pictures. Pak Elog squatted to the side, his bare feet looking like rooted into the earth. He watched, idly smoking a clove cigarette.
Dash checked each egg. He spotted a shelf of canned tuna and picked up one to read the ingredients. “Tuna, salt, water,” he intoned. “They don’t say dolphin-free, but beggars can’t be choosers.” He asked the stall lady how much a can was. Chuck had found him via advertisement in the surfing magazines. A surfer and senior at USC film school who’d taken a semester off to make this documentary for Chuck, and only two weeks in the country, Dash was making an effort to pick up the local language. I was impressed.
“Hey, Dash,” Chuck said. He pointed across to the beach and the sea, glittering all the way to the horizon, blue on blue. “That’s the ocean out there. Fish live in the ocean. Fresh fish. We got fishing gear.”
“Just in case,” Dash said.
“No fuckin’ canned tuna on my boat.”
We bought cigarettes. I smoked half a pack a day, but as point man on getting the boat built with Chuck’s money, the stress had lately upped that up to a pack. Chuck was a three-pack-a-day man. The only time he didn’t have a cigarette in his hand was when he was out surfing. He tossed five cartons of Marlboros in the wooden haul cart I’d borrowed off Haji.
I called Pak Elog over. He was a Balinese fisherman I’d talked Chuck into hiring for the trip. He’d sailed these waters for decades, hunting sea turtles. The guy looked like a squat chunk of sun-weathered limestone, with stiff salted hair. “Anything else you want, Pak?” I asked, speaking Balinese. Charlie treated him like a deckhand, but he was a village elder. I was respectful.
“I don’t smoke Marlboros.” Elog added a carton of hand-rolled and unfiltered Gudang Garam clove cigarettes.
“Jesus, those damned things’ll burn out your lungs,” Chuck muttered.
Dash framed a shot of the cigarettes artfully arrayed against the onions. “Sure you got enough tobacco?” He didn’t smoke. He drank herbal tea. Earlier in Bali, he’d had a high colonic with holy spring water to rebalance his harmonics.
Chuck sucked his teeth thoughtfully and threw in a sixth carton of Marlboros.
The boat-building island was Muslim, no alcohol, but they considered Guinness Stout to be medicinal. Cases were stacked in the corner. “How about some beer?” I said.
“We don’t got any ice,” Chuck said.
“We can get a sack of fertilizer,” I said.
“Fertilizer?” Dash said.
“If you dissolve a bunch of fertilizer in water, it gets cold. Well, cool.”
“And then what?”
“You drink the beer.”
“I mean about the fertilizer.”
“You dump it overboard.”
Dash’s baby blues expanded to an f/2 stop, and then he blinked, shutter speed a full second. I could hear the clack. “Don’t you know fertilizer is toxic? That’ll kill everything in swimming distance.”
“We can give up beer for a week,” Chuck said. “Besides, it’ll be good to live healthy.” He gestured to Elog to push the cart. “So, you guys ready for an adventure?”
“You know what they say,” Dash said. “An adventure doesn’t start until something goes wrong.”
The boat heeled lively through the wind-ruffled water, mainsail and jib set on a broad reach. As yet unchristened, she was a traditional sloop, her planks wooden-pegged without a single nail or bolt, a design that for centuries had carried Bugis traders as far away as Australia. There was no engine, which would be fitted out in Bali along with other high-tech gear. Chuck wanted the inaugural sail to be old school. That also meant a dugout canoe with oars instead of a dinghy with an outboard. Apart from the 500 watt generator we ran an hour to day to charge Dash’s cameras and the batteries for the running lights, there was no stink of fuel or exhaust. Instead, the boat was perfumed with wood-shavings and freshly woven bamboo matting that we’d used for the temporary cabin.
A Marlboro dangled from Chuck’s mouth as he stood portside with the sextant, taking a noon sighting. His tangled blond hair fell over bony shoulders. Dash was filming him. Draped in voluminous clothes and shaded by wide hat, he more resembled a bee-keeper than a surfer cinematographer.
“It’d look better without the cigarette,” Dash said.
Chuck flicked the butt over the rail.
Scrunched up in the patch of shade with Ulysses, I lit another from a nearly empty pack. Last one until sunset, I vowed.
At the tiller, Elog sucked on a smoldering clove cigarette. Those things burned like a slow smoke flare. He caught my eye and grinned, a salty dog stoked to be back at sea. There’s an art to the tiller, and the gurgling wake behind us could have been scored by a razor. Two fishing poles were set aft, lines glistening under the sun.
Dash suddenly cried out, “Dolphins!” and raced to the bow. This siren call was far more exciting than Bloom in the Concert Room. Abandoning Joyce, I went forward, mesmerized by the sleek dolphins surfing the bow wake.
“Chuck! Dolphins!” Dash was excited as a kid at Seaworld.
Still at the sextant, Chuck gave an irritated shake of his head.
“Don’t we have a GPS?” Dash said to me.
“He’s old school,” I said.
Later in the cabin, with charts spread on the woven grass mat, Chuck compared the sextant position with the GPS. “Three miles off,” he said. “Not bad.”
“Three miles can shipwreck us on a reef,” Dash observed. He was transferring the dolphin footage to his laptop.
“Not a shoal anywhere between here and home.”
Dash turned the laptop to Chuck. “Look at this. This is going to be a gem.”
“What about the sextant shot?”
“We’ll shoot that again later.”
Chuck lit another cigarette as he watched the dolphins streaking through the water.
Dash wrinkled his nose. “Gee, guys, I don’t care what you do with your lungs, but have some respect for mine.”
“Gee, Dash, I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear on the job advertisement. Must be okay with cigarette smoke.”
“And would you guys not mind throwing the butts overboard? They’re not biodegradable.”
Chuck narrowed an eye and languidly blew more smoke, but before he could say anything, the fishing reels started screaming.
Fifteen minutes later a couple twenty-pound yellow fin tuna were flopping on the deck. A few deft slices of the fillet knife, and we were snacking on fresh sushi, with steaks set aside for dinner.
“What did I tell you,” Chuck said to Dash, opening a new pack of Marlboros. Dash grabbed the plastic wrapper to deposit in the trash bag. “Canned tuna, Jesus.”
There was too much fish and no ice. Chuck was going to toss the extra, saying we’d catch more tomorrow, but Elog barked at him to stop. “Crazy white man, throwing away food,” he muttered. I took the tiller as Elog salted down the extra steaks and laid up top of our bamboo awning to dry.
Chuck wasn’t happy, saying the fish was going to stink, but I told him to chill. “Elog’s really old school,” I said. “Let’s just keep him happy.”
The next morning the wind died.
Elog said this sometimes happened. The trades would pick up again by the following morning, he said.
The sails flapped. The boom creaked. The boat wallowed in a gassy sea under a blue bubble sky. We sweated and sweltered and smoked cigarettes. I anointed Ulysses with drops of perspiration and splotches of ash. Chuck remained upbeat, jigging for fish, catching a few tasty sardines for dinner. Dash dutifully recorded all, but the thing about the doldrums is that every hour becomes an identical hour to the hour before. Except longer. Dash put away his camera gear and shuffled around the boat, trying to find shade and a smoke-free zone.
With nothing to do but smoke, we were upping the intake. I was at two packs by nightfall.
“You should name the boat the Good Ship Nicotine,” Dash said.
The following day was a repeat, but minus the fresh fish. Hours spent jigging only brought up empty hooks. The stink of Elog’s salted yellow fin scented the bloated air. We smoke more and started to ration the water.
Chuck paced and fumed, figuratively and literally, lighting one cigarette off the butt of another. He bellowed at the sky, “Hey you up there, give us some wind! Christ!” His glare fell on the stinking fish steaks spread on the awning. He hurled them overboard.
Elog jumped up, protesting loudly and emphatically. Dash told Chuck, “These are his waters, this is his culture. Don’t be such an imperialist. Show some respect.”
Elog might not have fully understood the English, but he got the sentiment, and nodded.
“This is my boat,” Eddie said. “I’m the captain. You got that?”
The tempest passed. Elog chopped open one of the young coconuts we’d brought along for snacks and offered it to Dash. “You my brudder,” he said.
I’d been on night watch, and despite the bone-melting heat managed to nod off.
“Hey, look, a navy ship!” Dash’s cry jolted me awake. He had his video camera aimed at a gray destroyer that had loomed up over the horizon.
“Get down, you idiot!” I yelled. We didn’t yet have official papers for the boat. Elog at the tiller of a local boat was unremarkable, a white man with a video camera was suspicious.
Too late. An inflatable detached from the ship and zoomed across with three armed marines.
Chuck cursed. I told him to calm down. “Let me and Elog handle this.”
The inflatable came along side, and the marines swung aboard. They had eyes black and smooth as river stones. They had assault rifles. They had questions. We had coffee and cigarettes. I had experience in how to grovel. But what really saved our bacon was that the lieutenant turned out to be Balinese. Elog greeted him like a long-lost brother. Chatting and laughing and shooting the shit, we bro-ed over the brew and the smokes. Dash took their photos. The marines jotted down their Facebook pages and I promised I’d post the pix. The lieutenant sent over our empty water jugs to have them filled. He radioed for the latest wind forecast. Back up tomorrow, he said. I slipped each marine a pack of Marlboros, the last out of a carton. We still had three unopened cartons. Plenty to last to Bali.
The lieutenant apologetically said he had to have a look around. Just a formality, to make sure we had no contraband.
In the cabin he spotted the remaining Marlboro cartons. “Our captain needs a little souvenir, too, or he will ask questions.”
I reluctantly handed him one of the cartoons. He sorrowfully shook his head. “Our captain is a heavy smoker.” He took them all.
Chuck paled and spluttered, “But we smoke, too!”
The lieutenant sighed and opened a carton. He handed each of us a pack.
Dash shook his head. “No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
After the marines left, Chuck held out his palm to Elog, wriggling his fingers for Elog’s pack. “You’re not a Marlboro man. Give it over.”
Elog didn’t like it but he handed it over.
“In fact, Elog,” Chuck said, “how many packs of Gudangs do you have left?”
“And you don’t smoke cloves,” I said.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures. We’ll divide what we got.”
“Looks like you’re all in the same boat,” Dash said.
“Dash? Shut the fuck up. And put away that fuckin’ camera. This ain’t a reality show.” He turned back to Elog. “How many packs of Gudangs do you got?”
Elog folded his arms across his thick chest and gave Chuck a hard glare. He wasn’t about to hand over his smokes. A Balinese in a temper can be quite formidable. But lack of nicotine makes one fearless. Chuck got right in the big man’s face, poking him in the sternum. “Who bought those cigarettes? I did. I’m the boss here.”
With a smoldering glower, Elog squatted to rummage in his rucksack and tossed out two packs of Gudangs.
“That’s all?” Chuck said, and had a look in the bag to make sure.
Elog pointed to Chuck’s shorts pocket, where Chuck had a nearly full pack from before the raid. “We share those, too,” he said, which I translated for everyone’s benefit.
“No, no, the packs already opened don’t count,” Chuck said.
“Yes they do,” I said.
Chuck looked at Elog’s stony face and then at me. “All right, okay.”
We pooled our loose cigarettes. Six each, with one left over. We drew straws for it. I won.
The next day, the wind didn’t pick up. There were little puffs now and again, infuriating teasers that barely flapped the sails and did nothing to cool off our sweat before dying away.
Chuck was the first to run of cigarettes. I wasn’t far behind. Elog managed to make his last, but by mid-afternoon he was out, too. For all my talk of how I could quit anytime, being forced to quit was awful. Fire ants crawled through my veins. My brain felt sprinkled with itching powder. Chuck paced restlessly around the deck, staring at the horizon, sucking on loose straws. Elog jigged for fish in the stoic manner of a Balinese who has to endure.
Dash said, “Look at it this way, guys. This is your chance to quit. Get the monkey off your back. Don’t you want that?”
Chuck lowered his jaw and narrowed his eyes. “It’s your goddam fault. Waving at a navy ship, Jesus. And why the hell didn’t you take that pack, you idiot?”
But Dash did have a point. I’d been smoking way too much. I was going to take advantage of this enforced dry spell and just flat out quit.
I curled up and read. I’d been inching through Ulysses for months. Then a funny thing happened. One moment I was reading about Gerty and her knickers, and the next I was hurling the book with great force over the railing.
Chuck scoured the deck for stray butts and rummaged in the trash bag. He fished out butts floating in the bilge and stripped out the burnt tobacco to dry in the sun.
“That’s just sad,” Dash said.
Chuck flicked a butt at Dash’s face. Dash jerked back, his jaw clenching. I eased myself between the two. “Come on, buddy,” I said to Dash, “think about that enema, man. You don’t want to lose your balanced harmonics.”
Dash pointed his finger over my shoulder at Chuck. “You know what this is. This is karma. This is payback for all those butts you flicked overboard. And those empty vegetable cans. You didn’t think anybody saw you, but karma did.”
“Cool it,” I said.
Dash turned his finger at Elog and yelled even more loudly. “And you, this is karma too. For all those turtles you murdered. You ever thought about that, hunh?”
It’s rude to point a finger at a Balinese. Elog instantly turned thunderous, but before he could explode, as only a Balinese can explode, the fishing line zinged through his fingers. His attention snapped to the line instead of Dash. He hauled in a remora suckerfish, ugly as sin, but nowhere near as enticing.
With a smile, Elog removed the hook, tied a line around its tail and plopped it back in the sea.
Now curious, Dash asked, “Why is he doing that?”
“A traditional way to catch turtle,” I said. “The suckerfish attaches itself to the shell and doesn’t let go.”
Elog didn’t catch anything. The remora bellied up dead. It was my turn to cook dinner on the aft deck. The same old menu: rice and noodles. Eddie watched me. There was nothing else to do. Better than watching the sunset, glorious as ever, boring as ever.
Dash came up the companion way, grinning. He had two cans. “A peace offering,” he said. “Tuna. I bought a couple cans at the island. Just in case, you know. Chop up some onions and garlic, throw in some curry, and we have a treat.”
Chuck slowly rose to his feet. I’d never seen him look so calm. Like the eye of a hurricane. He took the cans from me and weighed them. “I told you no canned tuna,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you no canned tuna?”
“Come on, Chuck, it’ll be good. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“What part of that didn’t you understand? You jinxed us. It’s your goddam fault we lost the smokes. It’s your goddam fault we don’t got wind.” Chuck was slowly closing in on Dash, who was inching away with growing alarm.
“No fuckin’ canned tuna on my boat!” Chuck roared. He drew back an arm and hurled a can. Dash ducked. The can whistled over his head and plopped into the water.
Chuck still had the second. He chased Eddie up the port side, around the bow, and down the starboard. Dash ran right into the stout arms of Elog. The burly man neatly folded him up and threw him overboard like a plastic sack full of non-biodegradables. The splash hadn’t even settled when Chuck hurled the second can at him, nicking his head. We let him splutter for a minute before I tossed a life ring.
Thirty minutes later, the wind came up like it had never gone. With a song in our hearts, Chuck and Elog and I set the sails and took the tiller. Dash was sulking in the cabin.
We changed course for a small island on the western head of the Bali Straits. Out of our way, but it was the closest. It had a village. It had cigarettes.
We dropped anchor an hour after sunrise. Dash had all his gear packed. He had said a word to us and still didn’t say a word as we paddled the dugout to the beach. He walked away on the beach without a backward glance. We never saw him again.
Ten minutes later, in a shack by the market, I had a steaming glass of coffee in front of me and a cigarette in my hand. I took my time lighting up and inhaling. God it tasted great. But it was just a treat to celebrate, I told myself.
I’d quit for good tomorrow.