by Evan Marcey
The sailor from the oil tanker demands his chowder breakfast. One which he claims is standard breakfast fare at sea. This morning, he sits on land in his sister’s house at her kitchen table where chowder has never been served (let alone for breakfast). His sister has never made a chowder in her life, a flaw which their mother, a Boston native, considers one of her daughter’s (numerous) failings as a woman. Under the assumption the sailor was not in fact served chowder for breakfast on his tanker, we might speculate as to the nature of his request: he’s one of those guys that thinks his shitty joke is hilarious and laughs long past what might be appropriate even if the joke had been funny; or, some latent mommy issues have come to bear now that he is on land and in the presence of women; or, fuck maybe he did eat a whole bunch of chowder. Who fucking knows?
His sister’s wife (strike two) does not care for this speculation. She snaps at the sailor from the oil tanker: “You have a perfectly good breakfast in front of you. Sarah did all this cooking. The least you could do is thank her and pretend you like it.” Sarah obviously says it was no problem; the sailor says it’s not chowder. His sister’s wife then suggests he dump his food into his coffee and call that chowder. He gets the hint. Sarah sits down and the family eats the meal she has prepared:
a dozen eggs, hard-boiled and scrambled and sunny-side-up
as many slices of bacon, cooked to a crisp over the stove
a half-dozen links of cheap chicken-apple sausage.
an indeterminate number of pieces of crumbly soy-based meat substitute – bogarted
by Sarah’s wife (as if anyone else would want it)
a mountain of biscuits
a molehill of jams, like the kind you steal from a hotel continental breakfast
a steaming pot of coffee
a pitcher of orange juice (from concentrate – the audacity!)
Not chowder, but.
As they eat, their daughter (and only child – strike three) sneaks glances at this strange creature that has joined them for breakfast. Her mothers are the sort of suburban that not only makes routine dental appoints but actually shows up for them; the sailor’s teeth look as though routine brushing may be out of the question. Sarah’s great rebellion (just last year) was the Hitler Youth haircut every other lesbian gets before their thirtieth birthday; the sailor sports an early-graying goatee fit for a confederate general, a nest of wispy and receding hair to match. Their skin is clear, treated, concealed, covered-up; the sailor’s skin is ink and leather like a Medieval manuscript (only lewder).
Sarah and her wife dump the dishes in the sink and retire to the bedroom, saying they’re off to clean up around the house. They remind their daughter about her Social Studies homework, and she dutifully retrieves her backpack from upstairs. At the kitchen table, she leafs through her three-ring binder: colored tabs for Math and French and Language Arts, up to Social Studies. The first page of the section: a map of Africa down to South Sudan, each country a vivid RoseArt pencil shade (Libya is violet, if you’re interested). On the subsequent pages, she studies accompanying capitals and quick facts. The sailor scrolls through his phone, hunched over the table. He glances across to her and back to his phone. She peeks up at him and back to her binder. He looks up and down. She looks up and down. Up and down up and down – he breaks it off: “What are you studying?” Like he didn’t hear Sarah’s reminder.
“Social Studies,” she says. “We’re studying Africa: North Africa, like Egypt, Morocco.” One of those kids that sits up straight and talks like a little adult. Sarah was one of those. Worst kind of younger sibling. Always a narc.
“I’ve been around there,” the sailor says. “Morocco, Tunisia, Libya. My ship refueled all over the Mediterranean.”
“You did?” she asks. Eyes meet – break immediately, her gaze to the burnished crucifix around his neck, to the pin-up on his arm, to her work; she tries to read but cannot keep from staring. He smiles, a nice gesture in theory, but the rot in his teeth and his peeling lips make for a different picture, an uneasy smile, (one might even call it haunting, but that would be a rude thing to say).
“What are you staring at?” he asks.
“Nothing.” Back to studying. Kids are weird. Her fingers follow the cities on the map. She mouths the capitals and their countries: Cairo, Egypt; Tunis, Tunisia; Marrakech, Morocco.
“I’ve been to Marrakech,” he says. “A couple times. I’ve been to Marrakech.” Smacks a finger down on the map, coffee drips and wets the paper. “Marrakech is a whore’s town. Nothing there but whores and hookah and hash. The Three H’s. Sorta.”
Feet on stairs, the sailor cuts himself off, drops back in his chair, oh look at this super interesting something on my phone; his sister’s wife carries a basket of laundry through the kitchen. Suspicious, she asks: “Did I hear talking in here?”
“Yeah,” the sailor says. “We were talking.” What an odd question.
“What about?” She shifts the basket.
The sailor gives it a good few seconds: “Just telling her… I’ve been to a lot of the places she’s studying. My ship filled up all over North Africa. The Mediterranean. Both. I mean, North Africa is on the Mediterranean, some of it.”
His sister’s wife nods like oh that’s interesting, I don’t care, you’re acting weird.
“He said Marrakech is a whore’s town,” the daughter adds; he blushes, pursed lips. Ah shit. His sister’s wife glares at him, but decides to let it slide this time. He’s a guest. He gets a little leniency. But when she says nothing, the sailor thinks that oh, maybe it wasn’t such a terrible thing to say. Maybe she’s the sex positive kind of lesbian. Maybe Aubrey already knows about STDs and safe sex and prostitution. Hard to remember what Sarah was like when he last shipped off. Had only just started dating Jean; hadn’t introduced her to the family; didn’t have the gay-ass haircut. Hard enough to remember what someone was like five years ago, harder still to know who they’ve become since.
“What about Tunis?” Aubrey asks. He says he’s picked up cargo out of Tunis but has sense enough to stop there. She is unsatisfied and prods: what was Tunis like; it was okay; that’s not very specific; it’s not much. Should’ve said he’d never been to Tunis. Goddamn idiot. Can’t keep your fucking mouth shut.
“It’s the capital,” she says.
“The capital isn’t always the biggest city. Like… Albany. Smaller than New York City.”
“It is the biggest city.” Smarmy. Mini-Sarah. Fucking smarmy.
He runs out of ways to lie: “I got the clap in Tunis.” Nope. “It wasn’t my favorite town.” There we go; maybe she’ll focus on that part.
“What’s the clap?”
Nope. “I got sick.” Which is not a lie. “Really sick,” but maybe let’s stop there. “Some diseases are very contagious. You know what contagious is? Not fun, not… not fun. Wouldn’t recommend it.” It just keeps coming, what the hell is going on.
That’s innocuous, right? “Contagious means that if I have a disease, and it’s contagious, it’s easy for you to get it. Like head lice, if someone at your school has head lice, it’ll be easy for you to get it.”
“So if someone at school has the clap, will I get it?”
“Probably no one at your school has the clap. None of the kids. Maybe some of the teachers. But probably not the kids.”
“It’s not really a thing kids get, it’s mostly adults.”
“Kids can’t get it?”
“They don’t; not as much.”
A semblance of self-awareness. Divert: “Why don’t you tell me a little bit more about what it is you’re studying.” He leans over the map, examining the pastel countries with strained interest.
But (like most all children), she has a keen sense of when an adult is trying to distract her: “Why won’t you tell me what the clap is.”
He diverts again and she presses – caught in a cycle. And (like most all parents), the wife of the sister of the sailor from the oil tanker has an uncanny ability to pass within earshot just as a conversation comes to its most wildly inappropriate head.
Aubrey whines: “Why won’t you tell me about the clap!”
Jean asks to see the sailor in the other room.
The daughter continues: “Why won’t you tell me about the clap, and why won’t I get the clap, and somebody tell me what the clap is!”
The sailor has, by virtue of not being a complete dipshit, realized that maybe these aren’t the sex-positive kind of lesbian. That’s maybe not the lesson he ought to have learned, but here we are. Jean drops the clean laundry on the dining room table and demands to know why in the hell the sailor thought telling a seven year old she was going to get the clap was a good idea.
Flustered, he says: “To be fair, I did tell her she probably wouldn’t get the clap.”
“Really? That’s your play, really? That’s what you’re going with. How is that better?”
“She asked. I didn’t know what to say.”
“She asked,” snipping. “She just walked up to you and asked about STDs?”
“Well, she asked about Tunis.”
“Oh, she asked about Tunis. Tunis! She asked about Tunis. Well obviously! She asked about Tunis! You have to talk about STDs and whores and god-knows-what-else because she asked about Tunis! And everyone knows that Tunis is nothing more than a town full of whores!”
“No. He said that Marrakech is the whore’s town.”
“Aubrey! Don’t eavesdrop; go back to studying.”
The sailor squeaks: “That was the only thing that happened to me in Tunis! I got… sick and… well that was it. I was sick a couple days and then we shipped out. I couldn’t think of something else to say, okay? She kept pressing me for answers.”
“I didn’t realize I’d raised a cop. I should push her to join the CIA. She’ll be a great interrogator if she can accidentally make a grown man spill wildly-inappropriate secrets.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I’m just saying I’m not – I’m not good with kids. I shouldn’t have said that, any of that stuff. I couldn’t think of anything.”
“Lie,” she says. “Lie. Say it was nice. Say you went to the beach. Say you met a monkey. Do not bring up whores. Do not bring up STDs, illegal drugs, legal drugs, booze, whatever else the hell you get up to around her, okay? We stick to PG topics here. No, G topics, let’s stick to G topics.”
Definitely not the sex-positive kind of lesbian. Starting to seem like the raging-bitch dyke kind.
While she is speaking, Sarah carries a white plastic cart filled with cleaning supplies down the stairs. The carrier smells like processed lemon. “Jean,” she says. “What is going on here.”
Aubrey butts in: “Mommy, what’s the clap. Have you ever had the clap?”
The sailor mouths: “Have you?” and Sarah shakes her head, appalled.
“What,” she says, “is going on? Why is our daughter talking about the clap?”
“Ask your brother,” Jean says.
“Why are you talking to Aubrey about STDs? What would make you think that’s okay? She’s seven.”
“I – Um – I – You know… the conversation just really got out of hand.”
“We left you alone for five minutes,” Jean continues.
“I’m not great with kids. I’ve been on a boat for five years… with a bunch of dudes… my filter’s not in great shape. I wasn’t good with kids before I shipped out – I’m definitely not now. I – I probably shouldn’t have talked about STDs,” he adds, mournful (and a touch histrionic). “I’m sorry. I fucked up.” A beat. “I should probably try not to say fuck either.”
“Probably not,” Sarah says, something of a laugh in her voice. Jean remains icy. She storms up the stairs with her laundry. Once she is out of earshot, Sarah adds: “Don’t fret too much. Aubrey will forget in like 15 minutes. Kids get distracted easy; they’re idiots. Really, don’t stress too much about it.” She turns to the hallway bathroom and stops – the cart dangles on her arm like a ski lift chair. “But seriously, cut it out with the STD-whore-whatever talk, okay? If you can’t think of anything else to say, just walk away. Seriously. Stand up; walk away.”
“Understood,” he says.
“Can you manage to hang out for a bit, and then we’ll go to a movie. There’s one Aubrey’s been dying to see. Especially with her uncle. Can you stay out of trouble for a few minutes?”
He says it sounds fine, and he asks if she minds if he goes onto the front porch to have a smoke. She says yes, but there’s that way people slack their shoulders, lower their eyes when they don’t want to say they disapprove, but it hurts their heart when you go and do something like that – it hurts her heart to see him smoke. She tells him to pick up the ashes and the butts because Jean doesn’t like smoking. He says Jean’s a little uptight, but Sarah says she’s not that bad. He decides he probably shouldn’t say anything more. He’s learning, see. Not (quite) as dumb as he looks.
He finds his way to a rocking chair and stares out at the cul-de-sac. A neighbor struggling with a push mower waves; the sailor waves back. They do not know each other. A woman walks to her van and straps her infant in the backseat; she waves; the sailor waves back. They do not know each other. The sky is clear, clouds sparse, but the sun weak nonetheless. The sailor pulls a packet of Reds from his pocket, a mini Bic stored inside. The Bic is lavender, like Libya. Smokes in the chair, forgets to grab something to ash in, so he kicks the ashes between the planks of the porch as they fall. Studies his fingernails: short, ragged, index finger tobacco-stained like his lips. Nice out here. Quiet. Calm. Suburban. Nice. Feel a little guilty smoking.
Porch is right under the master bedroom. Can’t make out what they’re saying. Lets you cheat a couple extra sq. ft. out of the floor-plan. Smart move, smart move. Looks like their architect was the only smart architect on the block. Porch should always be under the master bedroom, under some room, maybe a bonus room if not the master. Can’t make out what they’re saying – it’s not good, don’t need to hear it – it’s never good what anyone’s saying. Can’t remember the last time anyone had anything good to say. Cook said he liked the pin-up. Said it reminded him of his sister. She’s a stripper; she’s a dancer. That doesn’t count. One of them’s storming out of the room, probably Jean; if one of them’s a dyke, it’s Jean; neither of them’s a dyke, but if one of them was to be a dyke, Jean would be the dyke. Guy across the street needs to get a real lawnmower. Sweaty as fuck. Volcano nipples showing through his shirt. Woman with the kids sees smoke; looking meaner. Bitchy. Jean’s kind of a bitch. Overcompensating. Kid didn’t come outta her pussy so she’s gotta prove she’s in charge. Overcompensating. Weather’s nice. Little breeze. Quiet. Jean’s kind of a bitch. Volcano nipples going inside. Other one stomping after the first – Sarah after Jean, probably, probably. Light a new cig. Running low. Sweep butt under the porch. Is it acceptable to ask them to stop at a gas station on the way to the movie to pick up more? That’s an obvious no; no, stupid. Woman puts her kid in the van and pulls away, no wave this time. Can’t blame her. Can’t blame her. Should’ve gone around back so the neighbors wouldn’t get mad. What if Aubrey had come out? What if she comes out front? Shit. Shit. Just hope she stays inside. Hope she’s not too excited to see me. Hope she’s young enough to not realize they’re only letting me stay here because no one else wants me. Good kid. Smart kid. Fuck.
Sarah comes onto the porch while he is finishing his second. He does not wait before lighting up a third. There is silence. A mosquito buzzing. Silence.
“We’re getting ready to go. Jean’s just finishing up the laundry. You need anything washed?”
“No thanks. We washed everything before we disembarked.”
“They have washing machines on board?”
“We’re not animals.” Laugh line. “I mean – we might be animals, but that’s not why.” Another laugh, and silence. “There time for me to finish this?” She nods. She hesitates. “You want one?” he asks. He holds up the pack. Hesitant but she joins him. They sit together on the porch smoking. He says: “Your wife doesn’t like me.” Long inhale, exhale, and again. They wait. Inhale, exhale, again.
Too long to respond: “It’s not that she doesn’t like you.”
“She doesn’t like me.”
Too long again: “It’s a little more complicated than that.”
He insists: “She doesn’t like me.” Lingering.
“She’s not used to you. There’s a difference. I swear, I swear. There’s a difference. She’s not great with men, okay? She’s not great with family either. So she’s really not great with men in the family, okay? She’s had a… I don’t know. She’s had a tricky life, you’ve gotta understand. It’s -” She shrugs. “It’s not personal.”
“Look, I know I said some less than great things. Around, around Aubrey. That’s on me. I know. I understand why she doesn’t like me – doesn’t understand me, I guess – that’s fair, I’m not contesting that – I’m not a great guy.”
“You’re not a bad guy.” Forced smiles from both of them. “Really,” she says, “you’re not a bad guy.” Her voice is low and calm and smooth and not quite reassuring enough. He shrugs and turns away. His eyes follow the mosquito around the porch. She tries again, reaching for his hand. “I wouldn’t let you in my house, around my kid, if I thought you were a bad guy. I’m sure being back here, back on land, it’s gotta be hard, different, something.”
He stands: “I should go.” The mosquito lands on his arm.
Deliberate: “Well we’re all gonna go in a few minutes.”
“C’mon.” She plays wide-eyed dumb. “I should leave, stay in a motel. There’s a couple of guys actually, in the Motel 6 over by the Costco. I’ll stay with them until next time I ship out. I’m causing issues.”
“You’re not,” she insists (because she has to).
“I am – Jean hates me. I’m gonna fuck up your kid. Jean’s gonna be pissed I got you smoking. I’m a problem.”
“You’re not a problem.”
“You know I am. I’m a burden on you. I was a burden on Mom-”
“I bet you weren’t a burden on the boat.”
“So, what, I should stay on a boat my whole life?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying.”
“No, that’s what I’m saying.”
She begins to rebut – his expression stops her, a slackness in his face, in his shoulders, an acceptance. He scratches the mosquito bite; it swells to the size of a quarter; he scratches until the skin breaks. They stand in silence. A tension, palpable, thick like a humid day.
The mosquito buzzes to her. She swats it away, blowing smoke all around the porch. “My hair’s gonna smell like smoke. Jean’s gonna be so pissed,” she says, stabbing out the cig on the porch. She kicks the ashes in between the boards as he does. “I’m just gonna blame you.”
“She’s a little uptight.”
“She’s not that bad. I mean I like her a lot. Obviously. She’s a little suburban. But there’s nothing wrong with that. We can’t all be sailors on the high seas. The two of you – otherwise – you’re more alike than either of you would like to admit.”
“Are you calling me suburban?”
She chuckles. “There’s worse things to be called. Finish up. We’ll leave as soon as I find a stick of gum.”
The ride to the theater passes without incident, in no small part because Jean cranked up the radio as soon as she sat down. She wheels them into the shopping center, through a roundabout with a concrete fountain in the middle. As they pass the Pinkberry, Aubrey shouts over the radio for FroYo. Jean turns up the radio; Sarah turns it off and tells Aubrey that the movie is the treat for today, and you only get one treat in a day. (Some people don’t get any treats in a day; some people all they get is just fucking chowder). Aubrey pouts. The sailor sits quietly with his knees wedged up against the back of Sarah’s seat.
The thing about the movie being a treat is that, to its credit, it comes with a number of supplementary treats: popcorn and soda and the sailor buys himself a box of Raisinets which he ought to share with Aubrey because how rude would that be to buy candy and not share with the family that’s sharing their popcorn and their soda and their home and their time and their lives with him. He slips into the bathroom while Sarah and Aubrey find seats because he was kicking ashes under the porch while everyone was getting ready to go. As a result, the sailor is third in the last available set of 4 seats. Two weeks after the movie’s release, all the parents who wanted to miss the opening rush bring their kids to see it, duplicating the very fervor they sought to avoid. Jean arrives fourth; the sailor stands to let her through, but Sarah says, no, it’s fine, the movie’s about to start, and so they sit (aisle, inward): Jean, the sailor, Aubrey, Sarah. (This may not be the most favorable seating arrangement.)
During the previews, the sailor asks for the popcorn. Jean pretends she cannot hear him, so he leans way forward and back and rocks back and forth and back and forth and back and forth until he catches Sarah’s eye. Sarah is happy to pass down the popcorn. He unfolds a napkin and begins scooping into his lap.
Jean hisses: “Don’t eat it all.”
He says, “I’m getting enough for the whole movie,” (which no one has ever done – no matter how much you put in your lap. It’s always gone halfway through the previews.)
“Still…” trailing off as the “Turn off your goddamn phone” reel plays. The sailor passes the popcorn back and it remains with Aubrey and Sarah for the remainder of the movie (even though the sailor finishes his popcorn – as expected – during the previews).
About half an hour in, Aubrey asks if she can try some of the sailor’s Raisinets. Jean says: “No, you won’t like them,” and Aubrey asks, “Why not,” and Jean says, “You won’t like them,” and the sailor says, “Why don’t you just let her try a few? What harm could there be?” Not wanting to start a whole thing in a crowded theater, Jean says: “Fine, fine, do whatever you want. You know best. I’m just her mother.” The sailor reaches across to Aubrey. She pops a handful of Raisinets in her mouth and spits them right back out onto the floor. Jean crouches down into the gap between the floor and the back of the next row of chairs to dig out a handful of half-chewed Raisinets. She wraps them in a napkin, apologizes to the family in front of them and mutters to the sailor: “That’s why.”
Once the movie ends, Sarah volunteers (in some misguided optimism) to pull the car around; the others wait by the fountain. Aubrey kneels between the two adults, swirling her hands in the water, while Jean scrolls through her phone, a concerted effort to not talk to the sailor. The sailor from the oil tanker sits for a minute, but the silence begins to irk him. And it irks him, and it irks him, until he says probably the very first thing that popped into his head:
“You ever wonder if the people who make these kinds of movies are all furries.” Jean glares. “I just always wondered, because like, why else make these animal-people with, like,” he gestures breasts on his chests (very subtle), “you know, if you’re not a furry.”
“It’s a children’s movie,” Jean snaps. “Animals are cute. It’s not that weird. It’s a cartoon. For kids. There’s nothing else to it.”
“What’s a furry?” Aubrey turns herself around.
Jean says to the sailor, “This is what I wanted to avoid,” and to Aubrey: “It’s nothing sweetie, don’t worry about it.” Definitely not the sex-positive kind.
The sailor says, “It’s like when a person likes animals or animals that look like people.”
“If I like horses. Am I a furry?”
Jean pats her on the knee. “Okay honey, let’s not say that anymore,” but Aubrey must ask why, and she asks why, and asks why and asks why, and when Jean insists she cut it out, she asks if a furry is a bad thing.
The sailor takes it upon himself to educate: “No, it’s not a bad thing, maybe a little unusual, but everyone’s a little unusual,” (what a teaching moment), “but no it’s not bad, no.” Jean tells him to shut up, tells him she’s her mother. Which he definitely misinterprets: “Yeah, kinda like that. It’s when people like animals the same way your moms like each other.”
She stands: “Shut the hell up. I am her mother. I say what’s okay for my child to hear!”
“Why is it bad?” Aubrey asks.
“It’s not bad,” the sailor insists.
“Stop saying this shit to my daughter!”
“Then why are you two yelling!”
“I mean, she’s really more of Sarah’s daughter, isn’t she?
Sarah pulls up in the Expedition as Jean loses her shit, as Jean tells the sailor to shut the fuck up, as Jean buries her fist in the sailor’s jaw. And she repeats: “Shut the fuck up.”
They drive home in silence, the sailor holding a roll of paper towels from the movie theater bathroom to his mouth; Jean holding a roll of her own to her hand. The car smells like copper. The sailor from the oil tanker gathers his things from the guest room and leaves for the Motel 6 by the Costco, Aubrey resumes her studying, Jean rotates the laundry, and Sarah sits on the front porch, rocking.
[Check out Evan Marcey’s back porch advice here]