Steve is a repeat offender. We mean that we keep publishing his work not because he has blackmail on us or is holding Mr Vittles hostage (remember that he likes his belly rubbed after eating his treats!), but because his work is everything we’ve ever looked for in a story. His stories are authentic in voice, endearing without being sappy, well crafted, and memorable. Without any further…I invite you to enjoy The Docks (now can I have me cat back?).
I am a refugee from my former life. This room in this hotel is my escape. Lying on the dingy yellow sheet I can feel the tears and rips in the mattress beneath it. Blades of a wood fan in the middle of the room whirl slowly about. The constant almost rhythmic sound of the air being churned about is hypnotic. The netting surrounding the bed flutters almost imperceptibly. The sheer gauzy canopy over the bed has been sewn in zigzag fashion in several places, like wounds hastily stitched. Rickety shutters bang against the window frame and shake the pane of glass. One lamp on a wicker stand by the bed dimly lights the room with a low wattage bulb. It is a room full of shadows.
Aromas of stale body odors, the remnants of sex and dried vomit clings to everything like rancid perfume. Lying naked, my body is drenched in sweat. It runs in rivulets down the middle of my pectoral muscles, under my arms and between my legs. The sheet is soaked. I run my hand across my face, wiping away the perspiration that flows from my pores. My beard stubble is like sand paper.
There is a loud knock on the door. The sound of it reverberates. I don’t move a muscle. As I concentrate on a mosquito trying to penetrate the netting, I hear two voices. One female and one male. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but I have no doubts about what is being said.
“You in there?” It is Mrs. Dusault. Her voice is low and gravely; a heavy smoker’s voice.
I don’t answer.
After one more knock I hear their soft footsteps on the straw rug in the hallway as they leave. I close my eyes and try to imagine being anywhere but here.
I awake with a start. I believe it is the middle of the night. The shutter has stopped banging. I push aside the netting and step over my duffel bag. As I raise the window the scents of fresh rain and saltwater waft in. Pushing aside the shutters the light from a full moon fills the room. The street is wet and shiny and reflects the light from the neon signs on the buildings along the alley way. I raise my arms and let the warm breeze dry the sweat in my armpits.
There are no sounds coming from the hallway.
I push aside the pile of clothes on the floor and stretch out, and raise up by my extended arms and tips of my toes, and do one hundred pushups. Flipping over and lying flat on my back I do one hundred set ups and then raise my knees and do fifty crunches. As I stand I catch my reflection in the mirror over the dresser. I look different then I did when I arrived here three weeks before, but not in a way I can put my finger on.
The bruising around my eye has gone from purple to pink.
In the small bathroom I stand at the sink and wet the washcloth and run it over my body and between my legs. Using an old disposable razor I scrape the whiskers from my face. I bend down and put my mouth to the single faucet and drink in several mouthfuls of the tepid water and swallow. While standing at the toilet I see an eyeball staring at me through the small hole in the wall. I punch the wall and the eye disappears. On the wall the graffiti is sexually explicit and frequently includes the price for one sex act or another. There has been no attempt to paint over it.
Among the articles of my uniform on the floor that need washing, I find the cleanest and slip into the pants and shirt and quietly go out the door.
“You need to make a few bucks?” a young man wearing a pair of navy issued boxer shorts whispers from the open doorway of his room. His was the eye watching me. He rubs his crotch suggestively.
“No thanks,” I say. “I’m not that desperate.”
“If you change your mind just knock three times on the bathroom wall,” he says.
I go to the end of the hallway and open the door leading to the back stairs. They are dark and reek of alcohol and urine. At the bottom I open the door and step out into the alley. At street level and between the rows of old buildings there is no breeze and the humidity envelops me.
From the tall lampposts a hazy light is cast along the street. Palm fronds, plastic bags and other debris lay in the street, left there by the recent passing storm. Sea waves crash gently against the hulls of the moored ships. I count flags from no fewer than a dozen different countries flying from the large and small naval and commercial ships that line the docks. It’s that time near dawn when no one is walking about.
Three blocks down from where I came out of the alleyway I am about to open a door with a sign hanging from a metal rod that reads Kwan’s. It is written in English and beneath that in Korean. I get a tap on my shoulder and turn.
“You looking for what mama can give you?” the woman asks. Her age is indeterminate, but she looks haggard and frail. Her blonde hair is long and scraggly and as she smiles she displays two missing upper front teeth. There are dark circles around her eyes. In the dull light she looks more dead than alive.
“Not tonight sweetheart,” I tell her.
She steps closer and runs her hand up the inside of my leg. Her breath smells like rust. I gently push her hand away.
“I don’t have any money for that sort of thing,” I say.
“There’s no charge,” she says as her fingers flutter nervously over her soiled blouse front.
I feel a sudden foreign feeling of tenderness toward her. “Maybe another time.”
I open the door and walk in, looking back to see the woman walking away just as the door begins to close.
Kwan’s is brightly lit and filled with cigarette smoke. Red tablecloths are draped over six round tables in the middle of the room, and red leather covers the seats of the four booths that line one wall. Gold dragons are painted along the wall. The bar is short and has only two stools at it. Two men in naval uniforms that I don’t recognize are seated on one couch in one of the booths with a young woman who looks Asian seated between them. They both have their hands up her short skirt. None of them is making a sound. It’s like watching pornographic mime.
“You’re back,” Jasper says from behind the bar. He’s wiping a glass with a dish rag.
I go to the bar. “How about a drink?”
“You got any money tonight?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“No can do then,” he says. “We’re not running a charity here you know.” He tosses the towel over one shoulder and stacks the glass on top of several others, forming a pyramid. “Benny’s in. He may have a little work for you. He’s in the back.”
I go through a pair of red curtains and into a small room. There’s a sofa against a wall and camera lights and a video camera aimed toward it. Benny comes out of the shadows in a corner of the room. A lit cigarette is dangling from his lower lip. He scratches at his huge belly covered by a blue silk robe.
“Jasper said you might have some work for me,” I say.
“I thought you were through doing this sort of thing,” he says.
“I’m desperate,” I say. I hold out my trembling hand. “I need a drink and I’m out of dough.”
He takes a small wad of cash out of a pocket in the robe and counts out twenty American dollars. He tosses them on the sofa.
“Same as last time,” he says as he aims the camera at me. “Strip down and sit on the sofa and I film you doing just like you did before.”
I pick up the money and shove it into my pocket and kick off my shoes, remove my shirt and undo my pants.
When I come out of the room I lay the money on the bar. “Keep ’em coming,” I tell Jasper.
He picks up the money. “This will still leave you owing some on your tab.” He picks up a bottle of whiskey from the liquor bottles on a shelf behind the bar.
“I’ll deal with that later,” I say.
Coming out of Kwan’s the unexpected sunlight momentarily blinds me. Sailors, commercial fishing crew, and tradesmen are beginning to crowd the docks. I carry with me the smell of smoke, whiskey and my ejaculate. At the alley I turn to go back into the hotel the way that I left it.
Going up the stairs of the hotel I wonder for the hundredth time if going AWOL had been a good idea. Now, even if I wanted to return, my ship has already gone back to sea. Giving myself up would mean being placed in the brig before being put on a new ship.
I was never meant to be a sailor. It is a world of extremes, from claustrophobia inside the ship to the seeming endlessness of the open ocean. My future feels like looking into the proverbial tunnel with no light at the end. I lick my lips, thirsty already for another drink.
I open the door to the floor that my room is on. Mrs. Dusault is standing at my door. She turns and looks at me.
“Your rent is due,” she says. She’s very short with a bulldog face of mixed nationalities. Her voice grates on my ears. There is roughness in it and in her manner. I know she means business. I have a fading blackened eye given to me by one of her thugs the last time I was late with the rent. “The next time you’re late you’ll get worse before I throw you out,” she had warned me.
The man in his boxers in the room next to mine opens his door and looks out.
“Give me until tomorrow morning,” I ask. “I have some money being sent to me.”
Mrs. Dusault eyes narrow to thin slits. Raspily she says “I’ll be back tomorrow morning.” She goes down the hallway and turns at the top of the stairs.
The man closes his door.
I pull the shutters closed. A hot breeze squeezes through the slats. The room is already stifling. I remove my clothes and look at my face in the mirror. The eyes staring at me are bloodshot and seem like a stranger’s.
I go into the bathroom and take a piss. The scent of my dried ejaculate wafts up. I go to the sink and wash my dick and drink from the faucet.
I look over and see his eye looking at me through the hole in the wall.
On the bed and lying on the crumpled sheet I watch the blades of the fan slowly turn. I want to sleep but each time I close my eyes images of home haunt me. I see my wife’s face.
Sweating, needing a drink, I get up and do one hundred push ups and one hundred sit ups and fifty crunches.
I go into the bathroom and turn on the faucet and wait. When the eye appears at the hole I turn off the water and stand so that the eye can see all of me. I knock three times on the wall.
Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over eighty short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several American states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and writes full time. He is on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012966314127 and Twitter @carrsteven960.