Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Excerpt from Handcarved Elephants

Tuesdays are the day I reserve for showcasing my work. Today I would like to give an excerpt from a work-in-progress short story that takes place in Thailand. Enjoy....

The humid sea breeze pounded my face as I staggered to the bow. I leaned against the railing where port and starboard forged a spearhead to cleave the cerulean plain, and with my back to the ship, I saw the immensity—sea and sky, and the sun hovering inches above the vanishing point. It silenced my racing mind and weighed on my chest with such force that I struggled to intake air. Shouts echoed from behind me, angry and belligerent, but they no longer mattered. Their rage was directed at me, but they would have to sort it out themselves. All I could think of now was how to lose myself in that gigantic yellow disk as it touched the water. I stared at the sun until my eyes burned and I had to look away, anywhere but behind me. Due east I saw a small and insignificant slash of color on the horizon that I knew must be the island of Phuket, Thailand. The passenger yacht under my feet dipped, plunging down then up, yet the island stayed its course, became the only solid, immovable point of reference in my world.

My eyes locked on that strip of land as I stepped back from the railing, spread my feet across the teak planks, and leaned into the wind. I raised my arms like angel wings, as if I were a second jib, balancing resistance against gravity until it felt like I was soaring above the ship’s mainsail, leaving my sordid past behind and vaulting over virgin territory. It felt epic, a sensation of freedom I’d never experienced before. My feet, however, never left the deck.

The island was not our ship’s destination, but at that moment I knew it held some power over me, a place that could either free or kill me. Perhaps in my case death was the only freedom. The unknown quantity of ‘X’ in the equation of existence.

Below decks, the incensed voices grew in volume. At the same time I heard the sandpaper scuff of deck shoes trundling toward me, and realized it must be the captain. I glanced over my shoulder to confirm what I already knew. Captain Mike MacDougal had a large handsome head, and his body was as stout and chunky as a Shetland pony. He was a swarthy man in his mid-fifties, affable and rapaciously lusty for someone his age. I knew that for a fact because I had shared his cabin—his bunk—since the day he hired me as first mate of The Wanderbird seven months earlier. He wore khaki cargo pants and a blue denim shirt unbuttoned to his belly, and just then, he was panting, sweating, and wildeyed. Captain Mike was black Irish, and when his temper was up, his face boiled a scalded red.

“Leave me the hell alone,” I hissed through clenched teeth.

“Corban,” Mike said with a level voice, “come below and tell all those miserable Christian bastards that this is all some mixup, that you never touched Jason Starling.”

“I said leave me alone, and for god sakes button up your shirt.”

“Corban, you can’t ignore this. Jason is underage. His father is demanding that we put in at Patong tonight so he can hand you over to the authorities. If you’re convicted, it means ten or twenty years in a Thai prison, and you can’t imagine what kind of hell that is.”

The ship steadily sailed closer to land, and Phuket began to take shape, the edges soft and muted, the colors more distinct. I realized Captain Mike had already made the decision to make harbor. Fear settled in my gut like fine silt. “Unlock the liquor cabinet,” I croaked, “I need a stiff belt.”

“That won’t do any good,” Mike said. “If you start drinking now, you won’t stop. It’ll be just like the last time.” He paused at the same time the voices below hushed. All I could hear was my heart recklessly beating in liquid gushes and the wind streaming past my ears. “If you won’t tell them, at least tell me. Did you fuck the kid?” When I didn’t answer he raised his voice for the first time. “Dammit, I need to know. Is it true?”

Was he playing the responsible captain of a third-rate cruise ship protecting his passengers or was he simply a jealous lover? Did it even matter which? I knew already that he and I could not go on as before. After feasting on ambrosia, how could I possibly return to the swill he offered?
The deck pitched and I had to seize the railing to stay on my feet. Mike grabbed hold of my waist, trying to steady me, but I couldn’t stand to have him touch me now, not after what had happened. I shoved him away.

A wail floated up from below, sounding vaguely like a wounded hyena. It had to be Mrs. Starling, Jason’s mother. That three-hundred-pound medusa could turn a man to stone with a single glance. Her voice ran up the scale until it was so high it could only be detected by bats.
“A drink, dammit. I need it to steady my nerves.”

Mike turned to one of the two Malaysian deck hands. “Noi, fetch a cold Singha, chop chop!” The boy took off along the deck.

Beer? I thought, might as well be mother’s milk. I needed something industrial strength to battle the demons that young Jason had whipped up in my chest, and the visions of Luke now circling my head. This was not a case of dabbling with a teenager, this was the weight of decades of mistakes crashing down on my shoulders, crushing me.

Mike clutched my arm. “Ten years I’ve be takin’ out parties, from Shanghai to Calcutta, and this is the worst thing that’s ever happened.” He obviously wanted to say more, but his voice gave out.

I saw Mr. Starling crawl from the hatch. Both he and his wife led a sizable congregation and also a Christian high school in the heartland of Oklahoma. Condescending assholes, both of them. The whole damned party, all eleven of them, were a football squad of pious, Republican bitches.

My eyes found Mike’s. “You’ve got to help me. Tell these mealy-mouthed twits that I’m a man of the cloth, ordained by the Catholic Church, and a servant of God himself. Tell them I could never do such a thing to an innocent boy.”

“Shit, Corban, you haven’t worn the collar in six years, and besides, Catholic priests lost their currency on that topic decades ago. Everyone knows you all diddle boys every chance you get.”

Noi ran up with an open bottle. I pressed it to my lips and tilted my head back, guzzling. Beer so cold my chest burned all the way to my stomach, but I kept swallowing until I tossed the empty bottle over the side.

“Why, Corban?” Mike asked, no demanded. “Why him?”

“Innocence, purity,” I said. “I love boys because they live outside the realm of cynicism and irony.”

“Christ, if you wanted chicken you could have had Noi or Pic, they’ve been wiggling their fannies under your nose since you came aboard. But no, you’ve got to chase after a paying customer, a lily-white, Baptist client. I mean, what the fuck!”

“Noi and Pic aren’t Luke. I saw something of Luke in this kid.”

“Right, that boy ruined you once, and you keep letting him drag you back down every time you stand up.”

“Perhaps I was seduced by Jason’s beauty. Surely that’s something you can understand.”
“Beauty is a whore, I like my freedom better. Once you’re rotting in a Thai prison, you’ll know exactly what I mean.”

I already knew. Two years in a Texas state prison, convicted of the same crime, had not only stripped me of my vestments, it had taught me a valuable lesson: that I was weak. I had barely survived Huntsville, and a Thai prison would no doubt kill me. I had been spiraling downhill for years, until taking this job, which I had presumed was rock bottom. I loved being on the water, but letting the captain slobber over my athletic, thirty-year-old body every night had made it a living torment. During sex, he was a pig at a trough, clumsy and often brutal. It wasn’t that much different than Huntsville. I had put up with this ill-treatment as a form of atonement, which at that moment seemed a ridiculously empty gesture.

Yes, I had thought this was rock bottom, the lowest rung of hell, but thinking of Thai prison, I knew there were deeper levels to fall to, more torment to experience before the freedom of death.

“Mike, don’t anchor until we can talk these folks down. We’ve got to stick together. It’s a test of strength between them and us, you know that don’t you? Don’t give in. Don’t let them win.”

Mike shook his head. “We’ve got to dock some time, and when we do those people mean to see you hang. Face it, you flew too close to the sun, my friend, and you charred your wings but good.”

“Would it really do any good to tell them I didn’t touch him?”

Mike looked past me, out over the vast ocean. “What’s got this whole ship rucked up is that kid is in his cabin bawling like a baby, saying how much he loves you.”

“So nobody actually knows anything for sure?” I asked, trying to see a thread of light through the darkness.

“Look, as long as that kid keeps sobbing, everybody has convicted you. Sooner or later, they’ll drag the truth out of him.”

Then I’m screwed. We’re all screwed. That last glimmer of escape dimmed. Why, why did foul luck chase me across the globe like a bloodhound on the scent?

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