Saturday, May 10, 2008

Oscar Sloane at sea

He lay on his bunk listening to the sound of water against the steel hull, the unreasoning, unrelenting force of the sea. He had been playing solitaire. Now the cards appeared to be the tortured machinations of a malign consciousness that dogged his efforts to exist. In his windowless cubicle he imagined the sound of the waves rushing past the hull as the rush of blood in the womb. How terrible to be confined in the womb, tossed and jolted by an unseen, uncontrollable, invisible presence. The image of his dinner came to him unbidden. Ham and biscuits—it seemed strange that he had never realized how inherently unappetizing—no, how deeply revolting—these foods were. He closed his eyes again, begging elusive sleep to remove him from the wasteland of the waking world.

He found himself wearing the uniform of a gas station attendant, squinting up at the receding window in the cab of a gigantic semi. The driver looked down slowly, flames licking around his head. The tanks were bottomless and he stood for what seemed like hours with the pump in his hand, breathing bittersweet diesel until it had lodged in his lungs. Then the truck combusted, the driver rising up in a jet of orange, his malevolent laugh blending with the apocalyptic boom of the explosion. Oscar jerked awake. Feet were pounding along the deck. He pushed himself upright and grappled his way to the door of his cabin. Something had happened and through the haze obscuring his thoughts, he grasped that his journey had come to an end.

The ship’s frame shuddered amid waves that sent torrents over the gunwales, spray catching him in the face as he wrenched open the steel door of his cage. He saw whitecaps illuminated against the fluctuating dark surface of the sea, the familiar points of Ursa Major benign in the still, ecstatic arc of the sky.

With a crippled engine it would take days to return to port. The radio was bleating static and exotic accented English. He vaguely understood that another ship was coming to assist. He knew only that their vessel might never return, that Vallarta might not exist—his single certainty the present, endless moment in which he lay rocking in the prehistoric swells.

He had grown to anticipate meal times with the enthusiasm of a prisoner. One afternoon he lay, again, on his bunk after lunch. The tall African cook had sent out the food, which was growing pale and strange, with a faintly Gallic shrug. A paperback was propped in his hand, his mind straying from the suddenly pointless activity on the page. As the book dropped to his chest and the air around him grew heavy, Felix, the old man at the repair shop, appeared. He was wearing a blue bowtie and sunglasses that completely obscured his eyes.

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