Some characters belong on land, others don’t. They feel tied down, living some shitty life in a run-down third floor shanty in some shitty New England sea town or even worse a shitty, rusted-out shell of a town on Lake Michigan. Maybe Melville told the story best about the restlessess of the sailor and the call of the sea. Sailors are an odd sort. They have strange predilections that a regular land-lubber might find just a little bit disturbing. A man gets lonely at sea and you never know what might happen.
THE COLD NORTH ATLANTIC
Two sailors were standing in the lurid moonlight at the shitty salt-rusted rail of the Merchant Marine ship. In the gloom, one could faintly make out the one sailor hand a pack of Kanawha brand cigarettes to the other sailor. Each lit up, cupping their hands against the salty wind. Only the cigarette, with its smooth, hypnotic, sometimes silky, luxurious, sometimes erotically cool, sweet-hot, nicotine-laced, tar-stoked smoke could cut through a cool night on the North Atlantic.
“How long have we been doing this Curt?”
“Long as I can remember. Beats sittin’ around the holler in Beckley.”
“You ever miss West Virginia?”
“Every day Sam, but I’ve been gone a long time now.”
“When I was a little boy I wanted nothing more than to get out of West Virgina, now I wish I was back there, up in the holler, in the woods, cooking a chicken over the fire, drinkin’ my granpap’s shine.”
“I know what yer sayin’ WVA is the best. Of course some times people get a little too familiar, if you knows my meaning, get a little too close, don’t make them fine distinction ‘tween menfolk and womenfolk like they do up there in fancy Ohio.”
“Oh yeah, I can almost feel it, oh yeah. Now you got me to thinking.”
Then a bad feeling came over Cicero. The kind of bad feeling only a real sailor gets. You can sense things. You can feel things that are there, but can’t see. Just a little extra ripple in the water. A sound that cuts through all the other noise of the ocean. An evil sound. He had been at sea for too long. Maybe he saw something or maybe he felt it. But he probably was right to trust his instinct. It was in his blood. He took a long roak, then he glanced at the cigarette.
“I don’t like this Curtis. There’s something out there.”
It was U-239 on patrol. The Merchant Marine ship was like a big, slow fish just waiting for the shark. There would be another Iron Cross in it for the Kapitan. Der Kapitan was heavily bearded like a typical U-Boat Kapitan. He was wearing his sea sweater and of course an Iron Cross, the pure, delicious symbol of Blood, yes! and Iron. The symbol that would stamp out emotional and physical SCHWACHHEIT!
The two men looked up from the flotsam and jetsam to which they were clinging.
“Having a good swim ja?” Shouted the Kapitan to the men.
“You got an extra boat? “Yelled Cicero.
The Kapitan took a roak off of a Czech cigarette in the European way. He motioned to one of his sailors who released a small lifeboat into the water.
“Gut luck, ja?” Yelled the Kapitan. “I always feel bad for de sailors you know. Even tho’ you are mine enemies. Ve are like…” The Kapitan shook his cigarette for a minute. Ve are like brothers. I love the American sailor, very masculine, very how do you say, macho? Very hairy, like GYPSY!”
The men swam over to the raft.
“Much obliged, Kraut!”, yelled Curtis. Are you holding any roak? It’s the least you could do.
Cicero climbed into the raft.
“Ja ich habe gutes Roak mein friends! Not to have been worrying so much!”
The Kapitan tossed a metal object to Cicero. It was a pack of Czech cigarettes. There was an Iron Cross, 3rd Class insignia on the case.
“Thanks for the roaks Heinz! What kind of cigarettes are these?” Yelled Cicero.
“Dies are der typische Czech high-quality cigaretu. Sehr good cigaretu mein friend. You rauchen them well. Maybe after der Krieg, we meet und have a gut rauchen together?”
“Hey Heinz? did you say roak?” Asked Cicero.
“Ja, Ja, got it, got it, Rauchen, Rieken, Roak, ist all der same.”
The Kapitan took another long roak, then he raised his right arm in the fascist salute, clicked his heels and went back below. The Nazi submarine submerged.
The sea roiled for a minute, then it was dark and quiet as the last bit of burning oil succumbed to the sea. The stars were out, but there was no moon.
“Strange kind of war isn’t it, Sam?” said Curtis leaning back in the lifeboat.
Cicero lit up two roaks and handed one to Curtis.
“Ah, a Jaguru cigarette that’s one of them there European brands.” You know that Kraut sure spoke awful nice about American sailors. You don’t suppose he ever?….
“No doubt, in between the wars, there was a lot of what shall we say international relations? It’s gonna be a long night, Curtis. But with these high-end Czech cigaretus, I think we’ll be OK”
Sam pulled out the oars from the side of the little lifeboat.
“I’ll row first.”
“That should get us pretty far.”
“I never thought of that, I just row.”
“Do you even know what direction you want to go?”
“No…does it matter?”
“Then why are you rowing?”
“See if anyone else made it. This might be the only boat. Without it, these guys are as dead as a cigarette butt with no nicotine.”
Sam set the oars back in their holders. There was a little box with a survival kit.
“It’s got more cigarettes! We better keep ’em dry. No matter what as long as we have cigarettes will be OK. There’s food and water too and a mirror, but that you can get anywhere, but cigarettes? Natures healthy, golden tobacco-great for the lungs. That Kapitan was alright for a dirty, shitty Kraut who blasted our boat out of the water.
“That he was, Sam, that he was.”
Each ship in the convoy passed by one by one. Sam and Curtis watched each one cut through the water. Cicero knew that they could not stop to rescue survivors. Breaking a convoy was punishable by death. The smoke from the smoke pots on the passing vessels added to the fog and the darkness.
SOMEWHERE WEST OF ERIE, PA
Lake Erie flew by in a cool, dark panorama. You couldn’t see the lurid filth and flotsam and jetsam by day. The smoke from the engine billowed over the two men. The smoke was hot and dirty and it wafted through the cool night air. The porter adjusted his hat and jacket. He slapped Cicero on the back.”It’s been a long time brother, a long time, it’s good to see you again, but I gotta go back to work Sam. Have a good trip.”
Sam took a long look at the Lake. It was calm, placid. Far off he could see the lights from an invisible Great Lakes cargo ship headed West. Huge plumes of sweet-hot thick, black smoke billowed into the air from the smokestacks. The fresh Lake air desperately needed the hot smoky breath of the big shipping vessel to add the right flavor.
He took a long roak off of his cigarette. He pulled out his little cloth-bound green notebook and he made an entry with the date at the top of the page. He wrote down all the scoop he gained from the day. Something didn’t add up. In some ways it was too easy. Did she want him to put everything together so easy? It was definitely some kind of setup but for what? Could it be to set up an alibi? Or was this Dame determined to smoke the Rokkoman no matter what?
Sam put away his notebook. He opened the door and went back to his seat. He realized that he hadn’t eaten that day He still had some change yet. Maybe they had a sandwich in the dining car.
The small Imperial Japanese Army truck was parked under the bridge by the river. In the cab sat a Japanese officer with a strange hookah pipe in his hands. An odd bubbling sound could be heard from the truck. The officer’s eyes glazed over. He grabbed handful of rice crackers and stuffed them in his mouth. He put down the pipe and he started the truck.
The little Chinese girl ran as fast as she could down the road away from the invaders, her pigtails flying in the wind. The entire city was collapsing and burning around her. She was alone and there was nowhere safe to run. She couldn’t go home again. But she ran. Her last hope was the bridge and then the countryside. If she could just make it. There were soldiers and trucks everywhere. She could hear shooting in the distance and it quickened her heartbeat.
A truck bearing the savage indomitable, delectible glorious rising sun from the Japanese Imperial Army tracked the little girl. It pursued her across the ancient bridge. The little girl had almost made it to the other side when the driver’s door was thrown open and a large, hairy, savage Japanese soldier pulled her into the truck. He spoke Chinese but with a thick Japanese accent.
“Were you going somewhere, little girl?”
He laughed an evil laugh that came from deep within a wicked soul.
The little girl was too terrified to speak at first. She stared into the evil, glazed black eyes of the Japanese Officer.
“Do you know who I am?””
“Yes” She said in a voice that was barely audible. “You are the filthy Devil!”
He laughed again. The same wicked laugh. His laugh would echo in her ears for years.
“I am the Colonel Rokkoman Naoshimi! I am the master of a martial art known as the “Ba-Ru-Ki-Ka-Ru”. I cannot be defeated. I should have been a Ronin! And who might you be little girl!…”
He stopped for a minute and stared at the dragon pendant around her neck and the faint red tattoo on her right forearm. His mouth opened wide.
“Or should I say, your Highness! Ah-hah-hah-ah-ha-hah-hah!”
“You are a coward and a murderer! You filthy, smelly Japanese devil.” She said. “And some day I will kill you and send you to hell where you came from! and avenge my people, China!”
“You may find that to be a tall order for you at the moment. Until then, I will put you to work as my servant, your majesty! The glorious, divine Emperor will be pleased!”
The Japanese soldiers kicked in the door of the apartment. The little old Chinese man sat in the middle of the floor eating from a rice bowl with his chopsticks.
“Where is the girl?”, demanded the soldier in broken Chinese.
“There is no girl here. And you can speak your native tongue, I lived in your country for ten years on Naoshimi Island.”
One of the soldiers pointed his rifle at the old man’s head.
“Don’t try to placate me with your tales of beautiful Nippon. We are good to be rid of you, shitty old Chinaman. China’s day is done, now the rising sun shines over your weak country! Where is the girl?”
“There is no girl here.”
“I will give you one more chance old man.” He pointed the rifle at the old man. The old man smiled brightly.
The Japanese soldier fired. The rice bowl fell to the floor. The old man was dead.
FIVE MILE RUN, PITTSBURGH, PA
The vamp put down the martini glass on the bar. She took a long, slow look around the nearly empty bar. She was nothing short of smoking hot. The kind of Dame that makes even the strongest man weak in the knees. She could intimidate Clark Gable. She was hot and she knew it. But she didn’t care. She was along way from home. A home that was gone forever. Living her life between shabby laketowns and filthy dives where only a girl who ran out of time or luck would be caught dead in the first place.
She took a long roak off of a Katawba-brand North Carolina Lady’s cigarette she had in a cigarette holder.
She had jet-black, long, silky hair and a milky-white complexion, but she wore a bit of a lace veil, like she was in mourning for someone long lost to her. But you could never see her eyes. Under the veil were her shades and she never took them off. Never.
She pulled an old photograph out of her pocket. She glared under her shades at it with a violent intensity. Then she sighed and took a long, slow, healthy roak off the Katawba cigarette. The tar and nictotine was soothing. The bartender came over and gave her another drink. She nodded and he winked.
A piano player began to warm up to his audience of two. A tall, thin man walked in.
“Alex good to see ye again, me brudder, sure and begorrah, faith be the luck of the little people, we thought we lost ye’ me bye!” said the piano player in a thick Irish Brogue.
Alex was tall and thin. He set a pack of Roakanoake brand cigarettes on the piano.
“Lemme get warmed up, Paddy.”
He cleared his throat and started to sing an old ditty from the 1920s.
Padraig followed along on the piano. He tickled the ivories with his left hand while he drank his Stout with his right. His nose was beet red. He started to join in the song.
Alex glared at him and Padraig got back to his piano. Alex shook his head and kept singing his verse:
“Some people like to dance,
Some like to take a chance,
Some like to schmie the roak,
But baby this ain’t no joke,
It’s only you and me,
as long as it could be,
so take a chance on me,
and it will set me free,
So baby…take a chance…on me.
Copyright 1948, 2008 All Rights Reserved, Botendaddy
The vamp at the end of the bar slowly clapped. The blond by the wall shot her a dirty look. The vamp looked down shyly and stroked the pendant on her necklace. Alex tipped his hat to the blond. Charlie winked and began to tap a keg. McGlory trailed off on the piano.
“Still waiting on the rest of the band Paddy.” said Alex.
The phone rang. Charlie was cleaning some glasses. Something told Padraig to answer the phone.
“Aye, and who might dis be? Aye….aye…well sure, how do you know May?…Ye work for Sammy Cicero huh? That’s a name I’ve not heard in a while…Do you think? Is it so?….Aye, aye…Well, this is the place to be…She’s always here and so is the band. They kind of look out fer her…and so do I…I know I got an accent, I come from Armagh…I come here after the war to seek my fortune…No I’ve not found it yet. I knew Ian Jerrold from the Army, he’s da one plays base. He and Lynnie take care of May. It’s always been like dat…Call me anytime. I’ll keep an eye out fer Sammy.”
Padraig wrote something down on a slip of paper, then he hung up the phone.
“Get off the damn phone Paddy, we gotta be ready for the crowd.” Shouted Alex.
Padraig got back to his piano. He lit up a cigarette and he began to play.
AOMORI PREFECTURE, EMPIRE OF JAPAN
“Young Rokkoman come here!”
The young Ronin-in-training obeyed the old Ronin. Rokkoman was a good candidate, honorable, pious, intelligent and well-mannered. He had never been on the mainland before.
“Your father sent you here to train with Kagashimi, but Kagashimi is no more. I must take his place. Before we begin I must introduce you to two things. To me, the concept of Ka-ra-te is simple. It is to preserve life, especially one’s own. I understand you have much training, but I must show you something new. Assume the Horse Stance!”
The young Ronin obeyed. The two men faced each other. As the young Ronin came up from his bow, he was rendered senseless by a violent kick to his groin.
“Ba-ru-ki-ka-ru!”, yelled the old Ronin. “It is the most important thing you will ever learn. The world is evil, never trust your opponent! Or you will get it in the jewels! Idiot! Moron!
Every day it was the same. He would study Ka-ra-te, then the old man would pull a dirty trick and beat kick, stab, burn, trip or throw him off a wall or a cliff. Every day ended in the Roaking hut, but what the old man was roaking was not traditional Japanese Tobacco, but a very strange herb. It made him want to do nothing but eat and sleep.
“Trust no-one! Everyone is out to take advantage of you! To steal from you! To lie to you! All you can do is kick them where it hurts! Forget honor! Honor is BA-RU-KI-KA-RU! Honor is roaking the Naoshimi red! Ah life is good, you simple fool! You frothing-mouth, knuckle-walking, hairy imbecile! My wife, she steal everything and run off with a Samurai! My son, he dress like a Geisha and go live with a Japanese sailor in Tokyo. My life is shit! And you speak of honor? What is this? A bad Hollywood movie? I should just keep kicking you in the balls! What is the point of living!”
The young Ronin studied for a year with the strange old man. Everything the old man taught was backwards and dishonorable. Soon the young Rokkoman had lost all sense of duty and honor. He spent most of his time in the roaking hut, roaking the strange weed, and eating rice crackers. Life was shit. The old man was right.