Hank met Kay at a party. They spent a few minutes chatting, getting to know one another, at least the superficial details, and then she asked him if he would marry her.
“Look, we’re both Libras, right?” she said. “We grew up in the same neighborhood, we’re age-appropriate, and you’ve been to college. Compared to the other guys in my life, my parents are going to eat you up.”
“I work as little as I can,” Hank said, “and when I do, I ship out. I do acid once a week when I can get it, and I smoke grass every day, from morning to night. I’m a drifter with just enough money to live on and no career prospects. Oh, and I’m completely unreliable.”
“Aren’t you listening?” Kay said. “You’re presentable. That’s all that matters. They’re not that smart, my parents. They don’t look any deeper than the surface.”
“Wouldn’t they want something better for you? Something better than me?”
“After an underground mag published a poem about my fixation with penises, they gave up on me. They jumped with joy when I moved out here. I was far away, so they could tell their neighbors some bullshit about how great their daughter’s doing out on the West Coast.”
“So they’d be okay with you marrying a guy who’s a doper and a deck-hand?”
“We can sort of slide over that part. We’ll tell them you’re a secret agent, you know, reporting to the CIA, that you’re pretending to be a doper and deck-hand and what you’re really doing is super highly classified, you’re not at liberty to divulge the information, that sort of thing.”
“So...you think that if I marry you, that’ll make your parents happy?”
“Happy? My parents? They’re never happy. But it’ll get them off my back.”
“Next question: will it make you happy?”
Kay shrugged. “We can do a trial run for the next few days, see how it goes. Okay?”
And yes, Hank did spend the next few days with Kay at her apartment, which was between the Fillmore and the Haight. In fact, he spent the next three weeks with her. Her place had a bohemian Paris-in-the-’20s feel to it: a painting half-finished on an easel, drawings pinned to corkboards, large artist notebooks open and filled, a mattress on the floor of an alcove, a refrigerator with open wine bottles, mounds of undisturbed dust here and there.
For Hank, sex with Kay was good. He suspected that good sex was part of her plan to convince him she was serious about her marriage proposal.
They ate at Chinese restaurants, went to see The Committee do improv theater, watched modern ballet workshops where the audience was invited to join the dancers, and one night they saw a strange version of Brecht’s Three-Penny Opera, where, between acts, sexily clad Weimar Republic frauleins paced the aisles selling “cigars, cigarettes, cocaine, hashish.”
Hank never considered marrying Kay, but even if he had, a warning bell went off in his head when he realized that anything and everything that happened between them, sexual or otherwise, immediately ended up in a drawing or poem. He had always imagined that the creative process required a gestation period, a few days of mulling over the germ of an idea in the deep recesses of the unconscious. In Kay’s case, there seemed to be no gap between inspiration and creation. It was immediate, a turnaround of minutes or, sometimes, seconds.
There were times, after an intense erotic moment, sweaty and panting, when Hank saw her grab a notebook and start writing. And not just notes or random thoughts, but polished poems with metric integrity, or drawings whose shadings, like the lines of her poems, must have been running through her head while they were in the middle of passionate coupling. It was invasive and strange: as if his words and actions were valued only if they added fuel to her artistic fire.
What was worse, he felt that the person she portrayed in her art, the one supposed to be him, had almost nothing in common with the real him. In Kay’s poems and drawings, Hank was “Magic Sailor-Man,” or “Sinbad” or “Water-Wanderer.”
It’s not that her creative work was bad—it wasn’t. Hank felt her poems and drawings showed some talent. But they portrayed him, and what took place between them, in an idealized and sentimental way. He wasn’t Sinbad or magical sailor-man or water-wanderer; he worked on merchant ships. Just a job. Okay, he was muscular—pulling rope tends to give you forearms like Popeye—but he wasn’t the Mystic Knight of the Sea she portrayed him to be. The misguided alchemy of her imagination had transformed him into something he wasn’t.
After three weeks of this, he’d had enough, so he went to the SIU hall on Fifth and Harrison and threw in for a job. The dispatcher said there was an opening for an ordinary on the Andrew Jackson, a rusty old C-2 on a coastwise run up to Portland and Seattle. The ship was scheduled to leave the next afternoon, so that night would be the last Hank would spend with Kay.
She wasn’t displeased when he told her he was shipping out. He suspected she’d soon find someone else to be an inspiration for her art, someone with an iconic job—lion-tamer, rock musician—or with an ambiguous racial background she could mythologize.
That night, she proposed that their love-making take a more creative turn. She’d listened to his stories about working on ships in Asian ports, had pumped him for images of what life was like for a seaman, and now on this last night Kay suggested they act out a scene: he’d be a seaman in port, and she’d be a whore. She asked him to call her “Candy,” used what she imagined was a Southeast Asian accent that sounded, to Hank, like the Chinese grocer on the corner.
“Hey, cute Sailor-boy, mystic Sailor-boy, less dress up, huh? Wha’ you say, Sailor-boy?”
“I’m dressed,” Hank said. “This is what I wear when I go ashore. Jeans, shirt, gym shoes.”
“Here, Sailor-boy, hel’ me pick out goo’ clothes, okay?”
She rummaged in her closet, picked out and quickly tried on a suede micro-skirt, one that barely covered her pubic area.
“Wha’ you think, Sailor-boy?” Kay laughed the way she imagined a Southeast Asian whore would: a screechy falsetto. She rummaged again, picked out a red blouse and, instead of buttoning it, tied it at the bottom: no bra, so her perky breasts were half out of the blouse.
“So, Sailor-boy...how I look, huh?”
Hank nodded: fine. Then she went back to the closet and picked out a pair of blocky high-heeled shoes. “Stiletto would have been better,” Kay said in her normal voice, “but I don’t have any.” She realized she’d gotten out of character. “But dis okay, huh, Sailor-boy? Huh?”
“So, Sailor-boy, you wanna spen’ night with me? I give you good time. How much this worth, huh?” Kay flashed her breasts, then pulled up her micro-skirt for a moment. “An’ this, huh? How much this worth?”
Hank was tired of this game. Her accent had gotten to him. It was racist and demeaning. And her portrayal of whores bothered him too, maybe because he’d actually lived out this scenario several times.
“Look, Kay, I have to be at the ship early in the morning, so let’s just go to bed like two normal people, okay?”
“Ohh, dat de way wid all you sailors, huh? You come to port, steal my heart, make me fall for you, den you go, bam, off to anodder port, huh?” Suddenly she turned off her accent and was Kay again. “Hold on.” She put an index finger up, signaling Hank to wait. Quickly, she grabbed her notepad and scribbled a few lines, then drew something. For at least ten or fifteen minutes she wrote and drew, having completely lost contact with Hank or the play-acting.
She didn’t even notice when he looked over her shoulder and read what she’d written:
My sailor-man sails away
To the stars, to the moon,
To the wide sea
That stretches to Asia.
He will survive but will I?
What do sailors’ women do
When their man is a
Prince of Distance?
What do they wear?
A red bandanna?
A blood-red bandanna?
As red as menstrual flow,
As red as port wine,
As red as a port light.
“You know what, Kay,” Hank said softly, “I think I’ll grab my gear and go to the ship tonight. That way I won’t have to scurry in the morning. I can already be there for the eight o’clock call.” She nodded. He put his few things into his sea-bag, slung it over his shoulder. When he got to the door, she was still absorbed in her work. Hank dug into his bag, pulled out one of his red bandannas, and left it on the doorknob.
“See you, Kay,” he said. He couldn’t tell if she’d heard him or not. He walked out to the street and flagged a taxi, which took him to the ship, berthed at Pier 36.
After boarding the Andrew Jackson, Hank went to the messroom, where the bosun, a very large man who was missing parts of a few fingers and whom everyone referred to (behind his back) as “The Claw,” greeted Hank and told him he’d be ordinary on the 12-to-4 watch.
In the fo’c’sle, Hank threw his gear on an upper bunk and nodded to a young AB who said his name was Billy. Hank’s other watch partner was a tanked-up AB in his 50s. “Name’s George,” he said, belching. “But you can call me Georgie Porgie, puddin’ an’ pie.... Kissed the girls...”
“...and made them puke,” Billy said. George laughed drunkenly, which morphed into a cascade of coughing and wheezing.
Hank took off his shoes, climbed up to the upper bunk, and lay down. He pulled the jack-off curtain across the horizontal wire that held it, hoping to get some rest. Within seconds, he could hear George snoring loudly, interrupted every once in a while by a phlegmy cough.
At 7:20 the following morning, the 4-to-8 ordinary knocked on the door, then came in. “All right, guys, breakfast time, then all hands on deck at eight. Okay? Securing for sea.”
George moaned: “I’m too fucked up...too fucked up to go out there.”
“C’mon, man,” Billy said to George, “we’ll cover for you, you can handle the schooner guy or some shit that don’t matter all that much. But if you don’t show your face out there, sure as shit the mate’ll call the hall and get some asshole to replace you. C’mon, George, put your damn shoes on.” George sat on his bunk, making an effort to put on his shoes.
“Shit!” George yelled. “Can’t get these on! Get me a 36-inch Stilson and a sledge hammer.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it,” Billy said. “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it. C’mon, man!”
Hank had long ago noticed that on every ship, just about every crewmember, including officers, had his pet phrase that he used on all occasions. “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it” was Billy’s and the one about the Stilson wrench and the sledge hammer was George’s.
Hank, feeling sorry for George, knelt down on the deck and helped him put his shoes on.
“Whew, man, you sure you wanna do that?” Billy said to Hank. “You might catch something.”
“Hey, you know how the pope washes the feet of lepers on Christmas? Well, this is a spiritual exercise for me,” Hank said. “Just gettin’ my head into a good place.” “Gettin’ my head into a good place” was Hank’s all-purpose shipboard phrase, used for all occasions.
He sat on the deck at George’s feet and gently eased the older man’s work shoes on him, first one, then the other. He double-tied the shoestrings. George gave a little snort of thanks.
After breakfast, the deck crew battened hatches and lowered booms, starting at #1 and moving aft. Each man had his own part of the group dance, watching for signals from The Claw—as if he were the orchestra conductor. Steam winches hissed and clanged, letting out billows of white smoke, wire was run out, preventers put on and guy lines maneuvered. By giving way with one guy line and pulling with the other, they moved the booms up or down, port or starboard, until they finally found their cradles and the Andrew Jackson was secure for sea.
A tugboat was made fast to the ship, Billy and Hank raised the gangway, and dockside workers threw the mooring lines off the bollards. The chief mate, on the bow with an AB, weighed anchor while the 4-to-8 ordinary aimed a fire-hose full blast at the chain to loosen the mud and clay dredged up from the sea bottom. Winches rolled the mooring lines through the water and up to the ship’s deck while the tugboat gently pulled and nudged the ship out of its berth.
After the pilot got off, the Andrew Jackson headed toward the Golden Gate Bridge, blowing its foghorn, which, to Hank, sounded like the dying wail of a prehistoric animal. Smoke spewed from the stack and, as the ship left San Francisco Bay, there was a moderate north-northwesterly sea and swell. Gulls cawed and whirled, hoping to pick up garbage.
The Andrew Jackson arrived at the Portland docks early in the morning, less than two days after leaving San Francisco. By the time the crew tied up, ate, showered, and dressed, it was 9:00 a.m. The chief mate broke watches, meaning that Hank didn’t have to be back until 8:00 a.m. the following day. George wanted Hank to go with him, but Hank opted to go on his own.
From the port area, he took a bus downtown, and then walked for hours. He smiled at everyone and they smiled back. By late afternoon he came upon a sleazier part of town—there were whores hanging out in doorways. He’d just ended an interlude with a woman, so he wasn’t desperate for sex, but the interaction with a whore always got his heart racing, as if heading into uncharted territory.
Hank chatted with several and finally zeroed in on an overweight woman who looked to be in her mid-20s. He told himself he was attracted to her because she seemed straightforward and enthusiastic, but there was a deeper issue. Hank never picked out good-looking whores with beautiful faces and perfect bodies. He felt they would put limits on what kind of sex they were willing to have: no touching this, no licking that. His instinct was that a plump whore, or one that was plain-looking, would be freer with her body.
“Everyone calls me Sunny,” she said, when Hank approached.
“Well, yeah, there is something sunshine-y about you,” he said.
Sunny laughed. Hank liked her laugh: genuine, whole-hearted, coming from deep inside. “I’m off a ship,” he said, “the Andrew Jackson, we’re in port just for tonight.”
“Well, hello-o-o, sailor,” she said, still laughing.
They talked for a while, and she told him what her price would be for short-time and how much a room would be for an hour at the hotel. Hank eyed the building. Not much of a hotel, but he followed Sunny inside, up the stairs and into the room, which was sleazy, but the bed was big enough and it was a warm day, so there was no need for heat.
Once they were naked and in bed, Sunny took control. She was gentle, stroking Hank’s arms, neck, chest. She took it slowly, letting him know she intended to use every minute of the hour he’d paid for. It wasn’t earth-shaking sex, but it was good and he felt very comfortable.
After orgasms—not simultaneous but sequential—Sunny held Hank in her arms, against her breasts, her legs around him, the full flesh of her. She squeezed him tightly, touched him here and there, and they talked and laughed like old friends.
She wore a bead necklace, one that looked as if a child had made it as a crafts project. Hank touched it and she put her fingers on top of his.
“My daughter made it,” she said.
“She’s seven. In second grade. Lives with my mom in Walla Walla. I see her as much as I can. It’s about four hours’ drive.”
“So...wearing this, it keeps you in touch with her.”
“I guess. Not enough. I miss her.”
“Where do you live, in an apartment nearby?”
“My sister’s place, they have a room I use. She’s married and has a couple of kids. They know lots of times I don’t come back to sleep there, but they’re okay with it...”
After exactly one hour, they dressed, Hank gave her the money they’d agreed to, and then they left the room and headed downstairs, taking the worn wooden steps slowly, holding the bannister.
“When do you have to be back on the ship?”
“In the morning. By eight.”
“You want to hang out together?” Sunny said. “I’m not going back out tonight.” She meant: out in front of the hotel to see what other johns she could pick up.
“Sure,” Hank said. “Sure. Let’s get some supper. My treat.” As they left the hotel and walked down the street, she reached over and held his hand. It felt good to Hank, as if they were a couple on a date. There was something sweet and wholesome about it.
“I have a car,” Sunny said. “But it’s close, so let’s walk.”
Hank was not naïve about whores. He harbored no sentimental illusions about “the whore with a heart of gold” and other unfounded myths. Most of his dealings with whores had been nasty, brutish, and short: commercial flesh transactions that left him feeling emptier than before.
But Sunny was different. She was easy to be with and didn’t seem to be scamming him.
In a couple of blocks they came to a Chinese restaurant and went inside. The older Asian man at the cash register, obviously the owner, nodded at Sunny and she waved at him.
“Why don’t you order for both of us,” Hank said. “You know what’s good here.”
The feeling between Hank and Sunny was pleasant. One thing he did not do was ask her questions about why she chose to be a sex-worker. That was her business, not his.
“Tell me more about your daughter.”
“Her name’s Jessie. She’s being brought up Baha’i. You know anything about Baha’i?”
“It’s a nice religion. Peaceful. My mom got into it a few years ago, so she’s bringing up Jessie that way. It’s a good thing. It gives her some structure, which she wouldn’t have if she was living with me. I mean, she goes to school, she’s got her friends. It’s a quiet normal life.”
Hank realized how much the idea of a “normal life” appealed to Sunny, as much as the bohemian life appealed to Kay. Sunny reached into her bag and pulled out a plastic card-holder that unfolded into a raft of photos: a cute little girl playing with a hula hoop, others with that same girl hugging Sunny: mother and daughter. She left the photos on the table, and occasionally glanced at them during the meal.
The food arrived: noodles, vegetables, chicken, shrimp, rice. They ate and talked. Sunny asked about ships. She wanted to know what being out in the middle of the ocean was like.
“Okay. Imagine a ship, a big ship. It’s daytime. The ship skims along, a warm breeze blowing. You’re by yourself in a bosun’s chair, fifty feet aloft, painting a kingpost. The bosun’s chair is this wooden plank you sit on, it’s perfectly snug and safe. Or...or imagine that it’s night and you’re on the bridge, handling the wheel. It’s dark in the wheelhouse and every once in a while you flick your eyes over to the binnacle to make sure the ship stays on course. It’s just you steering that ship on a big, dark ocean. Or you’re on lookout, on the bow, alone...”
“So...on a ship, you’re alone most of the time. You like being alone?”
“Well, it’s what we are most of the time, isn’t it? I mean, even when we’re with others.”
Sunny mulled it over thoughtfully. “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“Here’s another thing,” Hank said. “On lookout, at night. Nothing anywhere in any direction. You look up and you see a ring around the full moon, we call it a moon-bow. You look out at the horizon and see flashes of light in the darkness, and it looks like there’s a storm brewing. The wind blows louder, stronger; the clouds are scudding across the sky. What I feel, when I’m out there, is that I’m at the very center of weather.”
“At the what?”
“The center of weather. You’ve got this, this vast body of water, the Pacific, and it connects Asia and America and Australia...so that’s where weather begins, where storms and, I don’t know, hurricanes and typhoons start and build up before heading off to the lands surrounding this ocean. So the feeling I always have, the feeling I have when I’m on the ocean is: right here, in the middle of this vast ocean...this is where weather begins.”
“Yeah. Yeah! I get it. That’s so cool!” Sunny grabbed Hank’s hand and squeezed it.
After dinner, they walked back toward the hotel. Sunny stopped at an old Chevy with rags and a sleeping bag and other things jumbled in the back seat—including toys.
“Hang on a moment,” she said.
Hank pointed to the back seat. “Your daughter’s toys?” Sunny nodded.
“I was thinking maybe we could spend the night together. You know, in a park,” she said. “It’s safe, I’ve done it before. I got a sleeping bag big enough for both of us.”
It took Hank a few seconds to sort out what she was proposing: that the two of them spend the night together outdoors, in a public park, inside her sleeping bag.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. Sure. Why not?”
They drove a couple of miles to a pocket park not too far from a big road. Sunny opened the trunk and pulled out a double-size sleeping bag. She handed it to Hank, who lugged it up to the top of a hill, beneath a tree. Sunny laid out the sleeping bag and they sat on it.
“We don’t get too many warm nights, even in the summer,” she said.
Without words, they smoked a joint, looking out at the lights of the urban landscape in the distance. Sunny touched Hank’s arm and he felt as if there was an electric current throughout his body. They removed their clothes, got into the sleeping bag, and made love again: gently, sweetly.
“This is heaven,” Hank whispered. “This is heaven.” Sunny touched his face. “You know, a few days ago I was with a woman, I spent a few weeks with her. And...and the last night I was with her, she, she wanted to play-act. She pretended she was a hooker in one of those ports I’d been to in Southeast Asia. She wanted me to pretend I was a seaman ashore.”
Hank thought that Sunny might be offended by that, but she wasn’t. “I get guys, sometimes,” she said, “guys who want me to pretend. They want me to pretend I’m their mother or their friend’s daughter. It’s kind of creepy. I’ll do it, but I can’t really get into it, you know?”
“I know,” he said. “I know. I couldn’t get into it either. In fact, I kind of left in the middle of all that play-acting, I left and went to the ship. It felt weird. In a way, it felt dirty. But being here, with you, this feels, I don’t know, this feels the opposite of dirty. This feels great.”
Again, as in the hotel room, Sunny wrapped herself around him, pulling Hank toward her, almost as if she were trying to melt into him, so there would be no space, no separation between their two bodies. Maybe it was the joint they’d smoked, maybe it was the wildness of the night air, maybe it was the infinite depth of the sky, but he felt, for a brief moment, as if he’d gone back inside the womb: protected, cared for, safe.
“I feel like I’m tripping,” Hank said. “I mean, in a good way. Like, you’re a one-person Trips Festival, you know what I mean?” Sunny laughed and held him closer, tighter, single flesh.
And that’s when he started to cry. At first it was soft crying that he tried to hide. But the crying took on its own life. Soon he was sobbing deeply, down to his toes, deep, gasping sobs, in a way he’d never cried before. Sunny made soothing sounds but said nothing, only held him.
And still Hank cried. Cried for this woman who was separated from her daughter. And he cried for himself, because he knew he’d never have this feeling again, not like this, this sense of floating in a pool of warm lava. Sunny held him tightly and kissed him, not as a lover, but on his forehead, as a mother kisses her child. He gave up all control to her. He was in her care.
When the dawn woke him, Sunny was still sleeping. He tried to get up without waking her, but his rustling and the rising sun made her stir.
“Right,” she said. “Right. You have to get to the ship.”
“Yeah. Sunny, listen, I don’t have much money left, but please, please, take all I’ve got. It’s not...you know...this isn’t payment for services. It’s for Jessie. Get her something. You know?”
She nodded, a kind of reluctant if-that’s-what-you-want smile, and put the money away. “On one condition,” she said. “Let me drive you to the docks. Okay?”
A half-hour later, Sunny’s car, with Hank in the passenger seat, pulled up to the port gate. They sat silently for a few minutes, just holding hands.
“You know what I’m thinking?” Sunny said. “I’m thinking that the same moon and stars you’re going to be looking at when you’re on the ship, when you’re out there on the ocean, they’re the same moon and stars that’ll be looking down at me.” She removed her necklace, the one her daughter had made, and she put it around Hank’s neck. “Take this, okay?”
“Wow. You sure?”
She nodded. “I’m sure. Don’t forget me.”
“You know when I’ll forget you?” Hank said. “When they cover me with six feet of earth.”
They hugged one more time, and he could feel that Sunny was crying. He got out of the car and walked toward the port gate.
Hank heard a car-horn and waved good-bye to Sunny, who pulled away. Then he saw George, his watch-partner, also coming up to the gate. They greeted each other like old friends.
“So, Hank, my boy,” George said, “didja get your head in a good place?” He laughed and belched, moving unsteadily. “Huh, Hank, didja? Didja get your head into a good place?
“The best place of all, George. The best place there is.”
has been a journalist, merchant seaman, and TV scriptwriter; has had more than 100 articles published in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Penthouse, Jewish Journal, Serving House Journal, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Santa Fe Writers Project, and many others; has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and 2015; and is co-author of The Eagle Mutiny, a nonfiction account of the only mutiny on an American ship in modern times:
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