UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
J. C. TABLER
Poppa Bear knew history often repeated itself, and it was this
knowledge alone that kept him working hard to prevent a circular flow
of unforgiving time. Bathed in the glow of running lights, he scanned
it a second time and
“Letter from home, Poppa Bear?” high tones of jovial nature asked from the darkness above, a lone caller atop the tow.
His name wasn’t Poppa Bear. He had been called that for so long, though, there was no other name he considered true. Only to bankers was he known by any label other than the one called out on the tows. In a way his nickname was his real name.
“Yep,” Poppa Bear answered, folding paper into a tiny square and tucking it carefully in the breast pocket that rested below his faded orange work vest, “Little Bear wrote me about his last year of schooling. Boy’s doing good.”
Ship was a Navy man by trade, a riverman by fortune. He knew of letters that came from home, and had in the past taken joy in sitting and listening to Poppa Bear read off the careful words of his son and wife, the well wishes of a family rarely seen and talked of often. Poppa Bear knew Ship had no family off of the tow, a long-liner who had replaced saltwater in his veins with the muddy, gritty flow of river water. Still, it was nice to hear the slight man answer as he climbed down the towknees, shifting from barge to boat with practiced ease.
“How’s he doing? He get that car he wanted, or that girl he was after?” Ship asked, shaking cold rain from his ballcap.
“Girl, yes. Car, no,” Poppa Bear rumbled as he drew upright, surpassing Ship’s six feet with several inches to spare, though his height varied depending on whether one looked at his driver’s license or his seaman’s license. His smile returned, traces of worry fleeing lined features in the company of another crewman, slipping to private corners of a heavy mind, “He’s got something better to save for these days.”
“You don’t say?” Ship asked as he stared out what little portions of rolling river water were illuminated, and beyond to those that were clad in shadow. His eyes asked a silent question before fingers mimed striking a lighter, and Poppa Bear nodded in his own slow manner, digging for a fresh pack of cigarettes. Ship smoked a pack a day, though he’d never been seen actually buying any. Pack produced, they both shared Poppa Bear’s single flame to light red coals of burning tobacco.
“Boy’s been accepted to a college up North, one of the good ones,” Poppa Bear answered in a drifting cloud of exhaled cancer, “Says he was one of their first picks.”
“Well I’ll be. Little Bear’s going to college, then?”
“That’s what it looks like. Said he might take a year, though, come on out here and do some real work on the tows first to get up a little money. Said his Momma’s dead set against it.”
“Can’t say I blame her, this being rough work,” reasoned Ship as he tapped ash from glowing ember, “Still and all, though, congratulations. Guess he must’ve got some of your old lady’s brains.”
“Poor kid’s got all of my looks, though,” Poppa Bear answered, drawing on his cigarette once more, “Thank God he’s smart, he’d never make it as a model.”
Silence lapsed between them, a heavy blanket of night settling in freezing downpour over their shoulders. Small and large, silhouettes dressed in arc lights and dingy work clothes, they stood on the bow of their towboat. Clouds of smoke drifted between them, merging and mingling briefly before passing into darkened sky. In their silence, Poppa Bear could hear sounds so often passed into the back of the mind, only coming forth to demand notice when there was no distraction. Rushing water that parted before tons of pushing steel, gentle thrumming through steel deck, and whistling air that carried diesel and rotting fish constantly on its currents jostled for space in the sudden absence of noise.
Booming horn sounded over crisp night air, a dull monotone of electronic warning from upriver. Poppa Bear reached to his shoulder without thought, pressing the mic and muttering a warning into it. There was a boat coming downriver, one that may not have shown up on radar, and it was the Deck Boss’s job to keep the pilot informed. That was routine, that was procedure, that was habit. Their boat boomed its own resonating response, a noise that left ears ringing on deck as it flew through the night.
“Think that’s a Carter boat?” Ship asked as echoes faded away, shifting to arrange his assortment of pry bars, hollow lengths of steel piping, on the tow’s bow. They clanked together, soft ringing, as each length was weighed.
“Could be,” Poppa Bear answered as he lifted his own bar, searching for a moment before finding a flashlight to fill his empty paw. Thick fingers closed over frigid steel that threatened to cling his flesh forever, refusing to let go, “You’d know better than me, though. Carter Company still have a contract on this part of the river last time you ran back to the company?”
“Oh Lord, yes,” Ship answered, finding a thin shaft of steel and slinging it over his shoulder, “There was a big safety lecture about one of their new boys stepping over a singing line. Lost his leg right above the knee when it all let go, and damn near drowned when they lost the barge. Poor fellow.”
Poppa Bear knew a singing line, had heard them many times. When he first started on the tows there had been the nylon lines, lashed from barge to barge and tightened by hand and capstan. Line that weighed more than four men when wet, carried on the back of one across slippery plating of worn-out barges. Line that shrunk from the size of a thigh to a miniscule quarter in circumference with the strain of tons. These were lines that sang out in high tones of screeching warning, a constant, soft soprano almost out of hearing range before terrible gunshot pops and a copper odor of blood from whatever unlucky soul stood by. They had been replaced by steel cable lines, but the rule remained. Singing lines were death, whiplash that sliced through river air and cut into anyone caught off-guard.
“Least he got on the company plan. What’s a leg going for these days?” he asked as he mounted the towknees, climbing onto the first empty barge and stepping aside to wait for Ship. The smaller man scurried up, a surefooted monkey in human garb, and appeared with his flashlight in his teeth.
“Bout fifty grand,” he answered as he spit out his small flashlight, twisting it on. Poppa Bear did the same, running the beam of his light over rigging and narrow walkways, pausing by duckponds where rounded corners met and were lashed together, those dark holes that led to death in the swirling waters rushing beneath.
“Not bad,” he replied, taking a slow step forward and thumping his steel bar down on the first cable line they came to, hearing the satisfied twang of tightened steel, “Least he won’t starve with that and disability. New guy?” Ship slid, a run that never left rain-slickened deck, aware and unworried by the waters that rushed by below, the sucking movement of their boat. His bar was raised and came down. It echoed a sound of just enough stress, not too little, not too tight.
“Think I’d rather have my leg. All tight over here,” Ship reported, starting up the narrow lashings, careful to avoid stepping over tightened lines. Poppa Bear moved parallel on his side, each steel cable given a gentle whack to test its tightness, to make sure the right pressure was applied. His ear was trained to listen for that noise, the subtle difference in pitch or length that a slack line gave, the high whine sung out by one too close to danger.
“Must’ve been new, though. Tightening a slack here,” Ship rang out of the darkness, “No old hand would have been dumb enough to straddle a line like that in the first place.”
“It’s dirty work, alright,” Poppa Bear agreed, going to a knee beside the slack line and sliding his steel bar over the handle of the ratchet that held it on, “Ready to tighten here.”
“Least Little Bear will have someone to show’im the ropes, as it is,” Ship called again, “Go ahead and give’er a turn then.”
The bar shifted by subtle flicks of muscle that made it seem no harder than opening a jar of pickles left too long. Despite the cold, sweat broke onto his brow even as the ratchet clicked forward, then back to tighten. Rusted cable came up in squealing protest, deck creaking as barges pressed together. He stopped, locking the ratchet, and thumped the line. It gave a twang of satisfaction.
“Tight here,” he called.
“Tight here, moving on,” Ship answered keeping decorum of essential communication. Talk saved lives on a tow, be it keeping a man awake as he walked the edge or simply making sure both men were aware of any little change.
Little Bear would have to learn not to step over a line that sung, to stay away from cables that twisted and gave up stray strands. He’d have to be told about slick decks and raining weather, about red flag barges loaded with fuel that would burn at the touch of a cigarette. His feet would be unsure, inches from death by slipping into the gaps where rounded steel corners met. Little Bear would make good money, and he would be safe on the tows with people to watch him. Off the tows, in dingy bars with loose women, safety was an illusion.
“Fifty grand, though. Not bad money. What’s an arm going for these days?” he asked in the darkness, glancing up once his feet passed the dangerous duckpond. Running lights shone upriver, bearing down on from the opposite bank. They would pass another long-liner, exchange good-natured shouts with the crew. For now, though, it was just the two of them working night shift on the tow. Four eyes entrusted with the safety of their cargo, their crewmates, and themselves.
Lines twanged after thumps from the both, a thud of steel on steel and vibrating cables pulled taut. Thoughts drifted to the letter in his pocket, words scratched on yellow legal paper, the photocopy of his son’s acceptance letter. Robert was clear that he wanted to go to college, wanted to go further than his father, and Poppa Bear found that inoffensive, a point of pride. The boats were never meant to be his life either, even if they had wound up that way. There was truth to sayings about life happening when you were making plans, even if those plans had been interrupted in a river bar on a December night nineteen years before. It was those interruptions that made a job into a career, a hobby into a prison.
“Good arm goes for about thirty, stupid arm for about twenty,” Ship called out in answer, “I think that is a Carter boat up there. Sure looks like it’s got their lines.”
“Never can tell with how many of those old boats are going up for sale these days. Seems like companies are folding left and right. Heard the Turner brothers had to sell their harbor tows last month down in New Orleans, weren’t making enough to get’em rehulled,” Poppa Bear answered, his mind drifting from lines to family. He knew that when a man let his mind wonder while checking lines, he got hurt. He’d seen it happen.
Little Bear could find that out, find himself in a river bar with a pretty girl. He could find himself, nine months later, in a hospital in a river town, stinking of diesel and cigar smoke with a weight in his stomach made of joy and despair. He could find himself walking a tow twenty years later, checking lines and wondering over whether his foot would hit a puddle of leaking oil, stumble over tools so visible in daylight that became deathly at night. Poppa Bear distracted himself, torn from his duty by thoughts such as these.
“You got a loose one?” broke Ship’s voice, reedy and high like its owner, carried faintly on wind as floodlights from the approaching boat came closer.
“You got a loose cable over there? You stopped moving.”
Poppa Bear stared, looked at the desk. A cable was there, not loose but tight. Angry whining hinted off of rusted lengths, unwinding metal that distorted air and sound as it slowly twirled apart. He listened to the line sing its siren song, let it develop. It twisted and bent, strained under tons that could break loose in any violent moment. A gunshot burst that could scatter a tow, sink a contract, paint a deck with red, screaming bodies.
“I got something here,” Poppa Bear sang out, rough voice melodic in simple urgency as he knelt focusing his light. He looked at the singing line, listened to it, felt it touch to the core of his heart. His son’s letter burned heavy in his shirt pocket, a call that sang in harmony.
“Slack it out or tighten it up?” Ship asked from his side of the tow, time slowing as sudden clinks of metal pry bar sliding over ratchet handle drifted through the rushing noise.
Poppa Bear knelt, his eyes on the length of cable that rose in whine. Too much weight, too much pressure, too much tension on such a small, fragile thing. The river had a way of washing a man’s problems away, baptizing him daily in muddy ebb and flow. Currents carried drift past obstacles, but currents were hard things to fight free of. You swim out just far enough to get in a current, and find yourself stuck and unable to reach shorelines no matter how hard you kick and flail. Given enough time a river could change course, slicking through lands that had never seen water, dig deep valleys. Given enough time, a river could drown a man without ever getting him wet.
Poppa Bear stretched his arm over the line, straddling it with his shoulder. Eyes closed, face turned away as it whined in his ears, ringing them. Another moment and he would be in the light of the oncoming tow, be seen from the pilothouse and on the deck. Too much thought and Ship would shine over to see what was taking too long. Grit from a rusted deck scraped his palm, he lowered his shoulder down close. A strand of steel popped in the darkness, cracking loud this close but faint from afar. He could feel it, jagged and burning, scratching against his arm.
A man could live with only one arm, Poppa Bear thought as he lined his shoulder over the parting line. A man could live mighty well with one arm, thirty grand, and a son in college. Options closed behind a door, struggling to reach him and being held down by dreams forgotten, shelved as were childish things the first time he stepped aboard a towboat with his bag of clothes and heavy work boots. A decision was made.
“She’s a little slack,” he yelled to Ship, turning to watch the straining steel line his arm straddled, “Give’er a turn.”
© 2008 Underground Voices