Nighttime, the third of November and I haven’t written a word in 46 days. I have only recently rejoined the ship after a month off in which I had intended to work on my writing and hammer it into some kind of saleable form. I did not. Instead, after a three-day retreat at a Benedictine monastery, seeking Muse and some spiritual salve, I chose to bludgeon my brains with beer and drugs to silence the restless bastard in my head who was punching the walls of his confines, pulling out spongey handfuls of grey matter-y goo and accordioning it between his hands like a pizza chef stretching dough. Muse gets spooked by such antics and wisely hightailed it into the woods. I haven’t seen her since. I am beginning to worry.
I’ve returned to a cushy schedule. Back-to-back trips up the seaway from Hamilton, Ontario to Port Cartier, Quebec, full to the brim with soybeans. I am at the wheel, upbound in the American Narrows which run through Jefferson County, New York. It is a narrow but deep channel in the St. Lawrence River lined with jagged granite rocks atop which sit on either side the old-money mansions of America’s dying upper class. There is even a castle, Boldt Castle, built by George Boldt the GM of the Wardolf-Astoria Hotel in 1900 as a gift to his wife. This area is aptly otherwise known as millionaire’s row. It is a black night. There is little room for error here and I am told to steer on the centre of the thousand island bridge which spans the channel ahead. There are four of us up top. Three officers and me at the wheel. All of these guys I would and have happily raised a glass with ashore. A roots reggae and old country radio station plays quietly in the background. Marty Robbins and Patsy Cline sit comfortably next to Junior Murvin and Bunny Wailer. Despite our precarious locale we are confident in our work and in between helm orders there is easy banter.
On music – “Hey Nick, you should listen to the Beltones. American punk from the 90’s. They sound like Stiff Little Fingers.”
On Past Captains – “He was a nice guy. Not much of a ship handler though” or “Being a nice guy will only get you so far.”
On Past Cadets – “Man, he was useless” or “That kid had serial masturbator written all over him.”
As we near the bridge the first mate points out a neat line of cloud directly above the high bridge abutments, in stark contrast to the night sky. Suddenly the bridge, just two ship lengths ahead of us is lost. It disappears. It was not cloud but a bank of thick fog. Conversation stops. The music is turned off. Everybody stares intently ahead. My posture straightens, my jaws clench.
“Better call the captain”, says the piloting mate and adjusts my helm order to a compass course as I can only steer by compass at this point. I can’t see the bridge but I know there are precious few feet on either side of us. The captain arrives in the wheelhouse. He does not need to be appraised of the situation; he can see it. It is as though eerie gray blinds have been drawn over all our windows. Normally, from this high vantage one can see the whole of the ship. Not now. Not one foot. He takes a place at the radar while the piloting mate continues to relay me orders via radar and the ECDIS (electronic chart). The funereal silence begins to dissipate once we are safely passed the bridge and the channel widens. Conversation resumes, though business only, concerning protocol in such situations. The fog lifts a little and I am able to make out our steering lights 600 feet forward. Soon islands and shore bound lights are revealed and all that is left are wispy remnants of stubborn fog that sticks to the tops of trees. The captain departs. The music comes back on. The banter begins anew. The ship winds her way towards Lake Ontario. The whole situation lasted little longer than five minutes but as any sailor will tell you, five minutes is plenty of time for things to go seriously awry.
And what’s that? There’s a scratching at the back door. In rushes Muse, her fur is damp and she smells of soil and dead things. Her tail is feverishly a-wag and she’s emitting a high and frantic whine. She plants her fore paws on my shoulders and gives my face a good licking and for a moment I am appeased. Relieved of the fear that each word I write will be my last. That one-day Muse will leave and desert me for good.
When I was small, I had a ‘museum’. I collected relics and the remnants of animals. Bones, feathers, teeth. Fossils I had found of trilobite and brachiopod millions and millions of years old. There was some taxidermy. A caiman and a tarantula sent me by an uncle who worked in the Amazon. A terrapin with cotton stuffing bursting from one leg. Two piranha that we got from the Portuguese dry cleaner. They were mounted on pins and stood on small wood plinths, ever-frozen with jaws agape. I was going to be the next Attenborough. The next Gerald Durrell. It was only when I was 13 and actually took biology that I realized my dreams of being a zoologist were to be stymied by my intellectual limitations and as a diehard fan of Stephen King, I decided I’d be a writer instead.
My ‘museum’ is long gone but I am still a collector of sorts. A miner of memories, moments, beauty and truth. I am a flawed and reckless man but at least when Muse is with me I feel there is some purpose to my days. She is here now, sighing peacefully ay my feet. She doesn’t care about the state of my immortal soul or that I am a keen exemplar of most of the deadly sins, not least of which is envy. And I DO envy. I envy the confidence of others, the creativity of others, the success of others, the youth of others. And I envy those wealthy folks on millionaire’s row. Sitting in their Cheever-esque summer homes sipping mai-tais and martinis on opulent Italian sofas and watching through broad bay windows the big ships. Big ships like us passing by.