Something of Love, Something of Water
M. C. Bond
We like the first lieutenant.
We like his teeth, clean and bright as Normandy, where we went (+Duquesne) early in another deployment. No, Arlington, we decide, his teeth perfectly flat and perfectly white like tombstones. We think he must bleach his teeth the expensive way. We think that for sure he had braces.
We like the lieutenant’s hair, thick and bright blonde like that movie star’s, the one in Liar Liar and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which we loved as kids, if we watched it. His eyes aren’t quite the same as the actor’s, and his chin is weaker, but you can’t tell as long as you’re looking up at him. If he ever had any moles, he’s had them removed.
Duquesne would say, Every dog should have a few fleas. Duquesne always had sayings, but he is dead to us and everyone now. To him, we say, Bless your heart.
We are the Undesignated, the most junior sailors in the Deck Department, but there are more of us than any other group. 150, we’ve heard, but we are the one thing we won’t count. We count as one thing. And over all of us just one thing counts—our first lieutenant.
The ocean is always the same color as the sky is always the same color as the boat. The paint was chosen for that reason. But standing on the carrier’s flight deck, it’s like being suspended in a great nothing.
The ocean tries to eat the ship, sloshing against us, beating itself into a particulate spray that is always everywhere, always water and salt and air and boat, and as we mop and dry and paint and scrape we wonder how, with so much space between atoms and so much salt water colliding itself, mixed and beat again by the props, how anything can be enough of one thing, either ship or water or air, to touch and clean and determine this is water. This is ship.
Yeah, we agree, the ocean has the same salt content as our blood. Heard that in a song. Everything we breathe tastes like an atomized version of ourselves.
Duquesne would say, If brains were leather, y’all wouldn’t have enough to saddle a flea.
We are asking about Duquesne because he is a word we use and we don’t know why. Don’t let anyone know we told you about Duquesne, we say. We don’t like to talk about it. We tuck ourselves into the shadow of the control tower and yell under the roar of overhead planes. Duquesne was with us last deployment. He was on the flight deck. Our first lieutenant was acting LSO. A C-2 was coming in too low—even we could see that. Wave off, our lieutenant said. He said it again. He said it again.
The plane hit the back of the carrier. The debris hit Duquesne’s face, which melted into the marine layer.
Our first lieutenant is older than us. He’s been to, and graduated, college already. It was a state school, but not the state he was from, so it still must have cost his parents plenty. We haven’t graduated college, though we have or haven’t taken a class or two. We will, though, except when we don’t want to, but all of us ask the first lieutenant about it. What did he major in? Where did he go? Was he in a fraternity? Was a fraternity like us? Was it like brothers, like brotherly love? As Duquesne would say, We are on him like a duck on a June bug. We ask more: Where is he from? Did he play sports in high school? Does he have a sweetheart waiting back home? Does he have little sisters to protect, little brothers who look up to him? What does he like to drink? We test his terse responses against our molars to determine, this is us. This is the first lieutenant. We are unsatisfied. We are from Wilmington, or we’ve seen it on television. We’ve all played football in the movies. We think scotch is the smoothest, especially in commercials.
You can’t tell the story of Duquesne to anyone, we say, whispering in the bathroom where we’ve met to exchange porn magazines, the kind we don’t want just anyone to see, the kind with thin pages and ink that runs as if it’s ashamed of itself.
Duquesne, we say, was a frat boy before he dropped out. Or he would have been, but he was too much of a drinker. Not a drinker like the smooth black blank of shore leave, but a daily drinker, a day drinker, a gargle-with-mouthwash-then-swallow-it kinda guy.
His hands shook constantly, we say. It was terrifying to watch him shave. He had a big Adam’s apple and a thin neck. You could see the arteries quiver right under the skin. He was always in a hurry shaving, Duquesne was, because he was always late for mess. His restless, unbalanced hands. His exposed neck. His cheap safety razors. It was an accident anyone could see coming.
Is that how he died? we ask.
Oh no, we whisper, chipper but quiet, sounding the same as our thumb frippering along the edge of the magazine’s pages. Alcohol poisoning, we say. His skin had black blooms like algae. He wet the bed, and the entire bunk smelled like schnapps for a week.
Today we realize that the ship smells like homemade Jell-O pudding. Chocolate or vanilla? we ask. Vanilla/Chocolate, we say. Butterscotch, we say. What? No, we say. We think. Okay, we say, not pudding, but something about pudding. The engine churns distantly, vibrating around us always, just below hearing. It’s the mixer, we say. It smells like the old mixer that Mom used to make pudding. Grandma used, we say. Auntie used. Okay, we say. All of them. It smells like oil and warm metal and power coursing through old wiring. And sugar. And something else. Affection? we think, but don’t say. As Duquesne would say, You catch more flies with honey. Love? If love is something like sustenance. If sustenance is something like blades churning around each other, making fluid thick enough to push forward.
The other first lieutenants call our first lieutenant Pony Boy. We ask him why, and he shakes his head. Later, we ask him why again. We ask him why again. We ask him why again. Another lieutenant, not our lieutenant, one called Party City, hears us and says it’s not for us to know. Only the lieutenants know. We don’t have a name for our first lieutenant, just Sir, same as we use for any lieutenant, even though it means something different when we say it to him. Another first lieutenant, not our lieutenant, sees how sad, bored, angry we are. This first lieutenant, not our first lieutenant, called Half-Caf by the other first lieutenants, says our first lieutenant is called Pony Boy because he’s always the golden one. Stay golden, Pony Boy, he says. He says it’s a quote from a book, but he doesn’t remember the name of it. We remember the name of it—The Outsiders—because we read it, or didn’t, in freshman English. We read it enough to know he has the quote wrong. Half-Caf tells us the plot of the book anyway, which starts as The Outsiders and then turns into West Side Story and something we can’t recognize and maybe doesn’t exist. We don’t correct him, because this isn’t a situation where being right is worth a write-up. As Duquesne would say, He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow. So we hold our knowledge inside ourselves like the untarnishable intangible thing it is, and the knowledge warms and hums. Stay gold, Pony Boy, it resonates.
The story of Duquesne, we say, is not to be repeated. Are we clear?
We are whispering in a lower deck, a place we don’t have a good reason to be but one with a loud cover of engines.
Duquesne was not a team player. He liked women, or men, we don’t know, because during leave he would always abandon his partner and go off by himself. We couldn’t reach him on his phone, but that wasn’t a surprise—he usually left it in his bunk. This is, obviously, a dick move.
We had one day in Guam. He didn’t make it back to the boat. Of course we noticed, but the boat won’t wait. Not for one person. They found Duquesne three days later.
Who did? we ask.
The authorities, we guess? He was on a beach. Not drowned. High up on the sand, fully clothed. His head was a purple and red clot, a viscid jiggle.
We are required to keep in shape; we are told our bodies are the most simple and accessible weapons on the ship. We have treadmills and stair steppers and a weight room. Our first lieutenant uses the treadmill, and the swish of his running pants and the swish of the treadmill slide into a hypnotic susurration, like the sloshing of waves. The weights feel heavier without the resistance of land to cradle us. We throw out our backs doing deadlifts. We laugh. We cry on the floor. We go to sickbay. We get a hitch in our giddy-up, as Duquesne would say. We keep lifting. The treadmills face the white wash of the bulkhead, which shimmers in the fluorescent lighting like a hologram, like something we could push our fingers through. We become nauseated and try to look past the wall to something churning beyond. We stop and let the treadmill carry us off with a quiet dignity, or loud and with no dignity at all. Beside us, the first lieutenant’s shoes squeak steadily against the treadmill’s belt. We wonder what he sees in the bulkhead, how he doesn’t get sick. Maybe he can always see the horizon. Maybe it just takes knowing where it is.
Here’s the only thing I’m going to tell you about Duquesne, we say. We cut the shower off while we soap up over the red blotches the water pressure leaves on our skin. The shower stalls, two to a bathroom, press together like palms. We say, autoerotic asphyxiation. We turn the water back on.
How much money does it cost to lift our first lieutenant off the ground? We do the math while scrubbing the deck. Pounds of fuel per dry thrust. Cost of fuel per pound. Maintenance costs. Operation costs. Depreciation. Total equals approximately $24,400 per hour. Duquesne would say, That’s enough money to burn a wet mule. Not our money, obviously. Well, yes, also our money. And our wives’ money, or boyfriends’, our mothers’ and grandmothers’, the fathers that all of us loved to a fault, all of us loved in our hating. Every last one of them paid and paid and paid, all of it so we could watch our first lieutenant comb through the sky, farting out contrails that bloom and crisscross like mold, and we all agree: It was worth it. It is something like love, them doing this for us, giving their money so we can watch our lieutenant. His parents, who never saw us and never ask their son about us, they gave too, and his worst enemy and best friend, and when we think about it like that, like the math of all the taxes these shitheels have paid, it kind of feels like the whole country loves us, that they gave us this moment as a gift, looking up at a perfect blue sky perforated by an F-18, and when we mop, we leave wide, full puddles, so the first lieutenant can see what we see, the blue, the sky, reflecting back up at him.
Look, we say, we can’t talk here about Duquesne. We look up and down the table in the mess hall, take note of where we are looking, at who is looking at us. We dip a spoon in our chocolate Jell-O, start writing on the clean-licked canvas of our tray: Oscar.
Oscar means overboard.
We smear it unworded and return the tray to the kitchen, where we wash it, never knowing what it said at all.
Our first lieutenant is on duty during shore leave in Malaysia. He wanders the streets, with Half-Caf this time, looking for wayward sailors in trouble. He takes his job very seriously. Vrrry Srrrously. We know he is out there looking out for us, clicking sharp paces around street corners, ducking under low doorways, shining his poreless Hollywood face into dark bars. He cares that we get home safe tonight; tonight, it is the only thing he cares about. He’s as good as gold, as Duquesne would say. So we make sure our first lieutenant’s time is not wasted. We get riotously drunk. We link arms with whores and young boys with whore mouths and slosh our way side-to-side through the streets—loud, violent in our noise and our leering. American as we can be. As Duquesne would say, We are three sheets to the wind. Our first lieutenant finds us, all of us, as we knew he would. He lectures us as he leads us back to the boat. Thank you, we love that you’re very serious, we say, but all that comes out is vrrryy srrrrrrrrousssss.
We have twelve total PlayStations, which is not enough for when we are off duty. We crowd in our bunks when waiting for port clearance and take advantage of the Wi-Fi while we have it. Today we play Call of Duty without headsets, using the closeness of the berths to call out to each other. Duquesne would say, Close as a cat’s breath. We attack each other. We attack other people. We attack NPCs. None of us have seen actual action except when we have, but we keep that shit shut deep.
Here is the thing about Duquesne: We don’t like Duquesne. Yes, we mean, we liked him at first, when he was one of us, so close we didn’t need to say “one of us” or even “of us,” merely “us.” We like us, even when we don’t. Duquesne talked about testing out, but that’s not the problem. We all test out of the Deck Department eventually. As Duquesne would say, He was ready to be in high cotton. As Duquesne would say, He was too big for his britches. He was always looking everywhere but at us.
We take ourselves to the side after disembarking in Hawaii. We hate to bring up Duquesne, we say, but you need to know you can’t trust the water. We mutter harshly, fast, because we aren’t listening, we’re already looking at beaches, at trees, at lagoons, at street signs, buildings, people not in uniform, everything different colors and all out of sync.
Listen, we say, he was swimming in a river, all picturesque and shit.
He was Instagramming deployment like it was a goddamn vacation, we say.
Three days later he has a headache, he can’t paint Deck C. He has a stiff neck, he can’t scrub dishes. He has a fever, he can’t get out of bed.
Duquesne got the brain worms, we say.
No, he got the dick worms, we say.
It’s a dick fish, we say. It swims up your urethra.
Whatever, we say. Dick worms, brain worms, whatever: He died.
Today, they opened the flight deck for outdoor jogging. This means our families’ tax dollars cannot lift our first lieutenant up into the sky. We run around the ship, a series of uncertain left turns on the smear-scribble geometry of the ship deck. We work out the thick-ground numbers with our feet—1,100 feet long by 252 feet wide. Approximate 2,700 feet perimeter. Minus 300 feet? No, 500 feet for shape. 2,200 feet perimeter. How many feet in a mile—do we remember off the top of our heads? 5,280 feet, we say, and we are proud of ourselves for knowing this, for the knowledge we hide among us even as we strip rust and military the corners of our bunks. 5,280/2,200 is 2.4 laps a mile, and we make those laps in 4 minutes 48 seconds, 5 minutes even, 6:35, 7-oh-3, 8-gasp-2. The lieutenant runs ahead of us. Even when he is a little slower than we are, he is still ahead of us, and we admire that. The turns are wide around the deck and far from the edge, but still, accidents could happen. The carrier deck sits about sixty feet above the surface of the water. It is a survivable height if you are expecting it. The deck of the ship is coated with non-skid. That’s what it’s called. It feels like running through tar, we say. If the tar was really angry, we say. It feels like someone shattered a glass on sandpaper, we say. We like this analogy and nod approvingly, but the nod is lost in the bounce of our jog. It would hurt to fall on non-skid, and by hurt we mean it would injure a person. It would eat your skin. It might find your bones. It would unpretty your face. Ahead of us, the lieutenant is running, a flat wheat color under the low iron ceiling of clouds the same shade as the ocean the same shade as the ship. We don’t trip him. We don’t bump him. He corners each turn safely. And this is love, we think, having the ability to hurt him, but not. And this is him loving us back, we think, trusting that we won’t. We let him lap us. Each time, he doesn’t look at us, his lips pressed firmly together, face forward.
All right, we say. This doesn’t go beyond us, we say, tucking ourselves into an empty treadmill room. We say, here’s the deal with Duquesne. Duquesne had a girl. Or a couple. He really liked the idea of one in every port, you know? Well, keeping up with one, or a couple, or more—that’s a lot of work. That work is a lot of time, follow?
He was on his cell phone constantly. A sailor on a cell phone is not a sailor at work. We couldn’t trust him at watch. He didn’t pull his weight. Like a bump on a log, as Duquesne would say. He snuck out on deck when the Weapons Department was doing missile maintenance. This was his fault. He was not supposed to be on the deck. The Weapons Department, though, they aren’t us. They didn’t do a sweep of the area before they began missile maintenance. They didn’t sound the weapons system alarm because it hadn’t worked since the previous deployment. So Duquesne didn’t realize something was wrong until the missile launcher he was underneath jolted loose and smeared him across the deck. The non-skid is abrasive at this ratio: 45 percent aluminum oxide, 35 percent barium sulfate, 20 percent epoxy resin. He covered the non-skid in pink foam, which we know because we washed it off.
We crave Jell-O pudding for weeks. Which kind? Vanilla/chocolate/butterscotch.
Cherry, says one of our newest voices. We turn and look, until we become uncomfortable with our gaze. We don’t suggest cherry again.
Ducking through a doorway and into a metal hall too narrow and machine-loud to echo, we whisper, Duquesne fell into the propeller of an E2-Hawkeye, mangling his face. Duquesne fell over the side, hitting his head and missing the net. Duquesne fell climbing down a ladder. Alone in the mess deck, we say, the number two sixteen-inch gun turret exploded, and Duquesne’s face was close to the barrel. From one berth to another, in between the unsleeping and the wet dreams and subtly fevered masturbation we say, Duquesne was on deck when an F-4 Phantom tore through the barricade catch and he caught a wing to the face. Duquesne was crushed by an elevator hatch. Someone was cleaning a rifle in the armory and it went off, catching Duquesne in the face. Duquesne was the one cleaning the rifle in the armory and it went off, less than accidentally. A boiler room accident. Blown overboard. Rogue wave while on the elevator.
As Duquesne would say, We’re as bad as a gaggle of hens. As Duquesne would say, We just can’t hold water.
Our first lieutenant plays Call of Duty. He plays it by himself in his berth in the room he shares with Party City. Even from the hallway we can tell that their room smells of shaving soap and the leather of quality boots, not the fabric of rough labor. Party City also plays Call of Duty, but he has his own PlayStation, and, like our lieutenant, he plays it alone. For weeks, we try to figure out our first lieutenant’s username. We don’t ask outright. But we walk slow by their room, listen in on conversations, hoping for a clue. Finally, we resort to getting in trouble, rifling through the galley for Jell-O, the butterscotch kind. When the Culinary Specialist catches us nosing where we shouldn’t, he suggests we try a hospital, or prison. And then he informs our first lieutenant.
We, some of us, are brought to Pony Boy and Party City when they are playing. While we look contrite, we are also sneaking glances at the screen. Later, after our punishments are completed, we piece together the bits of what we saw—USNPonyboy331. We had hoped his name would reveal something new about our first lieutenant, something we did not yet know. Something beyond the flatness of facts. But this is everything, exactly everything that we already knew. Military branch. Nickname. Birthdate. We log on to Call of Duty and find him. We find him, and follow.
Duquesne is on watch as the eight-inch anchor line goes over-taut.
Duquesne doesn’t see because our first lieutenant has ordered lights off for these maneuvers. He doesn’t need to have the lights off. He is pretending we are at war, feeling important. Only a red filter light hums in the mist as the line breaks.
The line cracks into Duquesne’s cheek. He splays on the rough-cut deck, solid from the neck down. His face is a gelatinous red halo around his skull.
As Duquesne would say, Shit.
And now he is Duquesne, because he can’t be us, because we are not dead. He’s Duquesne from Louisiana (we are from Louisiana too, but less now than we were). He’s twenty years old (we are twenty-one, and eighteen, and twenty-three, and nineteen, and twenty-six, but also twenty, but less twenty than we were).
We see it happen. We gather around him, afraid at what has happened to us and happened to him.
Clean this up, says the lieutenant, and in his anger we see how afraid he is, but we unsee it because we can’t know that he is afraid. He can’t be afraid with us.
We stalk the first lieutenant in the video game like we stalk him in real life. What can we find out? What more is there to know? We find out nothing. As Duquesne would say, That dog won’t hunt. So we kill him. We kill him again. We team up, the twelve avatars that comprise all of us, and coordinate our attacks. Each time he spawns, we kill him. Each time he comes back, in a couple of seconds, he is dead again. We hear him cussing from the floor below. We kill him again. We kill him again. Stay gold, we think. We kill him again.
M. C. Bond (@a_scribed) is an MFA Fiction candidate at New Mexico State University and senior prose editor for Puerto del Sol.
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