Barrelhouse Presents is our monthly reading series at Petworth Citizen in Washington, DC. It's our chance to share work from writers appearing in literary magazines and small presses we love. On Sunday, March 1st at 8 PM Barrelhouse Presents Curbside Splendor and Publishing Genius with Halle Butler, Susan Hope Lanier, Mark Cugini, and Madeline ffitch.
Ahead of the reading, we're proud to present below the title story from Madeline ffitch's debut collection forthcoming from Publishing Genius!
Valparaiso, Round the Horn
For every construction worker who is a man who pees next to the work area of a construction worker who is a woman and when the woman says “please don’t do that. Instead, why don’t you pee in the porta-pottie?” and the man says “if you don’t like it don’t work on a fucking construction site,” and the woman complains to her supervisor, who is also a woman, who says “it sounds like maybe you weren’t cut out for this kind of work,” there is also a construction worker who is a man who is kind of private about where he pees, and would really prefer to pee in the porta-pottie, and who definitely doesn’t want to pee on or near a female coworker, although not out of sensitivity so much as out of being sort of conservative about peeing, and such a man was Abie Carlebach.
That spring, Abie worked for Black Rose Construction, between the Lake Union dry dock and the YMCA. Abie enjoyed working near the YMCA because he liked to go swimming, and he enjoyed working near the Lake Union dry dock because of all the sea chanties being sung at odd hours. It was sincere and it was contemporary. The sailors patched the cavernous engine. Abie built condos next door.
Abie was a construction worker who hoped to be left alone, who hoped to just fit in, who hoped to hide up there in the scaffolding, shirking his vision. Someday he hoped to hop on a steel plank being lowered to the ground by crane. Also, to mimic the photo of the construction workers lunching on a crossbeam while building the Rockefeller Center. And Abie knew that he would be too afraid to do either of those things.
Abie worked for two brothers, Murray and Phil, former Black Panthers who were still pretty jumpy because they knew the war against them was not over. Sure enough, on April 13th, a day that was still raining, they were arrested on suspicion of being terrorists or knowing some other people who were terrorists and not telling the authorities about it. Abie knew this was a frame-up. He knew that Murray and Phil had their reasons for living as they did. But his feeling was, what could he do?
Before April 13th, Phil, the younger brother, told him that women might like him better if he said something like this to them: “There’s a tiny little owl, the strangest, cutest owl. Yes, it has been appointed the cutest owl, and the strangest owl.” If he spoke from the heart. If he asked her questions about herself, questions such as, “Is it cuter, do you think, than those two kittens there, fitted together sleeping like beans?”
“What if there aren’t any actual kittens around?” asked Abie.
“Oh, just use your imagination,” said Phil.
“What if she asks what the tiny owl is called?” Abie asked.
“Tell her it’s called the xenoglaux,” Phil said. “The Strange Owl.”
Before April 13th, Murray, the older brother, told Abie he’d sounded black over the phone, but now they had him they didn’t want to let him go because, when he drove the company truck on errands to the lumber yard, he was such a fast and such a safe driver, both at once.
At the lumberyard, before April 13th, a white contractor leered at him. “How is it working for that nigger company?” he whispered. Abie was startled. Up until then, he had thought that most white people didn’t use that particular word anymore, that it had gone out fashion as the most favored expression of racism. Yet Abie was afraid to hop on a steel plank, he was afraid to lunch on a crossbeam. His mouth dry, he whispered back to the contractor, “Fine. Actually, it’s great.”
For this, and for other reasons, Abie was embarrassed pretty much all the time. Yet no one seemed to notice. When he went to pick up his pay at the Black Rose construction office, many women who had just had their hair done flirted with Abie good naturedly. Why couldn’t he just relax?
Instead, he began to drive faster, and even more safely.
Sometimes, early in the morning, alone in his room, Abie would wrestle with the big questions. He would think, “Why do I work such a physically rigorous job when I have not found my passion? What do I, Abie Carlebach, need money for?” And he would answer himself, “I need money to pay rent on this room, and to eat this delicious sort of food that I like to buy at the grocery store.” He liked to eat spaghetti and meatballs, and he liked to roast eggplants over the gas range until they were black. For lunch, he ate egg sandwiches, like most people. “There must be a way around these things, but right now, I haven’t found what that way is,” thought Abie.
On April 14th, Murray and Phil’s mother, Mrs. Rose, took over. Abie felt that she bullied him a little bit. He worried that this was because he was the newest employee, and white, and slight of build. For example, Mrs. Rose came out to the construction site on the morning of April 14th to make sure Abie began work on time. She stood under his scaffolding while he used the nail gun. She looked up at him, and her face was perfectly clean.
“Young man,” Mrs. Rose said. “I am under a lot of emotional stress because of what the pigs have done to Murray and Phil. I wish my boys had kept their noses clean. I wish that Murray had kept Phil out of trouble. What can I do?”
“It’s a frame-up, that’s obvious,” said Abie.
She was quite slim, and quite old. “Thank you for your sympathy, young man,” she said.
“Do you think there’s still a chance for them to escape?” asked Abie.
“Escape to where, young man?”
“You can call me Abie,” said Abie.
“Escape to where?”
“Don’t you people go to Cuba sometimes?” asked Abie.
“Ma’am, I think you people are heroes,” said Abie.
“It’s too late for anyone to go Cuba now,” said Mrs. Rose.
“What’s your first name?” asked Abie.
“Erica,” said Mrs. Rose. She was crying, and she walked away, and she was wearing hiking boots that she had bought specifically in order to do her new job better.
Of course, it was time for a break, and so Abie took out his egg sandwich, and sat on a cinder block. Three of Abie’s coworkers were men, and one of them was a woman, and they were black, and they left him alone. He could hear the strains of a sea chanty floating over the fence from the dry dock: Oh wake her, oh shake her, oh shake that gal with the blue dress on. He heard the groan of a great chain uncoiling, and just beyond Lake Union, and through the locks, there was always, and also that day, the creak of the sea.
Abie ate his egg sandwich slowly, and soon the Captain came up along the avenue from the dry dock gates. The Captain was a real old salt, a real old tar, an old mariner. He was the captain of the largest ship in dry dock that spring, The Cutty Sark the Second. He stopped in front of Abie. He wore an ancient oilskin, and a knit cap, and he squinted his eyes around, breathing through his mouth until Abie looked up.
“We’ll shanghai you, my boy,” said the Captain. “Ha.”
Abie had learned not to react, except with curiosity.
“When will you go to sea?” asked Abie.
“We won’t go to sea on a Friday, for that’s bad luck for sure, but we should have been at sea three months ago. The work goes slowly. I’m not a happy man, Abie. I don’t like this fresh water. I taught my crew every song they know, but still, the work goes slowly.”
“I like the one about the girl with the blue dress.”
“The beautiful whore,” said the Captain, “I was in love with her.”
“I like that one,” said Abie.
“The work goes slowly because all hands have unionized,” said the Captain. “I support it and don’t support it.”
“The Rose family is benevolent. I’ve never felt I needed a union,” said Abie.
“Betraying your class, is it?” said the Captain.
The union office was on the fourth floor of the YMCA building. The girl behind the desk wore a nametag that read “Cappy.” She had horse teeth, she had a pumpkin jaw, her eyes went twinkle twinkle with what did not turn out to be mischief.
She started right in on him, making him feel like a prude, which he was.
“Do you work with any women?” she asked.
“One of them,” Abie said, afraid right away of making a mistake. “She’s a black woman.”
“I’ve never spoken to her.”
“You’ve got to talk to people if you want to organize your workplace. You can’t just not talk to them. Especially if you’re shy. We have a workshop you can take called Organizing Non Shy People for Shy People. It’s taught by a person who used to be shy.”
“I’m not shy,” said Abie, “I talk to my boss a little bit. She’s a woman.”
“Where do you pee when you’re at work?”
Abie felt hot. He felt that he had to pee right then. He wanted to excuse himself. “I pee in the porta-pottie,” said Abie. He held it.
“Have you ever peed on the woman that you work with?”
“No. I don’t know her very well.”
“It happens to women on the work site all the time. They get peed on or near. Haven’t you read about it?”
“It sounds terrible.”
“It sounds terrible, and it sounds like a lot of other things.”
“Like what other things?” asked Abie. He wanted to protect her. Her hair was fuzzy as a baby.
“How about this. Why is it that you’ve got a room full of men with only one woman, and, on a dime, they all start gang raping this woman? They do this all together, these men.”
“The men who would not do this if they were alone,” said Cappy.
“I have read about that, I think,” said Abie. “Has that ever—” and then he thought better of it.
“No, it’s never happened to me personally. But I work with women who are victims of this,” Cappy said. Abie was flooded with relief.
“Have you ever been peed on?” asked Abie.
“No, not personally,” said Cappy. “The worst thing is the woman supervisor who is unsympathetic. That’s what I think is the worst thing.”
“Worse than being peed on?” asked Abie.
“At least pee is sterile,” said Cappy.
“Have you heard about the tiny, strange owl?” asked Abie. He wanted to stop right then and talk about why the world is actually made up of moment by moment by moment.
They began to spend time together, so that Abie could talk to her about this, and they went to the aquarium, and to the small park, and to the bigger park, and they went back to Abie’s room, and her nipples stuck straight out and were no color at all. When they spent time together with the lights off and some other things, she’d shriek in a voice like china. It moved him. It moved him once, but not the second time. The second time Abie suspected in a rush that she was faking it, and his feelings were hurt. Then he felt guilty for having his feelings hurt. Mostly, he felt the feeling of a cat with his whiskers cut right off. He bumped into the wall. She sat up in bed.
“Have you heard about dolphins?” she asked. “Have you heard about how all dolphin sex is gang rape?”
“I have heard about that,” Abie said, “but I don’t quite know what it means.”
“You identify more with the bosses, don’t you, Abie?“ asked Cappy.
This took Abie right into May, and it continued to rain, and The Cutty Sark the Second did not put to sea.
Erica Rose visited the construction site once every two days, wearing her hiking boots and wearing a deep green jacket made out of canvas. Abie could see that it wasn’t waterproof enough. She took in large shuddering breaths as she walked around the site, checking on things. It was May 21st when she approached Abie again as he ate his egg sandwich again.
“Young man, I hear you’ve been talking union,” she said.
“No, I haven’t,” Abie said.
“You have or you haven’t?” she asked.
“I haven’t because I’m too shy,” Abie said, “But I would like to, because I think it’s the right thing to do. Listen to the sailors next door.”
They listened. At that moment, the sailors were singing, We’re bound for Valparaiso round the Horn.
“That’s their tradition,” Erica Rose said, “But right now, if you organized, I would go out of business. Is it that big jawed white woman?”
“I don’t like her. She’s always speaking up for other people.”
“She can be difficult,” Abie said. “But still, I don’t see her as often as I’d like to.”
“There are a lot of other women who don’t go around making so much trouble for other people. This, while thinking they understand every single thing,” said Mrs. Rose.
“How are Murray and Phil doing?” asked Abie.
Their mother said, “Abie, if you are an imprisoned person, there’s a secret thing you can do, and I think it’s very smart: You wake up a little before it’s really time to get up and face another day of imprisonment. Maybe, if you’re under heavy surveillance, you keep your eyes closed. Or maybe, if it’s a different kind of imprisonment, like just plain old slavery, you open your eyes and look up at the ceiling. But the main thing is, you lie there, in bed, awake, but not getting up yet, and you steal some time for yourself. No one can make you not do this. Any person can make this time for themselves. And what do you think about? Anything you want. That’s the point. If you have a brother, you might think about him. You might think about what it was like to grow up with him right beside you all the time. If that’s too painful, you might steal time to avoid thinking about your brother, and about how he is a bit younger than you, and how he does everything in a way that is completely correct. He rattles off little bits of useless trivia about animals and local history. He lets his nose run without noticing it for a full minute. This, while giving people romance advice. My boys wake up, and they stay in bed before anyone knows they are awake, and they think about whatever they want to think about, and no one can stop them from doing that.”
They looked up and the Captain was there. He took off his cap and looked abashed. He had never met Erica Rose before. Abie introduced the two of them.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your sentiments,” said the Captain. “I want to tell you the strange fact that when my father was a toddler in Rhodesia, he played with black African slaves, and though technically they were servants, I feel it’s more accurate to call them the first thing. It’s never sat right with me.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” asked Mrs. Rose. They all looked at Abie’s sandwich.
“Are you really sailing for Valparaiso?” Abie asked the Captain.
“Yes, my boy. You’ve got free passage if you want it, though you’ll have to sign on as a deckhand and work your way up. We’re bound for Chile, where the native whores are fiery and innocent. A combination that slays me.”
“I’ll take my chances here, thanks,” said Abie.
“Don’t make up your mind quite yet, my boy. We sail tomorrow, and I’d like the two of you to come aboard tomorrow morning before we weigh anchor, just to have a look around.”
“Thanks very much,” Erica Rose said. “I’ll be there.”
“I might be there,” Abie said.
The next morning, before work, Abie went swimming at the YMCA. His strongest stroke was the breast stroke, and on his second lap, the swimmer in the lane next to him swerved a bit, so that Abie accidentally kicked her in the stomach. He felt the impact, deep and doughy and slow. Immediately, he began to tread water. But the other swimmer, in a black suit that turned silver when she twisted her body, did the crawl fast and desperate away from Abie. She wore a swimming cap, like any normal person would, what was wrong with that, and she stood up when she reached the shallow end. It was Cappy. Abie hadn’t seen her since the dolphin rape day.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Abie. “I’m sorry I kicked you in the stomach. But you’ve got to stay in your lane.”
Cappy didn’t answer. She pointed at Abie, and she waved at the lifeguard. “Lifeguard, I want this man escorted out of this pool. I cannot swim if he is here,” she called. It was so brave of her. Abie felt such shame that he couldn’t move. Two lanes away, another swimmer stood up. It was the Captain, wearing modest trunks that went down past his bare blue knees. The old salt said, “Don’t swim in this fresh water, my lad. Follow me to sea. It’s your last chance.” They left the YMCA together. “You’ll have to eat limes, so as not to get scurvy,” said the Captain.
“Naturally,” said Abie. He wasn’t sure he had the gumption. “What if I get sea sick?” he asked.
“Ah, the mal de mer!” the Captain laughed at Abie, and they walked past the dry dock, away from the dry dock, always at sea level, along the shoreline, past stacks of dishes on rooftops, towards the Puget Sound, towards the salt water. The unions had put the dishes on the rooftops as a means of playing a fantastic trick on the bosses, and no food could be served in the restaurants because they had no dishes to serve the food on.
“What do the union men eat out of?” asked Abie.
“The union men eat out of one big pot, and they feel fine. They feel solidarity, which I’ve heard is the absolute best feeling,” said the Captain.
Elsewhere, the unions had hidden all the farm equipment under bales of hay, as another trick on the bosses. All of these tactics worked so well. All of these tactics got the goods.
Abie wanted to join with the other men in yellow raincoats. He knew these men peed on or near women sometimes, but he still wanted to be close to them and hear their glorious plans for the future. When they reached the saltwater, The Cutty Sark the Second was waiting for them. Erica Rose was already aboard.
“I’m not going the whole way,” she said, “I just want to have a look around. Maybe have a glass of port in the Captain’s cabin.”
“I might go the whole way,” said Abie.
“That’s my boy. We’ll pierce a gold ring through your ear when we round the Horn, just in case you should ever drown. Ah, the sea. The great equalizer,” said the Captain. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Rose?”
“I’m not a good one to ask about that sort of thing,” said Erica. “I have no scruples. In my eyes, everyone I want to be near is equal. They’re equal because I want to be near them so much.”
“It’s just spring fever setting in,” said the Captain.
“But it feels so real,” Erica Rose said.
They had been at sea for one hour, they were going full speed, they were going eleven knots, when the proud union men cried out, “Porpoises off the starboard side!”
All hands gathered at the bow, and the dolphins leapt all the way over them, all the way up, ten feet up, twisting their bodies in the light and salt spray. Down in the foam, they cut fast through the white water like electricity moves fast. They didn’t have any arms, which Abie knew before he saw them, but other species can be so persuasive, you can feel so kindred with them, like they’re just humans wearing special suits, and when you think about it that way it becomes a simple miracle that they roll around like that with only their sharp slick fins to propel them.
And that is why I met Abie Carlebach in Chile, and why I fell in love with him, and why I will never at any time feel different.
Madeline ffitch was a founding member of the punk theater company The Missoula Oblongata. Her fiction has appeared in The Chicago Review, Sententia, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and Tin House. She lives and writes in Appalachian Ohio where she homesteads and raises ducks, goats, and her small son, Nector.