The Oatmeal Incident
It was a cold and drizzly day on board the rusted out hulk of a ship, riding the Bering Sea through a sudden tide rip on this early winter morn. It was just about noon. The crew was tired and miserable and none too frugal about showing it, releaved as they were from the burden of pretense. There were three of us besides the skipper.
We'd been pushing pretty hard for what seemed like forever. In spite of our efforts, or lack of common sense on someone's part, we were not having very much in the way of luck. The captain had grown morose; sitting in the galley drinking coffee, chain smoking, and muttering about how things used to be in the old days riding the rails.
You see, captain Smedley Ferguson, Bruno we called him, was a hard man to work for and get along with; in the trade he was known as a screamer. There had been a story floating around, years ago, that he had hacked his invalid grandmother to death and used her for crab bait. I tended to believe the other one, however; it was his mother he had chopped up. She was a cold-blooded bitch, so, nobody much cared how she disappeared. Working for him gave me the opportunity to develop character, a sense of purpose, and an attitude.
Like I said, that morning, cutting east with the arctic wind broadside, we were all out on deck, the crew I mean, working on gear we would never use, weathering a steady twenty, twenty-five knot blow, trying to maintain balance, banging and scraping the ice from the rigging, shivering, cursing, and building ever more character when we heard the shot. Nobody moved; we were too numb. You can't jump every time you hear a noise; you'll go crazy. But we did look toward the bow to see if the skipper was target shooting, a sport he had recently taken up. He wasn't.
Concern gnawed at the edges of what remained of our nervous systems. Nobody spoke. The sound of the sea and the wind whistling through the rigging competed with the diesel, which we no longer actually heard. The air grew thicker; we eyed one another questioningly, it was on everyone's lips-- now-what-the-hell-is-wrong!? Anxiety, the mother of bad times, prompted an investigation.
Hub was elected. He was called 'Hub' because he was built like a wheel with no spokes. Nothing ever seemed to bother him. He dropped what he was doing, which wasn't much to begin with, and made his way across the pitching, slippery deck to the cabin. Bad Bob and I just kinda looked at each other sideways, braced, waitin' for another shot.
But no, Hub came rushin' out the door, hot-footin' it; alarming enough in itself. In spite of this excess of activity, he says, "The skipper's face is in his oatmeal," placidly mind you, a declaration only, not wishing to break the spell of the moment, I presumed.
"So what! What the hell do we care where he puts his face," I said. Bad Bob snickered, shaking his head. He had a sense of humor, that Bob.
Hub shoots back with a stubby finger, "No really, the back of his head is missing," giggling to himself. If you laughed, Hub laughed, that was his reason for being. He reached under his rain gear, pulled out a smoke and asked for a light.
Humor the sorry bastard, I thought, he's overwrought by his surroundings. "Well, where is it, you see it, the back of his head?" I don't know if I was more concerned for Hub's stability or my own safety; a crazed 250 pound longliner is not a pretty sight.
"No," calm as you please, shifting to face westward. He had that look like he'd just been suddenly distracted by a sympathetic gesture in his head; the Bering Sea stare; he was off in the mist. We waited for more but, that was it -- 'no.'
As the deck-boss of this good ship lollipop, I made a quick decision. I went to the lee of the boat to take a long overdue piss. Why rush? I figured I had the time. If the skipper's face was truly lip-locked with a bowl of mush, it was too late to do much about it. I glanced over for a little moral support; they laughed, you know, they had to laugh, what else? I lit a cig and braced myself against the wind, looking west. My mind wandered to a beach scene in Brazil, a straw chair, small round table right next to it, one of those drinks with the umbrellas sittin' on it, bikini clad women sauntering by, smiling... Screw character.
I entered expecting to find the skipper asleep at the wheel but, there he was, blood everywhere, no back of head, and oatmeal, all over the place, splattered over the table, some even made it to the wall on the other side. He must have really slammed down hard. I remember thinking, Goddamnit, I'm probably going to be the one who has to clean this shit up.'
I went to the doorway to tell the others to come in; they were just standin' there talkin' about something, looking uncomfortable. As soon as they enter, Bad Bob says, "Oh, Jesus, look at that oatmeal, man, Jesus, God. Who's gonna clean this shit up." The he laughs. Christ almighty. I shoved passed the eulogy and climbed into the driver's seat, took 'er out of autpilot, and set a course for the barn.
The run from Saint Paul Island to Akutan took us a day and a half. A couple of hours into it, the sea began to come down, patches of blue appeared off in the distance to the east. It was as though Mother Nature Herself had been appeased by the recent occurrence. Fishermen have no problem thinking this way. The atmosphere on board was a little tense at first. However, the pressure and stress we'd been living with this endless season slowly, effortlessly, melted into an amorphous, congenial ambience.
Accordingly, we took our time. Hub threw a wool blanket over our former, fast-hardening skipper. The cabin already smelled pretty bad and a blanket, wool or otherwise, wasn't going to make a difference. If someone else, someone I didn't know, had done that I'd o' said he was being respectful. But with Hub, I don't know, could be the sight bothered him; could be it helped to pretend he wasn't there, the skipper, I mean. As far awy from the skipper as he could safely sit, at the end of the table closest to the door, he cleared a space and started rolling joints. What the hell, the trip was over. Bad Bob was out on deck, enjoying the sun and a bottle of bourbon he'd stashed.
I needed to clear the air, to think, so, Hub and I split a joint, and with a pencil and notebook, got down to business. We drew up a list of the skipper's worldy possessions that were worth a shit: two rifles, a pair of binoculars, thirty or so charts, a pair of rubber boots, size ten, a handful of bic lighters, five cartons of cigarettes, a survival suit, and a cheap pair of polaroids. Bad Bob wanted those. Nobody wanted his clothes.
I wouldn't say we'd completely resigned ourselves to the present set of circumstances, but, fatalism and acceptance of the unknown are part of the sea. And like I said, the trip hadn't gone all that well anyway.
When the skipper nose-dived into his breakfast, we were all out on deck. We didn't find a weapon anywhere. It was confusing; I have to admit. Trepidation kinda hovered in the air, a foreboding, you know, like something very weird is happening but you don't know how to take it? Is it part of the whole, part of the inner matrix of being, or, can you really eat too much oatmeal?
As it was, we remained nonplussed, to say the least. Hub and I took turns running the boat. Bad Bob sat at the table across from the skipper, kickin' back shots and chit-chatting. He wanted to dump all the gear into the sea as a token of our esteem. I thought it might look a little suspicious, coming into port with fish onboard but no gear. Not that anyone would notice, but, somebody might find it curious. It does happen, you know. You could lose all your gear after having caught a bunch of fish, but, nonetheless, I didn't want to attract attention, people asking questions.
I'm not sure how I was thinking about our situation at that time. Should we get to port and then run for it? Where to? We would have to work through the plant office to obtain plane tickets, the one that flew to Dutch Harbor. And from there we'd have to make our way to Anchorage. All very involved when you're trying to get away from a mysteriously dead skipper taking up space at the galley table.
Half way to port, the sea had come down to almost flat, like a lake. Except for a few stubborn clouds off to the west, the sky was blue, and the sun shone crispy bright, sharp in the clear cold air. As far as the eye could see there were birds sitting on the water, miles of them. They'd move out of the way as we came through, then fill in behind. It was like all the birds in the world had decided to come north, to get away from something. Estimating by the radar, we passed through about ten miles of birds, different kinds, puffins, ducks, some albatross, birds, everywhere. They made no sound; they just sat, bobbing on the sea. Hub and Bad Bob stood still and quiet, next to me at the wheel, staring out at the scene. In our long years at sea, we agreed we'd never seen anything like it. They were way too subdued looking.
Bad Bob doesn't much care for omens or signs; he rebels at any intrusion into his way of being. With a slight rumbling growl he moved into the galley area and punched in a tape, then went back on deck and started yelling at the birds. They ignored him, none moved, they didn't even look his way. It was creepy, everything. The skipper at the table with his head blown out; miles of quiet, implacable birds; music in the background; and Bob, throwing down the gauntlet. It affected us, the birds more than the skipper. Hub seemed to become focused, thoughtful, as he continued to stare out at the endless sea of water fowl. That was even creepier. It broke through my detachedness, my indifference, the resolution not to be overwhelmed; all part of the makeup you develop working the sea.
Consequently, I narrowed my concerns to running the boat, smoking, drinking coffee, and pissing. That's all I had been doing anyway, but now, I held onto it like an anchor, singlemindedly determined to get to port. It was all too easy to fall into the mindset that there was somehow a connection between how the skipper bought it, the sudden change in weather, the birds everywhere, and Bad Bob's protest to the gods. Bad Bob was more native than he wanted to believe, or show. He knew something, I believed, like the animal he is.
By the time we rounded the spit to enter the bay, Hub and Bad Bob had their gear packed. It seemed they were concerned, from the drift of their talk, about where their next gig was going to come from. I had to admire their grit, truly, men of the sea, practical and resourceful men, but fair. They divided the food stores and porno magazines offering me a share, which I, with some difficulty, declined. Something in the back of my mind was telling me it might be a good idea to travel light here in the near future.
We arrived just as the sun was about to drop down behind the high ridge that horseshoes the bay, volcano just to its right, on the other side from the processing plant. The village runs along the beach on the way in. This was the first sunset we'd seen for more days than we cared to remember. We took it for a good omen, at least I did. We needed a good sign of some sort or other because, in reality, the reality of society, we were in deep shit.
We had a few fish on board and knew in our hearts, or at least we firmly believed, that our dear departed skipper would most assuredly approve if we were to pull up to the plant and offload first. The only complication was gettting the fish card out of Bruno's wallet which was, of course, in Bruno's pants. And you know where they were. Ripping out the guts of a halibut ain't nothing like sticking your hand into the back pocket of a dead man. It surprised me, how simple it was.
After the unload, we tied the boat up at the far end of the bay, alongside a floating hotel-barge used to house plant workers. Hub and Bad Bob were on the barge heading towards the village before I even had a chance to shut the engine down. The quiet that ensued fell like a wet wool blanket, the kind that still covered the skipper at his place at the table.
On the way in I tried to ignore him, even when I had to reach around him to get something. Not an easy task but one to which I gravitated, out of selfishness, I suppose. It was too late to throw him overboard; hindsight, Jesus. Now, in the still and safety of the harbor, the mystery pulled at me like a hungry child. I made a ham and cheese sandwich, poured another dollop of coffee, and sat down. I knew Bad Bob and Hub had gone to the bar; I also knew they'd keep their mouths shut; at least for now. The strain of everything, sitting here quiet in the harbor, all started to come down, the big thaw. I waited long enough. I got up, lit a cig, put the skipper's fish card in my pocket and left to go to the office to pick up our check.
On the steps coming back I almost knocked over the local Constable. He took a long hard look, apparently he didn't like getting bumped into. On the spur, and knowing beforehand things would come to this, I told him we needed to talk, down at the boat. He asked why; I told him. He grew so fiercely tense he almost stopped breathing, maybe he didn't have to by the looks of him. He was a short thin man of ill-humor with an unkindly disposition, a thick black mustache smeared across his upperlip. He looked like a cossack in a worn black suit, same color as his hair, impervious to the chill wind, both he and his hair. He walked with a limp from an old war wound, he said.
Hub and Bad Bob were standing on deck. The Constable strode into the cabin like he knew he could handle anything. I removed the blanket like I did it every day, smoothly. The Constable, true to his reputation, remained unimpressed, poker-faced. I felt a little dejected. The goddamn oatmeal had congealed to the consistency of concrete. Hair oil smell filled the air. The oatmeal relinquished its hold on my importance.
A long, low whistle escaped the lips of the Constable. How the hell it managed to get passed that mustache is a true mystery. "Holy shit," he matter-of-factly said, "where's the back of his head?" I was stunned; what the hell did I tell this guy 20 minutes ago? "You're very perceptive, sir," I said, as warmly as possible. I didn't think it would hurt to flatter the greasy bastard. I was trying to gauge his frequency, you know what I mean. "We've looked everywhere but to no avail, look for yourself."
Stiffening, he turned those cold black eyes on me, his eyebrows were scrucnched inward. I reiterated the look. Grey cod look this way after you wack 'em on the head, I thought. The Constable pulled a long turkey wishbone out of his side coat pocket and began to rub it against his chin. I had heard about this. He was supposed to be able to hypnotize people with it, make 'em confess, or at least tell the truth.
In a long, deep, gravelly voice he asked me, "Where were you when this happened?" I proceeded to tell him what I just told you; except for the part about unloading the fish; he didn't need to know that and I didn't need to distract him from the issue at hand.
Hub and Bob had joined us and we filled in all the pieces quite nicely. We've had a lot of experience over the years corroborating, so, it fell in with the Constable's turkey bone mystique. It was a crazy scene. I had the check in my pocket and only wanted out and away. I suppose we could've just left for Anchorage, deposited the check into the skipper's account, wrote three for ourselves from the checkbook he conveniently left behind; all done in a timely manner, of course, divied it up and vanished. But, sooner or later, they'd found Bruno, hard as a rock and smelling up the neighborhood. And where were we, someone would want to know, no doubt. So, hindsight, damn.
The Constable looked somewhat skeptical. Sliding the turkey bone back into his pocket, he finally said, with regret, it seemed, but in a constable tone of voice, "You three will have to come down to the station so we can work this out." He wasn't as ignorant as I had previously surmised.
"O.K.," we said, together. We were about to go when I asked the Constable, "But what about the body?"
"What about the body?" he shot back, reaching into his side pocket. Jesus, I thought, not again.
"Well, we can't just leave it here?"
He stared long and hard, way longer and harder than anybody has a right to. I figured he was either trying to decide if I had an ulterior motive for wanting to remove the body from the boat, or, he was thinking about some other place and time entirely. You know the look.
Flinty, excrutiating with tension, jaws clenched, he finally managed to quietly say, "O.K." Jesus, God, Almighty, where do these people come from? "I'll have him taken over to the plant's cold storage. He'll keep there well enough until we can contact a relative." This was all very official shit, I figured; the skipper's off our hands and onto the fish plant's. I was grateful and knew I looked it. So what, I thought, put the asshole on ice with a bunch of dead fish and call his brother.
At the station we repeated our story to his secretary. She had great legs and didn't mind showing them off. I didn't mind the distraction, afterall, it'd been one hell of a long day. I'm sure that's when I threw my shoulder out, unloading.
The Constable had nothing but the unknowable to hold us on and he knew it. Hub and Bad Bob were anxious to get to the Roadhouse Bar, the only bar in the village. I figured I could use a drink too. After the paperwork, the Constable let us go with a warning, "Keep in touch."
As of this writing, it is believed by the authorities, forensic experts and other professionals, after extensive investigation, that the back of captain Smedley Ferguson's head spontaneously blew out and instantly disintegrated. This particular phenomenon, though rare in the northern lattitudes, does occur with sufficient frequency to warrant recognition as more than merely anomolous.
That would explain the sound and the absence of a weapon. It has been documented that when one's head blows out, it does sound remarkably like a gun shot.
He did have an awful lot on his mind.