The Black Spot
Men who knew Old Jim said at one time he’d been everything, a jail-bird, sailor, seal-hunter, oyster pirate, novelist, ship’s engineer, yachtsman, and coal shoveler.
Yes, he had been all these and more, but now was a wreck, a derelict wasted beyond hope of salvage, an old salt too near the end of his rope for any right-minded person to bother with.
He bunked in the back of Wolf’s Lair, which Jack christened our meeting place, and cooked for us when we brought him vittles. Wolf’s Lair was an abandoned Victorian mansion so ancient that people swore it survived the great quake and fire of 1906, but only by the proverbial inch.
The place was a ramshackle affair, a forgotten property only a block from the water, and was falling asunder for the most part, its plaster and wallpaper shriveling and peeling from the neglected walls like a discarded orange abandoned on a doorstep.
It was drafty in winter, leaky beneath showers of spring rain, and hot as the devil in summer. In autumn, rusted leaves twisted themselves into its windowpanes. It sat forlorn at the end of a cul-de-sac where long ago a proposed street car company had purchased the right of way, forgotten it when their investors’ money ran out, and never maintained the property.
Splintered stair banisters cocked at unruly angles and the only thing that made it worth occupying was a magnificent view of the bay from the cupola. It reminded me of a vista from a turret of a medieval castle on a mythical lake of gigantic proportions, allowing imagination free reign to play, at least in the minds of neighborhood children, who being poor like myself, possessed absolutely nothing if not a heightened sense of fancy.
Old Jim arrived brand-spanking new to us, though a few old-timers around the docks knew him well. There was the three of us to contend with, that is to say, myself- Israel, and two friends, Tommy, and Jack. We'd been to school together for what seemed like forever, but were almost done, and tottering on the uncertain brink of adulthood.The old man literally ran into Jack on the street, in one of those auspicious run-ins that meant nothing much at the time, and the entire world to both parties later. Jack started a conversation with old Jim, and Jack, who struggled to write; immediately fell under his spell because Old Jim was Welsh and had a way with words, though he was solely articulate with his tongue and never any good at writing.
Jim’s only possessions were a sea-bag and a few dog-eared books, which he neatly placed on a shelf in the kitchen. Within a fortnight he became our night-watchman and our supreme confidant since he never judged our actions, nor our characters, and doing so, displayed a set of morals unlike our parents. One night we were out late, and came by to check on his whereabouts.
“I’ll bet he’s asleep,” I said. “That’s what night-watchmen usually do. They sleep when the bosses aren’t around. I ought to know, my father works for a bank.”
Jack and I crept up the stairway, noiselessly like mice, and in through the door.
The old man balanced on the edge of a dirty maple chair and hunched over the kitchen table, by the fire he’d made in the grate, thumbing through one of his shabby books. He read and re-read particular passages, apparent by the repeated sweep of his eyes, while moving his mouth in a concealing manner, locked in personal reveries. I guess that’s what good authors do, help you see with their eyes, enabling you to imagine you’re there yourself, and in the process, keep you in a precarious position on the edge of your seat.
“Leave him be,” whispered Jack, and we snuck out of the house and back into the street, eventually winding our way home to the comforting arms of caring mothers, warm mugs of milk, and soft downy feather beds.
Old Jim was shy and besides us, kept to himself. When he was younger, and as he put it, ‘in the pocket’ he wandered far and wide over the seven seas, gambling, chasing women, and once boasted, though he knew it was a cliché, ‘I had a woman in every port.’ But now, in the autumn of life, found himself more circumspect, although he accosted every woman he saw on the street with his eyes, he once coolly admitted,
“I’m only checking their lines to see if they’re sea-worthy.”
And at other times he’d chuckle, “That one’s built like a racing yacht.”
Then he’d give a clean stylish whistle, a professional sailor’s whistle, that even with its undulations; cut the air with meaning like a primitive marlinspike.
He never whistled or said a word at a woman mind you, no matter how much she appealed to his senses or fancy.
Children, on the other hand, were more to his liking. He’d learned the virtue of patience by the time he reached old age, and extended it graciously to any child who wandered his way. Therefore he invested his meager allotment from the old sailor’s fund on lollipops and crackerjacks rather than bunches of long-stemmed red roses.
Being young men we had no idea how this had come about, and chided him mercilessly, when we saw a pretty girl in the neighborhood, who with her beauty alone stopped us dead in our tracks, and he failed to take notice.
There was a girl hanging up laundry with ten white linen sheets slapping on the line, a brown woven basket as big as a pig, and a pile of pine clothes pins that were as pale as her white feet on the grass. We young Turks would see women toiling at domestic tasks and take great pleasure, especially if the girl was pretty, being the male chauvinist piglets that we were. We saw them as simple women who knew their place, as good-looking functioning decorations. But Old Jim saw women in a different light, from a different angle you see, and was having none of it.
“I’m a mature old geezer, that’s what I am. I’d like a woman to darn my socks and mend my clothes, do the dishes, fluff my pillow, all those things you mention. But a woman's worth is beyond reach of a mind your age. Give yourself time and you'll see it grows with compounded interest."
He grew reflective and added, “Then again, what need have I of women at this stage of life?”
We were fortunate then that we were the right age, no longer children but not quite men. For some reason he didn’t spurn us as he did most adults, and neither did he condescend to our whims or wishes as if we were children. We gave him a place to sleep and in return he cooked, and gave us a portion of his private stock of sage advice. It was a relationship based in equality he figured, and appealed to his sense of justice.
He was of the same mind when it came to gambling, and had no use for it. He explained his mature philosophy one time to Jack, who was sitting at the kitchen table at Wolf’s Lair, practicing a magic trick with a greasy deck of cards.
Old Jim’s trick, if you could call it that, was attempting to concoct a plum pudding. Jack would try out his card trick on the old man, and sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t, so he’d go back to reading Houdini’s book on magic. Cards only reminded Jim of gambling, a bad habit he held in contempt. He slid the pudding into the oven gingerly. Frustrated by the recipe and exhausted from being an audience, his temper was fraying.
“Life itself is a gamble, so why bother with gambling away your money? Against the high seas we gambled every day of our lives, sometimes we won, sometimes we lost. Artificial man-made gambling is only childish play-acting. Gamble once with your life, Sunny Jack, then see how much attention you pay to the game.”
“I just need more practice!” Jack said, red-faced.
“Yes, I agree. But at what? Your school books over there in the corner look lonely. Why don’t you give them some attention?”
“Only if you’ll help with my geography.”
They talked about the Panama Canal, and then about Suez, and from there about the narrowness of the Straits of Gibraltar, and how you could see Spain rising up like a mountain of rock in the distant haze all the way from the flat shores of Africa, and why it looked so near, even though the different continents with their distinctive cultures seemed so remote.
“The Greeks called it the Pillars of Hercules!” Jack read with glee.
“Ah, yes, geography… it’s as simple as making plum pudding!”
Then Old Jim smelled something foul, an “Ill wind that blew no good.” He attended the oven, swiftly opened the door and removed a smoldering black lump of anonymous stuff.
“This is going to take a bit more study,” he reflected, and when it cooled, he scraped it out and into the trash while muttering about baking being akin to gambling, “Because you never know what you’re going to get.”
It was only later in the day I discovered the depths of Old Jims convictions, and how he stuck to his guns. We were all around the kitchen table playing spades or hearts, I can’t remember which. You understand the state we were in. We were often broke, usually hungry, and to remedy those two situations, Tommy suggested oyster pirating, and wondered where we could lay our sticky fingers on a boat.
The card game was instantly over.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “the transplanted Chesapeake oysters have gone sky-high! Nobody can afford them.”
“They’ve got a monopoly, that’s why,” Tommy added.
“Nobody has any tears to spill for the gougers. And everyone wants the best oysters. We could sell them in Oakland in the morning,”
I counseled as level-headedly as possible.
Jack said nothing, and played with the deck of cards. The old man gave the conversation a nod of recognition. Hearing the name Chesapeake perked up his ears.
“All we need is a boat for a couple of hours,” Tommy continued. "Even if he have to 'borrow' one."
Then Old Jim jumped in with both feet.
“Boys, you ought to think twice. Oyster pirating is a dangerous profession. It’s like a game of chance. You never know how it will turn out, or what you’ll eventually get.”
Jack, who was unusually full of himself and confident at his skill with cards, boasted, “I can tell with these cards how anything will turn out, the future for any one of you.”
We all smiled simultaneously except the old man.
“That fortune telling malarkey is hogwash. There’s too many cards, and too many combinations to suit me. And the trouble is, the gypsy that reads your cards is more likely to tell you about yourself by keen observation and interpret the results as she sees fit, rather than what she sees in the cards. She guarantees a bright future so’s she gets a good tip! I’d never let anyone tell me my fortune under such rank circumstances.”
“So, Old Jim,” Tommy said. “What circumstances would you prefer?”
“Yes, Jim,” I chimed in. “How would you do it?”
Old Jim looked thoughtful, and simplified the problem so it could be dealt with. He laughed at himself for his audacity and apparent flight of whimsy.
“Why, I’d hang my fate on a single card, and to ensure there was no skullduggery, I’d blindfold the gypsy and roll up his sleeves!”
He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a dark blue bandana. Laughing, he tossed it on the table.
Like lightning Jack sprang from his chair and grabbed the neckerchief, folded it, wrapped it over his eyes and tied a knot at the back of his head. It compressed his wild hair in a shock, but bubbled it at the top, shaping it like a mild Cotopaxi explosion.
“Tommy,” he said, “You mixed them up, and shuffle them. Israel, you cut the cards while I roll up my sleeves.
This happened so swiftly Old Jim had no time to react or reject the proposal. Then Jack, blinded like Justice, reached out for the cards and we handed him the deck. He slid off the top card with his index finger, and as he did, pinched it with his finger and thumb. Twisting his wrist made the face appear. From my angle, there was a shine on the face and I couldn’t see for the sheen. I moved my head just a taste to the left and it came clear, I could see what it was now… an ominously-shaped darkness, a black valentine with a stem, upside down.
Old Jim’s eyes widened and his pupils grew in size until his irises were so narrow they were devoid of color.
“It’s the Black Spot!” he blurted out, and then quickly looked around.
There on the table, face-up, lay the ace of spades.
His face drained of color and grew hard and smooth like marble, but his veins stood out like cables under tension.
“The Black Spot…” he repeated, now in a hush, to not wake a lurking monster. His eyes darted nervously back and forth.
Three words were never more carefull packaged with meaning. Each boy sat there, silent, his mouth agape, and stared at the other two.
Old Jim rose from the chair in a daze and wrapped a dishcloth over a rod near the sink, paying great attention to how it hung, in a technical manner exercising no thought. He’d become a man in slow motion with glue on his feet, and walked past us without saying a word of good night.
He trudged up the stairs one step at a time in a mechanical fashion, his legs geared to his torso and spliced to his feet, and slowly, deliberately, like a climb up Everest, ascended to his room at the pinnacle of the house and thereon to bed.
The sleep he suffered was no real sleep and was filled with intolerable emotions. When a man can’t sleep he finds himself on a journey of discovery where he learns things he just doesn’t want to know. Old Jim tossed to his other side and straightened the blanket.
“How is it, that a man like myself, who’s spent almost his whole life on the sea, is to be taken while on the land, where’s he’s only invested a fraction of his time?”
Outside he heard a clanging off in the distance. It was the last street car of the night, heading to the end of the line.
“Will it end,” he considered, “with me falling under a street car? That could be one way.”
He turned over again, and flipped the pillow over.
“I suppose that’s too dramatic. Most likely it will come in a common every-day manner. It could be something as slight as a paper cut on a fingertip.”
He touched his fingers with his hand.
“Or a ragged toenail that get’s an infection.”
He pushed his toe through a hole in the blanket.
“Either one can turn septic.”
All night long it went on, dire thoughts turning ceaselessly.The man couldn’t sleep and there were certainly one million and one ways to die, maybe more, all of them on the dirty earth and none on the wind-swept sea, at least for him.
He gave the pillow another turn and noticed the curtains translucent with light. It was dawn.
“Why, I’d rather be deep-sixed and rest my bones in Davy Jones’s locker.”
The rest of the day was no better than last night. A thousand possible mortalities crawled into his head from around every coroner, behind every door, hiding in each and every closet and drawer. The air he breathed he feared was polluted. He’d check the stove to see how the gas was or look outside at the weather for a lightning storm. Scenarios of death played ruthlessly with his brain, like a lion with a gazelle.
Just days later he was coming downstairs and heard what he thought were words like full moon, boat, tides, and last of all Shoalwater, floating up the stairs from the kitchen, along with the scent of bacon grease, pancakes, and eggs.
There was a full plate lying on the table and only one empty chair.
“That for me?”
“Who else?” answered Jack, and pulled the chair out with a bow. It looked too theatrical to the old man’s way of thinking. Jim smelled a rat. What would be next? He sat down anyway and couldn’t wait for the show to start. Tommy high-tailed it and ran out the back door.
“I have a proposition for you, Jim. We need a certificated sailor for an oyster sloop.”
Jim shoveled eggs in his mug, quickly, like when he worked on the black gang of an Atlantic steamer running full speed, the first job he had at sea.
“And what sea would you need this sailor on, and for what time of day?”
His second mouthful was slower and more measured, like the engineer he’d finally become.
“Shoalwater Bay would be the water, and the time is this very night,” said Jack. “The full moon will make it perfect.”
Jim said nothing. The wait seemed endless. He knew all the boys but Jack knew nothing of sailing, hell no, none of them even knew how to swim. And continually sniffing out threats around every land-locked corner, it was all getting too much. Like Edmond Dantes in the Count of Monte Cristo, Jim needed to engineer an escape.
Old Jim stood up and solemnly poured two cups of coffee. He opened a low cupboard that was usually empty and extracted an almost-empty pint of whiskey. He poured a drop or three in each glass and plunked the pint down on the table-empty.
He took up a cup and sniffed it. Time stood still and his nose brought back memories of when he was a deck steward on the P. and O. Ranpura, in the Indian Ocean. It had been foggy, but was clear now, and he stood by the rail smoking a cigarette, brushing the cherry against the railing, watching it fall.
“I was always fond of moonlight, shimmering in bars across the black oily surface of the Indian Ocean. They moved like a collection of silver beads across a Dragon Lady’s heaving bosom as she snoozed in the deck chair. Her large floppy hat shaded her eyes. I figured she was some rich Chinaman’s wife. I didn’t recognize her at first. When she opened her eyes and looked up, I saw it was Lilly. Reubenesque now, but Lilly. She was wearing the same beaded Poiret dress we bought in Biarritz after her run of luck playing baccarat. I distinctly remembered her shapely legs and how she dangled them over the edge of the four-poster during afterglow.”
“But now the legs were two pale elephants and years of good living had transformed her. Now she was Krakatoa Lilly, getting so big she might explode any minute. She must have let that dress out once… no… twice. But what does a man know? Maybe thousands of times with hundreds of spools of thread.”
Jack was sure he didn’t know what fever had gotten into Old Jim. Something was wrong with him. These inexplicable pauses drove him crazy. Just lately he seemed lost in thought and wore too many faces to figure.
Old Jim moved his lips in a whisper, as if working a secret spell.
“What did you say?” Jack asked.
“I said I’ll sign articles with you. I need to get in the clear, and plan what to do, and get off this accursed land, no matter what,” answered Jim in a no-nonsense manner. “Let’s drink on it.”
We made our way to the docks pushing a borrowed cart down the end of a street, made a hard left, and out to the dock near the chink in the chain link fence. The moon began to rise over the hills in the south, a shining white disc illuminated by the sun. Shadows became distinct and hard-edged.
An oyster sloop lay tied up to a piling. She was narrow, neat and clean, made for speed and bad weather. We all crawled aboard and pushed off. At first there was a ripple, barely a ripple, but within minutes we’d hoisted the main sail and were off like a shot. Old Jim, at the wheel, I’d never seen him more alive, looking up at the sail and giving orders, a commanding old man in his element. When we reached the mud flats Old Jim announced,
“The dirty work is for you youngsters. You won’t catch me mucking about in the mud.”
It was hard, wet, and exhausting, working on the fattening grounds. We weren’t used to the boots and after a while every step was an effort and your arms suffered too, after hauling net after net of oysters out of the muck but with each net we captured plenty of high-priced oysters, making it worth whatever effort expended. We were constantly pulling bits of shell out of the nets.
I started complaining loudly about the stingrays which were on the bottom in great numbers that time of year.
“Be quiet,” warned Tommy, “That’s an oyster-house over there, propped up on the pilings, and the Swede who’s the night watchman is a light sleeper.”
We didn’t find out until later that Old Jim had sent him a bottle of peppermint schnapps, with the return address of his mother in Helsinki, and he was sleeping like a baby.
Working in Shoalwater Bay in the dead of night was tiring, but the setting was satisfactory in a wild sort of way.
Tidal flats ran away into the distance on both sides, shining slick on polished black sand. Reeds clustered all around, cattails with swollen heads, and beyond that, dark-shadowed rolling hills. Most stars were overcome with the full moon’s brilliance. The biggest were still seen to twinkle but the mare’s tails clouds closer to earth scattered the intense moon light, drawing delicate trails of fine silver, floating precariously against the blackness of heaven.
We saw none of it then; we were too busy toiling until we were done. We had a time limit, and had to return the sloop before someone noticed it was missing.
Jack sat in the cabin on the way back scribbling with a pencil in his composition book, spontaneous lines, that when it came down to it, would most likely be delegated to the rubbish during a typical writer’s frenzy of re-writes and revisions.
“I wanted to be where the winds of adventure blew,” he scribbled. "And the winds of adventure blew the oyster pirate sloops up and down San Francisco Bay, from raided oyster-beds and fights at night on shoal and flat, to markets in the morning against city wharves, where peddlers and saloon-keepers came down to buy. Every raid . . . was a felony.”
Tommy was on the fore deck, coiling a line and making it secure. I was proud of him. He was smaller than us, but had done the same work if not more and earned every dollar he’d get.
I was sitting on a capstan near Old Jim, and Jim was having a good time. The wind was gusting from various compasses, forcing him to adjust his tack, and the boom swung back and forth like a giant knight’s sword made of wood, sometimes sweeping right over our noggins. You had to stay alert if you wanted to keep your head. The only sound was the wind in the sails and the bow slicing the water.
“Ah, it’s a shame, isn’t it?” reflected Jim. “The owners are outfitting this fine ship with an engine.”
“That will make it easier to guide it into the slip, won’t it?”
“I suppose, but men can do that. They stink and make too much noise for me--engines that is.”
We were only a half-hour away from where she was tied up. But Old Jim’s hands had a touch of arthritis, and were getting stiffer by the minute. We’d all been up late, and woke up early.
“There’s coffee below and a spirit stove. Will you brew me a cup?” he asked.
“Of course I will. And holding the warm cup won’t hurt you hands either.”
I dashed down the stairs and found what I needed. Jack was still writing and never looked up.
But he smelled coffee brewing.
“Make me a cup, will ya?”
“I will, but I’ve got to get this one to Old Jim first.”
Out at the wheel Jim could barely keep his eyes open. He was smoking a pipe. How he managed to light it in such a stiff wind was beyond me. It’s just one of those sailor tricks.
He took the cup with a smile, saying nothing, lost in thought or concerned with the ship, I never knew which. Only moments later, while I was back in the cabin measuring out coffee, the ship suddenly listed to port, and made me spill the grounds.
“I better go out and see if Jim needs any help,” I said. “It’s a wonder he’s still awake.”
“Tell him I’ll spell him a while if he needs me,” said Jack. “We’re almost back anyway, and I do know something about sailing, no matter what the old man thinks."
On the foredeck Tommy was still struggling to coil a line and make it fast to a cleat. The wheel was spinning and Old Jim- where was Jim anyway? I turned my head in every direction. Nothing. No one. Three steps nearer and the boom swung over my head with a vengeance, missing it by inches.
“Tommy!” I shouted. “Where’s Old Jim?”
“I thought he was in the cabin with you."
We shouted for Jack, and started searching in every conceivable spot. Nothing.
“Jack shouted, “Look here!”
On the starboard side, near the rail, was a broken coffee cup, a small pool of coffee, a smaller one of blood, a pipe stem, and ashes. I picked up the pipe stem.
“It’s bit clean through.”
Within seconds, water splashing over the rail ran out through the scuppers and carried every last bit of evidence away. We figured he went too close to the rail, for what reason we couldn’t tell, and the boom swung and knocked him on the back of his head. He may have staggered, maybe not, but fell overboard.
“He must have been unconscious,” said Tommy. “Because I heard nothing.”
“It must have hit him hard and fast, to make his jaw clench like that,” I cringed.
“It was a quick way to go,” said Jack, and then added philosophically, “We should all have it so good.”
Jack got us back just in time and safely too, and we were never found out. We sold our precious cargo to bartenders and housewives in Oakland later that morning when the sun was up. I began to wonder how Tommy and Jack took it, they were sullen and mute.
Young men often find bluster and flippancy more easily expressed than the more tender aspects of their souls, especially in front of their male friends, who might take their expressions of grief for weakness. Yet Old Jim's death proved a kind of shared shock which numbed all three of us.
As for me, I miss the man. Only the lonely will understand. It’s a fine state of affairs. You meet someone, learn to love them, and when you’re not looking they’re whisked away in an instant, like trash, with no sounding trumpets, no battles, no monuments to their sacrifice. It was the same way with my mom and dad. None of us admits it, but we cry, on cold dark nights we wail like neglected babies crying out for comforting- but no one is there.
After it happened, Tommy started to pay attention in school.
“I don’t want to end up a poor sailor,” he said. “Are you done with the coffin yet?”
“Almost, do you have the brass fittings?”
“Yes,” he said solemnly.
“And the lacquer?”
“Then I’ll finish it tonight and it will be dry by morning.
“Good, tell Jack we’ll launch it in late afternoon.”
The next afternoon we met up, and finished the job. The small pine box was oblong and not very well built. We didn’t make to last. I took the pipe stem out of my pocket and placed it inside. Tommy threw in a spoon full of coffee from Java. Jack saved a brass button, one with crossed anchors, from a threadbare coat we found in Jim’s closet at Wolf’s Lair. They were going to tear it down for a streetcar line, one that would stick this time. It was too full of memories to go back to anyway.
Jack tossed it in. In an hour we tacked the top on, walked to the docks and dowsed it in kerosene. The tide was going out. The sun resembled a fiery ball sitting on the edge of the world.
Each one of us lit a match and set it afire, like you’d do a birthday cake. Then we cast it adrift and watched it float farther out on every sloping wave.
“This is only right,” said Tommy, “It’s something they did for Arthur.”
As bright and moving as the flames proved to be, the sun proved brighter by far, and before you know it, the small ship with its precious cargo of pipe stem, exotic coffee, and single brass button was a mere silhouette against the pale embers of a dying sun.
Smaller and smaller it grew, if that makes any sense, until it was lost to the world.
I was in the old neighborhood in a used bookstore last week and decided to stroll by the old property. The word was that they had scheduled it for demolition, now that the street car line had reached where it was, about five blocks way.
The place was a shambles, which was nothing new. When I knocked, the door creaked open as if by an invisible hand.
There was the kitchen table where we plotted and planned, and the cupboard where Old Jim stashed his whiskey when he toasted and made the agreement with Jack.
“No, wait a minute. It wasn’t that one. It was here.”
When I opened the cupboard door it nearly fell off the hinges. Dust flew everywhere and my eyes looked away. I noticed the neglected shelf. Still there, covered in dust, were Jim’s two dog-eared shabby books.
“He must have had these forever,” I guessed, and took both of them down. I’d never seen them close up, none of us had.
The first one was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I recognized the old standard edition.
The second book was a first editon titled Youth by Joseph Conrad. It was covered in a light green cloth and the publisher was William Blackwood and Sons. It appeared to be a collection of short stories including Heart of Darkness, dated 1902.
The fly leaf was inscribed, with a neat hand, a hand of authority.
Your exemplary service on the Roi des Belges as chief engineer was without parallel. Without your extensive knowledge and dedication to duty it is my opinion we may not have returned from the Congo in one piece.
Captain Joseph Conrad
I miss Old Jim dearly, and Tommy and Jack as well. Who doesn’t, upon occasion, miss childhood friends? My mother and father…it’s difficult to express how much I miss them. I suppose you might say my life is a cornucopia of missing. Jim once told me something his captain said in confidence. It rings true now more than ever.
“We live as we dream – alone.”
©Steven Hunley 2012
My apologies to the 76 people who saw this and there was no post. I'd thought about entering this year's short story competition. I was previewing it to help find typos. When I went back I saw it had been posted. I withdrew it, and found out it would never have worked anyway, the word count was double the specifications! Sorry!