Lilah

A boat identifies itself by the unique blaring of its horn. Hear a horn often enough, and it becomes like the voice of a friend. One sunny hot, bright day, a combard horn sounded just out of sight on the river. I recognized the distinct sound of Miss Genius. I jogged to the slip my father preferred.

Kev tied up to the dock in a specific way. The boat approached the dock with grace when Kev did it right. And he almost always did it right.

The electric steering impellers on all four corners of the boat whined loudly as Kev eased the craft towards the dock. He finessed the boat to less than an arm’s length from the edge of the quay. Then he let it creep parallel to the pier.

Choco Leroy Galea tossed me the stern line, and I tied it off. The momentum of the boat pulled all slack, and Miss Genius pivoted tight against the dock as the line stretched. At that point, Choco jumped off the bow and tied the bowline before the stern line recoiled. Miss Genius got pulled back after the stern line absorbed the boat’s momentum. The boat snugged up against the dock. The wood of the hull groaned and popped as it rubbed against the cotton fenders on the dock.

I bounded on board as the roar of the turbine halted. My feet made a substantial boom on the wood in the new silence.

My father walked out of the wheelhouse and waved to me. “Hey, wild man. I have two passengers who need their worldly belongings hauled elsewhere, and you are the dock monkey to do that. I have confidence in you. You can do that, right?”

“How many, or how much, worldly goods do they have?” I asked. His passengers came out of the wheelhouse to stand behind him. An older woman, older than Momma, stood behind Kev’s left shoulder, and a girl my age stood behind his right.

When the girl saw me, she looked me in the eye. She smiled and kept my gaze.

Xavi walked around the mother and daughter, so she could access the latches for the hold hatch. Xavi wore loose, long, pants, and her shirt covered her arms pale and her pale skin. Xavi didn’t wear her Broadway sunward hat. She wore a pragmatic hat, a wide-brimmed common-hat, that shaded her from the sun better. Her hat could not contain the force of her abundant red curls, and her hair burst wide behind her.

The girl that arrived on Miss Genius stood at least a head higher in height than Xavi. She had straight black hair tied back neatly like they do upriver. She wore no hat, nor did she wear a scarf. She wore a sleeveless yellow shirt, a Colum color, unbuttoned far from her neck. Danway Corp makes that type of shirt in Das Hajima, selling them quickly upriver, beyond Neck. She wore a pair of shorts made from un-dyed canvas that fitted and accentuated her hips’ shape. Up Weaver Corp created those. She left more of her light brown skin exposed than Xavi.

The daughter turned her head and looked out to the main channel of the river. I glanced over to see what she looked at, and I saw nothing. She returned her eyes toward me and smiled again.

I felt something new. Those days had many new experiences. I had read the word desire and used it to describe the feelings of men and women towards one another. I felt that when she looked at me that way. Strangely, it felt like hunger, a craving, and a wanting. But I shrugged it aside. I chose to not bide my mind on her. I knew better than to want what I can’t have. The daughter did not count as the first attractive girl to step off the deck of Miss Genius.

“This is my son,” Kev said. “He will do an outstanding job unloading your things. He should. He usually does. Mostly. You will be attended to by a competent dock monkey. One of the more competent ones.” He looked at me. “Right?”

“Yes, you will be attended by the most competent dock monkey,” I added. “The best. Until he gets here, though, I will help you.”

 “Oh, sorry,” Kev said. “Names. I forget how important they are. He’s Pierrot. That is my son. This is Faye Ross Cara. She and her daughter passaged from Das Hajima. They asked to see the Terran mat south of Neck, and I assented to their request. She offered to pay extra for the detour. Ha. She selected the correct boat. I don’t need much reason to stop at a mat. Someone asked me to see the Terrans. Of course, we stopped. We stayed there for a whole day. We stayed long enough for them to experience Terran dreams.

“Were they dark and fragrant during the visit?” I asked.

“I assume you speak of the Terrans and not my passengers. Yes. The Terrans. Ha. Dark and fragrant. They were dark and fragrant. The Terrans were. You can carry all they brought in one load. Let me be clear about my antecedents. When I say, ‘they,’ I mean, in the case of luggage, Faye Ross Cara and her daughter. Dark and fragrant, I mean the Terrans. Luggage, passengers. Unpleasant smells, Terran. Take them, the passengers, to a bento. First, try the Green Leaf. It is good. And I think it’s still cheap.”

“Cheap is good,” I said. “But not all that is cheap is good. And not all that is good is cheap.” I walked over. “Mit Faye Ross Cara,” I said formally. “What can I do you the favor of carrying?”

“Down there….” Her arm pointed toward the front of the boat, toward the passenger cabins. I scampered across the deck. Down the ladder and in the saloon, two suitcases sat there, neither large. Indeed, I could carry all of their things the three blocks to the boarding houses on Broad with no trouble.

I preened in front of Faye Ross Cara’ daughter as I walked past with the totality of their belongings. The daughter watched me until Xavi shooed her off the boat.

“What be your name, pleasant lady?” I asked the daughter as we waited for her mother. I mocked the formal greetings I had seen in Earth movies. I had mistaken that formality for charm.

“Lilah,” she said with a little laugh. I had never heard of anyone with that name before.

I sang the song the children of the shop owners taunted the dock monkeys with. “Dock monkey lift, he don’t know where to go…. Dock monkey drag, give him your purse to stow….”

#

I returned to the boat and waved to Kev in the wheelhouse. I looked down into the hold. Xavi busied herself, inventorying the cargo stacked there. I cast a shadow across her, and she looked up.

“What be your name, pleasant lady?” She said. “Truth now?” She started an affected, coquettish, giggling.

“What?” She embarrassed me.

“I didn’t…,” she smirked. “I didn’t think you liked girls. The stallion saw a…, what is it? A filly. The stallion saw a filly.”

“Stop. I had fun, nothing more.”

“So, you did. Having fun is the reason we… the reason for babies. Will you show her around? Around town? Maybe you’ll take off your shirt like Marvin. Show her your muscles?”

“Cease, Xavi.”

“I’m giving you some of your own soup. You taunt me often. That girl circled you like a cat around the fish stand. Did she say yes? Will she walk with you down Broadway? Will she be your girl?”

“Cease. You know all the girls consider me an untouchable. New girls come to Aoustin, find out that being friendly with me is social self-immolation, and then become indifferent.”

Xavi quit her mischievous smile and looked at me, concerned. “So, now? You don’t think that, do you?”

“Truth.”

“No…, sorry…, Pierrot. Not truth. Folk don’t put their mind on you much. At all. They don’t. They don’t think about you much at all.”

“Thanks, Xavi.”

“No! Don’t take that badly. That’s good. Truth. They’re worried about much. They’re not worried about you. Still. You underestimate yourself. I know… at least one… person who would walk with you, arm in arm, down Broadway. You’re not a pariah. Not at all. You’re… don’t seem to be all that interested in…, well…, being friendly in a romantic way. The girls don’t see that… spark… of…, I don’t know…, they don’t see the spark of interest. They don’t think you want the… what girls offer.”

I stood on the deck above the hold. Xavi stood far down within the bottom of the boat. To hear one another, we had to shout. I looked around at all the people on the docks, and my face flushed hot. No one looked our way, but I felt as if I stood exposed on a stage, an audience around me. That was not a conversation I wanted the whole docks to hear. I did not want that sort of conversation broadcast to everyone on the docks.

“Not now….,” I said. I walked away to see if Kev needed help.

#

Marvin, Hart Mbuyi Onruang, and I unladed Miss Genius. Choco should have been there with us, but Kev told me he got angry. Kev stopped at the Terran mat, and Choco loathes the Terrans.

Kev had operated the boom, and Sam, Hart, and I of us stood at the bottom of the hold, waiting. The sun blasted into the hold, no breeze blew at all, and we baked down there. Sweat poured from us while we stood to wait for Kev to swing the boom back over to the opening to pull up another load.

“I be go for water,” Marvin said. “I be.”

“Good, Wich,” Hart said, using Marvin’s river-yonding. “Eye Kev. Tell us what delays him.”

Marvin ascended from the hold in his own particular way.

First, Marvin stood under the edge of the opening. Then he jumped, and with his fingertips, caught the rim high above our heads. He adjusted one hand, then the other, so his arms spread wide. Once in this extended stance, Marvin lifted his whole body, slowly and steadily, with only the strength of the arms. He tugged his body up to chest high against the edge, then swung his legs hard to the right, flung them back to the left, and back to the right and up to the deck above the hold. With his legs stable on the surface above, he spun his body and bounced onto his feet above us.

“I’ll get yagize some, too. I will.” Marvin said as he walked away.

“God and Jesus!” Hart exclaimed after Marvin disappeared. “I see a useful ladder there.”

“Wich goes whatever way which Wich goes,” I said with a shrug.

I tried to imitate that feat of Marvin’s once. I could pull myself up to look over the edge of the hold. But I couldn’t swing the rest of my body onto the deck.

Soon I heard Marvin yell from the deck above, “Kev talks, burrahs. Come up top. He shows not to be done soon.”

Hart and I ascended the usual way, by the ladder, to the cooler topside.

Hart downed most of the water from the jar that Marvin passed him. When Hart passed the container to me, I shook it and looked inside. He left me little.

I heard a giggle and turned to see a clutch of three girls, two to three years younger than Marvin and me. A small group of girls followed Marvin, lurked along the docks, and ogled as he worked.

Marvin wiped the sweat from his neck and torso with his shirt, and one girl whispered to another. That set off another wave of giggling. Wiping sweat seemed to be the only thing Marvin used his shirt for when working. As soon as a riverling shouted out to him, “Hey Wich,” the shirt came off.

 “Your harem lingers up near,” I told Marvin.

“Why yond those girls such?” he asked.

“I care not whether those dock sparrows be there or not,” Hart said. “All times it be the same. The dock sparrows be the same when I was a young. And before that, as well. And there’ll be another brood of them when your older as I be, and your flirting be over. I ignore dock sparrows. The common boys be my perturbance.”

By common boys, he referred to a group of boys, some older than me, some younger, who stood in front of the Barry warehouse. They looked over to Marvin, Hart, and me and exchanged comments as we loitered on deck. They did not giggle among themselves. They looked dour. We call them common boys because each one wore a common-hat. They did not wear the docker hat and could not call themselves dock monkeys.

Kev granted me my docker hat, of course. Marvin followed his brother and me to the docks and worked hard to earn his own docker hat from Kev. Hart got his docker hat long ago, and it had long faded. He wore that frayed and misshapen hat with pride.

Each of those boys with the common-hats, they could not find anyone to grant them a docker hat. Even so, they gathered here because of the small chance of being paid as a beast of burden. The riverlings gave Marvin, Hart, and me river-yondings and called us those names. The riverlings did not call those boys by any name.

“So many common boys on the docks these days,” Hart said. “And Jesse Hamm Sayed gives too many docker hats. He won’t pay a fair wage and finds hungry cubs who work for nothing.”

“How’s Dinah?” I asked Hart. I didn’t want to listen to his complaints.

“As so. As she always be.”

Hart Mbuyi Onruang still lived in one of the bentos near the docks. He lived with eight other men in a small room with beds stacked closed together in bunks along two walls. He spent his free hours with Dinah, a woman who worked at the Gehman warehouse. Dinah lived in the same bentos as Hart, in a compartment she shared with eight women. Momma said she wished Dinah and Hart could afford a two-person bento and finally get married.

“What smells as a cat’s ass?” Marvin asked loudly. “I’ve smelled such all on the boat.”

“Damn Terran,” Hart answered before I could.

“Kev visited the Terran mat just south of Neck,” I informed him. “The visit got Choco Leroy Galea shit out, so. Such be why he not with us.”

“Choco loathes such Terran creature,” Hart said. “Fault him not. Such Terran, it gets in your head.”

“They, or it?” Marvin asked. “I say ‘they’ for Terrans. Why say you, ‘it?’ Most folk yond them ‘they.’ So now.”

“Pretend not such sort be human,” Hart replied. “I yond never such sort a ‘they.’”

“Yeah. What you say. Truth, burrah. They bad,” Marvin continued. “It bad. They read minds and make folk act how folk wishes not to act. It wrong. Truth.”

I winced a little, and they noticed.

“Some folk seek the Terrans out,” I said. “Some folk like swamp dreams. And Terrans can’t force me or you to act against our will.”

“It be bad, still, getting in your head,” Hart grumbled. “Now so. I tell you, I want to kill it. Burn it. Now. I know your father likes it, but….”

“Terran dreams are odd,” I said. “But I have grown to like them.”

“Bad, to allow such.” Hart stated.  “Image a movie made as from random edits of a Chinese opera, a Japanese anime, an American cowboy movie, and a French bette noire play. Image such a confusing mess with no subtitles. Such be like a Terran dream. Nothing more. Interesting as an incoherent mess but not sinister. Odd, those dreams be. Sinister, no. Sometimes, rarely, the Terrans tell stories. Most times, no.”

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