The Second Watch had become stale, and the Third Watch would start soon when I made to leave Lilah’s room.
“Must you such like?” Lilah said. “Why work, tomorrow-soon? You’d leave me alone-long?”
“The money lake drains dry,” I said. “It must be replenished.”
“And your father returns? I know he arrives tomorrow. Must you be there because of him?”
“Yes,” I said. “Why ask you such? By course.”
“No. It not be, by course. Free yourself. You’ll become your father. You’ll have a woman waiting alone for you for most days. You’ll come home for a week now, a week then. Such be all.”
I got to the wharves, and a clutch of the older dock monkeys, the silverbacks, stood in the shade of the only tree. Not far away, in the shadow of the warehouses, the dock monkeys my age, the youngbacks, milled about. Some youngbacks still wore common-hats. They had not earned their dock monkey hat.
The silverbacks had doted on me as a child. They taught me the dock skills when I wandered the area next to the bayou. Black Hole taught me how to use ropes to lift more than I could by myself. Grease told me that “you be better smart and lazy than eager and dumb.” Peahead showed me how to hold my fingers in my mouth to whistle correctly.
I waved to the silverbacks but veered towards the youngbacks.
“Peace, Bait,” Darker said. Darker was a hybrid and one of the few female dock monkeys. She lifted more than some of the men on the docks. Besides Neanderthal strength, her father gave her an arky face. She hid her receding forehead with swirls of hair, but her bony brow, weak chin, and protruding mouth could not be camouflaged.
The riverlings gave her the river-yonding of darker not because of a dark complexion. She had light skin. Boowick had joked that whoever wanted to kiss her must pull the shades and make the room darker so her face couldn’t be seen. We could be cruel to arkies in Aoustin.
“Breaking free from your girl’s monotony to shine your love as with us, Bait?” Veewee joked. He and I were the same age.
“She be not monotonous,” I said.
Fish Mouth, a boy younger than me, found broomsticks stacked next to the Green Warehouse. He picked up one and held it in front of him as a lightsaber from the Earth movies. “Woom… woom… woom…,” he mimicked the sound we all knew.
Veewee grabbed a broomstick and speared a ball of horse manure with it. He swung to fling the dung into the bayou, but the projectile went astray and hit the side of a boat before sliding into the black water.
Veewee started singing a song from the Delta. “The monkey shoved shit in a chicken with a rake.” He speared another ball of dung. “The chicken was raw, monkey used his paw, oh sake.” He swung again. This time, the green ball of horse manure flew right and landed in the bayou’s open water. “What the monkey do,” he sang, “No one really knew.”
I grabbed a broomstick.
Veewee waved the stick as a baton as he continued singing. “His hands look clean, The germs not seen.”
I stabbed manure and flung it towards some ducks far out in the bayou. It fell short.
“Forty key for good dog, Ten key for beer,” Veewee continued the song. He artfully used the stick to toss a piece of dung into the air. As the dung fell, he swung the stick like a bat and obliterated the manure ball into a grassy nastiness cloud.
“Forty key for good dog.” He finished the last verse of the song. “I’d cut off my dick to get away from here.”
I faced Veewee and held my broomstick as a saber in front of me. He jabbed at me with the end of his own stick green from the manure. I jumped back and tried to touch him with the dirty end of my own stick. He stabbed and parried. His wooden pole connected with my hand just above the knuckles.
“Damn,” I shouted. I dropped the stick and tried to shake the burst of pain from my hand. I gained sudden expertise in how many nerves that part of the body had.
Some of the silverbacks laughed.
“It hurts, so,” I protested.
“What’ll hurt be when Mern Bat Sin discovers what yagize did with her broomsticks,” Peahead said.
I picked up the stick I had used and took Veewee’s from his hand. I bent over at the water’s edge and swirled them in the water to clean off the manure. I returned Mern’s property to the stack where it belonged.
I joined the silverbacks under the shade of the tree to wait for work.
Next to the warehouse, Veewee smiled wide and began singing, “The monkey puts shit in a chicken with a rake….”
The horn of Miss Genius blew twice. The boat, still unseen, approached from around the tree-lined entrance to the bayou. I moped my way to pier Kev moored at. Kev’s favored dock monkeys drifted that way, as well. They would soon have work.
As Miss Genius eased into the dock, I grabbed the stern line and wrapped it around a bollard. After the bowline got secured, the turbine fell quiet. I could see the top of Kev’s hat from where I stood.
I backed away from the boat. I leaned against the wall of a nearby warehouse and considered the busyness on board Miss Genius as it came to rest.
Kev slung his coffee cup out the window, and the remaining coffee splattered on the bayou. He bent over the chart table and made some entries in his log. Closing the logbook, he locked it and the ledger in the drawer under the chart table. He lowered the glass screens for the windows along each wall of the wheelhouse. He walked out onto the deck with his hands on his hips, looking over the boat’s length.
Jessup came up to him, asked a question, and then began popping the clamps that held down the cargo hatch. Once Jessup freed the cover for the hold, he pulled on a handle to roll it forward. The awning had been taken down and stowed before they got to Aoustin, so they were ready to unload the cargo. Kev called Jessup over and explained something to him. Jessup nodded, jumped to the dock, and trotted toward town.
Kev gave instructions to the knot of dock monkeys waiting next to the boat. They filed on board. Gooseneck and Jim climbed down the ladder into the hold. Breaker loosened the ties on the boom and dragged the pulley over the middle of the opening. Black Hole and Tripod stood ready.
Kev looked over, saw me, and waved me over.
“So now,” Kev said as I reached the boat. “I’m feeling weary of responsibility for the world. For other people. For you. There’s always something more that has to be done. Always. I don’t know how to work with you. You have hasn’t finished developing. Your pre-frontal cortex hasn’t completed and you still act on impulse. How goes your self-restraint today?”
“All be well,” I answered.
“Act as if you’re helpful,” Kev said. “Do what Breaker tells you to do.”
“Will do,” I answer.
I heard someone climbing the ladder from the crew quarters to the wheelhouse. Bruce Griffiths Su emerged with his shore bag over a shoulder. He piloted boats for our corp and Kev had asked him to take my place when I did not return on the day Kev left for upriver.
“There be the love-soaked cub,” Bruce said.
I greeted him. “Peace be with you, Bruce.”
“Bait,” Bruce said. “Peace Breaker. Where be Gooseneck?”
“Below,” I heard Gooseneck call out, unseen, from the hold.
“Now so, Kev,” Bruce said. “I’ll be ready to go if needed. Friday next?”
“Please, yes,” Kev replied. “I’ll know a few days before if I need you. Thanks now.”
“Take care, Kev,” Bruce said. “You too, Breaker, Gooseneck, Tripod, Black Hole. And Bait.”
“I be here, too,” Jim called out from the hold.
“And you too, Jim,” Bruce said, laughing.
Bruce stepped off the boat. He stopped.
“Come, so, Bait,” he said.
I came close to him.
He grabbed me by both shoulders and bent forward, so his forehead almost touched mine. I was large and muscular. He was larger. “Now so, Bait,” he whispered. I could smell the coffee on his breath. “Think not with your string next time, young. A little slot was not worth what you lose. Act so more ever, and I’ll punt you in the balls, hard, and piss in your pilot cap before I burn it. Compray?”
“Compray,” I answered.
“May the peace of God also be with you,” he said. He let go of me and walked away.
Kev remained uncharacteristically quiet as Breaker oversaw the unloading.
Gooseneck, Jim, Black Hole, Tripod, Breaker, and I unloaded most of the hold, and Kev paid us coin when done.
“Come so,” Kev said as he put my pay in my hand. “Walk with me.”
We left the boat and walked down the street from towards the middle of town.
Kev spoke first. “I couldn’t rely on Choco. The more up the river we go, the more likely he’d be drunk when he returned from town. Or the roller. Or the good-dog. It’s hard to run a business when Choco could not pilot when we left Neck or Das Hajima. It’s too hard. I choose not to work that way. I want to choose not to work that way. I’m not going to finish the rest of my life working with someone I can’t rely on. I don’t want to manage my crew. Maybe that’s not reasonable. I don’t care. I want my crew to do the needful when the needful is to be done. Maybe that’s too much to expect. Maybe. I hoped not. That’s why I wanted you. I wanted you to join me on the Miss Genius because I thought I saw you as a reliable person.”
“My wrong,” I said. “I don’t know….”
“Cease,” he interrupted. “You don’t have three strikes. You don’t have two. From this time forward, you must be where I need you to work on the boat. Do you want to work on the boat?”
“Yes, please,” I answered.
He breathed in deeply, then exhaled. “You’ll work for me during the Second Watch. Do whatever you wish during the rest of the time. From hours of seven to fifteen, you’ll work for the corp until we leave to go upriver. Do you agree? Do you agree to be on time and work for the whole of the watch?”
“I can’t control you,” he said. “People are unpredictable. The lower brain…, you’re just an animal. And your lower brain switches off your frontal cortex. I’m not pleased. Not at all. I thought more of you. Why did I? Why should I? But, expecting logical behavior…, I can’t expect logical behavior. No. I shouldn’t. You’re still a boy. I forget. For now, I’ll practice behavioral psychology. Behavioral modification. I’ll reward useful behavior. Yes. And I’ll provide negative repercussions for unhelpful behavior. Do what you’re not supposed to, and there will be… consequences. Show up, work when you are supposed to, and I will reward your behavior.”
We continued without speaking for a block.
“Do you agree to these conditions?” he asked.
“Which conditions, explicitly?”
“Yes. I need to be explicit. Summarize. Yes. Your time will be the corp’s time during the Second Watch until a week after Friday,” Kev said. “You’ll be where you should be promptly and conduct appropriate business behavior while we go up the river and back. I won’t have to search for you in Aoustin, Neck, Das Hajima, or any other settlements. You will be at the boat when needed, sober, and ready for work. Do you agree?”
“Then,” he said. “Let me do this again. Will you, Pierrot Wa Dignac, join me on Miss Genius as a pilot? Wait. Let me be explicit. Would you join as a pilot beginning today? You will be on trial until… until I decide you have been on trial long enough.”
“Will do,” I answered.
“Good,” Kev said. “Great. Let me reward good behavior. Maybe not good behavior. A good choice. You made a choice… a useful choice. Good. I’m glad. I’m hopeful and optimistic. Maybe. No. Yes. Let’s go to Sam and Ella’s and let them celebrate. Yes. That’s appropriate. That’s what we would normally do.”
We started towards the tavern.
“One other…,” Kev stopped himself. “No.”
We walked silently for a block.
“Yes, I should,” Kev continued. “You know that way of speaking they have outside of Das Hajima? Mozit? That Lilah Ross Romano never spoke… mozit… during the weeks, she and her mother traveled down the river with me. I don’t understand why she speaks that way with you. How interesting. I don’t understand.”
“Peace, Dignac.” Frank Stoval Mial said as Kev, and I entered Sam and Ella’s. “Pierrot, will you meet the girl?”
“Also with you, Frank,” I replied. “No girl with me now. I have important words to share. Kev asked me to work with him on the Miss Genius.”
“How important,” Frank answered. “And you will appear when time to leave?”
“Will do,” I said. “I will condition my pre-frontal cortex for the challenge.”
“What? Okay, what so such you mean. Whatever.” Frank turned and shouted to all in the room. “Pierrot’s now with the Miss Genius. And he will show when time to leave.”
“Finally,” someone shouted.
“Good thing for the Miss Genius,” said another.
Frank leaned towards me and spoke softer. “How’s that Sharon, now so? She still not with a man or a woman?”
“Not known,” I told him.
“Magritte then? She has someone?”
“Xavi,” I said with a smile, teasing. “She still has Xavi.”
“A man, I meant.”
Someone grabbed my shoulder. “Pierrot, good business for you.” Borro Johnson Mei’s stood close, his face close to mine. “You riverling enough for the Miss Genius?”
I laughed. “No. Never enough,” I told Borro. “I am what I am. I be good. I’ll be better.”
“Ready to take on Alan’s Slot?” he asked.
“Who told you such?” I said. “I wish I could take back what I said. I misunderstood what such meant, such be all.”
“Said what?” Borro said. “What do you wish you could take back? You know Alan’s Slot, no?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Alan’s Slot. I sluiced it when at nine years old.”
“Now so,” Borro exclaimed. “Nine years old? Kev Roux Dignac taught you early, had he? Good man. Will you be an employee or part?”
“I know not,” I said.
“Crew,” Kev said.
Borro nodded his head. “Well enough.”
“So now,” Frank said, “When you leave?”
“A week after Friday,” I answered.
“Well enough,” Borro nodded his head again. “Well enough.”
“Well enough,” Frank said. “Well enough. Good thing for Miss Genius.”
“Pierrot,” Siv Onupo Lai shouted my name and waved me over to his table.
“Peace, Frank,” I said.
Before I left Borro and Frank, I grabbed Borro’s shoulder. “Good for me. Thanks, mate.” I left them and walked to Siv’s table.
“Peace,” I said to Siv.
“You’ve been a riverling for years,” Siv said. “Sit, I will be first to buy you a beer.”
Before I had a chance to sit, Sam came and placed a beer on the table. “Good for Miss Genius,” he said.
“Good for me,” I said, smiling for the first time.
“My first trip upriver, I had my first sun storm,” Siv said. “Willy Somerset Shortlegs said to me, ‘All will be well. Work through.’ Willy showed me how to work through the river when good and when bad. Drought, sun storms…, this damn planet has all. Work through all such the world throws. Work it all. Meet Terra Beata on its terms and work through.”
“I can only hope to act such,” I told him.
“Careful. You face challenges I never faced. ‘Our youngs’ future is an undiscovered world.’ New age. New troubles.”
Once I drained that first beer, someone else bought me another. I moved to the cluster of chairs in the back, where the riverlings gathered. We talked about business and families, and they asked me about Lilah. The riverlings took turns, buying me a beer.
The Second Watch ended three hours and many beers later. I said goodbye to everyone and tried to stand. Not surprisingly, I struggled to steady.
I worked hard to get down Broadway, concentrating and considering each step. Marvin saw me.
“Should you be out?” he asked.
“Why so not?” I said, incredulous. I thought I had faked being sober well.
“You zig and zag across the width of the walk,” Marvin said. “Go home.”
“It be Third Watch. It’s my time. I have done my needful. I have a girl to see. Maybe not a big item for you… It’s not a big item for you, with your harem. I have but one.”
“You be not as charming and clever as the beer tells you,” Marvin told me. “You should not talk to any girl you wish to affect. Allow me to escort you homeward.”
“I’m fine, Marvin-licous. Marvo-man,” I said.
“Never call me Marvin-licious,” he moaned.
“Cat boy, then. Wich which be you? The only one. There be only one Wich. It be you.”
“Come so,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
“You are good,” I said. “Be good. You be good. I forget and talk Kev talk. Book talk. Talk the talk on the tellie. My wrong. Such, such, such. So, so, so. See. I can do it. I love you as a brother Wich. More. My brother died. I never told you that? I had a brother. And a sister. It’s hard to love a baby. They’re just larvae.”
“Come so, Pierrot.”
“If you fret, escort me to my dear Lilah’s. Lilah, Lilah. You have your harem. I have but one. My Lilah.”
“No,” Marvin said.
I whistled. “You deprive me so? I be jealous of you. But…. Sure. I will rest my head on her bosom. On the outside. Outside of the shirt. She won’t let me under the shirt. Or touch hold her hand. She won’t let me do that, either. How interesting. Is that normal?”
“Let’s go,” Marvin pleaded.
“I will stay there. I can stay in Lilah’s room. It’s closer than my house is. Easier. And I don’t get Kev in trouble with Momma.” I pulled away from his grasped and stumbled down Broadway. “So I go.”
“Be wareful, Bait,” he told me. He stood and watched me go down the street until I entered the door to the Green Leaf.
I stood outside Lilah’s door, and I rapped three times. I counted to five, then rapped again three times.
The door flew open. “What be this noise, I was coming.”
She let me in, and I slid into one of two chairs at the table.
“You be drunk,” she snarled with disgust on her face.
“And you are beautiful. Be beauty. You be beautiful. And still tomorrow you will be beautiful. I won’t be.”
“This. Is. Not. Funny,” Lilah said.
“I didn’t realize how much I drank,” I answered. “Empty stomach. The riverlings kept bringing beer. Celebrating. I like beer. I like beer”
She let a long string of mozit burst from her mouth. I caught some words. “Disgusting.” “Stupid.” “Drunk.” “Unmanly.” I got the overall gist of what she said. Still, my powers of concentration, while inebriated, could not parse her more complex sentences. Consonants ran together, and I struggled to hang on while she talked.
“They bought me… got me beers to… to commemorate… to celebrate. I be now riverling and will travel with Kev on the boat. I still can be crew. How wonderful. Good thing Miss Genius. Good thing me.”
Again, the mozit flood came forth from her. She shouted, “now so?” five times. Then she muttered several “why so?” each time with more emphasis. Key phrases I understood in her invective were, “go off,” “leave me,” “abandon,” “leaving,” “upriver,” “girls,” “dark,” and “sticky.”
“Sweet,” I said. “Slow. I can’t keep up. Don’t use more shit. Mozit. You can speak correct. I know.”
Lilah replied in a stream of mozit. I picked out “more shit,” “idiot,” “drunk,” “better,” “future,” “wasted,” and “slow.”
“Please, sweet,” I pleaded. “You’re mad. You’re mad. Help me. No mozit.”
“I. Will. Say. This. Simple. Enough. That. Even. You. Can. Understand. Why so you act such?”
“Act such?” I asked baffled.
“Abandon me,” she replied. “You have a girl upriver? A pretty one? So you?”
“I must make money,” I said. “If I ever have a wife….”
“Marriage? You think on marriage? How so, who be she? No, it can’t be me. What so the person would marry you? What so kind of marriage it’ll be with a husband gone more time than no? And drunk. I now see you be a drunk. And your father…. Your father, he not good. He rude. He won’t look back at me when I look at him. His trips leave you and your mother home while he travels far up and down the rivers. He be gone for months more and working on his books about those Beatans. It be him he concerned about. Only himself. When he comes home, he stays short for only a few weeks. Most of such time he’s in such dirty dark restaurant drinking more as with his idiot friends.”
“I can’t argue now…,” I stammered.
“Whose blame be such? Me? No. No one tortured you to drink.”
“Please, sweet, can we do this later?”
“Sweet? Why you yond me sweet?” she said. “You embarrass more me. And later? Maybe so,” she said as she stood angrily. “Or so never. You leave, I’ll find me another to tend me.”
“What?” I hoped I misunderstood.
“You leave with Kev,” she growled. “I will find me another man.”
“No. What have you wish me to work?” I pleaded.
“You smart,” she said. “So, you tell me you be no Exfictious Calby? You not enough of a man for me, be you? You can’t find work here? With me?”
“I lucky to have my family,” I said.
“It be me. Or them. Not both.”
“Them?” I asked.
“Your family. Or me.”