After evening chow, I escaped the Mess Deck and headed out to the fantail to smoke a square or two like I, and a slew of other nicotine-addled sailors, liked to do whenever underway. Tonight, though, instead of hanging with the gaggle and listening to all the tired bullshit while the usual mooches mooched my smokes, I decided to find a spot at the very stern of the ship where I could lean on the life rail, let the nicotine do its work, and watch the sun sink toward the horizon.
I lit my third square for the evening from the glowing nub of my second and then flicked the nub over the side as hard as I could. It wasn’t my farthest, but it caught the wind and sailed a good distance before landing in the wake. The fantail had pretty much emptied out by now, as most had made their way to their respective berthing compartments to secure a chair for the evening movie. Except for a small, uncharacteristically quiet group near the forward part of the fantail, there was only me and one other guy out there. It was the new guy, Jenks. He was leaning against the same rail as me, though he was nearer to the ship’s port side. He smoked and stared out toward the horizon.
I gave him a good look. His creased, leathery face glowed orange from the retiring, shimmering sun; the folds on the shadowed back of his neck looked worn and splintered. He had to have been the oldest petty officer second class in the navy. I reached down, pulled up my pant leg, tucked the pack of reds into my sock, and then walked over to him.
“So, Jenks,” I said by way of introduction, “how much of that scuttlebutt’s true going around about all the crazy shit you used to do in the P. I.?”
Jenks didn’t look at me; he just took a long drag on his smoke, slowly exhaled, and then flicked the nub straight down into the wake.
“Don’t matter none, shipmate,” he finally answered. His voice was as coarse and as dry as his weathered skin. “Even if any of that shit was true, that was a whole different navy ago.”
I reached down into my sock and pulled out my reds, shook the pack until a square popped out, and offered it to Jenks. He didn’t say anything; he just kept his eyes fixed on the horizon. I took the half-smoked square out of my mouth and replaced it with the one that Jenks had ignored.
The boatswain’s whistle abruptly trilled over the 1MC. It was followed by the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch announcing the call for trash. I looked around and found that only Jenks and I were left on the fantail. The movie would be starting soon. If it was a good one, by now I’d never find a place to sit in my berthing compartment. My only option would be to watch it on the Mess Deck with a shitload of assholes, where I would have to try to stay focused through all the bullshitting and annoying commentary that would be going on throughout the entire showing.
I turned back to Jenks. The sun was quickly disappearing and he now looked a fiery red. His hands tightly gripped the life rail and he stared straight down to where the ship’s wake began. I, too, grabbed the rail and then slowly leaned over it to look down. Froth-covered water violently rolled and erupted into explosions of stinging, salty spray. Unseen, deep beneath the tumult, massive, unforgiving propellers were thrashing at the ocean, powering the destroyer forward.
“You ever feel it?” Jenks suddenly asked.
I looked over at him. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or to the ocean. I looked back down. Even though the fantail was the lowest weather deck on the ship, it still seemed a long way from where I stood leaning over the rail to where the water met the hull. Jenks didn’t specify what he meant by “it,” but as I leaned over the side, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Yeah, I felt it. Without fail, whenever I got close to the side of the ship, I felt it. And each time that I did, I feared that someday I just might not be able to resist it.
The hatch to the fantail flew open and sailors, mostly young, junior sailors, came bursting through it, each hauling an industrial-sized plastic bag full of trash. The strong wind caught the sweet stench from the rot within the bags and reminded me of the unfortunate meal that was sitting heavily in my gut. The last person through the hatch was the petty officer in charge of the working party. He positioned himself mid-ship, near the stern, not too far from Jenks and me. The junior sailors queued up in front of him with their bags in tow. Some of them were talkative, in a loud, juvenile kind of way, and some were quiet, in a pissed off, how-the-fuck-did-I-get-stuck-with-this-shitjob kind of way. The first sailor in line told the petty officer in charge his name and the division to which he was assigned. The petty officer recorded the information into a green log book and then nodded his head toward the ocean, indicating that the sailor could now empty his trash over the side.
By the time the working party had returned inside the skin of the ship, taking their commotion and stench with them, it didn’t feel right for me to try to answer Jenks’ question. It was too late now. It was beyond us now. It now was lost within the phosphorescent wake along with all the soda cans, greasy rags, empty laundry detergent boxes, and all the other shit that had been dumped over the side and that was now floating forever unconstrained toward the sunless horizon.