Author: Joseph Jablonski
Publisher: Bacon Press Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
Author: Joseph Jablonski
Publisher: Bacon Press Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
After a long career at sea, Jake Thomas thinks he’s finally put his life in order. He’s got a new wife, a new home, time to write and tend his roses. But his past and the secrets he’s kept, even from himself, won’t stay buried.
Forty years earlier, a woman was murdered during Jake’s first voyage on the American freighter, the SS James Wait. Her children want answers only Jake can give. But resurrecting old memories takes him spiraling back to the chaos and upheaval of the late 1960s.
In this riveting story-within-a-story, Jake’s peaceful routine in Portland, Oregon, stands in stark contrast to his days as a merchant seaman in Subic Bay, when he set off on a journey to discover his dark side. A journey that hasn’t yet ended.
Like Joseph Conrad, Joseph Jablonski has created a novel set at sea that is as much a careful observation of human nature and a powerful condemnation of war as it is a fascinating sea story.
When I see him, almost forty years later, I realize two things: I know who it is, and I’m not particularly surprised. His car—an expensive yellow convertible with the top up—parks at the head of my long drive. It is a hazy September morning when the world, excluding my brilliant, many-hued roses, lies quiet and subdued in shades of green. He gets out. At this distance, a figure in the mist, tall and very broad across the chest, he hesitates a moment to get his bearings, then walks down the new gravel toward my house, his strides long and awkward, his hair a shock of white. He wears beige slacks and a denim shirt with a yellow tie. As he approaches, I’m amazed at how much he resembles Pastor Kenneth—less crude, perhaps, but still, like his father, uncomfortable in his movements. Seeing him, I hastily remove my hands from the roses, pricking my right pointer finger on a large thorn, which draws blood. I lick the blood away, straighten up and watch him. He had sent a letter months ago that had been forwarded to me. Though I never answered, I’d been worried he would show up. My heart begins to pound.
This was sure to throw off my day. I had been bustling about in my windowed porch, brewing the Fair Trade coffee Antoinette insists we buy, putting together a large bouquet of pink romanticas and yellow floribundas, about to sit at my computer and write. My latest project is another sea story—I don’t know what else I’d write—about a young officer making his first trip as ship’s master. I took some writing classes a couple of years ago at a small college twenty miles from Portland, where I now live, and recently have gotten a couple of stories into regional magazines.
His name is Walter—back then a scrawny, overly polite blond boy, tall for his age and studious. He feared his Bible-thumping father and adored his vivacious mother. The last time I saw him, I had held his hand tightly on the stern for the burial-at-sea. He had looked up at me, eyes streaming tears, as his mother’s body smacked the hard surface of the cold, gray water like a plank.
I open the door for him.
“Walter Bishop,” he says. His smile is still boyish.
“Zachary,” I say, nodding. “Zachary Thomas.”
He leans toward me, obviously pleased that I appear to recognize him and says, “Yes, indeed. They called you Jake back then. Your nickname, I guess. I’ve been looking for you. Did you get my letter? I saw a sea story in that magazine they put on the ferries that run up into the San Juan’s and figured the author had to be you. Interesting story, by the way. Nice twist at the end where the cadet saves the old captain’s neck even after the guy has been such a brute. I had no idea where you lived, so I sent the letter to that maritime union that represents the deck officers.”
“The Masters Mates and Pilots,” I say, again nodding. “That was a good guess. Sorry I didn’t answer. I got married last year and have been busy moving in.”
“No matter. You knew my parents, Alice and Ken, right? From the final voyage of the James Wait.”
He reaches over to shake my hand. My index finger has a smear of blood. “Sorry,” I say, holding up my hand. I wrap the finger in a tissue. “I was a lowly midshipman back then, trying to learn the business.”
He has an earnest quality, seems genuinely pleased to have located me, as though we are old friends. He has his mother’s green eyes, and her habit of peering into people’s faces. The memory is vivid and catches me. I am not prepared for anything about this visitor.
“My family joined your ship in Subic Bay,” he says. “We sailed back to San Francisco with you.” He hesitates, then turns away. “My mother died on board. Was killed, actually.”
I catch my breath. “That was a difficult voyage. A difficult voyage during difficult times.”
He waits, hoping for more. When I say nothing, he says, “My sister and I want to find out what really happened on that ship. Something terrible—”
“You’ve read the court proceedings?” I ask. “From the trial. Not sure what I—”
“Of course.” He waves his large hand. “But that was inconclusive. We want more. We want your insight, maybe some personal details. And we want you to write it out. Like a . . . like a short novel. You’re a writer. You can do that. We will pay you. We thought perhaps ten thousand?”
“I’m a fiction writer,” I say, motioning for him to sit. “I write fiction. You’re asking for something different.”
His request has caught me off guard. While it makes perfect sense, I hadn’t expected him to ask for a narrative accounting. An interview, perhaps, even something taped, but a written account? No, this comes as a surprise.
The enclosed porch is heated so I can write here while I observe my flowers even when the temperature falls, along with the rain, later in the season. I have aged into a fussy man, particular about my surroundings and my things. A prelude by Bach plays on my expensive sound system. I reach over to turn it off, irritated by this interruption to my morning routine. My life is so contained now, serene even. The shelves I had built are filled with books I’d read during my lonely hours at sea, along with a few of the artifacts—jade and ivory carvings and knickknacks from my many voyages.
I stall for time, unsure how to proceed. We sit on wicker chairs across a circular glass table—pieces I’d purchased in Port Swettingham back in the seventies. I pour the coffee from a copper samovar I’d picked up in the Grand Bazaar in Sharjah, holding one hand with the other to keep it from trembling. We are alone. Classes have started at the university and my lovely wife, Antoinette, who teaches anthropology there, has already driven into town. We’ve been married just over a year and receive little company.
“Your roses are beautiful,” he says, indicating the tall vase sitting on the table.
I’ve lost some ability to be social after a seagoing career. Anway, I am too caught up by his request to respond to the compliment. “Why do you want to know this?” I blurt out. “After all these years?”
He carefully pours cream into his coffee and stirs. “Because my father died last year. Pastor Kenneth died. After that terrible voyage on the James Wait, he never again spoke of my mother to either my sister or me. He destroyed all photos of her except for one that my sister got hold of. Whenever we’ve asked about Mother, even when we were grown, he would shake his head, lift a hand in the air and walk away.”
His face pleads with me. My mouth twitches. I’ve worked a lifetime to put this behind me.
“Your sister’s name is Margaret?”
“That’s right. She would have been ten when you knew her. Grew up the image of our mother.”
I pass my hand over my eyes. The thought of seeing someone who looks like Alice after all this time is almost more than I can imagine.
“We want to know about Mother.” His voice takes on an insistent tone. “We have memories, but not nearly enough. She was an only child, you see, and both her parents are long since deceased.”
He looks at his hands. They are large and square, with blotchy sunspots. They remind me of his father’s hands. I don’t know why I remember them so clearly. I avoided the man like he had leprosy.
“I’m a psychologist. I know the value of uncovering the past. It can help people heal, become whole.”
“I d-don’t know what I could add,” I murmur. “Sometimes it’s best to let things lie?” I end in a question, giving him a chance to respond.
“Margaret and I have talked about this a thousand times. Why dredge up the past? Whatever happened, happened. We can’t change a single thing.” He sighs. “Mother was flawed, we know, but she was who she was. And more important, she was our mother.”
He closes his eyes, removes a pressed white handkerchief from his back pocket, and slowly wipes his brow. “You see, we loved her. She was like a little bird sometimes, the way she played and sang to us and told us stories about fairies and castles and princesses. We want to know more about her. We want to know what happened on that ship. We just want to know.”
His face twists into an ugly mask, and I’m afraid he will start pounding on the table.
I sink into the floral-print cushion of my wicker-backed chair. “Have you thought to ask Captain Steele? Far as I know, he’s still alive. I’ve never seen his name on the obituary page of the union newspaper.”
“He is alive, out on the East Coast somewhere. We spoke with his daughter. She said he’s much too frail to either travel or be interviewed.” He draws a long breath. “I know that something terrible happened on that ship.” His voice takes an edge. “I want the truth.”
He smiles weakly then, as if to say, “Is that asking so much?”
When I don’t speak, his eyes narrow and he continues. “What sort of woman was our mother? What were her relationships like? How do you remember her?”
“Why do you think I could add anything to the trial report?” I ask softly, barely trusting myself to speak. I have to set my cup down in order to keep from spilling my coffee. “I was nineteen. Your mother was much older than me.”
He shrugs, acting as if he doesn’t notice my discomfort. “Yes, but we recall that you liked being around her, seemed to care about her. We—Margaret and I—want to hear your version of the story. Besides,” he looks out the window, “there is no one else to ask.”
I remove the tissue from my finger. It starts to bleed again. I get a paper-towel, fold it, and wrap my finger, trying to calm myself. “I have a question for you,” I say, hoping to change the focus. “What did your father do with his life after the trial?”
Walter lifts his cup and saucer off the table, takes a sip. “We returned to the Philippines. Pastor Kenneth married a local woman named Maria. He continued with his missionary work. Everything he did was for the glory of God. Maria assisted him and raised us. We have fond memories of her.”
“And you and your sister? When did you return to the States?”
“We both attended college here. My sister was married twice and I once. All unsuccessful. She moved in with me after her second divorce. We live on Mercer Island outside of Seattle.” He lowers his voice. “Margaret is a difficult woman who carries a lot of resentment. Pastor Kenneth came to live with us when his wife died. Margaret gave him little joy and not much peace, though perhaps more than he deserved. Then, last year, he passed.”
I watch him carefully, a habit from my captain days, when forming a judgment in a short amount of time could be critical. I wonder what it is about his sister that he calls difficult.
“I think I understand,” I say. “My own father and I had a difficult relationship. There is a bond between parents and children that doesn’t break just because the child becomes an adult or because the parent does something that seems unforgivable at the time. Let me think about it.”
The look on his face is childish—a child who has not gotten what he wanted. He seems to want to say something but holds back. He stands, reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a card, which he hands me, then moves awkwardly toward the door without attempting another handshake. I watch him walk up the road. His shoulders slump, and he seems less confident than when he came. This has not been easy for him. I feel the same. Just talking about Alice has taken a toll on us both.
My finger is still bleeding. I apply pressure with a new napkin, annoyed with how persistent it is, at how it distracts from the problem at hand. I must consider this request carefully. It is a deep wound he is asking me to open, one that has festered from the inside. Still, as he mentioned, uncovering the past can be helpful. My life is remarkably improved now that I’ve quit the sea and am living with a caring, intelligent woman and my beautiful roses. I’m learning to cook and enjoy listening to good music. I feel more content than at any time in recent memory.
On the other hand, exposing this old lesion, cleaning and sanitizing it might make my life better. Dealing with all that guilt, if that’s what it is, might even help recover what is left of my flagging manhood. I can’t predict how this will affect me, but I do know this much: what is important has a way of seeking one out, usually when one least expects it.
Besides, I write every day, most recently about that period of my life—my days in Asia with the terrible war and everything upside down at home. Walter is offering me an opportunity to explore that time more completely, from a deeply personal point of view. He is obviously successful and has offered to pay. I can use the money. My pension, twenty-two hundred a month, barely covers my expenses.