‘Papers’ – the man held out his paper-taking hand without looking up.
‘Aint the newsboy,’ Dove explained.
The man glanced up, then wished he hadn’t. Before him stood something in a pitch helmet off a Walgreen counter, share-croppers’ jeans, sunglasses, a dollar watch with a tick like grandfather’s clock, and butter-colored shoes.
‘You the bull-goose here?’ Dove asked, ‘I’m lookin’ for boat-work.’
‘There’s ship captain lookin’ for that, son,’ the foreman told him.
‘Didn’t reckon on bein’ no captain right off,’ Dove offered to compromise, ‘I’d be mightily satisfied just to swab the deck – or if by chance,’ – he added cunningly – ‘you happened to have a chimbley needs a fresh coat of paint I’d admire to try my hand.’
‘You have to have your able-bodied seaman’s papers.’
‘More able-bodied than most,’ Dove persisted. ‘Whatever you’d pay me I’d be mighty grateful and praise you most highly for. I’m a very light eater, I might add.’
‘Son you aren’t implying you’d scab, would you?’
‘Mister, I’ll cook, I’ll cuss, I’ll mend yer socks, I’ll stoke yer engines ’r catch you a damn whale barehand.’ N if you want me to scab somethin’ I’ll scab ’er fore to aft. For I want to learn the sailing trade ’n I’m strong enough for four.’
‘You do know that there is a seafaring man’s union?’ He gave Dove the benefit of a serious doubt.
‘Mister, I’m a Christian boy and don’t truckle to Yankee notions. Put my name in your ship’s dinner-pot and you’re my captain, I’m your hand. Just tell me ever-what you want done and I’ll ’tend it, for I’m bedcord strong. If I don’t turn you out what in your eyes makes a fair day’s work you can put me off at the first port of call. Aint that fair enough?’
‘Mighty fair, son. If more boys were willing to work for nothing there’d be just that many more millionaires.’
‘It’s how I figure it too, mister. You got to work for nothing or you’ll never get rich, that only stands to reason.’
‘You know,’ the foreman put a brotherly hand on Dove’s shoulder – ‘I liked your face the moment you came in here. Would you take off your glasses so I can see more of it?’
Dove snapped off the sunglasses and snapped to attention.
‘I liked the way you entered, too,’ he assured Dove, ‘without bothering to knock.’
‘I judged you had time and to spare.’
‘And the intelligent way you stated your case.’
‘I reckon I measure up,’ Dove admitted modestly.
‘You measure up to something,’ the foreman thought, ‘but I’m not sure to just what.’
What the foreman was actually measuring was the stack through the window that went sixty feet up from dock level; and the shaky union scale that rose every foot after twenty-five. An eight-hour day at two-seventy per hour for ten days, the foreman made a mental estimate of what he could claim on the books.
‘I’ll pay you a buck-fifty an hour to paint that stack, Son.’
Dove came scurrying back up the gangplank like the flightless kiwi, a bird not built to fly. He heard the foreman holler from window to deck, ‘Put this man in the chair, boys!’ By the time he reached the deck the scrapers, brushes, paint and thinner were ready. Dove jumped right into the bosun’s chair and shouted, ‘Haul steady, maties!’ Then glanced down and found himself nearly twenty feet off the deck.
‘Okay, boys!’ he called down cheerfully, ‘I’ll start here ’n work up!’ But the chain kept going higher.
Who would ever have thought such a fine breeze would be stirring here while other fellows had to sweat out the heat below? He was about to take a second look but the chair began to swing like a cradle and he changed his mind.
Up and up. Above him leaned the rust-flaked stack, below the river tilted oddly. The hands of his watch seemed strangely bent, but seemed to say 10:55. Good – in five minutes he’d have his tools together so he could begin right on the hour. A full day’s pay for a full day’s work, that was the way to rise in the world.
‘Beginnin’, maties!’ he called over the side, ‘Beginnin’!’ That should show them he was no coward.
Something tugged at the chair and he understood the foreman had had a change of mind – he could come down any time now. Dove whipped the rope fast around the stack, and knotted it with the last of his strength. By God, the man had sent him up, he wasn’t going to get him down without a day’s pay in hand.
Once fastened, the chair steadied and so did Dove. Not enough to stand upright, but enough to get the lid off the paint can. Just as he got it off, the wind tilted the chair and the tinned oil spilled. He dabbed it off his jeans. ‘Lucky it didn’t get my shoes,’ he took the happier view.
No use taking a chance on ruining his shoes altogether with a wind that tricky sneaking around. He clamped the lid back on and glanced at his watch: 11:04. By God, just because a man couldn’t read didn’t mean he couldn’t count. That was a dime he’d made already today or he’d know the reason why.
That was when he looked right over the edge and down and saw the little circle of grinning faces looking up. He closed his eyes to keep from heaving. That would never do the first day on the job.
When his stomach had steadied he remembered something and found, in the bottom of a Bull Durham sack, just what he was looking for: a palm-full of light green potoguaya and a couple of brown papers. ‘Wasn’t told nothin’ about not smokin’ on the job,’ he argued sensibly. And at the first drag felt the chair rise an inch.
‘Let her rise,’ he thought, ‘the higher we go the higher the pay.’
Scraper, thinner, bucket and brush lay at his feet forgotten; as he had apparently been forgotten by those below. When he looked at his watch again it was almost two. My, how time did fly.
‘Lunch!’ he shouted over the side, ‘bring her up!’
But saw no one climbing the rigging one-handed, tray in the other, to ask whether he took sugar and cream in his coffee.
‘Bunch of hogs are at chow,’ he thought sullenly, ‘stuffin theirselves like a set of sows. Struck me right off as a sorry lookin’ crew.’
All through the treetop afternoon Dove dozed, and every time he woke, woke hungrier.
‘Chow!’ he tried for his dinner one more time. But all he got was a wave from a deck-hand far below.
‘I know your play,’ he finally informed the foreman aloud, ‘you’re tryin’ to starve me down. But you wont do it till I got a full day comin’, friend.’ And went right back on the nod.
It was almost five when he wakened again, feeling a chill breeze pass. He unlooped the draw-rope. ‘Good thing I didn’t have lunch,’ Dove thought going down, and hopped out onto the deck, pale and swaying. Two of the crew had to hold him up and every man but the foreman looked pleased with his work.
‘Not a damn dime, boy!’ the foreman let him know right off. ‘Mention money and I’ll heave you right over the side!’
Dove got his landlegs under him.
‘Mister, I went up in your fool chair like you asked me. We made a bargain.’
‘Now you listen here to me, son. I’m Chief-by-Jesus foreman of this everlastingly damned dry dock, I’ll have you under-goddamn-stand that. I’m not to be dic-hellfire-tated to by you or anyone. Is that the Christian-Killing-Moses clear or not? I can make it mother-murdering clearer if you want.’
‘A bargain, mister.’
‘Talk sense, boy.’
‘I’m a-talkin’ sense, mister,’ n you leave mothers out of this. I were aloft six hour, not chargin’ you for overtime because I realize I didn’t do too well my first day. But I tried six dollar worth.’
The foreman took Dove by the arm, led him to one side and whispered, ‘Take this and get off my God-by-Jesus deck.’ Dove looked down. It was a two dollar bill.
‘I got six comin’, mister.’
‘As high as I go.’ He had changed it for a fiver.
‘I’ll settle.’ Dove took it. The foreman went wearily to the rail, looking downriver and out to sea.
Down on the dock Dove took one last look up. The little man at the rail was grinning down. He waved the big brush at Dove. ‘Be work on time tomorrow, matey!’ he called. Dove waved back. Mighty mannerable fellow.
Yet felt a lingering sadness as he left the big river to know he wasn’t going to sea after all.
A Walk On The Wild Side
‘Papers’ – the man held out his paper-taking hand without looking up.