Andrew Vachss says that author James Colbert is "a magnificent stylist with a sweet, hard-core soul." We're proud to present his first short story, "The Vibration of the U.S.S. Chickasaw Nation," which has earned multiple honors. It took the College English Association's Robert Hacke Scholar-Teacher Award for 1998-1999; was one of three finalists (from among eight thousand entries) in STORY magazine's Carson McCullers Prize; was published in FLYWAY, the literary magazine at Iowa State University; has received a Greensboro Award for Short Fiction; and is included in the "100 Distinguished Short Stories of 1999" list in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2000 (Houghton Mifflin).
"The Vibration of the U.S.S. Chickasaw Nation"
by James Colbert
The deep vibration reverberated through the steel that made up the decks and the bulkheads, through the heavy hatches both vertical and horizontal, through the five-deep metal racks. It ran up the gangways and down the passageways and when they were standing it made its way through the soles of their boots and when they were sleeping—or trying to sleep—it came through the thin mattresses. It seemed to settle into their teeth before it moved into their cheeks and their jaws and became a nagging pain persistent as a bad conscience. For twenty-one days the vibration had been relentless and continuous and nothing mitigated it. Not the dope they smoked in silence between the trucks dogged down on deck, not the time each one of them spent out on the split bow watching the foaming water below, not the marathon card games or the thumb-worn fuck-books that proliferated in such abundance it seemed they were breeding themselves, not the dreams nearly all of them had.
The men who had jobs fared the best. They could curse the hundred-thirty-degree heat in the laundry; they could swear at the trays, the utensils, the counter tops and tables they washed during their twelve-hour shifts in the mess; those assigned to the galley could piss in the coffee urns from which the officers drank. The rest of them just swore and cursed at whatever was at hand, at the crab-lice that infested their bedding, at the maggots they found in their food, at the solvent-slick metal pieces that slid out of reach when the deck rolled—every one of them had a first-class automatic rifle, though the bullets were kept well out of reach. "Fuck me," they all said sooner or later; many of them took to pressing the heels of their hands hard against their eyes, as if the pressure could alleviate the pain.
"Amen to that," Jerry Rowland said when the last player folded. He reached forward to collect the pile of uniform accessories they used for poker chips, the plastic fatigue buttons a nickel, the brass dress buttons a quarter; rank insignia were a dollar and up depending on the rank they represented: a private a dollar, a lance corporal twelve bits, a corporal two dollars which, in that particular troop-carrying compartment, was as valuable as they could get.
"I'm calling it a night," Donald Durant said, tossing in his cards, then he added, "Is it night?"
The compartment had no portholes, was lit only by naked hundred-watt bulbs.
"What difference does it make?" Rowland wanted to know, looking around for someone to draft into the game.
Durant didn't reply but scratched at the Death-before-Dishonor tattoo on his left upper arm. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, and it was just then that the ship's big diesel engines stopped suddenly. The screws quit turning. In the silence that seemed to expand outward, to give length and breadth to the ship, for the first time in three weeks they could hear the waves washing against the hull. They could hear steam hissing in pipes. Then they heard fast-moving footsteps on the deck overhead. Durant lay back and put his head on the cool, vibration-less deck.
"They can't take back your birthday," Jerry Rowland said.
"They can't eat you," Donald Durant replied.
Levi Joseph Atoka had his foot on the third rail—or rather, on the three-quarter inch cable that served as a rail. He spent all the time he could up on deck. He had only recently learned to play cards—and wasn't very good at it—and he couldn't read very well, either; so the two main activities that took place in the compartment did not much appeal to him—after only eight months in the service, he hadn't yet learned to count talking as an activity. And besides, he had never before seen an ocean. On the piece of tribal allotment land in central Oklahoma where he had been raised, he had seen rain, and he had seen the quick rushing water that collected and ran off in torrents and made deep cuts in the red, clay-heavy soil, but before the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force had embarked on the U.S.S. Chickasaw Nation, he had never seen more water than collected in cattle ponds. He had not even known so much water existed. But he liked it. He liked the long views that reminded him of home, and he liked the rhythm in the iron-gray waves that stretched to the horizon.
"Yo, Levis!" a sailor called to him—everyone did that, called him by the brand name with which they were much more familiar. "Got some more for you."
"Sure thing," Levi replied, turning away from the rail, a friendly grin on his lips.
The sailor who dropped the double-armful of dirty pots and mops on the deck knew Levi wouldn't look at him—he never did—and he knew, too, he had to catch him as soon as he saw him because he could disappear as fast as a man who had never been seen. He started to ask how he could disappear like that, where he went, but asked instead, "You know where the line is, right?"
Levi's grin stretched into a slow smile. He nodded, slid his hands into his hip pockets palms flat against his flat hips.
The sailor pulled out a cigarette and lit it, took one puff, flicked it over the rail.
"I just got the scuttlebutt," he said, the smoke he exhaled as he spoke whipped away by the wind. "We're not putting in to get that driveshaft fixed. Wherever it is we got to be, we got to go there first, before we make any repairs." The sailor shook his head. "Guess we'll just have to live with that damn vibration."
"Guess so," Levi agreed, shaking his head, too.
The sailor looked at Levi, not unkindly but wondering just what would engage him.
"Well, thanks," he said when nothing came to mind—Levi did not have to rinse out the pots and the mops, but he seemed to be up on deck all the time and didn't seem to mind.
The sailor went into the galley a moment later, and Levi went to the locker where the thin rope was stored. He tied one pot and one mop onto the end of the line the way the sailor had before shown him then leaned out and lowered them over the side. Even though the ship was only making four knots, still the rush of the water was enough to scrub mops and pots clean.
Levi enjoyed the small chore. He liked looking at the water up close as well as far away. Sometimes, feeling the tug on the line, he felt as if he were fishing and he tried to think like a fish, though for the life of him as a fish he couldn't scare up any interest in a water-skiing mop or a pot. He made himself smile when he idly wondered if the water would scrub the spots off a turtle. He knew he could tie more on the line than he did, but he sure didn't know what the hurry was so he just took his time. As they came out of the water, he stacked the pots neatly and laid the mops side-by-side. When the sun dropped to the horizon and the sunset colors came into the sky, he left one mop in too long and it surfaced with far fewer ropey strands than it had gone in. Two pots didn't come clean on the first try and he tossed them back in for another swim. In the ocean-deep dark that descended, the mesh of a large deep-fat fryer churned up the phosphorous in the water and made a glow like a comet of sparking blue fire—and it pulled on the line like an anchor. When Levi yanked hard to reel it in and the fryer caught the top of a wave and yanked back, it hardly surprised even him that his feet slipped on the spray-slick deck and from his position leaning over the rail it pulled him right in. For his part, when the sailor found the pots neatly stacked and the mops in a row, he was not surprised at all that Levi was nowhere to be seen, an observation—or lack of one—that would not register for nearly two days.
"What do you mean," the watch officer asked, his voice both irate and snide, "that you can't find the indian?"
"We can't find the indian," the marine officer repeated. "He's gone."
"We've got a timetable here. We've got orders."
"I appreciate that," the marine said, then he ventured to ask, "Where are we going, anyway?"
"We won't know that until we're told, now will we?" the watch officer noted, then he barked over his shoulder, "All stop! Call the captain to the bridge."
The ship dead and drifting, eerily vibration-less and quiet, they searched for almost three hours. The captain radioed in a report. They looked below deck in each of the assault vehicles parked behind the bow that could open right onto a beach. They looked as far aft as the anchor that would pull them back off when they grounded. They searched the compartments, the galley, the laundry, the engine room, the storage lockers and even the ward room. Finally, the captain received orders in response to his report.
"All ahead one-quarter," he said, after he had read the satellite-bounced, micro-burst transmission.
Within a few seconds, the engines started up again. The captain saw to it that the helmsman had resumed the previous course and before he left the bridge ordered, "I want roll taken at the start of every watch. I want every swinging dick on this ship to report."
In the water, Levi tried the drownproofing they taught in boot camp. He took off his boots and with some reluctance let them go, took off his trousers and knotted the ends of the legs, swung them waist-first over his head to catch air inside; but after several tries he saw that there was no way his pants were turning into a flotation device, no matter what anyone had shown him. He took off his shirt just to be rid of it. He watched the ship's red and green lights until they faded into the darkness—even then, though, when he stretched out to float on his back, he thought he heard the pulse of the ship's engines, the uneven hum growing dimmer. He considered trying to swim back to land and he contemplated trying to catch up to the ship, but he knew either effort was hopeless.
Well, this is a dilemma, he thought, but then, why did it seem so familiar?
His hands moved in slow figure-eights at his sides, waving and keeping him afloat.
In the compartment, Jerry Rowland said, "The top just told me he would take away my birthday. He wants a complete count every eight hours." He picked up the deck of cards that hadn't been used in almost five hours. "My deal?"
Donald Durant asked, "You suppose Atoka has anything worth stealing?"
A thin, carnivorous smile slashed Jerry Roland's otherwise kind face. "Not any more."
Levi felt something nibble at one of his fingers and held his hand still. He could tell by the feel of the nibble that it was just some sort of little fish about like a minnow, no sort of danger—though he was hardly an expert in the identification of marine life. But what the fish did—or rather, his thoughts about it—was to make him lose his rhythm. He floated too high up the face of a wave, then slid too fast down its steep back and was dunked in the trough of the wave that was coming. That wave passed over him before he could surface, and when he did he was sputtering and coughing. After a few kicks, though, he was in synch again, not so much looking for the sea's rhythm as feeling it, a feeling that came to him so naturally he didn't even consider that, until three weeks before, he had known only the roll of the plains. He lay back and watched the movement of the stars and drifted on the waves pushed by an east wind.
Sometime during the night, the ocean began to feel cold. Levi caught little chills in his chest that made him want to hold onto himself, but he knew that the only way to keep warm was to keep moving—and besides that, he reminded himself, a little directional effort was a pretty good idea since another misjudged wave just might drown him. His thoughts drifted pretty much as he did. His mother, he recalled, had not been pleased when he had joined the marines.
"You'd take such a risk for the white man?" she had asked him.
He had swallowed the piece of Big Mac he had been chewing before he replied, "There's nothing here."
But he doubted even she could have guessed that his real enemy would turn out to be a tactically deployed deep-fat fryer.
Well, she might have.
The first time Levi had seen his grandfather dressed for a dance, it had frightened him. It was the summer his father got cancer. Every afternoon after his mother had gone off to work, Levi dragged the long bench away from the porch wall; his grandfather and he straddled it and, the board between them, they played checkers. His grandfather was quiet except when Levi made some clever move or jumped three at once and then he would say, "That was a good one!" Levi liked those afternoons. He liked sitting sideways on the bench which, for some reason, made him feel like an adult, and he liked the root beer floats his grandfather made when they were done playing. But one afternoon when Levi started to move the bench, his grandfather said, "Not today. We got someplace we're going." When Levi looked at his grandfather, what he saw startled him. The old man had put on a starched white shirt, and around his middle he had tied a broad, woven sash. On his cheeks he had painted two different colors; fanned through his hair there were big gray-and-white feathers.
Floating out there in mid-ocean, Levi savored the smell of his grandfather's old car, the flat smell of sun-heated metal too hot to touch and the smell of the faded, gray-velvet upholstery, both those smells intermixed with pungent old-man smell. The air through the vent windows was breathlessly hot, shot through with the fine, grainy dust the tires kicked up. With room to spare overhead, Levi stood on the front seat, one arm around his grandfather's copper-red, deeply-creased neck.
What Levi remembered most about that afternoon was the sound of the big drum, its deep, pulsing vibrations, and the sound of the bells each dancer wore, the way they faded out slowly, like a long echo, when a dance came to an end. He remembered the dignity of his grandfather's movements, the slow steps, each one paused in mid-air, and the way he had shaken the gourd he held in his hand, the sound of the rattle, the hard corn kernels inside. His grandfather had sung, too, ancient, chanting words that seemed even older than he was, older than time. With his hand clasped firmly in his grandfather's, Levi danced, too—and they made a good pair, the old man's stiff steps well matched to his tentative, awkward ones, his grandfather's patience soothing a young boy's excitement and fear. Try as he might, Levi could not recall what had come between the end of that dance and his mother's unbridled anger. He knew his grandfather and he likely had gotten something to eat. He knew they had to have driven home. But her fury was what seemed to come next, the hard edge in her voice that bored right through the walls and into his room. "You want him to go to a decent school? You want him to get served in restaurants?" The words made Levi think of a steel door slammed with purpose and with aggravation, then another one right behind it, like when they had a fire drill on board the ship and sealed the compartments in sequence, stem-to-stern. It was a sound that made you flinch and jump back; it made you take a count of your fingers.
Boy, damn, Levi thought, this water is cold. He looked forward to the sun that would warm him.
The waves continued their steady rhythm, though Levi soon lost track of his thoughts. To stay on top of the waves as he waited for the first sign of light—to fight the increasingly apparent hypothermia—despite his mother's admonitions that always rang in his ears Levi began to move his feet in those same halting steps he had watched his grandfather make. He sang to himself in sounds that seemed as old as the sea. He shook his hands as if he were holding those corn-filled ceremonial rattles.
Contrary to the rumor the sailor had heard, the ship put in for repairs at Valencia, Spain. The marines got five days of shore leave. The sailors, who had to maintain the watch on the ship, rotated a skeleton crew. On shore they all drank heavily and whored tirelessly, and the requisite few went to jail. Embarked once again, the ship under way, again with long stretches of time on their hands, endlessly they told each other stories of their various adventures. More than once Donald Durant protested, "That's not even close to the way it happened." "What difference does it make?" Jerry Rowland invariably shot back, and winked to the faces around them. Sometimes in the midst of a story, one or two of the listeners wondered just what the tired whores had thought of them, the shopkeepers, the civilians trying to get on with their lives—but those thoughts were very hard to put into a tale. For all that storytelling, however, and as even the very best stories lost their luster to too many retellings, no one ever mentioned Levi Atoka; no one once said his name. And perhaps exactly because of that—because of the way he had just disappeared, there one minute then the next minute gone, vanished like white smoke in a strong wind—at times it seemed he was somehow still present, not really gone, not too unlike the now intermittent driveshaft vibration the Spaniards in the shipyard had not entirely been able to get rid of.
© 1999 James Colbert. All rights reserved.
Read praise for James Colbert's novel, All I Have is Blue, right here.