SICILIAN VESPERS

by

A.E. Ayotte

 

Ten days out of the Persian Gulf, the S.S.Panama ploughed westward through the wine-dark sea. In the wake of the questing Greeks, she rounded the toe of Italy and threaded Messina's narrow Strait. She slipped between  the ancient terrors of Scylla and Charbidyss, and, like  the  Phoenicians who came before the Greeks,  turned west to skirt the northern coast of Sicily.

 

The island is rocky, dusty, and sunburnt, but after Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf it was like the Prophet's  paradise. What a thing to look forward to and to taste in expectation!  To walk stone streets that were ancient when Rome was young, to see the beauty of Palermo's girls, the  laughing, serious, smiling  black haired girls, bright eyes a warning and an invitation; to  hear the music of Italian  tongues and to drink a cold, throat-thrilling beer ...ah, Palermo were paradise enou...

 

We docked just before noon. I had business with  the American Consul. Although it was really not the Chief Mate's job, Captain Askins, like most seamen, despised American consular types so he usually sent me to deal with the "cookie-pushin' faggots."

 

When I returned aboard, stability calculations, inspection of a cargo hold and my other regular duties occupied me until sunset.

 

As I left the ship, the day's warmth still held. There had been a shower of rain a half hour before.  It's lingering moisture gave to the air a moistness that mixed the refreshment of the rain with an almost cloying warmth. The sky was clear above.  Heaped clouds still glowed in the West.

 

A purplish, pinkish sunset glow colored the waterfront buildings, the cranes on the dockside, the jumble of containers stacked on the docks. It was a soft, an unreal, a clear glowing sunset light, reflecting from piled cumulus clouds in the East downward to the still mirrors of rain puddles in the asphalt.

 

The longshoremen were between shifts, the crews of the ships gone ashore or at their meals. The Sicilian waterfront rested.

 

Outside the gate, the unreality of the quayside quiet was lost in the noises of the street.  I wandered for a while, just looking at the streets and stores and people, then found a bar and  toasted Palermo with a cup of espresso and a brandy.  I discovered a trattoria that didn't look too touristy and surrendered to a dinner of odd-shaped, heavy pasta bloodied with thick sauce, a not-too-good red wine and coarse crusty bread (have you noticed that the bread of Italy gets coarser and more heavily crusted the further South you travel?) As I ate I remembered my first visit to Naples.

 

It was in early 1946 and Italy was a desperate, war-ruined country. I was making my first voyage in a merchant ship after four years in the Navy.  With a half-dozen shipmates still dressed in greasy work clothes, I spent a night in Naples in a waterfront cellar.  Beneath stone arches, treading a floor that might have felt Crusader boots, we ate sausage made from retired donkeys and a liquorice-flavored salad of fenuci.  Because it was the only wine the owner had and because young seamen are not gourmets, we drank sweet Italian Vermouth.  Three genteely ragged musicians wandered in. There was a fiddle, an accordion, a mandolin and one great voice.  They drank some of our wine, sobbed out Santa Lucia, Torna a Soriento, and a hundred other songs of Napoli. We had been very happy, just a half dozen young seamen of the conquering nation, inebriated with where we were and who we were and not quite horny enough to hunt down the pitiful girls of war.

 

Palermo in 1979 was far from the ruined Naples of '46, but still I could remember, still remember.  Never again had I enjoyed a night like that one.  No meal will ever taste like those suspect Neopolitan sausages and liquorice-tasting salad washed down with sweet Vermouth, no music will ever be as sweet, no voices ever so true.

 

After finishing my dinner, I went to a bar for coffee and sweet liqueur and people watching.  But the ship is always with us and stolen pleasures end at the gangway.  By eleven o'clock I was back in my room, settled in with a nightcap of Stock  brandy mixed with long-stored milk and was skimming through an Italian  tabloid when the Third Mate knocked at my door.

 

"It's that 12-4 A.B., Mate, he just cut the hell out of hisself, he's bleeding like a fuckin' pig and won't let anybody near him."

 

"Rogers, the whacky one? The hippie?"

 

"Yeh, I guess that's his name.  He ain't on my watch so I ain't sure of the name. The blond guy."

 

Shit.

 

I got into my khakis and made my way down the four decks to Rogers' focstle. At one time,  the term "focstle" actually meant the forecastle at the bow of the ship where the seamen slept but now it means any room in which a non-officer lives. The Panama had been built in 1944 and most of the focsles had originally housed three or four men. By 1979 they usually held two men but Rogers had a room to himself.  When a one man focstle came up for grabs, there was a lot of maneuvering to get it. How it had fallen to Rogers was a little obscure but why he, of all the crew, was alone was easier to answer.

 

Rogers had been a Hippie before the word was coined, a Haight-Ashbury pioneer, a connoisseur of chemicals and herbal infusions, of magic mushrooms and fantastic fumes.  But somewhere, I was told, he had ingested too much of a good thing, the good thing being a bad  batch of LSD.

 

Rogers wasn't a bad sort. Shadows of  brilliance  still flickered through his  clearer moments but they were only  shadows.  Rogers was marking time, wandering in earthly purgatorio until his body's clay caught up with his first and greater death and he would drift away into the last, eternal, cosmic hallucination.

 

When Rogers didn't answer my knock, I used my pass key to open the door. A jury-rigged reading light shone on an unmade bed. The rest of the room was dark.

 

 I turned the old marine-type switch.  The pitiless overhead light fell like judgement on the squandered life, the wandering eternal, the fatal flaws that send a man to sea.

 

The place was a mess. It had the hopeless smell of ancient forecastles, the staleness of decades of cigarette smoke, the sourness of forgotten laundry, a hint of paint, an antiseptic chlorine smell from the head, a vomit reek and a full-bodied stench of spilled beer.  The stark steel bunk was tousled with disarrayed bedding.  Greasy work clothes, stained rain gear and a shoddy parka hung from the hooks on the bulkhead.  I saw a form slumped in the old easy chair.

 

Rogers staggered upward, steadying himself on the arm of the chair.  What looked like a gallon of blood had soaked the towel around his hand. He steadied himself against the bed then fell back into the ragged green plastic cushions of the chair.

 

Rogers had smuggled a couple of bottles of beer on board. On American flag ships, alcohol is not supposed to be allowed, but most of the guys can handle it and most captains try not to see it unless it causes trouble.

 

However, Rogers was not able to handle anything that altered the holes in the Swiss cheese between his ears. He had been drunk when he returned aboard, too drunk even to open a bottle. In trying to do so, he had dropped the bottle, slipped in the wetness and fallen upon the jagged broken glass.

 

When I unwrapped the soaking towel I saw that the hand was deeply cut and still bleeding badly. A red, slab-sided gash penetrated the thick flesh at the base of his thumb.  He needed a surgeon. I stanched the blood with a tight bandage, wrapped the wound, sent for a taxi and, taking the gangway AB along to help me handle the stumbling Rogers, headed for the hospital emergency room.

 

The Italian doctors spoke no English and Rogers spoke no Italian. The doctors were professionals who needed no language but I had to calm Rogers while they worked on him. When the suturing was done and the hand being bandaged I walked out into the hospital passageway.

 

 There was another patient there, cold as a codfish from the Greenland Banks. He lay on a gurney, wearing nothing but a pair of dungarees. I had passed him on the way in but Rogers had been the only thing on my mind.

 

The man on the cart was a curly-haired son of the Mediterranean with a great raw wound above his left eye. It was almost perfectly round and nearly the diameter of a tennis ball. I fancied that I could see shiny bone through the wound.

 

Sam, the AB who had come along to help me with Rogers, came over and looked at the guy. "Is he dead, Mate?"

"Sure as hell could be." I went into the office to sign the papers.

 

The two young doctors were patient with my stumbling Italian.

 

One doctor asked, "How did it happen? Una botiglia?"

 

"Si, it was a bottle, a broken bottle."

 

"Oh, como il ultimo, like the last one.  That was a bottle, too."

 

The dottores spent their nights cutting and stitching and patching. There had been a quick mutual liking between us and they seemed inclined to let me practice my Italian. I thought that the remark was just part of a general conversation, like a car repairman telling you that the last job he did was on a starter, just like this job on your starter.

 

The worn emergency room ledger chronicled the nightly agonies of Palermo. I took the proffered pen and bent to sign for Rogers' treatment. His name was two thirds of the way down the right-hand page, latest entry in the inventory of pain. My eye caught the name above Rogers. It was not Sicilian. It was not even Italian. It was Greek. It was Skouras.

 

"What's this one? He's from my ship!"

 

"Si, il ultimo....the last one, like I said, il altro botiglia. You don't see him outside?"

 

"That one? That's Skouras?"  I walked out to the gurney. Now I recognized the guy.

           

Sam had been seated in a chair nearby. "Hey, Sam, this is Skouras."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

"Yeh, didn't you know?"

 

"Hell, no. I just thought he was another local boy until I saw his name in the book."

 

"I seen who it was right away. Is he gonna make it?"

 

Skouras had come aboard on our last call at Rotterdam. Of American birth and Greek descent, Skouras was about five-eleven and in his mid-late twenties. He was a solidly built, almost handsome man, one of those Greeks who retain, at least during their youth, the features celebrated by the Ancients.  Actually, he was a slime-ball.  Loud-mouthed and arrogant, he became a mess deck bully, forcing his room-mate to give him the better bunk, imposing his will capriciously in order to show his power.

 

I had found, through the usual tenuous rumor channels, that his wife worked in the offices of the Seafarer's union training school. Skouras had managed to hold some sort of butt-kiss job in the school and his most fervent hope was that he could work his way through the lower echelons of hangers-on and someday become a full-time goon, the muscle that keeps order among the rank and file.

 

In preparation for his coming elevation to goon-hood, Skouras lifted weights in the ships' makeshift gym.  To compensate for the effort so expended, he always sought the lightest load when forced to do the work he was being paid to do.

 

Skouras also did his best to impress all hands with his ability in martial arts; swirling, posturing, chopping and kicking at hordes of imaginary attackers, all the while shouting, grunting and making impressive noises. I have known a few really proficient practitioners of martial arts. Without exception, they were gentle men who kept secret their deadly prowess.

 

Skouras was an all-around pain in the ass. I had felt compassion for Rogers.  I had none for Skouras.

 

The doctor said that Skouras probably would be all right but would need three days off work "per osservare", to see if he was going to be all right.

 

To the doctor, I said, "I'd like to see this man get proper observation, do you think that three days is enough?  But there's a company rule that five days off duty means that the man has to leave the ship." 

 

"I think," said the doctor, "you like for him to have more time in ospedale?  Only for to be sure?"

 

"I don't want to take any chances with him being hurt and maybe then be would sue the company if something should happen to him. And then, I am not trained.....You know, a ship doesn't have......."

 

"Of course, signore. Perhaps we give him six days for observation. Six, is that enough?"

 

"Si, Signor Dottore, perfetto. Credo di si, grazie."

 

 

 

Rogers would be getting off, of course, but he could go back to the ship with me to pack his gear. I was on board for a little over a half hour, stretching on my bunk in my sweat-damp khakis when I was called to the galley.  The Second Cook had slammed his thumb in the door of a walk-in refrigerator,  his good thumb. The poor bastard had a deformed right arm, an injury or a birth defect that made the limb almost useless. Now his good hand was fucked up.

 

We were waiting on the dock as the ambulance pulled up to the foot of the gangway. I helped the second cook climb into it, gave the driver the Agent's name and started back aboard. The vehicle didn't leave.  After a minute or two I went back down the gangway. The second cook was getting curb service. The EMT had just anesthetized the thumb. I watched in amazement while, within minutes, he took a couple of stitches and wrapped up the injury. The little cook was grinning from ear to ear as he swaggered heroically up the gangway.

 

"Hey!" I called after him, "stay out of the galley today. The steward's taking care of things."

 

I was glad we weren't going to lose this one.

 

This particular Second Cook and Baker, to give him his full title, was an important man. The captain had caught the Chief Cook pissing in the washbasin in his focstle and wanted to be sure that he never ate anything prepared by a man with such filthy habits.  Since the Second Cook does all of the breakfast cooking and prepares the cold cuts for the night lunch, Captain Askins ate hearty breakfasts. He never ate much at other meals, but made up for it with cheese and hoss-cock sandwiches in the evening.  Bum flipper or no, the Second Cook was vital to the harmony of the ship.

 

A normal workday began.  The peaceful feeling of the sunset and the silence of the night were gone. Brightening daylight was startled with the roar of diesel generators in the container cranes, and the noise of twenty lined-up tractors on the dock.  The deck was filled with strangers, with the bright-eyed searching eyes of Palermo longshoremen, each an aspiring Mafioso, swarming up the gangway looking for an easy score.

 

After working up the overtime sheets for Rogers and Skouras and turning them in to the captain, I crammed down a bacon sandwich for breakfast. Next, I roused Sam to help Rogers pack, telling Sam that he was becoming my strong right arm and promising that he would get extra overtime for helping. Then it was a matter of taking Rogers up to the American consul to be signed off the ship, back to the same official who had signed him on less than twenty-four hours before. Even now, Captain Askins half ordered, half cajoled me into doing the job. He still didn't want anything to do with the "cookie-pushin' faggots." 

 

Rogers would be turned over to the company agent for care until he could fly home. The agent also would be given a pay voucher for Skouras and would take him to the consul  when he got out of the hospital. While I was ashore the Second Mate and the Deck Delegate were packing Skouras' gear.

 

Two Palermo police officers came aboard and, with the help of a wiper who had been with Skouras at the time of his mishap, the story came out.

 

 

Skouras and the wiper had gone ashore the previous afternoon at about four thirty. Skouras was carrying a prescription of some kind. Speaking no Italian, he had loudly demanded of people on the street where he could get his prescription filled. After giving the finger and the chin brush insult to a dozen puzzled Sicilians, he found a Farmacia and used his prescription to obtain a bottle of blue pills which he gulped down at once, not even offering one to his companion, the wiper.

 

The stalwart seafarers then entered a bar where they encountered two male hairdressers from London. The Brits were in Sicily on vacation and seeking refined relaxation. After a few drinks which led to a warm and growing friendship, the foursome went up to the hairdressers' hotel room where, according to the wiper, their new friends did wonders for their hair.

 

Refreshed in spirit and appearance, the four new friends went out for a few more drinks and then repaired to a pizzaria.

 

The restaurant was owned by an admirer of American culture who had bestowed upon it the name of a very American movie which had starred that Italian favorite, Paul Newman.. The film was called "FORT APACHE"

 

The four new friends had eaten well and drunk well but when the time came for settling the bill, Skouras insisted that he had already paid. The waiter disagreed but finally, with an Italianate shrug, he walked away. Life is too short for such troubles. He'd just charge double when the next American fell into his hands


Not satisfied with having yelled his way to a free pizza, Skouras went into a blue-pill Kung-fu frenzy. He stripped off his shirt in order to show his muscles, swelled his chest and hunched his shoulders forward to appear more massive. He loomed up over the small waiter and shouted in his face in a language the poor man could barely comprehend. Skouras kicked off his shoes for better grip upon the floor, assumed the position of attack, and began spinning and kicking, attacking imaginary tigers and sweeping unassuming lotuses from his path. The customers watched in amazement, never having seen anyone dance such a frenzied tarantella.

 

It was considered rather amusing until an unfortunate mongrel, the pet of the owner of the place, for some odor-sniffing canine reason, moved too close to the martial windmilling of the aspiring goon. A spinning back kick accidentally struck the dog. 

 

There was an elderly lady seated nearby. She had lived, she would tell you.  She,  who had seen real men in her day, from strutting black-shirted Fascisti,(“I spit on them, the Mussolini bastards, you see?), to soft speaking Mafiosi and even, she said, Generale Giorgio Patton, that American hero, the killer of donkeys.  Yes, she had seen them all. But never had she seen anyone like this marrone who danced by himself his own tarantella and who kicked helpless old dogs. She shrieked in indignation and yelled in anger, saying that the men in the place all had horns, that they weren't men and should be singing soprano in the choir.

 

No Sicilian male above the age of four months could stand such insults.  Several men rushed forward. Sicilians are often maligned by the press. Passionate people, they have their pride, of course, but they also have a curiosity about things, a gentle side, a willingness to help. So it was in this case. One of the men had seen a movie on the martial arts and had been amazed at how the practitioner had broken a wooden plank with a single blow of his hand.

 

Not having such a plank at hand, the curious one picked up a wooden bench and offered it to Skouras so that he could demonstrate how planks of wood were split in the Orient.  Unfortunately, the bench was a trifle unwieldy, being six feet long and two inches thick. Then, too, there was an unfortunate miscalculation in the way the board was presented. Skouras missed his opportunity to strike the bench properly and it instead struck him on the forehead and knocked the shit out of him.

 

It was raining lightly as the tugs prepared to move the S.S. Panama away from the Palermo dock. It was a warm rain and gentle. The harbor pilot strutted on the bridge, the tugs were made fast and we had singled up the mooring lines. 

 

A car came screaming down the dock, several arms flailing wildly from its windows.  It was our agent and he had with him .. ..Skouras, a great bandage on his head.

 

In Sealand, it was the practice for the Chief mate to dock and undock the ship. I was ready to pull away but the Captain said, "We better see what the agent wants."

 

Through all the fog and confusion, I was forced to take Skouras back with instructions on how to conduct the six days' observation and see that Skouras took his medicines.

 

I informed the agent that I could handle first aid but not extended care.  I would look in on the patient but any medicine was his own business.  The old doctor who had come along with the agent took me aside.  "In Napoli, you can be rid of him.  It’s only a couple of days."

 

Captain Askins did arrange to fire Skouras in Naples and when the goon saw another $700 come out of his pay for his airfare back to the states….

 

Ah, what joyous conflict!