The aircraft carrier Constellation had been steaming around the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean for one hundred and sixty-five days when we ran out of Rolaids.
We used them to kill the cockroaches. They were in our racks and lockers, but there wasn’t enough spray on board to cover the berthing areas. The corpsman who sprayed them on the mess decks told us the next best way to kill the roaches was to leave Rolaids out for them. I thought this sounded silly, until I pulled into a pair of skivvies one day and felt some of them squirming in my pubes. I spread around a roll of the chalky tablets inside my locker after that. When I cracked the locker open later, thirty-two of the little bastards were lying stiff on their backs. There was a white speck where the Rolaids had burst through their bellies.
The Rolaids actually attracted more roaches, but that didn’t matter as long as I was killing some of them. I tallied my kills on a notepad: four hundred and eighty-two roach carcasses flushed down the commode in five days.
I went to the ship’s store after this to buy a whole case, planning the biggest roach massacre of all time, but the shelf was empty.
Somebody had stolen the last four cases of Rolaids out of the storeroom.
“Go see Big Jethro.” Henries was telling me this, the squid who ran the ship’s store. “He bought the last case before the rest got stolen.”
Big Jethro was Signalman Second Class Jethro Stapleton. He was the leader of my repair locker at sea. We didn’t see much of each other except during General Quarters, and then he talked and bet a lot of football, the pros, with everyone on the locker but me. I wasn’t interested in football. Stapleton couldn’t believe it. He’d ask me questions like what team had won the Superbowl two years ago or who’d been the first pick in the last draft. After I’d shrug, he’d shake his head and call me a soccer fan or a North Korean. I let it slide, never took Stapleton too seriously. But I was the only squid I knew who didn’t call him Big Jethro.
I found myself standing next to him a couple of evenings later in the chow line.
He was taking Super Bowl bets from some squids behind us. Stapleton was a big dude, six-four or five and solid, forearms like big white yams, and a dense brown flattop that ran from the top of his forehead and tapered down the back of his neck like a small wolverine. Once he’d finished taking the bets, I told him I wanted to buy Rolaids to kill the roaches in my locker.
His coal-chip eyes lit up like he’d been waiting a long time for me to need something from him.
“Tell you what, Powers,” Stapleton said. “I’m running this Super Bowl pool. Pick the winner, beat the spread, you could win five thousand dollars. Buy in’s only twenty-five bucks a share.” He leveled two fingers at my chest. “For every share you buy, I’ll throw in one guaranteed, roach-killing roll of Rolaids.”
I said, “Twenty-five dollars for a roll of Rolaids?”
“It’s the premium package. I’m giving you a chance to kill roaches and stand up with your shipmates and every other American to celebrate the greatest goddamned event this country ever created.” Stapleton’s face hardened into a blunt mask. “Unless you want to go on being a North Korean.”
“I’ve still got Rolaids left.”
“There’s billions of those fuckers. There won’t be any more spray for weeks. You run out of Rolaids, the roaches’ll swarm you. It’ll be worse for all of us.”
“I’ll keep killing them with what I’ve got.”
I woke up the next night with a roach on my tongue. I wanted to spit it out, but I was riding an up breath, and sucked it into the strawhole connecting my mouth and nose. The roach got stuck and scratched away there while I plugged a nostril with my knuckle and tried to snot-rocket it out.
A mucous oyster formed around the roach. Tears were swelling out of my eyes by the time the oyster finally slid out and dumped onto the back of my tongue and down my throat. I pulled in a deep, free breath through my nose—and caught a whiff of Thurman’s nasty body reek.
He had the bottom rack across from mine in our cubicle in the berthing. I could see him now through a crack in my curtains. Thurman was small and thin and had curly black hair that foamed off the side of his head in a low, thick wave. He was sitting barefooted on his rack in his dungarees, staring at the back of his hand. At two roaches crawling there. I yanked my curtain back and told him, “You need to take a shower, Thurman. I’m sick of waking up with you in my nose.”
He grunted. Still watching the roaches, he raised the back of his other hand for them to climb on so they wouldn’t drop off.
I rolled out of my middle rack in my skivvies and stood over him. Thurman didn’t move. I had put on my shower shoes and was getting ready to knock the roaches off his hand when I held up and then took a step back. The nails on his big toes were half-inch yellow claws.
“Meh. We have to be nice to them.”
“You stink, man. Take a shower.”
“He likes how I smell.”
“What if everybody smelled like you? Five thousand squids stuffed into this birdfarm, smelling like ass rot.”
“They wouldn’t mind.”
I reached down and slapped his hands, sent his pals flying. The roaches were scuttling around, I was trying to step on them, when Thurman’s foot shot out. His toe-claw speared me in the leg between my calf and shinbone. I fell to one knee, gripping the wound. Thurman stood up and started shouting at me.
“We’ve lost two evaps! We can’t to take showers anymore! We’ll run out of water!”
I tried to stand, but the wound stung deep into my leg, holding me down. I looked up and told him, trying to sound tough, “The evaps are all working. I give the Chief Engineer’s plant report to the Old Man every morning.”
“The Cheng’s a fucking liar.”
“You don’t work in Engineering. How do you know?”
“They helped me take them down.”
“You’re losing it, Thurman.”
“We’re not human any more. Floating around out here for months. We ain’t never going back. I don’t ever want to go back.”
He stood there with gripped-fists and his pale blue eyes blazing down on me. A roach crawled around his neck and pulled itself up onto his cheek. Thurman’s face turned tender. He stepped around me and walked out of the cube.
I pushed off the deck, leaned against the racks, put weight on my leg. It was still sore. The wound, a quarter-sized gouge, hadn’t bled much, but the color of Thurman’s toe-claw and the smell of him, which had hung around the cube, made me want to wash it out. And take a shower.
I pulled open the door of the locker inside my rack. Seven more dead roaches were lying there, belly up. But one of them had made it into my mouth. I was rationing the Rolaids I had left, I’d only put three out in the locker before turning in, instead of the usual six. I was outnumbered and running out of Rolaid grenades. If I didn’t want to be swarmed, I’d have to buy shares in Stapleton’s Super Bowl pool. The premium package. The Rolaids shakedown.
Leaving the dead roaches in my locker as a warning to the rest—the war’s still on, motherfuckers—I set out three more Rolaid grenades. Then I took my towel and limped up to the head in my skivvies to take a Hollywood shower.
The Navy owed me a Hollywood for running out of Rolaids and forcing me to pay Stapleton twenty-five dollars for them. A Hollywood was a shower where you let fresh water run on you for more than thirty seconds. Fresh water was precious at sea, the Connie’s evaporators could only make so much of it. The Old Man was a fanatic about conserving fresh water. He’d started a roving patrol of master-at-arms that went around timing showers with stopwatches, and had fined a bunch of squids a month’s pay at Captain’s Mast for taking Hollywoods.
The head was empty in the middle of the night. It never looked like a place where you could get very clean. The shower and shitter stalls were lined up next to each other, three of each, and the glaring light showed up every blotch and streak on the dull steel. The bulkheads and the pebbly, gray concrete decks were always shiny-damp, as if the ship were sweating out a fever in there.
I jumped into the end shower stall and turned on the water and let it run. And run. I stopped timing it with my watch after five minutes. I didn’t give a damn anymore what the Old Man might do to me. I was clean again, that hot water was making me feel like the ship had docked, and I was on my way out into town where there were girls and beer, and no roaches, and I could tune out all the gabble about football and the Super Bowl--
A grunting, shouting crowd slammed through the hatch into the head. I panicked, thinking it was the master-at-arms, and fumbled with the shower knobs. With the water finally off, I pulled my towel down from where I’d draped it over the stall, and then hid behind the scummy plastic shower curtain.
“Get your roachie-ass in that shower, Turdman!”
Stapleton’s voice. The shower stall next to mine shook.
I wrapped the towel around my waist and peeked out from behind my shower curtain. Stapleton was on his knees leaning into the stall, like he was holding someone down. Or helping to. “Turn the water on him,” he said.
The knobs in the shower were spun, the pipes blubbed, the water rushed out.
“It’s boiling hot!” The voice of someone in the shower. “Shit!”
“Where’s the goddamn soap?” Stapleton said.
“Here, I got it.”
“Start lathering him.”
Stapleton’s arms started working in the stall like he was bathing a huge dog. The squid he was soaping coughed and gagged.
“Chew on that soap,” Stapleton said. “Roach-loving freak.”
He glanced up. “Powers.”
I pulled the curtain back and stepped out in my shower shoes. There were three of them: Stapleton and another squid, who was sitting on top of whoever they’d thrown in the shower stall. The funnel of the water rained down. The squid sitting in the shower I recognized as one of the guys Stapleton had taken bets from in the chow line. He was wearing Navy-issue glasses, black-framed Clark Kents. The lenses were smeared with wet. I couldn’t see his eyes.
I said to Stapleton of the squid they were cleaning up, “What, he didn’t want to join your Super Bowl pool?”
“We caught him playing with roaches in the anchor windlass room,” he said, still on his knees. “He was letting them—run all over his arms.” Stapleton flinched with disgust. “He stinks, he won’t take shower. Says the roaches won’t like him anymore if he does.”
“Thurman?” He was so crushed under the squid wearing glasses that I could only tell it was him by the yellow nails on one of his bare white feet hanging over the lip of the stall. I said to Stapleton, “I told him to take a shower. His rack’s in my cube down in the berthing.”
“You sleep with him and you haven’t done anything?” The bristles on Stapleton’s flattop seemed to rise. “What are you, his roach buddy? Is that why you don’t want to buy any more Rolaids? That’s what they do in North Korea, Powers. Sleep with their cockroaches.”
“Get off me,” Thurman gasped.
The squid sitting on Thurman smirked. He was still eyeless behind his wet lenses. I said to him, “Why don’t you get off him?”
“Fucking North Korean,” he said.
“Fucking Super Bowl Nazis.”
Stapleton threw the soap into the shower and stood up. The soaked, unbuttoned sleeves of his coveralls were hanging off his forearms. “Powers, you stink.” He raised the big shovel of his chin at me, eyes narrowing. “Can’t get that stink off you, no matter how many showers you take. Roach-stink.”
“The master-at-arms aren’t going to be happy if they come in here and find you using all this fresh water.” My heart was pounding.
The squid sitting on Thurman took off his glasses, wiped them with the sleeve of his shirt, put them on again, looked at Stapleton. He got up and stepped out of the shower. The water was still running, Thurman gasping.
“Looks like we walked into a romance here,” Stapleton said. “But it’s a war, Powers. A roach war. You’re on the wrong side.”
He stepped back and walked out with the other squid through the hatch.
Thurman was still crammed in the bottom of the shower stall. The assholes hadn’t actually cleaned him up much, just glazed white his face and hair with soap. His eyes looked glued shut. I turned off the shower. “Thurman.”
No one deserved what they’d done to him. Everything was breaking down. Roaches, Rolaids extortion, shower beat downs. All that time at sea. Maybe Thurman was right, we weren’t human anymore. I asked him, “Can you get up?”
“Frodo.” He spit out a chunk of soap. “Frodo, Bilbo.” Thurman squirmed around, finally managed to sit up in the stall, started patting his hand against his left shirt pocket. His eyes squinted open. “Are they?”
Thurman thrust his fingers into the pocket. He pulled out a plastic baggy, raised it in front of his face. “Look what they’ve done!”
I leaned down to see. Two squished roaches were inside the baggy, along with a few tiny bits of meat that must have been their dinner.
Thurman sat there quietly, the baggy cupped in his hands. Tears eroded the soap glaze under his eyes. For a moment, I forgot it was cockroaches he was mourning.
“Super Bowl Nazis.” Thurman’s blue eyes rose on me. “They play football?”
“Stapleton? He probably did in high school, as big as he is. Big dickhead.”
“You play football, Powers?”
“I didn’t weigh enough. Played some baseball.”
Thurman lifted the baggy, kissed it, slipped it tenderly into his pocket. “We’re having a funeral for them. Frodo and Bilbo.”
“You going to flush them?”
“No!” He grabbed the sides of the stall and pulled himself onto his feet. “Burial at sea. With honors.”
He told me to meet him in an hour on the catwalk under the island.
I went back to the berthing by myself and got dressed. In my locker, two more roaches had blown up feasting on Rolaids. I wondered if I should take them up to be buried with Frodo and Bilbo. Thurman was treating his roaches better than we were each other.
I wrapped the dead roaches in a paper towel, stuffed them in my pocket, took them with me up to the catwalk. Thurman was already there—standing at parade rest in his dress whites. An aircraft slammed down on the flight deck above our heads, followed by the long, hydraulic gasp of the arresting gear. Damp yellow moonlight stroked the swelling black back of the sea.
Thurman snapped out of parade rest. His dress whites were crinkled from being crammed into his locker. He must have changed somewhere other than the berthing, since I hadn’t seen him after he’d left me in the head. A paper bag was sitting at his feet that he now picked up. His face and hair still had patches of soap glaze.
“You didn’t take another shower?” he said.
I said I hadn’t, and then he said, “No more showers for anyone.”
“What’s your hang up with showers?”
“Ever take one after gym class?”
“In high school?”
Thurman pulled from the paper bag a pair of matchboxes that he set out on the rail of the catwalk. “You didn’t. You were afraid.”
He was right. It was funny now, after being in the Navy for two years and taking all those showers in boot camp and on ship. The guys who ruled the showers in high school were usually jocks, they had big enough muscles and dicks to be proud of and want to show off. Guys like Stapleton.
Thurman picked up and opened one of the matchboxes for me to see. A roach was inside, he said it was Bilbo. After setting the roach coffin back on the rail, he took out of the paper bag toilet paper, duct tape and aluminum foil, which he then set to wrapping around each matchbox. He wrapped the boxes until they were both as big as tennis balls.
I almost brought out my dead roaches while he was wrapping the boxes—but then I found myself inching back from him. His odor was reaching out to me again, the dark stink of the dying going on inside him. Inside us all.
Thurman finished wrapping the coffins and, holding one in each hand, stood there watching the gently flexing swells of the water. “Nobody famous ever gets buried at sea. Frodo and Bilbo weren’t sailors, they were seekers. They should have shrines.”
He turned and seemed about to drop the coffin-balls into the paper bag on the catwalk when he sucked in a rush of air and sneezed. One of the balls jumped from his hand, bounced on the catwalk rail, dropped into the sea. Thurman lunged against the rail after the coffin-ball. His weight lifted his feet off the catwalk, until it seemed he might be about to tip over the side. I grabbed the hem of his uniform blouse and jerked him back. At the same time that I heard his boondockers land back on the catwalk, I felt something crawling across my hands.
Roaches. I shook my hands in front of me like they were on fire. The roaches were climbing my wrists. I brushed and clawed them off. The last one made it past my elbow. “Fuck!”
Thurman watched me, smiling. “Got one up my nose. He made me sneeze.”
I drew a delicate breath through my nose. All clear, but I still felt the tickle of the roaches I’d gotten rid of on my hands and arms.
“They like you, Powers,” Thurman said. “You’ve got a good smell. Once you’ve gone a few days without a shower, not even your Rolaids will stop them.”
“I’m going down to take another shower.”
He cocked his head, as if listening to something. “Three evaps down. Water hours. No more showers.” He dropped the roach coffin he’d been holding into the paper bag. “No more hiding from the smell of who we really are.”
The Old Man came on the ship’s TV the next day. He had a fuzz of graying whiskers sprouting over his face. The Navy didn’t allow beards, so seeing him with whiskers came as a shock, like we’d steamed off the edge of the world and arrived in a place where we made our own rules. Where the Old Man made the rules. And now, he said, he was allowing everyone to grow beards because three of the Connie’s four evaps were down, and there wasn’t enough water to wet shave. He was putting the ship on water hours, only two hours a day, one each for the day and night shifts. Ration cards would be issued that allowed every crew member to take one shower a week.
“It’s going to get a little fragrant, gents,” the Old Man said. “So I would ask you to be tolerant of each other. Learn to breathe through your mouths, if you know what I mean. As for the beards, we’ll have a contest next week for the best one, just before the Super Bowl. The winner gets a ninety-six hour liberty in our next port.
“Speaking of the Super Bowl, we should be able to pipe in the live feed from the satellite.” He picked up a blue card from the desk he was sitting behind in his cabin. “As you know, betting pools aren’t allowed, but I’m authorizing one this year for the Super Bowl for the benefit of Navy Relief. Petty Officer Stapleton and some others are working hard to get the word out, so I’d encourage you to participate in this worthy cause. I can’t think of many things more important to sailors deployed for their country than football and Navy Relief.”
More important than being able to take a fucking shower? What next? A most “fragrant” sailor contest judged by Thurman and his roaches?
Three in the morning. We had piled out of our racks and were trying to pull into our coveralls, stepping all over each other in the berthing. An amplified voice was shouting at us over the 1MC from the bridge: “This is a drill! This is a drill! General quarters, general quarters!” Two squids in my cube gave up trying to get dressed in the tangle of asses and elbows and ran up to their repair locker in their skivvies.
Thurman wasn’t there. I hadn’t seen or smelled him in three days, since Frodo and Bilbo’s burial at sea. I held my breath and pulled back his curtain. The rack was empty except for a few roaches scuttling across an old paperback sitting in the middle of the mattress. Tolkien’s The Return of the King.
I made it to my repair locker just as a squid was closing the aft hatch.
“You’re fucking late, Powers. Get on the hose.”
This was Stapleton, the repair locker leader. He was standing in the middle of the space, already in battle dress with the others, eight of them. His coveralls were tucked into his boots and a Mark 60 gas mask was perched on top of his head. The hose and all the firefighting gear had been pulled off the bulkhead or out of the repair locker.
I figured to be in the shitsoup with Stapleton, after sticking up for Thurman that night in the head. But the imaginary fire the ship had been called away to fight was in our space and we had to get to work. We pulled the Mark 60s down over our faces, picked up the four-inch wide canvas hose, and started moving around with it, pretending to blast water at the pretend fire licking through our damaged forward hatch. Stapleton was yelling, riding us, as usual.
“Port side! Nozzleman, water on! Now! Water on!”
The rush of fighting an imaginary fire at GQ usually slacked off around the same time the masks of our Mark 60s were fogging up with our breathing. We were still moving around with the hose now, squinting through the droplets on our masks, Stapleton was yelling, but since there weren’t any damage control graders around, it all started to feel ridiculous. This was when Arebalo, the nozzleman on the front end of the hose, liked to do something to crack us up.
Arebalo moved us behind Stapleton and pretended to open the nozzle. Then he shoved up his mask and said, “Sorry, Big J, I just fired the stream into your ass!”
Stapleton pulled off his mask. “We’re not fucking done!”
Arebalo smiled. He was a chubby Gunner’s Mate from Chula Vista whose brother, he said, was in Corcoran for being a runner for the Mexican Mafia.
“The Packers are done, Big J,” Arebalo said. “They got no chance against the Chargers in the Super Bowl.”
Stapleton was a Packers fan. “Where’s your money, Arebalo?”
Arebalo lifted out of his shirt pocket a fold of twenties. Stapleton pulled out a fatter wad of bills.
They started flipping twenty dollar bills at each other, five feet apart. The twenties leafed down and covered the dirty green tile between them. There must have been over five hundred dollars lying there by the time Arebalo ran out of bills.
Stapleton looked down the hose. “Who else is in this?”
Two squids on the middle of the hose dug in their pockets and folded and flipped some tens and twenties on to the pile. They were Packer fans like Stapleton. One of them, Dennison, threw up his fist: “Go Pack!”
Six of us left. One by one they flipped bills into the pile, mostly fives and tens. Four squids for the Packers, one for the Chargers.
Arebalo said, “I can’t believe how hard you guys are kissing Big Jethro’s ass.”
“The Pack’s money in the bank,” Stapleton said. “Nobody wants to kiss loser ass.”
“You’re the last one, Powers,” Arebalo said. “You’re from L.A. Kick for the Chargers.”
“I only got a buck,” I said. “I was saving it to buy a Snickers after GQ.”
Stapleton hit me with a dead stare. “I don’t want his money.”
“You don’t want it because he’s betting the Chargers,” Arebalo said.
Stapleton said, “That roach-loving shitbird called me a Nazi.”
He zombie-walked toward me down the hose, hanging on to his Mark 60. I was about to let go of the hose, thinking he was going to charge me. But then Stapleton stopped.
“I am not a Nazi,” he said. He wasn’t close enough yet to swing on me, even with his reach. His coal-chip eyes floated off me and up into the overhead, into the tangle of cables and lagging-wrapped pipes there. “Tell him—tell him, I’m not a Nazi.”
He was still talking to me. “Who?”
Stapleton threw up his arms. “Turdman! Thurman!”
His big shoulders slumped. His eyes fell onto the deck. They found something. A cockroach was scuttling across the green tile. Stapleton’s neck bulged. He started to shake.
Something, a bit of dirt, fell out of the overhead and landed in his flattop. It was moving. More dirt fell in his hair. Then—a deluge.
Stapleton slowly then desperately swept and batted at his head, at the roaches. His mouth opened, he seemed about to scream, but the roaches fell into his mouth. All he could say was, “Ah-ah-ah-ah.”
The roaches poured down on him in a syrupy flow. Stapleton pulled his Mark 60 over his face. But they were already inside the mask. He dropped to his knees and ripped it off. The roach stream from the overhead had fallen off, but there were still hundreds of them swarming Stapleton’s head and neck and shoulders. He opened his mouth again, still wanting to scream. He coughed out a spray of roaches instead.
Then he was crawling on one hand, in a stifled silence, toward the leaf pile of dollars. With his other hand, he was clawing at the roaches on his face.
The rest of us watched. None of the training the Navy had given us since boot camp had covered saving a shipmate from this. A nuclear or biological or chemical attack, or a bullet wound—these we knew how to handle. But this, this was a new way a man might die that neither we nor the Navy could ever imagine.
I was laid out naked later in my rack with my coveralls on. I’d wrapped myself mummy-tight in my gray wool blanket and covered my mouth with a strip of duct tape. I was sure the roaches were massing in my locker for an attack.
I was naked. I’d run out of Rolaids.
I pulled an arm out of the blanket and threw back my curtain—no one there.
“Powers!” A sharp whisper from—inside my locker? The roaches, calling my name.
I saw Stapleton again after GQ. The corpsmen had cleaned off his face with gloved hands and were lifting him onto a stretcher, out of the pile of bills and roach carcasses. Some of them he’d puked up. Stapleton was sobbing quietly and moaning. Sometimes he’d open his mouth as if to speak, but the words never came.
“Powers.” The roaches, calling my name now with Stapleton’s voice.
I ripped the tape off my mouth. “Fuck you.” I wrestled out of the blanket and rolled out of my rack. I climbed the ladder out of the berthing and wandered down the passageway.
Next to a fan room with the hatch slightly open, the roaches said clearly, “In here, Powers.”
I eased open the fan room’s hatch. Empty. A ladder of rungs bolted to the bulkhead climbed up to a square hole in the overhead. Out of the hole Thurman’s voice said, “Come on up. Close the hatch behind you.”
I stepped into the fan room, staring up at the hole, expecting a shower of roaches to pour out. Or Thurman to show himself, having turned into a giant roach.
Thurman asked, “Why are you afraid?”
“They loved his smell,” Thurman said. “I couldn’t keep them away from him. Once he ran out of Rolaids, there wasn’t anything to stop them from showering him with their love. I was jealous. Good thing he didn’t love them back. He didn’t understand. All he wanted to be was a Super Bowl Nazi.”
“I don’t love them. I’ve still got Rolaids.”
“They don’t love you. Not yet. Maybe never. Depends on how your smell develops.” Thurman slid around up there, maybe shifting his legs, still out of sight. “Are you going to shut that hatch and come up?”
I didn’t answer.
“You’re a seeker like me, Powers. I’ve seen you reading Kerouac. You don’t like the Super Bowl, you don’t accept the same bullshit reality as everyone else. You’ve got a chance to understand.”
A face appeared in the hole, looking down on me. The blue eyes, the foaming wave of black hair. Thurman. Not a roach in sight. “It’s another world up here. Not steel and planes and non-skid. It’s the heart of nature beating in this dead ship.”
Green and soothing, plants and grass growing, that was nature to me, something I hadn’t seen in what seemed like forever. Plants and grass—and roaches. The heart of nature beating in a dead ship. Had Thurman found something up there, through the hole?
My thinking didn’t begin and end with the Super Bowl—I had a chance to understand.
I climbed up the ladder’s bolted-in rungs and pulled myself through the hole and onto a metal surface.
Thurman’s smell overflowed the dark, narrow space. It was stronger than ever, a deeply personal rot with stains of metal and hair and crotch. I sat up and coughed, pulled the collar of my t-shirt over my nose and mouth.
“You’ll get used to it.” Thurman’s voice echoed off thin, dry metal. “That’s nature. That’s who we really are.”
In the dim light from the fan room, I saw him crawling away on all fours. “Follow me.” He entered a low square tunnel, pitch dark. I was impressed, Thurman had found a secret passage through the ship. I started crawling.
I crushed a few roaches under my palms. “Fucking roaches.”
“Stragglers. They won’t bother you as long as I’m around. It’s my smell they love best.”
I wiped the crushed roaches on my pants and crawled ahead. My knees detonated little booms off the aluminum. I’d been crawling for at least ten minutes when I ran out of tunnel and climbed out and stood up in a dark, warm space swarming with a rich stew of smells. It was overpowering at first, but as I started to get used to it the smell made me feel lightheaded, a little drunk. I couldn’t see anything, and yet I could smell what was in there. Candy bars. Potato chips. Soda—a can was popped open.
“Diet Coke?” I said.
“Very good, Powers.” Thurman slurped from his can. “Now you know why I don’t take showers. Smell is all you need.”
“Why did you stop taking showers?”
“I never took showers in gym in high school.” Thurman clicked the sides of his Diet Coke can. “I was the one they picked on for not doing it. My smell was too strong to hide or ignore. This one time, some idiots from the football team pushed me down in the shower and whipped me with wet towels. The school nurse didn’t believe what’d happened. Her son was on the team. I was red all over and she wrote down that I’d scalded myself to get the others in trouble. The gym teachers flunked me after that because I refused to play games with the rest of the shitheads. I dropped out and got my GED and joined the Navy. Spent most of my time in boot camp in sick-bay with heel blisters. Had a shower mostly to myself, but I only used it when the nurses threatened to get me thrown out for smelling. That’s when I got to liking my smell. When anybody caught a whiff of it, they knew it was me.”
Thurman stopped. I heard him sniffing.
“Like how you smell right now, Powers. You’re like a dark flower blooming. You should be thanking me for knocking out the evaps.”
“You knocked them out?”
“Me and the little ones. The ventilation system runs all over the ship. There’s nowhere we can’t go, nothing we can’t do.”
“I bet a lot more roaches died clogging the evaps than ever did eating Rolaids.”
“You’re either part of nature, or you’re outside it. If you’re part of it, death doesn’t matter. You flow back into everything. But if you’re outside—you’re dead.”
Thurman clicked on a flashlight and shined it around the small space. A sheet had been strung up from the overhead as a hammock. A small table was covered with potato chip bags and candy bar wrappers. Roaches were crawling over them. Dozens of stacked Diet Coke cans snaked up in skinny, leaning columns around the bulkhead. Tucked away behind the columns—two cases of Rolaids wrapped in plastic.
“You’re still afraid, Powers. You couldn’t live with them like this.”
“You stole those Rolaids from the ship’s store.”
“I was protecting the little ones. As long as the Rolaids are wrapped in plastic, they can’t get to them. I’m protecting our friends so they’ll be at full strength for our big day.” Thurman moved the flashlight under his chin. “Super Bowl Sunday.”
His pale face glowed like a pink lantern. Around his neck he was wearing a roach necklace. Two roaches dropped off and I could see part of the white bead they’d been attached to a—gnawed-down Rolaid.
I said, “You’re wearing a Rolaids necklace.”
Thurman shined the light in my eyes. “Sometimes they love me too much. I have to have control.”
“You’re afraid of them.” I held up my hand against the light. “Give me a case of those Rolaids.”
“Walk over and take it.”
I took two steps—and felt roaches trickling up my leg hairs. I swatted at them through my pants. Thurman shined the light down on the deck. It was covered by a patchy, frayed brown carpet. It was alive—a roach carpet. They were swarming up my legs. I panicked, started hopping around.
Thurman held out to me the string of Rolaids from around his neck. I grabbed it and stumbled back against the bulkhead, felt the opening of the vent tunnel we’d come through. I was climbing into the tunnel when he turned off the light.
“Don’t be afraid of them,” he said in the dark. “They’re our friends.”
The following Sunday, five minutes after the Super Bowl was supposed to start on the ship’s TV, a foggy groan rolled through the ship. I was sitting on the mess decks reading Thurman’s paperback of The Return of the King. There wasn’t a TV on the mess decks—most of them were in the work spaces and berthing lounges—and the only other squids there with me were four lifer cooks, old Filipinos, playing mah-jong.
“No one’s watching the Super Bowl on Sunday.”
Thurman had told me this a few times through the bulkhead while I was dozing in my rack. I hadn’t answered him. I just lay in my rack, when I wasn’t working, wrapped in my blanket with my mouth duct taped, hoping I had enough Rolaids on that necklace he’d given me until we got more Rolaids or spray on board or—he took over the ship with his army.
The army’s first victim had been Stapleton. They’d medavaced him off the Connie that Friday to the Naval Hospital in Guam, and the sick bay muster that came out every day still listed his diagnosis: PTSD, with multiple infections.
We were at war, just like Stapleton had told me that night in the head. Still, all anyone could talk about was the Super Bowl.
This made me hope, before we got more Rolaids or spray, that Thurman would knock out the TV in time for the big game.
The foggy groan had settled now, the ship had grown quiet again except for the rolling hum of its engines. Was the TV back on? Had it gone down at all? I expected to start hearing the whoops that broke out for big plays and scores on other football Sundays. I was still waiting, minutes later, when squids started walking onto the mess decks.
“I can’t fucking believe it. They can’t take that away from us.”
“What we got left if we don’t have the Super Bowl?”
“What’s the point of fighting for this country? What’s the fucking point?”
“What are you doing, Powers?”
“Reading a book.”
“TV’s down. We can’t watch the Super Bowl.”
“Sorry about that.”
“I’m Powers and I’m reading a book when everybody else in the world’s watching the Super Bowl.”
I looked up from the paperback and found the squid who’d said this, a Boatswain’s Mate named Lewis. He was standing at the front of the crowd still filtering onto the mess decks. He was a bald lifer with red freckles and thick glasses and a naked dancing girl on each forearm.
“Everybody else should get a life,” I said. “Then they wouldn’t be crying about the Super Bowl being knocked off the TV.”
I went back to reading. Lewis stepped up and tore the book out of my hands and threw it on the deck. I got up from the chair and bent down to pick up the book. Someone kicked it away. Laughter.
“Fuck your book, Powers. Get a life.”
I chased the book as they kicked it around, their own football. A hand landed on top of my head and shoved me down to the deck. I stood up. My book sailed out of the crowd and hit me in the face. Half the book—they’d torn it in half.
“What’d it ever do to you, you fucking morons,” I said.
Lewis and two other squids broke loose from the others and crowded me back with their chests, into more squids coming onto the mess decks from the hatch on the other side. I pushed through the squids behind me and ran through the hatch.
“Get that fuckstick,” Lewis said. “He hates the Super Bowl.”
Some of them chased me down the passageway. “You better run, bitch!”
A voice called down to me from the overhead: “Get to the fan room, Powers.”
I was chugging hard and breathing with my mouth open. Roaches started to rain out of the overhead. They fell on my tongue and skittered over my teeth. I was trying to spit them out when I tripped and sprawled over the deck. Ahead of me, a hatch flew open. Roaches poured over the lip of the hatch into the passageway. A leg stepped out—swarmed by roaches.
Thurman was covered by them as completely as a bee keeper’s suit, except for his blue eyes shining out from the squirming, dark brown mass. He looked huge, a foot wider than I remembered him.
Behind me I heard choked screams. The squids who’d been chasing me were clawing and swatting at roaches showering them from the overhead. Thurman stiff-stepped past me toward them. Roaches flooded the deck in front of him. One squid fell into the flood. Thurman set his heel on the back of his head and pushed it down. Then he slid down to one knee, as if the weight of the roach suit was buckling him.
A loud gonging was throbbing through the ship. Someone must have pulled the fire alarm. A hissing sound in the overhead was followed by a loud pop. The sprinkler system fired on, the passageway was showered with water. Roaches washed over the deck.
The sprinklers were melting Thurman’s roach suit. Beneath it he was naked. His back was a bloody mess from the roaches chewing or clawing through his skin. Thurman had started to tip over when he exploded with a sneeze that threw off a spray of roaches. He slumped across the deck on his side after that, holding up a bloody arm to me.
“Help me, Powers,” he said. “I’m afraid.”
Squids slushed up to us in the passageway. After dragging out by the heels the squid whose head he had pushed down into the roach flood, they moved in on Thurman, kicking him, splattering my face with blood and roaches.
The roaches were clinging to me, even with the sprinklers still running. I crawled away and then got up and ran. I was all they had left, with Thurman gone.
The roaches wanted me—they loved my smell.