“Can I ask you something, Sir?”
“What do ya want,” growled Jack.
“What’s that a tattoo of, there on your arm?”
“It’s a mermaid, ya dunce, now get yer eyes back to the grill. Damn it, yer gonna burn the whole rig down before lunch.”
“Yes Sir.” Felix saluted the old man and about faced back to his burning bacon.
Jack measured out ground coffee and cursed under his breath. Where were they finding these kids? The mermaid’s tail rippled over the wrinkles on his forearm as he tipped the coffee into the filter. He smiled. He still noticed when she moved.
He’d had her inked when he was the kid’s age, to celebrate signing up for his first job on an oil rig. In the city office, the recruiter had shown him big glossy pictures of the new rigs, blow up shots, every one of them taken in sun so bright the yellow pipes and steel walkways glowed like the future. It had taken his breath away.
“A real life on the sea,” the man in the tight gray suit had told him. “Good hard work with the wind in your hair and the spray at your back.”
Funny thing was, in almost 40 years on rigs, Jack had never once seen the spray get up past the deck. A man was forced to sweat it out in the hot sun like a farmer. Jack wondered what this kid, Felix, had been sold on. What kind of a name was Felix anyhow? Probably told him how the crew was all men. Jack checked over his shoulder. Felix was humming to himself and dropping ham slices onto the grill in a pretty pattern. Jack shook his head and went back to the coffee and his mermaid.
His wife Madge had yelled more about the tattoo than about the prospect of losing her new husband for a half of every year.
“Look at the bosom on that thing! My parents are going to think I’ve gone and married a sailor!”
Jack hadn’t had the heart to tell her that she had, and that, to him, the rig was a compromise.
He’d said instead, “See, her tits are twice as big as yers so I’ll miss yers twice as much,” But that kind of argument is wasted on a woman and she’d made him wear one of her dark nylons over his arm as punishment when they made love that night. He hadn’t seen the point, since she always kept her eyes shut tight, but he wasn’t about to complain. He remembered how the empty leg had flopped around on the bed beside them.
For the first few years the mermaid had thrilled him. Working the heavy machinery, sweating till he was sardine slick and almost sliding out of his overalls, the grease would work its way up his arms and cover her. Then alone in the head before supper, he’d rub her up and down with the hot suds, stripping her with every stroke till she was clean and naked. Her breasts were soft and familiar as his own skin, not like the hard plastic pinups stuck up over the toilet.
Her outlines had bled, burring the boundaries between them over the years. His arms had darkened and leathered up in the sun. When he looked at her now, as he held the coffee pot, the kid was right. You could barely see what she was.
There was a sudden loud crash behind him. “Damn it, Felix!” A dozen cans of frozen orange juice tumbled out of the freezer and rolled across the floor. “Be careful!”
It was Felix’s first day of galley training. Bill, Jack’s boss, had handed him over like a bag of potatos to peel, the night before. Felix’s cheeks had still been pink from the thrill of the helicopter ride, silly kid.
Jack didn’t understand why they needed another cook. He was getting a little slower, even he would admit that, but meals were never late. Every year Bill asked him about retirement, but being a cook was retirement to Jack. A decade ago, an accident on the rig had mangled one of his legs. They’d given him three choices: an administration job on land, cook, or go home.
Whatever he chose, the settlement from for the accident took care of Madge and the kids. That had always been the important thing.
He’d chosen cook because it was the only option that would keep him with the sea. Ever since he could remember, he’d dreamed of being a sailor. There was something about the conversation between a ship and the ocean that had seduced him.
An oil rig was and island, not a ship, and at first Jack had felt tricked out of a true ocean life. But he’d quickly grown to appreciate the stubborn strength of the pillars when the storms came and he was content playing Long John Silver in the bowels of the machine.
Now Madge wanted him home. She’d said so last time he’d been back. She hadn’t wanted him to leave. With the children grown, she was missing him again.
He’d always tried to give her enough of himself when he was home to tide her over. He’d wear long sleeves when she picked him up at he helipad and they’d stay up till three in the morning the first night, getting to know each other all over again. They’d courted so many times that it had become a happy, comfortable rhythm of eating out Italian, taking the kids to Disneyland, and picking out a new piece of furniture.
She’d wanted children so she’d have a warm piece of his body while he was away. For the first one, she hadn’t told him what she was planning, that she was ready that night. But he’d known something was different. She’d kept her eyes open for the first time and squeezed her soft brown eyebrows together in concentration, like he’d seen her do over her recipe books when she was trying some new casserole. Her small hands had gripped the flesh at his hips with a fierceness he’d never felt from her before. She’d looked so cute with her face all squished up like that, getting sweaty as she took control. It had made them both laugh to talk about it later.
Jack blushed at the memory as he measured out the grinds for the next pot of coffee. Maybe he should give Felix more of a chance.
“How’re the eggs comin?” he asked, trying a friendlier tone.
Felix, with spatula poised, was hovering over the grill in grim determination. He’d stopped humming. Jack had warned him that, while the crew would forgive burnt bacon and soggy toast, a hard yolk could turn them against a man. Felix had taken him seriously.
“I’m gonna ask ya somethin, Felix.”
“Why a rig? Ya don’t seem the type.”
Jack could see the sweat beading at the back of the kid’s neck and dripping into his collar. Felix didn’t look up from the eggs when he answered. “Well, Sir,” he said. “I told my Mum I was joining the navy and she just about died. So we compromised. I get the sea and she knows when I’m coming home.”
“Sounds like ya got the short end of the stick to me.”
“Here,” said Jack, limping over with a heavy metal tray in his hands, “they’re ready. Put’em in here and we’ll keep’em warm till the crew’s set to eat.”
The next three seconds happened slowly. Felix had missed one of the cans on the floor. Jack took another step and his good foot rolled straight out from under him. He pitched forward. Felix screamed. Jack’s arms hit the grill and seared before Felix could pull the old man back.
After lunch (Felix make cold ham sandwiches) Jack sat in Bill’s office. His arms were wrapped in gauze.
“They hurt?” asked his friend.
“You’re sure about this?”
“Say hi to Madge for me.”
The helicopter lurched into the sky and Jack smiled. His heart thrilled, or maybe, he worried, Felix had used the wrong mayonnaise. He took his last look at the big machine. He wasn’t coming back.
Jack had said good-bye to his mermaid a long time ago, only hadn’t realized it till today, when a boy had shrugged, and she had let him go.