I actually wrote this short story in 1986 after deciding not to work it into a full length novel. There was mention of the Twin Towers looming into the night, but having updated it in 2005, I changed the scenario. Have fun.
The Esmerelda lay at anchor in the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island waiting for the harbor pilot to board and guide her to a Brooklyn berth. An ominous chill ran through the dark November day, threatening a storm as Walters, the first mate, walked quickly from bow to stern checking cargo lashings on the overloaded deck. He knew from years of experience that overloading, which was always done on merchant freighters, was illegal, but he followed orders without attempting to determine the decisions of owners and captains.
The captain had received clearance to dock and unload the deadly cargo of munitions and armament and the crew was going about their business getting ready to offload and prepare for their New York shore leave. They had been at sea in and out of ports for twenty-six days and were anxious to spend their money by getting drunk, laid, relayed, parlayed, and whatever they could get done within the three days that had been allotted to them. Then they were off again to another port where they would repeat the same routine, hopefully not getting into trouble or arrested, or worst of all, ending up in a hospital as the result of a fight for whatever ridiculous reason.
Walters stared downwind towards the Verrazano Bridge. It was strange to look at the mouth of the harbor and not see the Twin Towers that had reminded him for years that he was temporarily saved from his being world weary. He had always wondered with amazement at how such things like the bridge and the towers could be built while never understanding what held them up. The idea that planes could fly into such monuments of man’s achievement could have so simply been destroyed. He put it out of his mind as the day began to draw to a close while the lights of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty started to glow.
The ship had been sitting at anchor for two days waiting for Coast Guard clearance because of some sort of mistake in the paper work submitted for port entry. Specific details were kept from him and he had no reason to know them though the captain had told him to maintain calm and patience among the men, even though some fights had already broken out, and an overall uneasiness was beginning to make itself evident throughout the ship. He knew that when a vessel was held up for any reason, the crew was advised as to the reason even if it was a mediocre excuse such as a Custom’s holdup. Only when he was aware of a cache of dope or some other illegal goods would he permit himself to be concerned. Some Customs inspectors and harbormasters always made sure to prescribe the proper procedure to offload contraband, and he thought it curiously interesting that information about what a vessel was carrying, especially contraband, seemed to be known at the port of entry even before the ship arrived and sometimes even before he, himself, knew. Then, of course, he would make sure to get his percentage and all would be well. This time he knew nothing. Observing the sky as the wind began kicking up from the north, the boat began a graceful slide of 180 degrees from its mooring due to the changing current. The shift of the current was gentle and easy as the bow moved into the wind pushing it in an easterly direction making a perfect arc.
The Mexican cook came up on deck to dump some garbage and check the wind as the boat began to shift. Though the wind did blow from one direction to another, you could always make sure by dumping something into the water and watching which direction it would float away, well aware of the problems the ship and crew might encounter as a result of the stupidity of this act, what with all the Federal regulations and ecology notifications. But like most men of the , he didn’t give a damn about land rules or harbors. The sea was his and he could do as he wished because of a natural contempt for it and its contempt for men. Like his companions and shipmates, he also had genuine contempt for the Coast Guard and Customs officials. Living most of his life at sea, he despised those who merely pretended to be sailors and stayed close to port.
"Spic,” bellowed Walters, “you know better than to dump garbage over the side!"
Jose Esteban Garcia Ramirez looked silently towards the first mate with a firm hatred, but with a fine-tuned understanding. He had always hated anyone in authority, especially those who thought they were better than anyone else was, and in this particular case felt especially annoyed because of the reference to his being a “spic.” He was not a “spic,” and he had told this to most of the men that he had sailed with. He was a true Mexican Indian, an Aztec, and he would stand straight and tall whenever he mentioned the word. Jose Esteban Garcia Ramirez had no problem with his self-esteem and sometimes wished that he could control his raging and absurd anger to keep out of trouble when someone insulted him. Part of his natural Mexican pride, he had told himself. Unfortunately for him, self-control was not one of his finer points of character.
Walters hated anyone who was not Anglo and Lutheran. He felt that Catholics, regardless of their love for God, were cheap imitations of a true devout man. His 6'4" inch frame and his solidly packed 270lbs. had always given him control in most matters concerning differences of opinion. A small “spic” like Ramirez was nothing for him to have to worry about, even if he had to fight the Mexican with a knife. The many scars he had accumulated over the years attested to his fighting ability and his ease in taking control if matters ever got out of hand. His attitudes about men in general had gained him a reputation for being a strong and hard taskmaster, and many men who did not keep in line with his own thinking sometimes found themselves stranded on a foreign shore without proper credentials. His reputation preceded him.
Ramirez decided to look away when Walters again called to him, this time referring to his parental lineage. The Mexican favored a good fight himself now and then and could think of no reason not too have one now and kill the Anglo pig. Because of his own self-assurance and his own ability with a knife, he might even force the situation.
The wind continued to blow up and was pushing the ship back around to the position it had originally lay at. Ramirez pulled his knife and began walking towards Walters, who answered the challenge by pulling his own knife out from under his jacket. As Ramirez closed in, Walters flashed an evil smile. This ought to be good, he thought. He would tell the captain it was self-defense and that the Mexican had pulled the first knife. Men began to circle the two combatants and no one said anything or tried to diffuse the situation.
They continued circling each other in defined readiness. The Mexican switched the knife back and forth from hand to hand while Walters simply observed and waited for the moment he could drive in with a killing thrust. Ramirez stomped his foot to the deck in an effort to distract Walters, but it didn’t work. The first mate had been through too many of these things to be concerned with anything other than an actual attack. Ramirez stomped again to no avail while Walters shifted his weight and threw his knife with deadly accuracy into the Mexican’s weapon holding arm. Ramirez winced in pain as Walters suddenly produced another knife and moved in for the kill. Ramirez tried to move away from the onslaught and retrieve his own blade, but couldn’t get to it in time as Walter's foot kicked him in the face, making him go down, bleeding profusely from the nose and mouth.
A thick fog suddenly began to settle in on the ship, and as Walters moved in for the kill, with a look of utter contempt for his victim intensely returned by Ramirez, foghorns suddenly, and with inordinate loudness, began to shriek their plaintive wails and moans. The captain had observed the beginning of the fight and said nothing. Noticing the intensity of the fog, he lifted a megaphone to advise the crew that Moran tugs were off the stern and bow attempting to hook the ship for a tow to a berth on Columbia Street in Brooklyn before the storm worsened.
Rain began pouring down in relentless sheets, getting heavier minute-by-minute, stopping the fight and an imminent killing. Men scurried in and out of hatchways and holds, running to different stations along the deck to secure the cargo, when all of a sudden, a tremendous explosion in the hold caused the cargo to randomly shift and the boat began to heave. That motion alone was not something to be thought of grievously when out at sea; the men were used to such possibilities. But why such activity was occurring at a mooring in port was something that sent shivers up and down the spines of the ablest of them. Loud booms were heard from beneath the decks, and it dawned upon everyone that something was certainly out of control.
Ramirez continued to look at Walters with hatred while the First mate looked back at him with a sneer. The two combatants realized that their fight would have to be finished at a later time. A klaxon shrieked as the captain's voice came over the ship's loudspeaker ordering a crew of men to get below and secure any loose cargo and to another crew to make fast the deck lashings. Another explosion rocked the vessel.
The water in the Narrows of N.Y. is not too deep, and in normal weather, men can swim away from the ship and get to shore with relative ease should they want to. Walters knew that merchant seamen were generally not loyal to anything, especially if that anything brought thoughts of peril to their minds. Some had begun moving to the rails to determine the distance they might have to swim. Walters, seeing this, bellowed at them to get to work. “The blaspheming dogs only think of one thing when they approach a port,” the captain had said one day out at sea and in an odd English accent that Walters thought might be reminiscent of wooden ship days. And although he didn’t consider the remark particularly funny, he just shook his head in agreement. It was true, though. Men only thought of one thing when they neared port.
The ship began to list as the rumblings below were getting more intense and frequent. Cargo containers on deck started to shift around as the lashings snapped at random freeing the over loaded containers to slide into the bay. If something wasn’t done immediately, more cargo and men would begin washing overboard. The wind was blowing harder now, and the rain was pelting down with a fury that continued to build. With a great lurch sideways, the pressure from the boat caused the mooring cable to snap, the force of release causing it to move toward the shore near Owl's Head Point. It barely missed the 69th Street ferry pier, but not before it had trapped one of the Moran tugs, broadsiding it, and in some bizarre fashion, pushing it down beneath the water. Men cried out and swore as the tug took them down with her. Pandemonium broke out on the ship as it continued to turn in random patterns, now moving towards the shore, stern first.
Walters grabbed a deck railing and held tightly while yelling orders to the men. Ramirez collapsed on deck from Walter’s initial onslaught as two men grabbed him before he could be washed overboard. Walters and the Mexican looked at each other, acknowledging what only men at sea can understand, having nothing to do with their personal hatred of each other.
The ship was listing towards its port side as the cargo continued to shift. She was at thirty degrees and failing fast. Men were now jumping ship and swimming toward the shore when another tremendous explosion shook the vessel and cracked the hull midpoint. Afterwards, it would be said that the boom was heard for three miles deep into Brooklyn and across the harbor to Bayonne. Flames shot out of the hold and it seemed that the entire ship was going to disintegrate right then and there. Fireboats located randomly throughout the harbor during storm periods had great difficulty in getting to the ship while Coast Guard vessels tried to pick up men that had jumped ship and were floundering in the water.
Some of the more stalwart of the crew that had started to heave lines over the cargo to secure it while others ran between containers now began to abandon ship. They could hardly do it because of the difficulty in keeping their balance and footing on the swaying and awash deck. Many of them now saw the fruitlessness of their efforts, and seeing that it looked hopeless, thought only of themselves and the way they could get to shore or close to a rescue boat. The captain came towards Walters shouting orders, but the wind and horns drowned him out. Walters and a few men had lashed some of the cargo to the rails in a desperate attempt to delay the shifting cargo from completely capsizing the vessel, but they were too late. The weight and mass of the cargo immediately tore the new lashings. The over laden ship foundered on its port side and began to slip beneath the water. Even so, she would not sink completely because of the shallow depth. The captain was last seen between two containers trying to get aft and observe where they were heading.
As if from nowhere, the storm abated. The wind stopped and the rain became drizzle. Dusk became night and brought with it more darkness and cold. Just as it had started, it ended. Ships’ sirens and pier foghorns continued their plaintive cry with excruciating soul rending sounds. The calmness brought out hundreds of people from the immediate neighborhood to line the shore. Passengers on a Staten Island ferry that had been caught in the maelstrom stood motionless and silent at the rails.
The Esmerelda came to rest against a bulwark near the shore and lay solid without any rocking or further motion. Fire was still evident in different parts of her and debris was scattered all over the harbor. Other vessels including oil tankers, some still at moor, spat out their refuse and cargo without mercy into the waters of the port. Spilled oil turned to eddies of filth and mud. Only a mist-covered crescent moon could be seen in the night sky over to the east. There were no stars to be seen.
Through the night, men and machines tried desperately to salvage the remains of the Esmerelda. Most of her crew had made it to shore. The fires had finally gone out and the cracked hull rendered the ship a total loss. A tramp queen had died a horrible death and had picked a good place to do it. Tugs worked relentlessly during the darkness of night trying to pry her off the shore. “Junker” boats came in and tried to determine which parts of her cargo were worth going after and kept the Coast Guard busy chasing them away.
In the morning, nothing remained of the Esmerelda’s existence except a broken hull being towed to the Bayonne salvage yards. In the aftermath, the bodies of a white man and an Indian washed up on shore.
© SFKaufman 2011
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