The Brave Pugilist was 50 feet long. Its mast was 75 feet tall and stood straight up, pointing to God. The waves lapped around the hull as we sailed between the two islands. I sat on the railing with my feet dangling over the ocean with several other crewmembers. We smoked and tanned with our shirts open. We were waiting in line.
A doctor with a stethoscope around his neck, headgear with a magnifying glass attached to it, and two tongue depressors investigated our mouths, one after another. Our view was obstructed by the front guys, but we didn’t mind. Every so often, I looked around my mates to the bow of the line. Their jokes weren’t like ours. The front-of-the-line boys shuffled and joked nervously about the weather. In the back, we joked about what we’d do or whom we’d do when we got to land. We’d try to scare each other by pushing each other in. Sapper got burned yesterday during a nap, so we berated his skin as he sat on the deck behind us under a wet blanket to keep cool. We called him Lobster Shell for half a week and he just kept saying, “Oh, you guys. You guys keep me out of heaven. You guys just keep me out.”
Captain Magpie, I saw, stood by the doctor with his pipe in his hand. When the doctor would nod, which was often, Magpie did, too. Then he would adjust his hat and stand up straight and suck on his pipe as the latest man was sent to rejoin the back. We could smell his vanilla flavored tobacco from anywhere. For years, behind his back, the crew made fun of Magpie and his weakling smoking habits. We called him a sissy for it. We would never say it in front of Magpie, though. That would be suicide. In truth, Magpie was tough. I had never seen him put out a fire with anything but his hands, not once. When his pipe was finished, he would shove his thumb right in and mash the embers out. He didn’t even need to. He could have just tossed the refuse into the sea, but he didn’t. I saw, a long time ago, Magpie take a man by his neck and toss him off the boat for exposing himself while drunk. We all heard the splash and gathered and peeked overboard to look at the drowning man. All of us turned to look at Magpie at the same time. Magpie shoved his thumb into his pipe and grunted. We did not turn the boat around. We left the man.
“So, what happened up there? What’s the doc lookin for?” Hatfeet said to Clefty John who had joined us. Hatfeet was him because one day, a few decades ago, the deck was so hot that he put hats on his feet. I don’t know why we called Clefty John, Clefty John.
“I dunno. He pushed my mouth around every way and said ‘hm’ and then nodded. Then he pointed to the back of the line so I came back here,” Clefty John said.
“How many times you been up there, Clefty?” asked Hairless.
“Two hundred, right?” Clefty John said. We all nodded. Clefty John started munching on an apple.
“What are you up to now, Blossoms?” Clefty asked me.
“Same as you, I think,” I lied. I had not been examined two hundred times. I didn’t trust the doc at all. I didn’t know what he was testing for. Neither him nor Magpie had said a word in three months. We just kept going up there, had our mouths moved around, heard the doc say “hm,” nod, and point to the back of the line. When I hit fifty exams I said in my head, “okay, enough of this malarkey, I’m just gonna pretend to go up there.” Me, Hatfeet, Shiners, Necklace Pete, and Windswept Willey had not been to the front of the line since October. We scooted along the railing incrementally. It was around January and we had moved maybe six feet. The others didn’t seem to notice or they didn’t care. Clefty John just hopped back in line with the rest of them. None of us wanted to ask the doc what he was doing. He didn’t answer, anyway.
Magpie didn’t notice we stopped going up there, too. I thought that maybe he was so set on impressing the doc that he’d completely lost track of who he was, what year it was and just everything.
“Land, Ho!” Satchel-Chest yelled. The men leaned as far as they could over the Pugilist’s railing. I clung to the railing with my free hand and pushed my feet against the gunnel. Hanging over the water, I could see the beach and trees far and away. My brain flashed with images of island girls and fresh fruit and booze.
When we landed, most of the men hopped off right away. We went into town for a few weeks before we got called to catch a train back to the island we came from. All of us were sitting on top of the train when I decided I wanted to see the boat one more time. I asked Garbage to delay the train for a few days.
I got back to the boat which was beached and leaned a bit starboard. I climbed onto it on the bow side and looked to see who was still there. I saw Magpie and the doc from behind. The doc leaned forward with the two tongue depressors and moved them around, but there were no mouths there. Magpie was still looking where the doc was and when the doc said “hm,” nodded, and pointed to the back of the now empty line, Magpie still stood up straight, puffed on his vanilla flavored smoke, and agreed with the doc. I still didn’t know what the doc was testing for.
About the Author: Dylan Davis has been published by Brilliant Flash Fiction and Fiction International. He writes in Northern Utah, where he received his B.A. at Weber State University.
Story Song: “Lofticries” by Purity Ring
Photo Credit: Leesa Cross-Smith