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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Queen of the Gulf, part 6

At evening I’m standing by the rail, looking across the water (the Arabian Sea is dark — much deeper than the Gulf), when an old man comes out from the passageway and over to me. He is a workingman, cotton-clad. His face is grizzled, he is almost toothless, he wears a Muslim’s lace skullcap. He stops beside me and asks if he can see the book — Venture to the Interior, a book about Africa — that I have in my hand. I say, sure.

Carefully he ties to the rail the long cloth that he carries, the thin, ordinary cloth that most workingmen carry here, wear on their necks, on their heads, use to wash. He ties it securely, then accepts the book. Slowly he reads out the title, then every other word that is on the cover. He asks if this is from the library; I say no, I brought it. He asks a little about me, and I tell him a little. America. Ah, Am’rica.
    I should, he suggests, be thankful to God. “For everything we have, God has given us.”
We watch the sunset, a while.
    After a time the old man turns and asks, “have you any books with you, on carpentry trade?” No, I say, I’m sorry, I don’t. He is a carpenter. Has been working in Qatar, is going home now to the Punjab.
    He lifts again my book, looks at the cover for some time. Then he thanks me, and hands it back. Very slowly, carefully, he unties his cloth. Nods to me and, as carefully, walks back through the door.

One thing I don’t understand. At the captain’s table are the captain and the third officer. Where’s the second officer? After dinner, in the bar, I ask this of the third officer, the handsome correct one with the cool blue eyes.
    “Oh, that’s the chief engineer,” he said. “He doesn’t eat in the dining room.” A hint of sniffishness, in this.
    “Why not?”
    “Because he prefers to stay in his cabin, and drink.”
    I think, let me meet the chief engineer.

You descended through the kitchen. From our polished, discreet, breezy world, you entered sudden heat — the kitchen, scrubbed-white and slippery with steam — then stepped through a door at its back, down stamped-metal stairs that were black with the paint worn off. I came down into an Eastern bazaar.
    Here in an alcove bright-open to the sea, vendors sat and chatted behind small tables piled high with an outlandish variety. Stacked in unlikely architectures were handkerchiefs, sunglasses, silk saris, shirts, colognes, children’s toys in bright boxes, and ballpoint pens, transistor radios, leather handbags, purses made of beads, coffee pots. The displays were wonders of construction as of merchandise. Asian salesmanship heckled me until I passed on.   
    Down a narrow passage cramped with ship’s plumbing, people slept curled round corners, labored over cookstoves in corridors, and sat at cards in shallow alcoves. Children came playing through. Then on a long close passage, a door was open on the engine room. Inside was a throbbing hot cavern, deep as the ship and as high, and tiered across with catwalks. Five two-story pistons in the center slammed up and down fast in sequence and the whole chamber was alive with bright lights and profound sound, with heat and the smell of hot oil. Way below a Chinese fitter worked, on a catwalk.    
    Back of the engine room the passageway opened to a low, wide, dim and peopled place. Bare steel bunks, in many rows: the quarters of C class berthed (most travel C unberthed). The ranks of stacked metal beds went on and on, people all around and some looking at you, moving deeper into it until you came to a dark place that you could feel was the heart of it, and where you came upon the densest concentration of human beings that you had ever seen.   
    It took a moment to realize what it was. A dark, very dark, very large square — the hold cover, covered with bodies. No aisles, no baggage, no activity, just people lying motionless, a carpet of them in the dark. Here I was stared back at. Here was a privacy, a sense of discretion at the center of its opposite: intimate Asia, public, people-jammed. I passed on. Down a farther passage was the cocoon of a person, asleep in a sheet, under and opening cut out to the sea. It was bright out there, morning.
    Then the start of some dim large chamber and at the side a small alcove, and men toiling there in a kitchen — roasting hot, the walls black and a flame roaring through the open gave of an enormous iron stove. Out in the murky chamber men were serving food, squatting by black-bottomed, hammered-metal tureens. People in a long line waited with aluminum plates or ate in gloomy recesses, sopping up green stuff with flat-bread chapatis. Through a door at the rear, light poured in from the afterdeck.
    Out there — outside! — I straightened and was in a close and windswept community. People moved along little avenues among the mattresses, blankets, cassette players and radios, the bright suitcases, the crates and bundles and towels and coolers in colors and the family kitchens arranged around kerosene stoves. It was a happy, orderly melee, no work, nice weather, lots of society. People gossipped and gamed, told stories and discourses and bantered and held earnest conclaves. Or they sat and smoked alone, stood by the stern and looked away.
    I was quickly put to use. We were nearing Pakistan, there were forms to be filled, and those who could write were filling them out for a crowd of those who couldn’t. Much tumult about it. I was approached about an unclear requirement; I grinned, made a guess and was certified, an expert. I helped with spellings. A young man’s explanation of the form was in dispute among a rank of skinny, argumentative souls, who waved the paper back and forth and shouted, even though, the young man told me, none of them could read anyhow. He shrugged; the men all laughed.
    I loaned a pen, then wandered off and was chased by a boy who came running up, my pen in the air, and handed it to me. Popular music warbled from the radios and small boys swun on thick ship’s ropes, twirling and hanging upside down.
    Alberto had shown me the passage down; now he too was out here. “You see,” he said: “There are people in each and every place.” I said yes, I saw. 

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The last steamship (conclusion)
Queen of the Gulf, part 5
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