I am listening as the waves are slapping against the harbor, slapping against those dark pylons stretching into the swirling, forbidding depths of the water. The garbage floats on the oil-stained wavelets as they lap against the man-made shore. The ferry looms; a beast astride the water, tethered to the mooring, fuming as it waits.
I am staring into the dark pit of the ferry, seeing only the runway cage enshrouded by shadows through which a procession of slow-moving cars slides into night. I hear the harsh, repetitive clamor of the heavy rubber wheels moving over a steel plated ramp. Beyond the ferry, a lone, flashing, red buoy light in the harbor.
Jostled by the crowd, I embark. I’m eager to leave the city behind, eager to escape the glaring, stunning streetlights, the threatening shapes of towering structures, the constant fevered movements of faceless men and women brushing against each other on the sidewalks. I am unnerved by the dizzying shriek of car horns, mechanically roaring buses, rumbling of locals and the uptowns below, trembling the pavement, as I walk, seeing the river spanning bridges dominating the sky-scape, jutting out of my nights into my days, casting stark, terrible shadows on my life.
I consider the passengers’ compartment: the white painted wooden benches, Mae West jackets packed tightly in orange rows on the wall opposite the entranceway, the grit smeared picture window panes of the compartment through which nothing can be seen, passengers huddled on benches speaking in subdued tones. I smell the wood rot and human decay, refuse bins overflowing with discarded food wrappers that black flies and yellow jackets swarm to. Smell the burning hot cacaos and bitter coffees, steaming rubberized hot dogs behind the snack bar, competing in their vileness with deep fat frying foods, and putrid uncleaned griddle greases.
Inside the passengers’ compartment, the cigarette smoke haze hangs from the ceiling, clouding the already densely packed room obscuring the “Emergency Only” glass case containing fire hoses, hatchets and a cylinder of foam, marred by a black magic marker inscription: “For a good time call BJ 599-5224.” I hear a terrible rumbling inside the bowels of the beast; the engines growling as the ferry lurches out into the harbor.
I am sitting on the edge of a bench toward the rear of the compartment, wishing I had procured a window seat near the front of the room. In the rear, I must watch the people: the immense woman consuming various prepared foodstuffs concealed in the voluminous folds of her dress, a homeless alcoholic drinking wine by the pint from the neck of a bottle protruding from a soiled, wrinkled paper bag, the harried, young Latina mother of five, addressing her brood in wild street Spanish, her man aloof, drinking a half quart of Budweiser from an aluminum can, staring at the river moving beneath us, as we surge into the night.
“Hey Mistah, gotta light?”
“I need a light.”
“Hold on, I’ll look.”
Searching through my pockets, feeling through loose change, rumpled tissues, ticket stubs, pocket lint, considering as I grope this gaunt, black man of no age at all.
“You live on the island?”
“Me? No, I just like to ride the ferry.”
“I been livin’ there a long time-a real long time. Gotta nice little place overlookin’ the water. Just been in the City for the day. Don’ like the City.”
“Ah, here we go. You can keep them.”
“Thanks Mistah. You like the City?
“It’s where I live. I don’t know where else I could live. Comfortably I mean. It’s–I guess, it’s all I’ve ever known.”
“Don’ like the City. She be evil. But the Island’s different. The Island’s okay. It’s cool man. Want a hit?”
“No, thanks, really.”
“Yeah, the City. She evil alright. Know what I seen today?”
“I seen the biggest, baddest, meanest mother of a rat. And you know what she was doin’? She was pullin’ at this here paper, diggin’ around for all she was worth at somethin’ buried in the garbage. Man, she was hungry and this be dinner. Want to know what she was gettin’ at?”
“Was what was left of a human baby, man. Know what else?…sure you don’ want no hit?”
“There be rats down there everywhere-not like the Island. Those mothers grow so big down there, they have to in order to survive, I swear you can’t hardly walk around with all them rats, some bigger than badassed tom cats, man, I saw two rats take on the biggest ole alley cat I ever seen and eat that sucker up alive. Woo-wee was that somethin’ else again.”
“Man, that sucker was squealin’. Hey man, where you be goin’? Hey, boy, you alright, you don’ look so good?”
Rising, I stride as fast as possible across the passenger compartment, slide the exit door open and step out onto the ferry deck. A sharp, damp wind assaults me, whips the canvas-shrouded lifeboats hanging from the upper ferry deck. Staring into the darkness, inwardly embracing the cold, I adjust my army surplus jacket, tighten the knit scarf around my neck, the river mist touching me, welding me to the rail. I hear the compartment door opening, closing, hear footsteps on the deck. I know that I am being sought out, know the terror each footstep brings. I should hide somewhere, anywhere in the night bit I wait, paralyzed, shivering, as if forbidden to move by some unseen force.
“Hey, man, you alright?”
“What ails you, man? I guess I know when a body ain’t feelin’ alright.”
“I just want to be left alone.”
“I can dig that. Look, I’ve got this smoke of many dreams here, man, you can have free of charge, if you think it’ll make you feel alright.”
“No thanks, I have enough dreams already without the smoke. I just went to be left alone.”
“You be in the City too long, you best get out.”
“What do you think I’m doing here.”
“Come on, man, take a hit.”
“I Don’t Want It!”
“Okay, man. No need to get violent. Shit, man, I was just tryin’ to help.”
Footsteps receding in the darkness.
Backing away, slowly.
The chill spray on my clothes.
Staring at the white capped confluence of river and sea in the night.
The Island lights, gleaming, glowing in the distance.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.