Jordan was the youngest guy on the crew that season. Never worked a winter on an offshore rig, and so was more prone to incidents like becoming involved with ghosts.
We all stood, zipped up to the nose, leaning into the bluster of the last helicopter as it whipped the snow falling over the rig and the black chop below. Jordan asked how long till they came back as the Exxon Mobile insignia on the chopper’s belly quickly fell up into the dark all around. I don’t think anyone said anything. We weren’t a talkative bunch.
We heard Jordan see the ghost about a week into the season. I was in my bunk counting down from five thousand. Nick and Alden were playing cards. It was high-pitched, metallic, ringing off everything but what was plastic. A short puncturing scream and then a pause before our boots on the metal floor.
He’d seen her standing on the catwalk just above the stairs going down to the boiler. Hell, I’d get spooked too, high efficiency bulbs casting everything a dull red. We all thought so. But Jordan shook his head with a dog’s certainty and kept pointing to the grated metal floor. Right there.
We took him back to the mess and broke out the cards. I was still shaking off the sound of his voice cracking, that scream coming out of somewhere in him you hope you never find in yourself.
Nick sat Jordan down, a hand on his shoulder. “Just jitters, son.”
Alden nodded like his head might roll off. “It’s like those dog-sledders that run outta Nome, that big race. Every year people are seeing things on the ice in the dark.”
“Iditarod,” I said.
Alden threw down his cards. A junk hand. “You-did-her-what?”
“That sled race is called The Iditarod. They start seeing things from sensory dep and fatigue.”
“Oh,” Alden pulled his T-shirt down over his stomach. “Well I’m glad we cleared that up.”
“Whuppty-Whup.” Nick muttered, glowering into his beard. He’d been holding a straight.
Jordan didn’t talk that whole night but to say yes and no and once that the ghost had painted toenails. We all decided to ignore that one.
I didn’t ever see anything, working offshore rigs, but my own first winter in Alaska took some adjustment. I couldn’t have pictures of my kids in my bunk. I know that now when I sign on for these seasons. We ran our routine checks, played cards and slept in our cabins. The howling ocean on all sides whipped the darkness that stretched beyond the water, like a black lid between us and any thought of a sunrise. Sleep felt like something you were trying to fake until you tricked yourself into dreaming.
I could count my way into sleep, most of the time. I’d count through just about anything that had me twisted up, whatever hurtful memory. Like being a little kid catching a soccer ball in the face, crying out of the blinding pain while everyone called me a sissy, and my dad pulled on my shirtfront, telling me to man-up. That’d go away in 500, 499, 498… But dad’s fist full of shirt pulled the string tied to when I was sixteen, the Harney brothers slapping me around, yanking on my collar, stretching out the neck of my new shirt, just being mean cause I was still fat. 495, 494, 493… Mrs. Marsh from the Lutheran church pulled up in her pukemobile, said they should be ashamed, and it seemed like only I caught the shame, my face even redder for an adult to see me like that, 492, 491, 490…
I still haven’t found a number big enough to count away from my ex telling my kids that I didn’t live with them anymore. It was October. My girl Margo’s nose was running, standing in the doorway, my car puttering white exhaust in the driveway. I reached back through the door to take her little jacket off the coat tree, but my ex grabbed it. Not my job anymore, she told me, fitting her little arms through the sleeves. I got so mad, I told Margo that Mommy was dying of cancer. That wasn’t true, but I was mad and hateful enough to talk that kind of shit, and I’m stuck with it now, 4867, 4866…
So when I’d hit the flat mouth of zero, staring at the ceiling, I’d get up and walk the decks all around in the guts of the rig. That’s how I found Jordan on the catwalk where he saw the ghost.
He wasn’t talking to himself or nothing like that, just smiling all sheepish like a blushing kid. I still half-wonder if I didn’t almost see him pulling his hand out his pants when I came around the corner, how he startled like I had caught him snooping in his dad’s closet.
I showed him my watch; I always set a timer marking how long I’d been awake. It was hard to know out here, without the sun. We were quiet then under the hum of the rig. I didn’t ask him about the ghost, he just started telling me how she spoke to him. Told me how she drowned, drifting in the arctic waters. She told him she had a German Sheperd back home that got hit by a logging truck, and she thought when she died, she’d go to wherever he and her grandparents were. Instead she just kept floating out to sea long after her body sank. He said she had curly black hair, all stuck wet to her forehead; he really liked that.
I told him to get some sleep.
Alden and Nick didn’t seem concerned when I told them later about Jordan. Nick counted out on his fingers: “Knows his way around a tool box, shows up on time, not dangerous, not my problem.”
“He might be goin’ a little batshit out here but it’s gotta be more entertaining than poker.” Alden chuckled, “His ghost’s probably a girlfriend he left back wherever he’s from.”
None of us could recall where that might be. Not sure anyone ever asked.
There was a phone mounted on the wall of the mess room that no one ever used. It had a dial-tone, but who wants to risk that phone bill coming out of their pay-check. It hardly registered, just a beige lump on the wall by the door as you came in.
Then it rang.
We were a few rummy games deep when that dusty rattle fell over us. My watch showed that I was going on thirty hours no sleep. I looked around to see if everyone else heard it too.
Old Nick sheltered his hand like the call was someone peeking on his cards.
Alden put a hand over his heart. “Jesus, I thought that was one of the pumps failing.”
After five rings, I got up and answered the damn thing.
A young-sounding guy who talked like he forgot that there was a ringing phone in his hand asked if we’d deliver out of town. Was this Dominoes in Kenai?
I turned and winked at the guys, put the call on speaker-phone. I said that, yes, this was Dominoes. I waved their laughter down to the floor and kept going. I even mimed writing down the guy’s address. Alden was snorting red. Nick had an eager glint to that pair of ice chips he uses for eyes.
I heard the guy speak away from the phone to someone. A woman’s voice in the background. I couldn’t make out a damn word in the static. Just the shape of a woman’s voice. I realized I didn’t know how long I’d gone without talking to a woman.
I took the guy’s order and told him we’d have it out to him in about twenty minutes, hung up and went back to playing cards, laughing all round the table. Forty minutes later I was about to drop a pretty solid straight when the phone started harping off the wall. You’d think that he’d’ve checked the number by then. I leaned against the wall, telling him I was really sorry, but if he’d give me the order again I’d have the driver run it out to him free of charge.
He sighed like I was asking him to file his taxes over again.
“I’ll have to ask Jess again, see what the hell she wanted. She’ll just change her mind by the time y’all get here anyway.”
I scoffed, “Can’t know if you’re doing right if right’s changing every five minutes, am I right?”
He laughed weakly, and that deflated panting sound gave me the idea.
I said, “Let me help you out. Put your lady on the phone. If I take the order straight from her, there’s no blaming you when she decides it’s not what she wants.”
He chewed that. While his peabrain mulled it over, I felt the hot need for something welling up in me. I wanted him to give her that phone, I wanted to hear her voice in my ear. I wanted it badly.
“Yeah?” Jess’s voice sounded tired, dredged up from the bottom of the day. I imagined her squinting in the weak electric light over a kitchen sink.
I told her I wanted to know what she wanted. I wanted to hear it from her so I could be sure I got it right. “That guy doesn’t seem to be holding it down,” I said.
There was a pause before the what’s-this-about.
“Your pizza,” I murmured.
“Oh, yeah.” She drew out her words like smoke. “He’d talked about that. Sorry, I’d forgot.”
I asked if she was making it through winter alright.
Barely. The plow broke down two weeks ago, and he’d only just fixed it today. They’d been stuck. Ran out of groceries. She’d tried to thaw a chocolate cake his mother bought them at Kroger’s a year ago. It was already baked when they’d tossed it in the freezer, so she ran the tap hot over the plastic bag swaddling the cake. There was a hole in the bag, and black streams of melted frosting bled down the drain, and it became this wet flaky thing that was still in the sink. Took running out of cigarettes to get him off his ass and fix that plow.
“Sorry,” Jess said after a long pause, her voice low and grainy. “Weren’t we ordering a pizza?”
I told Jess what I wanted. I wanted to be in a bar with wood chairs and the smell of steaks cooking and have a beer with her, maybe break some billiards and put a song on the jukebox. I’d feel safe with all those people around. I wouldn’t be thinking about how my ex won’t let me see the kids, because everything would be new and clean like the air in some mountain town where we’d find ourselves. Had she ever been to Colorado? I wasn’t sure I remembered the sound of birds singing.
I was hunched over the phone. I paused, and she sat with me in the space between us. The hum of the phone line. She told me that I should know: she had a glass eye, a green one, like a marble. People called her a witch so often she wondered if she was really was one. Everything in her life felt cursed.
I told her I didn’t care. I just wanted off this tub of metal guts in the middle of nothing but the salt wind that wouldn’t shut up and the darkness so big our station lights never seemed like they’d last though the nights. I told her she should call me here again after her man passed out because I’d be awake. I was usually awake.
The phone didn’t ring again.
Now, I’m sitting alone in the mess, listening to the drone of the rig, the circular throb of its functions keeping us alive. The phone sits against the wall, dull, inert. I rest my chin on my forearms and squint across the room at it.
I’m the only one awake except maybe Jordan. I found him again, a few days ago, consorting with his drowned spirit. He pointed at the metal grating beneath our feet, crouching down to wipe his fingers across it. Drops of water and the smell of subliming metal.
“That’s where she stands,” he said.
We stood looking at the blank wall in front of us.
“She asked me to take my clothes off last night,” he muttered. “I wanted to, damn I wanted to, but what if you’d come down here like just now? Y’all would lock me in my cabin and call the helicopter to take me away.”
He gripped the railing and leaned slowly back and forth. I stood there, unsure.
“Why can’t you find your own spot?” he asked before stalking off, leaving me staring down at water drops clinging to the walkway. I stayed a minute, half-hoping a drowned girl would materialize, all wet black hair and round pale cheeks. A succubus I could give over to, a glass eye to hypnotize me. And I was jealous of Jordan, like I needed the haunting more than he did.
I don’t walk down by the boiler anymore. When I’ve finished all my checks and the mess room has cleared out after the last round of Texas-hold’em, I linger in the warm drone alone, the others worming their way into sleep. I’ve stopped keeping track of how long I’ve been awake. There’s no number to count down from anymore. Sometimes I get up and hold the phone to my ear, drifting in the dial tone. I fold my elbows on the table and press my eyes into my forearms till there are colors swimming in the dark. Down there I’ll hear the phone ringing, and find someone breathing on the other end, about to tell me what’s next.
DESMOND: My name is Desmond Everest Fuller. My fiction has appeared in Rasasvada
Creative and the Gorge Literary Review. I live and work in Portland,
Oregon. I did work for years off and on in the fantastic bookstore, Artifacts:
Good Books and Bad Art in Hood River, Oregon.