Crosscurrent, Chapter Two
“And so in Germany, in the fall of 1936, we see the rise of a new political class, a unique new form of political activism, and a new way of addressing the masses. It’s not the Kaiser’s Germany anymore, and many older Germans are finding themselves confused about their loyalties. It’s as if they’ve gone to sleep in the nineteenth century and awakened in the twentieth. It’s all happened so fast. And where were the intelligentsia all this time? And the artists? And the writers?”
Man, this was going to be one rough afternoon. Ten minutes into Burkeland’s lecture and Adam Armand was already cross-eyed with fatigue. He didn’t see how he could possibly get through the rest of this ninety-minute class, not to mention the Art History lecture immediately afterwards. He could pull off one or two short nights in a row, but apparently four was way too many. Burkeland’s voice threaded its way in and out of the humming in his ears and one eye finally closed. Maybe he could sleep with just one eye at a time, his eyes taking turns, find some way to prop his head up on his notebook, and slip into a delicious half-sleep. Maybe just doze a minute. Or two?
“…will be on the exam next Friday, along with the materials from yesterday’s lecture, which unfortunately the editors of our text found too arcane to include in their scrawny chapter on Germany’s political inversion.”
Adam bolted straight upright, his nervous system humming. Shit. Here he was dozing through some of the most important stuff he’d need to know for Burkeland’s mid-term. What had he missed? He looked at his notebook and saw that his orderly procession of notes had devolved into an EKG-looking mess somewhere around April 1934. He couldn’t read a thing he’d written in the last ten minutes. Great; some student he’d become.
He pictured his parents: his father working the lines on the ancient trawler, the rusty cogs making that godawful racket as the slime and ooze from the Gulf ran around his boots and out through the scuppers. His mother hunched over a hot little pool of florescent light—one of hundreds in the plant—soldering tiny bits of electronics onto the circuit boards Western Digital manufactured for their do-nothing junk. Adam was the first Armand ever to attend college, and his parents had worked slavishly to make it happen. His grades in high school had been good, but not good enough to draw much in the way of scholarships or grants. So now, here he sat, the pride of the clan, sleeping through a core-level class while Mom and Dad ground themselves down in their back-breaking jobs. Adam scribbled away at double speed, trying to catch up as best he could, tilting his head to catch every last word droning from Burkeland’s mouth. When the class finally and mercifully ended, Adam half jogged to the coffee cart in front of Elbert Hall. A tall Americano was just what he’d need before plunging into the next ninety-minute lecture.
Adam’s friend and roommate from last semester, Ben Singh, was hailing him from across the plaza.
“Adam! Wait up!” Ben, overweight, short, and chronically breathless, made his way through the student throng, bisecting the red sandstone plaza.
“Hey Adam. Glad I caught you. The main office left a note on your door. You’re supposed to call home right away. Some kind of family emergency or something. If you ever spent the night in your room, maybe you’d know what the hell is going on, huh?”
“Emergency? Did they say what it was ?”
“No, man. The note just said that you’re supposed to call home pronto.”
“Oh, crap. What the hell could that be about?”
“I don’t know, man. But you better find a phone and make the call.”
“Yeah, alright. Thanks, Benji. Guess I better boogie if I’m gonna’ make that call and not be late for class. See ya’.”
“Where the hell are you? It sounds like something’s about ready to blow up or something.”
“Oh that? I’m down at Huey’s. They’re trying to blast all the crap out of that starboard junction box.”
“I thought you quit having trouble that sucker after we had it rebuilt.”
“Oh, you know… stuff doesn’t last long out in the Gulf. That’s just part of the fisherman’s life, right?”
“Yeah… So I had a message to call. There’s an emergency?”
“Well, not an emergency emergency, but some bad news, and we thought you should know. Jules is out. Somehow he got good behavior or whatever, and he’s out.”
“Oh crap… So where is he?”
“Don’t know. Janine told us, and she doesn’t know either. But he’s out, and your Mom’s freaking out. I’m not real thrilled myself. This is like ten years before he was supposed to walk, and we can’t figure what the hell happened. I mean you really can’t see Jules getting out on good behavior, right?”
“No kidding. There must be more that we don’t know about, but it sounds really fishy to me. God, Mom must be going nuts.”
“Yeah, plus she says there’s more layoffs coming at the plant.”
“Oh great . Listen Dad, I hate to rush, but I’ve got to get to class. I have about two minutes to get across campus.”
“Sure, Adam. Better take off. But wait… We want you to get a cell phone. Put it on the DallasBank card. We need to get hooked up easier. It’s a bitch getting in touch with you sometimes.”
“Serious? A cell?”
“Yeah, one like mine. You know, the basic cheapie deal. But do it soon, promise?”
“Now, scoot. And we love you.”
Friday night found Kate in a somewhat better mood. The layoff rumblings at Western Digital were pointing decidedly toward shipping, and the spirits in Assembly Wing A had steadily climbed throughout the afternoon. Some of the Hispanic assemblers even began singing as they worked, and as much as the General Manager hated it, the whole floor was swinging by 4 o’clock. That’s what Kate loved about her work group: when they got the notion they could turn on an emotional dime like a school of fish. More than once in the five years she’d been working there, she’d seen everyone in the wing meld into one, generally in response to something stupid management had done to offend their collective sense of justice. And every time the sheer force of their numbers and will had had an undeniable impact. Call it a non-union union or whatever, but it worked, and on this particular Friday, the old Mexican songs of the fathers were the sweetest sounds Kate could possibly have imagined.
At home, Janine’s message on the machine was almost as rosy. Jules was out—that part wasn’t, unfortunately, simply a bad dream—but he was being watched by authorities in at least three states. Janine had finally gotten through to a real person in the Illinois criminal justice system, and the story was that Jules had received a compound cut on his sentence, the result of several elements—Jules’ good behavior, a statewide prisons-funding crisis, and a new review board heavily dominated by over-schooled idealists—all at precisely the time Jules was scheduled for his first appeal. He’d been given $500, a phone card, a suit, and directions to stay away from Texas. He was last seen driving east into Ohio. According to Janine, Jules’ history of violent behavior and of threatening death and mayhem in Texas was taken very seriously by the review board and all terms of early release rested on his following the board’s rules. Maybe, just maybe, this time he’d learned his lesson, and wasn’t dead fixed on hurling himself bloodily once more against authority.
Kate put an open Miller’s on the coffee table, and thought back to her first impressions of the Armand family. God, if she’d only known then… When she first met Caslon, Jules was doing six months over in the DeLane County jail. He’d tried to rob a convenience store, and everything had gone wrong. Through a weird twist of fate, he hit the place at the same time two other guys from Galveston were tying the same thing. Imagine that: two concurrent heists on the same place. The Galveston thugs pulled their guns first, the store’s customers all hit the deck, and Jules tripped over a screaming, pregnant shopper in his rush to nail the register. As he scrambled to his feet, slipping this way and that in a slick of spilled milk, Jule’s gun flipped out of his jacket and across the floor. One of the Galveston robbers caught him in the back of the head with a synthetic fireplace log just as he’d gotten himself upright and in motion. Thirty-eight stitches, six months in jail, and another sad skit in the unhappy and pointless life of Jules Armand was played out. Kate had been thoroughly repulsed by everything she’d heard about Jules, and it was almost impossible to believe that Jules and Caslon were brothers. Just as Jules was violent, stubborn, vindictive and lazy, Caslon was kind, funny and industrious. Jules was the prodigally dumb and unlucky crook, Caslon the productive and reliable fisherman who thrived on hard work. Kate remembered how their early dates would somehow always end up down at the basin, and how proud Caslon had been, showing her virtually everything there was to know about Ruby, the 48 foot trawler of which he was the first mate.
Cas was self-made, and the troubled waters of the Armand family flowed well below and behind him. The old man, abusive and universally reviled, had died when Cas was seventeen, the victim of a late-night assault and robbery behind the Music Box bar in downtown Boward. Mrs. Armand died of cancer a year later, leaving Cas, Janine, and Jules to beat the bushes of southern coastal Texas for whatever meager crumbs they could find. Janine, five years Caslon’s senior, married a year after the mother’s death, and she and her new, smack-addicted husband flew northward with breathtaking speed. Jules had taken to nocturnally probing Boward’s soft spots, and enthusiastically embarked upon his life’s work of petty theft and sociopathic behavior. Cas, amazingly, mellowed and matured through that horrible time, and his good humor and genial personality served him well. People liked him from the ground up. His after-school job down in the basin - drying and mending nets, running errands, hauling supply carts—had earned him a reputation as an ambitious kid who didn’t shy at manual labor. Right after his mother’s death he hired on with Captain Luis Sandoval, and the forays into the Gulf aboard Sandoval’s Ruby had touched him indelibly and to the core. He loved the sea. For Caslon, every trip past the breakwater was an exodus, and the deep azure waters of the Gulf, with their teeming life and infinite moods, soothed his soul and allowed him to leave the awful truths of his childhood bobbing impotently in his wake. Ruby was a lucky boat. Somehow she managed to consistently sniff out the Gulf’s largest and most productive pods of fish, and her return runs to Boward’s docks were generally high-spirited. Captain Sandoval was a decorated Korean War vet, a hard drinker, an even harder worker, and was loved dearly by Ruby’s crew. The seven men who worked aboard Ruby struck Caslon as nothing less than brothers, and they watched over one another in a way that, until then, had been thoroughly unknown to him. Sandoval’s authority was absolute once the little ship left the basin, but so too was his sense of justice and humanity. The crew was as obedient as any that might be found in the Navy, but Sandoval’s light touch on all matters non-marine gave Ruby the feel of a floating biker bar.
On his earliest trips out, most of which lasted a week and change, Caslon tried to stay well out of the way of ship’s business, pointedly keeping his attention screwed to his work—mostly cutting bait, cleaning the galley, and stacking fish in the freezer units. But after a few months his seaworthiness and ambition intersected in a way that made Sandoval take notice. He was given new duties, and was increasingly allowed into the wheelhouse. He learned at a pace that surprised even him. At the end of a year and a half, through various machinations, not the least of which involved the escalating Vietnam war and the unfortunate draft status of half of Ruby’s crew, Caslon was made first mate. That’s when he met Kate Conners.
When Kate was seventeen she was clerking at the Bread Box. It was a great part-time job, mostly because it was only a block from the house, and the assistant manager had an obvious, if embarrassing crush on her. She got the shifts she wanted, easy duties in the stockroom, and tons of freebies. Her parents worried that the job might work at odds with her grades, but, in fact, the inverse proved to be true. Quite possibly it was the necessity of managing multiple schedules; Kate juggled the job and her school life efficiently and successfully.
One Saturday morning Caslon stopped by the Bread Box on his way down to the basin, hoping to score the best of the marked-down doughnuts before the crowds hit. Kate was shelving bread in the bakery when he came round the corner, already three hours into his day, and deeply preoccupied with all of the last minute details attendant to getting Ruby out before the currents changed. You couldn’t have exactly called it love at first sight, but you might fairly have guessed that the lifelong bond between that girl in the Bread Box apron and the boyish fisherman was as inevitable as the turning tide. The crew of the Ruby soon became accustomed to a seemingly limitless supply of Bread Box doughnuts and pastries to fuel their offshore voyages, and Kate and Caslon wed two days after Kate’s eighteenth birthday. They lived in the home of Kate’s parents their first year together. The Armand house was Jules’ territory, and the newlyweds wanted no chance of crossing his path.
Life in the Conners house was, for Caslon, like being on some other planet. There was no drunken, violent ranting, no beatings, no hostile sulking for days on end. The Conners were a real family, and Caslon felt complete in their presence. In fact, it occurred to him that he had never actually been happy before, that life with his own family had been nothing more than a type of bruised hibernation from which he might now finally emerge, breathing deeply the fresh coastal air for the first time in his life.
Kate’s father, Al Conners, had at one time been the mayor of Boward, and his wife Mary was famously active in the community, seemingly present at every PTO or community service function. Al’s insurance agency, though no financial wonder, was workhorse enough to support his family in a way that easily put them in Boward’s thin upper crust. But Al was no tight-fisted suit; he regularly opened his wallet and heart to Boward’s less fortunate, often making preposterously risky loans to the down-and-outs from the basin who found themselves swimming upstream against torrents of debt. This odd mix of charity, ambition, and success affected Caslon deeply, and it began to re-shape his very form.
Kate’s memories of those early days were a heady mix of bliss and frustration. She loved Caslon deeply, and couldn’t get over the fact that she was so lucky to have found him. But, understandably, she was dying to get out of the Conners house and begin a life of her own. She and Caslon saved every dollar they made, and they soon became intimately familiar with Boward’s anorexic real estate listings. Two or three times every month they would find a place that enthused them, inducing the nesting instinct, and spawning great dreams of decorating, gardening, and remodeling. But a closer look inevitably uncovered deeper problems—financing hurdles, inspector’s reports, contractor’s liens—that quickly unhinged their childlike reveries. Al Conner advised them to keep saving and to keep their heads on straight; better things always came to those with patience. And indeed, he was right, because shortly after their first anniversary Kate and Caslon found the home out on County Road 114. It was, for them, a perch on heaven’s porch. From the bluff upon which the house sat, the view across the Laguna Miera was unspoiled, raw, and ever-changing. Soft hills of mixed coastal grasses rolled away from just below the front yard on down to the tidal flats and deep blue channels of the Laguna, where the only sign of human existence was the occasional slow-trolling flats fisherman. Off beyond the dunes on the Laguna’s far side, the heavier mass of the Gulf could be seen, shimmering in the ever-present sunlight.
Financing for the home had been tight, and Caslon had taken second and third jobs between Ruby’s voyages, generally doing odd work in the basin. Kate moved up to the night manager position at the Bread Box, and it became common for her to put in sixty hour weeks, racking up several thousand dollars in overtime in one short blur of a summer. Al had told them he would match whatever war chest they could raise in trying to meet the minimum down payment on the house. Things fell together nicely, and the two exhausted teens signed for their first and only home shortly after Labor Day, 1981.
Kate took a swig of Millers, leaned back into the deep pile of pillows on the couch and smiled at the thought of teenagers playing house.
Caslon came out of the bathroom, his hair matted from the shower, and smelling of Prell.
“Cas, I’m not so sure about bowling tonight. I’m worn out, and the thought of driving up to Ft. Griff just makes me more tired. Would you be really upset if we didn’t go?”
“You read my mind. It’s been a hell of a week, huh? I don’t think Teddy will mind if we don’t show. He’s missed a bunch of nights himself. Besides, that will give him more lane time anyhow. Although I bet they get creamed without us!”
“Bet they do, too. God, what a relief. I am so tired.”
“Yeah, me too. And I do feel like resting up. Next week’s going to be a bitch.”
“Getting Ruby ready for the long-lines?”
“Yeah, and short at least two crew. I don’t think Kilo will be over his tests yet, and Billy’s still taking care of his Mom.”
“But Adam is coming home to help still, right? Over his spring break?”
“That’s the story. Hope so; I’m really going to need him.”
“Poor kid. Some spring break… Hey, what did he say when you talked to him about Jules?”
“You know Adam. Not much of a response there. Just that he was more worried about us than him.”
“Good kid… Hey Cas?”
“Why does Jules hate you so much?”
“Like I told you; he’s jealous that stuff goes so well for me and that everything he does seems to go down in flames. He’s always blamed me for his crappy life. It’s just jealousy, that’s all.”
“Well I’m glad he’s headed east, and I’m even more glad there’s a court order keeping him the hell away from Texas.
“Amen, little sister. Another beer?”To be continued.