I Worked on the Water
An individual’s response to the constraints of convention or circumstance.
Source: Angela’s Ashes
I worked on the water — or rather, I worked on the ships that sailed in the water. Every morning at seven, I collected my tools and marched down to the harbor, where the large steam ships were anchored, their tall spires and steam ducts looming over the town, casting their long, dark shadows across rooftops of battered shingling. These belonged to the rich men — their companies more specifically; they exported coal and olive oil, sending it across the oceans to distant lands. Coal and olive oil on the same ship — we would joke about that, the other workers and I. It seemed absurd. I would think about how absurd it was as I lay on my back upon a cold, metal floor, my face only inches from a tangled myriad of pipes and gas lines, each one sweltering with super-heated steam. They had to be inspected, so I inspected them, ignoring the pain on my skin from exposure to so many hours of heat radiated from the lines. My friends would ask if I had fallen asleep while tanning — I would tell them that I had.
The rich men kept a stolid schedule, and I had to be present for every hour of it. If I wasn’t inspecting pipes, then I would be thrown out, my meager wage of a few cents per hour handed over to some other poor fool whose only goal was to feed his family. I didn’t have one of those, so I would be the only one suffering — I guess that wasn’t such a bad thing. Most of those who worked for the rich men had large families with too many children. Though they had no money, they continued to have them — children, I mean — until they eventually, indirectly starved themselves to death. I had never been married, nor in love, and so I couldn’t understand what it was that motivated them to do such a thing. On my walk to work that morning, I saw at least fifty little boys and girls running about through the streets, their little limbs thinned to the bone. What a world we live in, I remarked to myself, then I kept walking until I reached the harbor. I worked an extra hour that day, and got an extra few cents — enough to buy a tart from the bakery. I wanted to give it to one of the children that I had seen running around, but by the time I was walking home, the streets were bare.
One night much later, I checked out, stamping my card before leaving the harbor. The sky was dark and the streets were darker — they were small, cramped things, barely wider than two men standing abreast. I navigated them as best I could, pushing past shadows and figures in silhouette, praying that I wouldn’t feel one deftly searching my pockets on the way past — that happened often. We were all too poor not to try. Prison would be a comfort; you would have meals and a bed to sleep on. It never surprised me that the jails were overflowing. I continued to walk, thinking about that, until I reached Main Street, and was blinded by a thousand colored lights.
Storefronts were lit by gas lamps and sparkling signs reading OPEN in large, friendly looking letters. People dressed in clothing that reflected this onslaught of brilliance and sparkle skipped and danced up and down the street — this street was wider than the ones I described before. The rich lived here — the ones who owned the ships. I watched them pass me with eyes aglow in a thousand different shades. Some had fire there, too, in their gaze, and I pictured the engines of their massive steam boats roaring and sputtering, heating the pipes that scorched my gaunt flesh. None of these people were thin as sticks. Some were bloated like whales; I wondered what that would feel like.
Picking my way through the light and color, I suddenly ran into a group of fashionably arrayed women in long dresses. They all turned to examine me, their faces shriveling in disgust. One remarked that I looked like a sewer rat, and they promptly scurried away, melding with the light and color again. It was at that moment that something formulated in my mind, taking hold of my consciousness and motivating every thought that thereafter came to me. I hurried home, thinking about it. Why should I need to suffer in the bowels of the ships at the harbor when these people live lives of glamour and pleasure, their every desire tended to? What gave them the right to live in such a fashion when I, working harder, should flounder and claw at the scraps of their greed? I decided to do something about it, and formulated a plot that night as I lay restless in my bed.
At dawn, I hurried to work, lugging my tools after me and panting like a dog. The ships seemed to tower over me as I approached, as if they knew what it was I planned to do. Up the boarding ramp, I climbed, then down into the belly, I descended, finding my way through the tunnels of steel that I knew so well. At the junction where I would typically turn left, I turned right, quickening my pace a little so that I could guarantee the completion of my job before the others arrived. I would soon be smoking and partying like those glittery people on Main Street, then maybe I would own one of these boats myself, and the poor would be crawling around inside of it — inside of my ship.
The engine loomed ahead — a fiery gaping maw of smoldering metal shut with teeth of barred iron. From within, a crimson glow spilled onto the walls and the floor and onto me, bathing the small space in sweltering light. I undid my tool bag and pulled a firework from it — the ones that the rich people used to party on the fourth of July. It was ironic to me that it would be used now to spite them. My fingers burned as I unlatched the iron grate, and I suppressed the scream that threatened to leave my lips. I tossed the firework, and felt an explosion of sparks and heat envelope me entirely, singing my hair and eating at my clothes. My eyes were filled with color and many different lights, all popping and steaming and melting away, melding into a mass of white. Then, just like that, it went dark.
They found me, close to death, in the bowels of the ship, my body burned, but still somehow recognizable — that was God’s way of ensuring I would be remembered. My face was still whole, and the rich man who employed me knew who I was immediately. He screamed at me, berating me, though if not for the sound of his voice, I wouldn’t know who he was. I was blind, my eyes damaged by the eruption. They picked me up and marched me outside, leading me down the cramped streets, past the glimmering Main Street, and past the starving children, until we reached the prison — a squat building atop a hill — not that I could see it, though. Not that I could see anything.
I waited there, in that prison, for an innumerable amount of years until it finally broke down and the inmates fled. When we funneled through the torn down gates, we found a ruin outside; the others described it to me. The houses were abandoned, the inhabitants dead or gone, Main Street was no longer glimmering, and the big steamboats had sailed away. It was a wasteland, though I couldn’t see it.
I decided then to live my life as best I could, navigating the world through my other senses. What happened to the rest of the inmates who had escaped with me, I don’t know. Gradually, I noticed that their voices were vanishing — that I could no longer hear them. We attempted to reform society, living in the carcass of the port town, though from what I can gather, that failed. Recently — not two days prior to my writing of this — I woke to the sound of nothing. There were no voices in the street, no clattering or movement. My fellow inmates turned townsmen had vanished. Whether they had died and now littered the streets as corpses or had fled without me, I will never know. I think to myself often about my state. Before this, I was a poor slave to the rich. Now, I am not. Problems of money do not plague me. So, then, one question remains for me — one that I will ponder until I die.
Is this a better life?