On Oil Spills: Cripples
Vancouver’s oil spill, April 2015
I wrote a story about an oil-spill clean-up that was first published in Paris Transcontinental.
Here it is again:
I hadn’t wanted a damn cripple on the crew to begin with. Any damn cripple. Not a damn cripple named Mike Pinkle or any other damn cripple, so naturally Pinkle was made my partner, orders of the co-ordinator. We’d both come in late. There were forty-three of us, and damn cripple Mike Pinkle was to be my partner during the Long Beach oil spill clean-up.
The first sight of that Vancouver Island beach was one hell of a thing. I shoved my Honda stick into ‘P’ and took off out of the parking lot toward the six foot waves at a ninny-speed run, stumbling over the logs and deadwood using my hands, across all that thick white sand to the surf line. The water was as purple and violent as a bruise. It pounded inside my breasts and legs like some fierce man. Oh shit, I thought. Goddamn shit. Water, blurring out into a flagstone sky. I’d never seen so much damn sea at once in my life. It excited me. It made me want to fuck. I was standing up to my ankles in yellow gumboots with the water sucking and smelling of muggy blood and all I wanted to do was fuck. But then I heard my goddamn car horn blow. I turned and remembered the cripple. And the rake. The pitchfork. The industrial strength green garbage bags. What I thought was I could use the pitchfork to kill the goddamn cripple and the industrial strength green garbage bags to dispose of his body; the rest of the crew would just figure he was a bag of oil muck. Which thought made me remember why we were here–the oil dump off the coast of Washington State. Now I noticed oil everywhere; broken rainbow slicks on the water to the south, clumps strangling the bulbous heads of bull kelp, even a barely recognizable dead gull to the right of my boot. All that pretty show and all that oil–I had to hold back tears. I was almost grateful for the diversion of the goddamn cripple in the parking lot.
Or at least I was until I had to watch that pathetic half-man haul himself into the chair I unfolded for him out of the trunk. I couldn’t stand to look at him, so I piled him with the rake and pitchfork and the bags, which he held like they were nothing. I dumped on a thermos of coffee for good measure.
The chair was electric. Fancy dancy. My idea–I’d heard he’d been in a car wreck with a drunk driver–was that he’d landed a settlement of ten mil or so. My idea was that he was set for goddamn life. A condo in the Bahamas. Large screen TVs, a jacuzzi. Big fat fucking deal. I was supposed to feel sorry for him?
He sailed down a concrete path in the rain like some alien robot. Then he beached in the sand.
I went around the front of his chair and yelled in his face. My fists were going. I said, “Listen, buster, let’s get this straight. You better realize I don’t like you. You’ve got no business being out here and you freaking well know it.”
He had a very pretty face, the kind that make me want to hang over toilets, they’re so perfect. He must have been about my age, middle twenties. Great biceps. Great pectorals. Boy’s eyes green as bile.
“You don’t like my wheelchair?” He had to shout to be heard over the rain and surf.
I kicked the wheel. “Screw your wheelchair.”
“I would,” he yelled, “but neither of us would feel a thing.”
A funny guy, too.
“The point is,” I hollered, “the point is I don’t know how you’re supposed to help out here! Your goddamn chair is already stuck in the goddamn sand.”
But I’d lost his attention. He was staring out at the ocean.
I bent down to his face.
He said, “My folks and I used to camp here when I was a kid. It looks just the same.”
I’m no fool. I heard nostalgia and figured I better stomp on it before it got worse. “It looks like a sewer,” I told him. “That ocean’s barfing oil, you idiot.” There were hillocks of crusted oil everywhere. Now that I’d noticed it, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it right away. I couldn’t believe I’d glazed over it on account of the view, just like the goddamn cripple was doing now.
He dragged his eyes off the horizon and smiled wistfully at me. He sure did have a pretty face for a cripple–it hardly seemed fair. “Why are you here, Marilyn?”
I stepped back and raised my hands. It was my own goddamn business what I was doing here. If I told him I liked fish and birds, if I told him I dreamed of going to university and becoming an oceanographer, this goddamn cripple would make a frigging martyr out of me. “Who else is going to clean it up?” I finally said to him. Shit, I did not like this guy. “You see the government doing anything? The Americans? You know what it means to them? Sweet piss all is what it means to them.”
“What do you do,” he asked, “in real life?”
My hair was out of my poncho whipping over my face. I was a waitress using up my statutory vacation days. I said, “Gimme the goddamn garbage bags.” I ripped at the pile in his lap and plastic scattered, caught by the wind. “I shovel, you hold the bag.”
He shook one open. It went nuts in the wind, flapping and rippling. I picked out teams working up and down the beach. I bent down and picked up a chunk of oil about a foot wide and two inches thick.
“Mike, Christ, hold the bag steady.” I wrassled it in and Mike bent forward trying to support the weight of it. I said, “Don’t fall out of the chair, for God’s sake, please.”
“I’m not totally stupid,” he said.
I glared at him.
We worked like that, me picking up clods of solidified oil and four dead gulls and one dying rook the ocean had burped, him holding the bags and tying them at the end. Eventually we had sixteen full bags. Nothing on the beach that was supposed to be green was green anymore, and nothing that was supposed to be brown was brown. Everything was slathered with black oil gooey as molasses. I was stiff and cold when the whistle blew in the parking lot, Don the co-ordinator calling us in off our shift.
Two guys had to come and help yank Mike’s chair out of the sand.
Back in the rec room at the resort where we were being billeted, we ate soup that tasted like sand and bread torn from long French sticks–day-old stuff from the local bakery. I tried to avoid the goddamn cripple, but it didn’t work. After a pep talk, Don told us our room assignment and we were bunked together. I went up to complain. My hands were raw and red and every muscle in my body was hard.
“What the hell have you got me with him for?” I asked, gesturing at the cripple.
“Is there a problem, Marilyn?” said Don, consulting a clipboard. “There’re twin beds.”
“Shit,” I said. “Shit.”
Don turned away to answer somebody else’s question.
Mike the goddamn cripple was already in the cabin when I arrived. I stomped past him into the bathroom and drew myself a tub. Hot. The water prickled up my ankles when I stepped in and I couldn’t stop myself from grunting as I lowered down. I was squeezing pain out of every pore and I was bunked with a dildo whose legs probably looked like rotten fruit, all because some tugboat captain rammed a ship and nobody gave a good goddamn about the whales or the freaking ecosystem. Fucking goddamn century. Fucking goddamn sucking puke of a globe. I soaked and stewed till my body and mind curled it out and let go of it, becoming smooth and soft as blankets. I got to ruminating on breaking up with my boyfriend Craig. I got to thinking of the names he’d called me– lazy and selfish–and how most of them were right on. Maybe my coming here, helping to clean up Long Beach–maybe that would make him realize I wasn’t so bad after all. He’d miss me and he’d see I could be as altruistic as the next guy.
Frankly, I forgot the goddamn cripple altogether. It was a shock to open the door wrapped in a towel, hot and steamy, and see that putrid excuse for a man still sitting there cold and red and dirty. It took me aback. I stayed in the doorway till I could bring myself to say neutrally, “Can I help you? Do you want help with a bath or something?”
“I’d like that,” he said. “At home I have equipment.” He shrugged.
It had to be worse for him than me, I figured. I could close my eyes, right? So I pulled on my blue robe and asked him what to do. He could hear by my voice I was not too happy, but he just went about it all matter-of-factly until his naked white shrivelled legs were three inches under water.
Everything smelled of salt and wood.
He leaned back and I sank down the wall so I was sitting on the floor, my knees raised, my robe twisted so one of my breasts was partly out. He must’ve been a hell of a man once, that goddamn cripple. Leaning back I could only see his torso and it was a sight to stir a nun. I sighed. He closed his eyes and soaked. I closed mine and felt myself drifting off. Then I heard him start up.
“I could get reassigned,” he said first.
“Huh?” I opened my eyes.
“If you don’t want to help. I mean, you’re right, I’m not much good on the beach. I could stay back and make hot chocolate tomorrow or something.”
“Where you from?” I asked. I spread my fingers on my knees.
“Keremeos,” he said.
I knew the place. Small, crappy, quaint. British Columbia’s interior.
“You?” he asked.
“East Van,” I told him, naming a neighbourhood in Vancouver.
“You think the government’s going to send in crews?” he asked. “There’s no way forty-three people can clean this oil spill. It must be up and down the coast for miles.”
“There’s a preservation society picking up the birds that are still alive and cleaning them,” I answered hopefully.
“How long you here for?” he asked.
“Three days.” I raised my shoulders. “Not a hell of a lot. This is going to take weeks.”
“Months,” Mike corrected.
“You’d think if the goddamn government wouldn’t pay us, at least they’d buy our food. You’d think they’d do that at least. Buy us food and garbage bags and ponchos,” I said.
“Would you wash my back?” Mike asked.
“Can’t you wash your own back?” I asked, instantly peeved. Lathering up a goddamn cripple could kill me. It killed me once and if I looked reborn, well, I wasn’t. My father came out of an operation when I was little temporarily paralyzed. Fucking wheelchairs. I got up on my knees and watched Mike’s penis bobbing there, caught in a nest of dark hair in the grimy water. He grabbed my wrist, hard.
He looked at me hard too and said, “What is it with you, Marilyn?”
“There’s nothing with me, you goddamn cripple. Let go.”
He held on harder. “Marilyn, what?”
“Now I’m being lectured to. I don’t believe it. Let me go and I’ll help you get out.”
He did and I did and it was no pleasure at all to see that man drag himself into his chair stark raving naked and head into the bedroom to find his pyjamas. It made no sense to me that I was here instead of a couple big guys who could make a difference to him. Plus, I was fucking horny. I was starting to like the goddamn cripple and it pissed me off.
I turned back his blankets and got him sitting on the edge of bed. I folded down beside him. I wanted to cry. Tears were taking up in my throat like boxers. I couldn’t press them back. I felt Mike’s goddamn cripple hand stroke my back.
“Marilyn?” he said.
“Thanks.” He squeezed my shoulder then dropped his hand.
That made me cry. Fucking emotions. First I was pissed because I’d got saddled with a goddamn cripple and now I was crying because he’d stopped touching me. He took my chin and turned my face to him. He was sure pretty.
He said gently, “We should get some sleep.”
I leaned and kissed him, surprised at the softness of his lips and the hard bristle of his beard. The kiss lasted a minute and when I stopped, my arm brushed his penis. It was erect. I hadn’t realized he could do that.
He held my shoulders and pushed me back, away from him. “This is not good,” he said. “We’re strangers. We’re tired. We have an early morning. Go to bed, Marilyn.”
I looked at him and thought how I was about to seduce a goddamn cripple. My trip of redemption was going to give me a sore spot in the pit of my stomach. But fuck it. I wanted to end this day with any kind of sex. I could feel heat radiating off him. I kissed him again and it went through me. He was responding. Shit, a cripple would respond, wouldn’t he?
Was I surprised to wake up in the morning in a woodsy cabin in the middle of nowhere in the semi-darkness in the arms of a cripple. I tried to remember the night before and it came back slowly, the way the dirty morning light slowly increased in our room. He’d been no slouch at pleasing me but I hadn’t done a freaking thing for him. Below the belt he was dead. Or not dead, exactly, pretty lively if it came down to it. Only he couldn’t feel it. He couldn’t feel a jack-off thing. Well, goddamn, I thought. I was not going to be grossed out or remember my father calling to me. Fucking cripples. Let’s just leave it at, heh, I got my rocks off. I tried to slide out of Mike’s arms, which woke him.
He groaned and smiled and pulled me in tighter. “Hi,” he said.
“I’m stiff,” I said. “I ache.” I pulled away.
“Pretty stupid, eh?” he said. “Last night.”
“It felt good. I don’t care.”
“Even with a goddamn cripple?” Crinkles of amusement appeared around his eyes.
I grinned even though I tried not to. “What time is it?” I asked him, forcing the smile off my face. “Tell me what time it is. Okay, Mike? Okay? Can you just fucking shut your trap for a goddamn minute and maybe start focussing on why we’re here?”
All day long on the beach I kept looking over at Mike feeling a quirky, ridiculous pride. God, I hated the work. Those oil patches were heavy; the recently washed in ones gluey and the dry ones like lava. But my morale stayed high. Despite the effects of the January cold, the slate-grey drizzle, the dead birds, I felt goddamn good. I’d fucked a goddamn cripple but I felt goddamn good. It was a freaking surprise.
That night over dinner Don told us the premier’s office was issuing certificates of achievement to the clean-up volunteers. Even Mike, the goddamn mild-mannered cripple, was bitter about it–shit, we all were. Here we were doing our government’s work and the freaking big girl wanted to thank us with certificates. Come summer there’d still be oil washing in and otters dying, maybe whales dying from the crap they sucked up off the ocean floor, but heh, so what? We were offered certificates. We voted to refuse them. We dipped our day-old bread in the watery soup and said no fucking thank you. The goddamn cripple took my hand during this, which made some of the other crew members grin over at us like we were the high point of it, we were the entertainment.
When my father was in a wheelchair I sat on his lap and when Mom wasn’t around he moved his hands between my thighs. He pushed aside my panties. When he got better, he stopped. Just like that. Goddamn sex and then nothing, like I no longer existed. Daddy, I’d say. Daddy? And he’d look through me like the goddamn wall meant more to him. The goddamn wall did mean more to him. All I can think since then is at least he’s getting old. One of these days his heart will misfire and fry him like a steak. Hell, I’ll supply the onions.
But with Mike that second night I thought I was going to fucking heaven. There’s a thing that says people with disabilities compensate, and that goddamn cripple, let me say, compensated. I didn’t notice I was tired, I didn’t notice the oil caked in my knuckles and under my nails, I didn’t notice his moldy legs. I told him afterwards about my Dad, not about the sex, just that my Dad had spent some time in a chair. He told me about his accident and how his wife left him a year into it. When we fell asleep I felt oddly safe, like all around us oil was not building up on the beaches, like the world was sane and I was not fucking a goddamn cripple.
Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe, like Mike said, I just had a chip on my shoulder.
So when on the next day, my last, Mike was distant and cold as the everlasting January rain, I was hurt. And mad. I pitchforked mounds of oil and tossed them at the garbage bag he held often missing the mark. By l0:30, his rain pants were slicked with globs of oil and sand, clumps of seaweed.
“Fuck, you prick,” I finally yelled, blinking back tears. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
His green eyes looked so icy I could skate on them.
I threw down my fork and pushed his shoulder. “I mean it, Mike. What’s going on?”
“Fuck off, Marilyn,” he said.
“Fuck you, too, you goddamn cripple.”
Neither of us said anything. Both of us stared out to sea where the breakers crashed. Tears were pouring down my face.
I heard Mike say, “You’re leaving,” in such an accusatory voice I wheeled to face him.
“I’m a fucking waitress at a greasy spoon in east Vancouver. You think there’s a future for us? Don’t expect me to get saddled with some goddamn cripple. Look, it was nice, okay? It was nice and tonight I’m outa here. The goddamned Navy can start doing their bit.” I paused. It was true we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. As soon as we got rid of some oil, more came in. There was more oil now than when we’d started. 900 bags of oil between us and not a dent. Fucking certificates of appreciation from the premier. A goddamn cripple. I thought about Craig and who he was probably fucking while I was gone. I’d be glad to get out of here. I thought maybe I’d quit work, quit Craig, and go to Mexico. Then I remembered the pollution this winter in Mexico City. Like I could go there and breathe. I looked at Mike again. “You could come.”
“You could quit and come to Keremeos.”
“We’re still strangers, you goddamn cripple.”
“We could try,” he said.
“Forget it, Mike,” I told him. “I don’t like goddamn cripples. I don’t need a cripple in my life.”
“Neither do I,” he said. Then he said my name, Marilyn.
“Up yours,” I said. I grinned because I knew what he was going to say next.
Mike didn’t let me down. “But I wouldn’t feel it,” he said.
I picked up the pitchfork and made thrusting motions at him with the tines. He grabbed it by the handle and pulled me in. I was laughing and sniffling. I fell on the mess on his lap and he kissed me. When he stopped he said, “At least give me your cell.”
I said okay. I said sure. That goddamn cripple. That goddamn oil slick.