For Whom We Once Became
By: Antwan Crump
There were no church bells.
He didn’t expect any.
Unlike the wakes that he’d attended in the past, there didn’t seem to be a God either. Only the wisps of the cold ghosts as they trotted through the rotting chapel—feeding on tears and the mounting tides of discontent and misery.
“Is there anyone else who would like to say a few words?” The preacher looked desperate. He was a tubby-middle aged white man, who looked like he’d owned a hood to match his white robe and purple sash. “Anyone at all?”
This would be his only chance. A final promise to keep, in memory of his fallen compatriot. His brother-in-tandem. The one person that had ever truly known him. The one person, he supposed, ever would.
“I’d like to say something.” The dozen or so in the crowd were untouched by his admission and remained stoic as his ample steps glided toward the altar.
The priest too was unamused.
A whisper stopped him upon his arrival, along with a chubby-fingered poke. “There won’t be any funny business, will there?”
He shakes his head, “No. I’m just keeping a promise to an old friend.”
A pat on the back assures him that he’ll have his time to speak, although the gesture was otherwise empty. “Two minutes, son. Cap was a private man.”
“It won’t take me but that.”
The audience was a mix of society’s most forgotten and least considered. From addicts to outcasts, and elders—closer to the dirt than their next meal. A fraternity of vagrants, Madsen thought, and at once felt moist, sticky, and in need of a shower (he figured that bourbon wouldn’t hurt either).
“I didn’t know Cap long. However, given our dire situation some time ago, I fear that I may know him better than most. For that, I feel regret. It’s because of that, I’m here.”
The notebook was a simple moleskin prop, no larger than a wallet. Madsen retrieved it from his drooping jeans and presented it to the disinterested crowd.
The bitter bite of the ocean wind oozed through the chapel—a taste of a salt and sediment that Madsen could roll along his teeth. Again, he supposed that this was how Cap would have wanted it to be.
“This is a journal that I’ve been keeping since the incident. In it, I’ve written of my account with Cap from memory.” The notebook dropped to the altar and with it, Madsen’s nervous grin. “These memories don’t belong to me. With your permission, I would like to share them with you.”
“Go on then,” the priest prodded. “Regale us, in his memory.”
“Thank you, preacher.”
“Pastor,” The old tubby-man corrected.
“Thank you, pastor,” Madsen repeated.
March, ??, 2000
It was 99’ when we’d first set sail. Back then, there were about four hundred of us. Now, it was down to just Cap and I.
“Storm’s coming in,” I said.
“You gonna’ tell me a third time, or finish taking inventory?”
“But, Cap. it hasn’t changed in-”
“Take the damn inventory, or I’ll feed you to the depths myself.”
His total presence was like a wolf on the prowl—narrowly closing in on his prey, but patient enough to utter a lazily mumbled threat. Then the roar-
“Get on with it, Madsen!”
Cap never bothered to tell me what caused the “accident,” though he referenced it from time to time. I was working as a bartender on one of Cap’s more exclusive cruises. For what I’d been getting paid, a patron of the Old Blue Eagle (or O.B.E.) would have barely been able to afford to look at that damn ship, let alone ride it.
Yet and still, I knew the rules of economics. I held no ill-will toward them for their riches. If anything, I admired them. Maybe that’s why I always stayed so close to the “finer things”.
I was asleep when we capsized. Having been a server, my bunk was at the very bottom of the ship. When things when upside down, I went right-side up. I lucked my way forward from there.
After a leisurely float, one of the life-rafts finally picked me up. They were way past “women and children” only. To my surprise, it was the Cap, along with seven of his crewmen—each one a bigger dope than the last. Empty-headed but capable.
They went down with the ship and popped right the hell back up.
Their later deaths have haunted my nightmares since.
Cap called us lucky.
I had a different opinion entirely.
“I’m going. I’m going.”
The life-raft was nothing extraordinary—a thin tin contraption that’d have been better suited for use as kitchen foil than anything meant to bear the open sea. I would keep my gripes private for as long as Cap stayed on the better side of my mood.
I always counted the mainstays first.
“A lantern. A bible. A length of copper wire.”
“Yeah. Yeah,” he grumbled and smeared some dripping brown muck from his chin. “Continue…”
“A flare gun, a compass, a map of the Atlantic…”
“Jesus, Madsen!” Cap shot. “I think you know what I want to hear.”
Beside the stack of inedible bullshit was a small sack that Cap and the others had stuffed to the brim with whatever food, drink, and supplies that they could get their hands on. For that, I was grateful. After a week or two, that little bag was the closest thing that I had known to God.
“Madsen!” Cap roared again with a steady chin against the wind. “Report.”
“A bag of snack-sized Cheetos. A knife. Three bottles of Aquafina—one nearly gone. A bottle of Svedka…” I saved the liquor. I was able to convince them that it was for medical purposes—
…also, that I was a doctor and worth saving.
I wasn’t. Still not.
More on that later.
“… half a bag of mini-snicker bars, a box of condoms, two bullets, and of course…” This was always my favorite part. The part that would make Cap wince, just a little. “…Your Barretta Stampede.” I liked to wave it around to remind him that I knew how to use it.
I was never a gun guy, but even I had to admit that Cap’s old revolver was a thing of beauty. He kept it clean—so silver and defined that you could almost feel the cold steel pressed against your temple just by looking at it. Most of my fantasies about it would end there.
Everything that followed would be oblivion anyway.
“Alright,” Cap dropped his leg from his pirate-like lean on the lip of the raft. “You know what to do.”
We would each tie one end of the copper wire around our wrists—cushioned by snicker-stuffed condoms—and brace for impact. As it had a handful of times before, the storm would rise, then strike, then pass.
By the next morning, we’d be doing inventory again, as if the day before never happened.
“Madsen! Madsen,” Cap barked. “Get your yellow-bellied ass off the deck.”
“We’ve got inventory.” He spoke as if it were my first-time. I hated him for it.
Given the horrible night aboard our newly dubbed “P.O.S.,” the last thing that I needed was this tired old man’s bullshit.
“What for,” I squawked and wiped the salt from my eye. Once clear, I glanced at the heavenly-sack that held our survival. “Looks fine.”
He stomped the yard or so between us as the tin floor rocked beneath his feet. “We need to count…” He reached for the sack and snatched it from its nape like a loose hen. “For better or for worse, we should know.”
“It’s not even open,” I brushed some stray flakes from my cheeks as Cap returned to his end of the P.O.S. “What do you think? Someone come and rob us in our sleep?” I kindly remind him of our predicament with a well-timed loogie spat into the sea.
I spit them far.
So far, that we’d rarely ever seen them land.
He followed my floating wad of mucus as it arched into the sky. Trailing it with his dying blue eyes as it disappeared into the horizon. I watched him painfully remember that it was just he and I and nothing more. I thought his fascination odd, it was just mucus after all, but what else was there to do? The ocean was our only channel and no remote on earth could change that.
He finally spoke while his gaze returned to the sack and our eight-foot prison.
“It goes on forever. Doesn’t it?”
“Afraid so, Cap.”
“Hitler…” he said.
“Excuse me,” I questioned—hoping to Christ that he hadn’t been going mad.
“My name,” he paused and exhaled like this weight on his chest was suddenly too much to bear. “My name is Captain Adolph Hitler.”
“What,” I shot. “Why?” Genuinely taken aback, I wasn’t sure whether to hug him or punch him. “Who the hell would name their child Adolph Hitler? Are you fucking insane?”
“Hey. Hey,” he stammered. “Easy, I’m just tryna’ get something outta’ my head.” An arm shot into the air, with a napkin clasped in its fingers. A sign of surrender. A sign for peace. “I’m not what you think.” He returned the napkin to his pocket. “But, if we die here, someone should know, and be able to form their own opinion of what I truly was.”
“And if I die too?”
He smiles and his lips crack open—though cracked, they were too dry to bleed. “You’re missing the point.”
“No. I got it.” I relax a bit and tear a scab from the base of my foot. By then, Cap and I had both become human jerky-machines. “But, why me?”
Cap ripped a badge from his blazer and frisbeed it into the ocean—a kind reminder of our predicament. “S’not like I got anyone else.”
“I’ve got some demands.”
I figured that if I had to sit through a guy telling me why he’s named after one of the most despicable human beings that ever lived, I may as well do it drunk.
Turns out, Cap was born to a family of unfortunately surnamed people. Like the Bin Laden’s, Kardashians, and Trumps after them, the extant Hitler’s were subject to extreme ridicule—all for an association that they’d have preferred not to have.
However, more often than not, the shitty name would come with some perks, financial or otherwise. In any other world, Cap likely would have been a vagrant—casting his imaginary sails from corner to crack-house.
In this world, he was a one-percenter.
“But, it ain’t worth a damn when your last name’s Hitler,” he surmised.
“What about the ‘Adolph’,” I asked—slightly disappointed in how casually I had. “I mean, your parents had to know. Right?”
“Kid, I’m 65 years old. When I was born, the Holocaust was still a fucking secret.” He paused to nibble a bit of skin from his lip. He would continue to chew it like a piece of gum. “Adolph used to be just as common as Tom or Jerry…”
“Yeah. Just like Joey,” he said excitedly, happy to finally find someone whom he thought understood.
I muttered, “…Stalin.” under my breath and took two sips from two separate bottles. One of water. One of vodka. We’d each been about four sips in.
“What’s that?” Cap snapped.
“Nothing.” I shrugged. “Nothing important anyway.”
He grunted. “What about you, Madsen? What hole did you sprout from?”
My story, like most, was better left untold.
“You ever seen Pinocchio?”
He thought for just a moment. “Yeah.” Then assured, he continued. “Absolutely, I have. Way back when I was pissin’ in my pants.” He spoke as if we both hadn’t become grossly-liberal with our hygiene.
I’d ignore the wafting urine smell and answer, “Set it on fire. That’s me in a nutshell.”
“Hmm… Your old man was a bit of a narcissist, huh?”
“No. He just wanted a clone. Not a son.”
“The strong and steady world of telecommunications.”
“Good money.” Cap nods.
“Bad life.” I swivel my head toward him. “You ever chase a dream, Cap?”
“Only once.” He stumbled to his feet, unzipped his fly, and released a stream of himself into the ocean. I was numb to it. “Her name was Nadiya.”
“That’s a beautiful name.”
“Yeah,” he zipped his fly and staggered back down to his ass—nearly spilling overboard in the process. “I haven’t had a better bitch since.”
“Tibetan terrier, Madsen.” He looks at me as if I’m the asshole. “Don’t get weird.”
“Says the nazi-pot to the kettle.”
“Hey,” he shouted. “I told you that in confidence.”
With whatever energy that I had left, I erected to my feet like a flag amidst battle—my flaking skin fluttering in the ocean breeze, my eyes wet from the strain, and my heart barely beating. “You’re a fucking NAZI,” I screamed.
There was no echo. Only the empty vacuum of space that had become our world.
Just as quickly as the words escaped my lips, they’d dissipated into nothing. I wanted him to see it happen. I wanted him to know that we were truly alone. I suppose that I had to remind myself as well.
“I don’t give a damn about your past, Cap. I doubt that anyone ever will.”
“You can’t mean that,” Cap said, breaking from his usual sturdy demeanor. “I won’t be forgotten.”
“We’ll both be… Assuming that we aren’t already.”
“I sent the call. They’ll come. They have to come.” He sounded more like he’d been trying to convince himself. “They’ll come,” he muttered again. “I’m sure of it.” He clenched a fist against his heart, without once breaking his stare into the misty abyss.
I thought to help him.
“No one cares about anyone, Cap. It’s just the way the world works.”
“You’re wrong,” he said.
“Remember that when we’re eating each other.”
We’d finished the vodka some hours before. As we waded—slowly dying, with saltwater hangovers, Cap finally addressed the elephant in the room. Of course, he’d do it as the sun was setting.
“You ever think about death, kid,” he asked and I could only think to tell him the truth.
“Most days. If it doesn’t start with the thought, it comes by sundown.”
“Hmm,” he shot a wad of gunk into the sea—big enough to make the ocean gulp. I feared it may have been a chunk of lung or some other organ. Whatever it was, it was accompanied by a thin trail of red syrup. “Fear, you reckon?”
“Nah.” I stood up to spill my own fluids into the water. Not a wad, but a stream. “Boredom. Especially nowadays. If we don’t die out here, I may just dive into some concrete. Quick. Painless.”
A sudden silence choked the raft, one that even the waves respected, if not for a single blue whale’s mating call.
“You ought not to speak ill of your life, Madsen. It’s the only one ya’ got.”
“Yeah?” I sneered. “So, if I had a wife that cheated, you’re saying that I can’t ‘speak-ill’ of her?”
“It’s different. You know that.” I wasn’t used to seeing him vulnerable. Admittedly, I pushed.
“No. Go ahead. Tell me how it’s different.”
“You only have one life. You can always get another woman.”
“So, women are disposable?”
“No,” his eyes burst wide open with a caffeinated start. “That’s not what I said,” he grumbled.
“Nothing…” He returned to his sullen stature against the rim of the boat while the moonlight dripped from the sky, as if from a painter’s brush. “I was just thinking that we all deserve a little joy before death.” He looked at me in a way that I wished my father always had. An odd mix of sincerity and compassion.
It was nice.
“I was just curious if you’d ever had a connection with something. I was thinking that perhaps if this does go south, you could find a little solace in that.”
I took a sip from our second-to-last bottle of Aquafina and stared at the moonlight along with Cap. As its picturesque glow trailed across the rolling tides and carried us to nowhere, I felt peace.
Cap continued. “I was just hoping that you’d found a little joy in your life, Madsen. That’s all.”
I hesitated before I answered—sure to choose my words very carefully, “Like how you found joy with that dog you were fucking?”
“What,” he exploded—shooting to his feet like a ball from a canon. “I DID. NOT. MAKE LOVE. TO NADIYA!”
“Then why are you using the term ‘making love’?” I pondered. “Sounds like dog-fucking lingo to me.”
“I should kill you!” He reached in the sack for a knife that wasn’t there. I’d moved it the night before—when the rants became unbearable. I didn’t want to kill Cap, but I was ready to.
“Okay,” I raised my hands in defeat and tried to calm him. “First-off…volume. I’m right here and not deaf.”
“Fuck you, Madsen!”
“Secondly,” I raised a punitive finger, “I’m sorry. I was thinking that you did, in fact, fuck a dog. I was mistaken. Clearly, there was some miscommunication.”
“What kind of man do you think I am? Some kind of societal fucking outcast?”
“I mean… In my defense, your name is Adolph Hitler. And, you look like someone smacked Jay Leno in the face with broken glass and human-strife.”
A grunt. “I refuse to die out here with the likes of you!” He spun away and pouted like a toddler in time out.
“Good. So, you’re saying that you’re done looking for pity via suicide?”
He melted back into his side of the boat and retrieved the Barretta Stampede from his blazer. He waved it around, to remind me that he knew how to use it.
“How’d you know?”
I smirked and reached my hand out to him. “Give me the gun.”
“Alright. Then at least give me my bullet.”
“Because, if you fuck up, you’re not using mine.”
“What are you? Five goddamn years old,” he grimaced.
“If it gets me my bullet, call it what you want.”
He stammers in profanity before relenting, but I knew in the end that I’d won. What that victory meant, however, was entirely debatable.
I popped a bullet from the cartridge—half expecting it to be empty.
“You were serious,” I asked.
He leered but gave me no answer.
Rather, he craned his gaze back toward the sky as it melted endlessly into our liquid horizon.
With the rations gone, Cap resorted to an archaic form of fishing. In lieu of a rod and a fishing line, he’d fashioned a contraption out of his shoelaces and our only blade.
“The hell are you doing?” I would ask and he would answer, “mind yer’ business.” Though he promised to share whatever he’d caught, I was doubtful—in both his charity and success.
“You just keep steady on your side, Madsen. We’ll be eating in no time.”
Aside from Cap’s deteriorating mental state, pulpy spittle, and worsening bowel control, our luck seemed to finally be turning around. That day, the one that I had marked on my arm as “19” was the day that we saw a bird.
“Where there’s flight, there’s fish,” Cap exalted, and spent the following several hours actively stomping out his own enthusiasm.
From sun up until its descent, Cap would toss the shoelace tethered blade into the sea, let it sit for ninety counts, then reel it up and sigh. He would check the blade for blood and guts. Once he confirmed nothing, he’d repeat.
It’d have been maddening to watch today. However, at the time, it was the greatest form of entertainment that I’d been fortunate enough to endure.
My own rendition of the Old Man and the Sea.
Odder man. Meaner sea.
“It won’t work without bait,” I said. “Unless you think they’ll like some of whatever’s been coming out of you.”
“That’s it,” Cap startled upward—sure to reel in our jagged knife and his loose boot laces. “Bait!”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
The sun had all but disappeared and we were quickly losing light. Cap stumbled forward and back as he wobbled over to me, with the sharp end of the blade presented my way.
“We need bait!”
“Get the hell away from me with that thing.” I threw my back against the edge of the raft. A tiny ripple stung the water beneath us and quickly joined the ruffle of our blue hellscape. I lifted a leg and aimed it at Cap’s scarred eye. “I mean it.”
“Not you, you idiot.” Cap froze on that word and flipped the blades’ handle to me. “Me. Cut off the tip of my finger. We can jam it on the knife and catch some food before we starve to death.”
I took the blade. “How the hell do you expect me to do that?”
Cap smiled his blood-greased grin and coughed up a mouthful of the grime drowning his lungs. It was brown, like chunky chocolate pudding.
He scraped a bit of it from his beard. “You’re a doctor… Aren’t you?”
I thought, why break the lie now? If we were going to die, and it certainly looked that way, I would prefer it had been without an old man’s lecture. “These are no conditions for a medical procedure.”
He pulled a length of copper wire from the sack and laced it thrice around the tip of his index finger. “Gonna’ get it good and numb first. How many will do?”
“I think seven should be tight enough.” I grazed my finger along the side of the blade. It’d grown rusty and nearly porous. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Ain’t a choice no more, boy.” Cap yanked the end of the wire, tightening the seven loops that choked his purpling finger-tip. “I can barely feel it.” He laid his finger flat on the raft floor and yanked the wire once again. This time, it cut straight through the skin. “S’nothin’ but bone now, son. Get on with it.”
He looked away. I did as well. In addition to his stench, this was horrifying. “DO IT,” he cried again and slid his elbow backward, causing a spurt of blood to spray straight into my eyes.
I wanted to kill him.
“What the fuck!”
“You’re out of your mind!” I blinked the droplets of blood from my eye and sat back on my end of the P.O.S.
“I’m hungry,” Cap complained—barely noticing his dangling digit.
“Fuck it,” I tossed the knife beside his mostly severed fingertip. “Mutilate yourself. I’m out.”
“Out?” He bolstered. “You can’t be out. You said it your goddamn self,” a bubbling laugh rose to the height of its pitch as his raspy voice turned to a falsetto squeal. “We’re alone,” he cheered. “All fucking alone!”
The next sound I heard was of the rusty knife dragging against the metal floor, then propelling directly into it–puncturing it. Thrilled to have successfully removed his own finger, three of them in fact, Cap scooped up his fresh “bait” and with his free hand removed the knife from where it’d impaled the base of our thin tin home.
We were able to plug the hole after we took on water. That tiny horizontal nick cost us the rest of our food, supplies, and condoms.
We used the condoms to plug the hole.
The day before we were rescued, Cap saw fit to make amends with me. Neither of us had any clue of what was to come, but I was sure that he’d felt bad about sinking us the evening prior—and presumably the first time as well.
I distinctly remember his absolute aversion to looking me in the eye. By then, I didn’t really care. In my mind, death was imminent, whether this old man was present or not, rich or poor, odd or mundane.
He started simply.
“I want to tell you something kid.” He perched himself upright from the fetal position and brushed the gruff of his beard with his sleeve. “I don’t think that I’ve ever rightly spent so much time with a person. At least, not in the way that we have.”
I said nothing, but he knew that I’d heard him.
I spit a loogie into the sea.
“I want to tell you now that, even if you never see me again, if I hear about your death, I’ll be there. I’ll be there because us… we’re brothers-in-tandem, bonded by misfortune, true knowers of internal truth.”
He looked around the open sea as if he’d known that it would be his last time. “We’re family now, Madsen. The parts of us that weren’t, are drowned back there with the rest of our family tree.”
That same, brown, rotten, yet sincere grin.
I said nothing.
Not even a loogie.
Then, he finally turned toward me, not looking at me, but past me. “Can you forgive me for what I’ve done? Can you find it in your heart to see things the way that I see them? To see me off, if you hear about my death?”
“Cap,” I said, my voice dry and cracking. “I’m pretty sure that if we die, it’ll be together. Aren’t you?”
“Iff’n we don’t?”
I made my living by way of the school of survival. There were no morals, little ethics, and few rewards beyond what you could snatch for yourself. Due to the nature of my existence, I was forced to become a liar—to cheat, to steal, to manipulate.
Then, when the impulse arose to perform my awful duties yet again, it felt wrong.
It didn’t make any sense to me at the time, but I just couldn’t lie. Not for my own sake and certainly not for his.
“No,” I told him.
They were the last words that we ever shared.
The crowd, still glum and bleak somehow managed to pull further away. They were a little colder. A little more detached from Madsen and his sunken gaze into a moleskin notebook—too nice for him.
When it became too much, Madsen, at once, closed the book and presented it to the eight mourners who’d remained. “This notebook is filled with several accounts and excerpts, like the ones that I’ve shared with you today. I was hoping to pass it along to any remaining members of Cap’s family.”
Not a single hand or head arrived from the puddle of disinterested attendees.
“It would seem that honor is yours,” the tubby pastor approached, arranging his bifocals and misshapen belt-line. With a friendlier pat on the back, the pastor continued, “Tell me, how much of that is true?”
Madsen sunk his chin into his chest, embarrassed by the question. “Every word except the last.”
“Pardon,” the pastor asked.
“I told him that I wouldn’t come. That he’d be forgotten. Yet here I am, slapping him in the face again. Betraying my word to a dead man. What does that make me?”
The pastor flicked a touch of salt from his own nose and answered, “Death is a memorial of life in its totality. It cares for who we are, not for whom we once became.”
“Even if someone’s an asshole?”
“Especially so, my child.”
The leather clasp, attached to the moleskin, snapped closed and slid between the creases in Madsen’s fingers. He held it with renewed purpose. One that he suspected would remain his burden to bear—like it or not.
And that was fine.
It’s how the world worked.
With a final glance at Cap’s casket, Madsen gave the old-man a proper nod and the goodbye that he knew he owed him. Sleep well, old man, he thought. At the very least, this deal was over.
Upon closer inspection, the gang of vagabonds, who’d attended Cap’s service, were nothing more than that. With no relation to Cap, other than this temporarily shared space, they were simply here to avoid the cold (and perhaps even catch a free meal).
Madsen surmised that Cap was good for that much, yanked up his jeans, and made way into yet another storm.
Willing to go a little deeper down the rabbit hole?
Check out this short piece that was published on FlashFictionMagazine: “Fred”
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