Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Captain's Table

meanwhile, back on the Yangze, aboard the SS Blessed Pensioner

I am at the Captain’s table.

“I invited you here” said Captain Shan, “because you are the only passenger with a dinner jacket. The fact that no one dresses for dinner is proof positive that Americans have no civilization and, worse, have been able to get along fine without one. Civilization is a thing of the past.”
“Yet” said the Captain settling down, “I have utter contempt for you. You seem like a fellow who has never finished anything.”

I could see that the Captain and I were going to get along fine.

The rest of the meal passed amicably. The Captain’s remarks to me were unheard, or simply did not admit of a conversational follow-up. Some of the other guests included some of the few younger or more attractive passengers of the boat, which was a great blessing for me, though young and really pretty people generally don’t have much conversational skill. The remainder seem to have been chosen at random and passed the fish course talking about giving their dog shots. The Captain remained silent for the rest of the meal, the dishes passing silently, unremarked and untouched before him, like offerings to an idol in dress whites, a part that suited him well, as an obviously seasoned and older man of the sea, the crooked angle of his head unmoving, his thoughtful Ahab-like glare, focused at infinity at the edge of a wine glass. Somewhere around the sesame-seaweed tiramisu, the Captain began speaking again, in a quiet uninflected way, and I, as his immediate companion and being more in the neighborhood of the direction of the crook of his neck, took the posture of his interlocutor.

“You must pilot the Yangtze for fourteen years before they will allow you a Captaincy. The Three Gorges were historically an impassible and treacherous stretch, full of whirlpools and cataracts. The Three Gorges Dam...”

And here the other diners perked up, because we had all been to the Three Gorges Dam site.

“The Three Gorges Dam will change things even further. It will drown this whole area to the depth of over 100 meters. Everything. The Three Gorges. The Shibaozhai Temple. Fengdu, the Ghost City. 1.3 million people to be relocated.”

Someone commented on the power generation of the future dam and compared it to the TVA. Shan did not appear to hear them. It was time for coffee and liqueurs anyway.

This is the one field where I actually have knowledge: I was going to propound some suggestions to my more lithesome companions, but they had some twentysomething thing to do like go smoke. I thought about going with them. Maybe I sighed. The Captain spoke again:

“Men will sometimes say to another man: ‘She’s not all that attractive.’ Sometimes this is true, other times it is just to keep the sheer terror of the thing at bay, like when we say ‘it’s not so bad’ or ‘death will release me.’”
I keep hoping that Shan is drunk, but he has not touched his goblet. By now there’s a little collection of white moisture collecting in the corner of his mouth.
“The sad and horrible thing that you eventually realize as a man is that all of your human feelings are in your balls. Chinese Medicine teaches us this.”
Shan reaches for his tea cup. He picks it up. He holds it. Then nothing seems to happen for what in tea drinking terms is a long, long time. The sequence seems to have somehow failed or been forgotten. It goes on long enough for me to seriously consider joining him, out of courtesy, in some sort of weird frozen toast.

But Shan relents and puts down his cup, somewhat naturally.

“Our deepest sadness -our loneliness, comes right from the muscles of the sac. And our compassionate moments.”
The Captain rearranged himself. I stole a glance at his dress whites. It was hard to tell if it was just a fold of the napkin, but for an older gentleman the Captain seemed to have an enormous erection.
“Our compassionate moments are when a cool breeze is blowing on them. It seems improper for an old man to leer.”
“But that’s when a man really knows he’s done for, that he’s going to die and not come back. When he’s somewhere and there are all these young women.”
Shan paused. I was immobilized.
“And he realizes” Shan continued, “that he will never equal his imagination. That he will never know or catch up with his possible desires. This is -how to put it -totality.”

“Tomorrow’s drink of the day,” said Captain Shan “is Daiquiris.”

Captain Shan did not seem like the sort of man who drank Daquiris.

“Tomorrow,” said Captain Shan “I think I will pilot the boat into Drinking Horse Gorge, to demonstrate my understanding of totality. And compassion.”

Why do such men always find in me a confidante?

“Not all will die,” added Shan “some will survive, despite many injuries.”

“I find the idea of all these countless Daiquiris spilling into the muddy yellow Yangtze appealing.”