Tuesday, August 1, 2017

ART MAN: Olde Tyme Good Time World - By David Eccher

The port of call was a port of call girls.
Was, in that it used to be, back in the day. The cruise ship’s ports generally had interesting things to see. All the better for J---- if the sites of interest required no human interaction.  The demands of the cruise ship, now that he was assisting Art sell art more directly, were stressing his capacity for tolerating humans. Art himself was a chatty fellow, but he knew when to back off and give J---- space. And his cabin mate was in no uncertain terms, a D-Bag. The crew actually called him this to his face, and D-Bag didn’t even get that it was an insult. He was constantly in full ‘primping for a date mode’, which meant the he had no date and would be out trolling and bothering every breathing female on board, again. The primping could take hours, as he had no actual place to be. Luckily, despite being in close proximity all the time, D-Bag had no interest in talking to a ‘loser’ like J----.
New passengers, however, were aggressive, annoying, cloying, chatty, fawning, staring, stalking, snarky idiots. As soon as one learned J---- was the “Water Walker”, the day would go straight to interaction hell.
How do you do it?
Is it a trick?
Have you always been able to do it?
It must be a trick.
What does it feel like?
Stupid fucking trick, you ain’t no Houdini. Being able to walk underwater was cool, but not extraordinarily useful, as far as J---- could tell. Yes, it seemed he could stay under indefinitely. No, he didn’t feel the temperature of the water. Yes, he could walk on any submerged surface, no matter what it’s orientation. But… He couldn’t swim. He couldn’t even float! In the water, he sank like an anchor to the bottom. The umpteenth time he was badgered by passengers about what it was like, he grew so flustered that he just muttered “here, it’s like this” and plunged feet first over the side of the boat. What a mistake. The water was deep, and there was nothing to climb. There was nothing to walk up. There was no (non-floating) way back to the ship. He wasn’t horribly far from shore, but even a short-ish distance of underwater walking took some time. By the time J---- had walked the seafloor and reached dry land, the ship was not visible on the horizon. He had to walk further to find people, then beg politely to borrow a phone, and beg even more to convince the company to arrange transportation for him to rendezvous with the ship. And then he got an earful from his boss. Do you know how much this cost? Not just the transport, but the work you weren’t doing that had to be done by someone else. And no one was buying anything from Art. And the time spent waiting for you. I’ll be shocked, just shocked, if we don’t get lawsuits for the emotional trauma you inflicted because passengers thought you were dead and we were abandoning you. On and on and on she blistered his metaphorical hide and tattooed his virtual buttocks. He thought for certain she would fire him, or confine him to quarters at least. But when she didn’t go there, it suddenly dawned on him why. They wanted him. They NEEDED him. Maybe they weren’t sure what for yet, or more specifically, they weren’t sure yet how they could best exploit his skill for their profit. J---- figured they had to balance short term gain against his long term potential. He was on a six-month contract. He could walk away now, literally from the ship, and figuratively from the contract, and would owe them money back for his training and transportation from home. He hadn’t earned enough in pay to cover that yet, but he supposed he would figure out a way to make money off himself as quickly as they could figure out how to make money off of him. And they likely would want to lock him into a long-term relationship for long term exploitation.   At the end of his verbal dressing down, they agreed he would not go overboard again without first consulting her. To at least make sure there was a plan for how to get him back onboard. She also suggested they rig him up with floatation devices that he could inflate underwater to carry him back to the surface. (J---- suspected that she did not actually believe that he could neither swim nor float.) He agreed to let them try this scheme. They strapped him into an inflatable vest with a little cord. Once in the water, he would pull the cord, and theoretically, rise to the surface.
Nope. He was like Mjölnir in the water. Only the power of Thor, and not this puny vest, could lift him. He stood firmly on the bottom of the deep end of one of the ship’s pools, feeling a fool, his vision hampered by the inflated vest as it tried to rise, as effectively as a toy balloon trying to carry away a child.
Maybe it would work in the salt water, she said, grasping at straws.
He was not game to try again.)
In the current port of call girls, he had exhausted all of the “things to do with no human interaction” and dared to visit “Aunt Betty’s Bordello and Music Hall.” The brochure on board had promised a self-guided tour and musical revue, both of which were types of activities normally minimally acceptable in terms of not talking to anyone. Unfortunately, several of the ‘exhibits’ on the tour were humans in period costumes, speaking with strained Irish accents, and, most dreadfully, ‘soliciting’ for your attentions.
My, as fine a looking young man such as yourself, at sea for months and months, certainly you could use a bit of tender companionship. (and sotto voce, to the other tourists nearby) These young sailor lads ‘pop their cork’ before you can even touch their Blarney stones.
J---- did his best to ignore the idiotically mixed up metaphors and advances. But when he dared try to take a photo of one of the costumed women, “Betty Herself” grabbed him by the arm and would not be ignored.
A dollar in my stocking if you want to be doing that, laddie. And a dollar in the other one as well to get a peek at my treasure chests.
And with all the subtlety of a potato famine, she pulled his head against her rolling landscape of a bosom.
Two dollars for these treasures, and fond memories of my mammaries for those long nights tugging your boat at sea.
Once free of her bosomy embrace, he quickly looked for an escape route, and found a side room that was devoid of people. He pretended to submerge himself in a book on a table by the far wall, just in case ‘Betty’ should follow him.
He stood staring, sweating, not even seeing the words when a voice startled him.
She is a bit much, eh?
In the corner, tucked away, was another woman in a costume dress. J---- must have been too discombobulated to notice her when he first dashed into the room.
It’s just the role, you know. I have been “Betty Herself” too, but I do not talk like that so much. If they would read the books in here they would know Betty was Canadian by way of Norway, not Irish. But I guess the phony accent plays better in Irish. It is all scripted anyways, even the ‘handsy’ part of pulling you to her chest. Done a thousand times over. Quite tiresome.
Yea, that makes sense, he replied.
In these books, that is where the real stuff is. The stuff that would interest one such as yourself. The book you are staring at is okay. “The Tales of Treasure”, but it is a secondhand account that plays to cliché. Chapter 13 is not bad. The story of Betty, having stolen away every bit of jewelry and coin she could pinch from her uncouth male patrons and the snooty ‘ladies’ in the music hall, stealing away in the dark of night, running, well sailing away from this shithole existence, but winding up, presumably, at the bottom of the sea.
J---- found her mesmerizing. The flat, honest tone of her voice pulled him in and captivated him to the point of uncomfortable embarrassment.
Well, um, tall tales I guess. Legends make for good storytelling, he said.
Maybe. Maybe. People have been hunting for years. Divers. Salvagers. Governments. Some have found items. Some have even claimed to be onto the ‘Betty load of Booty’. But they only show a few coins, never anything conclusively Betty’s.
How would anyone know if it were really the, um, “Betty Booty”? He mumbled the horribly awkward phrase with more than a bit of shame.
I would know. If they would read the right items in this room, they’d know too.
So you think the B…, the, Bo... treasure, um, it is really still out there to be found?
Up there.
Up?, he asked.
The woman pointed to a spot above where he stood.
Read the one up above your head and you will know what is lost under the water.
J--- looked up and saw books, just ordinary books, on the shelves around him. He reached a hand out, while looking at her face, hoping for an indication of which one to take.
No. You can’t see it. You can’t reach it like that. It’s up on top, out of view. You’re going to need to climb up.
The woman was no longer sitting in the corner chair, and he guessed she meant for him to pull it over and stand up upon it. He struggled to move the overstuffed chair. She offered no help, but he got it over to the shelf. Balancing his feet on either of the tattered arms, his eyes were level the top of the bookcase. There was a small decorative ridge at the top, and behind it what  looked to be 100 years of accumulated dust. Barely visible, there was a slight elevation is a section of the dust. The rectangular shape of a slim volume blended seamlessly with the carpet of undisturbed time. He nudged at it, revealing a leather-bound ledger of some sort. It was scarcely thicker than the layer of grime that had accumulated on and around it. He expected a joke title in the category of World’s Smallest Book, like “Great South African Lovers” or “The Wit and Wisdom of Steven Seagal”. But as he carefully brushed at it, he could not see any printing on the cover at all.
He picked the volume up and shook a bit of the dust, which went straight up his nose and started a sneezing fit. The chair rocked with each nasal explosion and the motion nearly sent him tumbling. He quickly tucked the slender volume into his pocket and grabbed at the chair back with both hands to prevent catastrophe as he convulsed from sneezing.
What the fuck are you doing?
It was the first “Real Betty”, minus the fake Irish accent, flirty manner, and olde tyme swear words.
J---- struggled to compose himself.
I, well, she, we really…
He swiveled his head around, but could not see the second woman.
Get the fuck off the furniture. That old crap is expensive.
Sorry. Sorry. The other Betty said…
What? What are you on about, you little nerd. I’m the only Betty here today and you better get your skinny ass down and out of here before I call security to drag you out.
J---- had to wait for his cabin mate, D-Bag, to leave the room before he dared examine the ‘stolen’ ledger more closely. (Was it really stolen? They didn’t even know it was there and one of them helped him retrieve it. It was only borrowed, really.)
When J---- had gotten back on board, D-Bag was in full primping mode, so the wait time was unpredictable and excruciating. When he finally left, J---- made sure the door was secure and proceed to carefully lay the ledger out on his desk for examination. He was interrupted by a knocking and unlatched the door.
Dude, locking the door to jack-off?
No, D-Bag, he said, closing his eyes so he would not have to look at the walking hunk of uncouth. Unfortunately, closing his eye only heightened the impact of the grotesque mix of body washes and man-sprays.
Jeez, dude, you look like you’re gonna puke. Thought even a dweeb like you would have his sea legs by now. Chill, I just forgot my trilby.
D-Bag, left, and once again J---- latched the door and turned to the desk. Another  knocking sound, another deep sigh, and another check of the door, but he found no one there. When he turned back to his desk, she was standing there.
J---- nearly screamed, but swallowed it and hopped about sounding like a pigeon who desperately needed to pee.
Coo roo-c'too-coo. Oh-oo-oor. Hooooooooow.  
I can go anywhere, but am always nowhere.
Whooooooo. (gulp) Who. Are. You?
I told you before, I am Betty. That’s my ledger you fetched down for me.
She wasn’t looking at him, but stood staring down at his desk, an intense passion in her demeanor. Her hand reached for the book, but stopped just short. She sighed deeply and let her hand fall on the book. Her hand fell on it, then passed through it, through the desk, and back to her side.
It’s hell not being able to touch anything.
J---- nearly fainted. Maybe he did faint but just never fell down. He shook his head and swallowed hard, blinking about 100 times a second.
Would. Would you like me to open it for you?
Oh, yes, that would be lovely.
J---- moved to the desk and stood by her side, even though he could have, he guessed, occupied the same space as her. That would be rude though. He gently took the cover and turned it back to reveal the first page.  Every line was written on, though the print was faded. The entries on each line varied in length, some short, some longer, but they didn’t look like a story or diary entries.  
What are these, he asked, bending forward to peer at the fainted markings.
This is my inventory. Every piece I collected over the years. Every piece I took with me on the boat to escape. Every piece I died for. Every piece you will get back for me.
Get back? How?
You know very well how, Water Walker.
J---- stumbled backwards to his bunk. His head was spinning. Of course a ghost who could appear through walls would know about him. Of course she would want his help. Maybe this was his way to... wait, none of this really made any sense.
You can’t touch anything, right?
I cannot. Not in a hundred years have I been able to touch, to move anything, to feel texture, or heat, or grime. I miss grime. I miss smokey ashen wood chips after a fire has burned out. I miss food. I miss flesh.
And these items. These things you have ledgered and want me to retrieve. Will you be able to touch them? Are they magical?
No, you silly romantic. No.
Then... why?
I want to see them. I want to look at them. Years of servicing smelly, brutal, ignorant men. I worked for every one of these items, and I deserve to see them.
You could go to where they are now and see them.
Under water, like a fish? Pass through the sediment, and the cases, and the wrapping? In the dark of the deep? No, that isn’t what I want. I want them to be up here, in the open and displayed, cleaned and cared for, so that I can look at each piece at my leisure.
J---- swallowed dryly.
Okay, I will get them for you.
Ghost Betty looked at him with burning scepticism, but her look faded when she saw he was staring at his own hands, trembling.
Don’t you want to know what’s in it for you?
Oh, sure, um, right. What’s in it for me? (Other than you not haunting me for the rest of my life, he thought.)
No one knows what’s down there. So if several of the very valuable, but less traceable, and easily saleable pieces were to go missing, I wouldn’t mind, and no one would notice.
Who’s going to not notice? I mean, no one knows what’s there but you. What am I to do with the pieces I bring back up for you?
You will donate them to Aunt Betty’s Bordello and Music Hall, of course. You will stipulate they are to be displayed for the public as being on loan from ‘The Collection of J----- H--------, Water Walker Esq.”
What collection? I don’t have any collection. (He chose not to mention his Superhero figurines back home. Quite the collection though they were.)
Oh, my dear naive boy. There are many treasures you, and only you, will be able to find, once you know who to ask.
Aunt Betty’s Bordello and Music Hall would have to be renovated to be able to display these treasures securely, but the ownership was overwhelmed and ecstatic to have this boost to their stale business. J---- had to spin some tales about ‘just tripping over them’ on his underwater walk, versus the truth of being guided to them by Ghost Betty. And ‘of course, it is just the right thing to do’ was why he loaned them for display rather than profiting from them. “They belonged to Betty so they belong here” he had come up with by way of explaining why he wasn’t keeping them. It certainly raised fewer questions than explaining that Ghost Betty wanted to look at them and he feared she would follow him around the globe whispering graphic tales of olde tyme sex in his ear if he didn’t.  
The only person he confided in was Art. The old man, seemingly, had no problem accepting the story and helped J---- formulate a plan.
J---- would quit his cruise ship job virtually immediately upon reaching a port that offered a discrete opportunity to sell one of the lessor items. Lessor being a misleading word in that Art felt the sale of one item would certainly allow J--- to pay of his broken contract and pay for much more beyond that. Diamonds. Emeralds. Rubys. Art advised removing the stones from a piece or two and selling them as loose jewels as the safest way to start his fortune.

After that, well, J---- would Water Walk his way to untold riches. Assuming he could find one or two more of these spirits that Ghost Betty had told him about...
Missed part 1? You can read it here: ARTMAN And be sure to follow David on Twitter

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