Twenty-Three Miles Offshore

Twenty-Three Miles Offshore

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Tim Parrish is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy the following excerpt from Parrish’s short story “Roustabout,” part of his collection Red Stick Men.

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R. T. and I took a helicopter to work and we weren’t rich men. We were roustabouts twenty-three miles offshore. A production platform, not a drilling rig, and I’ve got ten fingers to prove it. Out there, blue sky over us, blue sea under us, we pumped the vein, maybe even sucked from the heart. It thrilled me to think how deep we went.

Every other Thursday I drove south from Baton Rouge to Dulac—marsh grass, glare, and fish stench—and that’s where I first saw him, R. T., melon shoulders, early balding head and sweet laugh, waiting for the chopper, drawing me like a big planet. Flying out, chuffing low over the last swamp before the gulf, he took me in, asking where from, when and why, none of that initiation ice the rest of the crew would give. Our quarters was a closet with two beds but that whole world was close, three stilted platforms connected at right angles by hovering catwalks, one three-story building perched eighty feet in the air, floors of honeycombed steel that fumbled bolts and wrenches fell through. At the platforms’ highest levels a fall might kill you, at the lowest the gulf lapped the grating. Eight days on, six days off, seven men together more than half our lives.

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R. T. and I listened to the same music—Sex Pistols, Ramones, Buzzcocks, The Damned—rare in 1979. Both of us planned on college. R. T. taught me the ropes and kept an eye on me. Second week out, standing under the crane arm, R. T. told me to move. Moments later, three fifty-five-gallon drums squashed the spot where I’d been. R. T. shook his head and pointed up. “Skarkey. Sloppy son of a bitch.”

Evenings we ate, lifted weights, then took my guitar to the lower deck of the third platform. Water two feet below, we smoked a pin joint and sang as the sky purpled and oranged with sunset. R. T. told about his bride-to-be, Darlene, how fine and cool she was, then fretted over being with the same woman every day the rest of forever. I tried being sympathetic but I envied them their love and I shut him up by playing the Pistols’ “Submission” as a ballad. During the chorus, fins sliced the surface, back and forth beneath the grating, sharks I thought, until two dolphins missiled from the drink and splashed us. From then on they came, Blow Holes 1 and 2, mates or pals we couldn’t tell, barking like Flippers, sometimes letting us stroke their slick backs.

Next hitch, seven-foot swells bucking the boat we were on, R. T. and I lashed steel lines around a two-ton compressor and tried with our hands to steady its crane-rise off the deck. An errant swing bent a four-inch railing like straw and we danced not to be bent ourselves. When the compressor lifted above us, R. T. patted my shoulder and squeezed. That night I told R. T. about Bev, how we went to punk shows, cut each other’s hair, went garage saleing, told him how the sex was good but not different, not hungry, not love. He flopped onto his side, propped his head on his hand and told me not to push and I’d find love, then said he had a crush on Nikki, the woman engineer who visited our platform once a week. He talked on, his voice as soft and even as warm surf. When he asked me a question, I didn’t know where I was.

* * *

Slow work days we shared sights, thunderstorms stretching tendrils, bright fish schooling, ships passing in the distance. Once four waterspouts watusied side by side. Land was far away.

Sun-stupid one burning afternoon, I jerked on a valve cover and the cords in my back went with a squish. R. T. carried me to the tool shack, his chest against me, his arm around me. The company might cut me loose if they knew my back was bad, so R. T. and I sat, pain sweat shooting from me, R. T.’s hand kneading my neck. He told me work fuck-up stories but my ears were full of water rushing through a pipe and I covered my face and concentrated on his touch, firm and gentle, until my stomach swirled like a whirlpool. I clenched my body against his hand but I didn’t tell him to take it away and before long he had to help me outside to puke. Walking, he pulled me up short and slipped his foot under a hinged section of floor grate we’d almost stepped through. He flipped it closed with a clang and my stomach lurched its contents through the floor and twenty-five feet down to the sump level where we’d almost gone. “Fucking Skarkey,” R. T. said. “He left this hatch open before and didn’t rope it.” R. T. held me around the waist and I held him too as he ushered me inside again. “You okay?” he asked. The odor of diesel and grease hung strong and tears welled from my eyes but not from the smell and not from my back. From my heart. From the weirdness there.

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“Roustabout” from Red Stick Men by Tim Parrish
University Press of Mississippi, 2000
Where to buy: Amazon

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