From the author: An old-timer discovers wisdom on the sunken streets of New York City.
Maybe he never had a name. That was possible. He had been in many work crews and had been called many things. Buddy. Pal. You. What was the first? Could he recall? He could not. Maybe he never had a name. Maybe he was never intended to. That's why he was responding to "Champ." Champ could be a name.
"You're on anchor duty, champ." The forewoman said this without looking at him, but Champ knew that he was the anchor. It would be hard work. "It's hard work," said the forewoman. It was all hard work. "Are you up to it?"
"I am up to it," said Champ.
The supply barge bobbed in the wake of a passing ferry. The ferry was larger and faster, and the windows filled with faces of morning commuters. The ferry pilot's horn called out and their barge pilot returned the greeting. The barge would wait for the ferry to pass and then for the wake to die down. They were top-heavy. The barge could capsize. The crane they carried was safe when they were docked and its anchor-shaft firmly planted, but in transport it was extremely unstable and notorious for taking down transport barges even bigger than the one Champ and the other crewmen rode now. So, the pilot waited. Champ looked through the morning glare to the pilot's seat. The pilot couldn't be seen through the sunlight, just a dark blot with a gold halo, but Champ had stood beside him in the company's feed line, and he had recognized a scar that ran down the back of his neck. He had worked with him before, and knew the cause of the scar, and had seen the inside of his neck, and knew that the pilot might have died but lived and now was an Old Timer, just like Champ. They were alive because they could do their jobs and had not died yet.
Besides Pilot and Champ and the forewoman, there was the cable-runner and the electrician. The electrician was a bald man with words and paintings up both arms. Champ could see them but did not understand them. There were words he could read and others he could not, and there were images of things he couldn't recognize. It was no different to Champ than the time he had witnessed a battery explode as a coworker removed it from a vehicle chassis. The coworker's arms had been burned and the skin discolored in splotches and when it blistered it had been in swirls. The coworker had died. The electrician was not dead, and the shapes and words must mean something. They must not be an accident. They didn't have blisters. They were like painted skin.
The forewoman watched the ferry move away and pointed across the water. "Let's go." Her voice was loud and her face lined with wrinkles that rooted at the corners of her eyes. "What the fuck are you waiting for?"
Champ saw the blob that was the pilot turn and look in the forewoman's direction. His arms moved and he prepared the barge to move. Champ knew the barge could have moved faster. This pilot was slow. Champ wondered if this pilot was moving slowly for reasons. Champ looked at the water, still choppy from the ferry. The forewoman was reading schematics. The barge drifted into the shadow of an office building as they bobbed closer to the entrance of Sixth Avenue, and when the building's shadow slid across the pilot Champ could see him clearly. He was looking at the forewoman, hands in position, but not moving. His eyes shifted and he and Champ stared at one another. Both of them watched the other with their white-in-white eyes, and when the forewoman finally looked up the pilot started to move. Champ saw the water had stilled. The pilot was a good pilot. He was an Old Timer. He knew what the forewoman didn't. He held still until the last possible moment. The barge was top-heavy. The pilot was wise.
The barge drifted along Sixth Avenue. Pilot moved them slower than the rest of the traffic. There was impatience. There was shouting. When they finally coasted into position, in the shadow of a highrise apartment complex with mostly black windows, a brass clock stuck at 12:15 above the entrance, the convoy of water taxis and barges behind them moved past. They were not silent in their displeasure at the work crew.
The forewoman ignored them, as did Champ and the pilot and the line runner. The electrician took off his coat and yelled back at the passing boats.
"Go to Hell," he yelled.
Champ watched him yell for only a moment, and then he looked at Pilot, who was pointing straight down as his feet and wheelhand worked controls. They were near the anchor point.
The forewoman leaned over the rail, eyes fixed on the black water beneath them. "You ready, champ?"
Champ had been sitting at his controls. He had always been ready. "I am ready to anchor," he said.
Anchoring the barge was the first of many dangerous steps the crew would do conduct. It was the first and most dangerous because if done wrong all of the crew might die. Champ's job was to shoot the barge's anchor bolt directly into the anchor-ring--a metal ring affixed to the submerged street. The bolt was ten feet tall and a foot in diameter, and made of steel. It rose above them, only a foot of the tip in the water. The rest, colored blood-and-rust-red would stay above them until Champ pulled the trigger. Once the bolt's pistons fired and the bolt shot into the ring it would lock into place and then the barge would be as stable as a dock, and the crane could lift the damaged cables from the waterway floor, and Champ would provide back-up to the rest of the crew. No one provided Champ with back-up. The bolt shot from the barge at incredible speed, and if it missed--hitting the solid concrete and asphalt instead of the silt-filled hole--the force would likely topple the barge. Champ had been on a barge that toppled. He had been the line-runner, submerged and preparing to attach metal lines to the underwater cable. He had been underwater when the anchorman had unexpectedly fired the piston and the bolt had shot into the sturdy roadway. The barge had lifted entirely from the water and then came back down on its side. Champ had seen the pilot and forewoman get crushed by the barge. The pilot was this pilot. Champ had reached him and freed him and lifted him to the surface before his lungs were bags of water. Champ had seen the inside of the pilot's neck and had held it closed with his hand until Company rescue vehicles had arrived and pulled them from the water.
Champ was not like that other anchor-man who had misfired and then not come back because he could not do his job. Champ was an Old Timer.
Champ's equipment was old and dirty. The screen hard to read in the rising light, and the sonar equipment mounted beneath them older than any Champ had used. The image moved in and out of focus. What he saw looked at first like a ring and then like a figure eight on its side and then like nothing.
The forewoman was still looking into the water. "Not yet," she said.
Champ lifted a hand and waved it to Pilot, left and then down. The pilot played with the pedals and turned his wheel. Champ released the safety and engaged the piston engine.
The hum startled the forewoman. "Not yet, goddammit." The forewoman was not young, but she didn't act like an Old Timer. Champ wondered how long she had been a forewoman. "It's too dark to see it yet."
Champ waved again. Left. Left. The image doubled again. Four rings. They merged into one, then four again. There was a pattern. It matched the sway of the barge. Champ held his hand still. Champ made a fist. The pilot waited, held the barge in position despite the currents and passing crafts, eyes on Champ. It is hard to hold a barge so still, but Pilot was an Old Timer. Pilot was good.
"No, goddamit!" The forewoman was not wise.
Champ pulled the trigger. The anchor shot into the water. The machinery firing the piston let out a crack like an explosion, and then the barge shuddered to a stop. The electrician and forewoman who had both been standing and swaying with the motion of the water staggered as the gentle up and down of floating was replaced by a sudden, sturdy rooting. They would not tip. They would not capsize. They could use the crane.
"Jesus Christ," said the forewoman. She turned and pointed at Champ. Her face was lined and twisted. "When I say no, I mean no!"
Champ nodded. He didn't point out that it had been a very smooth anchoring. It hadn't even hit the edge of the ring. There had been no gong-like sound. Champ had hit it dead-center.
The electrician walked behind him. "Fucking handicapper." It was another name that was sometimes used by foremen and other crewmen. Champ didn't reply. He looked at the pilot who looked at him and then turned away. They were wise.
With the barge anchored it was time to lift the damaged cable from the waterway and replace the malfunctioning section. The cables under the water were old and their sheathing cracked. The saltwater could leak in and the corrosion worsen and speed up. Soon enough, buildings lost power.
The forewoman put Champ on the crane. A preliminary inspector had visited the site a week or so earlier, a line with a red float had been tied to the spot the inspector thought was damaged. Champ aimed for the float and lowered the crane's hook into the water. The lineman was on duty now and Champ watched the water and listened to his earpiece despite the lineman only now appearing on deck in his wetsuit.
"Check," replied Champ and the cable-runner gave him a wave. They could hear each other. The forewoman said something to the runner, too low and far away for Champ to hear. The runner nodded, said he understood and climbed over the rail and into the water. The runner was not an Old Timer, but he was a new generation, and his voice was smooth and his face without lines. His eyes were the palest white in white Champ had ever seen. Champ thought he would do his job for a long time.
The electrician was talking to himself at the back of the boat. He held his tablet and his hand moved over the screen. He looked up at Champ. "Hey, capper! Cable is off. You raise it as soon as he signals."
"I'll raise it when he signals."
The electrician shook his head. “Thanks, dipshit.” Champ looked at him for a moment, then looked at the pilot. The pilot and he looked at one another and then to the water.
Across the wireless came the runner's voice. "I have located the flag and attached the cable." The bright red float dipped under the water several times, the visual to match the verbal signal. "I am clear of the cable."
Champ engaged the crane motor. "Preparing to raise cable in three, two, one." Champ did not say "zero." Where zero belonged he reeled in the cable. The barge shuddered and a moan rose from the water. In less than a minute twenty feet of cable was visible like a massive black tentacle. Champ had heard a crewman refer to it as "the wet snake," and other crewmen had laughed. Champ wasn't sure this why.
Champ reeled the cable to the side of the barge. The electrician and forewoman leaned across the rail and touched the cable. They ran their palms across the sheathing. The forewoman pulled a can of spray paint from her jacket pocket and sprayed the cable. The paint would coat the cable and cracks would leak water or blow bubbles disturbing the paint, revealing the damage. Champ was an old-timer. He had used paint and soap to find cracks and invisible holes.
The forewoman and the electrician shook their heads and cursed. The electrician pointed at Champ. "He brung up the wrong section."
"He brought up what was marked," said the forewoman. The forewoman put the paint can back in her pocket and shook her head.
The electrician spit into the water. "Bet the inspector was a capper."
The electrician was probably right. The inspector who had marked the cable was most likely a "capper," like the pilot, like the cable-runner, and like Champ himself. Champ wasn't sure why the electrician knew this by their not finding the damage. Champ knew because the inspection work was hard and solitary and very dangerous. Most inspectors died doing their work, and most of the dead were never found. The currents took them. For a brief time, Champ had worked on a crew that pulled bodies from the harbor and rivers. Most had skin and eyes too saturated to know what they looked like in life, but Champ had known that most had eyes like his, had seen work like his, and been called Champ like him.
The forewoman spoke to everyone through his wireless. "We're going to try again. Twenty feet forward on the cable.
The cable runner's voice came back scratchy. To Champ it sounded like gravel being poured into a drainage ditch. "Understood."
The electrician shook his gloves in one hand. "Maybe if we turn it back on we can see the short. Hear it at least."
The forewoman shook his head. "I don't think so." He waved a hand at Champ, his thumb pointed down.
Champ engaged the crane engine.
Into his wireless he said, "Preparing to lower cable. Clear."
The cable runner said he was clear and Champ saw him surface and hold the side of the boat.
It was as Champ began to release the line that he noticed the electrician running his hands over his wireless. He swiped against the screen and looked between it and the cable. Champ was an Old Timer. He knew the electrician was using the live wire to find a break in the cable. Champ also knew that Inspectors wore specially insulated diving suits when searching for breaks. Cable runners do not.
The pop and crackling sound was not loud. If Champ had not seen the electrician moving as he did he might have thought the sound far away. But the interference on their wireless was loud. Each crewman pulled their earphones off with a grimace. The forewoman shouted. Champ released the line and stood at his station and yelled.
"Live wire! Live wire!"
Then he looked at the cable-runner. The runner was still in the water, holding the side of the barge, his legs stiff like branches behind him. His head was angled toward Champ. He had been looking in his direction when the cable went live and the massive voltage connected the crane line to the barge to him. The other crewmen wore rubber boots and gloves. The runner was barefoot and barehanded. Being a runner was dangerous if electricians don't know how to do their job.
"Cut it!" the forewoman yelled. "Cut it, cut it!"
The electrician swept his hand over the screen. The popping stopped. The wireless went quiet. The runner released his grip and floated face down in the water. The sun moved higher in the sky and they all shimmered in reflected light, dancing with bright patches. Like electricity on its skin.
The forewoman grabbed the electrician's arm. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
The electrician's face was grey. "He shouldn't of been there. He said he was clear."
"Clear of the cable, asshole."
"He shouldn't of been there."
To Champ the forewoman said, "Grab a pole and get him out of there."
They pulled the body from the water and stood in a circle around it. Both the pilot and Champ looked at the forewoman. They waited for instruction they knew was coming. They were Old Timers, so they knew there were two options: stay and work or return to the barge depot.
The electrician stood and cursed at the dead runner. "He shouldn't have been there." He shook his gloves as if whipping someone. "You can't write me up for this."
The forewoman wiped sweat from her face. The sun was overhead now. It was hot. "I haven't decided what to do."
"They'll dock my pay. I'll be paying them for this guy for the rest of my life. I can't afford that."
"Then you shouldn't have tried a shortcut."
"He shouldn't have been there!"
The electrician shouted to himself as he stomped to the far end of the deck. The forewoman looked at the body, then the pilot. "Have you run cable?"
The pilot said he had not. He had only ever piloted barges.
The forewoman nodded as if he knew this already. To Champ she said, "You have." Not a question.
"Okay." The forewoman said this and then just stood still a moment. Behind them the electrician was shouting. "Okay," she said again. "You suit up. You're runner."
"I will run the cable."
"Yes, and I'll work the crane, and we'll see if dipshit over there can fix the break."
The spare wetsuit was below deck. As Champ descended the ladder the pilot dragged a tarp over the body.
Champ slipped into the water and it felt cold, even through the suit. His hands and feet were bare. The sun was starting to descend, the air was thick and hot, but Champ was comforted in the water. He adjusted his mask and tested his wireless. The forewoman gave him a thumbs up and the pilot and electrician stood on the deck above him and watched as he let himself sink below the surface.
With the sun overhead, he could see five feet ahead. He let himself go straight down until he floated onto the cable. This was like the training he had done for off-world work. He had almost completed it when a trainer told him he had "failed" and would be reassigned. Champ never knew why he had failed. He hadn't wondered until now.
Champ pulled himself along the cable until he reached the knot of straps and hook where the crane's line attached. He disconnected it, letting the forewoman know when it was done. A beep him let him know the crane was reeling the cable in and extending forward. Champ stayed where he was, waited for the forewoman to lower the line again. At that signal he pulled himself forward.
This was called cable running, but it didn't resemble running at all. Champ wondered at that until he found the line and hook. He had pulled the straps with him. The cable was "stitched" along the sides with loops of wire. He worked the straps through as many of these as he could and then tied it off. The crane's hook held a bundle of straps and then he gave the signal.
"Okay," replied the forewoman. "Preparing to lift." The forewoman's voice was distant through a cloud of falling gravel.
The hum of the crane and the moan of the cable sang to one another as the black snake arched and lifted. It looked like a living thing, recoiling from pain at the bottom of the waterway.
Now Champ was in the shadow of the cable. His eyes adjusted and he saw more than before. What was in the light stood out. And something unusual stood out, drifting, falling, something disturbed by the rising cable. Champ swam to it.
The body of a woman with long hair tied back was tied to three concrete blocks. She almost looked alive, arms gesturing with currents, head turned to look his way. She looked surprised. Her mouth open, eyes wide. The current took hold and she moved a few inches. The blocks scraped sediment off the macadam as they went. Champ knew that behind her, in the darkness beneath the boardwalk, was the original entrance to the avenue of buildings, doors and windows sealed shut or punched out long ago. She hadn't come from there. He knew. He was an old-timer. He knew fish and black, slippery things lived there. She had not. She was tied down. Otherwise, she would float. She had come from above.
"Cable is raised," the forewoman said. "You clear, champ?"
The water was quiet. When had the crane motor stopped? Champ didn't know. He swam closer to the woman.
"I am clear."
"Okay. I think we spotted the break. Should be laying it back down shortly."
The woman waved at Champ.
Around her sprouted strange plants. Some plants were not strange. Seaweed was normal. It grew in clumps in cracks in the sidewalk and street. Algae grew everywhere. Yet these other plants were different. They were shaped like jars and they glowed. The woman was surrounded by them and appeared to be looking at them when her head flowed forward. He swam closer.
They were jars. He lowered himself to the macadam, beside her feet, and almost lay on his stomach. He looked into a jar and saw a small roll of white paper. The jar was tied to string with wire, algae growing on one side, the other brushing against the woman's foot when the current shifted. The woman's skin was white and thin. The wire tying her to the concrete block had sliced deep into her skin. Champ thought she must have been there for a long time.
Champ took hold of the jar. It lifted easily, trailing a length of string and at the end a stone, the size of a thumb, wrapped in wire. The string was no more than a few threads. It broke and the stone sank. Champ picked it up, squeezed it, felt the rock and wire and saw his fingers bend around them. His skin was white and thin.
Champ saw other stones wrapped in wire and some clumps of algae that might be old stones. The stone was heavy in his hand. The jar was light. It would float. It would bob upon the surface and move with the current. Eventually, it would reach the ocean. Eventually, the glass would break and the air escape. Water would sink the glass and metal, would turn the paper into mush, and the glass would grind to sand against sand. Eventually, it would be as if it never had been. Was eventually a kind of wisdom?
Champ squeezed the rock and the jar.
He let the rock fall. Rocks and wire were strong and would last. He unzipped the front of his suit. A flood of cold water filled the suit. It was grey and full of dead things, small things, grit. He placed the jar in his suit and looked for another. He sought out jars that were small.
The sound of gravel filled his ears. "Repairs underway. We want to test the cable. Board the ship."
Champ gathered jars as fast as he could. His suit stretched to make room for more, but three on each side seemed to be the limit.
The forewoman repeated his order. "You hear me?"
This jar was cracked and full of water. That jar looked like a rock until he noticed it bobbing. All around him were stones with frayed strings waving like fresh plant stems. How many jars had already floated away? How many already returned to the ocean.
"God damn it," said the forewoman. "Board the ship! Am I clear?"
"Understood." Champ's sides were lumpy with jars. He held two more in each hand. It was all he could manage. When the cable came down it would land here and crush what was left. It would crush the remaining jars and the abandoned stones. It would crush the body of the woman, pin her to the bottom, and stop her from looking alive. Champ knew he would have a hard time when he surfaced. He would have to explain the lumps, the jars. He might be able to keep one, he thought. It wasn't hope because it had no need behind it. It was only an option. He was wise enough to have outlived hope.
The sound of gravel filled his ears and Champ looked at the woman as he pushed himself toward the surface. He had seen dead bodies float and sink and float again. He had pulled what was left of some from the water and had left others behind. What he had never seen was anything happening as a result of pulling or not pulling up a body. He had pulled the line runner up. He had left the woman behind. They had the runner's body. They did not have the woman's. That was the only difference.
The jars were not like that. The jars were unusual and special. Champ did not know why other than they were something he did not know. He wanted to see them so that next time he wouldn't wonder. Champ's ignorance was like a stone wired to his feet. His ears filled with angry gravel. He was an Old Timer. He would be wise.