Short Story: Tristan

Rain again today. Tristan shuddered beneath his thin jacket and could not tell if the crash he heard was thunder or an unidentified rumbling from across the docks. He knew it was probably just another dolly loaded up with backbreaking crates of fish. The only thing he could smell was fish, anyway. For all he knew, the boxes he moved could contain illegal firearms or piles of drugs. Despite years on the job, acting as a beacon at the end of the pier, he had never bothered to peek inside to satisfy his curiosity. His mind has always been a more interesting place. How else could he stand to work the docks?

His coworkers avoided talking to him. It was easier that way. Hardened men of sea and shore, they all had experience on ships as well as land. Their tanned faces were cracked like mud baked by the sun, and they wore more or less the same ensemble of flannel and denim through the year. Their unattractiveness was a badge of honor to them. They wanted to deny the modern world by carrying on the tradition of hating their jobs, drinking too much beer and whiskey, and sharing a superiority complex over anyone whose career did not involve physical labor.

With Tristan, it was different. There was just something wrong about him. Something off. They resented his youth and pallor. Only a young man of twenty-two, he might as well have been an infant to them. His tan only soaked in during the most brutal weeks of summer, and even then he looked golden rather than ruddy. Little freckles would stand out on his nose and cheeks then, and even at six feet tall he would seem like a boy. His light brown hair would become bleached by the afternoon’s fierce rays. The Golden Boy, they called him.

They couldn’t begin to understand him. Why would a young, striking man isolate himself amongst the crates? This wasn’t a life to experience; this was death. The machines would come eventually. They started at the center of the city, but they would expand their domain to this shipyard. The owners would not have to worry about belligerent machines drinking too much and leaving broken bottles everywhere. The work of ten men could be handled by a single structure with a part-time, uninsured individual at the controls. What kind of a future is that? Who would enter an albatross career?

Tristan never shared his motivation. Instead, he would smirk at his elders, his peers, and tell an unrelated story. He especially liked to light up a cigarette as he began. He only bought cloves. He would take a tentative lungful and stare at the dark cigarette as he exhaled. “I still haven’t smoked a regular cigarette yet,” he always began, as though his listener cared about his tobacco use. “I had my first one of these the summer before I turned eighteen. God, did I feel powerful. I thought I was dangerous. I used to get on my bicycle and pedal around the neighborhood slowly, like molasses. It was like my tires were melting on the pavement. There I’d be, mounted on my bike moving so slowly a breeze might’ve blown me over, and I’d have one hand to steer and the other to wave around my cigarette like a burning flag.

“This one time, I saw two neighbors arguing. I don’t know what it was about, but judging by the way the one man’s dog was howling like it was the defendant in some controversy, I imagine it’d done something to offend the other party. Well, I threw my cigarette right between their two ugly faces to the bush just beyond them. I wanted to scare them, make the bush burn. I wanted to conjure up God and have Him spread His holy gospel to the men or at least brew up a good plague or two.”

To them he spoke too strangely, as though he’d written down his script long ago and memorized the words but not emotions. He always laughed too loudly, possibly from the clove numbing his throat. It did not help anyone understand him. If anything, it increased the awareness that this was not a boy who should be spending his time mindlessly moving cargo. He looked so calm, but there was a sharp militancy in his mind. “He should’ve been in our generation, gone on over to `Nam,” Richard speculated one day, or maybe it was Jim. They all looked the same. “The kid is ornery. Being too cute must’ve done it to him. He just wants something ugly in his life. Don’t know why he don’t quit. Shoulda gone into steel if he wanted something really dangerous.”

Everyone pretended not to notice the day Tristan went missing. He had not been doing anything all that important or different. He was the only one loading a dolly up with crates and retrieving them to bring to a waiting truck. The driver paced impatiently and went through two Marlboros before approaching a worker. “I have to clear out of here in half an hour.” He jabbed emphatically at his simple pocket watch. “Where the hell’s that kid?”

The sun was barely poking over the horizon, not that it mattered that much with the rain coming down like it was. At least it was a step above the fog of an hour before. The inky water and poisoned sky had only been separated by a cloud that seemed to cling around the body. It was a miserable day to work, but the conditions made it difficult to go fast. It was great for overtime.

Suddenly, he knew where Tristan was.

Richard had seen dead bodies before, but they had all been at funerals or on the television, perfectly posed and isolated from the world of the living. One time, he saw a lost tarp floating on the water and had raced to the water’s edge to dive in without a second thought. His shame had haunted him the entire day each time he took a step and felt his soggy sock stick to the sole of his shoe. That ghostly embarrassment crept up his spine and sent a shiver through his shoulders. This was no tarp.

Tristan was barely beyond the pier. Richard pantomimed his trial run with vivid memory. He ran as fast as he could and put his hands together over his head to make an almost graceful dive. The water was cold. His heart seized up defensively at the shock. He cursed at his body to go on already.

Tristan was in no hurry.

It was all nearly too much for Richard to do at once. He had to remember to kick his legs and move his arms and order the air to go into his lungs and keep the water out. He thought his thrashing was loud enough to draw the attention of the entire county, but no one came. Why didn’t they come? Did Tristan sound like this when he’d slipped into the water? Did he struggle so much only to come to the realization that he was so alienated that no one would even bother to save his life?

Richard looped an arm around Tristan. He felt so much like that old tarp but heavier. His face was down, and Richard immediately yanked at his thick clothing to roll him over. He did not look angelic or serene, just cold and bluish and so still.

Richard remembered then how to scream.

His cry went from a shriek to an angry roar. How could they all let this happen? How could they ignore him and let him die? Why didn’t Tristan scream? But had he? The questions were too numerous, but no matter the deciding factors, the combinations all resulted in a limp body. Richard knew the stories about people finding superhuman strength in emergencies, but he did not consider his actions very special as he pulled the young man from the water. He only cared about surviving. If Tristan had felt half this terrified when he went into the water, then he deserved to live. Even an animal would know to fight for itself.

The only sound Richard could hear over his own labored breathing was the slap of Tristan’s wet limbs against pavement. He landed spread-eagle on the pier, a tangle of mannequin parts, an impersonation of a person. Even his hair color looked too drab to be natural. Richard attempted to focus on instructions he had received years ago. Tilt back the head. Clear the air pathway. What if there was water in the way? Oh well. What went first, CPR or mouth-to-mouth? How many times to press down on the chest? How hard? How long?

He tried not to wonder about Tristan’s life flashing before his eyes as he worked. He did not hear the other men crowd around him, nor did he feel their bodies pressing into an increasingly tighter ring around him. Only when they started to gasp and cheer did he raise his head to see blue jeans a few inches from his face. There was a weird sound beneath the cries: a gurgle, a blast of air, a gulp for oxygen.

Tristan coughed until Richard feared he would break a rib. “You’re alive, kid!” Richard exclaimed to him. He had not smiled so widely since the birth of his grandson. “Thought we were going to lose you there for a minute.”

Despite his ordeal, Tristan forced a weak smile. “By the way you’re all acting, it looks like I was lost for a while.” He tried to sit up, but three pairs of hands flew to his shoulders to hold him down.

Richard had an easy enough time slipping through the crowd to get to his truck. He always carried an extra jacket just in case something happened, and there was a blanket under the passenger’s seat because his wife always fussed about him not turning up the heat enough. He wished he had something else to change into because his whole body was becoming a block of ice.

“Aren’t you going to celebrate with everyone else? It’s practically a party down there.”

Richard turned and somehow felt no surprise to see Tristan standing before him with an awkward smile on his face. His lanky body was clothed in jeans and flannel far too large, which made him look like a child rather than a man rescued from death. “At the very least, they can give you some dry clothes,” he continued. “You left soggy footprints all the way up here.”

“Everyone loves a hero,” Richard said dryly. He kept his eyes locked on Tristan’s unusual clothing to shrug off the awkward awareness of this body before him going from limpness to animation, death to life.

Tristan laughed breezily. “And everyone loves a victim. Everyone wants to pretend to be my best friend right about now. They’re all exchanging inaccurate facts about me like they’re my nearest and dearest. I give them a week before they start to think that I jumped in to get money or attention or something.”

“They wouldn’t,” Richard lied. To his surprise, Tristan just laughed again.

“I don’t care, mind you. I am alive. Can they say the same thing? I’ve always felt more alive than the rest of them. They couldn’t even slip out of their comas when a man splashed into the water. You did. I wanted to thank you for that. It’s silly, thanking the person who saved your life because it’s so obvious, but I really mean it. I died so at least both of us could live.”

Richard became all too aware of his socks sticking to his shoes. “This is a dangerous job.”

Tristan nodded. “Especially if you can’t swim. Risk makes life beautiful because you become so thankful to just live. Maybe one of these days I’ll learn, but that would take away the danger and excitement, wouldn’t it?”

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