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A purple, starless night near the shipyard, December 3, 1976. Brackish water gently laps against painted wooden beams slick with algae. Machines in warehouses sigh with quiet loss for the day behind and hum with potential energy for the day ahead. Somewhere, a cab honks. Lights flicker in homes. Office buildings have all gone dark, save for a half-lit high rise across the river, in which a few silhouettes can be made out faintly against the glass: a janitor mopping, a woman filing paperwork, a repair person fixing circuits: each one a life, a candle, a story. Something blinks red and green in the sky — a plane, perhaps, or a satellite. The air is kissed with a breeze from the sea. Three workers — two humans and a marshmallow — move barrels from an unmarked brick storehouse onto the pier. Yesterday, the barrels were filled with mackerel. Tonight, they are filled with salted beef. Tomorrow, pickled grain. Every night, the barrels are different but the work is the samew. Pry open the crates the barrels are stored in. Carry the barrels out of the warehouse. Stack them on the dock. Barrels within crates within warehouses within dockyards: a nesting doll of wood, and brick, and sand. The trio forms an assembly line: one of the humans, the taller of the two, a man with sharp features and salt-and-pepper hair named Gregor, lifts the barrels from the warehouse shelves and rolls them to the marshmallow, who stands where the pier meets the boardwalk. The marshmallow stops the barrels and carries them to Otto, a wily, rat-faced shadow of a man, who brings them to the edge of the dock where they’ll be retrieved in the morning. The dockhands’ backs ache, their legs groan, and their fingers tremble in the cold wind of winter. They’ve been at this for hours. Earlier in the night, they passed the time talking, telling crude jokes and teasing each other about their wives and children —  “I swear to God, Gregor, my deepest condolences, I simply don’t know how you and Natalia put up with it: your boys have got to be the two meanest, ugliest kids I have ever seen in my life. I bet I know where they got it from, too, and it wasn’t from her,” Otto had said. Gregor had agreed; all three had laughed. — but such levity had since left as midnight became one became two became three, and the cold penetrated through coat, and skin, and muscle to the marrow. They now labor in silence, save for the crystallized breath they produce with each physical exertion, which forms in front of their noses and dissipates into the fog that has settled over the strait. At dawn, the sailors in their uniforms and the vendors with their cockles, oysters, clams, crabs, cod, bass, fishing line, rods, bait, textiles, ink, dyes, maps, star charts, glass bottles, beads, tools wrought from steel and iron, cord, rope, telescopes, compasses, paper, papyrus, parchment, books rare and common, pens, watches, ribbon, baked goods, and garments — wool from the Shetland Isles, silk from far Cathay — will arrive, the city will begin to stir, ships will sail into the bay, and the sun will rise on our small blue world once again, but the hours are long until the planet’s awakening… The marshmallow coughs a weary, lonely cough, thin and long, as he heaves a barrel towards Otto, and as he doubles over in pain the bottom strap of his sinistral boot is caught in between two planks and he trips. The cask drops to the slick wood below with a thud, and the impact converts the force of gravity with which the barrel fell into forward velocity, sending the container rattling into the water. Splash! The marshmallow cries out, lamenting, for he knows that his employer, Petrov Destrovkolwitz, will charge him with a steep fine for the loss of the cargo if he figures out a barrel is missing, a fine that will mean another night of empty stomachs for his three girls — Dolores, age nine, Gladys, age seven, and his youngest, Karolina, but thirty months since birth — and his wife, Andrea, who will taunt and jeer at him for his clumsiness, remind him how little she loves him now, how little she ever loved him at all; or a fine that will mean another charged exchange with his landlord, a good-hearted, generous man whose patience was nevertheless growing thin as the marshmallow continued missing payments; or a fine that will mean the Christmas dinner the marshmallow had worked so hard to save up for — a twenty-pound goose from Fritz the butcher, bread and cheese, fine imported apples and oranges, puff pastry and lemon custard from the Alman Avenue Patisserie — and the Christmas gifts he had so thoughtfully searched for and marked out — dancing shoes for Dolores, who dreamed of one day gliding across the stage in the ballet; a fencing foil for Gladys (whose tomboyishness Andrea disdained but the marshmallow indulged), who, though young, yearned to learn the parries and ripostes of the French swordfighter (Gladys, always the imp, had in the anterior year stolen a copy of “The Count of Monte Cristo” from the public library and often play-fought in the cobblestone streets with imaginary friends and foes, Dantés, Abbé Faria, the Villeforts, and the rest); a wood and ivory puppet of a jester, handcrafted by the town’s pseudo-Geppetto M. Dorschetz, for Karolina, who was oft enraptured by the jugglers and circus folk, and who clapped along when the buskers with their accordions performed their melodies; and an emerald ring for Andrea, whose love the marshmallow was still eager to regain, or gain at all. Splash! The marshmallow falls to his knees. Otto and Gregor look on as their friend wails. Gregor is the first to speak: “Easy does it, buddy, easy does it. I’m sure we can fish the barrel out of the river somehow, right?” He looks to Otto, who remains still and emotionless. The marshmallow wipes his hand on his nose. “Y-you really think so?” he asks, sniffling. “Course I do. It’s not that deep, here by the shore, is it?” Gregor replies. “N-n-no, I guess not.” “So why don’t you just dive in, grab it, and swim up? Destrovkolwitz will never know the difference.” “You can’t do that, moron,” Otto suddenly butts in. “Jesus, you’ll freeze to death. I hate to say it, gents, but that barrel’s lost.” The marshmallow cries out with sobs anew, tears dropping between the slits in the dock, falling into the dark, murky abyss that is beneath and around him. “So there’s nothing I can do! Oh Andrea, oh mother, O Karolina, O Gladys, O Dolores, forgive me, for I have failed you,” he raises to the clouded heavens. “Well, I didn’t say that,” Otto mutters slyly, a twinkle in his eyes. “Let’s finish the rest of the job, first, and then, well, I promise you that you will not be paying Petrov a single cent, do you hear me? That man steals from us as it is, what with the wages he pays us. I’ll fix this for you, Marshmallow, I promise.” “How can you be so sure?” the marshmallow asks, confused. Otto smiles wryly. “Just trust me,” he says. “I won’t let you down.” They return to work with renewed vigor, though the bitter chill bites at their ears and elbows, the sky begins to gray and the predawn fog begins to thicken over the water, and the first barge of the morning passes by, untold treasures in its hold — gold, perhaps, or silver, rubies or diamonds from across the world, oil or indigo, that pigment of luxurious blue. Gregor tells a joke, to cheer the marshmallow’s spirits: “A dog — a German Shepherd — is riding on a bicycle through a busy street, barking at all the pedestrians and drivers, when suddenly he sees a bone on the side of the road. So he pulls his bike over to the sidewalk and picks up the bone with his mouth, and he starts looking around for a patch of dirt he can bury it in. He sees one, behind a fence, so he hops over and starts digging. Little does he know that he’s digging in a house’s backyard, and the husband and wife that own the house are home. The wife looks out the window and sees the German Shepherd digging there and says, ‘I don’t remember getting a dog, Anatoly, so why is there one digging a hole for a bone in our backyard?’ Anatoly looks up, surprised, from his newspaper, and he says, ‘We didn’t get a dog, Anaspaska! I’ll grab my shotgun and my coat and I’ll see what this animal is doing here.’ So Anatoly takes his shotgun from the cabinet, and he puts on his coat, and he walks out the backdoor and over to the dog, who’s digging furiously, and he raises his shotgun. Suddenly, the dog looks up and yelps, and Anatoly lowers his weapon out of surprise. The dog says something quietly to Anatoly, and the man responds; the two talk for a few minutes, and then Anatoly walks back into the house, hangs up his coat, puts away his shotgun, sits down, and picks his newspaper back up. ‘What happened?’ Anaspaska asks, bewildered. Her husband replies: ‘Oh, well, last week I hired a landscaper to bury a bone in the backyard for me. I just didn’t know he’d come and do the job today, or that he’d be a dog.’ “ The marshmallow doesn’t get it, but he laughs anyway, to be polite. Otto says nothing. Soon, the very last of the barrels are stacked at the edge of the dock — save for the one lost in the sea, the green-and-azure ocean, that primordial soup from which all life was once borne, eons ago, that fickle mistress in whom the nautae once poured libations to Neptune, father of man and horse; or from whom the heavenly Venus once drifted in upon a clamshell, that pearl of the cosmos, who granted to Paris as a wife Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, in the battle that launched a thousand poems, that great epic clash of old — the Trojan War. The marshmallow looks towards Otto, who after setting down the last of the salted-beef-filled kegs wipes his gloves on the briny two-by-fours beneath him. “All right,” the short, mousy-featured man announces. “Let’s find one more barrel of salted beef, shall we, gentlemen?” “But how?” the marshmallow whines. “Ah, yes, of course,” Otto grins. “Well, it’s just a hunch, but I’ve heard talk among the other longshoremen of another warehouse, across the river, filled to the brim with salted beef barrels — more salted beef than you’ve ever seen in your entire life. We simply must row across, steal a barrel, and put it with the others on this side of the water. They’ll never know the difference.” “Where will we get a boat?” the marshmallow asks. “We could borrow Mr. Destrovkolwitz’s dingy: it’s tied up right here, on the dock!” thunders Gregor. “Very good, Gregor,” Otto intones. “And what if he catches us?” the marshmallow responds. “For goodness’ sake, Marshmallow, we’re the only people awake in this whole city!” shouts Gregor, who is growing impatient with the marshmallow’s questions. The marshmallow shrinks back, embarrassed, and tacitly agrees to the plan. And so they untie the rowboat and, with Gregor manning the oars, begin to cross the river. As they travel, a light snow floats down — the first of the season. Change is in the air. Halfway through the journey, Gregor stops to catch his breath. The first rays of light begin to crawl out from behind the shipping containers and cranes on the far side of the water. Around them, the world begins to open its eyes upon a new dawn. As the boat rocks in the waves, Otto retrieves a pouch from his coat’s breast pocket. “Caramels,” he says. “Bought ‘em from the sweet shop down on Main. Want a couple?” He tosses a few to the marshmallow, who smiles, accepts graciously and begins to eat them. Otto hands a few to Gregor as well, whose forehead is slick with sweat from commandeering the seacraft. The three sit quietly, in the center of the river, perhaps of the universe, savoring the sugar as it runs down their tongues. “Say, these are pretty good,” the marshmallow remarks, breaking the silence. “Could I have s’more?”

Oct 13, 2017