The Apel

One minute the sea air is coated with salt, the next it is filled with a pungent odor of spoiled food, diesel oil, and something unidentifiable, maybe poverty, if poverty has an odor.

Blackie, my watch partner, says that Djakarta is the poorest port we’ll visit on our voyage. “These people will steal the watch off your arm while you’re walking down the street,” he tells me.

Soon land appears, and a tug chugs out to guide the S.S. President Harding to its berth in the port area. As we make way up the channel, I can’t help staring into the wooden shacks lining the water. The lives of the people inside are totally exposed. Men, women, children eat, sleep and bathe themselves—all within sight of our passing ship.

After tying up, the boson comes into the fo’castle to inform me that as the youngest ordinary seaman I have fire watch.

Blackie laughs. “No bars and broads for you tonight, kid. You’re stuck on board. ”

I feign throwing a punch at him.

He grins. “Don’t worry, kid, you’ll get plenty of chance for broads when we hit Bangkok. Just make sure thieves don’t steal the ship while we’re ashore.”

The night is humid and the ship is silent as I walk the deck—making sure no one is inching up the lines, trying to sneak onto our freighter and make off with whatever can be carried away.

There is nothing to do except to wait for dawn to come.

About three AM, I drag a chair out on the deck, where I can sit and keep an eye on the gangway and pier below. After a few minutes, I hear a strange, hissing sound on the pier. I lean over the railing. Standing at the bottom of the gangway, dressed more in rags than in clothes, is an emaciated Indonesian man with a longshoreman’s ID badge dangling from his neck.

He motions he wants to come aboard. I scan the pier and don’t see anyone else in the darkness. Again, the man motions to me. I nod, and he starts up the gangway. Reaching the deck, he bows to me. “Sir, you work board?”

“Board,” he exclaims, motioning toward the deck.
“Oh, you mean ship.”

He nods. “Yes, ship. I have a daughter. She saw a picture of an apel. You can give her one apel?”

“Apel?” I ask, trying to make sense of his request.

Seeing I don’t understand him, the longshoreman points at our red smoke stack. “Apel,” he exclaims, forming a circle with his hands.

“Oh, you mean apple,” I reply.
“Yes, ap…ple,” he answers, trying to imitate my pronunciation.

“Don’t they have apples in Indonesia?”
He drops his head without replying. I feel ashamed for asking. Why else would have come on board to ask for an apple, unless he couldn’t afford to buy one ashore?
“All right, I’ll get you one,” I say, “but stay here.” I motion for him to remain by the gangway. Turning, I step through the hatchway and start down the passageway.
In the mess hall, I find Blackie and the carpenter working their way through a bottle of Jack Daniels. “How come you’re not out on fire watch, kid?” asks Blackie, seeing me start to open the refrigerator.
“I’m just getting an apple for a longshoreman.”
“What the fuck?” explodes the carpenter. “You’re giving food to the gooks?”
“What’s wrong with that? It’s just an apple,” I reply.

“Bullshit!” yells the carpenter, slamming his fist against the Formica table. “You’re not gonna give our food away.”

“He’s right, kid,” says Blackie. “Our union worked hard to get fresh fruit on these ships. You can’t go giving it to these slope-heads.”

“It’s just one apple.”

“I don’t give a shit if it’s a fuckin’ grape,” snaps the Carpenter, starting to rise from his seat. “You got me?”

“Relax, I’ll eat it myself,” I reply, removing an apple from the fruit tray. Holding it to my mouth, I pretend to take a bite out of the apple. Too drunk to see I didn’t break the skin, the carpenter settles back in his seat. Clutching the fruit, I leave the mess hall and start back down the passageway.
As I step out on deck, the longshoreman appears transfixed at seeing the red object in my hand. I hold out the fruit. “Here’s your apple.”
The longshoreman cups both hands around the apple, then bows and steps back toward the gangway. “Oh, thank you, sir.”

“No problem. So long.”

The man starts down the gangway clutching the apple. Reaching the pier, he turns to bow again then walks away in the night.

I sit back down, pleased at having met least one Indonesian even if I didn’t get ashore.

Just before daybreak, the crew starts straggling back from shore. A light rain soon begins to fall, and I can hear the cook whistling as he takes down pots and pans to make breakfast. Around seven, the Boson pokes his head out of the hatchway and tells me to get something to eat and then to on the stern. “We’re leaving for Bangkok,” he mutters before going back inside the ship’s house.

It is still raining when I make my way to the stern in the breaking light to join the Boson, Blackie and Neils, my other watch partner, on sea and anchor detail. As we began loosening the lines, Black glances down at the pier. “Look at that gook go,” he says.

I glance up.

Pedaling out of the breaking darkness and rain on a rickety bicycle is the longshoreman. Reaching the pier, he leaps off bicycle and he pier scans our freighter until seeing me. Reaching over his shoulder and unslinging a basket, he braces his legs against the pier and hurls the basket toward the stern.

Thrown too hard, the basket arcs over the stern and drops toward the water, when Blackie thrusts out his arm and snatches the basket from falling into the channel.

He turns to me, holding the basket in the air over the stern. “What ‘ya give me, kid, if I let you have this?”

“Come on, Blackie, just let me have it.”
He scowls and hands me the basket. “Here, take it.”
I kneel down to open it.
‘What the fuck you think this is, a cruise ship?” yells the Boson. “Put down that goddamned basket and turn to.”
Setting the basket on a hatch cover, I pause to wave good-bye to the longshoreman, but he is already riding away on his bicycle and doesn’t look back.

Seeing the boson glaring at me, I get back to work.

Once we have the lines stowed, the boson tells us to knock off and go below. Once the deck gang have left, I sit down on the cargo hatch in the warm rain and open the basket. Inside appears a cluster of different fruits, none of which I have ever seen before. Pinned to one is a note. I remove the pin and open the note, seeing the blue ink dissolve as fast I read the words:

This note is for the man on board

Dauter ate the apel

Dauter not forget the taste.