The sailor, a mess specialist, did the walk of shame at o-four-hundred. A cab ride from the seedy Oceanview apartment to the base. A mad dash down the pier, up the brow of USS Kearsarge, and past the quarterdeck watch team, who smirked when the officer of the deck granted her permission to come aboard. She slunk down to female berthing on tiptoe, relieved that the curtains on all the racks were still drawn and that no one was awake to comment or question. She stuffed the micro-skirted dress and heels into her coffin locker and donned kayaking gear: a two-piece bathing suit, athletic shorts, a T-shirt, and water sandals. Still a little drunk, she wobbled back to the head of the pier at five and fell in at the rear of the group boarding the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation charter bus.
Following a stout spouse down the aisle, she scanned the faces of seated passengers anxiously. The bus pulled out before she found an open seat. She lurched forward.
Someone reached out to steady her.
“Get your hand off me,” she said to the first class petty officer—a gunner’s mate—who’d hosted the party in Oceanview. Trapped in place by the woman ahead, who’d stopped to heave her dry bag onto the overhead rack, she shrank against the opposite seat.
“Aren’t you happy to see me? Your little boyfriend Mikey was happy to sell me his ticket when I told him what you’d done. Sit down.” He gestured at the empty seats beside him with his free hand. “We need to talk.”
“I’m going to report you.” She pulled away.
She took a seat across the aisle and a few rows behind the gunner’s mate. He popped a handful of Tylenol, chugged half a bottle of water, and reached back to offer her the pill container. She shook her head. He shrugged, jabbed a forefinger at the button that turned off his overhead light, and reclined in his seat. She pressed her spine hard into the fabric-covered seat back and fixed her gaze on the flip-open ashtray in the headrest of the seat in front of her. Her sleepy seatmate didn’t try to strike up a conversation. They remained silent for the duration of the three-hour trip to Front Royal.
At the outfitter’s, she kept a weather eye on the first class gunner’s mate. Her hands shook when she snapped the straps of the bulky lifejacket closed. She shouldered the paddle and dry bag, and hoisted her kayak by the gunwale with some effort. It thudded hard into her thigh with every step she took down the sandy path to the put-in.
“Shame you’re getting so banged up out here.”
She startled. The gunner’s mate spoke just behind her shoulder.
He reached out and poked one of the bruises beginning to darken on her bicep. “But that’s the risk with extreme sports.”
“That’s what you call it? An extreme sport?” She lowered her kayak to the sand and tossed her paddle and dry bag into the seat. He watched her drag the boat into the water and step in. She sat down and pushed off hard with her paddle on the rocky river bottom. She paddled hard and fast, and didn’t look back. At the front of the group, she frowned in concentration: even easy whitewater demanded decisions on the best route to take through mazes of exposed sandstone and shale.
He took his time getting out on the river and floated lazily along in the rear. Occasionally he snagged his paddle on a rock or scraped the kayak bottom on an unforeseen shallow spot. Between them couples and family members called out, filled enormous squirt guns and soaked each other, splashed with their paddles, laughed, and squealed when a rapid caught them and shot them downstream. Their voices carried, individual words discernible over the gurgle of water on stone.
The group put in at a long, narrow island midstream for lunch and swimming. The mess specialist found a private spot in some low, bushy trees. Her urine splattered in the sand; damp grains clung to her ankles. She winced at the sting of the aloe-infused tissue. She pulled up her shorts, buried the tissue, and rubbed at her ankles with dry sand until the skin turned red from the abrasion. At the water’s edge, she washed her hands over and over before she returned to the group for lunch. Just as she did three times a day on the ship, she helped with food prep: she set out condiments and chopped onions the outfitter had brought in a cooler on a cutting board that she balanced on the flat top of a rock near the fire.
The gunner’s mate waited until the hot dogs were eaten, the trash had been collected, the families with their chattering children had found their way to the lee edge of the islet to wade, and the firewood had burned to a gray checkerboard with a low flicker of flame over orange coals. Then he wandered over and sat down beside her on a fallen tree at the edge of the fire ring.
She started to get up, but he tugged her back onto the log by the sleeve of her T-shirt. A paunchy, red-headed chief petty officer assigned to the cruiser berthed aft of Kearsarge walked over to toss a plastic hot dog bun package onto the flames. It shriveled and twisted into a black lump that neither burned nor melted. The mess specialist wrinkled her nose at the toxic smoke and pulled away from the gunner’s mate.
The chief looked at them for a moment. “Everything okay here?” he asked.
“It’s a fine Navy day, Chief,” said the gunner’s mate.
The chief looked at the mess specialist.
She shrugged. “Sure. It’s a fine Navy day.”
The chief opened his mouth to say something, closed it, and shook his head. Then he turned on his heel and rejoined a group of sailors from the cruiser. When he turned away from them, the mess specialist scooted to the end of the log farthest from the gunner’s mate.
“About last night,” he said.
Before he could continue, a teenage boy ran up to the fire with his little sister in tow. He had a freshwater mussel bigger than a deck of cards in his hand. He put it on one of the rocks around the fire ring. Then he crouched on his heels to watch it.
“You should have waited,” the gunner’s mate said to the mess specialist in a low voice. “I’d have driven you back to the ship to change out of that dress.”
She took a sip of water. She set the bottle in the sand and hugged herself tightly with crossed arms. “I need to write you up,” she said. “As soon as we get back.”
The boy moved the mussel closer to the fire. Its shell gaped open a quarter of an inch, revealing the tender peach color of the live bivalve inside. The boy picked up a stick and pried at the crack. The sharp point slipped inside and poked the mussel’s flesh. He jabbed at the opening again. Nothing happened. He shrugged and set the mussel, hinged end down, on one of two thick logs that had charred and cracked into little rectangles. Flames, barely visible in the pale afternoon shade, flickered around it. The gap between the halves of the mussel’s shell pointed toward the sky.
“You?” The gunner’s mate laughed, low and mean. “You, write me up?”
“Even a seaman recruit can write a report chit,” she said in a low voice. She scuffed the heel of her sneaker in the sand.
“A seaman apprentice, write up a first class petty officer?” The gunner’s mate lifted both hands, palms up, and shook his head in apparent exasperation. “Great way to bring trouble on yourself. Everybody saw you at the party.” He stretched, yawned, and continued. “Somebody’s probably writing you up for underage drinking right now. They’ll bust you down a rank. Make you forfeit a month’s pay.”
She shrugged. “Like being a seaman recruit is so much worse than being a seaman apprentice.”
The fire crackled and popped. The little girl elbowed her brother. Like most Navy kids, they were clean-cut and athletic. They wore water shirts and tropical-print bathing suits with the logo of a national chain stitched into the hem of one leg. The girl had a smear of mud high on her left thigh. “How long will the mussel take to cook, Jake?”
“Watch,” the boy said. “Let’s see what it will do.”
The gunner’s mate lowered his voice to a gravelly half-whisper. “That dress you were wearing last night barely covered your short-and-curlies. Your tits were showing. You do have nice tits. I could make a report chit disappear.”
She hunched her shoulders, pulled her damp T-shirt away from her skin, and scooted a couple inches farther down the log. Her right thigh hung over the end. She shifted her weight to her left side and stared at the fire.
The teenager picked up a stick and poked at the logs. The fire crackled louder. The mussel rocked from side to side. Its shell was opening, slowly at first and then wider, faster. The fleshy foot protruded, and then withdrew.
“Look,” the gunner’s mate said, “I’m just trying to be your friend here. You don’t understand how things work in the Fleet.”
“We aren’t friends. We aren’t going to be.”
“Your chief will try to get you to withdraw a report chit. So will mine.”
“Even I know that if I file a report chit, it will go all the way to the commanding officer unless I withdraw it.”
“They’ll appoint some junior officer to investigate.” He picked up a twig and stuck an end in the corner of his mouth. “Junior officers know even less than you do. You know the difference between a screamin’ seaman and an ensign?” He didn’t wait for her reply. “A seaman’s been promoted twice.”
“Your division officer is just an ensign,” she said. “But the supply officer’s a lieutenant commander. And he likes me.”
“SUPPO likes all the women who suck his dick,” the gunner’s mate said. “The real decisions get made by the chiefs at disciplinary review board, anyway—before the executive officer’s inquiry and captain’s mast. What are you gonna do? Give every chief on the ship a blow job? Think you’re good enough at it to get out of going to mast?”
“I don’t give head to get ahead.”
“That’s not what I hear. Guys were talking about you, even before the party. You have a reputation.”
“Are you gonna eat the mussel?” the little girl asked her brother.
“No, stupid,” said her brother. “Mussels are filter feeders. They take all the poisons and pollution out of the water. You eat that, you’re just gonna get all that stuff in your system.”
The little girl cocked her head. “And die,” she said with relish.
The gunner’s mate inched closer. “Even the way you wear your dungarees says yes.”
“My dungarees?” Her voice rose to an incredulous squeak.
“Your whole uniform’s too tight. You got gaps between the buttons of your shirt, and a camel toe so big it wiggles when you walk. You’re not even close to squared away. Everything you wear says you’re asking for it.”
He spit into the fire. The coals hissed. The teenage boy moved to the side, giving them a wider berth.
“I don’t ask for it,” she said. “I don’t even say yes to anyone who asks me for it.”
“Bullshit. You come on to me the whole time you stand Messenger of the Watch with me. Right on the quarterdeck.”
“I do not. You spend four hours rubbing the butt of the .45 and drooling on me.”
Another girl, this one with blonde pigtails, came up to the other children. “Ooh!” she said, pointing at the mussel. “I wouldn’t eat that.”
The five of them watched the mussel in silence. Soon the girls grew bored and trooped back to the swimming hole, chattering and giggling. The teenage boy prodded the mussel with his stick. Nothing happened. He moved it closer to the center of the fire.
The mess specialist started to get up again. The gunner’s mate reached out a hand and took hold of her ponytail. She sat back down on the log.
The teenager looked over at them. The gunner’s mate let go of the ponytail and glared at the boy, who poked one last time at the mussel and then left.
A quiet hiss came from the fire. A flicker of steam in the humid air. The gap between the halves of the mussel’s shell had increased infinitesimally. The pink-orange flesh inside was now clearly visible.
The gunner’s mate picked up the stick that the teenager had left behind and poked at the fire. It crackled louder. The mussel rocked from side to side. Its shell was opening, slowly at first and then wider, faster.
“I’m going to talk to the watchbill coordinator about swapping duty sections,” the mess specialist said. “Then I won’t have to stand watch with you anymore.”
“You won’t do it. You’ve been chasing me. If you write me up, it’s going to look like you jumped me at the party and don’t want to admit that you did it. Everybody will think that you just want to make trouble for me. I’ll say that you’re retaliating because you didn’t want your boyfriend to know you got with me. Everybody knows women do that.”
Something in the fire shifted and they looked up simultaneously. The mussel had moved. The gap between the two halves of its shell widened, just a tiny bit at first, then wider. And wider. The fleshy foot protruded, and then withdrew.
“Maybe some women do that,” she said. “Not me.”
“And then one day, you’re going to be late for quarterdeck watch. I won’t even have to write you up for unauthorized absence. The officer of the deck will do it.”
“I won’t be late for watch. I’m never late for watch.”
“But you will be.”
The gunner’s mate poked at the mussel again. The shell rocked back and forth on the log, and opened a little more. The teenage boy and his sister returned and squatted on their heels on the other side of the fire.
“And then we’ll get underway. A ship’s an industrial environment. A lot of things can go wrong underway. People trip over lines faked on the deck. Hatches slam and cut off fingers when the ship rolls. Or a stanchion that isn’t secured gives way, maybe on the balls to four when the aft lookout is tired and gets careless. Do you know how fast a man overboard disappears at night? It can take hours before anyone thinks to call man overboard the next day.”
“I still have the evidence,” she said. “It’s on my clothes. I didn’t have time to take a shower, either.”
He shrugged. “A few skin cells, maybe. I’m a careful kind of guy. Wouldn’t want you to give me any funky diseases, Little Miss Rottencrotch. And even that won’t last long. I watch Law & Order.
“Besides, you didn’t have time to go to the cops this morning,” he said. “Or to medical. Maybe last night wasn’t enough for you? Just couldn’t wait to get out here on the river with your little boyfriend Mike, could you? Were you gonna do him right here, in the bushes? Or over on the riverbank?”
The two sailors, the teenage boy, and his sister watched as the mussel opened fully. The soft, moist, pink foot groped around the outside edge of the shell as if testing the hot, dry air for an escape route.
“A lot of slutty chicks like you make false accusations to cover up their own behavior,” he said. “It happens all the time.”
“You’ll go to mast if I go.” She sat up straighter. Her jaw set.
“Nah. They’ll go easy on me. I’ve been on the ship two years already and I’m a first class. The Navy has spent tens of thousands of dollars to train me—you haven’t even finished mess cranking yet.”
The children returned and crouched down to look at the mussel. The mussel shell was blackening. The mussel’s foot ceased to move. Water and essential juices boiled up from the bottom of the shell and sizzled out over the edges. The foot was becoming a chalky, roasted gray.
“Pick it out,” the little girl said.
“No, you do it,” said the boy. “It’s dead, and it’s too dirty to eat.”
The girl picked at the soft tissue with a stick. She dug the end into the once-tender flesh and flipped out the loose pale mussel. It landed in the sand near the fire.
“Ooh! You touched it!” said the other little girl. “That’s gross!” The girls ran from the fire ring, squealing in mock fright.
The boy poked at the fire and then at the mussel’s shell—its coffin, not its fortress.
“Look,” the gunner’s mate said. “It’ll be your word against mine. Everybody loses. Nobody wins. Why put yourself through it?”
“Because what you did was wrong.”
“Go ahead, then. Write me up. I was Sailor of the Year last year. Everybody will think you’re crazy. They’ll haul you off to Portsmouth Naval Hospital for a five-day psych eval, and then drag you in front of an administrative separation board.
“And you know what? That’s exactly what they should do. Force you out. Women don’t belong in this man’s Navy. Especially troublemaking little bitches like you.”
The seaman apprentice picked up the mussel and flipped it back into the fire ring. Then she tossed in the shell, which landed a foot from its former inhabitant. Gray shell, gray flesh, gray ashes.
The gunner’s mate began to kick the fire apart. He slanted a glance at her. “So. What do you say?”
“Fine,” she said. “It’s fine.”
She turned on her heel and marched to the edge of the water. Left, right, left. She waded into the Shenandoah, past the colorful kayaks, her ankles wobbling on baseball-sized rocks until she reached a drop-off formed by overlapping shelves of shale. She stepped off the slippery edge and plunged in, over her head in the clear, icy, spring-fed river water. She kicked to the surface, took a deep breath and tipped her head back. Closing her eyes against the glare of the afternoon sun, she drifted slowly downstream in the current, headfirst toward the next set of rapids.