BURNED HAND BLUES
I wove a tapestry of profanity so intense and colorful that it hung in the air and mingled with the scent of dead fish and machine oil. Holding a singed hand that added the smell of slightly roasted pork to the olfactory convention that swirled throughout the vessel, my portly form was staggering towards the engine room then reaching for the tube of cream kept on the striker’s bench there. The thick white goop, applied directly to the red and blistering meat at the base of my thumb, sent the dull, fiery throb of pain into a full retreat and replaced it with a slightly uncomfortable, and yet strangely comforting, mint tingling reminiscent of toothpaste. The most surprising aspect of the tableau to the curious eyes that peered back was that, even while displaying my profane mastery of words and swinging my weight around as subtly as a bull elephant, I had kept my cigar clenched firmly in my mouth without any apparent thought or effort.
The steamboat’s captain, a white-haired gentleman who smoked light cigarettes quickly and with a definite air of nervousness, launched himself from the commandeered office chair that he had been lounging in to stand instantly by the side of his injured crewman. Concern was painted over the tanned face of the old man as he glanced quickly at the tender, burned skin, already beginning to crinkle and turn brown at the edges of the burn cream. I, while my quick and short breaths filled the air with acrid smoke from a two dollar cigar, winced as my good hand cradled the burned one at the wrist. The captain nodded and drew another light cigarette from the inside of his uniform shirt, lighting it before inclining his head towards the obvious injury.
“Burn yourself?” he asked, purely in order to demonstrate his amazing grasp on events.
“Yer gawd-da…” I started in a low growl before quickly catching myself, “Just a small burn. Nothin’ ta worry yourself ‘bout, Cap.”
The captain nodded, turning to glance back at the remainder of the crew who stood at the railing to the engine room. The small smattering of filth-covered deckhands, clad in coveralls and ringed with grease and sawdust, were making a point to be extremely disinterested in the proceedings a scant twenty feet away from them. The meaning, of course, was that they were paying attention in such a way that each one could later deny that they were doing so.
“How’d it happen?” the captain asked, placing his elbow on the striker’s bench while remaining careful to keep the sleeve of his uniform out of the random puddles of various liquids and solutions that formed on that surface.
“Welp,” I replied through clenched teeth, “We were all on the work flat back there repairing the wheel like you ordered us to, and I had the torch in my hand to cut through the u-bolts on that big rotted wheel arm that was givin’ us so many problems. The torch was kickin’ up one powerful roar in my ears, so I didn’t hear when the boys started yellin’ at me. Finally, I heard someone yell ‘fire’ and turned ‘round. T’was ‘bout then that I noticed the fittin’ at the bottom of the torch was loose. Seemed that some of the gas in the line was comin’ out through that loose fitting, and a spark from cuttin’ them bolts had lit it on up.”
“Wait,” the captain said, holding up one hand, “Weren’t you wearing the welding gloves for protection?”
“Yep, Cap,” I replied, “That was the problem. See, that flame comin’ out at the torch fittin’ had set the leather one of them gloves on fire. I threw that one off and started bashin’ at it with my foot.”
“How, exactly, did you burn your hand, John?”
“Welp,” I said reluctantly, twitching the cigar from one side of my mouth to the other, “see, I had shifted that torch to my other hand while I was beating at the glove, and that loose fittin’ was still there, and none of those jackasses on the flat turned off the gas tanks like they shoulda…”
The men at the railing suddenly began to inspect the overhead of the main deck in as innocent a fashion as was possible, commenting how dusty and dirty the white paint there had gotten. The captain sighed, no longer amused or concerned but simply impatient as a cloud of cigarette smoke mixed with the cigar smoke and engaged in a battle over which odor was stronger.
“John,” he muttered as he leaned in so only the two of us could hear, “cut to the chase.”
“The torch caught that other glove on fire, too,” I explained, “so I threw down the torch this time and…well…I started to bat at that glove with my other hand. You know…the one that I’d already threw the glove off of. In the process I burned my hand a bit.”
The captain mulled this over as he puffed on his cigarette, and I could feel the eyes of the crew boring into me from behind as their attention shifted once again away from the ceiling. His gaze rolled up, then cut over to the unabashed smile of the chief engineer, who had paused in tending to his machinery in order to listen. Finally, Cap nodded as he plucked the butt of his cigarette from his mouth and snuffed it on the striker’s bench.
“Seems to me,” he said slowly as he drew another cigarette from his shirt pocket, “that you ruined two perfectly good welding gloves out there. That’s going to come out of your pay.”
The cigar fell from my mouth as my jaw dropped in surprise, momentarily forgetting about the throbbing in my hand that had begun again as the cream’s initial relief wore off. The crew at the railing immediately burst into a bout of laughter as the captain, unconcerned by either my disbelief or their amusement, wandered from the engine room and mounted the steps to the pilothouse. My eyes followed him until his feet disappeared from the top of the steps. I then proceeded, once again, to begin weaving a tapestry.
Till next time,