Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Swimmer
Find the place inside yourself where nothing is impossible.
It was good to feel in control of things and finally doing the sane thing: returning the drug to Alan, hopefully walk away from it all and get back some of my former normal life. I walked with determination up my street holding my reusable plastic Trader Joe’s grocery bag by the handles. The bag was too big for what I was carrying: foam packing, and nine test tubes, only three and a half containing any of the mix. That got me thinking. I stopped walking, opened the bag, and examined the contents. Why not just bring him one test tube and ditch the rest? What difference would it make if he got one test tube versus three and a half?
I waited until I was walking over the canal then I stopped and sat the bag on the rusty railing. I reached inside and removed the test tubes marked vi, vii, viii. I thumbed off their stoppers, looked cautiously to my left and right, held them at arm’s length and upended them like libations, pouring the contents into the sluggish canal below me. Much of the powder blew in the breeze, but I could see the bulk of it land in a little mound atop the thick water for a second then evaporate like sugar.
Like when I threw the burner phone in that water, I had little compunction. What harm could it do? Wasn’t the active ingredient some hallucinogenic fish extract anyway? Would some dosed uber-amphibian get grandiose ideas about itself, try to frogger itself across the road to better places? Would a fish decide to end its life by diving out onto land? Would a snake decide it was a good idea to eat itself? It was back to nature as far as I was concerned. Recycled elements, eternal returns. The Ouroboros: a snake eating itself, which Leuschner mentioned at last twice--and hadn’t Nietzsche?--as a symbol of the eternal return.
I removed the last test tube labeled ix and slid it in the side pocket of my cargo shorts. The bag, the foam, the empty tubes, I threw in the first trash can I came to. I considered I should return for that ecological reusable bag. I’d paid a couple bucks for it and used it often.
I took Canal Street, then cut across to Madison. Another right turn, then a left and I was at the bricks leading to the north marina where Alan kept his boat. It was a public, populated area. A huge restaurant with a deck facing us was only fifty feet away. Smokers and drinkers and diners filled it and were looking out over the boats. I entered the floating pier and walked past the sign excluding non-boat people. I found his boat and confirmed it by its name: Phaedra. A man whom I decided was Rudi’s replacement was standing in its exposed rear section. He squinted up at me. This guy was probably Ukrainian too: light-hair cut short and muscly, but not a giant like his predecessor, more compact. He was wearing a tight knockoff brand polo shirt against which his nipples protruded.
As if knowing I was there, Alan stepped out from the bowels of the boat wearing sunglasses, “Cliff, great to see you. Come on aboard.”
I pointed to Rudi 2, “I’m not getting on-board with him around.”
“I understand.” He said something to the new guy, who said something back. “He’s going to have to frisk you though, check for weapons.”
“Sure,” I reached down not too quickly and took out the test tube, “This is all I have.”
Alan eyed it from behind his sunglasses. Rudi deux stepped up to me, staring at me with a mix of resentment and dislike. One of Rudi’s friends that has it in for me? He patted me quickly but efficiently. Not sure what the restaurant crowd thought about that.
Then the sequel Rudi left, his bench-pressed legs slightly bowed as he walked the way I had come. I stepped into the boat.
Alan had disappeared into the depths of the front, but came right back out holding two beers. He handed me one and opened it with a bottle opener. He popped the top on his then held it up, “Cheers Cliff, figured we finalize these proceedings as we started. With a beer.” He looked at the label, “Remember? I got this assortment when we first met. At that place, the uh…”
We each took a sip. He sighed satisfaction at the beer and he stepped back inside and turned on the engine.
“I’ll take you back to your side of the creek,” he said as he went about unmooring us from the dock, “Drop you off at the south pier right by the Hairpin.”
The boat motor rumbled and we reversed out of his parking space at a super cautious speed, more a drifting than a motoring. He eventually got it turned around and we gradually sped out away from the shore. I had sat down on a cushioned bench in that back section which to my landlubber existence was like a back porch. Presumably from there one swam, fished, drank cocktails in bikinis. I hadn’t ever been on a boat like that. It was as unMelvillian as it could get.
After some minutes the shore had retreated to toyish proportions. The engine either cut out or idled minimally. Alan came out into the sun with me, one hand holding his beer, the other relaxed in his pant’s pocket. With his beer hand he pointed to the pocket where I had put the test tube, “Mind if I give that to Sophie? She can verify it is the real McCoy.”
Sophie? There were others stowed away in the cabin--at least one. I hadn’t considered that. I handed him the test tube.
He looked at it, frowned, “ I was under the impression that there was a bit more.”
I smiled sheepishly, “There was, but there were also a lot of people using it.”
“I understand. Not that I'm the type to do any kind of drug, but I imagine it's the kind of thing people could get addicted to.” He laughed a little with a lopsided grin, “I suppose we’re lucky to have anything left.”
Alan thanked me for the test tube and took it in the cabin.
Anxiety started to eat at me. I looked out across the water, consciously enjoying the sights and sounds because I figured these could be my final moments. There wasn’t much stopping Alan from having me shot, thrown overboard. Or maybe he wouldn’t, maybe he was as sincere as he presented himself to be and was going to drop me off like he said he would. I didn't know how to read these violent sociopath types.
He came back out, stood by me with his legs slightly apart to better balance and stared off across the water. I didn’t feel compelled to get into small talk so I just acted chill like I was relaxing poolside. Inside I was shaking over my unknown immediate future. I had to keep repositioning my legs so he wouldn’t see my kneecaps quivering. I thought of Sari diving off this very boat, escaping, but she was near the shore, we were far out in the bay. I was a biker, not much of a swimmer, and certainly not a long distance swimmer.
Alan mumbled something, scratched his forehead. It didn’t appear to be directed at me. The only sounds were an occasional slurp or thump of the water against the hull. I couldn't tell how much we were rocking as opposed to the bay water rising and falling.
He pivoted his head toward me and I could see my distorted self looking back in the reflection of his sunglasses, a big-headed silhouette backlit by a subdued sky. He said, “An astronaut is a sailor of the stars.”
I nodded a little in acknowledgement, drank some of my beer.
“If...if we could create an ion sail we could accomplish interstellar travel. Do you understand the significance?”
I was raising the bottle but paused, held the beer an inch from my mouth and looked at him. What the fuck was Alan talking about?
A girl’s voice from the cabin. Alan jerked out of his reveries, excused himself, and went back to her.
He returned seconds later. “It’s not the drug, Cliff.”
“It’s some inert powder, her best guess is a Maltodextrin with some other things.”
Sari. She switched it. Betrayal. I was betrayed. I couldn’t believe it. She knew I was going to return it. That’s why she didn’t fight me. She had already switched it out.
Now I was fucked.
“I...I...really don’t know…”
Alan’s voice changed, got slower, more deliberative, “Did somebody pull the old switcheroo on ya Cliff?”
He spoke in a different register, deeper, as if quoting somebody, “You’ll have to pay for this.”
I stood, “Hey, I followed through in good faith…”
“Such are the treacheries of the criminal underworld. When I was a kid…” Alan got quiet, faced the rear of the boat, lost his balance, wobbled a little. Something was wrong. I watched him. The horizon behind him rose and sank like a window shade. He went on in a labored, worn voice, “Do you think that drug…”
“What’s wrong, Alan?”
“I’ve never done drugs. Played football in high school, was on the swim team. Broke the record for...Now I’m going to be a star sailor…”
It was obvious now: Alan had been dosed. But how? Did this Sophie girl monkey around with the mix I gave him? Did I bring the real stuff and she was trying to steal it? Somehow she dosed Alan? The higher the test tube number, the purer the dose. The one I brought would have been super potent.
Alan was ranting along, clearly tripping out on a dose, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, global warming. We have to evacuate the planet immediately. Don’t you see. We don’t have any option. If we want the human race to continue…”
I had to use this situation to my advantage. We could turn back, I’d disembark, find Sari, get the real mix. No, that didn’t seem an improvement on things. Alan’s threats came back to me, how he’d stop at nothing, how he’d have us all shot, the gloves were off… Either I return a bona fide portion of the mix or we're dead.
I could take Alan and throw him overboard. It would be easy enough in his condition. But who is this Sophie? Is she armed? Are there other Slavs enjoying the shade in there?
“What did you break the swimming record for?”
Alan staggered. I put a friendly hand on his shoulder to support him but also to focus him.
I asked him again, tried to bring him back, “Alan?”
“Alpha Centauri...a life of leisure, retirement. Leisure had destroyed kings and happy cities.”
“Alan!” I snapped my fingers in his face like Sari did to me.
He cocked his head showing he heard me.
“Alan, what did you break the record for?”
“Thousand meter. Long distance.”
“Still swim much?”
He smiled, “Yes, yes, when I can.”
I stepped closer, got close to his ear, “Alan, you have it in you still to beat that record. It’s all muscle memory. Find it in yourself. You have the ability to do anything.”
“You’re right. Human capacity is mostly untapped.”
“Right, the mind creates walls limiting you. All you have to do is knock them down. You can do anything. Say it. I can do anything.”
“I can do anything.”
“You can swim to New Jersey. Say it.”
“I can swim to New Jersey.”
I pointed toward the back of the boat, implying that was the direction to New Jersey. I really had no idea in which direction we faced.
At the back of the boat there were two swinging doors that went out to a smaller platform. He unlatched them and they swung open. He turned to me and smiled, then turned to face the water, crouched into position and dove off the back, cutting into the water with not as much splash as I would have expected. He surfaced paddling and kicking.
Somebody had emerged from the cabin. I turned and it was the blond from Baydacious, the one who had bitten me. So that’s Sophie. Now her mouth was open in shock, watching Alan paddling his way to New Jersey. Then realizing what had happened, the situation she was in, she looked at me, eyes as big and round as binocular lenses. She sprinted for the cabin, tried to slam the door, but I was right behind her. The interior’s darker contrast left me blind. All I could see were the lighter parallelogram shapes of its tinted windows. I guessed Sophie was going for a weapon. I could only hope there was nobody else in there. I discerned enough of her to get her in a hug from behind. Her hair went in my mouth, she wriggled and tried to hit my face with her big flailing head. She hit my bite wound and that aroused a fear of it happening again, like one is scared of dogs after being bitten by one.
Nobody else seemed to be in there. My eyes adjusted enough to see the empty room and what she was going for. Resting on the ledge near the window was an automatic, most likely Alan’s. He must have deemed me harmless and hadn’t had it on him.
“Stop it! I’m not going to hurt you. Chill out.”
“I want you to sit in that chair and keep your hands where I can see them. Okay?”
She nodded. I slackened my grip, then in the same movement let her go and reached for the gun. It was small, easily slid into a pocket so that’s where I put it after checking the safety.
“I hope you can drive this thing or you’re going to be swimming.”
She crinkled the side of her mouth, tried to look unimpressed, “Where do you want to go?”
I kept an eye on her every movement as she worked the throttle, gazed at the navigation equipment. Sophie was an infiltrator, a fighter (and a biter), a navigator, and a chemist. Like Alan had said, these Eastern Europeans were resourceful. No wonder he used them.
The boat must have been set on some kind of auto pilot, for she sat in the swivel chair, wary and pouty, her eyes dreamy behind heavy lids. With nothing else to do she played with her hair, selecting swaths of it to inspect, slightly strabismally, for split ends.
I asked her, “What did you do with the powder in the test tube?”
She barely had an accent, “I didn’t do anything with it. I tested it like Alan told me.” She cocked her head to the left. On the other side of the cabin there was a foldout shelf with a miniature chemistry lab set up on it.
“Didn’t switch it out?”
“No, my job was to test it. Nothing else.”
“Is that what you were at the club for?”
“Yes, not to get punched in the head.”
I laughed a little at her playing the victim, “I almost got killed there.”
She had nothing to add.
“What are you, some kind of chemist?”
“Yeah, I'm a grad student. Majoring in chemistry.”
My teacher paternalism came out: “Whereabouts?”
She named a middling university.
“And this is a summer job?”
“Yeah, this is a summer job.”
“No jobs available at those ice cream places?” I couldn't resist the dig.
She sneered at me, threw in a vicious momentary fake smile, “No, no ice cream store.”
“It's just that it's often Russians that get those jobs.”
“I'm Ukrainian, not Russian.”
We proceeded for a while without hostile conversation.
I went over to the uncorked test tube and looked inside. What was this stuff? I shook it to gauge its consistency, to see if it looked like the mix. Inside I spotted something. I shook it again and the corner of a piece of paper revealed itself. I slid my pinkie finger in and dragged it out. It was a thin strip of paper folded in half. On it were a bunch of numbers, looked like computer code or something equally incomprehensible and unrecognizable to me. It could be an important formula, maybe what Alan was really interested in. If Sophie had found it she would have taken it out. I subtly slipped it into my shirt pocket.
“So what do you think this stuff is?”
She shrugged, “Maltodextrin mostly. It’s a food additive they put in lots of things. Whoever replaced it chose it intentionally to mimic your drug.”
I shook the container until I could pinch some of the powder, feel the texture. It imitated the mix well. She said it was a food additive so it must be harmless. I sniffed a pinch of it. It didn’t have the same twang to it that the mix had. A huge sneeze overtook me, then another.
Land approached. She knew where she was going. I had to decipher landmarks. I told her to go to the South Pier and she steered appropriately. We glided into that same pier I had watched boats arrive at a thousand times. I never thought I’d be pulling in on a yacht. Most of the big boats went to the Marina to the north so we drew some attention.
Sophie said, “Unless you want to dock here I’d suggest you jump to land.”
“Okay. Take care Sophie. Maybe working at the ice cream shop would be a better summer job.”
She actually smiled.
I went out of the cabin and when we were close enough, jumped onto the decking. Sophie gunned the engine, made a u-turn and headed out to the bay.
I sneezed again.
I called Sari’s number and she answered quickly, “Don’t worry Cliff, I’m in the car driving.”
“You switched out the drug.”
“No, I didn’t.”
I was silent, stalled in my assignment of blame, not sure if I could believe her. She sensed that.
“I switched out the formula long ago, but I didn’t touch the mix.”
I was still deciding.
“I swear, Cliff.”
“Okay.” I hung up. I sniffled. My nose was completely congested and I didn’t have a tissue.
I believed Sari, but couldn’t put it all together. I stood there without moving, felt the solid ground beneath my feet, the sun on my head. I thought about the fake mix, Alan getting dosed, the real mix somehow getting out into the public. I took a deep breath and exhaled. In front of me was the Hairpin. I could use a thoughtful beer. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand.
That’s when I figured it all out.