Think Engineering by Michael Schiavone


Michael Schiavone’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in New Letters, Reed Magazine, GSU Review, Connecticut Review, Mississippi Review, and the Tartts 2 Fiction Anthology. His novel, Skin, was a finalist for the 2005 Peter Taylor Prize and the 2006 Miami University Contest. He is currently at work on his new novel, Road King. He lives in Gloucester, MA.

Dougy tells me they’re Old Squaws.

“A male and a female,” he says, reaching for binoculars. “Pretty.” His hands are torn, swollen. Sixty year-old meathooks.

The wind bites my ears. Steam rises from the sea. A warm winter, I’m told by locals. On the boat, I’m always hungry, my mind on shepherd’s pie, dark beer, fireplaces. Dougy doesn’t seem to feel pain. To look at him you know he’s been there and back. I want that for myself.

“We saw them in Nova Scotia,” he continues, steering the boat with his foot. If you ask me, I’d call them ducks, but Dougy’s shown me a world I’ve never seen.

A foghorn blows twice. I admire the rocky expanse of the pier, the white church steeples as we draw further away from the land. Boat exhaust smokes from the distant harbor, gulls shoot for the sky. Dougy chucks the binoculars into a bin he calls the photo shop, a plastic container filled with underwater cameras he’s crafted from old engine cylinders. A former cod fisherman, Dougy’s now an ocean observer. He even changed his boat’s name from Cover to The Ocean Reporter. The federal government pays him to monitor and videotape the seas of Cape Ann. He also does sediment testing in Gloucester Harbor.

From Paradise, California, I came here to Pigeon Cove, Massachusetts. Three years in Paradise and the town was on to me. One too many boozy missteps. Before, I’d been five years in Cave Creek, Arizona, three in Big Sky, Montana, two seasons in Steamboat Spring, Colorado. British Columbia once upon a time. I always know when to go, when time’s up. Once the scenery turns bland, I scram.

I had a girlfriend in Paradise and though we didn’t like each other, we did share a fondness for red wining away what bothered us. On my way to work one Sunday (Maintenance Electrician), I drove right past the building. With each mile gained, I considered what I might be losing, and all that nagged me was a succulent house plant I’d managed to hold onto for five years. I was already halfway to the other side of our country, driving a car born the same year as me, and the imagesn’t enough to make me U-turn. I could only hope she’d water it. Having never been east of Chicago, I wondered if the other side might be different. So I drove my Duster until the transmission grinded out across from Dougy’s house in Pigeon Cove.

He practically rebuilt the junker in his pebble driveway. Only made one trip to AutoZone, the rest of the parts Dougy built himself; he has that kind of imagination. Dougy’s struggle was to keep pace with his mind, to sort out the ongoing discourse between his ears. He talked to his tools—asking who was best suited for a particular job. He stirred his coffee with Allen wrenches, itched his nuts with screwdrivers, picked his teeth with feeler gauges. There was no room for my help so I stayed inside savoring the warmth of Cinnamon Schnapps, studying the classifieds, paging through maritime photos. During breaks, he showed me his underwater films, pointing out glittery specks that meant the world to an explorer. I was taken by the dark green warmth, the gloomy calm one-hundred feet below. The trash and treasure. When he showed me a blue shark chasing the camera, I froze.

“Did you go to school for this?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, fast-forwarding. “Rockport High.”

He shared his ocean, above and below, showed me more than bikinis and boogie boards.

The car was ready on Superbowl Sunday. “Sounds like a Caddy now,” Dougy said, turning over the thirty year-old engine. When it came time to reconfigure the wiring harness, he finally needed me. “I try not to meddle with wires,” he said. “I have a ginny in Gloucester who does my electrical.” Dougy: a mechanical maestro who fears magnets, motion, coils of wire. And this is how I came to work on The Ocean Reporter: powering up his shoddy AV equipment, wiring his grand visions together while he handles what he calls “think engineering.”

Dougy rents me a small, sloping apartment above a pottery shop. “My daughter lived there once,” he told me. “Druggy,” he whispered. His cheeks reddened; I felt his shame. We were at a tavern in New Hampshire, a converted foundry that smelled like wet dog. No booze for nine years, Dougy says he can get a buzz just being inside a bar. “I think she’s in New Orleans,” he continued, turning his coffee mug upside down.

I couldn’t talk to Dougy about drugs. Couldn’t explain the sacred highs, the wounded lows, the dead time in between. Couldn’t suggest his daughter was in terrible agony. I didn’t want to ruin anything by showing him a world I’ve seen.

Dougy finished the torpedo this morning, a crude four-foot steel missile with three rear fins, two front wings, a black nose cone. A weapon. Before today, we mounted the camera onto a bulky pipe box, hardly the aerodynamic phallus before me now.

“We going after someone?” I ask, climbing aboard, my ass wet from the dinghy.

“An Oscar,” he says, attaching lead weight to the bottom of the missile. The camera is wedged into the tail end of the pipe. “I need you to wire it through this hole here.” Dougy points to a square cut-out on the top side of the torpedo, just in front of the tow clamps. He tells me we’re going to troll the torpedo behind the boat at 2.5 knots. Adjustments will be made by adding weight, trimming the fins, reconfiguring the position of the tow line. As I fiddle with wires, he talks, talks, talks—think engineering his way through a process I hardly understand.

From the stern, Dougy dumps the torpedo overboard like trash, and I study the video screen from inside the captain’s cabin, which is mercifully equipped with a space heater. The screen’s fuzzy until the torpedo finds bottom sixty feet below the surface. I press record on the VCR. A car battery provides our power.

“Bottomed,” I call out astern.

I’m always stunned by the first glimpse of the ocean floor, the quiet mystery Dougy captures from such distance. I imagine what ghosts might drift by the screen, what strangeness I may encounter alone inside the cabin. At the bar, I tell people it’s like the moon down there, another universe right in our midst, but they don’t care. They were born into this. I bet early man was shocked when he discovered life under the surface, I tell them. I bet he couldn’t get over it.

Dougy ties down the tow line and runs into the cabin, increasing the boat’s speed to 2.5 knots. My eyes hold the picture, the torpedo revealing the underwater behind us. Little fish jet across the screen, the ocean floor dusting up as the torpedo scrapes bottom.

“See there,” Dougy says, pointing. “It’s trolling sideways. Weight distribution problem.” He pulls on his stubbly chin, considering.

I don’t see why we can’t film sideways. What’s the difference? I wonder. But this isn’t mine.

My arms ache as we haul in the torpedo, fingers stiffen as the icy Atlantic soaks into my joints. With forearms like Popeye, a detached calm on his face, Dougy shows no sign of strain. “Got caught,” he says, referring to the missing nose cone. “I’ll make a new one tonight.” I scan the surface for something black. “See here,” he says, pointing to the fins, rubbing the shiny spots with his fingers. “That’s where she was dragging across the floor.” He sits down, absorbs the torpedo like a father would a sick child.

.  .  . 

That night, I buy a woman a drink, then another. She’s child-faced, chubby, a gold chain dangling between her melons. An orange tabby cat saunters across the bar, rubs against our dirty long sleeves. I tell her about the torpedo scraping the ocean floor and swinging sideways. “Weight distribution,” I say, speaking as the ocean observer, the think engineer. I mention the abyss.

“The chaos before God’s Creation,” she says, tapping her cross. I ask her if she could live in such silence. She burps, points to her empty glass. She likes free drinks; she doesn’t seem to like me, but I don’t care. We all want desperately in here.

It’s dark: I’m tangled up in my sunken green couch. My clothes are on, boots placed neatly next to the couch, socks tucked inside. A half can of beer’s wedged into my crotch. I still have my wallet. I stretch, the phone falls to the floor. Shit.

It’s between late and early, a perilous place where I pray for change, swear I won’t wake up here again. I call out for the chubby girl, but there’s no answer. No one’s here.

The phone rings at 7:00 AM.

“You working today or what?” Dougy shouts. I hear a lathe going in the background.

I hang up, sit up, throw up, and head up to the docks. The morning sky is the color of blue popsicle. The ocean’s choppy, sudsy. Dead low tide. A seagull shits on my windbreaker. I wonder how all this will turn out.

Dougy pisses off the side of the boat. “I cut off the front fins,” he says pensively. “We’ll see where that takes us.” A young preppy couple and their beagle rush away from our side of the dock. “I made a nose cone from lobster buoy,” he continues. “Bright orange and it floats. We won’t lose it again.”

I blow chunks over starboard, dregs of a blackout.

“Are you going to make it?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say, wiping my mouth. I scrub my mess from the starboard rail, straining to remember if I phoned him last night.

He holds my gaze, his exterior soft without his Navy cap.

“I’m sorry, Dougy.”

He unties the bow line, his back to me now. “You’re coming to a fork,” he says.

“I know,” I say.

And I do. There aren’t many places left to go, and I wonder if I’ll make it thirty more years. Perhaps he once considered this too.

“Get your sea legs,” he says. “We’re shoving off.”

The torpedo still drags. The video screen’s a fog, the rear fins grate the ocean floor. I wiggle the wires, hoping it has to do with connection, but all my leads show twelve volts.

“It’s sideways again,” I call out.

In the cabin, he increases speed to 3.3 knots. The shadowy screen steadily illuminates. “See there,” he says. “I need to shorten the tow line. That’ll help movement at 2.5. We can’t record at 3.3.”

“The light’s funny,” I say, studying the screen. “It’s brighter on the lower half.”

“That’s because the camera’s upside down now. The torpedo’s flipped over. Look,” he says, poking my shoulder. “The sun can’t shine from the bottom of the sea.”

.  .  . 

Dougy doesn’t use computer programs to modify his inventions. He says that’s for NASA. Instead, he think engineers his plan before going to bed. “Then the solution comes to me in my dreams,” he’ll pronounce. The next morning, he’ll be surprised to discover the work hasn’t been done, the corrections haven’t been made, because healready did the job in his mind.

I can’t imagine accomplishing anything in my dreams. My dreams are terrifying: tidal waves, alligators, me screwing a jellyfish. All I have at night is fear.

“Rollers,” Dougy says the next morning, a wet unlit cigar between his teeth. Sun melts icicles from the cabin roof. Yesterday was a year ago.

He tells me the wheels are from an old baby carriage he found at the transfer station. “They’ll keep the torpedo smooth,” he says. “She’ll glide. No more sideways, no more upside down. No more sun under the sea.” He tells me he dreamed of his little brother last night, remembers pushing him around in a stroller when they were runts, when their mother was too tired, their father too busy at the docks. “That’s when I figured it out.”

The torpedo moves across the ocean floor like the Mars Rover. No bumps, no drags, no resistance. We’re steady at 2.5. The picture’s glorious. I imagine classical piano playing in the background.

“Perfect,” I call astern.

Dougy rushes the cabin, snowflakes melting on his cap. We’re both silent, our focus on the screen. He’s close, smells like fuel. The Ocean Reporter groans from the wake. Watching the underwater behind us, the camera tracing our trackless trail—so mesmeric, so damn serene—it’s enough to make you want to drown.

“It’s almost too good,” Dougy says.

.  .  . 

The chubby girl’s playing Keno, her nails painted Halloween orange. The Bruins skate above us on T.V. I want to ask her if she came home with me the other night, if I was okay with her, if she tucked my socks into my boots. But I won’t.

“We’re at a fork,” I say.

“What?” She reaches for the popcorn bowl.

I tell her I’m going to think engineer my way to a new understanding, that when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be there. “This work is vital,” I say.

I ask her if I can touch her cross; she tucks it into her sweatshirt. Then I tell her I’ll buy all she can drink if she’ll just cover her eyes. She does, reaches blindly for her fresh whiskey sour.

I show her everything from the bottom of the ocean.