My Dinner with Ahab

Dinner with Ahab

The life of a whaling ship captain is hard. You’re at sea for years on end, away from family and friends, commanding a crew of some of the most unsavory and unchristian men New England has to offer. When you finally do return home, oftentimes you have little to show for your efforts, maybe a few hundred barrels at most. You dock your ship, collect your lay, and pray it lasts until your next outing. That is, assuming you can get a ship’s owner to take you on at a fair price. Some of these Quakers drive a hard bargain!

It was early evening on Nantucket Island, and I was busy preparing for a voyage around the Horn– consulting maps and navigation charts, vetting crew members, making sure the ship was equipped and ready to go. We were scheduled to depart the next morning. I would have liked nothing more than to spend my last night on the island at home with Polk, my cat. Yet through an odd series of circumstances, I had been shanghaied into accepting an offer to have dinner with a man I had been avoiding for years.

His name was Ahab. At one time, he had been one of the most celebrated whaling captains in New England. My first voyage had been as a sailor aboard his ship. He promoted me to first mate and was instrumental in getting me my first captain’s gig.

But then something happened to Ahab on his last voyage, something terrible. A whale had bitten his leg clean off. It very nearly killed him. Once a strict but otherwise good-natured captain, Ahab, it was said by those who came across him since the accident, was given to dark moods, punctuated by disquieting fits of monomania. During such fits, it was always “the white whale this” and “the white whale that.” You would try and change the subject, maybe talk about Mendelssohn’s violin concerto or the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, yet somehow Ahab would bring the conversation right back to that damned white whale!

Friends abandoned Ahab (alas, I was one of them). His marriage suffered. He had been married fairly recently, before the accident, to a beautiful young woman who bore him an adorable baby girl. At one time, Ahab couldn’t wait to return home from a voyage. Now, he couldn’t wait to get back to sea and continue his mad hunt for the one sailors dubbed “Moby-Dick.”

Captain Peleg, who had arranged the dinner between Ahab and me, claimed that once during a midnight stroll along the docks—Peleg suffered from insomnia–he happened upon Ahab standing there speaking forlornly to a dolphin bobbing in the water below. After a few minutes, even the dolphin had had enough and briskly disappeared beneath the inky water.

I entered the Try Pots Inn, all the while chiding myself, “Wallace, what are you doing here? You’re a ship’s captain, not a doctor. What could you possibly do for Ahab?”

As I peered around the dining hall, I was relieved to find that Ahab was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he had changed his mind. I decided I would have a drink at the bar. One drink. If Ahab didn’t show up by the time I finished, so much the better. I would go back to my seaside bungalow and split a can of sardines with Polk.

A young man sitting alone on the opposite end of the bar caught my eye as I ordered a glass of whiskey. The man appeared to have two sheets to the wind, and the third one was unraveling fast. I recognized him. We had met a few days earlier in this very inn. He was a merchant seaman lodging in the Try Pots until his ship sailed. Coincidentally, he was booked to go on his first whaling voyage aboard the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s ship.

The young man grabbed his mug of grog and stumbled over to where I was standing. I began to panic. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember his name. There seems to be a universal law that a person whose name you can’t recall is always the one most eager to say hello to you.

“Calpan Wallace,” the young man said with an outstretched arm and a stumbling tongue. “Glood to see you!”

“Good to see you, Mr. —”

“Call me Ilshmael,” he said, patting my shoulder.

Ilshmael? Oh, right, Ishmael! How could I forget? What parent names his kid Ishmael? Giving the kid a bad start, the poor bastard. Still, a decent lad. Saved me the embarrassment of not remembering his name.

A few minutes into our conversation, I couldn’t wait to get away from him. This Ishmael was an unrepentant drunk! And he talked incessantly, INCESSANTLY, squeezing as many words between hiccups as he was able. Even Polk would have tired of his endless yarns. Fortunately, Ahab arrived before Ishmael could ask me to buy another round.

I heard Ahab before I saw him. Everyone in the Try Pots did. His peg leg clomped ominously along the boards leading up to the inn before Ahab paused and violently flung open the door. A veritable sea Atlas, Ahab filled the doorway. Straight off, your eyes went to that gleaming ivory leg.

All conversation at the bar stopped as patrons turned to look at this otherworldly figure. He had changed since I last saw him. Yes, of course, he was down a leg. But there was something else. Was it the lengthy scar that ran down his face? He had always had that, hadn’t he? Even as a boy. Something to do with a clumsy childhood reenactment of Captain Cook’s final aloha. It always made him look like he had been split in two and glued back together. You couldn’t help but stare at it, it was so long and white on an otherwise sunburnt face. Thank goodness the peg leg was there to distract you.

I excused myself from Ishmael, who immediately latched onto another hapless patron at the bar. “Did I tell you about this clannibal I’m shlaring a bed with?” I heard him tell the unlucky fellow.

A freckled blond woman of few words and hurried movements seated Ahab and me at a table in the middle of the dining room. Menus were unnecessary. The restaurant served only one thing, chowder, and only two kinds. I picked clam. Ahab chose cod. Right away, I regretted my choice. But the woman was already flitting back to the kitchen. Oh, well. Maybe Ahab would let me try some of his. Was he the sharing type, I wondered? The scowl on his face suggested otherwise.

Didn’t Ahab used to smile more often? And where was that great bellowing laugh? He knew at least a hundred limericks about a man from Nantucket, each one dirtier than the last. Should I ask him to recite one to break the ice?

Better not, I thought to myself.

The freckled woman returned with our bowls of chowder and slammed them on the table. As an afterthought, she dug into her apron pockets and pulled out a couple of handfuls of crackers, tossing them unceremoniously between the bowls before leaving.

“No nickel for her, eh?” I said smiling at Ahab. Ahab merely grunted.

An uncomfortable silence followed. I tried the chowder. Not bad! I decided to break the silence by asking Ahab a few questions about his family.

“How’s the wife?”

“Still breathing,” Ahab spit out.

“Been almost three years since your marriage, hasn’t it?”

“Mmmm.”

“And your baby? I hear you have a beautiful little girl.”

He fixed me with a stern stare and said through gritted teeth, “And what of beauty in this world, Captain Wallace? Are ye not aware that it merely rots on the vine?”

Boy, was he in a mood!

I ceased with the questions and sat slurping my soup. Apparently, Ahab wasn’t the least bit hungry. He pulled out a pipe, filled it, lit it, took a puff, and with a look of disgust, threw the pipe into his chowder.

I guess I wouldn’t get to try the cod.

Every now and then, I glanced at the gleaming leg lurking beneath the table. A couple of times I crossed my own legs and kicked it by accident. Ahab didn’t appear to notice. At one point, between silences, he caught me gawking at the leg. To my surprise and embarrassment, he yanked it out from under the table and threw it right on top, between our bowls of chowder. Crackers went flying everywhere. The restaurant again fell silent as patrons stared in our direction.

“Ye want to know about the beast that dismasted me, aye Captain Wallace?” Ahab asked.

I really didn’t. Then again, I kind of did. I nodded, slowly. Ahab leaned back in his chair and removed his fake leg from the table.

“It was a white whale, Captain Wallace. A great white sperm whale, as white as the ivory of this here bogus leg. Whiter still. Moby-Dick, he’s called. As big as this very inn, with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw that make him look all the more ferocious, as if he were forged in Hell’s fiery furnace, and the devilish blacksmith responsible for creating him was but an apprentice, and not a very good one at that, as he got some of the parts a little wrong.”

I was frightened already. Ahab continued.

“’Twas off the island of Japan that the beast bested me. We were in the skiff, my harpooners and me, when we saw the spout big as an oak coming straight for us. The beast turned his mountain of a body sideways as he slipped ’neath the boat. The twisted harpoons of all the whalers who had tried and failed to slay him over the years still stuck in his flank. My own harpooners were white with fear, whiter even than the whale itself, which again, I tell ye, was very, very white.”

“The whole whale?” I asked.

“What?!” Ahab snapped, apparently unaccustomed to being interrupted.

“The entire whale was solid white, from head to tail?”

“No, just the head was white,” he grumbled. “And a few spots here and there.”

“Well, that’s not really a white whale is it?” I said. “I mean, Polk has a white chin and belly, but I wouldn’t call him a white cat.”

“It’s a white whale, I tell ye!” Ahab shouted, grabbing the edges of the table, his eyes flashing with fury.

“OK,” I said, terrified. “ He’s white. I’m wrong. You’re right.”

Ahab brought a finger up to his eye and continued. “The beast fixed me with one awful eye, an eye of hatred, an eye of malice. Then he twisted his body and overturned our little boat in the dark waters. And as he turned back, that crooked jaw came skimming along the water and severed my leg, leaving me a poor pegging lubber for the rest of my days.”

Ahab fell silent. Seeing my chance, I took up another spoonful of chowder. But before I could shovel it into my mouth, Ahab’s fist came crashing down on the table.

“But I’ll have my revenge, Captain Wallace! Aye. I’ll follow him around Cape Hope and the Horn, through perdition’s flames, before I give up. If it costs me my other leg to do so!”

A legless sea captain. It seemed such a silly image. But I wasn’t about to say anything. You know how it is. Someone goes through a traumatic experience and you don’t want to appear insensitive. After all, you don’t know what another person is going through. Why, I had a toothache once…. Still, Ahab was laying it on a bit thick, I felt.

“But certainly, Ahab,” I said, letting my spoon drop. “Seeking revenge on a dumb brute that was merely reacting out of instinct. It’s unwise.”

“A dumb brute? A dumb brute ye say? Why, you’re as thick as Captain Delano. Look here, Wallace. This thing may appear to be but a dumb brute. But there’s more to him. Vastly more. Infinitely more. All visible things are but masks hiding what lies underneath. And beneath the mask of this white whale, sir, is a dark, inscrutable hatred, and it is this that I despise above all else. Why, I would strike the sun if it insulted me!”

He was starting to sound like a book. For my part, I had had just about enough. I signaled for the check.

I wanted to speak my mind there in that inn. I wanted to tell Ahab what I thought of all this ridiculous whale hatred. Why couldn’t he forgive and forget, turn the other cheek? Wasn’t that the Christian thing to do? Get on with your life, man. Enough with these whale woes! Here we were in this nice restaurant, with a couple of delicious bowls of chowder, at least one of them still edible. Life wasn’t as bad as all that. You go on a whaling voyage every few years to pay the bills. You come back with a tan, some scrimshaw, a few shrunken heads for the kids in the neighborhood. Maybe a plump whitefish for Polk. And you resume your nice little life onshore. You write some letters, smoke a few pipes of tobacco, take a long walk along the beach with a pretty girl now and then before preparing for your next voyage. What more do you need in life, really? Why spend the rest of it nursing a grudge against some stupid animal that absconded with your leg? It won’t help you get it back.

I wanted to tell Ahab all of this. I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t. Clearly, Ahab was mad. But what was I supposed to do about it? I had my own problems. For example, who was going to watch Polk while I was away? And maybe going back out to sea would be the best thing for Ahab. Maybe his family could use the break. Maybe a long chase of this Moby-Dick might help Ahab get it out of his system once and for all. Who knows, maybe he’ll succeed and bring back the white whale’s head–and enough spermaceti to make candles for the entire Eastern seaboard!

I guess I’m an optimist at heart. Still, the crazy captain gave me a lot to think about that night.

Ahab picked up the check, bless his tortured heart. We said our goodbyes. I wished him luck on his voyage, he on mine. Okay, he didn’t wish me luck. But I like to think he thought it.

I decided to spoil myself and take a carriage ride home. I needed the rest. Tomorrow was a big day.

As the carriage made its way through these Nantucket streets I would soon leave behind, I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Polk all about my dinner with Ahab.

 

Advertisements

The Mumbling Messiah

Sermon on the Mount

A crowd of villagers occupied the slopes of a hillock, straining to hear the one they called “the Kid,” who stood on the hillock’s summit giving an impromptu sermon in a listless drone. Those near the summit could just make out what the Kid was saying. Those further downhill were only able to capture a word here and there: “hypocrite,” “kingdom,” “father.” The rest of what the Kid said was lost in the aether.

Watching from the base of the hillock were Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter. Judas, arms folded, had a dour expression on his face. Simon held a cupped hand above his eyes to block out the late afternoon sun. Both men were several decades older than the Kid.

Neither man seemed interested in what the Kid was saying. Not today anyway. They had heard him countless times. They were familiar with his message. Judas and Simon were among the Kid’s first followers. However, on this day, the two men were more interested in determining the Kid’s range, which is why they stood so far away. The crowds the Kid was drawing, they noticed, were starting to plateau. Both men appeared disappointed, especially Judas.

“This is just awful,” Judas said to Simon, his eyes squinting up at the Kid.

“I know,” Simon replied.

“Why did we not notice this before?”

Simon shrugged. “We were always in close proximity.”

“Can you hear anything he’s saying?” Judas asked.

“Only a murmur,” Simon said. He moved his cupped hand behind one ear. “You can tell someone is speaking, but you can’t make out the words.”

“It’s terrible,” Judas said.

Judas felt a headache coming on. Unfolding his arms, he pressed the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger. “You have to be standing five feet away to even hear him.”

“He might as well be speaking Latin,” Simon joked.

“Why can’t he project?” Judas asked, raising his arms to the sky.

“He’s probably had no one to teach him,” Simon replied. He glanced up at the taller man. “You’re having doubts.”

“How can he be the Messiah when three-quarters of the people come away from his sermons having no idea what he said?”

“Yet all his followers talk about him. About his gentleness. About his wisdom.”

“Of course they do. A few people up front manage to figure out what he’s saying, with no little effort on their part. They walk away excited, exclaiming what a great sermon it was. ‘Can you believe what the young rabbi said? Wasn’t it amazing?’ And the rest of the people, not wanting to look like schmucks, say, ‘Yes, it was terrific, wasn’t it?’ But they have no idea what he said.”

“Those who hear him will hear him,” Simon said.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Simon again shrugged.

“Sure, he’s got a good message,” Judas continued. “But his presentation stinks! That’s not what you want in a Messiah. You want strength. You want power. You want him to kick us in the butts. This kid is far too meek.”

“The parables don’t help either,” Simon said.

“I would be fine with the parables if you could actually hear them. Does he have to mumble like that?”

Simon looked down at the ground, thinking.

“Perhaps what he needs is a coach,” he said. “What about John?”

“The Baptist?” Judas asked. “Well, there’s an idea. He’s a pretty decent speaker.”

“He’s a terrific speaker. Do you think he would be willing?”

“I think he would be willing for the right price.”

And so Judas and Simon set off into the wilderness to ask John the Baptist for help with the Kid’s presentation. They came upon him sitting cross-legged on a rock beside the river. The Baptist was eating a handful of locusts. Simon cringed a little when he saw him.

Judas and Simon greeted John and explained why they had come. John sat there on his rock, listening attentively, munching away. He could see how important this was to the two men. So he held out for a higher price. There was haggling and gnashing of teeth. When they finally agreed to a price, Judas told John he was all heart for a prophet. John said that money doesn’t fall from the sky, not even for prophets.

“I guess you have to keep up your locust supply,” Judas said sarcastically.

Meanwhile, word about the Kid had gotten around the village. One of the high priests, Caiaphas, was unhappy because the Kid was violating the Sabbath. That’s what he said anyway. In truth, he hated the fact that the Kid was drawing crowds outdoors while the temple where the high priests preached was being used as a storeroom for fishing nets. The Romans too were unhappy because they believed the Kid to be an agitator. Caiaphas bolstered this belief by feeding the Romans false information. Eventually, he sent a soldier out to find the Kid and bring him in for questioning. The villagers knew what this meant. They took turns hiding the Kid in their homes.

One morning, as Judas and Simon were conferring outside the temple, the soldier walked up to them.

“Where’s the Kid?” the soldier asked.

“Beat it, monkey face!” Judas told him.

“I’ll beat you,” the soldier snarled as he reached for his sword.

“Hang on, gentlemen,” Simon said, stepping between the two men. “Let’s not have any trouble. Look, the Kid went up to Galilee to visit his parents. He’ll be up there at least a fortnight.”

“You better watch it,” the soldier said to Judas. “And you,” he said turning to Simon, “better not be lying.”

As the soldier walked away, Judas said to Simon, “If your face had been pressed any further up his ass, you could have kissed his helmet.”

“You shouldn’t toy with Caiaphas’s soldiers, Judas.”

“I can’t help it. They burn me up. Siding with the occupiers.”

Simon didn’t say anything. He watched a shrike alight on a nearby tree branch.

“What are these Roman barbarians doing down here anyway?” Judas asked. “They can’t grow olives on the boot?”

A few days later, Judas and Simon paid a visit to John the Baptist to see what kind of progress he was making with the Kid. The Baptist surprised them.

“I quit,” he said.

“What?” Judas replied. “You just started. You can’t quit.”

“I just did,” John said. “Here’s your money back.”

He placed several coins in Judas’s palm before immediately snatching two back.

“Minus the lessons given,” he explained.

“What exactly is the problem?” Simon wanted to know.

“Look. He’s a good kid,” John said. “Very smart. Has some terrific things to say. But he doesn’t know how to sell it. I tried and tried with him, but all I get is mumbling. He has no personality. No charisma. He’s hopeless.”

“He’s from a poor family,” Simon told him. “His father never taught him how to speak in public. He was a shepherd.”

“Shepherds don’t speak to their sheep?” John asked.

Simon and Judas exchanged a puzzled glance.

“Just give the Kid another try,” Judas pleaded.

“Out of the question,” the Baptist said. “Listen, I was with you guys in the beginning. I thought he was the one. But you can’t lure a bunch of fishermen with dead bait. They’re not big thinkers, these fishermen. They need a little pizzazz. They work for, what, sixteen hours a day, then come home exhausted. They shouldn’t have to work for the message too. We need someone who can grab them by the beards and shake them. A leader. This kid’s not a leader. I’m sorry, but this is my final answer.”

And that was that. Judas and Simon knew the Baptist was right. The Kid was no leader. Where would this leave them with the Romans?

On their way back to the village, Judas and Simon ran into the same soldier who had confronted them earlier. He had a peculiar smile on his face.

“Watch it,” Judas warned Simon. “That’s the look they give right before they gut you.”

“He knows I lied about Galilee,” Simon said, worried.

The soldier overheard him.

“Gentlemen. I’m not here to make trouble. I’m here to offer you an opportunity.”

“Does Caiaphas need his toilet cleaned?” Judas asked.

“No,” the soldier replied, making an effort to maintain his smile. “He’s offering a reward for information about the Kid’s whereabouts.” He pulled out a small leather purse and held it before his face.

“It’s true what they say,” Judas said to Simon. “The bigger the empire, the smaller the purse.”

A frown flickered across the soldier’s face before the smile returned.

“Think about it, gentlemen,” the soldier said as he walked off still dangling the purse aloft.

Once Simon was certain the soldier was out of earshot, he said to Judas, “I think he wanted to kill us.”

“His breath nearly did,” Judas said.

“Listen, Judas. I’ve been thinking. Perhaps what we need is some sort of event. Something that will get the people’s attention. You know, get them talking.”

“About the Kid?” Judas asked. Simon nodded. “What do you have in mind?”

Simon explained his plan to Judas. Judas thought it was a good one, but he was unsure the Kid could pull it off. When they told the Kid the plan, the Kid was against it.

“It’snotme,” he mumbled.

At least that’s what Judas and Simon thought he said. He may have said, “Hesawme.” Or perhaps “It’sonme.” Whatever the case, the two men got the Kid to finally, albeit reluctantly, agree to Simon’s plan.

The three of them went to the temple, where the money changers conducted their business during the day. Judas and Simon stood at the entrance of the temple as the Kid walked up to one of the money changers and spoke to him.

“What?” the money changer asked, annoyed. “I can’t hear you. Speak up.”

The Kid repeated what he had said. The money changer looked at him scornfully.

“Get the hell out of here!” he yelled at the Kid. “I’m busy here.”

The Kid looked around the temple, confused, like he wasn’t sure what to do next. He started to leave, but at the exit, Judas and Simon stopped him.

“Be more assertive,” Judas told him. “Knock their tables over. Make a scene.”

The Kid walked up to another money changer. He looked uncertainly back at Judas and Simon, who both mimed the knocking over of a table. The Kid tentatively reached out and pushed the money changer’s table, but it failed to tip over.

“Get your filthy hands off my table!” the money changer shouted at him.

“Youneedtoleaveyouallneedtoleavethisisanabominationofthetemple,” the Kid mumbled in a quiet, steady stream. With a finger, he flicked over a pile of coins sitting on the table.

“I told you to keep your hands off!” the money changer screamed, grabbing the Kid by his tunic.

“That’s the same kid who was bothering me,” another money changer said. “He’s a thief. Grab him.”

A group of money changers grabbed the Kid and started beating him. Judas intervened.

“Let the Kid go or I’ll tear this place apart,” Judas said brandishing his sword.

They did so, but not without tossing a few obscenities at the Kid before returning to their business.

As Judas and Simon escorted the Kid out of the temple, they exchanged uneasy glances. Simon knew what Judas was thinking. Simon was thinking the same thing. The Kid wasn’t the one. Pretending he was only made matters worse. And the Kid wouldn’t stop preaching.

“What will we do?” Simon asked.

“I’ll take care of it,” Judas said grimly.

If you had been out in the village that night, just before midnight, and you happened to look over near the water well, you would have seen a couple of figures speaking to one another, one a villager, the other a soldier. You would have seen, if not heard, the villager say something to the soldier, and you would have seen the soldier hand the villager a purse, a tad reluctantly. You would have then seen the soldier shake his finger at the villager in warning as the villager walked away. You would have seen the villager suddenly stop about fifteen paces from the soldier, turn, and make an obscene gesture. You would then have seen the soldier make an impulsive move for his sword before thinking better of it.

Several days later, Judas and Simon stood near the crest of a hill. Simon was dressed as a woman. Judas was in his regular tunic. Both men stared solemnly at the rows of crosses in the distance.

“I feel just awful,” Judas said.

“Did you have a choice?” Simon replied. Judas looked down at Simon, whose face was partially obscured by a black veil.

“You make a hideous woman,” Judas said.

“It’s that servant girl’s fault.”

Judas turned back to the crosses.

“They’ve identified you as a follower too,” Simon said. “Why are you not disguised?”

“I’m tired of pretending,” Judas said. “Or maybe I’m just tired.”

Simon joined him in gazing at the crosses.

“He will come,” Simon tried to reassure Judas. “Someday.”

“I’m not sure I can wait much longer,” Judas replied, before turning and walking back down the hill.