As Captain of the Following Sea for the last three days, I’m still a bit overwhelmed, and as a woman and a new Captain I still have to prove myself to the crew. You’d think killing the last Captain, albeit accidentally and with a seafood quiche, would be enough. But here I am, the cook who would be Captain. I used to see him searching the horizon when I dropped off his afternoon snack from my contraband cache of frosted sugar cookies and one percent milk. So, after I became Captain, I started spending a lot of time looking through the telescope.
I’m not really sure what I’m looking for, but I know that we only make money when we take it, so I search the horizon for floating treasure chests because I sure don’t want to be in charge of the next raid. That said, I haven’t ignored my new powers and proudly instituted a new program for the swabbies. They throw nets off the side of the boat to fish twice a day. It isn’t that much but it improves our food quality quite a bit from the barrels of dried fish that the former Captain used to feed the crew for weeks at a time. Besides, there’s only so much swabbing the deck that’s actually useful, and we need a good number of swabbies to make sure we have plenty on board ready to fill newly open positions.
What’s more important is what I see in the looking glass as I wait for my afternoon snack. Pirates on the horizon. My predecessor dyed our sails to black some time ago, to look more menacing. I liked it at first, but they have since faded in the Caribbean sun to a threadbare grey. The sails in my eyepiece are red and not a cozy red like a maroon or even something closer to plum, but a bright, bloody scarlet. These are serious pirates.
I begin ringing the bell over my shoulder and first mate, Gummy, arrives at my quarters before the third ding-a-ling. The lumbering wing man can be surprisingly quick when it suits him.
“Yesh Captain,” Gummy says.
Before I joined the crew, he’d lost part of his tongue in skirmish, resulting in a terrible lisp. I’m not sure why the crew called him Gummy, except maybe tonguey just didn’t have that je ne sais quoi to become a proper nick name.
“What’s your given name Gummy?” I ask.
His eyes widened before he looks at the ground. “Shasha.” The last syllable results in an indelicate glop of spit ejecting from his mouth.
“Sasha?” I ask.
I see the color rising up his neck. The last thing I need is Gummy getting mad, because I don’t have any fish handy to defend myself and it probably wouldn’t do much good against the cutlas he wears at his hip. I think the only reason he hasn’t used it on me yet was because of his indefatigable dedication to the pirate creed.
“Well, what about your middle name?” I ask.
“Can I call you Paul then?”
He smiles. Wow, he’s actually pretty good looking when he smiles. My brow scrunches as I try to remember if I’d ever seen him smile before.
“Yesh,” he says.
“So, there’s red sails on the horizon. What do you reckon our chances are there?” I ask.
He walks to the looking glass, “May I?”
I nod him forward.
After a good long look, he stretches his neck and looks some more. Then he looks at me and says, “Well if we’re not going to them, you should know they are heading to ush.”
“Well then, let’s let them do the work and get ourselves warmed up.”
“What? Why would we do that?” he says.
“Last skirmish three men got injured because they pulled a muscle or strained something. Mostly overreaching before they got warmed up. Rocky was stiff and slow, and he lost his left little toe to that first mate the one that smelled so bad. Anyway, the toe ended up in the ocean and his balance hasn’t been the same since.”
“How did you know that?” Gummy er, Paul’s eyes sharpen as though there was something he missed on the first time he looked at me.
It’s my turn to blush. “When no one pays you much attention you get to hear a lot.”
Standing on the deck, the crew isn’t sure what to make of the downward dog, but they do try. Partner stretches don’t last long without a slap fight starting so I switch to the solo stretches. Once I’m satisfied we’re all limber, I start the serious talk, skirmish strategy. I wave them in to hear me.
“Okay, we’ll want two in each crow’s nest,” I say.
A freshly promoted pirate, Ned, the one with red hair says, “But we usually send Pootie up there because, well, he’s Pootie.”
I wrinkle my nose, knowing what they mean about him. He really does need to change his diet, maybe go gluten free.
“Not today. We need the two best climbers up there. Jack Jack and Black Jack,” I say.
Two Jacks nod and begin climbing. “And Rocky and Paul in the other one,” I say pointing at the second nest.
The crew look at me like I am truly mad at the last bit. I realize I haven’t introduced them to Gummy’s new moniker. But he steps forward and said, “Thanks Cap,” before he starts climbing after Rocky.
I make sure no one is hungry or thirsty and stow the swabbies below, because, well they’re still swabbies. And then we watch the red sails make their final approach.
It doesn’t take long for the ship to sidle up and before they can launch an attack I screamed out, “PARLAY!”
I’m not sure what I have to say, but it couldn’t hurt, could it? At least that’s what I think until I see their Captain.
Jennifer from Marketing.
Jennifer my old boss.
“Pam? Pammy! Oh, wow I had no idea it would be you.”
She says this in a way that makes me think she absolutely knew it would be me and can’t wait to destroy me in a million unimaginable ways. Then I notice her perfectly applied red lipstick and the blood falls from my face as I realize the sails are dyed to match her signature color – Princess Passion #47.
My mind tumbles back to the last time I saw her. The day I quit my corporate job, quit working for her and decided to pursue my lifelong dream of being a chef. At least I was nice enough to give her two weeks’ notice.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t acquired a job before I quit so I didn’t have much choice when the rent was due at the end of the month and took what I could get. Cook and dishwasher on the Following Sea. I hadn’t realized that the Caribbean still had storybook Pirates and fairytale challenges. Now I know they do have pirates and pirates gotta eat.
I did my best to make it sound romantic and adventuresome in my letters home, but most of the first month I stayed below deck, combating seasickness. Once I realized all I had to do was rehydrate dried fish, the tragedy of my choice came into real focus. My first time in port, I spent all my pay to get enough flour and egg and spices to thicken the soup to a stew and had enough left over to make a quiche for the Captain’s birthday. I was so proud as I stood behind him and he shoveled over-sized bites of egg into his muzzle. Then he had to go and choke on a fishbone hiding in the rehydrated, dried fish. The frenzy of back slapping that followed failed to help him. And all I could do was stand back watching and wondering which plank they would send me down.
When his body stilled and the room filled with silence, the pirates backed away from the body looking at each other and then at me.
I couldn’t help myself and mumbled, “Sorry.”
Well, according to the pirate creed, that was a good as claiming to murder of the captain. And they really don’t do well with death by natural causes so Gummy leapt on the opportunity to keep things going without incident when he said, “Well then I guessh you’re the new Captain then… I guessh.”
I didn’t fight it, I was ready for things to be different and I finally didn’t have any excuses. I could be change I wished to see on the ship.
But here is my past, my real past, my beige and grey corporate past. Here is Jenny.
She looks smart in red, fitted leathers and has a cutlas swinging at her hip – bigger than any on my ship. All I have is my chef’s knife tied to my forearm. And that was just so no one would steal it.
“Hello Jenny,” I say and try to stand up straight. I remember always slumping around her and hating myself for it.
“It’s Captain Jenny the Red, sweetheart, and I fully intend to be Commodore by the end of the day.”
Leave it to her to have a fancy nickname that catches the imagination as much as her red sails catch the eye. On board behind her, the men clump together and each wears an arm band dyed to match Princess Passion #47. Clearly, they are prepared for war.
“What’s your name?” She smiles brightly, expectantly. It is a contest she knows she will win.
I gulp, I hadn’t really gotten around to picking out a name and the crew barely knew me.
“She’s Captain Cook.” Paul calls down.
“Indeed.” Jenny smirks. “So, what is it you wish to discuss? Ready to hand over your ship and crew?”
I look past her at her crew. They look… well they look like I felt after one week working for Jenny, beige and grey and soul crushed. Actually, they look slightly better than I did, but they work in direct sunlight, and I was stuck under old-school fluorescents that felt like they were created to incite a seizure. I left before that could happen.
“So then what Jenny? If I hand over our ship, what would happen next?” I stall.
She frowns at my not using the full title she’d given herself. That all too familiar frown is why I left corporate Neverlandia. An endless stream of unspoken judgement and disappointment.
“Well, after I push you overboard, I would head to port for team building and skills assessment.” Jenny’s tone slips into a familiar imperiousness.
Pirates can’t even help each other stretch and she wants them to team build? That was sure to be a disaster.
“And after the skills assessment?” I ask.
“I would make the tough choices – some efficiency decisions, the usual a reduction in force and reorg.”
The crew members behind her begin to look at each other in a manner that I read as ‘did you just hear what I just heard?’
I’m going to make sure they heard it.
“So, after you work them to the bone on a break in port, you’re going to leave some behind and possibly change out the first mate, gunnery, and maybe move some swabbies up because they’re cheaper.”
“Exactly.” Her eyes gleam. She jerks her chin toward me. She’s ready for the fighting to start.
I raise my hand in defense and say, “Don’t you want to know what I would do as commodore?”
The crew behind her stops and Jenny’s chin retreats to her neck in a most unattractive expression of incredulity.
“For one, I wouldn’t have swabbies on the deck during a confrontation like this.” The younglings standing between the full-fledged pirates look around. I can tell they’re swabbies from the lack of facial hair and the fact that they are holding wooden clubs rather than cutlasses. “They need some proper practice before they join a boarding party.”
“I would also make sure there is a steady flow of fresh fish and spices to ensure the food doesn’t get too monotonous.” A few more seasoned heads turn and look at each other.
“She don’t ration the rum neither!” Pootie calls out and steps behind me as do two other Jacks, Tall Jack and Naked Jack, though he’s wearing clothes at the moment.
In all honesty I didn’t realize there was rum to be rationed, but I don’t see much reason to disagree on this point.
“She doesn’t wear us out rushing to battle and got us a bit of food and water in our bellies before you got here.” I think that one came from Naked Jack.
“She don’t boss us around if it’s not needed.” Rocky calls out. The crew tightens up behind me.
A swabbie pokes his head up from below. “And we’re learning a trade so if we don’t make it as pirates we can go home and fish,” he calls out with a youthful squeak.
Jennifer snarls at me and a red streak of lipstick stains her front tooth. “You think that makes you any good? You’re being ridiculous!”
I look at the men behind her. They just need one more push.
“You know you’re wearing red arm bands because she can’t be bothered to remember who you are.” I’m guessing here, but I remember her event management habit of color-coding name tags to know who was important and who wasn’t.
For the first time Jenny falters. I’m right.
Back in the office, the only time she learned someone’s name was when she used it to take credit for their work. I know my confident smile is a dangerous irritant but I’m certain of her now and it feels good.
I turn to my crew and begin on the left pointing at each in turn, “Pootie, Red Jack, Naked Jack, Billy, Rocky, Paul, Jack Jack, Black Jack, Ned, Charming, Little Nicky, Professor—”
“Those aren’t names.” Jenny says, waving me off. “It’s more important to know a person’s purpose, their meaning. That's how you get real team engagement.”
She leans in toward the nearest man, trying to make eye contact and 'connect on a deeper level' as she used to call it. None of them are willing to return her gaze.
“Well then, introduce me to your crew,” I say in challenge.
"Well there’s Rick, Mick, and the First Mate and uhh…” she turns to the crew looking for something to recognize.
The crew circles her and the tallest one tugs on the end of the red ribbon around his arm to release the bow and drops it. “If you can’t remember my name, I won’t be wearing your colors.”
“You mutinous bastards!” Jenny screams, her face as red as the sails. I’ve seen these fits before, she goes from charming to snake charming in about six seconds. But Pirate ships are the ultimate democracy and it takes only a brief survey of the faces of her crew to know who’s getting voted off the island.
They wrestle her to somewhere below deck and her screams dissipate into the background noise. I recall the previous Captain planning with ‘Gummy come Paul’ as I dropped off a cookies and milk.
“We’re heading to Cinta Porta. I hear there is a shipping route that hasn’t been disrupted for nearly a year. They’re probably pretty complacent by now,” I say. “Care to come along? It’s a share per man and quarter share per swabbie on my missions.”
I just made that up, but I think it sounds pretty good.
The crew on the other ship huddles before the tallest one says, “We’re happy to try you out Captain Cook.” I blink. My first raid and it was… a success. Maybe this Captain thing isn’t as hard as I feared.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Well then, elect your Captain Smee and let’s head out in the morning.” I turn back to my nodding, smiling crew. “First we really should finish the left-over quiche.”