Norfolk Naval Shipyard – Portsmouth, Virginia
As the transport descended through the clouds, I could see the ocean below with its deep blue ripples across the horizon. The sky was clouded over, but the coastline still clearly came into view. It’s been some time since I returned to Earth for anything, but it had been years since coming to this place. For some reason I thought I should go back. With a little turbulence we made our way down to the spaceport just outside of the city. Grabbing my bags and a rental, I begin the short drive into the city. I opted for civilian clothes for the trip – this wasn’t any sort of official business. Jeans and a t-shirt, a light brown leather coat, hair down – keeping it simple.
I keep the radio off for now, just driving along the all-too-familiar streets. The grey sky had begun to fall, a light and drizzling rain that just made things miserable. The place never really did recover from the economic downturn all those years ago – that was before I was even born – but the ship yards had remained for over six hundred years now. Pulling through the suburbs I can see the old wood sided house. Not much to look at, the white paint chipped away more than it was. Their vehicles are gone, no one answering to knocks at the door, so I go to the only place I thought they would be. It was already late afternoon, so they must be working the late shift.
Parking at the far end of the lot I have to make my way for nearly a mile in the light drizzle mess of rain. No point in running, just walk and avoid the puddles. The huge warehouses surround the landscape, giant cranes dotted about in the distance. The place was all but dead within in a sea of employee’s cars – the rain keeping everyone at bay. Finally arriving at the yard house I skip the manager’s office, heading for a crack in the huge hangar-like doors. Inside now I can hear the banging, grinding, and shouts of the workers in a massive tunnel of a building – full of flying sparks and workers coming and going. I run a hand through my hair to get some of the water out, but it’s soaked.
They’ve been building spaceships here for hundreds of years. Some military, though mostly civilian and business contracts. I knew my way around – it was all too familiar. I got some looks from the workers as I walked along, but with wet hair down to my shoulders and a couple days of stubble, maybe they thought I was off shift. After walking and wondering around I check my watch – thirty minutes – it’s time to ask. Finding a white collar, I go to him and shout my questions.
“Mulvaney!” I shout close to his ear.
“Austin!?” he shouts back, “Yeah! This Way!”
He leads me through the maze of a complex, still inside the massive warehouse that literally stretched for miles and nearly a quarter mile high. Some ships were half built, but mostly it was a fabrication house for smaller parts to be assembled in the great hangars later.
Mr. White Collar points him out to me without words. I thank him with a handshake and half smile. There he is, hunched over and welding away – nothing changes. I give him awhile, taking a seat and watching him work. Another twenty minutes go by before he stands to stretch, removing his helmet. He looks my way so I stand, hands in my pockets. He gives me a look and a heads up gesture before coming my way. We give a light smile to each other with a hard clap of a handshake. He gestures for me one direction and we head out – the end of his shift finally coming.
Not much to my surprise he takes me to a bar that has existed since the flood. The typical place, I remember it well. It was almost eerie walking inside where nothing, literally nothing had changed even since I was a boy coming here for a burger. Now it was late night beers as was the routine for a number of the workers. If not for them this shoddy hole wouldn’t exist. We take a seat at the bar as he takes out his pack of cigarettes. Two beers down, the light and friendly conversation now long dead – we still don’t embrace much.
“Where’s the old man?” I ask, turning a full beer in its place.
He inhales deep, lets it out, “He’s dead” he says, like telling me it’s still raining outside.
I stop a moment, looking around, “Dead” I repeat back, a bit of shock, a lot of remorse, “What happened to him?”
“Everything” he says, looking to me….”You would know that if you had been here, even just come back for that matter. Where the hell have you been?”
I tell him my story, though he is critical as usual. I try to give him specifics to make it more believable and he looks interested, but I can tell he really doesn’t care to believe me.
“So…wait, woah-woah” he says, setting down another empty beer, “You want me to believe some bull shit story about you joining the Naval Fleet and becoming an officer?” He shakes his head, “You were always full of shit, you know that? You didn’t even look far to make that story up. From building ships to flying on them. Wow, real original.” He gestures to some other guy in the bar, “Hey, check it out. It’s my little bro the Navy Captain!”
I shake my head, not even looking to the man. The man doesn’t seem to know what to do, so he goes back to his business of ignoring us.
I didn’t come here for this. I just thought I would…see them both. I’m not going to convince him, so I just get another beer and talk about his favorite subject – himself. “And what about you? Since he died? How’ve you been?”
Elbows on the bar, he turns his hands up before tapping them back down hard, cigarette smoke swirling. He gives a bit of a blank stare to nowhere. He looked bad – terrible – worse than the last time I saw him. He and I worked these yards as soon as we were able to – too little ambition to do much else with our miserable lives. He takes another drag as I look to him with familiarity, though with some apathetic pity. He talks about some girl he knew that is now in jail and how she may be pregnant with his kid. He then rambles on until he does what he usually does – ask for money. I turn him down, so it just gives him a reason to act like a jackass.
“Come on. Don’t give me all of that” I say in a heavy and exhausted voice.
“What?” he asks, looking like someone just accused him of murder.
“Just don’t. Lets…” I continue, taking up the near empty beer, “just talk.”
He doesn’t let it go and continues to pick at me, looking for an argument just to rile things up. I’m not having it. Taking out forty bucks I lay it on the bar and hop up. I say some nice things to him – like how it was good to see him – and head for the door. Outside the rain is a little heavier, still miserable, but I walk to catch a cab back. I’ll get the car in the morning.
The bar door opens behind me in a quick creak. “Hey!” I hear. I knew he would come out. He’s heartless, not a monster. “Ashton, wait!”
I turn to him, neither of us approaching one another. We look at each other through the falling rain a moment, neither of us making any sign of wanting to get closer.
“Just…” he says over the rain, “take care of yourself…ok?”
“Yeah” I shout back, “you, too.” We still look at each other standing there some feet apart, head nods like you give someone when you agree to call them in the morning – but you know it will never happen.
Walking through the dark alley I can feel the rain soaking through me now. I walk for what seems a good mile or so. Cars pass by, crossing the streets around the massive ship yard complex. I’ll just walk until I see a cab or what looks like civilization. I stop and turn – the sprawling complex in the near distance, lit by the orange glow of lights along the streets, atop the buildings. Thunder rumbles overhead for some time, though it was far away. Seeing a cab I make a hobble of a run, my hand in the air. Hopping in, I tell him to take me to the hotel. As we drive through the complex I recognize the familiar landscape, remember why I left in the first place.
Never should have come back…