Then there was Volga P. I ran across her on a fishing vessel off the coast of Kodiak Island. She had beefy red man-hands that were covered in blisters and scars; she eschewed the gloves that all the other deckhands wore, either out of pride, or, because there were none in her size.
She was picking fish by tearing huge holes in the net and letting the salmon fall out. Alternatively, she would grip the fish at both ends and rip it apart. She was working at a furious pace despite our relatively light catch, which was good in that we could use the time savings to repair the net she was destroying. However, since whole salmon are quite a bit more valuable than shredded pieces of salmon, I decided to make the following suggestion:
Why don’t you try it like this? I demonstrated how to gently tease the gills loose from the webbing.
WHY YOU DON’T MINDING OWN FACKING BUSINESS?! was her skull-splitting reply. I gathered she had practiced this line a few times.
Her retort shocked me only a moment, for as our eyes met, something magical happened.
Well, I should say as our eye met; she was extremely wall-eyed, almost like a fish herself, and only by turning her gigantic head from side to side could she adequately examine me. Yes, in addition to her unusual eyes she was severely hydrocephalic. The sea was calm and the engines silent, but I detected a distinct sloshing sound that I determined was coming from her voluminous cranium each time she swung it around to peer at me.
Not only that, but she was scarcely four feet tall. At first sight I’d thought she was kneeling in the half-full tote of fish for some reason. But she clambered over the side of the tote like a ham-fisted toddler with a beluga head, and I saw that she was indeed extraordinarily short, and a good portion of that was head.
But back to the magical thing! Some might call it love at first sight, and I would certainly agree. But it was so much more than that trite expression can convey. It was as if the universe itself had suddenly awakened, and all of creation became luminous, electric, humming in our supercharged gaze and awaiting instructions. Everything and Nothing switched places back and forth 77,000 times in an instant. Vishnu and Shiva exchanged email addresses and promised to get in touch. It was mighty trippy.
I’m Mark, I heard myself say. How do you do?
VOLGA P! she bellowed. Odd because that was also the name of the vessel we were aboard.
EXCHANGE STUDENT OF BELARUS! I AM FINE!
She extended a meaty paw. A flashback of that hand shredding salmon flesh gave me a nauseated pause, but I extended my own in return, and they met tenderly and held each other for several mystical moments.
TONIGHT I HAVE MARK FOR DINNER! she hollered. I nodded dreamily, not caring which way to interpret her declaration. The spell had been cast, and I was hers.
We dined on half frozen hot dogs under the midnight sun in the prow of the Volga P. Volga P teased the tip of my wiener with her long gray tongue, and then nimbly nipped it off with her yellow, chiclet-like incisors. She winked (or blinked? Her head was turned) provocatively at me, and I returned her innuendo by slurping the tangy mustard from between her spongy buns.
Before I had a chance to slyly suggest we move on to the Klondike Bar course, Volga P had a suggestion of her own.
NOW WE MAKE LOVE! TO MARK’S BUNK!
Would we be copulating with my bunk, or with each other in my bunk? I hoped for the latter, but perhaps we’d do both. This and other intoxicating possibilities filled my mind on the way belowdecks.
A scurvy dog named Queequeg was napping in my bunk, but he awoke and made himself scarce when he heard us approach. Volga P announced, in her usual top-decibel way:
IS FIRST TIME FOR VOLGA P! MARK TOO IS VIRGIN?!
Wild chortles, howls and denigrating remarks erupted from the surrounding crew berths, where idle deckhands were smoking and playing dominoes. Cries of “Shaddap!” came from those who were trying to sleep. We ignored these rubes as we struggled to cram ourselves (mainly her enormous melon) into my love cubby.
I can’t say the experience was that smooth. There were some tears involved (mine), and it was over fairly quickly, but the whole thing was as special as you could want a first time to be. Well, it wasn’t my first time, but the circumstances were so unique, and this singular specimen of a woman was so…singular… It felt like the first time for me too. Plus I’d never done it in front of an audience of guys mocking me and taking bets on my survival before.
Afterwards we lay side by side, sharing a cheroot in blissful peace, but for her spastic leg. I ran my fingers through her luxuriant chest hair and took in the delicate scents of her raspy exhalations: sour coffee, pickled hooligan, cheap hooch, and black lung.
Volga P, I …, I whispered at length. I think I am in love with you.
YES! came her instant and piercing reply, and although I lost hearing in my right ear for days thereafter, my happiness was complete. Little did I know how short-lived it would be!
It seems that while Volga P and I were love-smitten, cosmically linked, and all that jazz, her relationship with everyone else on board could best be summed up as mutual hate. It took me a while to notice. Love is blind, as they say.
Love is also deaf, for even after my hearing returned, I failed to notice the many cruel insults aimed at the both of us (but particularly at her) by the other crew members. And I realize now that love is also very dumb; I heard her screech her signature line, WHY YOU DON’T MINDING OWN FACKING BUSINESS several times a day, but I just thought she was practicing her English with the guys.
I overheard the muttered comments in the galley and in the hold: “loudmouthed freak”, “pumpkin-headed c-word”, “her cunt boyfriend too”. Slowly I surmised that not everyone aboard thought so very highly of my Volga P!
But why? We had done them no wrong. Certainly, she had an unusual appearance and caustic demeanor. Sure, she screamed in her sleep, just as she did when she was awake. Of course, she drank the others’ booze without sharing any of her own. Yes, she cheated at dominoes and Parcheesi, and then beat senseless any man who called her on it with her giant, scabby anvil hands. And true, she was costing the entire enterprise thousands, as the salmon poured to freedom through the gaping rents she had torn in the nets, which there was now no time to mend, as the great run had hit, and we were working round the clock. But besides that, what could anyone have against my sweet li’l cabbage?
During a lull in the action one night I left Volga P to go up to the poop deck to relieve myself. En route, I chanced to overhear these dastardly, whispered machinations:
Oi’ve ‘addit wif the bleedin’ wench!
Too roight, mate! Bout time summat got done about ‘er an’ ‘er bleedin’ twat boyfriend, oi!
Innit! Oi says we bag ‘em!
Roight! Bag ‘em an’ send ‘em to Davy Jones locker, innit!
Sleep wif the fishes, they will!
Roight! But one thing. Why are we talking like this? Are we the bad guys?
I didn’t stick around to hear more of this chilling plot. Who could it have been about though, I wondered? I finished my business, hosed down the poop deck and returned to my bunk, where Volga P was snoring like a gentle baby rhino.
Sometime before dawn I was awakened by rough manhandling. At first I took it to be Volga P’s frisky morning foreplay, but when I heard unusually loud “stuck pig” noises coming from somewhere outside my bunk, I knew that nothing sexual was underway. Nothing involving me, anyway! A mildewy burlap bag covered my head, but I knew I was being hauled up to the main deck, and that my dear, unfortunate, hydrocephalic paramour was already there. In a dopey flash the previous night’s conversation came back to me. 2 clumsily bumped into 2, and I realized what was going down.
TO GET STINKING HANDS OFF OF MEEEE!
Her grating wail trailed off and merged with the wind and crashing waves. I was immediately hurled aloft and into the icy sea after her.
Blackness and numb, watery suffocation, then manhandling again, but more violent this time. Giant lobster-claw hands wrenching the gunny sack from my head and thrusting me above the surging surface. Volga P to the rescue! But how?
Hacking gray brine from my burning lungs, sucking it back in and coughing it out again until the death panic subsided and I remembered how to swim. Volga P let me use her head as a flotation device.
I kicked, with some assistance from Volga P’s spastic leg. She used her great paddle-wheel hands to propel us forward, now and again clobbering a brown bear out of our way. We were only a few hundred yards off the coast of Kodiak, but a lot can happen in those grizzly-infested waters! The sea was teeming with bears, but even moreso with salmon (thanks to Volga P and her shitty net picking skills), so the bears’ attacks were quite half-assed anyway. Ditto with the orcas we met along the way.
Typical of this type of situation, land never seemed to get any closer, no matter how strenuously we plowed toward it. Despite our tenacity, Kodiak’s verdant shores remained frustratingly distant. And despite the considerable heat being generated by Volga P’s fatty forehead, I was steadily succumbing to the elements. I fell into a brief delirium in which I was driving my cliff off a car, and then all went black again.
I awoke who knows how many hours or days later to the sounds of, Dude he’s waking up and, Dude is he waking up? Based on this vernacular, and the odor (fishy, like the boat, but with less diesel and more urine and patchouli), I surmised I was in a hippy cannery camp. And so it turned out to be.
As my pounding head cleared somewhat I noticed I was inside a blue tent, naked and greasy but very warm, ensconced in a sleeping bag and entwined with another very warm, slippery body.
Volga P! I exclaimed, simultaneously realizing it was not her. What the! Where the! Who the! I ejaculated grammatically.
Easy bro, eeeasy, came a soothing reply. You’re all good now. It’s all good. Cheezit found you in the cove. We thought you were dead, man, from the hyper thermia, ya know? I’m Windy. Let’s get you some grub and a brewski.
But Volga P! I was with Volga P!
Naw, dude, it’s just you. You’re a lucky sum’bitch, ya know? Ol’ Bubbles was fitna choam on your leg when Cheezit found you. Shit.
Volga P… I murmured, struggling free of the greasy Windy burrito I was in and tearing open the tent flap.
I emerged into daylight, naked and squinting. Windy was right behind me and threw the sleeping bag over my shoulders before ducking back into the tent to put something on.
Volga P! I began to call out manically. Volga Peee!
I lurched at the nearest gurry-smeared camper. Where is she? I demanded, and not waiting for a reply, I wheeled to face another and asked the same desperate question. I turned in place, not noticing the shards of shale and broken glass piercing my bare feet.
Where is Volga P? my voice cracked. Every eye I met was filled with concern and bewilderment and burst capillaries.
A woolly gent they called Chewy helped me into a natty lawn chair next to their fire pit and gave me a gluten-free hot pocket and a warm PBR to wash it down with. Windy came over and started working on my feet. A groovy chick named Goosebump offered me a chillum, which I declined.
We’re gonna find her man, Windy reassured me as she rubbed some weirdass paste into my wounds. Then she commenced scraping the excess bear suet from my body with a blunt ulu.
This shit saved your life dude, she informed me. It’s naturopathic.
They gave me some of their hippy clothes to put on, my own being too far gone even for Cheezit, who dressed in what appeared to be a blend of hemp and raw kelp. I was moved by their generosity, though I still stank to high heaven.
No one had turned up anything or anyone unusual in their daily beach-combing/foraging sorties since they had found me, so I determined to go to the authorities. Chewy gave me a lift into town on the back of his four-wheeler which, he proudly yelled over his shoulder at me, he’d built himself, entirely from recycling. (I heard references to “recycling” several times during my stay with the cannery hippies, and gradually inferred that it meant any of the piles of garbage strewn around the camp.)
Our first stop was with the harbor master, Ahab.
I’m looking for someone, I said. Name of Volga P.
Oh yes, he replied, scratching himself with a prosthetic hand that looked remarkably similar to those hand-shaped back scratchers you can buy. She went down three days ago. Hell of a thing.
I know, I rejoined. I went down with her. The crew threw us overboard. I want to know if she’s been found. Wait. How could you know she went overboard?
He gave me confused look. There’s a lot of wreckage floating around yet, but no survivors. What’s more, we haven’t a clue what sank her.
Now I was confused.
Dude. I’m a survivor. I just told you. I wanna know if Volga P made it.
“Dewd,” he mocked. I just told you: something sank the Volga P. We don’t know what, and no survivors have been located. Exceptin’ you I gather! He sneered as he eyeballed both Chewy and me. Chewy was busy fiddling with a sextant.
Not THE Volga P… I started. A person Volga P. She and I were aboard the Volga P. They threw us off. You know? In-to the wa-ter.
I enunciated that last part loudly. Ahab was really giving me the crazy eye now.
Look. Just let me see the crew manifest, OK?
Ahab dug it out of a file cabinet and shoved it at me. Knock yourself out chappie, he grunted, and went back to reading Penthouse Letters and chuckling to himself creepily.
I went down the list. There I was, right between Phineas Keelhaller and Shad Kipper. I checked the Ps. There were three, but no Volgas. No Vs were listed at all. In fact, there was only one feminine sounding name listed, Purina Chukwagen, but I was pretty sure that had been the ship’s cook.
It was mystifying. Volga P (exchange student of Belarus) was either a stowaway or a man, and though she was curiously configured, I could definitely attest to her gender. Even stranger though, it seemed the whole ship had paid the price for the wicked deed of a handful of its crew. Those few had certainly deserved it, but most had not. I would especially miss Purina. No one could partially microwave a hot dog like she.
In any case, I was the lone survivor, and I could naught but conclude that my beloved, freakish Volga P now rested in the bosom of the SEA. I was desolate, disconsolate, and downright depressed. O cruel fate!
I had made no money for art school, so I signed on at the cannery. The hippies took me in at their camp, teaching me their ways and how to live off the land (mostly by dumpster diving). I spent my free days fruitlessly combing the rocky coast for any sign of Volga P. I spent my nights swapping naturopathic bear grease with Windy and trying to forget the mysterious apparition that had so briefly, yet so profoundly turned my reality upside down.
At the end of the season I packed my seafaring trunk, bid the hippies a fond farewell, and hopped on a southbound steamer, headed for art school in the big city. The year was 1990.