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In My Own Arms
By: Carmen Rose King

Tipton was in full force the day I broke my arm.
He had fortunately/unfortunately just taken a first aid class
and had duct taped a pillow to my arm with one hand
while making a phone call with the other-
trying to replace me before we’d even gotten back to the harbor.

This was not his place as crew,
and I waited for you- the captain- to say so.

My hair was stuck to my face and I had been choking on a piece
of it when Tipton turned to say:

“It’s because you’re so frail.”
I stood on the deck, clutching my arm in the pillow-
waiting for you to respond.

When you didn’t, I turned to him and said
“I am not!”  and then burst into tears like a child.

Tipton rolled his eyes
and you answered your phone.

I stepped off the boat and onto the dock,
wearing a pair of stretch pants that had lost their stretch
and my very favorite sweatshirt-
one that I had had since I was six.

“They are probably going to have to cut that sweatshirt off of you.”
Tipton called after me.

You followed behind me
on the phone with my mother-
who I could hear informing you that now all of us had broken
the same arm while fishing.

For a moment I felt transported-
I was alone with my dad on the deck of a fish processing barge.
His arm was in half and the palm of his hand
fell open against his elbow.

“Somebody call a plane” I said to no one.

When we were finally in the air
I looked back and saw that he had been crying.
I turned and asked the pilot to fly lower-
so I could search for deer to point out to him.
“Dad! Look!!!!”

Back in the moment I began to feel nauseous
and I tried to reach for you-
but felt restrained by all of the tape
and the weight of the pillow

I had stood on that very dock nearly a decade earlier-
and in roughly the same condition.
Only then I had been incapacitated in both arms,
rather than just one, and I was actually alone.

I was 17 and had been working 24 hour shifts on a floating processor.
I was the only cook for 40 people on a ship that was
perpetually sinking: five inches of seawater sat in the hull
obstructing the bathroom and the pantry.

It was traumatizing and I have never trusted my own memory of it.
There are people that I am certain were there
and yet I have no recollection of them-
including my own boyfriend.

We had been the victims of a shift in the market economy
or so I had been told by my father.
We couldn’t afford to sell the fish whole
and instead had to process them ourselves,
selling the eggs to Israel and Japan
and the flesh to the Russian army.
Or was it the Chinese?

Somewhere between working around the clock
and sleeping on the galley floor
I contracted staph infections
and could not lift either of my arms.

Only after realizing that I could no longer cook
was it decided that I would be flown to Valdez to see a doctor.

And that is how I found myself on that particular dock
walking to the hospital
holding my arms in my own arms.

After cutting into my infections
it was decided that I would survive
and would sleep at the cannery bunkhouse
before being sent back to the barge.

A woman at the front desk offered to help me to my room.
She was in her mid 60’s and wearing a crew neck sweatshirt-
the kind that had a built in collar and was embossed with
the name of a state.
This one read “Minnesota” and was punctuated by wildflowers.

I accepted and she led me down a stark corridor
graffitied in what she told me was probably Czech-
or was it Hungarian? 

The room was a rectangular box
with wood paneling
and a little desk
upon which there was an actual telephone.

She walked in first-
fluffed the pillow
and then proceeded to turn down the bed.

To her horror- and to mine-
one of the cannery workers had graffitied the sheets with a giant penis
that stretched from one end of the bed to the other.

She froze-  grasping for a possible explanation.
When she finally spoke her tone was dramatic and breathy.

“Those cannery workers!” She said, throwing up her hands
“They are so stupid!! My 6-year-old granddaughter
can draw a better stick figure than this.”
“Look! It doesn’t even have any arms!”

And I did look.
But I was too tired to respond
and instead climbed into the bed while she drew the sheets up around me.
She looked down at me with a look of unmistakable pity
and I immediately shut my eyes.

Later I would recount the story to my mother,
who noted unironically that it had been kind of the woman
to mistake me for a virgin.

 

All images courtesy of Judson Felder.

All images courtesy of Judson Felder.

Carmen King is a writer, traveler, and optimist currently residing in Los Angeles, CA.