Next In Line
A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Columbus"
Originally featured on 11-19-2007
As part of our series "Journey To A New Word"

“Yeah, I’ll take Pietro.”

I glance to my right to see a relived Pietro step out of the line and walk towards Giuseppe. I can never understand why Petey thinks so little of himself. After all, he’s got all the technical ability in the world; I’ve never seen such precise knots before. I know a lot of the guys think his modestly is false, that he’s just pretending he’s not as good as he is, but from sharing a bunk bed with him for the last several days I can honestly say he’s not faking. Petey’s really got some self-esteem issues.

Chris looks over the rest of us.

“Angelo, you’re with me.”

Angelo smirks and walks towards Chris. That’s no surprise; Chris and Angelo are practically brothers. Angelo isn’t much of a sailor but he’s big and incredibly strong, plus he’s always got a new joke to tell. The one he told last night at dinner about Isabella and a mule got the whole place laughing, although to be honest I didn’t entirely get it.

“Davey”

David heads toward Anthony. David’s new to our group but I like him, he’s kind of quiet, keeps to himself, never causes any problems. He didn’t even make a big deal when his hat went missing, and it was a pretty nice hat.

Over the next several minutes the line shrinks. John and my good friend Pauly go to Giuseppe. Chris takes Pablo and Nick. Anthony picks Sammy and Gregorio. Lined up here on the dock I feel like I’m back in school, standing outside in the yard against the brick wall, waiting to get picked for bocce.

After Giuseppe takes Manuel (his brother-in-law, a favor to his wife), Chris paces up and down the line. When he gets to me, he stops. My heart starts pounding; I feel the sweat beginning to form on my forehead and I’m suddenly grateful I bathed last week. After a moment, Chris keeps moving and I relax a little.

Last night after dinner a lot of the guys were talking about wanting to get on the Maria with Chris but not me.

“Why not?” Pauly had asked.

“Think about it, you pull the wrong rope and the sail comes down or you oversleep and miss your shift, who’s going to be right there to yell at you? Chris. He’s going to be breathing down your neck the entire trip. No, I don’t need that kind of pressure, thank you.”

I’m hoping to get on the Pinta. Giuseppe could be strict but he’s a surprisingly good cook. Aside from a wench in Naples, I’ve never had a better marinara sauce. Even Anthony on the Nina wouldn’t be too bad. He’s a notorious drunk but a hard worker, plus his sea shanties are top-notch.

I look around at the remaining men, not too many of us left now. Suddenly I’m not sure we’ll all make it and the thought scares me. I have to get on a ship, I just have to. I can’t return home. I told everyone — my whole family, all my friends — that I was sailing with Columbus.

My ex, Gloria, had been particularly impressed.

“Columbus?” she had asked, her plump lips curling into a smile. “You’re really sailing with him?”

“That’s right,” I said smugly. “Who’s the scrawny, bug-eyed, lazy, smelly, good for nothing pile of cow dung now?” Then I stormed out of the brothel.

When I told Marcus, the fat oaf of a sheepherder, the look on his face was especially satisfying.

“Why would Columbus want you?” he had asked as he cut the wool off one of his braying lambs.

I thought about this for a second. “Well, I think there are lots of reasons. For one thing, I’m a great sailor. And I’m fun to be with. Plus I’m not handsome enough to distract any potential mermaids from the rest of the crew.”

“Great sailor, huh?” Marcus scoffed. “Which side’s port and which is starboard?”

I reddened slightly and prayed Marcus hadn’t noticed.

“For your information, port is on the right.”

Marcus grinned.

“Okay, it’s on the left. Or is it the back?”

He snickered.

“Whatever. I’ll figure it out once we’re sailing. Have fun with your sheep.”

And with that, I stomped out of the barn, only tripping once over a small goat.

That’s why I can’t go back. Facing Gloria and Marcus alone would be humiliating enough but what would I be returning to? My one room shack? My failed smelt-fishing business? My cactus?

“Leo,” Anthony says.

Leo! How the hell does Leonardo McElroy get picked before me?! I watch him shuffle towards Anthony. His clothes are filthy and what looks like a chicken leg is poking out of his back pocket. He spits a brown-colored wad off the pier and turns around to sneer at the rest of us.

I’m really nervous now. My remaining competition does make me feel a little better though. To my right is Mario; he’s a good guy but about a cannoli short of a dozen. To my left is Sid. Sid is a legend among sailors, having sailed on more expeditions than anyone, but he’s 70 years old and nearly blind.

Now I’m certain I’m back at school. I can practically hear the bocce coach Mr. Romero say, “C’mon, fellas, just pick someone, everybody has to play.”

I watch Chris as he counts up the men assembled behind Giuseppe and Anthony. After he counts his own crew, he turns to face us.

“Looks like we only have room for one more.”

My heart starts racing again. Chris looks us over once more and then, after a painfully long silence says, “Sid.”

Yes! I made it, I’m so- Wait a second, did he just say “Sid”?

Chris steps forward and puts a hand on Sid’s shoulder.

“Sorry, old timer, we’re going to need some fresh legs for this voyage.”

Sid mutters something unintelligible and then stumbles away. I glance at Mario. His vacant expression hasn’t changed; in fact it hasn’t varied since I’ve known him.

After gazing at both of us for another moment, Chris shrugs and says “Roger, I guess you’re with me.”

What the hell? How could he pick that little weenie Roger over me, why, I oughta- Wait a second, that’s me! I’m the little weenie!

I stare at him in disbelief. He nods and walks over to Giuseppe. Trying to restrain a smile and act as dignified as possible, I stroll over to Chris’ group. Nick shakes my hand and Angelo rubs my head.

I feel bad for Mario but can’t contain myself any longer and a wide smile stretches across my face. And so what if I’m on Chris’ ship? It should still be a fun couple of weeks.

Read More By Tim Josephs

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