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|“ABOARD THE CALIFORNIA”
By Anthony M. Gullatta
Monday, January 1, 2008
Rated "R" by the author
Come go on a searchin’ safari with me.
THE “WORKS” BELOW
When Roman Quentin D'LaRusso signed on to the crew manifest of the California, he was high on lawlessness
and wanderlust. His goal was to work a few docs every day for a week, a month, even a year . . . whatever time
it might take to make enough centavos to get to America’s west coast. San Francisco to be precise, where the
rumors of unending “Fields of Gold” were now luring everyone with even the slightest ting of wanderlust to a
new and vibrant life.
Then, in the midst of all the screaming faces of a dark arcade, he saw her shining bright. She had not seen him,
so it was easy for him to assess the possibilities. He could sense her restlessness. Like him, she had that look of
a wish for better places. Like him, she was a visible victim of the day and a stalker of the night. So here she
was now, standing at the gateway to the big ship watching their reflections rippling on its side. Letting her arm
touch his bare skin just enough to shoot an arrow of justice through his heart, first arousing his manhood then
later wounding his pride.
“The biggest thing I’ve ever seen,” Mary Madonna Evangelista said, admiring the big red wheel. One on each
side of The California, a clipper ship 203 feet in length along her smooth keel. One of Mr. William H. Webb’s
most magnificent sailing ships, bound now for San Francisco and all the power and wealth a body could imagine.
“She might be the best ever made,” Roman bragged. “Over 33 feet in beam, 20 feet in depth, more than a
thousand tons. And expensive too, with a gleaming black hull--copper wrapped below the waterline--white
upper works, one massive red paddle wheel on each side and lots of polished brass in Cabin and Steerage.
Yeah, She’s a sight for sore eyes.
Built of the very best oak and cedar, and Her hull is reinforced with heavy iron straps. She has a three-masts
rigging and a full set of sails, to go just about anywhere on the sea. She’s classed as a brigantine, you know, but
wind is used only as an auxiliary power source. So She’s always expected to carry a full head of steam along
the way to and from every port.”
“Then She is the best I have ever seen,” Madonna admitted, feeling much safer now with him at her side. “I
guess those big, red paddle wheels just push her right along, using all that spent steam.”
“Yep, She’s large and powerful and cruises level at about eight knots. Lot like me, I’ve been told,” Roman
answered, not knowing what to do next about Belladonna and her Victorian clothes.
When she first met him, he walked with a swagger, so big chested plus a tight rear, and he talked like a man of
ease. He wore thick fur boots, had a switchblade on his hip, and those inviting, tell-tell signs of a tattoo on his
chest. She had already heard most of the gossip. Some had said he was like his grandmother; who had been
Norwegian. Others like his grandfather, a Viking. His chest was partially naked and his armpits were exposed,
where she could see most-ample patches of golden hair. And above the collar of his ribbed white undershirt
she could see part of his rumored torture tattoo.
He was tall and muscular from top of his head to the bottom of his dusty bearskin boots. And most alluring, his
hair was thick and a bright yellow just like her father’s. It took her little time to size him up. They were a lot
alike, these two’s roots, she thought. It was easy to see that he was hungry, rowdy, untamed, and oh so-o-o
good-looking that she wanted to wrap herself around him until he cried “ . . . more.” And then again, “More!”
Like a child.
It was usually after 10:00 P.M. when Belladonna captured her best marks. When the diehards stuck around.
Big-bellied men and stout women at The Bavarian Pavilion, putting on a few more pounds. Every night at just
about that time she could be found dancing and entrancing and parading her body around. That’s when she
danced for the drunks and the buffoons who would fill the bodice of her pretty gowns with their hands and
maybe even an occasional cheap paper bill. That’s why she liked watching him play his marks with his Big
Paddle Wheels Game. It was a totally different kind of fraud than hers, but the result was pretty much the
By day, he worked all the voyagers telling the story of how the Big Paddle Wheels worked to allow The
California to cruise at eight knots, never conserving on coal, all excess to be stoked. Winking and smiling at
them and giving his new black Bowler hat a crafty roguish bent. Even kissing the white silk gloves of all the
ladies of the upper class, without a sign of guilt. And didn’t they like it like that, hanging on his every word
about those Gold Rush days. Smiling, even laughing about pilfering handfuls of pure gold, in their own
coquettish ways. Then placing the hard-earned cash of their bewildered husbands into the silk lining of his hat.
Oh yes, and looking back so sad and longingly into his big blue eyes, whenever he bowed like that.
So Belladonna laughed at him now and mocked his play, as he rubbed against her with his body. Pressing his
warm mouth against her ear and whispering how life was just one big party. “Don’t matter none at all who you
is,” he would say, “cause even you got to love somebody.” It reminded her sadly of one of her father’s craven
sayings, often crude and usually shoddy.
THE VIEW FROM ABOVE
There was no one aboard now, Captain Forbes and his crew had gone ashore for the evening. So they decided
to play at being passengers like all those voyagers who would find delight in transiting the Strait of Magellan
and then on to San Francisco’s fields of gold. And everything else that might await all such adventurers who
for wealth and riches were willing to follow such a bold path.
“Want to ride up top?” Roman smiled, agilely locking the red velvet restraining rope to its stanchion. He was
pointing to the top of the smokestack with such delight that she just couldn’t leave it alone. “Well, maybe I
wouldn’t like that,” she lied much too quickly, so he took her boldly aside. Then he paraded her along the red
velvet carpet till at its base they were both keen for the ride.
A lift, ten feet tall and made of steel beams and heavy thick glass, circled the smokestack. It had iron plates for
ceiling and floor and a giant working lever on opposite sides. Inside, linked red velvet cushions covered a
circular shelf extending out from glass walls so important politicians and dignitaries could enjoy a soft, slow
ride up to the top.
He turned the key that freed the huge levers and the large glass car rose silently into the night. He could tell
she was awed so he sat back, across from her, hidden in the shadows. She could hear him breathing; it sounded
a lot like her father, but as if coming from space. Soon, by each breath she began to perspire and her heart
began to flutter and to quicken its pace.
When they got to the top, they could see The Intellectual Pavilions. The Pavilion of New Education and Social
Economy. The Pavilion of Public Light & Electricity. The Pavilion of Agriculture. And the Pavilion of Heavy
Industries. Each magnificent in its own way. During the day they welcomed visitors who were just seeing a few
sights, but at night they shimmered like diamonds and glowed with over a 100,000,000 lights.
“That’s the Festival Hall and Central Cascades, all designed by that Yankee architect, James H. Dakin, from
New York. I saw him just yesterday, parading right out in front of it. Being a true Yankee ass, if you ask me. A
real pity to, ‘cause he only designed the exterior. Mister Alexander J. Davis, also of New Yawk, did the best
part. He designed the interior.”
“I’ve been inside,” she continued, feeling safe with this part of Rio de Janeiro's history. “It’s more of a palace
than the others and it’s built with pride. It has a large auditorium that can seat three thousand people side-by-
side and the largest pipe organ ever built in this part of the world. But I love the outside too with its
colonnades like the State House. They’re nearly fifty feet high.”
“Lookee! Over there! Across ‘at pond!” he pointed out of the dark using his forefinger like a magic wand. “’At
one’s The Pabillion of Public Electricity. They got some really special gadgets in there. Took me into a
laboratory where they wuz a killing rats. ‘Em rats weren’t even in the cellar. Turned my stomach the way
they catched fire like ‘at. I felt right sorry for ‘em little fellas.”
“It’s not a pond. Those are lagoons and you can see the pretty reflections of the colonnades in the water on all
four sides. And all the pretty people too, whenever they are on parade. I love to walk across the four bridges
just like all the pretty Lady and Gentlemen strollers. Sometimes I stop to watch those other men and women
too, in their grand gondolas—floating by. And the waltzers inside. I like those too."
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you? Talkin’ so intelligent about all ‘em exhibits.” Her putting on airs with
fancy words and the way she pronounced them making him fidget. “You ain’t nutten but a slut, just like the
rest of ‘em hot cunts rutting around down there. But you don’ get paid near half as much for your pussy as
they do, and you don’t even care.”
His sharp rebuke surprised her. His distasteful words deriding her, like her mother talking. That was why she
had run. Her father and her mother. Both of them wrong in how they treated her. So she sat back in the dark
on her side waiting. Then she began to slowly part her legs without balking. She could hear him breathing
again, heavy and inviting, like her father’s breath, mocking. Wishing she could just let him do the talking
without over his act, however poor it was, her always walking.
She knew he was a man of stiff pride, and as such, one who would not take ridicule lightly. The California was
his ride. He held authority over its would-be passengers ever so tightly. And though he never mentioned his
one true function, as a special aid to the ship’s Captain, when he was allowed above decks his knowledge of the
ship was obvious and enticing.
So he was certain to get to San Francisco ahead of all others because he had booked passage on the mighty
California as the First Stoker below decks, itself a telling message. Then making extra cash with his Big
Wheels Game. But then she had performed so many services as a member of the world’s oldest profession
until, like him, she had acquired sufficient centavos, pesos and dollars to follow a similar obsession. So, who
was the better of the two anyway?
Regrettably, her knowing about the exhibits had exposed him, caught him ever so off guard. She was not one
of those flighty ladies who saw his every explanation as a childish reward. She guessed that was why she just
liked to watch the frilly waltzers, rather than do the waltzing. If there was ever one thing that she had never
learned very much about, it was following.
She was just a little too strong. Her pretentious ways were too difficult for everyone to overcome. And didn’t
he want to be in control at every turn, born to be the teacher, not one to learn. That was exactly what was
needed. Since he really wasn’t different than any of the others. Just another frightened little boy under a
rough exterior she conceded, like all his brothers.
So, she took her special silver locket from around her neck and placed it softly around his. It was the only
personal piece, the only part of her present history, she was willing to give. Then when she rashly lifted her
lips to his and asked about the lady-in-flames on his chest, she learned it was his way of never letting go,
never letting the burning memory of it rest.
She kissed him feverishly. Put her hand in his pocket. And taught him a new way to live. It was truly a most
provocative moment; the only secret that she was willing to freely give. Then they lay together, she coming
over to his side of the lift; and for the rest of that ride he was the only man, other than her father, who would
ever make her feel that much alive . . .
The next day she didn’t show. Or the day after that. Why? He didn’t know. The Captain had replenished the
ship now and the California was softly waiting to depart. He had wanted to tell her that he was going to give up
that childish Big Wheels Game and focus on managing his more important affairs below deck. But then, Why
should he care? She was just like all the rest. So easy to make heel. So what if she hadn’t showed? Anyway, it
was no big deal.
© 2008 Anthony M. Gullatta [All Rights Reserved]