[About fifteen years ago I started writing a book, an action story, to be precise. It never had any pretenses of being serious literature. I referred to it as a “movie of the week.” There was a plot. There was a beginning and an end. There were chapters in between that actually made some sense. But I got bogged down in making it all work together. I recently pulled out the box of pages I’d written and decided to share some of them here in the hope that seeing them again might inspire me to go back and finish the book. Today I’ll introduce Port Call, one of the minor characters in this enterprise.]
Portulacca Oriana Call, “Port” to her chums, walked across the asphalt parking lot purposely, as if her income depended on it. Which it did. All around her, tractor-trailer trucks idled, waiting to pick up shipping containers and carry them across the countryside to the inland cities.
“Hey, Baby!” a man yelled from a 16-wheeler. “Daddy’s home from Dundalk.”
“Hey, Sweetheart!” shouted the driver from a big Volvo car carrier. “How about a little sugar?”
Baby. Cutie. Honey. Hots. Skank. Sleeze. Slut. All these names and many more that were even less kind were used to beckon Port. As unfriendly, even cruel, as these names were, they were in any event accurate. For as God gave some people special abilities to play a violin or paint magnificent frescoes, he gave Port Call the gift of love. And she was good.
Or had been. Truth be told, Port’s heyday, like those of the docks she worked so assiduously, were over. Long gone. Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas gone. Lester Pearson in Canada gone. Harold Macmillan as prime minister gone.
“Come on over, old Port!” yet another driver called from across the lot.
The years had taken their toll on Port. Port O. Call—her retired seaman father liked to run it together to make “Port O’Call,” a little more than token irony given Port’s career choice—had once had a taut figure. But now her corpulent figure was plagued by a series of sags in all the wrong places. The hem of her dress hung ragged. The wind off the sea made her dress cling to her legs. A pretty, even stylish dress once upon a time, by now its colors were dull and its shape stretched way beyond its original contour. Despite the summer heat, Port wore a metallic silver jacket over the dress, the jacket emblazoned with the logo of the Intermodal Shipping Line. It was a gift from one of Port’s regular customers.
Port sidled over to the cab of a giant Volvo truck where, after a momentary bit of negotiating, she climbed in and the interior lights went out.
Not long thereafter, 18 minutes to be exact, Port stepped back down into the parking lot, giving the driver the merest wisp of a goodbye wave.
Afterwards, Port retired to the closest pub, an establishment so long unfamiliar with respectability that when the door was closed you scarcely knew any establishment existed there at all. Located in one of the low, nondescript buildings across from the docks, the exterior of the pub was covered with unpainted corrugated aluminum. The upstairs had once been used for warehousing, but now was empty like most of the rest of the building. Outside, a sign, unhinged, but not completely destroyed during a stevedore strike in the 1970s, dangled by a single, non-functioning electrical wire. Not that the place needed a sign. Everyone knew it was Leech’s even though old man Leech himself now resided under an oxygen tent at a rural nursing home. Leech’s son-in-law Hank ran the place. The one window on the street was so splattered with mud and masking tape that the landlord had nailed a giant TO LET sign over it, hoping to find another sucker to rent the upstairs.
Some hookers develop drug problems. Port avoided this affliction, but made up for it by spending most of her free time drinking at Leech’s.
In better times, when there was plenty of work around the docks and everyone paid his tab with wages instead of their allotment from the public dole, patrons of Leech’s had even been known to pull a few chairs from the pub out to the curb and play checkers under the afternoon sun. One of those men was Jimmy Valesquez, who now sat at a stool at the pub’s bar. When Port’s career had been peaking during the glory days of the Liverpool docks, Jimmy’s career was in a rapid descent while he sat biding his time in His Majesty’s Bristol Prison.
In his day, Jimmy was a superb break-and-enter man. As crafty as he was slipping into and out of homes, medical offices, electronics shops and other places that could be counted on to have goods that were easy to fence, he’d never been lucky in love until he met Port.