When I was about twenty-two or twenty-three I worked one summer as a dockhand in Annapolis, Maryland. It was a moderate summer, just a few spells of hot days, and we used to sit around the docks, smoke cigarettes, talk trash and have an all around good time. We worked pretty hard and didn’t make that much money, but we got along well and that made the time pass. Most of the other guys were just your average blue-collar Annapolis types, or else students from the Naval Academy or something, but I’d come from Baltimore. That made me something of the odd man out, but as odd as I was, no one was more strange or unusual than Ogden Osgood, a young man maybe twenty seven years old who said he’d lived his whole life in Belmar, New Jersey, and was genuinely excited about a move from that dreadful seaside town to this bustling capital city.
“It was always bad,” he would say, “but once I graduated from High School you can’t imagine. At first, you know, the summer after High School I would go out to the beach every day and fish; look at the ocean, that kind of thing. It can change you, the ocean can. But when winter came things got weird. I would drink Canadian Club and sit at the window and stare for hours.”
Ogden Osgood was a funny looking kind of fellow, real tall and lanky, almost like a spider the way he moved. He had short spiky hair, a brown black color, and a round little face that squished up all his features. His nose alone stuck out, like a skyscraper in the middle of a valley. When he talked his pitch came out alternately in squeaks and booms, so it sounded like his voice was constantly cracking.
“One day I just started walking,” Ogden used to say. “I was sitting on the beach fishing. Second summer out of High School; and I just got sick of it. Got up, brushed off the sand and started up the beach. I hit the Boardwalk and kept walking. I don’t know how, but I ended up right here in Annapolis, and here is where I want to stay.”
That was all anyone knew about Ogden’s history, background or life before he came to work at the docks. He never volunteered any other information, and if someone asked him about something, he would shrug his shoulders and say, “I’m not really sure how to respond to that.”
Ogden first showed up a couple weeks after I started working there. Before he came around the only people I spent any time with were two of the other dockhands. One we called Skipper, just because he spent most of his life on shipping boats working long hours through long weeks on long journeys by sea. The other was a kid named Samuel, a guy about my own age who liked to shoot dice, drink gin and steal cars. He came from a pretty good suburban background, college dropout and everything, but he’d been in and out of jail so many times this job was the only one he could land. We made a pretty motley crew, the three of us, and usually when we got together after work, we just wound up going to one of Annapolis’ million different sports bars for some drinking and pool. Our usual spot was a dive right on Dock Street called Armadillos.
Armadillos was just like any other dive sports bar in downtown Annapolis, but Amanda worked there, and she was the only person I spent any time with other than Samuel and Skipper. We got to know Amanda just by how often we went out to the bars, and since Amanda was one of the few female waitresses willing to put up with the three of us out together drinking, getting rowdy and just generally doing our thing, Armadillos turned into our regular spot. Amanda was a fun girl and she was fun to look at too. She was medium height and had all this pale red hair like the mane of a lion. She was probably about thirty-two or thirty-three, and her hands were a little wrinkled from working as a waitress her whole life. Her face was starting to develop wrinkle lines from chain-smoking too, but she had her own style. She’d wear silly, frilled up dresses, pink and red and orange with flowers and such on them, blueberries or starfish. Always something new and interesting with Amanda, and every one of us, me, Sammy and Skipper used to grin and lean into our drinks and whisper, hey fella, she’s really all about me tonight, can you tell?
Sammy and Skipper were just clowns though. At first we all acted like clowns, but then sometimes I used to go and see Amanda before work, and sometimes after the fellas went home, I’d stay after and wait for her and walk her home. I enjoyed having her around, and I enjoyed her being with us there at the bar, but I was the one that told her one night if she stuck around Annapolis, she’d be waiting tables for the rest of her life, and maybe she should try to get out of here. Mostly I used to go home and look up at the dark shadows on the walls and ceilings lying in bed and dream about someday getting out of Annapolis myself and maybe even taking her with me. About going to Paris and Rome and Venice and all these other romantic places. It was nice to dream, but that’s all they ever were, because I hadn’t been to any cities larger than Baltimore.
It was just a little bit after the night I told her that when Ogden Osgood showed up, a suitcase in each hand. He put down the suitcases, wiped his face with his shirt and walked over to Skipper. “How does a guy go about getting a job with you folks?”
Ogden was working with us down at the docks within two days. He was a good, steady worker, but he never talked much, and he used to stare off sometimes into space way across the water. It was a look Skipper called the thousand-mile stare, and he said he’d seen folks get it a few times out there on the ocean, where they’d develop this look, a look like a man probably seen too much in his life. He said it’s the kind of thing happens to soldiers and sailors, and apparently to the boys over in Belmar, New Jersey too. Sammy said it wasn’t a damn thing, just Ogden being pretentious and putting on airs, and that the more we paid attention to it, the more we did exactly what he wanted us to do, and he couldn’t give a damn about Ogden Osgood one way or the next.
The next day come lunch, me and Skipper sat down to eat with Ogden. Sammy refused to, and he walked off along the dock kicking stones and eating his sandwich, glancing back at us the whole time like we were testing his patience.
Skipper said, “don’t mind him, he never trusts the new guy. What brings you to Annapolis?”
“I don’t really know. I walked here. I used to live in New Jersey. Nowhere you know. A little seaside town. It’s called Belmar. There’s nothing to do there but watch the ocean. It’s too cold to go to the ocean most of the year. One day I started walking. I guess Annapolis just drew me to it, because I ended up here. And here is where I want to stay.”
“Why stay in Annapolis?” I asked. “I used to live in Baltimore. There’s a lot more going on over there, and it’s not far. You’ve walked this far already. And then there’s Washington too, but I’ve never actually been.”
“I like the water,” said Ogden.
“Baltimore’s got water.”
Nobody said anything for a while. Skipper was looking down at his sandwich. Ogden was looking across the Chesapeake.
“Why not Baltimore if Baltimore’s got water too?” I asked.
“I’m not sure how to respond to that,” said Ogden.
Ogden was just that way, and he brought his own personality to the team. Ogden never found much of a niche with any of the other dockhands besides me, Sammy and Skip; and Sammy didn’t like Ogden all that much, though he learned to get used to him. Skipper would invite Ogden out to the bar with us for drinks, and we would go to Armadillos, get drunk and act rowdy. Meanwhile, Ogden would sit quiet and composed and look off across the bar out the window to where the boats sat bobbing on the dock. Ogden would match us drink for drink, but he never showed it. Each order would be the same: “I would like a shot of Canadian Club and a bottle of Rolling Rock please thank you.” He never deviated, not once. Sometimes we would try to trick him into getting something else. Skipper would say to Amanda, “a round of Kamikazes for everyone!” And Ogden would reply, “I would like a shot of Canadian Club with a bottle of Rolling Rock please thank you.”
The first accident happened on one of these nights when we were coming out of the bar. It was late and dark and quiet on Dock Street, and a couple kids were hanging out by the water. They’d been passing around a bottle in a brown paper bag, and when they saw us they came up to start trouble. Ogden said, “let me handle this one.”
Skipper didn’t want to let Ogden confront the kids by himself, but Sammy said, “he says he can take them. Let’s see if Ogden’s got heart.” So Ogden walked up and explained to them that we were simply coming from an evening spent at the bar and would prefer not to be bothered on our way home. The kids just laughed and one of them pulled a knife. He looked Ogden up and down and said, “hey man, who do you think you are?”
Ogden said: “I’m not really sure how to respond to that.”
Ogden was out of the hospital by the end of the week, and the doctors were saying it was a miracle he survived at all. He’d had some near misses with some vital organs, and they said he should take it easy for a week or two. But two days after he came out of the hospital, Ogden was back working on the dock again like nothing happened. He never talked about it; he never complained about his injuries, he just went about his everyday business. When people came up to ask him what happened or how he was doing, he’d say, “I’m doing just fine. The doctor said I was lucky, but I already knew that.” And that was that. You couldn’t get another thing from him. The first day Ogden was back Skipper suggested we all go out for a drink down at Armadillos after work to celebrate Ogden’s recovery. I said that’s how the trouble started in the first place, because I thought Skipper was being a little insensitive, but Ogden said he liked the idea. So that night we went back to Armadillos. Amanda was surprised to see Ogden back so soon, and she cooed over him all night, and brought him free drinks and asked how he was. When he gave her the line about the doctor said I’m lucky, but I already knew that, she winked at him and smiled and said, “Oh are you?” That got Skipper and Sammy roaring, falling off their seats like a couple clowns, but I didn’t see what was so funny about it.
I stayed that night late while Amanda closed the bar. “Your friend Ogden seems to be a real trooper,” she said. “He’s a strange guy, but I like him.”
I said. “It’s hard to know what to make of him. I think he’s a little bit crazy.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” said Amanda. “I think he’s kind of cute.”
The second accident happened only a few weeks later. This time it happened on the docks, and for a while, some of the boys thought it was a stunt Sammy pulled. Skipper wouldn’t hear it, though. “Sammy can be a rough kid,” he’d say, “but he sure as hell ain’t a killer.”
It seems that while loading up cargo on one of the large sailboats, the sail swung loose and around. It ended up smacking Ogden in the head, lifting him off the boat and hurling him into the water. We were all pretty on-point when it happened. Everyone kept their head, went through the proper emergency procedures, and had Ogden out of the water and breathing within seconds, but no one thought he would make it. For two days Ogden was in a coma, and none of us thought he’d be coming out of it. We’d walk up and down the docks looking down, rubbing our chins, “it sure is a shame about Ogden.”
Skipper would get philosophical: “I guess you just can’t take this life for granted. Something can happen anytime anyplace anywhere.” Even Sammy seemed sort of down about it.
A whole week went by like that, with no word on Ogden. But on Monday morning, when Skipper and I walked up to the docks, who should we see there but Ogden Osgood, working away as stoically as ever, like nothing happened.
“Hey Ogden man, I’m glad to see you’re up and about,” Skipper said, rubbing his neck. “But maybe you should go home and get some rest for a couple days before coming back on the job.”
Ogden shrugged and said, “I’m fine. I spent the whole last week sleeping. It’s time for me to get up and be active.”
Sammy asked, “What did the doctor say?”
“He said I was lucky,” said Ogden. “But I already knew that.”
After the second accident, Amanda couldn’t get enough of Ogden. We would stop by Armadillos and she would go on and on about how he must be both blessed and cursed. Was he invincible? We all kind of wondered about that. She bought him free drinks all the time now. Sometimes a free appetizer or something too. Ogden took it all in stride. He was polite, but always reserved, and never flirtatious. Amanda would slide up next to us at the bar, put her arm around him and say, “I know you must’ve been a heartbreaker back in Belmar. Come on and tell me how many girls you’ve been with.”
“I’m not really sure how to respond to that.”
Ogden’s indifference was a turn-on for Amanda. It got to the point where Amanda stopped letting me walk her home, she’d say, “why don’t you let Ogden walk me home tonight. You always do it.”
I was going to other bars again. A lot of times I would go all by myself after work and drink until close. I was showing up late to work, skipped shaving and missed meals, lost sleep. Sometimes Skipper and Sammy would come up to me and say, “hey man, we’re going to Armadillos tonight. You wanna come?” I always said no unless I knew Ogden would be going along with them. I couldn’t bear the idea of Ogden and Amanda around each other without me being there. So if Ogden was in, I was in. If not, then I’d be spending the evening at some other dive. One day Sammy said to me, “look at yourself, man. This is pathetic.”
I went home early that day. The sun was hot and bright, and I felt dizzy and sweaty the whole walk home. It really was pathetic. Sammy was right. It occurred to me that the best thing to do was just to kill myself. The idea came as naturally as you might decide to take a mid-day nap. Once it was in my head I couldn’t shake it. After all, I said, if Amanda’s into all this grimness and death and morbidity. The only problem was figuring out how.
The walk home gave me some time to think it over. The most appropriate thing probably would’ve been to jump in the Chesapeake, but it didn’t seem right to do the act without going home first. I could always come back. I also liked the idea of poisoning myself because it sounded painless and relatively easy, not to mention no mess for folks to clean up afterwards. The problem was where could I get a poison like that in such short notice? I didn’t like the idea of knives or guns too much, but if I was really serious about getting things done, I couldn’t rule them out entirely. There was always gas, of course, that was painless and clean provided nothing set off a spark. On the way up my street I stopped by the liquor store. I could always just drink myself to death too.
By the time I got inside, the sun was at its peak, and the light was coming in furious bright slants through the windows. It felt like a really wonderful afternoon to kill myself. I sat down and turned on the television and thought about what I was doing. It didn’t seem to have any reality outside of the intonation of the word: suicide. I got up and grabbed a notepad and a pen. I didn’t know whether or not I should leave a note. When I was a little kid I always thought it was selfish when people killed themselves and didn’t leave a note, just explaining how things were and mostly why, but now the idea seemed kind of silly to me. Why? Well, why not?
I put the pen and pad down and stood up. I paced from one corner of my room to the next and back again. I went to the kitchen, poured myself a drink and went back to pacing. I noticed that my sadness over Amanda had been replaced completely by the concept of suicide. They no longer even seemed related to each other. I poured another drink. Which method had I decided on? The apartment was making me feel stir crazy. I decided to jump in the Chesapeake.
Outside the humidity and the drinks I’d thrown back had me delirious. My heart was going a mile a minute, and I kept feeling like I was about to stumble. The idea of drowning started to sink in. The whole horror of suffocating underwater. I remembered a time when I was a kid, how another kid had dunked me underwater and held me there for a long time. I remembered thrashing and wanting to scream, but not being able to. Most of all I remembered how painful and terrible it was. By the time I walked up on the Chesapeake the memory was so garish I turned around and walked back.
The question of how was still pressing me. I walked back to the apartment and sat down with the bottle. Maybe the easiest thing to do was drink myself to death. It would be hard to stomach taking in a whole lot of alcohol at first, but once I got on a roll, I’d be alright. Then again, I wasn’t a heavy drinker. I didn’t know if my stomach would reject the alcohol before it killed me. Only one way to find out.
I finished the bottle within half an hour. I was pacing the hallways with my mind slipping back up in against itself, past where the last thought stopped just before I got there. The sun was losing force crashing through the windows, the long beams ladders through the blinds, and still with no means of self-murder. I walked down into the kitchen and turned the gas on all four burners. Then I went around the apartment and slammed shut every window and every door. Everything was just a question of waiting now. I sat down on the couch, lay back and closed my eyes. I folded my hands over my stomach, like in classical sculptures of dead people. Everything serenity.
I don’t know how long I was out, but I woke up puking. I crawled off the couch and dragged myself across the floor with the sunlight and shadows pirouetting like ballerinas. I couldn’t stop the flow of vomit, and I couldn’t stand and I definitely could not think, focus or concentrate. I rolled over onto my back, and I think I remembered old stories about how this is how Jimi died, don’t roll over on your back, man, but my brain was blinking in and out. Across from me I could see out the sealed up window the twilight setting in over late afternoon and the clouds against the sun auburn, rose and lavender. It was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen. I propped myself up against some object somewhere. My head was pounding and drowning at the same time. The twilight clouds kept shifting so the colors were floating through small crystal fragments of the sunny early evening, where they formed a floating ocean, lit underneath by an orange sun. God, I thought. It’s moments like this one make a man glad to be alive.
I woke up in the hospital a day and a half later. My roommate had come home and found me. I’d suffered some asphyxiation from the gas fumes, but I was okay. They released me from the hospital, and I rested for a week and thought about what I did and how I’d be able to show my face in front of the old dockhands again. When I went back it wasn’t so bad as I thought. Everyone was real nice and understanding. Skipper said after work we’d go have some beers. He said things on the dock were business as usual. Even Sammy was friendly. I expected him to be a lot more sarcastic. As for Ogden, they said, he’d packed up and left for Baltimore the same night of my accident. Hadn’t even said goodbye to anyone. “Maybe he figured he was bound to get killed out here,” I said.
That night we went down to Armadillos. Amanda was there and she said she’d heard about my accident and was I alright? It was nice to hear her sound like she cared about me, but it also felt a little patronizing, and – and I’ve had moments like this since – where I wish I’d succeeded. And what were you supposed to say when everyone kept calling it an accident? We stayed and drank late and then at night I waited while Amanda closed the bar. When I walked her home at night she invited me upstairs.
After that life was back to normal. Work went on at the docks, and drinking went on at Armadillos, and I walked Amanda home almost every night she worked. I worked that job until the end of the summer. After that I moved out of Annapolis and went to Washington. Things weren’t quite the same at the docks after the night I tried to kill myself anyway. I could see it in the way Sammy looked at me. A few times I even overheard Skipper say to people that I’d caught the thousand-mile stare. I try to see it when I look in the mirror sometimes, but never can. Maybe I’m staring right past it.
The night before I left for Washington me, Skipper and Sammy went to Armadillos for a final night out together. We talked and drank and laughed about the summer, the good times and the bad, and finally conversation turned around to the topic of Ogden. Skipper got real quiet and leaned into the table.
“Alright,” he said, “if you want the real scoop on what happened to Ogden, I’ll tell you. We couldn’t tell you at the time, just because it seemed like you weren’t in the best place back then. I think it’s okay now.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well it happened like this. It had to be around five or six in the late afternoon, early evening when this happened. Same night you had your little incident. Anyway, we’re all hanging out down at the dock in Eastport, working, talking, just doing what we do. Ogden is staring off in the distance as always, that thousand-mile stare of his. Anyway, the thing is he just starts walking. He’s staring at the sky and he’s staring at the twilight sun on the Chesapeake, and he starts to walk out to it. Like a moth to a flame. At first no one says nothing, cuz we figured he was just doing his own thing. You remember how Ogden could get. But he walks right up to the edge of the dock and keeps walking. It was the strangest thing I’ve seen in my life. He walked into the bay and kept going. He never stopped. We were all standing there waiting for him to come back, but he never did. By the time anyone knew what the hell just happened, it was too late. I’ll tell you one thing though, and I may burn in hell for saying it: but I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my whole life as that image of Ogden walking out into the bay in that sunset. I’ll take that one with me to the grave.”
On the walk home that night with Amanda, I asked her about it. All she could do was cry. “Knowing Ogden, he probably didn’t even die,” I said.
When we got back to her place she invited me upstairs.
“I have some last minute packing to do,” I told her.
“So when you’re settled in Washington you still plan to send for me?”
I looked at Amanda’s sad, pretty, aging face. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
I didn’t wait for her response. Turning on my heel I headed back up the block. The streetlights stretched blurred orange against the Chesapeake out towards the moon. I stared at the water and tried to conjure the image of Ogden walking into the bay. It was comforting. Something to stay with me through the long walk home.
(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, September 2003)