by Jerri Bell
Seaman Maria DeGennaro bends over to set a bucket of cleaning supplies on the deck, and a passing sailor whacks her ass with the handle of a swab. Accidentally, of course: the passageway between Deck and Engineering berthing on USS Kearsarge is only a stairway landing, busy as rush hour on the Jersey Turnpike.
“Make a hole, french-fry,” he says. “There are men at work here.”
She spreads a narrow rectangle of dropcloth in front of the damage control station to mark the boundaries of the territory she’s staking out for doing preventive maintenance, PMS, on the firefighting equipment. The fire hoses – fifty-foot lengths coiled on racks – do not respect the boundaries. She unlatches the bracket holding them in place and they slither to the deck with a hiss of canvas and rubber. One brass nozzle clocks her ankle. The other scuffs the terrazzo decking.
She sits cross-legged on the dropcloth and pulls out silicone lubricant, brass cleaner, wire brush, and rags. Like freaking Cinderella, she thinks. I shoulda stayed in South Hackensack working for Molly Maids instead of joining the Navy.
Sailors smirk at her, sitting on her sore ass on the deck, looking up at them, cleaning and polishing a brass pizzle. One of them says something about a woman’s place, woman’s work, Make me a sammich, bitch.
Go fuck yourselves, she thinks.
Fuck off and die was what she thought the day before, when Petty Officer Ryder showed her how to do preventive maintenance on a damage control station.
Ryder’s overly pink ears and the perpetual wad of dip that distorts his lip disqualify him as Prince Charming. He always sneaks up on her. This time she was painting 145-pound links of anchor chain, alone among the thick stalagmites of bitt and capstan in the fo’c’sle where she might accidentally stumble, slide down a hawse pipe, and fall sixty feet into the filthy gray water of the Elizabeth River.
“PMS is easy,” he says. “Just follow the instructions. Take everything apart, clean it, check and lube it, put it back together.”
He picks up the brass nozzle. “This is the male end.”
He shakes it chidingly in her face. She bats it away.
“I don’t care if Chief Gomez told you he’ll help you strike for ship’s serviceman,” he says. “You can’t spend the morning in the barbershop giving guys haircuts. Maintaining your own division’s equipment is more important.”
He picks up the female end of the hose, inserts the wire brush, and scrapes the coupling threads inside it with an in-and-out motion. He grins at her. “You really gotta ram it in there.”
She grabs the wire brush away from him.
“Check for corroded threads, jammed couplings, and clogged orifices. Then lube it up with silicone. Like this.” He runs his forefinger around the inside of the coupling and watches her without blinking. His tongue shows in the corner of his parted lips.
“Nobody cares that you got a cosmetology certificate from trade school. You gotta prove you’re an asset before you can strike for a rating. Right now you’re still a nonrate, and in this man’s Navy nonrates get all the shitty little jobs. But we could discuss that. Maybe over a beer at the club on Saturday night.”
“In your dreams,” she says. She picks up the preventive maintenance system cards.
“You on the rag or something?”
She fists a hand on her hip.
“The guys from Damage Control Central are replacing the hoses this evening,” he says. “We know how to take care of the only female in Deck Department. We’re gonna make your first time real special.”
The next morning, she wonders what gorilla coupled the nozzles and hoses at the damage control station. She has to whack the couplings with a wrench before the first one moves with a grinding, brittle crunch. It showers the deck with calcite crystals that glitter like fairy dust on her dark blue coveralls.
She gives the couplings and nozzles a wire-brush makeover.
The female end of the first hose detaches from the fire plug with a single turn of the wrench. The fire plug gleams golden, but a thick, green layer of corrosion smothers the threads in the hose couplings.
Thirty minutes later the fire plug and couplings shine. Her stiff hands leave streaks of lubricant and grime on her thighs. She lurches to her feet, wrestles the heavy hoses into neat lines along the passageway, runs them through her hands to check for worn spots, lumps, and breaks. The canvas covering smears her palms with a gray residue of salt: they’ve replaced the hoses with older ones, filthy from months out on the weather decks.
She feels a lump in the female end of the second hose. She unholsters her multi-tool and pulls the lump out with the pliers: a used sanitary napkin, stuck in a wadded pair of lacy nylon panties.
Fuck that shit, she thinks. She drops the panties onto the heap of soiled cleaning rags.
She’ll prove she’s an asset. She’ll swap the old hoses for new without complaint. She will never mention the panties. She begins to put the hoses back onto the rack in perfect, even loops, making sure each bend is offset a few inches from its previous position to prevent the rubber from developing stress cracks.