STARR: A LOVE STORY
By A. R. Bender
Once again, the 7a.m. steam whistle blew over Seattle’s Todd Pacific Shipyards in the Harbor Island industrial area and the workers slowly emerged out of the locker rooms toward their work locations in the shops and on the ships under construction on the dry docks.
Arlo trudged up a gangway amongst a line of other workers with a tool bag slung over his shoulder. About halfway up, he caught a sharply distinct whiff of patchouli oil, which immediately triggered some very pleasant memories of his carefree college days when living in those off-campus hippie communes. The scent seemed to be coming from one of the workers directly ahead of him who was walking slower the rest. Despite the bulky overalls, he could see that it was a woman. She wore a red scarf underneath her hardhat, which covered most of her hair. He slowed down and discreetly maneuvered just behind her so that he could take in more of the aroma.
When they reach the top of the gangway, she headed towards another area of the ship from his workstation, but he continued to watch her smooth and graceful walk until she disappeared from view behind an elevated structure.
He stood with the rest of his crew in a temporary office on the main deck of the half-built frigate listening to the shipfitter lead announcing the work assignments. After receiving his, he and two other fitters clambered down a series of ladders and crawled through a maze of bulkheads in the lower decks to the work location. Once there, they spread out within the compartments in the area to start their work.
After two hours or so of measuring and hammering and burning, he lined up the frame so that it was more or less at ninety-degree angles from the floor and ceiling and between the two bulkheads. He then notified the welders lead that it was ready for them to work. They’d be busy at it the rest of the morning, so rather than start lining up another frame he decided to take a little nap. He didn’t get much sleep the night before because of all the drinking and partying in the house he shared with three other roommates.
First, he told one of the other fitters that he was going to the main tool room for a new torch head and would be back “soon”, in case anyone asked – i.e. his lead. He then crawled through another series of darkened, narrow openings, using his flashlight as a guide, found a good spot far away from the other workers, plopped his tool bag against a frame – which he used as a pillow – and curled up on the floor to start his nap.
He was about a half-hour into it when he woke up with a jolt to the screeching hi-pitch sound of a grinder in the next compartment. Warily, he peeked over the edge of an opening and saw a lone worker grinding away on the floor amid a shower of sparks. He slowly crawled through the opening, stood up, and tried to walk away undetected, but passed in front of a temporary light strung up from the ceiling and cast a large shadow across the work area. The worker quickly turned off the grinder, whirled around, and lifted up their face shield.
Right away, Arlo saw that it was a woman and judging by the red scarf, the same one he noticed on the gangway.
“Oh, I didn’t know anyone was here,” she said in surprise.
“Ah, I’m a shipfitter,” he said, “and was told to check the area out before I start working on it.”
“When’s that going to be?”
“In a day or two I think.”
“Okay. Is there anything special I can do to get it ready for you?”
Arlo paused before answering, while gazing at her cute, exotic features. “It’d be great if you can grind away most of the burrs, just like you’re doing.”
“I sure will. And thanks.”
“I’ll come by tomorrow and check the area again. My name’s Arlo, by the way”
“Hi Ar-lo, I’m Starr,” she said, with a wondrous gaze. “Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here, for sure.”
She then adjusted her kneepads, bent over, and started grinding away. On his way out of the compartment, he glanced back a moment to watch her work. Her hips and body swayed rhythmically back and forth with each sweep she made along the floor beam, and suddenly he felt a strong romantic urge taking form. Coming off hangovers often did that to him, but now it seemed even more acute. On his way up the ladder to the main deck to get a drink of water, her mellifluous voice floated erotically in his mind.
At the fountain, he saw Garland, one of his roommates, talking to some other workers on the other side of the deck.
“Hey Gar. Helluva night huh,” Arlo said.
“Yeah helluva night. Almost took the day off. But figured I could get through one day before the weekend starts.”
“Yeah, I pushed myself out of bed too. You were still crashed when I left and I didn’t think you’d make it. One good thing about work though is that it sobers you up pretty fast.”
“For sure, I’m feeling better now at least,” Garland said.
“Me too. As a matter of fact I’m feeling a lot better. Just met a hot little grinder down on the second deck and I think I’m in love.”
“Really? What’s his name?”
“Her name is Starr. And she’s damn cute.”
“Oh yeah, Starr, the Indian gal. Everyone’s trying to get in her shorts. Pete asked her out last week but she claimed to have a boyfriend. Who knows if that’s true or not. Maybe she has a girlfriend.”
“Indian huh. Like from India? Or a Native?”
“I hear she’s Native.”
“I wonder what tribe.”
“Hell, I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“Maybe I will.”
The next day Arlo worked in the same location as before, and then drifted off to the area where Starr was working as soon as he could. He’d been thinking about her a lot since the talk with Gar, especially the fact that she was of Native heritage. Ever since he read the writings of Black Elk, Fools Crow, and the myth of the White Buffalo Calf Woman in a college class, he realized that there was something about Native American spirituality and the lifestyle that resonated in him. He even began to fantasize that his encounter with Starr was fated in some way.
He saw her there again, but this time with another fitter and a welder.
“Hi Arlo,” Starr said. “Are you going to be working here too?”
“I thought I was.”
“Huh? I was assigned here today,” the other fitter said.
“We’ll get it straightened out,” Arlo said.
Briefly, their eyes met and she gave him what he surmised was a hopeful little smile.
At the end of the shift, Arlo tracked down that fitter, named Earl, and they agreed to swap work locations since they were so close.
The next workday – a Monday – Arlo headed to his job full of hope and enthusiasm. He’d been thinking about Starr all weekend. He was more than disappointed, however, when he got there and saw that she was gone. Evidently, she was assigned to a different location. All that week Arlo spent his free time looking for her, to no avail. None of the other fitters he asked had seen her either. Despite all his efforts, the next two weeks went by without any sign of her.
The next month, Arlo got transferred to one of the main shops that built the subassemblies for the ships. The good news for him was that the condition in the shops were cleaner and the work generally not as hard as they were on the ships. The bad news was that there were fewer places to hide and take naps, especially since the shops were closer to the supervisory and management offices.
About a week into the job, he walked along the shop floor and paused to watch the work being done on the Bumper machine, which straightened out the warps on the long 40-foot T-bars and I-beams. When he glanced up to the cab, he noticed the operator working the controls was wearing a familiar looking red headscarf. When he moved a little closer, he saw that it was Starr.
Almost every day the following week, he made his way to the Bumper to watch Starr, from a discreet distance, at work. It was an impressive sight. She looked like a real pro the way she was working the controls and levers in that cab on top of the machine. In fact, he began to imagine that the big chair she sat on was kind of like a throne, since it was in such an elevated position above the fray of all the activity on the shop floor; so distant and detached from all the other workers – and to him as well.
After the shift one day, he followed Starr to the women’s dressing room and waited for her, behind a stack of pallet boards, to emerge. His plan was to follow her to the parking lot and find out what car she drove. Knowing that, he could then park his car next to hers in the morning, so that they could “bump into each other” in the lot after the shift. When she came out of the dressing room, he followed her past the gate and then, much to his surprise and disappointment, saw her board a bus – so much for that plan. However, almost immediately, he devised another one.
A few days later, he again followed her out the gate after the shift and watched her board the bus. A minute late, he boarded the same bus. As he paid and got a transfer, he glanced down the aisle and saw her sitting by herself in the middle of the bus looking out the window. The bus was less than half-full, and he plopped down on a seat directly across the aisle from her. Briefly, he glanced over to her and saw that she was still looking out the window. Trying to be nonchalant, he stretched and let out a little sigh, hoping that might get her attention. As he let out his stretch, he casually glanced over to her again and saw her looking at him. He gave her a little nod. She nodded back, followed by a little smile.
That was all he needed.
“I think I remember you,” he said, “on the ship a couple of months ago.”
“Oh yeah,” she said, “when I was I grinding. I think I remember you too.”
“Let’s see, your name is…Starr – right?”
“Yes, and you have a funny name that started with an ‘A’, or a ‘R’. I forget what it was though.”
“It’s Arlo. A-R-L-O.”
“That’s right,” she answered with a little laugh. “I haven’t seen you on the bus before.”
“Ah, my car’s is in the shop today. I’m taking the bus downtown and then transferring to Capitol Hill. Where do you live?”
“I’m going downtown too, and then transferring up to the Lake City area.”
“Are you working on the ships now, Starr?”
“No I got transferred to the Main Shop about a month ago.”
“Really?” he responded, trying to feign surprise. “I got transferred there last week. Whereabouts you work?”
“On the Bumper machine.”
“Wow. You mean you operate the Bumper?”
“I walk by there all the time and sometimes watch how it works. You have to know what you’re doing there, that’s for sure. How did you get that job?”
“About a month ago, they called me into the Personnel Office and I thought I was going to get laid off, but then they told me I could start training on it. I guess they saw that I had a little college and worked some farm machinery in the past. Anyway, I got the hang of it pretty fast and I really like it.
“Good for you. So you’ve had some college?”
“Just two years. I’m saving so I can go back and get a degree. What about you?”
“Yeah, I have a B.A. in History, and took a lot of Journalism courses but I couldn’t find a job with it so I’m working here until something comes up. I’m thinking that maybe I need an advanced degree to get the work I’m looking for.”
“You should then, because I don’t think there’s much of a future working here.”
“It pays the bills in the meantime though. What degree do you want to get?”
“Social Work. My goal is to go back to the reservation?”
“The reservation? So you’re Native American?”
“Yes. Mostly Lakota Sioux. I grew up in South Dakota.”
“You know, I took a Comparative Religion course in college and there was a whole section on Native American spirituality. It showed how some of the Native ceremonies like the Vision Quest, and Sweat Lodge and the Sun Dance tie in with some ancient Pagan traditions. I thought all of that was really interesting.”
“That is so amazing that you know that! I’ve taken part in Sweat Lodge ceremonies myself. It’s definitely such a cleansing experience; for the mind, body, and spirit.”
As Starr talked, he briefly glanced out the window and saw that they already approaching the downtown area. He wanted this magic bus ride to last forever.
“I thought the same thing when I read about it. Maybe I’ll take part in it one day too.”
“You should. Especially if some inner voice tells you to do so.”
“Yes, so true,” he answered with a thoughtful nod.
“Do you want to take more History classes when go back?” she asked.
“Maybe, but I also like writing and journalism too so I’ll probably take more of those classes. Plus, they’re a little more practical than History.”
“I think you should definitely make plans to go back to school then,” she said, firmly and with conviction.
“You’re right, like you are.”
He glanced out the window again and saw that they were almost at their stop.
“It looks like we’re almost there,” he said. “My car will be in the shop another day so I’ll be on the bus tomorrow too.”
“Oh, but I won’t be on it because I have to take my daughter to the doctors. She’s had a bad ear infection. My sister’s living with me and takes care of her during the days.”
He tried to disguise his disappointment. “That’s too bad. I hope she feels better.”
The bus arrived at the transfer stop and they both got off.
“It’s been good talking you, Starr. I guess I’ll see you in the shop then.”
“Good talking to you too, Arlo.” She paused a moment before continuing. “Maybe we can meet again for lunch, and go outside when the weather’s good.”
“Sounds great. I’ll give you a little wave when I walk by the Bumper.”
As he was riding home on the other bus, Arlo thought more about her daughter and specifically when she said that her sister is living “with me”, not us. That seemed to indicate that the baby-daddy was not in the picture, at least not now. In addition to that, he glanced at her left hand a few times when they talked and didn’t see a ring of any finger. Moreover, she left the door open to him with that lunch invitation.
He decided not to rush it and wait until the next week before making his move. He walked by the Bumper every day, and when the chance occurred, he gave her that promised wave. The first day, she didn’t see him, but on the second day she gave him a wave back.
On the Wednesday of the following week, it was a nice day and so his plan was to wait for her to get off the Bumper for the lunch break and ask her if she wanted to join him outside. As soon as he got there, he saw an older man in the cab. The next day the man was there again and so Arlo waited for him to descend the ladder after the shift and asked him if he knew where she was. He was relieved to find out that she just called in sick both days.
At the end of that Thursday shift, Arlo and a slug of other fitters got their pink-slip layoff notices. He didn’t care so much about losing the job moneywise, because now he could collect max unemployment and easily live off that. What hit him hardest about it was the fact that he was now out of touch with Starr.
The next week, he tried to figure out a way to contact her since he didn’t have her phone number or know where she lived. His plan was to find all that out during their lunches together and then maybe ask her out on a date. He even considered waiting for her as she boarded the bus, but dashed that idea as being too intrusive and desperate, and something that could backfire.
As the weeks progressed, he tried to forget about her, but found himself thinking about her even more. There was something about her that really touched him, and in a way he’d never felt with other women. He couldn’t quite grasp what that ‘way’ was, and began to think that he’d never would.
At first, he made a few faint efforts at looking for other work but gave up after a week. After that, he spent most of is extra time partying with his roommates and going to the racetrack. The next month went by in a blur; he drank every day, first just at nights, and then starting in early afternoons, often augmented with pot.
He hit the bottom after yet another losing day at the track. Afterwards, he went out drinking with Gar and his other roommates, and his mood turned progressively nasty. He began to dwell on the fact that they all had jobs except for him, despite the fact that he was the only one with a college degree. As he continued to slosh down gin and tonics, his frustration grew and soon he started insulting them, calling them ‘bums’ and ‘rednecks.’
“Yeah, well it least we have jobs,” Roger, one of his roommates, said.
“Can’t even hold a job in the shipyards,” Ben, another roommate, added. “That’s really fucked.”
“I bet what he misses most about the yards is that Indian chick he had the hots for,” Gar said to the others. “Right, Arlo old buddy?”
“Fuck you, Gar.” Arlo snarled. “I bet she’s not even working there anymore.”
“Oh yeah, she is,” Gar sneered. “I saw her last week in the shop. I mean, they’ll always be a job in the yards for a woman who can both bump and grind.”
Their collective laughter only made Arlo angrier, especially since the joke involved Starr. He stepped off his stool at the bar and took a swing at Gar, but missed badly and stumbled to his knees.
“Someone’s had tee many martunis,” Ben said, trying to stifle a laugh.
“Whoa there, old buddy,” Gar said, as he helped Arlo up. “Didn’t mean to trash your gal.”
“Fuck you, and all of you,” Arlo said, as he tried to focus on the double-image of Gar. “And she’s not my gal.”
“Sure buddy,” Gar said. “What do you say we head home now?”
Slowly, they walked out of the bar, propping up Arlo along the way.
The next morning, Arlo sat alone in the kitchen nursing a cup of coffee, and with a nasty hangover. Everyone else had left for work, which seemed to accentuate his mood of angst and woe even more. Slowly, he realized – upon a not-so-sober reflection – that he was mostly pissed off at himself because the way his life was going, and that the little insult about Starr was all it took to trigger the outburst.
Once again, he thought about Starr and the last time he saw her; it was when he looked up at her in the Bumper cab and gave her a little wave, which she returned with a wave of her own. Turned out, he thought bitterly, that it was a wave goodbye. He also fondly recalled the talk they had on the Magic Bus Ride. What impressed him even more about her was that she had given herself some direction in her life by making plans to go back to school. He then recalled one of the last things she said to him; the advice for him to go back to school.
Just then, something happened; like a little spark of hope or glint of light which seemed to dispel his gloomy mood. He poured himself another cup of coffee, turned the radio on to the jazz station, plopped down on the couch and began formulating plans in his mind about going back to school. It seemed so simple. He thought about that a little before, but not seriously, until now.
During the next week, he decided to take advanced classes in Journalism and narrowed it down to a local school and one in the San Francisco Bay Area. He then formally applied for acceptance at both schools, with the goal starting classes the next quarter. It was the perfect time for him to do so, since he could still live off unemployment for almost a year.
Instead of drinking or going to the track, he now felt inspired to read more about Native American spirituality and their connections to other forms pagan worship in ancient and medieval Europe and Asia. Soon, his research lead him to study more about the times of the European witchcraft persecutions, particularly the form they took in Germany, since he was of mostly German heritage. During this time, a nascent idea of a book began to form based on his research.
In less than a month since the rock-bottom day at the bar, he felt that he had turned his life around; he had made plans to go back to school and even had ambitions to write a book. That faint spark of hope he felt earlier in the month had now turned into a shining beacon. It all began when he started thinking about Starr, and the advice she had given him. It was as if, in effect, she had showed him The Way.
Two months later, Arlo merged onto the I-5 freeway in his trusty, reliable ’64 Dodge Dart and headed toward the San Francisco Bay Area. All his worldly possessions were packed in the back seat and trunk. As he drove out of Seattle, the snow-capped spectre of Mount Rainer floated above a thin layer of clouds in the southeast.
All during the drive – through Washington and Oregon, over the Siskiyou Mountains and into northern California – he was imbued with sense that he was on his way to a new life. As he passed Berkeley and saw the San Francisco skyline in the distance he made a vow never to lose the memory of Starr and the path that she had shown him, however he may stray and whatever twisted circumstances would occur in his life.
About the Author:
AR. Bender is an emergent writer living in Tacoma, Washington. He graduated at the University of Washington in English Literature and Journalism and have held a variety of odd jobs over the years, including one on a newspaper. He completed two short story collections, a few of which have been published individually, multiple flash fiction pieces, and a smattering of poetry.