I was the night cook. We were on a rig out in the Gulf, many miles from shore. There was a skeleton crew; we were all just there to keep the parts moving. I would wake up around three in the afternoon and get down to the kitchen about an hour later. Have something to eat and some bad coffee and get to work.
I’d help the head cook get dinner squared away. Set out the food and sit back as the roustabouts came in and slopped it onto their plates and wolfed it down. They sat around and talked about sports and girls and how much longer they could count on this job. It was like a high school cafeteria except this time the anxiety was about when you would go broke and who was fucking your wife while you were away on your three-week stints.
After dinner they all filed out and we broke everything down, cleaned it up. Then the head cook would sit down and eat something himself, and go off to bed. Each shift was twelve hours; he would not be back in the kitchen until six the next morning. I’d get things ready for the night time stretch.
This was the easiest offshore gig I ever had. All I had to do was prepare a snack and have it out at around midnight, and be sure to leave it up for an hour or so for the few luckless souls who happened to wake up. Usually this was nobody. Later I would ready breakfast, though my shift would end at four and I wouldn’t have to actually serve it. Just have it ready for when the day cook came in the next morning.
This left an abundance of free time.
I did a lot of reading. I read Tropic of Cancer out there, and thought about the girl I was seeing back home. We’d worked together in a bookstore before I took this job and I liked to imagine her walking through the tall stacks, graceful and lovely. I thought about reading pages of the book to her, speaking aloud that rough and gorgeous language, saying things to her I did not have the courage or the knowledge to say myself.
I wrote some stories. Little vignettes in the naturalist style that seemed terribly important to me at the time. I assembled them into a little volume I thought I would publish as a chapbook somewhere, called Slaughterhouses. My head was full of Miller and Faulkner and Thom Jones. I had stopped reading fantasy some time ago and did not then believe I would ever go back to it.
Sometimes someone would straggle in for some coffee and a wedge of refrigerator-flavored cake. Sometimes we’d talk and sometimes we wouldn’t.
By the time two o’clock in the morning rolled around I was usually the only one awake on the whole rig. The work in the kitchen was long done and you can only read in that awful florescent light so long before it becomes a cudgel and you have to walk out of it or go insane.
My favorite place to go was the helicopter pad. It was always empty, except on Thursdays when some of the crew would rotate out. The wind was hard up there. In the daylight, all you could see for miles around was flat blue water. But at night the lights from distant rigs ringed the horizon and you felt a part of some vast, strange city.
I would lie down on the helicopter pad and stare straight up into the stars. There was no light out here and I was at the highest point on the rig. I could see the white smoke of the Milky Way. I felt the planet press against my back, pushing me through the darkness.