In this episode, Keisha flirts a bit and encounters a mysterious ship.
The episode opens with Keisha saying, “First the dogs will bark. They’ll know before any of us. Then I will have six to fifteen minutes. ”
She goes on to explain that she’s north of the Oregon border, and has been taking long walks up and down the coast recently. She describes “actual bald eagles,” sitting on the beach, and that she’s the only one on the beach to see them. She describes the waves, and the clouds of birds in the sky. Then, going back to the statement she made at the beginning of the episode,
10 to 30 seconds after the dogs start barking, the ground will shake. 6 to 15 minutes later, the tsunami will come. An earthquake is due here, and afterward the tsunami inevitable. If I began running when the dogs started barking, could I make it to the grassy dunes and up to the hills?
She decides that she could make any kind of plans she wants, but wouldn’t be able to outrun a tsunami. Keisha says again that she doesn’t see anything in any direction, but she sees the birds at the tide line and “actual fucking bald eagles.” She closes out this thought by saying she made it back from her walk still alive, but “[w]hen what’s coming for me finally comes, there will be no warning.”
After the opening theme and credits, Keisha tells us where she is: Cape Disappointment.
As picturesque piece of land as you’re going to find in this world. Northwest forest overlooking the point where the gray ocean, all froth and wave, and the mouth of the Columbia River, tranquil and turquoise, meet. A dangerous place for boats. Up on the cliffs above, the coast guard keep constant watch from a lighthouse.
Keisha goes near the lighthouse, and looks out over the ocean. She muses a bit about how she doesn’t see any signs of danger now, just a beautiful view. Eventually, one of the coast guard officers approaches and stands next to her for a while. Keisha describes her as beautiful, and thinks that may be why she decided to speak with her, “or maybe it had been a long time since I talked to anyone except myself. Monologues broadcast to a wife who is out fighting a fight that I’m still trying to understand.”
Keisha joking asks her if she should be out watching the boats, but thinks for a moment that it came out more like a reprimand. The officer says that there’s no traffic.
“I think it’ll be safe for me to take a second of fresh air, but don’t tell my bosses down the hill. They have different ideas about safety.”
They introduce themselves to each other, with the coast guard officer saying her name is Laurel. Keisha asks, “Not officer something?” to which Laurel responds, “Yeah, Officer Something…but to you, Laurel.”
Keisha describes “a pressure in my chest that could have been pain, or could have been laughter,” and notes how long it’s been since she’s last flirted with someone. She follows this up by pointing out a boat, and jokingly tells Laurel that she’s derelict in her duties:
There was a boat, medium-sized, tiny in comparison to the mighty cargo ships that come and go through this passage. It was painted black and sitting motionless near the mouth of the river. As soon as I pointed it out, I wished I hadn’t. There was a wrongness to it that didn’t belong to a spring afternoon’s flirtation.
Laurel doesn’t take this very well. She drops any pretense of friendliness, tells Keisha, “I’m not supposed to talk while on duty, Ma’am,” before heading back to the station and slamming the door. Alice chuckles a bit and tells Alice that she hasn’t lost her touch.
Keisha then muses a bit about efficiency. She talks about the paradox that comes from striving for efficiency: basically, the more efficient something is, the less work it takes to get done, which in turn means that there’s less jobs for everyone. She goes on to say that this also causes an explosion in population, since people working less means that they die later. “More and more of us, less and less jobs.”
Keisha switches the topic to the origin of the name of the place where she is, as well as a description:
This place was named by a fur trader who stopped here and failed to discover the Columbia River around the corner. And so this little piece of coast line heaven is Cape Disappointment. There’s this one beach on an inlet tucked away from the main trail. I had to go down a path that was more a controlled fall than path. The water was shallow and clear, the sharp blue of a tropical sea in a postcard. There were people living in tents on that semi-hidden beach. I watched them play with their dogs. The dogs swam way out into the inlet. I wanted to swim too but the water, for all its tropical appearance, was freezing.
She describes seeing a buck when she went back to where she had parked, then heads up north, describing a place that she says calls itself a free museum, but is “more like a gift shop with stuff on the walls,” such as stuffed jackalopes and two-headed calves. There’s also a bunch of coin-operated items there, such as a diorama depicting an execution.
Keisha then goes on to describe seeing an “alligator man”
I think it’s an actual corpse’s head stuck on the body of an alligator which is… Well, it’s something. They had it in a glass case, next to a T-shirt rack. For a quarter I could get a penny smashed with its image. I didn’t.
At any rate, she talks about buying pina colada flavored saltwater taffy, and asking the cashier about the boat that she’d seen earlier. The cashier has a similar reaction to Laurel, telling her that “tourists don’t stick around long enough to notice,” and that it’s something the locals don’t talk about. He coldly gives her the price, and Keisha pushes harder, asking why locals don’t talk about the boat.
“It’s been in the same spot for three decades now,” he said. “Don’t seem to be anchored, just unaffected by currents. Holds its position. No one is ever seen onboard. People who ask questions about it learn that they shouldn’t. I need to help the next person in life.”
Keisha says OK, and moves out of the line, wondering why she bought the taffy in the first place, since she doesn’t care for it.
She moves on to an arcade called Fun Land, which she decides to pronounce Funland, “like Iceland.” She spends some time playing skee ball, saying that she’s been trying to find “a vacation from this endless search for answers,” which she thinks that she’s found. However, she laments that she can’t live in Funland forever, or just live forever.
Keisha then returns to her previous thoughts on the dangers of efficiency:
Humanity’s drive toward betterment has resulted in two things: more people and less jobs. None of our choices were wrong, exactly. Each was made with good intentions, hell maybe every choice was correct. The problem wasn’t the choices but the values. Survival is no longer a value, because survival has become easy. It used to be old people were revered, because they had outrun death longer than anyone else. Now old people are just the ones who waited around too long. Anyone can become an old person with a little luck. It’s not a collapse of morals that has diminished our respect for the elderly. It’s an inevitable response to the changing meaning of age.
Keisha then goes to an Indian buffet in Astoria. Laurel comes into the restuarant looking for her, and sits down next her her. Keisha says, “I felt the faint pang of a passing afternoon’s crush.” Laurel, without saying anything to her, takes out her phone and shows Keisha a picture of a middle-aged man with a teenage boy.
Laurel explains that the man is her brother, Bobby, and her nephew Evan. Keisha notes that this conversation’s taken a strange turn, “but I lost my ability to judge strangeness somewhere around Texas.” Laurel continues, explaining that Bobby was obsessed with the black boat, “Spent hours watching it, said he never saw anything on board, then one day he did.”
Keisha asks what he saw; Laurel says that he refused to tell anyone. One day, he rented a kayak and went out to the mouth of the river, towards the boat. They lost sight of the boat in broad daylight somehow, and that was the last that they’d seen of him.
Keisha expresses her condolences, and Laurel responds:
“This is a country of the vanished, of the missing. We’ve got a lot of space to put them, I guess. Then his kid Evan, he gets obsessed with the idea that the black boat took his father somehow. We tried to get him interested in other things, put him through therapy, stuff like that but it doesn’t take. The answer to his pain is in that boat, and so he goes to the same place as his father, rents the same kind of kayak, takes the same kind of journey.”
Keisha, knowing how this tale ends, asks her how long Evan’s been missing. Laurel tells her it’s been a little over a year. She then says that Keisha seems nice, and tells her to forget about ever seeing the black boat, because nothing good ever comes from it. “It’s not a mystery to solve. It’s a depth to drown in.” She then gets up and leaves Keisha to her lunch, but she’s lost her appetite.
At this point, Keisha decides that there’s something supernatural about the boat, and that it may be related to the Thistle Men, a “Thistle boat.” She also states that she would be the one who would have to stop them.
Keisha heads out to the ridge with a pair of binoculars to observe the boat:
I knew what I would see. Sagging face, yellow teeth, yellow hat, “Thistle”. The boat had no name, no markings. Every surface was painted black. I watched for a long while, but there was no movement on the deck, nothing in the windows. It seemed truly abandoned except that it stayed in position against the current. I put down the binoculars considering my next move.
At this point, she does notice something on the deck, which she describes as “dots of various colors,” saying that they weren’t there just a moment ago. She takes another look, realizing that the dots that she sees are are actually people, and that they’re looking right at her, even though she was too far back for anyone from that distance to be able to see her.
She discovers that they’re not Thistle Men, but rather ordinary people:
Women, men, mouths open, dull eyes. Some of them are dressed in clothes that could only have been worn without irony in the 80’s. others wearing clothes that could have been worn without vintage cool in the 70’s. there was a man with a bushy silver mustache. I could taste the horror on my gum line. Bobby, slack-jawed. Bobby, staring. And a gangly teenager, Evan, across the deck from Bobby. Nowhere near him, same expression. Both staring back at me as I stared at them.
Keisha stows the binoculars and turns to leave. She says again that this wasn’t a Thistle boat, since “that’s not what Thistle does to people.” She goes on, stating that this is some other horror unrelated to whatever it is she’s been chasing, and that she has enough of that in her life already. She decides that this tale will have to play out without her, and leaves.
Keisha then goes back to the thread about efficiency and survival that’s been woven throughout the episode:
Since we no longer value survival and age, we need some other way to rank people. Because we need that, we need some people to be worth more than others. We have many ways to do that, but here’s one: we value wealth. The ones who own more are better. Not for any reason, just because. And since theoretically but rarely actually in practice, the way toward owning more is work, work has become a measure of someone’s value, second only to money. A lazy rich person is better than a poor person with a good job, but a poor person with a job is better than a poor person without a job. Ranked first by wealth, then by worth. And so that is the situation. There are more of us, there are less jobs, and we value people by whether they have a job or not.
What happens when you have a world where it is impossible for people to create value for themselves in the eyes of society? What happens when we judge people for the inevitable outcome of our collective actions? I don’t know. But together we’re finding out.
Keisha heads back over the Columbia River back to Astoria, describing the bridge and about how you can’t turn back around for four miles. She says that this is fine and normal, but still makes her anxious since she’s “trapped on a course, no alternatives except the disaster of water.” She talks about how there’s a steep incline on the bridge so that cargo ships can pass underneath, and that it’s very unnerving in a vehicle the size of her truck. She has to stop momentarily due to construction.
She goes on about how the bridge is so steep, that there are clouds in her view. She takes a deep breath, starts a short mantra about how her anxiety doesn’t change her circumstances and freaking out isn’t going to help.
It doesn’t help that just the turn of the head puts the black boat in my view. No one on board again, those empty faces gone. Or not gone, but not visible to me. I must always remember that not visible to me and not in existence are not the same thing. That would be a good thing for all of us to remember, I guess.
She then sees a cargo ship heading under the bridge, on a course that would take it near the black boat, and in fact that it may crash into it. She says, “Oh my god,” and we hear the sound of a car door opening before the radio cuts out.
A bit later, Keisha is back on the road, heading towards Portland. After describing some of the stands and gas stations on the side of the road, she says that the cargo ship had collided with the boat. She, like many others on the bridge, had gotten out of her truck to see what would happen.
The ship didn’t slow. Didn’t see the other boat maybe? Or a miscalculation, an error? God knows there are plenty of those.
The ship cut through the center of the black boat and the black boat turned up on its side and then tore in half. The force must have made a gash in the hull of the larger ship because it sagged forward in the water, like a person falling to her knees, and then listed sideways. This might have taken a while. We all may have stood there a long while. One of the containers on the bigger ship wasn’t secured correctly. It toppled off the deck. The black boat settled under the water, a slow disappearing act. I never saw anyone on board the entire time.
The police arrive on the scene and get everyone back into their cars, and traffic gets moving again. The coast guard arrive on the scene, and rescue the people on the cargo vessel. They had reported that there were no signs of the black boat under the water. Keisha says that she doesn’t think that they’ll find anything, or that they’ll look for it all that hard.
Keisha closes with the following:
There once was a black boat on a wide blue river. The only people onboard were the people who had asked the dangerous question. And one day, it sunk and was never seen again. It’s a simple story, a story with no ending. The kind of story that happens every day in this country.
Vacation over, I guess. Back to asking my own dangerous questions. Back to receiving my own dangerous answers.
This was a good episode, but I wouldn’t rank it with one of the best. It wasn’t particularly scary, though it did have some unsettling elements. I kind of liked that it wasn’t about something that had to do with the main narrative (though it is possible that a future episode may come back to this). The interludes where Keisha talks about efficiency and a shift in values was fairly interesting as well, and highlights a number of issues with capitalism as a whole, though I didn’t really see what it had to do with the main narrative.
Next up is chapter 3, and I promise I will get that post out quicker this time.