Authors: John Jacobson
Characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The sole exception is the character of Edwin J. O'Hara. O'Hara was a cadet at the Academy who went down with his ship in 1942. He was nineteen years old at the time of his death. These are true facts. All other references in the novel to his person, character, and actions are the sole creation of the author's imagination.
Copyright Â© 2011 by John Jacobsen
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Arcade Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Jacobsen, John G.
Â Â A commodore of errors: a novel / John Jacobsen.
Â Â Â Â Â Â p. cm.
Â Â ISBN 978-1-61145-338-6 (hardcover: alk. paper)
Â Â 1. United States Merchant Marine Academy--Fiction. I. Title.
Â Â PS3610.A35665C66 2011
Â Â 813'.6--dc22
Printed in the United States of America
or Silvana, who actually believed me when I told her I was going to write a novel.
idshipman Jones stood on the uneven porch of Mrs. Tannenbaume's house and stared at the wooden cross that leaned against the porch rail. The cross was enormous. It was bigger than heâa rough-hewed Midwest farm boyâand made of rough wood beams pegged together with wood dowels. A life-size papier-mÃ¢chÃ© replica of a bloody Jesus lay on the burnt grass next to the porch.
He'd been wondering what his work order meant as soon as he picked it out of the job box at the MOD's office. He'd also been wondering whether Mrs. Tannenbaume was crazy. Now he knew.
Midshipman Jones rang the ship's bell that served as Mrs. Tannenbaume's doorbell. When Mrs. Tannenbaume arrived at the door in her housedressâshe was old, which he sort of expected, based on the rundown condition of the house's exteriorâMidshipman Jones waived the piece of scrap paper he held in his hand.
“Good morning, Mrs. Tannenbaume,” he said. “I'm here for the job you called in.”
“Oh, yes, come in, love.”
Wow. What a raspy voice. She must have been a smoker when she was young. Or a drinker. Probably both.
He opened the screen doorâhalf-painted and peelingâand stepped into the small entrance off the porch. Stacks of yellowed newspapers filled the vestibule. He sidestepped his way through them and entered Mrs. Tannenbaume's living room.
The room was a shrine to the Holy Roman Catholic Churchâor at least that's how it appeared. Little replicas of the Stations of the Cross were placed in every corner. A leather-bound Holy Bible took up most of the coffee table. Rosary beads were strewn about on the card table in the corner, crammed between the cushions on the sofa and love seats, and hanging off the shade of the floor lamp in the other corner of the peculiar room. Over the fireplace hung a crucifix, also wrapped in rosary beads. The only nonreligious decorations in the room were three framed photographs on the fireplace mantle. Midshipman Jones stared at the photos. They were dark and grainy and appeared to portray three young men. He wondered why these terrible photos were so prominent in the old lady's home.
Mrs. Tannenbaume looked up expectantly at him. “I forget why I wanted you here, love.”
Midshipman Jones did not know what to make of this old lady. Her wrinkled skinâ
God, she must have been a real sun worshipper when she was young
âmade her look pretty old but then she seemed so spry, almost youthful, nothing like his grandmother back in Ohio, who was probably the same age.
He looked at the slip of paper in his hand, then back to Mrs. Tannenbaume. “Let me read it to you, Mrs. Tannenbaume. I want to make sure I get it right.” He paused. “It says here, âNeed one midshipman to nail Jesus to the cross.'”
Mrs. Tannenbaume slapped her hand against her forehead. “Oh yes, my papier-mÃ¢chÃ© Jesus. I got him at the annual yard sale at the St. Aloysius, my church in Great Neck. He was a leftover from a play put on by the kids. Nobody else wanted him. I got him for five bucks, can you believe it? The nuns wanted to know what I planned to do with my Jesus. I told them I was going to find a big cross and nail him to it. When I went to pick him upâone of your classmates helped me, he owns a pickup truckâSister Mahoney tried to keep me from taking him. I told her, âNo way, Sister, a deal is a deal, I have the receipt to prove it.' She's some kind of
that Sister Mahoney.”
A couple of years of dealing with superior officers had taught Midshipman Jones how to bite back a smart remark. He called upon his training at that moment.
Mrs. Tannenbaume led Midshipman Jones back out to the dilapidated front porch and pointed at the cross. “I got this from my tenant upstairs, Mr. Schwartz. We used to go together, you know. When he found out I was Catholic, he broke the whole thing off. He said he could not believe Sylvia Tannenbaume was a Catholic, as if he didn't already know. I said to him, âSchwartzie, how many times did I tell you? It's Tannenbaume with an
. I'm not Jewish.' But he don't listen, that Schwartzie. He said to me, âI'm sorry, Sylvia, but if my mother knew, she'd disown me.' So I said to him, âWe're both seventy-six years old, love. Does it really matter?'” Mrs. Tannenbaume paused for a moment to admire her wooden cross. “But I think he musta felt bad about breaking up with me because he made me this cross to hang my Jesus on.”
To Midshipman Jones, this old lady was a hoot. He really didn't know what to make of her. He wanted to be sure to mind his manners so he just nodded his head while he brushed his hand on the rough wood of the cross and searched for an appropriate remark. “It must be hard for a widow to find a good man,” he blurted out.
Mrs. Tannenbaume jerked her head toward him. “What makes you think I'm a widow?”
Midshipman Jones averted Mrs. Tannenbaume's gaze. “I'm sorry, Mrs. Tannenbaume. I don't know, really, I guess I just figured . . . ”
“Come here, young man.” Mrs. Tannenbaume grabbed him by the elbow. “I want to show you something.”
Mrs. Tannenbaume dragged him inside the house once again and stopped in front of the fireplace. She pointed to the nicely framed photographs. “Eddie, Teddy, and Freddie.”
Midshipman Jones stepped closer and peered at the photos. Yes, they were photographs of three young men about his age. Mrs. Tannenbaume was lost in her thoughts, so he just looked at the photos and didn't say a word.
“Eddie, Teddy, and Freddie.” Mrs. Tannenbaume turned to face him, her hands still clutched to her heart. “One of these boys is my son's father.”
Once again, Midshipman Jones had the opportuntity to practice biting back a remark.
“Oh, I was a wild one when I was young,” Mrs. Tannenbaume confessed, pointing at the picture on the left. “That's Eddie. He was a sailor. His ship pulled into port during the war. My father was a tailor and he made uniforms for the merchant marine. Ships from all over the world would stop in Durbanâthat's where we lived, Durban, in South Africaâto pick up uniforms made by my father. I brought a bunch of uniforms down to the ships one afternoon. Eddie was the youngest sailor on the ship, and oh, I tell you, that Eddie was something to look at.”
Mrs. Tannenbaume's gaze remained fixed on the photographs on the mantle. She pointed at the middle one. “And that's Teddy. He was a tailor. An apprentice tailor, really. My father agreed to teach him the trade as a favor to Teddy's father. He wasn't very good, though, poor Teddy. All his uniforms had too many buttonholes. To tell you the truth,” Mrs. Tannenbaume whispered to Midshipman Jones, “I think I distracted the poor fella whenever I was in the shop. Not for nothing, but I was something to look at, too, when I was seventeen.” Mrs. Tannenbaume turned back to the photographs with a wistful look in her eyes.
Midshipman Jones pointed to the last photograph. “And him?”
“Freddie was a jailor,” Mrs. Tannenbaume said. “He worked in the Durban jail as a guard. I guess these days he'd be called a prison guard, but in those days he was just a jailor. Freddie was a nice guy. Dumb as a bag of hammers, though. My father made the uniforms for the jailors is how I met him.”
“So. Eddie, Teddy, and Freddie. A sailor, a tailor, and a jailor. Wow.”
“What's the far-off look for?”
“Oh nothing, I guess,” Midshipman Jones said. “It's just that there's something vaguely familiar about this story. Probably just dÃ©jÃ vu.”
“It's no story.” Mrs. Tannenbaume smoothed her hands on her housedress. “One of those boys is my son's father. Since I'm not exactly sure which one it is, I kind of think of them all as his father.”