Crossing the Bar – An Excerpt from the novel Graft

Author’s Note: This excerpt is from the unpublished novel “Graft,” which features four women fighting for their lives and financial independence in 1890s Oregon. Working the angles of male-dominated frontier culture, they weaponize the least appreciated of their feminine assets: their brains. In this chapter, Gong Fa, a tailoress-turned-card-sharp, has taken a job as a maid to hide from a sadistic Madam to whom she owes money.

Gong Fa hated Captain Flavel the way she hated most white men, especially rich ones. But over the last few months, Flavel had become something else: a dying man. A rich, stubborn, selfish one, but still a dying one.

When her mother died, Gong Fa received a letter. When her father passed, a telegram. Her mother’s bones were buried in Guangzhou. Her father’s were never recovered.

The Captain’s wife and daughters had decamped to Chicago for the Columbian Exposition. Their belief that the Captain would soon recover seemed as delusional to Gong Fa as the businessmen who declared in one column of the papers, “The Worst is Over: Financial Affairs Improving,” while the other columns tallied the latest bank closures and unemployment numbers.

With the Flavel women away, the household help had little work beyond their daily chores and took advantage of the livelier atmosphere that accompanied Astoria’s fishing season. As the salmon swam upstream, the maids positioned themselves downstream, hoping to catch a man, some money, or at the very least, a whiskey.

Gong Fa found herself alone with the Captain most days and nights, feeding him, reading to him, guiding his skeletal frame as he shuffled to the toilet. She had proven to be the only one in the house not outwardly disturbed by his erratic and often volatile behavior.

As he grew weaker, he tolerated no one but Gong Fa for more than a few minutes. Even his friends’ visits were cut short by his spasms of rage at their comforting words. He didn’t want comfort. He wanted power. And he could feel his own diminishing by the hour.

By June, every paper in the country had a separate section devoted to bank failures. The Captain demanded Gong Fa read to him each morning about the collapsing economy. Every day, another town in the west, towns the Captain had watched grow up around a cannery, mine, or port, reported losses. Spokane, Washington. Webb City, Montana. Ouray, Colorado. The scenes of his youth were dying, and his organs were shutting down as fast as the country’s financial systems. Veins in his legs bulged, emerging like new rail lines on a map, only to recede as his flesh swelled and another railroad collapsed.

“The fucking one-horse town banks run by a bunch of blind monkeys. Did you say Kline is taking over Frisco’s First National? He couldn’t get fucked in a room full of cherries.” The Captain would sputter on and then either talk himself quiet or be seized by a coughing fit before again yelling, “Read goddamit!”

“Railroads or Banks?” Gong Fa would ask calmly.

“Banks. Fucking banks.”

“‘This week, Bradstreet Mercantile reports forty-seven failures in the Pacific coast states as compared with twenty-five for the previous week.’”

“Damn it, where’s my pillow! This fucking satin snooze-case. The old rib knows I hate these.”

Gong Fa had learned to ask before offering liquids after the Captain had thrown a bowl of broth against the wall. The carpet had a leaf motif in dark greens, but the wall spatter was still visible. When offering the cocaine syrup that Doctor Owens made her promise to give him, Gong Fa snuck it into his mouth while she read about the Colombian Exposition or a famous cricketer who had recently taken a long sojourn for his health in South Africa. The Captain’s mouth would relax just long enough to sneak in a spoon.

“‘Tomorrow will be German day at the White City,’” Gong Fa read, “‘and for weeks the sturdy Teutons have been preparing.’”

“My wife’s mother was Bavarian. Rheinpfalz. You. Where are your people?”


“No. You’re Chinese. Your people?”

“My parents were from Canton,” Gong Fa said, using the English name of the city.

“I brought in many a ship from China. Up the river. Opium. Rice. Your Johns. We sent you beer. You sent us opium. One of the best pilots I ever saw was a Johnny. Knew the shape of the waters like it was his woman. His goddam food smelled like shit, but when all the white men were pukin’ in their thunder mugs, he was steady. Like a machine.”

“What happened to him?”

“Fucking corned critter stabbed him with a dirk. Thought he was some other Chinaman who’d beat him at cards. Right on the pier. They found the body, got caught in some nets. Poor fucking soul.” The Captain began to mumble, “Poor fucking souls….”

When the Captain dozed, Gong Fa read the articles she found interesting, still out loud, but a little quieter. On the twenty-first of June, she read a death announcement: “Former Governor Leland Stanford of California has died.”

Gong Fa remembered her father talking about “the bastard.” Stanford had called the Chinese an “inferior race” that would repel “desirable immigration.”

The Captain snorted himself awake, “What! What about Leland?”

“Leland Stanford. He died this morning.”

“What did the cocksucker die of?”

“Says here, immediate cause of death was paralysis of the heart.”

The Captain laughed, but it quickly turned into a phlegmatic cough, ending with him drooling a glob of mucous into a glass held by Gong Fa.

“Would you like tea?”


Gong Fa poured him a glass.

The whiskey usually led to a nap, but as he approached the abyss, the Captain’s sleep became a terror-filled ordeal. The week before his death, Gong Fa spent several nights mopping his forehead and trying to relax his body enough to lie him back down. Every few minutes, he would bolt upright, eyes open, wiping his face as if it were wet, pulling on invisible ropes, shouting to imaginary oarsman, “row goddamit!”

During his waking hours, he would repeatedly recount the demise of the General Warren some fifty years earlier. He had been the river pilot when the ship went down.

“I was to bring her in, but I couldn’t. The captain, Thompson, he must have known I couldn’t save her. Ebbtide was too strong. The wind, the ship was in the shallows, they had overloaded her, she was taking on water. Forty-five men. Poor fucking souls. Like balloons on the beach. We came back, but there was only wood. We couldn’t see, it was so dark. I should have let them have the whiskey, but I rolled it overboard. I should have…I thought I could get back, I could bring them in. Over the bar. The captain, Thompson, had these blue eyes. They were so blue. I couldn’t bring them in, I couldn’t get them across, they just needed me to guide them through the mouth, and I couldn’t. Those eyes. I couldn’t.”

Then the Captain stopped asking for the newspaper and began calling Gong Fa “mother.” He would hold her hand and plead, “Mother, tell me a story.”

Gong Fa told him stories from her childhood, beginning with her mother’s tales of the Chinese warrior Lady Sin. Then she discovered Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome in the Flavel library. Gong Fa’s father had loved these stories.

A week before Flavel died, Gong Fa returned from the pharmacy to find a trembling maid whispering with Mrs. Lantry. While she loved the Captain, Mrs. Lantry was quick to tears and appreciated that Gong Fa took the brunt of his rage. When she saw Gong Fa, she ran over.

“Look what he was eating! He’s going to break his teeth!” Mrs. Lantry was holding a silver dollar in her hand. “Nissa, tell Gong Fa what you saw.”

“When I went to empty the bedpan,” the young maid said, “the Captain was asleep. I tried to be quiet. I’m sorry, the bedpan was so heavy, and it banged against the toilet—” Mrs. Lantry pulled the girl’s hands from her eyes.

“You didn’t do anything wrong dear, just tell her what happened.”

“When I went to put the bedpan back, Captain Flavel was coughing. I didn’t know what to do. It was awful, I helped him sit up and then he coughed out that.” She pointed to the coin in Mrs. Lantry’s hand.

“Is he trying to…” asked Mrs. Lantry. “Oh Lord, he can’t be.”

Gong Fa took the coin. “I’ll talk with him.”

“Thank you. Do you think he’s hungry? I’ll make soup. Should I make soup?”

“Yes, that would be nice, Mrs. Lantry.” Gong Fa smiled as she ascended the stairs, laughing to herself at the thought of poor Nissa watching the Captain cough up a coin.

The week before, Flavel had become obsessed with Charon. “Mother, what about the boatman?” he would ask. And Gong Fa would read:

The shades were ferried over the Styx by the grim, unshaven old boatman Charon, who only took those whose bodies had brought with them his indispensable toll, which was a small coin, placed under the tongue of a dead person. If these conditions had not been fulfilled, the unhappy shades were left behind to wander up and down the banks for a hundred years as restless spirits.


Coin in hand, Gong Fa went into the Captain’s room. When he awoke, she adjusted his pillows and joked, “You gave the maid quite a fright, coughing up silver dollars. You know, the boatman only needs a halfpenny.”

Suddenly, the Captain seized her arms with a strength she thought he no longer possessed. “Promise me you’ll put a coin. I must get across. I must pay the toll.”

Gong Fa quickly recovered from the shock of being grabbed, and staring into the black holes of the dying man’s eyes, whispered, “I promise.” Then his grip relaxed, and his hands fell to his sides, where they would remain. He died three days later. July 3, 1893.

When the coroner arrived, Gong Fa handed him a note that read: “Please leave the coin. I’ll need it to cross over.” Gong Fa had signed it, “Captain.” She hoped someone had done the same for her mother and father.


Jennifer Schuberth holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion from the University of Chicago and was a Tin House 2020 novel workshop recipient. She has worked in academics and finance, and her work has appeared in Sundial Magazine and Another Chicago Magazine. She lives in Portland with her partner and children.