Tote Bags Are a Scam (Chapter Seven)

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

This is the seventh chapter of an ongoing collaborative novel project. Click here to start with

chapter one, or here to see all the chapters.

⬅︎Chapter six

“Hold her steady at oh-four-two,” I’m telling him. “Are you feeling it, Gabe? In your wrists? In your feet?”

He’s feeling it. He’s a natural.

“Steering a ship isn’t like steering a car,” I tell him, not that he really needs to hear it. “You’re pushing through water, not through air, not against hard pavement. There’s ten thousand microcurrents pushing the rudder in different directions. You have to feel them coming, you have to react to them. You’re cutting through a medium that’s constantly moving.”

It’s easy to be cynical, bitter, when I’m trapped in my haunted office at O.C.E.A.N., but when we finally push off to sea, I can’t help myself. My face is nothing but a big, stupid grin. The midmorning sun sparkling on the waves, the powerful smell of salt, the wind filling every corner of every sail—I hate letting the kids see me this unabashedly happy, to be honest. Being captain of a ship requires that I maintain a certain gravitas, and, well—here I am smiling like an idiot. It’s not helping that this Gabe kid is basically a pro already. Makes me want to just kick back and let him captain the thing. Like a cruise. That’d rule.

That’s not what this is, though. This is just our morning excursion, two days before the real voyage starts. That’s how we do it at O.C.E.A.N.—one day of intensive theory training, and then we take the SSV Heraclitus out for a spin. We show them the basics hands-on—setting the sails, tying knots, tacking, heaving-to—and then we have an afternoon and a morning of review and remediation before we ship out for the six-week voyage. Of course, if Sunny is really committed to sailing to Ghana, that will take more than six weeks—almost a year under even the best conditions—but, cross that bridge when we something-something and all that.

At the moment, I don’t think any of these kids suspect anything, as far as the real purpose of this excursion goes. At the pier near the museum, there’s a district with some shopping and restaurants. We’ll tie up the ship, I’ll say Well done, kids, have an hour of shore leave, and then I’ll sneak off to rummage among the various and sundry peculiarities and fascinations. If I can at least figure out where this stupid centaur is, that would be one thing crossed off Sunny’s insane to-do list.

Half a thing, at least.

But now I can see the pier coming up over the horizon, the museum looming on the rocks above it. “Two degrees port,” I tell Gabe, and he says “Aye,” because he is way too into this sailor thing, and I love it.


I’m double-checking all the knots before I leave the ship when I hear the voice of my new dead friend again.

“Don’t screw this up, Doug,” Sunny says. She’s standing on the deck, leaning on the railing, flanked my Ted and Manny.

“Where were you guys?”

“Below deck. Got tired of watching you moon over my would-have-been-boyfriend’s sailing.”

I sigh.

“Look, Dougie,” Ted says, “This is something I would definitely do myself if I could leave the ship. I can’t, so I’m depending on you, and, well, I’m guessing that’s not the best decision I’ve ever made. Still, I have no choice, so—”

“Is there a point to this?” I ask them.

“Just that—well—we’re counting on you,” Manny mumbles. “Te toca a ti.”

“You guys want to be alive that bad? Not for nothing, but you an Ted both always seemed like you were pretty used to being dead.”

“Think about what you’re saying for two seconds, Dougie.”

“Yeah, that’s fair. Sure. Still, though—”


“I mean, look at me, Ted. Thinning hair, weight gain. Is this really what you want? We’ve got the same genes, man.”

Ted says nothing. Pushes the greasy hair out of his eyes. Bites his lip.

“Find the centaur, Doug,” Sunny says. “Please.”


The Cape Cod Museum of Nautical Peculiarities and Fascinations, for its part, is one of those museums that wants to look impressive but seemingly doesn’t quite have the budget for it. It’s a plain red brick building, with some pointless freestanding Corinthian columns thrown up on its porch; the steps to said porch are flanked by stone lions. (Why lions? There’s nothing nautical about lions.) The glass door that leads inside has a weather-beaten string of bells hanging from it to announce my arrival. The woman at the front desk doesn’t even look up. Chewing gum, playing solitaire on her computer.

The interior of this place is the same mix of functional and fancy that the outside suggests—splashes of marble and brass where they could afford it, felt-covered cubicle dividers where they couldn’t. I never get seasick, but the décor in here is coming close to changing that. I walk past a portrait of Theseus and stop at the counter. It’s empty in here. Quiet.

“Uh, hi.” I’m whispering. Feels weird to do anything else.

“Eight dollars.”

“I—I’m sorry, what?”

“Eight dollars. Unless you’re under the age of twelve or over fifty-five. Or if you’re a member. Are you a member?”

“Uh—I don’t think so?”

“Would you like to become one?”


“It comes with all sorts of benefits. Priority admission, meet-n-greets, wine tastings, reduced admission at the zoo and the paperclip hall of fame. Also a really nice tote bag. You do want a tote bag, don’t you?”


“Here, let me show you the tote bag—”

No,” I say. “It’s—it’s—look, what are tote bags even for?


“It’s just—it’s like a messenger bag, except you can’t close it and you can’t wear it. What’s even the point?”

“I—y’know,” she says, “now that I think about it, that’s a very good point. Tote bags are kind of a scam, aren’t they?”

“Hey, you said it, not me. Now listen. I’m not here just as a museum guest—"

“Oh, great. You’re press? Listen, as we previously said, we’re fixing the harpoon gun, and we have no further comment to make regarding the unfortunate spate of injuries—"

“What? No. I’m a descendant of Walter Theseus—”

“Of who now?”

“Of—of Walter Theseus. The man who founded this museum?”

“Never heard of him.”

“You’ve never—he’s—his picture is by the door.”

“Look, I’m new. I don’t know anything about Balto Prometheus or whoever. They didn’t mention him at all in training.”

“They trained you?”

“They mostly just told me to push the tote bags.”

I sigh and give her eight dollars and push past the desk. She goes back to her solitaire game.

This place is a mess. Everything is piled on top of everything else—some of it under glass, some nailed to the walls, some just sitting out on tables. Taxidermied mermaids, whale penises, astrolabes made out of cheese. I don’t even know how to begin sorting through this stuff.

Back in the corner, though, something’s moving.


He turns around. “Uh…hi, Captain.”

“You can call me Doug.”


“What are you doing here?”

“What, an O.C.E.A.N. student can’t reconnect with O.C.E.A.N.’s roots?”

“Well…sure, but they almost never do.

“Doug, I know all about Walter Theseus. I’ve read the entire O.C.E.A.N. website back-to-front. Several times.”

“Of course you have.”

“And several books on Theseus.”

“Didn’t realize anyone wrote any books on Theseus.”

“Oh—and you won’t believe what they’ve got stashed in the basement here.”

Chapter eight➡︎

Project CoNarrative is an ongoing multimedia experiment in collaborative storytelling from two award-winning authors. We're taking turns writing chapters and building on each other's work, improv-style. You can read them for free, here on the internet, as we write them.

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