Episode Eighteen ♦ Cruising

On board the Harmonie, George stood with his back against a bulkhead and pushed the door open for Anita. She entered and took two steps into the dark cabin. Following her, his jaw dropped to his clavicle. This room, if it could be called a room, was filled by a bed no bigger than his in Roseville. It was pushed into the far corner, but the remaining space required a sidestep to navigate along the mattress. The only light came from the corridor.

He watched Anita open twin doors to a small closet at the foot of the bed. Inside a feeble light sputtered awake revealing a mirror, sink, and some shelving for baggage. Anita set her bag on a shelf.

Shaking his head in disbelief he said, “There must be some mistake.”

“The receptionist said, ‘second deck up, middle corridor, room 3244’. The door opened for us,” she said unimpressed by his disappointment. “I guess this is a double cabin on a riverboat. What did you expect? Another suite?”

“It’s just so small.”

Her shrug was of no comfort to George. Tossing his bag into the closet on another shelf he asked, “Do you feel like exploring?”

“No. Not really. But you go ahead.”

Her lack of emotion concerned George. “Are you still feeling unwell?”

“Don’t really feel like myself. I just want to rest.”

He weighed his options: expressing concern and understanding, doting on her, or excusing himself to allow her some space. He decided. “I’m sorry you are out of sorts. If you want anything, just ask. Okay?” He took her nod as comprehension. “How about I check back around dinnertime?”

“Sounds fine.”

He pulled the door closed feeling troubled that Anita, always so strong and in charge, was not herself, but he understood pressing her for information would not help. Even he knew it was likely to be morning sickness or changes in hormones. No, she was clear she wanted to rest and it would be best to give her some privacy. Looking down the beige corridor, he decided on the path which they had not used.

At the deck railing, the busy quay receded and George was surprised that the boat’s movement had not been more obvious to him. A few people, both on board and on the dock, continued to wave even though it was hard to distinguish facial features at the growing distance. George wondered if this trip would be like a seagoing voyage. His memory of ships docked in Hartfieldport made the Harmonie feel small.

The fore of the topmost, or sun, deck was home to the solar sails and pilot house. From the railing he could see two crew members watching the river as they maneuvered the craft sideways into the channel. Behind the pilot house were a gym and pool. George tried to decide if it was a tiny swimming pool or vast soaking tub. It was currently deserted.

As he walked away from the pilot house, the vessel started to move with the current. Approaching the aft railing, he looked across the Ohio to the northern bank but an island blocked his view of that shore. On the Louisville side they passed cargo vessels loading and unloading: George had been unaware of the importance of river commerce and was surprised at the activity.

Now walking forward, the ship navigated a single lock, another new experience. Once clear, they picked up speed for the downstream journey. George wandered from side to side as the scenery changed from urban to rural. With the sun closing on the western horizon, they passed an occasional farming village nestled on the riverbank, but most of the river appeared wild and untamed.

George took a deep, gratifying breath. “How beautiful the world is.”

♦ ♦ ♦

After a morning trip to the dining room, George entered the cabin unsure how he was going to tell Anita. “I’ve got bad news.”

“What?” she said without emotion, still under the covers.

“Remember when the receptionist told us dinner was included?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, breakfast and lunch aren’t. They only serve meals at night.”

“So?”

“They only have formatters.”

“Don’t the glasses work?” she asked as if talking to a child.

“We don’t have any way to think the order.”

She remained silent.

George took a long, slow breath – in and out. “Don’t worry, I’ll figure something out. I just wanted to let you know what was taking so long.”

The desire to ask if she needed anything was strong for George, but having found the fully-automated McStarMart kiosks on board, he knew there was little chance of buying anything on the vessel without a real Informateur. The feeling of helplessness crawled up his spine.

Someone tapped so gently on the door that George was unsure if it was even intentional. He stood still, listening, unable to decide if he should ask permission to open the door or just assume it was accidental. The rapping repeated, this time slightly more insistent.

“Is it okay…?” he asked Anita.

She nodded and adjusted the blanket. Certain she was covered, he opened the door. No one was there. He looked left – nothing. Right, someone strode down the corridor. Deciding to catch the person up, he tripped over a large, wrapped basket resting in the doorway. George righted it. A card dangled from the handle. The person disappeared around the corner nearest the stairs.

He picked up the basket and read the card. “From Nick.” Closing the door, he set the basket on the bed. Anita propped herself up in the corner and together they examined the contents in the dim light from the closet: apples, pears, a bag of peanuts, a bag of Appalachian Trail Gallimaufry, a wheel of cheese, a package of Lembas brand hard tack, and two jars. The larger was labeled “Taweret’s Evening Supplement;” the smaller, “Garbharakshambika’s Morning Comfort.” He set the jars next to Anita and said, “I’m guessing these are for you.”

George watched as she opened a piece of cardboard much like the other two they had received. She read it and passed it to him without comment. “Beware of hucksters. Find Sid & Mary after church. Where Samuel played.”

“I’m going to need to think about this,” he said.

♦ ♦ ♦

With the sun high overhead on the second day, the Harmonie left Evansville cruising towards Paducah, the final Ohio River stop before the riverboat headed upstream on the Mississippi. Anita had enjoyed a bit of relaxation on the sun deck before returning to the cabin to get ready for dinner.

“I’m feeling much better.” She tried to reassure George as they walked down the corridor and approached a staircase. She appreciated his reserved concern for her welfare. While he entertained himself on the boat, she had plenty of time to rest. “So where did you find a swimsuit?” she asked.

“We are going to have dinner with them. They’re a nice, older couple. From Indianapolis,” George explained. “They were visiting their grandchildren in Pittsburgh and are enjoying the cruise to Saint Louis before heading home.”

She nodded and thought it would be pleasurable to meet someone new.

As they descended the stairs into the main deck’s grand salon, George waved to a grey-haired couple chatting as they sat on a wood-frame sofa with leather cushions. “There they are.”

“Samuel and Elizabeth Scordato, I’d like you to meet my,” George swallowed, “wife Anita.”

The three exchanged handshakes and how-d’ye-dos before Samuel suggested they find a table in the stylishly sensible dining room. Most tables sat four, and after a short wait the host guided them to a table. As the men pulled out the women’s chairs, the host said, “For the starting course, we have spring salad greens with beets, asparagus, and a light blue cheese or berry vinaigrette dressing or a Creole vegetable soup.” The ladies ordered salads; the gentlemen, soup. Samuel also requested a bottle of Amelia Vineyards Pink Catabwa Spumante.

“George tells me you were visiting the grandkids in Pittsburgh,” Anita said to get the conversation rolling.

Elizabeth’s lips smiled, but Anita saw sadness in her eyes. “Yes, it was wonderful to spend a couple weeks with them.”

“How old are they?” asked Anita.

“Jacob’s nine and Sophia’s six. I was just heartbroken three years ago when De Authoriteit transferred our daughter-in-law to Pittsburgh. She manages the regional facilities office there. Our son’s a lawyer.”

George joined the conversation. “Are you on an extended vacation?”

Anita admired his tact.

“No,” answered Samuel. “I sold my interest in a market stall about a year after the kids moved. Lizzie retired from teaching in December.”

“I taught third grade for thirty-five years,” Elizabeth said. “Can you believe that?”

“That is quite an accomplishment.” Anita smiled.

“And what do you do?” Anita understood that the older woman asked of both of them.

“George is an accountant…” started Anita.

“Financial auditor actually,” he corrected.

“And I’m a seamstress.” Anita had never really said that before. It seemed odd, overstated. “But I also love to garden.”

The retirees nodded in approval as a waiter brought the soups and salads. He was followed by two other servers. The first brought four champagne flutes; the second, a silver champagne bucket stand with a bottle inside. She placed the bucket stand to Samuel’s right, wrapped a towel around the bottle, removed the foil and wire cage, and popped the cork with a flick of her wrist. She set the cork in front of Samuel – he didn’t reach for it – and then poured a taste in his glass.

“You’re supposed to taste it, honey. Remember?” said his wife.

He did. “Mmmm. That’s the stuff.”

From the corner of her eye, Anita saw George fight back a grin as the wine stewardess poured some of the fizzy, rose-colored liquid into Elizabeth’s glass. The stewardess then walked around the table to Anita’s glass.

Anita held up a hand. “I’m not drinking.”

“Neither are we!” Elizabeth’s smile was kind. “It’s nonalcoholic, so there’s no worry.”

“Then I’d love to try some,” Anita said, nodding to the stewardess.

After the juice was poured the quartet raised their glasses for Samuel’s toast, “To safe passages and new friends.”

Anita sipped the bubbling liquid. “This is really nice. The flavor’s different from champagne, but it’s quite festive. Thank you.” She looked at George. He nodded but his expression was merely polite.

Over soup and salad the conversation returned to the grandchildren. In mid-sentence Samuel dropped his fork. All around the room glasses tumbled over. Metal hit china. People screamed, cried out. A peaceful dinner remade in shock and horror.

Anita looked to George. His eyes were wide; his posture, stiff. She was gripped by a sense something terrible was happening. The rest of the room suffered in knowledge. George twisted left and right. Anita hated not understanding what was wrong. She reached for George’s hand: to steady him and find her own courage.

“Our home!” Elizabeth started to cry.

“They don’t know anything real yet. Don’t get worked up Lizzie. Our house is some distance from the train station.”

“Never dreamed I’d say this,” she said through violent sobs. “But I’m glad the kids moved. They’re safe. Why Indianapolis? Why would they bomb Indianapolis?”

♦ ♦ ♦