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Night 2, Somewhere in the Caribbean -The revelers traded fruity rum smiles in the moon glamour, the captain having ordered the deck lights set just bright enough to reduce the risk of anyone else falling overboard. The band played ABBA! Billybird and I belted out “Dancing Queen,” just as off-key as we had back in high school. We gyrated between the slower stiffs, also dodging a sparkly disco dolphin statue that suddenly appeared in our path. No one else registered. The world didn’t care about us, and we didn’t care about the world. It was just me and my dancing queen with speckled blue eyes like Robin’s eggs, who’d been my partner in life these past forty-seven years.

     Back at the table, I washed the pill down with the last of my Bahama Mama. Billybird was on her second Sex on the Beach. We had opted for the bottomless drink package, and it was about to pay off! Heh heh heh. Timing was the tricky part, if I wanted to be my libidinous old self. At dinner, I’d gone back for seconds on the Pappardelle with Braised Lamb, so the blue pill would take a little longer to kick in. This forced me to concentrate on seduction and foreplay, which was not my trademark back in the day. Not that Billybird ever complained.

     That was before the kids and the house and the business and all that crap trapped us. That was over, thank goodness. Gone. Forgotten. “This is our time. No strings. No cares,” I whispered in her ear during a lewdly overlong embrace. “Hmm. No strap?”

     “No bra,” she purred.

     “You vixen!”

     To ensure everything went according to my devilishly clever plan, I suggested a stop in the casino. “Fine, but we quit if we lose fifty dollars!” Still a hottie and a high roller to boot, my sweet Billybird. We lost a hundred bucks in twenty minutes. Slots were so damn confusing these days; it was like playing against a one-armed computer. On a stool in front of one of the hungry machines sat a little statue of a skid row bum, his pants pockets turned out, a last token clutched in his desperate hand headed for the slot. Cute. Anyway, my timetable of love was going well.

     On the way back to our cabin, we passed an elderly couple who’d stopped one of the attendants. The wife politely asked why the Wi-Fi wasn’t working. Her bellicose husband, a prune-faced man in enormous glasses, immediately began berating the hapless attendant with a complaint of his own. “I asked for an extra pillow for each of us this morning. In our cabin, I count four pillows. That’s two each. I checked the brochure, and there’s clearly a picture of a double bed with four pillows. Four is not extra! Six is extra! Don’t they teach math where you people come from?”

     “I have no use for people like that,” Billybird whispered to me, phrasing it gentler than I would have. She and I had found the service aboard the Lusca superlative.

     As we walked on, I said, “If I ever get that old and crotchety, just shoot me.”

     She mimed a finger gun, dropped her thumb, and said, “Pow!” We both enjoyed her loving shot at my ego.

     Our fellow passengers were indeed oldsters, retirees like Billybird and me. Living in Boca, forgotten by the world. Many might have been street folks by the looks of them, scraggly, emaciated. Ah well, the ship’s round-the-clock galley would put some meat on their bones. As for me, my bones were already getting lost. Ha!

     We all had one thing in common: a brush with good luck. One day, a polite man brought an envelope to our door with two all-expense-paid tickets, courtesy of our favorite snack food company. We were booked aboard the Lusca, due to depart the Port of Miami two weeks later with 6,000 lucky souls aboard. I asked Billybird when she had entered the Knackered Crackers contest. She looked back at me and said, “I thought you entered.”

     Well, one of us had. We were both fiends when it came to snacking on KC crunchies. The label featured a tubby little man in colonial clothes passed out from wolfing down too many of the crackers. Underneath was the slogan: Conjured up with Island Magic. No lie. Damn, they were addictive.

     The good news was that the guy in the Coke-bottle glasses hadn’t ruined the mood. Billybird was the giggly schoolgirl I fell in love with. After our first round of lovemaking, she suggested we do the ice cube trick, something we saw in a naughty movie long ago. I was naked – nekkid, as Lewis Grizzard used to say – so I grabbed the comp terrycloth robe to cover my shame. Ha! Out I ventured.

     The lights were down by half at that point, which was a nice touch, but it caused me to stub my big toe on a three-foot man blocking the ice machine. It was a near-sighted troll wearing comically thick glasses. The twisted little man’s mouth was frozen in an Oh! expression as if he’d just gotten the biggest surprise of his life. The crew loved to plop these deck ornaments at random all over the ship, though they were careful not to let anyone see them do it. Every time I turned around, there was a pint-sized astronaut in full moon suit waving up at me, or a collie in a Hawaiian shirt riding the elevator, or an obese dragon inviting me to share the hot tub. The figurines were a hoot! Billybird and I loved them.  

     I got back to the cabin with a full ice bucket and frosty intentions. Billybird, however, had faded. Bless her. I was fairly worn-out myself, ready for a few hours of well-earned oblivion.  

     Setting the bucket aside, I knelt by the bed. It had been years and years, but give the voodoo vendors their due; kneeling felt right. I cleared my mind and allowed the gratitude to well up inside me. I prayed. “Thank you, God, for Billybird and our time together. Thank you for my health. Sorry about the extra lbs.” I patted my stomach. “Thank you for this wonderful cruise and for the all-night cafes and bars. Amen.”

Day 3 – The long lines of the first day at sea had happily thinned, so it was a snap to get through the gluttony-scented breakfast buffet. Eggs, pancakes, Belgian Waffles, breakfast pastries and sweet dark breads, breakfast meats, cereal, yogurt and fresh citrus – and who could resist an 8am indulgence of chocolate fondue? The wily confectioners had added a heady liqueur that made me forget the hour. Time was something for people who had people to answer to. It was just my Billybird and me on this big ship plying lazy circles in the warm ocean.

     The ship itself was a marvel. Gone were the water slides and animators dressed as cartoon characters. Instead, KC Cruise Lines geared its indulgences to seniors. A dozen hot tubs. Pop-up contests of Murder She Wrote and Matlock-themed trivia. There were special spas that came with seminars showcasing all sorts of lotions and pills to “pamper the flesh and bring out life’s robust flavor” – so read the poster when I dropped Billybird off.

     “Go play,” she said, “but no more sweets before dinner. You’re on vacation, but your high cholesterol is working overtime.”

     She was right. Exercise was just the remedy for rich cuisine.

     I decided to indulge my landlubber’s fascination with ships and explore, beginning with the upper decks. The bridge extended its reach both port and starboard, resembling the face of a hammerhead shark. On the port walkway, I dared to press my face against the darkly tinted glass. My nose squeaked and left a smear of sunscreen on the window, but I still couldn’t make out any movement inside.

     “I’m afraid that’s one of our restricted areas,” said a white officer who was suddenly standing behind me. I mean his uniform was crisp and white with glittering bits of flair added on. What really set him apart from the passengers, though, was his complexion. For someone who served on a cruise ship, he looked like he never got out in the sun. He also had stark white hair and the whitest, most perfect teeth of anyone I’d ever seen, as if he’d never tasted sugar in his life.

     “Oh, I didn’t know. You should post a sign.”

     He pointed to a big yellow sign that read “Restricted Area – Crew Only.”

     “Oh.” I smile sheepishly. The officer’s eyes crinkled at the edges as his grin presented those perfect teeth. How did that song go? …and he keeps them pearly white!

     “I checked, but I don’t see any tours of the ship.”

     “No, it’s part of our efficiency program.”

     Another crew member stepped out from behind the white officer, almost as if she’d peeled away from him. She said, “You’d be surprised at all that our superiors back at New Rose Hall expect from us during each cruise. We work day and night like sla –”

     She stopped abruptly when the white officer cleared his throat. “We are well compensated for our labors,” he said. “This posting offers the chance to see beyond the confines of New Rose Hall.” The woman demurred. Without missing a beat, the white officer turned back to me. “As to your inquiry, while we cannot accommodate onboard tours, Annie will be happy to escort you wherever you’d like to go.”

     “Please come with me.” Annie motioned for me to follow her to a flight of stairs, and I started to go.

     “Mind your step. We’ve had enough sudden departures,” the officer said.

     I stopped. His comment sparked a thought that was both nothing at all and important at the same time. “Yes, the accidents,” I said, blinking at the bright sunlight. “Is it normal to lose so many on one trip?”

     “It’s these waters. They do strange things. The islands can be quite disorienting to outsiders – which is why we don’t make any stops on this cruise. KC only hires natives. Rest assured, the Lusca’s officers and crew possess local skills.”

     It was true. The crew consisted of natives of a single isle. They looked a lot alike: slender frame, pale as hell. Their grammar was polished to a fault, though it still held the lilt of some Brit/French/Spanish/Portuguese/Whatever accent.

     “Yes, but so many people going overboard…” I persisted, though I didn’t mean to make a fuss.

     The white officer had the most ingratiating presence, calming, very calming. “It was all explained in the brochure,” he said. That was Billybird’s department. She read brochures and statements and overdue payment notices. I read books. Thick books with big words in them. I stood for a moment, trying to think of another query for the white officer.

     “Drink?” I turned to face Annie. She handed me an 80-ounce mug shaped like a winsome siren, festooned with hibiscus blossoms. “It’s got rum and triple sec!” What was I to do. I took it, and, by the way, it was delicious.

     Yes, what the white officer said… had said… about… that thing… It all made sense, now that he mentioned it.

     “Again, please be careful,” he said in his soothing voice. “We’ve already had more than we can handle, really.”

     I assured him I would be careful. With that, the white officer slipped through a hatch I hadn’t noticed earlier. It closed silently behind him as if it were made of paper rather than steel.

     I went with Annie. If anything, the girl was even fairer than the white officer, and wore her platinum blonde hair loose so it whipped about in the salty breeze. It was as if she were made of some ethereal stuff that might at any moment spontaneously combust in the stark sunlight.

     “The cruise makes for a fine distraction from the doldrums, don’t you think?” she asked as we climbed a flight of steps. She appeared to be no more than twenty-two, so it seemed incongruous to hear her use a word like ‘doldrums.’ Old farts used words like ‘doldrums’… and ‘incongruous.’

     “It’s for my wife. She’s been moping around since we retired. Losing the Cup and Chaucer – that was our bookstore – took something out of her. I figured we’d have lots of friends and family visiting us in Boca, more than I’d ever want to deal with, but it hasn’t turned out that way. We’ve gone invisible as far as everyone is concerned.” I was getting way too chatty. Good drink! “I’m fine. I have a cute wife who packs for me and plans for me, and that’s enough. My Wilhelmina is a social bird. At least she used to be. This cruise is for her. Give her a chance to mingle again. Me, I love the food and the sea air, but I’m just as happy being a bum at home.”

     Annie took me up to the Sun Deck. There, she fiddled with my phone and took a few pictures of me in my tropical Tommy Bahama shirt. I stood under the ship’s distinctive second stack as a thick plume of dark gritty smoke trailed off in the strong breeze. KC was the only line I knew of whose ships had two swept back stacks. Each ship of the line was configured differently. On the Lusca, the second stack was made to look as though the ship was under attack by a great big red sharktopus! At any moment, those arms might encircle me and toss me into its toothsome maw. I’d certainly make a full meal for the old bugger. Ha!

     I bid Annie adieu. She bowed, giggled, and scurried off to whatever task awaited her.

     Beyond the rail, the blue Caribbean slid past. I breathed in the salt and the warmth and… something dark and fetid. There were things in the water. Ugly brown flotsam. Probably from the other cruise ships plying this route. People were such slobs; they dropped their mess anywhere. Yes, I’d read the news reports. The Earth couldn’t take much more. But what was I supposed to do? I was retired. Someone younger, fresher would figure out what to do with the stupid people and all their mess. Anyway, I was on vacation. No ugly thoughts!     

     Cholesterol be damned! It was wine o’clock. I nearly tripped over an adorable gnome at the entrance to the Zany Zombie bar on the Lido Deck. Okay, I shouldn’t have been imbibing so much, but it felt so good. Something about the pungent fruity drinks combined with ocean air made me feel as though I hadn’t a worry in the world. I seriously could not remember a single earthly concern. It was bliss. Besides, Billybird wasn’t keeping count, and this was our anniversary cruise, after all. Just three more years, baby. Just wait. Retirement budget be damned, I’ll take you round the world for our Golden Anniversary. Or maybe we’ll sail to Alaska and see the whales, before they’re all gone.

     “We love this ship,” said a distinguished-looking man who wore a yacht club commodore’s jacket complete with family crest on the pocket, plus spotless white slacks. He motioned to a handsome silver-haired woman at a nearby table. She wore a tight pink t-shirt displaying an upside-down pineapple. The garment barely restrained a proud double investment. “Helene and I, that is.”

     “Yes, this is one of the best cruises Wilhel— Billybird and I have ever taken,” I answered neutrally, hoping to avoid getting stuck in a dull conversation with a stranger.

     “Helene and I noticed you two on the dance floor. You’re such a lovely couple, so full of life. Not like most of the walking cadavers on this ship. You two are… special.” His wife, Helene, raised her glass of fruit wedges and pink liquid and smiled.

     The penny balanced on the edge. “Um, thank you. I…”

     Helene stepped over to join her husband, grasping the commodore’s arm the way couples did when they first started dating. She said, “We were wondering whether you’d like to get together later for drinks and whatever.”

     What whatever did she mean? I had a pretty good idea, but…

     Billybird joined us. She and Helene exchanged pleasantries. We learned the couple had made a mint through day trading in the Nineties.

     “Long-Term Capital Management.” Helene tossed it off as if there were something inherently funny about it. “Got out just in time, thanks to a tip from a little bird.”

     “We had a bookstore. Got out a year too late,” Billybird said, a little too calmly. “Amazon ate us alive.”

     “We survived. We live a quiet life now,” I added. “No kids, no worries. It’s nice, right baby?” I pulled Billybird close. The four of us now looked like a double date to the prom.

     “Boring but nice,” Billybird said.

     “Well, maybe you’d like to relieve the boredom a little,” Helene suggested, glancing over the top of her fruit collection with a nefarious glint in her eye.

     “Adventure on the high seas, right, old man?” the commodore added with a ribald chuckle. The balancing penny dropped with a ten-ton thud.

     Billybird, bless her, was way ahead of me. “We’re not much for the pirate’s life. Boring is nice, when you have someone special.”

     My savvy Billybird took over the conversation, navigating us around carnal waters. We shared a table with the pair as well as a couple of rounds plus some small talk, but we did not share key cards. The commodore and Helene went away, feelings unhurt.

     I told Billybird, “You’re my hero.”

     We sipped our latest drinks, stared out at the water, and let the world slip away.

     That night, Billybird and I took in the all-star review. The all-star turned out to be singular. He was a singer who’d had a hit when I was still in my thirties. “Once you’re famous, it’s forever,” I told Billybird. “The rest of us barely exist.”

     He sang his one hit, an earworm for people of a certain age. Then, he covered James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne, basically the standard old fogie songbook. He wasn’t bad, but not terribly memorable.

     We got back to the cabin late. The drinks and the long hours were finally catching up to me. I don’t even remember stretching out on the bed.

     I drifted in an achingly white expanse. Dancing filaments appeared and drew closer, spinning and wrapping silky threads around my limbs and my face tighter and tighter until I was safely inside a warm cocoon. There I was, alone, happy, god of my own little dominion. I wanted to stay, but eventually, this phantom womb chose to expel me back into the waking world.

Day 5 – The sun had already climbed above my porthole when I awoke.

     It was odd coming out of the shower naked and finding a new towel critter waiting on the bed, a solitary swan with the most piercing blue eyes stuck on. I grabbed a terrycloth wing and yanked. As the towel flew open, the plastic bits rolled off it and across the countertop. One bumped up against the lamp, then its mate came to rest, still perfectly paired and staring up at me. Light blue and speckled, like a bird’s egg. So pretty.

       I looked at my book. I didn’t remember finishing it, but got the odd sense I had. Ruffling through my suitcase, I realized I hadn’t packed a second vacation tome like I usually did. Foolish of me. So, I went to the ship’s surprisingly well-stocked library. I chose two books, an Umberto Eco I’d been meaning to reread and a history of the Peloponnesian War. Then I set them down in favor of a third book that seemed to pair better with rum, a sleazy paperback by that guy who wrote mysteries that were in fact thinly veiled porn. Guilty pleasure, but hey, I had no one to answer to.

       The day flew by. I read, hit the sauna, checked out the art gallery – lacquered newspaper clippings in the shapes of ballerinas, some minimalist stuff I never understood, and, just like in every gallery everywhere, black-and-white photos of sweaty nude men. Someone bought that stuff, I guess. There were a few people wandering around aimlessly, looking lost and dazed. I knew the feeling. I had the kind of buzz that would be going strong for days. Still, this was a vacation. No recriminations. I availed myself of a couple of shots set up on a table in the middle of the gallery.

     That night, I walked out on the comic at the Yuk Yuks bar. One thing held true across all oceans: shipboard comics were not funny.

     On to Calico Jack’s Theater. The stage review was completely new from the night before – show tunes and pop songs combined. It was fun, but I wished I had someone to share it with. Several of the performers dancing under the red and gold lights looked familiar. One was Annie. Another had served me prime rib for dinner an hour earlier. The performers were there belting out songs and dancing in time to the music. How they found the energy to work all day and dance all night, I’ll never know. A fresh drink appeared on the table before me. I sipped it and enjoyed the show.


Day 7, Port of Miami - The trip had been magnificent.

     The disembarkation itself took no time at all. I joined the exodus on H Deck, the line forming parallel to a stationary parade of merry carousel animals in pastel visors, flip flops, and gold wristwatches – the crew had added them as a sort of bon voyage wish.

     At the gangway, Helene slipped me her card with a sly wink. Turns out she lived less than an hour away. Did I want to hook up? I wasn’t sure. Something held me back. Maybe I was just too damn old and boring to chase that bliss. I wished her well, and Helene headed off smiling like a pirate queen. She wouldn’t be alone for long.

     I had only the one suitcase and no souvenirs except for a pair of novelty eyeballs. I gave props to the crew for deboarding nearly 3,000 people so smoothly. The only hiccup was that security zapped my phone. It must have been one of their X-ray scanner thingies. All I know is when I looked, all my pictures were gone. No cruise memories to share – not that anyone cared besides me.

     Carrying my luggage and my complimentary jumbo bag of KCs, I headed home tanned, heavier, happier, and more relaxed than I could ever remember. Ready to head back to dull, bachelor retirement.

     Yes, it had been a perfect trip, a destination-free voyage of a lifetime.

Boca Raton - I sit in my oversized home. I should really get a smaller place; who needs a two-car garage and all these empty closets? Thinking back on the trip, I get a certain twinge, something under the skin I can’t quite scratch. Something different or something missing.

     The house is quiet, betraying the musty, mediciny whiff of impending old age. There’s no danger of anyone dropping by. So be it. This is how things are. This is my life now.

     I shuffle through the mail and email. Alas, no new offers from KC. I run through my morning routine: picking my shed clothes up off the floor, mentally planning the day’s meals, and pretending to straighten my jumbled bookshelves. I try to read, but Ulysses lolls in my hands, a Sargasso Sea of words and words and words. I put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Odd, the plates and bowls are stacked front-to-back. I always stack them side-to-side, the correct way. My hand hesitates, hovers for some reason before I begin rearranging the plates while whistling a silly disco song. My head’s sprung a leak, and all the lyrics have spilled out, but the melody makes me feel young.

     Things go on like this for a few more days. Every 24 hours, I curse my shaving mirror for being so repetitive and boring. How many times must I clip my ear hair, for God’s sake? What’s the point?

     After a week back home, I finally inform the spider plant on the patio, “This is ridiculous!” I pick up my phone and find the number. Apologizing to the hanging greenery, I say, “I’m not sure if I can get a plant sitter during a long cruise. Sorry, but this may be curtains for you, Spidey.”

     The ringtone briefly plays steel drum music. Surprisingly, an alluring voice comes on after a few seconds. “KC Cruise Lines. May we serve you?” Her voice is clear, soothing, with that unplaceable accent I remember from the ship.

     I practically stammer out, “Y-yes, I’m ready for another cruise.”

     “We’re delighted to have second-voyagers. They’re well-seasoned. The experience becomes richer, sweeter.”

     Rushing over to the computer, I call up my balance. Then, I guestimate what I can get for the house. If I lowball myself a few thousand, I can dump it fast. Finally, I tell the nice young lady a number. “How far will that get me?”

     Her rhapsodic voice fills me with euphoria. She says, “We’ll take you all the way.”


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