Green Hills Literary Lantern
Men At Sea

    As a boy I crossed the Atlantic with my uncle on the SS Constitution, where we shared an expensive but cramped cabin on the Sun Deck.  Bound for Genoa, the ship would be our home for nearly a week.  With my bed unfolding from the wall, and my uncle’s sofa flattening to a twin, there existed at night a scant aisle through which we could pass to the tiny deco bath.  I had traveled with Uncle T. once before, but not on a luxurious ship like this one.  I thought he must surely be one of the richest men in the world.  Uncle’s colognes and talcs crowded the small vanity inside the stateroom door, while my toy soldiers and coloring books littered the floor. 

    Amid the combatants of this tiny war were strewn articles that belonged to both of us: a black pair of my uncle's swim trunks, an ox blood sandal of mine that lay capsized with little soldiers clambering up the heel.  I certainly was not tidy, but Uncle T. made a show, he always made a show of being impeccable. 

    “Dane Paul Adriane,” my uncle said the first morning out, “I’m going to break my fucking neck if you don’t keep these little men tucked away in your bed.” 

    “No room,” I said, folding the bed into the wall and watching the little men fall out the side.  “See!” I said.  And my uncle put his hands to his cheeks in mock perplexity.

    Over his head, my uncle spritzed some Pino Sylvestre, a tonic used to augment a physical plant that included biceps hard as baguettes, a stomach so flat it was unnatural, and thighs as plump as elephant legs.  At least they appeared that way to me, a thin and retiring child who turned ten that summer of 1958.  I primped in each mirror I passed, admiring my sunglasses with gold glitter embedded in plastic, tossing my head with the auburn hair my uncle had paid to have shaped into a Fabian cut the minute we left the slip in New York.  To please my uncle, I kept it neat, combing the ducktails to perfection, but I thought I looked rather silly.

    Following a late lunch, uncle said he wished to take a nap.  I then collected my favorite soldiers, a general and a private, and Theodore Rex Adriane shooed me out the door to the ship's library.  As a voracious reader, I had perused every book about dinosaurs I could find in Dallas, and I had committed to memory all the salient facts of the major species.  In the darkly panelled room, I located some books with information that was new to me. 

    On the second day out, I thought I was being clever when I asked, “Uncle T. Rex, are you a meat-eater, too?” 

    “Oops, you caught me,” he said, planting his hands on his hips.  His gesture created a secret that thrilled me, even if I didn’t yet know what it was.  When he hugged me, I squealed and squirmed out of his grasp.

    I’m positive T. Rex Adriane, who also wore his hair in a ducktail, was probably the first in America to have had blond highlights struck into his warm brown locks.  They grew whiter each day we were at sea, and, against the skin that became darker, he appeared every bit as handsome as Cary Grant, who starred in the film An Affair to Remember.  Because it had been shot on board the SS Constitution, the movie showed continuously in one of the ship’s four theatres, and we viewed it several times that crossing.  (Uncle T. Rex viewed it; I usually went to sleep against his shoulder, awakened by his sniffling.  It wasn’t till years later that I watched it on cable, finding it quaint and sophisticated, but hardly worth a tear.)  With a forest of hair on his chest, which he showcased beneath a voile shirt, Uncle T. Rex regaled the captain’s table with many a charming tale. 

    Everyone at table laughed as he spoke of his prep school days in North Dallas, his years as a Southern Methodist Kappa Alpha (a fraternity that initiated him by making him streak — before it was called that — along Central Expressway between Mockingbird and Yale), graduate school in New York.  These tales were told with raised eyebrows and made no sense to me, partly because he used the adult shorthand that one employs around little pitchers, but partly because I had no understanding of how much he adored men and what he would do to procure the one he desired.

    In the afternoons, Uncle T. Rex would leave the ship’s newspaper protruding from beneath the door, and as long as it was there, I was not to enter.  It didn't matter.  I had a grand time making acquaintances of my own.  Schoolboys engaged me in shuffleboard or card games like Eights or Concentration; two elderly men indulged me in rounds of Chinese checkers.  They attempted to court my uncle, but though he was polite, Uncle T. Rex never allowed himself to be seen with them if he could help it.  Agents of death, he would mutter. 

    And there was a woman, a Mrs. Boatwright of Newport.  Though I think her name was Vivian, she always introduced herself as Mrs. Boatwright.  Her husband was deceased, yet she still wore a gold band next to a dainty solitaire.  At dinner I watched her eat.  I’d never seen a person who was so adept at using a knife.  It was almost menacing to see her slice off a thin piece of prime rib and hold it near her tongue, which shot out like a lizard’s to grasp its many gifts.  She walked with an ivory cane, though I detected no limp.  And sometimes she stood behind me during a game of Chinese checkers, where she rested her hands on my shoulders.  I was intoxicated by her perfume, which seemed to emit the scent of a new rose. 

    “That may not be the move you wish to make,” she would say, as I picked up a tiny white marble.  How she knew which direction I was going, I never figured out, but I would change my play and win the game against one of the elderlies.  “That’s my boy,” she said.  “See you at dinner, love.” 

    Then she would move out on deck to share tea with her three sisters, all spinsters (she had no problem saying when they were absent).  I think Mrs. Boatwright might have adopted me if she could.  She and her sisters made this trip to Italy every year, and while the sisters ignored me like death, Mrs. Boatwright fussed over my shoes, my clothes, my hair, as if I were a little doll.  I liked it.  My own mother seldom demonstrated affection in this manner.  On the second night out, Mrs. Boatwright was placed in an open spot at our table next to Captain Strombley, far from her sisters, whom you could see complaining bitterly across the room.  If, on occasion, she wasn’t seated adjacent to the captain, she would sit next to me and give me pointers on how to wield a knife as skillfully as she.  Her hair was totally white, but something in her eyes made her seem far younger.  A look of savagery perhaps.

    In spite of this attention, I was often left to my own devices, feeling as if I were one of those ghosts that existed on television, like Topper, who wandered in and out of polite company without being detected.  Because I was dressed in the finery my uncle had purchased for me — an ecru linen jacket with matching shorts and long white socks, and my oxblood sandals  — no one suspected my mother was the widow of T. Rex’s brother.  She waitressed six nights a week to raise my sister and me in a tiny clapboard house west of Dallas Love Field, a house Uncle T. had bought for us when my father died.  My mother was a sad person, as if she'd been born that way and none of us could cheer her up.  Although I missed her, I didn't miss her melancholy.

    In my wanderings I happened upon one of the ship's many bars.  It was a dark, cozy sort of cave, and I could hear someone playing the piano quite proficiently, but it was not classical music, not like I studied at home.  It had the edge of jazz, combined with curlicues of arpeggios that the church pianist used.  I stepped inside, where my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and sat down.  A rotund man, who sat like a blob of Jell-O on the piano bench, was playing “Beyond the Sea,” one of my favorite songs, tinkling his way up and down the entire keyboard quite entertainingly.  When he stopped, he spotted me and struggled over.  He really was quite large. 

    “You shouldn't be in here,” he huffed, sitting across from me, wheezing hard and wiping his brow with a well-worn handkerchief.  “But since you are, can I get you something to drink, like a Coca-Cola or root beer?”

    “No, thank you,” I said.  “Could I play that piano?”

    My teacher had only a spinet in her tiny apartment, and at home I practiced on a cardboard keyboard.  My mother wanted to buy me a real instrument, but she couldn't afford it.  And even though Uncle T. had offered to procure one for me, my mother adamantly refused.  You've done enough for us, Rex, thank you, she would say.

    “Not at all,” the man said, guiding me over to the long, white concert grand.  I sat on the bench, and, barely able to contain my excitement, played some Chopin.  It was the simplest of pieces, one of two preludes I’d learned, Opus 28, I believe.  My fingers remembered where they should go, even though it was a different instrument, and I played the minor chords as if I’d been born knowing them.  The piano emitted deep, rich tones, like a big cat purring, and, since I hadn’t played for weeks, I felt as if something dormant had been unleashed.  I held the last chord with the pedal and finally released my fingers.

    “Very nice,” the big man said, popping a cracker with some cheese into his mouth.  “How long have you played?”  Little crumbs spewed out of his mouth.

    “A couple of years,” I said, running my hands over the keys, where the mingled oils from our hands warmed the keys.

    “My goodness, Chopin after only two years, but I’m not surprised.  Look at those hands.  You have such long fingers for a boy your age.”

    “That's what my teacher says.”

    “I just spotted my boss.  I’d better escort you out,” he said.  “Come back sometime.  I'll teach you a song.”
“Okay,” I said, and skipped out the door.  Playing always left me happy.

* * *

    On the afternoon of the third day, as I had every afternoon, I put on my trunks and found the pool.  The sky was clear and the sun warmed my skin, but it wasn’t really hot like a summer day in Dallas, as the air at sea remained crisp.  I clung to the side of the pool as Olympic hopefuls swam lap after lap, until one muscle-bound god began holding me afloat like a toy, instructing me in the finer points of the backstroke.  His arms felt so strong, held beneath me like a hammock.  For a few moments, I gazed into this young man’s blue eyes and wished he were my daddy, so strong and capable, so warm and available.  To entrust my life to these hands seemed like the most natural thing in the world, until he released me to the bottom of the pool.  Down there, I was not frightened; I knew how to get back to the top, but for a few seconds I stroked the floor of the pool as if I were one of those Mermaid dancers in Florida, as if I lived there all the time.  Then, as I spluttered to the surface, the swimmer grinned and told me to keep practicing.  I shoved water in his face and swam for the ladder, ignoring his laugh.  At that moment, my uncle opened a gate and came onto the pool deck.  I scrambled out of the water to his side, shivering with a thick towel draped over my shoulders.  He handed me my sunglasses, and, putting them on, I grimaced at the young man, who watched us with a certain curiosity.  From a highly varnished chaise, Uncle T. Rex returned the gaze of the one who had let me sink and purred his drink order to a steward. 

    “That man tried to drown me,” I said, pointing.

    “Are you sure?” uncle asked, not perturbed in the least.

    “Well, he did let go of me, and I sank to the bottom.”

    “Sorry about that,” the young man said, splashing over to the side of the pool and resting his chin on his crossed arms, drops of water dangling from his eyelashes.  When my uncle failed to strike up a conversation, the young man swam away, but I sensed a certain agitation of the part of my uncle, as if I’d deprived him of something.

    “Once I walked around in Margaret’s plastic shoes, the ones with the silver straps she got for Christmas, and I broke the heel off.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the little nails in the heel to match up with the little holes in the sole.”

    “Whatever made you think of that?” Uncle T. Rex said, sipping his gin and tonic,  continuing to eye the man in the pool, as if he were a cat patiently waiting to pounce.  I could almost see his tail bang the side of his chaise.

    “No reason.”  I stroked the hair on my uncle’s arm, and he patted my hand.

    My father, who once shook my hand because I had made ten free throws in a row, was now a faint memory.  Put her there, little buddy, he’d said.  The next day I could make only two shots of fifty, and he lost interest.  A year later, he was massacred in a spectacular accident on the Dallas Central Expressway, and, at that point, I lost interest.

    When strangers saw us, they often thought that Uncle T. was my father, but to me, he occupied a class by himself.  He’d always seemed to possess a great deal of money, something my father, uneducated and unambitious, could not have claimed.  When I would visit uncle, staying in the guest room of his penthouse, atop one of the earliest high rises in Dallas, he seemed to be a man of leisure, for he always took time off from his design firm to be with me.  Uncle’s houseboy would arrive at nine and stay until four, and, unlike many servants who were treated by the rich as if they were robots (my uncle told me), Juan was accorded a dignified respect. 

    In turn, Juan slaved to keep the place luminous as if it were a scene from Imitation of Life (another trashy love film my uncle adored).  If Juan reached a point where he didn’t know what to do, he would ask Uncle T., who would always find one more chore.  Under ordinary circumstances, my uncle worked long hours.  He made a great deal of money, yes, but unlike his clients, who had inherited vast buckets of it, he knew from which client he had earned every penny, and he courted them all like royalty.  Each crystal vase, each exotic rug represented great sacrifices of time and effort — sometimes hours on the phone convincing a client to accept a certain color scheme.  And yet, years later I believe the man could have lived on far less and been just as happy — as long as he was in the company of the right man.

    The fourth day out, black clouds engulfed the sky, and the ocean, if you could bear to look, became this series of rolling mountains.  It seemed to me, as I stood at a large window on the promenade deck, that the ship climbed each one and then plummeted downward and rose, over and over again.   In spite of her sheer bulk, the Constitution rocked from front to back, rolled from side to side.  Uncle T. Rex spent the day prone on his studio bed or in close communion with our tiny toilet.  Seasick pills were ineffectual, and meals in the bowels of the ship out of the question.

    “How do you feel, Dane?” he mumbled into his pillow.

    “Fine.” I lay on the carpet, coloring within the lines of a picture of the Constitution.  I had decided the ship should be lavender, and I was almost bored with it.

    “You lucky thing,” Uncle T. said.  “I wish I had your fortitude, your constitution.”

    “What’s that?”

    “I mean that you’re the strong one,” he said, moaning as the Constitution shuddered.  I could hear its steel beams screech deep within.  “You should go out, since I’m sick as sin, and do what you wish.  Live a little.”

    “Like what?” I said, feeling my tongue lodged at the corner of my mouth as I colored the ocean a dark blue and went back over it with black.

    “I don’t know, but I’m sure if you approached one of the stewards, he’d be more than happy to help you.”

    “Am I bothering you?” I asked, finishing my ocean.

    “Ah, Little Dane, you’re so funny sometimes.”  In a few minutes he was snoring, and I grabbed a navy windbreaker and locked the door behind me. 

    Trying to swim or play shuffleboard seemed futile, so I climbed and descended the corridors that made me feel like I was in a fun house.  As the ship tilted, I would run headlong downhill, and, as it pointed the opposite direction, I climbed upward.  I knew I could read in almost any position, uphill or down, because I did it at home all the time, so I headed for the library. 

    Upon entering that cozy room, I realized I had become weary of dinosaurs.  Once you had memorized the various species and all their vital statistics, the information either became repetitious or too difficult.  Some of the books jiggled side to side, but thick glassed cases were snapped tight to keep the volumes from tumbling to the floor.  I scanned the non-fiction section and found several titles on the Titanic.  I carried them to a smooth leather chair that engulfed me. 

    This interest in a major disaster came to me naturally since my father had perished in one where his car was split in two by a large truck.  Mother didn’t realize it, but I had perused every clipping on his death, staring over and over again at the UPI photo of my father’s bare leg dangling from the wreckage.  But also an article in Reader’s Digest about the Hindenburg had fascinated me for months, that fiery skeleton falling to earth like a crumbling cucumber.  And when the Andrea Dorea had gone down a couple of years before, I devoured everything I could find.  It gave me a perverse thrill to think that a famous actress like Ruth Roman had been aboard that ship.  The idea of extraordinary people (if the rich were extraordinary) fighting against extraordinary odds, and some of them surviving, captivated me.  Or, as in the case of the Titanic, hundreds of steerage poor perishing at sea made me wonder what I would do if faced with impending death. 

    I began to study a large book with cutaway diagrams and photographs.  I tried to read the text but didn’t understand a lot of the technical argot, so I studied the pictures.  How large the shell of that ship looked next to the hundreds of tiny men who assembled her with nuts and bolts!  The splash it made when put to sea!  I released a great sigh as my chair seemed to slide a bit with the ship’s lurch.

    “My grandmother was aboard that ship,” came a voice over my shoulder.
I looked up.  It was Randall.  He and his sister dined at our table, too.  Mrs. Boatwright and he sometimes exchanged terse comments, which always seemed to be about manners or movies or how good or bad the weather was.  Quickly, he sat on the ottoman, nudging his legs between mine.  I couldn’t take my eye off the large pimple in the center of his forehead, a dried clot of blood that brought to mind an Indian princess with a red jewel embedded in her skin.

    “Hello, Master Adriane,” he said.  My legs fitted like teeth of geared wheels between Randall’s knees, which he didn’t seem to mind.  I watched him worry that pimple with his finger, staining the tip of his fingernail with blood before sticking it in his mouth.  “Enjoying this book, are you?”

    “Oh, yes,” I said.  Rather formally Randall extended his hand, still damp with saliva.  He didn’t squeeze mine, which I found nice, and we shook hands. 

    “Grandmamah is one of the few hundred who survived.”

    “Does she talk about it?”

    “I’m afraid not.”

    “Do you ask her?”

    “Oh, my, yes.”  He shifted to the overstuffed arm of my chair, and though I had heard Randall speak at table, it suddenly hit me that he was British.  It made me shiver to think how different he was from me, and yet we were chatting like old acquaintances.  “But she is not forthcoming about what happened.”

    “Maybe it was too harrowing,” I said, trying out a word I’d gleaned from my disaster literature.

    “Aren’t you traveling with your uncle?” he asked me.


    “He and I had tea one afternoon.” 

    I paged through the scratched photos taken in 1912 until Randall placed a hand over mine.  I stared up at him. 

    “Look at that suite.  It’s so large, unlike the cubicles on this tub.”

    I laughed.  “Uncle Rex keeps griping about how my little men take up too much room.”

    “I should say . . . he had to kick the tiny buggers out of his path on the way to the loo.  You were out, I believe . . . the other afternoon . . . when he and I had tea.”

    “He’s sick today,” I said, making waves with my hands and pooching my cheeks as if I were about to vomit.  I loved mugging; it always made my sister laugh.

    “Aren’t you the least bit ill?” he asked.  I shook my head.  “Nor I.  I’ve been making this voyage for at least ten years now.  It’s complicated.  Mumsy lives in New York, father in Italy.  Anyway . . . takes more than this to make me toss me scones.”  He laughed and placed his arm around my shoulder.  Randall’s aroma of sandalwood and tobacco made me long for my father or someone like my father, someone who would laugh with me, help me with my homework, teach me all the things a boy should know.

    “I left an expensive scarf in your stateroom,” Randall said, caressing my neck, “and I must retrieve it or Irma will have a fit.  Have you a key?”

    “No, Uncle T. always takes it, so I won’t interrupt him, but wait.”  I removed the key from my pocket, as if it were a magic bunny, and Randall won it from my hand.  My neck still prickled where he had fondled me, and I was puzzled.  Yes, a burgundy scarf did hang from the mirror over the vanity, but it belonged to my uncle.  On behalf of my mother, I had given it to him myself.  And I knew for a fact what my mother had paid, and it was far from expensive.  Perhaps he meant a different scarf.

    “Let’s stop by,” he suggested. 

    “Nope,” I said, lunging for my key.  “We might wake him.”

    “He won’t even know we’re there.”  He tousled my hair and made a game of holding the key out of my reach as I grabbed for it.  Giggling each time he jerked it away, I also felt a certain desperation to get it back.
To keep from falling, the two us grasped the rails attached to the corridor walls and rode the lift to the Sun Deck, where we staggered some more.  Wobbling along the floor and giggling whenever one of us hit the wall too hard, we came upon my uncle’s stateroom.

    “Let me knock first,” I said.  “And then I’ll unlock it.”

    “Certainly,” Randall said, standing behind me, his hand planted on my shoulder.
I tapped lightly, then harder.  No one answered, so Randall reached around me and slipped the key into the lock. 

    “Wait!” I said, noting the ship’s paper, but Randall had already pushed open the door.

    The steward had straightened the room, raising my bed into the wall, but my eye fell to the studio, where four bronzed legs became a sculpture.  To his credit, Uncle T. kept his composure, pulling the sheet over the two of them.  “You forgot our little signal,” he sang out.  His companion had drawn a pillow over his head with a hand that was tattooed with a faint red rose, and I studied it.  Why, I wondered, would anyone want a rose tinctured upon his skin, especially if it would later wither to the shape of a cabbage, like the rose tattoo on the arm of my grandfather, the one who lived out west?

    As we fell into the room, Randall began to laugh into the higher registers of his voice.  With a crazed expression, he waltzed over and snatched the wine-colored scarf from the vanity mirror. 

    “I always appropriate one souvenir,” he said to my uncle. “Do you mind, love?” He wrapped the scarf tightly around one hand.

    “Hell, no, just take it and get out.  Dane, I’ll see you later.”

    So this is what uncle did behind closed doors; he took naps with men we hardly knew?  I was somewhat peeved that Uncle T. was giving away our scarf, the one my mother had slung hash to pay for, but since it seemed to mean more to Randall than my uncle, I let it go.  I could feel the lilt of the ship pass from my left to my right foot, and it reminded me of balancing myself on a seesaw.

    “I need money,” I said.

    “Take what you need and go.” Uncle T. pulled the sheet higher so that it covered both his head and his companion’s. 

    “One moment, please,” Randall said, pushing past me, standing over the two supine men.  “Am I not due more than this?” he said, sniffing the scarf. 

    Uncle T. groaned, and I could hear his voice filter through the pillow.  Go now and we’ll talk about it later

    Unsure of what was happening, I tripped over and slipped a bill from the back of my uncle’s wallet.  Cologne bottles tinkled against the raised edge of the vanity, as our mother ship rolled once again.

    “Wait, little one,” Randall said, “allow me to accompany you.”  He left uncle’s door ajar and caught up with me, both of us bouncing from one side of the corridor to the other.  It was not as hilarious as before.  I turned and saw that uncle was standing at the door with the sheet wrapped around him.

    “If you touch him, I’ll kill you,” my uncle shouted. 

    Randall waved without looking back, and I laughed, wondering why uncle was so upset.  Randall may have been devious, but at least he hadn’t tried to drown me.  He wasn’t hiding his head under a pillow like the mystery man in bed with my uncle.

* * *

    Objects in the duty-free shop diverted my thoughts, and Randall shuffled his feet among the narrow aisles as he huddled me close.  I gasped when I discovered I’d nabbed a fifty, unaware that such a large bill existed.  “Is this real?” I asked, and Randall raised his eyebrows, letting me go.  My eyes scanned the shelves of amber liquor and Scottish sweaters, but when I sighted a model of the Constitution suspended in a bottle, I cried out and took it to the register.  I purchased for my sister Margaret a large stuffed lion, one with a long mane that she could comb and braid for hours.  For my mother, I found a gold locket with a space for a photograph (I later placed there a tiny one the ship’s photographer made).  And for Uncle T. Rex, I bought a leather-bound calendar, the kind that scheduled each hour of the day.  When I had finished shopping, Randall helped by carrying the lion back to my uncle’s room, dropping it next to the door where it reigned as a floppy sentry. 

    “It’s stopped!” Randall said, leaning against the corridor wall. 

    “What?” I said.

    “Don’t you feel it?  The storm has passed.” 

    Yes, my legs had quit fighting the imbalance of things.  For a moment Randall stood quietly.  We stared at one another, and then he placed the key in my hand and walked away. 

    “I would have liked you to visit my room, little boy, but it’s too late now to play.”  He laughed devilishly, flinging the burgundy scarf over his shoulder. 

    I remember such a mixture of emotions: relief that the ship had stopped rocking; anger over the cavalier treatment of that scarf; puzzlement at Randall’s mysterious departure; anxiety about invading my uncle’s privacy; oh, and a pervasive fear of abandonment, that my uncle would find the bronzed legs on the studio bed more appealing than being with me.  At the base of uncle’s door, I noticed the ship’s paper had disappeared, but I dared not enter uninvited.  I knocked, and Uncle T. opened up.  Desiring to make amends, I thrust the calendar in his face, dragging the lion behind me, throwing it on the floor where my bed usually stood open.

    “Very nice,” Uncle T. said, caressing the leather cover as if it were alive.  “And so very clever.” 

    “What?”  He closed the door.

    I stared at the studio that, for once, was neatly made and standing in its upright position as a sofa.  The air seemed cleansed of colognes and talcs and a heavy scent I had never quite been able to put my finger on.  He caressed my face. 

    “You’re smarter than you let on, wise beyond your years, and if you ever tell your mother what happened here, we’ll never see one another again.”

    “I know,” I said, handing him twenty cents in change.

    “Goodness, how frugal we are.”  My lower lip began to quiver.

    “Oh, Dane,” he said, drawing me to him.  “I was teasing, I can always get more from the bursar.”

    “I know that,” I blubbered.

    “What then?”

    “I want you to love me.”

    Uncle T. engulfed me with his arms, his male smell overwhelming me.  If it hadn’t been for the sheer attention, I would have pulled away.  I now sensed that my uncle wore cologne to mask the dark odor that made men something I could not yet grasp.  I wiped away tears with the back of my hand.

    “Dane,” he said, his voice choking, “I will love you long after my friends are gone, and the older I get, the faster they seem to disappear.”

    “You’ll become an elderly?”  I thought of how invisible those two gentlemen seemed, shuffling among us as if ghosts.

    “Yes,” he said.  “Yes, one day, I’ll become one of the those, and when that time comes, I hope I have enough work to keep me busy from morning till night.”

    “Why?” I asked, wiping my face again.

    Uncle ran his fingers through my hair and kissed me on the cheek.  “I’m suddenly very hungry.  Let’s dress for dinner.  A table alone.  Just the two of us.”

    “Oh, goody,” I said, clapping my hands, “but don’t you feel sick?”

    “On this beautiful evening!”  He grinned and did a double take out the porthole, where you could hear the constant slosh of waves.  “Suddenly, I’m ravaged, er, uh, famished.”

    I remember giggling, though I had no idea what my uncle’s silliness meant.  While dressing, Uncle T. Rex glanced at a hard white card and groaned, recalling it was the night of the captain’s dinner.  No open seating.  We would pull out our formal wear and appear at the captain’s table once more.  I pictured it — men in tuxedos and women dressed in crinkly pastel dresses, who would migrate down the main staircase and into the dining room alight with amber and gold.  I thought I might die from the sheer glamour of it all.  I would feel throughout the meal that we were being filmed for a newsreel in Technicolor.  Sitting at the edge of my seat, with my elbows raised, I would dine with my knife and fork held like Mrs. Boatwright and Uncle T., continental style.  I would sip water from my glass, ever so lightly touching my lips with the linen napkin.  As I observed these rituals, my uncle would smile at me as if I were the only boy in the world worth his attentions.  In the meantime, I watched Uncle T. poke ruby studs into my stiff shirt and fix my bow tie.  He invited me to sit very still on the sofa while he bathed.
    An hour later, eight of us who had gawked at one another for days once again graced the table in the center of the oval hall.  A Mr. and Mrs. Tom Marion from Manhattan sat across from us; Mrs. Marion was beautiful with her raven hair turned up in a flip.  Randall Smythe and his sister Irma sat to my right.  Captain Strombley, a white-bearded man and Mrs. Boatwright in a gossamer gown of silver, sat to uncle’s left.  Mrs. Boatwright’s face looked like baker’s dough that had been given a toss of flour — smooth but unnaturally white, and she’d painted her lips with a color she called red red rose.  I sat next to Irma, who looked so much like Randall it was uncanny.

    The evening’s conversation began with literature.  Mrs. Marion had recently finished reading From Here to Eternity. 

    “Isn’t it fascinating?” she asked.  “I assume I’m the last person in the world to have read it,” she said, “since it’s been out for a decade.” 

    Mr. Marion frowned.  “I liked the movie better.  No one can top Sinatra for realism.”  He seemed to get lost in his Martini, where he focused his eyes.

    Randall sipped his champagne and said, “The Naked and the Dead is a better war novel.  Now there’s realism for you!”

    Mrs. Boatwright said, “I’m afraid I haven’t read much since my days at Smith, a travesty, my father always said, but with four children, a fifth, if you count Howard, when was I to read?” 

    I noticed that each person’s comment had fallen on deaf ears.  All I could hear were the clinks of glasses and flatware, the rumble of lowered voices.  After several more titles were dropped and there were no takers, I spoke up.

    “We’ve seen An Affair to Remember three times,” I said.  Uncle T. cleared his throat and smiled.

    “Deborah Kerr is a favorite of mine,” he said, sipping his champagne.  I wanted a taste, but he gently pushed my hand away, having told me no several nights in a row.  “And Mr. Grant, of course, I do love him so.”         

    Everyone laughed.

    “I always go to sleep,” I said.  “Mush, you know.”  Laughter again, as if it were a song’s refrain, floated across the table.  The captain, with his silver hair and barrel chest, roared, and I smiled at my little joke.

    “I wonder that you sleep at all,” said Irma, sipping champagne from her flute, tossing her head.  The blond bun at the base of her neck bounced with fury, and Mrs. Boatwright stopped eating her soup.

“What does she mean?” I whispered to my uncle.

    “Ix-nay on the itch-bay,” he said under his breath, smiling.  “I’ve had a real bout with seasickness,” he said to the table at large.

    “Is that what you call it?” Irma said.  She glared at Randall.  He glared back, and I felt as if some balance had been upset.  Folding my arms and leaning back in my chair, I had no greater desire than to become invisible. 

    A waiter removed our soup bowls, pouring water, bringing another magnum of champagne, a Coca-Cola for me.  

    Randall wore, in the fashion of a boa, the burgundy scarf, fingering its edges, occasionally sniffing it, as he ogled my uncle.  Once, when he did that, he caught me staring and turned to stick out his tongue.  I was sure everyone had seen him, including Irma, who finished her champagne in one loud gulp.  I averted my own eyes to the carpet, busy with naval symbols, and stared for along time at a gold-roped anchor.   At last I looked up at Randall.  I can’t tell you where I found the gumption.

    “Are you and your sister having a fight?” I asked.

    “What sister, you mean her?”  Randall laughed into that high register again, nearly squealing like a pig.  “This is Irma, my wife,” he said. 

    I laughed as if it weren’t true, but Irma frowned.  Uncle T. excused himself to the rest room.  Soon Randall left, and then Tom Marian.

    “My, the men’s powder room must be gigantic,” Mrs. Marion said, lighting a long white cigarette.  Everyone tittered except Irma.  The muscles surrounding her mouth were drawn tight, a quality that set her apart from Randall.  If they were married, I quickly imagined that they would be together in old age, like Mr. and Mrs. Claus with identical rosy cheeks.

    I slipped out of my chair and flew across the room, dodging men with silver trays, charging up to the promenade deck, where I had watched them go.  Spying on them through a crack in the double door, I strained to hear their voices.  When I saw their black patent leather shoes, the three of them shoving one another like schoolboys, I slipped onto the deck and crouched under a stairway.  The stink of the sea almost overwhelmed me.

    “How dare you make such a claim,” my uncle said, grabbing Randall by the lapel.

    “How dare I!” Randall spat, grabbing uncle’s hands and holding them to his chest.

    “Come now, you two,” Tom Marian said, reaching out to break them apart.  For a moment the rose tattoo passed unnoticed, then my hand fell across my mouth.  I’d been exposed to it every day at table, and yet it was so much a part of the landscape it had become invisible.

    “Why, you’re both married,” Uncle T. spat.  “How could either of you stake a claim on me?”

    “Because you promised,” Randall whined.  The harsh light of dusk revealed severe lines along his mouth, skin that crinkled like crepe paper around his eyes.  Only through careful pampering had both he and Irma managed to maintain the look of rich, spoiled college students.  “I can’t bear Irma any longer, I need my Rexie.” Uncle T. waved him away like a gnat.

     “Marlene will give me my freedom whenever I ask,” Tom Marion said.

    “The few times a year you make it to Dallas?” my uncle sneered.  “How enticing.”

    “You know what I mean.  Forever, if that’s what you want.”

    “Forever!” Uncle T. exploded.  “Even the pyramids won’t last that long.  Both of you.  Leave.” 

    He folded his arms and faced the sea, while the other two men drifted in opposite directions along the deck. 

    After staring at uncle’s form for many minutes, I came out from under the stairs and stood at his side.  I expected him to tousle my hair, but he looked down at me sadly, as if he were sorry I had appeared.  He pulled out his silver case and lit a cigarette. 

    “Why don’t you go and finish your meal, Dane.  We’ll see a movie later, something fun and light.  Go on.” 

    I scuffled back to the dining room.  There was no one left at our table but the captain and Mrs. Boatwright, who made me slide around so I wouldn’t have to dine alone.  As she placed her hand on my wrist, I heard her whisper to the captain, “That man should be shot.”   I ate everything put in front of me, even vegetables that looked like seaweed and a slab of meat with blood ooozing from its side.  And for the next hour, the two adults forced this same food down their gullets, but not once did they ever stop talking.
    When we reached Italy, I forgot about the trip over.  I can’t remember much about Rome either, except a few languid days, where spiders of sweat crawled down my back until uncle made me change my shirt.  We must have climbed and photographed everything that the ancient world had saved for us, but I can remember little of it now.  When our trip was nearing an end, I asked uncle about our return on the Constitution

    “That old tub!” he said.  “We’re taking Pan Am to London this afternoon and from there a 707 to New York.  We’ll be in Dallas by tomorrow night.” 

    “Really!” I said.

    Suddenly I was hungry for afternoons in the neighborhood pool, expeditions with my friends into the wilds that bordered Love Field, bus trips to the library where I could check out four books at a time and spend hours reading them in air-conditioned bliss.  I couldn’t wait to once again play the tinny spinet at my piano teacher’s apartment. 

    At the same time, I realized I might never again experience the listless inertia of an afternoon spent with the two old men or Mrs. Boatwright’s kind attention or cavorting with Olympic swimmers or joking with my uncle, when he was free, of course.  If he had suddenly changed his mind about flying, I would have been delighted, for there was something about the sea that would forever make me wonder, when I sailed, if I might not at all wind up where I had begun.

Originally from Wichita, Kansas, Richard Jespers holds a graduate degree in English from Texas Tech University. In 2005, he was awarded a prize by the Tennessee Writers Alliance Sudden Fiction Competition for his story “Bathed in Pink.” In 2007, he was a finalist in the Phoebe Fiction competition. He has recently published stories in Colere, FRiGG, RiverSedge, Boulevard, and Harrington Gay Men's Literary Quarterly. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, with his companion of thirty-one years, artist Ken Dixon.